Book: Storm Clouds

Storm Clouds

Storm Clouds

Book One of The Guild Wars


Chris Kennedy & Mark Wandrey

PUBLISHED BY: Seventh Seal Press

Copyright © 2019 Chris Kennedy & Mark Wandrey

All Rights Reserved

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Get the free Four Horsemen prelude story “Gateway to Union

and discover other titles by Mark Wandrey at:

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Get the free Four Horsemen prelude story “Shattered Crucible

and discover other titles by Chris Kennedy at:

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Cover Design by Brenda Mihalko

Original Art by Ricky Ryan

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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. The characters are products of the author’s imagination and used fictitiously.

* * * * *


To our wives, who put up with an awful lot so we can have fun doing what we do.

* * * * *




Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen


About Chris Kennedy

About Mark Wandrey

Titles by Chris Kennedy

Titles by Mark Wandrey

Connect with Chris Kennedy Online

Connect with Mark Wandrey Online

Excerpt from Book One of the Salvage Title Trilogy:

Excerpt from Book One of the Earth Song Cycle:

Excerpt from Book One of The Psyche of War:

Excerpt from Book One of the Revelations Cycle:

* * * * *


Medical, EMS Pegasus, Earth Orbit

The ceremony on Pegasus’s gravity deck went on for over two hours. Alexis was forced to admit, in hindsight, it was probably two hours too long. Broadcast to the entire world, the ceremony eulogized the Human mercs lost in what they’d come to call the Omega War. She’d been about to talk about the innocent civilian losses when she began to lose focus.

The gravity decks were only set at one-quarter, yet she still almost fell. Nigel appeared at her side as if he’d teleported, taking her elbow and gently lowering her to a chair.

“Colonel Cromwell is tired,” he’d explained. “She’s not completely recovered from her injuries. Let me make a couple of comments in her place.”

To her surprise, he used the notes she had on the lectern and flawlessly made them his own. His words addressing the loss of civilian life were poignant and touching. As soon as it was over, a medical team was waiting for her.

“Come on,” she said. “This isn’t necessary.”

“Shut up,” Nigel snapped.

Alexis was so surprised she actually did what he said.

A large part of Pegasus’s crew had been killed in battle, so she didn’t recognize the physician, but his uniform identified him as Dr. Tanner. The medical bay was nearly empty; the ship’s wounded had been evacuated to advanced medical facilities on Earth after the truce. A dozen medical techs were waiting for her when she entered.

“Entropy!” she cried. “I just got dizzy!”

“With all due respect, Colonel,” Dr. Tanner said, “let me make that determination.”

She clamped her jaw shut and ground her teeth. They examined her as Nigel hovered. Tanner asked a number of questions, most of which he likely already knew the answers to. She was used to it as an evaluation tool. Finally, he was done.

“Your injuries are healing as expected,” Tanner explained. “You’re pushing a bit too hard, but no worse than most people in your position.”

“So why did I almost faint?”

“How did your mother’s pregnancy proceed?” he asked. “Those files aren’t available to me.”

“She carried us to term,” Alexis said. “We were born almost exactly on our due date.”

“We?” Nigel said. “I didn’t know you had any siblings.”

“One,” Alexis said. “My sister. She died…” Alexis paused. It wasn’t time to explain that to Nigel. “She died some time ago.”

“I’m sorry,” Nigel said. “Were you close?”

“Most twins are,” Alexis said.

“Twins?” he asked, shaking his head. “Wow.”

Alexis looked at the doctor who gave an imperceptible wink and a nod. Son of a bitch. “Nigel is the father,” she said, “tell him.”

“Tell me what?” Nigel demanded, not following.

“Colonel Cromwell is pregnant with twins.” The doctor looked around at a strange sound. “Quick! Someone pick Colonel Shirazi off the floor!”

Alexis couldn’t figure out if he was overwhelmed by shock or pride. Whatever it was, the doctor eventually gave him a light tranquilizer and sent him to his quarters so he could talk to her.

“I’m not an obstetrician,” Tanner admitted.

“What can you tell me?”

“The genetic scan indicated they’re fraternal twins. You were identical, correct?” She nodded. “Twins run in your family?”

“Mother said her grandmother had twins, but her mother only had the one.”

“Fraternal twins are genetic, and they can skip generations,” Tanner acknowledged. “We still don’t know what causes identical twins, though. Do you want to know their sexes?”

She considered for a full second before nodding. Sure, not knowing had a certain magic to it. However, Alexis Cromwell wasn’t one to like magical moments, because you weren’t always on the giving side of the magic.

“You’ve got a full house. One boy, one girl. Both have the same marker as you for white hair, since you never had the chromosome fixed. However, it might not express in the male. Basically, it all looks good.” She smiled and nodded. “So, by the numbers. Your pregnancy is going to be a little more complicated, but mostly in the last trimester. Those problems, however, will be mitigated by the lower gravity. As long as you don’t go for a ride with a SalSha, there’s no additional risk. Nutrition is more important, so I’m prescribing supplements and exercise.”

Alexis considered how her pregnancy would affect her career. If she went back to New Warsaw now, she’d probably never be able to leave. She foresaw complicated months ahead. The Mercenary Guild was likely to implode from what had happened. Based on some research on the GalNet, the Peacemakers had just done something unprecedented, too—they’d interposed themselves into the internal politics of another guild.

“Thanks, Doc,” she said. “I need to get back to my quarters now.”

“As long as you don’t try to stand around for hours at a time, fine.” He handed her a computer chip. “Here’s a schedule of workouts for you; it will help you evaluate when you’ll be able to handle longer times standing and under what conditions.”

She took it, got dressed, and returned to her quarters. Once there, she prepared some communications and orders, then sent them to the frigate Tyrfing which would be jumping to New Warsaw in a few hours. It included some revised orders and detached Dr. Ramirez to return with other materials to Earth. He could serve as her personal physician while pregnant. He was a fully trained obstetrician, along with a half-dozen other specialties.

With that issue dealt with, she began thinking about how she’d handle Nigel. It would be an interesting meeting.

* * * * *

Chapter One

Alexis’ Private Conference Room, EMS Pegasus, Earth Orbit

“I’m not going back to Prime Base,” Alexis Cromwell announced to the assembled Four Horsemen leaders.

“You’re not?” Sansar Enkh asked. The short Mongolian woman raised an eyebrow. “But I thought you wanted to get back home and start putting everything back together again.”

Alexis nodded. “I do, and that is what I thought I wanted to do a week ago when the Peacemakers ended our war with the Merc Guild, but now I realize that going home is shortsighted; there is too much to do galaxy-wide. I have competent administrators who can easily handle the Hussars’ operations and a new second in command to lead our forces. I am needed for other tasks.”

“Well, there certainly is a lot to do here on Earth,” Jim Cartwright, the head of Cartwright’s Cavaliers, noted. “There are tens of thousands of aliens still on the planet, basic services have been disrupted everywhere, and there is no longer a functional world government—or even the less-than-fully-functional one we had before—left to run things. The smaller governments who never signed off on the world government are also beginning to cause problems.”

“You’re right,” Alexis said, “and I’m sure you’ll do well putting things back to rights.”

“What?” Jim sputtered. “Me? Run the government? Sure, I have some ideas, but—”

“We don’t expect you to run the government,” Alexis said quickly. “We just need you to help create a stabilizing situation. If the Republic can’t be salvaged, maybe we need something better? And with Sansar to help you, I’m sure you’ll be fine. I’ve already sent back to Prime Base to have one of our manufactories brought here to help with the rebuilding.”

Sansar smiled. “I figured it would be up to us to put Earth back together again. Having the manufactory will be invaluable.”

“Rebuild the whole government?” Jim asked. “Just us? How are we going to do that? I barely have any troops left.” Jim looked down and shook his head. “We’re all but gone.”

“True,” Sansar said. “However, the Golden Horde has a number of troops left that can be used, and between us, I’m sure we can strong-arm some of the other mercenary companies and get them to go along with us. If we lead, they will follow. After the last few months, it’s something they’ve gotten very used to.”

“I notice that my name wasn’t mentioned,” the fourth member of the group, Nigel Shirazi of Asbaran Solutions, noted. “Are my services no longer required?”

Alexis chuckled. “Isn’t he cute when he gets all riled up?” she asked, looking at Sansar, who smiled back at her. She turned back to Nigel. “Your services are indeed required. You’re coming with me to Capital Planet to talk to the Merc Guild.”

“That isn’t happening,” Nigel said, straightening his shoulders.

“What?” Sansar asked. “You’re not going to Capital Planet?”

“No, I am going to Capital Planet,” Nigel replied. “Someone needs to bring our grievances to the Merc Guild Council and demand reparations; what I’m saying is that she”—his eyes darted to Alexis—“is most definitely not going. Not in her condition.”

Alexis’ eyebrows both rose. “My condition?”

The tone of Alexis’ voice caused Sansar to cringe slightly. Careful, Nigel.

It was obvious Nigel could tell he was walking on thin ice, but he pressed on, looking around the room for support. “Yes, your condition. The doctors have been very specific. Carrying twins is a high-risk pregnancy without any other factors intruding. And now you want to go to Capital Planet like that—away from the doctors here? I won’t allow it.”

“Twins?” Jim said incredulously. “I didn’t know…”

“Neither did I,” Sansar added, looking back and forth between Nigel and Alexis. “I guess double congratulations are due then, to both of you.”

“Thank you,” Alexis replied. “I wasn’t too surprised; they run in my family. However, just because I’m pregnant—even with twins—doesn’t mean that I can just step aside for the time being. The galaxy—and especially the Merc Guild—is hardly going to wait for me to have them.”

“As the father, I forbid it,” Nigel said. He glanced over at the slight intake of breath from Sansar.

“And as the person carrying them, and on whose ship you are currently sitting, I’m curious as to how you’re going to stop me. You have one busted up ship, whereas I have humanity’s only fleet of ships. How is that going to work, exactly?”

Nigel took a deep breath. “Over my—”

“Let’s all take a second,” Sansar interrupted, “before any of us says anything they might regret later.” She stared at Nigel for a few seconds as if challenging him to say anything else, but he sighed and motioned for her to continue. Jim popped a stick of chewing gum into his mouth to observe the fireworks.

“Okay,” Sansar said. “So, here’s the way I see it: Jim and I need to stay here to fix the issues on Earth. Between us, we are familiar with both the eastern and western hemispheres in ways that Nigel and Alexis aren’t. That works out to send you two to Capital Planet.” She looked at Nigel. “You bring experience in ground assault.” Her eyes shifted to Alexis. “And you bring a knowledge of space combat better than any other Human. You are a perfect team to go before the Merc Guild.”

Sansar raised a hand when Nigel started to speak. “Now, before you say she isn’t going again—we are well aware of your position in the matter—let’s take a look at the facts. First, Alexis isn’t due for many months, so I doubt there are any travel restrictions on her yet. Additionally, suitable health care professionals can be brought along, so that isn’t an issue.”

“Dr. Ramirez from Prime Base is coming with the manufactory,” Alexis said. “When he found out I was pregnant, he elected himself my personal physician.” She shrugged. “Face it, if you go, I’m going, too.”

“Fine,” Nigel said. “Then I won’t go.”

“That…isn’t an option, either, I’m afraid,” Sansar replied. “We just got some intel today that I wanted to share with you. All the Merc Guild forces with transport capacity have been called out of system.”

“What?” Jim asked, happy to be involved in the conversation again. “Where are they going?”

“A variety of places, it seems,” Sansar said, tapping on her slate. “The ones that are under contract to the Guild itself have been called back to Capital Planet, and most of the non-aligned units have been called back to their home planets.”

“Do you have any idea why?” Alexis asked.

Sansar shook her head. “Apparently, something happened at the Merc Guild headquarters, but no one’s saying what. They are all just recalling their forces.”

“Do you suppose someone tried to depose Leeto?” Nigel asked. “Wasn’t that who was in charge there?”

“No, she passed away suddenly—no one knows why. There was a replacement for her, a Veetanho named Seezo. Something happened at the last council meeting, but whatever it was, it’s been locked down tighter than anything I’ve ever seen.”

“If there’s movement on the council, we need to have someone there to stick up for our rights,” Jim said.

Nigel nodded. “And that person is me.”

“And me,” Alexis added. “And before you say another word about my condition, I think it’s important to remember two points. First, you know nothing, or almost nothing, about space combat. Let’s face it, you aren’t qualified to discuss any sort of limitations that may come up. Secondly—and perhaps more importantly—you get fired up too easily. I love you—I don’t know why—but you need someone there who can help you stay in control of yourself…especially when dealing with aliens.”

“Hey! I’ve done well with the Lumar I’ve hired!” Nigel exclaimed.

“Yes, you have,” Alexis said. She raised an eyebrow. “How many MinSha have you hired? Any Goka?” She gave him a little smile. “Not only have I hired both of them, I know how they think. You need someone with more experience dealing with aliens, and that person’s me. Face it, Nigel, you’re going to Capital Planet…and I’m going with you.”

“An emergency meeting of the Merc Guild has been called for three weeks from now,” Sansar said. “If you hurry, you ought to just make it.”

* * *

Sansar left the meeting with a feeling of happiness for her friend, Alexis, and a sense of confusion. Her vision of Alexis with Nigel’s son had been one of the strongest in her life. Yet, Alexis wasn’t pregnant with one child, but two. Her visions either came true or they didn’t. Which one was this? It was an interesting question.

She’d originally been miffed at Alexis when she’d first found out about their fling, except that it had quickly gone from a fling to genuine love, and now they were building a family, it would seem. Despite how happy she was for her friend, Sansar dearly wished it had waited until after all this was over. Of course, who knew when, or if, it would be over? With her mind full of implications, she headed toward her quarters.

* * *

Alexis sighed and locked her ready room door. She reclined slightly in her chair and sent a message.

“Are you there?”


Alexis suppressed a shudder. It sounded exactly as Ghost had before, only it wasn’t living in her sister’s body anymore. Now it lived in the body of a former Geek Squad specialist named Patrick Leonard.

“You know we’re going to Capital? You refused last time.”

<I refused to intercept the Keesius.>

“And you never explained why you refused.” Silence followed. “So, you’ll take us to Capital Planet?”

<I believe it is a foolish move with many risks to you, and to me.>

“But you’ll go?”

<I will. However, while we’re in the system, I will not respond to you.>

“Damn it, Ghost. Why? Are you afraid of something there?” No response again. “Fine, we’re going.”

<As you wish.>

Alexis opened her eyes, unlocked her ready room, and floated out into the CIC. “Set course for Capital Planet,” she said.

* * *

MGS Supreme, Emergence Area, Capital Planet, Capital System

The pressure equalized, and the airlock door opened.

“Do you want to go first?” the MinSha merc captain asked.

“No,” Gr’et’Linae replied. “You are being paid to clear the ship; please do so.” The Equiri Peacemaker watched as the platoon moved slowly through the airlock and into the derelict ship. Since the Merc Guild Ship Supreme had emerged from hyperspace, it had neither altered course nor answered any calls. The lack of response had been strange, but the Peacemakers normally wouldn’t have been interested in the occurrence—it was a matter for system security to handle. The fact that it was General Peepo’s personal yacht, however, had thrust it firmly into the Peacemakers’ bailiwick.

The vessel emerged on a course that took it out-system with a half-G acceleration, and it had taken Gr’et’Linae some time to organize a force and catch up with it. During that time, the vessel had neither altered course nor responded to calls, and he had begun to suspect that foul play was involved.

And if foul play was involved, it was preferable for the mercs to lead.

The platoon filed through the airlock, with one squad going forward and the other aft. He listened in on their comms as he followed them through the airlock and turned to follow the squad headed toward the ship’s bridge. If there was any information to be gleaned, it would probably be there.

Although all the lights were on and everything seemed to be functioning normally, there didn’t appear to be anyone onboard—at least, the MinSha hadn’t found anyone.

Gr’et’Linae had just reached the bridge when the squad headed aft reported in. “Peacemaker, Captain Griskayl. I am at the entrance to the ship’s mess. You are going to want to see this.”

He hustled to the back part of the ship to find the MinSha squad standing in the passageway. “Am I missing something?” he asked.

“We didn’t want to disturb what I’m pretty sure is a crime scene,” Griskayl replied. The way she skittered back and forth in the low gravity made her appear nervous. Very nervous.

“Is it a crime scene or not?” Gr’et’Linae asked. “How do you not know?”

“Just look.”

The Peacemaker squeezed past the armed mercs and approached the mess. It was aptly named, as the majority of the space was covered in what appeared to be dried blood. With the amount spread around the room, it had to have been all the blood from a medium-sized creature. His instincts were to shy away from the carnage, but his Peacemaker training won out. Despite the roiling in his guts and the shivers down his back, he forced himself to actually look into the room.

Whatever had been killed appeared to have been chained to a table in the center of the room. At least, that was where the epicenter of the dried fluid—it helped to call it that—was located. Pieces of…something furry…littered the floor and countertops and other surfaces…and he had to turn away.

“I’ve seen a lot of things get killed before,” Griskayl said. “I’ve even seen things get blown up. But I have never seen anything so completely, deliberately destroyed as that. That is—” she took a step back from the room, “—evil.”

Gr’et’Linae had used this platoon on a number of missions to assist handling a variety of cases and he had sometimes wondered if anything scared the MinSha captain, because nothing ever appeared to. Now that he knew what scared her, he found he would have been happier not knowing.

“Do you know what that is?” Griskayl asked after a moment.

“Not what,” Gr’et’Linae replied, “who.” He waved a hand back toward a counter where a head sat. It might have been looking at them…if it had eyes. It didn’t.

“Oh, hells,” Griskayl said after a moment. “That’s General Peepo.”

“Not anymore, it’s not.”

* * *

Tsan watched the mercs investigate her handiwork and slow-blinked at their expressions as she smoothed her tail fur. Peepo had gotten every bit of what she’d deserved. Well, maybe not every bit, but all that Tsan had been able to give her in the time they’d had together. Wrapped tightly in her quintessence field, she followed the Peacekeeper back aboard his ship. While it would have been nice to have had access to her own ship, she had jettisoned it rather than have someone find it when the Peacemaker came out to inspect Peepo’s yacht. Tsan shrugged. She could ride back in the Peacemaker ship just as easily as she could fly her own ship. Besides, it would give her extra time to think and plan.

She had many leads to follow up on.

* * *

Cartwright’s Cavaliers Main Base, Houston, Texas, Earth

The Hussar’s shuttle performed a perfect landing on the aged tarmac. Jim noticed grass growing up through some of the cracks and how the painted lines were fading in the Houston sun.

“There you are, Colonel Cartwright,” the pilot called back from the cockpit.

“Thank you, Ensign,” Jim said and got up to retrieve his bag.

“Can I do anything else for you, sir?”

“No, thanks. I appreciate the ride.” The door slid aside, and the landing ramp descended with a whine of hydraulics. Jim stopped in the door and glanced at the pilot. “I don’t suppose you’d consider flying for the Cavaliers?”

The man smiled. He was lean and fit, maybe late twenties or early thirties, with close cut hair and a thin beard. “The Hussars hired me into cadre, sir. I respect the offer, but I must decline. I’ll be a Hussar as long as they’ll have me.”

“You’ll have a great career,” Jim said. “Fly safe.”

“Lead the Charge, Colonel.”

Jim nodded in respect to the man and descended the ramp. Houston’s heat hit him like a humid flyswatter. He’d been away too long. Sweat began to roll down his forehead and back. His home, the former Houston Hobby Airport control tower, was a quarter mile across the boiling runway. He slung the backpack and started walking.

The door to his tower still responded to his personal code, which was some comfort. The AC was running as well. He decided to forego the elevator and took the stairs. He was already sweaty anyway, and the stairs were not air conditioned.

He reached the top and opened the door. The apartment always reminded him of a 1960s spy movie, with its sunken living room, lots of white plastic, and chrome trim. His father had never stayed there, nor had his grandfather. He wondered more than once who’d had it decorated in such a manner. A fan of movie noir? He dropped the duffle and went to the fridge.

How many months have I been gone? he wondered as he opened the fridge. All the perishable food was spoiled, of course, but there was still a half case of the glass-bottled beverages he was most interested in. He found some sausage and cheese which wasn’t spoiled, took one of the bottles, and went to the chair he’d adopted as his favorite. It felt more spacious than he remembered.

There was a bottle opener shaped like the USS Enterprise on the glass end table. He popped the top and took a long drink of the cold, sugary drink. “Have a Coke and a smile,” he said. It tasted full of memories, although it somehow lacked the pleasure it used to provide. He ate mechanically and looked out the window.

Houston was spread out to the north, Houston Starport to the west. Large sections of the starport were a blasted ruin. The fighting had been particularly fierce there in the early days of the Mercenary Guild invasion. Home to the majority of Human mercs, Houston was a prime target. Judging by some of the craters, it looked like Peepo had employed orbital KKWs, or kinetic kill weapons, there. There wasn’t any radiation, so it wasn’t nukes. When he’d checked the Hussars’ orbital scanning intel, he was surprised to see the Cavaliers’ old home base wasn’t a big crater.

Staring at the damaged starport, he moved his eyes north to Houston. It hadn’t avoided the war entirely. He could see three massive skyscrapers which more resembled modern art than modern architecture. One of them sported a pair of tall gangly cranes, and he could see them moving building materials. Probably Asbaran Solutions’ headquarters.

Jim closed his eyes, and the tableau of São Paulo came back like a ghostly specter. Square kilometers, one after another, of scorched devastation. Burned office buildings, obliterated tenements, twisted and melted industrial structures. The smell of ash and melted plastic reaching him where he sat on the edge of his Raknar’s open cockpit. Inside Doom.

He looked down at his hands, remembering the slight tinge of green on them after coming out of the Akee. It took over an hour to sort out who, or what, he was. He had forcefully severed the connection because the Raknar hadn’t seem to want to let him go.

Jim loved 20th century science fiction. Much of it was one version or another of cautionary tales. Not respecting technology, and the technology turning on man and destroying him. Those sorts of stories were particularly common after the Second World War and centered on nuclear weapons and power. Of course, nuclear power wasn’t dangerous as long as you respected it.

Still, he couldn’t help feeling like he was living a cautionary tale of his own. “Remember kids, don’t mess with Raknar. Somebody could get hurt!” Yeah, a whole lot of somebodies got hurt in Brazil. They called it collateral damage when combat overlapped non-combatants. Regardless of the term, innocents were dead, and he’d killed many of them.

He’d fallen in love with the Raknar when he first saw them years ago. What kid who grew up watching cartoons about giant robots wouldn’t? A memory of his visit to the radiation treatment center he’d helped set up in São Paulo made him clench his jaw muscles. It was both the pain and suffering, and the fact that while in Akee on his Raknar, he hadn’t cared—at all.

It was much, much worse in space. In the heat of battle, something went horribly wrong. His memory was blurry. He and the other Raknar drivers began—how could he describe it?—cannibalizing the dead starships. They took shield generators, weapons, and anything else useful. He’d had to watch the video recorded on the Winged Hussars’ ships to believe the story.

When he’d broken the Akee the extra components were jettisoned, so when the Raknar were recovered, they looked the same as before. None of the other drivers remembered the details either. It all felt like a dream.

Houston was descending into night, so he went up a floor to his bedroom and showered. Out of habit, he weighed himself afterwards. The scale displayed 147.1 kg. He hadn’t weighed that little since junior high school. It was some solace as he climbed into the bed he hadn’t slept in for months.

In the days since the final battle of Earth, he had struggled to find sleep. Missing his longtime companion, Splunk, wasn’t helping. She was with her fellow Dusman aboard a ship somewhere in the Sol System. He didn’t know what she was doing, only that she’d promised to return before long. More of the adjustments he’d been trying to make dealt with her going from being a helpful little Fae to one of the ancient race of Dusman.

Houston was wrapped in darkness, and he lay looking at the ceiling, a strong feeling of foreboding running through him. After all the death and destruction, being back in the bed he’d used during quiet, happy times was disconcerting.

He could remember the feeling of Adayn lying in bed next to him like a missing tooth. Adrianne was her real name. He’d thought she was a spy for the world government. Shit, the Golden Horde’s formidable intelligence assets thought so as well. But she’d been instrumental in springing Jim from the clutches of Peepo by giving him some remarkable nanites which modified his pinplants.

The options, which were formerly hidden under the label, “I open at the end,” still remained in his plants. Boost, Slow, and Recover. Boost had given him increased stamina and strength. Slow altered his perceptions, letting him move faster and fight like he was in a time warp. Recover was like a nanite medical treatment.

Amazingly, the options all returned to availability within a few days of the battle, with Boost first and Recover last. The implications were astounding. The nanites were self-replicating, which was something Jim hadn’t thought possible.

Adrianne also showed up to help Alexis escape from a medical facility where she was being held captive after her near-fatal encounter with a traitorous former friend. Alexis had told Jim that Adrianne mentioned something called Section 51. Regarding the woman who’d once been his lover, nothing added up.

Slowly, his eyes slid closed, and sleep took him. A myriad of images played in his mind like a disjointed movie trailer. A woman’s face, the feel of her body against his. Splunk sitting on his shoulder, cooing happily as she munched on some purloined meat. His Cavaliers greeting his return after he was presumed lost on Kash-kah. Then the images dissolved to reform into a memory of startling intensity.

The ships arrived in a wave, flashing into normal space in strings of a hundred or more. Within seconds, the entire fleet had returned to normal space. The target world responded with orbital particle cannons and ground-based lasers. Hundreds of thousands of missiles launched from surface batteries. The fleet responded, and the battle was joined.

Ships died in fiery flashes. Orbital defense platforms’ shields flared like dying stars then the stations exploded as well. The planet’s orbitals fell, but at a cost.

“Ready your Vanguard, Vok’tor,” the order came.

“I obey,” he replied, and turned to his Vok’ka. “Tell the Vanguard to prepare! We drop soon.” He jumped onto his PhoSha’s shoulder. “Come, let’s get ready.” Together they floated into the kilometer-long bay with its 140 waiting Raknar and 1,400 Konar. He smiled, showing tiny sharp teeth. Soon 19 more Konessius would join his, sending the Vanguard hurtling toward battle.

Jim moaned in his sleep as the visions filled his mind.

* * * * *

Chapter Two

Merc Guild Headquarters, Capital Planet

Tsan snuck in through the loading docks when a delivery was made, easily bypassing the guards and security procedures. Although she hadn’t been able to get access to a GalNet terminal, she could tell things were far from normal at the Merc Guild headquarters building.

She had only been to the building once before, and at that time the security forces had seemed lazy and slack, as if unworried anyone would ever try to get into the building. Now, they seemed jumpy and on edge. The ongoing war with the Humans probably had something to do with that.

Tsan walked through the main atrium, searching for the scent of Veetanho, but it was as if they didn’t exist or didn’t walk through the atrium—she couldn’t catch a whiff of them anywhere. As an experienced Hunter, she tried to keep in tune with her surroundings, but just like the guard positions at the loading ramp, things seemed weird in the headquarters at large. Mercs looked at each other suspiciously, and it was rare to see members from two different races talking. It was also rare to see a single merc walking around; all were at least in pairs, with both members looking like they were on combat patrols—their eyes were in constant motion, searching for danger.

Danger? In the middle of the Merc Guild headquarters?

Not finding a Veetanho to track, she looked at one of the graphics on the information desk and found the Veetanho delegation’s spaces. When she got there, though, they were empty. There wasn’t a single Veetanho to be found, and while the rooms still smelled of Veetanho, it was stale, as if they’d been gone for a while.

Not only were they gone, but they also appeared to have left in a rush. There were valuables left in plain sight. Tsan shook her head. All of the signs pointed to the Veetanho fleeing, but why would they have done that? They were in charge. It made no sense, and she hated when things made no sense. It was like an itch she couldn’t scratch.

She let herself into the private, inner sanctum, with the locks on the door providing little challenge. Her fur bristled as she walked into the next room. As she’d expected, this was where Peepo lived and worked while on Capital Planet. While the musk and the soil smell of Peepo’s scent was tremendously faint, after living with it for a week, Tsan easily recognized it.

Tsan activated the terminal there and pulled an eye and a finger out of the bag she carried. She used them to defeat the biometric security and smiled as access was granted, then she began searching through Peepo’s files. She had learned a number of things from Peepo in the week they’d spent together; it was time to see how many of them were real and verifiable.

* * *

Genghis Kahn Import/Export, Houston, Texas, Earth

Houston wasn’t the sort of place Sansar enjoyed. The heat was familiar, but the humidity made her long to be anywhere else. Uzbekistan was hotter in the summer, but more pleasant. Before she’d fired off their nuclear demolition charges, anyway. While she missed the facility, she hoped Peepo missed the tens of thousands of dead Tortantula and their transports more.

She’d briefly considered simply moving into the Horde’s Houston Startown headquarters in the Merc Guild tower. The problem was that the tower had been looted by locals once the starport perimeter was trashed. The city government was in complete disorder, so security wasn’t possible. Add to that a few thousand alien mercs milling around, and it was a recipe for disaster if she decided to stroll in with a couple of platoons of her people.

Instead, she turned to a local asset, Tatiana Enkh. Tatiana had joined the Horde from one of their outreach programs in Dallas, Texas. At the age of five, the young woman had tried to steal a stack of slates out from under the outreach manager’s nose. Naturally, she’d been found and recruited by Sansar’s mother.

She was now Lieutenant Tatiana Enkh in the Horde’s Domestic Intel Service, which meant she was a spy against Earth’s feckless government. During the war, she’d gathered valuable intel around several operations, sabotaged a couple of convoys of alien mercs, and generally made herself a wonderful nuisance from her command center outside Washington, DC.

When Sansar landed on Earth, she’d immediately plugged into the Horde’s surviving network. It was pretty chewed up, naturally; however, Tatiana was the first to respond, beating even Major James Good, who’d been running operations in Brazil. Other operatives did as well, but none of the others were as well organized. Tatiana had a staff of more than 100 personnel under her command, twice what she’d started with before the war.

“Blue Sky, but I love a go-getter,” Sansar had said as she scanned the message from Tatiana. It was complete with a TO&E—a table of organization and equipment. She didn’t have any CASPers or field-qualified troops, but she did have blooded fighters and other assets at her disposal.

“Lieutenant Enkh,” Sansar had emailed, “I’m transferring your operational area to Houston. Move your personnel here, under whatever cover you can arrange in a reasonable timeframe. Set up a physical command center, not in or too near the starport, with sufficient room for my staff (details enclosed) and begin arranging warehouse facilities for CASPer forces as well as implementing multiple safe houses around the city. You are given full autonomy to complete the tasks. Please advise ASAP on receipt of these orders.”

Sansar had gone back and had lunch in orbit and completed her meeting with the other Horsemen, had seen Alexis and Nigel off, then used her pinplants to see if she’d gotten a response from Tatiana. Not only had she gotten a reply, but Tatiana said she’d already contacted a four-man team in Houston and secured a list of nine suitable bases of operation. The email contained images and floorplans. While she waited for Sansar to reply, she’d also gotten most of her people mobilized and moving under the cover of humanitarian aid.

“Go-getter for sure,” Sansar had said with a smile. She’d told Tatiana she would be landing in six hours, undercover, and on a civilian flight. She included the details of her persona and that of her new XO, Lieutenant Colonel Beth “Bambi” Lobdell, who would be coming in addition to a small staff. They’d bring down their CASPers later on a civilian transport.

A total of 11 hours after she’d sent out the first inquiry to her Earthside network, Sansar was climbing out of a robotic cab and walking up to a warehouse. It looked old, dirty, disused, and structurally intact. A perfect choice.

“Genghis Kahn Import/Export” was written on a hastily erected sign in red lettering. Sansar grinned from ear to ear as she walked to the office door. It creaked of rusty metal as it swung inward.

Instantly, her keen eyesight picked up at least three tiny electronic sensors, two by the door and another carefully installed in an old broken LCD monitor where a receptionist once sat. She looked right at it.

“Sansar Enkh, Colonel, Commander of the Golden Horde,” she said, “along with my staff.”

A door which appeared to have been welded closed clicked and slid aside. A beefy man in black camo stepped out and saluted. “Colonel Enkh, I’m Francis DuBois, head of security.” He lifted his helmet face shield to reveal skin so black it was almost purple. He had chiseled features with bright blue eyes, his skin glistened with sweat, and he seemed to take no notice of the heat.

“Francis,” Sansar said, “security is impressive, considering you had only a few hours.”

“We’ll make it better soon, ma’am. May I say it’s an honor to finally meet you?”

“You may, but I’m just a person, like you.”

“Perhaps so, and perhaps not.”

His rich accent was thick and slightly French sounding. “Francis, where are you from?”

“Dulac, Louisiana, ma’am. Cajun through and through. Would you like to see the command center, ma’am?”

“Very much. Is Lieutenant Tatiana Enkh there?”

“Not right now. She be off handling a…problem?”

“Anything serious?” Sansar asked.

“Not so. You see inside.”

Francis took her down a series of hallways. Sansar noticed they’d been recently rearranged subtly to make it impossible for someone to rush through. A series of corners would force an intruder to expose themselves to multiple ambush positions. Tatiana had done an excellent job in only a few hours.

The hallway ended at a reinforced room divided by a heavy steel barrier sporting firing slits. Anyone who successfully fought their way to this point would emerge into a killbox. Sansar nodded again as she noted four people in light body armor, weapons held cross-body with casual familiarity. Despite knowing who’d arrived, they were alert and had their hands on their weapons. Sansar’s XO and assistants took it all in, too, and several grunted in appreciation.

A heavy steel door slid aside to reveal another short corridor with another reinforced steel door. On the other side was the command center.

In the middle of the 10-meter square room was a Tri-V. It wasn’t military quality, though Sansar guessed it to be high-quality civilian. The wall to the left was covered in flat-panel monitors, and the right held a hastily assembled armory with an eyebrow-raising arsenal of weapons ranging from older-style machine guns to alien-made laser rifles and pistols.

“Most impressive, Mr. DuBois. Most impressive.”

The man showed bright white teeth and nodded at the compliment. “We weren’t able to stick to Horde doctrine with only Human-made equipment, and Lieutenant Enkh offers her apology.” He made an expansive gesture. “The aftermath of the Horsemen’s final assault threw everything into disarray…although it also left a lot of equipment for us to scavenge.”

“I can only imagine,” Sansar said.

A dozen men and women entered carrying slates. Francis gestured to them. “These people are here to get you set up with a work space. If you’ll follow them?”

Sansar gestured to Bambi and the others. “They’ll go; I’d like to see what Tatiana is involved in?” She pointed to the Tri-V, which was split into three separate displays and was obviously being relayed from helmet cams.

Francis looked at Sansar in a little surprise, then appeared chagrined. “I should have known you’d notice.” He motioned to the display. “Two hours ago, one of our teams working to establish a safehouse in Missouri City, a suburb to the southwest, was attacked. Two of our people are dead, two more injured. It’s local gang members—the area is designated by the police as a no-go zone. Tatiana took a rapid response team to deal with the situation.”

“Her and just two other fighters?” Sansar asked.

“Correct, ma’am. They landed a flier a block away and are about to make contact. Would you like to take operational command?”

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Sansar said. “I’ll just observe. Can you link to my pinplants?”

“Of course,” Francis said. He pulled a chip from the Tri-V and handed it to her. “Since it’s a civilian-modified network, we had to create a hard-network encryption.”

“Wise precaution,” Sansar said accepting the chip. She slipped it into her personal slate, integrated the network into her personal framework, and a split-second later the images were available within her own battlespace.

Over the next few minutes, Sansar watched in a virtual environment as Tatiana and two operators circled behind a dozen gang members who had the Horde personnel pinned down in an old, dilapidated apartment building. The woman expertly led her people with hand signals to deploy behind the gang bangers, verified the thugs didn’t have anyone on watch, and then attacked.

The Horde used silenced machine-pistols and fired from less than ten meters. Six of the punks were down before they knew they were under attack. Four more died as they turned to try and locate their attackers. The last two threw their guns down, and Tatiana’s two men moved in to cover them while she personally advanced to inspect the carnage.

What followed was a brief interrogation of two punks while on their knees. It was obvious they thought they’d been kings of the world up until a few minutes prior. Lieutenant Enkh was thorough, double checking several facts until she was sure she had the truth—at which point she shot them both in the head and went with her team to relieve the other people who’d been attacked.

Sansar was, for lack of a better word, impressed. Both with the efficiency Tatiana showed as well as the brutal effectiveness of the attack. She didn’t cringe at wet work. While she’d no doubt make an excellent trooper because of her tenaciousness, she understood why the Horde’s intel coordinator hadn’t suggested moving her to combat arms. The woman was in her element—why screw up a good thing?

She noted Francis was watching her, likely looking to see if she disapproved of said wet work. These people were part of the Horde, but not close enough in the family to where they’d dealt with Sansar herself. Maybe he thought she’d believe the brutality of the attack was too much? Cute of him to be concerned. Sansar would slit the throats of anyone who’d dare harm her beloved Golden Horde.

The remainder of the operation was straightforward. Tatiana located her people via burst transmission, found them, and coordinated medical assets. Less than 15 minutes after arriving, the injured and dead were being airlifted out. There was still no sign of a response from the Houston-area LEO. Clearly law enforcement had all but stood down.

Tatiana was flying with her injured to a local medical facility she’d already made a contract with for care—no questions asked. Sansar ran the distances through her pinplants and estimated the woman would need at least a couple hours to finish. “Francis?”

“Yes, ma’am?”

“You can show me to my working space now.” He nodded and gestured to one of the guards. “Please have Lieutenant Enkh meet me in my office as soon as she returns.”

* * *

A knock on the paint-peeling door preceded Bambi’s introduction. “Colonel Enkh, Lieutenant Tatiana Enkh is here to see you.”

“Show her in, XO.”

The door opened, and Tatiana stepped in, offered a quick salute, and stood at attention. Sansar stood and returned the salute. “While I appreciate the respect, Lieutenant, there is no need for it going forward. We’re family here; you’ve taken the name. Okay?”

“Yes, ma’am,” she said, but didn’t come out of attention.

Sansar gave her a quick once over. She was still in the black camo body armor she’d worn during her assault, down to a spray of blood on her shoulder which had been given a cursory wipe down with a rag. She looked tired, with black circles under her eyes, but was alert and obviously intimidated to the point of fear. “Tatiana, please sit.” She gestured to a chair.

“Ma’am, I’d rather stand.”

“That’s nice; I’d rather you sat. That’s an order.”

Tatiana looked like a deer caught in the headlights, so Sansar sat and stared at her. After a long second’s pause, the young woman moved stiffly to the indicated chair and sat. “Thank you, ma’am.”

“Young lady, if you don’t relax a little bit there’s going to be a problem.”

“What’s that, ma’am?”

“Your maintenance staff is going to have a hard time cleaning the diamonds out of the bathroom plumbing.”

Tatiana stared at her for a long time and blinked twice. Then suddenly the joke seemed to make sense and the barest hint of a grin crossed her face. Sansar decided it was a start. “Now, what can I get you to drink?”

“Oh, I’m not—”

“Blue Sky above, are we going to go back to square one? I asked you a question.”

“Coffee, ma’am. Francis knows what I like.”

Sansar nodded and sent the request to one of her staffers via her pinplants. “Good. I was watching the assault from the command center.” She saw the tension return. “First, let me say you handled it perfectly. Your team was quick to respond and sent exactly the correct message. Francis told me the local gangs have been trying to carve out territory and treated your efforts to establish a safe house as a rival gang, despite your obvious non-ganglike behavior.”

“I sense a but in there, ma’am?”

“Yes, there is.” Sansar leaned forward slightly. “You are the commander of this base of operations. Under no circumstances, going forward, are you to personally lead such actions unless it is a clear cut ‘all or nothing’ situation. Do I make myself clear, Captain?”

“Ma’am, I was just…” she trailed off as she caught the last word. “Ma’am? What?”

“I said a company commander does not endanger herself unless it is a situation where the entire operation is in danger. You aren’t used to having a large command, but it’s in the manual. I realize you haven’t had time to keep up with the change of situation, so that’s your cue to do some reading.”

“No, I meant…captain?”

“Yes, I promoted you.” The woman looked bewildered. “I’m in command of the Horde, it’s something I can do. Are you refusing the position?”

“Ma’am! No, ma’am!”

“Good. Now, as a unit commander, even a non-combat arms unit, you have to call me by my first name when not in a direct command situation in front of lower ranks.” She looked at Tatiana who stared back. “Do I make myself understood?”

“Yes, Colonel!”

“Apparently I didn’t,” Sansar said. She scowled, then let it change to a smile. “Try that again?”

It was amusing watching the young woman struggle with her inner self. It took a full five seconds for her to respond. “Yes, Sansar.” It looked like it physically hurt.

“I can assure you, Tatiana, I am just another Human. I put my pants on one leg at a time, I sweat, and my shit stinks.” This time Tatiana choked off a laugh. “Better. Now, I’ve been going over what you’ve accomplished, and I’m impressed.”

“We’re working hard to finish up with the main base.”

“Tatiana, let me finish?”

“Oh, sorry, ma—I mean, sorry, Sansar.”

“It’s fine. What I was going to say is you need to delegate better, so I’m going to have Lieutenant Colonel Lobdell assign you someone from my staff to help you get used to that. The XO is also going to make sure you don’t go playing in the field anymore for now. You’ll probably have plenty of opportunities later, though.”

Sansar spent a few minutes discussing the situation in the United States as well as the world. Half the governments were either completely collapsed or trying to reform. The US was more resilient than most, but because it was a signatory to the Articles of Republic which had created the Earth Republic, it was at a loss as to how to deal with the collapse of the world government. Some functions had been turned over to that government, which didn’t exist anymore. General Peepo had made sure of it.

The US government had been meeting non-stop in Washington, DC, to discuss how to proceed. Old political adversaries were sharpening their claws, and nothing was getting done. The Earth Republic had been well on its way to having the Galactic credit unit, or GCU, replace most of the planet’s currency. Now the whole scheme was collapsing, as were the local currencies. There’d been riots in a thousand cities all over the world.

“Colonel Cartwright is going to try and put the shit back in the horse,” Sansar explained. “He has a plan to salvage the world government while reforging it into something which might be more useful, instead of just a siphon sucking up merc-generated revenue and regurgitating it to people who hate us.”

“That sounds like an impossible task,” Tatiana said.

There was a knock at the door and Francis came in with a tray. On it was coffee for Tatiana, tea for Sansar, and a plate of sandwiches. He set it down and nodded before leaving. Tatiana eyed the tray hungrily.

“Do I have to make eating an order?”

“No, ma—Damn it. No, Sansar. It’s going to take some time on that.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Sansar said. She took her cup and a sandwich. “Eat.”

Tatiana didn’t need any more prompting. She took a sandwich and nearly stuffed it whole into her mouth. She took a slurp of coffee to aid the process, chewing and swallowing despite the obviously piping-hot beverage.

Sansar watched with half an eye while eating her own sandwich. She wasn’t hungry; however, she realized the other woman would never have eaten if she hadn’t as well. The young woman ate like she didn’t know if she’d have food tomorrow; she hadn’t moved past the part of her life when food wasn’t a guaranteed thing. It disgusted Sansar that, with as much wealth as flowed into the planet, Earth’s industry and opportunity wasn’t prospering. You couldn’t hand out money and expect people to prosper, though. That wasn’t how it worked.

Tatiana was on her third sandwich by the time Sansar finished her first, at which point Sansar asked her to continue eating while she resumed the briefing. “Our main job is going to be three-fold.

“One is to keep Colonel Cartwright alive. He’s a brilliant tactician for one so young. I’ve never seen such natural instincts. However, he tends to be overly naïve, and it manifests in allowing potential enemies to get close to him. We’re going to provide an invisible shield for him.

“Second, we’re going to work locally and globally to covertly squash any attempts to topple his efforts to stabilize and stand up a new government. Permanently. He is going to be unaware of these actions and is to remain unaware if at all possible. On top of being naïve about people’s intentions, he’s also what you Americans call a bit of a boy scout. His father, Thaddeus, was just as bad, if not worse.

“Finally, we’re going to begin building up forces again, and helping the other Horsemen do so, as well. There are a lot of people who’d like to be mercs. We’re going to take the best for ourselves, and farm the rest out to the junior leagues.”

“Junior leagues, Sansar?” Tatiana asked from around a mouthful of sandwich, her fourth.

“The other non-Horsemen units,” Sansar explained. “Marines, pilots, and other space-based people who want to join will be sent to the Hussars. Heavy assault CASPer drivers and light assault go to the Cavaliers and Asbaran. Rapid response and defensive specialists, along with intel-minded folks, we’ll take ourselves. If they don’t meet muster, we’ll either send them to recruiters for new units or to existing units wanting to grow in size and let them handle the training.”

Tatiana nodded, her eyes narrowing as she processed the instructions. Sansar silently considered the task before them. It was daunting, to say the least. It wasn’t just Earth, either. The colonies had seen war as well, and some of them were doubtless total basket cases. She’d lost contact with her intel elements on Talus, and that was probably bad. The largest and most advanced of Earth’s colonies, Sansar had held hopes of using it as a source of men, materials, and logistics.

“I noted you don’t have pinplants,” Sansar said.

“No, there wasn’t time or resources in Dallas,” Tatiana said.

“We’ll get that remedied ASAP. I’ll have my staff locate a reliable asset here in Houston.” Tatiana had finally stopped eating, but now she looked even more worn out. “When was the last time you slept?”

“Maybe 72 hours?” she responded, sounding unsure. “We have some CASPer candy we’ve been using.”

“The facility is operational,” Sansar said. “Get some sack time.”

“Not necessary,” Tatiana said and got up. “With your permission, I’ll get back to work.”

“Denied,” Sansar said. She summoned Bambi with her pinplants, and she was there in a second. “Captain Enkh here is to stand down for not less than six hours.”

“Understood, Colonel,” her XO said. Tatiana looked horrified.

“Place a watch on her. If she won’t, or can’t, sleep, a sedative is to be administered. Is that clear?” She looked from Tatiana to her XO. Tatiana looked crestfallen but nodded in agreement. “See you in six hours.” The young woman left with her XO, and Sansar sighed. If she wasn’t careful, the new captain would burn herself out. She’d seen it many times in the past and had been there herself. Coming from the streets, she knew Tatiana would do anything to prove her self-worth. She’d have ample opportunities. Tomorrow, they’d get started.

* * *

Cartwright’s Cavaliers Main Base, Houston, Texas, Earth

Jim woke up with the morning sun blazing into his bedroom. The glass was polarizable, but he’d forgotten to set it before crawling into bed. He rolled over and looked at the little Tri-V showing the time. It was only moments before he’d set the alarm to go off, so he used his pinplants to deactivate the alarm and head for the bathroom.

An hour later, he was dressed and downstairs making breakfast. It was all frozen; the majority of his fridge contents had gone into the garbage the night before. Hargrave had originally contracted a local provider to bring premade meals and deliver them to his fridge. He’d have to see what he could arrange now, since obviously nobody had been into his place since the war.

As he ate, he thought about Hargrave, even though he’d rather have thought about nearly anything else. Shortly before the First Battle of Earth, he’d snapped at Hargrave, who’d been saying he was concerned about how Jim was acting when in the Raknar. Jim told the older merc that he was just jealous of Jim’s success. Hargrave hadn’t taken it well, and the two had barely spoken afterwards. Now he was dead.

Jim was a collection of regrets. He wasn’t proud of it; it was just a fact. They started from grade school when he’d first started shunning physical sports and had begun his long decline into obesity, but it ended with how he’d treated Hargrave. The man had taken Jim under his wing and mentored him into being a merc commander. He’d deserved much better.

After Jim was done eating, he put aside the whispers of mistakes past and went to the gym. He uploaded the routine from his pinplants and spent an hour working out. Through the pain, sweat, and gasping 60 minutes, he tried to think of nothing except the exertion, and he largely succeeded.

He was in the shower when the first morning call came into his pinplants.

“Colonel Cartwright,” he answered.

“Colonel, this is Ann Jordan.”

“Lieutenant Jordan! Glad you called me back. How are you doing?”

“Fine, sir. I rode out the war in Alabama with my family. Nothing happened here.”

“Glad to hear it. Are you interested in my offer?”

“I’m actually at the maglev station just down the road. So, absolutely.”

“Excellent. I’ll meet you at the Hobby offices in a half hour?”

“Sounds great.”

Jim hung up and punched the air. Lieutenant Jordan had held the fort whenever the Cavaliers were off Earth, which was most of the last year before the war. She wasn’t a combat merc, though she did hold a CASPer qualification. She’d never risen above sergeant as a trooper. However, when she’d left the fighting side, she’d found her stride as a personnel manager, and Jim’s father had promoted her. She was one of the first people Hargrave had hired when the Cavaliers were reformed.

He’d barely hung up when another call came in, and, after that, another, and another. By the time he walked across the tarmac to the company offices, he’d put a dozen people back to work. They included armorers, mechanics, a physical trainer, and a physician. Even better, a pair of recruiters were coming in. They’d answered the advertisement he’d listed on the merc guild hiring page of the Aethernet.

Lieutenant Jordan met him at the outside door when he released the lock. He’d had to do it manually; the program wasn’t working correctly. “Welcome, Lieutenant.”

“Great to be back, sir.”

He smiled to see she was already wearing Cavaliers’ office blues. He gestured at the keypad by the door. “I hate to put you to work right away…”

“No problem,” she said. “It always was a clunky system.” She had it up and working in minutes, including the password and pinplant link system. While she worked, the first of his other rehires arrived.

The first half of his day was a blur as he worked to sign contracts for all the returning people. Luckily, Jordan also had some familiarity with the contract process because the recruiters were both hired, and Jim wouldn’t have been able to tell if their contracts were right. As he transmitted them to the Mercenary Guild office in Houston, he got back an acknowledgment but no contract number. It appeared the lights were on, but nobody was home.

He set the recruiters up in the offices reserved for that function. They had access to a shared series of conference rooms that doubled as interview spaces, and they immediately began reviewing first the backlog of inquiries, then new ones. There were a few dozen, which was a surprisingly small amount for an open hiring announcement from a Horseman.

He didn’t have long to obsess on the slow recruiting pace, because he got an email—Splunk had arrived in orbit on Bucephalus and wanted to come down. Luckily, the one area the Cavaliers were still well staffed was on their merc cruiser. He instructed flight ops to bring her down on the next flight.

Jim had just enough time to grab a bite from the autochef in the commissary before hurrying out to the field. Multiple sonic booms announced one of his Phoenix dropships arriving. The pilot did a horizontal short-runway landing and taxied over to the hangar where Jim waited. No sooner had the side boarding ramp slid down then Splunk jumped out and into his arms.

“Hey, buddy, missed you!”

“Missed you, too, <Skaa!>” she replied.

Jim was immediately struck by differences. Before, she’d seldom worn any substantial clothing unless they were somewhere it was necessary. Now, she wore what could only be considered a uniform. The material looked light and breathable, but it was dull green and covered all but her head, lower arms, and feet. She also had a belt strapped on with a Dusman-sized laser pistol and a bag slung cross-body. He didn’t see any logos on the uniform.

“Dusman uniform?” he asked her. She nodded. “Sly realizes everyone is going to know the Dusman are back, right?”

“He knows, <Pree!> He wanted it secret as Kroof, arbiter. But Seldia screwed it all up.” She took a minute to explain how Seldia had come out and said they were the Dusman during the battle at New Warsaw.

While he listened, Jim watched the dropship crew unloading CASPers. His jaw muscles bunched as he thought about all the Cavaliers who’d died. To make it worse, Peepo had escaped, thanks to the Peacemaker-imposed ceasefire. At least now he wouldn’t be under the injunction against talking about them as Dusman. I wonder how long it will be before it’s common knowledge?

“Morning, Colonel Cartwright,” the dropship pilot said as he used a loader to move a Mk 8 CASPer.

“Morning. Thanks for bringing my friend back.”

“No problem at all. I couldn’t get landing clearance, though.”

“Huh?” Jim asked.

“We called for approval to land from Houston Starport ATC, and they never answered. We orbited a couple of times until we saw a freighter land without clearance, then we just went ahead.”

“That’s not good,” Jim said, and the man shook his head in agreement. “Thanks for the info.” He made a mental note and turned to look at Splunk. “Let’s get back to HQ,” he said. “I have some meetings.”

“Get lunch, <Cheek!>” she asked.

“I already ate, but I suppose we can stop by the commissary and rustle you up some pepperoni.” She flashed him a toothy grin and a thumbs-up, so he headed back across the tarmac.

Back in his office, he found a stack of paper notes from the recruiters on prospective Cavaliers. They’d always used paper recruiter notes because they couldn’t be hacked. Eventually, the details would be entered into the company computers when someone was hired. Nobody reported non-hires.

Splunk sat on a side table by his desk, as she preferred, and was working her way through a good quarter-kilo of pepperoni. She seemed much hungrier than normal. Of course, they’d both been through a lot. While she ate and he went through the hire reports, he also wrote a series of emails with his pinplants. They were addressed to the various starport controlling authorities.

After those emails, he wrote more. He sent them to the mayor and the governor of Texas. After doing some research, he assembled a list of the leaders of 145 of the 150 nations who were signatories of the Articles of Republic, and uploaded the text of a message he’d had Alexis and Sansar help him with. It read:

Greetings from the Four Horsemen,

The last few months have been trying for all humanity. Untold thousands of mercs have died trying to free Earth from the grasp of General Peepo and the Mercenary Guild, as have many more civilians. It’s a tragedy in every way imaginable, as huge numbers of aliens also died, and many of them were just innocent pawns in a meaningless war. The financial loss cannot be easily calculated.

Throughout the conflict, we, the Four Horsemen of Earth, along with every free Human merc unit we could find, have fought as best we could to try and lift this threat from our race’s home world and colonies. We succeeded in places and failed in others. We made good decisions, and we made bad decisions.

Now that the Peacemakers have enforced a truce and the organized alien forces capable of space travel have retreated, we can begin the process of burying the dead and rebuilding. What also needs to take place is an evaluation of what happened, how it happened, and what we can do to keep it from occurring again.

Alexis Cromwell, commander of the Winged Hussars, and Nigel Shirazi, commander of Asbaran Solutions, have traveled to Capital Planet, home of the Galactic Union government and center of the Mercenary Guild Council. They’ve gone to represent humanity before the Union and to be sure we have a voice in the resolution of our case as members of the Union. They are also going to, hopefully, obtain compensation for the war in order to lessen the pain and suffering of its victims.

They have left me and Sansar Enkh, commander of the Golden Horde, to help Earth move forward and come to grips with the changing geopolitical situation for humanity in regard to our position within a galaxy which has already tried to subjugate us once.

With this goal in mind, I would like to meet and discuss the war, the aftermath of the war, and moving humanity forward to a future where we can survive and, hopefully, thrive. Details of this proposed meeting are attached.

Yours in service,

Colonel Jim Cartwright

Commander and CEO, Cartwright’s Cavaliers

He’d felt it was an overly simpering letter at the time they’d penned it, and he still did as he finished attaching it to the 145 recipients. Most of the other five signatories didn’t have a diplomatic presence and were in states of civil disarray. Despite his misgivings, he completed the messages and sent them on their way.

Next he sent off invitations to some special individuals, along with all the surviving merc units of at least company size. More than a few had weathered the war by staying off the battlefield. Jim and Sansar had noted which were which, not necessarily with any retribution in mind—mainly so they knew who were willing to take risks, and who weren’t.

He spent a couple hours with an interactive Tri-V program, which allowed him to pick up little graphic elements and move them around by hand. He could draw connecting lines, add comments, pictures, or even movies. He’d used something similar when writing code, only in his head. Programming was second nature to him; what he wanted to do with the world leaders and the ideas to bring it together, was not. For this he needed to use his eyes and hands—it seemed to help him get a better idea of the big picture.

The problem was he didn’t have all the pieces to build what he wanted. Sure, it made perfect sense in the abstract. The Republic was a hot mess, and after the disaster in São Paulo, it was effectively dead, as was almost everyone who’d worked for it. Dead or pretending they’d never had anything to do with the government.

He’d spent quite a bit of time studying the Republic’s formation since the war ended. He was forced to admit the school’s curriculum on the matter was sadly lacking and full of outright fabrications. The coalition which built the government was more interested in getting it done than building anything that would work and stand the test of time. He’d been surprised, years ago, at some of the nations that were not signatories to the Articles of Republic; now it made a lot more sense. Still, how could he come up with something better?

A republic like the United States would be awesome. Well, like the United States had been envisioned. Like the Earth Republic, those ideals hadn’t lived long. Politicians got involved, like they always do, and it went from the “several states” to an all-powerful central bureaucracy. He’d had a civics teacher in high school who jokingly referred to himself as the last libertarian in the USA (“When I am gone, no more of my kind will there be.”) He’d had a lot of ideas about how things should have gone.

Jim stopped and blinked. “Holy shit,” he said aloud. Splunk looked up from her extended munching for a second before going back to it. Jim quickly called up his old school in Carmel, Indiana, where his mom had sent him. No, the man he was looking for was retired. Another search of the Aethernet found him, and Jim dialed the number.

A gruff voice answered. “Who the fuck are you, and what the fuck do you want?”

“Mr. Smith?” Jim asked.

“Yeah, who the fuck are you?”

“Jim Cartwright, sir.” Silence followed. “I had your civics class at Carmel High School.”

“No refunds, now go away.”

“No, sir, wait!”

A long pause ensued. Jim had to check the connection to verify Smith hadn’t hung up. “I’m waiting…”

“I’m working on trying to replace the Earth Republic with something which might actually work and keep us from being turned into alien slaves, and I thought of your class!” Jim said it all fast and breathless, hoping to avoid getting hung up on.

“Who the hell are you again?”

“Jim Cartwright. Sorry, Colonel Jim Cartwright, Cartwright’s Cavaliers.”

“Oh, the fat kid with the pinplants.”

Despite the insult, Jim laughed. Smith hadn’t thought much of pinplants. He believed the schools should ban them as cheats. Jim had debated him one day in class on the matter, with the rest of the class watching in rapt amazement. Jim managed to score a draw on the subject, an impressive feat with Smith. He’d learned a lot about debating from the elderly man.

“Yes, that was me. I’m the leader of one of the Four Horsemen now.”

“I thought Thaddeus Cartwright was in command.”

“Sir, he died seven years ago.”

Smith grunted. “Sorry, kid. Your old man was solid in my book.” Jim thanked him. “Well, good luck on your fool’s errand, I’m leaving on a ship tomorrow.”

What? Where are you going?”

“Gliese 1214b,” he said.

“Valais?” Smith grunted in accession. “Why?”

“Because this place is toast, that’s why. You mercs took it back, but only with a lot of help. You can’t hold it together; too many fuckin’ aliens want our necks. I’ve been watching DC; whatever they come up with will be even worse.”

Jim smiled. “Not if you help me.”

Another typically long Smith pause ensued. “Okay, I’m listening.”

The conversation took two and a half hours. Jim had reams of notes when he was done. In the end, he couldn’t convince Smith to go to Washington with him. “Ain’t no way I’m setting foot in the booby hatch.” However, he’d agreed to put his immigration plans on hold and standby to help Jim anyway he could.

It turned out Smith had the ear of a lot of people all over the world. Smith’s father had been involved in the formation of the Republic, only he’d been extensively overridden every time he tried to insert any sanity. The elder Smith retired from intergalactic politics, wrote some books—which Jim now had in his pinplants—and raised a son to be just as cantankerous and dissatisfied with democracy as he’d been.

Despite his claims of not wanting to be involved, he’d actually had his foot in the water since the war began. He’d spoken with a lot of various leaders, trying to convince them now was the time to strike out on their own. He’d failed in every case except one. One, it turned out, particularly close to home.

It took Jim nearly a half hour to get the contact number he needed, one which would bypass the usual screen of assistants and secretaries. He dialed it immediately. A woman answered on the first buzz.

“Samantha Collins?” he asked.

“I don’t recognize this number,” she said.

“No, ma’am, you wouldn’t.”

“This better not be a reporter,” she said, “or I’m going to skin someone’s hide.”

“Not a reporter,” Jim assured her. “I’m Jim Cartwright. Recognize the name?”

While he waited for her to answer he could hear arguments and banging gavels in the background. She was trying even as he talked to her. Wow.

“Yes, I do. Unlike a lot of people, I’m grateful for what you mercs did. You could have just moved to a colony and left us to baste in our self-made stew.”

“Not how I operate, ma’am. I also know what you’re trying to do.”

“Oh, how do you know?”

“I’ve been talking to Mordechai Smith.”

“That son of a bitch should keep his mouth shut.”

Jim chuckled. “It turns out we’re both interested in the same ends.”

“Yeah, well, unless you can pull off a miracle, my great efforts and my viability as a public figure are going to end in failure. Fuck it, I don’t give a damn anymore.”

“As it turns out, I might be able to help.”

“I’m a-listenin’,” she said with a twang.

“What if—and I say clearly if—I can get you officially recognized?”

There was a rather rude sounding snort. “By who, some little tin pot dictator?”

“How about Eric Stahl for one, and Yosef Mizrah for another.”

There was a sharp intake of breath. “You’re kidding,” she hissed.

“Ma’am, I don’t kid.”

“Hold on a sec,” she said, and Jim could hear her yelling for someone. He didn’t hear the rest of the conversation, but when she came back, her excitement was clear. “Talk quick.We have about an hour before we won’t be able to put the shit back in the horse.”

* * *

Jim’s head was swimming, and he felt like he was high. What he’d just helped pull off would likely go down in the history books right next to the attack on Fort Sumter, or maybe the volley of musket fire at Lexington, Massachusetts, was a more apt analogy. He took a drink of Coke and tried to relax. He needed a distraction.

Jim looked up as the building vibrated with the roar of a landing Phoenix. He accessed the flight logs and saw it was the core of his remaining combat forces, all five of them. First Sergeant Buddha, a long time Cavalier and family friend, Corporal Travis Solberg, Private Rick Partlow, Private Chris Kadish, and Private Aidan Lynch. He’d left Earth with more than 120 Cavalier troopers.

The dropship rotated its engine pods back and taxied to the dropship hangar before dropping the loading and personnel ramps. Four troopers in various models of CASPer came down the cargo ramp carrying gear; one figure walked down the personnel ramp. Mercs tended to look similar—not too tall and beefy was common. This man was taller than most with a build which suggested fat. Only he wasn’t.

First Sergeant Akamai “Buddha” Kalawai’a was a Polynesian gentle giant, and the only man Jim ever knew who could pick him up at his peak weight of nearly 170 kilograms. Buddha’s rotund belly covered a muscled frame powerful enough to keep a CASPer moving with half its servos out of commission. His legs were so strong he had the body builder shuffle which always reminded Jim of Old West gunslingers.

Jim got up and left Splunk to her food coma. A distraction had arrived. He met Buddha in the outer office. The other man broke into an ear-to-ear grin at the sight of him.

“Jimbo!” Buddha roared. He trotted over and picked him up like a baby, spun him around once, and put him back down.

“Buddha, words cannot convey how happy I am you came through that shitshow.” Jim put a hand out, and Buddha slammed his into it, clasping his wrist. Jim gave it all he was worth and fought against the grimace of pain. One of Buddha’s dark black eyebrows climbed up his ochre-complexioned brow.

“You’ve been working out, Jimbo!”

“Some, yeah.”

“You’re thinner, too!”

“Not a word I’d use. Come on into my office.”

Buddha followed him in, dropping his duffle bag by the door. “Hey, Splunk? How’s the meat?”

“Hi, Buddha. Yummy!” she said between bites.

Buddha sat in one of the two chairs in front of Jim’s desk, and Jim sat as well. “I’m glad you made it, too,” Buddha said. “We lost so many,” he bowed his head. “E hänai ‘awa a ikaika ka makani.”

Jim’s pinplants provided some context and translation from Hawaiian. More or less it hoped the dead grew strong so they could help the family.

“Our fates are shared,” Jim replied.

“Our fates are shared,” Buddha said. “We mourn for our losses.”

They were silent for a time, then Buddha changed back to his normal jovial self. “I see you are getting things going again around here.”

“Yeah, working on it. I’m supposed to be feeling out the geopolitical situation, but I also have a merc company to run. Your contract ran out in the middle of the war. Are you going to flip it over?” Flipping a contract, or simply rolling it for another term of enlistment as previously signed for, was common for most Human mercs. But Buddha wasn’t a young man anymore.

“I’m almost fifty,” the other man said, considering. “But Murdock was doing it in his eighties. If a redneck from Arkansas can do it, a Hawaiian can damned well do it!”

“Excellent,” Jim said and slid a slate across the desk. Buddha took out his Yack, short for Universal Account Access Card, and tapped it to the slate.

“Authenticate,” the device said.

Buddha leaned over so it could scan his eye, then touched his thumb to the scanner.

“Authenticated,” the slate said. “Akamai Kalawai’a is reenlisted to Cartwright’s Cavaliers for a period of two standard Earth years.”

“Now that I have you at my mercy for two more years,” Jim said with a sly grin. Buddha’s eyes narrowed. Jim opened a desk drawer and pulled out a small metallic case. He put it on the shiny oak desktop and slid it over to Buddha.

“What is this?” the other man asked suspiciously.

“Open it and find out.”

Buddha eyed it for a moment as if it might contain a serpent. He eventually picked it up and opened the case. From where Jim sat, he couldn’t see what was inside. He didn’t have to see for himself to know two silver oak leaves rested inside.

“You have got to be kidding me, Jimbo.”

“In no way is that a joke, Lieutenant Colonel.”

“Jimbo, I’m a senior NCO, and pretty good at it.”

“You’re the best I’ve ever known. I’d like to keep you there.”

“Then why the damned silver?”

“Because I need your advice and leadership at my side, not in a squad. I fucked up and lost Hargrave.”

“We all fucked up, Jimbo,” Buddha interjected.

“Doesn’t matter; I was in command. I should have been in a Konar with you guys.”

“What’s a Konar?”

Splunk glanced up, and Jim blinked, trying to think. “Oh, a CASPer, sorry. Instead I was in a Raknar and didn’t even know when Hargrave died.”

“It was a trap; blame Peepo.”

“We all do, but she’s out of our reach now. What I want—what I need—is you wearing those.” Buddha looked down at them, his head slowly shaking from side to side. “Tell you what. Do the XO thing for a year, or until someone I can accept as a replacement comes along. You can put the stripes back on, but you’ll still show the grade on your record. You can retire with silver on.”

“Most of the NCOs I know would never let me live it down,” Buddha said. “If any of them are still alive.” He grunted and closed the case. “Jimbo, I can’t say no to Thaddeus’s son. I accept.”

“Thank you,” Jim said, heaving a sigh. He didn’t know what he would have done if Buddha had said no. He could hire all manner of troopers, but you didn’t hire an XO, you promoted one. They had to know the culture and organization from the inside out, not outside in. It was a huge relief off his chest.

He was about to suggest a drink when his pinplants told him he had numerous unread emails. Jim held up a finger to indicate he had to look at something and checked the server. He had over 100 replies already. The meeting would happen.

“Better get with supply and have a new dress uniform made,” he told his XO. “We’re going to Washington, DC, next week.” If Buddha had looked unhappy at finding the silver oak leaves in the box, now he looked positively depressed.

“Colonel Cartwright?” his desk PA said.

“Yeah, Lieutenant Jordan?”

“I have Eric Stahl on the line.”

“It’s after midnight in the UK,” Jim said and chuckled. “Put him on. Oh, and when Yosef Mizrah calls, put him on conference with us?”

“Will do.”

A few minutes later, it was done, and Buddha was looking at him in a mixture of confusion and awe.

Jim grinned and winked. “Now we go into the belly of the beast.”

* * * * *

Chapter Three

Genghis Kahn Import/Export, Houston, Texas, Earth

Lieutenant Colonel Lobdell jerked the bags off of the two women and one man’s heads. They all blinked against the harsh light of the dingy room. The man glared at Bambi and spat on the floor.

“What da fuck you think you gonna accomplish here?”

“A change,” Bambi said and backed out of the light.

Sansar stepped forward, her face cut into angular light and shadow. She looked like a visage of death itself. “You three are behind nearly all the coordinated gang action in this town.”

The three glared at her in the bright light. Bodya Tomlin, the lone male, was a light-skinned African-American who’d once been an insurgency specialist for the Mexican military. The first woman was Katana Rich, although her original name was Hinata Mitsubishi. She’d been born to a prosperous Canadian family and had fallen into bad company as an early teen. After working the drug trade in Quebec, she’d moved to the US and become a major player in all kinds of crime activity, making a real name for herself. The other female went by Cat Lotta. Sansar’s network hadn’t been able to find her real name, only that she’d come up through the underworld in South America and spoke a dozen languages. She was the wildcard of the group.

“Bullshit,” Bodya Tomlin, the one who’d spoken first, said and spat on the floor.

“Ya, we’re playas,” Katana Rich said and winked. Her hair was in a long ponytail which went to her waist, where her hands were tied.

Cat Lotta didn’t speak; she was carefully examining her surroundings with narrowed eyes. She’d scarcely glanced at Sansar, instead concentrating on the room she was being held in.

“No need to deny it,” Sansar said and used her pinplants to bring the mobile Tri-V online. A montage of high-definition images played for a minute. Pictures of gangs stealing, intimidating, attacking other gangs, and generally being a pain in the ass. It ended with a video of looting from the starport. “I could tolerate a lot, but you’re stealing shit I need. Stuff the mercs are going to need.”

“You need that shit to let the aliens own our asses?” Bodya asked.

“You certainly took the opportunity to help yourselves to the spoils of war,” Sansar said.

“Why not,” Katana said. “What you ever do for us?”

“Bled and died for you,” Sansar said. “Thousands of us gave our lives for you.”

Bodya snorted and tossed his head. “You? Who the fuck are you?”

“She’s Sansar Enkh,” Cat said finally. “Colonel Sansar Enkh of the Golden Horde.”

Sansar fixed Cat with a critical eye, the barest hint of a smile touching the corners of her mouth. The other two had been picked off the street, right from under their bodyguards’ noses. Cat was different. Tatiana’s people followed her for hours, looking for an opportunity to grab her. Unlike the others, the chance never presented itself. Instead, Cat’s driver had an accident. A robotic cab had fallen out of Houston’s failing traffic control grid and had t-boned her car. Tatiana’s people had scooped her up in the confusion.

“A fuckin’ Horseman?” Katana asked and laughed. She shook her head. “Pretty pictures. I thought you were a merc, not a spy.”

“I’m both, actually,” Sansar said quietly. “Lady, my ancestors were kicking the asses of punk gang members like you in Mongolia and Russia before your grandfather was born.” She sighed. “Killing you, while satisfying, serves no real purpose. Another of your lieutenants will simply rise in your place, or a different small gang would appear. So, I’ll give you the option of continuing. However, the theft and killing come to an end.”

“How we supposed to live?” Bodya asked. Katana nodded.

“I’ll pay you.”

The two stared at her in open-mouthed surprise. Bodya came to himself first.

“What would stop us from taking your coin and keep on keepin’ on?”

“Nothing,” Sansar said with a shrug. She activated the Tri-V again. “But you won’t.” On the display a drone video feed appeared of Bodya and Katana’s homes. Then all their lieutenant’s homes, or places they lived. It was followed by the residences of almost every member of their gang’s and families. Sansar’s expression turned hard. “You see, I don’t bluff or take chances.”

She gestured to Bambi. “Put them in a cell for twenty-four hours to think about it.”

“Yes, Colonel.”

A pair of Tatiana’s people, clad in black with masks, appeared from behind the bright lights, put masks back over Bodya and Katana’s heads, and hauled them to their feet. Cat continued looking at Sansar without expression, her eyes bright, taking in every detail.

“No threats for me?”

Sansar shook her head. “I don’t think so. You don’t have a gang.”

“What do you mean?” Still no change in her poker face.

“Cat, you have a covert ops team, not a gang. Oh, a few of your people are gang bangers. Just enough to make it look real. My own local team leader did her homework over the last week, and we know you aren’t a gang leader. You haven’t killed a single innocent bystander. You don’t steal random stuff, only things with very specific uses. Often, things with no street value at all. Who steals a misplaced cylinder of F11? An unlabeled cylinder of F11?”

Sansar moved closer to look at the woman. Her complexion was dark, but her facial features didn’t speak of any specific race. Computer analysis of her South American accent picked up subtle cues indicating it was affected. Her DNA was not in any planetary file, neither were her fingerprints or retinal scans. She was a ghost.

“So, Ms. Lotta, or whatever your name is—who are you exactly, and who do you work for?” The woman didn’t respond. “My cyber-medicine techs are in the next room. We can have a pinplant installed inside an hour. Not one you can use, mind you—one which will give us all the answers we want.”

“It won’t work on me,” Cat said. Her accent was now North American. Sansar’s pinplants pegged it as 80% Southwestern, possibly New Mexico or Arizona.

“I don’t see how that’s possible,” Sansar said.

“You wouldn’t understand,” Cat said. “Frankly, you don’t have the technology.”

“Are you going to explain yourself?”

The other woman blinked, slower than normal. Sansar almost dismissed the action except she caught a slight unfocusing of Cat’s eyes. It was quick—no more than a quarter second. Yet it was enough for her to notice with her pinplant-enhanced perceptions. The other woman just accessed her own pinplants. Only, scans of her didn’t show she had any pinplants.

“I can’t say anymore,” Cat said a second later. “My supervisors have advised me to leave it at that.”

“And if I kill you?”

“There are some prices worth paying, Colonel Enkh.”

Sansar ground her teeth as she thought. “Blue Sky above, woman. I believe we’re on the same side. How does not working together serve any purpose?”

“We are nominally on, as you put it, the same side. However, we cannot at this time openly reveal ourselves or ally with you or any other power. I’d like it if you would let me go. I can assure you my gang will be deactivated, and the local elements we recruited will be neutralized.” She shrugged. “My cover is blown; it no longer serves any purpose.”

Her cover is blown? Other than her not being a gang leader, I don’t know anything. “What guarantee do I have you won’t resurface and pick up where you left off?”

“None,” Cat said flatly. “Although I will promise we won’t actively interfere with your mission to support Colonel Cartwright’s efforts.”

Sansar blinked, caught temporarily off guard. She wasn’t used to being caught off guard, and she didn’t like it. At all. “You have a spy in my organization?”

“Would you believe me whatever my answer was to that question?”

“Probably not.”

Cat gave a little smile, the first time her expression changed.

“Tell me one thing, then.”

“If I can.”

“Is your organization here on Earth, or off world.”

There was the same unfocusing of her eyes. Blue Sky above, she’s actively communicating! Sansar used her pinplants to order a wide-range frequency scan. Every possible emission was to be checked.

“We have assets both on Earth and off,” Cat replied. “However, we were born here, and primarily concern ourselves with Earth.” She looked Sansar straight in the eye. “It has been our concern for a great many years.”

Sansar turned as Bambi returned. She looked at her commander with a raised eyebrow. “Put Ms. Lotta in a holding cell. One of the nice cells. See that she is fed and given whatever comfort she needs.” Sansar turned back to Cat. “I’ll consider what you said.”

“I could ask for nothing more,” the other woman said and bowed.

Bambi and two of Tatiana’s people got the woman to her feet and gently escorted her out. Bambi came back a few minutes later with a piece of paper.

“I printed this out; I didn’t want it on the computer.”

Sansar examined it—the multi-frequency scan results. Lots of the typical garbage from surrounding sources. The usual spikes from her people’s pinplants. Then a circled reading: a microburst in the terahertz frequency. It was less than a nanosecond long. “Did you get an analysis on it?”

“No,” her XO said. “We didn’t have gear running which could capture it.”

“Terahertz,” Sansar said. “It wouldn’t have much range.”

“Techs think less than a kilometer. With the shielding we have up, make it half that.”

Sansar looked up at the ceiling and frowned. They were being surveilled. She really didn’t like being on the receiving end of that.

Sansar returned to her office and sat in the comfortable, if worn, chair. A dozen emails and reports begged for her attention, but all she could do was stare at the cracked concrete which made up the wall opposite her desk. She chewed her lower lip as she thought, and thought, and thought.

None of this feels aggressive toward us. She used her pinplants to go back through Cat Lotta’s history. Sure, it was a complete fabrication, but it could still provide some clues. Yet after reviewing the data three more times she was no closer to a definitive origin of the enigmatic woman in her custody. She sent a message to Tatiana and got up.

* * *

The door opened, and Cat looked up to see Sansar with two armed guards. “Are you here to kill me?” she asked.

Sansar was struck by the lack of emotion in her voice. She didn’t remember having the same level of aplomb when the Merc Guild had wanted to kill her. “No,” she told her. “I’m letting you go.”

“To tell you the truth, I’m surprised,” Cat admitted.

Sansar gestured, and two guards came in with a blindfold. “I realize you’ve been communicating with your people via a pinplant, though not a pinplant we’re familiar with.”

Cat raised an eyebrow and gave a respectful nod. “Your reputation seems well earned.”

“As I was saying, even though they probably know your location, I’m going through the motions. I’m also trusting you to keep your word that you won’t interfere with our operations.”

“Understood,” Cat said, and one of the guards blindfolded her.

Sansar rode in the old beat-up flier, occupying a front seat next to the pilot while Francis and his best man sat on either side of Cat. Houston was mostly dark, another sign of the disarray the city was in after the war.

They flew to within a kilometer of the starport where they set down in a filthy alley before removing her blindfold. “I trust you’ll be okay if we leave you here?”

“No problem,” Cat said. “My organization appreciates your leniency, and we’ll remember it.”

“I hope so,” Sansar said.

Cat walked a few feet away to the nearest wall of a former Halal eatery, now half-collapsed and burned out. She turned back to look at Sansar and spoke loudly enough to be heard over the idling lift fans of the flier. “Section 51 will be in touch.” As she turned back, two figures seemed to materialize out of the building’s outlines to meet her, then all three were gone.

“Blue Sky above,” Sansar hissed. Section 51 again. She desperately wanted answers. Instead, she had to settle with climbing back into the flier. She had a flight to catch tomorrow; maybe she’d think of something by then.

* * *

Leaving Houston, Texas, Earth

Jim and Buddha had nearly been forced to fly to Washington, DC in one of the Cavaliers’ Phoenix-class dropships as Jim had awoken to find their flight cancelled. The airline reported they were unable to get fuel. After an hour of digging through air transportation reports in national media, Jim cursed in frustration and went into panic mode.

A series of catastrophic failures were underway, and his flight was a mid-stage symptom of those failures. The world economy had been converting to Galactic credits, but when the war started, the conversion process had been wrecked, leaving the planet halfway through the delicate process. Instead of a smooth transition, suddenly local currency was again in high demand, only the supply was nonexistent. Governments had rolled out pallets of cash, which only weeks ago were prepped for destruction. The result was a massive devaluation due to a lack of faith.

With Earth’s mercs out of business—all were either wiped out, imprisoned, or fighting off-world for free—the billions of credits in taxes they provided stopped overnight. Those taxes went toward everything from the free food and other essentials provided to many of the world’s poor to providing F11 to keep fusion reactors operating. Those fusion reactors also ran hydrogen conversion plants, cracking water into hydrogen and oxygen to fuel aircraft and other vehicles.

The plane which would have been used on Jim’s flight had no hydrogen fuel. It was on an airport tarmac in France, where its crew had stopped working on it because they weren’t being paid. These same effects were trickling down throughout the world’s economy and industrial fabric.

Jim called Lieutenant Jordan from the shower using his pinplants and asked her to find a way to get him to DC—any way possible. By the time he collected Splunk and his bag to trot across the already-hot morning tarmac, she’d called back to tell him he had a seat on a maglev.

It wasn’t his favorite option. The magnetic levitation trains moved at an average of 350 kph. It was 2,250 kilometers to DC, which meant at least 6 1/2 hours. Add in stops and changes of train, and it was closer to 10 hours. His flight would have taken 90 minutes. I need to buy a private sub-orbital, I guess.

As he entered the old terminal building, he’d already checked his meeting times and reservations and confirmed Lieutenant Jordan had done her homework. He’d still arrive in time, with a massive 90 minutes to spare.

An hour in the office to finish some last-minute work—signing a few new personnel contracts and approving expenditures—and Jim was out the front door just as a flier cab was landing for him. Lieutenant Jordan was nearly running behind him as she slid the strap of his bag over his shoulder. Splunk was on the opposite shoulder, looking tired after stuffing herself with bacon, sausage, and eggs in the commissary.

Buddha ran out the door with a jug full of fruit smoothie and a small overnight bag. The back seat of the cab was crowded with the big Hawaiian and Jim jammed into it. He thought the cab’s turbines whined twice as loudly as normal during takeoff.

Buddha took a long drink of smoothie and shook his head. “A train, Jimbo? That’s going to take all day!”

“I know,” Jim sympathized.

“I had a big comfy first-class seat.” He finished off the drink. “At least tell me we have business class on the train?”

“Only coach was available,” Jim said. Buddha gave him a good dose of side-eye. “I know, and I’m sorry. With the airlines out of commission it was either the train or a dropship.”

“Showing up in an armed merc dropship probably isn’t the best way to make an impression,” Buddha mumbled.

Jim nodded in agreement. Splunk yawned widely. He noted she wasn’t wearing the “uniform” she’d worn when arriving from space. Now she had a simple piece of a light, tan material, festooned with pockets, and her ever-present utility belt. He wondered if the Dusman had tailors on staff or something.

They’d been flying for 15 minutes when Jim realized something wasn’t right. He’d been reading a response to his email in regard to the almost complete lack of law enforcement from the “mayor” of Houston. The man had been in charge of parks and recreation until a week ago and seemed to have simply appointed himself as mayor. Great.

Jim looked out the cab’s clear plastic canopy. I swear we passed over that building five minutes ago. He used his pinplants to estimate travel times from Hobby to the Jacinto City Maglev Station. The answer was ten minutes, tops. He looked up and tuned into his pilot training, incomplete though it was. One of the first things they taught you was to recognize your orientation in the air, so you didn’t crash. They were in a slow banking turn.

“Taxi, status,” he said aloud. The particular flier they’d hired didn’t have pinlinks; unfortunately they were still uncommon on Earth.

“Holding,” was the gender-neutral response.


“Sorry, that is not an answer I am authorized to provide.”

“What’s up?” Buddha asked.

“We’ve been orbiting for at least five minutes.”

Buddha frowned. “Doesn’t our train leave in twenty minutes?”

“Yeah,” Jim said and leaned out as far as he could to get his bearings. He’d spent a good part of his life in and around Houston, though he was more familiar with startown than the rest of the city. He did recognize a long series of spire-like apartments which were iconic for the Jacinto City region of Houston, then he spotted the maglev station. The tracks ran to the northwest and passed under Houston to the west. It had been a five billion credit project when it went in during his adolescent years. Which meant it took twice as long as planned to build and cost four times the price.

“At least we’re where we’re supposed to be,” Jim said. “Taxi, land here.”

“Unable to comply.”


“Unable to comply.”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake. Buddha, try and reach the cab company?” Jim asked, and pulled one of the cab’s business cards off the divider between the passenger area and the cockpit. It was stuck there with something he didn’t want to consider. Buddha took it with a shake of his head and pulled out his phone. Jim needed to get the man pinplants, but Buddha had avoided them because he was too big for the new Mk 9 CASPers, and his Mk 7 didn’t require them.

While Buddha dialed, Jim examined the situation. Like all fliers, it was made off-world. Most of them were surplus, bought cheap and modified for Earth’s environment. This one was a short-range model. Some had jet engines and could fly faster than the speed of sound. None of those were available, of course. He leaned forward and examined the cockpit. It still had a place for a pilot. Someone had wired in a slate to act as its operating interface. It appeared a competent job, so he ruled out a malfunction. He used his pinplants to take images of the slate, then enhanced them. “Network Failure.” Oh, swell. What now, orbit until you run out of power?

Jim looked around the passenger cabin as he listened to Buddha try and navigate the cab company’s robotic call center, which seemed most interested in sending a cab, and not so interested in reporting a problem. The cabin was obviously modified as well. The seats had been cut to fit and bolted in. He searched around the edges and eventually found a standard Union design interface.

“Bingo,” he said. Of course, the wireless interface had been shut off. He grabbed his bag and pulled a cable out. It was one of the nifty little ones which would conform to any recognizable pin/power format. They were expensive and illegal in the USA, for obvious reasons. He clicked it in place, and it adapted immediately. The other end of the cable was a wireless pinlink. The standard security interface appeared in his mind. Now we’re in business.

The interface was in elSha, which his translator seamlessly rendered into English. He was passable at written elSha, since it appeared in so many computer peripheral control menus. Still, since he was jerking around with a flying vehicle, better safe than very sorry.

The top level menu was encrypted. It took Jim two seconds to break the encryption. Unfortunately, instead of the original elSha written automation software, he found a kludge written by someone on Earth. He grimaced as he scanned the code, especially since he recognized the seller. God, how many people are trusting their lives to this crap?

Reworking it to allow him to take control was out of the question. One wrong deletion, and it would probably revert to manual, and the controls were on the other side of the inch-thick poly-carbon barrier. The cab might land safely—might. He quickly spotted the problem. The cab was working on an order to land at the Jacinto City Maglev Station, only the station’s landing beacon wasn’t responding. The cab had informed its central control computer, which wasn’t answering.

Jim verified the station beacon was at least on. It was. So, he overrode the hold. The cab immediately began to descend.

“Oh!” Buddha exclaimed and grabbed the arm rests.

“We’re good,” Jim said and tapped his pinplants. “I told it to land us.”

Buddha hung up his phone—he hadn’t gotten through to a living person, anyway—and looked down. Crowded streets swarmed with all manner of traffic. “On the landing pad, I hope?”

“That’s the plan,” Jim confirmed. Buddha didn’t look reassured.

As they descended out of their holding pattern, Jim could see dozens of cabs circling just like his had been. For a second, he considered hacking into the beacon control when he landed, but realized he’d likely make it worse, instead of better. He did watch carefully as the cab went into final approach, lest they land on the roof of some hapless guy’s personal flier or on people not paying attention.

The Jacinto City Maglev Station landing zone was about the size of a football field, with room for a hundred fliers. Jim needn’t have worried because only three sat there, and two were cabs waiting for outbound fares. Clearly it was a total pooch screw.

He collected the still-snoozing Splunk—she’d slept through the entire ordeal—and slid her into his duffel as Buddha climbed out. Jim authorized payment for the cab and disengaged his pinlink with its operating system. It’s For Hire light came on, so it appeared no worse for wear. Still, he’d been sure to leave no evidence of his tampering, just in case.

Jim and Buddha walked along the painted lines in the vertical parking area leading to the station offices. They had electronic tickets, thanks to Lieutenant Jordan. Good thing, too. As they passed the street access area, city buses were discharging a swarm of people all yelling and jockeying for position in line for the 50 ticket kiosks. All were occupied with long lines. As Jim and Buddha passed, a fistfight broke out.

He hoped they’d get to DC. After all, the maglevs were run with large amounts of electricity which were generated by fusion power plants. He’d spent a lot of the last couple of years off-planet; however, if things had proceeded, the US had planned to shut down the last of its coal-fired power plants in that time. He didn’t bother checking. Even a small fusion plant, like the one in his starship, Pale Rider, could provide enough power for all of Texas. Every single coal-fired plant operating in the early 21st century couldn’t replace the output of one large fusion plant.

Despite the train reservation system saying it was full, they found it half empty when they went aboard. Since their tickets didn’t include baggage check, they found three empty seats in a row for themselves. Buddha stuffed his small bag in the overhead, and Jim carefully added his own, the snoring Splunk inside, then they took advantage of the unexpected room.

Outside, the ticketing area was visible through a fence. As the time of the train’s departure got closer, the milling mob became more and more violent. Jim stopped a conductor who was walking by to ask him what was happening.

“Most of the advanced sales ticket holders haven’t shown up,” the woman explained. “Something about the bus system being unreliable? No clue. Anyway, the train management can’t release the unclaimed tickets until five minutes before departure.”

“That’s not long,” Buddha noted.

She nodded then shrugged. “There are usually only a couple dozen no-shows. We have two thousand today. What with the airlines all screwed up, it’s bad.” She moved on, leaving Buddha and Jim shaking their heads at the rapidly growing riot outside.

The five-minute mark was reached. They could see people stream from the kiosks, running toward the train. However, it only lasted for the first couple of people from each kiosk. As soon as they moved away, fights began to break out to be next. There were no carefully ordered lines; it was a scrum. It took less than a minute for the first gunshots to ring out.

Jim and Buddha scrunched down in their seats as the scrum turned into a battle. Police appeared almost immediately, so someone at the station had possessed enough forethought to see the devolving situation and summon them. He was surprised; whoever was in charge had some pull because the Houston Police were all but stood down.

As the battle developed, he saw he’d been wrong. They weren’t police; they were security contractors. It started with fists, moved to clubs in moments, and then firearms and energy weapons.

In the end, Jim heaved a sigh of relief when the train rose on a magnetic field and smoothly moved out of the station. The security fence was bowing dangerously inward as the last cars passed, and the train accelerated away.

“Holy shit,” someone said behind them. Despite not being able to see the person, Jim nodded. He looked around the compartment. Maybe another 20-odd people had gotten aboard out of the thousand empty seats the conductor mentioned and the thousands waiting outside to get in. Jim hoped the next station wasn’t a replay of what he’d just seen.

* * *

Leaving Houston, Texas, Earth

Sansar tried to get some rest as the sub-orbital shuttle skimmed the edge of space. She was largely unsuccessful. She was leaving behind everyone in the Houston operation except for Bambi and one of her hand-picked security people. They’d pick up another team in DC when they landed.

Because of the sad state of transportation in the USA, Jim Cartwright had been forced to take a maglev train for his meeting. She’d put two of her people on the train with him, then elected to just meet them in her private jet upon arrival. It gave her half a day of extra work, although it cost her any extra sleep she might have gotten in DC by arriving ahead of the meetings as originally planned.

The gang leaders, Bodya Tomlin and Katana Rich, both elected to take her up on her offer. She’d increased surveillance on the pair as well as their organization and set them lose, as promised. So far in the days since their release, they’d kept their word. She’d arranged cash deliveries to keep them happy and had given them a few minor jobs. Most had been harassing rogue mercs or gathering intel. To her surprise, they were doing okay. It would work or it wouldn’t; there was no real risk to her either way.

As for Cat Lotta and her Section 51, Sansar had exactly squat. They’d carefully bugged Cat in every way they could, and every one of those bugs went offline 60 seconds after they’d let her go. It would have been more useful to put a tail on a Goka in a Tijuana buffet. Maybe if some of the Horde’s orbital intel assets were still available…but none of them had survived the war.

She’d first heard about Section 51 after the Peacemaker truce. Both Jim Cartwright and Alexis had encounters with a person Sansar’s own intel had pegged as an Earth Republic intelligence officer. The woman had gone by the name Adayn Christopher while undercover in Cartwright’s Cavaliers. She’d been spying on Jim Cartwright and reporting to her bosses. Sansar signed off on blowing the woman’s cover, and they revealed her real identity of Captain Adrianne McKenzie to Jim just before the war started.

All their data indicated she was an officer for EDI, the Earth Defense Intelligence Service. Sansar read through the data before getting on her flight and realized it was all just as fake as Cat Lotta’s story. Carefully constructed, painstakingly backed up, and a complete fabrication. She’d made a call to a contact in EDI and verified; there was no Adrianne McKenzie, nor had there ever been. Nobody had made such a call when they’d first outed her; it hadn’t seemed necessary.

There was nothing on Section 51 in the Horde’s records. She wanted to pretend it was nothing—smoke and mirrors by some solo operative—only the appearance of Cat Lotta ruined the whole idea. Their impressive technology added a level of concern for her and helped her reach a difficult conclusion. An incredibly powerful, well-equipped, and well-funded intelligence organization existed on Earth. One she’d known nothing about until only a few days ago.

Many years ago, she’d been stuck recovering from an injury and, like many people, spent the bedridden time watching old movies. Considering her lifestyle, it wasn’t a surprise she ended up watching the James Bond series of films. After all, there were 36 of them. The old ones were pretty primitive in the special effects shots and the newer ones were full of identity politics. Still, they were fun.

She was reminded of the revelation of Spectre’s existence. A huge intelligence organization unknown to MI6, which supposedly was the most well-connected, equipped, and manned intelligence organization on the planet. She snorted at that. Not in my lifetime. Anyway, MI6 was caught completely off guard by Spectre. It was everywhere, had moles inside MI6, was well-funded with uber-tech, and led by the super-genius Blofeld.

What she didn’t know was if Section 51 was on her side, someone else’s side, or their own side entirely. If she had to guess, she’d guess their own side. Only, if that were the case, why risk their operative to save both Jim Cartwright and Alexis Cromwell? Risk her as an asset and risk their operation being uncovered. Which is exactly what they’ve done. More than uncovered, they’ve been naming themselves. Suddenly, it felt less like Section 51 was being uncovered, than Section 51 was coming out.

“Beginning reentry,” her pilot said over the cabin intercom.

Sansar checked her straps to be sure they were still secured and relaxed as the Gs began to build. In a few minutes they would be landing at Washington, DC, and the game would begin in earnest. Would Section 51 be there as well?

* * *

Arlington, Virginia, Earth

Jim and Buddha exited the Ballston maglev station. It had been converted years ago to act as both the district’s maglev arrival point and a metro rail station. A feasibility study showed it was impractical to put a maglev station within the boundaries of DC, so it was in Arlington instead.

By the time they’d arrived, all the empty seats had been filled from the eight stops along the route. The ripples in fuel and labor shortages were spreading all over the former nation and the world, but they were less obvious here since it was the center of the US government. Airlines were doing their best to keep certain cities as operational destinations. Houston obviously wasn’t one of them.

The landing zone for fliers was on the top of a multi-level cabstand. Jim looked up at the line to the roof and scowled. Instead, he went with Buddha to one of the regular cab lines and was riding along the Curtis Memorial Parkway toward the district only minutes later. It was even an extra-large cab.

“This is nice,” Buddha said as the automatic ground cab maneuvered into the HOV lane. As it was mid-afternoon, the traffic wasn’t terrible. A lot of Jim’s itinerary would depend on the various world leaders who were attending—it was an informal discussion, after all—so he used some of the time during the drive to watch the local news.

He could have used his pinplants on the universal wi-fi available in the DC area. Instead, he turned on the cab’s little Tri-V so Buddha could see as well. Immediately, he was watching a news report of a disturbance at the airport. Glad we didn’t land there after all. There were hundreds of people carrying signs and screaming. Jim narrowed his eyes as he looked at the signs.

“Down With Mercs!” “Make Them Pay!” “Outlaw Mercs!” “They Did This!”

“Oh, shit,” Buddha said.

“Yeah,” Jim agreed. He listened to the commentator.

“This crowd has been waiting for the arrival of Jim Cartwright, commander of one of the Four Horsemen units, who is rumored to be arriving today for a secret meeting with unknown parties. As you can see, they’re upset about the mercs and how they’ve already brought one war to Earth—”

Jim cut the Tri-V with a wave of his hand and a curse under his breath. There had always been a nasty undertone of hatred and resentment toward mercs on Earth, despite all the money they brought in. It looked like someone had weaponized it and aimed it at him.

“Why do they want to get you, Jimbo?” Buddha asked.

“I wish I knew,” he replied. “I’m just glad the plane didn’t work out after all.”

The cab dropped them at the main entrance to the small conference center Jim had arranged. No protestors there, so he knew the leaders weren’t the ones who caused the situation. It made no sense for them to get caught in the same net, which instantly made him doubt his conclusion.

They walked up the steps of the conference center. The old capital building was visible less than a mile away. It looked almost forlorn sitting there. A hundred years ago, when the US had joined the signatories to join the Galactic Union, it had become much less important. As the Earth Republic took on more and more responsibility, the capital became less and less used.

Jim had seen news reports in Houston about the US representatives trying to figure out how to deal with the Earth Republic collapsing. It was mostly arguing; little work was getting accomplished. The press was enjoying every moment of it. He decided getting off the street as quickly as possible was a good idea, even though they were in one of more than a dozen little conference centers.

Inside, he met the manager, who looked flustered. “We were not expecting your meeting to be controversial,” the man complained.

“How would it be controversial?” Jim asked.

The man looked pained. “The protests,” he said, making helpless gestures. “Against mercs…”

“So what?” Jim said.

“I’m concerned for my facility, of course.”

“We have a contract,” Jim said. Buddha came up behind him and the manager spotted him, his eyes going wide. “It would cost me extra money. You wouldn’t want to disappoint my financial manager,” Jim said, glancing at Buddha. “Would you?”

“No,” the man squeaked. “I was just concerned. I hope you understand?”

“Oh, completely,” Jim said. He pulled out his slate. “Now, could you please share the list of guests who’ve arrived?”

Jim was impressed—everyone who’d RSVPed was there. He checked his slate for personal communications from his other guests. He nodded his head in satisfaction. So far, so good. He gave the manager some instructions and pulled Buddha aside.

“I’m beginning to think the manager is the one who called the press.”

“Why would he endanger his own business?” Buddha wondered.

“He didn’t think there would be problems here,” Jim reminded him. “He expected the trouble to happen at the airport.”

“Oh hell, you’re right!”

“Either he was involved, or he’s the source of the leak. I think he’s involved.”

“What do we do?”

“Nothing,” Jim said and shrugged. “The leaders all have their own security, and we’ve got ours. The conference center has its own hotel. We go forward.”

* * *

Like the process leading up to the meeting, the other Horsemen had helped Jim extensively to put his plans into motion. Nigel’s insights into the political realities of the Middle East were vital. After fusion power and electric/hydrogen-powered vehicles gutted the oil industry, that area of the world went largely quiet. Without trillions of dollars flowing in to foment rage and revenge, nobody cared as much. Everything settled down to quiet desperation and poverty. Only roughly half their number had backed the Earth Republic’s formation, and they were now eager for a seat at the table.

Alexis helped give Jim a better picture of how interstellar commerce worked in all its varying glory…and how Earth had been largely left out of it to the current day. “Believe it or not, mercs are less than one percent of the galactic economy,” she’d told him. While the statement made perfect sense, Jim was still surprised when confronted with it. She gave him a much better picture of Earth’s potential in the galaxy.

Finally, Sansar helped him put together a comprehensive defense scheme. Earth had been conquered with laughable ease for one simple reason—humanity had taken no interest in defending itself. After the Alpha Contracts more than 100 years ago, Earth’s superpowers had sacrificed their ability to project power. All they maintained were nuclear deterrence and the equivalent of National Guard units. The mercs wielded far more firepower, and with starships, they could deploy it quickly.

Between Alexis and Sansar, they’d developed a comprehensive, layered defense plan for Earth. All told, he had five gigabytes of notes, slides, and recordings on his pinplants, which were duplicated on his slate. Considering how little space each file took up, it was a lot of files. Jim decided against any large, shiny Tri-V presentations because the conference center lacked a big Tri-V system. The DC area had facilities with the capability to present them, but renting one would have drawn immediate attention to his plans.

More attention than I’ve already drawn.

The rather reluctant facility manager led Buddha and Jim into the auditorium they had rented. At 500 seats, it was indeed one of the smaller locations in the Baltimore/Arlington area. It was designed off an amphitheater layout, with a medium-sized stage and seats laid out in a 90-degree arc climbing to a height of around ten meters above the stage. It matched the literature Lieutenant Jordan emailed him.

“Your guests are in the adjoining meeting rooms having appetizers and drinks as instructed,” the manager said. “Please inform my staff when you wish them to enter.”

“And the other guests?”

“They’re in the bar.”

Jim grinned and nodded. “Where else would they be?” The manager gave him a pained look as Jim walked onto the stage and looked over the wireless presentation suite. It was good enough for him to link to with his pinplants, so he did and began running display tests.

Buddha stood and watched Jim look one way and bring up an image on one of the big flat panel displays, then look another direction and do so again. Jim guessed it had a somewhat mystical look about it, making things appear by only looking at the displays. For his part, Jim felt pretty uncomfortable in his brand-new dress uniform. It was patterned off the US Army dress uniform from the 21st century, only without as much brass. The uniform sported merc qualification ribbons on his chest and golden eagles on his shoulders. Buddha looked almost as uncomfortable with the silver oak leaves on his shoulders.

About halfway through the setup, Splunk yawned and finally woke up. Jim had set his bag down at the edge of the stage, and her big blue-on-blue eyes were staring at him. “You finally awake?”

“Yes, <Skee!>” she replied and yawned. Her head disappeared and came back up with a big meat stick, which she promptly unwrapped and started munching.

She eats more than I do. Jim tried to remember when he last ate. Five hours ago on the maglev? He went over to the bag and grabbed a couple of the meat sticks. Splunk gave him the evil eye. “There’re plenty,” he said. She still scowled as he started to eat one. “Buddha? I think we’re ready. You want to go tell our reluctant host to start letting in the guests?”

“You bet, Jimbo.”

Jim nodded and linked his pinplants with the audio system. A generic inspirational soundtrack played over the speakers as he waited. A minute later, the doors opened, and people started filing in.

* * *

It only took five minutes for all the guests to find seats. Jim had placed four tiny cameras at the corners of the stage to give him a better view of the entire auditorium. Most of the representatives had assistants, as was allowed by his invitation. All appeared curious and interested.

He counted a total of 322 heads using his pinplants. With 145 invites and two each, it meant more than a few brought a third in addition to a second. He didn’t have any issues with it; that was why he’d picked a venue big enough for all of them to bring two. It looked like a few might be spouses; others were obviously bodyguards pretending to be diplomatic types.

They sat in groups, mostly. A lot of those from Europe knew each other, of course, as did those in attendance from Africa, South America, and Asia. The tiny number of Middle East leaders who’d been part of the Republic all kept to themselves and eyed each other suspiciously. Once everyone had found a seat, Jim triggered the lights to dim and the music to fade. What little conversation had been going on also faded.

“Welcome,” he said. His voice was broadcast from his pinplants, but he moved his mouth along as well, just to keep from weirding anyone out. “Thank you for coming. I am Colonel Jim Cartwright, commander and CEO of Cartwright’s Cavaliers. I represent the Four Horsemen in this discussion.” There was a round of hesitant but polite applause. Jim began his multimedia display.

“Attending today are 145 of the 150 members of the former Earth Republic.” There was a mumble from the crowd, which he’d been expecting. “Yes, I did say former. Please have no doubt, the Earth Republic is dead. General Peepo, along with the Mercenary Guild and various entities on our own planet, made sure of that. Nobody will ever again trust it, depend on it, or owe allegiance to it. Frankly, I don’t think anyone ever did in the first place.” This time a murmur of agreement swept through the crowd.

“The passing of the Earth Republic has brought us together, here. What we need to talk about is multi-fold. Like, how did this happen? What went wrong, and how can we avoid it again?”

“You mean what did you do wrong, don’t you?”

Thanks to his pinplants and the cameras, Jim could see and identify anyone who spoke. The speaker was Tamara Tremblay, the current Prime Minister of Canada. The man seated next to her was Arnold Martin, her Minister of Foreign Affairs. He nodded once and looked at Jim.

“No, I mean we, madam Prime Minister. The Horsemen, and mercs in general, share a good deal of the blame. Complacency was a big part of it. Ego another part. And probably greed was in there, too. However, greed and complacency were also to blame for the governments’ side of this fiasco.”

There were grumbles from the crowd, and several made dismissive gestures. Jim brought a graph onto one of the side displays. “Don’t agree? This is the chart of the tax burdens your countries levy against the incomes of mercs. The lowest is two percent in Argentina.” He looked at that country’s leader. “The only thing that kept your nation from being a prospering hub of merc activity was that you added a yearly licensing fee of 5,000 GCU per company in each unit.” Argentina’s president looked away.

“Moving on, we have the middle of the road with Mexico, the former EU, and Australia adding on five percent, Canada nine percent, and my own home country—the United States—tacking on a sweet nine and a half percent. This is, of course, in addition to the fifty percent Earth Republic tax bill.”

“You could afford it,” Prime Minister Tremblay complained.

“Cartwright’s? Oh, sure, we afforded it. It helped that we could invest a lot off-world before it ever got here. You all hadn’t quite figured out how to take money from us before we landed back home. The Horsemen were always prosperous, and largely thanks to our early successes, we’d amassed fortunes even punitive taxes couldn’t do more than whittle away at.

“Now, smaller companies, that’s a different matter. Some moved off-world to avoid the tax bill, others paid up and struggled. Taking home a million credits on a contract only to have it taxed at fifty-five percent or more when they got home hurt. It hurt a lot. Especially when the Earth Republic ruled death benefits were not a valid deduction. The harder the contract we had, the worse it effected our bottom line. We paid in blood for the money we brought back, only to sometimes make zero profit because of that little rule.”

Jim took a break and looked around to get the feel of the audience. Using the cameras, he saw everything from sneers to uncomfortable expressions. He carefully noted which were which. After he’d gotten a good assessment, he adjusted his presentation. It took less than two seconds.

“Still, this is water under the bridge. We probably could have stumbled along with the status quo for a long, long time. That is, until the Mercenary Guild decided we were no longer to be trusted on our own.”

“Whose fault is that?”

This time the speaker was Arnold Brewster, the Chancellor of Germany.

“You know? We still don’t know all of that. It’s part of why Colonel Cromwell and Colonel Shirazi are on Capital Planet—to get those answers. Opinions among us mercs vary. Some think it’s because we’ve been too successful. But if you examine the facts, we’re just not that successful. Some say it’s because we’ve pissed off too many powerful aliens. I don’t buy that one either. What we do know is the entire operation was run by the Veetanho, and it had the tacit backing of the Mercenary Guild Council.

“We’ve been accused of breaking rules, and there’s some truth there. But when you add it all up, more rules were broken to get us to break the rules than we actually ended up breaking in the end. Whatever we might have done, did it call for bioweapons to be released on Earth? Thousands of Human mercs to be slaughtered off-world? How about all our colonies invaded?” Most of them shook their heads, although a few didn’t respond; they just watched and listened.

“Since we don’t yet know why it happened, we have to move to how. The simple fact is we allowed it to happen, which goes back to my mention of complacency. Your governments all happily took the credits we provided and did nothing to prepare for a possible invasion.”

There was a mini uproar over his statement. Too many were speaking to identify them all. He’d more or less expected it. It was mostly the bigger countries, and many were saying it was the mercs’ job.

“It was our job to defend Earth?” Jim asked. The representatives replied with shouts of “yes.” “So, you are saying you taxed us fifty percent or more of our incomes and expected us to defend the planet as well?” He could clearly see a lot of them were taken aback. However, he was more than a little annoyed to see some nodding in agreement at the ludicrous question.

“You know what? We would have. In fact, we did. We lost thousands retaking the planet, or nearly retaking it before the Peacemakers stepped in. However, there would never have been a war if we weren’t sitting ducks. You wanted us to defend the planet? Maybe a little help would have been in order. At least we should have talked about it!” Jim yelled the last because all the agitators were standing, trying to speak over him. Unfortunately for them, he had a powerful PA system, and they lost.

“Sit. Down,” he yelled in his command voice. They did, some slower than others. “I will say it again; we all bear responsibility for this fiasco. Honestly, none of the Horsemen expected an invasion either.” Except Sansar with her dreams, anyway. He didn’t say that out loud.

“So, on top of the Earth Republic being gone, the old ways of mercs doing business on Earth are over with as well. One of two things is going to happen. One, the Republic will be reformed into something we mercs agree with, and we’ll do it together for all mankind’s benefit. Or two, we’re leaving.”

* * * * *

Chapter Four

West Potomac Convention Center, Washington DC

“This all of them?” Sansar asked.

“All we could sweep up,” the dark-skinned Horde agent replied. She didn’t get his name and didn’t need it. The DC team leader’s code name was Lecter, and Bambi had double-checked all the security encryptions prior to their linking up. She’d had them institute an additional level of verification after one of her teams walked into an ambush in Sarajevo.

Sansar examined the two men and a Veetanho with a sneer as they stood in the filthy washroom of a sub-basement in the West Potomac Convention Center where, a dozen stories above them, Jim Cartwright was meeting with many of the world’s leaders. “In Washington, DC?” she asked them. “This used to be the capital of the most powerful nation on Earth.”

“Not anymore,” one of the men said. The other laughed while the Veetanho just stared daggers at Sansar.

“How many teams like this do you have here?” she asked the rat, who continued to stare at her. Sansar bent over and looked at the alien closer. A tiny metallic gleam on the side of her head showed she possessed pinplants. “Bambi, ship this one back to Houston. Turn her over to psych and see how good her pinplant firmware is.”

The Veetanho’s jaw dropped. “You wouldn’t dare.”

Sansar laughed. “You have no idea what I would do after what Peepo did here. Do you know how many of my Horde died because of your people?” The alien did her best to conceal a tiny smirk. Sansar felt an almost overwhelming urge to pull her laser pistol and cook the rat’s brain. The three prisoners stood in front of a tile wall. A floor drain was below them. Easy cleanup. Six of the DC team were arrayed around them. No weapons were drawn. None were needed at the moment. With an effort, she controlled herself.

This was the first of Peepo’s little presents they’d managed to catch. She’d known, with the same level of certainty as the sun rising tomorrow, that Peepo had left all kinds of sleeper agents or cells in order to pick up later where she’d left off. She almost wished they’d let Nigel go full berserker and kill the damned slippery rat. Blue Sky above, did she ever wish. Well, at least they had one now. “Get her out of here.”

A pair of the local team took the Veetanho away, leaving Sansar with the two men. Both were white, clean cut, and wearing expensive but not over-the-top suits. They were probably between 30 and 45, average height with slightly muscular builds. In other words, perfect for undercover agents. They also had the demeanor of trained killers.

“Why are you working for those alien scum?” she asked one of them. It didn’t matter which at that point.

“Pay’s good.”

Sansar felt her jaw muscles bunch. She calmed herself and continued. “So that’s it? You betrayed your own race for a paycheck?”

“Never fight for the losing side,” the other said.

Ah, there we are. “Seems that’s exactly what you’re doing.”

“You have no clue how many of them are—” The second one was cut off when the first one gave him a sideways kick to the ankle. He glared at his partner.

Good, progress. “Give me a good reason why I shouldn’t kill you both and drop your bodies into the Potomac.”

The first one’s jaw clamped, and tendons stood out on his neck. She’d seen the expression a thousand times before—he was ready to die. The second one, on the other hand, started to sweat. It was the confirmation she needed. “Get rid of hero here,” she said, and tossed her head at the leader. Bambi gave her a raised eyebrow, and she nodded. Two more agents took him away. Nobody would ever see him again.

Now it was just her, the sweating second man, Bambi, and the two remaining security men from the DC team, including the dark-skinned operative who’d brought her the prizes. “Why don’t we talk?” she said to the man. Chairs and a little table were brought in by people who then left. The security team moved back by the door, and Bambi leaned against a wall and pretended to be interested in her slate.

“I won’t talk,” he said as he looked at the chair suspiciously.

“The chair isn’t poisoned,” she said and winked. “I promise.” She sat in one of the chairs and looked at him pointedly. After another second’s hesitation, he sat as well. “See how easy that is? Thirsty, hungry? I’m a tea person myself.” As if on cue, a person came in with a tray. On it was a carafe of hot water, tea, coffee—instant—various things to put in them, and two cups. “Help yourself to a cup, so you know we’re not playing games.”

He hesitated again. Sansar had played this game countless times. He was battling his Human nature, which was to accept the offering, because it suggested he retained a level of self-control. His nature won, though, and he took the cup closest to Sansar. She smiled inwardly because his choice was also the most common by far.

She poured herself some hot water and added a sachet of black tea. He did likewise but chose a packet of coffee. They sat quietly while their drinks steeped. She poured some cream into hers from a disposable packet; the man added sugar to his. He kept glancing at her and at his drink, his hand shaking slightly as he sipped the beverage.

“I’m Sansar Enkh,” she said.

He gave a slight start at her words. “I know who you are.”

“Can I know your name?”

“Derrell Thompson.”

“Okay, Derrell. Here’s the thing. We’re trying to keep the planet from becoming slaves to the Mercenary Guild. The Veetanho in particular, like the one you were working for.”

“We won’t be slaves,” Derrell insisted.

“You mean you and your cohort? Oh, that’s lovely you think so. Do you know the Veetanho have many races already enslaved? Or effectively enslaved?” He looked confused. “Yeah, we don’t know all the details, but the Tortantula and Flatar are two. They’re effectively owned by the Veetanho and have been for a very long time. It’s what they do. We, the Horsemen, think we’re next on the list.”

“They said it was for our own good,” he said.

“Totalitarians and dictators have said that throughout all time,” Sansar said. “It’s the most common thing to say to a slave.”

At the last, he looked away again and blushed slightly.

“I know, it’s hard to hear. Unfortunately, it’s also true.” She sipped her tea. “Derrell, what was your mission?”

He looked away again and sighed. “We were going to kill Jim Cartwright.”

As I suspected, based on where we found you. “How were you going to do it? You were apprehended unarmed.”

“Afeela said she would take care of it.”

“The Veetanho,” she said, not a question. He nodded. She sent a message to Bambi. “Search the sub-basement for any signs of cached weapons, and have another team search the reception hall being set up after Jim’s presentation completes.”

“On it,” she replied immediately, and left.

Sansar looked back at Derrell and opened her mouth to say something, but nothing came out. She jerked slightly, and the world fell away.

Jim Cartwright was moving among the world delegates, shaking a hand here, patting someone on the shoulder there. He was smiling hugely at his success. Everyone who looked at him either had a respectful look on their face or a considering one. He’d become a true leader.

A Veetanho suddenly stepped out of a side doorway and spoke. “Congratulations, Jim Cartwright!”

“What are you doing here?” Jim demanded.

“I bring a present from General Peepo,” the Veetanho said. Two men entered behind her and stepped toward Jim. A pair of mercs moved into a protective position, and they held up their hands to show they were unarmed. Nobody noticed the Veetanho had backed out the way she’d come in.

“What do you men want?” Jim asked. A second later, they exploded.

Sansar came to her senses with a jerk, pushing back slightly from the table, her eyes wide in shock. Derrell looked at her, alarm on his face. Sansar spun out of the chair and ran from the room. “Lock him in!” she cried, then accessed her pinplants.

“The team who has the Veetanho, kill her! Right now!” She waited on the other side of the heavy metal door, breathing hard and praying. After a minute, a response came over her pinplants.

“She’s dead, Colonel.”

“Search her.”

“We did when she was apprehended, ma’am.”

“Again! This time use medical sensors. I need a team in here to look over the prisoner I was interrogating.”

An hour later she was again drinking a cup of tea. She’d finally stopped shaking as the adrenaline wore off. Bambi came in and set a slate on the table next to her. “What does it say?” Sansar asked.

“Both men had a kilo and a half of K2 embedded in their abdomens. Detonators were hidden in their feet with microwire attachments. Damned near impossible to detect. Neither remember having surgery. We can’t find any incision marks or scars, either.”

“Wrogul,” Sansar said.

“Sorry?” Bambi asked.

“Wrogul. They are cephalopod aliens who look a lot like octopi, only they can perform a form of psychic surgery. Doesn’t leave any scars.” Bambi nodded in comprehension. “What about the Veetanho?”

“There was an addition to her pinplants—a miniature, single-use transmitter.” Beth looked at her and shook her head. “Damn, how did you know?”

“I had a dream, only I was awake. It felt like…” She trailed off because she didn’t know how to explain it. She’d had prophetic dreams all her life. Sometimes they came true, sometimes they didn’t. The most recent was a dream about Alexis Cromwell being pregnant with Nigel Shirazi’s child. It proved true, though she was actually pregnant with twins. Sansar hadn’t seen two babies, only one—the boy. That one had also hit her while she was awake.

This new aspect of her gift—or curse, as the case may be—was worrisome. Although it had probably just saved her life, if it happened when she needed her full attention, it would be bad.

“Tell the DC teams to start sweeping for any Veetanho. Blue Sky above, I want a report on every alien in the district. They want Jim Cartwright dead badly enough to use suicide bombers.”

Bambi nodded and started issuing orders. “How is Darrell?”

“When we found and disarmed the bomb, it triggered a neurotoxin. He was dead in seconds.”

Sansar sighed and dropped the slate on the table. Things had just taken a dangerous turn for the worst.

* * *

West Potomac Convention Center, Washington DC

“You’d just leave? That’s it?” The demand came from Chancellor Brewster. Others yelled their own demands for an explanation.

“Without a doubt. Why would we stay where we aren’t wanted? We’ve already talked with a number of Human colonies. All are more than happy to host mercs, especially after we liberated them during the war. Furthermore, they’ve agreed to a ten percent flat tax on merc income, allowing for normal business deductions as well.” The audience was outraged, gob smacked, and, frankly, flabbergasted.

“They can’t do that!” yelled the president of France, Michelle De Gaulle.

“Oh, can’t they? Per the Articles of Republic, colonies are free to administer themselves in whatever way they deem fit as long as a one percent tax is paid to the Earth Republic. However, in the articles, it is stated the Republic will protect and nurture the colonies. A lot of lives were lost during the war, and the only help they got was from us.”

Jim grinned as he played his hand. It was half bluff, after all. There hadn’t been time to approach the colonies on the idea of moving all the Human mercs to them. But he was relatively certain they’d go for it, though maybe it would take more than 10%. Of course, he was right about Earth not lifting a finger to help them. He didn’t tell the representatives, but regardless of the outcome of the meeting, many units had already decided to relocate. Who could blame them? It had also given Jim the idea to threaten a general relocation.

“What do you want?” Minister Martin from Canada asked.

“We want an end to the foolish way in which this planet has administered itself.” He triggered another display sequence. “Over the course of the next five years, Earth will embark on a program of military spending. This includes the creation of ten divisions of CASPer-qualified and equipped forces.”

“CASPers are illegal for use on Earth,” Andre Tupolev, the Russian Federation president complained.

“That law will be stricken,” Jim said with a dismissive gesture. “As I was saying, ten divisions of CASPer-equipped forces, along with the air-breathing and orbital assets required to allow the rapid deployment of same. A series of planet-wide ground- and orbit-based layered defenses, as designed by the Golden Horde. A space navy, starting with an infrastructure of non-hyperspace capable gunboats and growing to include a properly designed fleet of no less than 100 warships by the end of the five-year period.”

Prime Minister Tremblay laughed and shook his head. “How do you expect us to do all of that? Earth doesn’t have a tenth the industrial capability to produce ships on that scale.”

“No, you don’t, and that is pathetic. However, Alexis Cromwell is having one of her orbital-class manufactories moved to Sol on semi-permanent loan. In addition, she’s agreed to manufacture your ships—at cost. Binnig will offer a special contract for production of the CASPers with a one percent profit margin written in. They’ll also service and provide parts contracts at the same profit on the condition that redlined or outdated CASPer are only sold back to them, not as surplus.”

“We’ll have to increase taxes, not decrease them,” complained one of the leaders from France, one of the nations with three representatives.

“No, you won’t,” Jim said. “Using the manufactory, we’ll create more manufactories or buy some. The Galactic Union has been experiencing a general shortage of both food stuffs, general machine tools, and certain consumables Earth has available in quantity. Being a merc is good money, but it’s a fraction of what can be made in manufacturing and trade.

“The Buma said when they came here as representatives of the Trade Guild that we didn’t have anything to offer except raw materials. They said it because we were a primitive, backward society with a technology level below the median of the rest of the Galactic Union. Well, that was 100 years ago. Now, our education is better—one of the few things you spent some of the credits we made on that actually made sense. What we don’t have is the infrastructure.

“We’ll see that Earth gets the infrastructure. We’re going to move the planet from an economy of consumers to one of builders. The result will be a prosperous, hardworking, and well-defended Human sphere in the Galactic Union that nobody will want to mess with. You don’t attack merc races because they’re fighters. They won’t attack Earth because we’re fighters, and we make their cars.”

Jim scanned the room again. Fully half of those present were nodding or obviously thinking his words over. They should—he was offering them a hell of a lot. Alexis hadn’t wanted to let go of one of her manufactories. She’d lost a lot of ships, and it took weeks for a manufactory to make a ship. He understood she had five of them, so lending one took away 20% of her production capabilities. Volunteering to make ships for Earth was a big reduction.

“And what if the people don’t want to work?” This time it was the president of India, Sanjay Agarwi. “They are used to having their needs taken care of.”

“Well, then they have a problem, because the gravy train just left the station.”

There was some outraged banter from an increasingly small number of representatives. They could see the tide was shifting. A lot of them were rich from their salaries or represented families who’d grown wealthy thanks to the merc trade. Wasn’t a cut better than a decapitation?

“I notice the President of the United States isn’t here,” Tremblay said.

Jim grinned. “You are correct. However, there is a representative here. I’d like to introduce you to Samantha Collins.” An older woman walked onto the stage. A few of the world leaders remarked the obvious. “Yes, Mrs. Collins is the governor of Texas. However, as of this morning, she is the President of the Republic of Texas. They have seceded from the United States.”

More yells of consternation. Jim raised his hands and continued. “Oh, don’t worry, there won’t be a war like the last time. You see, the US doesn’t have much of a military. Furthermore, the Horsemen have already recognized the new country. This is Eric Stahl, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and Yosef Mizrah, the Israeli Prime Minister, and they have also recognized the Republic of Texas.

“Neither were signatories to the Articles of Republic. They didn’t much like the way things were shaping up. I’ve been talking to them for a few days, and they helped me with some of the planning. They have already signed on as the second and third nation in the Terran Federation. Its capital will be Houston in the Texas Republic, its financial center will be in London, and the Federation court will be in Jerusalem.”

Despite the noise level, Jim kept talking. He had the public address system, after all. “There are a few more conditions. In particular, after ten years, any representatives a nation sends to the Federation parliament must have either served a minimum of five years in their nation’s armed forces, ten years in their equivalent of service corps—something which will also be formed—or have completed five contracts off-world in a registered merc company.

“All taxes collected by the Federation from off-world trade, including merc contracts, will be shared evenly based on a calculation of population, industrial capabilities, and number of mercs serving or forces provided to the Federation military. Nations cannot pass laws which interfere with off-world trade, except as approved by the Federation parliament. There are also a few other little items we can go over in detail later.”

Jim smacked his hands together. “Now, who’s interested in joining the Federation?” At least 50 hands went up immediately. He smiled.

* * *

West Potomac Convention Center, Washington DC

After the initial presentation, attendees were given the chance to express their interest and Jim had them adjourn to a large meeting hall. It was filled with tables, which allowed groups to form, discuss, and reform. The documents they were presented were in a form somewhat like the US Constitution, which had been worked out between President Collins, Prime Minister Mizrah, and Prime Minister Stahl. Guarantees of the rights of the citizens, restrictions on the government’s ability to interfere with its citizens, requirements to hold offices as detailed by Jim, and more. It was a rough draft with lots of room for improvements and modifications, which was exactly what the attendees set about doing.

He’d known when he started the process that if he could get them working together—to make the process their own—they’d become invested. He went from table to table, providing input, showing his face, asking questions, and generally watching. He was just leaving a table where most of the old EU was represented when he turned to see Prime Minister Tremblay and her foreign minister.

“I know what you are trying to do here, Mr. Cartwright,” Tremblay said.

“What precisely is that, Prime Minister?”

“You are trying to set up yourself and your so-called Four Horsemen as dictators.”

Jim laughed out loud, surprising the Prime Minister and her foreign minister. “Prime Minister, Alexis Cromwell already has her own world, and she invited the Horsemen to relocate there. She might be dissatisfied with Earth, but I am not. I grew up on this planet and don’t want to abandon it.”

“Then why did you purposely leave your own country out of the process? In fact, you helped carve out a little piece of it, just so your home is not under their control.”

“That’s a complicated subject,” Jim said. “Let’s just say the United States had the biggest hand in the creation of the Earth Republic, and the rot started at the center. When aliens took over the planet, all my fellow countrymen were concerned with was whether the freebies would continue to flow. Under the calculation of tax distribution I helped create, the USA would be far down the list for the payment of off-world generated revenue, because our industry has been decimated.”

“And how does Canada fare?” Martin demanded.

Jim smiled. “Not much better, I’m sad to say. But who do you have to blame for that? If you will excuse me…” Jim extracted himself and moved toward a door. Buddha had come in and waved to get his attention. Splunk, who’d been pirating hors d’oeuvres from a tray, trotted along a table to intercept him. Several of the guests exclaimed and pointed as she went by, one hand laden with pieces of meat.

“What about all the aliens, Mr. Cartwright?” Martin called after him.

“Later,” Jim replied. “And it’s Colonel Cartwright to you, ma’am.” He reached the door. “Yeah?”

“They’re here, Jimbo,” Buddha said and shook his head. “They look annoyed.” Splunk leaped and landed on Jim’s shoulder.

“You’ve met Nigel. When don’t people from that area of the world look annoyed?”

“When they’re killing someone,” Buddha mumbled under his breath.

Jim snorted and went out the door Buddha had entered through. A short hallway led to one of a dozen small meeting rooms he’d had set up with tables, chairs, water, and snacks. Inside, he found the eight leaders of the Middle Eastern nations who had not signed to join the Republic.

The leaders of Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Palestine, Yemen, and Oman all looked at him with suspicion. In the other rooms, Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Cyprus were already present. He sighed; this would be difficult.

“Gentlemen,” Jim said. “As-salamu alaykum.” Many of them smiled and nodded, a couple scowled deeper—those being the leaders of Palestine, Syria, and Jordan. “Thank you for coming.”

“So, you are making another Republic,” the leader of the Palestinian group, a particularly angry man named Abboud, said.

“Not even close,” Jim countered. “The new entity is known as the Federation, and, unlike the Republic, you will not be answering to its direct authority. Rather, the Federation is mostly interested in off-world interests.”

“So, it cannot pass laws we must follow?” the Saudi prince, representing his father, asked.

“I didn’t say that,” Jim said, raising a finger. “We have responsibilities to all mankind, which must be addressed for our betterment.” There were grumbles at that. “However, religion, gentlemen, is not my, or the Federation’s, concern.”

“The aliens are all godless barbarians,” Abboud spat. The other leaders either applauded or nodded. They were unified on this, at least. Of course, they were all Muslim.

“There are many religions among the aliens of the galaxy,” Jim pointed out. Though less than you would think. Interesting, that.

“There is but one god, Allah!” Cypress yelled.

“Allâhu akbar,” they all said.

“Of this I am sure,” Jim said. It was as close as he could get to agreeing, without actually agreeing. “However, if you follow that particular road in dealing with the Galactic Union, you will find yourself in exactly the same place Iran ended up.”

The room was deadly quiet, and for a minute he was afraid he’d overplayed his hand. Bringing up the glassing of Iran by the MinSha after their state-sponsored terrorist attack on the UN was still probably a sore spot with them. Of course, Iran waited until the vote had left the Middle Eastern oil-producing nation by the side of the highway of history before setting off the bomb. Several stood and made like they were going to leave. Jim panicked.

“I would like to hear what he has to say.” The man who’d spoken was Eric Antoun, the president of Egypt. His nation was the most powerful of the assembled group. The others looked at him.

“What can this infidel say which would matter to us?” Abboud demanded of Antoun.

“If you do not listen, you will never know.” The others slowly sat back down, leaving Abboud by himself. He seemed to consider leaving, then sat with as much flourish as he could manage, making it look like he was doing everyone else a favor by not leaving.

“Thank you,” Jim said to them all, and gave Antoun a slight nod of respect. The man inclined his head back in reply, then gestured for Jim to continue. “Obviously, the arrival of the Galactic Union didn’t serve your nations well. For many years, you were gifted with vast reserves of oil and it made you prosperous. It also created a lot of suffering.”

“You western infidels stole much of that wealth,” Abboud growled.

“Esket ya kelb,” Antoun snapped. Jim’s translator said it roughly meant, “Shut up, Zuul.” Zuul? Maybe dog? The others all chuckled, and Abboud’s face grew red. “What part about shut up and listen for a minute didn’t you understand?”

Jim pressed on. “When the oil value crashed because global power shifted to fusion, or electric/hydrogen as it were, your economies largely tanked. This shouldn’t have happened. Not the shift from fossil fuels, but your economy.” He used his pinplants to activate the sole display in the room. On it was a stock image of a free trader, a type of spaceship specializing in moving small cargoes around the galaxy. Next to it, boxes with goods began to appear.

“The civilizations of the galaxy are willing to pay for goods in bulk. Those are transported in massive ships known as Behemoths. We’ve never seen one come here, though that too might change. Smaller goods are highly valued as well, and free traders like this one carry those. Their cargo runs are often less than a thousand tons, and the materials are packaged in certain ways.

“Those materials include items like specialty foods other races consider delicacies and inherently valuable items like platinum, rare earths, and red diamonds.”

“This is fascinating,” Antoun said, “but we have little of these items, as everyone knows.”

“Well,” Jim said, and the display added another item next to the little free trader. “Another happens to be stabilized hydrocarbons, also known as…”

“Oil,” Abboud said, eyes wide. “But none of the aliens ever came to buy our oil!”

“No, they wouldn’t,” Jim said. The display changed to a cartoon of a well pumping oil from the ground. The oil moved in a barrel to a factory. Smoke belched from the smokestacks and crates came out the other end. Those were then moved to a spaceship with a bunch of aliens all cheering as the goods arrived. “But we’ve known for a long time how to make the type of hydrocarbons the aliens want. We call them plastics in primary form. You see, to the various races of the Galactic Union, your oil is valuable as plastic, not to burn or lubricate. The good news is that quite a bit of the other components of crude oil are left over, and some of those have value as well.”

“This industrial process,” Antoun said, “it is not complicated?”

“Not overly,” Jim said. “It does, however, consume a sizeable amount of power. Power which needs to be provided by fusion in order to make it economical.”

“Fusion power was only given to Republic members,” the Iraqi member said. Back when first contact happened, Iraq was still in turmoil. They’d been unprepared to step out and join the Republic, especially after what happened to Iran. In the intervening years, their requests to join the Republic were met with “wait another year,” over and over again.

“Any member of the new Federation will get fusion power. Alexis Cromwell has offered to produce both a compact fusion plant, as well as a manufactory capable of producing exportable hydrocarbons.”

“There is a condition,” Antoun said.

“All of you have to join the Federation. Earth needs to be a unified race, at least diplomatically. Do this and you have both the revenue from the export of your resources, as well as an equal seat at the table.”

“Are we allowed to participate in forming the Federation’s rules, as is going on now in the other room?” asked the Yemeni representative.


They all looked at each other and considered. When nobody got up to leave, and they all began speaking to each other in Arabic, Jim knew he’d won.

* * *

Of course, bringing in the eight non-Republic representatives from the Middle East into the meeting rooms where the Federation Compact was being discussed was a tense moment. The other eight who’d been part of the world government watched their arrival with mixed feelings.

While Jim observed, he used his pinplants to go over what the assembled leaders had done to the original founding document, now being called the Compact. They’d elected to have each nation chose their own method of appointing a Federation council member. They’d likewise changed the time of service to two years from his suggested four. A maximum of five consecutive terms was possible, and ten in a lifetime.

They’d kept his insistence that anyone serving on the Federation Council had to have served in either the planetary military or as a merc. However, they’d decided the Federation Council leader would be known as Chief Council and must have done both. These rules were set to begin in ten years and carried minimums suggesting that whoever took that seat had already served in the Republic military or as a merc. Taxes were set at 10% of off-world revenue for any venture. Jim had been a little concerned they wouldn’t go along with that.

The “Bill of Rights” followed along with the United States’ original, with some variations. They couldn’t bring themselves yet to guarantee an individual’s right to bear arms. Of course, his own United States had nearly gutted their own right to arms after centuries of nibbles and bites from self-serving politicians. Jim would work on that one. His angle was that having personal weapons helped create a populace which was better prepared to defend against future attack and gave individuals who did so an edge in joining the military or merc service.

One of the things which helped cement the deal was the UK. Having left the EU years before first contact, they’d been unwilling to enter another deal they’d felt was questionable in its goals. The problem they’d run into was currency. The British government had stayed out of the Euro currency, and as such, the Pound was the most valuable currency when the Republic was born. But afterwards, it began to decline. Between social tensions and struggling to maintain their nationhood in a much wider sphere of influence, they decided to firm up the Pound.

Just before first contact, the British Monarchy purchased a mining company in Australia which owned a mine called Argyle. It was not a high-production mine and the purchase was a favor to the Australian interest which was facing bankruptcy. Nobody had known that first contact would introduce the Galactic Union and its currency—the credit—which was backed by rare red diamonds. The Argyle mine just happened to be one of the Earth’s few reliable sources of red diamonds.

The UK backed their currency with red diamonds, and as a result, its exchange rate soared. When the US Dollar was trading at $15,000 per GCU, the British Pound, with its red diamond backing, traded at an unprecedented £500 per GCU. The exchange rate was currently down because of the war; even so, the British Pound was trading at £15 per credit, compared to $125. The UK had more than 11 tons of processed diamonds. The majority were less than a carat, which didn’t matter to the Union Credit Exchange, the entity which dealt in hard currency.

Making Britain the financial capital of the Federation was a no-brainer. Within hours of talking with Jim, Prime Minister Stahl had met with the House of Lords and the House of Commons, and he’d had an audience with Queen Charlotte. The dowager queen celebrated her 75th year of rule and her 112th year of life by supporting a move which once again made the British Empire a force in the world. The Federation Financial Act was signed by Queen Charlotte in time to give the authority to act to Prime Minister Stahl just before he flew to Washington, DC.

Jim gave the former Middle Eastern holdouts time to circulate and meet their fellows. Their reception was generally mixed, though as others learned of the deal the Arabs had worked out for trading off-world, the tone of their reception improved. Even Abboud was seen nodding to Yosef Mizrah in what could almost be considered grudging acknowledgment. Jim didn’t have a room full of friends, certainly, but he did have a room full of people trying to work together toward a common goal.

“Jimbo,” Buddha whispered in his ear. “The government knows what’s going on.”

Jim sighed. “Had to happen sooner or later.” He looked around at the representatives then turned to Buddha. “Thanks for the update.”

“Sure thing,” Buddha said.

As Jim went back to work, he tuned his pinplants in to the local media to watch reports. Yeah, the press was having a fit. He figured he had a few more hours before he was forced to deal with the consequences.

He went back to mingling.

* * *

Asbaran Solutions HQ, Houston, Texas, Earth

“Hey, Top?”

First Sergeant Thomas Mason looked up with a frown on his face. The stack of electronic paperwork on his slate was keeping him from doing what he loved—leading troops—and tied him to an office that was crazy with banging, beating, and shouting as repairs were made to it. Half his troops were supervising the contractors making repairs because there were places in the building you did not want to have civilians running around in. And the Lumar were no help. They were clumsy in an office setting and broke things accidentally—causing a need for more repairs. He’d had to send all of them to the starport to help with repairs there just to get them out of the office. If Asbaran had had a free shuttle anywhere, he’d have gone up to Revenge just for the peace and quiet of an operational spaceship.

Mason glared at the offender in the doorway for a moment, but Sergeant Rahimi had too much time in service—and knew Mason too well—and bore up under his gaze. Another frustration in a day full of them. “What?” he finally asked, his tone reminding Rahimi—since the glare failed—that he’d said he didn’t want to be interrupted.

“One of the recruiters has an issue and asked for you.”


“Corporal Taheri.”

“Shit.” Taheri had been with the unit through all of what they were calling the Omega War. It would have been easy to ignore any of the other troopers who were doing time in recruiting, but if Taheri needed him, there probably was something worthy of his attention. “Where is he?”

“Recruiting Office Bravo, Top.”

“Let him know I’m on my way.”

Mason got up, slate in hand. He looked at it a second, then dropped it back to the desk. All of the requisitions and various other minutiae would still be there when he got back. The recruiting office was down four floors, and he took the stairs so he could stretch out. Office life did not agree with him.

He arrived at the office, but had a hard time pushing open the door; the space in front of the desk was filled by three extremely large individuals. They shifted around so he could open the door, but there was no room for him to slide by, so he stood in the doorway.

“Hi, Top,” Corporal Taheri said, standing behind the desk. “Thanks for coming.”

“What the hell’s going on here?” Mason asked with a growl, sizing up the civilians, two black men and one white, each easily over six feet tall and probably 250 pounds. While some of it was fat, a lot of it looked to be muscle. He wouldn’t have wanted to brawl with any of them.

“This fine collection of individuals is led by Tito Swan here,” Taheri replied. “Him and his two cygnets want to join up.”

“They do, do they?” Mason asked. “Which one of you is Swan?”

“I am,” said the black man in the middle. The tallest of the group, he was already sporting a little gray in his beard and looked like one of those people the media liked to call a “Gentle Giant.” Until they got pissed off, anyway. “My name is actually Joseph Wilson, sir. Me and my boys want to join up.”

“You do, huh? Aren’t you a little old to be starting a career as a merc?”

“His momma wanted him to,” the other black man said, giggling, causing Wilson’s already dark skin to darken further.

“Shut up, Skippy,” Wilson said. “None of your damn business why I want to join.” He turned to Mason. “I’m looking for new opportunities.”

“What was your old opportunity?”

“They don’t have a previous work history,” Taheri interjected helpfully. He gave Mason a big smile that showed he was happy to push everything off on the senior enlisted.

Mason sighed. He was too old for this shit. “Okay, Wilson. You’ve got no work history, which tells me you’re lazy. Why are you here today?”

“So, the cops can’t find us in San Antonio, mostly,” the white man muttered.

“Shut up, Mack,” Wilson said. “You ain’t helping.”

“Mack?” Mason asked. The shortest of the group at just over six feet tall, he had the broadest shoulders and would have made a great bouncer at any of the bars Mason frequented in startown.

“Mack Rosenstein, sir. I tagged along ’cause I didn’t have anything better to do. And if Tito Swan is involved, it’s gonna be colorful.”

“Back to the point, though,” Mason said, turning back to Wilson. “You three are on the run from the law? We can’t take you if that’s the case.”

“Oh, it gets better, Top,” Taheri interjected again.

“Shut up, Corporal,” Mason said. “You’re not helping.”

“Not really trying, Top,” Taheri replied with a giggle.

“How’d you like to supervise the Lumar working on the runway at the starport? I hear it’s going to be 130 degrees on the asphalt. You’ll feel right at home.”

“I wouldn’t like that at all, Top. I’ll shut up now.”

“Good.” Mason turned back to Wilson. “What’s your beef with the police?”

The big man looked down as if embarrassed. “Well…we sort of killed some people. Didn’t want to; we had to.”

“Yeah? Why’s that?”

“Damned Tango Blast gang bangers. They kept coming into our neighborhood trying to recruit our kids. Momma told me to take care of it, so some of us went to talk with them. They didn’t want to talk. There’s a lot less of them now, and fewer of us, too.”

“So, you killed some gang folks and the police have a warrant out for your arrest?”

“Naw, they don’t never go into Tango Blast territory, so they don’t know anything about it yet. When they realize Tango ain’t around no more, though, they may come looking to talk to us.”

“And you and your momma think you’ll be safer off planet, both from the police and the rest of Tango Blast when they hear what you did.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I’m not a ‘sir,’” Mason said. “That’s something you dumbasses need to learn right now. Next one who calls me that is going to walk out of here with a fat lip.” He glared at the men, all larger than him, and they wilted under his gaze. “Got it?”

They all nodded.

“Now…Skippy?” Mason asked. “What’s your story?”

“Kendrick Wright, s—” the second black man said, stopping himself. He was a little shorter than Wilson and a few years younger. “Mr. Top.” He smiled. “They call me Skip.” He nodded to Wilson. “His momma told me to stay with him and keep him alive.”

“You know, it’s just as easy to get killed fighting aliens as gang bangers, right? The aliens on the other side of your gun have mostly the same weapons you’re firing at them.”

“They ain’t got those armor things though,” the white man noted.

“CASPers? No, they don’t.” He cocked his head at the large white man. “You’re kind of big for a CASPer, at least the newest model.” His eyes swept the group. “You’re all pretty big for them.”

“Well, then, give me an older one, and let’s go kill some bugs,” Wilson said. “I want to do my part.”

Wright giggled. “And his momma wants him to make an honest day’s living before she passes, too.”

Wilson nodded once. “There’s that, too.”

Mason turned to Taheri. “So, what’s your issue with them?”

“They all want to stay as a group. They say that they won’t enlist unless we put them in the same unit.”

“Is that true?” Mason asked, turning to Wilson.

“Yes, Mr. Top,” Wilson said with a nod. “Momma said family needs to look after each other.”

“Well, that’s the first thing you’ve said that has any bearing on being in a merc unit.” He turned to Taheri. “We’ll take them. Train ’em and put them in Headquarters Company.”

“But that’s your company, Top!” Taheri exclaimed. “Are you sure you—”

“I’m sure,” Mason said, unleashing an evil smile at the group. “We’re going to be good friends.”

* * * * *

Chapter Five

CIC, EMS Pegasus, Capital Planet Emergence Area

“Capital Planet Security is asking our intentions, ma’am,” the comms officer said.

Alexis nodded. “Let them know we’re headed for Capital Planet orbit. Colonel Shirazi and I will be taking a dropship down to the Mercenary Guild. I believe there is a meeting going on there later today we would like to attend.” She glanced at the tactical Tri-V which showed her escort vessels, Durendal and Excalibur, both amidships. Painful little throw weight if things went sideways, but they were both small enough to quickly dock which would allow all three to escape with Pegasus’s hyperspace shunts.

“Permission has been granted to transit to Capital Planet orbit,” the comms officer said a few minutes later. “You are also cleared to take a dropship down to the spaceport. They said that the guild is currently only accepting principals, however; no honor guards or other troops will be allowed to accompany you into the building. You are also only allowed hand weapons; CASPers will not be allowed in the building.”

“What do you suppose that means?” Alexis asked.

Nigel shook his head. “I don’t know, but it sounds fairly ominous.” He chuckled. “I will say, though, that some of them may have some pretty vivid memories of my last trip here, when I was wearing my CASPer. Aside from that, I have no idea.” He shrugged. “Maybe it would be better if I went without you, in case they try to grab us as hostages.”

“No…” Alexis replied. “If they were going to try to grab us, I don’t think they’d be letting us into orbit; I think our reception would have been quite different. Besides, the Peacemakers guaranteed us safe passage to the headquarters when they ended the war. If the guild tried to grab us now…”

“Who knows what would happen?” Nigel asked. “With Peacemaker support and some of the other races now aligned with us, it would go badly for them if they tried. But that wouldn’t help you if you got shot again, though.”

“So just don’t let me get shot, okay?”

“I will do my best.”

Alexis turned to her new XO, Alan Price. “Lieutenant Commander, you are in command.”

“I’ll take good care of her, ma’am,” he replied.

Alexis knew he would. Alan had an exceptional service record with the Hussars. He’d survived the destruction of Stonewall Jackson in New Warsaw.

She was still getting used to the rest of her CIC crew as well. Ensign Jesus Lopez manned sensors. Lieutenant Sofeeka was TacCom, an elSha in a combat role, which was highly unusual, however, she was well qualified. Lieutenant Mary Bainbridge was SitCon, newly promoted and a survivor of the cruiser Assault lost at Earth. Lieutenant Shefoo was on comms, another Buma, but this one a female. Last was Ensign Freep at helm, the first SalSha warship officer. Walker had written shining reviews about the young otter-like alien. He didn’t have the heart to fly the bombers anymore after losing nearly every friend he had, but he had jumped at the chance to work in a capital ship.

New crew, same ship. She was confident they’d all work out. She only hoped they had time to gel as a unit before someone or something tried to kill them. Sooner or later, someone always tried to kill them. She took another look around then followed Nigel out of the CIC.

* * *

Merc Guild Headquarters, Capital Planet

“There’s the headquarters,” Nigel said, pointing out the side window of the robot taxi as it circled to land in front of the building. A monument to the credits that had been accumulated by the guild, it rose from the center of the Capital City buildings, beautiful and attention-grabbing. At 40 stories tall, it outclassed all the buildings in its vicinity and was the tallest building in the city, by far. The next tallest structure—the Merchant Guild, four blocks away—was no more than half its size and looked pathetic in comparison.

Capital City was somewhat like Las Vegas at its inception—it sat like an oasis in the middle of a dead, blasted land. The rest of Capital Planet was stark, dead, and dotted with craters, the victim of a war long past.

Nigel shook his head. “I still don’t know why they built the capital here—with an entire galaxy to choose from, there had to be somewhere better.”

“It’s supposed to be a monument to the Great War,” Alexis replied. “By having it here, it’s supposed to act as a reminder to stop future wars.”

Nigel snorted. “How well has that been working for them recently?”

The taxi landed, and they put on their breathing masks and got out. Nigel looked up at the building. On the front of it was an enormous logo, nearly eight stories tall, which spread from one side of the building to the other. “Power, Service, Profit,” it read in red letters, with weapons supporting the first two tenets, and a pile of red diamonds illustrating the profit portion of the motto. The first time he’d been there—rescuing Sansar Enkh from the clutches of the Guild Tribunal, he’d realized that while the guild had plenty of power and profit, he had no idea who they truly served. The Veetanho, apparently.

“Is the building leaning?” Alexis asked, jolting him from his reverie.

“Might be,” he replied. “We did kind of blow it up the last time we were here. Too bad we didn’t bring it all the way down.” He shrugged. “Let’s get in where there’s air.”

Nigel led her through the first set of steelglass doors and into the airlock beyond it. He looked around and smiled while they waited for the atmosphere to equalize.

“What?” Alexis asked.

“They’ve fixed this since the last time I was here.” He pointed to some discoloration on the joints that hadn’t been painted over yet. “Here’s where I ran through the glass with my CASPer.”

“Well, you do like to make an entrance.”

Nigel’s smile broadened. “Yes, I do, and yes, we certainly did. Asbaran went in through the front, while the Golden Horde hit them from the back.” His smile faded as butterflies tried to break through the walls of his stomach. “I have to say, though, that I’m probably more scared this time than I was when everyone here was shooting at me.”

“No doubt. All they could have done that time was kill you, and you only had one, tiny mission—to rescue Sansar. Now the fate of our entire race hangs in the balance.”

Nigel frowned. “You’re not helping.”

Alexis punched him in the shoulder. “I’m not trying to,” she said as the light in the airlock turned purple and the inner door opened. “Besides, you’ll be fine, you big oaf.” She took off her mask and walked into the building, and Nigel hurried to catch up and get in front of her.

He didn’t have any problem as, catching sight of the mural inside the building, she stopped and goggled. Nigel smiled as he stopped next to her. “Pretty impressive, eh?” he asked. Titled The Last Canavar, the nearly full-size representation soared at least 90 feet high in the open atrium. In it, a Raknar stood with a booted foot on a Canavar’s head, while it fired some kind of huge gun down into it. Now that Nigel had time to stop and really look at it, he realized he’d never seen a weapon like it before. As it was sized for a starship, he decided that probably wasn’t surprising.

The Canavar’s body in the mural trailed down to the right side of the atrium. Ten enormous cases lined the wall, each containing what their displays said were actual Canavar skulls. He shook his head, hoping he never met a live one. A CASPer would easily fit into any of their mouths, and being bitten in two was not the way he wanted to go out. After a few more moments of staring, Alexis turned to the other side of the atrium, which held displays of current and past Mercenary Guild weapons. While they might have been impressive anywhere else, they were nothing compared to the grandeur of the mural, and her gaze swept across them in seconds.

Finally, a small sigh escaped her. “Ready?” Nigel asked.

“Does it matter?”

“No,” Nigel replied, and he led her forward to where a squad of MinSha troopers waited at an information desk in the back of the atrium. All were armed and armored, and they looked vigilant, although not particularly on edge.

“Can I help you?” the MinSha sergeant—obvious from the stripes laser-etched into her chitin—asked as they approached.

Alexis could see Nigel tense, and she grabbed his arm and pulled him back. The MinSha had nuked his country after first contact; no one from the region had been comfortable with the giant praying mantis-shaped aliens ever since. “Yes,” Alexis replied, taking Nigel’s spot in the lead. “I am Colonel Cromwell, and this is Colonel Shirazi. We are here for the meeting of the Guild Council.”

“I have you as a late addition,” the sergeant said after consulting her slate. She nodded toward one of the troopers behind her. “The private will show you the way.”

“Don’t you need to see my Yack or something?” Alexis asked.

“No,” the sergeant replied. “You have already been scanned several times since you entered, and you are a match with your guild credentials, although you appear to have gained some weight.” She nodded again toward the trooper. “Private, take them to the council chambers.”

“If you would follow me?” the private said, turning toward a door behind the information desk.

Nigel took Alexis by the arm and guided her along, careful not to smile as she made several pithy comments about the MinSha sergeant and what she could do with her “gaining weight” comments. He also didn’t remind her that she was supposed to be the non-hothead. He hadn’t been around pregnant women often, but at least he knew that much.

They followed the MinSha private through the door into the guild-members’-only spaces beyond it.

* * *

Houston Starport, Houston, Texas, USA

“Glad you could join us this morning,” First Sergeant Mason roared as the recruits ran from the barracks in their PT gear. With all the losses Asbaran Solutions had taken during the war, they’d had to adapt their training program somewhat, which had both pluses and minuses. On the good side, forcing the new recruits to get pinplants had allowed the training portion of what used to be the cadre period to go a lot quicker. The recruits no longer had to “learn” the information, they just downloaded it and then were given exercises to make them recall and integrate it into their memory. Although it helped expedite the training process, it had led to gaps in the schedule.

Mason was always happy to step in to fill the gap, especially if it was PT at 0400. He smiled. While not technically a “gap,” PT at 0400 was something he liked doing, just to see who had the heart to do it well.

“I feel like shit,” Private Wilson muttered to Private Wright, low enough that most people wouldn’t have heard it. Mason did.

“Aw, did someone get their nanite treatment yesterday?” Mason asked in a child’s voice. “Buck up, ladies!” he roared in his normal command tone. “You’re now stronger and can take more damage.” He looked at the front row critically, which included Wilson and his two compadres. “You know what, Wilson? You may even be a little thinner.”

“Damn thing hurt worse than anything I’ve ever had done to me,” Wilson said, standing tall. “I didn’t think anything could hurt that bad.”

“Yeah,” Mason said, “but just think, there’s something that hurts worse than that.”

“Ain’t nothing that could hurt worse’n that, First Sergeant.”

“Just wait until you use your first medkit. The fires of hell will seem like a warm summer day compared to that. Now, quit your bitching and let’s go. Platoon, right face! At the double time, forward, harch!

* * *

“How’s everyone feeling now?” First Sergeant Mason asked. The platoon had completed the run without anyone dropping out, led mostly by Wilson’s trio. When one of the others had shown signs of flagging, one of the group had run alongside them until they caught their second wind. It hadn’t hurt that Mason had slowed the pace a couple of times—not because he was getting old and sentimental, but because they had just gotten their nanite treatments the day before. He could still remember coming out from under sedation when he’d received the nanite treatment to strengthen his body in preparation for using a CASPer. He truly thought he’d died and gone to hell.

“Still sore,” Wilson said. “But now I’m too tired to care.”

Mason smiled. The run had been a long one. “Well, everyone who’s too tired can just dismiss themselves now and go back to bed.” No one moved, for good reason. Anyone who had would have gotten extra PT. After a couple weeks of training, the instructors had weeded out the ones who would have fallen for that. “Okay, since you’re all still here, how about we put that nanite treatment to good use? Let’s go try on a CASPer or two.”

Mason had to pause while the group cheered. It was the moment they’d all been waiting for—the first time they got to try on one of the suits. When they’d finished, he marched them over to the CASPer hangar where the technicians were working on the suits and preparing the latest shipment they’d just received. In the aftermath of the war, new suits were hard to find, and they were lucky to have gotten hold of this many suits, even old ones.

Technicians who knew how to work on them were in even shorter supply, and the training pipeline for maintenance personnel was struggling to keep up—there were a number of trainees running around with the qualified staff.

Mason led the recruits over to a row of Mk 7 CASPers that had all been armed the same. A Mk 8 waited at both ends of the line; both were already running. The one on the far end was sealed; the closest Mk 8 still had its canopy open. In front of each of the Mk 7s was an item of clothing on the hangar floor. “These are your haptic suits, which you’ll need for your initial CASPer training. Some of you will need them every time you put on a CASPer. The CASPer behind each suit has already been set up for the person whose name is on it, so find the haptic suit with your name,” he ordered, “and put it on.” He pointed to a locker room. “If you have tender sensibilities, you can go in there to change.”

The platoon had their over-clothes off and haptic suits on in seconds. The desire to get into the giant mechs as soon as possible overrode any modesty issues any of them might have had.

The excitement in the trainees—even the older ones—was contagious as they stood in front of their mechs. This was Mason’s favorite part, and why he had taken the day out of the office. On cue, a line of technicians marched out, and one came to a stop alongside each of the CASPers, ratcheting up the excitement to a fever pitch. “At the command of ‘Ready, move,’ I want each of you to man up your Mk 7s, then Sergeant Rahimi and I will take you to the range,” Mason said. He paused and then asked, “Are there any questions?”

He scanned the group. Everyone looked like they were ready to break into a run, their earlier fatigue and sore muscles forgotten in their anticipation of strapping on a mech for the first time. “Okay, ready, move!

Sure enough, they all bolted for the mechs. In their eagerness, three of the twenty fell off while boarding, which was about average.

“Ah, youth,” said Corporal Taheri, who had come up behind him.

“That was you, not more than a year ago,” Mason noted.

“A lot has changed since then.”

“Yes, it has.”

* * *

Wilson raced to the mech with the rest of his platoon, but then paused to catch his breath. His momma had always taught him to think about what he was doing rather than rushing into it, and he tried to…whenever he remembered. Admittedly, not doing so prior to going to the gang headquarters had been one of his major failings and had led to him being where he was at the moment.

More focused after a second’s pause, he gathered up the cabling dangling from his suit and started up the boarding steps. A smile crossed his face. He wasn’t the last person to mount, he saw; three people had fallen off their mechs in their rush to get into their cockpit. Wilson was sure they’d get a ration of shit later. There was no sense in hurrying. All you’d do was make a mistake—targeting you for later abuse—and they weren’t going to leave until everyone was ready, anyway.

Reaching the cockpit, he turned and knelt down, then he slid first one leg and then the other into the mech, pointing his toes and wiggling his leg to get it all the way into the unyielding plastic like he’d done many times in the simulators. The mockups they’d been using had been true to form—sliding into the real thing didn’t feel any different than in practice, despite the MAC on the shoulder that made him want to get in right now! He stood up and found the leg splints were low enough to be comfortable. He knew from the full motion simulators what would happen if one was too high—the impact of it slamming him in the groin had incapacitated him for several minutes and been a source of his platoon’s jokes for several days.

With his feet in place, he connected the haptic links and interface cables. As big as he was, he knew this was his destiny—he’d never be able to use the newer models that were driven through an operator’s pinplants. After checking to make sure all the cables had been connected and were routed properly, he put on his helmet, activating the haptic skin sensors built into it.

“Good job, recruit,” a technician said from the boarding ladder. Wilson startled; he hadn’t noticed the tech climbing up in his concentration to get the wiring connected correctly.

“Thanks,” Wilson said. “How many people get it right the first time?”

“Less than half—that’s why I’m up here. It’s easy to forget a couple of the lower ones. Without them, you fall flat on your face when you take your first couple of steps.”

“And you don’t let people do that, so they learn their lesson?”

“Nah. It’s hard on the operator—which us technicians don’t care as much about—but it usually also leads to me having to do more maintenance on the mech—which I do care about. I get paid by the job, not the hour, and extra troubleshooting and repairs are an unnecessary pain in the ass.”

Wilson finished strapping in, then flexed his arms to insert them into the arms of the suit.

“All set?” the technician asked.

With his helmet on, Wilson found he had a hard time hearing the tech over the pounding of his heart. Dear Lord, please don’t let me fuck this up! “I think so,” he said after a second, suddenly more afraid than he’d ever been in his life, including when he’d gone into the Tango Blast headquarters.

“You’ve got this,” the tech said. He slapped Wilson on the shoulder and descended the ladder, leaving Wilson to listen to his pulse throbbing in his ears.

“Power coming on,” the tech called, and lights illuminated across the cockpit as external power was applied. He started to go through the checklist by rote, but then took a breath and brought it up on the display. It would not be good to forget something! He ran through the rest of the startup checklist.

“Clean board,” the technician advised. “Good start.”

Wilson made the “okay” signal with both hands, pinching his index finger and thumb together, and brought the suit to an operational state, then closed the canopy. It rotated down and sealed with a small thump, and the suit pressurized, making his ears pop. All of the suit’s systems came online as he cleared his ears, and he adjusted the cameras to give him a good view around the mech on his Tri-V displays.

As they’d been taught in the sims, he checked all his suit’s status indicators. Everything was green; there were no warning or caution lights illuminated. Power output, backup battery, and life support were at the top of their bar indicators at 100%, with his fuel status at 98%.

He flipped the weapons system switch to standby, and his reticles came alive. The weapons themselves—the shoulder-mounted magnetic accelerator cannon, his MAC, and the arm-mounted laser—showed green, although the ammo indicator for the MAC was yellow and showed 52%. The blade mounted on the right arm also showed green. This was so fucking cool!

“Good start,” he transmitted to the tech, who was jacked into the comms system. “All systems green except the ammo for the MAC.”

“Roger. That’s as planned. Rounds are a little short at the moment, so they told us to give you fifty percent.” The tech paused a couple of seconds, then added, “Don’t tell anyone, but I got you a few extras.”

“Thanks!” Wilson said, trying not to giggle like a schoolgirl. He had long since given up his childhood desire to drive a mech. He came from the wrong part of town…he didn’t have the right schooling…people had told him all his life he wasn’t good enough…and yet here he was, standing in the cockpit of a Mk-freaking-7 CASPer, with a MAC and laser. If the boys back home could only see him now. Better yet, if the girls could see him now…

He sighed, wondering how Wright and Rosenstein were doing. His thoughts were cut short as, with a roar of jumpjets, the Mk 8 to his left launched forward across the hangar. The jets fired again, and it came down in a controlled landing, its operator flexing the suit’s mechanical knees to absorb the shock.

“First things first,” Mason said over the platoon’s comm frequency. “Keep your damn booger pickers off the weapons systems until I tell you to. If I see any weapons systems armed before then, you’ll be lucky if I just kill you to save myself the trouble of PT’ing you to death. You got that?”

“Yes, First Sergeant,” Wilson yelled. He paused, then did it again over the comm, along with several of the other recruits. Answering the senior enlisted was an ingrained response by now; toggling the comms switch first had yet to become one.

Wilson followed along as Mason led them through a variety of exercises to get them acclimated to the suit. It was just like what they’d done in the sims, although there was a fraction of a second lag that hadn’t been there before. Apparently, the haptic suit transmission was ever-so-slightly slower in real life than it had been in the trainers. He followed as Mason had them move their arms and legs, then the recruits practiced marching in place in their maintenance cradles to make sure the timing of their legs was correct. A few of the other recruits had to have their suits adjusted, but Wilson’s worked perfectly.

“All right,” Mason said when he’d apparently seen enough. “Cut ’em loose.”

“Ready to go?” Wilson’s technician asked.

“Ready for release,” Wilson replied.

“All systems operational. Releasing.”

Wilson felt the straps holding him back release, and he dropped slightly to stand on his own. Happily, without staggering, as some of the others did.

Mason then had them spread out, and ran them through some other maneuvers to help them make the final internal calibrations to their suits. The whole time, Wilson wanted to run! To roar off on his jumpjets! To fire his weapons! To kill aliens and get paid!

The anticipation was almost overwhelming, and he began to wonder if they weren’t being just a little too careful as he did some running in place, a few non-jumpjet-assisted jumps, and picked up and set down some small objects the techs brought out.

Finally, just when Wilson thought he couldn’t take it any longer, Sergeant Rahimi said, “I think they’re ready, Top.”

“I think you’re right,” Mason replied. “Take ’em out!”

“Platoon!” Rahimi ordered, “Follow me to the range!”

This time, Wilson did giggle. He was taking a CASPer to fire its weapons.

* * * * *

Chapter Six

West Potomac Convention Center, Washington DC

Sansar entered the meeting hall and was instantly recognized by a score of attendees. Many simply gawked, a few smiled and nodded, a couple pointed and whispered, and a couple scowled. She exchanged some pleasantries and made for the large figure of Jim Cartwright. He had his new XO, Buddha, by his side and was listening intently to a pair of Middle Eastern men.

“Jim, how are you?” she asked as she approached.

One of the two men’s faces clouded over at the interruption. Sansar knew it was probably because the interrupter was a woman. However, when he saw her, dressed in the bright golden-yellow with black trim dress uniform of the Golden Horde, he came up short.

“Councilor Abboud of Palestine,” Jim stepped in. “Might I have the pleasure of introducing you to Colonel Sansar Enkh, commander of the Golden Horde.”

“A pleasure, Councilor,” Sansar said with a bow of her head.

“The pleasure is all mine,” Abboud replied, though she thought it pained him to say it.

“The Councilor and I were just discussing the best way for Palestine to stand up some forces in the first levy later this year.”

“Excellent progress,” Sansar said, catching a tray going by on a robot and snagging a glass of champagne. “Might I have a moment, Colonel?”

“Certainly,” Jim said and excused himself.

“I notice you’re already referring to them as Councilor.”

“I thought it was a nice touch to increase the momentum. Politicians love new titles. Besides, they can either serve as interim Councilors to the Federation themselves or appoint one. I suspect more than a few will leave their leadership jobs to become Councilors.” He grinned. “Another title on their resume.” He helped himself to a glass of water from a passing tray and a couple of tiny sandwiches from another. “Things have gone really well.”

“I see that. How many committed do you have.”

“As of the last count, 105.”

“Blue Sky above, that’s excellent!”

“Better than I expected. They were all pretty accepting when I explained we would leave if they didn’t change things.”

“We would what?”

Jim grinned sheepishly and explained his gambit. He gave a shrug at the end. “I rolled the dice. It worked out.”

“You took quite a chance,” Sansar said. Jim nodded. “Your father would be proud. He, too, took chances when the stakes were high.”

“Thank you,” he said. “But I’m surprised to see you here tonight. I thought you weren’t due until tomorrow for the merc meeting.”

“That was the plan,” she said. “However, the situation has changed.” She finished her champagne in one long drink before speaking. “We intercepted a team of assassins.”

“What? You intercepted? How long have you been in DC?”

“We came in a few hours before you arrived.” Jim’s eyes narrowed, and she sighed. “I tasked elements of the Horde’s intelligence service to protect you.”

“Why didn’t I know this?”

“Because I didn’t want to tell you. I thought it was better to let you work without the distraction. I believed it would simply be a job of keeping an eye out for stray problems.”

“Until you found assassins. Who were they? What were they after, the world leaders?”

“They were domestic assets—Humans employed by aliens.” Jim’s face darkened. “Veetanho, precisely. Their target, Jim Cartwright, was you.”

“Mother fucker,” he said. Several of the attendees in earshot turned curiously.

Once again, Sansar was impressed. A lot of people would be shaken by the knowledge they’d been targeted for assassination. He was just pissed. His father’s son indeed.

“At least they couldn’t send a Depik after me,” he said.

“No,” she agreed. “I doubt any Hunter in the galaxy will ever again take a contract from the Veetanho or their allies.”

“So, explain this plot.”

Sansar gave him all the details, although she left out some of her assets’ specifics; there was no need to brief him in detail on those. “I think it’s safe to say Peepo still has operatives here.” Which I expected, she thought but didn’t add. Jim had enough lot on his plate for a 22-year-old.

“Basically, you’re telling me some of the aliens left behind after the rest evacuated are part of a plot to kill me? Why? I’m no great savior—I had to be rescued, remember?”

“Irrelevant,” Sansar said. “You are the only one actively trying to put things back together. Seeing what you’ve accomplished here, I’d say they are right to be worried about you. Assuming their goal is to avoid humanity creating a proper merc race, or even a unified force.”

“All right. So if you are right, what do we do?”

“You keep doing what you’ve been doing, and I’ll step up your protection.”

Jim shook his head. “I’m not some politician who needs a bodyguard, Sansar. I respect what you’re saying, but I’m a merc commander—one of the Four Horsemen.”

“Two people, two Humans, were within a few minutes of walking in here and setting off enough high explosives to kill everyone in this room. Suicide bombers, Jim. Human suicide bombers! How do you stop an attack you don’t see coming?”

“How did you see it?” Jim asked.

Sansar pursed her lips. “I had a dream.”

Jim nodded, then shook his head. “You know, a few months ago, I’d have thought you were nuts. I can’t do that now. Okay, do what you need to do.” Jim looked around, and Sansar saw he had a group of leaders who wanted to talk with him. “For now, I need to play this game and then get out of here as soon as possible. The Cavaliers need to be rebuilt.”

Sansar nodded and moved into the crowd to meet people while Jim went to talk to the leaders who’d been waiting patiently.

* * *

West Potomac Convention Center, Washington DC

The formal meeting broke up and the attendees disbursed to the conference center’s several bars and lounges. The afternoon had advanced to evening, and Jim was as optimistic as he could be. His mood was only tempered by Sansar’s appearance to tell him of aliens plotting against him. Veetanho, to be more precise. Will we ever be free of their meddling? He knew Alexis and Nigel would have arrived at Capital Planet, probably not far behind General Peepo. He hoped their reunion was an enjoyable one.

Jim had a few drinks with the various representatives, even an alcoholic one or two. He was introduced to a White Russian, which he found was rather good. Buddha came by at one point and pressed some pizza into his hand and reminded him to eat. Splunk appeared to help herself to some of the meat from his pizza, and several of the representatives marveled at his companion.

When they asked about Splunk, he stuck with the original story of her being a Fae. He decided the truth about her, and her fellow Dusman, could wait a bit longer. The last thing they needed was yet another dynamic introduced into the mix.

The conference center manager caught his attention the early in evening, and Jim went to meet him. “Yes?”

“We’re having difficulty keeping the press out,” the nervous man explained.

“You assured me when we booked your facility this wouldn’t be a concern,” Jim pointed out.

“I honestly had no idea just how much of a brouhaha you would be causing.” He looked pained, and Jim fought hard to avoid smirking. He sent a message with his pinplants, asking for some of his yet-unintroduced guests to lend a hand, to which they agreed almost immediately. “You’ll have help at the entrances forthwith.”

“How…” the man started to ask, then saw the expression on Jim’s face. “Very well. However, several people have arrived insisting they be allowed to talk to you.”

“Why would I talk to them and not the press?” The man told him who they were. “Oh,” Jim said and nodded. “Well, I guess I can spare a minute.”

Jim collected Buddha and followed the manager to a small meeting room. The manager unlocked it for him, and Jim went in. “I wasn’t expecting this until tomorrow,” he told Buddha.

“Who is it?” the older merc wondered.

The other door was unlocked for them. “You’ll see in a second,” Jim said and nodded toward the door.

A pair of uniformed security guards employed by the conference center stood aside to admit a pair of men in expensive suits. As soon as they entered, they rounded on him.

“How dare you?” the first one spluttered, rage distorting his face. “You trumped up punk!”

“Secretary Einhorn?” Jim asked. He knew full well he was speaking to Alphonse Einhorn, Secretary of State of the United States of America. “I don’t believe we’ve been formally introduced. I am Colonel Jim Cartwright of Cartwright’s Cavaliers.”

“One of the storied Four Horsemen,” the other man with Einhorn said. “My apologies for Secretary Einhorn. I am Vice President Stockton.”

Einhorn spat on the floor. Jim ignored it. G. Edward Stockton served under President Jill Lewis, 64th President of the Unites States. The president herself was 84 years old and had suffered a minor stroke during the war. Many believed it wasn’t minor at all, and Stockton was really running things. Presidential security surrounding the matter was impressive; Sansar had been unable to confirm it for him.

“Good to meet you, Mr. Vice President, Mr. Secretary.”

“I wish it were on better terms,” Stockton said.

“Enough of this bullshit,” Einhorn interjected. “Explain yourself.”

“What would you like me to explain?” Jim asked pleasantly.

“You can start with this meeting, of course! This is a clear violation of the Logan Act.”

“Now Alphonse,” Stockton said again, “I doubt Mr. Cartwright had any intention of performing diplomatic negotiations on the country’s behalf.”

“Not at all,” Jim agreed. “I was working to replace the Earth Republic, which is essentially dead.”

“It isn’t dead,” Einhorn disagreed. “We’re busy just down the road trying to get it stood back up, and you take it upon yourself to replace it?”

“I was in São Paulo, Mr. Secretary. After the final battle, we ran extensive relief efforts. No elements of the Earth Republic remain.”

“You saw to that yourself,” Einhorn snarled. “You and your merc friends, with your giant war robots.”

“I can assure you, it was gone long before we landed to retake the planet. But you know what? It doesn’t matter.”

“Why is that?” Stockton asked.

“Because we’re replacing it, anyway.”

“Arrogant prick.” Einhorn laughed. “How are you going to manage that, exactly? What nations are backing you?”

“Over a hundred—all former members of the Republic—so far.” Einhorn’s jaw dropped, and Stockton quickly moved into the opening.

“You are willing to abandon your own country? How are you going to continue your work if your own business isn’t in a country which is part of…whatever you are trying to create?”

“That’s where I come in.” All heads turned to note former governor, now President Collins, who was standing in the entrance Jim had come in through.

“Gentlemen, you know Samantha Collins?”

Suspicion popped up in the two men’s eyes as she crossed to them. “I wasn’t looking forward to doing this down the road, so your showing up actually helped a lot,” she said and removed a folded piece of paper from her pocket. Jim could see the official seals on it. “These are the articles of secession for the Great State of Texas, now the Republic of Texas.”

“You can’t do that,” Stockton snapped.

“How dare you!” Einhorn blurted.

“You say that a lot,” Jim said.

Einhorn spluttered for a second. “You’re going to start a civil war!” he finally managed.

“No, we won’t,” she said.

“This right to secede has been settled,” Stockton said, calming slightly.

“Maybe for the other forty-nine states,” she replied. “However, Texas maintained the right in our articles of statehood. Sorry, but we’re leaving.”

“We’ll send the military,” Einhorn threatened. Stockton looked taken aback but nodded slightly. It didn’t seem like he entirely agreed with the secretary.

“That wouldn’t be advisable,” Jim said.

“Why?” Einhorn demanded.

President Collins spoke up. “The Republic of Texas has already been recognized by both Israel and the United Kingdom.” Those countries’ respective leaders came in as well, having been summoned to the unusual meeting by Jim.

“That won’t stop us from using military might,” Einhorn said, puffing up like a fish.

“No, but I will,” Jim said. “Remember how you mentioned my business is there? Houston is the center of Mercenary Guild operations on Earth. I have assurances from forty-two merc units with offices in Houston,” Jim held out a slate which Stockton took mechanically. “Should the United States attempt military action, it will be met with force.”

“You wouldn’t—” Einhorn began.

“Dare?” Jim finished for him. “Try us. Furthermore, if you should be as crazy as to attempt a strategic solution”—he speared Stockton with his gaze—“elements of the Winged Hussars are in low Earth orbit and are prepared to respond in kind. For that matter, the Peacemakers probably wouldn’t take too kindly to it, either. Besides, Mr. Vice President, any military action would have to be signed off on by President Lewis. Tell me, Vice President, how is the President doing?”

“She’s in command, but still recovering.”

Jim gave a knowing nod. “I was wondering, considering her absence at the deliberations in the capital.”

“What if the United States were to sign on to this new government you are speaking of? What’s it called?”

“The Terran Federation,” Jim said. “I’m sorry, but at this point the United States is not going to be offered member status. Brazil either, for that matter.”

“Outrageous,” Einhorn blurted. “America has been at the forefront of every major moment of world history since it was created!”

“The United States isn’t what it used to be,” Jim said. “I’ve been presented with considerable evidence that the US was complicit in the invasion of the Mercenary Guild forces, as was Brazil and the Earth Republic. You sold us down the road.”

“There is no proof of this,” Stockton said and made a gesture like he was fanning away a bad smell.

“Oh, you might be surprised,” President Collins said.

“We’ve all reviewed the evidence,” Prime Minister Stahl said. “I gave it to Her Majesty in person. She was quite appalled.”

“Our intelligence apparatus was partly aware already,” Prime Minister Mizrah said. “All Colonel Cartwright did was confirm our suspicions.”

“The USA has become a basket case,” Jim said. “Texas is both the one state we knew could legally leave the USA and the one with the spirit to come back from your little social experiment. At least, I hope it does.”

“We won’t let you down, Colonel,” Collins said.

“Take the papers and get out,” Jim said, indicating the official documents President Collins was still holding out. Stockton rudely snatched them from her hand and turned to leave.

“This isn’t over,” Einhorn yelled.

“No, it isn’t,” Mizrah said. “We’re going to be opening an investigation into misconduct on the part of officials in many governments, yours included.”

Jim nodded, his smile gone. “Did I mention Israel is going to be the home of the Terran Federation’s high court and multi-national law enforcement agency? I’m sure someone from the Mossad will be in touch.”

Einhorn spluttered a curse and followed Stockton out the door. The two guards followed them, leaving Jim and the three leaders alone. Jim let his breath out between his teeth with a hiss.

“He took that rather well!” Stahl exclaimed. Jim looked at him, and the man winked. Everyone laughed, releasing the pent-up tension in the room. “But in all seriousness, there’s going to be bloody hell to pay. Once you colonials get your dander up, you’re hard to shut off. We know a bit about that.”

“I don’t know,” Jim said, looking at the door the two men departed through. “I have to think they’re going to be terrified about the details of their treason becoming public. The USA is full of worthless lazy bums now—of that there is no doubt—but the citizens still have an over-developed sense of justice and independence. The government helped aliens invade the planet. That’s not good.”

“Speaking of aliens,” Mizrah said.

“Tomorrow,” Jim replied. “I need some rest. Please let the delegates know we’ll pick up at oh-nine-hundred hours?”

All three said their farewells, and Jim met Buddha outside. “Keep an eye on things until their meetings break up, will ya? I’m wasted.”

“No problem, Jimbo. Oh, hey?”


“Good job today.”

Jim smiled his thanks and shambled toward the elevator. The clock in his pinplants read 01:55. He was in his room and half asleep before he realized Splunk hadn’t followed him up. Too tired, he fell asleep, anyway.

* * *

Unnamed Hotel, Washington, DC

Sansar was running on caffeine and CASPer candy, but it was something she was used to. The Golden Horde was the most non-conventional of the Horsemen—they had their fingers in a lot of pies. Still, this operation was stretching her capabilities to the breaking point.

“Where’s the damned live feed?” she asked Bambi.

Beth gave her a pained look and shrugged. “We’re trying,” she admitted. “We initially estimated ninety percent of all satellites were lost in the war. I fear we were too conservative.”

“Well, at least if we don’t have eyes, neither do they.”

Bambi gave a half nod, half shrug, then narrowed her eyes. “We have a weather satellite coming into orbit. It’s officially decommissioned, but the data feed looks sufficient.”

“Good,” Sansar said. “Hit me.” She felt the data come streaming into her pinplants, and she began slicing it up. The images were low resolution, and she could see things down to about four meters on the ground. She went through dozens of pictures, knowing her intel people were doing the same. They both found the same things at almost the same time.

“I make activity in California, New Mexico, Arkansas, and Florida,” Sansar noted. All of her analysts looked up from their own pinplants and nodded. She gave a dry laugh. “You’d think they would at least try to hide it?” A ripple of laughter moved through the hotel room. She checked the time—06:25. As much as she hated to, she pulled on a uniform jacket and went out of the suite of rooms they were using.

She traveled up nine floors and got off the elevator. A pair of young mercs looked at the elevator as it opened, both coming to attention when they recognized who the occupant was.

“Colonel Enkh,” the senior NCO said with a nod.

She was glad they didn’t snap off salutes. She went past them into the hallway, checking room numbers as she walked. The hotel was a post-modern design with fake wooden columns and archways over each branching. As she passed the first one, something made the hair stand up on the back of her head. She turned and looked back. There was nobody here. Then her eyes followed the woodwork up to the crest of the arch. A pair of blue-on-blue eyes observed Sansar.

She thought it was Jim’s little buddy, Splunk, only Splunk was mostly brown with some lighter highlights. This one was mostly white with brown stripes on its limbs, ears, and tail. It stared at her without responding. There was another arch on the opposite side of the hallway and another little alien. This one had the same stripes, only they were light gray, and its body was almost black. It also had a little tuft on the end of its tail.

“Keeping an eye out?” she asked. Neither of them moved a whisker. She felt like an Old West gunslinger spotting snipers on top of the saloon.

She walked the last few feet to Jim’s room and reached out to knock, but it opened before her hand reached it. On a hunch, her eyes moved down and found Splunk standing on the carpeted floor. “Hello, Sansar,” the alien said.

“Morning, Splunk.” Her eyes moved back to the silent watchers. “Your friends are intense.”

“Skye and Zeeta,” she said, nodding. “They are part of Dante’s faction.” Sansar’s eyes narrowed, not understanding. “They don’t trust Humans.”

“Oh,” Sansar said. “What’s the other faction?”

“Mine,” Splunk said. She moved into the hallway and closed the door behind her.

“I need to talk to Jim,” Sansar said.

“In a minute,” Splunk replied. “We talk first.”

Sansar was taken aback. She wasn’t expecting to be talked to in such a way. She didn’t remember the last time it had happened, and to have it done to her by a little alien less than a meter tall was disconcerting, especially one her intel people had been sure was nothing important a few months ago. Of course, months ago nobody knew the Fae were the Dusman.

“What’s on your mind?” she asked.

“You know the situation has changed,” Splunk said. “I know, too, you are a kind of K’apo. We call them far-talkers. They’re a little like spiritual leaders. They always turn up near adulthood with sparkles on their ears.” She waggled her ears. “They have special powers, too.”

“Like what?”

“Well, they can send messages over light years.”

“No shit?” Sansar blurted. “How do they do that?”

Splunk gave her a very convincing side-eye, then smiled, showing tiny, razor-sharp teeth. “We don’t quite know.”

“You are the Dusman. You ruled the entire galaxy. You invented Raknar and all kinds of things we’ve never heard of but you say you don’t know how a sparkle-eared Dusman can talk over interstellar distances?”

They were a dozen meters further down the hall, so Sansar couldn’t see Skye or Zeeta watching them, though she was sure they were. “Sansar, the gulf of time between the Great War and now is vaster than you could comprehend.”

“Are you saying you don’t know a lot of what you did then?”

“I’m saying in many ways, we aren’t the same race we were then.” Splunk’s head turned to look at her hidden guards. “In other ways, we are unchanged.”

“What about us?” Sansar asked.

“Humans,” Splunk said, and gave an all-too-Human sigh. “Your race is an interesting one. I knew that when I met Jim, alone, drowning in a cave. We’ve lived in the shadows for a long, long time. When I rescued Jim and left with him, I violated a rule we’d had since your race was still learning to make stone tools.”

“Why did you do it?”

“Besides what I saw in Jim, our K’apo, Seldia, had a vision in which she saw that our two races are linked, our fates combined. This is another ability they have, visions.” She looked at Sansar. “You are a Human K’apo.”

“I can’t talk to people light years away,” Sansar said, scoffing.

“Are you sure?”

Sansar’s scoff turned to a gawk and Splunk smiled again. “What I wanted to say is we, the Dusman, are here, and we’re not leaving. However, what we will do here, now and in the future, is uncertain.”

“This faction of yours?” Sansar asked. Splunk nodded in agreement. “What does it all mean, in the grand scheme? How do Humans fit in?”

“A lot of that is largely up to you,” Splunk admitted. “So far I’m winning some of the other side over to mine. They sent ships to help you in New Warsaw and then here.”

Only a little. And if what I heard from the Hussars is true, you tried to run the show. “We’re grateful,” she said instead.

“You ask what it means, how you fit in? I can’t answer your question; not yet, anyway. I can tell you events are now in motion which will reshape the galaxy again.”


“Like it did in the Great War. Maybe bigger.” Splunk looked at the floor. If Sansar didn’t know better, she’d think the little Dusman looked worried. “However it happens, you Humans are destined to be at the center of it all. Win or lose, however it comes up, your fate is tied to the outcome.”

“Another great war?” Sansar asked in a low whisper. Splunk gave a little nod. I thought we might be done with war after the last one. Blue Sky above, I should have known better. Then she said, “Why now?”

“The time is not largely up to you,” Splunk said. “The pieces on the game board don’t get to decide how they’re used; they can only do their jobs.”

Sansar swallowed. Is that what we are to you? Game pieces?

“Okay, you better wake Jim up now,” Splunk said.

“You know what’s happening?”


“Why am I not surprised?”

They walked back to Jim’s room.

* * *

Unnamed Hotel, Washington, DC

Jim woke to the knock, rolled over with a groan, and looked at the hotel room clock. It read 6:35 AM. He’d planned to cram in another half hour’s sleep.

“It’s Sansar, <Spee!>” Splunk said.

“Okay,” Jim mumbled and got to his feet. “Give me a minute to get dressed.”

Splunk jumped onto his shoulder as he opened the door to see Sansar standing there. She looked like he felt, except he didn’t know if she’d slept at all. She wasn’t wearing the fancy Horde dress uniform; instead, she was in duty fatigues. Jim had on the Cavaliers’ version of the same. “What’s up?” he asked.

“It seems the US government isn’t taking no for an answer.”

“Oh no,” he said. “You sure?”

“Yes. Follow me.”

Jim went with her to the elevator. She seemed distracted as they passed a cross-corridor. He glanced around without noticing anything. They rode down to a much lower floor. Sansar had a suite of five connected rooms and had turned it into a command center. It wasn’t as fancy as Jim’s room. A dozen Golden Horde personnel manned a series of Tri-Vs, while a pair of burly guards watched the door. Splunk looked at all the technology with hungry eyes.

“Update?” Sansar asked. A large-screen Tri-V snapped on with a map of the southern United States.

“Confirmation on all fronts,” one of her people said.

Sansar nodded and moved into the middle of the displays before turning to Jim. “About a half hour ago, we detected movement at four different military bases; Edwards Air Force Base in California, White Sands in New Mexico, Pine Bluff in Arkansas, and Mayport Naval Station in Florida.”

Jim ran the locations through his pinplants. They all matched up with a short list of US military bases holding active elements of the country’s forces. The most worrisome was White Sands. “Have they launched any missiles?”

“Not yet,” she said, her eyes half closed. “We’ve got activity from the missile transporters though. They thought by not moving them, we wouldn’t notice.” She reached into her pocket and pulled out a case.

It popped open to show what he thought was a tiny blue dragonfly. Only dragonflies didn’t have cameras for eyes. Splunk leaned out, her eyes narrowing as she examined it. “That’s impressive,” Jim admitted.

Sansar shrugged. “One of my intel people developed them a year or two ago. Too small to be effective weapons, but they’re fast and have a very long flight time. They’re great intelligence gathering tools.”

Jim glanced at Splunk, who had a strange, knowing look on her face. If he didn’t know better, he’d have guessed she’d seen them before and wasn’t too impressed.

“We seeded every US base with these little guys as soon as you let me know what you were planning with Texas,” Sansar explained.

“Wasn’t my initial idea,” Jim said.

“Sure, but you took advantage of it.”

Jim couldn’t argue with her there. He’d needed a way to keep all the Human mercs on board. The vast majority of them were based in Houston. Without the United States, or at least a small piece of it, they probably wouldn’t have gone along, or would have left to go off-world. He’d talked with Sansar about the possibility the US would freak out over Texas. He didn’t think it would go this far or this fast. Apparently, she’d been less convinced.

“Show me what they’re sending?” he asked.

Sansar nodded and the various Tri-Vs began showing different feeds. The tiny dragonfly drones were observing all kinds of activity. At Edwards Air Force Base, squadrons of fighters were lined up on the flight line. Specialized trucks were busily loading long, sleek missiles and round, bulky bombs. Son of a bitch.

On the Florida coast, three old warships were moving out of port. A magnetic scan showed another craft underwater, gliding into the Atlantic Ocean.

Pine Bluff, Arkansas, one of the oldest bases still operating in the United States, showed an aged tarmac crisscrossed with weeds. The hangars were worn and rusted in places, as were the dozens and dozens of VTOL troop transports lining up. As he watched, hundreds of soldiers carrying heavy combat rucks came running out of the hangars. Not a lot of troops; they must be counting on strategic strikes to cripple the enemy.

The last was the most worrisome; White Sands was a missile test range. Not a lot of testing went on, and it hadn’t for a century. However, it was where the United States kept its inventory of strategic missiles. It should have been ground zero for the counterattack against the Mercenary Guild’s forces. Shortly after first contact, the missiles were updated with Union tech to make them serviceable anti-ship missiles. However, when the attack came, not a single missile had flown in retaliation.

Jim could see the launchers now, with fresh signs of life showing—covers removed from missiles and crews rushing around. Half probably won’t work. Which meant, of course, that half probably would.

“How long before they’re ready to launch?” he asked.

“We estimate two hours,” said one of Sansar’s techs.

“What do you want to do?” Sansar asked.

Jim’s eyes went across the displays, and he sighed. “I sent the report on our proceedings and the announcement of Texas’s independence to the press before I went to sleep. I just checked the Aethernet, it’s all over the place. A lot of opinion and op-eds are calling for invading Texas. A new Nazi state, one called it. Another said the south was rising and had threatened everybody with its mercenary army.” He looked up at Sansar. “I need to try and stop this.”

“You won’t be able to,” she said. “I’ve been reading the same stories. The rest of the world is more sympathetic to Texas and is interested in the Federation you’re creating.”

“I’m not creating it,” he said. “I’m no more than a midwife. Mordechai Smith—now he could be considered the Terran Federation’s father. But I need to stop it from being a stillbirth.”

Jim moved to the side and used his pinplants to send a series of messages. One was to President Collins. She replied in seconds. It seemed she’d been waiting for his warning. She also gave him the number he wanted. He dialed it and shared the connection with Sansar’s team.

“This is a secure line,” a stern voice answered.

“I need to speak to President Lewis.”

“She is not available. Who is this?”

“Then put on Vice President Stockton.”

“I am terminating this call.”

“We are tracking your forces preparing to invade the Republic of Texas.”

“Hold the line.”

Jim waited for a short time. There was a click and G. Edward Stockton came on. “Let me guess, Colonel Cartwright?”

“Right in one, Mr. Vice President.”

“We’re a little busy here, young man. What can I do for you?”

“I can imagine how busy you are…in the war room…under the White House.”

“What do you want?”

“Turn your forces around,” Jim said.

“That sounded like an order.”

“Call it what you will,” Jim said.

“You mercs were wrecked in the war,” Stockton said. “You’re nothing more than a paper tiger. Do you honestly think we’ll let you carve out a kingdom run by mercenaries on American soil? You are sadly mistaken.”

“It is you who are sadly mistaken,” Sansar said. “Do as Colonel Cartwright says and it ends now.”

“Enkh, you aren’t even American. You have no right to even be here. On what authority do you presume to give me orders?”

“The same as mine,” Jim said. “We are the Four Horsemen. Have you ever heard our pledge?”

“No, what pledge?”

Jim and Sansar spoke as one. “The Four Horsemen for Earth!”

“Earth,” Jim repeated. “Not the United States. You worked with Peepo. I can’t prove it was you directly. Frankly, it doesn’t matter. The nations preparing to create the Federation don’t care, either. What remains of the United States is so full of the cancer of greed and avarice there is nothing else left.”

“The missiles at White Sands are preparing to fire,” someone said.

Jim looked at the Tri-V showing the facility. The covers were retracting, and dozens of deadly missiles were slowly being elevated on launch gantries. “I’ll say it again, Mr. Vice President. Stand down.” There was no reply.

Jim looked at Sansar who stared back at him. She gave an almost imperceptible nod. “Okay,” he said. “If that’s how it has to be.” He terminated the call.

<Use Doom.>

Jim staggered a little. Reaching out, he grabbed a support holding up a Tri-V projector and nearly toppled the whole thing.

<Go, join, fly there, dig them out, kill them all.>

The ringing in his ears was so loud, he didn’t hear the shouts of alarm in the command center. Hands reached out to him, and he acted.

“Jim, are you okay?”

Jim shook his head. A young Horde officer was on the floor under him, Jim’s hands around his throat. The hapless man was turning purple as at least three people tried desperately to drag Jim off. Jim didn’t know how the knife got in his hand, only how good it felt to plunge it into the man’s chest and see the blood spray. Someone screamed, a fist hit his face. He hardly felt it. Splunk touched his pinplants, and they joined.


He blinked and looked at Sansar who was looking back at him, alarm in her eyes. Jim searched for the man he’d just killed. There was nobody on the floor. There was no blood spray on his uniform. He looked down at his hands—there was no knife. He hadn’t even brought his sidearm from his room. What the fuck just happened? He turned his head and saw Splunk looking at him, her huge blue-on-blue eyes slightly glazed over.

<Doom…> echoed in his mind like a sweet summer breeze.

“Are you there?” Sansar asked. “You stumbled, I thought you were going to pass out. Should I get a medic?”

“No!” he snapped, sounding harsher than he intended. “No, I’m okay. I just haven’t gotten enough sleep in the last few days.”

“They’re launching,” a tech said anxiously.

“Sorry,” Jim said, and made the call. “Captain Wolfsong, are you there?”

“Yes, Colonel Cartwright,” a rich voice replied. “I have descended to a low Earth orbit over North America. EMS Sir Barton stands ready.”

“You have the coordinates for White Sands?” Jim asked.

“We are observing now. My technicians say they are launching five of their fourteen multi-use strategic missiles. Please track and verify their targets.”

“Roger that.”

A few seconds tense seconds passed in the command center. Jim used them to try and remember what he’d felt. Some kind of an episode? The blood, the rage—it all felt so good, so right. He shuddered. He ran a diagnostic on his pinplants. No errors, and no record of any strange inbound signals, or visual memories. What the fuck was that?

“Colonel Cartwright?” Captain Wolfsong called.

“Go ahead,” Jim replied.

“All five missiles are targeted for San Antonio, Texas.”

“I have President Collins,” a tech said.

“Madam President, did you hear that?” Sansar asked.

“Loud and clear,” Collins replied. “Thanks to the satellite feed provided by the Horde, we can also see the missiles on our own computers.”

“What would you like us to do?”

“As President of the Republic of Texas, I formally request assistance from the Four Horsemen.”

“Granted,” Jim said.

“Granted,” Sansar said.

“Granted,” Captain Wolfson said from orbit.

“I’m sure if Colonel Shirazi was here, he would concur,” Sansar added. “Captain Wolfsong, if you would, please?”

“Gladly,” the man replied.

Orbiting 1,000 kilometers above, the Winged Hussars’ Crown-class cruiser EMS Sir Barton opened fire. Her primary armament consisted of a one-terawatt particle accelerator cannon and five five-gigawatt laser batteries, all forward mounted. The lasers were both tunable and scalable. They each unleashed a ten-megawatt pulse which interacted with noble gasses in the atmosphere, creating multi-hued shafts of glowing, pulsing light, which terminated in a missile exploding several kilometers above White Sands.

“All five missiles are destroyed,” Captain Wolfsong reported.

“Thank you,” Jim said, and turned to Sansar’s people. “What are the other launchers doing?”

“Continuing to prepare to fire,” a tech said.

“We have no choice,” Sansar said to Jim.

“I concur,” Jim said. “Captain Wolfsong, you have full weapons release.”

“I acknowledge,” the ship’s captain replied. “Preparing to fire.”

Sir Barton rotated and aligned her nose with a coordinate in New Mexico. Once in position, she initiated a slight rotation just as the bow shield over her spinal-mounted particle cannon opened. A terawatt beam of charged particles lanced out from her main gun. In addition to the spin, some yaw was introduced just as the firing started.

The particle accelerator beam hit White Sands like a 100-meter-wide cosmic blowtorch. Buildings, launchers, vehicles, concrete, steel, and everything else was instantly vaporized in an energetic release of massive power. Sir Barton’s wobbling spin moved the impacting beam in a spiral pattern. It fired for a total of six seconds.

“The launch complex is destroyed,” Captain Wolfsong reported.

“Incoming call from Washington, DC,” a tech said. Sansar made a gesture and a hysterical voice came on.

“What did you do?” Vice President Stockton demanded.

Jim cleared his throat. “In accordance with a request for aid, as a result of your unprovoked attack on the independent nation of the Republic of Texas, we have destroyed your capability to launch any more missiles.”

“Hundreds of people were at that base.”

“That’s unfortunate,” Sansar said in a monotone.

“You broke your merc rules! You attacked from space. The Peacemakers will—”

“Do nothing,” Jim snapped. “The rules of not attacking above a certain altitude only apply to mercenary contract-related actions. As for the Peacemakers, they are enforcing a truce between the Mercenary Guild and Earth. They will not intervene in a Human-on-Human conflict.”

“The submarine is rising to launch depth,” another tech said. “I have a missile launch.”

“Persistent son of a bitch,” Sansar said.

“What did you say?” Stockton demanded.

“Mute,” Sansar said. “Captain Wolfsong?”

“On it, Colonel.” Another laser flashed. “The submarine?”

“Do it,” Jim said.

In orbit, Sir Barton employed another of her weapons. A pair of missiles were ejected and rocketed away from her nose, accelerating at over 1,000 Gs. They burned like meteors as they hit the atmosphere. In less than 30 seconds they hit the water above the submarine with the force of a 20-kiloton bomb. They weren’t nuclear, but they didn’t have to be. Kinetic bombardment missiles were cheaper to make, effective, and didn’t leave any nasty radiation.

“The sub is gone,” Wolfsong said.

“Put him back on,” Sansar said. The line unmuted, and they were subjected to the nearly incoherent cursing screams of Vice President Stockton. “Mr. Vice President, are you done wasting lives?”

“You’ll regret that, you bitch,” he hissed at her.

“I expected better from an educated man,” Sansar said with slight air of amusement in her voice.

“We have inbound ground forces,” one of the Golden Horde men by the door yelled. “All four directions, and a pair of VTOLs coming in for a landing on the roof.”

“I got it,” Jim said, and activated his radio. “Colonel Spence, status?”

“Ready to go, Colonel Cartwright,” the man replied.

“Please deal with this,” Jim said. “Be aware of collateral damage.”

“Of course, sir. We’ve initiated our drop.”

“We can hold them,” Sansar assured Jim.

From all corners of the building, Golden Horde operatives began laying down suppressive fire against the APCs and troops which were rolling down the streets toward the conference center. The two VTOL transports were painted with ground-to-air radar. They responded by deploying electronic countermeasures—ECM—and diving below the level of nearby buildings.

Jim waited, feeling naked without his sidearm. When he looked around he saw the members of the Golden Horde looked almost bored. Sansar, though, looked a little annoyed. “What’s wrong?” he asked her.

“I wish we’d had time to get some troopers in place,” she said. “I hate asking for help.”

“Oh,” he said. “Don’t worry about it. Colonel Spence loves this shit.”

As if on cue, multiple sonic booms rolled across the city. The crack US soldiers who’d been tasked with a supposedly easy job—capture and neutralize the rebels in the conference center, looked up at the sounds to see dozens of meteors streaking toward them. A moment later, each meteor split apart and a figure fell free, riding jets.

“Okay, boys, take the fight to them!” Colonel Dan Spence of Gitmo’s Own called over the radio.

“Oorah!” his men yelled back, and the company of CASPers completed their HALDs and dropped into the battle.

* * *

West Potomac Convention Center, Washington DC

While the fight raged in the streets around the conference center, Jim rode the elevator down to the meeting halls. As soon as it became clear an attack would happen, he’d had all the delegates woken up and moved downstairs so they could be better protected.

As soon as he reached the conference floor and exited the elevator, he saw the first signs of force. An entire squad of Golden Horde mercs were present and in Mk 8 CASPers. How the hell did she get them into DC? Sansar was as sneaky as the Dusman, it would seem.

“Colonel Cartwright,” one of the troopers said over his external speaker. Jim could see sergeant stripes and the name “Jem Enkh” painted on the cockpit.

“Sergeant,” Jim said. “Situation?”

“The facility is secure,” the NCO reported. “I have two squads at my disposal. One is here armed for close combat, the other on the roof under cover.”

Jim examined the CASPer and saw it was armed only with a minigun and the ubiquitous arm switchblade. Of course, against Humans those were formidable weapons. No MACs or lasers, which would be much more likely to cause collateral damage. “Any problem with the delegates?”

“They’re a little freaked out,” the sergeant said. “And more than a little pissed that the government is trying to attack the building.”

“I bet,” Jim said. “Be sure to let me know as the situation evolves.”

“Will do, sir.”

The elevator next to him opened, and Sansar’s XO, Lieutenant Colonel Beth ‘Bambi’ Lobdell, came out. She was holding Jim’s gun belt and light body armor. “Sansar thought you might need these.”

“She thinks I’ll need them?” Jim asked, taking the gear.

“Okay, she fears you might need them.”

“Thanks,” Jim said, and Bambi went back into the elevator.

“Mr. Cartwright!”

Jim sighed and turned around. Who else could it be, but the conference center manager? As Jim unbuttoned the armor vest and started to shrug into it, he realized he didn’t know the man’s name. “Yes?” he asked, not looking up from clipping the armor straps in place.

“This is completely unacceptable! There are…armored hooligans in the convention center.” He pointed at the floor. “Just look at the carpet! They are tearing the carpet! We only replaced it last year. This cannot stand.”

Jim finished fastening the armor, looked up at the man, and unlocked the gun belt. When the manager saw the weapon his eyes went as wide as dinner plates. Jim drew the weapon and checked the load. He was afraid the guy’s eyes were about to physically pop out of their sockets. Splunk looked at the man, whose state of confusion and alarm was growing by the second. “Do you know what’s happening outside?” Jim asked.

“Some kind of civil unrest,” the man said in a shaky voice. “This is Washington, DC; there are incidents like this on a weekly basis.”

“You don’t have tanks advancing up Virginia Avenue every week, though.” He holstered the gun and locked eyes with the manager. “Do you?”

“Tanks?” he squeaked. “Coming this way?”

“Yes, and yes,” Jim said. He pulled out his slate and held it out, activating the computer’s Tri-V. It showed a live feed from Sansar’s amazing drones of M-9 battle tanks rumbling down the street a kilometer away, two abreast. The manager gasped.

Jim guessed that, to him, they looked like sleek, death-dealing machines. Jim had faced far worse on his first combat mission. Compared to the Zuul fusion-powered behemoths, these lumbering dozers were a joke. The US government hadn’t even upgraded them with energy weapons on their turrets.

“Look, whatever your name is…”

“Howard Rambo,” the man said.

“Rambo? No shit?” The manager’s face darkened. “Okay, Mr. Rambo, we’re going to deal with this attack, and if you’re smart you’ll head to a sub-basement and lock yourself in a meat locker, just in case we don’t succeed.”

“How can you possibly succeed? Those are tanks!”

Jim cast such a predatory grin at the manager, which caused him to take a step back. “Oh, those tanks are lucky,” Jim said.

“Lucky, how?”

“That my Raknar is still in São Paulo. Now, git!” Rambo fled.

“You enjoyed that, <Cooo!>” Splunk said.

“You’re God-damned right I did,” Jim said and strode toward the meeting hall.

A team of Sansar’s people were guarding the hall’s various exits. These men and women were in light combat armor and carried laser carbines. A couple had shotguns, which would have been better suited for a fight inside the convention center. You used the tools you had, not wished for ones you didn’t.

As soon as he entered, the delegates’ voices rose in a roar. Jim held up his hands and walked to the podium he’d used less than a day earlier. “We’re in no danger,” he said, having to shout to be heard.

“Then why all the guns and armored suits?” someone yelled back.

“To be sure, you are in no danger,” Jim said. Someone laughed. “If you aren’t aware, the United States military attacked the Republic of Texas less than an hour ago with nuclear-tipped missiles.” Gasps. “Thanks to the Winged Hussars’ warship in orbit, none of the weapons found their targets. As the United States command structure was unwilling to cease the attack, the same warship destroyed the military base launching the attack.

“Next, a nuclear submarine fired missiles at Texas. Again, the missiles were intercepted, and the submarine destroyed. Thus far, casualties are light and restricted to military personnel. However, I need your help to stop this.”

“What can we do?” asked Chancellor Brewster of Germany. Despite his initial misgivings, his nation had agreed to join the Federation early on.

“I need your nations to contact the United States’ leadership and stop this now. They have ground and air forces about to launch a conventional attack.”

“You cannot stop it?” Chancellor Brewster asked. All the other leaders listened intently.

“Oh, we can stop it,” Jim assured him. “We can stop it by killing every soldier, shooting down every plane, and sinking every ship.” He took a deep breath and leaned on the podium. He felt old. “Is this how we want to see the birth of the Federation? Even after the war, the Human merc forces are more than capable of dealing with conventional forces. It’s a testament to what I’ve been saying about your governments not modernizing. We would go through them like a dropship through vacuum.

“Thousands more will die. Many of them are just patriotic soldiers following orders. They’ve been told the Texans are rebels out to destroy the United States. Of course, Texas couldn’t care less about the United States, which is why they seceded instead of trying to take over.”

“Are you asking us to declare war?” It was President Ferme of Mexico. Of all the leaders who’d joined the Federation, his country was most at risk in an armed conflict with the nation on his border.

“No,” Jim said. “However, I believe you have to leave the option open if the US leadership is to listen. Please,” he said, looking around at the assembled men and women, “put a stop to this.”

“We have no communications,” someone called out.

“I can fix that with direct satellite links through the Hussars’ ship in orbit. What do you say?”

* * *

West Potomac Convention Center, Washington DC

“I want to thank you for diplomatically ending the conflict. I was not looking forward to killing US soldiers.”

“Colonel Spence, I wasn’t looking forward to it either,” Jim admitted as he stood in front of the conference center. Spence’s Mk 7 CASPer stood with its cockpit open in a line with eight other suits, their cockpits closed. Even at a simple parade rest, their line was perfectly dressed. Each sported a golden logo much like the USMC used, though if you looked closely the eagle’s talons were dripping green blood.

The streets around the conference center were littered with smoldering tanks. Spence’s men had been careful in their fire. Sansar’s drones confirmed extremely light casualties on the American side. He’d been so careful that he’d lost two men, both of whom would have been spared if he’d been able to use force freely. Reporters were as thick as flies, and much to Jim’s amazement, they’d caught onto the mercs’ careful use of force and were actually reporting it.

It was still too soon to see how the public would come down in the end. There was generally shock and denial at Texas leaving the United States. One poll showed 43% agreed with the use of force, with 31% disagreeing and 26% undecided.

Two blocks away, a barricade was set up, composed of a pair of wrecked M-9 tanks. Behind it, soldiers could be seen observing through binoculars. They looked ready to fight. Colonel Spence’s mercs looked hopeful they’d try.

“So, what now?” Spence asked.

“They’re about to vote on the formal intent paperwork,” Jim told him. “The Terran Federation is official. It all has to be ratified, of course. We got 143 out of the 150 signatories of the Articles of Republic. That’s not as many as we needed, but we added eight Middle Eastern nations who were not in the Republic, and Israel and the UK. With a total of 153 it makes it official; the Federation is now the global body of government with the authority to treat with the Galactic Union. I suspect a lot more will join once they see the Federation works differently.”

“I owe my XO fifty credits,” Spence said. Jim cocked his head curiously. “I bet him you wouldn’t succeed without another war. This little ruck-up doesn’t count.”

“I’m glad it wasn’t a war,” Jim said. Something in the back of his mind whispered—Doom. He shook his head, and it went away. It was approaching late afternoon, and a lot had happened. The press was desperate to know who’d authorized a nuclear attack against Texas. The White House said it was the President and Vice President with approval of the Joint Chiefs. Less than an hour later, a press release stated President Jill Lewis had suffered a massive stroke related to the stress from the conflict and was being transported to Walter Reed Hospital.

“I doubt she’ll live out the night,” Sansar had said. Her intel people were reasonably sure the President had been brain-dead for weeks, though they were not sure how it had happened.

What a mess my country has become. Jim caught sight of a United States flag flying from the improvised barricade, the soldiers below it watching him warily. Former country, he corrected himself. He’d already transmitted his change in citizenship from the United States of America to the Republic of Texas to the Mercenary Guild.

“Jim?” Sansar transmitted to his pinplants.

“Go,” Jim replied.

“They’re preparing for the final vote. You should be here.”

“Right,” he replied. “Colonel, see you soon.”

“You bet,” Spence said and snapped a crisp salute. Jim returned it, though with less form. He grinned at the slightly bemused look on the man’s face and hurried inside.

He passed the manager, Howard Rambo, on his way in. He looked nervous still, but not freaked out any longer. In fact, he thanked Jim for sparing his facility. Jim didn’t have the heart to tell him that the man’s precious facility was of no real concern to the operation.

Jim reached the meeting room and rushed in. A wave of applause passed through the crowd at his arrival. He felt his cheeks getting hot, and he walked with his head lowered to avoid anyone seeing it. Sansar was at the podium and had been holding things down while Jim talked with Colonel Spence.

As he approached, President Collins and Prime Ministers Stahl and Mizrah applauded. “Knock it off,” he said as he reached the podium, though he was grinning. Sansar had a strange look on her face.

“Colonel Cartwright, we had a last-minute addition,” Stahl said, speaking for the three of them.

“A problem?” he asked.

“Not as long as the condition is met,” he replied. Sansar handed the man a slate and he read. “By unanimous joint agreement of the 153 signatories of the Agreement of Federation, in order to form the Terran Federation, pending approval of its signatory governing bodies, it is hereby stated, proclaimed, and set forth the new position within the Federation of the Minister of War.”

“That’s quite the position for someone to hold,” Jim said.

“It sure is,” Sansar said, staring at him. Jim got an uneasy feeling in his stomach as Stahl concluded.

“Further held in joint unanimous resolution, the first person to hold the post of Minister of War will be James Eugene Cartwright, II, to hold said position for a term of not less than two years, and not more than ten.” He looked at Jim expectantly.

Jim looked at the grinning visage of Sansar. “You bastard.”

* * * * *

Chapter Seven

Approaching Houston, Texas, Earth

Sansar slept for half the trip back to Houston. She was so exhausted by the time she boarded the sub-orbital shuttle she had no memory of the liftoff. She awoke just as the shuttle began its reentry burn through the atmosphere.

Jim had been pretty roundly pissed off at being corralled into a position with the government. She’d had to work hard to convince him it wasn’t her idea. Of course, it wasn’t. No, the idea had been Mordechai Smith’s brainchild. He’d rather the Federation had no standing military, and when he’d heard Jim had worked hard to get one, he’d retaliated by suggesting that the kid lead it.

Jim got his payback by having the Federation agree to have each of the Four Horsemen serve as the first four Ministers of War. The term hadn’t been set yet, of course. She thought it would be four years. She had to admit she’d been hoisted on her own petard. It was likely that whoever was serving would be on-planet for a lot of those four years. In the end, they’d both agreed it was a cost worth paying to be sure Earth was no longer a soft target.

An added bonus was the gravitas that having a Horseman in charge of defense would lend to the job. Even the crazy attack by the United States against the Texas Republic ended up being a net benefit to the birth of the Federation.

As the braking rockets ceased firing and the shuttle slid into an approach path, she sipped a bottle of water and congratulated herself.

Vice President Stockton hadn’t been easy to manipulate. He was far too unpredictable in many ways. In the end, it was money which proved the key. She shrugged; it had only cost her fifty million dollars to set the events in motion. Hard cash in small denominations were hard to trace. Even if the bastard tried to implicate her down the road, it would be his word against hers. Who would they believe, a sleezy politician or a Horseman?

Her trump card was that some of the bills were indeed possible to trace—directly to the East Asian drug trade. Mr. Stockton wouldn’t like how it played out in the press. If that didn’t work and he went after her anyway, she had ample intelligence assets in DC, both official and unofficial. Mr. Stockton would have an accident—a lethal one.

“We’ll be landing in ten minutes, Colonel,” her pilot informed her.

“Good,” she said. There’s more work to be done.

* * *

Washington, DC

The press had gone into conniptions when it was revealed Jim Cartwright been named the Terran Federation’s first Minister of War. They were apoplectic to hear further that each of the Four Horsemen would serve in the position, and it could only be held by an active or former merc company commander with at least ten years’ experience. The Horsemen were exempt from the time-in-grade requirement.

“Does this mean the new Federation plans to go to war?” asked an older reporter with a permanent sneer on his face.

“You never want to go to war,” Jim replied evenly. “Sometimes it finds you anyway, though. Better to be prepared.”

“Will the first war be against the United States?” a snooty European reporter asked.

“It almost was,” Jim confirmed. “They were dead-set on going to war with one of the founding members, the Republic of Texas.”

“Was this Federation thing your plan all along when you started a war with the Galactic Union?” a man with a French accent asked. Jim had no idea where he was from—Quebec, France, or somewhere else entirely.

“That’s an amazingly ignorant statement on many accounts,” he replied. The man gawked in astonishment as Jim continued. “It’s not a thing; it’s the Terran Federation. We didn’t go to war with the Galactic Union, the Mercenary Guild under General Peepo went to war with us. And lastly, our only plan was to liberate Earth from the guild’s ill-conceived war against us.

“Is it true you will take no salary for holding your position?”

“Yes,” Jim said. “Actually, no elected or appointed position within the Terran Federation will receive any salary, only a stipend for travel and housing. I’ve refused that as well.”

“How do you expect to get quality bureaucrats with such a policy?” the same reporter asked.

“We don’t want bureaucrats,” he said. “Seems those useless drones are part of the reason the Earth Republic failed. We want as little government as possible. It’s also why it’s a Terran government, not an Earth government. People from Terra.”

“But not Humans,” someone else said, not really a question. Jim skipped over the person. The discussions had stalled over the aliens on Earth. A lot of the mercs and many civilians would have happily tossed the aliens on the first ship leaving, regardless of where the ship was going. More would have been equally happy marching the aliens into ovens. Jim wouldn’t allow either.

Thousands of alien mercs had been stranded on Earth. A lot were being held under guard at detention facilities. Those included Veetanho—the ones they’d managed to detain, anyway—Besquith, MinSha, Tortantula, and of course their Flatar, although not many of the latter two were still alive; they didn’t want to stop fighting. The Goka largely didn’t wish to give up, either, though a few did. There were several squads of the cockroaches working radiological cleanup in São Paulo, and doing it happily.

The other aliens included Zuul, Maki, Lumar, Jivool, and Oogar. The latter were amazingly docile and seemed to be enjoying their stay on Earth. After the ceasefire, they’d immediately begun finding jobs ranging from bouncing in bars to a group who had formed a metal band. Rumor had it they were thinking about touring with a long-running Led Zeppelin cover band celebrating its 125th year.

Colonel Spence showed pity on Jim when he found him in the conference center bar after the delegates began heading home. Jim had spent all day trying to find transportation back to Houston. After exhausting any faster forms, he’d begun to call car rental companies and was beginning to think about buying a vehicle.

“Trouble?” Spence asked.

“Can’t get home,” Jim said, adding an uncomfortable laugh. “All my company’s air assets are beginning training operations with the new troopers.”

“Don’t want to mess up training for your own convenience?”

“Not a chance,” Jim said, shaking his head.

“You would have made a good Marine,” Spence said, then he pulled out a handheld orbital comm. “Fallujah, this is Gitmo Actual.”

“Go ahead, Colonel.”

“Send down a shuttle to my 20. Put it at the disposal of Colonel Cartwright.”

“No, Dan,” Jim started to say, but Spence gave him a sharp look, and Jim shut up.

“I’ll have it making entry within the hour, sir.”

Spence shut off the radio and nodded to Jim. “We bled on the same alien shores, sir. It is my honor.”

Jim didn’t know what to say, so he shook the man’s hand and took the offered ride. Buddha and he were taxiing down the Hobby tarmac two hours later. The only downside was it appeared Splunk was sick on the return trip. She looked lethargic and had trouble sleeping.

“You want me to take you back to the apartment as soon as we land?” he asked. She only nodded. “Do you need a doctor?” She shook her head. He tried offering her a meat stick, and she refused. Despite her assurance she didn’t need medical help, he was worried about her.

“You want to get some dinner?” Buddha asked as they went down the shuttle ramp.

“No, I need to take Splunk up to the apartment. She isn’t feeling well. You go have a good meal, and we’ll meet tomorrow.” He almost forgot to thank the shuttle pilot before hurrying across the baking tarmac to the old control tower where he lived. All the while, he expected Splunk to puke or something, but she just rode in his arms, half asleep.

He got into his apartment and took the elevator to his bedroom. She even let him put her in the dresser drawer she liked to sleep in.

“Thanks, Jim, <Cooo!>” She gave a half yawn, half moan, curled up, and pulled a blanket over her.

“I have some work to do,” he said. “I’ll be back in a few hours.” She made a little cooing sound but didn’t move. With some trepidation, Jim left her to return to the headquarters building.

“Welcome back, Colonel,” Lieutenant Jordan said as he walked in. It was already after hours and she was still working.

“Lieutenant,” he said and dropped the satchel he kept his slates and other paperwork in.

“Should I call you minister now?” she asked as he walked by.

Jim froze in his tracks and turned his head to spear her with an icy stare. She had a tiny grin on her face. “Please don’t,” he said.

“As you wish, sir.” She handed him a chip. “Updated recruiting numbers.”

“Thanks,” he said and went into his office. In minutes, he was immersed in company paperwork.

Their recruiting had stepped up considerably after the incident in DC. They had enough to stand up at company strength, along with a platoon for cadre training. The experienced mercs were about 25% blooded mercs, 50% younger mercs with minimal experience, and 25% previously retired for one reason or another. It was a motley crew, especially for one of the Horsemen. Still, it was a solid start.

When he’d taken over, the Cavaliers were recovering from bankruptcy after his mother’s mismanagement. He’d later found out she’d been set up, to some degree. When the truth threatened to come out, Peepo had her killed. During their recovery time, Jim equipped his troopers with older CASPers and dropships which had been warehoused after retirement, all lovingly maintained by his deceased XO, Hargrave.

As the Cavaliers got better, completing contracts and making money, Jim once again put those older CASPers back into storage. After the devastation they’d experienced against the Merc Guild forces, he found himself again taking the old equipment out of retirement. He hoped it would be the last time he’d do so in his tenure as commanding officer of Cartwright’s Cavaliers.

Jordan had managed to find them a financial officer while Jim was in DC. It was a good thing, too, because detailed money management wasn’t in his wheelhouse. He could balance an account and work out P&L, however, there was no way he could forecast market effects, monitor trends, or figure out depreciation and other factors.

The new financial officer painted a grim picture if things didn’t change. Between the relief efforts the Cavaliers were funding, the death benefits they had to pay out, and rebuilding the company, they had less than six months of funds left. Before the war, they’d been flush with cash. Not anymore.

Jim requested the officer extend his evaluation to a more global scale. Earth had survived on merc funds before. It would take months, maybe years for the planet to get infrastructure in place to begin producing goods for sale on the galactic market. He needed to know how it all balanced out. Would it work in the current situation?

“You’re asking me to use a crystal ball,” the man complained.

“Just a best guess,” Jim replied, and the man had bent to the task.

His intercom buzzed, and he opened his eyes. He’d been submerged in his pinplants and not aware of his surroundings. The office was pitch black, as was the sky outside. His pinplants told him it was 21:42. The intercom buzzed again.

“Lieutenant Jordan, are you still there?”

“Yes, Colonel.”

“Good lord, why?’

“Because you’re still here, sir.”

I need to hire an assistant tomorrow. “Lieutenant, go home. That’s an order.”

“Yes, sir, but you have a visitor.”

“At almost twenty-two hundred hours?”


“Who is it?”

“Sorry, sir, I went home.”

“Lieutenant? Jordan, that’s not funny.” Jim got up and walked to his office door and pulled it open. Lieutenant Jordan was gone, but another woman was there in her place. She had her back turned to Jim and was looking at the wall. On it was a picture of every commander of Cartwright’s Cavaliers going back to Jim’s grandfather, Jim Cartwright I. “I’m sorry, who are you?” The other woman turned, and Jim realized who it was.

“You’ve been busy,” Ziva Alcuin said with a slight smile. “I heard you were back and wanted to stop in and say hi.”

“Hey!” Jim said, a grin breaking out on his face. He looked her up and down, the grin widening. The last time he’d seen her was before returning to his headquarters. He had her and her Depik partner Fssik transferred to a private medical facility in Dallas to be sure they weren’t in danger if anything happened to Houston during the Federation founding. He’d rescued the two after the battle in space above Earth. They’d used their special Depik ship to perform a nearly suicidal attack. They’d managed to eject, but only just.

She was nearly as tall as he was, probably 175 centimeters. She had her long black hair in an immaculate ponytail. Her features were well defined with a decidedly Indian feel to them. Her figure was pure woman. She walked with a cane, a testament to the fact that she was still recovering from her injuries. Other than that, she seemed in good health.

“Why are you here this late?” Ziva asked.

“Working,” Jim said. “No rest for the wicked. Why are you here?”

“I came down from Dallas because all the trouble you caused was over with.”

“Oh, the trouble I caused?”

She smiled, and he laughed. “How’s Fssik?”

“He’s still recovering, but he should be fine in a few more weeks, thanks to you.” She looked around the dark offices curiously. “Exciting life you lead.”

“Not often very exciting,” he admitted. “An old saying goes ‘War is long stretches of boredom followed by seconds of sheer terror.’”

“I can see that. How about interrupting your boredom with some dinner?”

“I could eat,” he said. “I don’t have a car, though. Hey, they had some food delivered to my apartment. I can make us dinner?”

She seemed to consider for a moment. “I have a rental, but you know what? That sounds great. I have to see what kind of an apartment you have at an old airport.”

A minute later, they were walking across the runway tarmac toward the control tower. His apartment had the top floors lit up, and red marker lights flashed on the radio towers above it.

“Okay, I’m impressed,” she said.

Jim felt a little strange as he keyed open the door. It was only a couple of years ago when he’d first let then-Adayn into the same building. Ziva was about as different from Adayn as he could imagine. Ziva was immensely self-confident, a member of a Depik clan, and tough as nails. She’d been in a ship which kamikazed into an enemy merc ship in retribution for the Depik home world being wiped out.

He held the door for her, and she slipped past. She wasn’t wearing any perfume, but he could smell the subtle aroma of her natural body sweat and soap. It was enticing. Oh, wow. They rode the elevator up, Jim keeping up a constant monologue describing the facility.

“You’ve never been to Houston?” he asked her.

“No,” she said, then looked embarrassed. “I’ve haven’t spent much time on Earth.”

“Oh, really? Where were you born?”

“A mining colony. It had a number, not a name. We called it Land’s End. I know, not very creative. Anyway, I eventually ended up on Earth after I got good VOWs. I went through cadre with Ragin’ Cajun out of New Orleans, learned the merc trade, and went back to space.”

“And now you’re partnered with a Hunter?”

“That is an even longer story,” she admitted. “Maybe I’ll tell it some day after we’ve gotten to know each other better.”

“Sounds like a deal,” Jim said as the doors slid open.

They walked out of the elevator into the massive round main level; the kitchen to the rear, with its small dining room, and the semi-circular sunken living room screamed 1970s. He looked at Ziva, who was standing with her jaw hanging open.

“Yeah, pretty corny,” he said and shrugged. “I think my grandfather must have been a fan of The Brady Bunch or something. I’ve meant to redecorate but never had time.”

“Oh,” she said, “it’s awesome!


“Yeah,” Ziva said. “It’s like something from Better Homes and Gardens in the 20th century.”

“How do you know about old magazines if you grew up away from Earth?”

“My mom, Tamir. The colony had loads of old magazines, some digitally scanned, others in hard copy. Space is boring. I grew up with stuff like that. Old movies, too.”

“Oh?” Jim asked. He was about to ask if she wanted to go to his room and see all the old movie posters on his wall, but he blushed and looked away. Don’t be an idiot, she’s just grateful you saved her and her Depik.

“Yeah,” she said, smiling at him.

He could feel his cheeks getting hot. “Uhm, how about dinner?”

“I’m starving,” she said. “What do you have?”

Ziva and he went through the apartment’s food inventory. Lieutenant Jordan had gotten him a wide variety. After all, she was an administrative officer, not his assistant, and whoever Hargrave had hired to take care of his culinary needs was no longer working for the Cavaliers. It looked like she’d selected a little of everything. After listening to his guest’s interests, he ended up picking pad thai noodles, roasted chicken, and fresh stir-fry veggies.

Thanks to the modern meal packs, they were sitting at the little dinner table talking and eating in less than fifteen minutes. They both enjoyed the food greatly, as well as the conversation. He had to admit that despite how beautiful she was, Ziva was also easy to talk to. Her knowledge of old movies was kind of slapdash in nature, and he began to wonder if she’d like to come by to watch movies sometime.

“It’s too bad you can’t come by more often,” he said offhand. He’d found some little ice cream sandwiches in the freezer and they were enjoying them as a dessert. “I mean, if you wanted to?”

“Well, I had an ulterior motive for coming here,” she said.

Is she blushing? “What’s that?” he asked, his pulse quickening.

“I was hoping for a job? The Depik are in bad shape, and we’re out of communications with the survivors, but I know they’ll be trying to put things back together, somehow. Until then, we need to take care of ourselves.”

“There are apartments in officers’ country,” Jim said. “You’re welcome to stay as long as you want.”

“No,” she said with more emotion than he was expecting. “I mean, that’s very generous of you, but I’m not interested in charity.”

“It’s not charity,” Jim insisted. “The Depik did us a service during the battle we cannot easily repay.”

“That might be the case, but it doesn’t change my feelings. If you don’t need my services, I can find another merc outfit.”

Jim admired the way she set her jaw in determination. It reminded him a little of his mother when he was younger, before she seemed to lose her way. “Are you CASPer qualified?”

“No,” she admitted. “I’m familiar and have a checkout, but never got qualified in combat. I chose an MOS of LMS.”

“Light mobile scout,” he said, nodding. “We’ve never had a team.” She looked disappointed. “How about you make one for me?”

“Really?” she asked, brightening immediately.

“Sure,” he said. “I’m low on CASPers anyway, so armored scouts probably wouldn’t work. Consider yourself hired, Lieutenant Alcuin.”

“Oh, I’ve only ever been an NCO.”

“Not anymore,” he said. She looked concerned but nodded in agreement. “I’ll let Lieutenant Jordan, my admin officer, know you’ve been hired. My recruitment team will set up a contract. Welcome to the Cavaliers,” he said and held out a hand. Ziva took his hand and shook it. It was a firm shake, and warm. “Now, have you ever seen Star Wars?”

* * *

Cartwright’s Cavaliers Main Base, Houston, Texas, Earth

“Well, what did you think?” Jim asked.

“The space fights were kinda stupid,” Ziva said.

“It was made 150 years ago.”

“Oh, yeah,” she said and popped a popcorn kernel in her mouth. “Well, I think it sucks that Chewie didn’t get a medal, too. What the fuck was up with that?”

Jim laughed and nodded his head. “A lot of people said that sucked. It was never explained in later movies.”

“They made more?”

“Oh, sure, twenty-three of them.”

“Huh,” she said and took a drink of water. She’d passed on a Coke, and the soft drink was the only thing he had besides water. “I wouldn’t think there was enough there for a ton of movies.” She glanced at the delicate watch she wore. “Wow, 2:00 AM; I need to get back to the hotel. I’ll bring my stuff over after my paperwork is finished.”

“We have plenty of officer billets,” he said.

“Where’s you little friend, the Dusman?”

“Splunk? She wasn’t feeling well. I should check on her.” He didn’t realize she was following him until he opened the door to his bedroom.

“Wow, Austin Powers would be jealous.”

Jim shook his head. “How can you have seen Austin Powers movies and not Star Wars?” She shrugged, and he went over to the dresser. It was part-way open, just like he’d left it. There was a slightly strange smell as he got closer, and he noticed a towel on the floor which looked damp and…bloody?

“Oh no,” he said and ran the last few steps.

Splunk was lying on her side, curled up among his old T-shirts and underwear. She looked up as he leaned over, her big blue-on-blue eyes only half open. She looked utterly exhausted. “Splunk, are you…” His question trailed off unasked as he saw she was curled around something. To be precise, two little somethings. They were covered in a dark brown fur with delicate legs and tails. Both of them turned overly large heads toward him, their long delicate ears going up at his voice, and huge all-black eyes taking him in.

“These are my babies, <Spee!>” she said.

Jim put a hand to his mouth, completely flabbergasted. Ziva looked around him and saw the scene, her eyes sparkling in wonder. “Congratulations, poppa,” she chided.

“Holy shit,” was all he could think of to say.

* * * * *

Chapter Eight

Council Chambers, Merc Guild Headquarters, Capital Planet

“This is the council chamber,” the MinSha private said coming to a stop next to a door that was labeled similarly.

Nigel stepped forward, opened the door, and held it for Alexis, pointedly ignoring the MinSha.

“Thanks,” she said as she passed the trooper. “He isn’t very good with manners.”

The MinSha bowed and went back in the direction she’d come from.

Alexis smiled at Nigel’s frown and entered the council chamber. To the best of her knowledge, she was the first Human to ever do so.

The room was…unimpressive. Yes, it was ornate enough, and the walls were lined with a variety of images and trophies from the member races—she counted quickly and it looked like there were approximately 36 displays, so probably one for every race. What she found unimpressive was that the room itself appeared very similar to any other large conference room she’d ever been in, complete with six rows of stadium seating. The main table, located at floor level to her right, held nine seats, with four on each side and one on an end. She expected that was probably the Speaker’s position. The stadium seating rose to the left, with a variety of seating styles for each of the races. On the other side of the main table, there were two additional rows of stadium seating. Several of the seats in the first row appeared to be configured in what looked like Human-normal chairs.

The entire room was empty.

“Do you suppose we missed it?” Alexis asked, turning to find Nigel studying one of the displays.

“What?” he asked, looking back to her. He looked around. “Uh, no idea. We’re either really early or really late.” He motioned to the display. “Come look at this.”

Alexis walked over to find the display was the display for the Goltar race, which also was labeled with a tag that said, simply, “Speaker.” Although she’d never heard of them before a couple of weeks prior—aside from Sansar mentioning them from her trial—she was now passingly familiar with the race that had appeared with the Peacemakers. They had shown themselves to be very professional and no-nonsense, and she’d wondered where they’d been keeping themselves. Every time she’d asked a question along those lines, though, the Goltar she’d been talking to had avoided it and changed the subject. Their behavior was strange and made the squid-like beings somewhat creepy.

“No mistaking what they’re trying to say here, is there?” Nigel asked.

Alexis looked closer at the display. The image showed one of the Goltar standing in a room that looked an awful lot like the one they were in. The race looked like giant squids, especially when they were in the water, however, they were equally mobile on land, so their tentacles had to have some sort of bony structure inside to support them. On land, like it was in the picture, you could see the snapping red beak positioned underneath the bony crest that rose over its head.

What she hadn’t seen before was one of them standing with their front tentacles resting on the body of a dead Veetanho. The rat-like alien’s body had been turned so you could see the laser burns through its chest and head. While she was unable to tell if the Goltar was smiling, the pose it held made it look proud of its kill.

“No,” Alexis replied. “There isn’t a lot of question there at all.”

“It looks new, too,” Nigel added. “You don’t suppose they—”

“Deposed the disgusting rats and took their place on the council?” a translated voice asked. Nigel and Alexis spun to find that one of the Goltar had come in through a door on the other side of the conference table.

Alexis could see Nigel’s already swarthy skin darken further. “Well, yes,” Nigel replied after a second. “That’s actually pretty close to what I was going to say, anyway.”

“There is no sense denying it, as you will see its aftermath shortly. It’s not the first time that there has been armed conflict on the board, but nothing quite like what happened. My description of the event is fairly close to what occurred, and I am happy to say that I was the one to do so. The Goltar in the picture is me.”

Nigel chuckled. “Looks like you’re as big a fan of the Veetanho as we are.”

“If anything, we like them even less than you do,” the alien replied, “which is why I am glad you arrived here when you did. It will give us a few minutes to talk before the rest of the representatives arrive.”

Alexis raised an eyebrow, but then realized the gesture had probably been lost on the alien. “I’d like that,” she said finally. “I’ve been trying to get answers about who and what the Goltar are ever since your troopers showed up at Earth with the Peacemakers. Your people are remarkably facile in dodging questions they don’t want to answer.”

“I’m sure, although the lack of information about our race is not something that was intentional on our part.” The Goltar waved a tentacle toward the display. “Like everything else wrong with the Mercenary Guild, the Veetanho are responsible for that lack of information, too.”

“Oh?” Nigel asked, sounding skeptical. “How’s that?”

“The origin of the feud between the Goltar and the Veetanho has its roots in the aftermath of the Great War, and it is far too long a story to be told here. Suffice it to say, both our races desired the leadership of the Merc Guild Council and they were ultimately able to capture the position. Although they weren’t able to wipe us out as a race, they were able to wipe us out of the memories of most of the Galactic Union’s members.

“Aided by allies in the Information Guild, data about us was slowly and subtly removed from the GalNet. While we weren’t quite extinguished, access to information about our race was restricted, as were the Mercenary Guild’s own records. To most citizens of the Galactic Union, we were first reduced to a footnote in the galaxy’s history, and then we were forgotten.”

“Wait,” Nigel said. “You can restrict information on the GalNet? I thought once you had a GalNet node and were members of the Galactic Union, you could access all the information on the GalNet—that there weren’t any secrets.”

The Goltar made a clucking sound with its beak and tongue, much like what a Human mother might make. “I’m sure they would like you to believe that, wouldn’t they? As you can see, however, here I am. I am not a footnote; I am a living, thinking being.” It made the clucking noise again. “You obviously still have much to learn about the way the galaxy works.”

“I don’t get it, though,” Alexis said. “Why would you let them do that to you? I mean…if you just went around places, people would know you existed and they would question why you weren’t in the database. Wouldn’t that lead to questions that were at least hard for the people in power to answer?”

“The Veetanho suppressed the information on us because it pleased them to think they were humiliating us. They also thought that if our very existence was questioned, we would never again be able to take away their position of power. We allowed ourselves to be reduced to the shadows, because we knew one thing—we knew they were wrong. Although we continued to conduct a small amount of registered mercenary activity, to give the appearance that we were still involved in the guild, we made them believe that we had gone away to sulk. After a few thousand years, the Veetanho began to believe they had won, that we had accepted our place in the galaxy.

“But we did not. And when the time was right—several weeks ago—we moved, and we re-established ourselves as the rightful leaders of this council.”

“That’s a lot to take in at one time,” Alexis said. Her mind felt adrift, as many of the things she had known to be “true” were pulled out from under her like the proverbial rug. She had assumed the Humans’ presence would be required to put together a new council—one free of Veetanho leadership—she had never expected to get to Capital Planet and find that the council had already been re-established by a race she’d barely even heard of before.

“Wow,” Nigel said, obviously feeling the same way. “I’m not sure where that leaves us.”

“With us, of course,” the Goltar said. “We have a saying that the enemy of our enemy is our friend. As much as both of us hate the Veetanho, that surely makes us the best of friends, does it not?”

“We have a similar saying,” Alexis replied, trying not to commit herself to anything until she had a better understanding about what was going on, “and I look forward to working with you in the future. My name is Alexis Cromwell and this is Nigel Shirazi.”

“It is nice to meet two of the Horsemen who made Peepo’s life so difficult. I am Toyn-Zhyll, the Speaker-nominee.”

“When did that happen?” Nigel asked.

The Goltar clucked again, but in a different manner. Alexis’ translator indicated it was laughter. “When did I become nominee? When I killed that rat Seezo and the rest of the council killed each other.” More laughter. “At the end of the bloodletting, there was only myself and a Bakulu remaining from the audience that day. The funny thing, of course, is that the Bakulu weren’t even considered a full “merc race,” yet he is the one who survived the bloodbath. The Bakulu have long been applicants for the Merc Guild, but the Veetanho have blocked them from becoming full members of the guild.”

“Wait,” Nigel said, incredulous. “The delegates all killed each other? How is it that we haven’t heard of that?”

“There was some disagreement on the direction in which the Veetanho were leading the council, insults were exchanged, then the massacre began. Only the Bakulu and I, out of the 45 individuals present, were still alive at the end. In the…unpleasantness…that followed that council meeting, some of the other Veetanho and their allies were also dispatched in the headquarters building. It was…prudent…to lock down that information.”

Alexis couldn’t be sure, but her translator made it sound like the Goltar gave the killing of the Veetanho no more importance than putting down a rabid dog.

“The other question I have is, why didn’t the Veetanho want the Bakulu to be members?” Nigel asked. “I can understand why they didn’t want us, but doesn’t the guild do better with more races in it?”

“Why do the Veetanho do anything that they do?” the Goltar asked. “For a sense of self-worth and to proclaim themselves the greatest and smartest race that has ever lived. They probably didn’t want to allow the Bakulu in the guild because that would lessen their worth. Races looking to hire space forces might choose to hire a Bakulu admiral rather than a Veetanho one because they were cheaper. They might not be quite as good, but they’d be a whole lot more affordable.”

“That makes sense,” Alexis said. “I would probably do the same. I’d rather deal with a Bakulu I could trust than a rat that might shoot me in the back. Literally.”

“I agree,” the Goltar replied. “Regardless, I took the opportunity to approve the Bakulu nomination for member status that was on file, and there was no dissention. Then, as a full member of the guild, he nominated me to be the next Speaker, and there was no one else to gainsay him or to put forth a different candidate, so I was approved as temporary Speaker. I am hoping we will have enough members present today to confirm it. The one unfortunate side-effect of all the bloodletting was that, because we didn’t have a quorum on the council, we had to wait for the member races to send new representatives.”

“Send new representatives?” Nigel asked. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the Veetanho sent a whole fleet. How do you know that this won’t devolve into outright war between your races? If you are the one who shot the Veetanho Speaker, won’t they come after you?”

“The relationship between the Goltar and the Veetanho is…complicated,” Toyn-Zhyll replied. “Suffice it to say, they will not attack us, and similarly, we will play by the rules here. I didn’t start the bloodletting, it was the Goka representative who did.” He laughed. “You asked why you hadn’t heard about any of this. The answer, I would have thought, is obvious—we don’t want word of any turmoil in the Merc Guild getting out to the rest of the guilds. If they thought we were weak, there is no telling what they would do, nor the destruction to society that would result from it. We have put a moratorium on new contracts until we can get everything worked out.”

Alexis received a notification of an incoming file. “I just sent you a Tri-V of the last council meeting so you can make your own decisions about what happened and how we move forward,” Toyn-Zhyll continued. “The bloodletting is over, and we must move on. When we have enough representatives present—which we should very shortly, since the Veetanho ship just arrived—we will get on with the process of confirming a new Speaker.”

“You mean your confirmation,” Alexis said.

“If the member delegates should so choose,” the Goltar replied, “I would not refuse it. There is much that must be done to put the guild back together, and it must be done soon.”

“I don’t get it, though,” Alexis said. “Peepo got away from us at Earth. I would have thought she’d be here by now and up to her beady little eyes in plotting and subterfuge.”

“Her ship arrived here a week ago,” Toyn-Zhyll replied, “and so did what we think was most of her.”

“What does that mean?” Nigel asked.

“The remains of Peepo were onboard the ship, but they had to be picked up with a mop and bucket. It looked like someone had detonated high explosives inside her body…there wasn’t much left.”

“But it was her?”

“Absolutely. It was confirmed that the remains were Peepo’s. She’s dead.”

The door behind the Goltar opened, and several aliens entered the council room.

“I must take my place,” he said. “Your seats are over there.” He pointed toward the seats Alexis had seen on the far side of the conference table. “One of which was actually the Bakulu’s seat at the last meeting.” He chuckled. “If I were you, I would follow his example and be ready for anything today. You never know what opportunities might be presented to you.” He nodded, turned, and moved toward the other aliens.

Nigel turned and shook his head. “Wow. I’m having trouble processing all of that.”

“Me, too,” Alexis said. A small sigh escaped her.

“What do we do now?”

It was Alexis’ turn to shake her head. “We go and sit down.” She paused and then added, “And after that, I have no idea. Try to stay alive?”

They made their way over to the designated seats and sat down. Alexis tried to watch the Tri-V of the last council meeting, while simultaneously watching the interactions of the alien representatives as they came in. As the Goltar rep had said, he hadn’t started the carnage at the last meeting, it had actually been the Goka rep who had initiated the hostilities by beheading the Flatar rep. That said, the Goltar rep had been the one to shoot the Veetanho Speaker. Alexis wasn’t sure whether to thank him or be terrified of him.

“Son of a camel…” Nigel muttered next to her. “Have you watched the video the squid sent us?

“He’s a Goltar and probably wouldn’t like being called a squid,” Alexis replied. “But, yes, I have.”

“If that’s how council meetings generally go, I really wish I’d brought my CASPer.”

“I wish you had, too.”

There was a momentary hush as a Veetanho entered the room, followed by three Goka and three more Veetanho. The lead Veetanho looked around the room with a sneer then walked to the council table. The lead Goka also followed her to the table while the rest of the Veetanho and Goka walked up to the last row and took seats there. The Veetanho and the Goka at the table made a show of inspecting their seats with their slates as if looking for poisons or other booby traps.

“Excuse me,” Alexis said to the Pendal sitting next to her as the representatives scanned their seats. “Do you know why the Veetanho and Goka get multiple seats each on the council?” She did a double take as the realization hit her. “I guess an even better question is, how did you get a seat here? I didn’t think the Pendals were a mercenary race.”

“We are not,” the alien said in a harsh whisper. The Pendal wore a brown robe, and his face was hidden within the depths of the hood. “However, like the Jeha and some of the other races, we provide combat support. When council meetings are open, we are allowed to sit on the visitors’ side and listen to the proceedings. That way, we have a better idea of how to support future Merc Guild operations. While there are closed meetings where only the mercenary races are allowed to be in attendance, this one isn’t one of them.”

Alexis nodded. “That makes sense, I guess.”

“Regarding seats on the council, I suppose it depends on how you look at it,” the Pendal continued. “Legally, there is only one seat for each of them; currently, they are the ones at the main table.”

“Why do they have five more seats in the top row?”

The Pendal laughed softly. “Those are the Forgotten Races. They are five races who have very military societies, to the extent that each race functions, in effect, as a single mercenary company. The Veetanho hired each of them on classified mercenary contracts.”

“Wait. They hired their entire societies?” Alexis asked. She had to consciously close her mouth, or she would have gaped at the alien.

“Yes, they hired the entire societies, and, since all the members of each of the races are theoretically ‘on contract’ all the time, the Veetanho added a clause in their contracts that the Veetanho would represent them in council proceedings until they completed their contracts. Usually, they use their client races as proxies.”

“So, the fact that there are Veetanho and Goka serving as proxies today, and not other client races, is supposed to send some sort of message to the other races?”

The Pendal shrugged, moving all four of his shoulders. “Possibly, although I am not sure what it would be. It is also possible that, after the last meeting, they are no longer sure who they can trust.”

“That makes sense,” Alexis said, “although a lot of this is incomprehensible.”

The Pendal’s hood moved as he nodded.

“So, who are the five races?” Alexis asked.

“I don’t know. One of them, I believe, is the Biruda. The rest?” He shrugged again. “I don’t know.”

“Why don’t you know?”

“It has been a long time—many centuries, in fact—since the races last sat in council. I would have to look at the records. A lot of that information also seems to have…disappeared…from both the GalNet and the records of the Merc Guild itself.”

“Setting aside the missing information,” Alexis said, shaking her head to keep from gaping again, “are you saying the Veetanho have controlled their votes for centuries? What kind of idiots agreed to that?”

“The Forgotten Races did, apparently, as a provision for accepting the contract. They also were members of the Inner Council—those members at the table—at the time, and they passed a motion to make the details of the contract secret for all time.”

“So, there’s no way to tell when—or even if—the contracts will ever be complete?”

“No, there isn’t.”

“Well, fuck…”

“Eloquently put.” The Pendal made a patting motion with a hand. “Quiet,” he whispered. “It is starting.”

Alexis turned her attention back to the main table, where all the representatives had been seated. Toyn-Zhyll sat at the end of the table in the Speaker’s position. To his left sat the guild masters from the Flatar, Tortantula, Oogar, and Goka races, with the Goka furthest from him. On his right sat the MinSha, Selroth, Besquith, and Veetanho guild masters.

Toyn-Zhyll’s tentacle made a wet, slapping noise as he banged it once on the table. “This meeting of the Mercenary Guild Council will come to order. The first order of business—”

“I have a request,” the Veetanho rep interrupted. “We have—”

“Denied,” Toyn-Zhyll replied. “You haven’t been recognized.”

“But I have only just arrived,” the Veetanho said. “I need time to consult with my staff.”

“You should have done that on the journey here, as all of ‘your staff’ was traveling with you. There is no one here for you to consult with. Your request is denied.” The Goltar’s eyes swept the members at the table. “As I was saying, the first order of business is to confirm my nomination as Speaker, which was proposed at the last meeting.”

“After everyone was dead,” the Veetanho remarked.

“No, everyone wasn’t dead,” Toyn-Zhyll replied, “nor did I violate the rule on self-nomination. I can send you a copy of the Tri-V recording—”

“I’ve already seen it.”

“Good. Then you know that the Bakulu delegate to the council requested that his race’s application for membership be reviewed, which the council did. The Bakulu were granted full status as members of the guild. At that point, the now-Bakulu representative to the Merc Guild made the nomination for me to be the next Speaker, in accordance with procedure, once it was determined no other members of the Inner Council were prepared to receive the nomination.”

“Because they were all dead.”

“I can’t confirm that was the case; however, none of them answered the call for additional nominations. The current Speaker was incapacitated—”

“Because you shot her twice.”

“—and we needed a temporary Speaker to close the meeting. You can reference the Guild Charter, Paragraph 167, if you have any concerns about the legality of my appointment.”

The Veetanho representative sneered but didn’t comment further, and Alexis smiled. Apparently, Toyn-Zhyll had at least followed the procedures for what he’d done.

“So, with that out of the way, the first order of business is to confirm my nomination as Speaker. As this is an internal matter of the Inner Council, we will only need their votes.” He looked down the table. “All in favor?”

The Flatar, Tortantula, MinSha, and Selroth representatives raised their appendages.

“All opposed?”

The Oogar, Goka, Besquith, and Veetanho raised their appendages.

“The vote is a tie, as I am not allowed to vote for myself. In that case we will need to spend the rest of the morning in debate, and will probably have to work through lunch to come to a conclusion.”

The Oogar representative raised a paw. “Yes?” Toyn-Zhyll asked, acknowledging him.

“I would like to change my vote to ‘For.’ Anything to move this along.”

“Very well,” Toyn-Zhyll replied. “In that case, the nomination is approved by a vote of 5-3. I am now officially the Speaker. The second order of business is to vote on the Humans’ application for full-time membership in the Mercenary Guild.”

“I didn’t realize we were members of the Union yet,” Nigel whispered to Alexis.

“You don’t have to be,” the Pendal next to Alexis whispered back in what was almost his normal voice. “If a guild wishes to sponsor a member race in front of the Senate, the Senate will rubber stamp their application.”

“I didn’t realize we’d applied for full-time membership,” Alexis said.

“The original application you filed 100 years ago is your application. It just gets held in abeyance until your probationary period is up.”

Alexis looked back to the council table, her brain spinning. They were going to vote on making Earth part of the Galactic Union? She wasn’t prepared for that. What if she had to make a statement…or a presentation? Or something?

“This is an external matter,” Toyn-Zhyll was saying, “so it will be a vote for the entire council.”

The Veetanho rep’s hand went up.

“Yes?” the Speaker asked with what Alexis’ translator indicated was a sigh.

“This is most unusual. There hasn’t even been a period of comment or discussion. We are unprepared for this vote. We haven’t had time to consult with the other member races.”

“These are unusual times we find ourselves in,” the Speaker replied. “Still, this has been on the docket for over two weeks. There has been plenty of time to comment or discuss.”

“But we didn’t have anyone here until now! All of our representatives were dead!

“Yes, they were, and it was a lot quieter here without all your plaintive squeaking. Still, the procedures have been followed to the letter and it is time to vote.” The Speaker called for the vote, and the Inner Council voted along the same lines as with the previous vote, with the Speaker also voting “for” inclusion. The overall vote ended with 19 races voting for the Human’s inclusion and 14 races voting against it. Three races abstained.

“The motion passes,” the Speaker noted, “and the Humans are probationary full members until the full Senate signs the proclamation.” He turned toward Alexis and Nigel. “Welcome to the Union.”

There was a smattering of applause and several other gestures of approval. None of it, Alexis noted, came from any of the Veetanho, Goka, or Besquith. The overall feeling was rather lukewarm, but at least everyone wasn’t openly antagonistic.

“Thank you,” Alexis said and nodded to the Speaker, unsure if she was supposed to do anything else. While making them members in the Galactic Union might be a matter of routine to the Union members, it was a pretty damn big thing to her. She could feel her face heating up as many of the races stared at her, some with open antipathy. It especially didn’t appear that full membership in the Galactic Union was going to lessen the animosity the Veetanho held toward the Humans. If anything, they appeared even less happy. Apparently, nothing further was needed from her, though, as the Speaker turned back to the table.

“My final piece of business today is to exercise the Speaker’s right to rotate the Inner Council.”

“That’s nowhere within the Guild Charter,” the Veetanho rep said. “As such—”

“You’re right,” the Speaker said, talking over the Veetanho, “it’s not anywhere within the Guild Charter, yet Veetanho Speakers have been using the procedure for as long as I can remember. This system has been in place for decades, certainly, and probably for centuries before my time here. As such, it is tradition, if not actually codified in the charter, and I intend to use it.”

Alexis turned to the Pendal. “What is he talking about?”

“The Speaker is going to change out three people on the Inner Council,” the Pendal replied. “The Veetanho have used this for a long time to marginalize dissent on the council.” He pointed toward the Speaker as if he wanted Alexis to be quiet and pay attention.

The Speaker’s eyes scanned the table. “You can’t get rid of me,” the Veetanho rep announced as the Speaker’s eyes paused on him. “Our agreement doesn’t allow it.”

“I am aware,” Toyn-Zhyll said. “That won’t stop me from removing some of your support, though.” He raised a tentacle and pointed at the Goka rep, then the Besquith, then the Selroth. “I propose to remove the Goka, the Besquith, and the Selroth representatives. All in favor?”

The Flatar, Tortantula, MinSha, and Oogar representatives raised their appendages.

“All opposed?”

The Goka, Besquith, Selroth, and Veetanho raised their appendages.

“As it turns out, I am also in favor of removal, so the motion passes. The Goka, Besquith, and Selroth representatives are dismissed.”

“And what if I do not wish to be excused?” the Besquith representative asked as the Goka whipped out a knife from somewhere to pick at something under one of his claws.

“Yeah,” the Goka added. “The hairy beast is right. What if I like this seat and don’t want to move?”

Alexis caught movement from across the audience as nearly every member drew a pistol or other weapon from concealment. While the Goka and Veetanho in the back row looked like they were ready to dive for cover behind the seats in front of them, the other members moved minutely, telegraphing their intentions to flank them.

The Speaker clucked, laughing. “I wondered if you’d have an issue with that.” The doors to the chamber opened as one and several squads of Goltar troopers filed in, each holding laser rifles cross-body. “I took the liberty of asking my Honor Guard to come and ensure that things don’t get…out of tentacle again this time.” The Veetanho rep craned her neck, looking out one of the doors, and the Speaker added, “Don’t worry, there is another company on duty which is currently keeping the platoon you summoned from doing anything…rash.

“Now, let’s all act like professionals here, shall we?” the Speaker asked. “I will ask again for my Goka, Besquith, and Selroth colleagues to step aside.”

“And if we refuse?” the Goka asked without looking up.

“Then you will be removed…with whatever amount of force is deemed necessary, up to and including killing you if need be.”

“No need to be hasty,” the Goka replied. The knife disappeared as quickly as it had appeared, and the Goka stood. “I can tell when I’m not wanted. Besides, there is a smell here that disturbs my normally insensitive stomach. Something fishy, I guess.” He turned to the Selroth representative and added, “No offense.”

The Selroth nodded in reply as he moved to join the other two at the end of the table, leaving Alexis to wonder what they were going to do.

“Thank you for your service,” the Speaker said to the group, then turned back to the table. “In their place, I nominate the Bakulu, the Lumar, and”—he turned toward Alexis—“the Humans.”

“You can’t nominate the Humans,” the Veetanho rep said. “They aren’t full members.”

“No, but they will be shortly,” the Speaker replied. “It is merely a formality, and, as you yourself so noted, the procedure isn’t in the Guild Charter anyway, so there aren’t any rules against it beyond what we decide. All in favor?”

The Flatar, Tortantula, MinSha, and Oogar representatives raised their appendages.

“I also vote in favor,” the Speaker replied. “The motion passes. The new races will have until tomorrow to decide who they would like to represent their races. We will reconvene at the ninth hour tomorrow. Do I have a motion for adjournment?”

“I so motion,” the Flatar rep said.

“Second,” the Tortantula rep added.

“This session is closed,” the Speaker said, slapping a tentacle on the table again. He turned to Alexis and Nigel. “I would like a few words with you, if you don’t mind.”

* * *

Cartwright’s Cavaliers Main Base, Houston, Texas, Earth

Jim bounded across the obstacle course, riding his jumpjets with a finesse that had taken him months of hard lessons to learn. His squad was spread out to both sides, working through the newly completed obstacle course.

The war’s touch upon Houston had given them no shortage of materials to construct obstacles. Everything from crashed starships and wrecked CASPers to the hulks of alien-manufactured tanks. All the various merc units had split up the booty, including the Cavaliers and Asbaran Solutions, both of which were trying hard to build their forces back up.

“Dress up on the right,” Sergeant Solberg barked, and the three CASPers on that side moved closer to the correct formation. “Do not embarrass me in front of the colonel!”

Jim grinned inside his Mk 7 CASPer. Sergeant Solberg had been Corporal Solberg before the war. One of the types who loudly proclaimed he’d never, ever, ever wear sergeant’s stripes, he’d taken them pretty quickly when Jim offered. He’d been surprised when Jim showed up in the morning in a haptic suit.

“Sir, we’re just running some shoot-and-scoot drills.”

“No worries, Sergeant. I just want some suit time.”

Splunk’s babies were three days old, and he was struggling to grasp the new paradigm. Of course, he’d known she was a female from the time he met her, when she’d just been a curious alien known as a Fae. So why was he surprised when she’d had babies?

Splunk explained her mate was Peanut, one of the other Dusman in his Raknar Corps. He guessed, just like Humans, things happened. He hadn’t felt like grilling her on the sexual politics of the Dusman. She’d explained Dusman were pregnant for twelve weeks, which seemed really short to Jim. The babies were born as neither male nor female—they would elect a sex sometime after they were a year old.

The next surprise was that she wouldn’t be the one to raise them. With the Dusman, the males took care of the babies for the first few months, then they were taken care of by older males and females in a sort of creche. By the time they were three they’d begin formal education and were adults at the age of nine.

When he asked why she hadn’t told him she was pregnant, she explained it was part of her people’s culture to not acknowledge a pregnancy and continue doing their jobs until the moment the babies were born. They always had two, as well.

Splunk stayed in Jim’s bedroom, feeding the babies meat which she chewed and kept in her mouth for an hour before giving it to them. The hour allowed enzymes to partially break the proteins down for the babies’ undeveloped digestive systems.

Ziva stayed for an hour after Jim discovered the babies, then left to collect her things before returning the next morning. He’d had too much to do for him to spend the day with Splunk, but he’d still checked in on her several times. He also verified Ziva had completed her in-processing and saw her briefly wearing her new Cartwright’s Cavaliers tiger stripe camo uniform. She’d grinned and winked at him, and Jim had promptly walked into a closed door and nearly broken his nose.

The next two days were non-stop paperwork and meetings, which was why he’d said screw it, grabbed a haptic suit, and gone out to drive a CASPer for a few minutes. It felt great, up until the moment when he started seeing images of burning cities.

“You okay, Colonel?” Solberg asked as Jim muffed a landing, only barely catching himself.

“Yeah,” he said, “just a bit out of practice.”

He finished the movement-and-cover drill, and he left the suit for the techs to take care of. Normally he’d take the time to go over it himself, but now that he had new people getting up to speed, he had a ready-made excuse to get back to work. The images of destruction echoed in his mind’s eye for hours afterward.

Back in his office, he saw the Terran Federation was planning to meet in London next month. It would be the official signing of the charter, so he’d need to be there. He sent a note to his new assistant, Edgar Prescot, to start scheduling a week-long trip. He’d hired the young man the day before. The merc company Edgar had once worked for didn’t exist anymore, and he was happy to get a job. Scheduling and organization was his thing. Unfortunately, he was more than a little intimidated by Jim, something Jim found amusing.

As the morning gave way to afternoon, a notification came into his pinplants. He’d been waiting for the upcoming event and his pulse began to race. He sent a message to the logistics department and headed out of his office onto its balcony.

As the commanding officer, he had a simply awesome balcony overlooking the former airport’s extensive runways, taxiways, and hangars. He was still amazed they’d gone untouched by the war. He craned his neck and looked up into the hot sky. A second later, he saw six glowing points falling toward Houston.

In only seconds, the tiny points grew and cooled. Rockets flared, and the ships began a sweeping bank. Before he’d returned from DC, the starport had gotten their air traffic control working again. It had only been a management problem. With six massive orbital-class transports burning their way toward Houston, it was a damned good thing someone was watching the other traffic.

“Verify we’re ready to receive,” Jim sent via his pinplants.

“The ramp is closed,” his logistics controller replied.

Jim nodded and surveyed the massive open spaces. Red lights were flashing on all the buildings and gates facing the runway, and he could see no movement. He looked up again just as the old airport reverberated from a long series of sonic booms. The transports dropped to subsonic speeds as they burned their engines to control their descent.

He knew what to expect. They’d been waiting for these transports for days and still his pulse was racing. The outlines of vaguely humanoid shapes partially engulfed by the transports were now visible. It reminded Jim of someone kit-bashing a model spaceship with an action figure.

The transports orbited out of view as they used aerodynamic braking to slow, reappearing a minute later at the far end of the runway as they lined up for landing. Now much closer, he could see these weren’t improvised craft at all, but purposely built ships doing what they’d been designed to do.

The first transport lowered its landing gear and flared out. Huge lifter jets roared as several thousand tons of transport and cargo settled onto the tarmac and began to roll toward the hangars. Seconds later, the next set down, then the rest in order.

“Wow,” was all Jim could say as he shook his head. He had a hard time looking away as he turned to leave, but he had a part to play in this ballet. He drove his electric cart to his tower apartment. Splunk was waiting outside the elevator, her babies nestled in a sling she’d made from one of his old shirts.

“Ready?” he asked. She nodded. He wished he’d had a chance to hold the babies, but she’d explained Dusman infants didn’t like being handled by anything other than a Dusman. It was part of their evolutionary defense mechanism. To bring it home, the babies were born with a mouth full of razor-sharp teeth and their saliva was a powerful neurotoxin.

“Too bad you don’t keep that poison as adults,” he’d said.

“What makes you think we don’t, <Cheek!>” she’d replied, then added a wink.

She climbed into the cart, and they headed to where the six transports were parking in a line. Even with six huge transports, the airport wasn’t crowded. It had been an international airport in its heyday, able to handle thousands of jumbo jet flights per day. It was over a kilometer drive from his tower to the first of the transports, the one carrying Doom.

As he drove up to the transports, he could see his ground control people coming out to attach fuel and shore-power connections to the transports. Mixed in with the people handling the work were much smaller ones—the Dusman crew of the Raknar transporters. As Jim pulled up next to the lead transport, he recognized one of the Dusman.

“Hello, Sly,” Jim said.

“Greetings, Jim Cartwright,” Sly said, then went to Splunk. The two moved almost nose-to-nose, their ears rotating forward and touching. They murmured something to each other he couldn’t hear. Meanwhile a pair of Dusman dressed in light green/brown-wrapped clothes came over to Splunk and took the babies from her.

Jim looked at Splunk with some concern, but she didn’t seemed bothered by it so he calmed down.

“We have brought your Raknar,” Sly said.

“The transports are nice,” Jim pointed out.

“We made them from spare parts in Karma.”

“Spare parts?”

Sly shrugged. “Nobody was using the ships at the time.”

Jim saw the other Dusman in the Raknar Corps coming from the same transport which Sly arrived in. Peanut trotted over to Splunk and the two touched noses, their ears moving forward to touch as well, then they embraced. The pair who had her children came over and Peanut examined them, his blue-on-blue eyes gleaming. The babies reached up to their parents, and they were a family.

“Even in war, there is new life,” Sly said. He gestured at Splunk. “She is always the non-conventional one.”

“Love finds a way,” Jim said.

“Our people don’t love the way yours do.”

Jim looked at Splunk with Peanut and their babies. “I’m not sure if I agree.”

Sly nodded, then shrugged. “You may have a point.” He pointed to the transports. One of them was in the process of opening up. It had been built around the Raknar. After it opened, the ship elevated the war machine almost like a mobile gantry. It only took a minute, then it was towering 30 meters over their heads. The blue highlights and Cavaliers logo on the arm were easy to spot. Doom. “Your Raknar, Jim Cartwright.”

Jim could see all the battle damage had been repaired, and some things looked different. The armor plating on the legs was more angular, and the arm and leg connections points were stronger and at a sharper angle. The shoulders were also wider.

“You’ve upgraded them?” Jim asked. Sly nodded.

The next to be elevated was Ensign Fenn and Peanut’s Wrath, followed by Pain, Revenge, Fear, and ending with Despair. The last was piloted by Corporal Seamus from his Cavaliers and Dante. Dante was the leader of the faction of Dusman who didn’t agree with Splunk’s tactics. Jim didn’t entirely understand how the disagreement worked or what it would mean if Splunk lost.

Dante stood a short distance from Sly observing the Raknar being elevated. The most interesting of all the Dusman Jim had thus far met, Dante looked like he’d already been through a war. He had an eye patch and a bionic arm. In the few interactions he’d had with the alien, Jim had come to the conclusion Dante didn’t much like Humans.

As the last of the six Raknar were stood up, the transports released them and moved away toward a series of old hangars Jim had set aside to house them. The chosen hangars had once been used part of a failed plan to run an aircraft maintenance facility a few years before Hobby was shut down for good. There was a total of 22 hangars, and he’d given them all over to Raknar operations.

His fellow Raknar Corps members walked over to join him—Darrel Fenn, Mia Kleve, Cindy Epard, Seamus Curran, and Shawn Thompson. Everyone except Darrel and Seamus had their Dusman partner riding on their shoulders. As Darrel approached, Dante gave Jim a baleful look before hopping up on the man’s shoulder as well. Peanut joined Seamus, without the disdain.

When the six new Raknar were first made ready in New Warsaw, the Dusman had spread out around the system, searching for Humans with the right “spark” to bond with an operator. Then in a sort of ritual, the six chosen people were presented to the body of Raknar-qualified Dusman. Jim didn’t know what led the individuals to be proper matches, but none had matched with Seamus—at least until Dante had come. The old, war-ravaged Dante was not happy with the bonding, a very different situation than Jim had felt with Splunk.

Splunk landed on his shoulder, and he looked up at her. She was watching the pair of older males take her babies away. He reached up and scratched her ears, to which she smiled down at him. “You okay?” he asked her.

“I’m fine, Jim, <Skee!>”

“Sad about the babies leaving?”

“No, sad Peanut won’t be with them for a while, <Froo!>

One of the Dusman by the Raknar waved to get their attention, then gave a very Human thumbs-up. Jim had to chuckle; the scene reminded him of an old 20th century world war movie where the flight deck officer told the pilots their planes were ready to go.

“Too bad Mays wasn’t here to see this,” Shawn Thompson said. They were both from the Golden Horde.

“To missing friends,” Cindy Epard said and lowered her head. Everyone else did, too.

“He and Aura are dead because they were stupid,” Dante growled, bringing the remembrance to an end. “Let’s not do the same.”

“Roger that; don’t be stupid,” Ryft said, prompting Cindy to chuckle. Dante speared them both with his single-eyed gaze, one after the other, and they quieted.

“Let’s mount up,” Jim said, and they all set off.

When he reached the foot of Doom, the first thing he noticed was that an access system had been added. Long narrow panels opened to reveal a climbing ladder. When he’d first started using the huge mecha, they’d welded rungs to the outside of the armor. The problem had been the armor didn’t take a weld worth a damn. He’d had them break off twice while climbing, which hadn’t been fun experiences.

He started climbing. Splunk hopped off and scrambled up on her own. He marveled at her fitness, only days after giving birth. Of course, he hadn’t even noticed she was pregnant, so it was probably a factor of their biology. There were plenty of species who weren’t slowed at all by giving birth.

By the time he reached the cockpit access on the side of the chest she was already inside. Another pair of Dusman were in the ample pilot’s space as well, detaching tiny slates from various computer systems and packing up gear. He stopped in the entryway and gave a low whistle.

The mecha used to look like something from an old sci-fi film set, cobbled together from debris in a junkyard. Nothing seemed to match. Of course, the Raknar had sat around in a junkyard for about 20,000 years. A race had put two together enough to get one to walk, which was more than any of them had been able to do since the Great War. Jim and Splunk, though, made it do much more than walk.

As he climbed in, he felt a shiver. He couldn’t decide if it was from anticipation or fear. The last time he’d piloted the mecha he’d nearly lost himself in the dance of death. Since then, he’d also had a few…hallucinations? It reminded him of the description of an acid flashback.

Doom, echoed in his mind.

Where did those names come from?

“All set,” one of the Dusman techs said from the hatchway. Her English was perfect.

“Thanks,” Jim said. “Clear, preparing to close.” He got another thumbs-up, and she was gone. “Button us up,” Jim said. He turned his head to where Splunk sat and got another surprise. Originally it had just been a cubbyhole behind his pilot’s position; now it was more like a miniature padded pilot’s couch, which also had banks of hard-wired displays and controls. The techs had been busy!

“Powering up, <Skee!>” Splunk touched the controls, and Jim felt the floor under his feet begin to vibrate as the fusion plant in the Raknar’s chest thrummed with power.

Jim locked the safety straps in place and settled into the “seat,” which was really more of a reclined couch. That too was 1,000% better than the glued plastic pads from before. It fit his body perfectly. “Everyone, radio-check,” he called over regular comms. The other five responded in quick order.

Wrath online.”

Revenge online.”

Pain online.”

Fear online.”

Despair ready to roll,” Seamus Curan reported last.

“Okay,” Jim said, the feelings of disquiet growing. “Akee.”

“Akee!” they all repeated, and Jim felt Splunk’s tiny hands on his pinplants. He felt the sensation of liquid touch his feet and he was lost in the joining of Akee, becoming more than Jim Cartwright and more than Splunk—they were Doom.

Past events flooded through their brains like a Tri-V movie at high speed. Everything from the end of the battle against the Mercenary Guild forces to the brief fighting in DC. He gasped—the sensation was highly emotional—a cathartic draining of self.

What was that? All six of them said at the same time.

System checks, he ordered, and the fist—the group of six Raknar—used their Raknar/Operator interfaces to make sure nothing was wrong. Immediately, they knew all was fine.

<Go to Washington, kill all who oppose us!>

Jim/Splunk fought it. No, they thought, and the other was silent.

Short test flight, Doom sent to the others. On my lead.

With a roar, the Raknar’s titanic version of jumpjets ignited, and 1,000 tons of war machine rose off the tarmac. The other five were just behind Doom, and all six ascended to one kilometer. The six Raknar hovered there together, feeling the power of what they became within the Raknar.

Once around the starport, they said, and the six Raknar maneuvered in a circular pattern around the Houston starport. They went slow, under 200 kph, as Jim had filed on his flight plan earlier in the morning. The reason for the slow speed was twofold. One was to avoid alarming the residents. The other was to give the US government a good look. The Raknar Corps was in the Republic of Texas—take notice.

The route completed, Doom led them down to a gentle landing. All the data was in normal ranges, the only thing not showing full reserves was fuel for the jumpjets, which was now down to 78%. Satisfied, he ended the Akee.

“What was that weird dump at the beginning?” he asked Splunk, turning back to her after they’d separated.

“I don’t know, <Skaa!>

Jim nodded and closed his eyes for a second. It had felt almost like he was being scanned or giving the fastest AAR in history. He looked at the array of manual controls and instruments, many newly refurbished by the Dusman technicians. Among them were the glass tubes and bulbs, all filled with the same greenish goo he’d first thought was a parasite or alien mold taking over the machine.

He understood so little of how the Raknar operated. From its internal workings to the computer systems which allowed him and Splunk to Akee and operate it without touching a single control, he knew next to nothing. The Dusman obviously knew how they worked. He wished Splunk had told him about their knowledge before he’d spent months out in the galaxy looking for clues last year.

“Okay, all Raknar,” Jim called, “let’s park ’em.”

“Boo!” several of them called out.

Jim chuckled. It was fun operating the Raknar. He couldn’t blame them for being disappointed, despite the fact he wasn’t. While nothing bad happened this time, the urge to destroy was there again, and the data dump bothered him.

Taking manual control, Jim marched the Raknar to the nearby hangar where Doom and Despair would be stored. Dusman techs were already inside, and they’d been busy while the Raknar Corp went for a spin. The gantry section of the special transports had been detached and now stood inside the hangar, ready. He backed his Raknar into the nearest one, the process far easier than he thought it would be. It felt like something he’d done a hundred times, not like he was doing it for the first time.

Even though it was easier climbing up the improved ladder, the gantry provided a much simpler means of boarding and departing—an electrical lift. Splunk rode down on his shoulder; both were quiet as the motor hummed during their descent. When he reached the bottom, the others were waiting for him.

“Everything good?” he asked them. Five heads all nodded in reply. Several of the Dusman gave him a thumbs-up, while Dante just stared at him in a surly manner. “Okay, those of you with other units are released for now. We’ll meet back here in a month to discuss further operations. If anything comes up, I’ll contact you.”

All except Seamus left to go back to their units. Seamus, being a Cavalier, left for the training center to see if he could help out with the recruits. At the far end of the tarmac, a small sea of tiger stripe uniform-wearing Cavaliers were heading back to work after watching their commander and his Raknar Corps fly the legendary war machines.

Jim walked with Splunk to where a Dusman shuttle waited. The Dusman who were going back to space were busy boarding. Splunk hopped off to say goodbye to Peanut who would, for a time, be tending to their babies. Jim let her have some privacy as he examined the formerly pristine tarmac where the Raknar had taken off. Six huge burned sections marked their takeoff points, the material cracked deeply.

“Guess we’re going to need an upgrade,” Jim decided. Splunk joined him as he headed back to the office. Just outside the door, Ziva was waiting in her new uniform. It fit her a lot better than his uniform fit him. “Lieutenant,” he said.

“Colonel,” she replied, trying to match his seriousness. The two broke out in laughter at the same time.

“How’d you like my performance?” he asked her.

“I’ve seen them in space attacking battleships,” she reminded him. “After seeing that, this was anticlimactic.” Jim nodded. “Thanks again for rescuing us.”

“Just doing my job,” he said. “The Empire Strikes Back tonight?”

She grinned. “Sure.” The two stood for a moment before she spoke again. “I better get back with recruiting, we’re interviewing personnel today.”

“See you later, then,” he said and watched her walk away.

“She’s nice, <Proo!>

“What are you laughing about,” Jim said, giving Splunk a side-eye. She grinned at him, and he mumbled about smart aleck sidekicks as they went inside. Lieutenant Jordan gave him a thumbs-up as he went through the inner office into his own. Splunk hopped off and went to the bookshelf she liked to hang out on. He was glad to see she was eating again, having recovered from having her babies. He settled into his desk and started checking messages.

Near the top of his list was one from the financial expert he’d hired. The man had completed his assessment of the planetary economy.

“Without substantial resumption of off-world mercenary-derived income, expect planetary shortages of non-Earth sourced essentials such as F11 in less than one year.” The rest was just as grim.

Jim began composing a message to send to Alexis and Nigel on Capital; they needed to know how bad the situation was.

* * *

Houston Starport, Houston, Texas, USA

Rahimi led the squad on a march around the starport. Wilson had looked on the ’Net at the layout of the base and knew that they were going in the wrong direction to get to the range. He started to ask about it, then shut his mouth. Mason and Rahimi knew where the range was; if they didn’t head straight for it, there was obviously a reason. Asking would only focus Mason’s legendary wrath upon him.

The platoon went all the way down to the end of the runway, then looped around and came back up the other side. Rahimi alternated walking with running, then finally started using his jumpjets briefly. Finally, Wilson understood; they were either trying to get the recruits comfortable in the suits before trusting them with firing their weapons, or they were trying to have the recruits burn off some of their nervous energy. Or both. On second thought, it probably was both. The one thing about being in the suits was that no one could bitch about it. When they were in the suits, the only way they could make themselves known would be to transmit…and it would be very obvious who’d done it.

Instead, Wilson concentrated on Rahimi and trying to mimic how he operated his CASPer. Although several of the recruits fell when using the jumpjets for the first time, Wilson didn’t.

When they reached the end of the runway again—about a three-mile journey, all told—Rahimi led the platoon single-file down a narrow path to the weapons range. The area was square, 1,000 feet per side, and it had been dug 20 feet into the ground, with all the excavated earth placed along the sides to form a massive berm that encircled the range. A wide variety of alien armor and other targets were scattered around the range, including a Zuul tank with its gun tube pointed at them menacingly.

Rahimi had them drop into the pit, then spread them out across the end. “Initiate range mode,” he ordered, once he had everyone positioned to his satisfaction.

Wilson brought up the indicated weapons mode on his system, and “Range mode enabled” scrawled across his display, indicating the suit’s safety interlocks would prevent its weapons from firing if the suit calculated the rounds would leave the confines of the training grounds.

“I show everyone in range mode,” Rahimi reported.

“Very well,” Mason replied. “Proceed.”

“All right, you knuckleheads, listen up,” Rahimi transmitted. “One at a time, we’re going to cycle through your weapons. We’ll start with your MACs. Everyone power them up and we’ll get started.”

Wilson nodded to himself and armed the magnetic accelerator cannon on his shoulder. His left reticle turned red as the weapon powered up. Unlike traditional firearms, the weapon didn’t use any type of propellant to accelerate its projectile; instead, 17 electromagnetic coils cycled on and off in the barrel of the coil gun in a precisely-timed sequence, accelerating the round to four times the speed of sound. Since the MAC rounds didn’t need propellant, they were smaller than the rounds for a similarly sized autocannon and more of them could be stored in the CASPer’s drum magazine on Wilson’s back. The one drawback of the MAC was that its rate of fire was substantially slower than a comparable chain gun, only firing about 150 rounds a minute. Still…he had 1,100 rounds. This was going to be fun.

* * *

Ten minutes later, a Flatar silhouette popped up above one of the small hills downrange. Pop, pop, pop! Wilson got three rounds off—including two of which hit the target—before anyone else hit it. The rounds fired without much noise, and slowly enough that he could count the individual shots.

“Okay, safe your MACs,” Mason said. “Hopefully, we’ll have time to fire off the rest of your rounds before we go, but I want to make sure you get a chance to fire your other main weapon, the 13.7 megawatt laser. This weapon gets its energy from a chemical reaction; when you slap in a new magazine, it injects the active materials. Now, you don’t want to use these against Goka, but they’ll work for most other aliens.”

Wilson brought up the file on Goka they’d been given as part of the Merc Identification class. Like much of their training, it made sense…but only to a point. Although it was well-known that there were 36 merc races, the class didn’t have info on at least five of them, and some of them—like the Goltar that had come to end the Humans’ war with the Merc Guild—only had partial files. It was almost like Asbaran’s intel services hadn’t known anything about the Goltar until they appeared in the space above Earth. That couldn’t be it though, could it?

Reviewing the file on the Goka, he saw why Mason had said the lasers wouldn’t work. The aliens had a hard, highly reflective shell, and lasers usually bounced off. The file said to use a MAC or hypervelocity pistol where possible. He chuckled at the picture attached to the file—it showed a Lumar pulling the legs off a Goka like a child did from an insect. The picture was attributed to combat footage from Nigel Shirazi of all people, and Wilson’s opinion of the company’s owner went up exponentially. Although the CEO had a reputation for being a bit of an asshole, at least he led from the front.

“Okay,” Mason was saying. “In order to see the laser strikes, you need to set your cameras to show them. Make sure your cameras are set appropriately.”

Wilson said, “Show all lasers,” and the suit displayed a ‘Show Lasers—All’ message on his heads-up display. Normally, laser energy traveled too fast to see, but using that setting allowed the suit to register any laser fire and slowed down the beams’ passage, allowing operators to “see” the laser beam’s path.

“Sergeant Rahimi, show the recruits what their lasers can do.”

Rahimi walked to the front of the firing line where everyone could see him. “Lasers are typically your number one weapon in space, where they aren’t attenuated by air, humidity, and smoke. They also usually won’t go through the skin of a ship, which a MAC will often do. Sometimes you don’t care about putting holes into spaceships, but if it’s your ship you’re defending, there’s no atmosphere to breathe once you repel the boarders and get out of your suit if you put a bunch of holes into the ship.”

The sergeant paused while the students obligingly chuckled.

“While it may not be the best weapon for all situations in atmosphere, they do have their uses.” He turned and fired several times, and the laser burned holes through some of the thinner-skinned vehicles on the range.

“I wouldn’t, however, recommend them for a tank.” He fired at the Zuul tank several times and the laser bounced right off. “As you can see, all you’re going to do is let them know where you are, so they can turn some of their highly effective weapons your way.”

Wilson didn’t like the added emphasis to the sergeant’s words and said a short prayer that he wouldn’t run up against tanks anytime soon. Or, hopefully, ever.

“Aside from Goka, the laser’s good for people and thin-skinned vehicles,” Mason said as Rahimi blasted off with his jumpjets to roar over the firing line and up to the berm that went around the firing pit. “As the sergeant said, though, you’re just wasting your rounds on a tank. Okay, let’s try it out and see what you can do with it. You’re cleared to fire on all targets with your laser.”

Wilson moved the laser reticle to one of the armored personnel carriers on the range and fired. The beam flashed, leaving a hole just below and to the left of where he’d fired. Having already gone through the process to zero in his sights with the MAC, doing it with the laser was easy. He fired several more times with the laser, putting holes in things, but it wasn’t as exciting as firing the MAC. You didn’t get a kick as it fired, and there was no impact damage from the laser. You fired and a hole appeared where you aimed—big deal. He chastised himself for the thought a second later as he realized that it would probably be a lot different when a squad of aliens was charging at him, doing their best to kill him. Opening holes in them would be a big deal then!

After a few minutes firing their lasers—they didn’t have as large a magazine as the MAC with its drum of ammunition—Mason called for everyone to safe their weapons and go down to one end of the firing line. Wilson had already fired off 30 rounds, and the magazine had gone dry. He safed his laser and followed the rest of the group.

“All right,” Mason said. “Standing around with plenty of time to fire can be a lot of fun; however, Asbaran Solutions does combat assault. What does that mean? We’re moving, and trust me, it’s a lot harder to fire while you’re moving. Not only do you need to learn how to fire on the move for assault missions, standing still in battle is a good way to get yourself killed.

“Sergeant Rahimi, show them what I’m talking about.”

The sergeant dropped back down into the pit at the end of the line, then went charging down the line firing at targets on the range. He would take a few steps, then jump, then dodge, then run a little more. Wilson watched down the range and could see targets getting hit across it. It was pretty impressive.

“Now,” Mason said, “I don’t expect that kind of competence from you today, but I want you to see what it’s like; what you need to build up to. For now, just try walking down the line while you fire. Each of you will get one pass.”

The recruits went down the line one by one, firing at targets as they walked. Wilson only hit a few of the things he was aiming at on his pass, despite the gyro-stabilized reticle. At least he didn’t fall onto his face, though, like one of the other recruits did. He’d be a long time living down the “Flopper” callsign. Firing while moving was a lot harder than he’d expected…and he hadn’t expected it to be easy.

“Don’t get too down on yourselves,” Mason said from the opposite end of the range. “It comes with practice. In a real fight, you’ll want to conserve your ammo and make sure every round counts. Once your ammo is gone, you’ll be down to fighting with your knife blade…and, as I like to remind the owner of the company periodically, there are few things worse than bringing a knife to a gun fight.”

Mason ran down the line, moving faster than Rahimi had, firing periodically. If he missed any of the targets he was aiming for, it wasn’t apparent to Wilson. Mason jumped at the last second and came down with his sword blade extended, landing next to the last recruit in line with the blade next to its chest.

“Of course,” Mason said, not breathing hard, “having a blade does have its uses, too.”

The recruits all chuckled, except for the one staring at the point of the blade, just inches from his face.

* * *

Speaker’s Chambers, Merc Guild Headquarters, Capital Planet

Toyn-Zhyll led Alexis and Nigel to his private chambers. Alexis’ mind was still awhirl, trying to catch up with what had just happened. The Humans were now part of the Galactic Union? And part of the Inner Council of the Merc Guild? How? Why?

She looked at Nigel, but he didn’t look as confused as she felt. There appeared to be a little confusion on his face…but there was something else there as well. He held up a slate. “Is this yours?” he mouthed.

She looked at it as she walked, then shook her head. “What is it?” she mouthed back.

Nigel shook his head. “I’ll tell you later.”

The Goltar led them into his living area. Inside the door was a small sitting area, but the way further into his apartment was blocked off by a glass wall and everything on the other side of it seemed to be flooded.

“Please, have a seat,” he said, indicating the chairs that could be used by Humans, then he went through another door, closing it behind him. There was a sound of whirring and rushing water from behind the door, then he came out into the main area behind the glass wall.

“Sorry,” his voice said from a speaker on the wall, “but it is always nice to wash off the scent of Veetanho after you’ve had to deal with them.”

“I get that,” Alexis said. “I’ve recently come to realize that trusting any of them is a good way to—quite literally—get shot in the back.” She paused, then added, “When you said you were looking forward to working with us, I had no idea that meant you intended to elevate us to the Inner Council.”

“Sometimes you have to crack a few Xiq’tal shells if you want to make a stew,” Toyn-Zhyll replied. “I had to get rid of the Goka and the Besquith representatives. They are so in thrall to the Veetanho, they would have gone along with them no matter what we decided. They would have blocked us at every turn. Similarly, there is an ancient animosity between the Goltar and the Selroth—we both see ourselves as the rulers of the deep, of course—which made them expendable. I would rather have removed the Oogar, but I wouldn’t have achieved a quorum if I’d done so—the Selroth, Oogar, Besquith, Goka, and Veetanho would all have voted against it. By nominating the three I did, I ensured I had the votes I needed.”

“Why would you have wanted to get rid of the Oogar?” Nigel asked. “If the Selroth are your enemies, why not go for them from the start?”

“There is an ancient animosity between our races, as I said, but the Selroth are predictable, and we understand them. The Oogar, however, are lazy and easily swayed. I would hate to have them vote against an important proposal just because there was an opportunity to go to an early lunch if they did. Besides, if the Selroth are on the council, they aren’t swimming around in the background, causing trouble.”

“Keep your friends close and your enemies closer?” Alexis asked.

“Yes, something very much like that,” Toyn-Zhyll agreed.

“So why not get rid of the Veetanho and save us all a lot of trouble?” Nigel said. “I can think of several races the Union would be better without.”

“I have no desire to tangle with the Peacemakers, particularly during this time of flux,” the Speaker replied. “Although they may look small, they have power that isn’t always in plain sight, and nothing will bring them together like the scent of genocide, especially one as highly visible as the Veetanho.”

“Why not at least kick them off the Inner Council, then?” Alexis asked.

“Alas, I cannot. There are rules that were put into place when the Merc Guild was formed. One of these is that—while the races continue to exist—there must always be a Veetanho and a Goltar on the Inner Council. That is why—short of killing off our entire species—they can’t get rid of us. The other side of the sword is that we cannot get rid of them, either.”

“Okay, I can understand that,” Alexis said, “but why elevate us?”

“A number of reasons, actually, but three which are most relevant. First, we have been watching your race for a while. One of our number sponsored a Human-led mercenary company, the Midnight Sun. We have been able to observe you up close, and we have found you to be intelligent and resourceful. Second, when you commit to a cause, you see it through; we can count on you to fight until the end, rather than give up the first time things don’t go your way. There are many races who won’t do that.” He clucked again at something that must have passed through his mind.

“And the third?” Alexis prompted.

“The third is the most pertinent of all. Promoting you to the Inner Council and waving your presence in their face will piss off the Veetanho, more so than any other race would have. While they are no doubt dwelling on that and how to get revenge, we can move forward and get things accomplished.”

“So, you’re using us as a distraction—something else for them to focus their attention on.”


“I’m not sure I’m comfortable with that.”

“There’s no reason you should be.” He chuckled. “To be under Veetanho scrutiny is a precarious position…but it is no different a place than where you’ve been for the last year.”

Nigel nodded. “That much is true at least.”

“The Veetanho are excellent planners, as you well have the occasion to know. You were unaware they were even moving on you until it was almost too late to stop them.”

“That’s true as well,” Alexis agreed.

“Look at it this way, then—at least you are aware they are coming for you. The one good thing you have going for you is that, while the Veetanho likely have plans for a wide range of occasions, they never would have seen Humans on the Merc Guild. They are probably scurrying around in their section trying to figure out why I elevated you—besides just to piss them off—and doing some heavy planning. While they are focused on that, they won’t see what else I’m doing.”

“Which is?” Alexis asked.

“Which is something I will share with you soon,” Toyn-Zhyll replied. “As of now, though, I must bid you goodbye. I have some plans to make myself. Please feel free to show yourselves to the door. I look forward to meeting with you tomorrow.”

A black divider slid across the wall, cutting off contact with the Goltar, and the exterior door sprang open with a click.

“Well,” Nigel said, “I guess that’s our cue to leave.”

* * *

Nigel shut the door behind them as they went into the passageway. “Now what? Back to the ship?”

Alexis shrugged. “If we have to be here first thing tomorrow morning, I’d rather just stay here. We can have our stuff sent over from the shuttle. Let’s go see if there’s a visitors’ quarters or something.”

Nigel found a diagram on the wall and led them back to the front atrium, where a squad of Oogar was now on duty. Although loud, the Oogar sergeant was efficient and quickly got them checked into the visiting officers’ quarters.

“Nice digs,” Alexis said as they entered the room.

“No kidding,” Nigel said as he got a look. Tapestries of war scenes covered the walls, with various pieces of war-making memorabilia used as decorations. All of it seemed to be covered in semi-precious metals and gems. “Nothing but the finest for our troops.” He shrugged. “If nothing else, it’s nice to see our guild fees are going to something else besides Peepo’s pockets.”

“No kidding,” Alexis said as she collapsed onto an over-stuffed sofa. “So, what did you make of council?”

“I feel like babes in the woods here,” Nigel replied, sitting down beside her. “I’ve been so focused on saving Earth for the last year that coming here and walking into that…wow.”

“That’s putting it mildly.”

“The whole time I was in the council chambers, it felt like we were pawns in a game where we only understood the basic rules, yet there were people playing at the master level, with strategies inside of strategies.”

Alexis snorted. “I don’t think you’re wrong. I could tell there were lots of things unspoken—especially between the Goltar and the Veetanho—where we have no clue what is going on.”

“Did you buy the whole, ‘the enemy of our enemy is our friend’ thing the Speaker gave us?”

Alexis shook her head. “Not a chance. The whole time he was speaking to us it felt like the last time I talked to a used spacecraft salesman. I kept waiting for the Speaker to try to sell us something.”

“And the fact that he didn’t?”

“Only means it hasn’t come…yet. There’s no doubt that he will want something for bringing us onto the Inner Council. And just because the Goltar are the Veetanhos’ enemies doesn’t mean they’re the Earth’s friends. I think that’s very important to remember going forward.”

“No doubt.” Nigel nodded. “I never got a chance to tell you about a conversation I had with a Pendal pilot when I was going to save my sister.” He gave a sad laugh. “It seems like a hundred years ago, now. Anyway, we were talking about the Besquith, and I said something about Humans being the enemy of their enemy, which made us friends.”

He paused a second, reliving the moment, then shook his head to clear it. “Anyway, the Pendal said, in that creepy voice they all have, ‘The enemy of my enemy isn’t necessarily my friend, although it may be someone who I can work with.’”

“Which is pretty much where we are with the Goltar.”

“Yeah,” Nigel replied. “We know the Veetanho hate us, and we know the Veetanho hate the Goltar, perhaps even more than they hate us. Hopefully, by allying ourselves with the Goltar, we can protect ourselves from the Veetanho…”

“But we can never forget that the Goltar aren’t necessarily our friends,” Alexis finished.


“Any idea why the Pendal told you that? I’ve only been around a few of them, but they’ve always seemed pretty secretive. They don’t volunteer a whole lot of information, especially about themselves.”

“You’re right,” Nigel replied. “He told me a number of things in confidence, but the one thing that really stuck in my head was that he said there would come a time where it would be necessary for us to assist each other.”

“Was he some sort of fortune teller?”

Nigel chuckled. “No, I don’t think that was it at all. I think it’s just that his race understands how things are done on the galactic level, even though they aren’t a merc race themselves. He said that having established ties ahead of time will help smooth our working relationship if and when it’s needed.”

“Maybe our next stop ought to be the Pendal representative’s office here,” Alexis said.

“That might be a good idea,” Nigel replied with a nod. He jumped slightly. “I almost forgot,” he added, pulling a slate out of a cargo pocket.

“Is that the slate you showed me? Where’d you get it?”

“I don’t know,” Nigel replied.

Alexis giggled. “You don’t know?”

Nigel shook his head. “No. Really I don’t. It just appeared in my lap as the council meeting ended. I thought you tossed it onto me. One minute there was nothing, the next moment it was there. I never saw any motion of it being thrown to me, and I was at the end of the row. I have no idea how I got it.”

“Have you turned it on to see what’s there?”

“No, we were too busy dealing with Mr. Tentacles. I will now.” He activated the device, and his jaw dropped. “What the…”

“What?” Alexis asked, trying to see the screen.

Nigel couldn’t believe what flashed before his eyes. “There was…there was a screen which said that this is Peepo’s slate,” Nigel finally replied. “But it can’t be. I mean, where did it come from? How did I get it?”

“Someone obviously wanted you to have it,” Alexis said.

“Yeah…but who?” Nigel thought for a moment. “The only thing I’ve ever seen like it is when those Depik ships appeared out of nowhere at the end of the last battle for Earth. It was just like that—there was nothing, and then it just appeared. You don’t think…”

“That the Depik give a shit about Peepo?” Alexis asked. “I’m sure they do. She did kill off most of their race, after all.”

“Yeah…” Nigel pursed his lips. “What if…what if Peepo didn’t get away? When I wanted to blast her ship and the Peacemaker stopped me, what if there were more of those stealth ships the Depik had? What if one caught up to her before she went into hyperspace?”

“I guess you’d end up with a scene like Toyn-Zhyll described for us where they had to pick her up with a mop.”

“Yeah, I can’t imagine those 170 hours in hyperspace were a lot of fun for Peepo.” Nigel shrugged and then smiled. “I guess she got what she had coming after all. I’m glad I didn’t blast her ship. This end is a little more…fitting for her.”

“What’s on the slate? It’s got to be password-protected, doesn’t it?”

Nigel looked down and laughed. “You’re never going to believe this. The password screen says, ‘I changed the password to Password.’” He got up and moved to the far side of the room.

“Where are you going?”

“I’m going to try it out,” Nigel said. “If the stupid thing blows up, I want you to be outside the blast radius.”

“If someone wanted to kill you—someone who could go invisible—don’t you think they’d just kill you and be done with it? Why go to all this trouble?”

A sheepish smile crossed Nigel’s face. “No idea. The whole thing is creepy, though.” He punched in the password, and the screen unlocked. “I’m in.” After it didn’t blow up or do anything to appear dangerous, Nigel walked back to join Alexis.

“So?” Alexis asked.

“Well, I found the first file to look at.”

“How do you know?”

“It says ‘Look at this first.’”

Alexis chuckled. “I guess that is a good place to start then. What’s it say?”

Nigel read:

Humans, as you have no doubt heard, Peepo is dead. Killing her was not as satisfying as I’d hoped, but I don’t think killing her a thousand times, or even a million times, would make up for everything she and her race did to yours and mine. I hope the hell of your planet’s religions exists, and that she spends an eternity there.

The Veetanho did, however, have a reason for the wars against our races. Just as the Dusman have returned, so have the Kahraman. The reason no one goes to the Fourth Arm? There is a war ongoing between the Merc Guild and the Kahraman. Five of the merc races have been hired by the guild to hold the Kahraman off while the Veetanho consolidate their power.

The Veetanho hoped to use our races in this fight. Although they have hyperspace interdictors in place to limit how and where the Kahraman can go, Peepo was worried the Kahraman will eventually reach the core, at which point they will be able to escape the controls placed on them, and they will be free to expand wherever they want. And to destroy whoever they want.

There have been some Kahraman breakouts in the past, and Peepo believed the destruction of New Persia was caused by a Kahraman harvesting expedition. They are always looking for new weapons to use against us…including our own people.

Why haven’t we heard of any of this? The guilds are acting in collusion to keep the information from the people. I don’t have any points of contact for the other guilds; the list of contacts is encoded, as are the other members of the Veetanho society who are aware of the ongoing operations. I am continuing to track down the other people who know about this so I can find out more. If the opportunity exists, I will pass additional information to you as I get it.

“That’s it,” Nigel said. “It’s signed ‘A Hunter.’” He chuckled. “It also says, ‘Congratulations on your membership in the Galactic Union, where nothing is as it seems, and no one—especially the Veetanho and the Goltar—can be trusted.’ That certainly sounds ominous.”

“But it’s not anything we didn’t already know.”

Nigel nodded. “That is, unfortunately, all too true.” He shrugged. “It certainly drives it home, though, doesn’t it?”

“When the Fae announced they were the Dusman, I should have guessed the Kahraman were out there, too.” Alexis ran her fingers through her long white hair and sighed. “May you live in interesting times.”

“Quite the way of putting it,” Nigel said with a grunt.

“It’s an ancient Chinese saying. Well, a curse, actually.” Nigel nodded. I need to talk to Ghost about this. Only, when Alexis tried, he wouldn’t respond. Just as he’d warned, he wouldn’t talk to her as long as she was in Capital. It wasn’t the first time she wondered what the AI feared. It was also the first time she began to consider the deeper implications of that fear.

* * * * *

Chapter Nine

Merc Guild Headquarters, Capital Planet

After refreshing themselves, Alexis and Nigel decided to pay a visit to the Pendal representative’s office. Alexis would have been happy to go to bed instead, but she knew they needed to have all the intel they could get in advance of the next day’s council meeting. So, even though she was dead tired—it turned out that carrying babies took more out of you than she would have thought, especially at this stage—she pulled herself from the couch with a heavy sigh.

“Are you sure you’re up to this?” Nigel asked. “I can go see the rep without you if you’d like.”

Alexis chuckled. “And leave inter-race negotiations to you? I’m not sure that would be our best plan of attack.”

“Seriously? I’ve gotten better. Besides, we’re talking about a Pendal here. It’s not like me having a conversation with a Veetanho or a MinSha. In fact, I’ve probably had more dealings with Pendals than you have.”

“That may be true. It wouldn’t take a huge number of conversations to have had more than I have; they’re pretty reclusive.”

Nigel cocked his head as he looked at her. “And yet, they always seem to be around somehow, don’t they?”

Alexis realized the truth in his words, and it gave her new energy. “Do you think they’re spies? If so, for who?”

“I don’t think they’re spies, per se,” Nigel replied after a couple of moments of introspection. “Not for someone else, anyway. I would put it down more to the fact that they like to keep tabs on things and leave it at that.” He shrugged. “It’s not out of the question, though, I guess. All through history, servants made the best spies; seen and not heard, rulers tended to forget they were there while they gathered intel.”

Alexis pulled up the schematic of the Merc Guild in her implants. After a moment, she found the Pendal’s office. It was at the end of the hallway on the top floor. “I’ve got his office,” she said. “Let’s go.”

She led him back through the main lobby of the guild to a clearly marked lift. Several Zuul got on with them and looked at them askance, but the pack didn’t say anything and got off at the 17th floor.

Far from being “the penthouse,” the top floor was unimpressive, Alexis saw as she exited the lift into a nondescript hallway with poor lighting.

Nigel snorted. “Do you suppose they didn’t pay their power bill up here?”

Alexis shrugged. “Nothing but the finest for the non-merc races visiting ‘our’ guild. Maybe this is to let them know they’re second class citizens here and keep them in their places.”

“Typical Veetanho bullshit,” Nigel said. “Now that we’re Inner Council members, we need to do whatever it takes to knock that shit off, right now.”

Alexis smiled at the tone in his voice. If she’d been worried that becoming a father would make Nigel a kinder and gentler person, it didn’t appear the worry was necessary. There was still plenty of fire underneath for when wrongs needed to be righted. Of all the things she loved about him, that was probably the one she loved most.

The end of the hallway was better lit, as the light from an open doorway helped illuminate the passageway. The office beyond the doorway was even less impressive than the hallway, and it wasn’t much larger than a closet. It was big enough for a small desk, but it didn’t have any chairs in front of it, probably because they would have precluded opening and closing the door.

“Welcome,” the desk’s occupant said in a whisper as Alexis looked inside the doorway.

“Hello,” Alexis said, greeting the Pendal. The voice sounded male, although it was impossible to tell; the alien wore the same brown, hooded robe it appeared all of its race did. In fact, it was impossible to tell if the Pendal was the same one who’d been seated next to her at the council meeting. She thought it was…but couldn’t be entirely sure.

With the better lighting and positioning, Alexis could see the alien had an eye on either side of his face that tracked independently of each other and a third eye above his mouth. She’d seen them before and knew what they looked like, but it didn’t make them any less creepy to look at.

The Pendal waved a hand at the minimal amount of space in front of the desk. “I’m sorry I can’t offer you a seat,” he said. “Perhaps at some point the guild will upgrade my office to the point where I could actually use some.” He made a noise like steam escaping a boiler.

Nigel chuckled, and Alexis realized the noise was the Pendal’s laughter.

“We will see what we can do to help with that,” Alexis said when it stopped.

“That is okay,” the alien replied. “Sometimes being unseen and unheard has its benefits.”

Alexis looked at Nigel, who nodded as the alien all but confirmed what they’d been discussing earlier.

The Pendal looked around the office for a second; it didn’t take long to survey the entire space. “Although, having enough space to entertain visitors might be nice.”

“We’ll be fine standing,” Alexis said. “We don’t intend to stay long but hoped we might have a few moments of your time.”

The alien bowed slightly. “It would be a welcome distraction, as it would keep me from having to fill out several reports. How might I assist?”

Nigel’s eyes met hers, and Alexis nodded for him to take the lead. He nodded and turned to the Pendal. “We wanted to come and talk with you a bit.”

“Is there a reason you chose me, specifically, or are you talking to everyone?”

“Actually, we were hoping you could give us a better feeling for what is going on here. It appears everyone is so busy pursuing their own race’s interests that no one is actually working for the betterment of either the guild or the galaxy.”

The Pendal laughed again, long and hard, to the point where it looked like Nigel was starting to get annoyed. “Other races tend to pursue the things they find valuable, often losing sight of what some might call, ‘the grand view.’ What’s going on here?” he asked finally. “Chaos, mostly.”

“I don’t see how that’s funny,” Nigel said. “The galaxy’s already had one war that almost wiped everyone out. It appears that we are well on our way toward a second.”

The Pendal focused all three eyes on Nigel, and he fell back half a step. Alexis was close enough to him to feel the power of the gaze, although it wasn’t directed at her, and a shudder went down her back. After the initial reaction, Nigel appeared to steel himself, and he squared his shoulders, bearing up under the alien’s scrutiny.

After a moment, the alien nodded slightly, and his eyes lost their focus. “Interesting,” he muttered.

“What’s interesting?” Alexis asked, hoping to draw his attention from Nigel.

“I think he actually believes that,” the Pendal replied, looking to Alexis, but without the same intensity he had directed at Nigel. “While not his sole purpose, he is interested in the galaxy as a whole, and doing what is right, not just doing what is best for your tiny little planets out on the arm. My kinsman was right about him. I find that fascinating.”

“What did your kinsman say?” Nigel asked. “Because you know, I am standing right here.”

“That is unimportant at the moment,” the Pendal replied. “It is a story for another day, perhaps. What is important is that you are correct; the galaxy is heading toward a second great war, and there is very little that can be done to stop it. I fear that this one will end much faster, though, and end with the Galactic Union destroyed and little more than a memory in a very short time.”

“How do you know that?” Alexis asked.

“We all have our specialties,” the Pendal said. “Unlike many races who are enamored with making credits—sometimes at all costs—we listen and we watch, and what we have seen concerns us.”

“You mean that the Kahraman are coming?” Nigel asked.

“They have been coming for a while,” the Pendal replied with a shrug, “though the fact that you say it as if it’s a fact is surprising. How did you know?”

“We had—”

“A friend gave us the information,” Alexis said, cutting Nigel off before he could say too much. He gave her a small nod in acknowledgment.

“We all have our sources,” the Pendal replied. The corners of his mouth turned up in an approximation of a smile. “Regardless, the fact that the Kahraman are coming isn’t news. The Mercenary Guild has been fighting them for some time. It is, however, a matter of great concern.”

“As it should be,” Nigel said. “I’m not much of a student of history, but even I know how bad it got last time and don’t want to see that kind of disruption and loss of life again.”

“Nor does my race,” the Pendal said with a nod. “Both of our races value our freedom, and there would be substantially less of it under a Kahraman rule…assuming there was anyone left to rule afterward.”

“What is that supposed to mean?” Alexis asked.

“The first Great War was far worse than the limited information you can find about it on the GalNet. Hundreds of races and thousands of systems were wiped out. Genocide was a popular tool in the war…on both sides. And with enough antimatter, even stars can be destroyed.”

Alexis gasped. “That’s horrible!”

“We wouldn’t do that!” Nigel exclaimed.

“Really?” the Pendal asked. “So, for example, you’ve never sworn to wipe out a race or two?” His eyes bored into Nigel, who wasn’t able to meet the alien’s gaze. Nigel’s eyes dropped to the floor.

“I may have said that about the MinSha,” he admitted, “but that was only because of what they did to my country. Even still, I probably wouldn’t have killed all of them, even if I was given the opportunity.”

“And the Veetanho? The Goka? The Besquith?”

“Well, I might have said it about them, too, but I didn’t really mean it…mostly…”

“Why has the information been redacted?” Alexis asked, trying to draw the topic away from Nigel’s past promises. “It would seem that by doing so, they make it far more likely to repeat the mistakes of the past.”

“That is a good question,” the alien replied, “and one for which I have no answer. You are correct, though, in that it would seem to make a Second Great War far more possible. You have to ask yourself, who would stand to gain from that? One of the other guild leaders? Two? Three? Are they acting together? Separately? I think when you can answer that, you’ll find the answer to the first question. That is your real enemy.”

“Does it really matter who is doing it?” Nigel asked. “If the Kahraman are coming, they have to be stopped.” He turned to Alexis. “One of the first things we have to do in our new position on the council is to direct additional forces to the fighting. Once we beat them back, then we can worry about who’s behind it.”

“If only it were as easy as that,” the Pendal said.

“What do you mean?” Alexis asked.

“I would like to remind you of my earlier assertion that it was interesting that Nigel was more concerned about the galaxy as a whole. Not everyone feels similarly. If you take all of the Merc Guild’s forces off to a war with the Kahraman, what you come back to might not be at all like what you left. The Merc Guild has long provided the strength to keep the Union together; if it were to be unavailable for a period, the other guilds would use that time to advance their own causes. Even now, word is starting to get around about the…turmoil…the guild is experiencing, and some of the other guilds are starting to see opportunities for how they might advance their own causes.”

“But that makes no sense,” Nigel said. “Not with the Kahraman coming.”

“Ah…but like I said, the Kahraman have been coming for a while. Anyone in power has their sources and knows about the Kahraman resurgence. They’ve been coming for centuries. How many times can you say, ‘The Kahraman are coming!’ before people cease to listen?” The Pendal shrugged. “Many times, people are more concerned about what is under their noses now than they are about what might happen in the future, especially if they are used to someone else—like the Merc Guild in this case—taking care of their problems for them.”

“And then, when the dam crumbles?” Alexis asked.

“Then we all die.”

“But we don’t have enough forces after the war we just fought to leave people behind to ensure the stability of the Galactic Union while simultaneously moving forces forward to help defeat the Kahraman.”

“That is a conundrum, for certain,” the alien replied. “There may not even be a ‘right’ answer, but only one which is better than the alternative.”

Alexis sighed. “So, if I get this right, we either have to provide stability here and build up our forces to go and fight the Kahraman, or, we fight them with what we have, hope to win, and come back to find the galaxy in a shambles, and all the fighting and dying we did will be for naught?”

“Those are two possibilities. There may be more, but those are certainly the two frontrunners as I see them.”

“One of them is awful and the other is worse.”

The Pendal nodded. “I see you’ve finally grasped the nature of the situation.”

“Well, fuck,” Nigel said.


“We will have to talk about this,” Alexis said.

“I hope you do. Our race, while not a mercenary one, can certainly see where things are heading. As we value our freedom, it is something we find…distressing.”

“Thank you for your time,” Alexis said, turning to the door.

“I had one other question,” Nigel said. “When we first got here, you said ‘other races’ didn’t look at the big picture. What is it that the Pendals look at? Whose side are you on, exactly?”

“That’s two questions,” the alien noted, “but I will be happy to answer both. As I mentioned, we value our freedom. What’s important to us is doing what’s necessary to help us keep it. Whose side are we on? Whosever side helps us to stay free.”

“So, you would appear to be on our side, as that’s what we want.”

“I had another visitor here, some time ago,” the Pendal said. “I told her our skills seemed to be somewhat complimentary, which would allow us to help each other out. I believe that my race is in a similar position with yours.”

* * *

“Well, that was interesting and horrifying, all at once,” Alexis said. She had kept silent on the way back to their quarters to keep anyone from overhearing them.

“Horrifying?” Nigel asked. “You didn’t have the Pendal stare at you! It felt like he was in my body, crawling through my brain.”

“Do you think he was? Actually in your thoughts?”

Nigel shrugged. “I don’t know. I know they have some sort of telepathic or empathic abilities; I’ve seen them. I also know that they will kill anyone who talks about them, so please don’t bring them up with…what was the Pendal’s name?”

“I don’t know,” Alexis said. “I don’t think he ever said, nor does it say in the Merc Guild’s directory. It only says, ‘Pendal Representative;’ it doesn’t list a name.”

“You know, I’m not sure I’ve ever gotten a name from any of them. Secretive little bastards.” He shook his head. “For all I know, they’re all the same one; I’ll be damned if I can tell them apart. Regardless, don’t talk about it in front of them. Or even think about it, I guess.”

“But what do you think about what he actually said?”

“Everyone’s in it for something,” Nigel said. “For all we know, the Pendals are, too. Although I don’t know what they’d want beyond freedom, like he said.”

“If nothing else, it was independent confirmation about what you found on the slate about the Kahraman.”

“Confirmation I’d rather not have received.”

“Well, true, but it’s better to know so we can plan for it,” Alexis said. “Although it looks like there’s a lot of work to do before we can go fight them.”

“A lot of work which will hopefully keep one of us from going to fight them…hopefully for a long time, if not forever.”

Alexis sighed. “We’re not going to get into this again. Combat isn’t in my future, and—all things considered—I don’t want to be in combat while I’m carrying the babies any more than you want me to.”

“Have you considered retiring and letting someone else take the reins?”

“No, and I’m not going to while there is so much left to do.”

“There’s always going to be something to do,” Nigel said. “It’s the nature of our—”

Alexis put a finger over his lips, silencing him. “Not now,” she said. “It’s been a long day, full of many unwanted surprises. I think what I’d like is to just lie down for a bit and relax.”

“With me or without me?”

“With you, of course.” She smiled at the expression on his face. He was so cute when he was surprised. As they headed for their temporary quarters, though, her space navy commander’s mind considered the implications of a Kahraman invasion. If they’re trying to invade, what’s stopping them, and where is their base? She needed to find some answers, but it wasn’t immediately urgent. There were other things that needed doing, and Nigel was more important right then.

* * *

Council Chambers, Merc Guild Headquarters, Capital Planet

Nigel sat at the seat reserved for Humans at the table. He had discussed it with Alexis at some length, and they’d decided for him to be the representative until someone permanent could be appointed. Unless Earth’s government sent someone completely unqualified for the position, in which case he wouldn’t give up the seat. It would be weeks before they heard back concerning humanity’s new position on the council and how the government there reacted. Or if there even was a government to react.

The only news they had heard from Earth had them both worried. Shortages were looming, and without an influx of merc contract dollars, things would get grim soon. Not that I can fix that at the moment.

Nervously, Nigel scanned the table to see where everyone was. He was on the right side of the table from the Speaker, next to the Veetanho rep at the end. It was not the spot he would have chosen, and he was forced to wonder if his positioning was to provide a continual poke at the Veetanho. Although he understood why that might be a good move by the Speaker, he’d much rather have been somewhere out of sight of the Veetanho. There was nothing good that could come from being in such close proximity to the little rats, except in case he needed to strangle the piece of shit representative the race sent. He unconsciously fingered the laser pistol on his hip, then quickly withdrew his hand when he realized what he was doing.

Nigel took a deep breath and let it out in a rush, realizing that line of thinking was only going to get him in trouble. He snorted to himself quietly. That might also be why he was positioned next to the Veetanho rep—to kill her if she became a nuisance.

He put that thought aside and scanned the rest of the table. The Lumar rep had the furthest seat from the Speaker across the table from him, with the Oogar, Tortantula, and Flatar representatives to the left of him. On his side, the MinSha rep was the closest to the Speaker, and out of arm’s reach from him, which he decided was a good thing, although he could see the giant praying mantis-like alien—and had a line of fire at her—over the top of the Bakulu representative who was to his left.

He nodded to the Bakulu rep as the snail-shaped alien took its place next to him. “Greetings, Human,” the Bakulu said. “I am Tegalpooka.”

Nigel introduced himself, then he looked a little more closely at the alien. “Are you missing an eye stalk?”

“I am.” The alien made a chuckling sound. “One of the things you Humans get that I didn’t as the captain of a Bakulu cruiser was training in pseudopod-to-pseudopod fighting. As it turns out, no one ever taught me how to duck.”

“Someone got aboard your ship and shot you?”

“No. My injury was from the council meeting last month. I’ve seen some heated discussions in my time, but that one put all the others to shame.”

“So, you were the other survivor of that council meeting.”

“I was, along with the Speaker. While tensions were running high, I never saw that coming.” He made the chuckling sound again. “Now, I’ll have an even harder time seeing things coming in the future.”

Nigel laughed with the alien, then realized with a start that he was actually communicating with the Bakulu on a peer-to-peer level. He’d commanded aliens in battle before, but this was different—he was now accepted as a colleague by the representative of one of the Merc Guild races. A warm glow went through him as he realized that everything he’d been through in the past half-year—everything all of the Horsemen and their forces had been through—had ultimately brought them to this place: acceptance at the galactic level.

His smile dimmed slightly as he caught sight of the MinSha representative. While he was willing to forgive many things, he still harbored a deep-seated hatred for the aliens who had devastated his country, and he was not yet willing to forgive them or the Veetanho. Maybe that would come, too, down the road…but it would be a long way down the road. Still, he had reviewed the last full council meeting—the one that had ended in bloodshed—and the MinSha representative had spoken up in favor of the Humans and had said that humanity shouldn’t be held responsible for the laws they’d broken. Maybe there was hope for them; if nothing else, he’d heard they had a strict honor code, which they all adhered to. That was something he could respect. But not the Veetanho, who’d shot Alexis in the back; they were never to be trusted.

He smiled again as he looked back to the Bakulu, then looked up to see Alexis where she sat in the visitor seats. She gave him an encouraging smile in return, which warmed his heart, and nodded toward the Bakulu, while making a small motion of clapping her hands. Obviously, she approved of him making friends with the alien…or at least was happy he hadn’t killed any of the other representatives yet, kind of in the way you patted the puppy on the head for pooping where it was supposed to. He winked at her, then a commotion at the door caught his attention.

The last two members of the council, the Veetanho representative and the Speaker, had arrived at the same time, and they appeared to be arguing over who would precede the other into the room. Nigel missed whatever was said, but it appeared the Goltar won—the Veetanho went first and stomped across the room in an obviously bad mood.

Nigel approved; he was in full support of anything that tweaked the Veetanho. Until the Veetanho took the seat next to him, looked at him, and muttered, “Fuck you, Human.”

Nigel’s eyebrows rose; the warm glow of collegiality gone in an instant. “I’m sorry,” he said under his breath as his face got hot, “but did you just say something, rat? My translator has a hard time with your whiney voice.”

“Piss off. You’ll get yours. It may not have happened the way Peepo intended, but have no doubt, you and all your Horsemen friends will be destroyed in the end.”

“Listen, you—” Nigel stopped as motion caught his eye; Alexis was waving at him. She shook her head.

Nigel locked his jaw. The stress of being unable to reach over and grab the Veetanho by the throat like he wanted to was almost overwhelming, but he’d given Alexis his word that he wouldn’t physically assault any of the other representatives today. At the time, it had seemed like a reasonable concession to keep her—and the babies—out of harm’s way, but now, with the little rat baiting him, he wasn’t so sure.

“Oh look, he is such a good boy,” the Veetanho said, chuckling. “He does what his mate says. I wonder what he would do if he ever had to come to a meeting without his adult supervision.”

Nigel forced himself to take a breath, but he couldn’t let the last jibe go without a response. He bent over to re-tie a lace on his boot so Alexis couldn’t see him talking. “What would he do? He would grab your scrawny neck in his hands and crush the life from you. Something I’d be happy to do outside the council chambers after the meeting, if you’d like.” Nigel sat back up and turned to give the Veetanho his best smile, then looked at Alexis and shrugged his shoulders at her as if he didn’t know what she was talking about.

“Your time will come,” the Veetanho rep said softly.

“As will yours,” Nigel replied, turning to smile at her. “The only difference is that yours will come a lot sooner.”

“Thank you all for coming this morning,” the Speaker said, calling the meeting to order. “I am aware that the overwhelming majority of the representatives to the council are new—” he paused for an awkward round of chuckling, “—so it is probably best if we start with an update of guild operations already in progress.”

“Guild operations in progress?” the Lumar asked after being recognized. He looked around the council chambers with his brows knitting. “What operations are in progress?”

“I’m glad you asked,” the Speaker replied. His gaze swept across the table to the Veetanho representative. “Why don’t you inform the council of what we are currently sponsoring?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I see,” the Speaker replied. Even though it was impossible for a race with a beak to smile, Nigel could certainly hear the smile in his voice. “Is it possible your race sent you here without updating you on the operations the Veetanho are overseeing?”

“I still don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“That’s okay,” the Speaker replied. “As it turns out, Seezo left a nice summary of the ongoing war on her slate, which was found in her chambers last week.”

“I’m sorry,” the Bakulu rep said after being recognized, “but which war are we talking about? All of the information I have from my home planet indicates that the war against the Humans, while never officially declared due to the fact that they weren’t full members, was ended by the Peacemakers. Have I been misinformed?”

“You are partially correct. While the Peacemaker Guild did halt the ongoing combat operations, that conflict is still nominally underway. Perhaps, while we are discussing it, we should formally end it, as we have far more important matters to discuss. Do I have a motion to end combat operations against the Humans?”

Nigel chuckled. “I would love to make that motion.”

“I’m sure you would,” the Speaker said. “Unfortunately, as you are involved in the conflict, I am afraid you must abstain from this discussion.” He looked around the table. “Would anyone else like to propose such a motion?”

The Bakulu rep waved a pseudopod. “I would like to so motion. There has been far too much loss of life and equipment already. The conflict has been very bad for everyone’s bottom lines.”

The Speaker bowed slightly. “All in favor of ending formal guild combat operations against the Humans?” Everyone except Nigel and the Veetanho rep indicated assent.

“The motion passes by a vote of seven to one. Formal guild operations against the Humans are to be discontinued and any race participating in them are to vacate the Human systems or risk being declared pirates by the guild. All member races are to send couriers to any participating forces on both Earth and its colony worlds to ensure their withdrawal.”

“You’re making a mistake,” the Veetanho rep said.

“Why is that?” the Speaker asked.

“You think that you will be able to control the Humans. You’re wrong. They are exactly what the guild does not need at the moment—free thinkers who won’t do what they’re told. They don’t know when they’re beaten, and they refuse to follow both guild and Galactic Union laws. You are not only risking the stability of the guild, but you are also putting the entire galaxy in peril.”

“Your accusations against the Humans have already been dealt with in a previous council meeting,” the Speaker replied. “As such, I don’t feel the need to bring them back up again when we have so much else that needs our attention. Thank you for the segue, though, about the peril our universe is currently in, which is the ongoing war against the Kahraman.”

The Speaker paused for a reaction, but there wasn’t much of one. Most sat forward, as if waiting for the real information to be disseminated. Apparently, either all or almost all of the races were already aware of the combat operations. Only the Lumar looked confused, but whether that was because he didn’t know of the conflict or because he didn’t know who the Kahraman were in the first place, Nigel had no idea.

“In fact,” the Speaker continued, “the guild has been at war with the Kahraman for over three centuries while under the leadership of the Veetanho.” He looked at the Veetanho rep again. “Does any of this sound familiar?”

The Veetanho looked away with a shrug, obviously unwilling to participate in the discussion.

“Since the distinguished Veetanho representative has nothing to offer on the matter—” his tone indicated he thought the representative anything but distinguished “—as I mentioned earlier, I found a rather concise situation report from the front.”

“I object,” the Veetanho representative said. “Any information on Seezo’s slate is proprietary Veetanho information. As such, it was illegal for you to search the slate, as it is for you to share any of the information you inappropriately removed from it.”

“Actually, the slate was Merc Guild property, not Seezo’s own, so it is completely appropriate for me to look at it as I am the Speaker, and it’s the Speaker’s slate.” He paused to see if the rep would say anything else, then continued, “The last report I found from the front says everything is going well. The lines are holding, and the Kahraman are being held at bay.”

That got a reaction from the assembled members as a number of them voiced their approval. Although they may have known operations were ongoing—after three centuries of conflict, it would have been hard for them not to be aware—Nigel realized that the other members must have been almost as ignorant of the war’s status as he’d been. Apparently, the Veetanho had been keeping the war away from everyone, not just the Humans.

“However, it is with a heavy heart that I must bring to your attention that the B’zong, one of the merc races fighting in the Fourth Arm, have been completely destroyed; their race no longer exists.” He looked to the back row of the stadium seating of the council at large. “The representative for the B’zong is no longer needed and should leave the council chambers.”

A Goka stood and left the council chamber while a number of the representatives talked among themselves quietly. Nigel watched the Goka curiously. As easily as he’d taken his dismissal, Nigel realized he’d known all along that the B’zong had been eliminated. That he’d continued to attend as if his presence wasn’t in fact a lie indicated the Veetanho weren’t against doing everything they could to continue their dominance of the council, and he wondered what other lies were still in place.

“The thing that I find curious, my fellow council members, is that a race was wiped out, yet we are told that things at the front are going well. There seems to be more going on than we have been led to believe by the Veetanho. Not only have there been losses in battle—including the genocide of an entire race—there have also been losses caused by the willful misappropriation of assets at the front.”

This appeared to get the attention of the Veetanho rep, Nigel saw, as she lost her feigned disinterest, and her head snapped back to the Speaker.

The Lumar rep raised his hand, “Willful misapp—the what?”

The Speaker smiled, and Nigel realized the Lumar made the perfect foil. As they were less intelligent than most races, all the Speaker had to do was use large words or complicated phrasing and the Lumar rep would set the Speaker up for his next point. While Nigel could appreciate how the Speaker used the Lumar for that reason, having worked with the Lumar, Nigel thought the Speaker’s gambit disrespectful to the Lumar rep. While not overly bright, the Lumar were incredibly loyal.

“Willful misappropriation. The Veetanho commander at the front lines sent back a contingent of Biruda to aid in the defense of Earth. While this unit was away, the Kahraman claimed another system and moved closer to the galactic core. Once they get there, they will be able to spread throughout the galaxy, and we will no longer be able to hold them off.”

“So that’s where they came from!” Nigel said. “We had no records of them, then they popped in and destroyed a number of our forces before unexpectedly leaving again.”

“I dispute that any of these events happened,” the Veetanho rep replied. “I have yet to see any proof.”

“I have the proof,” the Speaker replied. “The request from Peepo to pull them from the front lines was on Seezo’s slate, as well as the orders to the Front for them to detach. As such, the loss of the planet is solely due to Veetanho misappropriation, and reparations are due to the Katrong, whose system was lost.”

“What about reparations to us?” Nigel asked, his temper rising. “If the Biruda were there illegally, anything they did would be the Veetanho’s responsibility, too, right?”

“Bah, you stupid Human,” the Veetanho rep replied. “The next thing you’ll be looking for is reparations for the entire conflict, even though it was sanctioned by the guild.”

“As a matter of fact, yes, we would like to be compensated,” Nigel said. “We did nothing to warrant—”

“What? Like one hundred million credits?”

“Sure. That would be a good—”

“Done,” the Veetanho interrupted. She sat back with a smile on her face. “We will pay the Humans one hundred million credits to settle all the damages from the conflict.”

“Wait!” Nigel said. “I was going to say that would be a good start, not that it would be the final payment for the war!”

The Veetanho rep turned toward the Speaker. “Let the record reflect that the Human representative replied in the affirmative when I offered one hundred million credits as reparations for the war.”

“Wait!” Nigel exclaimed again. He looked to Alexis for help, but she shook her head and rolled her eyes. It was already too late. A sick feeling came over him as he realized he’d singlehandedly just cost Earth hundreds of billions—maybe even trillions—of credits.

“That is what the record indicates,” the Speaker replied, “and—as distasteful as I find it—I am going to have to agree with the Veetanho rep that an offer was made and accepted.”

The Veetanho sat back in her seat. “Stupid Human,” she muttered. “So easy to manipulate.”

A red haze covered Nigel’s vision, and he fumed, unable to concentrate on the discussion as he worked to control his temper. By the time he had, the discussion had left the reparations due to the Katrong and had moved on. Nigel forced himself to take a couple of deep breaths, and he vowed to not let the Veetanho take advantage of him again.

“I would like to propose an independent fact-finding mission to go to the Front and find out the true status of the ongoing conflict,” the Speaker was saying. “Unfortunately, due to the nature of the hostilities, the ship that is sent will have to be modified to survive in that environment and, as such, must remain as part of the forces engaged in the war.”

The Bakulu raised a pseudopod. “We volunteer a cruiser, along with crew, for this mission. As the war is primarily space-based, we are well-equipped to evaluate the current state of hostilities.”

“All in favor?” the speaker asked. Everyone but the Veetanho indicated assent, and—since the Veetanho seemed to be against it—Nigel raised his hand as well.

“Very well,” the Speaker replied. “Your proposal is accepted. You are authorized to send a cruiser to Lacabo Prime to get it modified for the front lines. A contract will be forthcoming from the guild for this mission.”

Nigel looked over to Alexis, who shook her head and then shrugged; she had obviously never heard of the system, either.

The Oogar representative raised a paw and was recognized. “I would like to make a motion that we break for lunch.”

Several heads—and other parts of the representatives’ anatomy, where appropriate—nodded around the table. “That is a good morning’s work,” the Speaker said. “In fact, I would like a little more time to go over some of the things Seezo left behind for me. Let’s adjourn until tomorrow morning, same time. Any disagreement?” He paused for a couple of heartbeats and then said, “Done. See you tomorrow.”

The representatives all got up to leave, as did the members in the audience. Nigel flagged down the Bakulu representative. “Hey, Tegalpooka, do you have a minute?”

One of the alien’s eye stalks turned back to regard Nigel. “Yes?”

“I was curious about that system…Lacabo Prime? Neither Colonel Cromwell nor myself have ever heard of it before, and I was wondering what the Speaker meant about being modified for the front lines.”

“It is very simple. Warfare on the front lines with the Kahraman is very different than what we practice here. They have access to additional weapons they can use.”

“Wait…additional weapons? Like what?”

“Like the meson weapons the Biruda used against the battleships under the command of Admiral Galantrooka in the Battle of Earth. That was most unfair.”

“Wait. How do you know about that?”

“I, of course, read the after-action reports put together by our survivors. If we don’t study battles that happened in the past, how else are we to not repeat them in the future?”

“Good point, but how is it that Admiral Galantrooka didn’t know about the meson weapons?”

“That is quite simple. Need to know. Most people are happier fighting the normal battles we fight without knowing advanced weaponry exists. Therefore, it was decided a long time ago to limit access to information about the weapons which we are forbidden to use, outside of battle with the Kahraman.”

“So…there are Bakulu ships that are armed like the Biruda ships we fought?”

“Only a few, as our race has not been responsible for fighting the war. You will never see them, though, because once a ship is modified, it has to go to the front lines and remain there until destroyed. Sadly, for our ships, that normally hasn’t taken very long.”

“But what about the crew?”

“They must remain there, too. We wouldn’t want word of the weapons getting out. Then there would be a big rush for everyone to get them, then mass killings as those who had them wiped out those who did not. Warfare is much more civilized this way.”

“So, killing people by the dozens or hundreds is more civilized than killing them by the thousands or millions? Is that what you’re saying?”

“Of course,” Tegalpooka replied. “Do you dispute this?”

“Well, I guess society will endure longer if you do it that way, anyway.”

“Is that all?” the Bakulu asked.

“Well, no, not really. Can you tell me any more about Lacabo Prime?”

“Well, if you understand everything I just said, there’s nothing left to tell. Lacabo Prime is where ships are modified to fight in the war.”

“Modified? Modified how?”

“With the new weapons. How do you suppose the meson weapons get on the ships?”

“Well, we install weapons as part of the manufacturing process.”

“Sure you do…for your run-of-the-mill weapons. But how do you think the advanced weapons—like the Biruda used against us on Earth—get installed? Where do you think those came from? Have you ever seen tech like that before?”

“No, never.” He shrugged. “Okay, I’ll bite. Where do they come from?”

“Those get fitted out at the Weapons Conglomerate manufactories.”

“The Weapons—the what?”

“The Weapons Conglomerate. It is a sub-guild that is responsible for one thing—adding advanced weapons to certain ships.”

Nigel smiled. “How do I get them added to my ship?”

“In a word? You don’t. Like I said, only ships going to the Front get them.”

“Where is this Weapons Conglomerate? Lacabo Prime? Where is that?”

“I don’t know, nor do I know anyone else who does. The Weapons Conglomerate is a subsidiary of the Science Guild, like the Unified Credit Exchange is part of the Information Guild. When the contract comes out to support the conflict at the Front, it includes the coordinates to where Lacabo Prime is. Anyone who passes on the coordinates will be terminated.”

Nigel looked to Alexis, who was standing nearby. “And you thought the security to get to New Warsaw was tough.” He turned back to the Bakulu. “The Science Guild runs it, huh?”


“And no one else ever goes there?”



* * *

Visitors’ Quarters, Merc Guild Headquarters, Capital Planet

“You know, there’s an awful lot of shit that goes on that we never got the memo about,” Nigel said when they got back to their quarters.

“Which part? The major war going on with the Kahraman? The fact that there’s technology we don’t have? The fact that, ‘Everything is on the GalNet’ was a bunch of lies?”

Nigel smiled. “Yeah, pretty much all of that. I wonder what else we haven’t been told. It’s like I’m sitting here waiting for the other shoe to drop, and then it drops, and then another and another, like I’m dealing with some sort of Tortantula. There are a whole lot more legs—and shoes—than there ought to be.”

“Yeah, it’s easy to become overwhelmed…and settle your planet’s debts for pennies on the dollar, as the old saying goes.”

Nigel looked down at the floor, sighed, then looked back up with a crooked smile. “Yeah, that wasn’t my finest moment. On the good side, though, at least I didn’t strangle the Veetanho next to me. My abilities in the alien relations’ department are improving.”

“If that’s what you want—”

The door chimed, interrupting her, indicating a visitor. Nigel crossed to the door and opened it. “Thorb, is that you? What are you doing here?”

The otter-like individual swaggered into the room. “Nice room,” the SalSha said. “It’s a lot better than mine. I guess this must be what colonels get. Lieutenant colonels only get a small room in the sub-basement.”

“You got promoted?” Alexis asked. “Congratulations.”

Thorb smiled. “Well, sort of. I’m not actually here to represent the Golden Horde; I’m here to represent the SalSha. I didn’t think the rank of major would get any respect, but with less than a company’s-worth of SalSha pilots remaining, it was hard to take the rank of colonel.”

“Represent the SalSha?” Nigel asked. “Represent them for what?”

“Union membership, of course.” Thorb cocked his head and looked at Nigel. “You didn’t think we would remain your minions forever, did you?”

“Well, I…uh…I guess I never really thought about it.”

“The only way we will receive status in the Union—and protection from annihilation—is to be recognized by the Galactic Union. As it looked like the easiest way was to get sponsorship from the Merc Guild—and we didn’t really have anything meaningful to contribute besides mercenary forces and grahp meat—here I am.”

“Welcome,” Nigel replied, trying to fight down the blush from his earlier response. He never would have conceived of blushing to a talking otter…yet, here he was.

“It’s good to have you here,” Alexis said, covering for him. “As it turns out, we may be able to help with your membership.”

“Oh?” Thorb asked, turning to look inquisitively at Alexis. “How’s that? I thought I had to petition the Inner Council or something like that.”

“Well…as it turns out, we were made members of the Inner Council. I don’t know how it works, but we ought to be able to sponsor you…once we figure out how to do it. Are you here by yourself?”

“Yes. I sent the second-ranking member of our society with the ships Sansar loaned us to get more of our people. If we are to be a mercenary organization, we will need more members in order to take on contracts.”

“Do you intend to hire yourselves out?” Alexis asked.

“We will probably be subcontractors to the Golden Horde, at least until we build up our numbers and skill levels. After that, though, yes, we intend to take on new contracts. It is the only way we will be able to afford the new standard of living we’d like to maintain.”

“That would be weird,” Nigel said.

“What? The fact that we want to make our own credits? You don’t think we can do it?”

Nigel smiled. “No. I’ve seen your pilots in action; I know you can do it. I wouldn’t be here right now if it weren’t for you and your pilots getting us into the dreadnought at New Warsaw. You didn’t have to come to that fight, but you did. That was what I meant, though—we’ve been fighting on the same side for so long, it’s almost like you are part of the Human mercenary organization. It would be weird to have you on the other side of the battle line and be fighting against you.”

“Oh. I never thought about that.” Thorb looked thoughtful for a few moments. “Well, there are times in the past where Humans have fought other Humans.”

“Yes, but the Horsemen don’t take contracts that include fighting other Horsemen. We just don’t.”

“Well, that’s the solution, then,” Thorb said. “We just won’t take contracts where we would have to fight you, either.”

“That’s nice to say now,” Alexis said. “However, sometimes things don’t work out the way you think they’re going to…”

* * * * *

Chapter Ten

Council Chambers, Merc Guild Headquarters, Capital Planet

Alexis caught Nigel’s eye as he sat down in his council seat. “Remember,” she mouthed at him, holding up a finger.

Nigel sighed and nodded. The last thing she’d said to him before they split to go to their respective seats was, “Try not to sell the moon today for 100 credits, or something equally stupid.”

While Nigel thought that somewhat unfair, he was self-aware enough to realize that he had made a big mistake—okay, a gigantic one—at the last meeting, and he resolved not to repeat that performance. If worse came to worst and it looked like he was going to completely lose his temper, he’d just stop talking and choke the shit out of the Veetanho representative. He’d still be in trouble, but at least it would be directed at him and wouldn’t cost Earthlings everywhere.

He hoped.

Toyn-Zhyll called the meeting to order. “I only have two items on today’s agenda, but they are both of crucial importance. The first of these is we need to decide whether to begin taking contracts again.”

“Our ships are idle and our coffers are running empty,” the Veetanho rep announced. “We need to begin taking contracts again.”

Nigel nodded, surprised to be in agreement with the little rat over anything, much less something as important as finances and guild guidance. He’d heard from Earth: without the money the mercs brought in—to say nothing about the devastation brought about by the war—the economy was in shambles. Earth needed an infusion of cash, and quickly, which meant merc contracts.

“I disagree,” Toyn-Zhyll said. “There are too many things currently in flux.”

“Like what?” the MinSha rep asked.

“As I feared would happen, the other guilds have used the perceived instability of the Mercenary Guild—”

“It’s hardly perceived,” the Flatar rep noted, “when all of the representatives are dead.”

“Just because the representatives had a…misunderstanding,” Toyn-Zhyll replied, “doesn’t mean the guild itself is unstable. We just came to a critical juncture and needed a little…restructuring.” He pointedly ignored the noise the Veetanho rep made and continued, “As I was saying, in the interim, some of the other guilds have looked at this perceived period of instability as a chance to right some of the inequities they view they’ve had to operate under.”

“Like what?” the Bakulu rep asked.

“First and foremost, the Union Credit Exchange (UCX) is making a play to break away from the Information Guild and become a guild in its own right. As most of you are probably aware, they have been making noises about stopping all UAAC transactions, as well as all currency transactions pending review by the Senate on guild status for them. If they were to do so, we couldn’t take any contracts in the first place.”

“Why not?” the Lumar rep asked.

“Without UACC transactions, how would you get paid? The hard credits are still there, of course, but most organizations won’t have the piles of cash or red diamonds on hand it would take to cover a normal contract. Even if they did, it would be extremely risky to transport them. You’d need a second merc contract to protect the credits you were going to use to pay the first merc contract.” Toyn-Zhyll made a gesture of negation with a tentacle. “No. Without UACC transactions, it just wouldn’t work.”

“Oh,” the Lumar replied. “That’s bad.”

“Additionally,” Toyn-Zhyll said, “the Resource Guild wants reduced transport costs from the Merchants Guild, which carries its goods. It’s tired of being at the whim of the Merchant Guild, which has been unwilling to oblige and is talking about stopping all F11 production. If this were to occur…”

“Then shipping and the entire galactic economy would be at risk,” the Bakulu rep finished.

“Correct,” Toyn-Zhyll agreed. “There are a variety of other disagreements currently underway. Everything from the Cartography Guild and Merchant Guild fighting over who has control of shipping in the galaxy to the Engineering Guild and the Cartography Guild fighting over who has responsibility for making hyperspace computers and updating the galactic database. There are many issues being settled where we care about the outcome, but it would be inappropriate for us to fight on both sides of the issue against ourselves.

“Additionally, there is the Kahraman issue, which we don’t have a firm grasp on. Although the Bakulu have sent a cruiser to check up on the status at the Front, it will be some time before the ship returns, and in the interim I am worried about spreading our assets too thin, in case we need to send more ships to that conflict. With the war against the Humans only recently concluded, our force levels across the board are the lowest they’ve been in a long time. I am worried about spreading them out even more or participating in internecine wars where we reduce our force levels even further.

“As such, I think it is imperative that we extend the moratorium on taking any new contracts until such time as we get a status update from the Front and some of the other inter-guild issues are resolved. This will give the various races time to recruit new forces and build the additional shipping required to act forcefully when we decide it’s time to begin taking contracts again.”

Nigel looked at Alexis, unsure of which position to take on the issue. While he could see the truth behind Toyn-Zhyll’s words—hell, he himself had left orders that prioritized recruiting above all else when he left Earth—he also knew how badly Earth needed an infusion of cash.

Alexis shrugged her shoulders, also obviously conflicted as to how to proceed. The Winged Hussars were probably in the best position, financially, and had their own economy at Prime Base that was less affected by the galactic turmoil. Although they’d been invaded, too—just like Earth—the combined Four Horsemen forces had kicked the Merc Guild troops back out of the system immediately. Although there’d been a short disruption, the Hussars’ economy was back on track…minus all the people and equipment that had been lost in the war.

Still, Alexis had spent enough time on and around Earth in the aftermath of the war, and she was privy to the same messages he was receiving from Jim Cartwright and Sansar Enkh; she was well aware how close the Earth economy was to collapse. Finally, she came to a conclusion and shook her head. “We need the money,” she mouthed to him.

Nigel nodded; he’d come to the same conclusion.

“I’m sorry,” Nigel said after he was recognized, “but Earth’s economy was devastated in the war. We need the credits. We have to disagree with the Speaker’s assessment.”

“Could have had more money in reparations,” the Veetanho rep muttered under her breath, “if you weren’t such a stupid Human.”

“And you might live to survive the meeting,” Nigel whispered back, “if you shut your rat face and don’t make me shut it for you.”

“You’ll get yours, Human; just you wait. You’ll get yours.”

“Any other discussion?” Toyn-Zhyll asked.

The Flatar rep raised a paw. “We have issues we’re working on in our society. We are okay with a moratorium on contracts.”

“As are the Tortantulas,” the giant spider analogue added.

“We are willing to follow your lead,” the Bakulu rep said, nodding an eye stalk at the Speaker. “It is certainly true we could use some time to rebuild our fleets.” He paused and then added, “Of course, we will ultimately need to have some currency to actually pay for the construction.”

“Granted,” the Speaker replied. “While we probably experienced the least trauma of any of the races in the recent conflict, we can understand the need to keep the currency flowing. I do not intend for this moratorium to be a lengthy one, but I feel it is needed until we have a better idea of the status at the Front. After that, we may want to—carefully of course—help guide some of the other guilds in their struggles. That extra time will give us a chance to decide where we can best make our presence felt.”

The Bakulu rep laughed. “We have never—officially—intervened in intra-guild affairs.”

“Nor will we now,” Toyn-Zhyll said, “in accordance with our charter. However, there may be…opportunities…for us to help guide them in a direction that would be more favorable to our wants and needs.”

“That seems like a practical solution,” the MinSha rep said, nodding her head. “While I do not want to see a moratorium, a short one will allow us to consolidate some of our losses and prepare for whatever comes next. It is also good practice to get all the intelligence we can before we make any moves—that way we can best guide the process, as you say.”

“I think a vote is in order,” Toyn-Zhyll said, obviously having taken his measure of the board. “All in favor of a short moratorium”—he looked at the MinSha rep—“please raise an appendage.”

He looked around the table. “The MinSha, Bakulu, Flatar, and Tortantula are in favor, as are the Goltar. All opposed?” He scanned the table again. “The Humans, Veetanho, and Oogar are against. Abstentions?” He paused. “The Lumar abstain. The motion passes the Inner Council, five to three with one abstention. As such, I would like to propose a vote to the membership at large. The question at hand is whether to approve a short moratorium on new contracts. Please vote now.”

All eyes followed the vote on a small tracking board. The races controlled by the Veetanho voted in a bloc against the moratorium, but the majority of the other races went along with it, probably to spite them.

“The ayes have it then,” Toyn-Zhyll said as the last vote was cast. “We now hereby implement a moratorium on new contracts until such time as the Bakulu are able to report on the status of the Front. Members should use that time to rebuild and re-arm their forces, as well as gain any additional intelligence possible on what the other guilds are doing.”

Most of the members nodded or did whatever they did to indicate assent.

“The second item I wanted to discuss today was the contracts the Veetanho hold in supposed perpetuity from a number of races. As the newest member of the guild, I would like the Humans to take a look at these contracts and report back to the council on their status and continued applicability. All in favor?”

“Wait! What? There’s no discussion on this?” Nigel asked.

“There isn’t any needed,” Toyn-Zhyll replied. “It really is a simple task, and it would help the other members of the guild better assess a number of things about its newest member. I would have thought you’d like to take on the task so you could prove your tremendous worth to the guild.”

Nigel had been about to say something else but shut his mouth and frowned instead. The way it was phrased, there was no way to back out of the task without diminishing their status. His eyes strayed to Alexis, and she shrugged.

“I’m sure we can take on the task and complete it effectively,” Nigel said with more conviction than he felt.

“Outstanding,” Toyn-Zhyll replied. “Any dissent?” The Veetanho’s paw went up. “Of course you disagree, but as the issue at hand deals with the Veetanho, I’m afraid I must recuse you and your opinion from it.”

“The details of the contracts are confidential and not to be discussed with outside parties,” the Veetanho rep stated. “As such, none of the delegates will be able to speak with—” she looked at Nigel with a sneer “—him.”

The Speaker made a motion of negation with a tentacle. “All details of any contract—classified or not—are the purview of the Inner Council and are subject to inspection by a member of this body if the Inner Council agrees.” His eyes swept the table. “Besides the Veetanho rep—whose disagreement is plain to see—are there any representatives who disagree with the plan to look at the details of the contracts?”

“Not me,” the Flatar rep said. “I’d love to see what they’ve been getting away with.”

“I would, as well,” the Tortantula agreed from next to him.

The Speaker paused for any additional comments, then asked, “Is there any other pertinent discussion? No? Is there any dissent?” His eyes scanned the table again. “Very well, there being no dissent, the task goes to the Human representative. Please report back to the council at your earliest convenience. There being no other business on the agenda, I propose we adjourn for today.”

“Motion to adjourn,” said the Oogar, with more enthusiasm than he’d shown about anything else during the meeting.

“Second,” the Flatar rep said.

“All in favor?”

Every hand went up except Nigel’s. When he saw how outvoted he was, he slowly extended his arm, too.

“Very well,” the Speaker said. “This session is adjourned. We will meet again once the Bakulu have something to report, or we have other items of business to discuss.”

Toyn-Zhyll slapped the table with a tentacle, ending the meeting and giving Nigel a moment to wonder just what the hell had happened.

* * *

Council Chambers, Merc Guild Headquarters, Capital Planet

Nigel looked up to see Alexis motioning to him. When she saw she had his attention, she pointed up to the back row of the auditorium. Nigel turned to find the group of Goka and Veetanho proxy delegates had spread out to head for the exits. Kind of like cockroaches when you turn the light on, and rats leaving a sinking ship. He had hoped to grab the entire group, but that obviously wasn’t going to be possible. He mouthed, “Goka” and pointed at the one in the back they had the best chance of intercepting, and the chase was on.

The Goka saw Nigel looking at him, and he sprinted toward the exit, pushing past a SleSha who buzzed in annoyance at being shoved to the side. The Goka opened up a gap on Nigel, but then had to spin around to avoid going past Alexis, who had cut him off and was blocking the door. He turned back to find Nigel closing in on him from behind, and he ducked behind the Tortantula rep for cover, but the Flatar on its back—seeing what was happening—jumped off and tackled the Goka onto the bed that the Xiq’tal rep used as a seat. The Goka tripped and the two fell over in a spray of twitching black legs. The Goka righted itself, brushed off the Flatar, and tried to skitter away, but Nigel got a hand on the joint where his head joined into his carapace, stopping him in his tracks.

“And just where do you think you’re going?” Nigel asked.

“I have a meeting at the Trade Guild,” the Goka replied. “I must be going; I’m already late.”

“You scheduled a meeting for the same time the council was in session?” Alexis asked, coming up to join them. “I kind of doubt that.”

“Yes, it came up right as the council meeting was ending. I have to go.” It tried to get around Alexis, but the Tortantula stepped in front of it.

“What you have to do is assist the Human in completing the task the Speaker gave him,” the giant spider replied.

The Goka turned to escape in the other direction, but found its way blocked by Alexis, Nigel, and the Flatar. Its eyes shifted, obviously looking for a means of escape, but it was blocked by the Sumatozou’s bench on one side and the Xiq’tal’s bed on the other. Trapped, it put a hand under its carapace.

“If that claw comes out with a knife in it,” Nigel said, “you’re going to lose both the knife and the claw that’s holding it.” Laser pistols appeared in both Alexis’ and his hands, and a hypervelocity pistol appeared as if by magic in the Flatar’s hand.

The Goka slumped. “No, no,” it said. “I wasn’t thinking anything of the sort.” It pulled out a slate from under its carapace—from a different place than it had originally been reaching, Nigel noticed with a smile—pressed a few virtual buttons on it and passed it over to Nigel. “There it is,” the Goka replied. “That’s our contract.”

Nigel took the slate and looked at it a second before looking back up again, his eyes widening. “Wait a minute!” he exclaimed. “This document is over three centuries old!”

The Goka wiggled an eye at it. “Why, yes, I believe it is.”

Nigel looked down again, and then looked back up just as quickly. “Wait—the Ganjiki gave you the right to vote for them in perpetuity?

“Yes, they did.” Nigel didn’t know what it looked like when the Goka smiled—or even if they could—but the tone that came through the translator definitely made it sound like the alien was laughing at him.

“I want to talk to one of the Ganjiki to confirm this is still what they want.”

“You can’t.”

“Why not?”

“They withdrew.”

“They withdrew? To where?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know? When is the last time you saw one?”


“Wait. You are their proxy, and you are supposed to act for them.”


“But you’ve never met them.”


“So how do you know you are faithfully discharging the duties expected of you in the proxy relationship?”

“Easy. They always voted in a block with the Veetanho. All I have to do is vote the way the Veetanho do, and I am doing exactly what they want.”

“How do you know their feelings haven’t changed?”

“Paragraph 387.”


“Read Paragraph 387 of the proxy agreement on the screen.”

Nigel flipped through the proxy agreement until he came to the screen with Paragraph 387.

“Go ahead and read it,” the Goka said. “Out loud, if you would.”

“In the event that nothing is heard from member race for a period of more than one year, Proxy should continue to vote in conjunction with the Veetanho Bloc until such time as member race returns to reinstate their wishes.”

“See?” the Goka said. “I am following the wishes of the Ganjiki. It is all as it should be. Do you have any other questions? No? Okay then, bye-bye.” It turned and skittered off, leaving Nigel holding the slate.

Nigel turned to Alexis, who was watching the Goka, her jaw hanging open, and realized his jaw was hanging open, too.

“What the hell was that?” Alexis asked as she stared after the alien.

“I have no idea.”

* * *

Visitors’ Quarters, Merc Guild Headquarters, Capital Planet

Tsan saw the creature walking down the hallway, and it drew her curiosity.

The creature was humanoid—much taller than Tsan, but slightly shorter than an average Human—and it was dressed in dark, loose-fitting robes that completely covered it from its boots to the top of its hooded head. The way the alien walked first caught her attention; it had a loose-jointed walk, with a strange, hunched-shoulder quality about it.

It was walking away from her, and she couldn’t see much of it, beyond one hand which stuck out of its robes. It was black-skinned and had abnormally long fingers. There was no extra flesh on the bones; the hand was as skeletal as anything she’d ever seen. Anything that was alive, anyway.

The strangest thing of all was the way people interacted with it—or didn’t interact at all, more precisely—it was almost as if the creature wasn’t there. The alien slinked down the corridor, staying to one side, and no one seemed to notice it. A couple of MinSha turned, as if they saw something when it went past, and that was when Tsan got her first good look at it—it turned toward the MinSha and pulled its hood back from its head.

Tsan had to steel herself to look at it, something about it caused her fur to stand on end the length of her body and made her want to shy away. The alien’s head was more pointed than a Human’s, with exaggerated occipital ridges. It had a mouth like a fish, full of silver, razor-sharp teeth that showed when it smiled. Its face was flat where most creatures would have had a nose or other olfactory sensor, and its head sat on a neck that seemed far too long and narrow to support it.

The worst part about it, though, was its red eyes, which glowed as if they had a power source to help them shine and burn. Although its gaze wasn’t leveled at her, she could feel its malignancy; the creature—and the look it gave the two MinSha—was pure evil. Its eyes narrowed, and it hissed at the giant praying mantis analogues.

The two aliens swayed slightly, then they turned away from the creature as if in a dream. Tsan stared at the creature, trying to memorize every detail, but the harder she tried to figure out what it was, the more she felt an urge to turn away, as if there was nothing to see there. The creature’s eyes returned to normal, but then it scanned the corridor, as if it could somehow sense her. She pulled her quintessence field even closer to her, and after a few moments the creature turned and continued on its way. A few seconds later, the MinSha shook their heads and continued back down the passageway as if nothing had happened.

Curious. She had to know more.

She followed it down the hallway, making sure not to draw its attention. It stopped at the door to the Humans’ room. Even more curious. Was it a friend of the Humans? It didn’t seem like one, or that it would be friendly to just about anything, aside from maybe members of its own kind. Tsan was skeptical about even that, though. She’d spent a lot of time around Humans—more than most of her race—and she didn’t think the creature was something they would like, but Humans were strange sometimes, and they were always doing something unexpected.

She decided to follow it into the quarters once the Humans opened the door, to watch the interaction. When they didn’t open the door and it broke into the room almost as quickly as she could have, she shot forward on an impulse. Although she could tell it would be more dangerous getting close to it, she drew her quintessence about her as tightly as she could and raced through the door just before it closed.

The creature paused and opened the door again, its eyes searching the corridor, but then, obviously seeing nothing, it shut the door. Tsan moved to the far side of the room as the creature went to work, setting up something behind one of the tapestries on the wall. It didn’t take long to finish what it was working on; the creature was clearly well-practiced at it. It was also, evidently, a spy or assassin of some type, depending on what it was leaving behind the tapestry.

The alien stepped back to survey its work, but due to the hood, Tsan couldn’t see its expression…not that she could have interpreted it even if she had. The creature was as foreign as anything she’d come across in a lifetime of contracts.

Without a sound, the creature turned and headed toward the door. Tsan caught a flash of red from within the hood as the alien turned to survey the room, then opened the door and walked out. Tsan raced to the door, careful not to break any invisible beams from the item the creature installed, but it closed quickly and shut before she could get there. Her tail twitched in annoyance. She couldn’t immediately open the door, or the creature would know it was being followed.

Tsan counted to 20, then eased the door open. She couldn’t see anything, so she opened it wide enough to allow her head through to look in the opposite direction. She didn’t see anything that way either. She sprinted down the hall in the direction the creature had come from—in case it intended to return to its starting point, but she was unable to locate it. Tsan sprinted back the other way but couldn’t catch its scent or find it in that direction, either.

She walked stiff-legged in frustration back to the Humans’ door, unlocked it, and re-entered the apartment. It was as she’d left it; the alien—whatever it was—hadn’t returned. She shook her head as she walked to the tapestry, unsure what she wanted to do. Track down the creature and learn more about it? Obviously. Stay here and warn the Humans about the trap? Yes. Humans were helping her race; she could provide them a little support in return, if it didn’t delay her quest too much. She wanted to find the alien creature but didn’t have any clues as to where to look, which would have made her quest easier.

Tsan inspected the trap—for trap it was—with half her mind as she tried to decide her best course of action. While the alien had camouflaged it fairly well, it was not up to her own standards, and she sniffed. Amateurs. If you really wanted someone assassinated, you hired a Depik. Of course, Depiks weren’t taking contracts on Humans, so whoever wanted the Humans dead didn’t have that option.

She sniffed again. It wasn’t even a good trap, for what it was worth. It was hard to see and looked like it would activate when the next person broke the laser beam it was emitting, but it was random—it was a single shot trap, which would kill the next person to walk in front of it, but there was no way to determine which Human that would be. The randomness of the trap offended her sense of professionalism; contracts were to kill a specific person, and there was no way to tell which person this trap would kill.

Unless the contract was just to kill one of them to cause chaos, but that seemed stupid. If the enemy—whoever it was—had done any research at all, they would have known that it was better to kill one of the Humans more than the other, and an effective trap—set by an effective assassin—would have killed that person and that person only. Amateurs.

She climbed onto the sofa to wait. She couldn’t figure out why someone would want one of the Humans dead and not care which one, but she had time to think about it while she waited. Waiting was something she was good at.

* * *

Visitors’ Quarters, Merc Guild Headquarters, Capital Planet

Alexis stopped in the doorway as they entered their quarters. “Don’t move!” she whispered.

“What is it?” Nigel asked. He had his pistol out and ignored her prohibition on movement to try to come between her and whatever she’d seen, and she had to grab his arm to stop him.

“I said not to move,” Alexis repeated. “Give me a second.”

Nigel waited, trying to look over her shoulder, but didn’t see anything.

“There,” she finally whispered. She pointed to a tapestry on the left wall. “Lower left corner.” She moved aside, and he entered.

Staying close to the wall, Nigel approached the tapestry Alexis had indicated, and he could see that the corner poked out from the wall by three centimeters or so. He put his head next to the tapestry, then waved his pistol in front of it. With a psst! a small sliver fired from the tapestry and embedded itself in the wall across from it.

Nigel slammed the butt of his pistol into the tapestry, shattering the device behind it, and pieces of it fell to the floor. He waved the pistol in front of the tapestry again. When nothing happened, he lifted up the tapestry and saw there was nothing left. He went to stand next to Alexis, who was inspecting the tiny hole in the opposite wall.

“Probably poisoned,” Alexis noted. “Anything that small would have to be; it wouldn’t have been much more than a nuisance otherwise.”

“How’d you know?” Nigel asked.

“You told me the Veetanho rep said we’d get ours. I don’t know…it made me kind of paranoid. When we left, I took a picture with my pinplants, and I compared it with what I saw when you opened the door. There was a ninety-nine percent match, but something was off. It just took me a minute to figure out what that was.”

“I’m glad you’re paranoid. I doubt I would have noticed it.”

“I wouldn’t have, either,” Alexis said. She shook her head.

“Someone wants us dead,” Nigel said. “Who do you suppose that is?”

“The obvious choice is the Veetanho. Beyond that? The Besquith? Goka? Someone else either you or I humbled in battle? Could be nearly anyone here.”

“We have to get you out of here. It isn’t safe for you or the babies.”

Alexis cocked her head and frowned. “Not safe?” she asked with a wry tone to her voice. “If I hadn’t been here, you’d be dead or whatever else that dart was going to do. It’s only because I’m here that you’re still alive.”

“That’s true, this time, but what happens if you’re the target next time, and you don’t see it coming?”

“Then hopefully you’ll catch it. We’re a better team together, and four eyes watching is better than just two.” She shrugged. “It doesn’t matter, anyway; I’m not leaving.”

Nigel sighed, knowing the battle was lost.

* * *

Tsan slow-blinked as she licked an unruly patch of fur back into place. Clever Humans. She didn’t know how the female had figured out the trap set by the…whatever it was…but it was almost Hunter-worthy.

It also freed her from having to tell them about the trap or to interact with them. Both outcomes were preferable, as they kept the Humans from feeling any sort of ties to her and allowed her to continue her hunt.

The Humans went into the bedroom, still arguing, even though it was apparent—even to her—that the male was going to lose in the end. She walked to the door and quietly let herself out.

* * * * *

Chapter Eleven

Main Lobby, Merc Guild Headquarters, Capital Planet

“You want to see the security camera recordings!” the Oogar sentry roared. “That is not allowed!”

“Easy,” Nigel said, making a patting motion, “this is a secret.”

“A secret?” the Oogar thundered, his volume level only reduced fractionally. “What’s a secret?”

“Nothing’s a secret when you yell it that loudly.” Nigel had wanted to get a look at the security camera footage without Alexis knowing. At this rate, the entire headquarters would know what he was doing—including the person or persons he was trying to catch. “Never mind. I’ll take care of it myself.”

He turned away from the section of Oogar at the information desk and brought up the Merc Guild directory. Within a few seconds, he was speaking with the head of the building’s security, a Major Lurkan-Otar, who invited him to his office, which was close by.

The door was open when Nigel arrived, and the Goltar behind the desk waved him in with a tentacle. Nigel entered and closed the door behind him, then took the seat indicated by the alien.

“What is it I can do for you?” the major asked.

“There was an attempt made on my life.”

“Happily, it was unsuccessful,” Lurkan-Otar replied. He cocked his head slightly. “People try to kill mercenaries all the time, though; I take it there is a reason you are telling me this?”

“The attempt occurred inside the headquarters.”

“That is unfortunate,” the major replied. “However, that is also not an uncommon occurrence. While we are trying to regain control of the building and re-implement some of the protocols which used to exist, there is still some sniping going on.”

“In my own room?” Nigel asked. “I’m not even safe there?”

“Well, you should be. When did this happen?”

“About an hour ago. I’d like to see the security camera footage of the hallway.”

“I’m sorry, I can’t allow that.”

Nigel could feel his temper rising. “And why not?”

“Because if everyone knew where the cameras were, and what angles they covered, they could use that to plan hits on each other. The only thing protecting some of the representatives is that no one knows when they are under observation, so they don’t know what they can get away with.”

Nigel sighed. Unfortunately, that made sense. “Okay, so someone got into my room and set a trap. How, exactly, do I ensure that doesn’t happen again.”

“Well, I will open an investigation—”

“Not good enough,” Nigel interrupted.

“What is it you want?”

“If you can’t do anything about it, I want to know who tried to kill me.”

“And I told you, I—”

“Call Toyn-Zhyll. I suspect he will authorize it.”

“I can’t just interr—”

“You can this time. Give it a shot. I’d hate to bring it up at the next council meeting that the building’s security officer refused to work with me and that it was open season on delegates in the hallways. I don’t honestly see how that’s going to lead to more security rather than less.”

The major paused a second, and if he could have sighed, Nigel was sure the alien would have. “Fine,” the security officer said, slapping a tentacle on the desk. “I will contact him, but I already know what the answer is.”

Nigel sat in silence for almost 30 seconds before the Goltar spoke again. “I’m sorry, but the commander agreed; I cannot give you unfettered access to the video.”

“But I—”

The major held up a tentacle, interrupting Nigel. “That said,” the Goltar continued, “I will need to view the video myself, and I think it would be rude to kick you out of the office while I do so.”

A Tri-V image sprang from his desk to show the hallway outside Nigel’s room. The time stamp showed about an hour prior. The image went backward quickly, and Nigel could see several groups of people walk by backwards. At about the three-hour mark, something black flashed at his door.

“There!” Nigel exclaimed.

The major had seen it also, and he had already stopped the recording and set it to go forward again at double speed. Within a few seconds, a dark figure approached the door. The video slowed, and they watched a hooded individual reach a skeletal black hand to the door. The major drew in a sharp breath but didn’t say anything.

“What?” Nigel asked when he saw nothing else was forthcoming.

“Nothing—keep watching.”

The figure shifted slightly, blocking their view of what he was doing, but then opened the door and walked in. It twitched slightly as it spun back toward the hallway, and Nigel got a view of a burning red eye. “What the hell is that?” he asked sharply.

“Gah,” the major spat. “It’s a fucking SooSha. The original Sooloo were a race of predators found on a rim world somewhere, a long time ago. I don’t know how—so don’t ask—but they use some kind of telepathy to create holes in another creature’s memory. Originally, it allowed them to steal or even kill the other creatures on their planet. Unfortunately, the Kahraman found them and uplifted them, and they turned the SooSha into spies and assassins. The Kahraman eventually found better spies and assassins, and the SooSha were dropped…until the Veetanho found them and started using them for those purposes.

“I would bet you a thousand credits that it came here with the last group of Veetanho and was under their orders to do…whatever it did in your room.” The SooSha left the room, going in the opposite direction from which it came. “I will have to let Toyn-Zhyll know. If there is a SooSha here, we will have to find it and kill it before it does more damage.”

“How will you do that?”

The Goltar chuckled. “Very carefully. I have dealt with a SooSha one time prior. They are most difficult to stop. If you meet their eyes they will mind-wipe you, causing you to forget you ever saw them. Hunting one is…difficult, to say the least.” He paused and then exclaimed, “What’s that?”

Nigel looked back to the Tri-V to see his door closing. “Did someone else go in?”

“I don’t know…” The Goltar’s voice trailed off. “It looked like the door just opened and closed on its own.”

“How would that happen?”

“I have no idea…perhaps a stray air current?” The major didn’t sound convinced.

They watched the recording a few minutes longer, and the door opened one more time. Nigel didn’t know if the major had caught it, but he had seen something block the view of the door handle the second time, just before it opened.

“Must just be a draft,” Nigel finally said when the door didn’t open again. “The SooSha must have left it open and some sort of draft opened it.”

“Maybe…” The major still didn’t sound convinced.

“Well,” Nigel said, standing, “I guess that’s it. I will leave you to your hunt and wish you the best of luck killing it. We will be on our highest alert.”

“That is always wise counsel here, regardless of whether we find the SooSha or not.”

“I’m beginning to get that feeling,” Nigel said. “There is a lot more going on here than meets the eye.”

* * *

CIC, Tushishpa, Lacabo Prime

The Bakulu cruiser Tushishpa emerged into the Lacabo Prime system, and its captain turned an eye stalk toward three different members of the crew. “Comms, get in touch with whoever’s in charge here,” Captain Goolooka ordered. “Helmsman, once he’s got it, plot a course to the Weapons Conglomerate facility. SitCon, drones out; let’s get a picture of what’s going on in the system as soon as possible.”

“Uh, Captain,” the sensor operator said. “I’m showing at least three separate facilities in orbit around the planet. There are also a number of defensive platforms in this system, both here in the emergence area as well as around the planet. Several of them are powering up.”

“Comms, get me in touch with the Weapons Conglomerate, now!” the captain exclaimed as the details started filling in on the main Tri-V. “TacCon, keep our shields down and weapons offline, I don’t want anyone to misunderstand our presence here.”

“Captain, I am in touch with the Weapons Conglomerate. They are sending us navigation instructions to their Gamma facility.”

“Very well,” Goolooka replied. “Pass them to the helmsman. Sensors, what are the defensive platforms doing?”

“They are powering down.”

“Good,” Goolooka said. “Follow the course we’ve been given. Comms, who were you talking to?”

“Approach Control, Captain, but his voice was weird. They must have a non-air-breather as their controller from the way it sounded. It was the most artificial-sounding voice I’ve ever heard.”

“What is weird about that?”

The communications officer bobbed an eye stalk in a shrug. “Translators are good; they can apply whatever inflection or voice you want it to. This one though…it’s almost as if they wanted it to sound artificial.”

Captain Goolooka pondered for a minute but couldn’t come up with a good reason for why that might be. As long as the defensive platforms weren’t firing on him though, it didn’t matter much to him. Still… he looked at the Tri-V as the ship proceeded toward the station. Something in the system seemed odd, although he couldn’t put a pseudopod on what it was or why. “SitCon, please catalog the positions of all the defensive platforms, but use passive scans.”

“We’re not going to try to attack them, are we?” the SitCon asked with a tremor in his voice.

“No, of course not. I just have a feeling something’s…I don’t know. Off? Wrong? I can’t figure out why, though.”

“Aha!” Goolooka said after a few minutes of studying the battlespace.

“What is it?” the SitCon asked.

“Take a look at the platforms…”

“What about them? Any certain ones in particular? There are an awful lot of them.”

“No,” the CO replied, “don’t look at any individual ones; look at the array as a whole.”

The SitCon bobbed an eye stalk after a few seconds of inspection. “I don’t see anything. They all look to be well positioned. Each mutually supports the others around it. Overall, the defensive grid seems to be very well laid out.”

“And that’s what I’m talking about!” the CO exclaimed. “It’s perfect, or as near to perfect as I can see. There isn’t a single station that is out of place or working its way to get into position.”

“They’ve had a long time to prepare the system’s defenses,” the ship’s TacCon said. “The guild has been here for centuries, right?”

“They have,” Goolooka replied, “but I have never seen a system’s defenses so perfectly positioned. There’s always something under repair or something being updated, or even some idiot who’s still learning station-keeping.”

“What does all this perfection mean?” the SitCon asked.

“I don’t know,” Goolooka admitted. “But it is odd, and odd things make my eye stalks itch.”

The captain continued to watch the Tri-V as they transited to the station but didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. Which only made his stalks itch even more.

“Sensors, can you give me a view of the station?” he asked as they neared their docking site.

“Yes, sir,” the crewman said. He brought up a view of the station on the main Tri-V. The station had several other ships in its docks, although he didn’t recognize any of their types.

“SitCon, do you recognize any of those ships?” he finally asked when a search of the GalNet didn’t bring up any prospects.

“No, sir,” the SitCon replied. “Two look like cruisers and the other is definitely battleship-sized, but they don’t look like anything I’ve ever seen before.” He paused and then added, “Maybe they’re from a non-merc race?” although his voice indicated he didn’t really believe it.

“I have seen lots of non-merc built warships, but even the most drugged up Jeha engineer didn’t build anything like that.”

“How so?” asked the sensor tech.

“Just look at the number of weapons on it,” Goolooka replied. “There are probably triple the weapons platforms on the closest cruiser as what we have onboard the Tushishpa. The systems alone won’t leave a lot of room onboard for crew, even if you didn’t need additional engines to power all of them…or missile storage facilities for the launchers. Those ships have to be operated by a race that is either very small or doesn’t mind living in each other’s space. Either that, or they require a level of automation I’ve never seen before.”

All three of his eye stalks swiveled to look at the Tri-V. “Have you seen any of the crewmembers out on its hull?” he asked. “Can you tell who owns it? Have you seen a name on it?”

“Sorry, sir, but I haven’t seen a single person on it.” The sensor tech panned the camera to where three robots were welding an antenna array to the hull. “All I’ve seen on any of the ships at the station are robots.” He slewed the camera again. “As far as the name goes, it doesn’t have a name, just a number.”

“2589B626.” Goolooka read the designator painted on the hull. While it wasn’t unheard of for a shipyard to use a designator until the ship was formally christened, it was unusual to have it be unnamed at the stage of completion the ship was at.

“You don’t think they’re robot ships, do you?” the SitCon said.

“I don’t know,” Goolooka replied. “That would go against the conventions…but it’s the only thing that would make sense, based on what I can see on the hull of the ship.”

“We’re receiving a call from the station,” the comms officer announced as the ship approached its docking bay.

“Put it on the main Tri-V please,” the CO said.

“It is audio only,” the comms officer noted.

“On speaker then.”

The comms officer threw the switch and a voice filled the CIC. As the comms officer had earlier noted, the voice sounded metallic as it said, “Tushishpa, you are to hold position there while you are tied up.”

“This is the captain speaking,” Goolooka replied. “What can we do to assist?”

“Nothing. Remain inside your ship.”

The Tri-V illuminated to show a number of robots launching themselves toward the ship from the docking bay’s arms. Each had a tether that they attached to the ship.

“The level of automation of this station is amazing,” the SitCon announced.

“It is,” Goolooka replied. He didn’t think his eye stalks could itch any more than they currently did.

In minutes, the ship was tied into position, and gantries were moving into position.

“They don’t waste any time,” the SitCon noted.

“Attention, Tushishpa,” the voice of the guild controller said. “Everyone is to exit the ship via the main docking collar located amidships.”

“Wait,” Goolooka said. “No one told us we would be leaving the ship.”

“It is standard procedure here,” the voice said with no inflection. “All beings must leave the ship. No exceptions. Anyone who does not will be terminated.”

“I don’t understand,” Goolooka said. “How are we going to oversee the modification process?”

“You aren’t. We will handle everything. While we are modifying your ship, we will train you on how to use your new equipment. Accommodations have been prepared for you on the station. You have five minutes to leave the ship via the main docking collar. Anyone who is still onboard after that time will be terminated.”

“What do we do, sir?” the SitCon asked.

Goolooka waved a pseudopod toward the Tri-V. “For good or ill, we’re tied up, and we aren’t going anywhere. As I don’t want anyone to be terminated, I think it’s time for us to leave.”

* * *

Genghis Kahn Import/Export, Houston, Texas, Earth

Sansar finished reading the report and opened her eyes. The Terran Federation was well in hand. She was impressed by what Jim had managed in only a few short weeks. Bonus—she hadn’t had to kill anyone important. Oh sure, former Vice President, now President, Stockton was quietly plotting to derail the Republic of Texas and doing his best to insert agents into every level of the Federation. Unfortunately for his feckless plans, Sansar already had agents in place.

Every person Stockton sent had at least two of her own watching over them. She didn’t stop a single one of them, though—they were far too valuable in place. It would be yet another strand in the web leading back to Stockton. She intended to sit astride them like a spider, feeling even the most subtle movements of all those little flies. Or in this case, spies.

The problem she was struggling with now wasn’t the agents Stockton was sending in, it was the alien agents she didn’t have eyes on. The plot in DC by the Veetanho revealed a weakness in their plans she hadn’t anticipated. It would have made sense for the Veetanho and their assets to simply have gone home after the Merc Guild lost, but they hadn’t.

The first detailed message from Nigel and Alexis, which arrived by courier hours ago, spoke in some detail as to why they hadn’t left. The Veetanho’s plot was far more complicated than she’d ever believed. It detailed the Guild Council conflict and, even more amazing, Nigel’s ascension to the Inner Council. She’d laughed out loud at the news.

They deserve him. Of course, she was glad Alexis was there to ride herd on him. Along with the message was a transfer from the Veetanho of 100 million credits. She’d figured it was the first of many payments for war reparations. It was one of the strategies the Horsemen had talked about prior to Nigel and Alexis’ departure. Unfortunately, as Alexis explained, it was the only payment. Nigel had stuck his foot in his mouth early on, and the Veetanho rep had shoved it deeper.

Sansar ensured the funds were transferred to Jim’s Ministry of War office, not to the general fund. As it was a payment for war damage, it made more sense. They could fuss all they wanted, but Jim had a lot of influence on the general counsel. Most of it would make its way to other uses, she was sure. She’d also read Jim’s message to their friends on Capital. The planet was in tough shape, especially since Alexis had included the moratorium on merc contracts in the news.

There was a brief knock, and the door opened. Sansar looked up to see Bambi enter. “Yes?”

“A courier delivered a package for you,” she said.

Sansar blinked and looked at her. “Something from Jim?”

“No, ma’am; unknown source.”

“Did you give it the full treatment?”

“Yes,” Bambi confirmed.

“Okay,” she said and got up. “Let’s see it.”

The package was in the security room Tatiana had set up. Francis, along with several of his security people, were glaring at a box on a table. Tatiana was at the back of the group looking surly.

“I say destroy it,” Tatiana said and gestured at the box with her head. “Not worth the risk.”

“Any trace on who delivered it?” Sansar asked.

“Checked the courier records,” Bambi said. “The package was dropped off by a woman who paid cash—hard credits—and gave no ID. Since they were eager for the money, nobody pushed the issue.”

“I can imagine,” Sansar agreed. She moved closer to examine the box. Her people shuffled their feet nervously.

“X-ray shows a piece of technology, power module, and a computer chip,” Tatiana said.

“No explosives,” Sansar said, not really a question. Tatiana shook her head. “Then why so paranoid?”

“Could be a biological agent,” Bambi said.

“And whoever sent it, they knew you were here,” Francis said. His dark face held an even darker expression.

“Knew I’m here,” Sansar repeated. She leaned over the package and looked at the address label. It was handwritten to Genghis Kahn Import/Export and their address. “Attention S. Enkh” was printed next to the sender’s name, тавин нэг. She laughed out loud and tore open the package, despite the cries of alarm from her people.

“Well, look at this,” she said, examining the object.

“Is that a—” Bambi said.

“Yes, it is,” Sansar agreed. She found the data chip which had been detected and slipped it into a non-networked slate. There was no reason to worry; she only found a simple text file.

Colonel Enkh,

You have an opportunity which has presented itself to clear out the infestation we’re all suffering under. To do that, you’ll have to trust me. Here are the details.

Sansar finished reading and shook her head. Them again. But they had a firm view of the situation and offered a solution. It probably wouldn’t wipe out all the rats, sure. Enough? Maybe. She looked down at the signature again: Cat. She chuckled.

“Get me Colonel Cartwright,” Sansar said, grinning.

* * *

Houston Starport, Houston, Texas, Earth

The tech nodded to Jim who stepped up to the podium and cleared his throat. “You’ve been abandoned by those who sent you here to fight,” he said. Several thousand aliens stared at him. They’d set up translators to be sure those without pinplants would understand him. “You were not told the contract was unethical, illegal. We don’t know why General Peepo prosecuted this insane war, but here you are.”

He looked at the plethora of species. There were a number of merc races—Zuul, Maki, Lumar, Jivool, and Oogar—represented; there were also elSha, Jeha, Cochkala, and other non-merc races.

“We cannot send you home. Simply put, we don’t have the ships and it is too dangerous to take you if we did. After the way the guild treated us, I doubt we could expect reasonable accommodations. And if you had the means to get your own transport, you already would have left.

“So, here we are.” Jim stood on the stage in front of the arrayed POW aliens, only high enough above them so they could all see. “I’d like to make you an offer.”

“Here is your offer!” A squad of Veetanho appeared out of a group of Lumar who all dove to the ground as the others attacked. The six Veetanho wore combat armor and flight packs, which they used to fly at the stage, spraying laser fire at the exposed Jim Cartwright. Several lasers hit him full on, passing through and burning the stage behind him as he fell.

The Veetanho landed on the stage as explosions rang out in the distance. The leader of the Veetanho yelled at the assembled aliens. “You are here on contract and we expect you to fight! Teams of Besquith are taking out the prison guards and will be here any minute.”

“There won’t be any rescue.”

The leader turned and gawked at Jim Cartwright as he rose to his feet, unscathed.

“Your Besquith are being dealt with by Sansar Enkh right now, just like I’ll deal with you.”

“You won’t be dealing with anything, filthy ape!” the Veetanho bellowed, and all six opened fire at point blank range. Jim threw his head back and laughed as the beams passed through him, only causing a slight shimmer.

“A Tri-V?” one of the Veetanho wondered.

“Very astute,” Jim said. With a roar of jumpjets, his image faded as a squad of Cartwright’s Cavaliers crashed through the back of the stage and into the Veetanho.

“Lead the charge!”

None of the CASPers used ranged weapons; instead, they fought hand to hand. As the Veetanho were only a third the size of the armored suits, it was a quick fight. In seconds, three were dead, two injured, and the leader was pinned under Jim’s metal foot.

“How?” the Veetanho demanded.

“That’s a good question,” Jim said over the CASPer’s speakers. “Someone sent Sansar a very impressive Tri-V projector. It produces an image which has a heat signature and even shows up on lidar; it’s a great toy. They also told her all about your network and predicted you wouldn’t pass up an opportunity to kill me.”

The other Cavaliers had their weapons trained on the thousands of unarmed alien mercs. None of them had made a move to help the Veetanho. It had been quite a gamble on Jim’s part. Despite the powerful suits, the hundreds of Oogar could have torn them limb from limb. He’d had a feeling, and Sansar a dream, which led them to where he was now.

Jim looked down at the group of Lumar who’d helped the Veetanho. “Explain,” he said.

“They tell us what to do,” one of the Lumar said.

“Why did you do it?”

“The Veetanho take care of us, other races,” the alien said. “We not do what they say, family won’t be taken care of.”

“You mean they’d kill your family?” Corporal Seamus asked from where he was holding his arm blade against a bleeding Veetanho’s chest.

“The price for failure,” the Lumar said. “Now they will die.”

“Nobody will know you failed,” Jim said.

“They know,” the Lumar said, pointing at the Veetanho Jim was standing on.

“Status?” Jim asked over comms to Sansar.

“All cleaned up,” she said. “No losses.”

“At least on our side,” Bambi said.

“Roger that,” Jim said and looked at the assembled mercs. “As I was saying, I’m going to make you an offer. You are all here because you fought with honor and surrendered when the fight was over. You lost and you have no way home. Fight for us, now.”

“What about them?” the Lumar leader asked.

Jim looked down at the Veetanho commander, who was sneering up at the CASPer standing on her. <Kill it.> He put more weight on the alien, and the sneer went away, replaced with a look of horror. <Kill…kill…kill.>

“No,” Jim said, shaking his head. “Not me.” He bent over and grabbed the shocked Veetanho, easily hoisting her with his CASPer-enhanced strength, and tossed her. The alien screamed as she crashed to the ground at the feet of the Lumar. “She’s all yours,” he said.

The group of Lumar looked from Jim to the Veetanho and back again. “What do you want us to do?”

“You said they had the power to kill your family. What you do with them is up to you.” The other Cavaliers tossed the rest of the surviving Veetanho to the Lumar as well. “But I think you know what to do.”

The leader of the Lumar walked up to the leader of the Veetanho.

“Get back, you lumbering fool. I am in command here. You will do what I say!”

“Not anymore,” the Lumar said. He snatched the Veetanho off the ground, the smaller alien spitting and screaming at him. Using his two lower arms, the Lumar crushed the Veetanho’s neck.

The other two, regardless of their injuries, tried to run. The rest of the Lumar took care of them in a similarly brutal manner.

“You saw what they tried to do,” Jim said, his voice broadcast over the roar of the alien mercs. “The Peacemakers enforced a ceasefire. The Veetanho just tried to kill a merc unit commander, me. The Besquith working with them attacked this compound as well, again, in violation of the ceasefire. They would force you to fight for them. Is that who you want to follow?”

“No,” someone said.

Jim looked; it was an Oogar. “No!” the Oogar roared again.

“I’m offering a job to those of you who want it. Fight, if you want. Work, if you don’t. Stay if you like or save up your money and hire transport home. If you stay, you can earn the right to become citizens.” Jim was taking a chance on the last point. The Federation Council was against the idea but hadn’t discarded it out of hand. They’d adopted a wait and see attitude, and Jim dearly hoped some of the aliens would play along.

“Can we leave when we want?” a Zuul asked.

“Absolutely. We’re not Veetanho.” A ripple of laughter ran through the crowd. “So, who wants a job?”

* * *

Jim rode in the flier with Sansar, feeling uncomfortable in his dress uniform. They were never as forgiving of his round body type as the BDUs were. Still, he’d decided it was necessary tonight.

“You did well out there,” Sansar said.

“Thanks,” he replied.

“Frankly, I was surprised when you tossed the Veetanho to the wolves.”

“They were Lumar, not Besquith.”

Sansar snorted. Jim tried to forget the voice in the back of his mind trying to compel him to crush the alien to death. It would have felt so good.

“The numbers keep going up,” Jim said after a minute. The Houston’s skyline passed by below them, and they crossed over the startown perimeter. “Over a thousand. The more who sign up, the more who go along.”

“A lot won’t be trustworthy,” Sansar pointed out.

“A lot of them will,” Jim countered.

She gave a cross between a nod and a shrug. “If we don’t make some money soon, it won’t matter.”

“I know,” Jim agreed. “The other non-merc ventures are going to take a year or more to spin up. The Maki I’ve talked to said the soonest a Behemoth can visit is a year and a half. Free traders won’t be able to move nearly enough raw hydrocarbons or food stuffs to keep the planet happy.”

“We have to hope Alexis and Nigel shake loose the guild’s moratorium on contracts soon,” Sansar said. The flier began to descend. In moments, it landed in front of the auditorium. A squad of lightly armored Horde were waiting to provide security. Sansar wasn’t sold on the Veetanho infiltration being completely cleaned up.

As they exited the flier, two women walked over to join them. “Jim, this is Captain Tatiana Enkh, Horde Intel. She’s my plus one.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Jim said, nodding to the attractive woman. “This is Lieutenant Ziva Alcuin, commander of my new light scout unit. She’s my…plus one.”

“Ma’am,” Ziva said.

Sansar nodded. “Lieutenant. Light scout, eh? Branching out a bit?”

“Decided to give it a try,” Jim said. Ziva winked at him, and Jim felt his cheeks grow hot. He suddenly wished Splunk had come along. Instead she’d stayed at the apartment to rest. “Shall we go in?”

Sansar looked up at the marquee and shrugged. “This was your idea,” she said. “Might as well.” Tatiana fell in with Sansar and Ziva looked curiously at Jim.

Jim stood up straighter and offered her his arm. He instantly regretted the move. Idiot, what kind of moronic move was that? To his utter astonishment, though, she took the offered gesture, smiling ear to ear. Not a humorous smile, but an actual smile of happiness. As they passed the guards, the press held up Tri-V cameras and shouted questions. Jim couldn’t hear a word; his pulse was pounding too loudly in his ears.

Inside the auditorium, an usher escorted them and their guards to a private box overlooking the stage. Quiet music was playing as a vendor came by offering them snacks. Jim bought some drinks and popcorn for everyone to share as they settled into their seats. Ziva and Tatiana looked expectant; Sansar looked resigned.

“This is awesome,” Ziva said. “I’ve wanted to see this show, but they’re sold out everywhere. I didn’t think they were even coming to Houston.”

“I asked for a special show,” Jim said. Ziva gawked at him. “It might have something to do with my hiring some of their relatives.”

“Sneak,” she said, punching him playfully in the arm. Jim smiled and took a drink of soda. “So, is this a first date?’

“Pphft.” Jim spit soda. “What?”

“Well, you invited me and stuff.”

“Uhm, I…well…”

“We’ll talk about it later,” she said as the lights started to go down. “I think the show is starting.”

“Ladies, gentlemen, and beings from the stars,” a well-trained voice said. “Welcome to this special performance. With no further ado, Purple Rage!

The curtains pulled back to reveal a rock band-style setup with six huge purple Oogar done up in leather vests, spiked bracelets, piercings, and other typical old-school rock and roll accoutrements. The lead singer, sporting a green reverse mohawk, pumped a massive fist in the air and roared. The crowd roared back, and the drummer began to beat on drums the size of cars.

“Rahhhhhr!” the lead singer roared again, then started repeating in a lower voice, “Let the bodies hit the floor!”

“Oh my God!” Jim yelled, laughing and shaking his head. The crowd was going insane as well. Jim had no idea they were going to do the song. No doubt someone told them it was one of Jim’s favorites.

The lyrics were repetitive, and when Purple Rage got to the second stanza, the lead singer pointed a claw at Jim and started headbanging. Jim yelled and did the same.

“Let my body hit the floor,” Sansar moaned.

Jim didn’t hear her; he was banging his head up and down with the beat. He was having so much fun he forgot to freak out when Ziva slipped her hand into his and kissed him on the cheek.

Sansar massaged her temples and glanced at her watch. It was going to be a long night.

* * * * *

Chapter Twelve

Visitors’ Quarters, Weapons Conglomerate Facility Gamma, Lacabo Prime

Captain Goolooka kept one eye stalk on the doorway as he went about the business of supervising his crew’s training. The crew of the Tushishpa had been on the station for a week, and in that whole time, no one had come to talk with them. For all he knew, there was no one else in the facility, aside from whatever supervisory crew was in place directing the station’s operation. Although he had talked to a couple of them, they had refused to come down to talk with him or to show themselves on camera. All actual contact had been via the station’s robots.

Robots had led them off the ship. While they didn’t appear armed, Goolooka had seen them pull tools and other things from compartments on their bodies, and he thought it likely that they also had weapons secreted on them. And, in a pinch, they could always use their welding torches as weapons.

After exiting the ship, they had followed a glowing pathway to a series of oversized training and living spaces. Giant squad bays had provided housing for his crew, with no distinction given between the officers and enlisted members; everyone stayed in the same set of bunks. As the station was zero gravity, the bunks were mainly a place to strap in and sleep with no frills.

In fact, there were no frills anywhere, although that wasn’t odd for an operational station; everything was based on efficiency. There were basic living spaces—adaptable to a variety of merc races—and mess facilities. There was also a training facility for his crew to jack into via pinplant, and a small autodoc facility for any of the members of his crew who didn’t already have pinplants.

When one of his crew had balked at getting pinplants, the robot staying with them had said that not having pinplants was “inefficient” and that the crewman could either get pinplants or she would be terminated. When face with that choice, she had accepted the pinplants.

Getting information from the robots had been challenging. When asked how long they’d be there, the robot had said, “Ten days.” Having been in shipyards a number of times in his career, Goolooka knew that number was grossly low; it took at least a week to get the first foreman onboard your ship, much less the crews who’d actually be doing the work. And to install the meson weapons he’d been told were coming—what was a meson weapon?—and the power runs, as well as swapping out the engines with more efficient ones? His crew would be lucky to be out in six months. Ten days? No chance. They were probably just being told that to keep them complacent.

The SitCon disconnected his leads and slid back from the training station as the crew began to rotate. The training stations had obviously been built with bigger races in mind; there was enough room for at least three Bakulu at each position.

“What do you think?” Goolooka asked.

“The new weapons are amazing,” the SitCon replied.

“Yes, they are,” Goolooka said, having already gone through what the SitCon was completing. They’d gotten the downloads on the new weapons several days ago. By putting the information to use in the training scenarios, they were better able to understand them and would be able to call up any of the necessary specifications more quickly when needed.

Goolooka didn’t mention that the weapons—as amazing as they were—were also a source of concern. If the weapons were necessary for fighting the Kahraman, it would be warfare at a new and tremendously more frightening level. The amount of damage he’d be able to project was incredible…and if the rumors he’d heard were true, they wouldn’t be enough. The rumors said that one of the races currently holding the line against the Kahraman had been wiped out; that didn’t happen when things were going well.

His thoughts were interrupted as the door—the one that had brought them to the room, and which never opened—opened and a robot trundled into the space.

“Your ship is finished,” it announced unceremoniously. “It is time for you to get aboard and depart.”

“But we were supposed to have another round of training,” Goolooka replied. “There is more we need to know about the new systems that have been added to our ship.”

“You will have seven days in hyperspace to complete the training,” the robot noted. “It is not efficient for you to do it here since your ship has been finished. You can complete it on the way to the Front.”

The robot held out a key. “Upon entry into the system you are going to, insert this into the navigation computer, and it will unlock the astrogation database as well as give you access to all the worlds at the core where fighting is currently taking place.”

“Why don’t we have it loaded now?”

“It is not loaded because we do not want the information getting out to the wrong parties. If the information were loaded now, it is possible that information could be shared and propagated to other species. This must not occur. If civilians or unprepared mercenaries were to travel to any of these systems, they would be slaughtered, and the Kahraman would have access to anything onboard, including their genetic materials.”

Goolooka bobbed an eye stalk. That seemed to make sense. If the Front was truly as bad as they said—and judging from the upgrades his ship had received, it was—anyone who went there unprepared wouldn’t last long.

“What is the turnover procedure?” Goolooka asked. “Slates to sign? Work orders completed? Things like that?”

“There are none,” the robot replied. “Your ship upgrade is complete. There is nothing you need to do other than have your crew proceed to it, get onboard, and leave. It would be most efficient if you would do so now. Failure to cooperate—”

“I know,” Goolooka interrupted. “Any of that will lead to termination. I understand; you’ve made that very clear. We’ll go.”

He led his crew back to the ship, and the command crew continued on to the CIC while the rest of the crew dispersed to their battle stations. Except that the CIC wasn’t where it had been before; the hatchway to get into the CIC was about five meters further forward than it had been.

“Am I missing something?” asked the comms officer, “or did the CIC move?”

“It moved,” Goolooka replied, scanning the bulkhead with all three of his eyes. “But I can’t see a single joint or weld or anything to show where the hatch used to be. It’s almost as if it had never been here.” He followed the rest of the command staff to the new CIC access and entered the space. It looked exactly as it had.

“I expected new stuff,” the helmsman said. “New equipment? Something? But it looks like they just moved the CIC and didn’t do anything else to it.”

“Oh, there’s plenty of new stuff here,” said the TacCon. “What you don’t see is the software that has been changed. ‘It is most efficient if we do not change what you are used to,’” he said, mimicking the robot who had overseen their training. “‘Because of this, we will be keeping your equipment the way it is but improving its operating system and the weapons it controls.’” He bobbed an eye. “Now, instead of lasers, we have meson weapons. Our missiles are new and improved, and our shields have been strengthened. This space and all of its equipment may look the same, but what it controls is vastly different.”

“I know that,” the helmsman said, “because I got the same lecture. I just thought it would look different.”

Goolooka could see some of the promised efficiency as the crew got the ship underway. Since the CIC was configured the same—even if it wasn’t the exact same space—everyone knew where everyone else was and followed the routine which had been established over the past two years of working together.

“Ready to try your new toy?” Goolooka asked the helmsman.

“New toy?” the SitCon asked.

“Yeah,” the helmsman replied. “They’ve modified the hyperspace shunts to make them smaller. With the new engines, we also have enough power to run them. We don’t have to use the stargate anymore.” He turned back to the CO. “Although it isn’t like we can go anywhere else. The next destination is already programmed into the nav computer and can’t be changed.”

The CO handed him the key. “Once we get there, insert this into the system, and it will unlock the database.”

Goolooka scanned the CIC with his eyes. “Is everyone ready?” When everyone indicated their readiness, he turned all three eyes to the helmsman. “It would be efficient for us to go to the Front now. Make the jump before someone decides we’re going too slowly.”

“Yes, sir,” the helmsman replied. “Here we go, to the Front.” He pressed a virtual button on his console. “Hyperspace shunts, engage.”

* * *

Council Chambers, Merc Guild Headquarters, Capital Planet

“This meeting of the Inner Council is now in session,” the Speaker said. “This is a closed meeting to review the findings of the Human representative who was tasked to investigate the contracts of the Forgotten Races. As the contracts were classified, this meeting—and anything we discuss here—is classified and not to be discussed with anyone who isn’t currently present.

“Colonel Shirazi, if you would like to make your report?”

“I would,” Nigel said. He looked at the rest of the representatives with the exception of the Veetanho. Having to look at her sneering visage too often only increased his desire to punch her. Or strangle her to wipe the sneer off. Or something.

“I have taken the opportunity to look at all four of the remaining contracts. The representative who had been the proxy for the B’zong has disappeared and cannot be located. I don’t believe that looking at that contract would have provided any additional details, however. All four of the other contracts were nearly identical, and I suspect the B’zong contract would have been similar.”

“And what have you found?” the Speaker asked.

“I found that we’ve been taken advantage of by the Veetanho. All of the contracts send the race in question off to the front lines, never to be seen or heard from again. Meanwhile, the Veetanho get to vote for them, forever. With no way to communicate between here and the front lines, there’s no way to determine if the Veetanho are actually voting for what the race in question would have wanted or even to know what that would be. In essence, the Veetanho got five extra votes for three centuries, and have four extra votes going forward.” Nigel shrugged. “For all we know, the Veetanho killed off all five races to get their votes.”

“That is slander, Human!” the Veetanho rep exclaimed.

Nigel smiled and looked at the Veetanho for the first time. “No, those are the facts, as near as I have been able to determine them. You did ship them off, and nothing has been heard from them since. You have continued to vote for them, despite this lack of communication, for three centuries, including one case where you continued voting for the race in question even after they went extinct, something you never mentioned to the guild or the board. It appears, although I cannot confirm, that you would have continued to do so…forever. This leads me to conclude that it is possible that, for all we know, the others have gone extinct, too, and you are continuing to vote for them. All of that is true, to the best of my knowledge.”

Nigel turned to look at the Speaker. “What would have been slanderous would have been to say that I thought you had killed off all of the five races intentionally, so you could continue to vote for them and acquire more power for the Veetanho. You’ll note, however, that I never said it; I kept that thought to myself.”

Nigel smiled again as a number of the representatives looked at each other. He could tell the last thought was something a couple of them had already been thinking, but for a couple, it was clear that thought had never crossed their minds, and it led to some other very uncomfortable possibilities.

“I’m glad you didn’t actually voice that last one,” the Veetanho rep said, her translator more than adequately rendering the sarcasm in her voice, “or I would have had to kill you. As it stands, I am happy to say that we are still in communication with the races we are voting for and they are all in good health on the front lines, where they are holding back the Kahraman, something I think is of vital importance to not only the guild, but the galaxy as a whole. We don’t deserve ridicule or slander from a race that is still wet behind the ears; we deserve your gratitude for keeping you apes safe while you were still throwing your shit at each other. In fact—”

“The Goltar have been around a lot longer than the Humans,” the Speaker said, cutting off the tirade, “and I’m not sure that I would say we owe you anything for these ‘services’ you are supposedly performing on our behalf. In fact, I’m willing to bet that the overwhelming majority of the races in the galaxy would have been happier to have full disclosure on what is currently occurring at the Front, as well as some say in how those events are managed. The Veetanho have kept that from us, though, and they have used that control of information to gain extra votes in the guild, something I find reprehensible.”

“And yet, here we are,” the Veetanho rep said, “safe and sound, and able to cast aspersions on the race that made this all possible. I am not surprised to not have your respect, as you cannot understand what this has cost the Veetanho over the years, but a little bit of gratitude would be nice.”

“Gratitude, huh?” Nigel asked. “You know what I’d really be thankful for? A chance to talk to representatives from the missing four races. Would you be able to procure one of those?”

“It is unlikely; they are all embroiled in the conflict at the Front.”

“So much so that they couldn’t each send a single individual of their race to represent them?”

“They are very busy, keeping you safe,” the Veetanho rep said with a sneer.

“Okay, how about letting me go there to talk to them,” Nigel said, returning the sneer. “Just give me the coordinates of where to meet them, and I’ll make the journey, interview them, and report back to the council. I’m sure they’ll all say they’re happy with the contracts they have in place. I mean, if they weren’t, they would have said something somewhere along the line in the last three hundred years, right?”

“They are all completely happy with their contracts. As far as traveling there goes, I’m sorry, but that isn’t possible. The Weapons Conglomerate controls the coordinates for where the fighting is currently happening—to keep unauthorized people from accidentally wandering in and getting killed, of course—and I don’t have them to give you.”

Nigel looked to the head of the table. “Wait, there is a war going on—that the Merc Guild is financing—and we can’t go to inspect it? I understand about having to have your ship modified to travel there, like the Bakulu representative we sent there, but what if I wanted to go?”

“I am still trying to figure that out,” the Speaker replied, “but as it stands now, it appears the Veetanho representative is correct, you cannot go there of your own volition. The Weapons Conglomerate has to give you the coordinates. I have already asked them twice for the coordinates, but I have not received a reply.”

He tapped the tip of a tentacle on the table in front of him. “Here is what we will do,” he said after a few moments. “As it is impossible for us to travel to where the other races are, the Veetanho will provide representatives of the races in question, and will have them here, for questioning, within the period of three months, or sanctions will be applied to the Veetanho.”

“That will not be possible,” the Veetanho rep replied. “It will take longer than that to extricate them from the hostilities. Potentially, much longer.”

“You will have them within three months.”

* * * * *

Chapter Thirteen

Council Chambers, Merc Guild Headquarters, Capital Planet

Nigel and Alexis walked into the council chambers to find Thorb sitting in the visitors’ section. “Hi, Thorb,” Nigel said. “Where have you been?”

“Stupid bureaucracy,” Thorb replied. “It’s impossible to get anything done here. Did you know that an uplifted race can’t get certified as a merc race without having the Science Guild sign off that you are of an appropriate intelligence level? What the hell’s up with that? Apparently, they don’t want stupid people to have weapons. I’m not sure where that leaves the Lumar, but whatever. Seems like you’d want some races that are cannon fodder.

“In any event, I had to go get certified by the Science Guild. And what a pain in the ass that was. Literally. The poking…the prodding…I think they just wanted to see how much abuse I would take before I snapped and shot one of their stupid ‘minimally invasive’ robots.”

“How long did you last?” Alexis asked with a smile.

“About an hour,” Thorb replied. “On a related note, did you know a hypervelocity pistol will breach exterior building walls, even from an interior room?” He shrugged. “Turns out it will. That really pissed them off, but fuck them. They did it to me first.”

“But you got certified in the end?” Alexis asked.

“Yeah, after I paid them 100,000 credits for the certification, the bastards. Plus damages. But that was only part of it. Then I had to go to the Union Credit Exchange and get my race registered there.”

“You did? Why?”

“Because they had to create a new race identity for the ‘Race Field’ in their stupid forms. Can’t send money otherwise. Like we’re going to wake up one morning and go, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to send the Goka a million fucking credits? I think I should.’ Bastards. That was another 100,000 credits.”

Alexis chuckled. “Is that it?”

“No, of course not. Then I had to go to the Info Guild.”

“What?” Nigel asked. “Why?”

“Because they control everyone’s Universal Account Access Card. Once again, they had to add ‘SalSha’ as a legitimate race. And, of course, they turned off my Yack because it said I was Human, and I’m obviously not Human. Fuckers. My Yack won’t work until they upgrade the system, which won’t be until whenever the hell they get around to it. If it isn’t fixed by this afternoon, I’m going to go back over there and find out if their walls will stop hypervelocity slugs, too. Worthless pieces of grahp shit.

“And what the hell is up with having the stupid capital on a stupid fucking planet where you can’t even breathe the fucking air? Not just our race, but any race? Hey, I have an idea—let’s find a planet where no one can live, nuke it until it glows, and then make it our capital! What kind of fucking morons do that? Are you sure you really want to be part of a union that is this stupid? I’m not sure we do!”

Alexis tried to keep from smiling. “Well, what is our other choice?”

Thorb shrugged. “I don’t know. Develop the tech to go to another galaxy? An alternate universe? Somewhere where the people in charge are less stupid? And Goka and Besquith aren’t around? I wouldn’t put it past the Science Guild to try something like that—they have entire corridors in the building you can’t go down, guarded by big, combat robots with absolutely no sense of humor.”

“Is that it?”

“No. Then I had to go to the Trade Guild. They have a form for modifying seats to fit SalSha. And pay a fee. Then the Merchant Guild. And pay a fee. Everywhere a fucking fee! Even the damn Peacemakers, except they not only wanted a fee, they wanted to know when they could expect our representative to show up at the Academy for training. It’s almost like there was a spy watching me when Sansar gave me the pay for our services during the war. I started out with a million credits when I first got here; now, I’m down to less than a thousand. And that’s if my damn Yack was working, which it isn’t. Fuckers. By the way…what are you doing for lunch after the meeting? Want to buy me something? I promise to pay you back…sometime.”

“Sure,” Nigel said, taking pity on him. “I’ll treat. I don’t think the meeting will go on long. The only things on the agenda are your application and some of the members whining about not taking contracts at the moment.”

“That’s another thing!” Thorb exclaimed. “I heard about the moratorium on new contracts. What the hell’s up with that? How am I supposed to pay for all of this stupid shit if I can’t make any money? What kind of dumbass guild prohibits members from taking contracts and making money? This universe makes no damn sense.” He shook his head. “If I could just go back and say ‘no’ to the uplift…”

“You wouldn’t say ‘no,’ in spite of everything,” Nigel said with a laugh. “You like the excitement.”

Thorb sighed. “No, I wouldn’t; I would still take the uplift. In spite of the friends I lost in the war…and all the stupid shit this bureaucracy is putting me through, I would still take the red pill.”

“The what?” Alexis asked.

“Nothing,” Thorb replied. “It was an old movie we were watching on the way here. I just meant that I would take the uplift and learn the truth…no matter how absolutely moronic everyone on this stupid planet is!”

His voice rose until he was almost yelling at the end, and both Humans laughed.

“Who’s the squid?” Thorb asked, looking over Nigel’s shoulder.

“I’d watch who you called names,” Alexis replied. “That’s the Speaker of the Merc Guild.”

“That’s a Goltar? Looks like a baby grahp. I’m not impressed. I hope it doesn’t grow into one, or we’re going to have serious issues. Are you sure we can trust them?”

“Thorb, we can’t trust anyone here,” Alexis whispered. “If we’ve learned anything since we’ve been here, it’s that nothing is what it seems, and you can’t trust anyone.”

“And everyone’s pretty much in it for themselves,” Nigel added. Alexis nodded.

“So, capitalism on steroids?” Thorb asked.

“Yes,” Alexis replied. “And a turbo-boost.”

“Well, as long as we know that up front…” Thorb began rubbing his hands together. “As one trader said to the other, ‘Time to make some cash.’”

“What did the other trader say?” Alexis asked.

Thorb winked. “Nothing. He was crying too hard from being taken advantage of.”

Nigel shook his head with a smile. “Good luck with that.” He laughed once, then added, “Gotta go.” He left to take his seat as the Speaker called the meeting to order.

“Our first order of business,” the Speaker said, once everyone was seated, “is to vote on the petition from the Humans for probationary membership in the Merc Guild for the SalSha, their allies from the most recent conflict.”

“The ones they illegally uplifted,” the Veetanho rep said.

“Doesn’t matter how we got here, rat,” Thorb said from the visitors’ section. “All that matters is that I can kill people for money.” He looked to the membership at large. “Anyone need a contract to exterminate some annoying rats? I’ve got a special on them today.”

Nigel chuckled, along with a number of others, until he looked at the Veetanho next to him. She had gone dead still—even her whiskers weren’t moving—and he tensed, ready to disrupt an attack if she pulled a pistol.

“There will be no threatening the members,” Toyn-Zhyll said, slamming a tentacle onto the table with a slapping noise, “or we will look negatively on your application.”

“Sorry,” Thorb said, looking suitably abashed. Nigel could tell he wasn’t, though, as he smiled after a couple of seconds. The SalSha as a race just didn’t have it in them to be embarrassed. It wasn’t in their natures.

“Do you have any evidence as to your abilities as prospective members?” the Speaker asked.

“Yes, I do,” Thorb said. “I will send it to Colonel Shirazi.”

Nigel received a file from Thorb via his pinplants, and he put it on the room’s main Tri-V. The two-minute video showed footage of the SalSha conducting operations during the war. It was narrated by Thorb and well-produced, ending with their missile strike on the Merc Guild battleship New Era. Nigel recognized Sansar’s hand in putting it together; he doubted the SalSha had done it themselves.

“I feel we have adequately demonstrated our abilities as mercenaries,” Thorb said when it ended, “and we would like to respectfully request membership in the guild.”

Nigel smiled. It seemed both of them could learn tact…when they absolutely needed to. He wondered who’d been coaching Thorb. Whoever it was, they were good.

“Any discussion?” the Speaker asked.

“I would encourage the membership to vote for their inclusion,” Nigel said. “The SalSha were instrumental to our success—we couldn’t have won without them—and they more than proved their abilities as mercenaries. Thorb showed outstanding leadership qualities in directing their activities, and they would be welcome with me on any contract I take.”

“What were their scores?” the Veetanho asked.

“The Science Guild reports they are Sapient Stage 7.5,” the Speaker replied, “which is well within the range set for membership.”

“We were impressed with their abilities,” the Bakulu rep said.

“As were we,” the Maki rep agreed.

“I disagree,” the Veetanho rep said. “They are too recently uplifted. They must be studied for a while to determine if the uplift will hold.”

“You can study me up close while I’m kicking your ass,” Thorb said in a stage whisper that carried to the Inner Council table, and a couple of reps laughed.

“I feel that if left to the Veetanho, we would still be ‘under observation,’ too,” the MinSha rep noted. “We are for their inclusion.”

“It seems that, with one notable exception, the sentiment is generally favorable,” Toyn-Zhyll said. “Let us have a vote. All in favor?” Twenty-seven members voted for inclusion. “Against?” Ten voted against, including the Veetanho, Goka, Besquith, and their cronies.

“The application is approved,” the Speaker said. “The 100-year probationary period will start today, or as soon as the membership fee is paid by the SalSha. At that time, they will be eligible to begin taking contracts as a mercenary race.”

“What is the membership fee?” Thorb asked.

“A pittance really,” the Veetanho rep said before the Speaker could reply. “It’s nothing more than the matter of a million credits. That should be easy for someone like you, I’m sure.” The sneer in her voice came through the translator loud and clear.

Thorb sighed and rolled his eyes at having to pay another fee. “We will pay it…soon,” he finally said.

“And at that time, your probationary membership will be approved,” the Speaker said. “On to other business. We have several requests for terminating the moratorium on taking contracts.”

About time, Nigel thought. He’d asked about it several times since the message from Jim had come in, but had been told they were putting off discussion on it until they had a better idea what was happening at the Front.

Based on the latest message from Earth, Jim was increasingly worried about how he’d be able to hold things together without money from merc contracts coming in. He had big plans—which actually seemed to be coming together—but they would all fall apart if he couldn’t get the funding for them.

“As I have mentioned previously, I feel strongly that we need to wait for additional info from the Front before we begin taking contracts again. We have voted on this once and nothing has changed since that vote. Meeting adjourned.”

* * *

CIC, Tushishpa, The Front

The cruiser emerged from hyperspace after a week of hard training, and the CO immediately knew something was wrong—there was no planet anywhere close to the emergence area. “SitCon, drones in the black. Get me a status, immediately! Sensors—”

“Sir!” the comms officer exclaimed. “Emergency message from…EMS Kiowea Beach? It’s audio only.”

“On speaker.”

“Ship arriving from hyperspace,” a weird, sing-song voice said, “whatever you do, dude, don’t insert the key they gave you into your nav computer.”

Two of Goolooka’s eyes snapped to the helmsman, who was just starting to insert the key like they’d practiced while in hyperspace. Not only did they expect to need their weapons, but Goolooka had also decided it made sense for them to be able to leave the system quickly if required, and unlocking the database would be “key” to that exit strategy. Goolooka’s rule as CO—which had seen him through countless combat operations—was “Never get into something you can’t get back out of.”

“Hold off a second,” Goolooka said to the helmsman. He switched to the comm. “Station calling, this is the CO of the Bakulu cruiser Tushishpa. We haven’t inserted it yet. Why should we not do as we were instructed?”

“Dude!” the other voice exclaimed, “It’s, like, totally awesome we caught you in time. If you were to have inserted it, it would have, like, totally destroyed your nav computer and you’d be, like, stuck here with the rest of us.”

“I thought the key was supposed to unlock the database and all our weapons.”

“That’s what they’d like you to think, dude, but it’s all a lie. Yes, you need to insert it to unlock all your weapons, but once you insert it, all of the programming in your computer gets erased and you can’t go anywhere but where they want you to. You’d basically be a slave like us, dude.”

“Ship entering from hyperspace,” a new voice said, “this is Admiral Meleeto. Disregard all other communications you are receiving. Insert your key and activate your weapons.”

“Sir, the Kiowea Beach is still contacting us on a tight-beam laser comm.”

“Put him back on,” Goolooka said.

“Dude, that’s like the commanding officer talking to you, so you’re going to want to do what he says…but if you do, just know you will be stuck here with us, dude, and you will be dead soon.”

“I don’t understand what the issue is with staying here. We are here on contract to fight the Kahraman and send back a report on how the war is going.”

“That’s just it, dude. There is no sending back info. Once you’re here, you’re here. No one ever leaves, so no word ever gets back. Worse, we’re losing. If you stay, the only thing waiting for you here is death.”

“But we were told everything was going well?”

“Dude, I don’t know what the folks back in the galaxy are smoking, but things are not going well. We’ve been forced back out of a couple of systems. If we don’t get some additional support, and soon, we are going to be pushed back far enough that the Kahraman are going to be able to escape. Once we get to where the last hyperspace interdictor is, dude, then there isn’t going to be any containing them. They’ll be free to go anywhere they want and to kill whoever they want. We have them contained at the moment, dude…but we won’t hold much longer.”

“But we were told everything was going well.”

“And I’m telling you, dude, I don’t know who’s telling you that, but they’re wrong. Things absolutely aren’t going well at all. We need more ships and we need them soon. Most of the ships that were sent here recently weren’t even very good. Uh, no offense, dude. But, like, we need battleships, not cruisers and frigates. Cruisers by themselves don’t last five seconds against the Kahraman.”

“So, what are you saying we should do?”

“Dude, you need to get word back to the Merc Guild. I don’t know who’s in charge there, but you need to convince them to send more ships. Either that, or put out the welcoming mats, because the Kahraman will be there to see you soon.”

“You’re telling us to abandon our contract here?”

“Dude, I’m the captain of this ship. If I could run, I would. The only thing here for you is death, and in a cruiser, it’ll find you soon. The Kahraman are massing for an assault that we don’t know that we can stop.”

“Sir!” the comms officer exclaimed. “Admiral Meleeto is saying they are going to destroy us if we don’t turn the key. What do you want me to tell him?”

Goolooka needed time to think, but there was none. The main task in his contract was to report back on the status, and if no one ever left, there was no way he could do that. “Tell the admiral we’re doing that now,” he said to the comms officer. He transmitted to Kiowea Beach. “We don’t have any coordinates for getting back; they were stripped from our system when the Weapons Conglomerate converted our ship.”

“Dude, we can totally help you with that. They didn’t strip them from our computer because we don’t have shunts. We can’t go anywhere without their assistance. Our navigator is sending you the data…now.”

“Got it!” the navigator said.

“Sir!” the comms officer exclaimed. “The admiral says they can tell we haven’t turned the key.”

Goolooka turned two eye stalks to the navigator. “We’re getting out of here,” he said, his mind made up. “Set course for the Merc Guild. Engage hyperspace shunts as soon as they can be brought online.”

“Sir!” the TacCon said. “There is a battleship to our starboard! It is powering up its weapons.”

“Understood,” Goolooka replied. “Any time, Navigator.”

“Missiles in the black! Turning to bear on us!”

“Shields up!” Goolooka ordered. “Navigator?”

“Shunts coming up, sir!”

“Missile impact in ten seconds. Meson weapons on the battleship powering up!”

“Now would be a good time, Navigator!”

“Hyperspace coming…now!”

Tushishpa vanished from normal space.

* * *

CIC, Tushishpa, Capital Planet

The ship emerged, like it had dozens of times under the command of Captain Goolooka.

“It is confirmed, sir,” the navigator announced a few moments later. “We have arrived at Capital Planet.”

“Excellent,” the captain replied. “Get me in contact with Representative Tegalpooka. We have much to speak of.”

* * *

Council Chambers, Merc Guild Headquarters, Capital Planet

“The Bakulu were given the task of reporting on the state of affairs at the Front,” Tegalpooka announced after the meeting was called to order. “We are prepared to do so.”

“Please do so,” the Speaker said, waving a tentacle to continue.

“Things go poorly,” the Bakulu said without preamble. “But rather than hear it from me, I have brought the captain of the ship that was sent to the Front, Tushishpa, here to tell you himself. Captain Goolooka?” He waved a pseudopod toward the visitor’s section, where the solitary Bakulu was the only visitor. The meeting was a closed session, and—except for the captain—no one else had been allowed to observe.

“Thank you.” Goolooka bobbed all three eye stalks in acknowledgment. “We have just recently returned from the Front, and the representative is correct; things go poorly there.”

“What system were you in?” the Speaker asked. “Where exactly is the Front?”

“I am not entirely sure,” Goolooka said. “We were never told where we were going. The Weapons Conglomerate entered in the coordinates when they modified the ship, and we went to them.” The Bakulu paused, then added, “The lack of information on where we were headed was a constant theme throughout our journey. We were told the minimum possible everywhere we went.”

“Why don’t you take us through your trip,” the Speaker said. “Briefly, if you don’t mind.”

“I will be happy to. We went from our home planet to the Weapons Conglomerate Facility at Lacabo Prime. The system is as well-defended as any I’ve seen. We made a recording of what we saw there and have given it to Tegalpooka, but the bottom line is that I don’t think we have to worry about any of the technology being implemented there falling into anyone’s hands who isn’t supposed to have it.

“When we arrived there, we docked at one of the three shipbuilding facilities and were made to leave our ship while they upgraded it. The upgrades included the installation of meson weapons, new missiles and launchers, new shields, and new hyperspace shunts which are smaller than any I have ever seen. They also moved the position of the CIC within the hull of the ship.”

“That’s quite a bit of work,” the Speaker said. “I would still expect you to be there, if that work was conducted in a Goltar shipyard.”

“I would still be there if I were in a Bakulu shipyard, too,” Goolooka replied. “Yet all of the work was completed in just over a week. I have no idea how it was done, though, as my crew and I weren’t allowed to supervise any of it. We were locked away in a simulator facility where we learned to use the equipment that was being installed.”

“That is odd,” the MinSha rep noted. “I would have thought the commanding officer, at a minimum, would have been allowed to stay with the ship.”

“As would I,” Goolooka agreed. “However, everyone was forced from the ship under the threat of ‘termination’ if we remained. The entire process was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It’s almost like they were worried we’d steal secrets from the facility or something.”

“Were there other secrets to steal?” the Speaker asked. “Other weapons systems or proprietary production practices?”

“I wouldn’t know. We were kept from everything, so I have no idea how everything was completed in so short a time. If the CIC and our quarters hadn’t been the same, I would almost have thought that they had given us an entirely new ship.” He bobbed an eye stalk in a shrug. “It shouldn’t have been possible for them to accomplish everything they did in the time they had…but they did.”

He shrugged again. “Regardless, we were then led back to our ship and told to leave or we would be terminated. No turnover on the new systems—beyond what we got in the simulator—no credits changed hands, and no contact was ever made with any of the personnel on the station.”

“What did you do?” the Flatar rep asked.

“What would you have done? We left. My crew and I got the impression that they weren’t kidding about the whole ‘termination’ thing. None of us needed to put them to the test; we were happy to be done with the system and leave as soon as possible.

“As part of the installation, they loaded the coordinates for the Front into our nav computer. We weren’t able to call them up—or call up any other coordinates for that matter. All we had was a one-way trip to the Front.

“We were also given a key that we were to have inserted once we arrived at the Front. This key was supposed to unlock our nav database and enable all of our new weapons systems.”

“They didn’t want you to do any testing with your weapons?” the Speaker asked. “How were you supposed to know if they even worked?”

“I don’t know. Perhaps they tested them when they installed them. We were never given an opportunity to test them.”

“You were supposed to just go into battle with untested weapons and technology?”

“No, we were allowed to test them at the Front after we turned the key and made them operational.”

“So, did you test them?” the Flatar rep asked.

“No, we didn’t.”

“Why not?” Nigel asked.

“I thought you might answer that for me.”

“What do you mean?” Nigel asked. “All of this is unexplored territory to me.”

“We didn’t go operational on our equipment because the CO of a Human ship told us not to. I thought that, perhaps, you could tell me why he did so.”

“A Human ship?” Nigel exclaimed. “We don’t have any ships at the Front.”

“The person we talked to is the CO of the EMS Kiowea Beach. EMS stands for ‘Earth Mercenary Ship’…does it not?”

“Well, yes,” Nigel replied, suddenly aware that all eyes were on him. He could feel a flush creep up from his collar. “But I don’t know anything about a Human ship at the Front, or how it got there.”

“Uh huh,” the Bakulu said, not sounding convinced. “You do not have a unified planetary mercenary command, though, correct? Perhaps one of the other companies aside from yours has units there.”

“The only company that really could is the Winged Hussars, and I know they don’t. Alexis—Colonel Cromwell—would have told me if she did.”

“And yet, the issue remains. There is an Earth ship at the Front.” He paused to see if Nigel would say anything else. When he didn’t, Goolooka continued, “Regardless, we did not turn the key in the system, because the CO of the Human ship told us not to.”

“What was his reasoning for that?” the Speaker asked.

“He said that we had been lied to. That if we turned the key, instead of unlocking our database, it would actually wipe our nav computer and then we’d be trapped—like they were—and dependent on them to ever leave the system.”

“Who is this ‘them’ that the Earth ship was dependent on?” the MinSha rep asked.

“I don’t know,” Goolooka said, all eyes looking down in embarrassment. “Things were happening quickly, and the fleet commander at the Front—an Admiral Meleeto—was threatening to destroy us if we didn’t activate our weapons. We didn’t have as much time for questions as we would have liked.”

“That is all well and good,” the Tortantula rep said, “but what made you think that things weren’t going well at the Front? Rather than things were just weird, and you were lied to? Or is there more?”

“There is more. In addition to telling us we’d been lied to, the CO of the Kiowea Beach also told us that the Merc Guild ships at the Front were being pushed back by the Kahraman forces, and if they didn’t get additional forces soon, they were going to be pushed back far enough that, and I quote, ‘the Kahraman would be able to escape.’ He referenced getting to where the last hyperspace interdictor was, and that if they were pushed any further, there wouldn’t be any way to contain them. He said, at that point, the Kahraman would be free to go anywhere and kill anyone they wanted to.”

The Speaker’s eyes roved across the members of the Inner Council. “Have any of you ever heard of hyperspace interdictors?” Nigel could see all the members indicating negation. He looked to his right, but the Veetanho rep looked disengaged from the conversation. Her eyes stared into space, but whether she was having a conversation with someone inside the room—transmission beyond the walls was blocked—or just listening to whatever music Veetanho listened to, Nigel had no idea. The Speaker then surveyed the broader membership, but none of them had heard of hyperspace interdictors, either.

“I had one last message from the CO of the Kiowea Beach,” Goolooka added. “He said that I needed to convince you to send more ships. Either that, or we were supposed to put out the welcoming mats because, he said, the Kahraman will be here soon.”

“That is…most distressing,” the MinSha rep said.

“Yes, it is,” the Flatar rep agreed.

The Speaker looked at Nigel. “Are you sure you don’t know anything about the Kiowea Beach? I find it…strange…both for a Human ship to be at the Front, and even stranger for you to know nothing about it.”

Nigel shrugged. “If anything, I probably find it even stranger than you do. Look, we weren’t even full members of the Galactic Union until the guild approved us. Why would one of our ships be selected to go to the Front instead of ships from active members of the guild?”

“Perhaps it is something the Veetanho did,” the Flatar said, glaring at the Veetanho, who remained unengaged. “It would be like them to use a new member so the rest of us would be unaware.”

“Well? Is this true?” the Speaker asked.

Nigel turned and found the Veetanho still staring off. “Hey,” he said, elbowing her. “Pay attention. The Speaker’s asking you a question.”

The Veetanho’s eyes focused into a glare at Nigel. “Touch me again, Human, and I will kill you.”

“Oh really?” Nigel asked. “Do you have the guts to actually try it, or are you going to send another SooSha to do your dirty work for you?”

“What?” the MinSha rep asked, as did several other members. “What’s he talking about?”

“I’m talking about the fact that a SooSha tried to kill me,” Nigel said, “just like this piece of shit has been promising to do. I find the two events highly coincidental…especially since the admiral at the Front has a very Veetanho-sounding name.”

“For your information, Human”—the Veetanho made it sound like a curse—“I was paying attention. Unlike your race’s feeble mental skills, I can concentrate on more than a single thing at a time. I just didn’t have anything to say. I don’t know anything about…what did you call them? Hyperspace interdictors? I also don’t know why or how one of your worthless ships found its way to the Front. In fact, I doubt it really was an Earth ship.”

“Why is that?” Nigel asked.

“I hear things are dangerous at the Front. I can’t imagine how a race such as yours would be able to compete and stay alive in such an environment. I find it more likely that the EMS designation actually stood for something else. Maybe it was an epithet or something. Eat much shit, perhaps?” The Veetanho sneered.

Nigel turned in his seat and drew back to punch her, but the Speaker intervened. “Stop!” he ordered. “This council will not resort to violence under my leadership. If you two would like to take your disagreement out behind the headquarters, I will be happy to officiate your duel. Otherwise, keep it civil—we have important matters to resolve.”

Nigel turned back to face forward. “Sure. Whatever.”

“Pussy,” the Veetanho said in English, just loud enough for him to hear. “You should have sent your mate to the council. She is a much better leader and far smarter than you.”

“Any time you want to step out back,” Nigel muttered under his breath, “just let me know.” The Veetanho didn’t say anything further.

“Getting back to the matter at hand,” the Speaker was saying as Nigel refocused on the council’s discussion, “was there anything else you wanted to tell us, Captain Goolooka?”

“Yes,” the Bakulu replied. “I got the feeling the forces at the Front were in danger of losing. Although the person I talked to spoke the Human language, I can neither confirm nor deny whether he actually was Human. Regardless, he gave me the impression that the war was going poorly, and we needed to send them ships—big ships, like battleships—in large numbers, soon.”

“We don’t have a lot of battleships,” the Bakulu rep noted. “Many of ours were destroyed in the war against the Humans. Any others we have are tied up in contracts or in fleets guarding our star systems.”

“If what we have been told is true,” the Speaker said, “not only do we need battleships, we need well-equipped battleships. I’ve seen the footage from Earth, the Biruda made short work of the battleship they went up against with their weapons. That means we not only need more ships, but we need to have them modified by the Weapons Conglomerate.”

“We don’t have many battleships,” Nigel said. “In fact, I’m not sure we have any, but Earth will start sending some of our battlecruisers to get them modified.”

“There is a problem with that,” the Speaker said.

“Yeah,” the Veetanho rep agreed. “One does not simply send ships to the Conglomerate to get modified. They tell you what to send and when.”

“But that’s stupid,” Nigel said, his eyes going back to the Speaker. “Who’s running the war with the Kahraman? The Merc Guild? Or some sub-guild from a guild who isn’t in the business of war?

“You’re stupid,” the Veetanho said. “Of course, the Merc Guild runs it. We assigned the admiral in charge of the fleet there, and when she needs ships she calls for them. She hasn’t called for ships, so, therefore, she doesn’t need them. I don’t know what Goolooka is talking about, but I find it interesting that everyone is so quick to believe someone who couldn’t follow the orders he was given.”

“Call me a liar again,” Goolooka said, “and the Human won’t get a chance to kill you, because you’ll be dead by my pseudopod.”

“Oh? Really?” the Veetanho rep replied. “What are you going to do? Slime me to death?”

“I’ll put a laser bolt through your worthless head,” the Bakulu replied. A pseudopod appeared, holding a pistol.

“Put it away!” the Speaker thundered, his voice augmented by the room’s Tri-V system. As quickly as the pistol appeared, it disappeared again. “Thank you,” the Speaker added in a more normal voice. “Now, I think we have all been given enough to think about for today, and I believe some consultation is probably needed with our member delegations. I for one, would also like to take a look at the Tushishpa and see the new weapons it has in action. Having never seen meson weapons before, I think a display of its new capabilities would be…instructional for all of us. Goolooka, would you be able to demonstrate them for us?”

* * *

CIC, Tushishpa, Capital Planet

“I have the target,” the TacCon reported. “Looks like the tugs have pulled a cruiser from the system’s asteroid belt. It is where we were told it would be.” During the Great War, a massive battle had been fought in the system. Tens of thousands of ships had died in the final battle, so many that their remains had formed an asteroid belt of former ships and parts of ships.

“Identify it, please,” Goolooka ordered.

“It is cruiser sized, of an unknown class,” the TacCon reported. “It is missing sections of its hull, but it will function adequately as a hulk for target practice.”

“Excellent,” Goolooka said.

“Do you want me to turn the key?” the helmsman asked. “Don’t we need to do that to bring the weapons to an operational state?”

“That’s what we were told,” Goolooka said. “However, there were many things we were told that were untrue. I’m curious to see if we actually have to do so. It doesn’t make sense to send us to the Front without having operable weapons. What if we had needed them upon emergence into the system?”

“We would have been in trouble.”

“Exactly. Because of that, I’m willing to bet my next paycheck that we can bring the weapons online without having to insert the key.” Goolooka’s eyes scanned the bridge. “Any takers?”

Silence reigned, as no one wanted to bet against the captain. He had a well-earned reputation for being shrewd. Everyone who had bet him in the past had lost.

Goolooka sighed. “Okay, too bad. TacCon, let’s find out if I’m right. Please power-up the meson weapons.”

“Aye, aye, sir,” the TacCon replied. He applied power to the weapons systems, like he had in the simulators, and the weapons came online and began powering up. “Meson weapons armed and operational,” he announced after a couple of minutes.

“Outstanding,” Goolooka replied. “Too bad no one bet me. TacCon, please get a weapons solution on our target and fire on my command.” He flipped his comms system switch to talk to the other ships. “Meson weapons online,” he transmitted. “Firing in three, two, one…”

* * *

CIC, EMS Pegasus, Capital Planet Emergence Area

Alexis relaxed back into her command chair and smiled. It felt great to be back aboard her own ship after so long on the planet. Not having spent much time planet-side in her life, the constant gravity was a chore, one that was complicated by the continued growth—and weight—of the babies inside her.

She’d asked to watch the demonstration from Pegasus. It was important for her to do so—they already had Tri-V footage from the Biruda’s attacks at the Battle for Earth; that footage would be compared with what they were about to watch to determine whether the weapons the Biruda had used were the same as the ones the Tushishpa now had.

“Meson weapons online,” the Tushishpa’s CO transmitted. “Firing in three, two, one…”

A brilliant light—brighter than the system’s star—flashed across the screen, and automatic filters snapped into place to dim the image. The target, however, seemed unaffected. “What just happened?” Alexis asked. “Did they miss?”

“No, ma’am,” the TacCon replied. “The Tushishpa…it just blew up, ma’am. There’s almost nothing left of it. There’s enough mass left that I can tell you it didn’t vanish or jump to hyperspace…but it’s gone.”

“It blew up? How? Why?”

“No idea, ma’am. I don’t have any experience with the new weapons it had onboard. But it looked like all of the ship’s weapons overloaded at once…along with the engines and every missile warhead on board. Maybe they had some other explosives onboard, too—I don’t know—but the one thing I can tell you is it’s gone.

* * * * *

Chapter Fourteen

Visitors’ Quarters, Merc Guild Headquarters, Capital Planet

“So, now that you’ve had time to think about it, what do you believe caused the destruction of the Tushishpa?” Nigel asked.

“I don’t know,” Alexis said, shaking her head. “It was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. I’ve seen plenty of ships blow up before—hell, I’ve blown up my share—but I’ve never seen something blow up from the inside like that. The TacCon had the right of it—it was almost like every single thing that could be blown up was blown up. Fusion plants, shield generators, warheads…everything. And it all went up simultaneously.”


Alexis laughed. “I’ll tell you one thing—there’s no way all of those systems decided to catastrophically detonate on their own, and even less of a chance that they all decided to do so at once. The fusion plants alone won’t blow up like that. The only thing I’ve ever seen cause a fusion plant explosion is major combat damage, and Tushishpa hasn’t been in combat. And all of the warheads and weapons systems have huge numbers of safeties to ensure that doesn’t happen, even when they’re ready to use. Voltage has to be applied in exactly the right amount, in exactly the right place, or it just burns. Sabotage? Without a doubt.

“The thing that gets me, though, isn’t that it was sabotage, but how it was perpetrated. I doubt there’s anyone on the crew that would have done it. Could someone? Yeah, but they would have had to have intimate knowledge of all the systems.”

Nigel shrugged. “What if two or three people, acting together, did it?”

“Possible, I guess.” Alexis shook her head once. “But to that level of precision? Unlikely.”

“So what did it?”

“I can only think of one thing that could have caused what we saw today.”

“What’s that?”

“It wasn’t a crewmember or two that caused it. That ship was sabotaged by the Weapons Conglomerate.”

* * *

Visitors’ Quarters, Merc Guild Headquarters, Capital Planet

“That ship was sabotaged by the Weapons Conglomerate,” the Human Alexis said.

Tsan tuned out the Humans’ conversation as she curled up on one of the shelves. A ship had blown up? Not exciting, and she had other things to worry about. She had been stymied in both of her missions—to find out more about the Kahraman War and to track down the SooSha—and she was severely frustrated. Her tail swished back and forth in her irritation, and she had to consciously still it to keep from sweeping the curios off the shelf.

It didn’t help that the Veetanho had brought one of their Depik inhibitors with them when they arrived, and she could feel its constant buzz at the edge of her consciousness like an itch she couldn’t scratch. They had turned it on right after Nigel had talked to the security person about the SooSha, and it had grated on her psyche ever since.

Having a name for the creature had turned her curiosity about it into something else—now, not only did she want to know more, she also wanted to kill it. The Veetanho used them as assassins, and they wanted to kill Nigel and Alexis? Well, only one race was the preeminent race of assassins, and it was time to reassert their dominance.

As soon as she could get rid of the inhibitor.

She hadn’t realized what it was at first, but as she’d tried to track the SooSha toward the part of the building housing the Veetanho, she’d found her muscles locking up, up to the point where the front half of her body went completely rigid, and she’d had to pull herself away using only her hind claws. It had been frustrating and hugely embarrassing at the same time. Had anyone seen her scooching backward on the floor, she would have had to kill them in her humiliation.

After her front legs unlocked, that is.

Since then, she’d tested the limits of the machine, and had figured out how closely she could get to it—where the machine went from “annoying” to “incapacitating.” Unfortunately, everything she wanted—information on the war, to find out more about the SooSha, and to kill every Veetanho she could—was inside the range of operation of the inhibitor. Yes, the Veetanho rep came outside it to go to council meetings, but she’d decided not to kill her yet. While Tsan was reasonably sure she could make it look like an accident, there was always the chance the sneaky Veetanho had another one of the machines, and that they’d put it near the council room or begin carrying it with them.

She couldn’t have that.

So, she’d had to wait. And wait. And wait.

But Hunters were good at waiting, and if she had to wait to kill the Veetanho and SooSha, that was fine. It would make the killing that much sweeter when it finally happened. Which it would.

She had almost fallen asleep when motion caught her eye as the door to the room opened. The Humans couldn’t see it from where they sat, and it opened soundlessly, allowing the dark creature to enter unnoticed by them.

Tsan froze, not wanting to spook the creature, and followed it out of the corner of her eyes. Every time she stared at it, it froze, then slowly turned its gaze in her general direction as if it could sense her somehow. She didn’t know how it was able to do that, but it obviously could, and she pulled her quintessence field as closely about her as she could. The creature sniffed several times, as if trying to catch her scent, but after a couple of seconds searching, the SooSha shook its head and went back to sneaking toward the Humans.

Slowly, carefully, Tsan got to her feet, careful not to move any of the items on the shelf with her. She jumped down next to the couch the Humans were sitting on, keeping it between her and the SooSha so that it would think any noise she made was caused by the Humans. After a couple of long seconds to make sure it hadn’t heard her, she slunk around the corner of the couch to find it advancing on the Humans, knife drawn.

Alexis was speaking as it rounded the corner and came into view. She stopped in mid-sentence, her eyes going glassy and unfocused.

Nigel turned to see what she was looking at, but then his eyes unfocused, too, and he locked in place, almost the way Tsan had when she’d gotten too close to the inhibitor.

The Veetanho and their allies did not fight fair.

Tsan caught the side of its face from inside the folds of its hood, and she could see its lips draw up in a predatory smile as it raised its knife to strike at Nigel. Without thinking, Tsan leapt into the air, drawing a knife in both of her forepaws.

Although her pounce had been as silent as a calm night, the SooSha sensed her somehow, and turned to meet her. Instead of landing on its back, she landed on a shoulder and plunged one knife into its back while the other went for its throat.

The creature blocked the strike at its throat with its knife, then flinched as the second knife plunged into its back. It roared as its eyes met hers, and she felt her focus fade as she was drawn into its eyes. It threw up an arm and knocked her off, her claws refusing to maintain their grasp.

Tsan fell to the floor, only just managing to land on her feet, as the link the creature had on her mind broke, and she came to her senses again. She spun to find the SooSha running toward the door, and she sprinted after it, bounding over the furniture in her way.

The alien beat her to the door and went out into the hallway, but she was close enough to make it through before it closed. As expected, the SooSha ran toward the safety of the inhibitor, leaving a trail of its black blood as it ran. Tsan sprinted after it, and it spun back to look at her.

Realizing her earlier error, she looked anywhere but at its eyes, and though she could feel the power of the SooSha’s gaze calcifying her muscles like the inhibitor did, she was able to retain control and use of her extremities.

The SooSha backed down the hallway as fast as it could, its eyes sweeping the area in front of it at Depik eye height—it obviously knew what she was but couldn’t tell exactly where. She moved to the side of the hallway and raced forward, passing the creature without looking at it. As they neared the Veetanhos’ living area, she could feel the inhibitor gaining strength as its pulses reinforced the effect of the SooSha.

Looking carefully at the floor and not the creature, she moved to the center of the hallway and drew her knife again as she allowed the creature to back its way toward her. Within seconds, it reached her, and she sliced both of its hamstrings before diving to the side to avoid the creature’s responding attack.

The SooSha turned awkwardly toward where she’d been, but she’d moved back to its other side. Now she understood—don’t look at it, because it could somehow feel her gaze. Her muscles bunched and she sprang upward, her eyes focused on her knife protruding from the creature’s back. In a single motion, she withdrew it and then slashed with both knives as gravity returned her to the floor.

The creature roared again, and Tsan’s muscles locked in response as it turned and hacked at her. The knife went just past her nose, severing a whisker, but then her muscles released, and she sprang backward, narrowly avoiding the return stroke. The SooSha struck again, and she watched the motion from the corner of her eye as she looked over the creature’s shoulder. As the knife went past, she pounced forward with a scream of her own. As expected, the SooSha focused on the source of her yell, and her muscles locked—driving her knife straight through the SooSha’s eye and into its brain.

Tsan’s muscles unlocked as the creature slumped. She slashed the SooSha’s throat with her other knife as she rode the dying body to the ground.

The SooSha hit the floor and went still, and it was all Tsan could do to pull the knife from the creature’s eye as her muscles began twitching. She wiped them off on its cloak, sheathed them, and returned to the Humans’ room.

By the time she got there, her muscles had mostly calmed, and the Humans were coming out of the trance the SooSha had put them in.

“What were you saying?” Nigel asked. “I’m sorry, but I got distracted somehow.”

“I…I really don’t know,” Alexis replied. “I guess I got distracted, too.”

“You weren’t distracted,” Tsan said, dropping her quintessence. “You were…whatever it is the SooSha does to make people forget them.”

“A SooSha?” Nigel asked, jumping from his seat and drawing his laser pistol. “Here? What was it doing?”

“It looked like it was trying to kill you,” Tsan replied. She inspected one of her claws and brushed off a tiny speck of black. “You could ask him, I guess, but he’s lying out in the hallway, dead.”

Alexis blinked. “Wait, what? In the hallway?”

“Yes, I killed him after he stunned you, but he’s too big for me to do anything with. And, of course, now he’s bled all over, so someone will probably be here soon since the trail of blood starts right here.” She pointed to a black spot on the carpet as a strangled roar came from the passageway. “I’m guessing they’ll be here soon, so I’d start coming up with a good story to tell them.”

“Me?” Nigel asked. “I didn’t kill him. What story am I going to tell?”

“I don’t know,” Tsan said, “because I was never here.” She wrapped herself in her quintessence field and disappeared from sight.

* * *

Visitors’ Quarters, Merc Guild Headquarters, Capital Planet

“What?” Nigel asked. “Wait! Come back!”

“And thanks,” Alexis added. “Thanks for saving our lives!”

“I guess that is the important part,” Nigel said, looking somewhat abashed. He shook his head once. “Guess I better go take credit for whatever it is I did.”

Nigel walked out the door, careful not to step in the blood trail he was following. A short way down the passage, several aliens were standing around a body. Two MinSha troopers—of course they had to be MinSha—immediately turned and pointed rifles in his direction.

“Hi, Folks,” Nigel said, putting his hands up.

“Are you responsible for this?” the MinSha sergeant asked.

“Well, yeah, sort of,” Nigel said. “I guess.”

“You killed someone and are only sort of responsible?” the sergeant asked. “Come on, you’re coming with us.”

“Wait a minute,” a Goltar said as it approached. Nigel recognized Lurkan-Otar, the security officer. “No one is going anywhere until we get to the bottom of this.” He stopped and looked at Nigel. “Are you responsible for this?” he asked, waving a tentacle at the body.

Nigel looked down at the body. It was the first time he’d ever seen one of the SooSha. That he could remember, anyway, he realized. The alien was dark and skeletal looking, and it wore a dark robe that hid most of the black blood coating it. “Yeah,” Nigel said after a moment. “There was another attempt made on my life.”

“Happily, this one was also unsuccessful,” the security officer replied. “Though not for the SooSha.” It looked at the body then turned and looked up the hallway, its eyes tracking the trail of blood to where it entered Nigel’s room. “So, what happened?”

“I was sitting in my room with Colonel Cromwell, minding my own business, when this thing appeared in my room and attacked us.”

“Uh huh,” Lurkan-Otar replied, sounding skeptical already. “Then what happened?”

“It attacked me with its knife,” Nigel said, pointing to the knife in the creature’s hand. “I fought back, it ran, then it turned, and we fought some more out here. Finally, I killed it, then I went back into my room to make sure Colonel Cromwell was safe. She is having babies—my offspring—and I wanted to make sure she was okay.”

“Uh huh. How exactly did you kill this thing?” Lurkan-Otar asked. “They have a reputation for being hard to kill.”

“I, uh, stuck my knife through its eye,” Nigel said, looking down at the corpse.

“Can I see that knife?”

“Sure.” Nigel removed the knife from its scabbard, and Lurkan-Otar compared it to the SooSha. Even Nigel’s untrained eye could tell the knife was twice as wide as the socket it was supposed to have penetrated.

“Okay,” Lurkan-Otar said, drawing his pistol, “you’re coming with me.” He turned to the MinSha. “Clean this up and submit your reports to me. Do not speak about this to anyone else. Do you understand?” He looked at the group of other aliens who’d stopped in the passageway to gawk at the SooSha. None of them looked disturbed or frightened, but all of them were mercs, so they’d probably seen death countless times before. There was no sign of whoever had screamed or made the frightened noise Nigel had heard earlier. “The rest of you, move along. Nothing to see here!” Most shrugged in their own way and began to disperse.

“Okay, Shirazi,” Lurkan-Otar said, “let’s go.”

* * *

Security Office, Merc Guild Headquarters, Capital Planet

“Sit down,” Lurkan-Otar said after they got back to his office. He holstered his pistol.

“You aren’t going to keep that pointed at me?” Nigel asked, nodding toward it.

“No, that was all just for show. Besides, if I wanted you dead, I could do it faster with a knife. Speaking of which”—he pulled Nigel’s knife from somewhere on his body and tossed it onto his desk—“here’s your knife back.”

“You don’t need to keep it as evidence?”

“We both know that knife didn’t kill the SooSha,” Lurkan-Otar replied. He stared at Nigel for a moment. “What really happened?”

“I told you—the SooSha attacked me in my quarters. I fought it off, chased it into the hallway, and killed it.”

“That’s your story?”

“It is. It’s what happened.”

“Okay, let’s find out how the body really got there.” The security officer activated his Tri-V and loaded the security footage from the hallway. After a few seconds adjusting it, he found where the SooSha entered the room. After a short time, the alien came back out and ran down the hallway, but it ran strangely.

“Huh,” the security officer said. He stopped the recording and focused in on the SooSha’s back. “You failed to mention a second knife,” he noted, looking at the picture closely. “It is smaller than the one you handed me earlier.”

Nigel shrugged. “Camera distortion, I guess. They say it adds ten pounds to a Human; it must do something similarly for knives.”

“I’m sure.” He started the recording again, and they watched as the SooSha tried to fight off something they couldn’t see. It failed when the small knife reappeared in its eye, and it crumpled to the ground. The knife extricated itself from the SooSha’s eye and disappeared.

The security officer stopped the recording after the door to Nigel’s quarters opened and shut again. “Now, I’m not saying you didn’t kill the SooSha,” Lurkan-Otar said, “but I do have some questions about how you turned yourself invisible. Care to share?”

Nigel shrugged again. “Clearly, I am not invisible, as you can see, yourself. Perhaps your cameras are faulty. I don’t know. Regardless, you can clearly see the SooSha enter my room. While you can’t see the actual attack, what other purpose could it have had for being there?”

“There’s no doubt it was there to kill you. I would just like to know how you drove it off and killed it.”

Nigel smiled as he indicated the video with the palm of a hand. It was all he could do. He wasn’t going to give away the presence of the Depik who’d saved his life if she didn’t want to do so herself. He hoped to talk to her again, at some point—when she decided the time was right, of course—but until then, he owed her his life. Not only his life, but Alexis’s and the unborn twins. While he couldn’t be sure the Depik had saved him—it was possible she’d lied, after all—the evidence supported her story that she had. Without a doubt, she’d certainly killed the creature—having seen the video, there was no doubt about that.

Which was more believable? That the Veetanho had hired a SooSha to kill him and the Depik—who had come to the aid of humanity in the Second Battle for Earth and who had obviously killed Peepo—had saved him? Or that the Depik had been going to kill him before the SooSha showed up? He would have bet all he owned that the Depik was on his side, and that he owed everything he had to the one who’d killed the SooSha.

He’d been given a reprieve and a second—no a third—chance at life. He struggled with the follow-up to that thought—how did he now make sure he survived the next assassin the Veetanho sent his way?

* * * * *

Chapter Fifteen

Council Chambers, Merc Guild Headquarters, Capital Planet

“I would like to start today’s council meeting with a moment of silence for our missing members, who were onboard Tushishpa yesterday when it self-destructed,” Toyn-Zhyll said. “Our fates are shared.”

“I mourn for our loss,” Nigel said, along with the other guild representatives, completing the ritual. He bowed his head as the rest of the council members observed the loss of the Bakulu, Flatar, Tortantula, and Lumar representatives, who had been on the ship, in their own ways. All four of the delegations had additional members on-planet, though, and each had sent a stand-in representative to the meeting.

“Thank you,” the Speaker said, ending the observance. “There will be an investigation into the loss of Tushishpa, of course, but due to the…completeness…of its destruction, it is unlikely much will be learned.”

“I have some thoughts,” Nigel said after he was recognized.

“Oh, do tell,” the Veetanho rep muttered. “Awe us with your wisdom.”

“We have consulted with some of our shipbuilding specialists,” Nigel said, ignoring the Veetanho, “and we have come up with an explanation for what happened yesterday.” He looked around the table. “Not all of us are focused on ships or naval operations, however, even I can tell when something’s not the way it should be. I think every single one of us here at the table or in the audience knows that what we witnessed yesterday was an act of sabotage.

“While it is possible that some sort of transient electrical charge set off some of the ordnance in the ship, causing the explosion, we reviewed the records most of the evening, and I can tell you for sure that it wasn’t a fault in the weapons system that caused the ship’s destruction. Everything from weapons to the ship’s fusion plant all detonated catastrophically at the same time. As all of these systems run on separate electrical systems, and some of them even have their own power sources, it is physically impossible for everything to have detonated simultaneously.”

“The Tri-V recording I saw showed it was pretty possible,” the Veetanho rep noted.

“Shut up, rat,” Nigel replied. He turned back to the other members at the table. “The only thing that we have been able to come up with for the destruction of the ship was that it was wired to do so by the Weapons Conglomerate when the ship was re-armed there. It took a special, inside knowledge of each of the systems, as well as some time to rig the explosions. Our experts think it would have taken at least five people, operating together, to be able to get all of the systems armed correctly.”

“Which isn’t impossible,” the Speaker noted.

“No, it isn’t impossible, but we find it highly unlikely, and even less likely that they could have arranged all of this without anyone else finding out. Even more damning, take a look at this…” He brought up a photo on the room’s Tri-V. It was a picture of Tushishpa, with two areas highlighted. “This still is from the recording taken yesterday at the weapons demonstration. As you can see here, this was at the moment of detonation.”

He used a pointer to indicate an area in the center of the ship. “As you can see here, the first charge to detonate—by a thousandth of a second—went off in the area where the CIC used to be before its modification. The captain noted the CIC was moved forward as part of the refit. It looks to me like a bomb was planted here. There is no way it was there before the modification—it would have been in the CIC and moved forward with it if it had been. That tells us the bomb was added during the modification—there is no way anyone on the crew could have gotten one and put it there. They never stopped in any ports after the modification was made.”

Nigel sat back in his chair. “The main bomb was planted by the Weapons Conglomerate.”

“And why would they do that, stupid Human?” the Veetanho asked.

“I don’t know,” Nigel replied. “Why don’t you tell us? As it turns out, you’re the only member of the Inner Council who didn’t attend the demonstration yesterday. A conspiracy theorist would say that is because you knew the ship was going to blow up.”

“And a normal, thinking being would say that I wasn’t there because I didn’t need to be,” the Veetanho rep said. “I’ve seen meson weapons before. Therefore, I didn’t need to see them operate. I had better things to do.”

“That’s possible,” Nigel allowed. “It’s certainly more possible than having every system onboard a ship all detonate at once.”

Nigel turned to the Speaker. “There’s no way that anyone or any organization caused the destruction of the Tushishpa except the Weapons Conglomerate. Similarly, the Conglomerate holds the design templates to all the weapons systems we need to wage war on the Kahraman, and it only apportions them, limitedly, in accordance with some logic that only it knows. We heard from Captain Goolooka—before he was killed by the Conglomerate—that the Kahraman War is being lost, and it is being lost by the Weapons Conglomerate. They aren’t sending the right ships, or enough of them, to win the war.

“War is the providence of the Merc Guild. This is something we should have control of. I don’t know how or when we ceded control to the Weapons Conglomerate, but I know we need to take it back! They also have control over things that should be under our purview—weapons and ordnance. We should be the ones who decide what weapons are used where, and who gets to use them.”

“What exactly are you saying, Human?” the MinSha representative asked. “Are you suggesting that we should go to war with the Weapons Conglomerate, an organization that controls the plans for all of the advanced military technology in the galaxy? How exactly do you see that attack going?”

“I think that is exactly what is needed,” Nigel said. “We need to take control of the means of waging war, and we need to oversee the conflict with the Kahraman. If the Weapons Conglomerate isn’t going to do what is required to win the war, then we need to appoint someone else to do so. That someone is this august body. Who knows more about waging war than the members of the Merc Guild? No one.

“We are the best able to fight, and that is exactly what I’m suggesting. We need to go to the Weapons Conglomerate and ask for the plans for the advanced technology weapons. If they won’t give them to us, then we take them, re-arm our ships, and defeat the Kahraman before they do the same to us.”

“Unfortunately,” the Speaker said, “I think the Human is right.”

“So next I suppose you’re going to put her in charge?” the Veetanho rep asked with a sneer, nodding to the visitor’s section where Alexis sat.

“I think that is probably the most appropriate thing to do,” the Speaker replied. “The fact that Colonel Cromwell is still here, despite every effort of your precious General Peepo to kill her, is a fine testament to her ability to wage war and command forces in battle.” The Speaker’s sneer accurately matched the Veetanho’s in intensity.

“Our forces won’t serve under her,” the Veetanho replied.

“Which I greatly appreciate,” Nigel said. “I’d hate to have to count on you back-stabbing bitches when my life was on the line.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” the Veetanho rep asked. “The Veetanho have long been the best at strategy.”

One of Nigel’s eyebrows rose as he looked around the table. “And yet, I don’t see Peepo—your master strategist—here. In fact, I don’t think we’ll ever see her again. We have a saying: All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put General Peepo back together again. Not without a mop anyway.” Nigel smiled. “I have to say that alienating a planet of assassins probably wasn’t her best idea. It didn’t quite work out in her favor, I don’t think.”

The Veetanho’s voice dropped to little more than a whisper. “I will kill you.”

“You keep saying that, and you keep trying, and yet, I’m still here. I guess you’re an expert strategist, just like Peepo was.” Nigel started laughing.

He was unprepared for the knife she drew, but the Speaker wasn’t, and a laser bolt drilled the Veetanho rep between her eyes before she could start forward with her strike. The laser pistol vanished back under the table to where the Speaker had pulled it from so quickly that if you hadn’t been looking at him, you’d have missed it completely.

Nigel backhanded the knife from the Veetanho’s hand as she slumped.

“Well, I think this would be a good time to take a break,” the Speaker said. “We will adjourn until tomorrow morning, at which time we will take up the question of who should lead our delegation to the Weapons Conglomerate.”

* * *

“If you would wait a moment,” the Speaker said to Nigel as the council members left and a cleaning crew came in, “I would like to speak with you for a few seconds.”

The Speaker waited until the room had emptied, including the crew that had bundled off the remains of the Veetanho rep’s body. “It is my intention to have you lead the fleet we assemble, Colonel Cromwell,” he said once everyone had left, “and for you to lead the assault force, Colonel Shirazi.”

“Thank you for killing the Veetanho,” Nigel replied, “but I didn’t nominate Alexis to lead the fleet, the Veetanho did. You may not know it, but Alexis is pregnant, and she should not be placed in harm’s way.”

“Is that true?” the Speaker asked. “While I would like to have you lead the fleet, I do not know enough about your culture’s mores to determine if doing so is suitable.”

“I’ll determine whether I can be placed in harm’s way,” Alexis said with a frown for Nigel, “and at the moment, I am still able to do so.” She glared at Nigel for a moment, as if daring him to say anything else. When he didn’t, she added, “Besides, like Nigel said, you can’t trust the Veetanho. I would rather lead the force than have them backstab us somewhere along the way.”

The Speaker chuckled. “If there is one thing I can tell you, it is that the Veetanho won’t be leading the force. I was only trying to decide whether to have one of our—Goltar, I mean—admirals lead the force or not. While we have a considerable force, led by competent naval officers, they do not have your level of experience. They also are not familiar with your Egleesius-class of ships and might not be able to use them effectively.”

“As long as the force leaves fairly soon, I don’t think I will have any issues leading the fleet,” Alexis said. Nigel frowned, but didn’t say anything. “I will, however, want to check with my physician before making the final decision.” That admission didn’t make Nigel feel any better, but he realized it was the only concession he was likely to get, so he tried not to dwell on it.

“Is there any issue with you leading the assault force, Colonel Shirazi?”

“None,” Nigel replied, shaking his head. “The only concerns I have will be in putting together a competent strike force. Most of our forces were devastated in the war. Although we have been rebuilding, a lot of our troops don’t have the same level of experience that some of the ship captains will have.”

“I am not asking you to do this solely with your own forces,” the Speaker said. “I know the Goltar will augment your forces with some of our own, and I suspect that a number of the other races will provide troops to assist in the assault.”

“You say it like you are sure they won’t give us the plans to the weapons, and that we’ll have to go in and take them,” Alexis noted.

The Speaker twitched a couple of his tentacles. “If you had a monopoly on something, you would probably not want to give it up, either.”


“I think that’s probably right,” Nigel added, “based on everything they’ve done and said. If they’re willing to blow up a ship to keep the plans from falling into anyone else’s hands, there’s no telling to what lengths they’ll go to keep control of their secrets. I think we need to go in there, weapons hot, from the start. Captain Goolooka said the system was heavily defended; if we give them a chance to bring all of their weapons online, it is going to be a bloodbath…ours.”

* * *

Visitors’ Quarters, Merc Guild Headquarters, Capital Planet

“So, Admiral Cromwell?” Nigel asked, frustration heavy in his voice.

“I didn’t want it, and I didn’t ask for it,” Alexis replied, “but I’m not going to back down from it. This mission is incredibly important to our future ability to wage war and defend ourselves from the Kahraman.”

“This is the most important mission ever,” Nigel said with a wry laugh. “We’ve been saying that, every time, for a long time now. When does it end? When do you get to be a mom and have our children? When can I stop worrying about you?”

“Never,” she said with a sad smile. “I’ll always be me, and I’ll always want to lead the Winged Hussars from the front.” Nigel could feel his shoulders slump and his stomach drop. Alexis Cromwell was everything he wanted in a woman, except that she just wouldn’t listen to what was best for her or take care of herself! Kind of like how he lived his life, he realized after a second in a brief flash of introspection. Maybe that was why they were so perfect for each other. One side of his lips curled up in a wry smile.

“Cheer up,” she said. “After this mission, I will slow down a little until after the twins are born.”

The other side of Nigel’s lips went up as well. “You will?” She nodded, and he sighed. “Okay.”

“So, what does your Ghost say about your promotion to fleet admiral?” Nigel asked after a couple of seconds. “He’s going to continue to guide you and keep you safe, correct? At least I can count on that?”

“I wish I could confirm that, but I haven’t been able to contact Ghost since we’ve been here. He said he wouldn’t reply while we are in this system, and he hasn’t. I can only hope that once we leave, he will reconnect with me.”

“But you don’t know for sure?”

“No,” Alexis said, sadly, shaking her head. “I don’t know why he chooses to do half of what he does—or doesn’t do, for that matter.” She shrugged. “And don’t ask me if I’ve asked. I’ve asked repeatedly, and he won’t tell me anything about him or his motives. For all I know, though, he has always been honest and has always had my best interests—and those of the Winged Hussars—at heart.”

“I don’t think he has a heart,” Nigel said, “but I don’t know what he has in its place. All I know is that what you just said about him could have been said about Paka, too, right up until she shot you in the back.”

“I know,” Alexis replied, “and don’t think that thought hasn’t gone through my mind, too. It has. Still…I think he’s on our side…”

“Right up until he isn’t anymore,” Nigel finished. “I just hope that this isn’t the time he decides to go against us.”

Nigel could see in her eyes that she was thinking the same thing, although she didn’t say it out loud.

* * *

Council Chambers, Merc Guild Headquarters, Capital Planet

One of the Goka was whispering with the new Veetanho rep as Nigel got to his seat at the council. Nigel waited a second, then coughed lightly.

“What?” the Veetanho asked, looking up. The new representative looked older and more worn than the previous one, with a scar that ran through her left eye, which had been replaced with some sort of cybernetic prosthetic.

“I’d like to take my seat,” Nigel said, “but he’s blocking it.”

“Ignorant Human,” the Veetanho replied. “This is a she, not a he.”

Nigel bowed slightly. Although he hated Goka with a passion, as one had killed his best friend, he hadn’t intended to be rude. “My apologies, ma’am, but could I please get to my seat?”

The Goka moved, skittering off toward her seat, and Nigel sat down. “Sorry,” Nigel said to the Veetanho, “but you appear to be new here. I am Nigel Shira—”

“I know who you are.”

“Well, then you have the better of me, I—”

“Of course I have the better of you. I am Veetanho; you are just a Human.”

“What I was going to say was that you have the better of me, as I am unaware of your name,” Nigel finished.

“Why bother telling it to you? You’ll be dead soon, just like Geeno.”

“Who is Geeno?”

“She was my predecessor on the board. You should know; you killed her.”

“First of all,” Nigel said, “I didn’t kill her.” He could feel his temper coming on. “The Speaker did, as she was about to stab me. Second, all she did was threaten to kill me, right up until she pulled the knife on me. I had hoped that you might be a little more tolerant so we could work together, but if you’re going to be just like Geeno, perhaps we should go step out back right now and settle it, and save both of us some time and irritation.”

“My name is Prava,” the Veetanho said, “although I don’t think you will need to remember it long. While I can wait to kill you, I’m not that patient.”

The Speaker ended any further discussion by calling the meeting to order. “We are here today to discuss the force we will send to Lacabo Prime. Before we discuss who will lead it, I would like to get an idea of who will be providing forces for it.”

“Perhaps it would be better to discuss who will lead it,” the Veetanho rep said, “as that may factor into the number of ships and personnel some of the member races will send.”

“That is understandable,” the Speaker replied. “Am I to understand that you would like to lead the fleet?”

“Not entirely,” the Veetanho rep answered. “We would like to lead both the fleet and the assault that will be required to get the plans.” The rep looked around the table and then scanned the rest of the mercs in the audience. “And can we dispense with the idea that the Weapons Conglomerate will just turn the plans over to us if we ask them nicely? We know they won’t. If we are going to acquire the plans and the technical specifications for the weapons they are building, we are going to have to go into their facilities and take them from them.”

Nigel could see most of the mercs at the table and in the audience nodding or doing whatever they did to indicate assent.

“I suspect you are correct,” the Speaker replied. “We shall call it what it is, then—an assault to regain control over that which should be ours, the means of producing the weapons and weaponry necessary for the continued operation of our guild.

“We have an offer from the Veetanho to lead the forces in this mission. Are there any other offers?” He looked at Nigel.

“I will volunteer my services to lead the assault on the Weapons Conglomerate facilities,” Nigel said. “We would also like to volunteer Admiral Alexis Cromwell as the leader of the fleet and for overall command of the mission.”

“Thank you for your offer,” the Speaker replied. “Are there any others?”

“Sadly, Tegalpooka was our best admiral,” the Bakulu rep said. “Were he still living, we would have nominated him. As he was killed in the Weapons Conglomerate sabotage, though, we will instead contribute a squadron of ships to the effort.”

“There are no beings fiercer than the Besquith,” their rep said from the audience. “We would love to have the command of the assault force.”

“As would we,” the MinSha rep added.

“As would we,” the Tortantula rep said.

“Together with us,” the Flatar rep added.

“Of course,” the Tortantula agreed. “We wouldn’t have it any other way.”

By the time everyone finished, 17 races had offered to lead the assault forces. Nigel wasn’t surprised. Whoever got ahold of the weapons blueprints was liable to keep a copy of whatever they found; there was no way to be sure you’d actually get them otherwise. It was why he’d wanted to lead in the first place. The info Goolooka turned over to the guild on the system and his time there reminded Nigel vaguely of Walker’s stories about fighting on the Keesius—which filled him with some trepidation—however, getting those files seemed paramount if he didn’t want Humans to be subjugated by any of the other races…which he didn’t.

“I have two offers to lead the fleet—one by the Veetanho and the other by the Humans. Colonel Prava, why should the Veetanho lead?”

“Because we have the best admirals and will bring twenty ships to the fight under our admiral’s lead.”

“Colonel Shirazi?”

Nigel looked across at Alexis, who smiled and nodded to him. “We should lead because we have better admirals, like Admiral Cromwell, who was instrumental in winning our war with the Merc Guild.”

“You didn’t win,” Prava noted. “The conflict was stopped by the Peacemakers.” Prava shrugged. “I also heard no mention of how many ships you are bringing.”

“The conflict was stopped right as we were about to win, despite the fact that it was one race against thirty-six.”

“I am told you also had other sub-races helping you that you uplifted. Ones that flew your bombers and others that helped pilot your Raknars. That is hardly, ‘one race.’”

“We did what we had to in order to survive,” Nigel said with a shrug, “and even if you want to say we had the help of two minor races, that’s still three against thirty-six, and Admiral Cromwell kicked your ass! Every. Single. Time!”

“Noted,” the Speaker said, interrupting the Veetanho’s reply. “How many ships will you be contributing?”

Nigel looked at Alexis who winced and shrugged before holding up ten fingers. “We will contribute ten,” Nigel said, “which isn’t as many as the Veetanho—”

“But when added to the twenty the Goltar are putting under your command, you will be contributing thirty.”

“We can send thirty-five,” Prava said.

“And we will loan them twenty-five,” the Speaker countered. “No matter what you offer, we will offer more.”

“Then we will stand at our offer of twenty ships.”

The Speaker slapped a tentacle on the table. “So the vote is between the Humans with thirty ships and the Veetanho with twenty. All in favor of the Humans leading the fleet and the mission?” Every appendage went up around the table except the Veetanho’s, as well as an overwhelming majority of the appendages in the general membership. “Done,” the Speaker added. “By a vote of 30-7, the Humans have been chosen to lead the fleet. Now, for the assault force…”

* * *

The discussion over who would lead the assault force was far more contentious, especially since five of the members of the Inner Council—the Oogar, Flatar, MinSha, Humans, and Veetanho—were vying for it, along with twelve others from the general membership. While the Flatar rep was, unsurprisingly, supported by the Tortantula rep, the Goltar once again came in on the side of the Humans, promising to send several companies of troops. Eventually, after several rounds of voting, only the Oogar, Veetanho, and Humans were still under consideration.

“I feel this has gone on long enough,” the Veetanho rep said as tempers began to fray. “I have a solution.”

“What is your solution?” the Speaker asked. The translators did an excellent job, Nigel felt, of conveying the large amount of trepidation in his tone.

“The Veetanho will acknowledge the Humans as leader of the assault mission if we are allowed to have the second command position. There are three platforms; the Humans, supported by the Veetanho, will assault the station the Tushishpa was modified at, as we are sure that the technology exists there, the Oogar and Tortantulas will assault the other two, supported by the Goltar and Flatar, respectively.”

That was all it took to break the deadlock—especially due to the votes the Veetanho controlled—and Nigel was appointed to lead the assault force by a vote of 25-12.

“Congratulations on your appointment,” Prava said to Nigel as the Speaker brought the meeting to a close.

“Uh, thanks,” Nigel said. “Although I don’t understand why you agreed to let us lead.”

“I agreed to it for one simple reason,” the Veetanho said, her lips curling up in the approximation of a smile. “I will be the one leading our contingent of forces…and I will be right beside you, every step of the way.”

* * *

Alexis didn’t wait for the meeting to end; she immediately began drafting a message to her second in command, Commander Stacy in New Warsaw. She used her pinplants to scan the locally available hyperspace capable craft, in particular couriers or free traders. She compiled a quick list of available ships then limited it by ownership.

Of course, there weren’t any Human ships—they seldom came to Capital. She eliminated any owned by MinSha, Besquith, and a dozen other races. Eventually she settled on a couple of Maki ships, part of their transport caste, the ones who operated most of the Behemoth-class ships in the galaxy. They were known to be reliable and, as long there were enough zeros on the credit chit, didn’t ask questions. She got up to leave.

“What’s up?” Nigel asked, intercepting her as it was between plotting sessions.

“You promised ten ships, but I only have three here,” she reminded him. “I have to get word to New Warsaw ASAP.” She pulled up a map of the target zone in her pinplants and found a system. “Tell them this is the route of attack I’m going to take,” she said and sent a package to his pinplants. He closed his eyes a second and nodded. “I’ve highlighted the I’qodsa system. That’s where I’ll have my ships rendezvous; we’ll use it as a rally point prior to jump-off for the assault. I’m sure some of the other races involved in the ground assault will need to bring more forces as well, so we’ll all meet there.” Nigel nodded, understanding. “Now I gotta scoot,” she said, leaning over and kissing him lightly. “Try not to kill anyone while I’m gone?”

“I can’t make any promises,” he said to her retreating back. “That new Veetanho rep…” She paused a half step, looked back and saw him grinning, then left.

She took an underground tram to the Cartography Guild headquarters. Like the Mercenary Guild, the Cartography Guild handled contracts around the galaxy, only their contracts involved moving ships through hyperspace. In addition, they kept records on planetary leases which allowed races to colonize or exploit systems. They also had an agreement with the Information Guild to allow carrying data on ships passing through the stargates. Thus, if you wanted to hire a ship as a courier, the Cartography Guild was the logical choice.

She’d never been a huge fan of the merc pits where contracts were bought and sold. They were often places where fights broke out and blood was spilled. Of course, the Mercenary Guild Council chamber seemed no different. The Cartography Guild didn’t have formal locations where contracting took place. She could have cut the deal remotely, except a physical handoff was required in this case.

Where the Mercenary Guild was an imposing monolithic structure, the Cartography Guild was a skyscraping needle a kilometer tall. The building itself was only twenty stories; the rest was a massive antenna with lights blinking on and off. When meetings were necessary, rooms were made available. She suspected billions of credits regularly changed hands in those rooms. The Cartography Guild didn’t deal in force, they dealt in data—and data was power.

She checked in at the reception office which was automated. She signed in with her pinplants, found the agreed upon office, and rode the lift up to the floor. The meeting room was around 200 square meters and could be configured for hundreds of races’ anatomies. Alexis didn’t bother with any seating—what she needed to do wouldn’t take long.

She took her bag from its shoulder strap and sat it on a little table by the door where the configuration controls rested. It looked like a common leather satchel, however, when she flipped back the flap, it revealed a high-tech alloy case which could only be opened by her pinplants. If someone got ahold of it and tried to force the lock, it would be a lethal experience, courtesy of a half kilo of K2 explosives.

Inside was a dedicated computer designed and built by Ghost. A rack of twenty specialized computer chips were plugged into it. She entered a code into the little screen, then sent another code from her pinplants. One of the twenty chips flashed, and she pulled it out. The case had created a one-way jump key to New Warsaw.

For almost a century, those keys had ensured nobody except the Winged Hussars knew where New Warsaw was. She looked at the chip and sighed. The Mercenary Guild and Peepo had somehow found out her secret; however, she didn’t know if the coordinates were widely known. Maybe nobody else knew about it? She wasn’t sure so she erred on the side of caution.

Alexis programmed a second key, then she opened another section of the secure case. Inside was a cylinder full of credit chits. She counted out twenty and slid them into a pocket on her uniform and sealed the case. A minute later, a pair of Maki appeared at the door, and she let them in. “Greetings,” she said, “please come in.”

Just five minutes later, they were leaving with the code keys for New Warsaw and the twenty million-credit chits. It was an unbelievable sum of money, and probably worth every single credit. One would take their ship to New Warsaw, the other to Earth. Reading the updates from Jim and Sansar, she wanted to be extra sure her friends had a way to reach New Warsaw.

Two weeks for the Maki courier to reach New Warsaw, a few days to gather a fleet, another two weeks for them to rendezvous with her and the others at I’qodsa. She thought of what the advanced weapons could mean to her Hussars and for an upcoming confrontation with the Kahraman.

With the two Maki ships’ masters gone, Alexis walked to the meeting room’s window, with its wide, sweeping vista of the bleak desolation of Capital. The Mercenary Guild headquarters was almost directly in front of her, five kilometers away. To her near right was the bulbous 20-story building of the Merchant Guild. In the other direction was the Trade Guild. The Science Guild building was only just visible to the extreme right, an octagonal building with no visible windows.

The Peacemaker Consulate—the building housing the last of the six founding guilds of the Union—was nowhere near the other buildings. It was just over the horizon, out of sight. Unlike the other guilds, the Peacemakers didn’t keep their headquarters on Capital—they were on Kleve, with the Peacemaker Academy on Ocono.

Alexis gazed toward the center of the star the buildings created. A tiny monument sat there, no more than three meters tall. On it was carved the inscription, “To The First Peacemaker—Entropy Comes.” She’d never seen it herself, but she wanted to. While the Peacemaker Guild only maintained a consulate on Capital—nothing as lavish as the other guilds—it also lovingly cared for that monument with its strange words, situated in the middle of them all.

After the six founding guilds, the Union added others over the years, and a few sub-guilds as well. An intricate collection of organizations with some overlapping authorities. It might have been elegant if it didn’t function so haphazardly. The thin veneer of democracy the Galactic Union maintained was meaningless because the guilds had all the true power.

“The Galactic Union,” she said to the empty room. After a minute a line came to her. “It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, but perhaps there is a key.” She grew a half smile thinking of the words of her distant relative. She wished Ghost would help her figure it all out.

Alexis turned and left. “Pegasus, this is Colonel Cromwell.”

Pegasus, Shefoo here.”

The new comms officer sounded enough like Hoot to almost make her forget her previous comms officer was dead. “Put me through to Engineer Long.”

“Right away.”

A second later, Long’s typical clicking Jeha voice was translated by her pinplants. “Long here.”

“Long, I want you to get a team together with Afeeko and start installing the deflectors the transport brought from New Warsaw.”

“I thought you were worried they’d be spotted?” Long asked.

“I am, but I’m more worried about things going sideways without an edge. Send the ones over to Durendal and Excalibur as well. We have enough, right?”

“Oh, certainly. I’ll get on it right away.”

Alexis nodded as she climbed into the elevator to travel back down and meet up with Nigel. No matter what happened to the other merc forces, she had every intention of making it home to have the babies. After that? Who knew what the fates had in mind?

* * * * *

Chapter Sixteen

CIC, EMS Pegasus, Toscolda System

Alexis watched the Toscolda patrol boats skulking near the edge of the emergence point. When the lead elements of the fleet emerged, those boats immediately began transmitting threats. However, as more and more ships emerged, they changed their minds and maneuvered away.

She’d been through Toscolda before. It was a consortium world that produced food and raw wood for export. A half-dozen races operated the planet in what could only be called a subsistence scheme. Nobody made money except the consortium. It was a real shithole.

As the fleet formed up and began moving toward the stargate, more and more warships came up from the nearby planet to shadow their movements. By the halfway point, the number had grown to 62 ships. Alexis smiled. Against Pegasus and her two escorts, they would stand all the chances of an ice asteroid in a giant blue star.

“They going to take a swing at us?” Lieutenant Sofeeka asked. Pegasus’s new TacCom was battle proven and eager to fight. He was an outlier for the reptilian elSha, who were not a merc race.

“For their sakes, I hope not,” Lieutenant Bainbridge said. The SitCon was watching things just as carefully.

“They won’t,” Alexis assured them. “Price, you have the con.”

“I have the con, aye, Captain,” Alana Price replied.

Alexis enjoyed the light gravity as they were under acceleration and hopped toward her ready room. As soon as she was inside, she closed the door and spoke. “Okay, we’re out of Capital. Will you talk to me now?

<Yes.> Ghost replied.

“What can you tell me about the Weapons Conglomerate?”

<Unfortunately, nothing.>

“Oogar shit. They’re using meson weapons and other tech you recognized from the Battle for Earth. It dates to the Great War.”

<Every race and faction didn’t have access to all the weapons tech. Egleesius weren’t equipped with that level of technology.>

“You were the tip of the spear,” Alexis said. “You told me as much.”

<The tip of the spear is the first part to break. It never survives the battle unbroken, or at least unblunted. Many thousands of Egleesius were made, tens of thousands. Yet, how many have you seen?>

“Just you, and the ones we found in 2nd level hyperspace.”

<That should tell you a lot.>

“It doesn’t explain some of these crazy rules you have. Can’t or won’t go some places. Can’t or won’t tell me some things. Entropy, it’s infuriating sometimes!”

<We all have rules we must obey.>

Alexis blinked. What? “Are you saying you are operating under some old set of rules?”

<You will need to draw your own conclusion.>

Alexis let her breath out in a long sigh. Conclusions weren’t hard to draw—answers were.

<I can tell you this much, based on my studies of the data brought back by the Bakulu who went to Lacabo; it is possible we are going to encounter an automated system. Something which is a relic of the Great War, rather like me. Be prepared for anything.>

* * *

CIC, EMS Pegasus, Lacabo Prime

“ETA Lacabo in ten minutes,” Lieutenant Commander Price announced.

Alexis nodded to her XO and linked her pinplants with the ship’s command and control elements. A battlespace formed within her mind’s eye, which was currently blank. Off to the side were the various ships she’d brought with them for the battle. As they emerged into normal space those ships would blink out of the staging square and into formation.

The rally at I’qodsa had gone as planned. She’d been a little nervous that the couriers hadn’t gotten through in time. But when the fleet arrived, she’d found her seven requested ships waiting, along with a dozen other races’ transports and support ships. She smiled to see the alien vessels holding off quite a distance from the Winged Hussars’ ships.

“Welcome to the party, Captain Drizz,” she’d called.

“Commander Cromwell,” Drizz replied. The Zuul captain of Nuckelavee grinned. It was more attractive than a Besquith smile. Somewhat. In addition to his Egleesius-class battlecruiser, he’d brought with him the Steed-class cruisers Sir Barton and Seattle Slew, Stem-class Maki light cruiser Capuchin, Sword-class frigates Tizona and Tyrfing, and the Fiend-class carrier Manticore.

“What’s your squadron’s condition, Captain?”

“We’re one hundred percent, sir,” Drizz confirmed. “Manticore is still making drones, but I understand we’re still two jumps out of combat. She’ll be at capacity by the time we arrive.”

“Have deflectors been installed on all the ships?”

“Yes, sir. We’re having an issue with the Maki light cruiser, but the techs say it’ll be up and running before we arrive.”

They’d only spent twelve hours in I’qodsa before jumping out—just enough time to exchange some personnel, form up, and move to the stargate. Then it was back into hyperspace to rush toward their destination.

“Emergence in one minute.”

“Battle stations,” she ordered.

The CIC lighting turned from normal to red-tinted as the ancient warship’s crew prepared for battle. Alexis felt a profound feeling of concern, an unusual feeling for her before a fight. She’d led her ship and the Hussars into countless life-or-death struggles. Of course, never with others to care for. Unconsciously, a hand went to her stomach. She’d noticed that morning in the mirror she was starting to show quite a bit. Owing to her thin physique, it was pronounced. Owing to the Hussar’s model, she’d planned ahead and ordered extra uniforms. Good thing, too.

Somewhere out in the featureless white void of hyperspace, the father of those babies rode in his personal warship, Revenge, aptly named by a Shirazi some time ago. Their family had lived for revenge since the days of first contact. She hoped he was growing past it, for all four of their sakes.

“Emergence in five…four…three…two…one…”

A brief sensation of falling, and stars surrounded them again. A distant red star burned dimly, the remnant of a once-larger star. The battlespace began to build as ships from their fleet appeared singly and in pairs. “Drones in the black!” Pegasus’s complement of drones streaked away at a thousand Gs of thrust, their tiny fusion torches bright on the scanner’s screens. In seconds, they were expanding their readings out into the system.

“Data matches what we got from the Bakulu ship,” Ensign Lopez confirmed as he examined the growing sensor data. “Three separate shipyard facilities—” He suddenly stopped talking and closed his eyes. “Contact!”

“What do you have?” Sofeeka asked.

“Drones,” Lopez said. “Lots of drones. At least a thousand.”

“Lieutenant Bainbridge,” Alexis said, “order the fleet into swarm defense posture. All merc transports and support vessels in our shadow.” Bainbridge carried out her orders. “Manticore, begin your launch.”

* * *

CIC, EMS Revenge, Lacabo Prime

“As briefed, it looks like there are three separate shipbuilding facilities in orbit around the planet,” Captain Gallagher, the CO of Revenge, said. “Based on the information we have from the Bakulu, the one we are looking for—Gamma—is the one on the left as we approach the planet.”

“Continue toward Gamma,” Nigel directed. “The other assault forces should be breaking off shortly for the other facilities.”

“They are, sir!” the sensor tech exclaimed. “The Oogar and Tortantula assault forces have separated and are proceeding to the other stations.”

“Comms, have we heard anything from the Weapons Conglomerate?” Nigel asked.

“Not a word, sir.” The technician shrugged. “It’s spooky. If I saw a big force emerge in my system, I’d want to talk to them. I don’t know…maybe try to work something out? But so far, nothing.”

“Understood,” Gallagher said. “Continue toward Gamma.”

“Aye, aye, sir,” the helmsman said. “Heading toward—”

“Oh my God!” the sensor tech interrupted.

“What is it?” Gallagher asked.

“Drones. Hundreds—no, thousands of them. They’re pouring out of the stations. I’ve never seen so many.”

“I guess that’s their response.” Gallagher said. “It’s game time.”

Nigel nodded. “I guess so.” He looked at the display then shrugged. “Well, hopefully Alexis will pull something masterful from out of her hat and stop that mess. There’s nothing I can do about it so I’m going to hope she does and go get suited up.”

* * *

CIC, EMS Pegasus, Lacabo Prime

“Laser defenses to maximum!” Alexis yelled.

“Two batteries are down,” Sofeeka warned.

“Freep, roll her!” Alexis ordered.

The SalSha helmsman complied and the ancient warship groaned as he fired the powerful maneuvering thrusters, hard.

“Entropy!” Alexis groaned. “Freep, not all of us are SalSha!”

“Sorry, Captain,” he said, but Alexis could see a little grin on his otter-like face.

Pegasuss laser batteries blazed, as did the escorts’ and standard frigates’. The enemy drones bore down on them with zero regard for the horrendous losses they were taking. Worse, they bore directly for Pegasus.

<They know I’m here. I’ve suppressed the orbital stations, but I can’t stop the drones remotely.>

“Who knows you’re here?”

“They’re going to get through!” Sofeeka warned.

“Deflectors up!” Alexis said, and bared her teeth. A second later the drones hit.

More than a hundred drones slammed into Sato’s gift to the Hussars before he disappeared. The deflector shields simply shunted the drones’ impact forces away, wrecking them before they could set off their explosive charges. There was no damage.

“More drones being launched,” Lopez said. “The facilities are cranking them out as fast as we can destroy them.”


<I’m working on it.> Long moments passed as hundreds of drones boiled out of the facilities. <I need the main gun.>

“We came here to take this facility, not destroy it.”

<Trust me.>

Alexis ground her teeth together. “Fine.”

“Spinal mount is charging!” Sofeeka called out in alarm.

“It’s okay,” Alexis said.

“What?” Sofeeka asked and turned one of his eye turrets back to look at her.

“I said it’s okay,” she replied.

Freep looked around in confusion with Sofeeka. The other command officers were just as confused, except for Afeeko.

“It’s the Ghost,” he said. Alexis nodded. “This is going to be interesting.”

The massive spinal-mounted particle accelerator energized, the petal-like doors opening as the ship changed bearings. A single, quick 40-terawatt pulse struck out at the facility designated Alpha. A substructure, which looked like nothing more than a housing module, was destroyed. Instantly, all the enemy drones ceased maneuvering and continued on their previous trajectories.

“Well I’ll be a grub,” Sofeeka said.

Alexis quietly sighed. “Inform all ground forces they may proceed with their assault.”

* * * * *

Chapter Seventeen

Gamma Facility, Lacabo Prime

Private Rosenstein flung open the hatch to the station, extended his laser shield, and burst into the facility, racing forward on his thrusters. The other members of First Platoon, Headquarters Company, followed closely behind, crowding the narrow passageway that ran the length of the station’s spine. Following them—but nowhere near as enthusiastically—was the squad of Veetanho that accompanied them.

The passageway was empty, though, and after a few seconds, the troopers slowed to a hover.

“Don’t bunch up!” Mason roared from the middle of the pack.

“Damn hard not to,” Rahimi said. “This passageway is tighter than a hooker’s—”

“Shut up, damn it!” Mason exclaimed.

“I was just going to say ‘wallet,’” Rahimi muttered.

Mason shook his head. “Colonel, what are you orders?”

“Move forward slowly,” Nigel said, “while we wait to get Second Platoon and the rest of our ‘allies’ here.” He looked back at the hatch. The last man in the platoon, Private Wright, had latched it after he’d entered, and the shuttle was already detaching so the next one could move into place. “Look for access ports into the main facility.”

“Ooh, that is so bold,” one of the Veetanho said from next to Nigel. Like the rest of Prava’s troops, she wore light combat armor and an enclosed helmet—as expected, the facility had been evacuated of atmosphere. “The men in the giant metal suits are going to move forward slowly.”

“Listen, rat,” Nigel said. “It wouldn’t be hard for something to happen to you while we’re here.” In response, almost as one, the squad of Veetanho turned and pointed their laser rifles at Nigel. Most of the Asbaran Solutions troopers turned and drew down on the Veetanho.

“Really?” Nigel asked. “You think you can take us? The moment one of you fires, you’re all going to be plastered along the walls. This is stupid—we’re here for a purpose. Prava, either control your troops and shut them up, or we can just have it out now and be done with you.”

“There won’t be any more taunting,” Prava said after a moment’s pause. “That is best kept for council meetings; it has no place between allies on the field of battle.”

“Good. Top, continue with my previous directions. Avoid combat until all our forces have arrived.”

“Got it, sir. Well? You heard the colonel. Spread out and find a way into the facility.”

“Colonel Shirazi, Captain Gallagher.”

“Go ahead,” Nigel commed.

“The fusion reactor on the Bravo facility just blew up with all of the Oogar and Goltar on board. It’s a total loss. There was a nearly finished ship at the facility. The fusion plants on board blew at the same time.”

“That’s a comforting thought, Captain. Any other great news?”

“A small courier ship detached from the station just prior to the detonation and jumped into hyperspace before it blew.”

“I didn’t think couriers had hyperspace shunts.”

“First one I’ve ever seen that did,” Gallagher said. “I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t just seen it happen. It either jumped or disappeared somehow. Either way, it’s gone…and so are the Oogar.”

“Okay, thanks. Keep me advised.”

“Yes, sir. Gallagher out.”

Nigel shook his head. So that’s how they’re going to play it. He opened up a channel with Mason and Prava as the next shuttle began disgorging Second Platoon. “Top, we’re going to have to do this a little different than I thought. I want you to take Second Platoon and head for Engineering. I’ll take First Platoon and head for the control section. Prava, feel free to divide your troops similarly.”

“Anything I should know?” Mason asked.

“Yeah, the fusion reactor on the Bravo facility blew up, killing all the Oogar forces. I want you to get down there ASAP and make sure this station doesn’t blow up, too. We can probably do that faster than we can get all of our troops back off this thing, and we need what this station’s got.”

“Yes, sir,” Mason said. “Keep the reactor from blowing up. I’m on it.” He began giving orders.

“My squad will stay with you,” Prava said. “The other will go with your Mason.”

“Fine,” Nigel said gruffly. “Let us lead; it doesn’t appear that they are going to give us these stations lightly.”

“As you wish,” Prava said, all condescension gone from her voice. “Letting your CASPers lead would seem to be the wisest choice. I’m in no hurry to die today.”

“Good,” Nigel said. “If you see anything I’m missing, speak up. I’m in no hurry to die today, either.”

“We’re in,” Rahimi called. “Rosenstein, you’ve got point.”

“Move out!” Nigel ordered. “I want to get to the control section as quickly as possible.”

The troopers went through the hatchway and into the station proper. Just like the spinal passageway, the corridors inside the facility were smaller than in a Human space station, or any of the other stations Nigel had been in before, and he began to feel slightly claustrophobic.

“Movement!” Private Rosenstein called from the point. “Looks like a Lumar, and he’s carrying stuff.”

“Get him!” Nigel ordered. “Whatever he’s got, I want it!”

Nigel burned his thrusters harder, trying to get up to the front, but the hallway lit up with laser fire and the comms net with swearing.

“Holy shit! Robots!” Rosenstein yelled. His icon on Nigel’s command display went yellow, then red with astonishing rapidity.

“Damn it!” Corporal Taheri added. “My laser’s bouncing off!”

“MACs! Fire at will!” Rahimi shouted.

“What’s going on, Rahimi?” Nigel asked.

“We just had two robots cut off the pursuit of the Lumar. They just dropped down from the ceiling. They are either made from some sort of new substance or have some sort of coating on them. Our lasers bounce off them—it’s worse than shooting at a fucking Goka. The only thing that seems to work is to hit them with a MAC round or five. You have to smash them pretty badly to take them out!”

“Understood,” Nigel replied, arriving at the scene of the battle. Rosenstein was obviously dead, and it looked like Taheri’s suit had taken a couple of hits, too. “Did the Lumar get away?”

“Yes, sir. I did get a good look at him, though,” Rahimi replied. “It looked like he was carrying four small suitcases or maybe four large briefcases. It was hard to tell.”

“Which way did he go?” Nigel asked.

Rahimi pointed. “Straight down the passageway and then to the right.”

“After him,” Nigel said. “I want those suitcases.”

“Colonel Shirazi, Top.”

“Go ahead, Top. What have you got?”

“We’re here are the fusion plant, and we’ve got a great big shit sandwich, sir.”

* * *

Gamma Facility, Lacabo Prime

“This is just fucking creepy,” Sergeant Ghaffari said from the point as Second Platoon crept down the vacant passageway. “Where the hell is everyone?”

“No idea,” First Sergeant Mason said. “Shut the hell up and focus.”

Mason was just as freaked out as the rest of the platoon. The feeling of being on a station that was probably about to blow up was definitely not lessened by the fact that it looked like the enemy had already vacated it. Not in the slightest.

“What the…” Private Mahdavi asked. “Oh, man, that’s gross.”

“What’s that?” Mason asked.

“There’s a…I think it’s a Bakulu crew in a room here,” Mahdavi said. “It looks like the Conglomerate explosively decompressed them. It’s…it’s not pretty.”

Mason jetted forward to the room and winced at what he saw. The pressures inside their shells on decompression had caused many of them to explode. He shook his head. There were a lot of people—somewhere—who had a lot of accounting to do. He just hoped he’d be around to help with the tallying, once they found out who those people were.

“Your handiwork, Geebo?” he asked the Veetanho lieutenant in charge of the group accompanying his platoon.

The Veetanho shrugged. “Perhaps they knew too much.”

“That’s all the other races are to you? Just so much fodder to be thrown away when they are no longer convenient?”

The Veetanho stared into his camera pickup. “Sometimes.”

Mason shook his head. The damn rats were just too cold blooded for him, and he could almost understand Colonel Shirazi’s often obvious desires to rid the galaxy of some of its less savory races. He’d heard some of the imams had called for a jihad against the MinSha, originally, but had expanded it to the Veetanho, Besquith, and Goka. It almost made him want to change religions.

“We’re at Engineering,” Ghaffari called, and Mason turned away from the Veetanho. “Uh, Top, you’re not going to like this…”

Mason raced forward to where Ghaffari waited next to a terminal in the engineering spaces. “What have you got?” Mason asked as he approached.

“This,” Ghaffari replied, pointing at the terminal. “The terminal is locked, and there is no way to put in a password to open it.”

“Okay, so?”

Look at the terminal.”

Mason leaned over and his pinplants translated the symbols on the screen. It was a countdown. “Shit!”

“Yeah, I’m not sure who starts a countdown without the means of stopping it, but that’s pretty much the dumbest thing I ever saw. Except for when I found reverse harem bully romances in Ken Ferguson’s GalNet search history.” Mason could almost hear the shrug. “So, um, can we leave now, real fast, before it gets to zero? I doubt that balloons and confetti are going to drop from the overhead when that happens.”

“Everyone, search the other terminals,” Mason ordered. “There’s got to be a way of stopping it or turning it off.”

Two minutes later, after receiving a host of negative replies, Mason switched to the command frequency. “Colonel Shirazi, Top.”

“Go ahead, Top. What have you got?”

“We’re here are the fusion plant, and we’ve got a great big shit sandwich, sir,” the Asbaran first sergeant replied. “The terminals are all locked down and we can’t get into them—not a single one. They aren’t responsive to anything we’ve tried. Worse, there’s a countdown timer on them that’s running down through five minutes, sir. I don’t know what happens then, but the boys and I don’t want to be here to find out.”

“Get out of there and back to the shuttles. Load up and take off as soon as you’re able.”

“What about you?”

“I have to catch a Lumar, then we’ll be right after you.”

“See you at the shuttles,” Mason said. “Don’t be late.”

* * *

Gamma Facility, Lacabo Prime

“We’ve got five minutes,” Nigel said. “We’re going to need to hurry.”

“Uh, sir,” Sergeant Rahimi said. “I don’t think we’ll be able to catch the Lumar and make it back to the shuttles in time.”

“Whatever that Lumar has is important,” Nigel replied. “I can feel it. We stay after him.”

The pursuit continued.

“Colonel Shirazi, Captain Gallagher.”

Go ahead,” Nigel commed.

“The fusion reactor on the Alpha facility just blew up, too. It’s another total loss. I think you better get out of there.”

“Fuck!” Nigel took a breath. Think, damn it. Think. He wanted what the Lumar had; he knew—somehow—he needed it. Still, it wouldn’t do anyone any good to get blown up. He couldn’t get back to the shuttles in time, and he doubted Mason would leave without him, even if he were ordered to do so. But there was no way to stop the reactor from blowing up…or was there?

“Pegasus Actual, Asbaran Actual.”

Go ahead.” He recognized Alexis’ voice and hoped it wouldn’t be the last time he heard it.

“I need a hand here. We have a reactor that’s about to blow, just like the ones on Alpha and Bravo. Is it possible to zap it somehow, or cut off that section from the station with a laser, or something? We’re down to about two minutes.”

“Let me see what we can do.”

* * *

CIC, EMS Pegasus, Lacabo Prime

“Ghost, can you do anything about that?” Alexis yelled.

<Actually, yes, I can.> There was a pause—longer than what Alexis would have expected from an AI—and she was just about to ask again when he added, <I will need the main gun, again.>

“Do it! Quickly!”

“Spinal mount is charging!” Sofeeka called out. There was less alarm in his voice this time, although there was still a healthy amount of concern.

“Noted,” Alexis said. “It’s expected.”

Sofeeka shook his head, obviously not sure how he was supposed to do his job when things outside of his control—or even his understanding—were increasingly commonplace on the ship and the weapons he was supposed to control.

The particle accelerator energized again, and the ship once again changed bearings by itself. The ship stabilized and a much longer pulse lashed out at the Gamma facility.

Alexis smiled as the engineering section was turned into its component particles. “Asbaran Actual, the reactor should no longer be a concern.

* * *

Gamma Facility, Lacabo Prime

The facility jumped as something hit it, then everything went dark until the CASPers’ lights snapped on, illuminating the passageway with shifting, jumping shadows.

Thanks, Pegasus Actual. Resuming the hunt.” He switched to the assault frequency. “As you may have guessed, the fusion reactor is no more. Let’s go get our Lumar.”

“In pursuit!” Rahimi said. “Private Wright, you’re with me.” The two jetted off, with the rest of the platoon and the Veetanho squad in trail.

“According to the schematics,” Nigel said, looking at what info they had as he chased after Rahimi, “it looks like there is another one of those courier ships tied up to one of the drydock facilities. We have to cut him off before he gets there!”

Nigel switched back to the command frequency. “Pegasus Actual, we’re trying to stop a fleeing Lumar who looks like he’s running for a courier ship tied up to the station. Please move to a position to cut it off in case we don’t get there in time to stop it!”

“We’re out of position to intercept but will get one of our frigates there ASAP.”

“There he is!” Rahimi exclaimed as the platoon rounded a corner. Wright and Rahimi went to full on their thrusters, and Nigel turned the corner to see them racing forward toward where the Lumar they’d been chasing—now devoid of the briefcases—was closing the access hatch to the courier ship.

“Don’t move a fucking inch or you’re dead!” Rahimi called.

The Lumar stopped what it was doing, looked up, and pointed at the two mechs with its upper hands. Within a second, both of their thrusters stopped firing, and the mechs started braking. The rest of the platoon drew to a stop at the same time Rahimi and Wright stopped next to the Lumar.

The mechs spun in place and began firing back down the passageway at the platoon as the Lumar slammed the hatch into place.

“What the hell?” Nigel roared. “Stop!” Then he realized they weren’t just firing toward the platoon as the icons in his display began winking out—the two troopers were killing the Veetanho. He’d tied their medical monitors into his system on the shuttle ride over, and he could see five were now red. Six. Seven. Without thinking, he grabbed Prava and threw her back around the corner, taking a laser from Wright in the leg for his troubles. The other two Veetanho icons winked out.

Then Rahimi and Wright began gunning down the Asbaran Solutions troopers. “No!” Nigel yelled as Private Richard Moore’s icon flashed briefly yellow in a number of places before going full red as a hail of MAC rounds ripped through him. Spalling and the rounds passing through the mech illuminated a number of yellow areas on the suits surrounding him in the crowded passage.

Private Aiden Fenn took the brunt of Wright’s laser, with two rounds through his chest and several other hits on his mech. There wasn’t as much spalling damage as from Moore’s suit, but Fenn was as equally dead.

Seeing Rahimi’s MAC turn toward him, Nigel did the only thing he could—he beat Rahimi to the punch and fired a single round through Rahimi’s mech. The trooper’s icon went red. He turned toward Private Wright, but Corporal Wilson was faster, spearing the trooper with several well-placed laser rounds. The corporal was already in motion, and Nigel followed him to his friend.

Wilson started to release the canopy, then realized there wasn’t any atmosphere in the station, and he would decompress Wright if he did so. “Why?” Wilson asked, as he impotently slapped the surface of the mech instead. “Why did you do it?”

“No…choice…” Wright whispered. He coughed a couple of times weakly. “It was…in my head…making me…”

Wright’s icon went red in Nigel’s display. “He’s gone,” Nigel said softly.

“No!” Wilson yelled. He jetted over the corpse of his best friend and looked out the exterior hatch.

The ship was gone.

* * * * *


Council Chambers, Merc Guild Headquarters, Capital Planet

“The courier ship, just like the two ships that left from the other facilities, escaped into hyperspace before the frigate Colonel Cromwell sent could cut it off,” Nigel said, recounting the attack to the rest of the Mercenary Guild Council. “Two of the three facilities were completely destroyed by the Weapons Conglomerate, but we were able to recover a couple of half-finished ships and a storehouse of weapons from the Gamma facility. Unfortunately, though, we haven’t been able to figure out how to make them work yet. There is something missing—we don’t know what it is—that must be needed to make them function. The arming and firing switches needed to employ the weapons aren’t incorporated into the weapons. We don’t know whether they were going to be added later, or if it was part of the computer interface that was to be added later.”

“And you say the ships you captured didn’t have any computers installed?” the MinSha rep asked.

“No, they hadn’t been installed yet,” Nigel replied, doing everything he could to keep his voice civil. None of the MinSha on the expedition had returned and the MinSha delegation was…concerned…that their troops had been sent to their slaughter by the Humans—especially Nigel, whose vendetta against their race was well-known. Surprisingly, it was Prava who had come to his defense, backing him up against all of their accusations, without any of her former rancor.

“In fact,” Nigel continued, “we’re not even really sure where they were to be connected. The ships were of a strange class that none of us had seen before. It didn’t have many of the normal spaces we would have expected for a warship, and the spaces for the crew were minimal at best…almost as if they were an afterthought. We will be bringing them back, and your technicians are welcome to go over them so you can make your own determinations.”

“The Human is correct,” Prava said, giving Nigel a small nod. “The ships were unlike anything we had ever seen, and almost looked like they had been designed to be run by only a few personnel. The level of automation in the ship was extensive.”

“But you have no idea where the courier ships went?” the Speaker asked.

“None,” Nigel said.

“We do not,” Prava said.

“What about the orbital weapons facilities?” the Flatar rep asked.

“They were all standard tech weapons,” Nigel replied. “Although larger scale than most, they incorporated normal lasers, missiles, and mass drivers. There weren’t any of the meson weapons on any of the stations we went to, or any other signs of advanced tech. Of note, the facilities were all automated in nature—we couldn’t find crew at any of them—and the computer systems had all been erased, so we don’t have any logs or any other information, other than the hardware we captured.”

“Nothing at all?” the Flatar asked.

“Nothing our best techs could reconstruct,” Nigel said.

“Our technicians also looked at them,” Prava said, “but they couldn’t find anything, either.”

“And that is the only Weapon’s Conglomerate facility I can find referenced,” the Speaker said, “although it appears that there must be others, based on the fact it appears there were already plans in place in case they needed to leave suddenly. They may also have gone to a Science Guild facility, although none of our assets have reported their appearance.” He paused and then added, “Perhaps we need to liaise with the Cartography Guild and see if they have knowledge of other systems the Science Guild may be using that are…less obvious. I will take that for action and report on any interactions I have with them. In the meantime, continue to have your experts go over the ships we acquired in the raid, and see if they can figure out how to make the weapons work.”

“What about interacting with the Science Guild?” the Bakulu rep asked. “They owe us answers on a number of topics.”

“I will continue to try to get those answers,” the Speaker replied, “but so far, the Science Guild has not had anything to say to me.”

“Perhaps they need to be asked a little more forcefully,” noted the MinSha.

“Perhaps,” the Speaker allowed, “but perhaps not. If they are the holders of the meson weapon tech, as well as hyperspace shunts that are small enough for courier ships to use, there is no telling what else they have hidden away.”

“Can we take contracts now?” the Lumar rep asked. “People hungry; need money to feed them.”

“No,” the Speaker said. “We must remain closed to new contracts. If we are going to have to go up against either the Cartography Guild or the Science Guild, we will need all of our assets to do so. The moratorium on new contracts must continue until further notice.”

* * *

Jim Cartwright’s Residence, Cavaliers Main Base, Houston, Texas, Earth

Splunk looked up from her personal slate as the apartment door slid open. The Dusman tech who stood there stopped when she saw Splunk pointing a pistol at her.

“I have the sample you requested,” she said.

Splunk didn’t know her; she must have come from one of the colonies. There were so many Dusman out now, it was both exciting and frightening. Coming out of the shadows was a huge risk, and it was all her doing. Well, hers and Seldia’s.

Splunk got up and walked over to the young tech, taking the metallic case she offered. The tech cast her blue-on-blue eyes about the apartment, taking in the details of its design.

“The Humans’ living spaces are just so…”

“Expansive?” Splunk offered.

“Yes, that’s the word I’m looking for.”

Splunk shrugged. “I’m from the Kash-kah colony. We had a lot of room there.”

“The frozen world,” she said, and Splunk nodded. “Never see the outside?”

“Some of us did, but we needed protective clothing.”

“I saw your babies on the way down,” the tech said. “Just like the K’apo said, you would have the first born after we revealed ourselves.”

“I wouldn’t put too much faith in their predictions,” Splunk said. “They don’t all come true.”

“The K’apo says the adversary is returning.”

Splunk slowly nodded. “That is one prediction I believe as well. I’ve fought Canavar.” The other shuddered. Losing interest in Jim’s apartment, she left without another word.

Splunk went back to the drawer where she’d been resting and set the metallic case down. She picked up her slate and made some more notes, glancing at the case every once in a while. After an hour, the case gave a little jump, rattling where it sat. She put the slate down and opened the case, examining the contents. Its gently pulsating light played in her eyes.

“We need to talk,” she said.

* * *

Cartwright’s Cavaliers Main Base, Houston, Texas, Earth

Jim read the message from Alexis and Nigel. The raid on the Weapons Conglomerate, while a success, had yielded weapons which did not work. They were trying to understand the controls, however, links between the Conglomerate and the Science Guild suggested failsafes were in place, like those which had resulted in the Bakulu ship’s destruction.

Every time they dabbled in old Great War technology, it led to more trouble, more complications, and more death and destruction. The Kahraman were fighting, trying to get back into the rest of the galaxy. Jim didn’t know what was stopping them. How do you contain an entire arm of the galaxy? The same way you make weapons which nobody can use without permission.

Across the runway from his office, he could just see Doom in its maintenance gantry. A team of Dusman were working with a trio of Oogar. They had an arm off the Raknar and were doing something inside. Maybe that is the key to defeating the Kahraman.

<It didn’t work last time.>

Jim felt a shiver run up his spine and he looked away from the hangar. He was certain the Raknar were key to holding the line, maybe throwing them back. The news of complicated plots between the various Union guilds didn’t help, though. The Mercenary Guild was fractured, with no clear direction and no able leadership. The Goltar had their own motivations, and he wondered if they were any better than the Veetanho’s.

He went back to his work, building up the Cavaliers and Earth’s defenses. The rest would have to wait, for now.

* * *

Genghis Kahn Import/Export, Houston, Texas, Earth

Sansar picked up the set of slates and chips and added them to her bag, along with her other personal items. The last briefing from her intel elements confirmed the Veetanho’s network was wrecked. There might well be a few still on Earth, but they were bereft of any meaningful network, and, thanks to the failed assassination attempt against Jim Cartwright, they were universally loathed.

Also thanks to the assassination attempt, thousands of aliens marooned on Earth were now employed. Sansar had mixed feelings about that. She’d spent years and millions of credits ensuring the Golden Horde used only non-alien produced components. Now the planet was brimming with aliens. Not just any aliens; no, these were alien mercs. Of course, Jim’s solution was a good one—there was no feasible way to justify eliminating them out of hand. Earth had just fought a war against that attitude. Besides, there were Peacemaker ships in orbit, and they wouldn’t approve. Damn them all.

There were going to be dead aliens, though; she had no doubt of that. She wouldn’t have minded if those Oogar musicians dropped dead after sitting through 90 minutes of musical agony. The one good thing to come from Jim’s instrumental torture session was finding The Hu. Mongolian metal was a lot more palatable than Oogar metal.

She needed to decide if the Horde would hire any aliens. It wasn’t a decision she was looking forward to, or one she planned to take lightly. If Jim hadn’t hired any, it would have been an easy decision, allowing the Horsemen to stay separate. However, he’d hired dozens, so she was on the spot.

“You about ready, Colonel?”

She looked up to find Bambi standing by the door. She was dressed in civilian clothing as well, day-laborer wear which would blend in well with the area of Houston in which they were located.

“Just about,” Sansar said. “Five minutes.” Bambi nodded and left.

She took a last look around the office, her eyes sweeping for anything incriminating before walking out. The security stations were all taken apart, and no signs of weapons-resistant panels or secret sensors remained. Tatiana and Francis waited, also dressed like Sansar, both at attention.

“You’ve done excellently, Captain Enkh,” Sansar said and saluted Tatiana. “As have you, Francis.” He, too, got a salute, though he wasn’t part of the uniformed Horde service.

“Colonel,” Tatiana said, somehow coming even more to attention. “It’s been an honor.”

“Best of luck on your next assignment,” Sansar said. The woman was on her way to DC, and Blue Sky save her.

“I’ll keep an eye on her, Colonel,” Francis reported.

“Do that.” Sansar glanced around the old warehouse. “This facility is officially decommissioned,” she said for the record and gestured to the door. Bambi came up behind her and waited as Tatiana and Francis left like a couple workers heading home from a hard day’s work. She and Bambi waited five minutes then followed them, the last two leaving Genghis Kahn Import/Export forever.

The sign was already gone, disposed of earlier in the afternoon. Sansar glanced back as they exited, just to be sure nothing was missed, then she followed Bambi out of the alleyway and onto the adjoining avenue. It was crowded with workers heading home. The Houston sun was behind the buildings lining the avenue so the temperature was quite a bit less than at midday.

Once they were a block away, she and Bambi split up. They’d meet in an hour at a small hotel long enough to be sure nobody had latched on. With a little time on her hands, she spotted a nice-looking noodle shop and took a seat at the avenue-facing bar. A servant robot moved down to her and she made her order. It was delivered in only seconds. Hot, spicy, and pretty average. No sooner had she tasted the broth than someone next to her spoke.

“Afternoon, Colonel.” Sansar’s left hand moved quickly into her pocket. It was a knife on that side instead of the gun on her right. Any port in a storm, as the Americans said. “You don’t remember me?”

Sansar’s eyes narrowed. The voice was slightly different, but when she turned and looked, the face wasn’t. “Hello, Cat. Funny meeting you here.”

“I like the noodles,” Cat said and gestured at her own bowl. “I see you’ve closed Genghis Kahn?”

“It’s served its purpose.” Despite the woman’s assurances, Sansar kept her hand on the knife. She had no doubt the enigmatic Cat would be incredibly dangerous in a fight. Maybe better than she was. However, Sansar had never backed down from one; it wasn’t in her nature.

“We’re impressed with what you accomplished. I would think you have no doubt now who’s side we’re on?”

“The Tri-V and data was most appreciated. However, it would have been nice if the Tri-V wasn’t a one-time-use item.”

“Our director didn’t want it getting out just yet.”

“So, are you going to come out and help us from now on?”

“Maybe occasionally,” Cat said. Sansar was sure there was a tiny smile on the woman’s face. “For now, we’ll be keeping an eye on the situation. Best for all parties concerned, wouldn’t you agree?”

“I don’t really see I have a choice,” Sansar said.

“No, you don’t. We’ll do what we can. Just remember this, if you push too hard, that’s the end of it. Section 51 protects itself first.”

“I understand,” Sansar said.

“Good evening, Colonel Enkh.” Cat got up and left. In seconds, the crowds had swallowed her, leaving Sansar alone to consider the future and what developments might lie ahead.

* * *

CIC, EMS Pegasus, Capital Planet

Alexis floated in her ready room, held to her seat by a Velcro strap as Pegasus was in free fall, orbiting the capital of the Galactic Union. Ghost wasn’t talking to her again, as he’d said he wouldn’t when they returned.

She found it interesting how she’d so seamlessly begun referring to Ghost as a him instead of her. The AI had inhabited her sister for many years, ever since an accident had burned Katrina’s brain out during a battle. But the machine intelligence had moved while Alexis was at death’s door, taking the body of a Geek Squad tech named Patrick Leonard. She still didn’t know why the switch had taken place, only that Captain Stacy had been Leonard’s girlfriend when it happened. The parallels of personal loss were impossible to ignore.

Since the AI wouldn’t talk to her, she was submerged in her pinplants, sorting the pieces herself. Hundreds of tiny clues scattered like stars in the void.

Ghost was an AI, one of thousands once used as weapons against the Kahraman. The Egleesius-class ships were a stop-gap measure the Dusman had built to fight their enemies. They were designed as fast strike weapons, with most systems controlled by the AI and a minimal crew.

Blueprints of the ships captured at Lacabo swirled around in her mind. The similarities were impossible to ignore. They didn’t look similar, but they were constructed similarly. Ghost’s circular statements on what to expect in Lacabo and his way of dealing with their defensive installations told her the answer with no uncertainty whatsoever. An AI—or more than one—had been running the Weapons Conglomerate installation.

More stars.

The Dusman and their arguably sudden appearance. Gone for 20,000 years, seemingly defeated before mankind had learned to write or effectively make war. There had been an entire galaxy out there, full of teaming worlds and races. Some suggested as many as a hundred thousand races. Not nearly as many after the Great Galactic War.

The timing of the Dusman’s return was undeniably linked with other events. She was not surprised to find out the Kahraman were still around, as well. They were somehow walled up in what was referred to as the Fourth Arm. Galactic geography was as messed up as Union politics. She guessed it dated back to when the galaxy’s arms were slightly different. Either way, the Kahraman were penned up in elements of the Cygnus and Scatum-Crux arms for modern purposes.

How were they being held back? It was something she desperately wanted to know. Sure, there were voids in those territories. Hyperspatial physics were inverse to normal space in many ways—one was that it was harder to cross regions with fewer stars. You couldn’t travel as far with one hyperspace jump. In dense areas like the core, you could move immense distances.

Someone came up with a way of restricting hyperspace travel. Who?

So much of the history of the Great War was gone. Most insisted it was because of the cataclysmic nature of the war. Alexis wasn’t so sure. Two sides, the Dusman and the Kahraman, both with their own allies, fought for hundreds of years, murdering each other in a rapidly escalating war. The existence of the Keesius spoke to just how far it escalated—the ship was a doomsday weapon nearly identical to an Egleesius, but with the sole purpose of destroying a world.

Ghost wouldn’t go near them. He refused to pursue the one Sato accidentally set on Capital.

Another star.

Capital hadn’t been the capital of the Galactic Republic. She didn’t know much about the old government, just like the details of the war. However, the system was the center of the worst fighting. Maybe the last fighting. The planet was a dead wasteland with residual radiation levels high enough to suggest how it died. Around the planet were the remnants of untold warships. Nobody knew how many; it could be a million.

Here was the last stand. What were they fighting over? What could possibly be so important in this star system that it was worth the loss of so much?

The Kahraman ran or were pursued, but they stopped running and were penned in like dangerous animals. Measures were created to ensure they’d never leave. Those measures were now failing, slowly but surely. Whoever set those measures in place were no doubt the ones behind the Weapons Conglomerate. The Dusman? Unlikely.

Back to the Dusman. Why now? Did they know their ancient adversaries were back? Was now the time to act? Of course, there was the Goltar, another old power. So similar to the Veetanho and almost as arrogant. Both races held power they’d gotten after the Great War. They were playing pieces which fell off the table as the game was ending. At least, that was Alexis’s theory.

The Kahraman were coming, for whatever reason, and everyone was scared of them. Are we scared of the right ones?

“Commander Cromwell?”

Alexis rose out of her musings and opened the comms. “Speaking.”

“Dr. Ramirez, ma’am. You’re late for your prenatal exam.”

“I’m on my way,” she said and cut the connection. She looked down at her swelling belly and smiled. “The stars can wait,” she said to them. “For now.”

* * *

Asbaran Solutions HQ, Houston, Texas, Earth

“Faster!” roared Sergeant Joseph Wilson, running alongside his men. Newly promoted to squad leader, not a day went past that he didn’t think about—and mourn—his fallen comrades, including his best friend who he’d had to shoot, himself. He hadn’t really been ready for combat in the stars and making those kind of choices—the training program had all been fun and games when he’d gone through it—but now it was for real.

At some point, the tech folks would figure out how his friend had been turned against his unit, and they would figure out a way to make sure it didn’t happen again. Until that happened, he would train his squad to be the best they possibly could, because there was one thing he knew, and one thing that burned inside him. He knew, without a doubt, that at some point he would get a shot at taking down whoever had been responsible for his friends’ deaths. When that happened, both he and his squad would be ready, and they would do whatever it took to bring those people down.

He had a long memory, and he wouldn’t forget.

# # # # #

About Chris Kennedy

A Webster Award winner and three-time Dragon Award finalist, Chris Kennedy is a Science Fiction/Fantasy/Young Adult author, speaker, and small-press publisher who has written over 25 books and published more than 100 others. Chris’ stories include the “Occupied Seattle” military fiction duology, “The Theogony” and “Codex Regius” science fiction trilogies, stories in the “Four Horsemen” and “In Revolution Born” universes and the “War for Dominance” fantasy trilogy. Get his free book, “Shattered Crucible,” at his website,

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. He 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,” as well as the leadership training book, “Leadership from the Darkside.”

Chris lives in Virginia Beach, Virginia, with his wife, and is the holder of a doctorate in educational leadership and master’s degrees in both business and public administration. Follow Chris on Facebook at

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About Mark Wandrey

Living life as a full-time RV traveler with his wife Joy, Mark Wandrey is a bestselling author who has been creating new worlds since he was old enough to write. A three-time Dragon Award finalist, Mark has written dozens of books and short stories, and is working on more all the time. A prolific world builder, he created the wildly popular Four Horsemen Universe as well as the Earth Song series, and Turning Point, a zombie apocalypse series. His favorite medium is military sci-fi, but he is always up to a new challenge.

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The following is an

Excerpt from Book One of the Salvage Title Trilogy:

Salvage Title


Kevin Steverson

Now Available from Theogony Books

eBook, Paperback, and Audio

Excerpt from “Salvage Title:”

A steady beeping brought Harmon back to the present. Clip’s program had succeeded in unlocking the container. “Right on!” Clip exclaimed. He was always using expressions hundreds or more years out of style. “Let’s see what we have; I hope this one isn’t empty, too.” Last month they’d come across a smaller vault, but it had been empty.

Harmon stepped up and wedged his hands into the small opening the door had made when it disengaged the locks. There wasn’t enough power in the small cells Clip used to open it any further. He put his weight into it, and the door opened enough for them to get inside. Before they went in, Harmon placed a piece of pipe in the doorway so it couldn’t close and lock on them, baking them alive before anyone realized they were missing.

Daylight shone in through the doorway, and they both froze in place; the weapons vault was full. In it were two racks of rifles, stacked on top of each other. One held twenty magnetic kinetic rifles, and the other held some type of laser rifle. There was a rack of pistols of various types. There were three cases of flechette grenades and one of thermite. There were cases of ammunition and power clips for the rifles and pistols, and all the weapons looked to be in good shape, even if they were of a strange design and clearly not made in this system. Harmon couldn’t tell what system they had been made in, but he could tell what they were.

There were three upright containers on one side and three more against the back wall that looked like lockers. Five of the containers were not locked, so Clip opened them. The first three each held two sets of light battle armor that looked like it was designed for a humanoid race with four arms. The helmets looked like the ones Harmon had worn at the academy, but they were a little long in the face. The next container held a heavy battle suit—one that could be sealed against vacuum. It was also designed for a being with four arms. All the armor showed signs of wear, with scuffed helmets. The fifth container held shelves with three sizes of power cells on them. The largest power cells—four of them—were big enough to run a mech.

Harmon tried to force the handle open on the last container, thinking it may have gotten stuck over time, but it was locked and all he did was hurt his hand. The vault seemed like it had been closed for years.

Clip laughed and said, “That won’t work. It’s not age or metal fatigue keeping the door closed. Look at this stuff. It may be old, but it has been sealed in for years. It’s all in great shape.”

“Well, work some of your tech magic then, ‘Puter Boy,” Harmon said, shaking out his hand.

Clip pulled out a small laser pen and went to work on the container. It took another ten minutes, but finally he was through to the locking mechanism. It didn’t take long after that to get it open.

Inside, there were two items—an eight-inch cube on a shelf that looked like a hard drive or a computer and the large power cell it was connected to. Harmon reached for it, but Clip grabbed his arm.

“Don’t! Let me check it before you move it. It’s hooked up to that power cell for a reason. I want to know why.”

Harmon shrugged. “Okay, but I don’t see any lights; it has probably been dead for years.”

Clip took a sensor reader out of his kit, one of the many tools he had improved. He checked the cell and the device. There was a faint amount of power running to it that barely registered on his screen. There were several ports on the back along with the slot where the power cell was hooked in. He checked to make sure the connections were tight, he then carried the two devices to the hovercraft.

Clip then called Rinto’s personal comm from the communicator in the hovercraft. When Rinto answered, Clip looked at Harmon and winked. “Hey boss, we found some stuff worth a hovercraft full of credit…probably two. Can we have it?” he asked.

* * * * *

Get “Salvage Title” now at:

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The following is an

Excerpt from Book One of the Earth Song Cycle:



Mark Wandrey

Available Now from Theogony Books

eBook, Paperback, and Audio

Excerpt from Overture:


May 21st

Dawn was still an hour away as Mindy Channely opened the roof access and stared in surprise at the crowd already assembled there. “Authorized Personnel Only” was printed in bold red letters on the door through which she and her husband, Jake, slipped onto the wide roof.

A few people standing nearby took notice of their arrival. Most had no reaction, a few nodded, and a couple waved tentatively. Mindy looked over the skyline of Portland and instinctively oriented herself before glancing to the east. The sky had an unnatural glow that had been growing steadily for hours, and as they watched, scintillating streamers of blue, white, and green radiated over the mountains like a strange, concentrated aurora borealis.

“You almost missed it,” one man said. She let the door close, but saw someone had left a brick to keep it from closing completely. Mindy turned and saw the man who had spoken wore a security guard uniform. The easy access to the building made more sense.

“Ain’t no one missin’ this!” a drunk man slurred.

“We figured most people fled to the hills over the past week,” Jake replied.

“I guess we were wrong,” Mindy said.

“Might as well enjoy the show,” the guard said and offered them a huge, hand-rolled cigarette that didn’t smell like tobacco. She waved it off, and the two men shrugged before taking a puff.

“Here it comes!” someone yelled. Mindy looked to the east. There was a bright light coming over the Cascade Mountains, so intense it was like looking at a welder’s torch. Asteroid LM-245 hit the atmosphere at over 300 miles per second. It seemed to move faster and faster, from east to west, and the people lifted their hands to shield their eyes from the blinding light. It looked like a blazing comet or a science fiction laser blast.

“Maybe it will just pass over,” someone said in a voice full of hope.

Mindy shook her head. She’d studied the asteroid’s track many times.

In a matter of a few seconds, it shot by and fell toward the western horizon, disappearing below the mountains between Portland and the ocean. Out of view of the city, it slammed into the ocean.

The impact was unimaginable. The air around the hypersonic projectile turned to superheated plasma, creating a shockwave that generated 10 times the energy of the largest nuclear weapon ever detonated as it hit the ocean’s surface.

The kinetic energy was more than 1,000 megatons; however, the object didn’t slow as it flashed through a half mile of ocean and into the sea bed, then into the mantel, and beyond.

On the surface, the blast effect appeared as a thermal flash brighter than the sun. Everyone on the rooftop watched with wide-eyed terror as the Tualatin Mountains between Portland and the Pacific Ocean were outlined in blinding light. As the light began to dissipate, the outline of the mountains blurred as a dense bank of smoke climbed from the western range.

The flash had incinerated everything on the other side.

The physical blast, travelling much faster than any normal atmospheric shockwave, hit the mountains and tore them from the bedrock, adding them to the rolling wave of destruction traveling east at several thousand miles per hour. The people on the rooftops of Portland only had two seconds before the entire city was wiped away.

Ten seconds later, the asteroid reached the core of the planet, and another dozen seconds after that, the Earth’s fate was sealed.

* * * * *

Get “Overture” now at:

Find out more about Mark Wandrey and Earth Song: Overture at:

* * * * *

The following is an

Excerpt from Book One of The Psyche of War:

Minds of Men


Kacey Ezell

Now Available from Theogony Books

eBook, Paperback, and Audio

Excerpt from “Minds of Men:”

“Look sharp, everyone,” Carl said after a while. Evelyn couldn’t have said whether they’d been droning for minutes or hours in the cold, dense white of the cloud cover. “We should be overhead the French coast in about thirty seconds.”

The men all reacted to this announcement with varying degrees of excitement and terror. Sean got up from his seat and came back to her, holding an awkward looking arrangement of fabric and straps.

Put this on, he thought to her. It’s your flak jacket. And your parachute is just there, he said, pointing. If the captain gives the order to bail out, you go, clip this piece into your ‘chute, and jump out the biggest hole you can find. Do you understand? You do, don’t you. This psychic thing certainly makes explaining things easier, he finished with a grin.

Evelyn gave him what she hoped was a brave smile and took the flak jacket from him. It was deceptively heavy, and she struggled a bit with getting it on. Sean gave her a smile and a thumbs up, and then headed back to his station.

The other men were checking in and charging their weapons. A short time later, Evelyn saw through Rico’s eyes as the tail gunner watched their fighter escort waggle their wings at the formation and depart. They didn’t have the long-range fuel capability to continue all the way to the target.

Someday, that long-range fighter escort we were promised will materialize, Carl thought. His mind felt determinedly positive, like he was trying to be strong for the crew and not let them see his fear. That, of course, was an impossibility, but the crew took it well. After all, they were afraid, too. Especially as the formation had begun its descent to the attack altitude of 20,000 feet. Evelyn became gradually aware of the way the men’s collective tension ratcheted up with every hundred feet of descent. They were entering enemy fighter territory.

Yeah, and someday Veronica Lake will...ah. Never mind. Sorry, Evie. That was Les. Evelyn could feel the waist gunner’s not-quite-repentant grin. She had to suppress a grin of her own, but Les’ irreverence was the perfect tension breaker.

Boys will be boys, she sent, projecting a sense of tolerance. But real men keep their private lives private. She added this last with a bit of smug superiority and felt the rest of the crew’s appreciative flare of humor at her jab. Even Les laughed, shaking his head. A warmth that had nothing to do with her electric suit enfolded Evelyn, and she started to feel like, maybe, she just might become part of the crew yet.

Fighters! Twelve o’clock high!

The call came from Alice. If she craned her neck to look around Sean’s body, Evelyn could just see the terrifying rain of tracer fire coming from the dark, diving silhouette of an enemy fighter. She let the call echo down her own channels and felt her men respond, turning their own weapons to cover Teacher’s Pet’s flanks. Adrenaline surges spiked through all of them, causing Evelyn’s heart to race in turn. She took a deep breath and reached out to tie her crew in closer to the Forts around them.

She looked through Sean’s eyes as he fired from the top turret, tracking his line of bullets just in front of the attacking aircraft. His mind was oddly calm and terribly, indeed, they all were. Even young Lieutenant Bob was zeroed in on his task of keeping a tight position and making it that much harder to penetrate the deadly crossing fire of the Flying Fortress.

Fighters! Three o’clock low!

That was Logan in the ball turret. Evelyn felt him as he spun his turret around and began to fire the twin Browning AN/M2 .50 caliber machine guns at the sinister dark shapes rising up to meet them with fire.

Got ‘em, Bobby Fritsche replied, from his position in the right waist. He, too, opened up with his own .50 caliber machine gun, tracking the barrel forward of the nose of the fighter formation, in order to “lead” their flight and not shoot behind them.

Evelyn blinked, then hastily relayed the call to the other girls in the formation net. She felt their acknowledgement, though it was almost an absentminded thing as each of the girls were focusing mostly on the communication between the men in their individual crews.

Got you, you Kraut sonofabitch! Logan exulted. Evelyn looked through his eyes and couldn’t help but feel a twist of pity for the pilot of the German fighter as he spiraled toward the ground, one wing completely gone. She carefully kept that emotion from Logan, however, as he was concentrating on trying to take out the other three fighters who’d been in the initial attacking wedge. One fell victim to Bobby’s relentless fire as he threw out a curtain of lead that couldn’t be avoided.

Two back to you, tail, Bobby said, his mind carrying an even calm, devoid of Logan’s adrenaline-fueled exultation.

Yup, Rico Martinez answered as he visually acquired the two remaining targets and opened fire. He was aided by fire from the aircraft flying off their right wing, the Nagging Natasha. She fired from her left waist and tail, and the two remaining fighters faltered and tumbled through the resulting crossfire. Evelyn watched through Rico’s eyes as the ugly black smoke trailed the wreckage down.

Fighters! Twelve high!

Fighters! Two high!

The calls were simultaneous, coming from Sean in his top turret and Les on the left side. Evelyn took a deep breath and did her best to split her attention between the two of them, keeping the net strong and open. Sean and Les opened fire, their respective weapons adding a cacophony of pops to the ever-present thrum of the engines.

Flak! That was Carl, up front. Evelyn felt him take hold of the controls, helping the lieutenant to maintain his position in the formation as the Nazi anti-aircraft guns began to send up 20mm shells that blossomed into dark clouds that pocked the sky. One exploded right in front of Pretty Cass’ nose. Evelyn felt the bottom drop out of her stomach as the aircraft heaved first up and then down. She held on grimly and passed on the wordless knowledge the pilots had no choice but to fly through the debris and shrapnel that resulted.

In the meantime, the gunners continued their rapid fire response to the enemy fighters’ attempt to break up the formation. Evelyn took that knowledge—that the Luftwaffe was trying to isolate one of the Forts, make her vulnerable—and passed it along the looser formation net.

Shit! They got Liberty Belle! Logan called out then, from his view in the ball turret. Evelyn looked through his angry eyes, feeling his sudden spike of despair as they watched the crippled Fort fall back, two of her four engines smoking. Instantly, the enemy fighters swarmed like so many insects, and Evelyn watched as the aircraft yawed over and began to spin down and out of control.

A few agonizing heartbeats later, first one, then three more parachutes fluttered open far below. Evelyn felt Logan’s bitter knowledge that there had been six other men on board that aircraft. Liberty Belle was one of the few birds flying without a psychic on board, and Evelyn suppressed a small, wicked feeling of relief that she hadn’t just lost one of her friends.

Fighters! Twelve o’clock level!

* * * * *

Get “Minds of Men” now at:

Find out more about Kacey Ezell and “Minds of Men” at:

* * * * *

The following is an

Excerpt from Book One of the Revelations Cycle:

Cartwright’s Cavaliers


Mark Wandrey

Available Now 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 toward 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:

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