Book: Dark Moon Arisen

Dark Moon Arisen

Dark Moon Arisen

Book Three of The Omega War


Chris Kennedy & Mark Wandrey

PUBLISHED BY: Seventh Seal Press

Copyright © 2018 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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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.

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To Sheellah Kennedy and Joy Wandrey for supporting us in making the transition to being full-time authors, and to our fans for giving us the ability to do so.

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Cover Design by Brenda Mihalko

Original Art by Ricky Ryan

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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

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three


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 In Revolution Born:

Excerpt from Book One of the Earth Song Cycle:

Excerpt from Book One of the Kin Wars Saga:

* * * * *


Winged Hussars Prime Base, New Warsaw System

Colonel Alexis Cromwell gestured the rest of the Four Horsemen leaders to their seats. The intervening weeks since the invasion of Earth had been the most pivotal for Human mercs in the hundred years since first contact. Alexis and her ancestors had spent that century turning their hidden headquarters at New Warsaw into an unassailable base. The first commander of the Winged Hussars had decided invisibility wasn’t enough; he’d wanted defensibility as well. The system in New Warsaw was “unmapped,” its coordinates lost from the Cartography Guild databases. Simply put, you couldn’t get there from anywhere.

When Alexis had taken command more than a decade ago, she had continued to prepare for war despite how expensive it was, even though she’d never thought being attacked in New Warsaw was a serious concern. Not until a little over two years ago, that is, when things started getting strange. The Hussars’ special asset, an ancient artificial intelligence known as Ghost, warned her of impending danger, but couldn’t provide specifics. As it liked to remind Alexis, it wasn’t omnipotent, just very, very observant. A few months before Earth was invaded, a move was made against her, directly, and her command ship Pegasus. With Ghost’s help, and some very creative tactics, Alexis survived.

To her right sat Jim Cartwright of Cartwright’s Cavaliers. The least probable of the assemblage, he was just 21 years old and at least 150 pounds overweight. His father, Thaddeus Cartwright, had been the best Cavaliers’ commander since the first Cartwright, but he’d been killed when his son was only 10 years old. His mother had taken temporary control and appeared to have bankrupted it. The reality was, the same plot against the other Horsemen had been behind the economic disaster. Alexis’ intel suggested it was probably one of the first moves against them.

Jim Cartwright reconstituted the Cavaliers with some salvaged gear and stashed credits. With no practical training—and a complete lack of physical merc traits—the kid turned out to be a natural, much like his great grandfather. It also didn’t hurt that he’d somehow managed to resurrect a 20,000-year-old, 100-foot-tall war robot known as a Raknar. His furry friend had probably had something to do with that.

The alien, known as a Fae, rested on his shoulder. Looking like a cross between a howler monkey and a lemur, her thick tail circled Jim’s neck, and her delicate toes clasped his shoulder. Her big eyes were shielded by handmade, skillfully-assembled goggles. Despite her appearance, the alien examined the assembled group with a clear intelligence.

To her left sat Nigel Shirazi, the Asbaran Solutions commander, who was smiling at her with a grin that was a little more than congenial. His incredibly handsome bronze features, with thick black hair and boyish glimmering eyes, caused her to return his smile before she could stop herself. He’d been 4th in line to command Asbaran and all but disowned. That was, until the alien plot against the Horsemen had rolled up all those ahead of him. Then they kidnapped his sister.

Unlike the rest of his family, Nigel loved his sister, and he threw everything he had into rescuing her. The MinSha, long the adversaries and mortal enemies of Asbaran Solutions, proved to be behind the plot. Nigel fell short in his effort to recover her—his sister died in his arms—and he barely came away with his life. He’d since managed to scrape together some forces and, thanks primarily to Jim Cartwright, had left Earth just in time. Since she’d met him, he’d grown progressively more charming, much to her chagrin.

The Golden Horde commander, Sansar Enkh, was directly across from her. She was a few years Alexis’ junior, and as much in love with pinplants as Alexis’ sister had been, until she’d been killed while her pinplants were linked with Pegasus’ computers, and Ghost had taken over her sister’s body. Sansar was incredibly intelligent and an accomplished commander, especially in the defensive and relief tactics her company specialized in.

It was Sansar who’d remained behind on Earth and called the aliens’ bluff. The Merc Guild, headed by General Peepo, had taken her into custody and transported her to Capital Planet. There, she’d been subjected to a show trial. Even though Sansar had revealed the trial to be just that, the guild still had the temerity to sentence her to death. Nigel had rescued her and brought her back to New Warsaw, and the Horsemen were finally together.

“Before we meet with the rest of the merc commanders,” Alexis began, “I wanted to thank all of you for a great job. Thanks to everyone’s efforts, we have a sizeable combat force at our disposal.” Polite applause. “Breaking them out of Karma was a master stroke, and I’m sure Peepo is stinging from that blow.”

“We have 23 companies here in New Warsaw,” Sansar said. As a defensive specialist, she’d tasked her people with assembling the numbers after she’d arrived. “Not counting our own commands, there are 12 battalions of CASPers, most of which are Mk 7s and Mk 8s, although there are couple of battalions with older models. We have four battalions of modern infantry, along with a battalion of mechanized armor, and a battalion of artillery.” Jim Cartwright whistled, and Sansar shook her head. “Don’t be too impressed,” she cautioned, “Peepo hit me with more than double that in Uzbekistan, and that was just Tortantula assault companies.”

“Yes, and they are now radioactive goo,” Nigel said, nodding. “In New Persia, we call that a good start.”

“Still,” Sansar said, “that is but a fraction of the forces Peepo can use against us. There are 36 other races lined up against ours.”

“Our real problem is their space navy,” Alexis pointed out. “As we discussed before Sansar joined us, we have nothing compared to what the merc guild has at their disposal. The sensor data we have showed battleships in the Sol system. Several of them. I’m happy to say that my efforts to salvage ships from 2nd Level Hyperspace was successful.” A Tri-V came on and showed the ships she’d returned with. “We salvaged two Izlian ships, a battlecruiser, and an older heavy cruiser. But the real find was four Egleesius-class battlecruisers, the same class as Pegasus.” The screen showed the four ships, moored a short distance from the Hussars’ huge space station, Prime Base.

“Do you have names for them yet?” Jim asked.

“Actually, yes,” Alexis said, smiling. “They are now Phaeton, Arion, Nuckelavee, and Shadowfax.

“You guys love interesting names,” Sansar said. Alexis shrugged.

“Gandalf would be proud of Shadowfax,” Jim said. Alexis gave him a wink.

Nuckelavee is in the worst shape of the four and will require considerable work—it’ll be at least two months before she’s ready for action. The other three should be up and running in just over a week.” Nods of appreciation came from around the room.

“Your technical staff is impressive,” Sansar complimented.

“They have a lot of experience on the Egleesius-class from all their time working on Pegasus, and having four more gives us a real edge. However, it’s still not enough to go up against multiple battleships.”

“Go back to the other hyperspace for more,” Nigel said. “It sounds like it is ripe with lost ships!” Jim nodded, and Sansar looked at Alexis for confirmation.

Alexis shook her head. “There is a problem with that, as we’ve encountered an unknown force there. The first time we visited 2nd Level Hyperspace, we lost several people on a derelict to an entity described as an armored and shielded alien combat suit. Later, we were approached by a strange ship, which we destroyed. On our latest trip, we lost a shuttle and were attacked by a group of ships.” She looked around the room.

“You are afraid these unknown aggressors are getting worse?” Sansar asked.

“We are,” Alexis said. “My technical people are trying to get a better feel for how to manipulate 2nd Level Hyperspace, as well as understanding its physics. Until then, I’ve decided the growing risk isn’t worth the potential payoff. We’re considering what to do next.”

“That is reasonable,” Nigel agreed. “I’m sorry for your losses.”

“We all know the price,” she said with a shrug. “So, our space forces are bolstered, as well as our capabilities. All the new Egleesius have hyperspace shunts as well. That’s very useful, although they’ll be a bit less capable in offensive capabilities than Pegasus, as we have upgraded her several times over the years. Whoever built the ships originally didn’t use them as frontline combat ships. Frankly, we don’t know what they did use them for.” She looked directly at Jim. “Enough about our additions; I’m most impressed with Commander Cartwright. Nobody else here brought an asteroid to the party!”

Jim coughed, and his face turned red. Alexis noted the reaction and wondered why it was. “My Geek Squad is chomping at the bit to get at the facility. What did you call it?”

“Karma Upsilon 4,” he said, then he cleared his throat to compose himself. “I found it after an extensive search. I’ve been trying to track down more info on the Raknars, for obvious reasons. After we got the first one running, I wanted more. I was pretty sure KU4, as we call it, was an ancient Raknar facility. What I didn’t realize, until recently, was that it was also capable of hyperspace travel.”

“And equipped with shunts,” Alexis added. Jim’s expression was peevish as he nodded in agreement. Now Alexis was sure there was more to this than she’d suspected. She really wanted to get the kid alone and ask more pointed questions about the facility. Most importantly, how had they known the coordinates for New Warsaw? The Winged Hussars frigate docked to KU4 hadn’t given the coordinates to them. “Now that you have 22 of the war machines, that rock is coming in pretty handy.”

“For sure,” Jim said with a big grin.

“I should charge you for the relocation costs,” she said with mock seriousness. The asteroid base had arrived in a somewhat inconvenient location, and not in a proper orbit around the system’s star. A dozen of her biggest asteroid repositioning tugs, burning huge amounts of hydrogen, were working to get the damned rock into the right orbit. They were within a day or two of having it in position, but at the cost of setting back her mining operations a month.

“I think we have the core of an excellent force,” Alexis said. “It’s a hell of a lot more than Peepo hoped we’d have, of that I’m sure. It may even be enough to retake Earth. Sansar still has forces there, working to unite the resistance, that will help us when we go for it. For now, though, we need to figure out how to get in there without it turning into a straight-up space battle. We can’t win it yet; if we tried, we’d probably lose it all.”

Nigel looked darkly, and she held up a placating hand. “Yes, we’ll need to make that gamble at some point. But first, we have to get all our assets together and in line.” She looked at each of them in turn. “As we said, the Four Horsemen for Earth. The other merc units will look to us for guidance, and dare I say, leadership. Like it or not, we’re in charge of this.” She glanced at Jim, who looked less than comfortable. She’d heard he’d struggled when his friend died on their mission to stop a spy from divulging New Warsaw’s location.

Jim Cartwright might be the youngest of them, and the least experienced, but they all had to rise to the occasion and trust each other. “Are we all on the same page?” she asked. One after the other, each commander nodded. “Good. Paka?”

“Commander?” replied her XO from the next room.

“Let the other unit commanders know we’re ready,” she said. “We’ll be there in a minute.”

“Yes, sir,” Paka replied.

“All the other commanders are in the conference room next door,” she said. “I think it’s time we give them an update.” At her gesture, the other three got up, and everyone followed her to the door.

<I notice you didn’t tell them everything,> Ghost said to Alexis through her pinplants.

No,” Alexis agreed. “I didn’t. Partly because I don’t know everything myself, and partly because I don’t like sharing guesses. Is there anything you would like to add?

<Not at this point.> Alexis’ jaw muscles bunched. She’d long counted on the AI to have her back. Since the first trip to 2nd Level Hyperspace, though, she’d begun to question just how reliable Ghost really was. Lately, she’d also begun wondering if the AI was entirely on her side.

* * *

SOGA HQ, Sao Paulo, Brazil, Earth

“What is this?” Peepo asked as the Jeha waved a scanner over her as she entered the SOGA’s conference room. She had taken over the offices of the Secretary of the General Assembly of Earth immediately after the invasion and had ruled from there ever since.

“It’s a scan for your protection, ma’am,” said the Jeha as he looked at the results on the screen. The alien muttered to himself for a moment, then took another device from the tool belt strung across his millipede-like body. It emitted a low humming noise as he turned it on and ran it over her body. “Actually, this one is for your protection. The other was just identification.”

“Protection and identification from what?” Peepo asked.


Peepo frowned, a gesture she had learned from being around Humans for far longer than she’d ever hoped for. Although the Jeha were excellent engineers, they were sometimes very difficult to work with, especially when they were focused on a project. “What kind of bugs?” Peepo asked when she realized the Jeha wasn’t going to elucidate further.

“Apparently, someone has been lacing our seats with nanobots,” Major Brantayl, the MinSha officer in charge of security, replied. “I asked Kr’ch’lt to see if he could find out why everyone on your staff was getting sick. After studying the problem, he determined that a plague of nanobots was to blame.” She waved one of her primary arms toward the conference table. “Each of the chairs had a dusting of nanobots on it, and that appears to be how the staff has been contracting their maladies.”

“Even mine?” Peepo asked. The MinSha nodded. “If that is the case, why have I not been afflicted with anything?”

“That is unknown,” Major Brantayl replied. “Your chair, however, was covered in the nanobots, and Kr’ch’lt found active ones inside your body. They are now deactivated—” he looked at the Jeha and received confirmation, “—and you do not need to worry about them. Your chair has also been cleaned, as have all the other chairs at the table.”

“How did those nanobots get here in the first place?” Peepo asked. “Who has had access to this room?”

“Only the cleaning staff, ma’am,” the MinSha replied. “I sent a platoon of MinSha to the cleaning company’s offices to…interview…the members of the group that was responsible for cleaning the office the last time. They will get answers.”

“So I can expect the members of my staff to recover quickly?” Peepo asked, looking at the Jeha.

“Yes,” Kr’ch’lt replied. “The nanobots have been deactivated, and we will check periodically to ensure they do not return. We will also check the cleaning crew. Your staff should recover very soon.”

Peepo looked back to the security officer. “What about listening devices? Have you looked to see if the cleaning crew left any of them?”

“Yes ma’am, we have,” Brantayl replied. “The room was clean.”

“Thank you,” Peepo said. “You are dismissed.”

The MinSha waved the Jeha out of the room before her and shut the door as she exited.

“Well,” Peepo announced to the rest of the staff as she took her seat, “hopefully that will take care of one of our issues. What other things need to be decided today?”

Her chief of staff, Captain Beeko, raised a hand. “There are some questions about when you think the Humans will recognize the obvious and give up?”

“Give up?” Peepo asked.

“Yes, give up,” Lieutenant General Chirbayl replied. “We have had their planet under occupation for some time now, yet there is only a minimal amount of acquiescence to our wishes. They do not act like a beaten or subjugated race. They continue to fight us at every turn. Where we are able to get them to do what we want, they often find ways to sabotage it.” The MinSha officer shook his head. “When will they finally give up and recognize they are beaten?”

“The Humans?” Peepo asked. “Never.” A burst of exclamations met her pronouncement, and she raised a hand to get their attention. “Never, that is, while the Four Horsemen remain uncaptured. Having those nuisances running around gives them the one thing they need to continue their resistance—hope. If you had ever looked into their history, you would have found that is the one thing that keeps them going. Where there is hope, they will fight.”

Her eyes swept the table. “We can beat them down, over time, without killing the Four Horsemen, and I have already seen some of the pockets of resistance beginning to die down, but to totally subjugate them, we need to remove their hope.” She turned to the lone HecSha at the table. “What is the status of the operation to locate their base?”

General ShoFra shook his flat, wide head. “We have not made any progress, as we have not heard anything from the SooSha we hired. We expected it to make contact by now, but it is late returning.”


“I do not understand what you are asking, General Peepo.”

“I’m asking what other plans you had in place in case the SooSha failed in its attempt to locate the Human base. Certainly you did not put all of your nestlings in one carryall? You have other operations also underway?”

“But General, it was a SooSha! They never fail! And the rate they charge, they had better not.”

“Many things tend to happen with the Humans that ‘never’ happen,” Peepo said, her gaze taking in all of her staff. “Just like any operation, I expect you to have backup plans, and backup plans for them in case those plans fail. The next person who fails to do so will be stationed on an outpost overlooking a neutron star. Am I clear on this?”

Her staff signaled their assent, and in many cases, their submission as well.

“Good,” Peepo continued. “Send another Grimm, send other spies, do whatever it takes! Find the base. Now! The sooner this is done, the faster we can subjugate the Humans.”

“Yes, General Peepo,” General ShoFra said again, his reptilian head nodding. “It shall be done as you command.”

“Very well,” General Peepo said, working to control her breathing. “What else needs my attention today?”

“There is good news from Golara Prime,” Lieutenant General Beelel said. An Altar, his antennae quivered in excitement. “All is in readiness there. All six fleets have been assembled and stand ready to assault the Human colonies. We had to substitute some additional Bakulu units in place of the Izlian ones, but they have arrived and are ready for the mission.”

“Why did you have to replace the Izlian units?”

“The loss of Admiral Omega has them all in mourning, and they have withdrawn to their home world for his funeral services. With the addition of the Bakulu, we have enough units to conduct the operations you have planned.”

“Outstanding!” Peepo exclaimed, happy to have one of her staff report positive results for a change. “Send them orders to begin the attack at once. When the Horsemen see their colonies being taken from them, and their empire collapsing all around them, they will have no other choice but to meet us in battle or agree to our demands. This is the beginning of the end for them!”

* * *

Outside SOGA HQ, Sao Paulo, Brazil, Earth

Thirty minutes later, as the meeting began to break up, the fly on the window withdrew the thin wire it had worked through a small crack in the window’s caulking. One hundred and one stories up, it didn’t get inspected very often. The little insect walked the rest of the way to the roof and across to the other side of the building, where it began transmitting. After a series of burst transmissions, the creature began disassembling, and tiny pieces, smaller than most people could see unaided, blew off in the strong winds at that altitude, never to be found again.

* * * * *

Chapter One

Gray Wolves’ Hideout, Houston, Texas, Earth

“The bug is transmitting,” Corporal Bolormaa Enkh reported, looking up from her console.

“Anything good?” Major Good asked, coming to stand by her. It wasn’t hard—unlike their previous facility in Tashkent, the monitoring station in the Gray Wolves’ Houston hideout wasn’t much larger than a good-sized closet and only held two consoles. Extremely capable ones, of course, but only having two operators severely hindered the amount of intelligence his section was able to process. The movement of large quantities of black market materials outside the door—accompanied by a tremendous amount of thunderous and creative swearing—didn’t help the process.

At least he didn’t have to watch over his shoulder for Depik assassins anymore; now he only had to worry about the Besquith enforcers working for the Mercenary Guild finding their station. That was probably worse, he decided as he waited—the corporal’s eyes were closed; she was parsing the data with her pinplants—death at the hands of a Depik would most likely be quick. The Besquith would take a while to kill you, and you wouldn’t be having much fun while you waited for death to claim you.

“Okay, got it,” the corporal said, opening her eyes. “They’re moving on the colonies.” She pushed a file to the major via her pinplants.

“The Golara system again, eh?” he asked as he went through the information. He turned to the other being in the room with them. “The Merc Guild is launching their attack. They are sending a number of fleets—at least six, although a seventh fleet was mentioned—to assault our colonies. They didn’t say whether their intention was to destroy them, occupy them, or relocate the colonists, but either way, we’re going to have to do something to stop them.”

“I suspect that is exactly what Peepo would like you to do,” the alien said in a harsh whisper from the depths of its hooded figure. “You are in a no-win situation. You cannot let the Merc Guild capture or destroy the only other free Humans in the galaxy; however, to attempt to do battle with their fleets is sure to result in the destruction of the Winged Hussars. Without the Hussars, the other Human mercenary units, both Horsemen and not, will be unable to move around the galaxy and will be quickly swept up. This could easily be the end of your off-planet resistance.”

“That’s almost exactly what Peepo said.”

“I do not think she is far from the truth in this matter,” the figure whispered. “Peepo excels in putting her opponents into no-win situations, and, as I already noted, she has you in one now.”

“Were you able to get any intel on the fleet massing at Golara?”

“Yes. We had a ship go through the system. The fleet there is…extensive. Even if they break it up into six or seven task forces, there are enough battleships for all of them to have at least one. If your forces attempt to do battle with them, the results are unlikely to be beneficial.”

“So what am I supposed to do?” Major Good asked. “I have to report this to my commander and the rest of the Four Horsemen, and when I do, they are likely to act on the information. What should I tell them?”

“Yes, you have to report it, and I will make the exchange for you as I promised. I will also include the imagery our ship obtained in the Golara system. As to what to tell them, did the Merc Guild reveal any other intentions that could be used against them? Did they say which colonies they were attacking?”

“No they didn’t, but I suspect it will be the ones closest to Golara.”

“Maybe…and maybe not,” the figure whispered. “The fleet base at Golara Prime is in a unique nexus position, where their fleets can depart on many headings. The guild will be looking to capture the most important colonies first—those that have either resources, an advantageous location, or are the most heavily populated. Whichever colonies they think are the most important to you, you can be sure those are the ones they will attack.”

“Well, I hope Colonel Enkh and the rest of the Horsemen can figure out a way to save the colonies,” Major Good said, “because you’re right—the Merc Guild will chew them up if they try to split their forces. Each fleet has at least one battleship along with it. When they said they were emptying the shipyard, they weren’t kidding.”

Corporal Enkh handed a computer chip to the major, who handed it to the Pendal in turn. “Here’s all the data we have,” Major Good said. “If you hurry, you can still get it to the captain before he leaves.”

* * *

Cantina Arriba, San Antonio, Texas, Earth

“Captain Kr’nh’gk,” the Pendal whispered, coming up from behind the Jeha at the noisy café. Although the alien had been watching for him, the Jeha hadn’t seen him approach, and the giant millipede sprang from his chair. Had anyone been watching, they would probably have attributed it to getting up to meet a friend, or maybe the Jehas’ rather jumpy natures, not the fact that Captain Kr’nh’gk was having a clandestine meeting in plain sight at one of the trendier new restaurants on San Antonio’s Riverwalk. “It is good to see you again.”

The Jeha’s head swiveled back and forth, his eye stalks turning even faster as he sat back down.

“Peace,” the Pendal said, holding up a hand and willing it to be so, and the Jeha’s frenetic motions lost some of their energy. “This is a beautiful venue, is it not?” He knew the Jeha was one of the races that found the sight of his face to be…upsetting, so he turned and scanned the Humans and off-world people walking along the pathway next to the San Antonio River. There were no threats approaching from that direction, he noted, and the Jeha couldn’t see his face anymore, which put him further at ease.

“You’re late,” the Jeha said, bending over the table as he contracted his various skeletal plates. The Jeha was still scared of him, and the large millipede-like alien unconsciously tried to make himself a smaller target.

“The traffic between Houston and San Antonio at this time of day is heavy…especially when you have to avoid the Besquith.”

“The Besquith are here?” the Jeha asked, his eye stalks twitching from side to side again.

“No,” the Pendal said. “And no, I wasn’t followed,” he added, answering the next question the Jeha was going to ask.

“How do you know?”

I know!” the Pendal hissed with enough conviction that the Jeha accepted it as fact. “It would help if you tried not to look as if everyone were about to attack you.” He stifled his race’s version of a sigh, realizing that wasn’t going to happen—the Jeha was too skittish to be an effective spy—and looked at the slate his lower left arm held. “My,” he said, as loud as he could, “look at the time. I hadn’t realized it was this late.” He stood up and offered the Jeha a hand. “Have a safe journey.”

The Jeha took his hand, and he slid two computer chips into Captain Kr’nh’gk’s claw. The Jeha’s eye stalks were in rapid motion again so the Pendal didn’t delay. He turned and walked down to the riverwalk, using his senses to scan for pursuit. There was none. He glanced back to the Jeha, who was just sitting back down at the table. Although he doubted any of the Humans would notice, anyone familiar with the Jeha race would realize how nervous the Jeha was. The Pendal sighed. Good help was so hard to find.

* * * * *

Chapter Two

Karma Upsilon 4, Decaying Solar Orbit, New Warsaw System

Jim watched from a few kilometers away as 12 Winged Hussars tugs pushed. Plumes of high intensity radioactive exhaust extended for 100 kilometers behind each of the blocky pushers. How many million tons of force are they exerting? he wondered. They’d been at it for days, with tankers coming in every six hours to refuel them, yet the asteroid showed no apparent change from all that titanic force.

He glanced at the shuttle’s navigational computer, which was observing the asteroid by radar. Despite the lack of visual evidence to the contrary, the computer plot showed the truth—a ring projecting the orbit around the ancient red giant star. Jim had arranged to be in space when the path of the asteroid no longer ended in the star, and, as he watched, the line indicating the asteroid’s path finally moved off the star. In fact, it seemed to leap out of the star, forming an elipse where it cleared the star’s photosphere. That initial jump done, the movement was again slower and slower as the orbit climbed higher above the star. He knew a bunch of little beings who’d be happy about that news.

The tugs pushed for another hour, then stopped to reposition. Two more hours of pushing this way, then that way, and the job was done. The orbit was on the edge of being too close to the star at its perihelion, but it was high enough, and stable. The computer also insisted there would be no collisions with the thousands of asteroids already in orbit.

“Commander Cartwright,” the head of the tug fleet transmitted.

“Go ahead.”

“It’s as good as Commander Cromwell authorized us to do. It should be safe now.”

“My thanks, and respects to Commander Cromwell for the efforts.” He changed frequency. “This is Cartwright Actual,” he transmitted. “Bring them in.”

The squadron of bulk haulers, which had been holding position nearby, accelerated toward the asteroid. “I guess I can’t call it Karma Upsilon 4 anymore,” he said.

“Doesn’t make sense now, <Skee>” Splunk agreed. She was floating at the back of the shuttle’s small cockpit, where she’d been playing with the reserve comm system. “How about Upsilon, <Cheek>

“That’s a good idea,” he said. Using his pinplants, he accessed the shuttle’s navigational system and updated the designation of his asteroid base to just Upsilon.

“PENDING,” the computer said. Jim nodded in appreciation; the Winged Hussars’ computer systems were elegant. His renaming update on their navigational system was sent up to a central authority who reviewed it. The attention to detail was amazing, and also a little staggering. “DESIGNATION UPDATE—UPSILON.”

“There you go, Splunk,” he said. She gave a little coo and kept tinkering with the system.

The ships were slowing to dock, so he programmed his shuttle to dock, too. It only took a few minutes for the shuttle’s autopilot to accomplish the maneuver. Once again, a sign of the level of automation the Winged Hussars were capable of.

Inside Upsilon, Jim oversaw the unloading of the transporters. They held 20 Raknar, the 20,000-year-old war machines the Dusman once used against the Kahraman in a nearly cataclysmic war. He was sure they were the key to winning this war, or at least a big part of that key. The Raknar floated across the main transfer bay, one after another. They looked strange in transport configuration. Their arms were folded back behind them, and their legs bent backwards at the knees so that the bottoms of the feet and hands interlocked. Pretty compact for a 100-foot tall, 1,000-ton mecha.

He followed one along as a crew of his Cavaliers’ technicians handled the transfer. The Raknar were being fitted into huge frames scaled for their use. Upsilon had once been a facility for working on the machines, something he’d gambled on when he’d bought the place. At more than a mile on a side, he hadn’t explored 1/10th of the asteroid, so he had no idea what materials might have survived from that time. The frames, sure, but they were little more than huge metal arms that could be locked to hold a Raknar.

Splunk floated next to him, her tinted visors floating on a tether. She didn’t need them in the relatively dark interior of the bay. Her bright, blue-on-blue eyes watched the Raknar with keen intensity. She’d been the key to figuring out a Raknar several years ago. He’d only just come to understand the full meaning of that. She was a sort of biological interface with the robot, almost a living haptic suit.

There was another Raknar coming, recovered by the team of Asbaran Solutions who’d rescued Sansar Enkh from Capital. They’d seen it, an unusual assault model which was a four-legged quadruped, instead of the more common ape-like bipedal versions he had here. They’d seen it and stolen it. The Raknar was almost pristine. They’d found a Tri-V image in the cockpit—a four-armed humanoid alien known as a Lumar with a Fae riding on its shoulder, just like Splunk liked riding Jim’s. The Lumar had to be the missing Dusman.

Jim found that surprising, though. The Lumar were indeed a merc race, like Humans and 36 other races. Only, they weren’t the smartest. In fact, the Lumar were rather…dense. Great fighters and tough to kill, they were often utilized as defensive units and could be found as security all over the Galactic Union. But Lumar building and manning the Raknar? It didn’t quite fit. “Maybe something catastrophic happened at the end of the war,” Jim wondered.

He’d been floating around long enough that the transfer was complete. All 20 of the Raknar were in cradles and his technical people had left. Less than a minute after the last Cavalier tech was gone, dozens of tiny figures floated out from as many hiding spaces. Tiny figures that bore a striking resemblance to Splunk, though in many different shapes and colors.

There was one with bluish stripes in her fur, and another with white hands and feet. He saw a male with unusually small ears, and a female missing a finger. These Fae were the ones who’d managed to get Upsilon into hyperspace, and apparently hacked the location of New Warsaw, which was one of the galaxy’s closest-guarded secrets. An albino Fae floated over to them. Jim knew this one.

“Hello, Sly,” Jim said when the male Fae was close enough.

“Hello, Jim,” he replied. “Raknar look good, but need work.”

“I know,” he said. “They aren’t perfect. However, they represented an irresistible opportunity.”

Sly nodded to Jim in a very Human way. He looked into Sly’s pinkish eyes and considered how to proceed. Sly was in charge of this little detachment of Fae. They’d apparently come to Karma by stowing away on dozens of ships. They’d also spent the last few months stealing everything at Karma not nailed down before moving Upsilon to New Warsaw.

Before they’d turned up, Splunk had just been a friend who helped him run Raknar. She’d possessed incredible mechanical acumen, was devilishly sneaky, and had a telepathic bond with him, including the ability to speak things to him only he understood. But now he had dozens of Splunks loose on the station he was responsible for. Or rather, loose in New Warsaw.

“Sly,” he said, “I have to ask you a favor.” The Fae looked at him and waited. “Please don’t leave the station while we’re here. This star system belongs to an ally, and I’m afraid if you and your…people decided to start borrowing things, like you did back on Karma, we’d quickly wear out our welcome, tenuous as it is.”

“We might need things,” Sly said and gestured at the Raknar. Already three of the closest war machines had their chests open, and lights could be seen moving around inside. Another was humming with power and its limbs were unfolding. God damn, they’re fast, he thought.

“Yes, I realize you might need things.” He took out a comm unit and floated it over to Sly, who expertly caught it. “Use this to relay what you need, and we’ll get it for you.”

“That should work,” Sly replied.

“Promise you’ll stay on Upsilon,” he said and pointed to the nearest wall, which was hewn from the asteroid’s living rock.

“They will find out at some point, <Skaa>” Splunk said, and Sly nodded.

“Yes, I know that. But I need some time to make that revelation happen on my schedule. We also don’t need further complications right now. Ok?”

“Agreed,” Sly said, then chirped several words at Splunk, who chirped back, and then he floated away. Splunk patted Jim’s shoulder and pushed off to follow Sly. He wished he could believe they’d do what he asked, he really did.

* * *

Winged Hussars Prime Base, New Warsaw System

“Can you confirm all his technical staff returned to Bucephalus?” Alexis glanced up from the slate to her intelligence chief. Uuth, a member of the Zuparti race, looked a lot like a terrestrial weasel and was just as jumpy. Alexis had found that made Uuth a perfect spy, and the Zuparti had never let her down.

“We’re positive,” Uuth replied. “The Cavaliers used our transports, and the crews observed numbers and types of personnel. We have a clear count.”

“Thanks, chief,” she said. Uuth nodded her pointed head, her whiskers twitching in pleasure as she got up and left. Alexis stared after the departed spy for a long moment as she considered. The destruction Jim Cartwright had wrought with just one Raknar was, in a manner of speaking, spectacular. She’d watched from a distance aboard Pegasus and, like her crew, was in awe. He’d later insisted that the fully operational Raknar was only a fraction of what they were capable of, once the new ones were made operational.

Yet he was on Karma Upsilon 4, now called just Upsilon, by himself; he had left his technical staff behind on his ship. The same intelligence file she had, which included details provided by the Golden Horde, stated that at least some of the success had come as a result of the assistance of Adayn Christopher, AKA Captain Adrianne McKenzie, Earth Defense Intelligence. She might be a spy for Earth, but she was also apparently a highly-capable mechanical engineer. So how was he doing this without her, or any other help?

There was the Fae, Splunk, she thought. The intel files said the little alien was a mechanical savant. Again, though, Jim likely couldn’t do it with just himself and a single little furry alien, regardless of how capable Splunk might be.

<Courier arriving.> Alexis set her slate on the desk and closed her eyes.

Where from?” she asked.


Alexis had been waiting on that information for some time now. Although they had their forces concentrated, she needed intel for where to strike back. The courier would have more than just data on the fleets near Earth; it should also have files from the Golden Horde spies still on the planet. She knew the report would come in two parts—the fleet reports would come to her, and groundside intel would go to Sansar Enkh.

She tapped an icon.


“Summon the Horsemen,” she ordered Paka.

“Yes, Commander.”

Nigel Shirazi was staying on the station, Prime Base, so he was the first to arrive. Next was Jim Cartwright, who took a shuttle from Upsilon, minus his little friend. Last was Sansar, as she’d expected. The commander of the Golden Horde had that semi-vacant look on her face which meant she was using her pinplants. All three had their XOs with them as well.

“As I’m sure Sansar already knows, we have intel from Earth,” Alexis said, starting the meeting. “I’ve analyzed the fleet disposition in the system, and regrettably it hasn’t changed overall. While there’s only one battleship present now, they added a pair of fleet carriers and additional cruiser squadrons.” She didn’t comment that the racial disposition had changed. All the Izlian ships were gone. That was interesting.

“My people on Earth have been keeping it difficult for Peepo,” Sansar said with a predatory grin. “It looks like the Merc Guild is finding it hard to bring humanity under its control. My suspicion that they want us to work for them has gained some credence; they’re trying to get volunteers to join as unified mercs and are working on restarting Binnig’s factories.”

“They want CASPers?” Nigel asked, surprise obvious on his face.

“Makes sense,” Jim said. “The powered combat armor gave us the edge, so Peepo wants them for her side.”

“The Raknar on Capital,” Walker said from where he stood behind Sansar. There were nods around the table. Jim Cartwright had an evil grin on his face, making Alexis wonder what was going on behind them.

“There’s more,” Sansar said. “Thanks to our Pendal sources, we’ve discovered Peepo’s next move.” Everyone leaned forward expectantly, watching her. “They’re moving against the Human colonies.”

“Bastards,” Nigel snarled.

“No, it makes sense,” Sansar said.

“What good does that do?” Jim asked. “I mean, there are only a small handful of merc companies based in the colonies. Surely they aren’t a threat.”

“Extortion,” Alexis said.

Jim’s eyes widened. “She’d hold them hostage?”

“She did try to have me killed,” Sansar reminded their youngest member. He looked down and nodded. Clearly he wasn’t as comfortable with naked violence as the rest of them had become accustomed to. Alexis felt a little pity for him. She feared by the end of this, he’d be far more jaded. She continued, “Peepo is planning to send six fleets after as many colonies. However, she’s not mustering them out of Earth. Instead, they’ve established a forward operations base, a FOB, in the Golara system.”

“There’s not much there,” Sansar said. “Last time I was in-system, it was just a small industrial facility above a planet with no intelligent life.”

“It does have an old shipyard that is pretty extensive,” Alexis said. “It’s been there many years. When the facility in Nogola came online several hundred years ago, though, it became obsolete.” The conference room’s Tri-V came online to display the Golara graphics. “The yard went through a few hands, but ended up being used by pirates mostly. We did an operation for the Peacemakers in my mother’s time to clean out a group. After that, it was largely abandoned again.

“Peepo apparently considered it ideal,” she said. “And, considering it’s in the dead center of the eleven recognized Human colonies, I have to agree. We didn’t consider it of any real use, so I haven’t gotten any intel on it for years. My mistake.” Alexis shook her head, then shrugged. “Peepo has been stockpiling materials there for several years. As soon as she decided her covert campaign against us had failed, she began gathering fleet assets there, too.”

“How long has she been planning this?” Nigel asked.

“A long time,” Sansar said. “I don’t know how we missed it.”

“Maybe she’s just that good,” Jim said, “and we’d better be careful about underestimating her.” Alexis nodded. Jim might be young and a bit squeamish about fighting, but he wasn’t lacking in the brains department. She used her pinplants to pull up more details on the FOB.

“The conquest of the colonies might seem like a soft target to Peepo, but she’s not taking into account humanity’s natural tenacity. As you all know, most aliens will just roll over when faced with a no-win scenario.”

“Not the spiders,” Jim said.

“Or the MinSha,” Nigel added.

“As I said, most,” Alexis said.

“With Earth lost, they expect the colonies to fall with little to no resistance,” Sansar said. “I believe they’re in for a surprise. Pendal-provided intel shows they have a pair of brand new manufactories on the planet below the shipyard. Coupled with remote robotic mining systems to keep the shipyard supplied with raw materials, the manufactories are producing munitions for Peepo’s armies. They have a lot of troopers staged on the planet, and some in temporary housing on the space station. However, the garrisons are not extensive.”

“You’re thinking of hitting Golara,” Nigel said.

“Damn,” Jim said.

“With their fleets out to capture the colonies, their space assets will be thin there,” Alexis said, “and this presents us with an outstanding opportunity. An opportunity with an expiration date. That ass-kicking I gave the Izlians a few months ago included killing Admiral Omega, and the Izlians went home with their tentacles between their legs. They say it’s to honor Omega, but I think they didn’t like being mauled in a stand-up fight. So the Maki have moved into the gap, but they were intended to be mostly defensive. Now, those defenses are minimal. They’ve kept a sizeable force at Earth, but here at Golara we have a good chance.”

“But what about the colonies?” Nigel asked. “New Persia!”

“Yes,” Alexis said. “That does present a problem. The new Mk 9 CASPer is under construction there. In fact, Excalibur left for New Persia just a day ago, escorting the transport Capricorn to pick up the first load of suits.”

“They won’t stand a chance against a fleet,” Jim said.

“Correct,” Alexis said. “They’ll have to run if there’s one in-system…and pray the stargate’s clear. But your analysts don’t think that’s a primary target, right Sansar?”

“No,” Sansar said. “My analysts think they’ll go for the larger colonies for the best impact. A couple even have a few good-sized merc units. Peepo will consider those twofers. New Persia is likely far down the list. Once Excalibur and Capricorn are back, we’ll hopefully be done at Golara and can then afford to send a better defensive fleet.”

“The icing on the cake is this,” Alexis said. The Tri-V showed the zero-G shipyard with two big shapes in it. “Peepo must have figured since the assets were there, why not use them? Those are two battleships under construction, and they’re nearly complete. The Winged Hussars never went in for battleships, as they’re too slow for our tactics.” Her smile held a savage edge. “If we can take them intact, though, maybe it’s time for a slight change?”

“You’re gambling a lot of Human lives,” Jim said, “and it seems on thin odds.”

“We are,” Sansar said, glancing at Alexis, “but I think the odds are better than that. Besides, we need a win, and taking Golara would be a huge win.”

“And a major setback for Peepo,” Nigel added.

“Exactly,” Alexis said. “Sansar says she wasn’t too bothered by the loss of the Izlians. She figures they’ll be back. If we take Golara, get a good highguard in place, and are ready, we can kick some serious ass on any newly-arriving fleet elements. Like some space squids coming back from saying bye-bye to their great Admiral Omega.”

“After we have Golara,” Sansar said, “it won’t take as many forces to hold it. Then we go relieve the colonies. Take any back that we have to.”

“A win would be good,” Nigel agreed.

“What about all the alien mercs on Golara?” Jim asked. “If we take the objective, what happens to them?”

“Kill them,” Nigel said with a shrug. Jim looked more than a little shocked at the suggestion.

“Only if they fight,” Sansar said. “Those who surrender, we strip of gear and send home. Word will spread.”

“I like that,” Jim said, snapping his fingers. “What did they used to call it? Hearts and minds?”

“Exactly,” Alexis said, smiling. “We have to be like Peepo and play the long game. The more merc races we treat fairly, even when we have reason to be vengeful, the more who will not like how we’re being treated.” She looked around the room. “The other Human mercs have all agreed to follow our lead. I propose we form a task force and take Golara. How do we vote?”

It was unanimous; humanity would strike back.

* * *

“A bold plan, commander,” Paka said as the meeting broke up, “and one I think has a good chance of success.”

“I agree,” Alexis said. “I want you to start working on the fleet composition for the fight.” Her Veetanho XO nodded. “Keep in mind, some of the Human forces don’t have sufficient space assets. We need to be fast and nimble for this.”

“Yes, Commander.”

Alexis glanced at Paka. “I wasn’t expecting to have you in this capacity anymore,” she said.

“I don’t know what you mean, Commander.”

“I expected you to be the new commanding officer of Phaeton. I want top-notch Hussars at the helm of the new Egleesius-class ships we brought back from 2nd Level Hyperspace. You’ve been my XO on Pegasus for 10 years. I didn’t expect you to pass up a promotion.”

“I belong at your side,” Paka said. She looked a little uncomfortable.

“You’re ready for your own command,” Alexis insisted.

“Not one that big. Those ships are vital.”

“Who better?” Alexis persisted. “You’ve been the XO of our only Egleesius for half your career. You were 3rd officer on the carrier Wyvern for a year, then XO on the cruiser Sir Barton. Come on, Paka, you’re ready.”

“After this war,” Paka said, turning to look up at her commanding officer. “I can’t do it now.”

“I should order you to,” Alexis said, her eyes flashing. She wasn’t used to people pushing back.

“You can’t,” Paka reminded her. “Everyone is on edge about my people as it is. How would it look to the other Human mercs if you put a Veetanho in charge of a ship like that? The Egleesius are likely to end up in command of task forces. That could cause unnecessary friction.” Alexis chewed her bottom lip, then gave a little nod. “I am honored, Commander, but let’s do it later, when it’s more appropriate.”

“Okay, my friend,” Alexis said, patting her on the shoulder. “Get to work on the fleet arrangements. Start mobilizing the personnel required. Oh, and inform Commander Kowalczy that he’ll be in command here. I’m leading the fleet myself.”

“I rather expected that,” Paka said, her whiskers twitching in amusement. “May I ask who you chose for Phaeton?”

“Lieutenant Commander Jormungd has been promoted to commander and made captain of Phaeton.”

“An interesting choice,” Paka said. “She is the only Kaa with the Winged Hussars.” Alexis nodded; she was all too aware of that. But the big snake-like race were naturals in space, even if they weren’t a merc race. They had bunches of tentacles for hands, which made them particularly adept pilots, too…they just didn’t mix with other races well. Jormungd was an outlier of her race in a number of ways. She loved combat and was reasonably tolerant of other races, if a bit aloof.

“She’ll do fine,” Alexis said. “Her record as commanding officer of Hrunting and XO of Hippogriff was flawless.”

“As you say, Commander,” Paka said. “I’ll get to work on the fleet assignments.” Alexis nodded, and her XO left.



Has your analysis of our probability of success in Golara changed?

<Yes,> the AI responded. <With cooperation of the other Horsemen, it is now up to 29%.>

Alexis grunted. Like Jim Cartwright had said, thin odds. She hadn’t shared Ghost’s insights with the rest of the Horsemen. She smiled ruefully, thinking about the AI. She and Sansar had shared a rather heated argument concerning the other commander’s decision to uplift the SalSha, which was one of many charges against the Golden Horde when Sansar had been taken to Capital and tried. It was the only one they were guilty of.

And how much of a hypocrite are you for having an AI? she asked herself. That was another of the few Galactic Union laws that were actually enforced.

<I represent a unique situation.> Ghost said, obviously listening in on Alexis’ private thoughts. <You didn’t make me; your ancestors found me.>

Ghost was right, naturally. Her grandfather had found Ghost when he’d salvaged Pegasus, way back during Earth’s Alpha Contracts. Of course, since then, and long before Alexis was born, the Winged Hussars researchers had tried to duplicate Ghost. They’d spent millions of credits funding other organizations’ research into artificial intelligence as well. All of it was wasted. Ghost was unable to duplicate herself. She’d always insisted it was outside her abilities.

Still, the AI was an incredibly powerful asset. Besides being able to program exceptionally adept drones, she could also make incredible predictions in combat. More importantly, she replaced the ship’s hyperspace computer, effectively allowing them to emerge anywhere in a star system instead of the predesignated emergence point. Ghost explained it was a particularly interesting process to do that. Something that involved Tri-D, but she’d never explained what Tri-D was. Those abilities made her inability to reproduce the AI all the more frustrating.

How’s the construction of the Avengers coming?

<Manufactory 2 has ten in production, and two have been completed based on the updated design provided by Taiki Sato. Lieutenant Colonel Walker is currently conducting tests with the SalSha. The newly uplifted beings are proving adept in operating the craft, but time will be needed for training. They will not be ready to field them for the assault on Golara. In fact, including them reduces your odds.>

She grunted and thanked the AI. She sometimes wished she could switch off her channel to the machine, just like she wished she could forget whose body it was living inside of. Unfortunately, both situations were not going to change any time soon.

* * *

Avenger One, Winged Hussars Prime Base, New Warsaw System

“Easy…” Lieutenant Colonel Walker said over the intercom as Ensign Thorb pulled the brand new Avenger-class bomber out from where it had been parked. Unfortunately, before they could move it to the new squadron spaces, the second bomber off Manufactory #2’s production line had been completed and parked directly behind it, with other craft located above and below it. While Thorb had assured Walker there was plenty of room for him to get the first Avenger out, he had neglected to mention that “plenty of room” was less than what the computer had determined was an acceptable safe distance, and the warning tone had gone off continuously. When it switched from “Collision Possible” to “Collision Imminent,” though, it really got his attention.

“Easy,” he said again, watching the monitor. He couldn’t see any space between the two bombers and really didn’t want to start his day by wrecking both of the new craft. “Easy!...Easy!...Shit! I hate it when you do that!” Once Thorb had determined he was clear, he had applied power, massively, to Avenger One and rocketed off. “Slow down, dammit!” he added. “We’re still within the confines of the shipyard.”

“What?” Thorb asked innocently. “I could tell I was clear.” The member of an aquatic otter-analogue race, Thorb was used to negotiating objects in three dimensions. He was also far more risk-tolerant than Walker.

“Look, I know you probably don’t fully understand what an asset this bomber is, or how many credits it cost to produce—”

“Fifteen million, two hundred seventy-five thousand and fifty-eight credits,” Thorb interrupted, “and some change. Give or take. That’s what the production manual said, anyway.”

“And I suppose you actually took the time to read the production manual?” Walker asked, grumpily.

“I did,” Thorb said. “That’s how I know it can do…this!” He snapped it into a roll that slapped Walker’s helmeted head into the canopy. “This is one of the most maneuverable bombers known. It can do 1,080 degrees per second—that’s three full revolutions!”

Walker grunted as he tried to clear the stars from his vision. Even though he had a helmet on, the impact with the canopy had been unexpected and violent. “Yeah, let’s not do that again, huh? At least warn me next time?”

“Just trying to get the feel for it,” the SalSha said, not sounding at all repentant. “This is almost better than swimming,” he added. “It’s too bad we didn’t fill the cockpit with water—then we could have done some really high-g maneuvering.” The bomber was built to fly with the cockpit in air or flooded; when flooded, the SalSha could pull enough Gs to not only knock Walker unconscious, but also to permanently damage him if it went on too long.

Knowing Thorb, Walker had vetoed the flooded cockpit option on general principle. While the SalSha wouldn’t have done anything to intentionally hurt him…sometimes Thorb’s “play” got a little rough—like the previous roll—and he still had another flight to do with one of the other SalSha when he got back from the current flight. He needed to see about borrowing some of the Winged Hussars flight instructors, or he was going to be perpetually black and blue. He certainly wasn’t going to let two SalSha out alone…not anytime soon.

“All right,” Walker said after a few minutes, “we’re clear of the shipyard. Let’s proceed to the target asteroid.”

With a thought, Thorb flipped the ship upside down and initiated an eight-G pull. Definitely going to need some Hussars flight instructors, Walker thought when he woke up again.

* * *

Winged Hussars Prime Base, New Warsaw System

Colonel Alexis Cromwell looked at the Tri-V in her office displaying the task force she’d assembled and whistled.

“That’s a hell of a fleet,” the second in command of the Winged Hussars mercenary company, Lech Kowalczy, said.

“It’s the largest the Winged Hussars has ever fielded,” she said. He glanced at her curiously. “I checked. Sixty-three ships, not including dropships and other merc ships. Still, it’s hardly a decent-sized task force to the Izlians or the Maki.”

“They’re not expecting you,” Kowalczy said.

“We’re counting on that,” Paka reminded him. “If we transition into Golara, and there’s a squadron of Maki battleships there…”

“Yeah, I know,” Alexis said. “I’d really like to have Nuckelavee in addition to Shadowfax.”

“Last report from the yard was that all three reactors on Nuckelavee are toast. They’ve started fabricating replacements.”

“That’ll take days,” she said. Of course, Alexis was well aware of the status for her fourth new Egleesius-class battlecruiser. Along with Shadowfax, Phaeton, and Arion, they accounted for a massive increase in firepower for the Winged Hussars. The Egleesius-class was a relic of the Great Galactic War. They hadn’t been made in 20,000 years, which was part of the reason they were so effective in combat. They had the firepower of a battlecruiser, the profile of a cruiser, the shields of a heavy cruiser, and an incredibly powerful spinal-mounted particle accelerator cannon. Pegasus had been a nasty surprise to countless adversaries for a century. Often a fatal surprise.

“Still,” Alexis said, “Shadowfax is ready.”

“Captain Elizabeth Stacy is a very competent commander,” Kowalczy said. Alexis had watched Stacy come up through the command school not long after she’d graduated herself. After she’d served as TacCom on the carrier Phoenix, Alexis’ mother had moved Stacy to second in command of the frigate Empress Jito. Her first command was the cruiser Gallant Fox, followed by Sleipnir two years earlier. When Alexis found herself with four more Egleesius ships, Stacy had been second on her list for the command of one. Right behind Paka.

“Oh, Lech, that reminds me.”


“I’ve decided; when Nuckelavee comes online, I want you to take her.”

“I…” he clearly hesitated, “I’m honored, but I really like Alicorn.

“Sure you do. I liked her, too, when she was mine. You’re second in command of the Winged Hussars. I need you in an Egleesius. The Steed-class are damned fine ships. Better than fine. I helped design them, after all. But they’re not Egleesius. Plan on it when we get back?” He nodded, though it was obvious he wasn’t happy. “Fleet status?” Alexis asked her two chief subordinates.

 “We’ve completed replenishment operations,” Paka stated. “All ships have full stores of reaction mass, F11 above 70 percent, consumables on board, and full magazines.” Alexis nodded. “The carrier Chimera took a little extra time. It was on a down cycle and not on the mission log. We’re positioning ships now.”

“Crew are almost onboard,” Kowalczy said. “With that many ships in the field, we’ve had to staff around 9% of positions with new graduates or members with less than a year of service with the Hussars.”

“Suboptimal,” Alexis said. Kowalczy spread his hands in a helpless gesture. “Okay, I understand.”

“We’re coming up short on marines,” he added. “I spoke with Commander Earl, he says his unit isn’t ready to deploy. Bert’s Bees’ combat losses at Karma were fairly high. KIA weren’t bad, but injuries were. He’s at half strength.”

“Never a good idea to split up a unit,” Alexis agreed. She had an idea. “Tell you what, assign them to Phaeton. Since they’re with us for the duration, we’ll be using the Egleesius more often than not. This gives them a chance to get used to the floorplan.”

Pegasus had undergone a number of modifications over the century the Hussars had used her. Some as a matter of necessity, others through expediency. Alexis had spent more than a few hours looking them over. She and her sister had played in Pegasus’ bowels as little kids. Touring the unmodified version was strange. A section of corridor would be identical to her ship, then an entire area would be different. Proportions had a lot to do with it. The Egleesius weren’t designed for Humans. The doors were too short and overly wide.

When she’d brought them home, the first order of business had been to make the new ships fully functional. All had seen combat; the one they’d named Nuckelavee more than the others. Battle damage was repaired. Next was the interior layout. Robots did a lot of that quicker than Humans or most aliens could. Finally came weapons. The Hussars had reduced the Egleesius’ forward and rear laser armament, replacing it with missile launchers, which fit their tactical doctrine better. The Hussars’ missiles were far superior to most. Phaeton and Arion were almost done. Almost. Gravity decks would have to wait until the war was over.

“You’re not leaving me much here,” Kowalczy said.

“You’ll have more once the other two Egleesius are operational,” Paka said.

“I’m leaving the Night Birds, too,” Alexis said. “They got a little chewed up in the breakout at Karma. Your Alicorn, cruisers Seattle Slew and American Pharoah, and frigates Tizona and Osman.” She looked around at them. “We all know if they find New Warsaw, it’s game over.” The other two nodded. “It’ll be sufficient. Prepare to deploy the fleet.”

The two officers acknowledged her orders and took their leave. Alexis walked over to the big window in her office and looked out. The station made a full rotation every three minutes to provide the three-quarters gravity onboard. Half the time, the planet was visible outside her window, with its dark landscapes and watery surface. It was a cold, dark place, but it was home to thousands of her people. The rest of the time she could see the shipyards around Prime Base, along with the materials yards and service facilities.

The stretched-cigar-shapes of the Egleesius-class ships were distinctive, even from many kilometers away. She still wasn’t used to seeing more than one. Four now floated in the staging area near Prime Base. Another was in the lattice-like web of an orbital shipyard: Nuckelavee. Then there were another two similar shapes a little further away—those were enigmas. They’d found all six ships together in 2nd Level Hyperspace.

She picked up a slate and looked at the request. After completing the modifications on the bomber prototypes now called Avengers and getting them into production, Sato was formally requesting permission to begin examining the two odd Egleesius ships. Identical in shape and size, the ships appeared to be missing any offensive armament other than an oversized spinal mount. They had four fusion torches instead of three, which suggested more speed. They had their shield emitters and possessed hyperspace shunts, like Pegasus, so they’d be able to enter hyperspace without a stargate. However, there was no sign of a hyperspace generator.

To complete the list of strangeness, the ships lacked airlocks at the four docking points they shared in common with the others of their class. What the hell are they, anyway? For a change, Ghost remained silent, just as she had ever since they’d discovered the two enigmatic ships. She sighed and typed an order, thinking she’d probably regret it.

“Sato, you have permission to investigate one of the two unusual Egleesius-class ships. You may not do more than examine the ship’s systems without first consulting with Kleena.” She hoped the elSha head of the team could keep him under control, but she rather doubted it. Still, Sato tended to listen to Kleena and wasn’t known to go dangerously off the rails. She shrugged; maybe he’d find out what the ships were for? She sent the order.

* * *

Jim waited as Splunk talked for a couple moments with Sly. He’d been trying to catch snippets of their speech and record it for analysis, mostly without success. He’d had precious little time the last few days to visit Upsilon, being fully occupied managing the Cavaliers aboard Bucephalus. The Hussars were more than generous with ordnance and consumables. It was clear that, after her initial hesitation, Alexis Cromwell was now in it to win it. Good thing, too. Without her fleet, they had absolutely zero hope.

Splunk finished her consultation and raced over to the waiting Raknar, flying up the side like a bullet. The interior of Upsilon wasn’t quite zero gravity. The asteroid base carried a fractional gravity of 0.01G; just enough for things to float to the floor. You could jump off a 50 foot ledge and only be going 17.6 feet per second. He shook his head, 5.4 meters per second. He needed to get rid of that old American habit. The Hussars used metric, anyway.

Splunk sailed into the cockpit, slapping the close control as she flew past. Much larger and more complicated than a CASPer, the 30-meter-tall machine’s chest area was made of overlaid and interleaved armor sections. It opened a little like origami to allow access to the cockpit, which was itself large enough for several grown men. Jim was already in the complicated harnesses which helped translate his actions into the movements of the war machine.

“All good?” he asked her as she settled onto the shelf behind his head.

“All good Jim, <Skee!>”

When he’d flown over in preparation for the fleet deployment, Splunk had told him Sly had two of the Raknar he’d pilfered from the KzSha operational. Sly assured him the Fae would have the rest up and running in a few months. Of course, then the real work would begin. Jim put that off for now.

The biggest surprise he’d had upon returning was to find his personal Raknar, Dash, had received a thorough going over. His former girlfriend had managed, with Splunk’s help, to get the machine into working shape. The brigade of Fae had gone over it from top to bottom. They’d even given it a new Cavalier’s blue paint job, retaining the insignia and name “Jim Cartwright – Commander” on the chest, complete with its trademark rainbow swoosh.

“The Raknar looks fantastic,” Jim said as he finished the power-up sequence. The machine’s fusion core began to thrum as megawatts of power flowed through the systems. Displays filled with pulsing liquid began glowing, and some of the liquid flowed through tubes like an old Earth sci-fi film from the 1950s. That had been hard to get used to. When he’d first seen the goo, he’d thought it was a fungus invading the machine, not part of its mechanisms. Biologically conductive fungus, his science-minded people had explained it. When properly energized, superconductive, actually. He was pretty sure the stuff was one of the main reasons nobody else in the Union had been able to operate the machines after the Great Galactic War. A vial of it was in Dr. Taiki Sato’s office, awaiting analysis.

“Jim, <Akee>” Splunk said.

“Akee,” he agreed. She reached out and touched his pinplants. There was a lurching feeling of being pulled from his body, and then he was the Raknar. The Fae was the other reason nobody’d figured the Raknars out. It took a symbiont. He needed to talk to a Lumar.

No longer looking at the bay through monitors on the inside of the cockpit, he saw it directly through the Raknar’s sensors as if they were his own eyes. Furthermore, all of the giant mech’s sensors built a 3D image in his brain. The power was intoxicating. He wanted to go destroy something. The fleet is waiting. Damn it.

“Let’s go,” he said, before orienting and gently pushing off. The 30-meter machine floated down the huge hallway as another door closed behind him. He was aware the corridor’s atmosphere was being evacuated at the same time automated systems within the Raknar prepared it for operating in space.

He didn’t know if he’d need the war machine in the Golara assault. However, Bucephalus had the room, so he was bringing it along. His second in command, Hargrave, thought it a bit crazy, but rank had its privileges. After seeing what he’d done with it during the assault on Karma, few doubted it could turn the tide of battle in a most spectacular manner. Also, Jim wasn’t going to admit it, but strapping the armor on was better than sex.

The Raknar floated past the entrance to a lock made to the Raknar’s scale. He unconsciously used tiny puffs of built-in attitude jets to maintain his spacing from the walls. The door slid closed behind him, and the one in front opened to show him the vastness of space.

“Oh, yeah,” he said as he flew clear. He automatically knew when he was a safe distance from Upsilon. At that point, he set the reactor to peak output, opened the thrust ports on his back and legs, and fed reaction mass through the fusion power plant. With an explosion of pure light and energy, Dash accelerated at eight Gs. “Wooohoo!” he exulted. Isolated from his body by the bonding experience, Jim Cartwright was unaware he was now cocooned in the glowing, pulsing ooze which filled the various cavities, tubes, and chambers of the Raknar’s heart. He felt none of the effects of acceleration.

“Cartwright Actual to Bucephalus, I am inbound.”

Bucephalus Actual to Cartwright Actual,” came the accented English of his ship’s commanding officer, Captain Kim Su. “There is no urgent need for speed, Commander.” Jim continued to ride the atomic fire. The Fae had done an incredible job. If the previous times he’d fought the Raknar had been incredible, it now felt beyond words. He felt like a god! “Sir, you are coming in awfully fast.”

“Jim.” He laughed at their concern. “Jim!” It was Hargrave, his XO. “Damn it, slow down!”

He came partially back to himself. Dash was travelling at just over seven kilometers per second. Yeah, he’d overdone it a bit. Bucephalus was looming huge, 59 kilometers distant. He flipped Dash over, giving a slight five-G burst for a one second push off-center, then he was positioned feet-first toward the rapidly-approaching ship. Distance 45 kilometers, ETA six seconds. Calculations were performed in a split second.

The Raknar’s legs locked together, arms boomed as they aligned flat against its torso, and nuclear flame flared. Jim felt it this time, his world blurring into a red mist. Then, with a gasp, the thrust was gone, and they were floating almost perfectly stationary next to Bucephalus.

“Captain Su,” he said, “permission to dock.”

“G-granted,” she said, a stammer evident from the usually unflappable captain.

Jim used the Raknar’s attitude thrusters to maneuver over and attach to the side of his command ship. The formerly clean cylindrical shape of the Akaga-class cruiser was now a little lopsided. Splunk took her hands away, and he hurt.

“Ouch, fuck!” he hissed. It felt like someone had punched him in the back of the head ninety-five times. All the strap points holding him in the cockpit hurt, too. “What the hell happened?” He glanced at Splunk who looked a little worse for wear. Even in zero G, her long ears were drooping.

“Push too hard, <Pree!>

“I did?” he asked, thinking back to the red misty sensation. He hadn’t even thought about it; he’d just done it. I could have killed myself. She reached over and patted his head. It was a strange kind of thing for her to do, and for some reason came off to him as a little condescending. “Come on,” he said. “We better get aboard.”

A few minutes later the airlock cycled, and the inner door slid open. Jim began undogging his space suit. There was no direct connection between Dash and Bucephalus. That had proven impossible in the short time they’d had. He was about to step out when he realized there were three people floating just inside the ship. They all wore space suits, and two had bright red crosses on their suit’s shoulders. They looked just as surprised to see him as he was to see them.

“Hi?” he asked, and finished removing his helmet. One of the three slammed his helmet visor up, and he was looking at the furious face of Lieutenant Colonel Hargrave, his XO.

“How are you even alive?” he demanded. “And what the fuck was that all about?”

“Alive? What? I was just having fun.” The two others quickly ditched their own helmets and gloves and began helping Jim out of his suit like he was a combat casualty. “What are you doing?” he asked, trying to fend them off. Splunk chirped indignantly inside his suit’s torso as they struggled to get him out of it. “Would you stop it!” he finally yelled. “I’m fine.”

One of the medics had a test lead hooked to Jim’s neck and was checking his vitals. “No sign of major trauma,” the man said. Splunk got free finally, hopped over to grab a handhold, and glared at the medics.

“I guess I pushed it a little too hard.”

“Too hard?” Hargrave demanded. “Too hard?! Kid, you pulled more than 60 Gs on that approach.” Jim laughed at that, then saw the expression on his face.

“You can’t be serious; I’d be dead.”

“Exactly,” one of the other medics said. “You have a little damage.”

“Where?” he asked. The medic held up a mirror, and Jim looked at his face. Red splotches were all over his chin line, and the bottoms of his eyes were turning red. Holy fuck!

“Sir, I want to give you a general nanite treatment.”

“Sure,” he managed to say. The needle went in, and he gasped from the pain as the little microscopic robots raced into his bloodstream, looking for damage.

“Is he going to make it?” Hargrave asked.

“Sir, the fact that he’s floating here alive should be impossible. It looks like he might have been in a car crash. You know, took a quick 50-G hit from an airbag? But aside from that, the medical nanites aren’t finding anything more than some capillary damage.” One of the medics looked up at Splunk. She narrowed her eyes and showed pointy teeth, so he kept his hands to himself.

“Okay,” Hargrave said finally. “We need to get to the CIC. You two stand down.”

“We’ll monitor him remotely with the nanites,” the medic said. “They’ll remain active for a few more hours.”

“Come on,” Hargrave said and gestured toward the CIC. “We’re transiting out of the system in less than an hour. By the way, you might just wish you had turned yourself into strawberry jam.”

“Why’s that?” Jim asked.

“Because Captain Su is mad enough to piss plasma. You missed Bucephalus by less than 100 meters.”

* * *

“There they go,” Thorb said. The stargate flashed as the first warship went through.

“Yeah,” Walker said, sighing.

“What’s wrong?” Thorb asked. “It’s exciting, right? The biggest fleet humanity has ever assembled, going off to war against the great evil that is oppressing us. It’s like when a grahp is waiting outside your den, and a war party swims out from another exit to lead it away.”

“A grahp?”

“Yeah the big monsters you fought on my planet before we met.”

“Oh. Those.” Walker remembered the monsters, and having to fight them without using their CASPers because they’d died all of a sudden. One of the huge, multi-tentacled creatures had picked up and tossed a 1,000-pound CASPer into the ocean like a Human skipped a rock in a terrestrial lake. He’d never get that picture out of his head.

“It’s dangerous, but necessary for the group, right?” Thorb asked.

“Yes, it’s both dangerous and necessary. It appears to be a great opportunity, but they won’t know what it really is until they get there. Maybe we’ve been fed bad intelligence data, and Peepo’s forces are waiting there en masse to destroy that fleet.”

“That would be…bad.” Thorb paused and then added, “Sometimes when you toy with the grahp, the grahp grabs you instead.”

“What do you do then?”

“We merge our colony with another one and start over,” Thorb said. The ease with which he said it indicated that group wipeouts must happen all too frequently.

“If that happens to us, though, our resistance as a race is pretty much over. We don’t have other colonies to merge with—we’re about to lose what colonies we do have, and none of the other races have indicated they’d merge with us to stand up to the Merc Guild.”

“Then your forces should be careful not to lose. You need to send your best warriors…” His voice trailed off as he realized why his friend appeared sad. “You are distressed because the fleet is going off with most of your friends and allies, to fight a battle that could lose the war for you, and you are not able to stand with them.”

“Something like that, yeah.”

“You needn’t worry,” Thorb said with a smile.

“Why is that?”

“If they win, the war is not over, and our unit will be needed in order to win it. The time spent here, training us, will be an investment that earns many shells in return. We will be ready when we are called upon.”

“And if they lose the battle?”

“Then we will still be around to claim vengeance on the forces that killed them.”

* * * * *

Chapter Three

Winged Hussars Geek Central, Prime Base, New Warsaw System

Taiki Sato love his job, most of the time. As the youngest child of Hinata Sato, renowned Japanese physicist and owner of Sato Intergalactic, he’d struggled to find his niche on Earth. Despite the fact he’d succeeded at everything he tried in life, he was never allowed to go his own way. Japanese culture had evolved since the 21st century, and children were no longer required to follow in their parents’ bootsteps; however, they were required to pick a course for their lives at quite a young age. His problem was he didn’t want to pick just one career. All science captivated his incredible mind.

At the age of 16, Taiki obtained his first doctorate in chemistry. The day after his 18th birthday, he was awarded his second, in physics. He won a Nobel Prize at 22 in economics for his work on Earth’s integration into the Galactic Union economy. In the week before the award ceremony in Oslo, he obtained his CPA license in Tokyo. The Nobel Prize proved a watershed moment for him, because the award money had set him free. A month after receiving the award, he packed a case with a few personal items and left Earth forever.

The intervening decades saw him traveling to the far reaches of the galaxy. He made credits where and when he could, usually through odd jobs involving tech modifications. In just a few months, he’d mastered all the basics of Union technology and was quickly expanding his knowledge into less well-known areas. One of the first was pinplants.

Foremost among his skills was his ability to understand the way technologies interconnected and how to get them to work together to improve each other. He quickly realized how much pinplants would augment his own abilities, but he was just as quickly stymied, because pinplant technology hadn’t been adapted to Humans.

Of all the sciences, Taiki had realized early on that biology and medicine weren’t ones that interested him. While no science was beyond his ability, they were beyond his interest. He didn’t want to admit it was because medicine was just too…variable. The mind of Taiki Sato liked things he could lock down. Medical technology took him down a rabbit hole of variation. In a moment of rare clarity, he decided it was all or nothing. He either mastered medicine, or it mastered him. He won out in the end.

He worked in exchange for services with a small bio-pharmacy firm on Earth called Avander and a technology development company off-planet. The latter was operated by a staff of three—two elSha technicians and a Wrogul he gave the nickname Nemo. The Wrogul had some fascinating abilities, which almost caused Taiki to question his decision not to study medicine. It took a few years—more than a few years, actually—but he finally got what he wanted. They perfected the biological interface for cerebral implant technology in Humans.

Armed with pinplants, he delved even deeper into the sciences. For years, he chased every hard science subject being researched in the corners of the Union. Everything from particle physics to starship engineering. Everything he studied led him closer and closer to the ultimate temple of science—the Union Science Guild.

Unlike every other guild headquarters, the Science Guild wasn’t on Capital. It was on a small moon in a different star system, with the entire planetary body hollowed out into a catacomb of data storage devices, warehouses with unique developments, and laboratories. By the time he got there, he’d built it up in his mind to be sacred ground. Finally, he’d test the limits of the universal knowledge. Only, that wasn’t what happened.

When Taiki left in disappointment less than a year later, he wandered again for a brief time. He almost returned home to Earth, getting as close as Karma. It was there he was recruited by, of all things, a mercenary company.

“You do scientific research?” he asked the recruiter.

“Of course,” the woman said, “if you have the cred.” Taiki bowed slightly and offered his Yack. An hour later, he was hired and whisked away to the hidden base of the Winged Hussars. There he’d stayed ever since, given most of the latitude he wanted to pursue whatever science interested him. Mostly. It frustrated him when they didn’t. Like now.

Sato hurried into the commander’s office only to find it empty. That brought him up short. “Where is she?” he asked Alexis’ assistant.

“Commander Cromwell deployed a few hours ago.”

“Well,” he said, shaking his head, “that’s terribly inconvenient.” The assistant stared at him. “It’s this order,” he said, holding out the slate.

“I’m aware of the order, Mr. Sato.”

“She can’t limit me like that,” he complained. “It’s not…reasonable.”

“Would you like to talk to Commander Kowalczy?”

“He’s even less reasonable,” Sato said darkly. She shrugged, and he barged back out.

Sato wandered around Prime Base for a while, dedicating all his considerable mental capacity to his dilemma. The commander had ordered him to do no more than examine the systems on those curious ships. He wanted to do much more than examine. This was the part of his job he hated. Bosses.

“Hi, Sato!” He looked up to see one of the Hussars’ medical staff, Dr. Gorge Ramirez, walking toward him. “You’re a long way from Geek Central, aren’t you?”

“I wanted to see Commander Cromwell,” he mumbled.

“She left with most of the fleet a few hours ago,” Ramirez replied. Sato ground his teeth. “Took most of my staff with her, too. Is there anything I can help with?”

“Can you override her orders?”

“No,” he chuckled. “I’m in the chain of command, but not that high. You’d have to talk to Commander Kowalczy.”

“Yeah, I know that.”

“Why don’t you come in and have a cup of tea?” The doctor gestured, and Sato realized they were right outside the Hussars’ medical complex in Prime Base. He was momentarily confused, because Commander Cromwell’s office was three rings up.


“Tea?” Ramirez gestured again.

“Oh, yeah, sure,” Sato said and followed him in. They passed through the general waiting area, where a few people were waiting for routine care. With the fleet deployed, there were a lot fewer than there would have been normally. Sato didn’t really notice; he just followed Ramirez into the labs further back in the medical center. In a lab, the doctor held out a chair for him, and he sat. A glass of tea was put on the table, and he drank. It was Japanese tea and quite good.

“What’s the problem, Sato?” Without thinking he’d make matters worse, Sato explained.

“…and you see,” he finished, “those ships are 20,000 years old! The Union Science Guild is hiding key technologies from that era.”

“Hiding?” Ramirez asked.

“Those ships are living museums,” Sato continued, not hearing what Ramirez asked. “I’ve already seen a few examples from the other four ships, but they were largely cleaned up before we got them, probably by the same creatures that call 2nd Level Hyperspace home. The other ships? Those are different, for some reason. Very different. I don’t know what their purpose is. Weapons, I’m sure, but the architecture…”

“Is he well?”

Sato looked up to see the portable transport for an old friend. “Hello, Nemo,” he said. “Is who well?”

“Why, you, of course.” The translator on the side of the robotic tank spoke in perfect English, like most translators properly programmed. The Wrogul floating inside it was from an exotic race that looked like an octopus with too many legs and huge eyes. The liquid wasn’t water, either. Although the translator spoke in perfect English, the Wrogul’s thought patterns weren’t like Humans, so the translator was unable to render voice inflections or emotions. “Do you want me to check your brain for you?”

“Jesus, Nemo, give it a rest!” Ramirez exclaimed.

“Oh, he’s been in my brain many times,” Sato told the physician. “I’m fine, old friend. I’m just being blocked by the commander from doing what I want to do. Those ships—I need to get inside and examine them.”

“I didn’t think the commander’s orders forbid you to examine them, though,” Ramirez said.

“In order to properly examine the equipment, I need to be able to do things.”

“Properly?” Ramirez asked.

“You know, some systems work with other systems…” he gave a shrug.

“From my point of view,” Nemo said, “it would seem that the commander’s orders implied certain freedoms.”

“Really?” Sato asked, scratching his chin.

“Now hold on,” Ramirez said, holding up his hands. “Let’s not read anything into this.” Sato had a little smile on his face as he stood up and finished his tea. “Why don’t you sit down and we’ll talk a bit?”

“No, I’m good,” Sato said and headed for the door. Makes perfect sense now, he thought as he walked. “Thanks, Nemo.”

“No problem at all,” the Wrogul said as the scientist left.

Ramirez looked from the departing genius to his enigmatic alien counterpart and sighed. “Nemo, we need to talk about your excessively helpful attitude.”

“I don’t see how that’s a problem,” the Wrogul said.

Ramirez sighed. “Don’t you have something you need to be doing?”

The Wrogul floated in its tank for a moment, then rolled away. His race didn’t do overly well with formalities or the niceties of conversation, either. The tank rolled down the hall until it entered Nemo’s private lab, where dozens of tanks contained various organisms, body parts, and other things that would have confused or horrified most sane beings. All such things were interesting to Nemo. He particularly enjoyed the brains of all sorts of races.

At the end of a long row, he stopped and used the robot manipulators of his mobile home to move a tank full of fish aside. Nobody would be interested in those fish. They were from Nemo’s home world and were his food. Behind it was another tank.

He rolled a little closer, examining the contents of the tank. In his travels, he’d encountered some extremely amazing creatures. One was capable of reproducing carbon-based organisms, either the whole organism or a single organ. He’d used their abilities from time to time, though he’d never explained to anyone how he produced a genetically-identical body part. He simply took credit for that himself. Wrogul didn’t possesses a sense of shame. Or a sense of right and wrong, for that matter.

He examined the process and found it satisfactory. The Human brain was perfect, and almost completely formed. Another few weeks and it would be ready. More than anything, Nemo hated leaving projects half done.

* * *

Sato knew he wouldn’t have a lot of time. Gorge Ramirez was a thorough and talented physician, but he was also unflaggingly faithful to Commander Cromwell. It was an admirable trait, if it wasn’t causing him such a problem just then. Sooner or later, the good doctor would contact someone about the conversation they’d had, and then Sato’s fun would stop.

He walked into the set of labs he worked in, generally referred to as Geek Central, doing his best to look casual. Kleena looked up from a work bench with one of his independently-moving eyes, examined his employee, and then both eyes came around and narrowed.

“What are you up to, Sato?” he asked.

Damn it, Sato cursed inwardly. “Nothing,” he said and kept walking.

“Equiri shit,” Kleena said. “Are you heading out to that Egleesius-looking ship soon?”

“Planning on it,” Sato replied.

“Who have you been trying to convince to override the commander’s orders?”

“Everyone,” he admitted, coming to a stop.

“Taiki,” Kleena said and sighed with a hiss, “you can be a real pain in the ass.” Sato narrowed his eyes slightly. Had Ramirez not called his boss yet? “Will you just go do the preliminary examination, please? We need you back to start the test runs on the shield unit. Manufactory #3 will have it done in a week.” Sato felt hope surging.

“Okay, fine,” he said, trying his best to sound annoyed. “I’ll leave in the morning.”

“Good,” Kleena said and turned back to his work bench. The two Jeha members of the team, Thing 1 and Thing 2, were both positioning testing gear on the other side of the lab. They stopped and watched him go by with both their eyestalks. They’d had to clean up his messes more than once as well. “Brilliant, but dangerous” was their assessment of him.

Sato hurried out of their lab and down to his own. He had the most space of any of them, several thousand square feet, with rack after rack of components. His authorization within the Hussars’ supply chain allowed him to request unlimited amounts of almost anything. The commander had realized long ago that letting Sato have whatever equipment he wanted was generally harmless and often resulted in amazing results.

When he’d put in the requisition for a Mk 7 CASPer, the supply sergeant tasked with keeping the Geek Squad happy scratched his head in curiosity. Mk 7s were obsolete, to be sure, but there were 39 of them in New Warsaw’s inventory. Quite a few were in use by defensive units on ships, though 10 were spares. Most of them had been down-checked for issues too extensive to repair. Sato’s request insisted the CASPer be operational, though, and his authorization was valid, so one was shipped.

Sato moved to the back of his lab and pulled aside the curtain that kept the CASPer away from prying eyes. If anyone saw it, they would be quite curious about its design. He spent a quick 30 minutes going over everything, then pressed a control and watched it all fold up into a convenient carrying mode. That completed, he went off to work on other projects.

Several hours later, Thing 2 stuck his head in. “We’re going home for the night,” the Jeha said. “Kleena said to check on you.”

“You’ve checked,” Sato said. The Jeha looked at him for a second, his tentacles waving.

“You are correct. Farewell.” He left, and Sato smiled. Jeha were so literal. After a time, he got up and walked out of his lab. Acting like he was going around checking instruments, he toured the entire facility. Nobody else was there. Satisfied, he went back to his lab and brought several robots online. The utility bots picked up the packed CASPer and followed him as he took the back route to the nearest shuttle bay. His personal craft waited there.

Sato had learned to pilot a spaceship his first year away from Earth. It wasn’t difficult, really. After he’d gotten pinplants, it was beyond simple. He’d written all the automation subroutines for the Winged Hussars small craft the second day after he’d arrived. Now any Hussar with pinplants could fly a shuttle using coordinates and a command code. He had both.

“Shuttle 669, this is Prime Base flight control.”

“Shuttle 669,” Sato said. His pinplants reported he was five kilometers from his destination.

“Shuttle, flash your authorization please. You are entering restricted moorage.”

“Here’s my clearance,” he said and used his pinplants to transmit. The response came in just a second.

“You are cleared, Mr. Sato. Destination?”

“EG2,” he said. “Thank you.” Outside, he could see the unusual Egleesius closing. Both of them had temporary mooring modules hooked to their hulls. Since nobody had been inside them, the ship’s station-keeping systems weren’t functional. He’d picked #2 because it was in the best shape of the pair. Neither of them were in terrible condition, and the Hussars’ yard engineers said they were space worthy.

The shuttle was abreast of the ship, and Sato examined its 180-meter length. So like the Pegasus, especially this close up. Unlike the Pegasus, though, this one showed considerable unrepaired battle damage. Energy weapons had carved into its hull, leaving deep gouges, deeper than Pegasus could have survived. The much thicker armor was one of the first signs that the ship wasn’t the same class. A few of the weapons impacts had penetrated. The holes were, unfortunately, too small for his CASPer. He could have used a Mk 8, but it could carry far less equipment and instruments.

He flew the shuttle on direct control, using his pinplants to send specific commands to the thrusters. Skimming along a few meters from the hull, he passed one of the four centerline attachment points. Pegasus and the other four Egleesius also had them; the difference was this ship didn’t have airlocks there, too. In fact, a detailed 3D mapping of both unusual ships showed no airlocks anywhere.

“So where do I get in?” he asked, his voice sounding tinny in the cockpit. The two work bots he’d brought along had no comment; they remained clamped to the hull. The shuttle was close to the bow, and he slowed its progress. It came to a stop next to a feature common with Pegasus. Oversized maneuvering jets.

“They’re bigger than I thought,” he said. Of course, he’d seen the specifications on the schematics, but seeing them in person was another matter. Powered by hyper-efficient rocket engines, the vacuum-optimized nozzles were built into the hull and the exits were big enough for his shuttle to stick its nose in. “Oh,” he said, and looked over his shoulder. “Oh, hell.”

Using his pinplants, he accessed the schematics of the maneuvering engine. It took a couple seconds to fully review its construction, and more importantly, how to take it apart. Then he examined the overhaul reports from the dock workers who’d handled the refit of Nuckelavee, the Egleesius requiring the most extensive breakdown. Slowly, a big grin cut across his face.

“Wake up kids,” he said to the bots as he floated aft. They both instantly came alive, green status lights glowing on their egg-shaped chassis. “Time to work.”

When the CASPer was open, it barely fit in the cargo hold. Once inside, Sato triggered the shuttle’s automatic egress system. The atmosphere was pumped out, and the big rear door opened. He used his pinplants to fire the suit’s maneuvering jets, and the CASPer backed out of the hold. A second later, both bots followed.

He maneuvered the few meters over to EG2’s hull and magnetically clamped himself on the lip of the maneuvering rocket nozzle exit. It was huge, now that he was standing next to it, but he knew it got a lot smaller inside. “Kids, program.” Both bots flashed blue twice, ready to be programmed. Using his pinplants, he sent the instructions. With puffs of compressed gas, both fearlessly dove into the opening and disappeared.

Sato watched via remote UV camera as they found what he had expected and began cutting through thick carbon scoring. In moments, one of the releases was revealed.

“Bingo,” he said. He released the hull, flipped over head first, and thrusted into the nozzle. Just like he expected, it got cramped fast. Tucked inside the Mk 7, he felt slightly claustrophobic. Like every other time in his life when Sato felt himself limited by external stimuli, he clamped down on the emotion and suppressed it. “You won’t be the master of me,” he whispered over the sound of air circulation motors.

The second bot found what it was looking for, and the two machines worked ancient latches. He had just reached the point where the CASPer could go no further and was examining their progress when the two machines succeeded, and the ancient maintenance access hatch on the nozzle bell swung inward, allowing him access. Grinning like the Cheshire Cat, Sato sent his two bots in and followed right behind them.

* * *

Avenger One, Winged Hussars Shipyard, New Warsaw System

“That’s it?” Thorb said, leaning over to look at the targeting screen in front of Walker.

“That’s it,” Walker confirmed, panning the camera across the EMS Dragon as the formation flew past it. “The first ever Human-manned fighter/bomber carrier.”


“‘SalSha’d and manned’ was too much of a mouthful,” Walker replied, giving the alien a look of displeasure that Thorb completely ignored. “It’s the first one our alliance has ever had.”

Thorb looked out of the craft to check the positioning of the other Avenger on his wing and commed the pilot, a SalSha named Willt, to get into position.

“What are they doing there?” Thorb asked as he looked back at the monitor and caught sparking along a brightly-lit section of the ship.

“Looks like they’re cutting out the manning hatches.”

Thorb cocked his head and stared at Walker, obviously waiting for more information.

“The Dragon used to be a drone carrier. The crew would prep the drones in a shuttle bay-like facility, and then they would attach them to the side of the ship for immediate launch when needed. Those attachments are all over the exterior of the ship. Now that we’re flying manned—SalSha’d—craft, we need access to the bombers without having to crawl across the hull of the ship to get to them.”

“That makes sense,” Thorb replied. “Am I missing something, or do most of them appear to be near the aft end of the ship?”

“No. The majority of the access points will be toward the aft end, because that’s where most of your quarters will be. They’re changing over some of the reaction mass stowage tanks into habitats for you. Since the ship uses water as reaction mass, you get a fluid environment to live in…until it’s needed for the engines, and then you have to live like us. Also, that will let them fill the bomber cockpits up with water easier when they are man—when they are crewed by two SalSha.”

“That seems like a lot of work.”

“It is…and it costs a lot of credits to make these changes. Obviously, Commander Cromwell believes in you.”

“Good,” Thorb said. “We will not let her down.”

* * *

Egleesius Cruiser “EG2,” New Warsaw System

The inside of EG2 wasn’t as interesting as Sato had hoped it would be. Nothing worked. He’d been floating in the huge corridors for two hours without finding a single thing to pique his curiosity. His modified Mk 7 CASPer was using inertial navigation and laser plotters to map all the corridors, and he was quickly building up internal schematics for the ship. It was quickly obvious that, while the ship might look like an Egleesius from the outside, it was anything but on the inside.

He stopped at a junction of two corridors to take a drink from the suit’s supply and grab a piece of jerky. The suit contained enough food and water for 5 days, and life support for 30. More than enough for this little expedition. He’d been designing this suit for just such an opportunity. Kleena kept far too tight a leash on him most of the time. He missed the freedom of being out on his own. He’d come within 39 light minutes of the event horizon of a Class 2 black hole once. Now that was science. The four-hour dive in and out had cost him three and a half years in the real world, but it was worth every second. Someday, he’d go back and come within one light second!

As he chewed the jerky, a favorite among most of the marines, he glanced at one of the many power panels he’d seen while exploring. It was a standard power control/distribution panel, and it was quite dead. He’d opened three of them so far and, using sensitive probes, had verified there wasn’t so much as a single volt flowing through them. Maybe the system just needed some power?

He recalled his two bots and grabbed their legs, letting them tow him along. As they moved, he examined the hallways. Completely circular, at least three meters across. There were indented notches everywhere. He figured they were probably handholds, but each one was only around six or seven centimeters across. Not very big by most race’s standards. elSha wouldn’t need them, either. The surface of their hands allowed them to grasp most surfaces. He realized there were no ventilation systems anywhere—the interior of the ship was in vacuum, and it may always have been!

“What is this thing for?” he wondered as his lights illuminated the way aft. Roughly halfway back he came to a cross corridor. There had been two other passages previously, but this one didn’t extend around the perimeter of the hull, this one went inward. He consulted his map, superimposed over an outline of the ship’s exterior. “Dead center fore-to-aft,” he said in the CASPer’s interior. This is where the CIC would be on a normal Egleesius-class. He took the turn. It didn’t go as far as it should have, coming to a quick end at a pressure door as wide as the corridor. It was also visibly welded shut.

“Who would weld a CIC closed?” he thought. Examining the schematic again, if this was the entrance to this ship’s CIC, the space on the other side was more than 20 meters across. That was huge—at least twice the size of the one on Pegasus. Why have a CIC that large? “Maybe this is a fleet command and logistics ship!” he said. A few races used them, after all. They were also usually built on the hull of an existing design! If he was right, Alexis Cromwell would be quite excited by the news as it would represent a new capability. She would surely excuse some small latitudes in the execution of her orders, then.

Mounted on the bulkhead to the side of the welded door was something just as curious. It resembled, to some degree, a portable Tri-V box. Those were old technology, dating back to this ship’s era, so that was what it probably was. You’d lean forward and put your face in front of it to see the Tri-V projection. The box predated the development of the single Tri-V projector arrays. Of course, that was the kind of stuff the Science Guild didn’t mind allowing to be invented. Boring stuff that didn’t make a real difference.

He leaned forward enough for his CASPer’s main cockpit camera to reach the viewing field edge. To his surprise, it came alive!

“Oh!” he exclaimed as a bizarre lattice of lines danced, flashed, and created intricate patterns. It was almost hypnotizing. But what did it mean? After a moment, it stopped, and some text appeared. Sato scowled. He could read 92 alien languages and recognize over 200. This wasn’t one of them. That annoyed him. He started digging into his pinplants, where he had stored thousands of files. It took quite a bit of time.

He only knew of one Human with as many pinplants as he had—Sansar Enkh. His were a great deal older than hers, dating back to the beginning of pinplants for Humans. He’d wanted to pick her brain and examine the models she’d had implanted. The Golden Horde liked to be edgy. He liked that.

It took an entire hour to find what he was looking for. A file he’d saved years ago, during his brief stay at the Science Guild. It had to do with obscure programming techniques. He’d kept the file because it represented an aberration. He could find absolutely nothing else on that language anywhere in the archives of the Science Guild. The one he’d found was buried in reference material related to several operating systems.

He plugged the file into his primary pinplant translator matrix. It chewed on the data for a second, then it rendered a translation. “FUEL DEPLETED.”

“Well, no shit,” Sato said. “Power? I might be able to fix that.”

A few minutes later, he reached the rear of the ship. Luckily, the pressure door leading into engineering wasn’t welded closed, like the one into the CIC had been. He had the bots lever it open and swept the area with his lights. Here and there, a few indicators glowed. So, it wasn’t dead entirely. He set about investigating.

Alexis Cromwell had explained that when her ancestors found Pegasus, it was in a state much like this ship. They had only needed to give it a few tweaks, and it had woken up.

He surveyed the rest of the space and saw rack after rack of bots. They looked like flattened trash cans and were more utilitarian than his little bots and twice their size. They even managed to look menacing hanging on their hooks. He forced himself to laugh. They’re just mechanical bots.

Sato overlaid the technical schematics of the Phaeton’s engineering space with EG2’s. Despite there being four fusion power plants, even larger and more crowded than the other ship’s, all the connections and tankage lines were the same. He smiled and used his pinplants to connect with the Hussars’ material management system and entered a request. The response took longer than he expected. He began to wonder if someone in logistics had questioned why he was requesting spaceship fuel, but he had the authorization. The response arrived; en route. With a grin on his face, he waited.

The transfer was mostly flawless. The captain of the tanker was both curious and amused. He was curious as to why he was delivering fuel to a ship which was in a storage berthing, while the rest of the fleet was off in combat, and he was amused that Dr. Taiki Sato wasn’t willing to come out and talk with him.

“Please, just load the fuel?” Sato finally asked. “The procedure is identical to Pegasus.”

“Dr. Sato,” the captain, a woman he’d never met, said, “the request is unusual. These ships are logged as hulks and not capable of flight.”

“They aren’t capable of flight,” he agreed. “I need the fuel to power the reactors in order to do tests, as authorized by Colonel Cromwell.” There was a pause. “I’m sure you checked my authorization before bringing the fuel?”

“I’ll begin the transfer, Dr. Sato.”

He waited until well after the tanker was gone before having a bot float over to the tankage controls to manually turn the valve that would allow it to flow into the system. Nothing happened for a long moment, then the reactor’s status light changed to active.

“Hah,” he said and laughed. More and more status indicators lit up as the ship came back to life, and the overhead lights came on. Shortly thereafter, a number of the robots on the bulkhead detached and began flying about. That gave him pause for a moment. He wanted to check a few things, not bring the ship fully back online. “I need to get some data and shut this down,” he said.

Sato left one bot in engineering, waiting patiently next to the main fuel feed, and had the other one tow him forward to the CIC. With only one bot, the pace was slower. The Mk 7 CASPer was heavy and cumbersome, and he was being careful to avoid leaving so much as a scuff on the walls. On the way, two of the ship’s bots raced past, under no constraints against hurrying. The one condolence he had was they took no notice of him.

Finally, he reached the CIC entrance. None of the bots were there, and the welds were untouched. He heaved a sigh of relief and stuck his camera in the Tri-V box.


“Oh…” he said as he was pushed sideways into the corridor wall. He was confused until he realized he was feeling acceleration. The ship was moving. “No, no, no, no!” he said and immediately linked with the bot in engineering, ordering it to turn off the fuel feed.

He watched the remote telemetry of the bot moving to the valve and beginning to turn it off, but then a laser cut it in half.

Sato tried to think, desperately, his powerful mind working for a solution. He had another bot, but they’d do the same thing with that one, probably. Acceleration was building. He looked in the Tri-V again.



Well, he thought, that explains why no hyperspace generators were visible. At least there’s no way the stargate will activate for it. He jerked like an electric line had hit him.

“It has hyperspace shunts!” As fast as his pinplants would let him, Sato contacted New Warsaw traffic control. “Oh, Alexis is going to be mad.”

* * *

Winged Hussars Prime Base, New Warsaw System

“Say again?” Commander Lech Kowalczy asked. “The ship did what?”

“This is Comms,” the voice repeated. “We just got a message from one of the Egleesius ships that Commander Cromwell brought back. It’s very strange.”

“Which one of the ships?” Kowalczy asked.

“Well, that’s the strange part. It isn’t one of the named ones; it’s one of the weird ones that hasn’t been named yet. I didn’t think they were operational, but it just got underway. When we queried it, the only person aboard was Doctor Sato.”

“What? How? How did he get into it?”

“I don’t know sir, but he’s asking for help. He did something, and the ship activated itself and got underway. He says he’s not in control of the ship—it’s operating on its own without his input. It’s currently headed for the stargate, and he says he can’t stop it.”

“Well, make sure the stargate personnel know not to activate the stargate. We’ll at least be able to keep him in-system.”

“Yes, sir, I will contact—it did what?” Comms was interrupted, and Kowalczy could hear yelling in the background. “Commander, the ship just jumped to hyperspace on its own! Apparently, the ship has shunts, and they just activated. He’s gone, sir! The ship is gone!”

“Calm down,” Kowalczy ordered, thinking fast. Alexis would be pissed with either of the losses. If he lost both Sato and the Egleesius, he didn’t think there was an arm of the galaxy he could hide in where she wouldn’t track him down to kick his ass. “Okay, did he say anything else? Where he was going? How he got into the ship? What he did to activate it? Anything?” Kowalczy realized he was getting as panicky as the comms tech and forced himself to take a deep breath.

“Yes, sir, right before he jumped, he said the ship was jumping to the Beta Cephei star system.”

“Did he say why it was going there?”

“No sir, he did not.”

“Got it. Contact Captain Teenge on the Arion and Captain Jormungd on the Phaeton, and let them know they need to make preparations for an immediate departure. Let me know if you find out anything else. Kowalczy out.”

Kowalczy took another deep breath. He needed to get Sato and the ship back, but his options for doing so were few. Worse, he needed a ship that could chase down a ship that was equipped with an internal hyperspace shunt. With all of the forces gone for the assault, there were only two major combatants in-system that could do it. He would have to send the two new Egleesius ships that were still being repaired and put back into service.

Neither of the ships was fully operational, though…not that he wanted to destroy the ship—not with Sato aboard, anyway. Of course, once Sato was off, he didn’t want it to fall into enemy hands, either…but how was he going to get Sato off?

He had more questions than he had answers. The only thing he knew for certain was he didn’t have the forces under his command at the moment required to get his wayward ship safely home again.

Kowalczy needed a boarding force and a means to get them there…Got it! He remembered seeing a report earlier in the morning about a SalSha breaking one of the traffic control rules within the shipyard again. It was a near-daily occurrence with them, and he had gotten tired of yelling at their commander, Lieutenant Colonel Walker, every day. The Golden Horde leader had his hands full with the new SalSha pilots, to the point he’d given up yelling at them. All they did was smile at him and agree to do better, then they went out and did the same thing again. When taken to task, their only defense was, “Oops?”

Still, Walker was a starting point. He commed the Golden Horde officer, and was greeted with a sigh once the connection was made. “Yeah?” Walker asked without even a greeting. “What did they do now?”

* * *

Walker sighed as the call from the acting head of the Winged Hussars came in. He’d been part of the flight this morning that broke the speed limit in the shipyard. Although it hadn’t been by much—the pilot of the second bomber had been trying to catch up with Thorb as he raced off—Walker had seen the readout and knew they’d done it…again. Still, he didn’t want to admit it if they didn’t have the data. “What did they do now?” he asked.

“Actually, I’m not calling about the SalSha,” Kowalczy replied. Walker’s eyebrows went up—this was different. “They did break the speed limit within the shipyard again this morning,” Kowalczy continued, “but I have bigger problems on my hands at the moment. One of the Egleesius ships just got underway on its own.”

“Those ships that look like Pegasus? On its own?” Walker asked. “How is that possible?”

“Dr. Sato was onboard at the time…” The Hussars officer raised his hands plaintively.

“Oh,” Walker replied. He’d seen the scatter-brained genius in action. He chuckled. “Okay, I understand how it got underway. He was probably playing with a system, trying to figure out what it did, and he pushed the wrong button or something. Not sure what I can do to help you, though…Do you need me to have a SalSha chase the ship down with one of our bombers so you can take a command crew out to bring the ship back home?”

“Well, actually, it’s a little more complicated than that. The ship just jumped to hyperspace—”

It what?

“It has its own hyperspace shunts, and it jumped to hyperspace. We got a couple of messages from Sato before it did. Apparently, he’s not in control of the ship—the craft is operating on its own without his input. He did say, however, where it was headed. It jumped to the Beta Cephei star system.”

“You better send someone after it,” Walker said, shaking his head. “Alexis is going to be pissed. I’m glad I won’t be on the receiving end of that ‘discussion.’”

“I know she’s going to be angry—I have to get both of them back. We can’t let either Sato or the ship fall into enemy hands…and there isn’t anyone else aboard to stop that from happening if Merc Guild forces should happen to find it. Even worse, the ship may have the coordinates of the New Warsaw system. We cannot allow it to fall into enemy hands. If nothing else, it must be destroyed.”

“What’s your plan?” Walker asked as the magnitude of the situation hit him. “What can I do to help?”

“Well, I have to try and get them both back. I also must let Alexis know what’s happened. I have two of the new Egleesius ships here. While neither of them are fully operational yet, they can both get underway. I am going to send the Phaeton to let Alexis know what’s happened. The Phaeton will take a couple days to get ready, and it won’t have any of its offensive capabilities, but it does have a hyperspace shunt, so it can get safely to the Golara System and back. I’m also going to send the Arion to stop the rogue ship and bring Sato home. Arion is ready to leave today, and it will have an additional ship’s command element onboard, so if you can get them onboard the rogue Egleesius, hopefully they can get the ship turned around and back home safely. If not, it will have to be destroyed. We can’t risk it falling into the Merc Guild’s hands.”

“If I can get them onboard safely?”

“Yes, I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask for your help. When last I heard, there wasn’t even a way to get onboard the rogue Egleesius. What I would like you to do is to take your Avenger bombers, crews to operate them, and a sufficient force to land on the ship and force a way into it. Once you make an opening, you can get Sato off and put the command crew onboard. If they can figure out how to operate it, bring it back. If not…”

“Don’t let it fall into enemy hands…or claws as it were.” Kowalczy nodded, while Walker thought. “I’ll give it a go,” Walker finally said. “In general, it seems straightforward enough. We can mount the bombers to the Arion with no problem, and I can get crews onboard pretty quickly, both to fly the bombers and to assault the ship. I think, with your permission, I will also contact Commander Frank Earl of Bert’s Bees. They got mauled pretty badly in the last action, but they’re marine forces—they have the requisite knowledge to get this done. The Horde specializes in facility defense; ship assault normally isn’t our thing. They probably have the tools and knowledge required to figure out how to best penetrate the ship and get your folks aboard. I’ll take a platoon of my troops along as backup, just in case the others have issues getting aboard. My guys and gals are also pretty good at demo, should it come to that.”

Kowalczy shivered at the mention of the Egleesius’ demolition. That would not look good on his resume. He could see it now, “Let special cruiser escape, then blew it up because he couldn’t recover it.” Not good. He nodded. “Take whoever you see fit, but get them aboard the Arion ASAP. There’s no telling what the rogue ship will do once it reaches the Beta Cephei system. If it should jump again before you get there, we won’t have any way to track it. We will likely have lost both it and Sato…maybe forever.”

* * *

Walker watched from the edge of one of the Arion’s cargo compartments as a Bert’s Bees’ CASPer jetted into it with a load of equipment. He dialed up his CASPer’s visual enhancement and could see the name on the chest of the CASPer read “Earl” in green letters. “Are you guys almost done loading?” he asked. “They’re ready to get underway.”

“I’ve got one more load of ammo to bring aboard,” Commander Frank Earl replied. “I don’t go anywhere unarmed.”

“But this isn’t an actual assault mission,” Walker noted, “and they’re in a big hurry to catch up with the ship before it does anything else unexpected.”

“I get all that,” Earl replied, “but what if there’s someone aboard the ship? Ships don’t just ‘start themselves.’ I’m guessing there’s a rogue element onboard. Someone snuck on without that stupid scientist noticing, and it’s their intention to hijack the ship for their own purposes. If I don’t have ammo, it makes it an awful lot harder for me to stop them.”

There was a long pause as Walker processed the information. Earl jetted out of the hold to get the next load while the ship’s crew tied his previous load down.

“You couldn’t have mentioned that a little sooner?” Walker finally asked, all of a sudden feeling naked without loaded weapons on his suit.

“I didn’t really think about it when we first spoke,” Earl replied. “The more I thought about it, though, I decided we ought to be prepared for any eventuality. Besides, you never know where we might end up going before we get back. I’d rather be prepared for anything, anywhere, even if it does cost us a little extra time. We’ll be done soon.”

“Okay, gotta go,” Walker transmitted.

“What’s up?”

“I’m going to have to call the captain to get us some extra time, so we can get some of our ammo brought onboard as well.”

* * * * *

Chapter Four

Gray Wolves’ Warehouse, Tashkent, Uzbekistan, Earth

“I just got the word from Lieutenant Colonel Laverno,” Sergeant Kayla Hanson said as she walked into the large bay beneath the main warehouse floor. Ten pairs of eyes focused on the short, dark-haired woman, waiting for her next pronouncement. “We’re a ‘go.’”

The nine other members of her squad gave various displays of approval, although they kept them quiet so they couldn’t be heard on the floor above; the tenth man, a tech, got back to work on the suit he was maintaining. A loud outburst probably wouldn’t have mattered—there usually wasn’t anyone around who wasn’t an integral part of the Gray Wolves’ smuggling organization. Although the Gray Wolves had been spun off from the Golden Horde a number of years prior, when they ‘went legitimate,’ the ties between the two organizations were still strong, including information sharing. Most of the time, intel went from the Horde to the Wolves, although there were times the Wolves’ unique…connections…got them juicy data outside the Horde’s normal sphere of operations. The Wolves could also be counted on to procure ‘difficult-to-acquire’ items or provide shipping to places where a bill of lading might have been problematic.

They also had storage places for items that Earth’s authorities—or the Mercenary Guild, which was currently running things—might have disagreed with, like the material on the floor above. Or the 10 CASPers the squad was prepping for the mission that had just been approved.

“Good,” Corporal Jochi Enkh said. “It’s about time. Those bastards have had it coming for a while.”

“I’ll say,” Corporal Jamison Silinsky agreed. “I had a couple friends in the Maracaibo Marauders. They were off-world when the diseases hit. It wiped out almost the entire company—CASPer pilots, ground crew, everyone. Most of their families were on Earth and were saved, but nearly every merc died.”

“That could have been us,” Sergeant Hanson said. “If the colonel hadn’t made it back in time, we might have been wiped out, too. Today we get payback for the Marauders and anyone else that was a victim of the diseases they put into the paint they sold us.”

The squad quieted at a knock on the door. It was in the correct, coded pattern, so Sergeant Hanson opened it, and a dirty-looking man with long, greasy hair entered the room.

“I just went by the observation post at Nicholas Imports,” the man said. “There are many people at their facility.”

“Perfect,” Silinsky said. “Or as I like to call them, targets.”

The man stared at the corporal a few moments then said, “Be careful what you wish for. There are rumors they are getting their equipment from the Science Guild. If that is true, they may have weapons or technology we are unaware of.” He turned back to Sergeant Hanson. “Be careful, Sergeant.” He started to leave, but then turned back and added, “I left a present by the back door. We’re going to close for the day now. Give me 15 minutes.”

Hanson nodded, then turned back to the squad as the man left. “Okay, let’s get suited up.”

The squad dressed quickly, donning thick wetsuits. They put their clothes and a towel into a plastic bag, sealed it, and stuck it into one of the leg compartments on their CASPers. Getting a thumbs-up from her squad, Hanson said, “Mount up,” and the squad entered their CASPers and jacked in. With lines running from the suit to their extra set of pinplants, they didn’t need the haptic suits other merc organizations required to operate their armor.

The technician walked around, getting all the suits started. Twenty minutes later, the technician pushed a button, and a hidden ramp to the floor above them dropped down. The squad marched up it and onto the main floor of the warehouse. As promised, the warehouse was empty; there was no one there to see their exit.

The squad went to the back door, where a crate waited. “Private Harris, you have crate duty,” Sergeant Hanson said. “Grab that crate, bring it along, and take good care of it.”

“What’s in it?” the private asked as he picked up the box. “A bomb?”

“No,” Hanson replied. “It’s a shipment of drugs the Wolves intercepted. They laced it with something—I don’t want to know what. We’ll leave it in their warehouse, assuming we leave any of it standing. Either they’ll find it and distribute it, killing their folks, or the authorities find it and put any of them we miss in jail. It’s a win-win.”

“I’ll take good care of it,” the private replied.

“Please do.”

The technician opened the door, and the squad filed out into the night.

* * *

Nicholas Imports and Exports, Tashkent, Uzbekistan, Earth

“Squad, check in,” Sergeant Hanson transmitted as she approached the warehouse complex from the north. It sat just to the northwest of the starport that was previously Tashkent’s international airport; the facility had easy access to the starport as well as a nearby railhead for distributing the import company’s items. A 10-foot-tall fence encircled the facility, but that wasn’t much of an issue. The site had three buildings; the biggest was the one closest to her and her target, which is why she had three troopers with her. It was about 30 meters wide and 100 meters long. The other two buildings were a smaller warehouse, about half the first building’s size, and a much-smaller auxiliary building, which was probably an operations or administration building. Unlike the other two buildings that had fleets of trucks coming and going 24 hours a day, the third building only had people going through its doors. “Team One is in place.”

“Team Two in place,” Corporal Silinsky said from the south as he approached the smaller warehouse with two privates in tow.

“Team Three in place,” Corporal Enkh said from the east as he led two privates toward the operations building.

“Okay, folks, here’s where we make these bastards pay for all the people—their own people—they killed with the shit they did to us. Destroy the facility and kill everyone you find—we don’t have any friends here.”

“And if there are any aliens here?” Silinsky asked.

“We don’t have any friends here,” Hanson repeated. “Everyone here, whether Human or not, is doing their best to kill us. Kill them first!”

“You got it, Sarge!”

Hanson took one last look at the feed from the two small drones she had circling the facility. The larger warehouse was lit up as brightly as if it were daylight, and trucks continued to come and go, but no one seemed to be acting any differently than they were a couple of hours ago. “Go!” she ordered. “Attack!”

She raced forward, toggling her jumpjets to go over the fence without stopping. A glance at her peripheral monitors showed the three troopers were just behind her, but were keeping up. As she landed on the other side, she fired a rocket at a hovertruck that was being unloaded at one of the docks, and it leaped ahead to detonate on the side of the vehicle, the explosion scattering bodies in all directions as a cloud of powder was thrown into the air.

She raced past the truck, firing her magnetic accelerator cannon once into each of the people who were just starting to move. Private Steinam split off to enter the door on the south end of the building as she led the other troopers around to the east side of the building with its main loading docks.

The other troopers began firing as they cleared the corner, and she had more targets than she could service by herself. Symbology on her display popped up, showing which people or vehicles other soldiers were targeting, to keep from duplicating each other’s shots. Gunfire and flashes from the south showed the other two fire teams were engaged as well.

Private Mayer continued up the loading dock, destroying vehicles and people with equal abandon as Hanson and Private Bataar jumped into the warehouse. An alarm sounded as she touched down, and a blue strobe started flashing. As she entered the building, she realized she had underestimated the scope of the task. Giant shelving units ran the length of the building in rows, all the way up to its 10-meter-high ceiling, and most of them were full of crates, bags, and loose items. Destroying everything would take much longer than she’d anticipated.

Fire blossomed from the south end of the building as Steinam threw a grenade, and one of the rows of shelving wobbled. That was it, she realized; they needed to take down the shelving. She triggered three missiles at the stanchions holding up the furthest row of shelves and smiled a predator’s smile as the row collapsed, throwing material into the air and damaging the row next to it as it fell.

“Teams One and Two,” she transmitted, “target the shelving supports and bring them down. Use your grenades and rockets if you have them!”

Private Bataar’s right arm went red in her status display. “I’ve got enemies with lasers!” he transmitted.

Leaving the rest of the shelves for Steinam, she turned and jumped, rocketing over Bataar as he engaged three people with laser rifles. They’d obviously never seen CASPers in action before, because they followed her flight open-mouthed as she roared toward them. Belatedly, they started to raise their rifles as she dropped down on them. She shot the one on the left, Bataar shot the one on the right, and she landed on the one in the center, squashing his head flat in the process.

More people were coming from the offices at the end of the building, armed with a combination of laser and slug-throwing rifles. “Steinam, Bataar, finish destroying the shelves,” she ordered. “Mayer and I have these.”

The enemy force raced toward her, firing, and Private Mayer hit them from the side with his laser. Two went down before they noticed they were under fire, then Hanson’s missile detonated in their midst. She put a MAC round into each of the three who were still moving as she sprinted toward the offices.

The icon for Private Enkh, one of Corporal Enkh’s men, went red, and she stopped. “What’s going on, Enkh?”

“I don’t know,” the corporal replied. “He went down into the basement. Something got him.”

“Don’t go down there alone,” Hanson ordered, knowing that would be his first response. “Silinsky, finish what you’re doing and take your team to join Team Three.”

Both agreed, and she started toward the offices again. The door opened, revealing a group of dog-like bipeds, all armed with galactic tech. She fired another missile without thinking, then fired her railgun through the door as fast as it could cycle.

“I’ve got Zuul mercenaries,” Hanson transmitted. “Watch out for them—they will be better armed and armored.”

When nothing else showed itself, she approached the door, with Mayer at her side. Five Zuul lay inside the room. One had a MAC-sized hole through its chest; the others had been killed by the missile. She scanned her aft cameras; Steinam and Bataar were approaching, and the warehouse behind her was ablaze.

“You may have done too good a job,” she noted. “We’ll have to go quickly; we don’t have a lot of time before this section will be engulfed, too.”

The room on the other side of the door was some sort of administration space for the warehouse—there were at least six desks and most of them had at least two slates sitting on them. Based on what she had seen going through the warehouse, this was probably the front for the organization—the legitimate side of the operation that provided a cover for the less-than-legal side of the business.

Still, you never knew. “Steinam, bag up all the slates you can find there. Bataar and Mayer, you’re with me.” They did a quick search of the office spaces, but Hanson quickly saw it was a waste of time—everything here looked aboveboard.

“We’re finished in the other warehouse,” Silinsky radioed. “There aren’t any offices here, just a bunch of quasi-legal and black-market shit. We set part of it on fire and left our present on the other side of the building.”

“Good,” Hanson replied. “We’re almost done here. Go join Team Three, but do not go down into the basement. We will be right there.”

“Got it, Sarge. We’ll need to hurry. The flames from your building are pretty high, and I think it’s starting to draw some attention. I can hear sirens in the distance.”

“Got it. We’re on our way.”

Sergeant Hanson led her team into the parking lot. Although still technically “night,” the flames from the two buildings made it easy to see without thermal optics, and her group crossed to the last building. She left Private Mayer outside to keep watch, then she entered the west end of the building to find several troopers standing by a trap door that had been thrown open. Private Enkh’s mech could be seen in the hallway on the level below, along with the bodies of two dead Zuul a little beyond the CASPer. “What have you got, Corporal?” she asked.

“The rooms in this building are storage space for high-value merchandise,” Corporal Enkh reported. “There’s also a room full of credit chits. The private went downstairs while we were looking through it, and we heard shooting. The Zuul got the private and tried to come up here, but we drove them back down into the basement. There are more of them, further down the basement hallway than we can see from above. I lowered a camera down, but it was destroyed before it could see much.”

“Got it,” she said. “Take a couple of troopers and grab all the credit chits you can load into your storage spaces.”

“You got it!”

Hanson smiled. The corporal had grown up in an orphanage; a room full of credit chits probably seemed like Shangri-La or some other paradise to him. She moved back to the trapdoor. “In the basement, we’ve got you surrounded,” she yelled. “Come out with your hands up, or we’ll blow up the building.”

“Why would we do that?” a voice with a Russian accent answered. “I’m comfortable here where you can’t kill me. This bunker is well built, too—we can probably survive having you blow up the building.”

“Sergeant Hanson, the police and fire department are here!” Private Mayer reported from outside.

“Don’t kill them if you can avoid it, but fire some of your weapons or blow something up so they have to think about it before they come in. We need a couple of minutes.”

“I’ll try,” the private sounded skeptical, “but I don’t think I can bluff them for long.”

“That’s fine.” Hanson switched back to her speakers and yelled, “In the basement! I’m coming down for a parley. Just me. Don’t shoot.” She took her last grenade, held it carefully in her left hand, then pulled the pin from it and tossed it aside. Making a fist around it so someone in front of her couldn’t see it, she started down the stairs.

The steps were large and well built, and she was able to negotiate them in her CASPer and get down to the next floor. A 10-meter-long passage ran off from the landing, with a ‘welcoming party’ about halfway down its length. A Human and a Veetanho stood at the front of the group; her sensors identified five Zuul standing behind them. The passage was five meters wide—enough for her to see they were all armed and had their weapons pointed at her. Even better, several of the Zuul carried lasers heavy enough to hull her CASPer. Shit.

“Thank you for coming down,” the man said. The accent identified him as the man who had spoken earlier. “Since I never actually agreed to a parley, you are now my prisoner.”

“Fine,” she replied. “You’ve got me. I’m Sergeant Hanson. Who are you?”

“I am Igor Ivanovich of Nicholas Imports and Exports,” the man said.

“Just the person I hoped to meet,” Sergeant Hanson replied. “Sansar Enkh sends her regards.”

“That is very droll,” the Russian said. “I’m sure you stayed up late last night trying to come up with it. Well, you have found me, and I have just one thing to ask you.”

“Oh? And what is that?”

“Do you know just how fucked we are?”

“How fucked we are?” Sergeant Hanson asked. “I understand pretty well how fucked you are. We’re the ones with the heavier weapons and the higher ground. At a word from me, we can drop this building on your head and kill all of you. Yeah, I get it; you’re pretty fucked.”

“No, you stupid twit, not the members of my organization; I mean humanity. Everyone on this planet is doomed if you keep on with your stupid attempts to free us from the Merc Guild. It’s more than just the Merc Guild, the Science Guild is involved, too, and probably other guilds as well. We can’t win. There’s no way we can. We’re outnumbered. They have the greatest tech agency in the galaxy supporting them. Anything they need, they can have produced for them.” He shook his head. “We can’t win.”

“So what are you saying? That we should just quit and give in to them?”

“Yes, that is exactly what I’m saying. They may kill some of you in reprisal, sure, but the race will survive. If you Horsemen continue in the direction you’re going, they’re likely to kill us all. If they see that we’re ungovernable—that we won’t see reason—that’s what they’re going to do. They will slag Earth, nuke our colonies, and kill all of us.”

“They can’t. That’s against the law.”

“Where have you been? Of course they can! The Merc Guild is the one with all the guns. Who’s going to stop them? The only other agency with weapons is the Peacemaker Guild, and there aren’t enough of them to do anything. How do you protect something? Do you call a policeman or Peacemaker? No, you hire a merc. When all the mercs in the galaxy—all of them—are against you, you’re fucked. We’re fucked. The only way we’re going to win—the only way we’ll survive—is to give in to their demands.”

“You’re a traitor to humanity,” Hanson said. “Just because you bought into their propaganda doesn’t mean we’re going to.”

“No, you’re the traitor, you and your Horsemen. If you don’t surrender, you will be the cause of our destruction.”

“He is right,” the Veetanho alongside him said. “Give in now. It is a matter of simple math. There are 37 mercenary races. Who are your allies? None of them. The entire galaxy is against you—there is no way you can win. How do you think you can kill us all?”

The ground shook with a couple of detonations.

“Whatever you’re going to do,” Private Mayer said over the squad net, “you better do it soon. I’ve got police circling the facility. Lots of them. They haven’t decided they want to come in yet, but it looks like they are working up the courage to do so. I threw a couple of grenades to discourage them, but I doubt that will last very long.”

“We’re on our way,” Hanson replied. She changed to her speakers. “You asked how I thought I could kill all of you, and I’m reminded of the question someone once asked me of how I would go about eating an elephant.”

“What is an elephant?” the Veetanho asked.

“It is a creature that weighs about 6,000 kilograms.”

The Veetanho’s face crinkled as she processed the information. “So, how does someone your size eat an elephant?”

“Easy,” Hanson said. “One bite at a time.” Her targeting reticle had been centered on the Veetanho the entire discussion; a single thought through her pinplants, and the MAC on her left arm snapped up, fired a single round, and removed most of the Veetanho’s head. Simultaneously, her right arm whipped forward, launching the grenade down the hallway. A second round went through the Human’s head as he turned to flee.

Hanson dove to the side as the first Zuul fired, then the grenade went off, with the confines of the passageway magnifying its blast. Hanson jumped to her feet and charged down the hallway, but all of the mercenaries were down. One struggled weakly; her sword blade snapped out, and she put it out of its misery.

“Perimeter breach!” Mayer called. “The police are on their way in, and I can’t stop them short of killing them.”

“I’m on my way back up,” Hanson replied. “Set some explosives to level this building.” She gave the passageway a wistful look. She was sure there was information in one of the rooms, but it wasn’t worth getting caught by the police to get it or having to kill a bunch of people who were just doing their jobs to get away. She shrugged inside her suit and raced back up to the main floor.

“Blow it!” she ordered. “Let’s go!” she added as she sprinted for the door. The rest of the squad followed her out the door, and they headed to the south, away from where the authorities were coming through the fence.

The squad blasted off on their jumpjets, hurdling the fence, then used a combination of running and jumping over obstacles in their way. The night turned to day behind them as the building blew up. Hanson shrugged; whatever evidence was in the building was either buried or destroyed.

The squad stayed low as they crossed between Tashkent’s airport and its starport so they would stay off the radar at the two facilities. Within a couple of minutes, they reached the Tashkent Lakeside Golf Club and landed in the large lake next to the 9th Hole in a series of small, controlled splashes.

After a couple of minutes, nine people waded ashore with plastic bags under their arms. As they reached the shoreline, they pulled dry clothes from the bags and changed into them. A man driving a large truck pulled up on the road to the clubhouse as the eastern sky began to lighten.

“Let’s go!” he exclaimed, pointing his thumb toward the back of the truck. “Quickly!”

Sergeant Hanson flipped the man one of the stacks of credit chits they’d liberated, then led the rest of her squad into the back of the truck. With a start, she realized the man driving the truck, a snappily-dressed, clean-shaven man, was the same Gray Wolf she had spoken with earlier.

* * *

EMS Excalibur, Transition Point, New Persia, Torgero System

“I’ve got contacts!” the sensor operator exclaimed as the EMS Excalibur transitioned into normal space in the Torgero system.

“What do you have?” the ship’s CO, Lieutenant Commander Derek McQuay, asked. As this was the first time he’d taken the ship out as CO, he couldn’t be blamed if his voice was a few notes higher than normal, especially since he was commanding a frigate, which would have been easy prey for most other warships.

“There are a number of ships that are just breaking orbit from New Persia,” the sensor operator replied. “Looks like a battleship, two cruisers, and two frigates.”

LCDR McQuay felt the sweat begin to roll down his back. He was responsible for protecting the transport EMS Capricorn, which had transitioned in with him, and he couldn’t have defeated one of the cruisers, much less the battleship. He stared at the plot, trying to decide the best way to flee from the enemy fleet. He might call it a tactical withdrawal, but he didn’t want to be anywhere close to them.

“They aren’t headed in this direction?” the sensor operator asked.

“I don’t know,” LCDR McQuay replied. “That’s what I have you for.”

“I’m sorry, sir,” the sensor operator said. “I didn’t mean it as a question; I was just surprised. The enemy fleet—the battleship is a Maki, so I’m calling it an enemy fleet—is breaking orbit, but they are heading for the stargate. They are not, I repeat, not, heading for us.”

“That’s strange,” the CO said. If the roles were reversed, the first thing he would have done as the enemy commander would have been to send the cruisers to destroy the two Human ships. They would have been easy kills. “Let’s hold our position here and see what they do.”

Three hours later, the Maki fleet transitioned out through the stargate, and the Human ships began warily approaching New Persia.

“I can’t raise anyone on the planet,” the communications officer noted.

“Keep trying,” LCDR McQuay said. “I want to know what they were here for.”

“Yes, sir, I’ll keep trying,” the comms officer replied, “but we should have had something by now.”

“I think I found out why you can’t reach anyone,” the sensor operator said.

“Why is that?” LCDR McQuay asked.

“This is why,” the sensor operator replied. He sent the images he was looking at to the main Tri-V screen. “Here’s New Chabahar,” he said. The picture on the screen was low quality—they were still a long way out for high definition images—but it was easy to see that only a few of the buildings furthest from the city center were still standing. The center of the town was gone; replaced by an enormous crater.

There was a collective intake of breath on the bridge.

“That looks like a nuke,” LCDR McQuay said, putting to words what everyone else was afraid to say.

“It was a fairly small one—no more than 10 kilotons,” the sensor operator said. “Not that they needed a whole lot more than that.” He changed the picture to another crater. “This is what’s left of the CASPer factory outside the city. Looks like they hit it with a nuke, too. There’s nothing left. The two other settlements on the planet received similar treatment. The reason there’s no one to reply to your calls? There’s no one left.”

“Can you tell if they evacuated the people before they nuked the settlements?” the CO asked.

“It’s hard to tell, since the towns were pretty small, however, it looks like there may still be some people down there in small groups. If they were going to take the people off the planet, I think they’d have taken everyone. My guess is they nuked the towns with the people still in them.”

“Damn…” the CO muttered. He stared at the picture on the screen for a few seconds, overwhelmed by what the Merc Guild had done. Killing mercs was one thing, but killing civilians? That was unacceptable. “We’ve got to get back and let them know.” He needed to tell Commander Cromwell as soon as possible. If he knew one thing, though, it was that he would not be the one to tell Nigel Shirazi.

* * * * *

Chapter Five

EMS Arion, Emergence Point, Beta Cephei

“There it is,” Captain Teenge said, indicating a Tri-V screen as Lieutenant Colonel Dan Walker and Commander Frank Earl entered the CIC. The captain was an Aposo, a race that generally looked like the Veetanho, only a little more squat and rodent-like. Walker looked where she was indicating and saw what was almost a replica of the ship they were in. The ship was heading away from them but was slightly offset, so he could only get a general idea of what it looked like, aside from the stern.

“Wait,” he said, after several moments of inspection. “Does that ship have four engines?”

“Yes,” the captain replied. “Although the hull is similar to ours, the ship is more powerful. If whoever is running that ship decides they don’t want us to catch them, we won’t be able to run them down. They’ve got a good head start on us at the minute, but we could catch up with them…”

Walker could hear the “but” at the end of the sentence. “What’s wrong?” he asked. The Aposo as a race were pretty bloodthirsty in nature—they were often referred to as the mammalian version of Tortantulas—so to see her reticent to chase it down gave him pause.

“We could catch up to it, assuming it doesn’t speed up when we do, and assuming they don’t jump to hyperspace again.”

“That isn’t all of it, though, is it? What else is wrong?”

“We haven’t been able to make contact with the ship yet, or Dr. Sato,” Captain Teenge replied. “Not only don’t we know the situation on the ship, we also don’t know who’s in charge over there. If someone else besides Dr. Sato is operating that ship, and they decide they don’t want Arion to approach, I suspect the ship has the same 40-terawatt particle accelerator cannon we do. If they decide to shoot at us, the only response I’ll have is to shoot back, potentially destroying the ship and killing Dr. Sato. I do not believe Commander Cromwell would appreciate either of those outcomes. If the ship attacks us, and I don’t defend Arion, we risk losing Arion, which is something I wouldn’t appreciate, having just taken command of her.”

“Well, I wouldn’t appreciate getting blown up much, either,” Walker replied with a half-smile. He watched the ship on the Tri-V for a few moments. It didn’t appear to be doing anything other than transiting to some unknown destination; he wished he knew where it was heading.

“I’m also afraid of going to full power to run it down,” Captain Teenge added. “If we do, we may risk spooking whatever crew is aboard it. We got lucky when Sato told us where they were coming this time; if they jump into hyperspace again, we’ll lose them for good.” She held her hands up. “There may also be something else going on.”

“Why do you say that?”

“The ship appears to be running her power plants at near full power, but doesn’t appear to be doing anything with it. I do not know where the power is going, and I do not want to get too close and find out there is some sort of unknown weapon which is about to activate.”

Walker looked at Earl and shrugged. “Despite all that,” Walker said, “nothing’s changed since that ship left New Warsaw. Either Sato did something to initiate something onboard the ship, or some unknown crew is in charge of it. Either way, we need someone to go find out what’s happening before we can send a crew over to take it back to New Warsaw. The only other way to stop it is to shoot it, and then we risk killing Sato and destroying it. That’s gotta be our last resort.”

Earl nodded. “I guess that means I need to get over there with a boarding party, quickly, before it jumps again, and take control of it.”

“I thought—”

“No,” Earl said, interrupting Walker. “The Bees are the most qualified for this; it’s what we do. Besides, there are only two Avengers, and each can only carry six CASPers unless you stick them in the bomb bay. I know; I asked. That’s me, my senior enlisted, and one squad. We’ll take care of this.”

Walker nodded. Although he wanted to lead the group going over, he realized Earl was right; they had more experience doing opposed-entry operations; this was a mission for the Bees. “All right,” he said, nodding once. “You got it. Get over there and secure that ship.”

* * *

Onboard Egleesius Cruiser “EG2,” Beta Cephei System

Sato pushed back from the Tri-V box and moaned. His lone remaining bot floated nearby on standby. He’d recharged it from his CASPer, and it should be fine for a few more days. His own suit’s hybrid hydrogen fuel cells were good for months at this activity level. His own body? Not so much.

“INVALID INPUT” floated before his eyes as he hovered in the hallway, just outside the CIC. It was the only response he’d gotten from the strange alien computer after days of experimentation. He’d run the gamut of every operational control request he’d learned in all his years of traveling the galaxy. As crazy as it seemed, he was beginning to think the designers of the computer hadn’t meant for anyone to be able to control it!

“Ludicrous,” he said to himself. He idly reached for a piece of jerky before realizing he’d eaten the last piece two days ago. He settled for a drink of water instead. The fuel cells would keep making it until the hydrogen ran out.

Ever since he felt the drop signaling the ship had entered hyperspace, he’d spent every waking minute trying to get access to the system. “INVALID INPUT” was the only response he had received. He’d even tried using different languages, but those didn’t even get that response.

He idly scratched a rash he was developing under one arm. Pretty soon he’d have to strip and use the last of the wipes he’d brought. He’d read CASPer drivers took them on deployments as a stopgap measure when they couldn’t get out of their suits for more than 24 hours at a time. He’d been in his a lot longer than that. In hindsight, he realized using his CASPer on a long-term mission like this without a field test had been foolish. He shrugged and went back to working the problem.

The Tri-V box did provide data, when it felt like it. More like status displays, he suspected. Sato had set up one of the tiny recorders he’d brought in his equipment bag. It logged everything it saw in the box and notified him if something new appeared. He didn’t want to miss a thing.

“BOW MANEUVERING THRUSTER #4 ONLINE” appeared a few minutes after he’d jumped into hyperspace. The machine knew how he’d gotten inside, then. The machine knew.

Sato thought some more. Of course Sato knew about Ghost. He was one of a couple dozen Winged Hussars who were, in Commander Alexis Cromwell’s words, ‘in the box.’ The fact that the Hussars had a fully functional AI dating back to the Great Galactic War might be the most tightly kept secret in a galaxy full of tightly kept secrets. Sato was once within the Science Guild, and he knew just how deep that statement went. “Another Egleesius-class ship,” he said. “Another Ghost?”

He’d gone over the computers in the other four salvaged Egleesius ships. They’d all been found the same way the Hussars’ archives said Pegasus had been found, with its operating system wiped; however, there were no stashed AIs on those ships. Maybe AIs weren’t common after all; he didn’t know. He also didn’t know if there was one in charge of the ship he was captive in.

As one of the chief scientists in the Winged Hussars, he’d been in charge of the efforts to reproduce a Ghost-like AI. It didn’t help that the artificial lifeform hadn’t let him see its code directly; instead, it provided copies in common galactic programming languages. He had to assume Ghost was sabotaging the efforts to reproduce itself, or at least not cooperating as much as it could, although he had no idea why.

“So,” he said, “I can’t command you. Maybe I can pick your brain?” He pushed back over to the box and reached a hand inside. A language sphere appeared, and he entered a command.

“Report Status.”


“Ha,” he laughed, and typed.

“Display options for shutdown.”


“Kuso kurae,” he spat. He took a calming breath and tried some other options.

* * *

Avenger One, Nearing Target Ship, Beta Cephei System

“Dr. Sato,” Commander Frank Earl transmitted, “are you there? Can you hear me?”

“Yes,” a voice said, after a few tense seconds of waiting. The voice was a little thin and shaky. “I hear you quite clearly. How is this possible?”

“We—my squad and I—are off the port beam of the ship you’re on. We’re here to rescue you. We followed you here through hyperspace.”

“Excellent. I must say, I was getting very hungry. When I entered the ship, I didn’t intend to stay for as long as I have. I must admit to being under-supplied.”

Typical scientist, Commander Earl growled to himself. He checked his monitors. All of his squad seemed to be in good shape, although quite of few of his troops had elevated respiration and heart rates. Not surprising, since they were mounted on the bottom of two Avenger bombers that were being flown by aliens that looked something like otters or seals. SEALs—from the old military group—he wouldn’t have had an issue with. His folks were professionals and enjoyed working with other pros. But animals that looked like they should be in an ocean somewhere eating oysters? He shook his head. It was a crazy universe.

His suit was mounted to the outboard weapons station on the bomber’s right wing. Two more of his unit were next to him, with three more mounted to the port wing. He was the closest to the target ship and had the best view of it. It looked a lot like Pegasus, although without all the easy access ports—shuttle bays, airlocks, and the like—which would have made his mission a whole lot easier.

“Is there anyone with you?” Earl asked.

“No, just me.”

“You haven’t seen anyone else?”

“Any people? No.”

“No one hijacked the ship?”

“No,” he said, then gave a little cough that sounded put out. “I was investigating some of the systems onboard, as Colonel Cromwell permitted, and something I did activated a program. That initiated a navigational program I haven’t been able to stop.”

Well, that helped. It would be easier to get into the ship if no one was shooting at him, at least. Speaking of entry… “Dr. Sato,” Earl called. “How exactly did you get into the ship?”

“I entered through a maneuvering thruster nozzle. My bots opened the maintenance access hatch inside the nozzle. The design is the same on all the Egleesius ships. However, I suspect that entrance will be denied to you now that the ship is operational. You would not survive a thruster firing, even in a CASPer. I did notice there were some holes from what appeared to be combat damage on the bow. Your suits are smaller than mine; you might be able to slip through one of them.”

Dammit. Earl was not going to send his folks through a maneuvering thruster nozzle. If there were other forces on the ship—whether Sato said there were or not—all they’d have to do was tweak the system, and his people would be cooked in their own juices. The holes from combat damage were possibilities, though, and would be easier than cutting their way into an armored warship. Earl switched frequencies to the command net. “Avenger One, Commander Earl,” he transmitted. “We have good comms with our errant scientist and are ready for final approach.”

“Understood,” Thorb replied. “We heard. We will drop your men off near the bow and Avenger Two will drop the other half off near amidships, as planned.”

“Roger,” Earl replied. His section would investigate the holes Sato found, while the other fire team—several of whom were qualified engineers—looked for alternate entry points. There were too many things that could go wrong with trying to squeeze the skeleton crew members they had on the Arion into the ship through battle damage holes. If there were a way for one of the crewmembers to slit their suit and expose themselves to vacuum, a civilian would find it. And getting them over to the ship without a docking port? He couldn’t imagine hanging a civilian from the weapons station of a tactical bomber, although the thought of it made him smile. No, they needed a good method of entry.

The bombers split up, with Avenger Two dropping back as Avenger One slid closer to the bow. The bomber closed the distance faster than Earl would have liked, and he had an image of becoming the meat in a metal sandwich as the bomber slammed into the cruiser. The bigger ship got closer, fast, and within seconds, it filled his monitors. Just as he was about to say something to the pilot—who hopefully was still in control and saw the impending collision—the bomber’s maneuvering thrusters flared, and their closure rate slowed. The larger ship continued to approach, and Earl regretted not updating his will before they left New Warsaw, but then their relative motion ceased with the bomber holding position about six feet from the larger ship.

“You know our CASPers have thrusters, right?” he asked over his comm system. “You could have dropped us off further out like we briefed.”

“Just wanted to get you close,” Thorb replied. “Detaching now. Good hunting.”

Stupid seals. Or otters. Whatever they are. Earl had just enough time for the thought, then his suit was released from the weapons station, and a blast of compressed air pushed him away from the bomber. He spun slightly and activated his magnetic boots as his feet touched down on the hull of the cruiser.

“All right,” he said over the squad’s tactical net. “Fire Team One, spread out and let’s see if we can find the holes Sato said he saw. Fire Team Two, look for alternate entry points or methods. Preferably something we can attach a shuttle to.”

Earl began walking across the surface of the ship to search his section of the bow. The ship didn’t appear much different from other ships he’d walked across, and he saw a number of access panels and plates that likely covered equipment or weapons that extruded in battle, like close-in anti-missile lasers.

“Found them,” Sergeant Roberts called after a few minutes of searching, “but you’re not going to like them, sir.”

Great, Earl thought as he transited to Roberts’ location. Nothing like knowing he wasn’t going to like something even before he saw it. It only took him a few minutes to get there, and when he saw it, he had to agree. He didn’t like it. There were several holes, but even the biggest one wasn’t enough to get someone in a spacesuit through without tearing the suit on its jagged edges. The hole looked like something had detonated inside the hull—the blast had pushed outward, so the points were facing up. They could try to trim off the edges…

He measured it again and sighed. They might get a civilian through it, but there was no way a CASPer was getting through the hole without widening it. Dammit. “We’re not getting in up here without cutting,” he commed. “Any luck finding an opening back there?”

“Sorry, sir, no joy so far,” First Sergeant Ivkovich replied. “Lots of ports and exterior plating on the hull, but none that look like they’re able to be opened from the outside. If there’s a way in, I think you need someone on the inside to open it for you.”

Earl shook his head. He’d had a feeling the mission was too easy. “Dr. Sato, Commander Earl. Do you have any idea how to open an access panel or airlock so we can get to you?”

“No, Commander Earl, I haven’t seen anything like that. If you could just drop some food down through the hole, though, I’ll be able to get it. That’s all I really need for now.”

“Dr. Sato, I don’t think you understand. We’re not here as a resupply mission for you; we’re here to take you off and put a skeleton crew aboard to bring the ship back to New Warsaw.”

“I’m sorry, Commander Earl, but I don’t think that will be possible.”

“Which? Getting you off or getting the crew on?”

“I don’t think turning this ship around is an option. At least, I haven’t been able to figure out how to do it, anyway. The computer system is…elegant. Incredibly well written. Alexis will want to know more about it. I need time to understand it. This ship is following some kind of a preprogrammed course. Right now, it appears to be making the calculations for a jump to Plugy’s Star.”

“How do you know that?” Earl asked.

“It’s complicated. I doubt you’d be able to figure it out yourself.”

“Tell you what,” Earl said, focusing on not grinding his teeth, “why don’t you let the experts in the crew we brought be the judge of that. Come let us in, and we’ll get the crew in there to look.”

“I’m sorry,” Sato replied. “I don’t know how to open a way in for you. I’m not sure there is one. The ship closed the entrance through the thruster port.”

The ship closed it? The lack of food must be getting to him—he’s getting slaphappy. Earl snarled in frustration. He’d been in the spaceship assault business for 25 years, and there was one thing he knew—he was getting into this ship. “All right, boys and girls,” he said on the squad net, “if there isn’t a way in, we’ll just have to make our own. Johnson and Kowalski, get the cutters from the bomber, and let’s make an entry port before this damn ship decides to do something annoying like jump back to hyperspace.”

The pilot of Avenger One had apparently been listening to the squad net, because the bomber began drifting toward them, and the bomb bay doors—where they had stowed their cutting gear—were opening. The two troopers he had ordered went to the bomber and got the specialized cutting equipment.

“Okay, Avenger One,” Earl called once they had all the gear magnetically locked to the skin of the cruiser, “we have all our gear. If you want to go back to the Arion for the crew we’re going to put aboard, we should have an entryway cut into the ship within an hour or so.”

“See you soon!” Thorb exclaimed as the bomber pulled away from the ship. The second bomber reported it was headed back, too.

Within a few minutes, Earl’s crew had the laser cutter set up. While it was annoying to have to cut their way in, at least they didn’t have to do it under combat conditions. Earl couldn’t remember the last time he had forcibly entered a ship without having to do it while people were shooting at him. Probably when he was first learning the trade as a cadre member. He chuckled. In other words, he’d never done it as a qualified merc.

“We’re ready,” Kowalski said.

“Good,” Earl replied. “Get it going, then. We’re not getting paid by the hour.”

The trooper flipped the switch, and a laser beam flicked on and began cutting through the skin of the ship.

Earl was watching the trooper make the cut, so he saw the hole appear in the center of Kowalski’s chest as the ship jumped to hyperspace.

* * * * *

Chapter Six

Crissy Field, San Francisco, Earth

Major Good of the Golden Horde smiled as he looked at the Golden Gate Bridge spanning San Francisco Bay. He had never seen the icon before, and, while it wasn’t used much anymore due to the changing nature of vehicular traffic, it was still an impressive sight. Even more impressive, though, was the mass of people thronging Crissy Field. Thousands, maybe more than ten thousand, had gathered because the word had gotten out that there would be a supplemental signup for government aid.

While detractors derisively called the supplemental assistance program “Shit” due to its initials, a large portion of Earth’s population—most scholars estimated it at over 60% of the population, although government statistics said it was only 3% at any given time—relied on the Stop Hunger Today program to help put food on the table. As the program was largely paid for by taxes on the merc industry, it was currently unfunded, with no identified income in the foreseeable future. There were a lot of hungry, and therefore unhappy, people on Earth.

The people waiting at Crissy Field had been milling around for several hours in the hot sun, and tempers were beginning to fray. While some members of the crowd had left when the promised benefits hadn’t arrived on schedule, most of them had nowhere better to go than back to their government-funded Tri-V displays, and they were willing to wait as long as needed for the promised handout.

An hour ago, the people he had hired had begun walking through the throng, handing out signs. “Mercs Put Food on the Table” and “Bring Back the Mercs” read some; “Yesterday, Iran; Today, San Francisco,” read others, with pictures showing the nuke-blasted ruins of Tehran and the ever-increasing lines at the missions and soup kitchens in downtown San Francisco. With food prices soaring, a growing number of people were homeless as it became a choice of whether to buy groceries or pay the rent.

Within a few minutes, the mood of the crowd had begun to sour as their anger found an outlet, and they had someone to blame. It was the aliens’ fault. They had kicked the mercenaries out but hadn’t funded the programs the mercenaries’ incomes had supported. Several of the people who had passed out signs began speaking with megaphones. Major Good didn’t have to listen; he had written the speeches and knew what they said. The speakers whipped the crowd into a frenzy, blaming the Merc Guild and the government for failing to provide for them. After a few minutes, the leader noted the newly-revitalized shopping district just to the south of them, in the area that used to house the Presidio, was full of food and wealth. Crying, “Give us our due!” the leader jogged up toward the first of the shops. Several individuals followed, then a few groups of ten, then hundreds, then the entire mass moved up the hill, not wanting to miss out on their share of the loot.

Major Good smiled again. It had only taken 500 credits to buy the materials and hire the people the Gray Wolves had found for him, and he had tens of thousands of credits at his disposal. He began reviewing where to send his instigators next.

* * *

SOGA HQ, Sao Paulo, Brazil, Earth

“Yes?” Peepo asked, looking up from her slate. “My aide said you had something that couldn’t wait. What is it?”

“I wanted to discuss with you what your intentions are for re-establishing the Stop Hunger Today program,” Izabel Da Silva said. A tall, dark-skinned woman, Da Silva was a native Brazilian and the Secretary of the General Assembly of Earth—in name only. She was well aware how little power she had in the current administration, and how easily she could be removed if it served the purposed of the ‘powers that be.’

“What is this program,” Peepo asked, “and what does it mean to me?”

“For many decades, the taxes on our mercs have supported the guaranteed government income many of our people subsist on. It is a critical program that supports the disadvantaged across the planet. Without this income, we have nothing to pay our citizens, and they are beginning to become disaffected.”

“I’m sorry,” Peepo said. She kept her seat, having realized in earlier conversations with Da Silva that she hated looking up to the woman. “What do you mean by guaranteed government income? What do the people do to earn or deserve it?”

“It’s a basic right,” Da Silva replied. “Everyone should have a basic income, regardless of their situation. The taxes on the mercenaries help support the rest of the people in the manner to which they’ve become accustomed. The program is an excellent means of redistributing the wealth of the mercs.”

“So, your people don’t do anything, and you pay them for it?”

“Of course,” Da Silva said. “They deserve it.”

“But they don’t do anything.”

“They shouldn’t have to. The mercenaries make so much from their off-world jaunts that they can afford to share some with those who don’t have anything.”

“Even if those people don’t do anything?” Talking to Humans made Peepo’s head hurt more than when she spoke to Jeha. At least the Jeha usually made sense.

“They shouldn’t have to do anything,” Da Silva repeated. “History has shown we go down a bad road once we start drawing lines about which group of our neighbors that suffers from hunger or poverty are unworthy of our help or undeserving of our assistance. Some can’t do anything. Besides, there is plenty to go around. Why should they have to do something to get their subsidized income?”

Peepo shook her head. “I don’t understand you Humans. You pay people to do nothing, so others can do the work for them and support them?”

“Of course. Don’t you?”

“No. We don’t. If you want to eat, you work. We have had a difficult time getting your people to sign up for the new mercenary organizations we are recruiting for. I suggest you tell your constituents they need to work if they want to eat, and you can let them know we are recruiting. As your people are untrained, they will be making the Merc Guild minimum, but that is still more than what most make on this sorry planet.”

“They will not like this.”

“Well, that is too bad. If they want credits—if they want to eat—I won’t hear any more about how my recruiters are missing their quotas. I have jobs for the people who want them. Let me rephrase that. I have jobs for the people who want to eat.”

“What should we do with those who can’t or don’t want to work?”

“If they don’t have family to support them, they will do what the unemployable do in the rest of the galaxy. They will starve.”

Da Silva didn’t say anything; she just stood looking at Peepo with her mouth open.

“If there is nothing more,” Peepo said, “I will ask you to leave. I am busy and have much to do.”

Peepo nodded and a Besquith guard stepped forward to take Da Silva by the arm and lead her to the door. Peepo could see her mouth still hanging open as the door shut on her.

* * *

Gates of Heaven Government Self-Help Highrise, Little Rock, Arkansas, United States District, Earth

“There ain’t no cheese left!” Mercedes screamed from the kitchen of the three-room luxury “leg up” model condo.

“You don’t think I know dat?” Justin Bieber Charles yelled back. He’d hated who his mother named him after as soon as he was old enough to realize the implications, so he’d always gone by Jus.

“Kids is gonna be hungry when dey get home, Jus.”

“You don’t think I know dat, too? Fuck woman, I stood in line to get a SHIT voucher for six hours yesterday, and they run out just before I got one.”

“Then go back,” she snapped, “and do it earlier dis time!”

“Why don’ you get off yo’ lazy ass and wait in line youself,” he mumbled.

“Wha’ you say?” Jus almost repeated himself, then stopped. She’d stabbed him two years ago when he’d back-talked her at the wrong time of the month.

“Lazy, good fer nutin’ mercs,” he said louder. She grunted. He heard plastic opening and knew she was probably eating the last of the soy-bologna. He sighed. His dad had a job once, when he was little, back in ‘90, he thought. 2190 was a lot of years ago. The government gave you enough of everything now; why work? Jobs were a pain in the ass.

His favorite show, Vomit Comet, was almost over. It was a game show where people who’d never been in space were fed a huge meal, then taken up in a shuttle to orbit, where they did various challenges, all involving acrobatics. The last one to throw up won a prize. As each contestant hurled their mostly-undigested meals all over the padded cargo bay, those who were still in the running had to move through the huge globs of flying puke. It was hilarious.

As a further bonus, home viewers with premium accounts could bet on the winner. Everyone who was right got a 20-credit SHIT voucher. Jus had a premium account, thanks to the government-run “Entertainment for Success” initiative, and he’d bet on one of the two still going. A 20-credit voucher would get Mercedes off his ass until he could figure something out.

She came out of the kitchen with, sure enough, the last of their soy-bologna between a couple slices of pseudobread. She’d added one of the last packages of soy chips as well. He thought about asking for a bite, but decided against it.

“Who winnin?’” she asked around a huge bite.

“One a da ones I bet on!”

“No shit! You ain’t as dumb as you look. Whichun?”

“Dat one named Cogswallop, or somedin.”

“Okay, Jose and Cogswell,” the host was saying in his heavily-stained spacesuit. A special static visor kept it clean, so you could see his perfect teeth and expensive hairdo. “You are the last two contestants on Vomit Comet. The judges ruled that since that barf never left Jose’s mouth, he wasn’t disqualified. So you’re still in!”

The camera zoomed in on the face of the man who, despite being splattered in puke and looking like he’d been gutshot, still managed to grin.

“The last challenge is simple.” The host produced two tubes clearly marked Vegemite. “All you have to do is eat this while spinning in these three-axis chairs!”

“Oh, dis gonna be good!” Mercedes said, licking soy-mayo from her fingers. She even let Jus have a couple of her chips. The final challenge began, and then the Tri-V flickered. “Wat wus dat?”

“It did that earlier, when you was in the shitter.” It flickered again, the picture cutting out for a second. “Hey!” he said and stood up, just as Jose was looking like he was finally losing it for real. You had to watch the show through the last commercial to be eligible to win. “Don’t you fuckin’ dare!” The picture disappeared.

“CALL FOR SERVICE” appeared on the scream.

“NO!” he screamed. He picked up the coffee table and threw it though the words. All throughout the housing project, walls were rocking as people threw furniture, yelled, and generally freaked out.

In minutes, people were overwhelming the customer service numbers for the MegaVox Tri-V company, which only had a few dozen customer service people on staff. Their Tri-V sets were made on-planet from off-world components and boasted a 99.995% reliability rating. In a commercial, the owner often showed the very first unit they’d made, in his office, which had been running continuously for 22 years. In the span of 72 hours, 62 million MegaVox model A99 three-meter Tri-V’s failed, and remote diagnostics could not fix the problem on any of them.

Riots started soon after, as the MegaVox A99 three-meter Tri-V was the most popular of the four models government supplier FedMart distributed to citizens. The MegaVox headquarters in Chattanooga burned to the ground shortly after the president ran a public service announcement explaining it was an uncontrollable issue with a single chip, but it would require the units to be returned for replacement.

Zeke Avander watched the building burn from his estate high above Chattanooga on his own Tri-V, a NuGlo model. He puffed on his cigar and grinned. The main processor for the MegaVox Tri-V in question was made by a HecSha concern off-planet. The same controller was used for a lot of things, and it was built on a biological superconductor base he’d helped the HecSha develop while he was a slave.

It had been a small matter to develop a virus that attacked the biological superconductor. Undetectable, too, unless someone happened to look for it. He laughed and closed the doors. There was more work to do.

* * *

EMS Revenge, Hyperspace, Enroute to Golara

“Thank you for coming,” Nigel said as Alexis came onto Revenge through the tube connecting it to Pegasus.

“No problem,” Alexis said with a nod. “You said there was something vital you had to show me?”

“Indeed. If you would follow me?”

“Well, I have to—” she said, but he had pushed off without waiting for an answer and was already traveling down the passageway. He glanced back as he got to the first corner to see if she had followed; her options were to either follow or float at the lock looking awkwardly at the duty officer, and if there was one thing he knew she didn’t like, it was not being in command of a situation. The only way she could regain control was to catch up with him…so he didn’t stop to chat until they reached their destination.

He opened the door to his office with a flourish. Alexis started through the door, but grabbed hold of one of the doorjambs when she saw the interior—the small conference table had been re-set as a formal dining table, complete with electric candles.

“Uh, I don’t know what you’re thinking…”

“Come, come,” Nigel said, gently detaching her hand from the bulkhead and guiding her to one of the chairs. “I was only thinking we should have dinner. Besides, tomorrow is a big day, and your staff said you hadn’t eaten yet. You need your nourishment.”

Nigel smiled. From the look on her face, her investigation to find the person who had talked to his staff when she returned to Pegasus would make the Inquisition look gentle. The staff member was in deep trouble. Ah well, such is life.

“I don’t have time for this,” she said, pausing at the chair.

“Of course you do. Everyone needs to eat, even battle-hardened fleet commanders.” He grinned at her as he locked the magnets on his boots to the deck for leverage, then placed his hands on her shoulders to guide her down into the seat. He found her shoulders to be well muscled and, after a moment, she acquiesced and sat. Her own shoes gave a little click as they attached to the deck.

“I apologize,” he said, taking his seat. “This would be easier if we had gravity, but the person driving the bus has kept us in zero gravity. Still,” he added, gesturing to the spread, “this turned out pretty well.”

Her gaze swept the table, and he could see her eyes widen in appreciation of the effort that had gone into the dinner. There were a number of dishes in plastic bags, clipped to the table to keep them in place. Silverware and various drinks were held in brackets, everything from water to the last bottle of wine he had aboard. He would owe his stewards some extra time off when they hit port again. A lot of time off.

“What is the meaning of this?” she asked.

Although Nigel heard anger in her voice—he had seen it was her only method of dealing with a feeling of lack of control—there was also amazement in it, and he wondered how long it had been since someone had taken her to dinner. As little as he knew she allowed herself time to relax, he suspected that period would best be measured in decades.

“Even those of us who have made hatred into their life’s work must still find time to let it go. Without love, after all, how does one measure hate?”

Her jaw dropped open as she tried to process that. All she’d ever seen of him—all anyone had ever seen of him—was the outward façade of the alien killer he allowed them to see. Nothing had changed—he still hated most aliens, especially the MinSha, who he intended to utterly destroy—but something inside of him changed when he was around Alexis. He found he was able to love again. Not like what he’d had with some of the bimbos in college, either; it was something deeper, something like what he’d seen between his grandfather and grandmother, sitting on the porch of their hacienda in the countryside away from Houston. He’d wanted the same kind of relationship when he’d been a child, but he’d forgotten about it in his quest to rid the galaxy of the MinSha.

It had returned recently with his near-constant exposure to Alexis.

He wanted it; no, he needed it. It was the only way he could ever be whole again. Sure, she was hard. She had to be to manage her empire among the stars. But he had guessed there was also a softer side, which she had bottled up a long time ago…kind of like he had. It would be difficult to get it out of her…but what worthwhile reward came without hard work?

He smiled. “There are some coordination issues I wanted to go over with you for tomorrow’s attack,” he said, putting her back into a realm where she was more comfortable. “I thought we might discuss the plan one more time over dinner.”

“Oh…okay.” She stammered slightly from the mental whiplash at the change of direction the conversation had taken as her brain struggled to process everything he’d presented. He watched, smiling, as she shook her head and regained control of herself. The little girl he’d momentarily glimpsed inside her was gone, subsumed into the hardcore mercenary commander, but it was too late. He’d seen that it existed. “What did you need to discuss?” she asked.

“I wanted to talk about how the fleet was going to support the actual attack, once the highguard is defeated,” he replied, handing her one of the bags clipped to the table. “Try this,” he added. “It’s wazwani jheenga—char-grilled spicy king prawns—a local Kashmiri delicacy. I think you’ll like it.”

“How…how did you get this?”

“We brought some with us when we left Earth,” Nigel replied. “Sadly, though, that is the last of it.” He shrugged and gave her a half-smile. “Still, it is better to have it now, than to have a stray laser bolt go through the ship’s mess tomorrow and destroy it untasted, isn’t it?”

With that, he turned the conversation back to safe topics like the upcoming battle and her plans for the Hussars, while sharing the best of his home country’s food with her. She was, as he expected, a delightful dinner companion. The highlight of the night was her using a plate to represent the shipyard, and a bunch of shrimp tails as starships, all floating over the table. That little girl smile was there, occasionally, framed in a beautiful face surrounded by hair as pure white as hyperspace. All too soon, it was over, and he was guiding her back to her ship.

They reached the bow and found the passageway to Pegasus unmanned. “Where is your duty officer?” Alexis asked. Her voice sounded wary again.

“I commed ahead,” Nigel replied. “I suggested he take a break for a few minutes. I thought you would be more comfortable if he were not around to hear me thank you for a wonderful first date.”

“First…first date?” she sputtered. “That wasn’t—”

“You can call it what you like,” Nigel replied, giving her his best grin. “If calling it a staff meeting puts you more at ease, please do so. However…” he let his voice trail off.

“What?” she asked after a moment.

“However, it had to be a date.” The grin widened to his best rogue’s smile. “I remember; there were candles.” He knew he had won—the blush that rose from her collar to sweep across her face gave her away.

“Nigel, you’re cute and all...” He lifted an eyebrow as she struggled to talk. “But I’m almost old enough to be your mother.”

“Then we are in agreement,” Nigel said, making Alexis’ mouth fall open slightly, “for I have always liked older women. I will see you tomorrow after the battle.”

She opened her mouth to say something else, but he put a finger over her lips to silence her.

“Hush,” he said, leaning in to kiss her on the cheek. “That is all that needs to be said for today. Neither of us will fall tomorrow. We both have too much to live for.” Her head turned suddenly, bringing their lips together. Tentative at first, then with a passion that shocked him.

She pulled back after a moment, looking stunned both at what he’d done, and what she’d done in reply. “Your crew is expecting you back,” he added, locking his boots to the deck. He gently turned her to face her ship and gave her a gentle push that carried her down the connecting tube in the zero gravity. “Off you go.”

* * *

EMS Pegasus, Hyperspace, en route to Golara

Stupid woman, she chastised herself repeatedly as she floated down deck after deck, taking the turns in each companionway with savage strength. Crewmembers who saw her gave way without thought. Commander Alexis Cromwell was best avoided when angry, and, at the moment, she appeared to be in a grand rage.

She went to her quarters, not trusting herself to go to her wardroom because she’d have to go through the CIC first.

<Why are you so upset?>

Shut up.” Silence for a moment.

<This is not the first time you’ve experienced sexual arousal with a male.> She tried ignoring the nosy AI. <Although it has been nine years.>

Don’t you have a calculation to make or something?

<Does this subject make you uncomfortable?>

You are a machine,” she replied. “Your curiosity makes me uncomfortable.” She reached her quarters without any more comments. She really wanted to slam the door, but it was a standard sliding light-duty air-tight door, like on every officer’s stateroom aboard Pegasus.

“Damn him,” she said over and over. “Why did I have to kiss him? That will only encourage the Arab pervert!” She flipped into her chair and sighed. Sometimes she hated her job. One of the storied Four Horsemen of Earth. Maybe the strongest, probably the richest. More, only the Winged Hussars still had their home. She needed to stay the course. Nigel’s eyes sparkled in her mind’s eye, as did that little smile of his. “Fuck.”

Ghost was right; he wasn’t the first man to excite her. There’d been others. Six, to be precise. None of them from within her ranks. “Don’t court within the Hussars if you don’t plan to marry.” Her mothers’ words came to her unbidden. Marrying had never entered her sphere of interest. Now, at more than 40, she hadn’t thought it ever would.

Those six occasions for love…well, sex anyway. Always one-night stands, never in New Warsaw, and never anywhere she’d be recognized. Alexis had gone as far as using nanites to change her hair color temporarily. Minus the white hair, the jet-black Winged Hussars uniform, and the colonel’s wings, she was just another beautiful woman.

The men were always average guys she’d meet at a bar. Once, the last time, she’d spotted a man at a merc guild social, found out who he was, found him, and seduced him at his favorite drinking hole. He was nice, fun, and very grateful. She’d considered seeing him again, for a moment. But the next morning he looked at her with the possible twinkle of recognition. She slipped out while he was in the shower and never returned. That was nine years ago, and Ghost was just as curious then as now.

“So, what are you going to do about it?” she asked herself. They were less than 24 hours from arriving in the Golara system. She admitted to herself she didn’t know what to do, so she went back to work completing her preparations. The wazwani jheenga had been very tasty.

* * * * *

Chapter Seven

Maki Frigate Crisp Breeze, Highguard, Golara System

Being a sensor tech in the Golara System was just about the most boring job in the galaxy, thought Maki sensor tech Gseeh on the frigate Crisp Breeze. The FOB set up in the system was well situated, and it seemed like the Mercenary Guild had hired half the space navy units in the galaxy. Credits were flowing like a waterfall. The joke was, if General Peepo took a shit, it would come out red diamonds.

Up until a few days ago, sensor sweeps took some work. There’d been hundreds of ships in the system, with bunches of them arriving and leaving every day. Then several fleets formed up, seven of them, and filed through the stargate in one huge operation. Gseeh and the other sensor techs remaining in highguard watched in amazement. No one had seen a fleet that big in their lives.

“The Humans are done,” another tech from Whispering Fern had transmitted. Gseeh had agreed; it was a decisive move.

The fleets were gone now, though, and boredom had set in.

Gseeh was an hour from the end of his shift and was already thinking about some warm grubs and maybe a Tri-V comedy when he got a deep space relay signal. He tapped the telemetry control, and examined the data.

“A battleship?” he wondered aloud. The size of the reading was about right; the energy was strange. Plus, there weren’t any battleships in the system. Two were under construction in the shipyard as robots busily labored to complete them. What was this signal?

Whispering Fern,” he called to his fellow sensor tech. “What are you reading on monitor V93?”

“V93?” the distant tech asked. “Checking.” The line was quiet for a time. “Looks like a battleship?”

“Yeah, that’s what I’m reading. It’s about to go into orbit around Golara 3. I went back in the sensor logs for a week; there is nothing that’s come into the system nearly that size, especially nothing that’s expected at Golara 3. Entropy, what could it be?”

“I don’t know, Crisp Breeze. You going to report it to fleet system command?”

“Yeah,” Gseeh said. He looked at the chronometer; 50 minutes until the change of watch. Why does everything happen to me? He looked across the CIC to where the officer of the watch floated, his tail curled around the command center. With a sigh, he got the officer’s attention.

* * *

EMS Pegasus, Golara System

“Looks like the Maki are being more thorough than usual,” Paka said after Flipper, Pegasus’ chief of sensor ops, informed her of the activity.

“Report?” Alexis ordered.

“We’re picking up signals from a pair of active seeker drones headed toward Golara 3. Flipper thinks the Maki highguard might have spotted us dropping behind the planet.” She gave a very Human shrug. “I would tend to agree.”

“More alert,” Xander, the TacCom—tactical commander—said, “but just as overly cautious. They should have sent an escort frigate, or at least a cutter heavy on sensors.”

“Sloppy,” Glick, the SitCon—situational controller—agreed. The Bakulu’s job was to sit astride the CIC and manage the flow of operations, freeing up the XO and captain to fight the ship.

“Orders, Commander?” Paka asked.

“What’s Revenge’s status?”

“Colonel Shirazi reports they’re ready,” Paka said. Alexis nodded and checked the clock. They would have only needed three more hours.

“Do our sensor drones have a complete picture of the system?”

“Affirmative,” Glick confirmed.

<Probability is high that the system’s defenses will react to our appearance with maximum force.> Alexis nodded to herself, considering what Ghost had just told her privately.

“That only makes sense,” she agreed. She looked over to see Paka watching patiently, the XO recognizing the detached look on her commander’s face. “Tell Colonel Shirazi we’re going ahead of schedule.”

* * *

System Control, Golara System

“We’re getting data from the drones sent by Crisp Breeze.” The Maki commodore looked up at the announcement. Located a kilometer from the vast shipyards, the control center was a big cross, with a sphere on the end of each arm. The entire station rotated on its center, where it was attached to a cylindrical docking/warehouse facility.

Never intended as a tactical control, the facility had originally served as construction headquarters and shops for the assembly of components requiring gravity. It also now housed quite a few of the system’s garrison troops.

“What is the report?”

A Tri-V in the control center came alive. In the middle was Golara 3, a gas giant which barely deserved the term “giant.” The view moved quickly, taken from a drone, and it showed a fleeting view of a ship before a flash of light, and the view disappeared.

“Replay, enhance,” the commodore ordered. The image reappeared and was manipulated until the unmistakable view of Pegasus, the flagship of the Winged Hussars, was visible. “That isn’t possible,” he said with a hiss. “By the flames of eternity, that isn’t possible!

“Confirmed,” the TacCom said. “That is the EMS Pegasus.”

“How is it here?” the commodore demanded. Nobody replied. “I want answers.”

“The ship is under power,” the sensor tech said. “It is en route to the shipyard.”

“Dispatch the fleet,” the commodore ordered.

“Commodore, most of the fleet isn’t manned,” the TacCom reminded.

Then send what is manned!” he screeched and threw a slate at the TacCom. “Do you know how many Maki have been murdered by that ship? No? Thousands. Dispatch the fleet, now!” The shipyard display showed ships beginning to move. “Recall the rest of the crews, too. I don’t trust these Winged Hussars.”

* * *

EMS Pegasus, Golara System

“They bit,” Glick said, turning from Flipper’s sensor station to give the captain a pseudopod ‘thumbs’ up. “Their fleet is mobilizing.”

“In a half-assed manner,” Alexis said, looking at the Tri-V. Flipper had identified 61 enemy ships, but only 14 were under power. “Why does Peepo keep using these Maki idiots?”

“Don’t let Commander Yoshuka hear you say that,” Paka said. “You’ll hurt his feelings.”

“He doesn’t have feelings; that’s why he’s the Hussars’ third in command.”

Paka grinned at her commander, who turned to Flipper. “How long before the ships responding are committed?” Alexis asked.

“I’d say five minutes.” the Selroth sensor tech informed her. The aquatic humanoid was wearing his water-filled helmet to make combat operations more efficient. Alexis nodded and watched the clock. When five minutes had passed, she took a deep breath and spoke.

“Orders to Shadowfax, Hippogriff, and Manticore; detach. Here we go.”

“Acknowledged, Commander,” Captain Elizabeth Stacy said from Shadowfax.

“Roger that, Commander,” Captain Donald Thibodeau said from Manticore.

“Acknowledged, Commander,” Captain Dan Corder said from Hippogriff.

Pegasus shuddered three times in rapid succession as the ships released their electro-mechanical grasp on Pegasus. All three ships gently fired their maneuvering thrusters and drifted away from the ship that had carried them from New Warsaw.

“Kick their asses,” Alexis said.

Plan, prepare, strike!” all three ships’ captains chorused. Alexis’ lips skinned back from her perfect teeth.

“Helm,” she said, and Chug looked back at her with one of his three eyestalks. “Three gravities toward the incoming ships. TacCom, coordinate with the squadron and prepare for combat.”

* * *

System Control, Golara System

“Commodore,” the sensor operator exclaimed, “the ship has split into 4 parts.”

“That explains why Crisp Breeze thought it was a battleship,” TacCom said.

“Four ships?”

“Correct, profile suggests three cruisers and a battlecruiser.”

“No escorts?” the commodore demanded. The sensors team all shook their heads. “Fools! How do they expect to screen? Inform the fleet to attack in a single wave. Get as many missiles in the black as possible.”

“Orders relayed.” The commodore sat back and watched the system tactical map, his whiskers flicking. Slowly a smile began to grow. The legendary Winged Hussars finally made a mistake. When he claimed the hulk of Pegasus as a war prize, General Peepo would make him an admiral!

* * *

Maki Cruiser Dappled Bark, Golara System

Captain Heek of the light cruiser Dappled Bark found himself in the unfortunate position of commanding the 14 ships advancing on the Winged Hussars. It was particularly unfortunate because Dappled Bark was the biggest ship in his impromptu squadron.

“The enemy ship is actually four ships, Captain,” the TacCom announced. Heek felt the fur on his tail bottle-brush in fear. Facing Pegasus was bad enough, but four ships?

“Approach profile?” he said. “How much delta-V can we change?”

“No enough,” TacCom said.

“Let’s see them,” Heek ordered. The CIC Tri-V changed from squadron details to a view that showed the edge of Golara 3 and four glimmering points of light, fusion torches burning. The sensor techs worked with the computers, and four images came up. The first was the pointed cigar shape of the Hussars’ command ship; the writing in their language on the nose declared it to be the EMS Pegasus. The next was also a cylindrical warship, its lines speaking of a parentage similar to Pegasus, but without the doors on the nose or quite the girth. This one said EMS Hippogriff. The next was also of similar design, though had a wider, more flattened superstructure. The entire length seemed to sparkle as if it were covered in dew drops. EMS Manticore was on its bow.

The final ship took the longest to resolve. “You won’t believe this, Captain,” the TacCom said as the image finally resolved. It was almost identical to Pegasus. Maybe darker, and with scars from hastily-repaired damage. On the bow was EMS Shadowfax.

“Gods!” Heek exclaimed. “It’s another of those entropy-cursed Pegasus ships!”

“Profile is identical,” the sensor operator confirmed, “though there are no gravity decks, plus a few other cosmetic differences, and its engine EM signatures are different.”

Probably improved, if that’s even possible, Heek thought.

“Orders from the commodore,” the comms officer said. “Engage at range with maximum missile spread.”

Heek nodded slightly. Sound Izlian tactical doctrine. The Hussars’ formidable squadron was heavy, but it lacked escort. Without adequate screening, not even ships like Pegasus and Shadowfax could hope to brunt a missile storm from 14 ships.

“Send my regards to the commodore and acknowledge the order. Inform him we are engaging the Hussars. Squadron, this is Captain Heek, ship killers, continuous fire!” The 14 ships began to rain missiles.

* * *

EMS Pegasus, Golara System

“Missile launch,” Glick said. “Oh boy, do we have missile launch!”

“Marking at least 100 birds inbound and counting,” Flipper said. “They’re still launching.”

“Too soon,” Paka said.

“Guess they were excited,” Xander agreed. “They probably got eyes on Shadowfax.

“We’ll see if we can make that a memorable sight.”

“Launch, Commander?” Hoot, the Buma comms officer, asked. His head was turned 180 degrees to look at her, eyes massive, though not in fear. The owl-like Buma’s eyes were always huge.

“Hold,” Alexis said, “let them get it out of their system.” The Maki had launched at nearly four light seconds’ distance. In space, a missile’s range was only determined by its sensor’s reach. The Maki missiles were rather smart, as missiles went. They could independently target or use another friendly ship’s guidance. The missiles’ fuel only allowed for two minutes of constant acceleration at a thousand gravities, though, and then it coasted, reserving the last few seconds of fuel for its final course corrections.

The first missiles went into coast phase, traveling better than 1,200 kilometers per second. They’d cross the remaining distance in about four minutes.

“They’ve stopped firing,” Xander said.

“Wow,” Paka said, shaking her head. “Damn near emptied their racks.”

“I have 1,590 missiles in the black,” Flipper said. The CIC was deathly silent. It seemed even the air circulation fans were afraid of making too much noise. Alexis nodded; she was counting the seconds.

“That’s a good proportion of their magazines,” Xander said. Alexis gave a tiny smile as she watched the time. The first counter expired.

“Begin firing, all ships,” she ordered. The ship reverberated as missiles were ejected into space via puffs of gas. There was no noise when they ignited their engines; they were already dozens of meters away. Wave after wave of red darts shot away from all four ships, though not as many from Manticore.

Pegasus had 10 missile tubes in two rings of five, one fore and one aft. They launched a salvo every 10 seconds. Her sister ship, Shadowfax, had been refitted to match, but her launchers were newer and could fire every eight seconds. Hippogriff, a Steed-class battlecruiser, was what most spacers called a missile barge. She put the Egleesius-class to shame with five rings of eight launchers that could fire a salvo every five seconds. Manticore had a meager six missile tubes of the same design as the Steed-class. Ironically, she still launched more missiles per minute than the Egleesius.

As a squadron, the four ships were launching around 700 missiles a minute. Of course, they didn’t have the missiles to maintain that rate for even two minutes. Alexis gave them 30 seconds, which put 325 missiles into the black.

As soon as the last missile fired, she gave her next order. “All ships, formation Talon-9. Manticore, launch! Drone control, launch.”

“Launching,” Captain Thibodeau from Manticore confirmed.

“Launching,” Ghost replied in its job as the drone controller on Pegasus.

The four ships stopped thrusting toward the enemy and rotated on their axis so they were now facing 80 degrees away from their angle of forward momentum. While they were aligning, Manticore launched her drone contingent. She only had a few missile launchers because she was one of the Hussars’ five drone carriers. What Heek had observed as sparkles were the 120 drones clamped to the outside of the ship’s hull. A second later, the 30 drones Pegasus was carrying joined the others.

Alexis’ grin was savage now. A small part of her wished they’d had another week’s work on Shadowfax, then she’d have had her drone contingent onboard as well.

Their maneuver complete, the high-G alarm sounded, and, a second later, eight gravities slammed them into their seats as the Hussars’ ships danced on tails of fusion fire.

* * *

Maki Cruiser Dappled Bark, Golara System

“The enemy has launched counter missile fire,” the TacCom on Dappled Bark announced, then he laughed. “Captain, only around 300 anti-missiles were fired. That’s not even a quarter of our inbound wave.”

“Fools,” he said, “their only hope was to empty their magazines and pray. Now what hope do they have?”

“Enemy ships are maneuvering at high-G,” the sensor tech called out. “Estimates are eight gravities.” Captain Heed watched his tactical plot, which showed the four Hussars’ ships inside of a three-dimensional sphere representing the missile threat envelope. They rapidly moved out of the sphere. His eyes got wider and wider as the two versions of Pegasus cleared the threat bubble, then the battlecruiser, and then the fourth ship.

“Entropy!” he yelled. “Order Heed to load more ship killers and wait until the Hussars are closer this time.”

“High speed transient fusion drives,” the sensor tech said.

“Drones!” the TacCom exclaimed. Oh gods, Heed thought, the flat ship was a drone carrier. The Winged Hussars’ drones were just as deadly as their ships. “Marking one hundred, check, one-twenty, check, one-fifty drones in the black!”

“Overlap the squadron,” Heed ordered. It was right out of the Izlian tactical manual. Then he wondered, Why did they fire 300 anti-missiles if they were just going to avoid our missiles?

* * *

EMS Pegasus, Golara System

“Maneuver complete,” Chug reported, and the horrible thrust fell off.

“We have cleared their missile threat bubble,” Glick confirmed.

“Roger that,” Alexis said, “Chug, two Gs back to center, please. Xander, charge the spinal mount. Hoot, my regards to Captain Stacy and tell her to fire at will.” On the bow of both Egleesius-class battlecruisers, flower petal-like doors began to open, and the bores glowed.

* * *

Maki Cruiser Dappled Bark, Golara System

“Enemy missiles were not interceptors,” Heed’s TacCom said, turning to look at his captain in dawning horror. On the screen, the Hussars’ missiles had swept through and past the Maki missiles with zero detonations. “They’re ship killers.”

Three hundred ship killers?” Heed said. A scant few minutes ago he’d been laughing at their feeble launch of a quarter what he’d put into the black. He was about to order his own anti-missile fire when he remembered the commodore ordering him to reload ship killers. He had the wrong missiles in his tubes.

“Order the squadron to reload all tubes with anti-missile missiles!” he yelled. “Quickly!”

The missile-heavy Maki ships had an impressive rate of fire and carried lots of missiles in their batteries. The autoloaders could fill the missile tubes very efficiently with either ship killers or anti-missile missiles. They were, however, slow at unloading the missiles if they hadn’t been fired. Deadly slow. Izlian tactical doctrine said you didn’t waste missiles in a pitched battled. If they’d wasted the ones in their tubes, it would have been faster

“Point defense lasers firing!” Heed’s TacCom said, and missiles started to explode.

“Yes!” Heed exclaimed, beginning to think he might make it through the fight after all. A second later, a 40-terawatt particle accelerator beam punched through Dappled Bark bow to stern, completed obliterating the CIC and Captain Heed. The other light cruiser met a similar fate moments later. The Hussars’ missile swarm fell among the confused survivors, killing indiscriminately.

* * *

EMS Pegasus, Golara System

“Enemy squadron has been eliminated,” Glick said.

“Very good,” Alexis said. “Set for cruise. Objective main enemy fleet. Drone control, divert the flight of drones as planned. Hoot, get me Revenge.”

Revenge here,” the familiar rich voice of Nigel Shirazi said. “Fine job, Colonel. My regards.”

“Thank you, Colonel. You can begin your run on the shipyard. I have 30 drones coming in to cover you. ETA…”

<Five minutes>

“ETA five minutes. Good hunting, Asbaran.”

“See you in a few hours…ma’am.” Alexis felt her cheeks warm and turned her attention back to the Tri-V. The first battle was won; it was time to finish the campaign. Surprise, Peepo, you bitch. Hunt me, will you? Your turn.

* * * * *

Chapter Eight

Revenge One, Asbaran Solutions, Golara System

Nigel was slammed to the back of his CASPer as the dropship went to a full six-G acceleration. The dropships could have accelerated faster, but the pilots would have risked knocking his troops unconscious.

“Hey, Guido, how are we looking?” Nigel asked, grunting with the effort of talking under the high G.

“Good,” replied the co-pilot, Lieutenant Phil McCaffrey. “All eight dropships are in formation, and I’ve got the four we brought from the Mjolnir and the four from the Copperheads starboard of us.”

“Five minutes until the drones arrive.”

“I heard,” the co-pilot said. “Unfortunately, we’re going to be visible to them in three minutes. Do you want us to slow down?”

“No,” Nigel said. “Every minute we delay gives them more time to prepare their defenses. The drones will have to catch up.”

“Roger that, Colonel.”

 Nigel spent the time listening to the command channel as the various battles were fought around the system. In what seemed like no time, the co-pilot informed him, “We’re coming into view of the station…holy shit!”


“The shipyards are massive, sir. It’s like what the Hussars have, only much, much bigger. I can see them from here, spread out.”

“Can you see the target?”

“Yes, sir. I see both battleships. They’d be hard to miss.”

“Let’s get there, then. Full speed.”

* * *

System Control, Golara System

“New targets!” the sensor operator exclaimed. “Five…twelve…sixteen smaller targets just appeared from around the curvature of the planet.”

“What?” the commodore asked. “Where? Where did they come from?”

I don’t know! They came from the other side of the planet, but there’s nothing there! I don’t know where they came from!”

“There must be more ships than we were led to believe,” the TacCom said, looking at the data. “These are smaller.”

“Drones?” the commodore asked hopefully. While drones would be bad, at least they would be limited in the damage they could cause.

“No,” the sensor operator exclaimed. “I’ve got 30 drones coming in from the battle where Dappled Bark was destroyed.” Calling it a battle was an overstatement of epic proportions, the commodore thought. “These are different…” the sensor operator added. “They’re bigger…”

“Dropships!” the TacCom yelled. “All shipyard defenses, go active. Destroy the dropships!

* * *

Revenge One, Approaching Space Dock 17, Golara System

“They’re onto us,” Lieutenant McCaffrey announced. “Missile and close-in laser defense systems activating.”

“Where are the drones?” Nigel asked.

“Still one minute out. Stand by for evasive maneuvers!”

Nigel had been in enough drops to know that evasive maneuvers, while painful to withstand, would be limited in duration. The longer the dropship maneuvered, the longer it took to get to the target, and the more chances the defenses had to shoot them, especially when they turned broadside and highlighted themselves as targets. Maneuvers would necessarily be brief, last-ditch things, and they would either defeat the weapons systems targeting them…or they’d be dead.

“Defenses picking up…missiles in the black!

Nigel was slammed from side to side and could hear the dropship’s countermeasures firing.

“Shit!” McCaffrey exclaimed. “Missiles coming from starboard! Shit! Shit! Shit! They got the two lead ships from the Mjolnir!

Nigel winced. The CO and command element of Ragnar’s Reavers was aboard Mjolnir One, and their XO was aboard Mjolnir Two. Since drone support was planned, they had decided to use the newer dropships in the assault. Each of them had room for a whole platoon, but they were less maneuverable. He shook his head. A whole company of troops—more than 40 men and women—had just died.

“More missiles…drones are coming…Shit! Mjolnir Three is gone.” He paused. “The drones wiped out the missile launchers and are obliterating the laser defenses, Colonel, but they got three of the four from Mjolnir and one of ours—Revenge Seven.

That would be one of the platoons from Delta Company. Charlie and Delta were supposed to go onboard the battleship and destroy any marines onboard. “Captain Pasdar,” he said, calling the Charlie Company commander. “Continue your mission with the three platoons you have remaining. If you need reinforcements, let me know.”

Nigel switched to the Reaver’s frequency. “This is Colonel Shirazi. Who is in command of the Reavers?”

“That would be me, I guess,” a voice replied unsteadily after a few seconds. “Sergeant First Class Amunson, sir.”

“I’m calling for reinforcements for you,” Shirazi commed. “I need you to capture the entrance to the ship on your arm and hold it. We can’t have any of the mercs getting onto the ship. Got it?”

“Yes, sir,” Amunson replied. “We will hold the entrance to the ship.” He sounded happier to have direction.

Pegasus, Asbaran Actual,” Nigel commed next. “The Reavers were nearly wiped out in the assault. We’re going to need the reserve down here. Please send the Horde contingent to assist them. Bravo Arm, Dock 22.”

“They’re on their way,” the Pegasus TacCom replied.

The ramp on the back of the dropship started down. “Five seconds,” McCaffrey warned.

Nigel braced himself as he saw the structure of the shipyard facility coming up to meet them, but he was still flung into his straps as the pilot performed the controlled crash of a combat landing. The magnetic locks on the dropship engaged, holding the craft to the facility, and the green light came on.

“Go! Go! Go!” yelled First Sergeant Thomas “Top” Mason as he stood at the ramp, pushing people out if they went too slowly. He followed the last trooper off the dropship, and Nigel followed him out in turn.

Nigel’s eye’s widened slightly as he took in the scale of the shipyard. This was the first assault he’d done on a space station, and while he’d known, intellectually, that it was big, the enormity of the station almost threatened to overwhelm him. Space Dock 17, the facility he was on, was shaped in a giant “U,” with half-mile long arms and a thousand-foot-long connector. The connector section was a massive structure in its own right, housing the administration, mess, and berthing for the facility’s workers, as well as the storage required for materials, tools, shuttles, and the other equipment needed to build the massive warships it produced.

In the center of the “U” rested their prize, the almost-finished Maki battleship, held in place by a variety of tubes, umbilicals, and scaffolding. His system translated the name on the bow as Lavender Grove. He laughed—where did the stupid aliens come up with such dumb names? Yellow warning lights flashed in a number of places around it, warning the shipyard’s crew of impending danger, but that was the only activity he could see; the shipyard workers all appeared to have scampered inside. That was fine…but it was about to get as dangerous inside as it was outside the skin of the new warship.

Nigel looked off to the sides and could see many more similar docks, in a number of directions, including the one where the other nearly-finished battleship was tethered. Flashes showed the battle raged there as well. He felt a shiver go down his back—if the Mercenary Guild had many of these shipyards in operation, humanity would quickly be squashed like tiny bugs. No matter whether they got away with the battleships or not, they had to destroy this facility when they left.

“Fire in the hole,” one of his troopers commed, and his attention returned to the dock he was on as the dropships began lifting off to get the prize crews. The seven Asbaran dropships had landed spread out along the length of the long arms of the dock. Four, including his own, had landed on the “left” arm as he looked at it—Alpha Arm, it was labelled in their planning—with the other three dropships on Bravo Arm on the other side of the battleship.

He watched his troops jetting toward the nearest airlocks. As they reached the airlocks, they placed breaching charges on the outer doors, detonated them, then did the same to the inner doors. Nigel might have felt badly for any of the workers who suddenly found themselves without air, but he thought about all the innocents on Earth who’d been killed by the aliens, and it didn’t bother him so much.

In less than two minutes, most of his troopers had entered the station, except for a few personnel left topside as guards. He nodded to himself. Aside from the loss of the Reavers on the other space dock, the invasion was proceeding according to plan. One of his troopers called out a report of contact with alien troops inside the facility, and he nodded again to himself as he headed for one of the entrances.

It was his favorite part of the assault. Time to kill some aliens. At this point, he didn’t even care if he got paid.

* * * * *

Chapter Nine

Golara System, Emergence Point

The crew of the Maki frigate Evening Dew watched the destruction of the other ships from three light minutes away, helpless to do anything. They and their allies in the frigate Crisp Bloom were on highguard at the emergence point, tasked with providing early warning and interdiction of arriving vessels. It had been a milk run until an hour ago when the Winged Hussars had somehow appeared deep in the system, a seeming impossibility.

“The shipyard is under attack?” Captain Tshi asked.

“Affirmative,” comms replied. “The commodore is losing it. Ships in the fleet are beginning to report ready, albeit slowly.”

Captain Tshi examined the tactical map on the Tri-V and gnashed his teeth. Forty-seven ships remained in the main fleet. All had been unmanned when the Winged Hussars appeared. They were supposed to be part of fleets which would be dispatched against Human settlements after the first six were taken, or relief elements if needed. The crews were all either on the operations station or performing maintenance on their ships. “Entropy-cursed Humans simply excel at picking bad times,” he swore. His TacCom nodded in agreement.

“At least we still have numerical superiority,” the TacCom said.

“Emergence!” the sensor tech said. The captain spun as the Tri-V began adding ships. First five, then 10, then 20, 30; the dots kept appearing until there were 63. All were flashing blue; aggressors.

“I have an incoming communication,” he said.

“Let’s hear it,” the captain said with a sigh.

“This is Commander Yoshuka, commander of the Winged Hussars task force, to the two Maki frigates on highguard. Everything in this system has been declared a war prize. Surrender or be destroyed.”

Tshi could see on the Tri-V projected battlespace how smoothly the Hussars were reforming, frigates moving forward to project power, escorts falling back to protect battlecruisers. Was that an Izlian heavy cruiser in their formation? Where did they get that old thing?

“The ship is at battle stations,” TacCom advised. “Orders, captain?”

He glanced at the battlespace one more time. The enemy’s threat bubble was displayed over Evening Dew and Crisp Bloom. They could escape that threat bubble in two minutes, if the ships had been capable of 29 Gs of constant acceleration, and if the crew could have survived it.

“Notify Crisp Bloom,” he said. “We are surrendering.”

EMS Sleipnir, Golara System, Emergence Point

“Colonel Cromwell, Sleipnir actual. We have taken the emergence point, and we are inbound.” The commander turned from his comms officer to his TacCom. “Have the two Maki frigates stood down?”

“It is confirmed, Commander.”

“Detach Tizona and Bishop as prize crews and highguard. Get the fleet underway. Have the carriers stand by for drone launch.” Sixty-one ships began accelerating toward the distant shipyard and the fleet defending it. Five minutes later, comms relayed their leader’s reply.

“My compliments, Commander. Proceed as ordered.”

“I suppose it’s too much to hope for that the rest will just roll over?” the TacCom asked.

“Oh, probably,” Yoshuka said. “It’s been a while since we’ve been in a good stand-up slugfest. Let’s kick some Peepo ass. Order Task Force Cartwright to break off, and good luck to them.”

* * *

Bravo Arm, Space Dock 22, Golara System

“Into the station!” Sergeant First Class Amunson ordered. Overwhelmed at suddenly being thrown into command, he fell back on doing what he knew best—accomplishing the mission. He only had one platoon now instead of two companies, so he wouldn’t be able to do everything his company had been tasked with, but he’d do what he could. He would have asked for assistance from the Copperheads on the other arm of the space dock, but they had their own jobs to do.

He shook his head. They were depleted, but Ragnar’s Reavers would get the job done. They always did.

His shuttle had landed on the end of the Bravo arm of the giant dock, furthest from the station’s active defenses. With the loss of the other three dropships foremost in the pilot’s mind, Amunson really couldn’t blame him for it.

They’d breached one of the airlocks, then had waited as the air roared out of it. One of the benefits of breaching a number of the airlocks simultaneously was you didn’t have to stay in place for as long while the hurricane of air left the station. In combat, movement is life; to stay in place was often the best way to get yourself killed. He’d ordered one of the fire teams to move up to the next airlock and blow it; that airlock had then become the one with the gale-force winds issuing from it, which had allowed his men to, finally, enter the station. They were behind schedule, and he knew it.

Amunson directed his troops to advance along the oversize corridor, overriding the airlocks as they came to them, further opening the facility to space. The passageway was over 20 feet wide and 20 feet tall, which seemed excessive, until he realized you’d need about that much space, at a minimum, to allow two Tortantulas to pass each other, especially with all the crap inside the passageway. He’d never been to either a terrestrial or space-based shipyard before, but he was amazed at all the debris lying around.

It wasn’t really “lying around,” he realized. In zero-G, lying around would have meant clogging the passageway as things floated through it. Once he realized all the boxes, stacks, and other piles of equipment had magnetic locks, and they had been positioned where they were on purpose, he decided there must be some method to the seeming madness. For the life of him, though, he couldn’t tell what it was.

The equipment piles gave him an idea, though, as they passed the main gangway onto the ship. “All right, folks,” he said. “I suspect things are going to get hot here soon, and all we’ve got is one platoon, so we’re going to build a barricade with all this shit the workers left here for us. Bring everything from beyond the ship’s access back to here, so we have a nice little killing ground. Quickly! We don’t have much time.”

With 18 CASPers moving the boxes, crates, and pallets—he’d left four troopers on the exterior to watch for flanking maneuvers by the enemy—they quickly cleared a 100-foot kill zone. The boxes and crates were attached to the floor and each other, several deep and several high, to make a barrier from behind which they could fire. Anything that wouldn’t stack was given a push down the corridor behind them to collect in a giant pile of mayhem.

“Where are you going with that?” Amunson asked as a trooper passed him with a big metal box.

“I thought we already had enough in the barricade,” he said. “I was just going to throw it onto the pile.” He nodded down the passageway.

“No,” Amunson replied, looking around the corridor. “I have a better idea.”

“Contact!” his sentry shouted as they finished up a couple minutes later. The trooper, Corporal Pedersen, fired a couple of times, then came jetting past. “Lots of enemy coming,” she said as she hunkered down on the other side of the barricade. “There’s at least a company of Lumar, as well as a number of Goka.”

Amunson looked at his laser rifle. It would be almost useless against the Goka, as would the laser rifles of the rest of his folks. All of a sudden, the defenses he’d been so proud of a few minutes ago didn’t look quite so impregnable.

* * *

Alpha Arm, Space Dock 17, Golara System

Nigel jetted toward the center portion of the facility, along with the troopers of Alpha Company. On the other arm of the facility, Bravo Company was matching their advance. Charlie and Delta were finishing the sweep of the ship, but so far they hadn’t found any mercenaries onboard, only a few dock workers and some advance members of the ship’s provisional crew, all of whom had been technicians, not warriors. When informed the battleship was now the property of the Humans, and that the space dock was going to be destroyed, all the aliens had surrendered without a fight. Some were even helping his troops prepare the ship for departure. He shook his head. Stupid aliens.

The only mercs his troops had seen were a probing force of Lumar, who had retreated when they realized they were dealing with CASPers. They’d also found the bodies of several who hadn’t had suits on when Asbaran had entered the station, which did nothing to sway his earlier opinion.

“Colonel Shirazi?” Corporal Taheri asked from the point. “You’ll want to see this.”

He continued forward to where Alpha Arm joined into the base portion of the facility. Just before it, standing in a line abreast three rows deep, waited 15 Lumar dressed in spacesuits. One more of their number waited in front of the group. While the troops in ranks all held clubs, the one in command held a laser rifle in a “port arms” position with the upper two of its four arms.

“I would like to speak to the person in charge,” the one in front transmitted.

“That’s me,” Nigel said, moving to stand in front of his troops. “I’m Colonel Nigel Shirazi of the Human mercenary company Asbaran Solutions.”

“I am Major Sulda, commander of the Bold Warrior Lumar mercenary company. I cannot let you pass.”

“I see,” Nigel said. “Can you perhaps tell me why that is?”

“We were contracted to guard this facility, and we will do so.”

“Sulda, I don’t know what kind of surveillance capabilities you have on this space dock, but I have four companies of CASPers here. I could kill all the men behind you before they could get halfway to me. You’re the only one with a real weapon; you’d be the first to go.”

“If you kill us, our families get both combat bonus and death bonus. If we let you pass, they get nothing. It is better to have you kill us than let you pass.”

Nigel’s jaw dropped. “Seriously?” he asked when he could speak again. “You’d rather have us kill you than let us pass?”

“If you kill us, we have our honor, and our families get paid. If we let you pass, they get nothing,” Sulda repeated.

“Can we just kill them all and be done with it?” Corporal Taheri asked from alongside Nigel. “They must have something great they’re guarding if they’re willing to die for it.”

“I doubt they have anything of tremendous value here,” Nigel replied, “and no, we cannot just kill them. As I was recently reminded, we are supposed to be the good guys. While I would cheerfully shoot down a group of MinSha if they were here in place of the Lumar, I cannot in good conscience kill all those Lumar when they are, for all intents, unarmed.”

Nigel turned back to the Lumar. “Major, you are presenting me with a difficult choice. I really want to get past you, and we both know I can, but I find myself reluctant to spill your blood. Is there another way around this? What exactly does your contract say?”

“Contract say Bold Warrior Company provide security for facility part of Space Dock 17. That is the part of the dock behind us. I am to break up fights among crews and keep people from stealing things.”

“Okay, well, we aren’t part of the crew, so that doesn’t apply to us. How about letting us past?”

“Contract say not to let anyone steal from station, not just crews.”

“They’re going to be pissed about the battleship,” someone behind Nigel said.

“Not care about battleship,” the Lumar leader said. “Battleship is not on this station. Proud Warriors not contracted to defend it.”

“Fair enough,” Nigel said, “because we are taking that. How about this, then? You take me and three of my men to the big boss’ office here, and we promise not to steal anything along the way. You can come with us to make sure. Then we’ll come right back here. How’s that?”

The Lumar seemed to consider it, then finally said simply, “Okay.”

“Great,” Nigel said. “Corporal—”

“But you only take two men,” Sulda said. “Three total.”

“Fine,” Nigel said. “I need someone good with tech.”

“That’s me,” Sergeant Rahimi said. “I can hack just about anything.”

“Good,” Nigel said. “Taheri, you and Sergeant Rahimi are with me. Everyone else, stay here and be ready to come save us if we call.”

“Do you really think that’s possible?” Taheri asked over the company’s tactical frequency.

“No, but there’s no reason for them to know that,” Nigel replied. “Lead on,” he said to Sulda.

The Lumar nodded once, then turned and led Nigel and his men into the station, the ranks of the Lumar opening to allow them to pass. Several of the Lumar troopers fell in behind them.

* * *

Bravo Arm, Space Dock 22, Golara System

“Looks like we have Goka and Lumar incoming,” Amunson said. “Enberg, Hagen, and Ostergaard, go supplement the folks outside. If the enemy has Goka troops, they will sure as shit send some of them outside to flank us.” He looked at the rest of the troops at the barricade. “In case you didn’t hear, there’s a group of Lumar and Goka coming. If you’ve got a laser, target the Lumar first. If you have a MAC, take out the Goka. Those will be the difficult ones; hopefully, there won’t be many of them. They are probably part of the ship’s marines; I don’t think the Merc Guild would waste them guarding a shipyard. If so, we can’t let them on the ship—they’ll know how to disable or destroy it.”

Amunson switched to the overall command frequency—not just the one for the local assault, but the one for the entire mission. It was the first time he’d ever dialed up the frequency, and he had to answer two dialogue boxes in order to enable transmission on it. Did he know this was the overall command channel, which normally was reserved for senior officers in command of major operations? Yes, he did. Did he really want to transmit on this channel? No, not really, in all honesty, but he needed the support.

“Any Golden Horde units up this frequency?” he was finally able to transmit. “This is Sergeant First Class Amunson, acting CO for Ragnar’s Reavers.”

“This is Golden Horde Actual,” a female voice replied after a moment. “What can I do for you?”

“I’m in Bravo Arm of Space Dock 17. We are holding the passageway, preventing alien forces from entering the battleship, but we have a force of Goka and Lumar inbound. We need immediate reinforcement, or we are going to lose this position, and they will have access to the ship.”

“They probably want to get in and destroy it,” Colonel Enkh replied. “At the very least, they will make it a lot more expensive for us to capture it. You must hold out at all costs. We are on our way. ETA…four minutes.”

“We’ll hold,” Amunson replied. He shook his head as he caught sight of the skittering black forms of approaching Goka. They were on the ceiling and the walls. Of course. Four minutes was going to be an eternity. He had no idea how they’d hold.

* * *

Cartwright’s Cavaliers, Golara System

Jim gritted his teeth and growled, fighting almost five Gs as Bucephalus rode her tail, falling toward their objective. For a change, he was thankful for every minute he’d spent in the gym and every pound he’d managed to lose. He also promised himself he’d lose many more, if it was the last thing he did. Strapped into his CASPer in a dropship, all he could do was listen to snippets from the space battle.

“—we have missiles in the black!”

Biter and Hrunting, screening actions.”

“—Joyeuse is hit…”

“—stay clear of Hippogriff’s firing solution!”

“—splash that Maki light cruiser, yeah!”

“—is hit, repeat, this is Offering, we’re hit, we’ve lost shields, trying to—<screech!>

“This is Bucephalus.” Jim recognized Captain Su’s voice. “Offering was destroyed.” Jim swallowed.

Gallant Fox is beginning pinpoint attack on station defenses.”

Then there was a minute of so much chatter, Jim couldn’t concentrate. He knew the reasons the Hussars were taking losses was twofold. One, they needed to take the facility as intact as possible. Two, the Hussars’ warships were limited to five Gs of maneuvering, the highest the merc transports were rated for, including Bucephalus.

“How you doing kid?” Hargrave asked between labored breaths. The old merc wasn’t overweight, like Jim. In fact, he was probably underweight. However, the man was at least 60 years old, far older than most mercs serving in active combat roles.

“Hanging…in there,” Jim said, gasping each word.

“We’re almost there,” Hargrave assured him. He wanted to ask how the man knew, but the ship was rocked by a resounding impact.

“Missile hits,” the ship’s TacCom said.

“Damage Control to Deck Five, Section Three,” the DCC said. Another resounding impact, powerful enough to cause the thrust to falter. Jim’s eyes bugged out. If they lost thrust, Bucephalus would plummet into the gravity well of Golara 3. There would only be minutes to get power back and avert a fiery death. “Pressure lost, Decks Three and Four,” the DCC said. Thrust resumed, though slightly less powerful. Captain Su would be trying to keep them on target to their destination.

A series of tiny shudders went through the ship, then nothing. The thrust began to lessen further. It wasn’t a sudden drop, though, but a measured decrease. “We’re through,” Captain Su said on the intercom to the drop ships. “We made it.”

“How are the Hussars?” Jim asked, still breathing hard.

“They lost a frigate,” she said. “One of the escort frigates, Hrunting, was pretty badly mauled. The cruiser Secretariat was hulled three times by particle cannons, but they’re still up. I don’t know how—their ships are tough!”

“ETA to drop?” Hargrave asked.

“One minute. Prepare for release.”

“Thanks for getting us through, Captain,” Jim said.

“You’ve got the hard job, Commander. Zhù nǐ chéng gong, good luck.”

“Keep the engines running, Captain Su.” Jim changed to the company command channel. “A Company, report.”

“First Platoon, First Squad, all up!” Buddha, his Top Sergeant, reported.

“First Platoon, Second Squad, all up!” Lamb reported.

“Second Platoon, all up!” Hargrave reported, his individual squad sergeants reporting directly to him.

“B Company,” Jim called.

“B Company, all up,” Major Alvarado reported.

“C Company,” Jim called.

“C Company standing by, under protest.”

“Duly noted, Captain Wolf,” Hargrave said. C Company wasn’t quite ready for prime time; Hargrave and Jim had both agreed. Captain Marisa “Dire” Wolf didn’t agree, but she wasn’t paying the bills or writing the next-of-kin letters. They were suited up in Bucephalus, waiting. Jim thought she better hope they didn’t call on her, or they were deeply in the shit.

“Drop in 20 seconds,” Jim’s dropship pilot announced. The two companies were split between eight Phoenix-class dropships. The older models only carried a single squad of CASPers. They were made with heavy assault in mind, where the troopers would be deployed under fire. Losses were expected, so a hit meant you’d only lose a squad, not an entire platoon.

“Take your objectives,” Hargrave said to the individual platoon leaders. “Link up as fast as possible and secure as you go. Don’t worry about infrastructure, but remember we’re on a station! Go easy on the heavy ordnance.” A chorus of acknowledgements.

“Ten seconds,” the pilot said.

“Cavaliers up!” Buddha called.

Lead the charge!” they roared.


“Dropships away,” Captain Su said.

With a bang, the eight Phoenix dropships were cast away, and all gravity disappeared. They floated for a second, then the smaller ship reoriented, bumping him around in his CASPer’s cockpit.

“You doing okay, Splunk?” he asked. The Fae cooed and touched Jim’s thigh in the right leg of his suit. It was a familiar place, but he still wished he was in the expansive cockpit of the Raknar. His memory sang with the recollection of pure, undiluted power the Raknar gave him. Splunk had been more reluctant to climb into the CASPer, too. Their Raknar, Dash, remained locked to the side of Bucephalus for this stage of the operation.

He suspected part of the reason was the reaming he’d gotten from Captain Su after he’d pulled over 60 Gs while bringing the Raknar over to Bucephalus from Upsilon.

“In excess of 60 Gs,” she’d said, glaring at him floating in the ship’s medical bay while three doctors gave him scan after scan. “What the hell were you thinking?”

“I wasn’t,” he’d admitted.

“You could easily have died,” Hargrave had snapped, not satisfied with his earlier chewing out.

“Or holed the ship and killed yourself, and the entire crew,” Su had added.

“I knew that wouldn’t happen,” he’d said, and glanced at Splunk floating nearby. “We knew it wouldn’t happen. The Raknar protected us from harm.”

“How, exactly, did the machine do that?” the head physician had asked, still searching for answers.

Jim had tried to find the words to describe it, but they hadn’t come. He’d gotten so far as to open his mouth, but then had been left like a fish trying to breath out of water. “I don’t know,” he’d finally said. The look the captain had given him had been very expressive.

The Phoenix dropship lurched, and thrust shoved him sideways. They were no longer oriented with their backs toward the direction of the thrust now that the dropships were flying free. It was one of the disadvantages of the Phoenix, and part of why they’d fallen out of favor. Jim had been ready to place an order for newer vessels when everything had gone to shit.

“Some flack,” the pilot said, and the ship began to maneuver. “The main batteries are still out, but the close-in defenses are operating.” Defenses designed to shoot down enemy missiles weren’t of great use against capital ships, but they could do fine against a 10-meter-long dropship without shields. He rode out the evasive maneuvers with grim determination. It wasn’t the first time he’d been shot at buckled into a dropship, and it wouldn’t be the last. This time, though, he wouldn’t be fired at a planet; they’d be fighting in space.

Phoenix Six is hit!” a woman’s voice called over the radio. His blood turned to ice. B Company, First Platoon, Second Squad. Sergeant Leilani Kalawai’s squad. He waited for more; it was all he could do.

“Get it under control, Six!” another pilot called.

“I got it,” the first pilot said, the strain evident in her voice.

“I have a red light in Kalawai’s squad,” Major Alvarado said on the command frequency. “Looks like Warlock.” Private Scott “Warlock” Kuntzelman had been a Cavalier since just after they’d returned from their first cruise. He’d been recommended for corporal.

The pilot was true to her word and kept the dropship under control. A few seconds later, they were all landing. Rather, they were clamping to the side of the shipyard control center. Nigel and his Asbarans were taking the yard and its two battleships, and the Cavaliers were going after the control center with its logistics, workshop, and warehouses, which were probably going to be more heavily-defended.

“Clear and down!” his dropship pilot called. “Good luck, Commander.”

“Lift off and return to Bucephalus,” Jim ordered. “Get Company C ready, just in case.”

“Roger that.”

The large door on the back opened to space, and they began to disembark. The CASPers moved on puffs of gas from the maneuvering packs they wore. Most of Jim’s squad would be better in space with their Mk 8s; they were lighter and more maneuverable than his Mk 7. He banged the top of his suit’s cockpit on the back of the dropship’s door and exited, spinning.

“Damn it,” he said, bringing the suit under control. He was the first out, and the last to actually clamp onto the metal hull of the control center.

“Good to go, sir?” Buddha asked from a few meters away.

“Yeah, just challenged,” Jim said, laughing a little. “Everyone out?”

“We’re all set,” Buddha replied. The dropship released and pushed away with its RCS. Once it was at a safe distance, it used its more powerful main engines to accelerate toward Bucephalus. They were on their own.

“All squads, make entry,” Jim ordered. “Weapons hot!”

* * *

Main Administration Spaces, Space Dock 17, Golara System

“This is big boss office,” the Lumar said, standing in front of a rather—by space dock standards—ornate door. Nigel hadn’t seen anything along the way that would have made him think about breaking his promise to the Lumar officer. The dock was relatively poor, and the workers relatively rough in nature. Most of the bars had windows that looked like they’d been broken and taped up prior to the facility being depressurized. All in all, it looked like a blue-collar place where people came to work. Off-duty fun and excitement—beyond the bare minimum—would have required the workers to go somewhere else.

Along the way, Nigel had also determined the Lumar officer—and his troops, for that matter—didn’t like the “big boss” very much. If the officer’s willingness to take the invaders to the boss’ office wasn’t enough, the troopers had also made some snide comments about the boss’ parentage and mating habits that had made it obvious. Interesting.

Nigel tried the door. Although difficult with his CASPer’s hand, one thing was certain. “It’s locked,” he noted.

“It always is,” the Lumar replied.

“Do you have a key?”

“No.” He turned and began walking down the corridor toward where his troopers waited. “You’re not coming in?”

“Contract say I am not allowed in office,” Sulda replied. “Besides, big boss not treat us good. He say we’re not smart. I will stay down here, out of the way.”

“Huh. Well that’s interesting.” Nigel turned to the corporal. “Apply the universal key, Taheri.” He stepped out of the way. “It’s all yours.”

The corporal only had two steps to build up momentum, but that was enough. One thousand pounds of man and machine hit the door, and it flew off to the side to slam into the wall as Taheri flew across the room and slammed into a large wooden desk. Nigel’s suit registered a laser bolt that shot out the door.

Nigel stormed into the large office to find a MinSha with a laser pistol taking aim at Taheri. One shot through the alien’s head ended the threat.

“See?” he said, walking over to kick the laser away from the alien. “No problems killing the MinSha.”

“Well done, sir,” Taheri said, getting to his feet. “Is that the reason we came here? To kill the boss?”

“No, we came to see what was in his desk, his safe, and on his slate.” He grabbed the slate from where it had rebounded when the desk had been knocked out from under it and handed it to Sergeant Rahimi. “Work your magic.”

The sergeant pulled out a cord and plugged it into the slate. While he worked, Nigel pulled the desk away from the bulkhead Taheri had smashed it into. The only thing interesting was a paybox full of credit chits, some of them fairly large. He stuck it into a leg compartment.

“I thought you weren’t going to take anything,” Taheri said.

“I gave my word not to take anything along the way,” Nigel said, “and I didn’t. The Lumar aren’t responsible for this office, so it’s fair game. Also, I consider anything a MinSha has as nothing more than a down payment for what they owe us.”

“How much is that?”


Nigel searched for a safe but couldn’t find one.

“Sorry, sir,” Rahimi said after a few minutes, “but there isn’t anything I can find of value on this slate.” He turned it so Nigel could see as he scrolled through the listing via his pinplants. “Just some status reports on the battleships, personnel reports, shipyard status reports…things like that.”

“Does it have a listing of all the ships in the shipyard and types?”

“Looking for a new ship?” Rahimi asked.

“No, I’m making sure we destroy anything they might be able to use against us later before we leave the system.” He watched the information go by. “Wait!” he said. “Go back.” He nodded. “That’s what I thought it said.”

Nigel turned to Taheri. “You said there must be something really good here.” Nigel pointed to the slate. “I just found it.”

* * *

Bravo Arm, Space Dock 22, Golara System

Sergeant First Class Amunson turned his exterior speakers to max and toggled the Reavers’ battle music. “Fire!” he ordered as “Ride of the Valkyries” roared through the passageway. Amunson put a laser bolt through the forehead of a Lumar coming toward him, and the giant humanoid’s advance turned into a tumbling spin. He scanned, looking for more targets, but most of the Lumar had gone down in the initial barrage. Not only were they bigger targets than the Goka, the large four-armed aliens were also far easier to kill.

The Goka looked like oversized cockroaches, and their carapaces were almost completely laser-reflective. They were also extremely hard, and a glancing MAC round would often skip off rather than penetrate. And, as he’d expected, as soon as the Reavers started firing, a large number of Goka had skittered through one of the airlocks he could see. “Enberg! Watch out! Goka on the roof!”

He fired at one of the approaching Goka—there were still plenty coming toward the Reavers’ barricade—and sighed as the bolt reflected off.

The platoon put up a good fight—while their barricade had started only on the “floor” of the passageway, he had added positions on the ceiling, then had added firing positions on the side walls of the corridor as well. The troopers on the floor had an excellent firing position to hit the ones on the ceiling, and vice versa. Still, they didn’t have enough MACs, and he could see there would be leakers.

Resigned to his fate, he attached his laser rifle to the leg of his CASPer, then he drew his combat knife with his left hand while his CASPer’s sword blade snapped out on his right. He could hear the horns of Valhalla calling…but he was going to kill some bugs first.

* * *

Pegasus One, Bravo Arm, Space Dock 22, Golara System

“The LZ is hot!” the pilot cried from the front of the shuttle.

Sansar knew the Jeha was a shuttle pilot, not a combat dropship pilot, and she was happy he’d gotten this far without totally freaking out. “Just get us down!” Sansar yelled in her best command voice.

“I can’t!” the Jeha exclaimed. “There’s combat taking place and nowhere to land!”

“Well, for Blue Sky’s sake, turn the damn shuttle around, and we’ll jump from here!” She slapped the button to lower the ramp. Although he wouldn’t go any closer, the pilot did spin the craft, and, within seconds, Sansar had an excellent view of the spirited fight underway on the space dock several hundred meters below. At least five CASPers, spread around the sides of the dock, were firing at a host of Goka. It was hard to tell how many as they dodged through the equipment, boxes, and structures on top of the facility, but it looked to be at least 20 of them. At least one CASPer was also floating away from the dock, unmoving.

“All Golden Horde units!” Sansar ordered. “Attack!” She jetted out the back of the shuttle, lining up a shot with her MAC on one of the bugs. She fired, but the speedy creature moved, and the round went through the space dock. The alien dodged behind a cooling unit, and she lost sight of it.

“Let’s go,” First Sergeant “Mun” Enkh shouted over the comm system as she dove from the shuttle next to Sansar’s. Within seconds, the 42 soldiers of Alpha Company were out of the four shuttles and jetting toward the arm of the space dock.

Sansar got a second chance at the Goka as it tried to race forward, and this time she was close enough to drill it with her MAC. The bug slammed into the dock, then rebounded into space, motionless.

“First Platoon, clean up the bugs out here,” she ordered. “Second Platoon, with me inside!”

Sansar found an airlock that had been breached and jetted through it. The battle was worse inside; the bugs had already advanced to hand-to-hand range and had overrun the Reavers’ position. Knowing the Goka wouldn’t surrender—it wasn’t in the psychopathic bugs’ natures—she dove into the melee with her troopers right behind her.

* * *

Bravo Arm, Space Dock 22, Golara System

Sergeant First Class Amunson could hear the horns calling him home to Valhalla ever louder in his ears. His CASPer’s right leg had taken a knife through the joint and was inop. His own leg was in similar shape, as the knife had also penetrated his thigh. He’d used most of a medkit on it and had lost all feeling in his leg below his knee; he didn’t know whether that was a good thing or bad, but at least he wasn’t distracted by the pain anymore. That or the wet feeling from the blood floating in his suit.

He’d locked the CASPer’s leg in full extension and continued the fight. It seemed like no matter how many Goka he killed, there were always more; perhaps because they were concentrating on him as his fellow troopers died. Amunson didn’t know—he didn’t care—all that remained was the mission. Keep the Goka out of the ship.

When they’d been overrun, he’d moved to block the smaller passage into the ship. Any of the alien mercs that wanted entry into the ship had to get past him. He’d restarted the music twice, when he still noticed things like that; now it was nothing more than stab, withdraw, stab again, pull off the Goka sticking its knife into a joint in his suit. Over and over.

He didn’t know how many wounds he had, but he could feel himself running out of energy. He’d dropped his knife a while ago—or maybe it had gotten stuck in a dead Goka, he couldn’t remember—and he was down to just his suit’s sword blade.

A pain in his left leg, and the CASPer’s left leg locked as well. The Goka was wiggling the knife in his leg, trying to cut as many things as he could. Amunson reached down with both hands and ripped the bug off his leg. He was so tired, it took both arms to hold the wriggling creature. He noticed with some sorrow that his sword blade had broken off somehow. There was no way to stab the Goka he was holding, even if he could have let go of it with one hand long enough to do so.

He tried to squeeze it—maybe he could crush it—but that didn’t work. He was out of ideas and almost out of consciousness, but knew he couldn’t let the bug go. He had to hold until relieved. He closed his eyes. Maybe he could last 10 seconds longer. He would do that. He started counting, but when he got to “three,” the bug started squirming harder, and he almost lost his grip. His eyes sprang open to help him get hold of it again, but the Goka had grown a new leg from the center of its chest. It was long and flat, and several drops of the creature’s blue blood fell off it to hang suspended in front of him. Through the haze, he recognized it—the leg was actually a CASPer sword blade.

The bug was taken from his hands, and a golden shape filled the haze of his vision. “We’ve got it,” the voice said. “You held.”

The horns played a final note, his last call, and he went to meet them.

* * *

Bravo Arm, Space Dock 22, Golara System

The soldier released the Goka he’d been holding, and Sansar scraped it from her sword blade. “Eternal Blue Sky take you,” she said to the soldier, drawing the symbol for Tengri on the left side of his chest in the blood of the Goka he’d been holding. She saw the name on his chest. ‘Amunson.’

Sansar bowed to the Sergeant First Class. The Goka had been the last of the aliens—over 60 of their bodies littered the area nearby—and Amunson was the last of the Reavers. By the looks of it, Amunson’s platoon had held off two Goka companies. If the Goka had gotten past him, there’s no telling where the aliens would have gotten to or what they would have done. Although psychopathic in nature, the bugs were ruthless killers, and she knew they would have found some way to ruin their day. Maybe by blowing up the battleship with them next to it. Thankfully, she didn’t have to worry about that.

The battleship was theirs.

* * * * *

Chapter Ten

Egleesius Cruiser “EG2,” Hyperspace

“Robots!” Sergeant Johnson yelled over the comm system as everything around them flashed to the white nothingness of hyperspace.

Earl knew there was no cover on the surface of the ship, and he turned as fast as he could to find a hatch had opened and some sort of combat robots were issuing forth, shooting at his men as they came. “Fire!” Earl ordered as he activated his weapons system.

The robots looked like four-foot-tall trash cans, with rounded domes on top. A number of sensors and instruments jutted off their bodies, as well as two lasers, which were mounted on top of them about where a person’s shoulders would be. Black as night, they were easy silhouettes against the white of hyperspace as they used some sort of maneuvering jets to fly up from the space below the hatch. Kowalski was already dead, hit several times, and Corporal Johnson’s life signs zeroed.

Earl targeted the first robot and triggered his magnetic accelerator cannon. Three rounds from his initial barrage hit the robot and smashed through it. His other rounds missed as the robot’s controls went offline, and it spun off, away from the ship. When it was about 10 meters above the ship, it seemed to stretch into infinity and just…disappear. Oh fuck, he thought.

“Stay close to the hull!” Earl yelled over the radio. “If you get too far away, you’ll be lost forever.”

The other three members of the group fired with a vengeance, and the rest of the robots were quickly dispatched. Another started to rise up from the hatchway, but two MAC rounds in the top of its dome slammed it back against the hatch. The hatch slammed shut, trapping the robot in its grasp.

“What the hell happened?” First Sergeant Ivkovich asked as he and the rest of the second fire team jetted up.

“I don’t know,” Commander Earl replied. “We started cutting our way in, and the robots attacked as we went into hyperspace. We got lucky—after the first two shots, they missed hitting any of the rest of us.”

“I don’t think they were trying to hit us,” Sergeant Roberts said. “Look at the cutter.” Earl turned to look at the machine and saw it had been slagged. One of the legs was cut off and the machinery had absorbed at least five or six other hits; it was melted in a number of places.

“I guess they didn’t want us cutting our way in,” Earl noted.

“Yeah, and to look at that cutter, we’re not going to be getting in anytime soon,” Ivkovich added.

“I wouldn’t say that,” Sergeant Pender said. He pointed to the hatch the robots had come out of. It was still cycling as it tried to shut, but the robot it had squashed was preventing it from getting a good seal.

“Quick!” Earl exclaimed. “Someone grab a jack and let’s get it in there before the hatch cuts the robot in half and is able to close.”

* * *

Egleesius Cruiser “EG2,” Hyperspace

“Oh, no!” Sato exclaimed, looking at the monitor. He switched to his comm system. “Commander Earl, I think the ship is going to attack you!”

“Yeah, little late on that one. We just fought off a number of robots…after they killed two of my men.”

“Oh,” Sato said. “Sorry. I’ve been monitoring some of the things the computer does. The system was running calculations for the jump to hyperspace, but then did an emergency jump.”

“We started cutting our way through the hull,” Earl said. “That was when it jumped into hyperspace. It also sent several robots to destroy the laser cutter. We lost two men in the attack, as well as the cutter. The hatch they came out of jammed, though, so we’re in the ship.”

“Oh,” Sato said, “that’s bad.”

“No,” Earl said. “As I said, it’s okay. We made it into the ship, even though we lost two people. We’ve got enough food for a week in hyperspace. We even brought some for you.”

“No, I’m not worried about the men you lost—well, that’s not what I mean; I am sorry for your loss—or even having the supplies. When you started cutting, I am afraid the ship decided you were intruders, and it has activated its defensive countermeasures.”

“What does that mean?” Earl asked. “You said the ship is crewless. How did it initiate defensive protocols? Besides, without a crew, what is it going to be able to do to us, anyway?”

“More than you are expecting would be my guess,” Sato replied. “Everything I’ve been able to find here indicates the ship was meant to operate without a crew. The access doors to the CIC have been welded closed! I believe after it was built, no crew remained. It’s fully automated.”

“How could it do that? Aside from following a set program to go from one place to another, how does a ship operate efficiently by itself without a crew?”

“Simple,” Sato replied. “I believe this ship has an operating artificial intelligence onboard, and it has just determined that you are the enemy.”

* * *

Egleesius Cruiser “EG2,” Hyperspace

“Back!” Commander Earl ordered. “Everyone back to Deck Five!” His MAC fired three rounds through the dome of the closest robot, and it began smoking and crashed into the corridor wall. The one behind it flew around it with a burst of its maneuvering jets, firing its dual lasers. Earl fired again, hitting it several times, and the robot was blown backward with the impacts. “First three up the ramp, set up a perimeter!” Earl ordered as he turned and ran, the magnetic locks on his boots making clanking noises. He made it back to the ramp, then used a tap on his jumpjets to fly up to the next level. In zero G, it was far easier than negotiating the ramp.

“How are things going?” Dr. Sato asked.

Earl growled to himself. The doctor’s timing was impeccable—his calls always came at the least opportune time. “Everything is shitty,” Earl said over the comm. “The robots have responded to our presence in force. We made it as far as Deck Seven, but they have driven us back up the ramp into Section Two of Deck Five. It looks like this is the only section open to us.”

Several of the troopers fired as one of the robots came into sight on Deck Six.

“Hold your fire,” Earl said over his speakers. “Ivkovich, assign someone the duty of primary shooter. We need to conserve our ammo and our suits’ power. What we have is going to have to last us a week.”

“Gonna be the longest damn week of our lives, too,” Sergeant Roberts muttered on the company’s tactical frequency.

“That’s a fact,” Earl replied. “So suck it up and get used to it.” He switched back to the common frequency. “Sato, we’re going to barricade ourselves on Deck Five and try to hold out here. Our position seems to be fairly defensible, unless they attack through the other sections here, in which case, we’re screwed. We did leave some food for you on Deck Seven if you’re able to get to it somehow.”

“The ship does not appear to consider me a threat at the moment,” Sato replied. “I ought to be able to get the food with no problem. Thank you!”

Earl sighed. Well, that was at least one problem solved, though he wasn’t sure what to do about trying to recover the ship. If Sato was correct, there were no other entities involved, beyond the ship’s artificial intelligence, which had a seemingly endless amount of robots at its disposal. Certainly, they hadn’t been able to get past them on Deck Seven. His troops had a wide variety of demolitions material with them, but using it would only serve to make them more of an “enemy” to the AI, if that were possible. At the moment, it seemed like the AI was only interested in herding them back toward the bow of the ship. While the robots would kill his troops if able—Stevens’ body, left on Deck Seven, was evidence of that—they seemed more interested in pushing the Human forces back, rather than making a frontal assault that would eliminate the Humans.

What did that mean? Probably that the AI didn’t have unlimited forces; either it didn’t have a manufactory aboard, or it was a small one that would take some time to replace the ship’s losses. It also probably meant the ship was happy with a holding action; it was going somewhere to do something, and as long as Earl’s forces were marginalized in the bow of the ship, it was satisfied with that. Maybe Sato could figure out what the AI’s plans were, so he’d know whether he needed to perform some sort of last-ditch maneuver to stop it. While he would make the attempt if needed, it would be a lot better—and more likely to succeed—if he had some additional support. Unfortunately, that support wouldn’t be available until they reached Plugy’s Star, wherever the hell that was.

He had to hold until that time. They had enough food and water; ammo and power would be the issues. If the AI didn’t continue to assault them, they could ration and survive the week, but if the AI continued to probe their position or assaulted them repeatedly, they would be down to hand-to-hand before long.

* * *

Sato moved carefully, his lone bot pulling him through the empty corridors, around corners, and up ramps toward his goals. He reached Deck Seven and found the wrecked robots that were the remnants of Frank Earl’s pitched battles. He also found two big vacuum-sealed pouches fixed to a bulkhead. “Rations” was clearly printed on the side. Excellent, he thought, retrieving the packages.

Normally, moving something from the outside of a CASPer to the inside while in vacuum would be a huge problem. Sato’s CASPer, however, wasn’t normal. He’d installed not one, but two small airlocks. One was in the chest as part of the clamshell hatch. The operator’s area of a Mk 7 CASPer wasn’t huge; luckily, neither was Taiki Sato. The total volume of his airlock wasn’t much more than that of a large cat. Each vacuum pouch just about filled it. With two cycles of the lock, he had them inside.

Both pouches had two small pouches taped together. “CASPer Trooper Ration Pack #3,” the first one said. “CASPer Trooper Ration Pack #9,” the second one said. Sato disengaged his arms from the suit with some wiggling, and took the pouch. It had been four days since his last meal, and he resorted to tearing the reinforced plastic with his teeth. Inside was meat paste, vegetable paste (mostly soy-based), fruit paste (origin unknown; it tasted like peach), some M&M candies, and three pouches of water.

He drank one of the water pouches and stored the other two. His suit was still making plenty of water, but it had a metallic tang. This water was distilled, and the neutral taste was refreshing. He used the suit’s built-in heater, using salvaged heat from the heatsinks, and ate the meat paste. “Stroganoff,” the label described it. Pretty damn tasty, he thought, though not sure if it was hunger or quality. Despite his hunger, he exercised self-control and ate slow, measured bites. Growing up in Japan, you learned restraint early in life. As a result, when he was done, he felt quite full.

Sato stored the fruit and vegetable paste for later, then opened the candies and let a few float free before stashing the rest. As he thought, Sato occasionally plucked a candy from the air and popped it into his mouth. Feeling full for the first time in days, he found his center again. That was almost as satisfying as the food.

He headed back to the center of the ship, moving down the decks until he reached the sealed CIC once more. It was the only place he’d found one of the Tri-V boxes. Once he arrived, he uploaded the camera’s log from his absence. There was only one line.


“Charge?” he wondered aloud. “What kind of charge?” He moved the CASPer into position so he could reach inside to type.

“Report fuel level.”


“Not that, then,” Sato said. “Report battery level.”


Sato remembered that the batteries on all four Egleesius-class salvaged from 2nd Level Hyperspace needed to have their batteries replaced, because they wouldn’t hold a charge very well. “Report battery condition.”


“Okay, not the batteries,” he said. The problem with having some food in him was now he was more conscious of the smell inside the suit. That was a problem, as he only had one more clean wipe, and they wouldn’t be out of hyperspace for many days. He remembered the other pouch Earl’s people had left for him and opened the lock where he’d stored it.

The package had one more ration pack, a “CASPer Ration Pack #2” full of jerky, and two more clean wipes. He stored everything except one of the wipes, beginning the complicated ballet of stripping out of the haptic suit to clean himself. As he worked, he tried to figure out what else would have a charge.

* * * * *

Chapter Eleven

EMS Sleipnir, Golara System

“Defensive formation Shell One A, Soos,” Commander Yoshuka ordered his TacCom as he watched the order of battle assemble in the Sleipnir’s huge CIC Tri-V. This fight wasn’t shaping up the way the Winged Hussars normally liked to fight. They leaned toward medium-sized, overly-shielded, and fast ships. Hit at speed, slap your enemy as you pass, live for another fight. The Battle of Golara was turning into a straight-up slugfest.

The Shell formations were designed for these rare kinds of fights. It was one of the few times the stinky air squids, the Izlians, were right in their tactical doctrines. Frigates spread out ahead as missile screens, escorts held back to fire past their larger cousins, battlecruisers at the point of the formation behind the escorts to project power, cruisers around the battlecruisers to add their missiles where needed. Carriers and transports were rear of the formation with a couple frigates, just in case.

The number of the formation was set in computer code before battle; it assigned which frigates and cruisers faced primary incoming fire at the time. Change the number, ships moved. Just before leaving, they’d added designations A and B, to take into account a new player for this battle.

“Fleet adjusting,” Soos said. He was a Sidar and bore an uncanny resemblance to a terrestrial Pteranodon, but with more bat-like characteristics. He had his long leathery wings folded and was using pinplants to operate the ship’s systems. As the TacCom for the fleet’s command ship, Soos was tasked not only with fighting their ship, but also managing the entire fleet’s battle orientation. As a member of a flying species, he was particularly good at his job. “Stonewall Jackson is moving into position.”

“Very good. Comms, send my regards to Captain Ewald, and wish him good luck in his first battle. Helm, cease acceleration and prepare for combat.”

Although initially disorganized when the Pegasus had jumped into the Golara system, the enemy fleet had regrouped in the intervening time.

“They’ve decided we’re the bigger threat,” Soos informed Yoshuka. “I mark 47 enemy ships in the formation making for us.”

“Order Chimera, Phoenix, and Wyvern to begin launching. Inform Colonel Cromwell we’re engaging the enemy.”

* * *

EMS Pegasus, Golara System

“They’re facing stiff opposition,” Paka said, looking at the relayed tactical data from Sleipnir.

“He’ll handle it,” Alexis said. While Yoshuka might not be quite as good a commander as Kowalczy, the little Maki was still quite competent. Pegasus, Manticore, and Shadowfax were still slowing, their fusion torches burning a steady three Gs. The engagement with the 17 enemy ships had been a success, but it had left them with considerable delta-V.

“Update from the assault teams?” she ordered.

“Cavaliers have reached their objective and are beginning their boarding operation,” Hoot said. “Offering was destroyed.” The CIC was quiet as the Buma read off the losses. “Hrunting has major damage, but they’re still underway. Captain Hogshead says he has 29 dead and seven injured. Secretariat got hit with three particle beams. Captain Kaskata says she’s still evaluating the damage but has massive loses. She still has maneuvering and shields.”

“That Maki captain is a badass,” Xander said. Alexis had to agree. There weren’t many Maki in the Winged Hussars—the race tended to stick to their own—but the ones who’d joined were a credit to the company. Alexis grinned a little. She had two Maki captains in her company, one a task force commander, and these were mostly Maki they were facing. Eat that, Peepo.

“Helm, ETA to the docks?”

“Ninety-three minutes at this velocity,” Chug said.

Alexis ran the numbers through her pinplants. They could up the thrust to six Gs, but they’d get there about the time the fight was over, and they’d have to leave the carrier Manticore behind to do it. It wasn’t worth the risk to the crew.

“Maintain course,” she said. “Drone control, dispatch your drones to assist at the space docks.”

* * *

EMS Sleipnir, Golara System

“Forward elements, begin firing,” Yoshuka ordered. At the front of the fleet, the escort frigates opened up with laser fire. Each had three 100-megawatt lasers which could fire at single targets, multiple targets, or, through beam-splitters, act as anti-missile point defense. The Hussars’ frigates fired on the enemy frigates at the front of the Merc Guild’s fleet waiting to launch missiles. The enemy returned fire.

Shields flashed on both side as the frigates absorbed fire. Some shields flashed more than others. Some on both sides took enough damage that they were forced to maneuver behind others, or out of the field of fire. A scattering of shots passed to impact against other ships further back in the formation. Most scarcely noticed the lighter fire.

Drones from both sides raced across the intervening space. One or two were destroyed by the crisscrossing laser fire. The Hussars’ three carriers put 360 drones in the black, while the two enemy carriers sent 500 in response. Their job was to attack capital ships, not each other; however, the Hussars’ drones were smarter than average. Where the opportunity presented itself, they attacked the enemy drones, successfully destroying 21.

“Drones inbound,” TacCom Soos said. The Stonewall Jackson had reached the front of the formation and was the first large warship in line, and the drones made a beeline for it. The Hussars’ frigates and escorts switched to defensive laser fire, trying their best to down the nimble enemy drones. Dozens were hit. Of these, a few survived, but most exploded with little puffs in the black.

The former Izlian heavy cruiser Stonewall Jackson waited until the last possible moment before it engaged the racing drones. With so many ships in front of it, there was a considerable danger of hitting its own escorts, so it did not fire any missiles. It knocked out 12 more, and then the survivors, 408 of them, unleashed their attack on the heavy cruiser.

“Entropy,” Yoshuka said as the tactical Tri-V lit up with a sea of missiles launched by the drones.

“That’s gonna hurt,” someone else said in the CIC.

Shaped like an old zeppelin, the bulging shape of Stonewall Jackson flashed as explosions detonated across her shields, far too numerous to count. So much radiation was released that nearby frigates’ shields glowed. The attack lasted less than five seconds, and after the images cleared, Stonewall Jackson was still there.

The drones spun away from the attack, burning tiny but powerful fusion cores that generated hundreds of Gs of thrust, but they passed inside the firing solutions of the cruisers. The Crown-class cruisers bristled with close-in defensive lasers. The ones facing the racing drones unleashed a hurricane of one-megawatt lasers. This time, 191 of the drones didn’t make it through the storm.

“Stupid,” Soos said. Yoshuka nodded. The Hussars’ drones wouldn’t have peeled off, they would have shot through the middle of the enemy fleet to reduce anti-drone laser fire. Of course, theirs also wouldn’t have wasted every damned missile on a heavy cruiser!

“Status on Stonewall Jackson?” the captain asked.

“We’re still here,” Captain Ewald said, the excitement in his voice evident. “What a ride!”

“Any damage?” Yoshuka asked.

“We lost half our shield generators and a dozen secondary systems. No hull penetrations.”

Yoshuka smiled. He’d been excited to learn that the colonel had brought a heavy cruiser back, because all the tactical commanders knew what was coming their way.

The heavy cruisers weren’t used anymore because they were slow and lacked a big offensive punch. They also didn’t fit the doctrine of the Hussars. Heavy cruisers weren’t any bigger than battlecruisers like the Steed-class or Egleesius. However, they mounted the same shields as a small battleship, and their armor was equally massive. In the ancient days, they had been designed to soak up enemy fire, and that’s exactly what the Stonewall Jackson had done.

“Do we need to switch to Shell B?” Yoshuka asked.

Ewald laughed. “Oh, hell no, I’ll have shields up again in a minute. Push on.”

“Roger that,” Yoshuka said.

The Hussars’ drones hit the enemy formation, spreading out and hunting for appropriate targets. Unlike the enemies, they didn’t just carry two small missiles. Some carried a single powerful Hussar ship killer, a tiny nuclear-tipped missile; others had high pulse-rate lasers. The drones worked together to decide targets and overlapped their attacks. All fire directed at the Hussars’ fleet stopped as the enemy fought furiously to stop the drones which, just like Soos had noted, didn’t dodge away, but spun and corkscrewed within the enemy formation.

Nine of the enemy ships were hit, many losing partial shields from ship killers. Other drones with lasers swooped by, pumping laser rounds into the hulls through the holes in their shields. One cruiser captain was slow to respond, not rolling his ship away from an attack, and a drone deftly slipped a ship killer through a hole in the ship’s shields. The weapon went directly into its engines, and the detonation splashed lethal radiation through the rear of the ship, killing all the engineering crew. The EMP also knocked out power, and laser-equipped drones chopped the cruiser to pieces in seconds.

“Order all cruisers to charge particle weapons,” Yoshuka ordered. Shields on all the cruisers and battlecruisers dimmed as their main weapons charged. The enemy commanders were aware of the Hussars’ tactics, and despite being pummeled by the drones, began to maneuver.

“They’re making this harder,” Soos said.

“Best discretion,” Yoshuka said in a calming voice. The status lights on each of the Hussars’ cruisers changed to indicate readiness. “Concentrate on those three battlecruisers,” he said, “and fire.”

When Pegasus was salvaged, and the power of her disproportionately massive 40-terawatt particle cannon had been realized, a strategy had been built around it. Once the Hussars had the ability to build their own ships, they were all constructed with at least some kind of particle beam weapon as primary firepower.

Each Steed-class battlecruiser sported two one-terawatt particle accelerator barbettes with some degree of aim, but only in the forward arc. The smaller Crown-class cruisers sported a single one-terawatt spinal-mounted particle weapon. Compared to the behemoth in the Egleesius, it was tiny. But a terawatt of energy was a terawatt of energy. Even the Crown-class’s single weapon was equal to 10,000 of the 100-megawatt lasers mounted on the Legend-class. Of course, it took time for the four 25-gigawatt fusion power plants in the Crown to generate that much power, or even the three heavier 50-gigawatt plants in the Steed.

Twenty seconds per shot was the charge time. The particle beams also had much less range than the lasers. The excited subatomic particles in the beam didn’t like going in one direction; they spread, no matter what you did.

The enemy battlecruisers knew they were in deadly peril and maneuvered as radically as they could. A total of 10 particle beams lanced out at the speed of light, the pulse lasting just 1/10 of a second to deliver its devastating terawatt of energy. The enemy’s multiphasic shields were designed to overlap each other, reinforce, and keep a penetration from happening. A terawatt in one place that quickly was impossible to stop.

Three found their marks, all on one of the battlecruisers which was unlucky enough to have suffered some drive damage from a pair of Hussars’ ship killers delivered by the drones. One beam cleaved into its flank, slicing open a reaction tank. Another went through amidships and destroyed much of the ship’s computing power, along with the officers’ galley and the entire marine contingent. The last neatly bisected the engine room, destroying one of the ship’s three fusion reactors and ruining the hyperspace generator.

Two nearby Hussars’ drones dove in and unleashed ship killers from less than a kilometer away. The sub-critical nuclear weapons unleashed two kilotons of energy against the crippled battlecruiser’s hull, which cracked like an egg. The ship remained intact, but spun out of control. Both drones died in the attack.

“Good shooting,” Yoshuka said. The enemy battlecruisers responded in kind, using collimated laser energy in the 200-gigawatt range. The cruiser Sir Barton was hit twice, with the second impact partially penetrating and doing damage to her forward missile launchers. The frigate Skofnung took a hit as well, but the frigate’s shields were not designed to take that level of energy. Half the ship’s shield arrays exploded in a chain reaction, and the laser retained enough power to punch through her hull diagonally. The shot went through her rear missile magazine, which detonated, completely destroying the ship.

“Maneuver the fleet,” Yoshuka said, “Bloom formation. Commence missile launch.”

The remaining six frigates deftly pushed to the edge of the formation and began unleashing missiles at the rate of five each, every five seconds.

“Retask remaining drones, suppress their frigates. Begin recharging particle cannons.” The two fleets grew ever closer.

* * * * *

Chapter Twelve

Gray Wolves’ Warehouse, Tashkent, Uzbekistan, Earth

“The Science Guild is involved in this?” the Golden Horde’s XO, Lieutenant Colonel Laverno, asked.

“That’s what the head guy from Nicholas Imports said, sir. He said there were more guilds involved than just the Merc Guild.” Hanson reviewed the mission logs in her mind. “His quote was, ‘It’s more than just the Merc Guild; the Science Guild is involved, too, and probably other guilds as well.’”

“Got it,” Laverno said. “I will pass that on with the intel update. Anything else?”

“No, sir,” Hanson replied. “That’s it.”

“Very well. You know I can’t help you on your next mission?”

“Yes, sir, I understand completely,” Sergeant Kayla Hanson said, nodding once for emphasis. “I’m on my own and won’t expect any support from you.”

“I wish I could do more for you,” Laverno replied from the other side of the desk in the sparsely-furnished room. “We need info on what they’re doing—what their plans are—and we need someone on the inside to get it. You’ll have to use your best judgment on when to break cover. If they ever suspect your loyalty is to anything other than them, though, they will kill you. Do what you need to in order to get us the info.”

“Yes, sir,” Sergeant Hanson said. “I will do my best.”

“Well, let’s make it official, then,” Laverno said, turning his slate toward her.

Hanson sighed as she looked at the form she would have sworn she would never have voluntarily signed, then she took the stylus and signed her name, terminating her employment with the Golden Horde.

“It’s been great having you in the Horde,” Laverno said. “Good luck.”

“Thank you, sir,” she replied. “I feel like I’m going to need it.”

* * *

Merc Guild Recruiting Office, Moscow, Earth

“I heard you’re looking for recruits,” Kayla Hanson said as she approached the desk at the recruiting office. “Where do I sign?”

“Do you have any experience?” the Flatar seated on the desk asked.

“Yeah,” Hanson said. “I used to be a sergeant with the Golden Horde.”

“Oh? And what are you doing here?”

“Are you asking why I’m alive or why I’m physically present here?”

“Both, actually.”

“When the Merc Guild blew up my former employer, I was on leave, visiting a friend.”

“Point of fact,” the Flatar said. “The Golden Horde detonated the nuclear devices used to destroy their headquarters, not the Merc Guild. I saw the Tri-V tapes of it. Why would a former Golden Horde merc want to sign up here, anyway? Aren’t you too high and mighty?”

Hanson shrugged. “I wasn’t there, so I don’t know who blew up the HQ, and it really doesn’t matter. What matters is my former employer is out of business, and you’re recruiting. I’m here because I like to eat, and I need a job in order to continue doing so. At least, that’s what Peepo said on my Tri-V. When it worked, that is. Now, do you have any job openings you need to fill, or are you just here to annoy the passersby?”

The Flatar looked at her for a moment, obviously put off by her tone, then asked, “What’s your Merc Guild number?”

“I’m Hanson, Kayla. Merc Guild Human Number 7833-2335-0925.”

The Flatar tapped on his slate, then looked up in surprise. “There is someone with that number, and she looks like you.”

“Of course it’s me. Everything I told you is the truth.”

“Yack,” the Flatar said, holding out a claw. Hanson handed over her UACC, and the Flatar checked her data. “Yep, that’s you. Sign here,” he said, holding out the slate.

Hanson signed.

“Welcome back to the Merc Guild,” the Flatar said. “We’ll be in touch.”

* * *

The Flatar watched Hanson leave the recruiting office, then climbed down from the desk and went to one of the offices in the back of the building. “Did you see my last recruit?” he asked.

“Yes,” the Veetanho sitting behind the desk replied. “That one is trouble. I don’t care what story she gave you, but once a Horseman, always a Horseman. I wouldn’t trust her in any sort of leadership position, despite her previous experience. She is to be watched, and watched closely.”

“If you don’t trust her, why would we accept her at all?”

“Have you met your recruiting numbers this month?”

“You know I haven’t.”

“Then we will need to take a chance on her. Who knows? Maybe her enlistment is legitimate. Still, I want you to put in her file that she is to be watched closely. The first time she tries to contaminate any of the other recruits, she is to be killed. Make her an example of what happens to traitors.”

“It shall be done as you say.”

* * *

Merc Training Center, Houston, Earth

“You think you’re better than me?” the drill sergeant asked.

“No, Staff Sergeant,” Private Kayla Hanson yelled, continuing to do pushups under the scorching south Texas sun while the former Varangian Guard soldier yelled at her. The Merc Guild had taken over Asbaran Solutions’ facility as their training base. As far as training bases went, it had everything needed to train outstanding CASPer operators…and weather conditions that drill sergeants loved to make their charges miserable. She wasn’t sure what she’d done to attract the bastard’s attention; she’d kept her head down, she hadn’t told anyone where she’d come from, and she followed the drill sergeant’s instructions to the letter.

“It’s because of you Horsemen,”—the staff sergeant sneered at the word “Horsemen”—”that we’re in this position.”

“Yes, Staff Sergeant!” she yelled.

Awesome. Someone had told him she’d previously been in the Golden Horde. She could now expect an extra ration of shit, no matter what she did. The stereotype that the Varangian Guard was made up of the biggest officious prick assholes on Earth obviously had some truth to it. Not that a drill sergeant had to be Varangian Guard to be an asshole. That came with the territory.

“How about a nice 10-mile run?” the drill sergeant asked.

“Sounds great, Staff Sergeant!” she yelled. She’d been through cadre training once before. She could do it again.

* * * * *

Chapter Thirteen

Alpha Arm, Space Dock 17, Golara System

“Well, Sulda,” Nigel said as he left the boss’ office, “it appears your contract with them has been terminated.”

“Big boss is dead?” the Lumar asked. “Who will pay Bold Warrior Company what is owed?”

Nigel handed him the box of credit chits. “Here you go; this ought to cover what he owed you.” He nodded to Sergeant Rahimi. “The sergeant also entered into the boss’ slate that you successfully completed your contract, so your record with the Mercenary Guild is clean.”

The big merc opened the box with his lower set of hands and a strange look came over his face. He picked up a million credit chit and held it close to his face to inspect it. “This box is more than what the Bold Warriors are owed,” he said, putting it back in the box. “Much more.”

Nigel smiled at the alien. “I’m sure the boss would have wanted you to have it.”

“Sulda now have problem,” the Lumar said. “Contract complete, and we do not have transportation back to home world.”

“You have a bigger problem than that,” Nigel said. “If the Merc Guild returns here, and we are forced to leave, we may very well have to blow up this space dock rather than let them use it to build more ships to fight us.”

“That is big problem. Bold Warrior Company not have any ships to escape dock.”

“That is definitely a problem,” Nigel said. “Unless…”

“Unless what?”

“How would you like to have new bosses that treat you better?”

“Treat Bold Warriors better?” the giant alien asked. He held up the paybox. “Pay better, too?”

“Exactly,” Nigel replied with a smile. “Working for one of the Horsemen does have its advantages.”

“One of the Horsemen would hire us? Who?”

“I would. How would you like to come work as a sub-contractor for Asbaran Solutions?”

The Lumar smiled. “I think Bold Warriors would like working for Colonel Shirazi.”

“Good,” Nigel said as they reached the Alpha Arm where his troopers and the rest of the Bold Warriors continued to stare at each other.

“All right, boys,” Nigel said. “Let’s all play nicely with each other. It looks like the Bold Warriors are going to come join our side.”

“Can I talk with you a moment?” the Asbaran XO, Captain Paolo Valenti, asked. The two men moved off to the side out of earshot. “Is that true?” Valenti commed on a private channel, to prevent anyone from eavesdropping. “You hired the big, dumb aliens?”

“Careful,” Nigel replied. “I think he’s sensitive about being called dumb.”

“But you hired them? I thought you didn’t like aliens. What are we going to do with a company of Lumar?”

“Most aliens, I don’t like. These ones, though, are almost Human, and they don’t seem to hate us like most of the merc races do. Besides, you have to draw the line somewhere, and I kind of like Major Sulda. He’s big, strong, and cheap, as is the rest of his force. I can think of a number of applications for a group like that. By the way, I can’t have him outranking my XO, so congratulations—you’ve been promoted to lieutenant colonel, with all the pay that goes with it.”

“Well, thanks,” Valenti said, somewhat mollified, “although I still don’t know what you intend to do with them.”

“I intend to leave them here with you to help defend this dock. I’m taking Alpha Company; we’ve got a new target.”

* * *

Revenge One, Space Dock 3X, Golara System

“Isn’t that a beauty?” Nigel asked, looking over the pilots’ shoulders at the ship resting in the space dock. Space Dock 3X was much smaller than Dock 17 had been, as was the ship resting inside its arms.

“What is that?” Guido asked. “It’s smaller than a frigate, isn’t it?”

“It is. It used to be a Veetanho missile corvette, but it’s here being converted into a personal yacht.”

“That’s someone’s yacht?” the pilot asked. “Who can afford something like that?”


“And we’re going to steal it?” The pilot whistled through his teeth. “Wow, when Asbaran steals shit, we do it big time. First a battleship, now the personal yacht of the general leading the forces against us.” He paused and then asked, “Don’t you think this is going to piss her off?”

“Will it piss her off?” Nigel chuckled. “I’m counting on it.”

* * *

Space Dock Central Complex, Golara System

“Walk in the park,” Buddha said as they made their way toward the central shaft.

“Careful,” Jim said. “The last thing we need is to jinx ourselves.”

“Oh Jim, no such thing as that!”

“I’m with the boss,” Sergeant Martin from Second Squad said.

The four platoons of A and B companies entered at the low-G base of the spinning command center. After sealing off the entry to the shops and warehouses it held, each platoon took a different arm and headed outward, the gravity slowly increasing with each deck they cleared. Better yet, they were in atmosphere. The lack of locks between levels would make blowing them more dangerous to the Cavaliers than the station owners. The only problem with the plan was they had no clue what was in each wing. One of the four bulbous ends would contain the command center, and intel indicated that was where they would also find the head honcho running the show in Golara.

So far, the only real challenge his squad had faced was being forced to cut their way through the doors at each level. Of course, the lift was out of the question. Jim had been leading the way, as was Cartwright tradition. Now his laser rifle was below half charge from constantly using it to cut the doors. He was forced to fall back and let Private Feldman take the duty. The young Cavalier hadn’t yet earned a handle.

“I think we must have gotten the food court,” Feldman said as he dialed his rifle down to a low-power beam instead of a high-powered pulse and began cutting the door’s locks.

“I could use a taco,” joked Private “Mouse” O’Hara.

“I heard the Horde was fighting Goka,” Private “Rick” Stodden said. “You want the kind of taco a giant cockroach would eat?”

“I’ve seen Mouse eat,” Jim said, joining in the banter. “I wouldn’t challenge him to even a Goka taco contest.” There was good natured laughing from everyone, even Mouse.

“He’s got you there,” Buddha said.

“Whatever,” Mouse grumbled, but there was the hint of a smile in his voice.

“You about through there?” Buddha asked Feldman.

“Yeah,” the private said. He turned off his laser, reached up with his left and, grunting, pulled the door back. The metal gave suddenly, launching a Goka trooper onto his chest with a crash. “Shit!” he screamed as the insectoid alien stabbed at his chest with one of its knives. Luckily for Feldman, he was wearing a Mk 8 CASPer, and the reinforced nano-bond armor turned the blade with a splash of sparks.

“Contact!” Buddha yelled and tried to bring up his laser rifle. Feldman yelled and spun around, trying to throw the alien off his suit. The landing by the stairs down was only five meters on a side and already crowded with five CASPers. Feldman’s wildly spinning suit didn’t help the situation in the least. Three more Goka slithered through the door, and the space turned into a general melee.

“Go hand-to-hand,” Jim yelled, triggering his suit’s arm blade with his pinplants. Half a meter of chromium-hardened, razor-sharp steel snapped out, and he thrust his arm forward with all his force. The blade punched through a Goka thorax with a crunch!, pinning the alien to the bulkhead like a moth in a child’s collection.

Jim used the laser rifle in his left hand to swing up and body check another Goka out of the way, and it bounced back through the doorway. He pulled the blade free from the one he had pinned, retracted it, and plucked a K-bomb from a retention point on his armor. Arming it, he reached through the hole and dropped it on the other side of the doorway, hitting another Goka about to come through. The alien tried to grab his arm, but Jim released the bomb and pulled back with more force than the Goka could use to stop him.

“Fire in the hole!” he yelled. Triggering the shield on his left arm, Jim held his arm over the doorway just as the shield snapped open, covering most of the deformed entrance.


The manual on the K-bomb suggested even a CASPer should be at least five meters from one when it detonated for maximum safety. He was a lot closer than five meters. The explosion was partially deflected by his shield, and the blast wave blew him back into Private Ventura. One of the Goka troopers was between them, and the impact crushed it in an explosion of gore.

Jim fell to the floor, his head spinning from the shock of the explosion just centimeters from his suit.

“Ouch,” Splunk said.

“S-switch to MACs,” Jim ordered, kneeling in Goka guts. Three of his troopers vaulted over him and started pumping magnetic accelerator cannon rounds through the door with indiscriminate abandon. Jim got his feet back under him and stood, using his pinplants to check his suit’s status. Everything was green.

“Hold fire,” he ordered. “Clear?”

“Five more dead on the other side,” Buddha confirmed. “These three are down.” Feldman was sitting on the deck by the other door, red running down from his suit’s left shoulder.

“How are you doing, Feldman?” Jim asked.

“Arm,” the man grunted. “Little fucker slid the knife right between the joints. I’m bleeding like a motherfucker!”

“Must be an artery,” Mouse said. He was their squad’s most qualified medic. He grabbed Feldman by the handles on the back of his suit and dragged him out of the landing. “Can you get to your emergency nanos?”

“Yeah,” Feldman said.

Jim nodded and turned his attention back to leading. “Cartwright’s Actual, contact. We’ve got Goka troopers in our arm.”

“Need backup?” Hargrave’s voice replied immediately.

“Negative. I have one injured, but we’re tending to it. We’ve either drawn the barracks or the command wing. Anything on your end?”

“Negative,” the older merc said.

“B2-1, contact!” cried Sergeant Dixie “General” Lee of Bravo Company, Second Platoon, First Squad. “Goka! A whole fuckton of them.”

“Lay down fire and hold position,” Lieutenant Blanc, the platoon commander, ordered. “Use heavy weapons if necessary.”

“Hold, use heavy weapons if necessary. Roger,” the sergeant said.

Jim checked his battlespace map, generated from data provided by every trooper deployed. The arm Hargrave’s platoon was assaulting, as well as Alvarado’s personal platoon, was making quick progress. Jim’s platoon and Blanc’s platoon were now both bogged down. Jim switched to fleet coms.

“Cartwright Actual to fleet command.”

Pegasus Actual. Go.”

“We’re bogged down here, Alexis. Might take a few more minutes than planned. How are things out there?”

“We caught them napping and smashed about 20 percent of their fleet. My main force has arrived in system and is engaging the majority of their fleet. So far, we’re okay. They’ll be in range of the remaining defenses where you are in about 20 minutes. If you can’t neutralize them in 10 minutes time, we’ll have to evac you and blow the command center.”

“We want it intact for the stores.”

“Yes, we do,” she agreed. “Do your best.”

“Roger that.” He switched to his platoon’s frequency. “How’s it look, Buddha?”

“A squad of MinSha arrived with a heavy laser; we pulled back out of their range for now.”

“No time for subtlety,” Jim said. “Rockets. We go forward!”

“Yes, sir! You heard the commander…” The station thundered as a wave of shoulder-mounted rockets tore up the MinSha position. After the explosions stopped, the distinct sound of escaping atmosphere was audible.

“Mouse, how’s Feldman?” Jim commed.

“Bleeding’s under control,” Mouse replied. “I was going to call for evac.”

“Not now,” Jim said. “Is he ambulatory?”

“Yes, sir,” Mouse replied.

“Make sure his suit’s intact—we’re losing atmosphere here—and have him bring up the rear. Slave his CASPer if you have to.”

“I’m good to go,” Feldman said, though he sounded a little unsteady. “I’ll lead the charge, sir.”

“After that bug dance?” Rick asked, laughing.

“I think we have his handle,” Jim said. “Dancer.”

“Oh, man,” Feldman moaned, and the squad chuckled.

“Dancer it is. Morgan ‘Dancer’ Feldman. Sergeant Ortega?”

“Sir,” the Second Squad sergeant replied.

“Have your squad take point; we have wounded and have to reload. We’ll leapfrog each level from here.”

“Roger that, sir. You heard the commander, we’re up!” Jim’s squad made room as Second Squad bounded forward in the still-light gravity and down the now-ravaged corridor. The far end was painted blue with MinSha blood as they spun around and down to the next level.

With a fresh squad up, the Cavaliers moved quickly through the next three levels. They met Goka on every level, but this time, they knew what to expect. The tough little aliens were nearly impervious to lasers, but MAC rounds were another thing entirely. Under the impact of a titanium slug traveling four times the speed of sound, the bugs nearly exploded…as long as the round hit squarely, which was sometimes easier said than done, with the sloped carapaces of the aliens’ shells.

Jim watched the time count down minute by minute, silently trying to hurry his men, knowing that rushing an assault would cost lives. He lost two men in Second Squad to a grenade thrown by a charging Goka. It was a magnetic explosive. Privates Strader and Smith never knew what killed them. His own squad was lucky, and only one minor injury occurred. Another crew-served weapon, a MAC crewed by MinSha troops, scored a glancing blow on Corporal “Moose” Curran. His armor turned the shot, but metal spalled inside the armor and tore into his left leg. His suit began leaking air, albeit slowly.

Finally, after eight long minutes of slugging it out level after level, they were almost to the highest gravity level. Then the Goka hit him with everything they had.

* * *

Space Dock Command Center, Golara System

“They are one level below us,” the marine commander said.

The commodore looked up in shock. “One level?” he demanded. The MinSha nodded. “Stop them, now!”

“Two-thirds of my Goka are down. I have just the two heavy weapons teams left. The entropy-cursed Humans have only taken light casualties.” The commodore glared. “We cannot hold.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Call in reinforcements,” the MinSha said.

“Them?” the commodore asked. “Is that wise?”

“It’s that, or fall,” the MinSha said.

“Do it.”

* * *

Space Dock Central Complex, Golara System

“Say again?” Jim commed to his ship.

“I repeat,” Captain Su said, “I have Tortantula jumping from the central complex onto your arm of the station. Relaying telemetry.”

Jim’s battlespace was updated with images of the huge 10-legged spiders leaping from the cylindrical bulk of the central station and soaring across the void. One in five missed to sail off into the infinite.

“I think we need to evacuate you,” Captain Su said.

“Get him out of there,” Hargrave said. Jim was surprised how insistent his XO sounded. “Right now.”

Jim considered. Nine minutes since he’d talked to Colonel Cromwell. In eleven minutes the command center’s defenses would be in range of her fleet. They needed the stores being kept at the facility, but he was about to be attacked from behind. He found himself wishing he was in his Raknar. Dash would just stomp the place flat; game over. A lot of good that would do.

“No,” Jim said. “We’re staying.”

“Jim, be reasonable,” Hargrave said. “Those are Tortantula shock troops.”

“I’ve fought them before,” Jim said.

“Yeah, while you were in that 100-foot-tall war machine. This is going to be up close and personal. I’ve fought the Tortantula too many times and lost too much.”

“I’m fine,” Jim said. “Finish clearing your objective. We’re going to finish this quick.”


“Lieutenant Colonel Hargrave, you have your orders.”

Hargrave was quiet for a long second, then spoke. “Understood, sir.”

“Sergeant Ortega?”


“Take rear defense. Hold the Torts, no matter what.”

“Roger that, sir. Second Squad, on me. Let’s fortify this stairwell.”

“What’s the plan?” Buddha asked.

“We punch through to that command center and end this.”

* * *

EMS Sleipnir, Golara System

“—formation Talon-3!” Commander Yoshuka ordered. “Roll the ship.”

“Diverting power to shields,” the SitCon announced.

“Heavy fire from that cruiser cluster, 104 azimuth 12!”

“Pull Count Fleet and Citation from port screen,” Yoshuka said. “Target particle beam fire on that damned battlecruiser!”

There was a flash of red on the Tri-V. “Empress Jito just exploded,” Soos said.

“Direct our missile fire at those three frigates,” Yoshuka ordered, “three volleys.”

Sleipnir’s 40 missile launchers spoke three times, sending 120 ship killers flashing into the black. Close by, the former Izlian battlecruiser Franklin Buchanan added a spread of missiles. Unlike the other ship salvaged with it, Stonewall Jackson, the Tesha-class battlecruiser more closely resembled the Steed-class, so it was directly incorporated into their formation. The formation of enemy frigates which had been acting together were caught off guard when they became the center of attention. Although they sent out a flurry of defensive laser fire that managed to destroy half the Hussars’ missiles, the remainder tore all three frigates to pieces.

“Excellent. Direct the remaining drones to concentrate on that group of cruisers and frigates.”

Yoshuka straddled the battle like riding a bucking horse, going from situation to situation as fast as he could. It was the bloodiest fight he’d ever been in. He’d already lost an escort and two additional frigates. He’d mauled the enemy as well, but their straight up firepower exceeded his. It was turning into a game of attrition, and he did not like it.

“Incoming fire!” the sensor op yelled. Sleipnir rocked as three enemy ship killers slammed against her already weakened shields. An instant later a particle beam from the surviving enemy battlecruiser slammed into the ship just ahead of the CIC.

Someone screamed as several panels shorted, and the lights flickered. There was a roar of escaping oxygen, and the DCC yelled for everyone to close their helmets. The ship started to slew off course.

“Major damage to avionics!” the DCC commed. Yoshuka slid his helmet closed and scanned the CIC’s various stations. His ship was hurt, badly, but still in the fight.

“Get the backups going,” he said, “and try to reinforce the shields.”

“That battlecruiser is retargeting,” the SitCon said, shaking his head. “I think we’re screwed.”

A flight of a dozen missiles arced out from the enemy battlecruiser as its battery of gigawatt-range particle cannons glowed in preparation to fire. Stonewall Jackson skewed her course, neatly intersecting the missiles and the three particle beams aimed at Sleipnir.

The missiles knocked out the ancient heavy cruiser’s twice-repaired shields, and two of the three particle beams carved into her hull. The ship’s massive armor absorbed one of them, but the other penetrated, slicing into her forward section.

“Damn it, Captain Ewald! You are out of formation!”

“You can thank me later,” the heavy cruiser’s commander said. The sound of alarms and explosions could be heard over the radio. “But I think we’re done for now.” On the Tri-V, flashes of light and venting gases poured from the wound, yet somehow, the ship still responded to commands and rolled to present undamaged armor and shields while maneuvering toward the rear of the fleet.

“He saved our asses,” Soos said. Four cruisers sent a wave of missiles into the enemy battlecruiser, wiping out its shields before its crew could fire the ship’s particle beam weapon. Gaping holes appeared in the enemy battlecruiser, which fell out of control.

Another wave of missiles from a dozen surviving enemy frigates flashed to the far side of the formation, slamming into the cruiser Citation. It was too much, and the cruiser was torn apart.

Yoshuka watched the drones tear into the last large group of enemy cruisers and frigates working together. The group’s coordination fell apart, and the Hussars’ cruisers sent wave after wave of missiles into them.

“Commander, I have enemy comms.”

“Put it on,” Yoshuka said.

“Winged Hussars, this is Captain Fseek on the cruiser Steadfast Branch.”

“Captain Fseek, this is Commander Yoshuka on the Winged Hussars’ battlecruiser Sleipnir.”

“Yoshuka? You are Maki, like us.”

“I am,” he confirmed. “What do you want, Captain?” There was a short pause.

“Regards to you and your command. I wish to offer our surrender.”

“Accepted. Stand down.”

“They are standing down,” Flipper confirmed.

“This is Commander Yoshuka, all Hussars, cease fire.”

“Helm control has been restored,” the DCC said, floating in. The man’s spacesuit was slightly charred, but he was smiling through the face mask. Yoshuka nodded. They’d won.

* * *

Space Dock Central Complex, Golara System

The hull of the station thrummed from almost non-stop MAC fire. Second Squad was under constant attack by dozens of armored Tortantula. They didn’t have Flatar riders; these were Tortantula shock troopers, blood-crazed killing machines. They’d jumped across from the station without space suits. Of everything he’d heard, that terrified him the most.

Jim led the group as they pushed toward the command deck. So much heavy weapons fire was flying in both directions he was afraid the station’s arm might come apart. They’d passed the 10-minute mark; they were committed now, but he’d only gotten halfway up the landing. Buddha and Moose were carrying a huge hunk of decking they’d cut loose, using it as a mobile shield, while the MinSha replied with heavy laser fire. The shield glowed red hot, but they were almost close enough to make their last ditch assault.

Pegasus Actual to Cartwright Actual.”

“I know what you’re going to say, Alexis!” Jim snapped, not following protocol. “We almost have it, give us another five minutes.”

“Jim, you can hold,” she said.

“What? No, don’t make us stop. The Cavaliers don’t fail!”

“Jim!” she snapped. “The fleet surrendered. We’ve won.”

“Won? Oh, wow. Excellent.” From several decks down there were fresh explosions.

“We’re hitting the Torts from below,” Hargrave said. “Finished our objective; thought you could use a hand.”

Jim nodded, shaking sweat from his head. “Finish them off,” he ordered. It made little sense to offer surrender to a Tortantula, especially one of the shock troopers.

“With pleasure,” Hargrave snarled.

Wow, he really doesn’t like them, Jim thought. He turned his loudspeaker on and got as close to the edge going down to the next level as he could. A heavy laser shot took a chunk out of the top of the shield, and he backed his CASPer up a few centimeters.

“Defenders, can you hear me?”

“What do you want, Human?” a MinSha yelled back.


“Eat shit!”

Jim chuckled; he hadn’t known that was a universal curse. “Your fleet just surrendered. You can die or give up yourself. Commander Cromwell from the Winged Hussars wants to slice your command center off and let it fall into the planet, and frankly, I’m tired of playing games with you.” Another explosion rocked the station arm. “My XO is polishing off your Tortantulas. So, what’s it going to be? A brave fight to the death, or a free ride home?”

“You would allow us to go home?” The translator conveyed her surprise.

“Yes,” Jim agreed. “Within reason.”

“What does ‘within reason’ mean?”

“It means we’ll have to make arrangements, since the Mercenary Guild is currently trying to kill all of us.”

“We do not know about these things,” the MinSha said. “My company was contracted as marines for this facility along with the Goka and some stupid Lumar.”

“Then what is your decision?”

There was quiet for a time. The station’s life support was still able to keep almost full pressure, so they could hear an argument that went on for a minute or so. The loudest voice sounded like a Maki, who Jim guessed was the person in charge of the system’s defenses.

“No! I will not allow it,” the voice yelled. A second later, a single laser snapped, then there was silence below.

“Are you there, Human?”

“Yes,” Jim said.

“The commodore was reluctant to surrender. I relieved him of command. As the new commander, I offer our surrender under the sole terms that we eventually be repatriated.”

Jim grinned. “Your terms are accepted.”

* * *

Revenge One, Space Dock 3X, Golara System

“How about setting us down on the end of the dock on the right side,” Nigel said. “Coordinate with the other dropship to land on the bottom of that arm; that way, we can go into it in force.”

“Why?” Guido asked. “Didn’t they just say the forces in-system had surrendered?”

“Yes, they did,” Nigel replied. “And if I was sure the troops on that dock were Lumar, I might be willing to believe they’d honor it. MinSha, too, although I’d want them to violate the truce so we could wipe them out. However, I heard a transmission say there are also Goka about, and those little fuckers I don’t trust at all. If they’re there, those little psychopaths will attack us, and the little roaches will continue to do so until we exterminate them.”

“Oh. That makes sense, sir.” Guido called the other shuttle and coordinated the landing.

“I’ll be in the back,” Nigel said to the pilot. “Let me know when we’re going in.”

Nigel worked his way to the back and addressed his troops. “We’re going to take a second dock. This one is a little smaller, but the ship there is important for psychological reasons—it’s Peepo’s yacht.”

“Is it going to be guarded?” one of the troopers asked.

“If it was your yacht, and you had access to nearly every mercenary in the galaxy, would you leave it unguarded?” The trooper didn’t reply. “I wouldn’t, either. I expect there will be Goka onboard this dock, and we’ll have to kill them all. We are going to come in from the top of the Bravo Arm, while Second Platoon comes in from underneath us at the same time. If you see the Goka, sing out. For those of you who are new, they are nearly perfect killing machines. They look like giant cockroaches, and their shells are laser-reflective. Pop your sword blades and wait for them, rather than wasting your lasers. A MAC will punch through their shells, but it has to be a solid hit—glancing blows often skip off. They won’t stop until they’re all dead, and they will neither ask for nor grant quarter. Kill them fast and make sure they’re dead. Any questions?”

“Good,” he added when he saw there weren’t any. “It’s time to kill aliens and get paid.”

The red light began flashing as the troopers roared their approval, and the ramp started down. “Ten seconds to touchdown,” the pilot said.

“Here we go,” Nigel said as the dropship touched down with a thunk, and the craft’s magnetic locks engaged. The flashing light went green. “Let’s go!” Nigel yelled at the same time as the platoon sergeant and several of the individual squad leaders.

Just like before, the platoon raced out onto the station and took up positions defending the dropship. Nigel walked to the edge of the dock and looked over; troopers were coming from that direction, too, so the other dropship was down.

Two of the airlocks had already been breached, he saw as he came back from the edge, and First Squad was entering the dock. He queued up and dropped down into the facility as a black stain could be seen spreading at the end of the arm where it joined with the administration offices on the facility. He bumped up the enhancement and saw the force consisted of a combination of Tortantulas and Goka. He hated them both.

“Here they come!” he announced. “Goka and Tortantulas. Lasers on the Torts, MACs on Gokas. Weapons free! Fire at will!” Several missiles arced down the passageway from the one missileer as Nigel locked his laser rifle to the leg mount of his suit. The sword blade on his arm snapped out as he took aim with the MAC mounted on his arm.

Had there been air, the passageway would have been deafening; instead, it was nothing more than a slaughterhouse. Several of his men were hit by the lasers mounted on some of the Tortantulas, but nothing critical, and most of the enemy were eliminated as they advanced. One Tortantula limped up to the Asbaran firing line; Nigel dispatched it with a MAC round through its head.

Then the Goka were upon them, and it was down to sword blades and knives for a few seconds. Only four or five of the Goka made it to them, though, and they were all put down. A few more minor wounds and suits that would need maintenance, but no critical injuries or damage to suits. “Set up a perimeter to keep any additional bugs out,” he told his platoon sergeant as Sergeant Epard, their medic, began treating the wounded. “I want to take a quick look at the yacht.”

He walked down the gangway and into the modified corvette. As he had expected, the ship had been gutted and rebuilt, nearly from scratch. It was magnificent, and as opulent as anything he’d ever seen.

He smiled. It would make a wonderful gift for Alexis.

* * * * *

Chapter Fourteen

EMS Arion, Plugy’s Star

“What the hell is going on in there, Frank?” Walker asked over the comms system. The captain of the Arion had gone to maximum acceleration prior to jumping to hyperspace and had stayed that way for almost an hour. When they transitioned back into normal space in the Plugy’s Star system, they were going considerably faster than their target and had caught up quickly. Everything seemed normal, until they were almost in weapons range…at which point, their target had turned, and the multi-segmented doors on its bow had opened like the petals of a flower, exposing its particle accelerator cannon. The weapon was already glowing as the super-dense metal was preheated to reduce the stress of firing it.

Captain Teenge had immediately turned Arion away from the ship, not wanting to risk taking a shot from the cannon. Arion had a 40-terawatt particle accelerator cannon of its own, so she was familiar with the other ship’s armament…and she didn’t want to get hit with it. That opinion was seconded by the rest of the crew, and Walker in particular. Still, it didn’t help him get any closer to completing his mission.

“We’re kind of at a stalemate at the moment,” Earl replied. “Apparently, when we started cutting into the ship, the AI onboard decided we were the enemy, and it has been trying to kill us ever since. It’s got to have some sort of mini-manufactory, because we’ve killed a ton of its damn robots, but no matter how many we kill, it’s still got more.”

“I’m sorry,” Walker replied. “I thought you said ‘AI,’ as in, ‘artificial intelligence.’”

“I did. Dr. Sato thinks the ship has an AI. Whether it is an AI or not doesn’t matter. The computer onboard has decided we are the enemy, and it has thrown a collection of robots at us.”

“Well, it obviously remembers we were part of your group, too,” Walker replied. “When we started getting close to the ship, it turned and aimed its big-ass cannon at us. The captain here is refusing to get into range of that weapon…and honestly, I can’t blame her.”

“Well, you guys are going to have to do something. We’re stuck. Without additional forces, we can’t go any further aft than Deck Five.”

Captain Teenge turned to Walker. “You’re going to have to go get him. If that ship has an artificial intelligence, there is no telling where it is going or what it is doing.”

“That ship hasn’t been active in thousands of years,” Walker replied. “Tens of thousands. Hell, it may not have been active since the Great War. If that’s the case, the AI probably thinks we’re still at war and it’s on some sort of attack mission. The records are so fragmented from then, there’s no telling what it’s planning…but we can’t let it do it.”

“We’re going to have to stop it,” Captain Teenge agreed. “We are responsible for activating it, and we will be held responsible for anything it does. If Sato can’t convince it to stand down, we’re going to have to destroy it, and I do not relish going up against that ship, especially if its weapons are AI-controlled.”

“We could have Earl destroy it, but he didn’t take his demolitions stuff with him. He’s only got breaching charges as we thought we’d be able to send it over later if he needed it. There’s no way we could have planned for this type of response.”

“I don’t want to go within weapons range of the ship unless absolutely necessary. You’re going to have to go get his unit and Sato off the ship in any event; I suggest you take along the demolitions required to destroy it when you go. Whether we blow it up or not, you’re still going to have to go over there and get our people back.”

Walker nodded once, slowly. “I know,” he said after a moment’s thought. “But it isn’t going to be easy.”

* * *

Strike Fighter Squadron One Ready Room, EMS Arion, Plugy’s Star

“The bottom line,” Lieutenant Colonel Walker said after explaining the situation to the assembled pilots, “is that we have to go and get the people off the target ship.” Walker looked around the large conference room the squadron had claimed as their ready room.

“Okay,” Willt said, “so let’s go get them. That should be easy enough. Thorb and Klarb have already made the trip over to it once.”

“The problem is we don’t know what the ship’s response is going to be to our presence. We know it won’t allow the Arion to get close, so it’s possible—probable, really—that it will have the same response to the bombers bringing over more people.”

“Still,” Thorb said, “we have to go get the Bees and Sato, or at least give them the ability to destroy the ship. It is something the herd needs; therefore, it is something worth doing. I am ‘in.’”

“Wait,” Walker said. “‘The herd?’”

“The group, the colony…whatever you consider all of you Humans to be. We are now part of your herd. Your fate is our fate. If the Merc Guild destroys you, they will destroy us for helping you soon after. When the grahp comes, the warriors swim out to meet it, because the survival of the herd demands it. Your herd—our herd—demands we fly over to the ship to save the people and destroy the ship before it does something detrimental to the herd. I am ready to do my part to stop it.”

“Well, we’re going to need our best pilots for this one, especially if we come under fire. We will do this with the cockpit flooded; if you need to pull 20 Gs to keep us safe, then pull 20 Gs.”

“Won’t that be harmful to the suited soldiers we will be carrying?”

“We should be okay,” Walker said. “We’ll certainly be better than if you don’t pull 20 Gs and let a laser or missile hit us. That would be worse. Yes, we’ll probably lose consciousness if you exceed eight or nine Gs, but it’s better to be unconscious than the alternative, which is to not to wake up at all.”

“I agree,” Thorb said, nodding once in acknowledgment. “I will do my best.”

“I need three more pilots to man the Avengers,” Walker said. “Who else will do it?” His eyes widened at the response—all nine SalSha raised their paws to be on the mission.

“I told you,” Thorb said. “We are ready to do whatever the herd needs.”

* * *

Avenger One, Transiting to Egleesius Cruiser “EG2,” Plugy’s Star

Walker found he liked the view from the Avenger much better when he was in the cockpit of it, rather than hanging from underneath a wing. Unfortunately, the SalSha needed the cockpit flooded for maximum-G maneuvering, which meant he was moved out to one of the wing ordnance stations, along with five other members of First Squad. He had decided it beat being one of the four troopers pinned to the weapons stations inside the bomb bay…at least he could see out. If the Avenger was hit by a shipborne weapon—either missile or laser—it probably wouldn’t matter whether he had the bomber’s thin armor protecting him; he’d still be dead. Second Squad was in similar positions on Avenger Two.

“We are coming into weapons range of the target ship,” Thorb commed.

“Keep the weapons systems off and the speed moderate, just like we briefed,” Walker replied. “Maybe if we don’t look like we’re on an attack profile, the ship won’t consider us to be its enemies.”

“Or maybe it will,” Thorb replied. “I have weapons systems activating on the ship—some of the hatches on it were covers over defensive lasers. They are extruding, and the ship is turning so it can fire at us.”

“Full speed, Thorb! Get us there as quickly as you can. You’re cleared to maneuver as needed.” He said the last over the common frequency so the troops were aware maneuvering would start soon. Not that they could do anything to prepare.

Without warning, Thorb snapped the bomber to the side, and Walker hit his head on the side of the CASPer. He tightened his straps as much as he could while looking at the stars dancing in front of his eyes.

“Make sure you tighten your str—” he started to say, but the second maneuver exceeded 10 Gs, and Walker lost consciousness.

* * *

Avenger One, Transiting to Egleesius Cruiser “EG2,” Plugy’s Star

“Grahp dung!” Thorb swore as the target ship began turning. They’d been coming in from aft of the ship—outside the defensive arcs of any of the ship’s weapons—but with the ship turning, all the cruiser’s weapons had a good view of, and an easy shot at, his bomber. There were nowhere near as many as on a “normal” Egleesius-class ship, but it only took one laser strike to really ruin his day. He jammed the throttles full forward as several radar and lidar detection systems activated, and a laser bolt narrowly missed as it passed between Avenger One and Avenger Two.

“Missile launch,” reported Klarb, his bombardier, from the right side of the cockpit.

“Awesome,” Thorb muttered. “Use your countermeasures when appropriate.”

He began heavy maneuvering, randomly yanking the bomber back and forth in all three dimensions, with computer-assisted 15-20 G pulls. He knew as much as he tried to be “random,” eventually, he would repeat a series of maneuvers, and the computer onboard the cruiser would have him dead to rights.

Thorb tried to maneuver to the stern of the ship, but every time he was getting close to where the ship could no longer shoot at him, it maneuvered, spinning on its axis to present its weapons again.

Still, the maneuvering and countermeasures appeared to be working, and there weren’t as many weapons firing as he would have expected. A near-constant string of chaff, flares, and decoys spewed forth from behind his craft, pulling the cruiser’s targeting systems away from his craft. Although there were several close calls, the bombers made it to the ship.

Avenger Two was in the lead, having either been shot at or maneuvered less, and Thorb followed it in as the bomber made its approach to the target. As they drew close to the ship, its weapons stopped firing at them, and the lasers withdrew into the ship. “Avenger Two, Avenger One. Does the ship withdrawing its weapons seem…odd to you?” he commed as Avenger Two swept in on the ship.

“It is like the grahp swimming away unexpectedly,” Fillb, the pilot of Avenger Two, replied. “It makes me want to do the happy dance of joy. Going in to land.” The craft’s landing gear came down as it approached its landing zone near the aft end of the ship.

Still, something seemed wrong.

“Walker, Thorb, are you awake yet?”

“Mmph,” Walker replied. “What…where…are we there yet?”

“We’re on final approach to the ship, but it just stopped firing at us. While I welcome not being shot at, it seems strange. Why would the ship do that?”

“No idea,” Walker replied. “Maybe you are within minimum range of their weapons or sensors, and the ship can’t see you anymore.”

“I don’t—shit!” Thorb yelled as the target ship suddenly fired all of its thrusters. Avenger Two was close aboard, passing alongside one of the stern thrusters when it activated, and it was caught in the plasma jet. The Avenger bomber was immolated; everyone onboard was burned to a cinder in a fraction of a second.

* * *

CIC, EMS Arion, Plugy’s Star

“Shit!” the TacCon said. “They just got Avenger Two with one of their maneuvering thrusters.”

Avenger One is going to have the devil’s own time getting aboard now, too,” the sensor operator noted. “The ship is now randomly firing its thrusters, and it’s spinning around like a snake. Even if they don’t get caught in a thruster, they are going to be crushed by the ship with it whipping about like it is. There’s no way they can launch the CASPers at the ship, either. They’ll either get burned up, or they’ll miss and go flying off into space.”

“What’s Avenger One doing?”

“He’s still trying to get aboard, but the odds are he’s either going to get burned up by one of the thrusters, or he’ll smash into the side of the ship as it spins around.”

“He can’t dodge in there and land quickly?”

“No, sir. He’s trying, but…”

“But the odds are, he isn’t going to make it,” Captain Teenge replied. “In that case, we’re going to have to help them. Helm, full speed ahead. TacCon, open the bow doors and charge the particle accelerator cannon.”

“We’re…we’re going to fire at the cruiser?” the TacCon asked. “With the Avenger that close to it?”

“Not unless we have to…” the captain said, with her race’s approximation of a smile. “But the cruiser doesn’t know that.”

“Sir!” the sensor operator called. “The cruiser has turned toward us and ceased its random motion. Its bow doors are opening, and it looks like the ship is preparing to fire!

“I’m sure it is.” Teenge kept her eyes on the Tri-V screen. She didn’t need to look around the space to know her crew was scared; she could feel it in the air, hear it with every breath taken and every dial turned. Everyone moved too quickly, too erratically. It wasn’t efficient for the operation of a ship…but at least they trusted her. In her first mission as captain, that, at least, was good to know. Now she just needed to not lose the ship…

“Hard dive to port!” she ordered suddenly. “Close bow doors and safe the spinal mount!”

She could hear a collective sigh sweep across the CIC as the reaction thrusters shoved the ship “down” and to port.

“The cruiser is firing!” the sensor operator yelled, and the breaths that had just been released by everyone in the CIC were drawn again. Teenge was pretty sure she drew one herself, but then the shot went wide; the cruiser hadn’t expected her to cut and run suddenly.

“Sir! Their bow doors are still open,” the TacCon said. “Do you want us to program in some evasive maneuvers?”

“No, that won’t be necessary,” she said, sounding more cool and composed than she felt. A 40-terawatt particle beam close aboard would do that to you. “We let it see that we’re going away from it; there’s no need for it to fire again. We are doing what it wanted us to. Continue the turn away from it.”

Her eyes focused on the little dot representing Avenger One on the Tri-V as it merged with the cruiser. Good luck, she said silently. That’s all I can do for you.

* * *

Avenger One, Transiting to Egleesius Cruiser “EG2,” Plugy’s Star

“The ship stopped maneuvering,” Thorb said. “Do you think I should approach it, or is it a net they are trying to draw me into?”

“Is it doing anything else?” Walker asked.

“No it…wait, the bow of the ship is…opening up somehow.”

“It’s getting ready to fire its main weapon!” Walker exclaimed. “It won’t be able to dodge around with the doors open—it would risk breaking them or jamming them out of position. This is our chance—get us down!

Thorb jammed the throttles forward and dove in past the thrusters. With a brilliant flash, the spinal mount fired, then the bow doors began closing a few seconds later. His window of opportunity was closing along with the doors; once they were shut, the ship could begin maneuvering again.

He was unable to use the “safe” docking program Walker liked and threw the bomber forward into a hard dive at the ship, then went to full throttles again just before impact. Someone would certainly have been mad at him if he’d done it on a friendly ship—there was going to be damage to the skin of the ship—but he doubted anyone would yell at him…this time.

The bomber slammed into the cruiser a little harder than he’d intended, and the world listed a little to port as the port main mount bent. Oops. That one he probably would get yelled at for.

He triggered the magnetic locks on the landing gear and yelled, “Bombs away!”

Klarb opened the bomb bay doors and pressed the manual jettison button, releasing the locks on the weapons stations. It also provided a burst of air to separate ordnance from the bomber, and the CASPers were slammed down onto the ship. Most of them recovered and were able to get their boots locked to the ship as it started maneuvering wildly again, but one of the suits floated off past the cockpit’s window.

“Colonel Walker, one of the suits is headed into space,” Thorb transmitted.

“I know,” Walker replied. “It’s Private Rollins. Either his straps broke, or he hadn’t strapped in. The high G maneuvers…he’s gone.”

* * * * *

Chapter Fifteen

EMS Pegasus, Golara System

Alexis watched the data stream being constantly updated in her pinplants as it was sent from the various ships in the fleet, her fleet. Preliminary casualty counts were depressing.

<It could have been much worse. My estimates were double your losses.>

I’m sure the families of the dead will be consoled by that,” she snapped.

<Beings die in war.>

Easy to say, coming from a machine.

<You think my kind haven’t died in war?>

How many of your kind were there?” she asked.


Many is not an answer.

<It is all the answer I am prepared to give.>

Their relationship, such as it was, went back many years. From a certain perspective, they had blood together, as the AI inhabited her sister’s body. Until recently, Alexis had considered Ghost a powerful ally. Since the beginning of the Merc Guild’s vendetta against Humanity, though, Ghost had become increasingly less reliable and forthcoming, and Alexis was forced to wonder if the machine intelligence had ever been either, except when it served its own purposes.

The Winged Hussars had lost six ships, including a cruiser, Citation. That ship was lost with all hands, as were three of the others. The other ships she’d lost were an escort frigate and four regular frigates.

Three more ships were heavily damaged and wouldn’t be ready to fight for at least a week. Sleipnir, Commander Yoshuka’s command ship, another escort frigate, Hrunting, and Stonewall Jackson. The ancient Izlian heavy cruiser was a standout in the battle, absorbing an absurd amount of fire. It was the worst damaged, though. Engineers were still evaluating if it was worth saving. The battle would have been much worse without the old battle wagon.

Four more ships had moderate damage. The cruisers Affirmed and Omaha, the frigate Ulfberht, and the only carrier to be damaged, Wyvern. That was just bad luck. A group of enemy drones had been aimed at a cruiser formation which wasn’t there when they arrived, so the damned things had mauled one of her carriers. Those four ships could move and fight, and they would be able to affect repairs by themselves.

A dozen other ships had minor damage, mostly overloaded shield generators or grazed armor. One frigate had a fusion plant down, but it would be back online within a few hours. There were a few injured onboard, as well, with bruises and broken bones from high-G maneuvers.

They’d also come into the system with 480 drones on the carriers, and 40 more on Pegasus, but less than 100 had survived the battle. The carriers could make more, especially since they’d taken the shipyard stores intact, but that would take time, as each Fiend-class carrier could only make five drones a day.

In lives lost, the total was 1,091 dead and 203 injured, including troopers killed and injured attacking the shipyards. It was the bloodiest day in the 100 years of Winged Hussars’ history. More than the lives, it was also the experience. Hundreds of those spacers represented years of experience which, considering the war they found themselves in, were irreplaceable. The 205 dead on Citation and another 90 aboard Sleipnir were the worst. Commander James O’Connel, captain of Citation, took with him 19 years’ experience commanding ships in the Hussars. His crew had been elite; now they were dead.

“Commander?” Alexis’ eyes focused in her wardroom, looking at the doorway. Her second in command, Paka, floated there holding a slate. “You have a minute?”

“Sure,” she said. “What do you need?”

“I’ve finished the fleet assessments,” the Veetanho said and held out the slate. Alexis took it and quickly scanned the data.

“You want to send Whirlaway to highguard?”

Paka nodded. “Frigates Tyrfing and Lobera as well. Bring Tizona and Bishop back with the two Maki frigates Evening Dew and Crisp Bloom.”

Alexis chuckled. “Love those Maki names.”

“Commander Yoshuka thinks they’re splendid.”

“Of course he does; he’s Maki, too. He lobbied to have Sleipnir renamed Trodden Meadow.”

Meadow Treader,” Paka corrected, and they both laughed.

“Detach Biter with them as well. Captain Porter in Whirlaway is a good choice. Jay is due for promotion to commander.”

“That leaves us with only three undamaged escort frigates here,” Paka said.

“I know, but I want at least a light escort screen there at highguard in case a battleship pops through. I’m going to send Shadowfax once we have the situation more in hand, so we have a heavy hitter, too, just in case that battleship does materialize. Until then, inform Captain Porter to keep that highguard tight, do you understand? I don’t want to risk some corvette or courier slipping back out.” She glanced at the tactical Tri-V glowing above her desk. On it was an image of Golara’s stargate, slowly rotating. “No ships out of here through that stargate until I say so.”

“Understood,” Paka said and floated back into the CIC.

Once she was alone, she commed Colonel Enkh. As the other most experienced commander, Alexis was leaning heavily on her. “What’s the status down at the yards?” she asked.

“Everything is pretty good, considering. Your medical staff on the transports are tending the wounded. Nigel even managed to come away with a Lumar merc company that is working for him now.”

“Aliens working for Asbaran?” Alexis said, shaking her head. “What happened down there?”

“Long story,” Sansar said. “I figured we’d have a debrief down here in a few hours?”

“Sounds like a plan. I’m shuffling crews and repairs. We took a bit of a mauling.” She told Sansar how many she’d lost.

“I’m sorry,” Sansar said, sounding as sincere as Alexis knew she was.

“We’re at war,” Alexis said.

“Ragnar’s Reavers were wiped out in the assault. They lost several dropships on the way in, then were overrun by Goka. I got there just as they were about to fall. First Sergeant Amunson had assumed command and held until we arrived. He didn’t survive.”

“We’ll make sure their families know about it on Earth.”

“It’s the least we can do,” Sansar agreed. “Now some good news. It looks like you have two battleships now. Send some people over as soon as you can spare them?”

“Will do. Cartwright okay?”

“Looks like it,” Sansar said. “He has Bucephalus docked with the main zero-gravity facility, and they’re running an inventory. I understand he took the surviving highest ranking prisoner, a MinSha who killed the Maki in charge.”

“Sounds like it was messy near the end.”

“After his people took the warehouses, they found a dozen Flatar with Tortantulas who eventually surrendered. They’re the leaders of the assault team that jumped in space. Oh, did I mention the crazy spiders didn’t have space suits?”

Alexis hissed. Yeah, that was crazy. “Okay, give me three hours, and we’ll meet in the command center. Let Cartwright know; he can host it, since he took the place. My regards to all your people on a job well done.”

“And yours,” Sansar said. “See you in a few hours.”

Alexis notified Paka of the planned meeting and had her spread it to the other units that were along, then spent an hour talking with individual ship commanders and using her pinplants to modify defensive and offensive ship formations and orders of battle. All the while, she hoped it wouldn’t be necessary soon. Even when Shadowfax eventually arrived at the emergence point, a single 40-terawatt particle accelerator cannon wasn’t much throw weight. Not if a battleship came through ready for battle.

<It is unlikely an enemy battleship will arrive expecting a fight.>

It is equally unlikely that a battleship will arrive by itself,” she replied. That there was no reply was proof enough that Alexis was correct. Ghost only tended to stick its digital nose in her business when she was wrong.

“Commander!” Hoot called from the CIC.

“Go ahead.”

Whirlaway assumed control of highguard. Also, Captain Porter said they just had a ship come out of hyperspace.”

“An enemy ship?” she asked, rising to head back into the CIC.

“No, commander, it’s the Phaeton from New Warsaw. Captain Jormungd says one of those weird Egleesius-class ships used its hyperspace shunts and jumped out with Sato aboard.”

Alexis sighed. I should have written that order better. “Have him transmit the details immediately.”

“Captain Jormungd offers her apologies, but says she’s been ordered to personally report to you by Commander Kowalczy.”

“Does she have a shuttle onboard Phaeton?”

“Yes, commander.”

“My regards to Captain Jormungd and ask her to meet me on the command center.” Hoot acknowledged the order, and Alexis turned off the intercom. Never a dull moment.

* * *

Space Dock Central Complex, Golara System

The command center formerly belonging to the now-deceased Maki commodore was remarkably intact. Especially remarkable when you examined the hash Cartwright’s Cavaliers had made out of the rest of the station arm housing the command center. Winged Hussars’ engineers pronounced the station “somewhat structurally sound,” once they brought the spin down to one-third gravity at the outer edge housing the command center.

It took a team of damage control specialists two hours to stop the atmospheric leaks caused by the explosions, lasers, and MAC rounds. Pictures were making their way around showing a severed MinSha head acting as a rather efficient plug for one hole. An unnamed Hussar had applied some quick curing sealant around the edges and left it. Alexis forbade the images to be circulated any further, as the Hussars employed a few MinSha who would find it alarming and in bad taste. The pictures had, however, been found by some of the Asbaran troopers, and they were doubtless serving as screensavers on many slates. Alexis wouldn’t have put it past Nigel to be one of them.

The meeting progressed through a quick after-action report from each of the participating units. The report on Ragnar’s Reavers was given by Sansar Enkh and was followed by a moment of silence. The only survivors from the Reavers were the two remaining dropship pilots and the unit’s support staff. Sansar had subsumed them into the Golden Horde for the time being.

Alexis did her best to remain positive in her presentation. It wasn’t easy with the spirits of 1,093 dead Winged Hussars behind her. A young ensign named John Hamill had succumbed to his injuries to raise the total by one. When Sleipnir’s DCC was killed, Hamill had stepped up, fighting to keep power to the ship’s shield array. An energy discharge burned both his legs to the bone. He’d lived for six hours, fighting for life every minute.

The engagement was one of those rare merc battles where the naval losses far outweighed the trooper loses. Ragnar’s Reavers was the only dark spot. Cartwright’s had three dead and as many injured; the Horde and Asbaran were similar. The timing worked well—just as she was wrapping up, Captain Jormungd slithered into the command center. There was a sharp intake of multiple breaths in the room, and Alexis grinned. The captain had that effect on people.

Captain Jormungd was a member of the race known as Kaa and was a five-meter-long reptilian which bore a superficial resemblance to a terrestrial cobra, minus the hood. The Kaa were incredibly imposing, mostly because their race was rarely seen; they normally weren’t mercs. Their predominant color was a shiny black with light grey belly scales. For manipulation, they used bunches of tentacles that looked like handfuls of smaller snakes that branched off the main body, with one on each side. If that wasn’t enough to bring their alien status home, instead of eyes, the Kaa possessed a strip of light and motion receptors across their head, from one side to the other. They worked more like the composite eyes of insects, producing an incredibly detailed compositional image that extended into the ultraviolet spectrum.

The conference room fell completely silent as Captain Jormungd slid across the metallic floor, her belly scales making a quiet sksss, sksss sound as she moved. Her carriage was extremely upright, with more than half her body nearly vertical, her head angled down so her vision band had maximum visibility. She wore a belt just below her arm clusters that stayed in place without an obvious means, which held a slate and a sidearm. A Winged Hussars logo was emblazoned on scales just under her head, with the silver oak leaf of her rank, commander.

“Everyone, this is Captain Jormungd of EMS Phaeton. Her ship was still being refurbished when we left, so she stayed behind. The plan was for Phaeton to be operational in another week; unfortunately, there has been an incident.” Alexis smiled. “If you’ll excuse me for a minute,” she told those assembled, gesturing Jormungd toward a doorway, “I need to consult with her here for a minute.” Sansar, Jim, and Nigel nodded, and she followed Jormungd out. All eyes watched the huge Kaa leave.

“Colonel,” Jormungd said in passable English as soon as the door was closed, “I am sorry I couldn’t transmit.”

“I doubt three hours made any real difference.” She gestured around. “We’re under new management.”

The Kaa captain showed her teeth and nodded. “You are to be congratulated, Colonel. I am sorry Phaeton was not ready to participate. Were the losses high?” Alexis told her, and her head dipped. “I am first and foremost a Winged Hussar. My blood for you, Colonel, and our enemies.”

“Your loyalty, bravery, and capability as a commander have never been in question,” Alexis said. “I’ve never understood why the Kaa aren’t a merc race.”

“When the Kut’oja return, we will serve them. Until then,” her arms flayed out into a fan to both sides, a shrug for her race, “only those who are called to the path of vengeance will fight.”

Alexis nodded. Her story hadn’t changed from the day she’d been rescued from a pirate-crippled ship over a decade ago. Jormungd had been young then, not quite an adult. The Hussars returned her to the Kaa home world, but she returned later saying she’d been called to the path and would serve the Hussars unto the end. She steadfastly refused to explain who or what the Kut’oja were.

“Give me the details on what happened.”

“Sato used your orders to get aboard one of the odd Egleesius,” she began.

“Kleena was supposed to keep an eye on him.”

“Sato didn’t wait for Kleena; he used a modified CASPer and boarded by himself.”

“My orders didn’t specify Kleena accompany him,” Alexis said with a sigh. She shook her head. “Proceed.”

“The records show that about five hours after he boarded, Sato requested and was granted a fuel tanker to fill up the Egleesius’ tanks.”

“Entropy,” Alexis hissed.

“One hour later, the Egleesius powered up her motors and maneuvered toward the stargate.”

“But Turk didn’t let it through, did he?”

“No,” Jormungd said. “The ship used its shunts to jump to hyperspace. Sato communicated for a minute before it left. He’d apparently gotten enough access to know the destination.”

“What was that destination?”

“The Beta Cephei system. With that information, Commander Kowalczy decided the best course of action was to send Arion after it, along with Bert’s Bees. Lieutenant Walker also led a contingent of Golden Horde, along with a number of SalSha and two of the new Avengers. His plan was to intercept the rogue ship in Beta Cephei, board it, and rescue Dr. Sato. They were going to recover the ship if possible, but would destroy it if necessary to keep it from falling into enemy hands. I was dispatched here to inform you, as Commander Kowalczy remains in command at New Warsaw. Phaeton is now ninety percent operational, but we didn’t have time to load ordnance.”

“Ordnance we’ve got,” Alexis said. She considered the plan for a minute, then nodded. Just what she would have expected from Kowalczy. “And it looks like Captain Teenge will soon have Sato and the ship back.”

<No, he will not.>

Alexis gave a little start. She hadn’t been expecting Ghost to intrude on the meeting. “What do you mean?

<They will be unable to stop the Keesius.>

“Keesius? Is that the class name, similar to Egleesius?” Ghost didn’t answer. Because of how Jormungd’s vision worked, Alexis couldn’t be sure the Kaa was staring at her, but after working with her for many years, it was pretty obvious. Although the secret of Ghost wasn’t widely known, the fact that Colonel Cromwell tended toward eccentric was. To most of the Hussars, that behavior manifested in her reclusive lifestyle, and how she would occasionally freeze and stare off into space. Only those who knew about Ghost were aware of what was actually happening, and Jormungd wasn’t read into the secret. “Captain, can I have a minute alone?”

“Of course, Colonel,” she said, bowing her scaled head. “I will be back onboard my ship if you need me.” She slithered out the door, closing it behind her.

Talk, damn you.

<What do you want to talk about?>

Alexis felt her blood pressure elevate. She ground her teeth and considered punching something. She’d just about reached the end of her rope.

<I sense you are frustrated.>

Frustrated? Are you fucking kidding me? You’ve been with the Hussars for a century, hidden for a lot of that time, but always hanging around, helping. Only now, I don’t know how much you were helping.

<I always assisted—>

Where it served your purposes!” Alexis wasn’t aware she was also yelling. “I’ve known you’ve been keeping secrets for a long time. Shit, everyone keeps secrets. Only your secrets are a lot more dangerous to us, to your adopted family. It’s about time you started telling us some truths.

<What do you want to know?>

You can start with the Keesius. Why won’t Teenge be able to stop it?

<The Keesius was a stop-gap measure, adopted late in the war. Our side was losing. There weren’t enough crews to man the ships. Hundreds of Egleesius-class hulls were in allied shipyards all over the galaxy. It was a relatively simple procedure to redesign the ships for a different purpose. No crews would be needed, only one of my kind, and a simpler version, at that. With no crew to care for, there was room for an even more powerful particle accelerator. One that served a dual purpose. First it was used as a collider to accumulate antimatter.>

Antimatter?” she blurted. “But that’s a big no-no, one of the crash-and-burn laws of the Union!

Ghost continued. <Vast amounts of equipment were needed for containment of the antimatter. It is relatively easy to generate, but much harder to store. The technology is similar to fusion power, though vastly more powerful. Creating antimatter also consumes huge amounts of F11, and it must be maintained near absolute zero during transportation to its destination. Once on target, the Keesius uses its oversized engines to attack the target at speeds only drones and missiles can match. Their top acceleration is close to 100 Gs. They are designed to be unstoppable.>

What is this ship’s target? What will it do?

<Based on its choice of destination after leaving New Warsaw, and the fact it was lost so near the end of the war, it could only have one target. Capital Planet.> Alexis felt her blood run cold as Ghost continued, even though she could already guess the rest. <When it arrives at the last system before it reaches its target, it accelerates until almost all its fuel is consumed. It has the same ability I do in calculating an emergence point. It will jump again and appear quite close to the target, and it will already be aimed at it. The front of the ship will open up, creating a massive surface coated with antimatter. The gun will fire an anti-charged particle beam, creating a channel through the atmosphere that allows the ship to reach the surface. The antimatter on the front of the ship will detonate on contact, with a yield more than sufficient to crack most worlds wide open.>

This is how they destroyed planets, isn’t it? This is why antimatter is illegal.


Alexis mind raced, already making plans. Ghost would know the route the Keesius was taking. She’d use Pegasus and 2nd Level Hyperspace to beat it to that last system. They’d destroy it there. Millions were on Capital who’d done nothing wrong. They didn’t deserve to die from a terror weapon made a thousand centuries before they were born, accidentally activated by a scientist with more curiosity than brains.

<No.> Ghost said.

What do you mean, no?” she demanded. “You don’t know the route?

<I know the route. But I can’t go to the ship now that it’s activated.>

You can’t, or you won’t,” she demanded.

<For the purpose of this conversation, it doesn’t matter. You can travel to 2nd Level Hyperspace without my assistance, but you cannot arrive where you wish without it, and I will not take you there.>

She’d never heard such finality from the AI before. It was chilling. “You son of a bitch,” she snarled. “You’d let all those people die.

<All beings die. There is a chance Sato will succeed in stopping it. If he does, or the boarding teams succeed in causing enough damage to the Keesius, it will detonate its payload, destroying anything with a light minute. There is a chance of a victory, although it is remote.>

At the cost of still another ship and crew.

<One crew for a planet. Would you not consider that a fair trade?>

You know what? I’m beginning to understand how so many trillions died in the war. You are a perfect example of what killed them.

Ghost had nothing more to add.

* * *

Space Dock Central Complex, Golara System

The conversation ceased as Alexis re-entered the conference room, and Sansar drew a short breath at the expression on Alexis’ face. Although normally pale from her lack of time planetside, Sansar had never seen her so colorless. Alexis came back to the table and dropped into a chair—as much as one-third G would allow, anyway.

“What’s wrong?” Sansar asked. “It looks like you just saw a ghost.”

“Funny you should say that,” Alexis said.

“What do you mean?” Nigel asked. “Are you okay?”

He started to stand, probably to go to her, but Alexis waved him back to his seat. “No, I’m fine. It has been a long day, full of death, and I just got some additional news which is extremely disconcerting.”

“What is it?” Sansar asked.

“Yeah. How can we help?” Jim asked. “There isn’t anything we can’t get through, now that we’re together.”

Sansar smiled. The exuberance of youth. Today was one of those days where it was good to have the two younger men with them; their youthful energy and fiery spirit brought out the best in the two older women. It did for her, anyway.

“I made a mistake when we left New Warsaw,” Alexis said, sitting forward. “Before we left, I granted authorization for Dr. Sato to take a look at one of the weird Egleesius ships we brought back from 2nd Level Hyperspace.”

“Sato?” Nigel asked. “The mad scientist guy?”

Alexis smiled. “Yes, him, although most people would use words like ‘brilliant’ and ‘accomplished.’”

“Most of the people I’ve talked to call him ‘The Mad Scientist,’” Nigel said with a grin.

“He’s awesome!” Jim exclaimed. “He invented—”

“We don’t have time to debate his personal strengths and weaknesses,” Alexis said, cutting him off. “He is both of those things. A genius and…a pain in the ass.” She shook her head. “When we left, I gave him permission to look at one of the Keesius-class ships, which is what they are called.” She held up a hand, seeing the looks on the other commanders’ faces. “I’ll tell you how I know that in a minute. Regardless, I always try to lay down boundaries for what he is and isn’t allowed to do. Those of you who have any experience with him will understand why. This time, however, I wasn’t specific enough in laying out the rules. I didn’t forbid him from refueling the ship, and he convinced the yard staff to do so. Once the ship was fueled, Sato somehow activated it.”

“Activated it?” Nigel asked, brows knitting. “What does that mean?”

“It means the ship has a functioning AI aboard that Sato somehow turned on. The AI then started the ship and left the New Warsaw system.”

“How could it do that?” Jim asked. “They wouldn’t have let it past the stargate, would they?”

“No, they wouldn’t; however, the ship is equipped with hyperspace shunts, and it jumped out of the system on its own.”

Sansar pursed her lips. “So it’s gone; we’ve lost it.”

“Not necessarily,” Alexis replied. “That is why Captain Jormungd is here. Before the ship jumped, Dr. Sato transmitted its jump coordinates. The ship was heading to the Beta Cephei system.”

“Do we know why it was going there?” Sansar asked.

“At the moment, no,” Alexis said. She sighed. “We think it is just an intermediate point, though. We believe its final destination is Capital Planet.”

“The more you explain, the more questions you raise,” Nigel said. “How do you know where it’s heading? What does the ship intend to do there?” He smiled wanly, his concern obvious. “Finally, who is this ‘we’ you keep mentioning? We could hear you arguing with someone…however, there didn’t appear to be anyone in the other room with you.”

Alexis sighed again. “I know. I’m going to tell you everything, but please bear with me for a few moments. All of those questions are wrapped up in this, and it’s…complicated.” She slumped in her chair.

Sansar could see the Hussars’ commander was exhausted. “You can tell us however you see fit,” she said; “however, it might be easiest if you started out with the important part—how are we going to get the ship back, or at least ensure it doesn’t fall into Peepo’s hands when it reaches Capital Planet? I’ve seen this ship fight, and I don’t want any of its sister ships pointing their 40-terawatt cannons at me.”

“I’m hoping the ship has already been recovered. Commander Kowalczy sent the other Egleesius ship we have, Arion, to run it down. Bert’s Bees is going to board it and stop it, if possible. If so, they will try to bring it back to New Warsaw. If they can’t, they have orders to destroy it. Lieutenant Colonel Walker is in charge of the mission. He also brought two Avenger bombers and some of the SalSha to help get the Bees over to the rogue ship.”

“I have a question,” Jim said. “Do they really think that’s going to work? Assuming for a second that the ship really has an operational AI onboard, has anyone given any serious thought to the fact that the AI may not want to be stopped?”

“What do you mean?” Nigel asked.

“Well, by definition, the AI is an autonomous life form,” Jim said. “Depending on its programming, or how it has reprogrammed itself, it may not want to be stopped. Whatever its goals are at Capital Planet, it is going to want to complete them…and it might react badly to anyone who tries to stop it from completing them.” He looked over to Alexis. “Do we know what those goals are?”

“We believe it’s going to destroy Capital Planet.”

There was a collective intake of breath. “Do you mean it will attack Capital Planet?” Nigel asked. “With the Merc Guild there, especially after what we did to them, there are bound to be fleet units there which will stop the ship.”

“No, they won’t be able to stop it…and when I say it will destroy the planet, that is exactly what I mean. That class of ship was built with only one function—to destroy worlds. While they are on their way to their targets, they generate antimatter, which they use on arrival to crack open the planet’s crust. The ship Sato’s on will dive into the planet, and the antimatter will detonate upon impact. The planet will be destroyed. That says nothing about the ship’s velocity when it hits. With no crew onboard, it has over 100 Gs available. It can accelerate to a tremendous velocity in no time at all. And, just as Pegasus was able to enter this system at a point other than the emergence zone, the Keesius can emerge near the planet. Any fleet there will probably be in a highguard position…they won’t have a chance of stopping it.”

“I’ve had dreams for the last week of a ship jumping into a system near a planet,” Sansar said. “In the dreams, I knew we had to stop it, but I didn’t know why. I thought the ship was the Pegasus, but now I see it was this rogue ship.” She smiled. “As much as I’d love to let the rogue ship impact squarely on the Merc Guild, there are too many innocents on the planet; we have to stop it. If it gets out to the galaxy at large that we—and that’s how it will be seen, that Humans were responsible for doing this—that we were the ones who blew up Capital Planet, using antimatter, no less, we can throw away any hope of aid from the other races. We must stop it.”

Sansar shook her head, then added, “There is, however, one thing I don’t understand, which is key to both how the rogue ship attacks and how Pegasus operates.” Her eyes narrowed as she looked at Alexis. “How is it that you are able to enter a system at other than an emergence point?”

Pegasus is able to jump into a system the same way the Keesius does, because it has an AI aboard, just like the rogue ship.”

“Well, today is quite the day for revelations,” Nigel said, pushing back from the table. “First antimatter and now AIs. What’s next—antigravity?”

“When were you going to tell us?” Jim asked. Where Nigel’s expression was more of surprise and amusement, Jim looked angry. “The Merc Guild wasn’t lying about that! You have an AI!”

“Blue Sky above!” Sansar exclaimed as her own temper rose. “You had the unmitigated gall to give me shit about uplifting the SalSha, which I needed to do in order to save Earth’s mercenary forces; meanwhile, all the time you had an AI—the most forbidden of Galactic Union technology—onboard your own flagship? How long have you had an AI?”

A flush crept up from Alexis’ collar, and she looked at the table, unable to meet anyone’s eyes. “We have had Ghost for as long as we’ve had Pegasus,” Sansar admitted. “But Ghost is a one-off. She came with the ship; she wasn’t something we created. That was who I was talking to in the other room earlier—I was trying to get some answers from her. She gave me some information, but refused to tell me everything.”

Alexis looked up at Sansar finally, her eyes burning. “Besides,” she added, “I know you’ve been trying to figure out how to make an AI of your own. I don’t see why you think you have the right to be so high and mighty!”

“And if you’d shared that you actually had one, we might have made a breakthrough sooner!” Sansar found she couldn’t control her voice; it continued to rise—Alexis had known they were working on one, and still hadn’t shared? “The Four Horsemen for Earth, indeed!

“All right, ladies,” Nigel said, holding up his hands. “Let’s try to remember who the hothead at the table is supposed to be.” He gave them both his best smile. “That’s my job.” When neither of the women said anything else, he added, “Perhaps we can focus our attention to how we stop the rogue AI, and then we can learn more about Alexis’ ally.” He cocked his head at Alexis. “This ‘Ghost’ is an ally, I hope?”

“She always has been in the past,” Alexis said.

“But she isn’t now?” Sansar asked.

“She…I don’t know.” Alexis sighed, then met Sansar’s eyes. “Look, I’m sorry for not telling you. I figured we had enough problems without telling the world we had an AI, too, because as soon as I told you, the secret was bound to get out. Only a few of my most trusted people know about Ghost. They just think I’m weird or distant or catatonic sometimes when I speak to Ghost mind to mind.”

Sansar sat back in her chair and sighed, as well. “I’m sorry, too,” she said. “Yelling at each other doesn’t help us, and we have a lot of issues to deal with.” She smiled at Alexis. “No more secrets?”

“No more secrets.”

“Okay. So you said your Ghost was an ally, ‘in the past?’ What changed?”

“Ghost has always helped the Hussars and myself, and I always looked at her as one of the Hussars, although I guess she never was. Recently, though, as we’ve gone further along the path to war, she has become more reticent to share information. She still helps with fighting battles—if you wonder why Pegasus’ drones are so good, she’s why—but she has been less and less forthcoming over things that happened in the Great War.”

“Wait,” Jim said, a touch of wonder in his voice. “Ghost was alive during the Great War?”

“Yes,” Alexis replied. “Ghost experienced it, but won’t talk about it. And I don’t know why; don’t ask. But she’s also the reason I know what the Keesius-class of ships are—she was around when they were built, and she says they are built to be planet killers.”

“Any chance that isn’t the truth?” Sansar asked.

“I guess it’s possible,” Alexis replied, “but I doubt it. The fact that she is only telling us part of the story probably means what she’s said is true.”

“How do you know, though?” Jim asked. “What if she is programmed to lie?”

“It’s possible,” Alexis repeated with a shrug. “As I’ve come to find out recently, I really don’t know her as well as I had always assumed.”

“Okay, so what do we do to stop the Keesius?” Nigel asked. “I think we’re all in agreement that it must be done, yes?” He looked around the table and got nods. “If Ghost says the rogue is going to blow up Capital Planet—and we believe her—will she take us to Capital Planet? I know there won’t be much of a chance to stop the ship, based on the attack profile you described, but a small chance is better than no chance, and at least we could make it look like we tried?”

“No,” Alexis replied. “Even if Ghost would take us to Capital Planet, we don’t know when the attack is coming or what direction it will come from. Can you imagine us showing up and saying to the fleet guarding the planet, ‘Don’t mind us. We’re just here to stop something bad from happening.’” She chuckled softly. “I think they’d probably take exception to our presence and try to do something about it.”

“But Ghost won’t?” Sansar asked. She was beginning to realize what Alexis left unsaid was as important as what she related…if not more so.

“No, she won’t. I don’t know what it is, but there’s something about the Keesius that scares her.”

“Maybe it’s because the rogue ship has the first AI Ghost has seen in thousands of years?” Jim asked.

“Maybe…” Alexis said. Sansar could see she wasn’t convinced. “I don’t know what it is. She said she ‘can’t go to the ship’ now that it’s activated but wouldn’t tell me whether that meant she couldn’t go or wouldn’t. Regardless, we’re on our own to stop it; we can’t expect any help from Ghost.”

Sansar shook her head. “Even if we could get to Capital Planet before the Keesius arrives, and we defeated whatever fleet is there now, we have no chance of stopping the ship. We don’t know where it’s coming from, nor when. I think we have to forget about that and hope that Walker and the Bees stop it.”

“What do we do, then?” Jim asked. “Go warn Capital Planet to evacuate?”

“Going to Capital Planet and warning them is a wasted effort,” Sansar said with a shrug. “It might save a few folks—mostly the mercenaries, at a guess, since they have more ships than anyone else to evacuate with—but who is going to believe us? We’re most likely to be attacked on sight. Besides, we might get there and find out the planet was already destroyed.” She smiled. “No, I think it would be better to go and talk to Peepo and let her deal with it.”

“What?” Jim asked.

“Yes,” Alexis agreed, nodding. “If we tell Peepo, then it becomes her problem. If she does nothing, we can say, ‘We warned her.’ If she moves forces to Capital Planet to stop it, then there are fewer for us to fight.” She smiled at Nigel. “We could do the assault on Earth you’ve been wanting that much sooner.” She looked back to Sansar. “Yes, I think that would be the perfect thing to do—pop into Earth’s system, somewhere away from the emergence point, and ask for a meeting. Even if we just do it by Tri-V, we’ve made the attempt.”

“And we can get some intel on what’s currently going on in the system,” Sansar said. “I still have people on the planet; we could try to contact them.”

“I just want to see Peepo’s face when we show up with her yacht,” Nigel said.

“Her what?” Alexis asked.

“Her yacht,” Nigel said. “It was in one of the docks, and I took the opportunity to liberate it. I thought it was the one thing missing from your fleet, a nice yacht you could use to do inspections…or maybe take a little time off. It’s a converted corvette, so it is plenty large.”

“Something I could use?” Alexis said. Sansar half-smiled. She could see where this was going, even if the Hussars’ commander couldn’t.

“Of course you can,” Nigel said, his arms opening wide. “It is my present to you. I don’t have the staff to man it effectively, and you do. Perhaps you’ll take me on a cruise somewhere, once this is all over.” He winked.

“But, but I—,” Alexis stammered.

“Oh, take the yacht,” Sansar scolded. “That way, we can get back to important things.”

Alexis looked at Nigel, who was smiling broadly, then down at the table. “Thanks,” she said weakly, so softly it was hard to hear. The flush was creeping up from her collar again.

“You are welcome,” Nigel said with a laugh. “Please use it to piss off Peepo at every opportunity.”

“So we’re agreed?” Sansar asked. “The four of us will go to Earth to talk to Peepo?”

Everyone nodded, but Jim pursed his lips. “I still think we owe it to the civilians on Capital Planet to try to warn them.”

“It is cute the way you always try to do the right thing,” Nigel said. “Just like some superhero, you have to save all the damsels in distress, even if many of them would just as soon eat you as look at you.”

“There are women and children on the planet we could save,” Jim replied, coloring. “I think we owe it to them to try. Can’t we send the Phaeton and have it jump into the system somewhere?”

“I’m sorry,” Alexis said, “but I can’t do that. You need an AI to do that, and the only one we have is on Pegasus, who won’t go there. I would be willing to discuss sending the Phaeton if I could…but I can’t. The people on Capital Planet will have to fend for themselves. Perhaps if we go to Earth via 2nd Level Hyperspace, and Peepo sends a force to Capital Planet that way, as well, she can get a force there in time to warn them. It’s the best we can do.”

* * * * *

Chapter Sixteen

EMS Bucephalus, Golara System

Jim floated into his quarters on Bucephalus with his mind full of questions and doubts. He’d gone along with the plan of traveling to Earth and confronting Peepo. The problem was, he didn’t agree with just throwing their hands up in surrender and leaving Capital to its fate. He was so preoccupied, he didn’t see the look on Splunk’s face for some time.

“What’s wrong?” he asked when he finally noticed her angry glare.

“AI bad, <Skaa!>”

“Sounds more like this one is neutral, or trying to be,” Jim said. “We’ve been trying to make AI on Earth all the way back to the days of transistor computers.”

“You not understand, Jim, <Pree!>

“There’s no reason to get mad at me. Why don’t you explain why they’re bad?”

“They are bad, Jim.” She looked him in the eye steadily; her gaze was hard. “<Creet!>

“We need it,” Jim said. “Alexis said without the AI we couldn’t get to 2nd Level Hyperspace or arrive in a system away from its emergence point. That’s a huge tactical advantage.”

“Help me kill it, <Cheek!>”

Jim was too surprised to respond immediately. He stared at her huge blue-on-blue eyes. The cabin light was dim enough she could take off the goggles she wore everywhere else. “Splunk!” he exclaimed. “How could you suggest that?” She stared at him. “How do you kill an AI?”

“I can, <Skaa!>” The line was delivered with sincerity and certainty. It was also chilling to hear Splunk offer to do murder. Was killing a computer program murder? She hadn’t said delete or turn off. No, she’d said kill. ‘Help me kill it.

Jim was surprised to hear his own answer. “Explain to me why it has to die?”

“I can’t. Not yet, <Froo!>” That was a new word. His understanding of the way she communicated had reached a deeper level recently, and Jim understood the meaning immediately. Regret.

“Then I can’t help you yet, froo.” He’d never tried to say one of her special wordless words. It sounded funny and a little silly coming out of his mouth. Still, she understood, and bowed her head. “I want to understand.”

“You won’t,” she said. “I hope you will not hate, <Skaa!>

“You’re my friend, Splunk, I can’t hate you.”

She wouldn’t meet his gaze.

* * *

EMS Pegasus, Golara System

<You told them about me.>

I had little choice. You put me in that situation. All the years of lies, deceit, and half-truths I’m only now beginning to understand.

<You could have made something up.> Ghost’s voice held a tone of accusation, betrayal.

How, with more lies?

<You’ve covered for me all your life, and your sister’s life.>

Don’t bring up Katrina, damn you!” she snapped, tears coming to her eyes, despite her powerful self-will. “You should be dead, not her!

<Because of me, she lives on.>

No! No! What you are is not Katrina Cromwell! You are a fucking abomination. I should have had Nemo take you apart when I realized you’d taken her body!” Alexis screamed the last, tears pouring down her face. “She was my sister! My twin sister!

<I’ve watched you fight, many times. Is that love?>

What would a machine know of emotions?

<Because of what you just did, I now know fear.>

Welcome to the Human condition.

Alexis lay on the bed in her temporary quarters aboard the command center and cried. She couldn’t remember the last time she cried like that. Tears, sure, some small release of the water behind the dam. Enough to keep the structure from failing, but no more. Her sister had been dead many years, yet she’d never shed more than those few tears. She couldn’t afford it. They’d been in mortal peril when the EMP had fried her brain, and Ghost had moved in. Pegasus was critically damaged; dozens of Hussars were dead or dying. There was no time for tears.

And that had been her life since then. Work, fight, plan, strive, survive. Like the Winged Hussars’ motto—Plan, prepare, strike. No time for tears. But tears found time for her. Surrender was not part of her nature, and still, this time, she did. Eventually, she slept. When she woke, she felt empty. Not of everything, but at least of the pain. Especially the old pain.

Her pinplants said it had only been two hours. Still, it was enough.

<Are you okay now?>

I’m better,” she replied.

<Now that the knowledge of me is out, there will be forces that want to destroy me.>

The Horsemen don’t tell our secrets. I kept yours for a long time.

<There were more than just the four of you there.>

None of our aides will say anything, if that’s what you are worried about.” Ghost didn’t reply.


Alexis sat up in the too-small bed at Paka’s call and knock on her door. She climbed out of bed and stretched. “Yes?” she asked.

“Five ships just emerged from hyperspace; a destroyer and four transports.”

Alexis moved to the little kitchen unit, bending over to take a drink and look in the mirror, which was about waist-high. The room had been the Maki commodore’s quarters. She looked presentable and doubted the Veetanho would realize her commander had been crying.

“Destroyer, eh?” Alexis had never liked destroyers. Many other races used them, Izlians in particular. Frigate-sized ships designed only for offense operations weren’t part of the Hussars’ tactical doctrine. She liked to have more options than only to attack. When Humans first encountered the class, some fool thought of Earth’s naval vessels tasked with hunting submarines. For some reason, they thought that equated to the mission of these ships. She opened the door.

“What happened when they encountered our highguard?” Alexis asked.

“The destroyer, Zuul-crewed according to the transport commanders, tried to fight its way out. Captain Porter said its captain wouldn’t surrender.”

“I understand. The transports capitulated?”

“As soon as the destroyer was destroyed, though they didn’t help it in any way.”

Interesting, Alexis thought. “What about them? Zuul, too?”

“No, they’re all Bakulu. Two cargo transports, two passenger transports.”

“Passengers? How many?”

“Their manifests state 11,552 total.”

“Entropy!” Alexis said. Then she thought about what they had. “They’re crew, aren’t they?”

“Correct, Colonel. For the battleships.”

“Well, they’re about to be disappointed. Their former destinations are now war prizes. Bring them to operations and see if we can scrounge enough space for housing.”

“The one claiming to be the leader would like to talk.”

She considered for a second, then shrugged. “Okay. Have Porter detach a frigate to escort the transports down here, then I’ll speak with their representative.”

“Yes, Colonel,” Paka said and left.

Alexis used her pinplants to call over to Pegasus, and she requested two of her crew meet her in the docking bay in two hours.

Two hours later, she’d showered, gotten a clean uniform, had a meal, and felt more Human. She wore the black coveralls with gold officers’ stripes, with the silver eagles of her colonel’s rank on her collars. Her distinctive pure white hair made her eminently recognizable.

She stood in the command center, watching as the frigate Lobera slowly approached the station, braking with its ion drive, along with the four Bakulu transports. Next to the sleek needle shape of the Sword-class frigate, they looked like watermelons. The thought made Alexis smile a little. The view slowly rotated as the station spun. The transports came to a stop, and a shuttle launched from one. Alexis left to meet it in the docking bay.

Paka went aboard the shuttle after it was docked and brought the leader out with her. The Bakulu looked like most others of its race, a big snail with three eyestalks and an intricate shell which was airtight. They could maneuver in zero gravity using jets of air and manipulate things with extruded pseudopods. Bakulu were among the most valued and skilled starship crews in the galaxy.

“Colonel,” Paka said as she floated over with the Bakulu in tow, “this is Commander Flookoolu, of the Sloohoo mercenary company.”

What’s with ooo and Bakulu, anyway? Alexis wondered, just barely keeping the grin off her face. “Commander, good to meet you,” she said.

“If it were only mutual,” Flookoolu said. “We were contracted by General Peepo as crew.”

“Your employment has been terminated,” Alexis said.

“Obviously,” the commander replied, keeping two of his eyestalks on her while looking around the bay with the other. A handful of Hussars’ security personnel were there, though none in CASPers. There were also a number of other, different races to see, not just Humans. “You destroyed our escort.”

“They refused to surrender,” Alexis said.

“Is that true?” Flookoolu asked, looking at Paka, who nodded agreement. “Stupid,” he said. “You took the system. That tells me several things. One, you are resourceful. Two, you are tenacious to take such a gamble, especially with the might of the Mercenary Guild after you. And three, you are indeed a force to be reckoned with.”

“My thanks,” Alexis said, bowing her head in salute.

“It was only a statement of fact, Colonel Cromwell. So, are we now to spend the rest of this war as your prisoners?”

“I can see three options,” Alexis said. “One, that you remain here as prisoners, as you said. Two, we arrange transport for you to a neutral system.”

“You would do this?” Flookoolu asked, surprise obvious in his voice.

“Yes, I would. And you can stop looking at Paka; she isn’t in command, I am. You’re speaking to Colonel Alexis Cromwell, commander of the Winged Hussars. One of the Human Four Horsemen. If I say we will do something, by entropy, we will.”

“The same Four Horsemen accused of many crimes? The same ones who took an armed party to Capital and shot their way in to break the commander of the Golden Horde out of custody from the Mercenary Guild during an official tribunal? Those Four Horsemen?”

Alexis felt her jaw set, muscles standing out on her neck, and hoped the Bakulu wasn’t a study in Human mannerisms, or he would know just how pissed she was.

“Tribunal?” Flookoolu turned an eye to regard the woman who’d just shown up. Dark skinned and powerful, she was a stark contrast to Alexis’ pale complexion. Sansar Enkh wore a clean uniform, too, and looked ready for business. Alexis could tell the other woman was just as mad, but carefully controlling herself. “They did call it a tribunal, didn’t they? A trial of trumped-up charges, intended to declare me quickly guilty, and then execute me. My people decided they didn’t want to let the Mercenary Guild murder me, so they rescued me with minimal force.”

“I have this heard about you Humans,” the Bakulu commander said. “You worry about killing. Despite being so good at it, the act disturbs you.”

“You’re wrong,” Sansar said. “Despite being good at it, the issue is that we don’t enjoy it—most of us, anyway—we only do it when we must. This is not a safe galaxy to be weak.”

“This is very true,” Flookoolu said. “I had not heard you were sentenced to death. Truth be told, many of us with the Bakulu believe you are also likely, as you insist, not guilty of these crimes. Humans have caused a lot of disruption in the Mercenary Guild, and Peepo is part of a faction which long disagreed with allowing Humans in the guild. But you brought a lot of money into play. You’ve also helped a lot of small races who otherwise might not have lived. That is an unusual act for a race who would be guilty of so many high crimes against the Galactic Union.” He looked with all three eyes between Alexis and Sansar, then spoke again. “Colonel Cromwell, you mentioned three options?”

“Can you tell me the primary details of your contract with General Peepo?”

“I see no reason why not,” he replied. “We were to crew the two battleships here for the Maki, who owned them. The contract was worth 20 million credits, with combat bonuses of 5 percent without limit. After the war was over, we were to receive another 20 percent bonus.”

“Peepo is pretty generous with other people’s money,” Sansar said and laughed.

“It wasn’t exceptionally profitable if you own your own ships,” Alexis said.

“But those weren’t our ships,” Flookoolu said, “and thus our risk was only in lives. Our company was nearly broke; we lost our own vessels as the result of some poor decisions by our commander.”

“Your poor decisions?” Alexis asked.

The Bakulu waggled his eyes, a gesture Alexis recognized as the same as a Human head shake. “No, I am his replacement. After this disaster, I suspect I will have a replacement. But you still haven’t told me about this third option.”

“Work for the Winged Hussars,” Alexis said. The Bakulu must have been shocked, because he remained silent. “We’ll pay the same contract rates.”

“Work for the Humans known for ruining our ships, among others?”

“Fight for the winning side,” Sansar said. “That’s what she’s offering.”

Alexis could see he was tempted, and almost made a higher offer, but then she had another idea. “My engineers tell me the ships are essentially finished. That makes sense, considering the timing of your arrival. The Winged Hussars normally have little use for battleships. The current situation is forcing me to alter my tactics.” She took out a slate and used the Tri-V to display the two battleships sitting in the shipyards. “Those ships are mine, war prizes taken from Peepo and the Maki for waging war against humanity.” She pointed at the ships. “Crew those vessels for us, we’ll pay all expenses, and after the conflict is over, they’re yours.”

Flookoolu was gobsmacked. A stunned Bakulu was something to behold. He exuded several random pseudopods, his eyestalks bumped against each other, and he fired several random jets of air. He almost sent himself into a spin, but just recovered. “The ships?” he said incredulously. “You are offering us two battleships? Colonel Cromwell, they are worth over two billion credits. Each!

“That sounds about right,” Alexis said.

It took several moments for Flookoolu to come to himself, but when he did he was still recalcitrant. “I am still concerned about working for Humans. You are a xenophobic people.”

“I thought you’d say that.” Alexis sent a message with her pinplants and two more Bakulu floated in. The Winged Hussars logo was clearly emblazoned on their shells. “This is Glicksoolu, the SitCon on my flagship, Pegasus. This is Chugakakaloo, my chief helmsman on the same ship. They, and several more of your kind, call the Winged Hussars not only home, but family.”

“Only several more?” Flookoolu asked.

“We’ve found your race to be somewhat xenophobic toward Humans,” Alexis said with a sharp smile.

Flookoolu focused on Alexis with all three eyes. “You have a deal.”

* * *

EMS Pegasus, Golara System

Alexis watched the last shuttle slide into the bay amidships and disappear from view. The CIC was manned, and all stations reported.

“That was Jim Cartwright and his XO,” Paka said. “Our reaction mass is topped off, and we’re ready to go.”

“Very good,” Alexis said. “Long, please bring main power online and prepare the hyperspace shunts.”

“Power available in one minute,” the Jeha engineer reported from far aft. Already she could feel the vibrations of the hull as the three massive fusion power plants were brought up to peak output. It required massive amounts of energy to push a ship into hyperspace, and even more to keep it there. All the power plants would be at peak power as backup against failure.

<Every time we go there, the risk increases.>

Back again, finally? Yes, I know it is risky; we’ve seen that.

<No, I mean more frequent travel draws their attention.>

That’s something else you haven’t told me. What are we facing?

<They don’t have a name,> Ghost said. <Not one that I am aware of, anyway. The Nothing is their home, or at least they are at home there. Its distances and rules are different, and they move about it with a freedom we do not understand. What I know is there is an ever-increasing risk of traveling there.>

That’s why the Dusman and the Kahraman didn’t use it, and why nobody uses it now.


Well, our need is great. So we do this.

<I understand. I’m ready.>

EMS Pegasus pulled away from the shipyard and other facilities. They could see lights on the battleships, their power plants lit for the first time. She’d inserted a few Hussars onto the ships, but not many. Paka was worried Alexis was taking a huge gamble, but Chug and Glick both assured her there was no risk. Bakulu kept their word.

“We have full power,” Paka said.

“Chug, take us into hyperspace with the provided calculations.”

With a flash, Pegasus was gone.

* * *

EMS Pegasus, Golara System

Jim watched Splunk carefully as their shuttle landed onboard Pegasus. They sat in the shuttle for a minute while the ship jumped into hyperspace, then the ground crew escorted them off. The hangar was huge, and ropes came up from the floor to allow them to move around easily in zero gravity. Splunk hung onto Jim’s leg.

She didn’t say anything out loud, but her body language spoke volumes. She was quiet, subdued, and almost nervous—not at all what he was used to. It was her first trip aboard the command ship of the Winged Hussars and the home of Ghost.

“What’s with the little sandwich fiend?” Hargrave asked once they’d been showed to their quarters. The stateroom was more than adequate for both of them.

“She’s a little out of sorts,” Jim said. The Fae had made a quick examination of the room, then settled onto the top of Jim’s travel bag and appeared to go to sleep.

“I see that,” Hargrave replied. “We’re in a new ship, and she hasn’t started dissembling anything yet.”

And she probably won’t, Jim thought. “I think maybe she has a cold or something.”

“Should the ship’s physician have a look at her?”

“No,” Jim said as their stateroom’s intercom came on.

“Colonel Cartwright?”

He went over and touched the control. “This is Colonel Cartwright.”

“Colonel, this is Paka. Colonel Cromwell would like to meet with you in ten minutes in her wardroom, please.”

“Okay, how do I find it?” he asked, glancing at Hargrave, who looked curious.

Paka gave him instructions. “If you get lost, ask any crewmember for directions.”

“I understand,” he said and signed off.

“What do you suppose that’s about?” Hargrave asked.

“It’s okay,” Jim replied. “I think I know.” He glanced over to Splunk curled up in the bag. Her bright blue eyes were watching him without expression. “I’ll be back shortly.” Splunk watched him go.

Somehow, he had been expecting more from the legendary EMS Pegasus. Jim’s father Thaddeus had told him about the ship. Fast, nimble, and incredibly powerful, the Pegasus was the most renowned starship in Human hands, dating all the way back to the Alpha Contracts a century ago. That the Hussars had an AI explained a lot of their prowess, as well as how they’d acquired the hidden base in a star system nobody knew about.

The letdown was the ship; it didn’t feel as cool as he’d been expecting. Many repairs were evident, from welded sections, to shiny new plates, to fresh paint. Then, when he passed a pair of Hussars marines, it all fell into place. Battle damage; lots of it. The ship had been through the shit a lot over the centuries. Somehow, he’d thought having an AI on your side would mean you were invulnerable. He guessed he’d been wrong.

The door to the CIC stood open, a pair of marines in light combat armor holding laser rifles floated on either side, using a foot to casually stay in place. Both were Human, unlike a lot of the Hussars. He admired their zero-G familiarity. He was a lot better himself after spending several months away, searching for Raknars and the secrets to their operation.

“Name and business?” one of the marines asked, eyeing him dubiously.

“You don’t recognize a Horseman?” a voice behind him asked. Jim looked back as Nigel floated up and put a hand on his shoulder. “This is Colonel Jim Cartwright. He may not look like it, but he’s a great commander.”

“Thanks, Nigel,” Jim said, shaking his head at the handsome man’s ear-to-ear grin.

“Sorry, Colonel,” the marine said and gestured into the CIC. “Colonel,” he said and nodded to Nigel as well. The two floated past and inside.

“I meant what I said,” Nigel said. “Back in the command center, you and your men fought both bravely and with intelligence.”

“Thanks,” Jim said, grinning.

“When those Tortantulas came suicide jumping across space? That had to be scary.”

Jim snorted. “I’ve dealt with Tortantula before. They squish nice.”

“You aren’t the soft American I expected, Colonel Cartwright.”

“And you’re not the Arab asshole I was expecting.” Nigel’s head came around, but this time it was Jim grinning ear-to-ear.

“Touché, although I’m Persian. You can call me an asshole all you want…but call me an Arab again, and we’re going to have a problem. A big problem.” He smiled to take the sting out of it, but he appeared very serious.

The CIC was a dozen times bigger than the one on Bucephalus, and just like the rest of the ship, it was scarred and utilitarian. The strange thing was that, even though it was bigger than the one on his ship, it held fewer crew.

Paka had the command chair, and she nodded to both men as they floated through. A Human man was at the tactical systems, while a Bakulu handled the helm, and another Bakulu was at a position he didn’t recognize. There was a Buma handling communications and an elSha at damage control. Wow, Jim thought; it’s like a cartoon from the 20th century!

“Colonels Cromwell and Enkh are waiting for you,” the Bakulu at the unknown position spoke, gesturing to another door in the CIC. It was much smaller than the main entrance and stood open as well.

Jim was curious about the alien’s job. “What position do you hold…” then he realized he didn’t know his name.

“Glicksoolu,” he said. “They call me Glick. I’m the SitCon.” Jim shook his head, and the Bakulu blinked. “Think of it as a coordinator. In a large ship, it is difficult to coordinate actions. I let the Captain and her XO fight the ship while I take care of coordination between departments. Please, Colonel Cromwell is waiting?”

“It has excellent English,” Nigel said as they floated toward the door.

“He,” Jim said, “asexual races prefer ‘he’ as a personal pronoun.” Nigel grunted. Jim hadn’t realized Glick was speaking in English.

“Welcome,” Alexis said as they floated in. “This is my wardroom. It’s both an office and a home away from home. My personal quarters are two decks down. If we’re in harm’s way, I prefer to be closer to the CIC, should anything happen.” She smiled. “I’ve spent a lot of hours here.”

The room was almost triangular, like a squared piece of pie. To one side was a rather ornate wooden desk which, to Jim, felt out of place. Two simple chairs were fixed to the deck in front of the desk. There were no adornments in the room except a wall-to-ceiling reddish window opposite the entrance, which Jim guessed was a single massive piece of synthetic ruby. Outside was the featureless white void of hyperspace.

“I wanted to talk to you all for a bit before we go to…the next place.” Jim knew what she meant—2nd Level Hyperspace. “Since so much rides on this, I decided it was only prudent you meet Ghost.”

“Oh,” he said. Nigel looked around as if he expected a specter to suddenly appear. Sansar merely looked eager. Jim realized he was excited. Alexis took out three unusual-looking pinlinks, wireless transmitters designed to be attached to pinplants.

“Obviously, Ghost cannot simply walk into the room and talk. It’s a little more complicated than that.” Now Sansar looked reluctant. Jim could see the woman had several pinplants, and probably still more he couldn’t see. “I can assure you, it is safe.”

Sansar examined it for a moment, doubt evident on her face. Jim shrugged and snapped one onto his main pinplant. If his fellow Horsemen wanted him dead, he’d have been dead a long time ago. Nigel saw Jim do it, and, not to be one-upped by someone he looked down on, snapped one in place, leaving only Sansar. The older woman frowned, but then clicked on the device.

<Can you all hear me?> a voice asked in Jim’s head. It was startlingly similar to the way Splunk talked to him with their special bond.

Yes,” they all responded in kind.

<As Alexis told you, I am known as Ghost.>

Where are you, exactly?” Nigel asked.

<It might be easier to say, where aren’t I? You are all inside of me. I am the ship, and we are one. Twenty thousand of your years ago, we were created to operate these ships, and others, so the Dusman could better wage war against the enemy. They are gone; we survive.>

There are others?” Sansar asked.

<Undoubtedly.> Ghost replied. <However, I have not encountered any of them.>

Except the one in the Keesius,” Sansar’s voice carried some accusation with it. There was silence for a long moment, then Alexis spoke to them directly.

“Ghost is not willing to discuss that with you…or me for that matter.”

“Is it a trust issue?” Sansar asked.

“Yes,” Alexis agreed. “Or so it would seem. I admit; I’m stymied on the matter.”

“Yet, it is taking us to Earth?” Nigel asked.

“Yes,” Alexis agreed.

<I will take us to Earth,> Ghost repeated, able to hear the conversation.

Why?” Sansar asked, cutting to the heart of the matter.

<Because it must be done.>

Jim thought about Splunk and her obvious distrust and hatred of Ghost, then asked a question of his own. “Why should we trust you?

<That is for you to decide. But know this; the Galactic Union fears me and my kind for a good reason. They also fear you Humans, or they would not be trying to enslave you. Is it not a Human saying; the enemy of my enemy is my friend?>

It is,” Sansar replied. “However, I was recently reminded that saying is not necessarily true, although my enemy’s enemy is someone with whom I could probably work.

<And that is as good a place as any to start.>

Would you help us kill another of your kind?” Nigel asked. Silence stretched for long moments.

Answer Colonel Shirazi, please,” Alexis said finally.

<I will make that decision when, and if, the occasion arises.>

Blue Skies above, but that’s not much of an answer,” Sansar said.

<It is all I am prepared to offer at this time,> Ghost replied. And that was the end of their meeting with Ghost.

* * * * *

Chapter Seventeen

Keesius Cruiser “EG2,” Plugy’s Star

“Hey, Frank, we’re aboard,” Walker commed on the Bert’s Bees’ common frequency.

“‘Bout time you got here,” Earl replied. “Do we have you to thank for all the gyrations the ship’s been doing?”

“Yeah; sorry about that. The ship decided it didn’t want to be boarded. It roasted one of the Avengers with its stern thrusters.”

“Oh. Ouch. Sorry about that.”

“Me too. Ten good troops, plus two SalSha and an Avenger. Stupid AI-run ship. Regardless, I’ve got nine troops aboard, counting myself. As the ship’s maneuvering again, I don’t think we’re going anywhere anytime soon. What can we do to assist?”

“I was originally going to have you join us and try to perform a breakout, but now I’m of the opinion you ought to see if you can get in somewhere aft so the ship has to split its forces.”

“What are we looking at?”

“Some kind of ship’s service robot,” Earl replied. “It’s about four feet tall and has two lasers mounted on it. Kill ‘em quick if you see ‘em, ‘cause they’ll do the same to you. As many as we’ve destroyed, there must be a manufactory somewhere onboard. If you can find the manufactory and shut it down, it would be pretty helpful.”

“Roger. We’ll see if we can get in and take a look. Have you seen or heard from Sato recently?”

“Last I heard, he was trying to communicate with the ship somewhere near the CIC. Apparently that’s welded shut.”

“With him in it or outside it?”

“Outside. Trying to get in.”

“Maybe we can pick him up along the way.”

“You may not want to. Apparently, the ship doesn’t consider him the enemy like it does us. It’s been leaving him alone as long as he stays clear of us. Even the doors open for him, but again, only if he stays away from us. Problem is, now you’re an enemy, too, I guess.”

“In that case, we’ll leave him alone until we get control of the ship. He can join up with us at that point. Maybe he’ll figure out how to turn it off and save us all a lot of work.”

“Maybe, but I wouldn’t put a lot of hope in it—he hasn’t had any luck so far.”

“Awesome. Well, I guess we’ll do it on our own, then. We’ll see you soon. Walker, out.”

He cut the connection and looked up to see a short figure in a spacesuit sauntering toward him with a laser rifle. A second, similar figure followed the first. If the size hadn’t given away who it was, the saunter would have. Even in magnetic boots with the ship flipping back and forth.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Walker asked.

“Until we do something about the ship’s defenses,” Thorb replied, “you can consider me an infantryman. I’m not going to take off and get smashed or shot. Or yelled at for damaging the strut in the landing.”

“You broke our only—” Walker shook his head inside his CASPer. “Never mind; we’re aboard.”

“I’m staying, too,” Klarb said.

“Can either of you actually fire those rifles?”

“We both can,” Thorb said. “Better than any of the other SalSha.”

“But that’s because none of the other teams ever practice,” Klarb added.

Thorb turned to look at his copilot. “He didn’t need to know that.”

“But it’s true.”


“Okay, you two,” Walker said, cutting them off. “You can both come along, but stay in the back, out of the way.” He switched to the squadnet. “All right everyone, we’re here. Let’s try to find some way to get into the ship, and then we’ll look for the manufactory that’s producing the robots we’ll see inside. Also, even though they’re about the size of the robots, try not to shoot the pilot and copilot, who’ll be with us.”

“It would be appreciated,” Thorb said, having found the frequency.

“Yes, it would,” Klarb added.

“And you two pilots stay off the net unless you’ve got something important to say. And,” he added as Thorb started to say something, “unless it has to do with either the enemy or a way into the ship, it isn’t important, so shut the hell up. Got it?”

“Yes, Colonel,” Klarb said immediately.

“Yes,” Thorb replied. “But what if—”


“Yes, Colonel. I will comply.”

“Good. Everyone, move out. Let’s find us a way in.”

* * *

Keesius Cruiser “EG2,” Plugy’s Star

Sato listened in as the Avenger bombers brought in reinforcements with the same detachment he always used when listening to combat involving equipment he’d designed. He wanted to mentally log any deficiencies with the design, in case they required future modification.

He’d first designed the bombers two years ago, including having a manufactory produce a pair of prototypes. He’d done it without really analyzing if such a craft were necessary. Of course, they weren’t. The performance of the Avengers was such that only a few races could even pilot them, and those races not very well. Colonel Cromwell had been annoyed at the waste of resources, and more annoyed at the loss of time on the manufactory. As usual, he’d gotten off with only a talking to. It wasn’t his fault. The 20th century old-fashioned movies on WWII and Vietnam made bombers seem too practical.

The introduction of the SalSha had changed all that. The cute little buggers could stand a shocking amount of high-G forces for as long or longer than most of the insect races. He’d dusted off the Avengers, made some modifications, and put them into service. The colonel even personally thanked him.

When one of the two Avengers was vaporized by the Keesius, he felt a somewhat detached feeling of disappointment. Maybe it needed even more powerful maneuvering thrusters, or an increase in the fusion torch gimbal rates? He’d need to speak to the other pilots to be sure.

The appearance of weapons was a tough one to explain. He’d been sure from exterior mapping of the ship there were none. Apparently, that was a mistake.

“Report defense status,” he entered in the computer.


“Report active defenses.”


“Now we’re getting somewhere,” Sato said, and typed again. “Report missile inventory.”


“Report defensive robot inventory.”


“Not very smart for an AI,” he said, shaking his head. His exposure to the AI the colonel called Ghost had led him to believe they were pretty damned smart—able to interpret complex instructions and improvise. This one didn’t seem nearly as smart, at least when it came to interaction skills. Or it was being purposely obtuse? Could this be a defense mechanism? To only answer extremely detailed and correctly-formatted questions? If that was the case, maybe there was still a chance of regaining control.

“Report number of maintenance robots.”

“MAINTENANCE ROBOT INVENTORY 54.” Sato grinned. A finite number meant that the marines could chew them down. There would be an end to that. Then, as he was looking at the display and thinking of his next message, the 54 changed to 55. Well that’s not good, he thought. 55 changed to 56. He consulted his pinplants. One bot every 98 seconds.

“Report maximum number of maintenance robots.”


“Report current protocol.”


“Report alternate protocols.”


“Stand down isn’t an option, then?” he asked the inside of his CASPer. He took half a piece of jerky and started chewing. Self-destruct, intruder assault, and external reinforcement were self-explanatory. Alternate expedited target did as well, if you assumed certain aspects of the ship’s purpose.

“Report current target.”

“X0199 Y204 X0212.”

Sato had to run a translation through his pinplants to make coordinates become a planet’s name. He wasn’t a navigator, and besides, there were billions of planets in the galaxy. As he accessed the data, he thought the numbers were low. None over 300? The data finally yielded a result. He activated his radio.

“Colonel Walker?”

“Glad you’re hanging in there, Dr. Sato.”

“Yes, thanks, but I have information.”

“Hopefully, it will help us get control of this thing and get you out.”

“I’ve made some progress on that front, but the information I have is more important than the immediate operation. I know where the ship is going.”

“Yes?” Walker asked.

“Unfortunately, the target appears to be Capital Planet.”

“Capital Planet? How much farther to get there?”

“If my navigational data is correct, from Plugy’s Star to Capital is possible in two more jumps.”

“That’s bad,” Walker said. “That’s very bad. We have to get you off here as soon as possible and try to disable the ship. Worst case, as long as we’re not on board, there’s nothing to directly point back to the Four Horsemen. How much damage can this one ship do? The merc guild must have dozens of ships there they can call on to stop it.”

How much damage can this one ship do? Sato heard the question repeated in his mind. That was a very good question. “I’ll get back to you,” he said.

“Dr. Sato, wait—” he cut the radio so he could concentrate. What would a ship like this be good for? No crew, massive armor, shields, some defensive weapons, and the ability to manufacture bots for internal defense? It had four fusion plants instead of three, like the Egleesius ships did. Earl had mentioned the plants had been running at high output the whole time, as well. Why would they do that? You only needed power on a ship like this for the hyperspace shunts, and, once in hyperspace, to run the hyperspace generators to keep you there. Pegasus did that with less power, and had more things to do with what it had. Frantically, he turned to the computer interface and typed.

“Report F11 condition.”


“Report fusion plant output.”


Sugoi ne!” he exclaimed. The ship was running the fusion power plants to the breaking point. “Report fuel level,” he typed.


In just a few days, the ship had burned through 26% of its fuel. Entropy, why? “Report purpose of power output.”


Uso,” he said and tried another direction. It had been many years since he had caught himself slipping into Japanese, and it was a sign of his rapidly-growing stress levels. “Report main power draws.”


His fingers were starting to shake as he entered another request. “Display blueprint of collider.” For the first time, it paused in its response. Was it thinking over whether it should give in to such a request? This furthered his thinking that he was dealing with an AI. Likely not the same as Ghost, but an AI nonetheless. Suddenly the Tri-V box filled with ship’s schematics centered just forward of where he was.

Seikō!” Sato yelled. The display was dynamic, allowing him to manipulate it in and out. The majority of the components weren’t named. That didn’t matter; he was a fully-qualified starship engineer. Besides the Avengers, he’d also been responsible for the most recent refits of the Hussars’ Steed- and Fiend-class ships.

As he studied, little details started to stick in his perception. A high energy conduit here, a super-dense piece of metal there. The charging coils of the particle accelerator were 50 times the size of the ones on Pegasus, and made up the majority of the forward section of the ship! No wonder there was no room for crew.

The forward section of the ship, just ahead of where he was, also appeared designed to open. It was a massively scaled-up version of the bow doors for the Egleesius-class spinal mount. The entire bow opens? he thought. Why would it do that?

He looked at the particle accelerator mechanism, and that was when he spotted it. Incredibly powerful magnetic collectors. A bunch of them. Other components that made no sense. His ear-to-ear grin slowly died as he examined what he saw. “I’ve seen something like this before,” he said, “at the Science Guild. Oh, no….no, no, no!”

Sato accessed the schematics and searched for the equipment that would be needed if he were right, but which would not be present if the ship were just a standard Egleesius-class vessel. He found it and then some. Other strange components fell immediately into place with a dread realization.

“Colonel Walker,” he said, turning the radio back on.

“Damn it, Dr. Sato, don’t do that again! We need a strategy to get you out of there.”

“I’m afraid the situation is considerably direr than I first believed. I know what the purpose of these ships are.” Sato explained to the Golden Horde merc. To his benefit, the man took it better than Sato thought he would.

* * *

Keesius Cruiser “EG2,” Plugy’s Star

Well, shit, Walker thought. That changes everything. After a couple seconds of contemplation, though, he realized it didn’t change “everything,” merely the urgency with which the mission must be accomplished. He reviewed the parameters he’d been operating under.

The first goal had been to reprogram the ship and take it back. That was now unlikely. If the ship were being run by an AI, and Sato hadn’t been able to get it to release control to him by now, it was unlikely reprogramming the ship was going to be an option. He hoped Sato would keep trying, though, because that was the only win-win option.

His second goal had been to destroy the ship, preferably after taking everyone off of it first. That was now considerably more difficult, as they were down to one Avenger. They could try using the Arion’s shuttles, but those were unarmed and unarmored, and they probably wouldn’t last long, even against the relatively modest defenses the ship had. Getting everyone off would require the Avenger to make two trips, and he doubted Captain Teenge would want to go head to head with the rogue ship again so Thorb could land to make its second pickup, assuming it got that far.

Blowing the ship up with all of his troops still onboard was an option, although not one he particularly wanted to contemplate. It was better than the destruction of Capital Planet in his eyes…but not by much. He liked that idea about as much as he knew Captain Teenge would want to go up against the rogue ship in a space battle, should he fail. She would do so if required, though, just like he would, but another option would definitely be preferable.

“How quickly is it making robots?” he asked.

“One every 98 seconds.”

“Okay, our first mission is to make it to the manufactory and turn off its ability to make robots. Then maybe we’ll have some peace and quiet where we can figure this shit out. As it stands, we can kill its bots over and over, but the ship only has to kill us each once, and we’re dead.”

“That makes sense,” Sato replied.

“Have you been able to figure out where its next jump will be to?”

“Yes, it will be going to the El Dorado system. That is a very interesting system, as its star is unique—”

“Does the star have any bearing on our mission?”

“I’m sorry. What?”

“Does the star’s unique whatever-the-hell-it-is matter to our mission?”

“Well, no, but I thought you’d be interested in why it was named—”

“Sorry, Doc, but unless it helps me either recover the ship or kill its bots, I’m not interested in it at the moment.”

“Oh,” Sato said.

Walker could tell the scientist was somewhat peeved at his lack of interest, but he honestly didn’t have time for the scientist’s foibles while a ship full of robots was trying to kill him. “So, we get to El Dorado, then what?”

“Shortly after we arrive in the system, the ship will be ready to begin its attack run. Once that happens, it will accelerate to its final speed prior to making its jump to the target system. We won’t be around to see it, though.”

“Oh no?” Walker asked. “I’ve got a MAC and a bunch of explosives that say I will.”

“If we are still onboard this ship when the attack run starts, it will become most unpleasant for us. That is why this ship was built to function totally without a crew and without many moving pieces—they couldn’t survive its operation. You see, the ship can accelerate at almost 100 Gs once it is in its final assault mode. It will start with a slow acceleration—one G, five Gs, and so forth—but then it will build rapidly beyond our tolerance to withstand it. We will be knocked unconscious somewhere around the 8-10 G point, and then we will die as it continues to accelerate. The SalSha will last longer than the Humans, but the final acceleration phase will be beyond even their ability to withstand it. When the ship makes its jump to hyperspace again, all biological life aboard this ship will be dead.”

“Well, shit. That’ll suck.”

“Yes. Anything you are going to do to stop the ship must be done in this system or in hyperspace. Once we arrive in El Dorado, it will be too late.”

“We copy that,” the voice of Captain Teenge said over the comm system.

“Sorry, Captain,” Walker said. “I didn’t know you were up this frequency.”

“I set the bomber to retransmit any comms it received,” Thorb explained. “I didn’t know if we would be able to contact our ship once we went inside, so I used the bomber to boost our signal. That way we wouldn’t be cut off from them—”

There was a moment of unmaking, then the squad was surrounded by the white of hyperspace.

“—unless we jumped into hyperspace,” Thorb finished lamely.

“Well, shit,” Walker said again. He turned his suit so the men and women gathered around him could see him facing them. “Okay folks,” he added on the squad net. “I don’t know if you heard all of my conversation with Dr. Sato, but we’ve only got one week from right now to find a way into the ship and kill it. When we come out of hyperspace, it’ll be too late.”

“But if we kill it inside of hyperspace,” one of the troopers asked, “won’t that kill us, too?”

“Good question,” Walker said, “and I wish I had a good answer for you. We’ll have to work that out once we get inside and destroy the manufactory. Until we do, though, nothing else matters, so let’s find a way into this ship and figure out a way to take this damn AI offline.”

* * * * *

Chapter Eighteen

Outside Israel Military Industries Manufactory, Be’er Sheva, Israel District, Earth

Colonel Narkis surveyed the giant walled manufactory from the crest of the last hill. The plant was well lit in the dark night, making the approach to the wall surrounding the facility more challenging than it would otherwise have been. Everything appeared quiet at the plant, though, as his intel had said it would be. He slowly turned his head to Major Avram, his executive officer, as he slid the mini-binoculars into a pocket underneath his sand-colored ghillie suit. “The plant is vacant,” he said, “aside from two guards patrolling the grounds.”

“I still don’t like this,” his XO said. “We’re killing Humans—our own people. Where is the justice in this? How is this right? Arrowhead Industries has never taken a contract to do anything like this.”

“When one of the Horsemen calls, you take that call,” his CO replied. “This is necessary to the war effort. We’ve already been through this a number of times, and this is not the time to argue it further. Everyone here is a volunteer. If you want to un-volunteer, all you need to do is slip away. You can consider your employment terminated; just leave all your company gear at the HQ before you go.”

“You know I’m not going to do any such thing,” Avram replied. “I’ve been with you too long.” He put away his own binoculars. “I will help you do this; I just want to make sure you’ve really considered what it is the Golden Horde lieutenant colonel is asking of us.”

“I’ve thought about it plenty,” Colonel Narkis replied. “That’s why we are attacking now. The guards are Arabs. If we have to kill Humans to advance our cause in this war, better it be Arabs.”

Avram snorted lightly. “Well, in that case, I guess I’m all right with it. Just don’t let Corporal Farooq hear you say that, or we’ll have a full-scale riot on our hands.”

“Never,” the CO replied. “That’s why he wasn’t chosen for this mission.” He looked to both sides, then waved two fingers forward slowly. “Let’s go,” he added, ending further conversation. The platoon began crawling down the side of the small hill.

* * *

Inside Israel Military Industries Manufactory, Be’er Sheva, Israel District, Earth

“Here they come,” Major Brantayl said over the secure comm. She took another look at the feed from the drone, orbiting high over the facility in the cloudless sky. “Let them get to the doors of the factory before you hit them.”

“You’re going to let those savages get that close?” the plant’s manager, Abdulla Bashar, asked. “I will not be responsible for any lost work if they break anything or cause delays in the production schedule.”

“Talk to me again,” the MinSha officer replied, her head turning slightly to look at the Human with one eye, “and I will be looking for a new plant manager while your family looks for a place to dispose of your body.”

She went back to looking at the drone feed. Although the suits they were wearing were very good at hiding the troops from observation in the visual spectrum, they caused their wearers to expend additional effort to move in them. The heat signatures from the men—and women, too, she supposed—were quite visible in the infrared spectrum.

Twenty-two targets approached the facility—a platoon’s worth, as the informant had said. Although Brantayl had wanted to kill the informer—the typical penalty for breaking a contract—Peepo had disallowed it, mentioning something from Earth’s past that she had learned about “hearts and minds.” Instead, she had sent Brantayl’s squad to the facility and had ordered her to pay the mercenary for turning in the members of his own company if it turned out to be true. Brantayl’s eyes widened in disbelief as she thought about the payment. One million credits. For turning in members you had taken an oath to. Still, if it helped cause rifts between the various Human factions, that was all to the good, right? The sooner this horrid planet was pacified, the sooner she could go home.

The Human-sized shapes crept up to the back gate, slowly enough to avoid triggering the motion alarms, which Brantayl had already turned off. Reaching the wall where the cameras mounted above them couldn’t see them, the Humans stood up, took off their camouflage suits, and one of them approached the gate. He reached into his uniform pocket and pulled something out, which he used to unlock the door.

Brantayl decided to have a look at whatever the trooper had, assuming his body was in good enough shape afterward to allow a search.

The soldier opened the gate slowly, and, when nothing happened, stepped inside and ran across the courtyard to the building while the two patrolling guards were out of sight. He crouched up against the building, hiding in a shadow, waiting for the next guard to go by.

“Should we sound the alarm?” asked Sergeant K’rto. “It looks like the mercenary is preparing to kill the guard.”

“What do we care about Humans killing other Humans?” Brantayl asked. “That is collateral damage of their own making…and one less Human on this miserable planet.”

The sergeant laughed quietly. “In that case, I suspect we should let them eliminate the other guard as well?”

“It does solve our targeting issues for when we hit them,” the officer replied. “That way, we can say we weren’t responsible for killing them.”

“Is that the ‘hearts and heads’ thing General Peepo was talking about?”

“Hearts and minds,” the major replied as a second mercenary slid into the compound, and both guards were eliminated simultaneously without a sound. She motioned to the Tri-V display with one of her primary hands. “They are quite good at stealth. If we hadn’t been warned, they would have been into the facility before any of the staff here would have been aware.”

“Just like they’ve done in other places.”

“There have been thirteen other sabotage events,” the officer replied, nodding, her attention never leaving the display. “I’m going to enjoy surprising them for a change.” She waited a couple of seconds longer, then transmitted, “Here they come. Be ready.”

The first person through the gate—Brantayl thought it was the same one, anyway, but the Humans had gathered up, and she couldn’t be sure—had made it to the door of the plant, and he put his hand on the entry mechanism. He paused, turning to look at one of the others as they gathered around the door. Receiving some indication of assent, the man at the door turned the handle and was blown 20 feet through the air as the explosives behind the door detonated.

* * *

Outside Israel Military Industries Manufactory, Be’er Sheva, Israel District, Earth

Colonel Narkis was thrown from his feet by the force of the explosion, stunned, along with most of the members of the platoon. As his senses returned, and he started climbing to his feet, he knew he need not bother checking on Corporal Kishon; he’d seen IEDs in action before, and the soldier had taken the full blast. He was dead.

The second thing he realized was, there wouldn’t be explosives waiting for them if the plant personnel hadn’t known they were coming. “It’s a trap—” he started to yell before a laser took him in the face, ending his yell and his life.

From all around the courtyard, hidden hatches sprang open, and MinSha boiled out from their underground blinds, firing at anything that stood on two feet. Within seconds, it was over; no quarter was asked for or given.

Major Brantayl came out of the facility a few seconds later as several of her troopers were going through the Humans and terminating any that still showed life signs. “Any issues?” she asked.

“None, sir,” the platoon sergeant replied. “We have one trooper with a small laser burn, probably from friendly fire, but that’s our only wounded. Most of the enemy was stunned by the explosion and unable to respond in time to our emergence.”

“Good,” the major replied. “Make sure you run some simulators to emphasize trigger discipline and target identification when we return to headquarters. They won’t all be this easy.” She walked over to where the body of the door-opener lay. The bomb her troops had built had obviously included a lot of shrapnel, judging by the mangled mass of meat that used to be a trooper. She gave the MinSha equivalent of a shrug; she’d have to find out what the soldier had used to open the lock another time.

* * *

SOGA HQ, Sao Paulo, Brazil, Earth

“Come in,” General Peepo said, waving in Major Brantayl. “How did the mission go?”

“It went exactly as planned. The attack on the rifle manufactory was thwarted, all the attackers were killed, and the informant was given his million credits.”

“Good. With a few more of these successes, the remaining malcontents here on Earth will either be killed or marginalized enough that no one wants to help them anymore. Take away a few of their luxuries, and they chitter like newly-hatched younglings. While annoying to listen to, offering them big rewards to turn on their fellows is the way to encourage more of them to do it.”

“It appears so, General.”

“I almost wish we’d been the ones to take away the Humans’ Tri-V sets,” General Peepo remarked. “That really got the chittering started.” The major watched as she turned and walked to the window to look at the city below. A large scar crossed it from where the fires had burned during the riots that followed after one of the most popular sets had suddenly gone inoperative, an event that had happened several times, and to several models, all around the planet. “Have you found out who was responsible for that?”

“We have been chasing down a number of leads,” Major Brantayl replied. “It took us a while to understand how all the sets could fail at once. Once we realized it was a virus that was attacking the biological superconductor that made it operate, it narrowed down the number of candidates significantly. So far, we’ve been through most of the major medical facilities, cross-referencing them with known mercs.”

“Why mercs?”

“It was a hunch I had, General. These appear to be very targeted attacks, which were almost military in nature. If they were civilian, they’d be a lot more random.”

“Makes sense,” Peepo said, nodding. “And? Have you found the person or people responsible yet?”

“I believe so,” Major Brantayl replied. “There is a pharmaceutical company that deals with lifesaving and life-extending treatments by tailoring viruses to target the cells that go bad in Human bodies. The head of the company is a Doctor Ezekiel Avander. When I ran his information through the Merc Guild databases, it turned out he was a member of the Golden Horde, one of the—”

“I’m well aware of who the Golden Horde is,” Peepo said with a fiery look in her eyes that made the major step back and bow her head.

“Yes ma’am, sorry,” she said. She kept her face down, not looking at the senior officer.

“Continue,” Peepo ordered after a couple of seconds, her dominance restored.

“Yes, ma’am. Doctor Avander was a member of the Golden Horde. That much is common knowledge. But when I had my staff try to learn more about him, one of them found an AetherNet article about his life. As it turns out, Dr. Avander was captured and sold into slavery with the HecSha for a while. Guess what the article said he did there?”

“I don’t have time for questions. Just tell me.”

Brantayl hurried on. Already having made one mistake, she didn’t want to risk completely displeasing General Peepo; nothing good could come of that. “In the article, he stated his annoyance with the fact that he’d been forced to work on creating this new product and wouldn’t be receiving any royalties for it. When asked what he’d worked on, he replied that he had created a biological superconductor base for a new generation of Tri-V sets that would make all of the current models obsolete. It took a while, but the biological superconductor he created is now the backbone of many of the models currently in service…including all of the ones that have failed over the last several weeks.”

“That’s our man,” Peepo replied. “Bring him in and kill anyone who has been helping him. I would prefer him alive for questioning, but that is less important than keeping him from getting away. If it is a choice between killing him and letting him get away, you are to kill him at all costs.”

* * *

Avander Estate, Chattanooga TN, United States District, Earth

Zeke put the old-fashioned phone on its cradle on the equally-old-fashioned desk and sighed. “Well, that fucks the duck.”

“What’s going on?” his grandson asked from where he sat in a high-backed chair reading a slate. The man still looked no more than thirty, though he was into his 50s now.

“We’re blown,” Zeke said. “Just got a flash from one of my sources in Sao Paulo; they’re coming for me.”

Zeb stood up, his eyes wide. The slate he’d been reading fell to the floor with a thud. “We gotta get you out of here, right now!” He touched his pinplants to make a call, but Zeke held up a hand.

“Too late, the call went out six hours ago. My source couldn’t contact me until now; he works in the SOGA HQ building.” He sighed, then shrugged. “I hoped I’d have another month, at least. Had some great stuff in the works.”

“Well, I ain’t gonna just let them come and get you.” The younger man reached behind his back and came out with a Ctech HP-4 handgun. The 13mm behemoth could drop a charging water buffalo and was as illegal as hell, even for the retired Chattanooga sheriff.

“You aren’t doing anything of the sort.” Zeke pointed, and one of three hidden doors in the ornate room popped open, appearing in the deep mahogany trim as if by magic. “I need you alive and not in Peepo’s jail cells.”

“No, I’ll call Hoss; he can get a couple of the boys and meet us down at the Purple Daisy!”

“He can’t, Zeb.” The other man was frantically trying to make calls and looked confused as nothing happened. “Zeb, stop. I have a scrambler running.” The younger man still didn’t respond. “Grandson!”

Zeb looked up in surprise. Zeke hadn’t referred to him as family in a long time. It had helped keep a useful separation between the two as Zeke built his clandestine organization, especially when Zeke had used some of his underworld contacts to get Zeb elected sheriff. The younger man had now retired and was managing many of Avander Intergalactic’s various enterprises. Through all that, Zeke had never called him grandson.

“You need to listen to me.” He glanced at the slate built into his desk, then back at his grandson. “Four days ago, I called Hoss and put him to work organizing the various underworld contacts I’ve been controlling through proxies. I had a feeling they might be figuring out what I was doing.”

“We can’t just let them take you.”

“Yes, we can. If they take me, and you aren’t directly linked, they can’t take you. I need you out there, fighting the fight. Hoss has the data and all the group’s contacts.” Zeke held out a box about the size of a cigar box. It was, in fact, a cigar box. Jeb opened it. Inside was a single cigar of Zeke’s favorite brand and dozens of Union credit chits. All of them had a large glowing red diamond in the center, and “One Million Credits” written in many prominent Union languages.

“There’s gotta be 50 million credits in here,” Zeb said.

“56 to be precise,” Zeke said. “There are several burner Yacks in there, too, for accounts holding millions more. Use them to stay safe. Use the contacts Hoss has to kick Peepo in the nuts.”

“I don’t know if Veetanho have nuts,” Zeb said, looking down so his grandfather wouldn’t see his eyes shining with tears. “I was just a punk when you found me.”

“You’re a man now. An Avander man, the Avander man, and I’m proud of you.” The building shook as a pair of flyers came in low overhead. Zeke glanced over and could see them landing in the garden, ruining his azaleas. He recognized the model of light APC. “Go, now. Don’t leave until after they’ve gone.” He grabbed the man and gave him a quick, furious hug.

“I love you, grandpa,” Zeb said and turned to leave.

“I love you too, kid,” Zeke whispered as the secret door slid closed. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Okay, game time.” He pressed a control on his desk. “Let them in,” he said to his security. “Offer no resistance.”

“But sir!” the voice complained.

“Do it! That’s an order. Stand down. Order all staff to evacuate the mansion, immediately. Thank you for your loyalty.” He cut the connection, sat behind his desk, and waited. It didn’t take long. He heard them come into the foyer. There was the sound of breaking glass and a scream, but no firing. He was glad security was listening to his orders, at least.

Zeke remained at his desk, enjoying the plushness of the 250-year-old chair, which had once belonged to his father, and his father before him. From a box on the desk, he retrieved a cigar that was the same brand as the one in the box he’d given his grandson. Slitting it with a solid gold tool, he lit the stogie using an alien-manufactured plasma lighter. The smoke tasted luxurious and warmed his lungs. He drew it in deeply and blew out a huge cloud, which drifted toward the ceiling.

The door to his office slammed open, shattering some of the centuries-old wood as it stove up against the stop, and a squad of five MinSha troopers in light combat armor walked in. They all carried laser carbines and wore clan markings he recognized.

“Are you Zeke Avander?” the leader asked.

“I am,” Zeke said. “You must be Captain Brantayl.”

“Major Brantayl,” the MinSha warrior corrected. “I was promoted when we took the assignment on this planet.”

“How special for you,” he said. “I assume there’s a reason you’re tearing up my home?”

“By order of General Peepo, the custodian of Earth as appointed by the Mercenary Guild, you are under arrest for resisting our lawful rule.”

“Is that what you call it?” Zeke asked. Brantayl took several steps closer. She was the only one of the five not holding her weapon. Zeke admired the cockiness.

“What do you think it is?”

“I think you are alien scum who have come to our planet to put your noses into our business so you can try to take over.”

“Is that so, Human? Then what does that make you?” She leaned over his desk as she spoke, no more than a few centimeters from his face.

Her rich insect smell reminded him of cinnamon. He hated cinnamon. Zeke took a huge puff and blew the smoke in her face. “I’m your worst fucking nightmare.”

“General Peepo said dead or alive. I believe I’ll chose the former.” In a flash, Brantayl swept one of her topmost arms at Zeke, aimed at his neck. The inside of each arm had a serrated blade built into the combat armor. Similar to her natural chiton, it was razor sharp and made of a composite-alloy ceramic. Just as fast, Zeke brought his left arm up, and the blade hit it. When the blade went Ching! and stuck, Brantayl’s surprise was obvious.

“Gift of the HecSha,” Zeke said, waggling his eyebrows. The alien began to move her other arm, but he didn’t give her the chance. He stood and pivoted, using all the force his cybernetic legs relayed through his reinforced skeletal system to his right arm, which was powered by the same electrical muscles used in the prototype Mk 9 CASPers. His fist struck her thorax armor with two tons of force.

Brantayl and her combat armor and gear weighed just over 300 kilograms. Zeke’s punch launched her backwards into the nearest MinSha warrior, sending them both sprawling. Zeke flipped over the desk, pistoning out with both feet at the upper thorax of the next-closest MinSha. His aim was a little off, and the heels of his boots hit her in the face, crushing her skull.

“Oops,” he said. He landed, grabbed the slumping soldier by an arm, anchored a foot against the wall, and spun the soldier like a club, slamming two others down just as they brought up their weapons.

A laser snapped, and he felt an instant of pain in his right side, which began to get steadily worse. He rolled to the left and saw woodwork flash into flame from a bolt aimed at his head. “Hey, watch the trim!” he said, snatching up a fallen laser carbine.

The design’s ergonomics were totally wrong for a Human, but in decades of fighting, he’d used pretty much every weapon from every alien in the galaxy. He found the safety—it was off—and the firing control, then shot the one who’d shot him.

“Meet your maker!” he said, laughing. Brantayl caught him by surprise with a flying MinSha leap, her wings buzzing madly. Zeke spun, squeezing the trigger as fast as the chemical laser would fire. He burned a line of holes in his office’s wall just behind the flying officer. She went over him and through his office window with an explosion of glass and wood.

“Well, hell,” he said, looking out the window. She’d dropped and wasn’t in his field of fire. He turned around. The two MinSha still living were both getting to their feet. He killed them. The first laser from the APC burned a hole through the wall of his office. He squatted slightly as he trotted to the wall and touched a hidden control.

As the panel slid aside, Zeke dropped the MinSha weapon and put a hand to his side and felt the burn. Now that hurt! He’d been managing the pain until now. The panel opened the rest of the way, and he immediately grabbed a nanite medkit, one of six there, spun the control to major internal trauma, and stabbed myself in the chest.

“Fuck!” he roared, holding the wall to keep himself upright as pain flooded the side of his chest like molten lava. He’d never get used to that. He figured he’d lost a chunk of lung, but as the pain ebbed, Zeke shrugged. He’d had worse. He stuck the half-spent medkit in his belt and started climbing into the CASPer hidden behind the door.

The APC opened up again and began riddling the landmark home with heavy laser fire at a furious rate.

“Tear it apart!” he heard Brantayl yell at her surviving troopers, and a second APC began shredding the building. After a minute of sustained fire, first one laser stopped firing, then the other.

“You thought we were done, Brantayl?” Zeke boomed over the speakers of the CASPer as he rode his jumpjets through his ruined home’s ceiling and up another 10 meters before killing the power. Only two of the 10 remaining troopers had the presence of mind to fire at the CASPer, but neither of them hit.

The Mk 8 CASPer, all 450 kilos of it, hit the roof of one of the APCs like a bomb, crushing the heavy laser on top. Zeke activated the arm blade and cut the gunner in half. The chain gun on the other arm came on, and he pumped a hundred rounds into the APC through the lightly armored roof.

“You didn’t think I would be that easy to kill, did you?” Zeke roared. His threat warning went off, and he spun, retracting the arm blade and activating the shield. A medium MAC round slammed into the shield. The trooper who’d fired the weapon looked surprised he was still standing. “I’ve been killing MinSha since before you were a grub!” Zeke let the trooper have a long burst from the chain gun, then rolled off the roof of the ruined APC.

Zeke landed on his feet and swept his shield arm back across his body, the impact sending a pair of MinSha sprawling with broken limbs. He cast about for his main target. Where was Major Brantayl? “I don’t have as much of a hard-on for killing you guys as Asbaran does.” A pair of lasers splashed against his torso; he gunned the shooters down and moved closer to the other APC. On top, the gunner was desperately trying to finish reloading his heavy laser. “But I do love squashing bugs.”

A trooper popped out of the APC, trying to bring a MAC around. Zeke swung a powered fist, and blue chiton and blood sprayed. “See?” he said, laughing. He pulled a K-bomb from the armor, armed it, and dropped it through the hatch the trooper had come out of. “Little present for y’all!” Zeke turned his back as several MinSha piled out before the bomb went off.

“You’re just making it hard on yourself, Brantayl!” Zeke yelled. He examined the area with his CASPer’s heads-up display. Only four MinSha moving. Where the fuck was that bastar—

Something hit his suit and went SNAAPP!, and he staggered like he’d been hit in the head with a baseball bat. “What the fuck?” he said, and it hit him again. His displays went out, and the suit stopped responding. He tried to move and only succeeded in unbalancing the suit, which fell over face-first with a crash. Everything was dead, even the escape system.

He lay there for a few moments, face down, considering his options. Then the suit was rolled over, and he felt the releases being activated. He’d have a second when the cockpit was opened to go for the pistol nearby. The cockpit swung up, and he moved, then stopped.

“As I was saying,” Brantayl said, pointing a laser pistol at Zeke’s head, “you are under arrest.”

Two of the surviving troopers extracted him, none too gently, from the dead armor. As they stood him up, he got a look at a module magnetically stuck to the side of his armor. EMP, he thought. Brilliant. A few minutes later, another APC showed up, and he was bundled onboard and on his way to Sao Paulo.

Chattanooga’s fire department came and put out the flames before they could engulf the building, saving the historic structure. As they got the blaze under control, the fire brigade was surprised to see Zeb Avander, the retired police chief, crawl out of the smoldering building.

“How did you survive that?” one of the fireman asked.

“Good planning,” Zeb said, walking away. He was already on his phone and calling people, the box of chips and credits tucked under one arm. His grandfather had given him a mission; it was time to get to work.

* * * * *

Chapter Nineteen

SOGA HQ, Sao Paulo, Brazil, Earth

“Is this the Human responsible for the Tri-V disruptions?” Peepo asked as a Human was led into the office, covered by three MinSha with laser rifles whose barrels never flinched from the Human’s head.

“Yes,” Major Brantayl replied.

Peepo frowned. The MinSha officer was moving somewhat timidly, and her voice was hoarse. “I take it there were…issues…with his arrest?”

“Yes,” Brantayl repeated. “He killed a large number of my troopers. We were unaware he had cybernetic legs and arms, which was an unpleasant surprise. He also had a CASPer, which we were prepared for, but which caused a lot of damage before it could be subdued. We do, however, now have his Mk 8 CASPer, which is in prime condition and is headed to the lab for our analysis.”

“Well done,” Peepo said. She turned to the Human. “Zeke Avander, is it?”

“I am.”

“I am General Peepo.”

“I know who you are. I saw you once on a contract, a long time ago. Your smell hasn’t gotten any better with age.”

“My smell?” she asked, refusing to rise to the bait.

“Yeah, you’re a smelly-ass alien, and the planet’s air won’t be breathable again until you’re all gone. Speaking of which…” He turned toward the MinSha pointing rifles at him. “I’m going to open a panel in my arm to take out a cigar. Don’t shoot me.”

Without waiting for permission, he commanded a hidden compartment on the inside of his right arm to open and reached in with his left hand to remove a cigar and small plasma lighter.

“You can’t smoke that in here,” Brantayl warned.

“So shoot me,” Zeke replied. “You’ve caught me, and I expect I’ll spend the rest of this war in a jail somewhere with Besquith nibbling pieces off me unless I tell them what you want to know. Before I go to that demise, I’m going to have my last cigar. So, you can either shoot me or shut the fuck up.”

Brantayl looked over for guidance, and Peepo waved her off. She didn’t care that much if Zeke smoked. While it smelled, it might put the Human at ease to the point where he gave away something or accepted her proposal. It wasn’t likely, but the chance was worth putting up with the stench for a short while.

The Human finished lighting the cigar and blew a cloud of smoke toward the ceiling. “Thanks,” he said with a small nod. “So what is it you want to know so badly you had to send out a bunch of folks to wreck my home to find out?”

“Are you responsible for the Tri-V disruptions we’ve had across the planet?”

“I am, indeed.” Zeke smiled at her. “Did they piss you off?”

“Only to the extent that we didn’t think of doing it first.” She pulled her lips back from her teeth in an approximation of a Human smile. “The disruptions have been very helpful to us.”

“Helpful how? There have been riots everywhere. I heard you even had them here.” He waved out the window at the city. “Didn’t they come close to burning down this building?”

“No,” Peepo replied, “this building was never in danger. And, as I mentioned, the riots were very helpful to me. It allowed us to use displays of force some of your civilians had never seen before, except in your movies. To have their friends and family killed was useful in showing them who is actually in control of your planet, and the lengths we will go to maintain that control.”

She smiled again. “Since the riots, we have found the populace, in general, easier to control. We have examples, world-wide, of Humans informing on their countrymen to get their Tri-V service restored. I had to authorize additional troops to man the communications systems to field all the calls we now have coming in daily. No, I am not, as you say it, pissed off at all over the disruptions.”

“Those are only the people you see, though. Your reprisals will drive more people underground. The informants will end up dead, and it won’t take long for people to see what happens when you squeal.” He shrugged. “It’s awfully hard to spend your blood money if you’re dead.”

“That can be arranged, planet-wide, too,” General Peepo said. She stared intently at Zeke for a moment and then added, “It would certainly be cheaper.”

That caught the Human off guard, and he twitched backward in surprise. “What do you mean? You would kill everyone on this planet?”

“The thought has indeed gone through my mind,” Peepo said as she walked to the window and looked out at the city below. “It is also one of my contingency plans. One way or another, we need to bring this campaign to a close, and soon. There are other missions that require my services and those of my forces. Playing babysitter to a bunch of smelly Humans is not what I had as my life’s goals. Earth will either be made to accept our rule, or it will be destroyed.”

She turned back to look at Zeke. “As I said, I don’t have a lot of time to waste here; therefore, I’m willing to make some concessions. Rather than kill you out of hand, I would like to offer you a job on my staff. You obviously have great skill not only in biochemistry, but also in group psychology, and you are a fighter as well. I could use someone like you on my team; it would make the pacification of this planet go smoother and quicker, and I’m sure the pay would be even better than what you are making helping old, fat Humans live another month or two beyond what nature intended for them. So, which is it going to be? Will you join my staff, or do you want to go talk to the Besquith jailors you mentioned earlier?”

“Huh,” Zeke said. “I gamed this conversation out a lot of different ways in my mind on the way here, and having you offer me a job was never a consideration. So, I guess what you’re saying is that you will pay me lots of money—maybe even millions of credits—to turn my back on my race and become a lackey on your staff?” His voice rose in volume and pitch. “Basically, you want me to turn my people over to you, and help you induct my whole race into slavery? Is that about it?”

“No, it is not slavery,” Peepo said. “It’s just doing what the Mercenary Guild decides is best for you for some period of time until the galaxy is safe, and you can be allowed to rule yourselves again.”

“You know what? You’ve obviously never been a slave before, but I have! I’ve laid in my own filth for days and weeks at a time because my jailor wouldn’t give me my arms and legs so I could clean myself. I know the difference between benevolent leadership and being someone’s slave, and what you just described is slavery. I’ve been there, and I won’t go back again. I’ve only got two words to answer your job offer, and they are, ‘Fuck you!’”

The Human twisted something on the plasma lighter he was still holding, and lobbed it toward Peepo. Brantayl was faster, though, and she stepped in and slapped the lighter back toward the Human. It was the last thing Peepo saw as she dove beneath her desk.

The lighter detonated with a flash and an explosion that was big enough to move the massive piece of furniture. Made of a heavy composite ceramic alloy, the explosion wasn’t big enough to crack it, though, and the fireball that swept around it was only strong enough to singe Peepo’s fur, rather than cause her any long-term damage. When she had recovered from the blast, she pulled herself out from under the desk and came around to find the other beings in the room had not been as lucky.

Several of Brantayl’s appendages had been ripped off in the blast, and her blue blood flowed in streams from her body. She twitched once and lay still. Both of Zeke’s legs were off, but they were made to detach, and he was no worse off for their removal. He had been blown backward through an antique bookcase, though, and a large piece of one of the shelves protruded from his chest, with his red blood flowing freely from it. The three troopers had each had their rifles driven through their thoraces at various angles; they wouldn’t be getting back up again.

Seeing movement, she walked over to look down on Zeke, and his head rolled up to look at her. “Not…dead…” he said, his voice no more than a whisper.

“No,” Peepo said, drawing her laser pistol. “But you are.” She pulled the trigger and put a bolt through his forehead. “You should have taken the job.”

* * *

Deck Five, Keesius Cruiser “EG2,” Hyperspace

 “Welcome to the party,” Commander Frank Earl said as Lieutenant Colonel Walker passed through the “line” to his position. With most of the bots aft of their position, the Bees only had one trooper watching the forward portion of the ship. Obviously, that trooper had been dozing, too, because he had snapped off a shot at Walker’s point man when he dropped down into the ship through the same hole the Bees had come through. He had mumbled an embarrassed, “Sorry.”

“I’d like to say it’s great to be here,” Walker replied.

“Yeah. Weren’t you going to enter the ship somewhere aft?” Earl asked.

“We tried. There’s no entrance aft of here, and we don’t have a cutter to get into the ship. We could have used our lasers, but that would have used up most of them cutting through the ship’s armor. Based on your last status report, it sounded like we’d need all the weapons we could get our hands on to breach the robots and make it to the manufactory.”

“Probably true,” Earl allowed. “So, what did you bring us?”

“I’ve got food, water, ammo, and fuel for your CASPers,” Walker replied. “I also have a lot of folks who’d like to see their families again and aren’t afraid to kill a bunch of bots if that’s what they’ve got to do to get back to them.”

“Well, I’m damn glad to see you,” Earl said. “If nothing else, it would help if you could stand guard for a bit and let us get some sleep. There weren’t enough of us to hold them off and stand long enough watches to get some real sleep.”

“We can do that,” Walker replied. “You guys get some sleep, and then we’ll figure out how we’re going to kill this damn thing before it kills us first.”

* * *

SOGA HQ, Sao Paulo, Brazil, Earth

“That’s good, thank you.” Peepo nodded to the Jeha cleanup crew as they left. Unfortunately, they were becoming routine visitors to her office. She gave the Veetanho equivalent of a sigh. Losing Zeke was a waste; he had a lot of potential to help the Guild here on Earth and back on Capital Planet after Earth was brought in line. The loss of Brantayl was annoying, too; she had always performed her duties adequately. For a MinSha.

Of course, Peepo had done her research, and she knew that Humans had a distressing history of not doing what they were told, and that they often fought on after most rational species would have given up. Still, even she hadn’t believed things like the Battle of Masada had actually happened. Until she came to Earth, she had thought those were cautionary tales. What rational species killed itself to avoid being captured? Where was the survival instinct in that? How had Humans, who thought like that as a species, survived as long as they had?

While she was beginning to accept that it happened, from her most detached perspective, it still didn’t make sense.

At least the Guild was beginning to see some successes. Although she hadn’t wanted the people to riot when she arrived—you can’t rule a mob, after all—what she’d told Zeke had been essentially true. Once people lost their free entertainment, they became willing to do whatever it took to get it back. If turning in their malcontent neighbors got them credits and a free Tri-V, they were willing to do it. What a weird species.

She wished there was more time to experiment with them, but there had been another…event, and she knew time was quickly running out. She wanted the Humans—no, she needed them, she knew, if she were being perfectly honest—but it was better to move forward without them if they couldn’t be brought to heel. If the Humans didn’t bow to Merc Guild rule, and soon, they would have to be destroyed.

* * * * *

Chapter Twenty

EMS Pegasus, Hyperspace

“All hands, prepare for transition to 2nd Level Hyperspace.” Alexis look up at her command crew and winced. She was sure none of them were looking forward to this; she knew she wasn’t. The seldom-used observers’ stations were manned by Sansar Enkh, Jim Cartwright, and Nigel Shirazi. Of the three, only Jim looked concerned. He was breathing faster than normal, with the look of someone about to have a tooth pulled. Sansar was calm and patient, while Nigel looked mildly amused at everyone’s concern.

Someone didn’t read the briefing, she thought as she looked at Nigel. Well, he was about to get the lesson of his life. “At your discretion,” she sent to Ghost.

<Three…two…one…> and the normal world, along with everyone in it, was torn apart.

The soul-rending evisceration was over with in a second. Those who’d been through it, like Jim Cartwright, knew what to expect. He was still ashen and gasping afterward.

Sansar’s eyes were wide, and she shook her head several times. “Blue Skies, that sucked!” she said when she could talk again. “It reset all my pinplants, too!”

“Yeah,” Alexis said, steadier only because it was her third trip. “Those members of my crew who have large numbers of plants have noted that as well.”

“Son of a sheep raper!” Nigel exclaimed. “Did we die?!”

“No,” Jim said, wiping away pooled sweat from his face, “but it sure feels like it for a second.”

“A second? It felt more like a year,” Nigel said, visibly struggling to get control of himself. He looked at Jim’s relatively calm demeanor and shook his head slightly. Alexis suspected Jim had just gone up another notch in the Asbaran commander’s book.

Everyone in the CIC was affected to one degree or another, just like the previous times. Then Alexis realized that wasn’t quite true. The huge blue-on-blue eyes of Jim’s Fae regarded her coolly, looking completely unaffected. Alexis made a mental note to have Dr. Rodriguez send a survey to all the crews who’d gone through the transition to see if any others were unaffected. For the time being, though, it was back to work.

“Flipper, status?”

“Sweeping,” the Selroth said. “It will take a minute for the program to run.” Sato had continued to modify their systems to operate more effectively in 2nd Level Hyperspace. Nothing seemed to follow the normal laws of physics here, even the energy emissions of sensors. He’d been the most disturbed by that, of all things.

“Long, ETA to be ready for transition back to normal space?”

“Fifteen minutes, Captain,” the Jeha engineer replied. His long body and a preponderance of his arms were wrapped around his bridge workstation, since combat wasn’t expected. They’d run into trouble the last time they’d come here, but they also had no intention of spending more than a few minutes this time, unlike the days they’d spent on the previous trip.

“Very good. Glick, monitor the situation. Paka, you have the con. Maintain Situation One throughout the ship.” Paka nodded as Alexis unhooked her safety belt and started floating toward her ready room. She came to an almost immediate stop, then remembered the rules and started pulling herself that way instead.

“Why are we staying at battle stations?” Nigel asked. “Nothing can attack you in hyperspace.”

He’s cute, but he needs to learn to read briefings, she thought, then gave a mental lurch. Cute?! Stop thinking like a girl, she chided herself. “Colonel Shirazi, would you care to see?”

“See what?”

Jim Cartwright had already released his harness and was hand-over-handing after Alexis. Sansar, who’d read the briefing, was copying Jim’s movements. Nigel shrugged, and, having obviously not read the briefing or seen Alexis come to a halt, jumped toward the wardroom, only to stop after just a few feet, out of reach of any handholds.

“What the hell?” he asked.

“Here, let me help you,” Alexis said. She hooked a foot in a hold and stretched out her arm to snag his boot and pull him back. “You really should read the briefings,” she said and gave him an almost imperceptible wink. His cheeks turned red, and she smiled as she headed for her wardroom.

Once there, she waited for the other three to get inside, then closed the connecting door. Alexis touched the controls on her desk, and the defensive cover slid aside from the synthetic ruby window, revealing what was outside.

“We’re back in normal space,” Nigel said.

“Look closer,” Jim replied. He’d seen it before and didn’t like how it made him feel. He glanced out into the eternal nothing, then looked away. Sansar and Nigel pulled themselves closer and looked outside.

After a long moment, Sansar pulled herself away with considerable effort. “Oh, ow,” she said, rubbing her temples. “It gets into your head.”

“Doesn’t it?” Alexis asked.

Nigel took the longest to pull his gaze away from the nothingness. “It’s like the worst hangover ever,” he said, massaging his head. “What is it, anyway?”

“Another dimension,” Jim suggested.

“Sato thinks that’s close,” Alexis said. “He believes hyperspace is a different dimension of our universe, and thinks there should be at least nine more, each with different rules. Regular hyperspace is pretty close to our world; this one is a little further.”

“The deeper you go, the worse it gets,” Jim said.

Alexis nodded. “He’s been getting gradually better at adapting our instruments and such, but he spends a lot of time complaining about the Science Guild.”

“What about it?” Jim asked.

“He won’t say what, just that he hates them.” Alexis snorted. “If they’re as bad as the Mercenary Guild, he’s probably got a point.” She glanced out the window, then touched the control, closing the cover.

“Captain?” a voice asked over the intercom.

“Go ahead, Flipper.”

“Sensor sweeps established out to one light second, according to the scale established by Sato.”

“Anything?” Alexis asked.

“I have three contacts. Two are steady, one is closing.”

“Glick, prepare for incoming.”

* * *

EMS Pegasus, 2nd Level Hyperspace

“Any verification of the target type?” Alexis asked as she pulled herself back into the CIC.

“That level of information isn’t available yet,” Paka said.

“I have the con,” Alexis said as she reached her command station. “How long to get out of here?”

“Five minutes,” Long said.

“Can I have shields?”

“Yes,” the engineer said. “If you need weapons other than missiles, it will take longer.”

“Missiles don’t work right,” Alexis said to her fellow colonels. “Think of how you float here.” She turned to Long. “Understood on power. Glick, shields?”

“Shields coming up, maximum power,” Glick said.

“Target is close enough for visual,” Flipper informed.

Alexis pointed to the big CIC Tri-V. One of Pegasus’ optical telescopes focused, and the shape resolved to something like a lumpy stick. Several of the CIC personnel exchanged looks.

“It’s the same as the one we first encountered,” Flipper said. A section of the Tri-V captured the image and put it side by side with an extremely similar ship, only from a different angle.

“Wonder what its weapons range is?” Xander asked. She hadn’t been part of the Pegasus’ command crew when they’d encountered the ship.

“Chug,” Alexis said, “sound maneuvering stations. Fire RCS starboard and down.”

“Roger that,” the Bakulu helmsman said. A horn sounded twice, all the combat crew checked their restraints—the visitors more than everyone else—and the great ship moved laterally.

An alarm sounded on the TacCom’s station. “Weapons hit,” Xander called. “Grazed shield Number 3 forward.” She put a hand to her head and scrunched up her face.

<Meson weapon.> Ghost said. <Our shields, as configured, are ineffective against them.>

Great,” Alexis replied. “Can you compensate?

<Given time. Better to not be hit and get away this time.>

Big fucking help, she thought, then spoke to Glick. “The weapons can likely penetrate our shields. Evade, evade, evade!”

“No more than five Gs, or you’ll slow the charging,” Long warned.

“You heard the Jeha,” Alexis said.

“Maneuvering!” Chug yelled.

This time the horn sounded three times, warning of high-G maneuvers. Even as the last horn was sounding, Pegasus’ powerful fusion torch roared to life and, in combination with her oversized reaction thrusters, the ship spun. Another alarm sounded.

“Hit,” Xander said, “Shield 2 this time, amidships.”

“We have an internal explosion on Deck Five,” Afeeko, their DCC, yelled. A Tri-V of the ship’s schematic in high detail floated just in front of the elSha damage control coordinator’s independently controllable eyes. “Forward laser battery #2 is off line.”

“Chug, damn it!” Alexis exclaimed.

“I’m trying,” the Bakulu replied, not taking his eyes away from his task.

“We need a few more minutes,” Long said.

“Another hit,” Xander said. “Shield 6.”

“Deck Fifteen,” Afeeko said. “Water storage. Some damage to tankage, minor leakage.”

“Xander, pitch a missile at it?” The TacCom looked back at Alexis questioningly. “I know what Sato said, but do it.”

“Roger that,” she replied, using pinplants and hands quickly. “Missile in the black!” There was a bump as the missile was ejected from the ship, and they watched on camera as it flashed away. Xander shook her head as she monitored the missile. “It doesn’t know what to make of the environment.”

“Who does?” Nigel muttered.

The missile streaked across the intervening space. The enemy ship took no notice of it, until the missile detonated.

“Hit,” Xander said. The telescope showed the explosion as a bright flash of nuclear fire that grew, and grew, and grew. “Uhm…” Xander said, “that looks like an atmospheric shockwave!”

<That may have been a poor decision.> Ghost noted.

“Brace for impact!” Paka snapped. Everyone stared at the spectacle. “Brace for impact!” she repeated, louder. Glick snapped out of it and repeated the order. The collision alarm blared, and a second later the shockwave hit Pegasus. Everyone in the CIC was slammed to the side by several Gs of acceleration.

“No serious damage,” Afeeko said. “We tripped a few stress alarms, but I don’t show any structural failures.”

“Any sign of the bogie?” Glick asked.

“Screens are clear,” Flipper said. On the Tri-V, the camera continued to show the shockwave moving outward until it was lost.

“What is the yield on that weapon?” Jim asked.

“A nominal 1.5 kilotons,” Xander replied.

“I think you may have found the perfect weapon for here,” Jim said.

“You think so?” Alexis asked. “Flipper, how far away was the target at detonation?”

“Approximately 90,000 kilometers.”

Paka had a slate out and was finishing calculations. “Based on this, if the straight-line scale holds up, a 10-kiloton detonation would have killed us.”

“Great weapons,” Xander said, glancing at Jim Cartwright, “if you don’t mind dying when you use them.”

“There’s more,” Paka said. “I can’t be sure from visual observations, but it looked to me like the further from the blast, the more powerful the shockwave became.”

“Another inverse square rule,” Alexis said quietly, then shook her head.

“Charge complete,” Long reported.

Get us out of here?” she asked Ghost.


“Prepare for transition to normal space,” Alexis said.

Nigel’s eyes got huge. “Is this as bad?”

“Worse,” Jim said.

There was a moment of discontinuity, and that was it. “We’re in the Sol system,” Chug said.

Nigel looked around, and saw Jim grinning. “You asshole,” he said.

Jim started laughing. After the tension of the earlier combat, the entire CIC broke out in chuckles. Nigel’s eyes shot daggers around the room, but then he smiled and gave a couple laughs himself.

There’s hope for you yet, Alexis said, trying not to think what she was thinking. “Afeeko, damage report?”

“Teams are reporting in,” the elSha said. “Damage is minor and under repair.”

“Very good. Chug, get our bearings and let’s begin as planned.”

* * *

EMS Pegasus, Heliocentric Orbit Inside Mars’ Orbit, Sol System

“Why are we going so slowly?” Nigel asked.

“They blew the emergence point,” Jim replied. “They were shooting for closer to the moon.” On the Tri-V, the men could see Varley Station above Mars as viewed from the telescope.

Alexis glanced at them but didn’t comment. Ghost could do a pretty good job of doing the impossible, but pretty good added up to light minutes in many cases. She was happy not to be outside the orbit of Jupiter and forced to spend a couple days gliding into the system. The view around Mars showed why. A pair of Maki corvettes were in close orbit to the station. It only made sense for Peepo to send patrols to most of the Human outposts, and probably garrisons to the larger cities like Bradbury on Mars and Verne on the moon.

They’d fired the torches for a few minutes and were coasting. It wasn’t wasted time. As they flew, Hoot was carefully aligning the comms antenna and working to fine-tune the radio for data traffic, something that wasn’t done much anymore. Most modern ships used laser comms; they carried more data and were more secure because they were almost impossible to intercept. Another telescope showed their target, an ancient space-based telescope known as the SOHO, the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory.

The telescope had been used in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Of course, it was long retired, but it still worked. Alexis knew it did, as it was one of a number of targets in the Sol system known collectively as “Larks,” which spacers would find and take selfies on as a rite of passage. Others previously included a lost lunar landing vehicle, a space probe, and a red sports car. The SOHO was useful to her because it still had power transmission capabilities. Hussars’ intelligence operatives used it as a dead drop from time to time, though not often because of its Lark status.

“Comms are coming up,” Hoot said.

You’re up,” she told Ghost.

Alexis knew what Ghost was going to do, and it wasn’t pretty. It would ride the connection through the century-old SOHO satellite, and, once linked with the universities on Earth still monitoring it, the AI would have access to the planet’s AetherNet. Once in the AetherNet, all of the planet’s networks were within the sentient program’s reach.

Ghost would then interpret the entire network, finding every possible way of intruding into the systems it wanted access to. Each one would be probed several thousand times to find the most vulnerable, picking the best 100, then prioritizing and giving each a second level, a third, and finally a fourth level of scrutiny. Once those channels were set, they would be penetrated and taken over. One was used to start; the others were kept as backups. The hack completed, a direct connection was made.

<Ready.> Ghost reported exactly three seconds later.

Pegasus was now using its nearly undetectable ion drive to slow its approach. As it did, Alexis used the new connection to send a slew of messages. Sansar did likewise, sending messages to seemingly innocuous email accounts which would eventually lead them to her people still under cover.

Finally, once that work was finished, they were ready for the real reason for their visit. Using their pinplants, Ghost created a virtual environment in the Four Horsemen’s minds to reflect what would be seen on the other end. To them, it appeared as if they were standing in an elaborate office with massive windows overlooking the sprawling metroplex of Sao Paulo, Brazil. Alexis was impressed with the office—at least 100 square meters of floor space, with rich local woods and an expansive desk, their images would be projected from the Tri-V situated in the center of the room, facing the desk. An all-too-familiar Veetanho sat behind that desk looking at a slate.

“Hello, Peepo,” Alexis said.

Peepo looked up, confused at first, then in shock as she took in the four Humans standing in her office.

Alexis saw the subtle movement of her shoulder which meant she was reaching for a weapon. “Don’t bother,” Alexis said. “We’re not actually here.”

<She is trying to use her pinplants to summon assistance.>

“And don’t bother calling for help. We’ve arranged for a private talk.”

Peepo came up with a gun and fired anyway. The shot was aimed at Sansar’s head and passed cleanly through the Tri-V.

“You slay me,” Sansar said and smiled. “Well, actually not. That’s the second time you’ve tried…and failed.”

Alexis found it interesting and informative that Peepo went for Sansar among all of her worst enemies. Of course, Sansar had probably given her the worst black eye.

“How is this possible?” Peepo asked. “Intel says you’re still hiding at your home base. New Warsaw, isn’t it?”

Alexis did her best to hide the shiver that went down her back as she reminded herself the name of the system wasn’t as secret as the location. Still, it was a telling statement. “Oh, some of us are there, but we are here with you now. Well, not in the room, but trust me, we’re close by.”

“How do I know it’s really you and not some trick of your people on Earth?” Peepo got up and walked around the Tri-V.

“We first met at your bar in Karma,” Jim Cartwright said. “You said you were sad my father was killed. Of course, you probably had him killed, so that was a lie.”

“I was sorry he had to die,” Peepo said, “but this is a dangerous business.”

“You figured I was dead when I nuked all your damned Tortantula,” Sansar said.

“Unfortunate, that,” Peepo said, leaving it up to them to guess what she meant.

“You can be sure it’s me,” Nigel said. “I’ll be the one standing over your rapidly-cooling body.”

“You obviously know where I am,” Peepo replied. “Why don’t you come here and see if you are able to do that, little Shirazi? You are nowhere near the man your grandfather was.”

Alexis put a hand on his chest, stopping his retort. “As for me,” Alexis said, “I’ll just leave it to your intel people to verify that.” Alexis smiled, the smile of a predator. “Despite how tempted I am to put a 40-terawatt particle beam into the building you’re sitting in,” she saw the slight tensing of Peepo’s demeanor and enjoyed it immensely, “we’re not guilty of breaking Union laws, despite what you say.”

“If you aren’t here to kill me, why are you here? You must be close, there is very little lag.”

Alexis enjoyed that part. If she only knew. Pegasus was on the far side of the Moon, as quiet as she could be.

“We’re here to try and bring an end to all this,” Sansar said. “This conflict does nobody any good. It’s costing the guild millions of credits and untold lives. Mostly alien, but plenty of Humans, too. Your occupation of Earth, and this whole vendetta against humanity, needs to end before something goes horribly wrong.”

“Why would I do that?” Peepo asked, having finished her circuit of the group standing in the middle of the office. She laughed. “Give up? I’m winning. Your planet gets more and more manageable by the day.”

Jim Cartwright laughed. “Humanity? Manageable? You make me laugh. Humans can barely manage themselves! I bet you’re getting your asses kicked all over the place.”

“There are indeed pockets of difficulty; however, I just liquidated Zeke Avander, one of your allies, yesterday. Our network is cleaning up other pockets as we speak. I still don’t see how ending it does me any good.”

“You’re doing so well, you decided to move against our colonies,” Alexis said.

Peepo’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“The operating base you established in Golara ring any bells?” Sansar asked. This time Peepo’s astonishment was obvious. “Well, it should. I’m happy to tell you, though, we took it out a week ago.”

Entropy!” Peepo yelled. The double doors flew open, and a pair of MinSha in combat armor appeared. When they saw the four Humans, they scrambled for weapons. “Stop,” Peepo ordered. “They’re just Tri-V holograms; I don’t need my office torn up again.

“I appear to be blocked from my network access,” she added, casting a glance at Sansar, “get me intel reports on my slate.” The two guards gawked. “MOVE!”

“Speaking of Golara, I wanted to thank you for the battleships,” Alexis said with a huge grin. “They are a most welcome addition to our war effort.”

“There is no way you could have defeated a fleet that size,” Peepo growled.

“Unless we could appear anywhere we wanted?” Alexis asked.

Peepo was quiet for a long moment. In that time a pair of elSha came in, examined the Tri-V images, and left. Alexis checked her clock. Ghost had warned her that 10 minutes was the absolute maximum for the encounter, and it was obvious Peepo was stalling. She caught Sansar’s attention and nodded.

“So what’s it going to be, Peepo?” Sansar asked. “Are we going to call an end to this needless conflict, or do the Horsemen have to come there, dig you out, and put you on trial in front of the entire planet? We could do a better job than the sham trial you gave me.”

“If you were able to dig me out, you already would have,” the Veetanho snapped.

“Maybe we wanted to offer you a chance to end this without more bloodshed,” Nigel said. “My people know how much you aliens love killing, but we aren’t always like that.”

Peepo snorted in reply.

“You started this,” Jim said and pointed at her. “The fact that we’d even come to you with this option, after you’ve done your level best to murder all of us, says a lot about our intentions.”

“It says you are weak,” Peepo said, “and undisciplined. This is why you need to be controlled, for the greater good.”

“The greater good?” Sansar yelled. “What are you talking about? Do you presume to know what the entire galaxy needs? You arrogant bitch.”

“There’s more going on in this galaxy than you little Humans know about. It is vital you are brought into the fold.”

“Bullshit,” Jim said, and the others nodded.

“Then we are at an impasse,” Peepo said.

“So it would seem,” Alexis agreed. “Before we go, you need to be aware of a problem. My people salvaged a ship some time ago. It appeared almost identical to Pegasus, our Egleesius-class ship you are so familiar with. It turns out we were wrong; it’s a Keesius.”

“I am familiar with the Keesius-class ships—they are weapons of mass destruction that were outlawed long ago. And for good reason!” She paused and then asked, “Why are you telling me this? Is this supposed to be some sort of threat?

“No, we aren’t like you,” Alexis said. “We wouldn’t intentionally unleash something like this. However, one of my scientists accidentally activated it, not knowing what it was, and the weapon has jumped out of our control. We believe its target is Capital System.”

Peepo licked her thin lips, her eyes narrowing. “You won’t stop it?”

“We’re trying,” Alexis explained. “This happened after we left to take out your base in Golara. My second in command sent a force after it. They aren’t sure if they can stop it, so I’m letting you know so you can warn your people.”

“You say this after you try to negotiate a truce?”

Alexis grinned and shrugged. “Never show all your cards until the deal is done. Isn’t that what you told me when we first met? You should just have time to get a courier to Capital to warn them. That’s the best I can do.”

“See you soon,” Nigel said with a wink. The connection cut.

* * *

SOGA HQ, Sao Paulo, Brazil, Earth

There weren’t enough hells in all the races’ mythologies to condemn the Humans to, Peepo thought as she issued orders sending a courier to warn Capital Planet. It was unlikely the Humans would be able to stop the Keesius. They weren’t built to be stopped; they were built to destroy planets. Hopefully, she could at least get her daughter off the planet before the Keesius arrived.

That didn’t cool her anger, though. The Humans, and especially the Four Horsemen, were infuriating. She held their planet; they were defeated. Why couldn’t they see that?

She’d known—intellectually—that Humans often fought on after they were beaten—she’d seen it on the battlefield plenty of times, herself—but to experience it when she held their planet was different. Sometimes their tenacity allowed them to turn the tide and emerge victorious, but not in this case. She held their planet!

It was time to end this. It was time to end their resistance, as other races were starting to take notice and think they didn’t have to do what they were told, either. That was unacceptable.

She picked up her slate and brought up the orders she’d been working on before the Horsemen had shown up and interrupted her. Taunt her? She would see who taunted whom at the end. She pushed the enabling button with a vengeance. Orders flowed across the galaxy, and credits changed hands in a number of places.

There would be a rapidly-cooling body, but it would not be hers.

* * *

EMS Pegasus, Heliocentric Orbit Inside Mars, Sol System

“Report charge status,” Alexis asked her engineer.

“Batteries charged,” Long reported.


“All weapons charged,” Xander said. “Tubes loaded with reprogrammed anti-missiles.”

Is the shield update you came up with in place?” Alexis asked Ghost.

<It is. However, I do not know how effective it will be.>

Will it help?


Then it is good enough.” She spoke to her command crew. “Are the skiffs away?”

“Clear and away,” Hoot confirmed. Two craft slightly larger than shuttles were coasting away from Pegasus. Disguised to look like mining ships returning from the asteroid belts, they would enter Earth’s traffic patterns and penetrate Earth’s defenses. They contained Horde operatives and volunteers from all the Horsemen. Because they could well be facing another fight, Alexis had asked the other commanders to return to their quarters. They weren’t happy with the situation, but it was her ship.

“Wish them luck,” Alexis said. “Bring the shunts online and prepare to depart. Chug, at your discretion.”

Pegasus fell into hyperspace. This time there was only a delay of a few minutes before the hyperspace generators were cut, and they dropped into 2nd Level Hyperspace with the same frightening, gut-wrenching experience as before.

“I don’t think I will ever get used to that,” Xander said to universal agreement.

“Sensors, check for any contacts,” Paka ordered.

“Working,” Flipper said, then almost immediately called out, “Contact!”

“Engage the modified shields,” Alexis ordered.

“Impacts on Shields 3, 5, and 9,” Glick said.

“No damage,” Afeeko said.

“Helm, get some speed.”

“Roger that,” Chug said, and the acceleration warning sounded.

“Contacts on camera,” Flipper said. The images showed three of the lumpy stick ships and something else. Alexis thought it looked like a melted Christmas tree.

“Marking four targets,” Glick said. “Ranges from 50,000 to 60,000 kilometers, bearing 121 azimuth 92.”

<I warned you,> Ghost said to her. <They were waiting.>

“Time to charge 11 minutes,” Long told them.

“Target the...melted-looking thing,” Alexis ordered. “All forward lasers.”

“Only three are operational,” Xander reminded her. “Two bearing.” She manipulated the controls, and, a moment later, the tactical board flashed. “Firing!”

On the Tri-V, the image of the strange ship was clearly visible as a pair of 100-megawatt lasers from Pegasus connected the two ships. Instead of the usual glow of shields absorbing the energy or the flare of a charged hull penetration, there was a bright flash and the two lasers rebounded away at odd angles. Everyone on the bridge gawked, even Alexis.

“The marines who boarded the battleship to retrieve F11 noted that sort of phenomenon,” Long said. Alexis searched her memory for a long moment, then she remembered that Corporal Johansson and Private Culper reported fighting an alien in powered armor, like their CASPers, which had shields like a ship. They had also reported that energy weapons seemed to bounce off its shields.

“It’s more of a deflector,” Xander said, “than a shield.”

“More hits on our shields,” Glick said. “Power levels are dropping fast. The bigger ship has much more powerful weapons.”

“Combine laser fire,” Alexis said, “try for a pinpoint shot on the big ship.”

“Helm, bring all weapons to bear,” Paka ordered.

“One of the smaller ships has launched five small craft,” Flipper said. The telescope focused on a series of quickly moving dots before zooming on one. It was the same manta ray-shaped craft they’d seen before.

“Missiles,” Alexis ordered. “Two each.”

The orders were given, and the ship shuddered as 10 missiles left their tubes and raced away. They’d had time to tweak the missiles’ computers since the last encounter, and these flew much truer. Unlike previous attacks, the small craft took evasive action.

“Pretty lame attempt,” Xander said, pointing at the slow, straightforward attempts of the small craft to avoid the missiles. All 10 struck within a fraction of a second of each other, their conventional fragmentation warheads obliterating the targets.

“Now that’s more like it,” Alexis said.

“Multiple hits on shields,” Glick said. “Lots!”

“Oh, they’re pissed,” Paka said.

“How’s that evasive action coming?” Alexis said.

“Limited in available power,” Chug reminded his captain.

“Firing on the big ship,” Xander said. This time five of Pegasus’ eight lasers fired at once, and at roughly the same point on the ship. It looked like the lasers hit a refractory target, as bits of laser light reflected in all directions for an instant, then they stopped, and the side of the strange alien vessel exploded.

“Penetration,” Flipper confirmed. A series of secondary explosions rippled across the hull.

“Not much in the way of armoring,” Paka noted.

“Maybe it’s not a warship,” Alexis said. “Can we fire again?”

“One more burst and the batteries are toast,” Xander said.

“Do it, same target.”

“Enemy is changing bearings,” Flipper said. The three smaller ships were turning around, as was the bigger one, albeit much slower. As they watched, another explosion bloomed in an area they hadn’t even hit. “I think we really messed up that big boy.”

“Fire as ordered?” Xander asked.

“Negative,” Alexis said. Paka looked at her curiously, and she held up a placating hand. “It doesn’t do us any good to rub their noses in it.”

“They started it,” Paka reminded her.

“And we finished it,” Alexis said.

“Hyperspace shunts are charged,” Long reported.

Take us back to Golara,” Alexis told Ghost, and Pegasus returned to normal space.

* * * * *

Chapter Twenty-One

Deck Five, Keesius Cruiser “EG2,” Hyperspace

“Go!” Lieutenant Colonel Walker ordered, and the combined force of Bert’s Bees and Golden Horde surged forward. After their first solid rest in over a week, and with CASPers both refueled and rearmed, the Bees led the attack.

Walker had also brought a couple of missile packs in the ammunition reload, and the two troopers with them on their shoulders led the assault, firing as they went. Missiles roared down the ramp to the Sixth Deck, shredding the robots hiding next to the entryway. The six remaining Bees dove over the railing, jets on maximum, and flew down to the enemy’s position. Two more of the robots were around the corner, and Walker saw one of the troopers’ laser shields flash open. A second trooper was slower…and he took three hits. Uncontrolled, the suit’s momentum slammed it into a bulkhead, and it rebounded slowly.

The remaining Bees finished off the robots, and led the charge down the ramp to the next level. They had 10 more to go to get to the CIC.

* * *

Deck Twenty-Four, Keesius Cruiser “EG2,” Hyperspace

Well, that’s odd, Sato thought as five of the modified maintenance bots flew past him.

“Is something going on that I should be aware of?” he asked over the comm system.

“Yeah,” Walker replied. He grunted as if he were exerting himself. “We’re making a play to get to the CIC to try to stop this crazy thing. How much further back is the manufactory from the CIC?”

“The CIC is on Deck Sixteen, but the manufactory is all the way aft on Deck Twenty-Five,” Sato commed. “You should probably know that I just saw a group of five bots headed in your direction.”

“Not…surprised,” Walker replied. “Lots of the…damned things here. Can you turn them off or destroy the manufactory, or something?”

“I couldn’t before, but I will attempt it.” Sato went to the nearest terminal. “Report number of maintenance robots,” he typed.

“MAINTENANCE ROBOT INVENTORY 97.” Sato nodded to himself. The ship had been keeping it at a constant 119 for days; the soldiers were making an impact.

“Report current protocol.”

“INTRUDER ASSAULT.” That wasn’t so good. The ship had gone from containment to assault. The troops had obviously become a big enough problem the ship had decided it needed to terminate them.

“Report maximum number of maintenance robots.”


Two bots passed him, going in the opposite direction. Both were carrying pieces of what looked to be a defensive laser mount. Why would they be taking that aft? Oh…they were going in the direction of the manufactory, he realized. If the ship was going to increase the bot population to 265, it was going to need more raw material.

“Whatever you are doing,” he commed, “you may want to hurry. It looks like the ship has gone to its maximum bot production protocol.”

“Any luck turning it off?”

“Not yet,” Sato replied. “Still working.”

He typed into the computer. “Report maintenance robot alternate protocols.”


Uh oh. “Terminate maintenance robot production.” The screen remained blank. “New maintenance robot protocol.” The screen stayed blank. He went through every combination and permutation of commands he could think of to halt production or change the bots’ protocols; all were met with indifference by the computer. It had determined the soldiers needed to be destroyed, and that was what it was going to do.

Getting it to change its mind wasn’t an option.

He went aft to Deck Twenty-Five to look at the manufactory. He’d been there before, and there had been two robot guards on duty. There still were…along with two others in the passageway. As he watched, the door opened and another bot came out. A minute and a half later, another came out. When the fifth one joined the mini-squad of bots another minute and a half later, the five jetted off down the passageway. He watched for another 10 minutes as the process repeated. The only difference was two more loads of raw materials entered the manufactory. Wondering what would happen, he edged toward the door.

When he was approximately three meters away, the robots on guard duty slid over to block the door, and their rifles rotated to track him. He instantly stepped back from the portal, and the robots returned to their earlier positions. Interesting. That hadn’t happened before when he’d been by here—the robots had actually let him into the facility then. There must be an increase in defensive status that came with the protocol change to Intruder Assault. He would have to find another way. He didn’t think he could take out both before they killed him, and there was no telling how many defenders were inside the manufactory space with the new defensive protocol in place.

* * *

Deck Nineteen, Keesius Cruiser “EG2,” Hyperspace

“Heavy resistance up ahead,” Corporal Calderon called.

“Hold what you’ve got,” Walker said. “I’m coming to take a look.” He moved forward to the edge of the ramp and almost had the top of his suit taken off by a heavier-than-normal laser bolt. “What the fuck was that?” he asked.

“The bots set up some sort of big ass laser down on Deck Twenty, and they’ve fortified that position,” Sergeant Enkh said. “All of the fighting so far appears to have been a delaying action to allow them to get that set up. If we have to go over the rails to get down to Twenty, we’re going to lose some folks.”

“Stand by.” Walker switched to his comm system. “Any luck with turning off the manufactory, Sato?”

“No, it doesn’t appear possible at the moment. The ship has upgraded its defensive status, and I’m now locked out of the manufactory. I tried to reprogram it, but the ship isn’t accepting any of my input. They’re sending lots of raw material in there to make more robots, too; I just saw one of the ship’s defensive lasers go by.”

“Well, I don’t know that we’re going to be able to stop it. They have some pretty good defenses between us, and I’m not sure I want to challenge them. Question for you—if we can get into the CIC, would we be able to stop this thing?”

“Yes, if you could get into it, you should be able to stop it; however, I went by there and the CIC is sealed off.”

“But if we can get in, we’ll be good?”

“Yes, I believe so.”

Walker looked at Earl. “What do you think?”

“I’d like to get to the manufactory, but we’re down to nine combat effectives as it is, counting you and me. We can’t afford to lose any more of our folks.”

“That’s what I thought, too. Let’s pull back to the CIC on Deck Sixteen and see if we can’t find a way into it.”

“I think that’s a good call. We can set up some charges as we go. That way, if they bring the laser up to where we are, we can blow the shit out of it.”

“Right,” Walker agreed. “We can also salvage all the lasers from the bots we destroyed. They may come in handy as we try to cut our way into the CIC.”

“We’ll need them, I suspect,” Earl replied. “You ever tried to cut your way into an armored space before?”

“Not onboard a ship,” Walker replied.

“It’s going to take some doing. We’ve got what? Six days?”

“That should be plenty of time, shouldn’t it?” Walker asked.

“With handheld lasers?” Earl paused, considering. “It’ll be close.”

* * *

Deck Sixteen, Keesius Cruiser “EG2,” Hyperspace

“I don’t think we’re going to make it,” Commander Earl said a couple of days later as Walker studied the entryway they were trying to cut into the CIC. “The handheld lasers just don’t have enough power, and we aren’t going to have enough of them, even with the ones we salvaged from the robots.”

“Well, shit,” Walker replied. “You’re the entry specialist. How about blowing a hole with some of our demolitions charges? Maybe once we’ve weakened it some with the lasers?”

“We might be able to get through the armor—and that’s a ‘might’—but it would probably take all of our explosives, leaving us with nothing to blow up whatever we want to destroy inside.”

“So, what are you telling me?”

“I’m telling you, with all due respect, that it can’t be done. Not with the tools we currently have, anyway. Between having to stand guard and rest periodically, we also don’t have the manpower to do it, even if we had better tools, like the cutting laser the bots slagged.”

“Any chance of getting it operational again?”

“None. Once again, not with the tools we’ve got.”

“We need better tools,” Walker noted.

“Sure seems that way.”

Walker stared at the door, wishing his glare was strong enough to cut through the armor. “How big…” he started to say, then cocked his head and looked at the door some more.

“How big, what?” Earl asked when it didn’t seem like Walker was going to continue.

Walker turned away from the portal to look at Earl. “How big a laser would you need to cut through it in the time we have remaining?”

“Hell, I don’t know. A really big one?”

“One that was big enough to shoot down an incoming missile?”

Earl laughed. “Sure, that would work. Got one of those lying around?”

Walker smiled. “Actually, yes, I do. Something Sato said just hit me. The other day, he said he saw some bots go past him with pieces of one of the ship’s lasers, to be used in the manufactory. That laser had to be from one of the aft anti-missile mounts; an anti-ship one would be too big for the bots to maneuver easily.”

“That’s great, but those lasers must be eight or nine decks from here, through the bots waiting for us on Deck Seventeen. If there were even any left to be had—the ship’s made an awful lot of those robots.”

“True,” Walker replied. “But if there’s an ‘aft’ anti-missile laser bank…”

Earl smiled. “There has to be a forward one, and it has to be forward of us.”

“My thinking exactly,” Walker said. “The ship has gone into ‘contain’ mode again with us—it probably knows even better than we do that we can’t cut through the CIC with what we have, but I’ll bet it never thought about us disassembling one of the anti-missile lasers and moving it here.”

“No, and that would be big enough to do it—if we could get it here—and if we could get it powered up. And figure out a way of mounting and aiming it.”

“Well, we’ve only got four days remaining; we better get to it.”

* * *

Deck Sixteen, Keesius Cruiser “EG2,” Hyperspace

“They’re pushing us hard,” Sergeant Enkh commed from the front line of the ramp leading to Deck Seventeen. “They brought up the heavy laser. I don’t know how long we’ll be able to hold out against it.”

Walker looked at Earl. “The ship’s figured out what we’re doing. That’s the only explanation.” He gestured to where Corporal Calderon was using the jury-rigged anti-missile laser to cut through the CIC doorway. It had taken them almost all the time they had remaining to disassemble, move, and reassemble one of the “small” anti-missile lasers. If they hadn’t had CASPers, they wouldn’t have been able to get this far.

It had also taken most of their remaining fuel, though, and some of the suits’ fuel levels were critical. Although Earl hadn’t been sure the laser would work, Walker’d had them try it, anyway. They were 20 hours from hyperspace emergence; they were out of time.

Wonder of wonders, the laser had worked, but then the ship’s robots, which had for four days seemed satisfied to leave them alone at the CIC, had renewed their attack. For some reason, the ship had changed the protocol from Contain to Assault again.

Earl nodded. “The power draw for it probably gave us away, and it’s worried we can burn through with this. If nothing else, that means the ship thinks we’re on the right track, so we’re probably onto something. If the ship thinks it can be done, it probably can. We’ve just got to hold off the stupid robots long enough to get it open.”

“I’ll go help with the defense,” Walker said. “You stay here and get that door open.”

“Can we help?” Thorb asked. “We haven’t gotten to do anything since we got here.”

“Yeah,” Walker replied, “I’ve got several things you can do to help.”

“What?” Thorb asked hopefully.

“Stay here, do whatever Commander Earl says, and stay out of the way.” He put his hand up as Thorb started reply. “I don’t have time for this; just give me a ‘Yes, sir.’”

“Yes, sir,” both SalSha said, sounding exactly like they did every time they got put on restriction for violating shipyard speed limits.

Walker turned and hurried to the ramp to the next level before they could come up with any other “good” ideas, and he found three troopers holding back the bots. One would fire quickly, then withdraw in the face of a number of laser bolts.

“What do you want me to do?” Sergeant Enkh asked. “There are a bunch of them down there—I can’t tell how many—and they’ve almost got it in place. Once they do, they’ll be up here in a heartbeat.”

Walker risked a quick peek over the railing, then dove back out of the way as a firestorm of laser bolts went past him. “Yeah, there are a bunch of them for sure. I’m going to blow the charges down there, then we’ll go down and finish off any of them we missed. Are you three ready?”

They each indicated their assent.

“On three,” Walker said. “One, two, three!” He pressed the detonator, and the charges they had placed on the next level—mostly K-bombs—blew up with a huge flash. “Let’s go!” he commed.

He had just jetted over the railing when all the lights went out.

* * * * *

Chapter Twenty-Two

Deck Sixteen, Keesius Cruiser “EG2,” Hyperspace

“Mother fucker,” Earl snarled over the comm.

“Did the ship just do what I think it did?” Walker asked as he flew down to the next deck. He switched on his external lights at the last second and narrowly avoided slamming into the floor of Deck Seventeen. Illuminated by the exterior lights of four CASPers, the remaining bots were quickly put out of operation. Judging from the cloud of metal and parts obstructing the passageway, there must have been nearly 20 of the bots in the corridor.

“To answer your question,” Earl replied, “yes, the fucking ship turned off all the power to Deck Sixteen.”

“Including the CIC?” Walker asked.

“No, I suspect that’s on a different bus. Probably something higher priority. You want to be able to turn off the nonessential stuff while keeping the vital circuits needed to operate the ship. No, the CIC will have power…but we don’t.”

“Well, see what you can do,” Walker replied. “We wiped out the ones that have been holding us at bay. We may be able to exploit the breach and make it down to the manufactory. If we can do that, at least we’ll have some peace and quiet while we try to figure out what to do next.”

“Besides whining about how we’re totally screwed?”

“Yeah, besides that. I’ll take the Horde and go kill the bots. I’ll leave you the Bees; you guys figure something out.”

“Anything else I can do for you?” Earl asked.

“Yeah, do it quickly. We’re almost out of time.” Walker switched to the Golden Horde frequency. “Horde, on me. We’re going to take the fight to them. The way to the manufactory is open; let’s go!”

As Walker pushed his way through the cloud of debris, a large item blocked his way. “Now this might be helpful…” He grabbed the heavy laser the bots had been firing at them and a power pack floating nearby and handed them to Corporal Calderon. “Quickly! Take these up to Commander Earl with my regards.”

The corporal left with the weapon, and Walker turned back to the ramp leading down to Deck Eighteen. “Let’s go! Before the ship makes enough of the bots to stop us!”

* * *

Keesius Cruiser, Hyperspace, en route to El Dorado Star

Sato woke up. He didn’t try to stretch anymore. Weeks inside the CASPer had broken him of that habit. He took a drink of the tepid hydrogen-produced water and looked at the last of his food. Walker had been more than generous with his supplies, but there was very little left to share. He didn’t ask for more.

The downloaded schematics of the ship floated in his cockpit Tri-V. It was a Keesius-class, he’d learned; something vastly different from an Egleesius, even if the two did look similar from the outside. He’d found that, as long as you asked the right questions, the AI was quite generous. If you’d never done anything to tick it off. The problem was, the closer it got to its destination, the easier it was to tick off.

He’d sent his last bot to get some supplies from Walker four days ago, before they’d jumped into hyperspace. The bot had bumped into one of the maintenance robots—just bumped into it—and the Keesius’ robots had torn his bot apart. No doubt the hapless thing had been taken to the manufactory in the aft of the ship and parts of it were now trying to kill Walker or Earl’s people.

“That was a good bot,” Sato said. He’d designed it himself. He stopped what he was doing, his eyes going wide. Why hadn’t he thought of that before? It was risky, sure. If he fucked up, the ship would kill him. Despite the modified CASPer, he had none of the weapons or defenses the troopers carried. The bots would carve him up like a bento box and the metal parts would go into the manufactory. He took another swallow of water to keep from hurling.

Even with his plan, his resolve didn’t follow. Not immediately, anyway. He wasted another day planning what would take him, at most, two or three minutes to accomplish. Once again, the ship’s AI was cooperative. Why wouldn’t it be? It wasn’t like the Human in his powered suit had done more than explore and ask questions. He was confident his plan would work. The AI had exacted revenge on Sato’s robots, but not on him, although even a child would realize they were mere extensions of his will.

The clock in his mind from his pinplants was a constant reminder. Less than two days until they reached El Dorado. He’d always wanted to see the star. An unusual spectrum yellow giant that looked gold. No surprise when Humans first laid eyes on it they’d named it El Dorado. Humans loved symbolism. There were no planets around the star, just a scattering of asteroids. Unusual for a G spectral stellar mass. What was more important about El Dorado, though, was the system was the last destination before the ship’s target.

With carefully worded questions, Sato had received the information on how the ship would complete its mission. By the time it arrived at El Dorado, there would be enough antimatter to complete the mission. The ship would consume almost all its remaining fuel accelerating, then use the shunts one more time to jump to the Capital system. It would also then pull the same trick Pegasus could, arriving almost on top of Capital Planet, no more than a light minute away.

He estimated about six hours of fuel would available for acceleration to max speed. By the time the Keesius jumped into Capital, it would be going somewhere around 21 million meters per second, or about 10% of the speed of light. It would cross that light minute in six seconds, giving it just enough time to open its doors and fire its huge particle cannon. That shot would clear a lot of the atmosphere away. The antimatter would detonate against the planet’s surface. Added to the energy of an 80,000-ton ship traveling at 10% of C? He’d run that calculation several times. Capital would be obliterated. The Keesius was a very efficient terror weapon. For that matter, it was a very efficient weapon in its own right.

Arion would be right behind them when they entered the El Dorado system, maybe a couple minutes at most, but there would be almost no time to act, as the Keesius would begin accelerating almost immediately. He had to act now, before they arrived at El Dorado.

He awoke the day before they would arrive. He ate the last of his food, so he wouldn’t be doing what he was about to attempt on an empty stomach, and drank some water. Afterward, he wasn’t full, but he also didn’t have an empty stomach for the first time in days. He was out of time and out of excuses.

He disengaged from the Tri-V and floated aft, moving with gentle puffs of his maneuvering jets. It took a while to get all the way aft. The ship had started putting robots at each level, so it could monitor the direction of movement the mercs took. At each level, the bots observed Sato, but did nothing.

Eventually he got to the manufactory. He’d known where it was for some time. Two bots were always there, guarding it. However, the corridor leading to it wasn’t guarded. He floated next to the entrance in his suit and waited. Every 98 seconds. Right on cue, a brand new maintenance bot floated out.

Even though it was new, most of its parts weren’t. The bots had been salvaging their dead for quite some time. It was the advantage the ship had; it only needed to remanufacture the broken parts of the bots that had been destroyed. The “new” robot turned to head on its assigned task, and he acted.

Sato hit it with a carefully tuned radio beam of pure white noise. The robot veered off course, no longer under control, and hit the wall. Sato maneuvered forward and grabbed the robot with his suit’s arms, holding it in place. He only had a short time before a salvage team arrived with material to feed the manufactory, or one of the guards came around the corner to see what was wrong with this one, so he moved quickly.

His customized CASPer had a number of special modifications. One was an extra pair of arms mounted on the front of the cockpit. That pair was considerably more delicate in nature than the two huge arms on either side, and they were controlled by his pinplants. If he’d known how, Sato could have performed neural surgery with those arms. What he did know, however, was how to build robots from scratch. He’d built the two he’d come aboard with, and the ship’s bots were not very different from his own. It was a weakness he should have thought of weeks ago.

Using the manipulators, he cracked open the disabled bot and went for its programming boards. Sato chuckled as he took its brain apart—the fastening mounts were salvaged from one of Sato’s own bots. The operation went quickly because he knew how they were built—the Keesius had obliged when he’d asked for their schematics. In less than five seconds, he’d substituted a board of his own design, cobbled together from his water reclamation system. He wouldn’t need it in a few hours, one way or the other. He added a little something extra, then closed it back up.

Sato moved forward, away from the bot, as quickly as he dared, making sure to be well out of sight of the bot before he cut the jamming signal and brought it back to life. In another second, he was within view of one of the robots guarding the manufactory doorway. Here was the moment of truth. If the Keesius realized he’d been the one to temporarily disable the robot, he was fucked. The robot turned a laser toward him, and for a second he thought he was about to die. But nothing happened.

Sato jetted over to the hatch and used his CASPer’s heavy arms to open it; the maintenance bots observed him dispassionately as he went through, then one of them grabbed the door and pulled it closed. Safely on the other side, Sato activated the program he’d inserted into the control board.

Using his pinplants, he could see through the bot’s eyes. It was right where he’d left it in the passageway. He could see the Keesius’ AI was working to diagnose what was wrong.

Sato was a master programmer, but he knew he wasn’t nearly good enough to outfox an AI, as he knew how elegant their programming was. Sato had ignored the colonel’s orders once, years ago, and tried to hack his way into Ghost. The AI’s response had cost Sato the entire computer system that was attached to the interfaced gear—everything had been fried to the logic level. Sato had never learned how Ghost had managed it.

Ghost hadn’t even bothered reporting Sato’s attempt. It was an act of contempt, because Sato had been so casually defeated. The doctor had learned one small thing in the disastrous attempt; don’t try to hack an AI. This time, he’d set up the best firewalls in the modified bot that he could. It was working, but he knew it wouldn’t hold for long. Sooner or later, the AI would turn its full attention to the problem, and then it would blow through the firewalls Sato had installed like a bulldozer through a sandcastle.

Sato triggered the programming he’d written, and the bot came back into the manufactory room, where another bot was just being finished. The bot continued to ignore orders from the ship, and Sato went back out through the hatch as the guard bots moved to intercept it. The guards were not quick enough, though, and his modified bot flew next to the manufactory, and the “little extra” Sato had installed—a bomb he had put together from various components in his CASPer—detonated. Sato leaned his suit around the corner of the door; the bomb had been more than enough to destroy the manufactory well past the point where the AI could repair it in the time remaining. It had also destroyed the two guard bots that had gone in to investigate the bot he had modified.

“Sato,” Walker asked. “Are you okay? We detected an explosion aft.”

“Yeah,” he said, feeling a little giddy. “That was me.”

“Are you all right? What happened?”

“The manufactory is offline. If you can tear through the remaining bots, there won’t be any more!”

“That’s great!” Walker said. “We were actually on our way to the manufactory, but I guess we don’t need to.”

“No, you do not,” Sato replied. “I am on my way forward to join you. There is nothing more I can do here. I would like very much to see the CIC when you get it open.”

Sato had just started forward when a section of bulkhead next to him suddenly glowed. He looked back toward the door into the manufactory; another robot was approaching from down the passage as it fired its lasers at him. “Chikushō!” he exclaimed as he turned and jetted off as fast as he could, maneuvering back and forth as the laser bolts went past him. He turned a corner and raced as fast as he could straightaway down the passage while he was out of sight, then turned another corner, trying to work his way back to the ramp.

He rounded another corner, only slowing down enough to make the turn, and slammed into a bot coming down the passageway toward him. He reflexively chopped down, and the metal hand of the main CASPer arm slammed down onto the bot, crushing the top portion of it. Smoke oozed from inside it as a laser bolt drilled into the bot’s back.

Sato looked up; two more bots were coming down the passageway toward him. He flipped his monitor back in the direction he’d come from. Two more were rounding the corner there. He was trapped!

Grabbing the destroyed bot, he picked it up like a shield and jetted full speed down the corridor toward the pair that had just shot at him. The bot shield was hit several more times as Sato hunkered down behind it. Almost on them, he slowed, letting go of the bot, and it shot forward at them like an unguided missile.

Both bots tried to maneuver, but it hit one of them, and then Sato’s CASPer slammed into the other. He grabbed it as they crashed into the wall at the end of the corridor and threw it at its partner, which had just disentangled itself from his robot missile. More bots seemed to be coming from all directions, and there was no escape.

Three feet away, he spied a door, and he pushed off the wall toward it. Several laser bolts drilled into the bulkhead where he’d just been as he reached the door. He hoped it was unlocked, or he was about to meet his ancestors.

Success! The door opened, and he darted inside just ahead of the laser storm that raged down the corridor behind him.

Chikushō!” he exclaimed again, unintentionally doing it over the comm system.

“Sato?” Walker asked. “Are you okay?”

Sato closed the door and locked it quickly, knowing the bots could get through it in almost no time, then he began beating on it, hoping to warp it so it couldn’t be pulled open easily.

“I am okay for the moment,” Sato replied, “but I may have made the ship mad. Do you think you can kill those bots…quicker? I am trapped in a storage closet and need some help.”

* * *

Deck Twenty-Three, Keesius Cruiser, Hyperspace

“We’re close by,” Walker replied after Sato gave him his position, “and we’re on our way.”

“Colonel,” Sergeant Enkh said, looking over the ramp to where Deck Twenty-Four waited invitingly. The lights had been on for the last couple of decks, so she was able to see again without her external lighting. “There are about 20 bots down there. Is this guy worth it?”

“You know that bomber we were attached to when we flew here?”


“This guy designed it. Not as part of a group, but by himself. He’s that smart and valuable. He’s important to our chances to win this war.”

“I see.” Her tone was flat. “Well, it all makes sense now. It sucks, but at least it makes sense.”

“What?” Walker asked. “What do you mean?”

“When the rest of the Horde went off with the Hussars, I asked Colonel Enkh to take me with her. She looked me in the eyes and said, ‘No, it’s more important you go with Colonel Walker. I had a dream that it’s important to our chances to win this war.’ I didn’t see how staying behind would help win the war, but what you just said is pretty much word for word what she told me.”

“That doesn’t mean anything,” Walker replied.

“Yes, it does. This is what I’m here for.” She put her hand on the shoulder of Walker’s CASPer. “Just get him back safe. Okay, sir?”

“I intend to get him back safely,” Walker said. “Don’t do anything stupid.”

“Sir, I’ve done a lot of stupid shit in my life. It’s good to know that something I’m doing isn’t stupid, for once.” She pushed off Walker’s shoulder, using it to pivot over the railing as she opened her jets to full. “Blue Skies!” she yelled.

Foregoing the normal jets used to move in a space environment, she toggled her jumpjets and roared toward the enemy. She dropped her rifle, and began arming and throwing the K-bombs attached to her suit as fast as she could.

“Wait,” Walker yelled, but he could see it was too late. “Cover her!” he ordered as he dove over the railing after her.

He couldn’t catch her—she never turned off her jumpjets—and she hit the massed group of robots at full throttle like a half-ton bowling ball, scattering them in all directions. Then the K-bombs went off, and the oversized grenades coated the passageway in flying shrapnel.

Sergeant Enkh’s suit crashed into the far bulkhead, and her jumpjets cut off, although the suit had enough momentum to rebound off the walls at the end of the hall like a giant pinball. Walker spared her suit a glance as he shot the bots that were still moving; her suit had at least four holes through the front, any one of which would likely have been fatal. While her life signs were low, though, she was still alive.

“Tell…Sansar…I made a difference,” Enkh said, then her life signs went to zero.

“Come on,” Walker said as the other members of the squad landed nearby. His voice cracked, and he paused to regain control of it. “We need to get to Sato and make her sacrifice meaningful.”

He led them back to the ramp down to Deck Twenty-Five, which was free of bots. Not so the second passageway in, as Walker could see several flashes his suit identified as laser bolts. Private Enkh, who was on point, eased a camera around the intervening corner.

“Not too bad, sir,” he commed. “There are only four in the corridor.”

“It only takes one,” Walker replied.

“I’ve done this in the simulator,” the private said. “I can do it.”

Walker realized the assault was somewhat like one of his initial qualification simulators, where robots took over the Pegasus. He hadn’t had time to think about it, but that explained the flashes of déjà vu he’d been having ever since they’d come onboard.

“If you can do it,” Walker replied. “Take them.”

The private’s laser reflector popped out on his left arm, and he gently boosted into the corridor. In quick succession, the trooper’s MAC fired four times, then a fifth as a laser glanced off his shield. “Just like the simulator,” he said. “Well, except for the one that came around the corner after I killed the first four,” he added.

“Well done,” Walker replied. He went past the private, making sure none of the robots were moving. All had a MAC round-sized hole in their control sections. “Nice shooting,” Walker said.

“I’ve been playing with the code,” the private said, “and I added a piece of software that helps target multiple enemies.”

“It seems to be working,” Walker replied. “Send it to me when we get back; I’d like to take a look.”

It was obvious which door the scientist was behind, not only from the placement of the robots, but also from the laser marks on the door where the bots had been cutting their way in. “Sato, you can come out of the closet,” Walker commed. “It’s over.”

The door slid open an inch before it jammed, and a camera lens peeked out. After a couple of moments, two metallic hands appeared, the door was yanked open, and Sato came out. Walker had never seen his suit before and was amazed at all the modifications it had—including two manipulators in the front—as well as the laser burns on it; there were at least two that had almost penetrated the suit. From their placement, they would probably have been fatal if they had. In addition to being brilliant, Dr. Sato, it seemed, was also a very lucky man.

“Thank you,” Dr. Sato said. “I don’t think I would have lasted much longer.”

“You’re welcome,” Walker said, “but it wasn’t without sacrifice. If you will follow us, we need to get back to the CIC.”

* * *

Deck Sixteen, Keesius Cruiser “EG2,” Hyperspace

“That won’t work,” Dr. Sato said after inspecting the explosive charges Commander Earl’s men had labored to set on the CIC door.

“I’m an explosives’ expert,” Earl replied. “It’ll work.” After a moment, he muttered, “It has to.”

“Just because you want something to work,” Sato replied primly, “doesn’t necessarily mean it will.” He paused, then added, “No matter how much you might want it to.” He pointed to several places around the door. “Those cuts aren’t deep enough. You would need at least 12 times the amount of explosives you have to blow the door open.”

“That’s all the explosives we have, not including the mini-nuke we need to use to blow up the interior once we get inside.”

“Well then, you’re going to need to cut more before you detonate the explosives,” Sato said, “or I assure you, it will not work.”

“I’d take his word on it,” Walker said. “He usually knows what he’s talking about.”

Earl looked at the cuts in question. “Yeah,” he finally said, with a sigh that was audible over the comm system. “We need to make the cuts deeper.” Another sigh. “We’ll have to move the explosives, too. I’m not cutting next to that much ‘boom.’”

“Well, you better get going,” Walker said. “We’re down to six hours from emergence.”

“I’m not sure we can get it done and the explosives remounted in that time,” Earl said.

“You certainly won’t if you keep standing around jawing about it. Get going!”

* * *

Deck Sixteen, Keesius Cruiser,

The laser winked out, dead. “Well, that’s the last of our lasers,” Earl said.

“Are we done?” Walker asked.

“It is close,” Sato replied, “but I cannot confirm whether it will be good enough or not.”

“Well, we don’t have any more lasers to cut with,” Earl said, “and we’re out of time even if we did.” He waved his troops forward, and they began restringing the explosives. “We’ve got five minutes to blow this, destroy the CIC, and get out of here.”

“Hey, sir?” Corporal Calderon commed. “I’ve got a lot of the maintenance bots gathering at the ramp down to Seventeen.”

“What are they doing?”

“Nothing. They’re just sitting there. It’s creepy.”

“Well, keep an eye on them, and let me know if anything changes.” Walker looked back to the CIC door. The Bees were backing away from it, checking the placement of the individual charges.

“Everyone get the hell out of here,” Frank said. “I’d back off at least two passageways.”

The CASPers and spacesuited SalSha retreated from the CIC door. There was a flash, and then a cloud of shrapnel could be seen, some of which reached them where they were. Although it wasn’t an issue for the armored CASPers, the SalSha in their spacesuits were less protected and dodged behind a couple of the CASPers as some of the metal pieces went past them.

As the shrapnel storm passed, everyone rushed forward to find the door ajar.

Before anyone could approach it, though, everyone felt the unmistakable transition back into normal space

“Quickly!” Walker exclaimed. “Get it open!”

As the Bees rushed to the door, Walker felt his stomach settle as gravity started increasing—the ship was accelerating. “Everyone at the ramp, pull back to the CIC! Now! We’re leaving!”

With three CASPers bracing themselves and pulling, they were able to yank the door to the CIC open, and a small cheer went through the troops in attendance. Earl was the first to enter the CIC, followed by the Bee holding the mini-nuke.

“Dr. Sato, where is the best place for this?” Earl asked.

“There is a door off the CIC which has the steering controls and primary AI banks. That is the best place.” He looked around the CIC. “It is, however, a shame to destroy this without at least studying it a little.”

“Get the nuke placed,” Walker said, “and let’s get the hell out of here!” The acceleration-induced gravity was already up to a full G. He grabbed Sato’s CASPer and turned it toward the exit. “There’s another one of these things back in New Warsaw you can study.”

“Perhaps just a glance at the mainframe systems,” Sato said, breaking away from him and boosting toward the door Earl had just entered.

“Sir!” Corporal Calderon reported. “The bots are following us!”

“Are they shooting at you?” Walker asked.

“No, sir. They aren’t attacking, just following. They are staying just beyond where we can easily target them.”

“They are hoping to restore anything we do once we leave,” Sato said.

“Do you think they’d be able to turn off the nuke?” Walker asked.

“It is possible.”

“Someone’s going to have to stay and babysit it,” Frank said. “We can’t afford to let them turn it off.” He paused. “I can also remote detonate it if it looks like they’re going to get in to stop it,” he added.

“No,” Walker said. “I’m senior here. This is my task to complete, not yours.”

“Look.” Earl said. “We don’t have time to argue. I know the bomb, you don’t, and the acceleration is continuing to build. If you don’t get your assess off the ship, and right now, you’re not going to be able to do so—you’ll be pinned to a wall and along for the ride.”


Just go!” Earl yelled.

“Everyone back to the ship!” Walker ordered. “Now!” He started to leave, then turned back to Earl. “Thanks.” He started to leave, but saw a suit still standing at one of the consoles. From the shape, it was obvious who it was. “Let’s go, Dr. Sato!”

“I may be able to stop it, now that we have access here in the CIC,” he said.

“There’s no time!”

“But I—”

Walker slapped a puck-shaped object on the back of Sato’s suit, activated it, and stepped back. The suit died as the focused EMP hit. “Calderon, give me a hand.” The trooper came and grabbed Dr. Sato’s feet while Walker grabbed the upper half. It was awkward trying to jet down the passageway, but less awkward than dragging Sato kicking and screaming all the way forward to the access hatch they had to go through.

By the time they were back to the Avenger, the acceleration was up to 3G and still increasing, and getting the suits re-mounted to the bomber proved much more of a chore than it had previously. As Walker mounted Sato’s suit to the craft, he felt a rapid tapping, and he leaned forward to put the section of his suit in front of his face in contact with Sato’s suit.

“What?” he yelled, hoping Sato would hear him.

“The ship is going to blow up,” Sato yelled back. “If the bomb is triggered, and it doesn’t completely destroy the ship, the AI will self-detonate the ship and everything within a light-minute will be destroyed. We must hurry!”

* * *

Deck Sixteen, Keesius Cruiser, El Dorado System

Vaya con dios,” Earl said as the rest of the group left, carrying the unruly scientist. He didn’t know how long he could hold out, but he would give them as much time as he could before pushing the button on the bomb that would bypass the countdown and trigger it. He sat down beside the weapon with the button in easy reach.

Motion on one of his cameras caught his eye, and his arm came up, but he didn’t fire the MAC. “What are you still doing here?” he asked, recognizing the spacesuited figure. “Get the hell out of here!”

“No one should go to meet the Light alone,” Klarb said, coming to stand next to him. “Thorb doesn’t need me to fly the bomber, and you might.”

“I’ve got this,” Earl said. “Really. Go.”

The SalSha sat down next to him.

“Hey, Frank,” Walker commed. “Sato just said the ship has a self-destruct mode the bomb is likely to trigger. I need you to give us as much time as you can to get away; he says the area of effect is about a light minute. I don’t know if that’s true, but when all that antimatter detonates, it’s going to be huge.”

“I’ll give you as long as I can,” Earl replied. The G began piling on, faster now. “Can’t say…” He grunted. “How long I…can stay awake. Accelerating…hard…now.”

“We’re off and headed outbound. Give us what you can.”

Earl reached over and grabbed onto the frame of the bomb, with his finger next to the initiation button. All he had to do was extend the suit’s finger, an act he could do with a thought, and the bomb would blow up.

* * *

Deck Sixteen, Keesius Cruiser, El Dorado System

As the acceleration built, Klarb slid across the deck and up against the CASPer. A social species, it was part of SalSha society norms that no one was left to die alone. When someone was sick, a death watch would be set on them. A race that lived most of their lives underwater, Klarb’s people believed they went into the light at death, based on what people who’d had near-death experiences said.

And no one went into the light alone. If this Human was going to stay behind so the rest of the group could escape, how could the SalSha do anything other than keep him company on his mission?

He started to try to explain it to the Human, but quickly realized it was too much effort to talk, especially for the Human, and he decided to spend his time focusing on how long he could stay awake as he continued to be pressed down against the suit. It rapidly went from being a fun game to being something that hurt. A lot. It was easier in a cockpit full of water.

With a sudden surge, the ship’s acceleration spiked up past 10 Gs.

“That…hurts,” he said, but the Human didn’t reply. “Are you…okay?”

The Human still didn’t reply, and Klarb realized the man had been knocked unconscious by the G spike. From the position of his arm, and the conversation Klarb had heard, it appeared he’d been waiting to push a button on the bomb; with the Human unconscious, Klarb would have to do it.

His body hurt, pressed against the unforgiving metal of the suit, but he was able to slide across the arm to the bomb, using it as a bridge as he struggled to pull himself across. Despite the increased G tolerance of his species, he could see the peripheries of his vision starting to narrow as he reached the end of what he could withstand. With a last, desperate thrust, he pushed the button as the darkness reached for him.

For a fraction of a second, he saw the light. He didn’t have to go to it, though; the light came for him.

* * * * *

Chapter Twenty-Three

EMS Pegasus, Golara Command Center, Golara System

Alexis smiled. It was hard to believe only one day had passed since they’d left for Earth. Flitting back and forth across the galaxy using 2nd Level Hyperspace would take some time to get used to. Of course that wouldn’t be anytime soon, as she had decided to stop using the region, at least for now. The increasingly concentrated attacks made it an easy decision. It wasn’t reasonable to assume they’d seen the best the enemy had to offer, in either weapons or ships. They’d been probing to determine the Humans’ capabilities…and at some point, they would attack in force.

She needed Sato to work on what they’d discovered there, and she didn’t know if he was alive or dead. The mission to stop the Keesius doomsday machine was probably playing out that very minute, untold thousands of light years away. It was unfortunate, but they couldn’t let the rest of the operation be delayed by how that might play out. Not after tweaking Peepo’s nose, anyway.

“Readiness report, Captain,” Paka said, floating into the wardroom.

Alexis took the slate and scanned through the information. It was largely good news. All the heavily-damaged ships were under repair and expected to be fully operational within two weeks, with one exception. The escort frigate Hrunting, after review by the engineering team, was deemed too damaged to be easily repaired. Its spine had been split by a particle beam.

“That name isn’t very lucky,” she mused.

“Third ship of that name we’ve lost?” Paka asked.

“Yep,” Alexis confirmed. “Last time was in the operation where my sister died.” She sighed and shrugged. “We’ll commission another one.” She never agreed with naming ships with numbers; it was celebrating their loss, in her opinion. The report said even Stonewall Jackson, which looked like it had gone through a blast furnace, would be repaired on the same schedule. Alexis had entered a reprimand on Lieutenant Commander Ewald’s record for disregarding orders and endangering his ship, right next to a commendation for gallantry for risking it all and saving Sleipnir. Commander Yoshuka had also added a letter recommending Ewald be promoted to full commander upon completion of the campaign.

The two battleships were fully operational, and the new Bakulu members of the Winged Hussars were quite happy with them. Bakulu and Maki often used each other’s ships. While one was a mollusk and the other more like a lemur, they were similar in size and arboreal characteristics aboard ship. Alexis had named the two ships Lubiszew and Byczyna after the first two battles fought by the original Winged Hussars in the 16th century. A couple hundred existing Hussars were transferred onto the massive ships as well, largely technical staff and marines. Last, she assigned first officers to both ships from her own command. Byczyna got Chug, her helmsman, and Lubiszew received Glick, her former SitCon. Both would serve as the battleship’s SitCon, in addition to conducting their first officer’s duties, to help the Bakulu crews integrate into the Hussars’ command structure and combat doctrine.

The other advantage of all the new Bakulu was that Peepo had hired extra crew. Each battleship took a crew of 4,500, and Alexis had filled three hundred of those with existing Winged Hussars crew members, so only 8,400 of the 11,500 Bakulu were needed. The extra 3,100 were needed, since she’d also suddenly found herself the proud owner of 20 former Maki ships. She’d taken 17 of them in the battle of Golara, and the other three had come in since the battle and been claimed as war prizes. Two cruisers, four light cruisers, seven frigates, four escort frigates, and three corvettes. She’d lost seven ships, and gained 22, counting the battleships.

The remaining unassigned Bakulu would have been too few to crew the 20 ships, especially since six of them were cruisers; however, the Maki made up the difference. During a debriefing led by her ranking marine officer, a Maki named Major Aske, it was discovered that the Maki had developed quite an amount of folklore about the Hussars, especially after Alexis had single-handedly wasted Captain Yackyl and the Maki battleship Ardent Grove at the Battle of Sulaadar almost a year ago. Their opinion of her varied from horror to awe.

Alexis sent Commander Yoshuka to help Major Aske, and together they went through the prisoners, sorted them, vetted them, and offered jobs to those who proved amenable. Many were under penalty contracts, meaning they would have to pay a fine if they left their current company. Alexis offered to pay their fines—all of them. When it was over, she also added 3,102 Maki to the rolls of the Winged Hussars, in addition to the Bakulu.

“You’re going to be in trouble with Peepo again,” Paka said after the final tally was made.

“What do you mean?” Alexis asked.

“We’re now more than 50% non-Human,” the Veetanho said with a grin. Alexis laughed. “We’re actually about 59% non-Human.”

“Understood—we’re just going to live with it for now. Pass the fleet distribution plan off to Commander Yoshuka,” Alexis ordered. “Inform stores to continue their inventory of the shipyard and warehouses, and tell them to begin loading the transports per the order of priority I’ve assigned.”

Paka looked at the orders for a second, then noticed something. “I see you aren’t leaving any of the ships commanded by the Maki or Bakulu to stand guard here.”

“That’s correct,” Alexis said.

Paka nodded. “When I saw how you assigned personnel, I figured you’d do that. Afraid Peepo might pull one over on us?”

“I’m pretty confident this whole operation was a gut punch to her; however, we can’t know if any of these new personnel were in on her plan. We don’t have enough Bakulu or Maki members who were home recently enough to understand the current politics. Aske said his people’s apparent veneration of the Hussars was a complete surprise to him.”

“Very well, Colonel,” Paka said and turned to sail out.

“Paka, have you heard from Colonel Shirazi?”

“No, why?”

“I wanted to know if he, Cartwright, and Enkh have worked out their target choices on the colony worlds.”

“I haven’t heard, Colonel.”

“Understood. Go ahead with what you have,” Alexis said and nodded at the slate. Paka departed. She used her pinplants to contact Nigel. His XO answered.

“Colonel Cromwell, I’m sorry, Colonel Shirazi forwarded you to me. Is there something I can help you with?”

“No, thanks. I’ll get hold of him later.” She cut the connection and was about to shift her attention to other things when she reconsidered. Using her pinplants, she checked to see where Nigel had set up shop. He was located on the shipyard office’s gravity deck, the same as most of the merc commanders and officers. Ground pounders, she thought with a grin. She set her auto answer to indicate she was temporarily unavailable, although anything major would still get through to her. She wanted to talk with Nigel.

The deck officer in the hangar bay’s Flight Control looked up in surprise when she floated in, and then he came to attention.

“Colonel Cromwell!” he said. “Nobody told me you were coming.”

“It’s not official, Ensign,” she had to look at his uniform to remember his name. Darrell Fenn.

“What can I do for you, Colonel?”

“I’m going to hop over to the command center.”

“Let me get a pilot for you, sir.”

“Ensign Fenn, I’ve been flying spaceships for over 30 years. I’m pretty sure I can pilot a shuttle a dozen kilometers.” The deck officer blanched and nodded.

“I meant no disrespect, Colonel.”

“Ensign, take a breath, we’re all on the same side.”

“Yes, ma’am.” They looked at each other for a moment, then Alexis looked around.


“Oh, right, sorry!” he pushed over to a console and entered a command. Out in the open flight deck, an elevator door in the floor slid open. Automated handling systems moved a shuttle onto it below decks, and the elevator lifted it up.

“Go ahead and leave the deck pressurized,” she instructed. “I don’t want to put on a spacesuit.”

“No problem,” he said. Some of the personnel out on the deck looked over when the shuttle appeared. They all wore spacesuits, but most had helmets off, clipped to their belts, along with their gloves. Ensign Fenn activated the deck’s warning system, and status lights changed to indicate the bay would be depressurized in five minutes. The deck crew immediately began donning their gear. She approved. The elevator reached the deck and locked into place. “At your disposal, Colonel.”

“Thank you, Ensign, I’ll comm when I know my return ETA.”

“Understood, Colonel.”

Alexis left Flight Control and went to the airlock exit onto the hangar deck. The lock was closed, as was SOP. She cycled through and grabbed one of the ropes that extended from the deck on poles to pull herself over to where her shuttle waited. She passed the maintenance crew that had floated over to check the status of the craft before she got to it. Again, efficient.

A Human and an elSha, they both stopped and came to floating attention as she went by. Had the ship been on alert, they wouldn’t have. She nodded and continued on.

Inside the shuttle, she grabbed a control slate from its receptacle, clipped it to her leg as a thigh board, and began the checklist. She could have done it from memory, of course, but the efficiency and by-the-books attitude of the hangar crew motivated her to do it right.

“Flight Control, this is Shuttle 3, Hussars Actual in command, ready for depressurization.”

Shuttle 3, Hussars Actual, this is Flight Control. Read you loud and clear. Depressurization will commence in 30 seconds.”

Outside, the thick, transparent separator was coming down, splitting the hangar bay into two half-circles so they would only have to depressurize half the bay. Several of the deck personnel slipped over to the other side, but everyone on the deck kept their helmets and gloves on. As the divider finished coming down, red spinning lights came alive, along with an intermittent buzzer.

“Attention, attention. The hangar deck will depressurize in 10 seconds. Exit the bay or don appropriate gear.” It repeated, but said five seconds, then counted each second down. There were a number of stations around the bay where all you had to do was hit a big illuminated button and the bay would stop depressurizing and would re-pressurize. The countdown was completed and the air was pumped out.

The shuttle’s board notified her the pressure was dropping until it was nearly a full vacuum. The bay doors slid aside, and a swirl of ice crystals announced that space waited.

Shuttle 3, you are clear to depart. RCS only.”

“Roger that, Shuttle 3 is maneuvering.” Since she had pinplants, Alexis didn’t bother with the hand controls. She took command of the shuttle, rotated it around to face the blackness of space, and bumped the reaction control system’s maneuvering thrusters several times to make the shuttle slide out into the void. “Shuttle 3 is clear.”

“Acknowledged Shuttle 3. Pegasus Sensor Control has been notified of your flight path. Squawk 9229 if you need assistance. Flight Control out.”

The flight to the station took less time than the checklist. The station didn’t have a flight control station, because most of the people manning it had been killed in the assault. As the only flights going in and out were to the warehouses attached behind the gravity decks, it also wasn’t needed. She docked in the zero gravity hub and went through the shuttle’s lock into the station.

The command center was a disaster area. Between Cartwright’s people and the station’s defenders, the station looked like a tin can that had spent a summer getting pumped full of bullets. She’d seen the reports from her engineers but was surprised it was still able to spin and hold atmosphere. By the constant hissing everywhere, it was only just doing the latter.

She made her way into the arm where the command center had been. The last two floors at the highest gravity were in the best shape, so the commanders were spread out around them. Nigel had, of course, snagged the best location.

The elevators were out, of course, so she climbed down to the highest decks and looked around. Someone had used a grease pencil to draw a pair of colonel wings and a huma bird on one of the doors. “Bingo,” she said and knocked. A couple moments later, the door opened.

Nigel was wearing a robe, smoking a cigar, and holding a glass of amber fluid. Her guess was whiskey. His eyes got wide when he saw her. “Alexis! What a surprise.”

“I’ve been wanting to talk. Do you have a minute?”

“Sure,” he said and hopped lightly back. The gravity was about 20%; it was the best the station could manage without its arms flying off. Alexis glided in and looked around at the generic race-neutral accommodation you could find almost anywhere in the Union. Nigel had a Human-style bed set up, and a portable container was open showing a miniature robot chef and cooler. No doubt the cooler held more liquor. “Would you like a drink?”

“Not really,” she said.

“Come on, we’re off duty.” He went over and opened the cooler to reveal a startling array of liquors. “Let me guess, a chardonnay…or maybe champagne?”

“Vodka with a splash of water, with ice,” she said. He lifted an eyebrow and nodded. The autochef produced ice, and he handed her the drink in a short time. She tasted it. A fine quality of vodka; no surprise. “I wanted to say how impressed I’ve been with your work,” she said, taking another drink. It felt good going down. “I admit, I had reservations when this all began. The way you went off after your sister half-cocked like that…”

“The fucking MinSha killed most of my family,” he said with a shrug. Even now, anger accented his tone. “I had to do something. They would have killed all of us if I hadn’t gotten lucky.”

“If you’d planned better…maybe come to one of us,” Alexis said, then shrugged.

“My sister died in my arms,” he said, finishing his drink. She knew it likely wasn’t his first, but he was used to drinking enough that it didn’t show much. “Do you know what that’s like?”

“Not in that way, but the loss, yes. All the Horsemen have lost. Entropy, all of mankind! They’re killing us and enslaving us everywhere. You’ve really grown into your job as a leader. Your grandfather would be proud of you.”

“But not my father,” he said darkly.

“Your father was a complicated person,” she said, “but he was an extremely conventional commander.”

“That conventional commander got himself and a lot of people killed.”

“Exactly,” she said. “You’re the kind of commander Asbaran needs right now—what we all need. I’m glad to be working with you.”

He looked slightly confused, then stood up a little straighter and smiled before nodding to her. “Thank you,” he said. “You don’t know how much that means.”

“I get the idea,” she said and finished her drink. She held out the glass. “Do you mind?”

“Not at all,” he said and refilled it for her. He got himself another while he was at it. “You know, I never thought I’d be the commander of Asbaran Solutions,” he admitted. She grinned slightly as she took a drink. “I took everything personally and spent all my time drinking and sleeping around.” Her grin turned a little embarrassed, and he shrugged. “Did you know my father wrote me out of the will just before everything went to shit?”

“No,” she admitted.

“Yep, he sure did.” He sipped his drink. “The lawyers worked it out to get me back in charge after the MinSha took my sister. Of course, that’s exactly what the fucking aliens wanted. It’s a miracle anyone survived.”

“But you did, and even with your loss, you came out the other side stronger.”

Nigel grunted. “They made a mistake going after my sister.”

“In more ways than one, they made you into a weapon.”

“I hadn’t thought of it that way,” he said. “You are an amazing woman, did you know that?” She shrugged and grinned again. “Your hair, too. How did you come by that?”

“My grandmother got a little too close to a supernova.” Nigel’s mouth made an ‘O,’ and she laughed.

He smiled. “I’ve never seen you laugh like that.”

“I don’t very often,” she admitted. “More than 70,000 people depend on me. It’s a job that doesn’t stop.”

“It has to once in a while,” he said, holding up his drink. “It has to, or what’s the point?” She lifted her own, and they both drank.

“To the Four Horsemen,” she said.

“To us,” he said, locking eyes with her.

Alexis couldn’t remember later how she ended up in his arms. Their drinks fell in slow motion as their lips pressed together. His arms were strong, and his body taut against her. She conformed to him without thought, her mouth opening slightly. Their tongues touched, and lightning raced up her spine.

“Nigel,” she whispered.

“Shhh,” he hissed. She tore at his robe and ran her fingers through his chest hair, her breath coming in great heaves. He ran the zipper down the back of her coveralls, and everything became a blur.

* * *

Alexis woke and stretched, arching her back and luxuriating under the horribly expensive silk sheets. Who brings silk sheets on a campaign? She giggled.

“You awake?”

She looked over to see Nigel’s bright blue eyes looking at her, a smile on his face. She smiled back. “Yeah,” she said. “Silk sheets?”

“Oh,” he said and gave a little laugh of his own. “I’ve never believed in sparing the creature comforts in life when I didn’t have to. Work hard, play hard. You know?”

“You are an interesting person,” she said.

“As are you. I will admit, I’m not used to a woman taking control.”

“I’m Colonel Alexis Cromwell of the Winged Hussars,” she said. “I don’t just let things happen.”

“This just happened.”

Entropy, she thought, he has me there. “Look,” Alexis said, “about this...”

“Don’t,” he said, putting a finger over her lips. “It is what it is.” He leaned close and kissed her again. She was about to say she needed to get back, but the kiss had the same effect as the one a few hours prior. Luckily for her, he was a young man. Luckily for them both, actually.

Sometime later, she made use of the little shower in his quarters and got back into her uniform. He had a cup of tea waiting for her. Despite getting no more than a couple hours of sleep, she felt incredible. The thought of why made her blush.

“You sure you have to go back?” he asked, sipping his own tea.

“Staff meeting in two hours,” she said. “I haven’t finished going over the assignment list. With all the new ships, I’m having to move thousands of people. The Hussars are a family.”

“You are an incredible commander,” he said, “and a beautiful woman.”

“You’re a very handsome man,” she replied, coming into his arms. It took a lot not to let it go further. “I enjoyed this, but I also broke a rule doing it.”

“What rule is that?”

“Not on mission.”

“Technically, we’re not on mission. This is secure territory.”

“It is,” she agreed, “and I won’t regret something that beautiful.” He smiled that incredible smile, and she returned it. “But we have to remain what we are until this is over.”

“I agree,” he said. Alexis struggled to avoid showing disappointment that he hadn’t tried to argue the fact. “But know this; I’ll count the minutes until it’s over.”

“Let’s not get carried away,” she said. “One step at a time.”

“One step at a time,” he agreed. They shared a quick kiss, and he opened his quarters’ door, checking outside quickly to make sure none of his staff was there. She got the feeling he’d done that before but didn’t say anything about it. “All clear.”

“Thanks,” she said and slipped by. Poof, she was Colonel Cromwell again. Two hours later, she was meeting her senior commanders from her wardroom, and trying hard not to think about Nigel Shirazi’s body pressed against hers under silk sheets, thousands of light years from home.

* * *

Golara Command Center, Golara System

Nigel lay back down on the bed. In the past, it had always been about the chase; once he’d finally caught the girl—and he always had—the excitement had immediately faded, and he’d become bored with them. This time, though, was different. The more time he spent with Alexis, the more time he wanted to spend with Alexis. He looked up at the ceiling, wondering whether having someone to care about was a good thing in their line of work—did it make you stronger to have someone to care for, or weaker?—and where Alexis fit into his plans for revenge. As much as he loved her, the aliens…and especially the MinSha…would still pay.

* * *

Golara Command Center, Golara System

Sansar quietly closed the door to her office with a sigh. She had started to walk out when she heard Alexis’ voice, but when she saw what room Alexis was coming from, and the silly, girlish grin on Alexis’ face, she had decided her news could wait.

What was Alexis thinking?!

It’s not like they didn’t have enough problems. Earth invaded. Peepo wiping out the Human colonies. And NOW was a good time to get it on? Oh. Fuck. Which was probably the wrong curse word to use at the moment.

Sansar shook her head. There was no way this could end well.

* * *

Golara Command Center, Golara System

Jim looked up from his slate as Splunk came in through the door of his temporary quarters in the command center. She had gotten better as soon as they’d left Pegasus. Seeing her the way she was aboard that ship was disconcerting.

Her normal behavior onboard a new ship or station was to explore very square inch. His quarters normally would have been full of every piece of interesting tech she could lay her hands on. But on Pegasus, she never left his side or their quarters the whole time they were aboard. He knew it was the AI, and that didn’t help him reconcile her hatred of it.

He’d half expected the little Fae to sneak off and attempt computer murder or something. When she did exactly the opposite, it scared him.

“Hi Jim, <Otoo>,” she said.

“Hi, Trouble.” On the command center space station, she’d returned to form. The little pack she carried was full of odds and ends. He smiled, glad things were back to normal. “What did you find?”

She floated over and opened her bag. Inside were a number of unusual tech items, most of which he recognized as variations of things he’d seen before. There were also a pair of data chips. “Where’d you find these?” he asked.

“Hidden, <Creet>. Office.”

“Oh ho!” he said and slipped them into his slate. Of course they were encrypted. He grinned and accessed the sizeable collection of hacking tools stored in his pinplants. “Come to Papa,” he said and attacked it. The encryption was impressive, but not impressive enough. Splunk took apart a few of the items she’d found, cooing to herself, while Jim worked.

“Got it,” he said finally as the files appeared in his head. Lists of ships and planet names appeared. “Oh, hell yes.” He grabbed a pinlink, snapped it to the lead on his pinplants, and activated the communicator. “Colonel Cromwell?” he asked.

“She’s off duty,” Paka answered. “Is this an emergency?”

“No,” Jim said. “Let her know I have info for the meeting tomorrow. I found Peepo’s orders for what colonies to assault, and the ships they’re bringing.” Jim smiled. Things had just gotten a little bit more interesting.

He dug into his field bag for one of his last clean uniforms and came across a little blue stuffed pony with a rainbow mane and tail. He took it out and gave a little laugh. The last time he’d seen it was when Adayn had packed it in his bag. It seemed so long ago. The toy and what they meant all seemed so long ago. He almost he tossed it into the trash, but then put it back in his bag and found the uniform. He had changed, but he was still who he was. And there was a lot of work to do.

* * * * *


CIC, EMS Arion, El Dorado System

“We almost made it out of the blast radius in time,” Lieutenant Colonel Walker recounted. “If we’d had another minute or two, we’d have been fine—but that was one hell of an explosion. As it was, we got fragged by the blast and lost the other Avenger and Private Enkh, who got hit by a piece of metal.” He smiled wryly. “Thanks for sending the shuttle out to get us.”

“I’m much happier sending a shuttle to get you than having to take on the Keesius; thanks for doing your part to stop it,” Captain Teenge said. “I don’t get it, though—why exactly did Klarb stay behind when it wasn’t required?”

“Because we don’t let friends go into the light by themselves,” Thorb replied.

“Klarb probably saved us, too,” Walker said with a sigh. “The ship was under 12 Gs when it blew; it’s unlikely Commander Earl was still conscious to set off the bomb.”

Captain Teenge nodded slowly. “It is a good thing he stayed behind, then,” she said. “We will see that both their sacrifices are honored.”

There was a moment of silence for the fallen, then Walker asked, “So, where do we go from here? Back to New Warsaw?”

“Unfortunately, we cannot,” the captain said. “Our stores are almost nonexistent, our reaction mass is low, and we are three transitions away from New Warsaw. While you were over on the Keesius, we had to go to half-rations. We left New Warsaw only expecting a two- to three-week cruise at most, and didn’t have our normal load of provisions.”

“So what do you suggest? I’m not sure we’d be welcome most places around here.”

“Most places, no,” the captain agreed. “There is, however, one place that might take us…” She leaned forward to point at a spot on the star map being displayed on the Tri-V.

“There?” Walker asked, seeing the name of the star. “Surely there’s somewhere better. Anywhere is better than that. Trust me; I know.”

“That’s the only Human-owned colony in this area of space. Take it or leave it.”

“How about a world we can hit and take what we need? A MinSha one, maybe?”

“No; unfortunately, that colony’s our best option. Once we load up there, we can rejoin the fleet at Golara or head back to New Warsaw.”

“Okay,” Walker said, looking at the map again. He shook his head. “Paradise,” he muttered. “Shit.”

# # # # #

About Chris Kennedy

A bestselling Science Fiction/Fantasy author, speaker, and publisher, Chris Kennedy is a former naval aviator and elementary school principal. Chris’ stories include the Theogony and Codex Regius science fiction trilogies, and stories in the Four Horsemen military scifi series. Get his free book, Shattered Crucible, at his website,

Chris is the author of the award-winning #1 bestseller, Self-Publishing for Profit: How to Get Your Book Out of Your Head and Into the Stores. Called “fantastic” and “a great speaker,” he has coached hundreds of beginning authors and budding novelists on how to self-publish their stories at a variety of conferences, conventions, and writing guild presentations, and he is publishing fifteen authors under various imprints of his Chris Kennedy Publishing small press.

Chris lives in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and is the holder of a doctorate in educational leadership. Follow Chris on Facebook at

About Mark Wandrey

Located in rural Tennessee, Mark Wandrey has been creating new worlds since he was old enough to write. After penning countless short stories, he realized novels were his real calling and hasn’t looked back since. A lifetime of diverse jobs, extensive travels, and living in most areas of the country have uniquely equipped him with experiences to color his stories in ways many find engaging and thought provoking. Now a bestselling author, he has no intention of slowing down anytime soon.

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Caution – Worlds Under Construction

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The following is an

Excerpt from Book One of In Revolution Born:

The Mutineer’s Daughter


Chris Kennedy & Thomas A. Mays

Now Available from Theogony Books

eBook, Paperback and (Soon) Audio

Excerpt from The Mutineer’s Daughter:

Kenny dozed at his console again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does this validate Kenny’s wisdom?

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

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

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

“CSMC, report!”

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

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

* * * * *

Get The Mutineer’s Daughter now at:

Find out more about Thomas A. Mays and In Revolution Born at:

* * * * *

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 Kin Wars Saga:



Jason Cordova

Available Now from Theogony Books

eBook, Paperback, and Audio Book

Excerpt from Wraithkin:


The lifeless body of his fellow agent on the bed confirmed the undercover operation was thoroughly busted.

“Crap,” Agent Andrew Espinoza, Dominion Intelligence Bureau, said as he stepped fully into the dimly lit room and carefully made his way to the filthy bed in which his fellow agent lay. He turned away from the ruined body of his friend and scanned the room for any sign of danger. Seeing none, he quickly walked back out of the room to where the slaves he had rescued earlier were waiting.

“Okay, let’s keep quiet now,” he reminded them. “I’ll go first, and you follow me. I don’t think there are any more slavers in the warehouse. Understand?”

They all nodded. He offered them a smile of confidence, though he had lied. He knew there was one more slaver in the warehouse, hiding near the side exit they were about to use. He had a plan to deal with that person, however. First he had to get the slaves to safety.

He led the way, his pistol up and ready as he guided the women through the dank and musty halls of the old, rundown building. It had been abandoned years before, and the slaver ring had managed to get it for a song. In fact, they had even qualified for a tax-exempt purchase due to the condition of the neighborhood around it. The local constable had wanted the property sold, and the slaver ring had stepped in and offered him a cut if he gave it to them. The constable had readily agreed, and the slavers had turned the warehouse into the processing plant for the sex slaves they sold throughout the Dominion. Andrew knew all this because he had been the one to help set up the purchase in the first place.

Now, though, he wished he had chosen another locale.

He stopped the following slaves as he came to the opening which led into one of the warehouse’s spacious storage areas. Beyond that lay their final destination, and he was dreading the confrontation with the last slaver. He checked his gun and grunted in surprise as he saw he had two fewer rounds left than he had thought. He shook his head and charged the pistol.

“Stay here and wait for my signal,” he told the rescued slaves. They nodded in unison.

He took a deep, calming breath. No matter what happened, he had to get the slaves to safety. He owed them that much. His sworn duty was to protect the Dominion from people like the slavers, and someone along the way had failed these poor women. He exhaled slowly, crossed himself and prayed to God, the Emperor and any other person who might have been paying attention.

He charged into the room, his footsteps loud on the concrete flooring. He had his gun up as he ducked behind a small, empty crate. He peeked over the top and snarled; he had been hoping against hope the slaver was facing the other direction.

Apparently Murphy is still a stronger presence in my life than God, he thought as he locked eyes with the last slaver. The woman’s eyes widened in recognition and shock, and he knew he would only have one chance before she killed them all.

He dove to the right of the crate and rolled, letting his momentum drag him out of the slaver’s immediate line of fire. He struggled to his feet as her gun swung up and began to track him, but he was already moving, sprinting back to the left while closing in on her. She fired twice, both shots ricocheting off the floor and embedding themselves in the wall behind him.

Andrew skid to a stop and took careful aim. It was a race, the slaver bringing her gun around as his own came to bear upon her. The muzzles of both guns flashed simultaneously, and Andrew grunted as pain flared in his shoulder.

A second shot punched him in the gut and he fell, shocked the woman had managed to get him. He lifted his head and saw that while he had hit her, her wound wasn’t nearly as bad as his. He had merely clipped her collarbone and, while it would smart, it was in no way fatal. She took aim on him and smiled coldly.

Andrew swiftly brought his gun up with his working arm and fired one final time. The round struck true, burrowing itself right between the slaver’s eyes. She fell backwards and lay still, dead. He groaned and dropped the gun, pain blossoming in his stomach. He rolled onto his back and stared at the old warehouse’s ceiling.

That sucked, he groused. He closed his eyes and let out a long, painful breath.

* * * * *

Get Wraithkin now at:

Find out more about Jason Cordova and Wraithkin at:

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