Book: A Fiery Sunset



A Fiery Sunset

A Fiery Sunset

Book One of The Omega War

By

Chris Kennedy & Mark Wandrey




PUBLISHED BY: Seventh Seal Press

Copyright © 2018 Chris Kennedy

All Rights Reserved

* * * * *




Get the free Four Horsemen prelude story “Gateway to Union

and discover other titles by Mark Wandrey at:

http://worldmaker.us/

* * * * *

Get the free Four Horsemen prelude story “Shattered Crucible

and discover other titles by Chris Kennedy at:

http://chriskennedypublishing.com/

* * * * *




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 productions of the author’s imagination and used fictitiously.

* * * * *


Dedication

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.

* * * * *




Cover Design by Brenda Mihalko

Original Art by Ricky Ryan

* * * * *




Contents

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

Chapter Twenty-Four

Epilogue

Excerpt from “The Mutineer’s Daughter:”

Excerpt from “Assassin:”

Excerpt from “Wraithkin:”

* * * * *


Chapter One


Unnamed KzSha Vessel, Emergence Point, Sol System

Jim Cartwright felt a sudden sensation of falling, despite being in zero gravity, and the stars appeared outside the cockpit. He heaved a huge sigh of relief and let himself truly relax for the first time in 170 hours. He turned to congratulate his partner and found her wedged in the equipment box she’d claimed as a sort of nest, snoring quietly.

“You did it, my friend,” he whispered to her. Splunk smiled in her sleep but didn’t wake up. Shortly after entering hyperspace on the last leg of his journey home, the junker of a space transport he’d stolen from the KzSha did an epic crash and burn. The fusion plant blew three of its twelve containment buffers and started leaking F11, and it had been everything Jim could do to keep Splunk, his Fae companion, from taking the entire thing apart. A relative newbie to hyperspace travel, Jim had naturally freaked out.

The ship had served them well since they’d rescued the Aku from slavery. The following months he’d spent flying around the galaxy on a wild goose chase. All he had to show for it was uncorrelated data and a strange tattoo.

When the first buffer blew, the Fae had rocketed aft toward the engine room. Jim was still screaming at the crappy KzSha controls on the bridge when the second one went, and containment failure was imminent. Splunk had arrived just in the nick of time. There had yet to be a piece of tech in the galaxy the little monkey-like alien couldn’t figure out. She’d just stabilized the containment field, when she said something he’d never heard her say in all the time he’d known her.

“Jim, help, <Skaa!>”

The following week had been a non-stop fight to keep the reactor from failing. She’d done most of the work, with Jim bringing tools, fabricating parts in the tiny manufactory, and grabbing an occasional meal for both of them. He didn’t think he’d slept 12 hours total, and he was relatively certain she hadn’t slept at all. Once again, he owed his life to the enigmatic companion he’d met while performing his first mission as commander.

Jim checked their position within the emergence point, then set course for Earth. The engines didn’t respond. He sighed and engaged the reaction control system maneuvering thrusters. It was slow, but at least he would be clear in a few minutes.

“Unidentified KzSha vessel, this is Earth Defense Force frigate Charles de Gaulle, please identify yourself.” Jim fumbled for the headset floating nearby.

Charles de Gaulle, this is Jim Cartwright, commander of Cartwright’s Cavaliers. The vessel is a registered war prize. I guess the merc guild transmission didn’t come through yet. Sending my Yack.” He used his pinplant to send his unique identifier and waited while the other ship commander verified the information.

“It all appears in order, Commander,” the other man finally replied. “Welcome home. Can we assist?”

“No, just having to use RCS. The engines are offline.”

“Yeah, we noticed. Be aware you appear to be venting plasma to space.”

“Shit,” Jim sighed. He used one of the improvised controls Splunk had made and triggered the drive dump, then decompressed engineering. There was a resounding bang, which reverberated through the hull, then the ship started to spin. All the lights went out except a few controls and, luckily, the radio.

“Your fire appears to be out, Cartwright, but it looks like your engineering section exploded.”

“Yeah,” Jim said. “Do me a favor? Call my office on Earth and have someone come out to rescue me? Our life support failed too.” In her little cubby, Splunk’s eyes opened for a moment. Not detecting any fear from her Human, she went back to sleep.

* * *

“Jesus Christ, kid,” Hargrave laughed as Jim floated into the shuttle. “You look like a microwave burrito!” Jim gave his XO a withering glare as he caught a handhold and swung clear of the hatch. He was wrapped in a thermal blanket and wore an oxygen mask, and he was infinitely glad he’d packed emergency gear on the alien ship. The atmosphere in the ship had become saturated with carbon dioxide two hours ago. Then it started to get cold. Really cold.

“About fucking time,” Jim said, removing the mask. He reached inside the blanket, found Splunk’s head, and gently took off her mask. She didn’t respond, still deep asleep. A Sol System defense boat, almost as dilapidated as his wreck of a ship, had come over and pushed him clear of the emergence point, which was a good thing, because a huge MinSha ship arrived only an hour later. He didn’t know what happened when two ships occupied the same space, but guessed it wasn’t pretty. The crew of the patrol boat said a lot of alien ships were in system just then, and they were unable to provide any more assistance. Their ship didn’t have sufficient life support for even one more person.

“Cut me some slack, kid. We’re still busy trying to organize Charlie Company.” Jim nodded but still mumbled as he floated and basked in the relative warmth of the shuttle. Hargrave rotated the door closed on the tiny airlock, cutting off the icy breeze from the crippled KzSha ship. “How’s your critter?” he asked and gestured at the lump in his blanket.

“She’s fine,” he said. “Just tired.”

“So, how’d it go?” While Jim got buckled into the copilot’s seat, he explained how the last part of the operation went on the KzSha world, including how they’d had dozens of nearly-new-looking Raknar. “You and those giant robots,” the older man grumbled. “But good on you helping the Aku the way you did.” He winked. “It won’t hurt having the Peacemakers owing us one.”

“I don’t think the Peacemakers owe anyone anything ever,” Jim said. “They’re kind of like Judge Dredd meets Texas Rangers operating out of Galt’s Gulch.” Hargrave got that what the fuck are you talking about look on his face, and Jim sighed. Even though it would take a while to fly back to Earth, Jim didn’t want to spend it trying to explain a 20th century comic book and a 19th century novel to him. He figured the man already knew what the Texas Rangers were, at least. He wouldn’t have known about Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged either, if not for his school’s Mercenary Service Track (MST) having it as voluntary reading. The libertarian novel had helped many in the mostly liberal United States understand how the Galactic Union worked, at least a little.

“Still, that was almost four months ago. What took so long?” Jim didn’t want to admit he’d been looking for more of the Raknars’ secrets. Finding that stash on the KzSha world had led him on a series of adventures that would take days to explain. That, and all the little tidbits he’d picked up here and there.

“I’ve been here and there,” he said.

Hargrave cast him a sidelong glance and grunted. “All buckled in?” He undocked from the derelict ship, fired up the ship’s engines, and the thrust pushed them into their seats as the shuttle pulled away. Jim thought back to the huge MinSha ship that’d come through not long after he transitioned into the Solar System.

“There’re a lot of alien ships here,” he commented, repeating what he’d heard from the patrol boat’s crew.

“I hadn’t noticed,” Hargrave replied. “Business has been busy, that’s for sure. Tons of contracts going off world, and a lot of casualties, as well.”

“More than normal?”

Hargrave thought for a moment as he verified their trajectory was nominal. “Maybe, possibly…” he shrugged, “I don’t know. It’s a dangerous job. A few companies are overdue. That’s unusual.” Jim screwed up his face as he considered the information. Splunk was quietly snoring against his side. He was finally warming up but didn’t want to get rid of the space blanket; she was asleep and obviously enjoying the warmth. Hargrave glanced at him and away a couple times.

“What’s going on, Hargrave?”

“You hear about your mom?”

“Oh, that. Yeah.” Hargrave examined him. “My mother and I had a pretty bad relationship after what happened with the Cavaliers.”

“I can imagine.”

“Well, her showing up at my hotel in Houston after we got back from Chimsa was really uncalled for.”

“You got that restraining order then, right?”

“Yes,” he said. “Do you know anything about how she died?”

“No, son, sorry.” Jim nodded and listened to Splunk snore.

* * *

Jim contacted Adayn on the way down, and she was waiting at the Houston Spaceport when Jim and Hargrave landed. He said goodbye to Hargrave, and she drove him to their apartment in the control tower of what had formerly been the Houston Hobby airport.

They hadn’t seen each other in months, and he was a little concerned she might feel differently about him. However, once they were in the apartment, and he’d settled Splunk into the little sleeping space made from a cat tower, she took him into their bedroom, dimmed the lights, and immediately began pulling his clothes off.

“Don’t you want to talk first?” he asked.

“Later,” she said huskily. He didn’t complain.

Sometime later they lay in each other’s arms and chatted. He gave her the basics of his search for Raknar and the secrets of their operation. He’d confided in her long ago that he dreamed of Cartwright’s fielding an army of them. Splunk knew more about the machines than anyone, likely due to her amazing natural mechanical affinity. As always, she’d been supportive, at least of the idea, if not of his running off on the quest. She’d been sore when he’d left her behind.

“Still no solid leads on more information?”

“Just hints and innuendos,” he said and shrugged. “I thought I was on a lead at the end, paid a lot of credits for it, then I got…distracted.”

“Distracted? Better not be another girl.”

“I was on the far side of the galaxy. Little chance of that. No, it was this blind male MinSha tattoo artist.”

She sat up in bed, the sheets falling away, and he admired the view. He completely missed the look on her face. “You got a tattoo?”

“Yeah, don’t get mad.” He reached over, turned up the light partway, then pulled the sheet down. His ample belly was exposed, and he could just see the mostly healed lines of the tattoo like a matrix.

“I don’t see anything.”

“It was on Aurora Station,” he said, and reached to his side to touch the spot. “It’s in the Centaur region of the Jesc arm. Heard of it?” She gave an almost imperceptible nod, her eyes scanning his stomach. Like always, nothing happened for a second, then a perfectly rendered Raknar sprang into existence. Not just any Raknar, but the one he’d fielded in the fight against the Canavar on Chimsa, complete with battleship cannons on both arms. These were the modernized versions with five-shot magazines, auto loaders and all. On the mecha’s breast was the Cartwright’s Cavaliers logo, and the other breast had a blue pony with wings and a rainbow mane.

“Holy fuck,” she hissed. “Was the MinSha green?”

This time it was Jim’s turn to sit up in surprise. On his gut, the Raknar moved to the side to avoid a fold. “How did you know that?” he demanded. She suddenly seemed to wake from a dream and shook her head.

“I think I heard something somewhere,” she said. Jim’s eyes narrowed. She snatched up her communicator and looked at it. “Oh hell, your flight is in two hours. Go, go,” she urged and pushed him toward the shower. He complained that he wanted to know what she knew. “Later, dear, later. Come on, move it.” Grumbling, he deactivated the morphogenic tattoo and headed for the shower.

An hour later she dropped him at the national flight terminal of the Houston Spaceport, handing him his overnight bag and a small padded shoulder bag. Gently folded inside was the still-sleeping Splunk, who had yet to wake up. Adayn had packed her a little water bottle and a pair of her favorite pepperoni packages.

“Are you sure you want to go alone?” she asked after they’d kissed.

“Yes,” he said, and she handed him the bags. He smiled as she reached in and gently smoothed the Fae’s extra-long ears back. Splunk cooed gently, her big eyes opening a crack behind her goggles before closing again. “Sorry, she hasn’t slept in seven days.”

Adayn checked her arm slate, something she’d done a dozen times since they’d gotten out of bed. He looked at her curiously. “Buddha said a Cartwright auxiliary craft has your ship in tow. System defense is a little miffed, but being a Four Horseman has its advantages.”

Mollified, he nodded. “Thanks again; I’ll be back in a day, two at the most.” She handed him a folder with tickets in it.

“You get some sleep too, okay?”

“I can sleep on the flight to Bangor.” He checked the overnight bag and saw she’d packed him two changes of clothes, toiletries, and a high-tech powered coat with a built-in heater. The forecast was for freezing rain and a brisk 30 degrees; it was a typical fall day. He got out of the car and turned to wave, but Adayn was already driving off. She seemed to be in a real hurry. As he walked into the terminal, he didn’t notice the young, pretty Asian woman watching him, her mouth moving but no sound coming out. An hour later he was in his first-class seat and, like his little friend, was fast asleep before they even got into the air.

* * *

Security proved to be a major pain. The agents at Bangor International immediately pulled him aside. He’d been expecting a hard time over Splunk, still asleep in her bag. The female screening agent smiled when she saw the Fae, and Jim immediately handed her the computer chip holding her WFFA, World Flora, Fauna, and Alien registration clearance. He didn’t travel much on Earth because they drove him crazy about her.

“James Eugene Cartwright the Second?” a man asked as soon as Jim entered the screening room. He looked at the group of men and women, immediately recognizing a collection of career bureaucrats and law enforcement wannabes. A few months ago, FedMart had laid off thousands after introducing alien-made service robots for many of the warehouse jobs. If these weren’t former stock clerks and truck drivers a few weeks ago, he’d eat a CASPer.

“That’s my name.”

“Care to explain this?” the same man asked and placed Jim’s carry bag on the table. It was unzipped, and Jim’s GP-90 in its holster/belt rig was clearly visible. Jim laughed. “You find this funny?”

“Sure do,” he said and put his UAAC on the table next to the bag. Jim Cartwright—Commander—Cartwright’s Cavaliers was embossed on its side. The man picked it up and looked at it before placing it on a slate. The Universal Account Access Card, or Yack as it was commonly called, contained all of Jim’s vital information, as well as allowed him to move funds from his personal and business accounts.

The slate interfaced with the card, and a Tri-V hologram appeared in the air, a rotating image of the Galactic Mercenary Guild. Most of the others looked uncertain now, but the speaker bristled.

“You tryin’ to tell me a 20-year-old kid is the commander of a Four Horsemen outfit?”

“Well, actually, yes,” he said and smiled big.

“You?” The man looked at Jim, a young man carrying about an extra 100 pounds around his waist and without the common hard-as-nails muscle tone you saw on the Tri-V all the time. The media was full of mercs, often larger-than-life heroes, and equally large villains. Despite the fact that mercs accounted for 90% of the Earth’s economy, and paid a massive price in blood to do it, many hated and resented them. Jim returned his scorn with an indifferent stare. “I think you need—”

“No,” Jim said in his command voice, and everyone in the room jumped a little, “I think you need to give me back my possessions and let me go, right now.” They didn’t respond, several looking at each other. “Now, or call the MLO in Sao Paulo.”

“The Mercenary Liaison Office?” the leader asked, now looking uncertain. Jim nodded. He felt movement at his side and glanced down. The others all looked down to see Splunk stick her head out of the bag and glare at them suspiciously. “I don’t know if that’s necessary.”

“Then we’re done here?”

“It’s illegal to carry a firearm in the United States District,” one of the others said.

“Not for a command officer of a registered mercenary guild,” Jim said.

“A twenty-year-old merc command officer, Jimmy?” the one who’d spoken up about carrying a gun being illegal asked.

“Any age command officer,” he replied. “And it’s Commander Cartwright to you.”

“Give him his stuff,” the leader said.

“But sir…”

“Just do it.”

Jim didn’t wait, he reached across and took the bag. Then, with them watching, he took out the GP-90 and checked to see if it was loaded. It wasn’t. Several of them looked decidedly nervous as he took his weapon, loaded it, put on the belt, holstered the gun, and flipped his jacket over it. He’d done it all with the calm assurance of someone who handled a firearm all the time.

“Have a nice day,” he said as he took the now lighter bag and headed for the door. “Fuckers.”

“Idiots…<Pree!>” Jim chuckled as he walked down the hall, past the surprised security staff, and out into the airport concourse.

“I couldn’t agree with you more, Splunk.”

The aerocab he took from the airport was an older model with a driver. The man tried to chat Jim up, but it didn’t work. Now that he was finally in Bangor, he’d become more depressed. He hadn’t spent a lot of time here in his childhood, a few summers when he was very young, and then one as a preteen. It seemed to be a place full of old money and beautiful people. He was neither.

The cab circled and descended onto a manicured driveway with ancient elm trees down the center. A few leaves still clung stubbornly to their branches, despite the chill in the air.

“You sure you just want to get out here?” the driver asked.

“Yes,” Jim said and paid him twice the meter.

“Hey, thanks!”

Jim took his bags and climbed out. Splunk, now awake and rested, immediately climbed out and onto his shoulder. She’d put on the little jacket he’d made for her with a printer at headquarters. Sliding the goggles over her eyes, she sniffed the chill Maine air curiously.

“Where is this…<Cheek!>

“Maine,” he said as he walked over to the ornate iron gate and slipped through. “It’s a long way from Texas.” She bobbed her head, and her ears flattened against her back, a sure sign she was uncertain about the situation. He knew she could feel what he felt, but he didn’t know how. Telepathy was a thing out of comic books and bad movies. He loved the 20th Century. So much about it was awesome.

He walked down the grass-lined lane and around massive old oak trees, guided by a map he’d downloaded into his pinplants after landing at the airport. He eventually came to his destination and walked off onto the grass. After a bit, he came to a section of grass that hadn’t recovered from being disturbed and stared at the freshly-chiseled granite.

“Here Lies Elizabeth Cartwright-Kennedy. Born April 19, 2072. Died August 10, 2125. Beloved Wife.”

Splunk looked at the marker, then at Jim, and remained silent. Jim took a step closer and knelt. The last time he’d seen her was Houston, just after getting home from the Chimsa mission. Adayn had been with him, and his mother had tried to talk to him, probably to get money. He’d gotten a restraining order, and he’d never seen her again. A few months later, she was dead. He’d gotten the news weeks after she’d passed. By that time, she’d already been buried, and there’d been no reason to rush home.

He knew he should feel sadness or something. She’d been his mother, given birth to him, raised him, taken care of him, and ultimately destroyed Cartwright’s Cavaliers. He looked at the adjacent grave.

“Colonel Thaddeus Grover Cartwright—Commander of Cartwright’s Cavaliers. Born January 1, 2069. Died approximately October 2117.”

“Hi, Dad,” he said. There was a marker for him in Houston as well, and a plaque in the merc guild tower. He stared at the death date for a long moment and sighed. Splunk chirped once in a way that made him spin and put a hand on his pistol. “Who’s there?”

“I’m impressed,” a female voice said from behind an ancient oak that gave his parents’ grave shade in the summer. A rather short but attractive woman emerged from behind the tree. She was dressed in street clothes with a heavy winter jacket. She had short black hair and decidedly Asian features. “Commander Cartwright?” she said and reached toward her jacket.

With the speed of thought, Jim triggered his pinplant interface at the same time the pistol came free from its holster. His eyes had already acquired her as a target, crosshairs locked on her center of mass, the gun aimed from the hip.

“Easy sir,” she said. “I assure you I am no threat.”

“I’ll decide that for myself.”

She smiled a tiny smile. “I see your dossier was not inaccurate.”

“Dossier? What are you, a reporter?”

“No,” she said with that little smile again. Her hand was paused exactly where it had been when he’d drawn his weapon. He could kill her with one thought. He’d only killed Humans on two previous occasions. One was back before he’d ever led the company, the other was…more recently. “James Eugene Cartwright II,” she said. “Age 20 years old. Despite poor VOWs scores, you assumed command of the Cavaliers after your mother, through an apparent act of mismanagement, drove the company into insolvency. Again, despite what many might have expected, you’ve led the Cavaliers with distinction, emerging victorious from numerous contracts with minimal losses, and you’re in the process of standing up a third company of troops.”

“Who are you?” he demanded.

“May I?” she asked, cocking her head toward her coat.

“Slowly,” he emphasized. She reached in and slowly pulled out a Yack.

“Sergeant Nergui Enkh,” she said. “Intelligence Division, Golden Horde. It’s time we had a talk.”

Nergui Enkh had an aerocar parked at the cemetery exit. She held the door for Jim as he climbed aboard, then got in and performed an illegal takeoff from the spot. Jim smirked; he liked decisiveness. In just a minute, they were climbing into the cross-country traffic pattern.

“Where are we heading?” he asked.

“Back to Houston.”

“If you wanted to talk, you could have asked there and saved me a flight.” He looked at her, flying the car with her pinplants. Jim knew all the Horde had pinplants as a requirement. It was something that had never appealed to Jim’s father. Of course, he’d been from a previous generation. The pinplant technology had been perfected in the last decade.

“Sansar said to let you say goodbye,” Nergui explained; “it might be the only chance you get.”

Now she had his attention. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I’m getting a little ahead of myself,” she said. “Let me get us parked in the pattern, and then we’ll talk.” Jim nodded, and she closed her eyes, operating the craft and probably communicating with the regional traffic control computer. Splunk was out of her bag and sitting in Jim’s lap, examining the car’s complicated control systems with a particular curiosity.

“Don’t think about it,” he said, “Watchmaker.” Splunk looked at him with a cocked head, her eyes wide as Jim used the name Adayn gave her.

“That’s an amazing creature you have there,” Nergui said after a few minutes.

“Splunk isn’t mine,” Jim said. “We’re friends.”

“We weren’t able to find it in any of the GalNet data sets.”

“Me neither,” Jim admitted.

“Yet it displays—”

“She,” Jim said gently. “Splunk is female.”

“She, then,” Nergui said with a nod of her delicate head. “She displays all the hallmarks of either a naturally-sapient species, or an uplifted one.” She started ticking points off on her fingers. “One, she’s fully self-aware and able to act independently on personal plans.” You have no idea, Jim thought. “Two, her physical morphology is ideally suited for all types of tool use. Three, she’s displayed an incredible level of technological savvy, both with modern Union tech, and with ancient types of pre-Union.” Jim gave a combination nod and shrug. “I don’t suppose you’d tell me where you found her?”

“I wouldn’t,” he said.

“Fair enough.”

“You know an awful lot about us,” Jim said. “Do you mind telling me why?”

“The Horde maintains an intelligence analysis of everything around Earth,” she explained, “and well beyond. Every time we go off-world, we gather information. We even have contracts with freighters and transporters out in the Union to gather data for us.”

“Why?”

“Intelligence is power,” she said with a wry smile. “Many of our operations are successful because of our intelligence-gathering operations.”

“I can understand that,” he said. “But what does it have to do with me?”

“We also keep up with Human merc units.”

Jim’s eyes narrowed. “Does that include the other Horsemen?”

She shook her head. “Usually not, but this time—”

“Son of a bitch!”

“Please don’t be upset,” she pleaded. “We weren’t surveilling you; we came upon data we had to follow up on, and it crossed into your area of operations.”

“Should I be thrilled?” he asked. “We’re supposed to be allies. A team working together. Because of our alliance, we’ve survived through the unthinkable.”

“Sansar said you’d be mad.”

“That doesn’t quite cover it,” he said.

She chewed her lip and nodded. “We weren’t going to say anything. Regardless of what you might be thinking, we did this for the Horde’s protection, and yours as well.”

Jim stared out the forward windscreen and noticed the car’s controls. He was surprised to realize there were no alien components; he wasn’t aware there were any Human-manufactured aerocars.

“The car?” she asked, seeing his gaze. “We make them ourselves. The Horde doesn’t trust alien-made equipment.”

“Are you going to get to the point about your spying?”

“Yes,” she said with a nod. “I can’t tell you all of it until we get back to Houston, but I can tell you some. We have been attacked, and there are several diseases about to strike all the mercs on the planet. It’s an alien assault hidden within nanobots in the anti-laser coating of our CASPers, and it migrates to the CASPer pilots and mechanics, and on to the people they come in contact with.” She explained how their procurement person had unintentionally been scammed into buying the goods at a discount. She looked down and shook her head. “This wasn’t their first attack, and it won’t be the last.”

“Why is it happening, and what do you mean it’s not the first attack?”

“Well, our analysis indicates you were the first.”

Jim shook his head. “Me?”

“Well, the Cavaliers, then you.” She used her pinplants to activate a Tri-V between them. “We weren’t expecting this sort of an attack, and we weren’t ready for it. Sure, there’ve been things done to the Horsemen in the past. Outright attacks by the MinSha decades ago, a feud with the Oogar, sanctions by the guild based on allegations of improper business practices. Things like that.” She chuckled and shrugged.

“That’s funny?”

“No,” she admitted, “but pathetically obvious compared to this. We think your father was assassinated. We don’t know the details, because we normally don’t target the other Horsemen. We also think your mother was seduced into a complicated financial confidence scheme. It was elaborate, almost elegant in its design. The attack didn’t come from where you might expect it; it came from the side. Considering it wiped out the Cavaliers, it was initially successful.”



“But I rebuilt them,” he said.

“Yes, because Humans plan and, by and large, we have taken care of each other. Something the aliens seldom do. They often happily chew each other to pieces. Maybe that’s part of why they hate us? Interesting.” She cocked her head, and he guessed she was taking notes with her pinplants. “You must realize now that your mother didn’t die of a stroke.”

“I was wondering,” he admitted. “I last saw her in Houston almost a year ago. She didn’t look great, but her family is pretty long-lived, especially the women.”

“Yes, we think she was assassinated by a Depik. Unlike your father’s death, this one we have evidence for.” Toxicology reports from his mother’s autopsy appeared on the Tri-V. “We obtained these copies and ran some tests against the data we have from another Depik attempt against one of our own people. That one failed.”

“I’ve read about the Depik,” Jim said. “Felinoid race, perfect little fucking killers. I don’t think they’re members of the Union. Why would they kill my mother and your person?”

“Because someone paid them. We think the hit against our person was to cripple our intelligence operations, which were getting too close to the truth. The move against your mother was to close a loophole. We found several deleted computer chips in her apartment. You can’t undelete Union chips, but you can tell when they were deleted. They were cleaned almost exactly at her time of death.

“The financial attempt to ruin you failed, so they closed the loose end by killing your mother in case she knew anything. Then they went after Asbaran Solutions.”

“I read the briefing from my people,” Jim said. “Some crazy contract gutted the company, then the youngest Shirazi went on a vendetta.”

She nodded again. “Some MinSha kidnapped his sister as a bargaining tool. He went straight at them. He got the kidnappers, but they killed his sister. They just got back to Earth a little while ago. Well, what’s left of them. He managed to get a huge pile of red diamonds from the operation, and he’s buying new equipment and hiring whoever he can.”

“The virus was aimed at you?” Jim asked.

“Sort of. We were the primary target. They set up a contract we couldn’t resist, then tried to decapitate us, probably so no one would know where it came from. Sansar Enkh got out of the trap and made it back to Earth with the information and a cure.” She put a Union-made hypodermic injector on the console between them. “This will take care of the virus, which you probably have. The rest of your people almost certainly do.”

“This is a lot to absorb,” he said.

“I understand,” she said. He looked at the injector but didn’t touch it.

“What about the Hussars?”

“We know the least about them,” she explained. Data appeared on the Tri-V. “Several months ago, a Hussars fleet was caught in a major fleet action. It represented a significant percentage of their mobile strength. It was a no-win situation. Alexis Cromwell doesn’t like no-win situations. Apparently she took her flag ship, Pegasus, into the system where her people were trapped, and mauled a couple dozen ships, including both an Izlian and a Maki battleship. Then she disappeared. No Hussar warships have been seen since.”

“I saw her in Karma a few months ago when she sold us the Bucephalus back.” He thought for bit, then spoke again. “Is this a move against us, or against Earth?”

She smiled. “You’re as perceptive as your file suggests. We believe this is a move against Earth.”

“How many are going to be affected by the virus?”

“We don’t know. Millions? The real problem is that it likely went off-world with merc companies before we could do anything about it. First their CASPers will stop working, then the nanovirus will attack with several pathogens, killing everyone.”

“I see,” Jim said, took the injected and stuck it in his arm. “What about Splunk?”

“It’s only designed to work on Humans.”

“Bastards.”

“Indeed,” she agreed. “We’ve sent a shipment of the treatment to every merc unit we could reach, so it should be neutralized shortly.”

“Is there more?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said. “But that has to wait until we get to Houston.” The other data was replaced with a map of the United States and their flightpath. “We’ll be there in 2 hours.”

* * *

Jim’s mind was a blur of activity as they flew through the upper atmosphere at several times the speed of sound. He admired the design of the car; it was easily better than any of the alien designs. If the Golden Horde could produce a product of this quality, he wondered why they didn’t sell them. Sergeant Enkh spent the time staring blankly out the windscreen. Jim knew that look; he often saw it in the mirror. She was deep in the AetherNet, Earth’s version of the GalNet, working on something.

As they’d climbed into the car, he’d noticed she possessed more than two pinplants. That suggested another rumor about the Horde was true, that they went in for pinplants in a big way. He’d never met Sansar Enkh, their commander, but he’d heard she had more pinplants than any Human. They were a curious bunch, of that he was sure. Despite being the biggest merc company on Earth (based on employees), they weren’t the largest in fieldable units.

Jim did a little organizational work for the company. He stuck to files he already had in his pinplants. There was a public AetherNet node in the car marked “Guest,” which he avoided. Jim learned long ago that public nodes were not a good idea with pinplants. Plus, he’d had a bad experience on Karma Upsilon 4, where he’d been attacked by an alien program. He had no desire to do that again. Splunk snoozed and ate the pepperonis Adayn had packed for her.

Eventually the controls sounded a notice, and he felt the car begin to slow and descend. The car shuddered as it slowed below Mach, and the familiar skyline of Houston came into view. The sprawling starport, located on the west side of the city, came into view. A bulk freighter was riding a laser up to orbit. They were descending closer to the south side.

“Where are we going?” he asked.

“The Horde’s Houston office center. We have a meeting planned for you with Sansar at Asbaran’s offices later, but there’s something you need to see first.” Splunk looked up at him as she finished the last of her stash. She didn’t look worried, so he wasn’t. Her instincts were usually better than his. If Splunk didn’t trust someone, Jim didn’t trust them. It was a partnership that had worked so far.

Nergui landed the car on the roof of a large office complex sporting the Golden Horde’s logo, a Mongolian warrior riding a horse with a bow pulled back, arrow nocked. A pair of uniformed Horde personnel quickly came and opened the door for Jim and the sergeant.

“If you’ll follow me, sir,” Nergui said and walked toward the closest door. He had both bags over one shoulder; Splunk rode the other. She looked this way and that, taking in everything she saw with her usual intense curiosity. The personnel seeing to the car looked at her with the same curiosity.

They rode the lift down to a basement level. Jim kept glancing at Splunk for any signs that she was catching something he wasn’t. She remained composed, so he forced himself to stay calm. The lift opened, and they went down a short corridor. At the end was a heavy door with a pair of armed Horde troopers standing guard. They saluted Jim.

“Commander Cartwright,” one of them said when Jim returned the salute, then opened the door for him. Nergui ushered him into a small office with several chairs, and they sat down.

“This is our detention center,” she explained. “It’s strictly off the radar of the world government. We find such a facility…advantageous to our operations.”

“I can see that,” Jim said, looking around. Splunk was examining the wall to their right with more than the usual curiosity. “Am I going to be detained?”

“No, Commander,” she said with that same professional smile. “We wouldn’t do that. There’s no reason to. However, we have detained one of your people.”

“Excuse me?”

“As I said earlier, we gather a lot of data. Some of it comes from monitoring certain world government sources, ones we’ve previously pegged as anti-mercenary.” She chuckled. “Honestly, they don’t make it very hard. Considering their resources, you’d think they’d try harder. Anyway, when you arrived on-planet yesterday, something happened that triggered an alert. You see, Commander, one of your personnel is a government spy.” Jim’s jaw dropped. “Yes, I’m sorry to say that, when you returned, she discovered information that caused her to contact her handlers. Considering what’s happening right now with aliens plotting against the Four Horsemen, and Human mercs in general, we couldn’t risk it, so I ordered the spy to be rolled up.”

“Perhaps I owe you a debt of gratitude,” Jim said.

“I wouldn’t be overly hasty,” she replied. For the first time, her trademark smile faded and Jim felt a stab of fear. Was it one of his company commanders? Good lord, he thought, not Hargrave? He instantly dismissed that thought, realizing that Hargrave could have undone him from Day One if he’d wanted to.

“I want to see who this spy is,” he said.

“Certainly,” she replied, gesturing to the wall Splunk had been observing. Jim turned in his chair as the wall revealed itself to be a huge monitor. The Golden Horde logo was displayed briefly, then changed to a small interrogation room. He almost laughed; it looked so much like a classic 21st century crime drama depiction of a police station. A single person was sitting behind a table, an empty chair on the other side. A woman in a Cartwright’s Cavaliers uniform was looking over her shoulder. Jim felt his blood turn cold.

“No,” he said as the woman turned around, and he could clearly see Adayn’s face. “There’s got to be a mistake.” Nergui Enkh had a Tri-V working, a file displayed. Jim could see Adayn’s face on it, and that Adayn was wearing an Earth Defense uniform.

“Adayn Christopher,” she read, “AKA Adrianne McKenzie, Captain, Earth Defense Intelligence. Age 34, started her service in the civil service department and transferred to intel six years ago after being recruited. Her VOWs scores were altered, and she began service with Roger’s Rough Riders. She served with six other merc units, always carefully transferring data on the unit’s operations and strategies to the world government, until she was hired by Cartwright’s.” She used her pinplants to pull up another page that showed Adayn in a Cavaliers’ uniform.

“After hiring on with the Cavaliers, her government handler ordered her to get close to the new commander and find out how they’d managed to come back from the dead. When you obtained the Raknar, her orders were amended to attempt to gain access to the mecha through, and I quote, any means necessary. We believe it was then that she seduced you.”

His heart was thudding in his chest like a bass drum. He could feel sweat breaking out on his forehead. It made too much sense. So that’s why she slept with the fat kid, a voice said in the back of his mind. Nergui continued talking about the woman who’d shared his life and his bed for the last few months. All his secrets. It felt like a lead weight had slid down his throat to the pit of his stomach. A burning behind his eyes meant he was about to lose control.

“Stop,” Jim said. With all the will he had, he gulped and slammed a lid down on his emotions. He was dimly aware of Splunk’s gentle touch on his neck, and that gave him the tiny bit of anchor he needed to hang on.

“I understand this might seem cruel,” she said.

“No,” he replied with a quaver in his voice, “it makes way too much sense,” he finished, sounding a lot steadier than he felt. He stood up, smoothing his pants as he did. He felt he had to do something with his hands. Everything felt surreal. “Where is she; I need to see her face to face.”

“We don’t believe that’s wise.”

He rounded on the woman. “As her commander, I demand to talk to her.” Nergui’s eyes narrowed and seemed to lose focus for a moment. Probably talking to someone, Jim thought. He glanced at Splunk, who was staring at the image of Adayn/Adrianne. What was the expression on his little friend, he wondered, was it surprise?

After a second, Nergui stood and walked over to the door. “Do I need to take your sidearm?” she asked.

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

She nodded, opened it for him, and he stepped through.

Adayn/Adrianne turned at the sound of the door opening to see Jim enter. She looked from him to Splunk on his shoulder, then to Sergeant Enkh behind him, and spoke.

“Jim, I can explain.” Her bottom lip quivered ever so slightly. Her eyes were shining with unshed tears. The memory of her in his arms, only hours ago, came to his mind’s eye unbidden. Her breath mixing with his. Moments of incredible pleasure, now moments of brilliant pain. But the memory tasted like ashes.

“Don’t bother, Captain McKenzie,” he said and moved to stand next to the table. Instantly her manner changed, and she frowned slightly.

“I see,” she said.

“No, I see,” he replied. “I told you everything, and you just passed it on, like a good spy.”

“It was my job,” she said casually. “If I said I was sorry, would that help?”

“Not in the least,” he said. “Since you aren’t who you claim to be, I don’t really have to say it, but I will anyway; you’re fired.” Before she could react, he leaned forward. She flinched slightly, and he tore the Cartwright’s Cavalier patch from her uniform shoulder. “You don’t deserve to wear this.” He turned to leave.

“Bye, Splunk,” she said. The Fae lifted a middle finger to her as Jim left the room, and Nergui closed the door behind them.

“Thank you for taking care of that,” he said. The Horde security specialist nodded in acknowledgement. “Did she succeed in getting word to her handlers?”

“No,” Nergui said, shaking her head, “we picked her up at the starport right after you boarded your flight, before she could meet him.”

“I see. Do you know the nature of what she was trying to pass off?” Jim had an idea but didn’t want to tip his hand.

“No,” she admitted, “Ms. McKenzie has been reluctant to divulge that information.”

“Okay,” Jim said and turned toward the door, “you mentioned a meeting at the merc headquarters?” Nergui looked from Jim to the closed door of the interrogation chamber, then back. Clearly, she wanted to say more, but decided against it.

“Yes, the meeting is in an hour at Asbaran Solutions. My car is waiting on the roof to take us there.”

“No, thank you,” Jim said. “I’ll meet you there. At Asbaran’s offices?”

“Yes,” she said, “but I’d like to take you there…”

“Pass,” he persisted. “Please escort me out, and I’ll see you there.”

“Very well,” she said and went to the door. “What would you like us to do with Captain McKenzie?”

Jim glanced back at the wall, which still showed the woman sitting calmly, almost arrogantly, in the chair. The woman glanced at the door Jim had left through and seemed to sigh.

“I don’t fucking care,” he said, “as long as I never have to lay eyes on her again.”

Five minutes later, he hailed a cab at the curb outside the Golden Horde’s intel offices. From the outside, it looked like any of a hundred other buildings in downtown Houston. Jim wasn’t sure if he’d ever been by it or not. The cab that pulled up was a robotic model, and that suited him just fine. He wedged his plus-sized frame into the back seat, careful not to bump Splunk as he did.

“Asbaran Solutions’ offices,” he instructed the computer, which beeped in response and pulled out into traffic. Away from the Horde facility, Jim disintegrated into tears. It had taken every ounce of self-control to make it that far, and he had absolutely nothing left. Splunk leaned against his head, put her arms around his neck, and held him as he cried. Every once in a while, she cooed something in her native language.

After a few minutes, he began to regain some semblance of control over his emotions, and he fished a handkerchief from his travel bag, wiping away the snot and the tears.

“Thanks, buddy,” he said to Splunk, who was looking at him in concern. “I’ll be fine.”

“I not know, Jim...<Skaa!>

“I know,” he said and gave a little sob. He was afraid he was going to fall apart again, but he didn’t. The cab computer dutifully displayed they were less than a mile from their destination, so he tried to pull himself together. “I know,” he repeated.

The building was in view now, a towering spire of glass-steel that rose 57 stories into the Houston sky. He got his Yack out as the cab came to a stop in front of the main door, and he tried to forget what had happened as a combat-armored man walked over to the cab. He consoled himself with the fact the meeting couldn’t possibly be worse than what he’d just endured.

* * * * *


Chapter Two


SOGA HQ, Sao Paulo, Brazil, Earth

Sansar Enkh brushed her long, straight black hair out of her almond-shaped eyes as she studied the skyscraper and the entrance where several Brazilian soldiers waited. This wasn’t going to be easy. Seeing the Secretary of the General Assembly of Earth—the nominal head of the planetary governmental body—never was. She’d been here once before with her mother and, though they’d had an appointment, they’d still had to wait over an hour.

They didn’t have an appointment this time.

“They won’t let us take our weapons inside,” First Sergeant ‘Mun’ Enkh said, also eyeing the soldiers.

Sansar sighed. “Yes, I know. We’ll leave someone to watch them; I’m not letting the locals have my weapons.” She approached the soldiers, with Mun and her squad following. One of the soldiers saw her and stiffened, then said something, and the other two soldiers turned to meet them.

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” the first soldier, a sergeant in the Brazilian Territorial Army, said, “but I can’t allow you in the building with all those weapons.”

“So I can leave most of them here?” Sansar asked. She had long ago received a download of the language and was able to speak it almost fluently.

“Uh, no ma’am,” the soldier replied, smiling ruefully. “I can’t let you take any of them into the building.”

Sansar knew she would never make it up to see the SOGA if she got into a fight with the door guards, so she looked up at the man and gave him her best smile. “Well, how about this, then? I’m not leaving them out here for anyone walking down the street to pilfer, and I doubt you want to arm the locals in any event. How about we step inside, and I’ll have my people leave their weapons with one of my men before they go through the security checkpoint. Would that be okay?”

It took a little bit of haggling, but Sansar was finally able to get the sergeant to allow them into the building. They detached two troopers to guard their weapons and proceeded through the security checkpoint—and its weapons detectors—without a problem.

“Now what, Colonel?” Mun asked as they approached the bank of elevators.

“We go up and see the SOGA.”

“Just like that?”

“Just like that.” Sansar, Mun, and the remaining eight troopers boarded the next elevator, warding off two civilians who wanted to get on with them with looks that made them decide to catch the next elevator.

“What floor, ma’am?” Staff Sergeant Daniel Walker asked.

“101,” Sansar said. “But I doubt you can actually get there without a key card.”

“No, ma’am,” Walker replied. The button refused to illuminate, no matter how hard he pushed it.

“100, then, and we’ll walk up.”

They exited the elevator, found the stairs, and walked up a flight of stairs to find two armed soldiers standing on the landing at the door. The soldiers heard them coming and brought their laser rifles almost to bear.

Sansar turned to her troops. “Wait here,” she said. She turned to Mun. “You’re with me.”

Together, the two diminutive women walked up the stairs. “That’s it, ma’am,” one of the soldiers said when they were a couple of steps away. “Come no closer.”

“We’re here to see the SOGA,” Sansar said, giving the men her best smile. “We’re from the Golden Horde.”

The two men relaxed slightly, and one of them chuckled. “You’re from the Golden Horde?” he asked. “Yeah, and I’m from Cartwright’s Cavaliers.” He broke out laughing.

Sansar stepped forward, swept the barrel of his rifle up and away from her, and kicked the man in the shin. The bone cracked as her steel-toed boot connected, and he loosened his hold on the rifle. Sansar ripped it from his grasp and slammed the butt into the man’s stomach. As he doubled over, she snapped it up to connect with his chin. The man dropped.

She looked over to find Mun holding the other soldier’s rifle, and the other soldier lying on the landing, holding his groin. “Always got to go there first, huh?”

Mun shrugged. “Whatever works.”

The rest of the troops charged up the stairs, with Walker taking charge. The women moved out of the way as Walker took the soldiers’ comm gear and tied their hands together with the cable ties the Brazilian soldiers had in their gear.

The one Sansar had knocked out began to come around, and he opened his eyes to see Sansar inches from his face. “I doubt you were ever in the Cavaliers,” she noted. “If you had been, you’d have been better trained.”

Sansar stood up. “Bring them,” she said, throwing the rifle’s sling over her shoulder. She indicated the one she’d fought. “You may have to carry him.” She opened the door behind the men to find a hallway leading to an ornate door with a plaque that proclaimed “Secretary of the General Assembly of Earth” in gold letters on dark Brazilian cherry.

She opened the door and strode into the SOGA’s outer office. The space reeked of opulence, from the carpeting, to the bookcases stuffed with original masterpieces, and on to the desk, behind which sat the SOGA’s administrative assistant. He took one look at the group entering the room, saw the rifle over Sansar’s shoulder and the zip-tied Brazilian soldiers, and a hand went under the desk.

Sansar waved her troops in. “Set the soldiers in the chairs,” she ordered. “Try not to look too dangerous and keep the door open; we’re about to get a visit from security.” She took the rifle from Mun and set them both in the middle of the room, then walked over to the desk.

The man flinched away from her. “Don’t hurt me!” he cried in a shrill voice.

“Couldn’t wait to see what we wanted?” Sansar asked. “Just had to call security?”

“You—you were armed,” he mumbled, unable to make eye contact with her.

Within thirty seconds, one of the elevators in the hallway disgorged security force personnel, and additional Brazilian troops poured from a second elevator that opened a few seconds later. Sansar waved. “Come on in,” she called, keeping her hands where the troops could see them. The security personnel came up along the sides of the hallway, weapons at the ready, unsure what was happening and unable to see completely into the room. Eventually, a lieutenant in the Brazilian Army struck up the courage to walk into the room.

“What’s going on here?” he asked, surveying the room. When nothing untoward happened, the rest of the security forces swarmed into the room. Not finding anything wrong, they milled about, unsure of what they were supposed to do.

“I wanted to speak with the SOGA about an imminent matter of extreme importance to Earth,” Sansar said.

“She doesn’t have an appointment!” the secretary whined. “And they were armed!

“And they attacked ush!” the soldier Sansar had taken the rifle from cried. One of his cheeks was already beginning to swell, and his speech was slurred.

The lieutenant frowned at the trooper and looked pointedly to where his rifle lay in the middle of the room before turning back to Sansar. “Do you have an appointment?” he asked, still unable to process the events going on around him.

“No, I don’t,” Sansar said. “This weasel here said he couldn’t get me in to see the SOGA until two months from now, but by then it’ll be too late. Something is going to happen, and we have to begin preparing for it now!

“What is it that we need to begin preparing for?” the lieutenant asked.

“I’m not entirely sure,” Sansar replied. “But it’s important, and I need to warn the SOGA.”

“Perhaps you should leave, then, and find out about the nature of whatever this thing is, and then you can return. Perhaps this will also give you time to obtain an appointment, so all of this,” he indicated his men, “isn’t necessary next time. It would cause less stress on all involved, I’m sure.”

Sansar shook her head. “Perhaps I should have introduced myself. I’m Colonel Sansar Enkh, from the Golden Horde. I’ve just returned to Earth with information vital to Earth’s safety, and I’ll leave after I speak with the SOGA. If you would please just let me speak to her, I’m sure we can avoid any further…unpleasantness.”

She could see the organization’s name made many of the security force personnel edge back, as if the members of the famous Four Horsemen mercenary organization had suddenly become much more dangerous, but it had the opposite effect on the lieutenant. And, having made up his mind, he was not to be dissuaded. “No,” he said with a large amount of bravado, “I’m afraid it’s time for you to leave.” He turned to his men and added, “Sergeant, escort these mercenaries from the premises.”

“I don’t think that would really be in your best interests,” Staff Sergeant Daniel Walker said as the troopers began to mill about again.

“What do you mean?” the lieutenant asked. He turned to find the trooper leaning against the wall, picking at something under a fingernail with a strange-looking knife that had a long, curved blade. His eyes widened—the blade should definitely not have passed through the metal detector unnoticed.

Walker looked up and smiled, and the knife vanished into a hidden sheath in one of his pockets. He stood up and walked over to the officer. “Perhaps you didn’t understand the colonel, Lieutenant,” he said with a small smile, as if daring the lieutenant to do something. “It’s important.”

The lieutenant tried to raise the barrel of his rifle, but Walker stepped forward and grabbed it with one hand, holding it in place. He smiled again at the officer as the lieutenant tried to pull his rifle back but failed. “You can tell it’s important, Lieutenant. She said, ‘Please.’”

“Lieutenant, please stop,” a new voice said. Sansar turned to see the SOGA had come out of her office.

“I was just about to escort these people out,” the lieutenant said. “I won’t let them trouble you.”

“You can stand down, Lieutenant,” the SOGA said. “I really don’t want your blood all over my office; it sets the wrong mood when people come to see me.”

The lieutenant looked back to Walker. He still held the rifle in an iron grip, but his other hand had gone into the same pocket the knife had disappeared into.

“Stand down, Lieutenant,” the SOGA ordered. She turned to Sansar and frowned. “Let’s go into my office and talk.”

“Perhaps the lieutenant can take his forces and wait in the hall,” Sansar suggested. “That way, there won’t be any…misunderstandings.”

“That is probably a good idea,” the SOGA said. She pointed at the lobby by the elevators. “Lieutenant, go!” As the security personnel filed out of the office, she led Sansar into the inner office which, if anything, was even more opulent than the outer office had been. Assuming her seat behind one of the most massive desks Sansar had ever seen, she said, “You’ve got two minutes. Impress me as to why all of this was necessary.”

Sansar took a second to look at the SOGA. The woman was tall and dark-skinned, a native Brazilian, and Sansar had no doubt she spent plenty of her time at the nearby beaches. “There’s an alien plot afoot,” Sansar said. “We think they’re trying to wipe out all the Human mercenaries.”

“And why would they do that? What would they hope to gain?”

“Well, we’ve been cutting into the other races’ profits lately; perhaps we’ve made ourselves too much of a threat.”

“So, because we’re bad for business, they’re just going to kill us all? Is that what you’re saying?”

“Yes,” Sansar said. It all seemed so clear now. “That’s exactly what I think they’re doing.”

“You’re wrong,” the SOGA replied. “There’s no reason for that. Even if we were cutting into their profits, that would in no way give them justification to kill us. That’s just stupid.”

“Oh, but you’re wrong; in their minds, that would give them all of the justification they needed to kill us.”

“Where are you from?” the SOGA asked.

“Where am I from? The Golden Horde is based in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Why?”

“No, not the Horde; where are you from? Where were you born?”

“I was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. I ask again, why? What does that have to do with anything?”

“That’s in Asia, right? Not too far from what used to be Iran?”



“Well, yes, sort of in the same general area. I don’t see what that has to do with anything.”

“Well, I do see. Everyone from that area hates aliens. You’re here because we’re about to gain full membership in the Galactic Union, and I’ll bet you don’t want us to have it. You’re here to try to talk me out of allowing Earth to be admitted fully. Well, let me tell you—it isn’t going to work. I’ve worked hard to get us to this stage, and it’s going to happen under my leadership. My leadership. Nothing you can say is going to make me change my mind, and I won’t tolerate anyone making waves at this critical juncture, right when we’re about to be admitted as full members.”

“But—”

“But nothing. I told you had two minutes, and your two minutes are up. It’s time for you to leave.”

“But what if I have proof an attack is imminent?”

“Do you have proof?”

“Well, no, not at the moment, but I have a lot of circumstantial evidence that, when taken together, indicates an attack—or something—is imminent.”

The SOGA stood. “When you have that evidence—good, clear, hard evidence—come back and see me. Until that time, I’m sorry, but our plans will continue to move forward. I know you gun-toting mercenaries enjoy creating controversy so you have a reason for being, but in this case, you’re getting upset over nothing.” She pushed a button on her desk. “John, we’re done here. Can you please show the colonel out?”

* * *

Zhrfnak Cemetery, Chabahar, New Persia, Earth

Nigel Shirazi gently set the white rose on the fresh earth, mumbling something his longtime friend, Steve Rath, couldn’t hear. Finished, Nigel stood and turned, and Steve could see a tear trailing down his swarthy face before Nigel wiped it away with an angry backhanded swipe.

“C’mon; let’s go,” Nigel said as he strode past Steve. “We’ve got things to do back in Houston.”

Steve’s jaw dropped as Nigel continued toward the dropship, showing no signs of stopping. “Wait up,” Steve finally called, hastening to catch his boss.

Nigel stopped and looked over his shoulder. “What?”

“That’s it?” Steve asked. “We fly all this way so you can lay a flower on her grave, then we immediately leave again? Isn’t there any family you’d like to see?” He indicated the decrepit cemetery with a hand gesture. “Is this where she’s going to stay? Don’t you have a private cemetery or something a little better?”

Nigel shook his head. “She was one with the people of the area, and this is where she wanted to be buried. She loved the people here, and they loved her. By this time next week, I guarantee this cemetery will be completely refurbished as a tribute to her. I sent some money to the local imam; I’m sure most of it will be put to good use.”

He turned back to leave and found a large crowd heading toward them. Although mostly men, there were a few women as well, and a large number of older boys. Nigel stopped and assessed the crowd. They looked angry. Not only angry, but that special type of anger that has cooled into a determined, controlled rage. He knew it well; the same fire burned in the pit of his stomach.

While his sister had always been a favorite of the area’s people, Nigel knew that he had not, and he expected the local tribesmen blamed him for his sister’s death. Certainly, he blamed himself. If only he’d been a little quicker…but he hadn’t. He was holding his own rage close to him, until he could share it with the MinSha. First the aliens had destroyed his country, then they’d killed most of his family in some sort of vendetta.

They’d fucked up, though—they’d left him alive, and he would make them pay.

Seeing the crowd approaching, he stopped and straightened, keeping his hand well away from the laser pistol holstered at his hip. He had no intention of shooting the locals. He’d accept their castigation; he’d even accept a good beating at their hands, if that was what they were here for. He deserved it.

“I beg your forgiveness, Mr. Shirazi,” the man in the lead said, startling Nigel. That had not been what he’d been expecting. The man spoke in Baluchi, the language of the seminomadic people who lived in what was formerly southeastern Iran. That part of the country was all that had been left after the rest was destroyed by the alien MinSha over a hundred years ago. The area was poor, despite the credits the Shirazi family had infused into the local economy over the years. Most of the money had stayed within the confines of the city of Chabahar or had gone to the colony on New Persia; the countryside around here hadn’t changed substantially in several hundred years.

“Yes?” Nigel asked. A translator wasn’t necessary; he’d grown up in the area before going overseas to university and, although rusty, he both spoke and understood it.

“Your sister is dead.”

“I know,” Nigel replied. “She died in my arms. I did everything I could to save her, but I was too late.”

“We understand. We’ve also heard that you lost most of your men trying to save her from the alien infidels.”

“That’s true. The MinSha had a trap set for us. It was only through luck I escaped the trap that killed my father, my brother, and my sister.”

The crowd growled at the mention of the deaths. His father had also been well loved by the people of the area, in addition to his sister. “And what are your intentions now?” the leader asked, his voice quiet but intense. Nigel could tell from his tone that there was only one right answer to this question; happily, he didn’t have to lie.

“That’s a fair question,” Nigel said. “I haven’t been here much, so most of you don’t know me. You’ve also probably heard stories about me…some of which weren’t flattering. You’ve probably heard that I’ve strayed from the tenets of our faith. Those stories are all true.”

He paused as the crowd growled again, and many of the people began muttering in a decidedly unfriendly tone.

“Those stories are true,” he said again, louder, in an effort to talk over the crowd, “but they’re in the past. I remember my roots, and I remember the concept of hamasa. Hamasa demands that I defend our honor, and that I protect the people of my tribe—you people here—whom the aliens are trying to harm. They’ve attacked us repeatedly over the last hundred years, and it’s time for this to stop! I intend to make sure the MinSha never attack us—no, I intend to make sure the MinSha never attack anyone, ever again!”

The growls turned to yells of affirmation. The crowd, at least for now, was with him. The leader held up his hand, and the rest of the men slowly quieted.

“And how do you intend to ensure this?” the man asked.

“They can’t attack us if they’re dead,” Nigel said, meeting the man’s stare. “I intend to kill them all.”

“It is to be jihad, then?” the man asked. Nigel nodded once, sharply. “So be it,” the man proclaimed. “I am the imam for these people; let it be so.” He turned to the mass behind him and raised his voice. “People of Chabahar! Our religion and our people continue to be under threat from the MinSha. 100 years ago, they destroyed our country, our people, and our property. They continue to do so to this day. There is only one way to stop them, and that is to take the fight to them. This fight is just, and violence is imperative to defend our people and our way of life; therefore, I declare jihad against the infidels! Nigel Shirazi will be our general in this fight, and he will lead us not only to avenge Parisa Shirazi, but to seek vengeance for all our people they have killed. General Shirazi will need fighters in this war; who will help him?”

Nearly everyone put a hand in the air, and the cemetery rang with cries of hatred, war, and battle.

The man turned back to Nigel, his eyes burning. “Your force has been reconstituted. Destroy the enemy. Go to their planets and cities, and burn them to the ground. Do not spend these men’s lives needlessly, but make the MinSha pay!

* * *

51st Floor, Asbaran Solutions HQ, Houston, Texas, Earth

Sansar Enkh scanned the faces in the tiny conference room on the 51st floor of Asbaran Solutions’ Houston headquarters building. She was encouraged by what she saw.

From Jim Cartwright, she saw a determination that was at odds with his appearance, and an undertone of betrayal. She knew what had happened only an hour before, which couldn’t have been easy on him. Of all the mercenaries in the room, he least looked the part. Most charitably called “dumpy,” he was greatly overweight, and would probably find it difficult to fit into the newer CASPer models. He was also young, with less actual experience than the leader of a major mercenary organization should have. Despite both issues, he’d taken the reins of his company, pulled it from bankruptcy, and led it through a string of successes. Whether that was luck or skill, Sansar couldn’t say—probably a combination of both. She hoped so, because she expected they’d need both, in abundance, and soon.

The alien creature that rode his shoulder, watching the proceedings with obvious intelligence, was another matter. Intel reported it was sentient, and from what she’d seen, they were correct. It was somehow bonded to Cartwright and was linked to their success with the Raknars in some way nobody understood. It was interesting enough to tempt her to break her own prohibition against spying on fellow Horsemen.

Seated to Jim Cartwright’s left was Nigel Shirazi of Asbaran Solutions. If Cartwright lacked anything, it was a fiery spirit, but Shirazi more than made up for it. He sat on the edge of his seat like a caged beast, ready to pounce at a moment’s notice. Shirazi’s motions were frenetic—he alone begrudged the time required for the meeting, and he’d had the shortest travel time, since the meeting room was just down the hall from his office. He would obviously rather have been out recruiting new troopers or practicing on the target range—anything that prepared him to kill aliens better and faster.

Shirazi came by his xenophobia honestly. As his swarthy complexion indicated, he hailed from New Persia—the area that had been Iran until it was almost completely destroyed by the MinSha 100 years prior, during first contact. More recently, most of his family had been killed by a combined force of MinSha and Besquith in a series of traps. Revenge was something middle easterners understood very well, and Shirazi was no different. All his time and effort was dedicated to paying the aliens back. His eyes were constantly in motion, and Sansar could see his trigger finger unconsciously contract every time they took in the fourth member of the conference.

Seated across the table from Shirazi was the only non-Human. Major Drizz, a member of the dog-like Zuul race, represented the Winged Hussars merc company, which was the only organization at the table to employ aliens in substantial numbers.

According to Mercenary Guild law, at least 50 percent of a company’s employees had to be of the sponsoring race; the Hussars were normally about 49.8 percent aliens. Historically, Sansar’s company, the Golden Horde, hadn’t employed many aliens, although she’d hired some recently. Cartwright’s Cavaliers had a few aliens in their ranks; Asbaran Solutions, not surprisingly, had almost none, but even that had changed recently. She didn’t know what had happened to make Shirazi more open to hiring aliens, but she knew they’d be important in the days to come.

That the Humans would need alien help hadn’t come to her in a dream or a blinding flash of the obvious; it was a simple matter of numbers—the aliens had more. Even though the overwhelming majority of alien species wouldn’t fight unless their lives depended on it—and some wouldn’t, even then—there were still 36 other races that would fight for money, and 36-to-1 odds weren’t very good ones, especially when the opposition included long-time, heavy-hitting merc races like the Veetanho, Tortantula, Flatar, and Besquith.

A half-smile crossed her face. Technically, she guessed the numbers were 36-to-2, since her company had uplifted the SalSha race. That didn’t change the balance of power much, though. A race of otter-like individuals, they had no industry to speak of and no military capability whatsoever. What the race did have was a fierce loyalty to the Humans and an extremely strong will to survive. And, as a water-breathing race, they could fly high-G space fighters, something Humans couldn’t do well. Not that humanity had any fighters available to fly.

Sansar couldn’t tell what Drizz’s thoughts were—she wasn’t any good at reading alien body language—but she knew the Hussars were loyal to each other to a fault. They believed in the company first and their race second; for all intents and purposes, the Hussars was their race…even for its Human members. She knew the Hussars’ leader, Alexis Cromwell, had never even been to Earth. Where did her loyalties lie? Sansar didn’t know, but if Humanity couldn’t count on the Hussars, they might as well not even bother fighting. Every merc organization had a specialty, and the Hussars’ was space combat; without the Hussars’ ships, humanity wouldn’t stand a chance. Would it be enough even with the Hussars? She didn’t know that, either.

One thing was sure—freedom had always been cherished by her Mongol ancestors, and that was something they’d passed on to her. If it was possible, she intended to fight!

The other thing humanity didn’t have, besides a large fleet, was time, and Sansar was conscious of it slipping away. Time to get started. She stood and went to the head of the table, even though, at an inch under five feet, she wasn’t much taller standing than the men were sitting.

“Thank you for coming,” she said. Introductions weren’t necessary; they all knew each other, by reputation if nothing else. “I don’t think this will come as a surprise to anyone here, but we’re being hunted.”

The massive understatement elicited a forced laugh from the two Humans and a growl from the Zuul. “Unacceptable,” Drizz said. “As Colonel Cromwell has said many times, the Winged Hussars are no one’s prey.”

“She can say whatever she wants,” Nigel Shirazi said. “That doesn’t change the facts. I know for certain that a combination of Besquith and MinSha did their best to wipe out both my company and my family.”

“They killed my mother and father, and tried to bankrupt the Cavaliers,” Jim Cartwright agreed. “When that didn’t work, they tried to kill us on the battlefield, too.”

“I think it’s more than just us, though,” Sansar said. “Not only did our enemies try to wipe us out as a group, they also tried to kill off all the Human mercenaries in general with the plague they sent. If we hadn’t found out in time…”

“It could’ve been a lot worse,” Jim finished. The toxins had been incorporated into a new paint for their Combat Assault System, Personal, or CASPer, suits that they wore into battle, and would have released four deadly viruses into the systems of everyone who came in contact with the suits if Sansar’s company hadn’t found out about it and stopped it in time. “Even with the advance warning, some of our troops and their families will probably be hit, and I’m really worried about any of the companies who are off-planet. I suspect many will be wiped out.”

“And we don’t even know who’s behind it,” Nigel said. “There’s only one thing to do.” His eyes met Jim’s and then Sansar’s. “I say we kill all the aliens. It’s the only way to be sure.”

“Really?” Drizz asked. “Perhaps you and the three or four men you have remaining at Asbaran Solutions should try to do so. I look forward to you making the attempt!”

“Stop!” Sansar shouted, before the two said anything that couldn’t be unsaid. “There are good aliens and bad, just as there are good and bad Humans. I know for a fact there were Humans helping distribute the virus. I don’t know what the end game was for them, but I intend to find out. Regardless, it’s up to the four of us to find out what’s going on and lead humanity through it.”

“You called us all here,” Jim said. “You must have some sort of plan.”

“I have some ideas, yes,” she said. “Foremost among them, we need to be prepared to leave Earth.”

“Leave Earth?” Nigel exclaimed. “Why would we want to do that?”

“They’re going to be coming for us,” Sansar stated. “Everything they’ve done indicates that. While you’ve been arming and recruiting for your own private crusade, we’ve been analyzing the data, and here’s what we’ve found. Whatever’s going on, it was set in play several years ago and, especially for the last year, Humans have been on a losing streak. Most companies have failed to complete their contracts, and many haven’t returned at all. Something, or someone, has been out to get us. It started small, which is why no one noticed—a company destroyed here, another that went on-mission and never returned there. Recently, though, our enemies have ramped up their efforts, and have increasingly targeted us.”

“Why do you think that?” Drizz asked. “Being mercenaries is dangerous; sometimes units are destroyed.”

“This is much bigger,” Sansar replied. “We haven’t seen anything like this since our first companies went out on the Alpha Contracts. What’s more worrisome, and why I think we need to be ready to flee, is the nature of the recent attacks. Not only was there the plague-based attack, someone also put a virus into our CASPers’ operating systems. When taken together, it looks like our enemy is trying to strip us of our best defenses—our assault suits and the people who know how to use and maintain them. Why would someone do that?”

“Based on what your sergeant told me, I’m guessing you think they want to invade Earth,” Jim said.

“I think it’s possible. Why else would anyone do this to us?”

“Damn it!” Nigel shouted, slapping the table. “I know why—they want to enslave us!”

“What do you mean?” Sansar asked. Although her analysts had forecast an attack, that was further than they’d gone, and the prospect had her reeling.

“My last time out, I spoke with one of my Pendal pilots,” Nigel said. “When the Pendals first joined the Galactic Union, the Besquith tried to enslave them to use their abilities as pilots. I’ll bet they’re doing it again, only with us.”

“Hmm…I don’t know, but it’s possible,” Sansar said, finally wrapping her mind around the concept. With six implants, her brain had additional computational power beyond the others, and she was able to rapidly work through the possibilities. What she saw horrified her. “You may be right about them enslaving us—we never considered that outcome. I guess we just assumed that with such an ‘enlightened Galactic Union,’ that wasn’t possible. Now that you mention it, though, it could make everything fit. We still have to figure out who’s behind it and why.”

“What do you mean?” Nigel asked, unable to keep up with her.

“If I agree this is about someone trying to enslave humanity,” Sansar said, “it has to be much bigger than just one race wanting to subjugate us; there would have to be a number of races involved. The Besquith, the MinSha…

“The KzSha and the Goka, as well,” Jim said. “Hell, I personally curb-stomped four Canavar on Chimsa, and we saw at least six different races who were working to control them.”

“There are a number of space-based merc races involved, too,” Drizz added. “The Bakulu, the HecSha, and the Izlians, among others.”

“With that many races involved, it can’t be just a collection of rogue merc companies,” Sansar said; “it has to be one of the guilds or a combination of them. And, with all the merc races involved, I have to believe the Merc Guild is either behind it or at least in collusion with whoever is.”

“That makes sense,” Drizz said as the two Humans nodded. “But why? What would the guilds have to gain by enslaving you?”

“I don’t know,” Sansar replied, thinking furiously, “but I intend to find out. Profit is the obvious motive for the Merc Guild, but that’s almost too obvious. Its members would gain more by wiping us out and reestablishing the status quo that existed before we came on the scene—what do they gain by enslaving us?”

“Nothing,” Drizz said. “A pool of slave labor is bad for competition if everyone knows about it.”

“Or good for driving costs down,” Jim said. “It just depends on how you look at it.”

“They can get fucked if they think we’re going to go along with that,” Nigel said.

“And that’s another issue,” Sansar said. “Whoever’s behind this went to a lot of trouble to set all these plans in motion, but they missed one fundamental aspect of humanity. At the end of the day, this plan is never going to work. Humanity will never go along with it. Although there may be some turncoats, we’ll never be good slaves, regardless of who the overlords are.”

“They should’ve just wiped us out,” Nigel said.

“It would’ve been the only way to be sure,” Drizz added, his lips pulled back from his teeth in what Sansar hoped was a smile.

“So what do we do?” Jim asked.

“We fight!” Nigel exclaimed.

“Yes,” Sansar said. “We fight. How can we do otherwise?”

“So we’re agreed?” Jim asked. “We fight, even if it’s the entire Merc Guild against us?”

“Perhaps,” Drizz said. “But perhaps not.”

“What do you mean?” Sansar asked before Nigel could say something rash.

“While most of the Hussars are Human, nearly half of us are not,” Drizz replied. “It’s not my place to say what we will or won’t do if war comes to Earth. Commander Cromwell would have to make that decision.”

“Well, let’s ask her then,” Nigel said. “Where is she?”

“She is…indisposed,” Drizz said. “She’s at Home, but I’ll get word to her as quickly as I can.”

“That’s not going to be good enough,” Sansar said. “In three days—five at the latest—I expect the Solar System will be invaded.”

What?” Nigel asked.

“So soon?” Jim added.

Sansar nodded. “Yes, that soon. We have to be ready within three days.”

“It can’t be done,” Jim said. “That’s not enough time to prepare.”

“It has to be,” Sansar replied. “That’s all we’ve got. Gather everything you can. Find every man, woman, and CASPer you can, with all the ordnance that’s available, and get them loaded onto whatever ships you can beg, borrow, or steal. Something’s coming, and it’s coming soon.”

“What are you going to do?” Jim asked.

“The Golden Horde will be the bait. Our enemies know your companies have been hit hard, and they’re going to expect you to be plague-infected and unable to hit back. They’ll probably know we escaped the trap they set for us, so they’ll concentrate on us first. We’ll draw them in and—hopefully—destroy as many of them as possible, giving you time to escape.”

“Escape?” Jim asked. “Where would we go?”

“There’s only one place you can go.” Sansar looked pointedly at Drizz. “Are you going to tell them, or should I?”

“I’ll tell them,” Drizz said, “but I can’t give you an invitation, nor can I tell you that you’ll be welcome if you show up there.”

“Blue Sky above!” Sansar exclaimed, losing her temper for the first time. “If you aren’t going to help us, then we have nowhere else to go. I know Colonel Cromwell and the Winged Hussars don’t feel the same attachment to humanity as the other merc companies, but damn it! If it can happen to us, it can happen to you, too, no matter what race you are! Who’s to say our enemies don’t already know about your secret base, anyway, and that they won’t show up there as well?”

“Secret base?” Jim asked.

“Yes, the Winged Hussars have a secret base on a planet that’s off the star charts. We’ve been helping them build up the system’s defenses. It’s a decades-long project, and isn’t completed yet,” Sansar said, looking at Drizz, “and you need us to help finish them and man them. Your families need us to help them, just like our families need you to help us!”

“Is that true?” Nigel asked, staring daggers at the Zuul. “You have a secret base?”

“Yes, we do, and we guard its existence as if our lives depended on it, which they obviously do. I don’t know what you Humans have done to anger the guilds, but you’ve endangered us, as well.”

“I’m going to ask once,” Sansar said, her voice low and dangerous. “Are you going to give them the coordinates in case an invasion occurs?” She didn’t add the second part of the threat, allowing the Zuul to imagine any number of ways she could ruin his life. Drizz met her eyes, unblinking, and seemed to consider for several seconds.

“I met Colonel Cromwell on Karma a few months ago,” Jim Cartwright said into the silence. “It was after we faced the Canavar. I told her about it, and she seemed bothered. Even more than you’d expect after hearing those ancient nightmare creatures are alive and well. It wasn’t her reaction that was important, so much as what she said.” He looked at Drizz as he spoke. “‘The Four Horsemen for Earth,’ she said. For Earth.” The two locked eyes for a long moment, then Drizz spoke again.

 “Okay, yes,” he said. “I’ll risk the wrath of Commander Cromwell, and I’ll give this one the coordinates.” He pointed at Jim. “But only if he gives me his solemn vow not to share them with anyone else.” He pointedly didn’t look at Nigel.

Jim narrowed his eyes and regarded the Zuul for a moment, then nodded. “You have my word.”

The Zuul nodded once back. “That, however, will only get you to New Warsaw. Once you’re there, you’ll have to convince Commander Cromwell to allow you to stay. You’ll also probably have to convince her not to destroy you on sight to protect the system’s coordinates. She doesn’t like uninvited guests.” He gave a very Human shrug. “That’s all I can—all I’m willing—to do for you. After that, everything else is up to you.” He removed a small electronic device from a pouch he wore around his waist and handed it to Jim. “This will only work once. Plug it into the navigational computer no more than one minute before transition. Don’t attempt to open it or hack into it. You won’t like the results.” The Cavalier’s commander nodded and accepted the device. The only marking was a tiny Winged Hussars logo on the side. He placed it in a pocket.

“Fair enough,” Sansar said. “And thanks.” Having been to New Warsaw and spoken to Alexis Cromwell in the past, she knew it was all she could hope for. Her trip had been on a Winged Hussars ship, and the cosmology of New Warsaw was such that her people had been unable to pinpoint its location. Jim would have to convince the merc leader to fight for humanity…if he could. She would have enough trouble on Earth, organizing a resistance to whatever happened. Hopefully, Jim could keep Nigel’s mouth shut long enough for Alexis to hear his arguments, or she knew they’d be out of luck…if not dead. “You need to be ready to leave, too,” Sansar said, her eyes still on Drizz. “When they leave, the Guild will come for you.”

“I doubt that,” Drizz said. “Everything you’ve shown me indicates they’re coming for you Humans. I don’t believe I’ll be in any peril.”

“Still,” Sansar said, “I would be ready to leave at a moment’s notice. It’s the prudent thing to do.” Drizz nodded once, and Sansar picked up her slate. “There’s just two more things, and then we need to be on our way…”

* * * * *


Chapter Three


Command Center, Cartwright’s Cavaliers HQ, Houston Texas, Earth

“Damn it, Hargrave, it’s not fast enough!” Jim threw the slate down on his desk and took a big drink of the Coke he’d been nursing for two hours. Outside, through the old William P. Hobby airport concourse, he could see a line of heavy lifters waiting to be loaded. They weren’t being loaded very quickly. He hadn’t slept since the meeting with the other Four Horsemen yesterday, and he was running on caffeine and adrenaline.

“Kid, it’s hard to get people right now. There’s some labor dispute under way.”

“Then pay them double!”

“You’ve spent a huge hunk of our operating capital buying everything that wasn’t nailed down,” Hargrave reminded him. “I know Enkh convinced you a war is coming, but what if she’s wrong?”

“I don’t think she is,” Jim said. He’d tried to explain all the links and connections several times to his XO. Maybe it was because he’d been a merc for three times longer than Jim had been alive, maybe it was because the man didn’t have pinplants, so he couldn’t process information as fast. Whatever the reason, he didn’t see the threat as clearly.

 “Jim,” Hargrave said, calming visibly, “maybe after the whole Adayn thing, your judgement is a little off.”

“Don’t say that name,” he growled and shot the older man a sideways glare. Hargrave held up a placating hand.

“We were all taken in by her,” he said.

Not as much as I was, Jim thought. Even then, he found himself wondering what had become of her. He’d had his modest intel team sweep the old control tower and his apartment. They’d found three listening devices. The bugs and all her junk had been driven to a dump in Austin and unceremoniously disposed of.

“All that matters is that everything is up to Bucephalus within 72 hours. Frankly, I don’t care if we have to move it all on our own dropships.” Hargrave nodded and left the office, leaving Jim alone with Splunk, who was disassembling a P08 model German Luger pistol she’d found in the museum downstairs. He wished he was as adaptable as the Fae, and as able to roll with the punches.

Outside, Charlie Company was mustering to begin the trip up to orbit. As the least-experienced unit, they’d be first up. Should Enkh’s estimate be off, and things went sideways even sooner than planned, Jim didn’t want to be tripping over the newbies in their haste to evacuate. He got a notice from his pinplants of incoming email.

Jim turned and sat, examining the message. His offer to purchase two older transports, unsuitable for combat operations, had been accepted. He mentally signed the contract, and several million of the Cavalier’s dwindling reserves flowed out of the account. He quickly sent messages to logistics informing them of the purchase and ordered the dropship pilots to rendezvous, take ownership of, and move the ships into parking orbit over Houston.

“Finally, something went right,” he said aloud. Splunk looked up from examining the firing mechanism of the disassembled Luger and cocked her head at him. Her ears twitched in interest. “Now we can get the stores out of Warehouses Two and Three.” Deciding it had nothing to do with her, Splunk went back to her investigation.

* * *

Elmendorf Field, Anchorage, Alaska, Earth

The monstrous steel doors slid closed on the hangar on the north side of the airstrip, and Staff Sergeant Walker watched as the corporal chained and locked them shut. They’d never have been able to get all the equipment into the hangar in the time they had using conventional loading equipment…but mercs in CASPer suits could get a lot of shit moved, fast.

“I don’t get it,” the corporal said as they walked back to the transports where the rest of the Golden Horde and Asbaran Solutions troopers were stowing their CASPers. “If there’s going to be a fight—a big one, if the rumors are true—wouldn’t we want all the gear we just put in those hangars?”

“Colonel Enkh thinks the enemy is coming, and one of the first things they’re going to try to do is gain control over our CASPers and Earth’s CASPer-manufacturing capability. The locations of Binnig’s manufacturing plants are well-advertised facts; if an attack comes, the enemy will know where they are and move to capture them quickly. She’s hoping that if we let them capture those facilities, they’ll never think to look for factories that don’t exist. By moving one of the assembly lines here, we can allow them to continue operations and research. By sending another one off-planet, we get a backup facility they also know nothing about.”

Walker shivered; even though the CASPers had packed the snow down with all the trips they’d made to the transports and back, they were unable to do anything about the wind, and the icy breeze kept finding new ways to work its way into his jacket. “Apparently, most of the aliens don’t like this kind of climate, so she’s hoping the line will be safe here.”

“I don’t like the climate here, either,” the corporal replied. “Who’d want to live here?”

“Not me,” Walker replied, breaking into a jog. “Let’s hurry up and get back. The first vodka’s on me.” Living in Uzbekistan did have its advantages.

* * *

Assault Ship Fang and Claw, Hyperspace

“Five minutes to transition,” the navigator called.

Peepo waved a paw in acknowledgement as she continued to stare at the image of Earth on the Tri-V tactical screen. Although the image had several targets and positions of interest marked on it, Peepo had studied the globe enough over the last seven days of transit that she didn’t need the labels to tell her what each of them were. Houston, Texas—home to most of the major mercenary units, including the main offices of three of the Horsemen. That would be an important one to take and hold. A little further to the east and in the southern hemisphere lay Sao Paulo, Brazil and the offices of the Secretary of the General Assembly of Earth—the world government headquarters. They’d govern the water world from there.

Further east, and back in the northern hemisphere, lay their initial target—Tashkent, Uzbekistan, home of the last Horseman organization, the Golden Horde. The other Horsemen had been whittled down to—she hoped—insignificance, leaving only the Horde to deal with. While her subordinates had apparently been unable to wipe them out, and at least part of the Winged Hussars remained at large, she doubted Cartwright’s Cavaliers and Asbaran Solutions would be able to mount a credible defense of Houston.

And if they did, a few rounds from orbit into the city’s center ought to get their attention. The city wasn’t important in her long-term planning, and having a reason to wipe it from the map would actually be a good thing. She hoped they’d choose to defend it. The Humans had nothing with which to stop the fleet they were bringing. Nothing.

The Horde’s headquarters was on a plateau outside the city of Tashkent; she’d start there and would personally see to the destruction of the Golden Horde. Where her subordinates had failed, she’d succeed. Once the mercenary group had been annihilated, the other two Horsemen on Earth would quickly fall to her, as well.

“Any last-minute instructions?” Lieutenant General Beelel asked. The Altar, a giant ant-like creature, would be leading the Tortantula assault on the Golden Horde. “Is it still your intention to attack immediately, without waiting for the rest of the fleet?”

“It is.” Peepo indicated the Tri-V map with a claw. “The engineering malfunction to the Devastator has the fleet three hours behind us, but I don’t foresee needing it in the initial assault.”

“But what about their planetary defenses? Surely they’ll have some sort of anti-space defenses that could destroy our assault ships.”

“I don’t expect Earth to be ready or expecting us, and I doubt they’ll have any defenses ready. Our informants tell us they don’t even have any anti-space defenses. Apparently the various mercenary groups have asked for them, but the planetary government has refused to install any.”

“Why would they be so stupid as to leave their planet defenseless? That doesn’t make any sense.”

“I’m told the Human government has looked at plans for anti-space defenses; however, they’re worried about appearing too provocative as they come up for full membership in the Galactic Union, and they have decided to put the defenses off until sometime in the future.”

The Altar spread its antennae in a shrug. “Their stupidity is our gain.”

“Indeed. By the time we’re done, the fleet will be here, and it will prevent any reinforcement of the Horde or any other defensive action. Once the Horde is finished, we’ll deal similarly with the remnants of the other Horsemen units, then we’ll give the rest of the planet’s forces a chance to surrender peacefully, or we’ll wipe them out, too.”

“For the Hive and the Union,” Beelel intoned, bowing his head in submission. “It shall be done as you say.”

* * * * *


Chapter Four


Operations, Golden Horde HQ, Uzbekistan, Earth

“Blow the plateau,” Sansar said. The expected attack had occurred, several days later, with three enormous Tortantula icosahedron transports dropping down on the Golden Horde’s base. Despite giving it their best effort, the Horde’s fighters had been driven from the field by the tens of thousands of Tortantulas, and the Horde had then destroyed most of the assault force with a nuclear bomb. Although a similar fate had been planned for the expected transport ships, one had landed outside the pre-positioned weapon’s area of effect.

“Yes, ma’am,” the weapons station operator replied. She turned a key to enable the system and pressed the red button once it glowed.

The weapon detonated, destroying two of the Tortantula ships, but the third ship, the one with Guild Master Peepo onboard, survived and lifted for orbit.

“We’re going to need more people,” Sansar said. “See if you can find and activate anyone who was ever in the Horde. Sergeant Major Akira for starters, as well as First Sergeant Parker. Oh, and that medical guy…Zeke. What was his name? That’s right, Dr. Ezekiel Avander. See if you can find out where he landed. Start there…”

“Ma’am, I have mercenary units mobilizing across the globe,” the Current Ops technician exclaimed from a nearby station.

“Good, I told them all they should leave; they need to get to space.”

“No, ma’am,” the tech replied. “They’re not leaving; they’re joining forces to attack the remaining Tortantula ship.”

What!” Sansar exploded. “They’re supposed to leave! I told them to leave! The enemy fleet is going to be here at any moment. If they get caught here, it’ll all be over for us.”

“It’s Nigel Shirazi, ma’am,” the tech said. “He’s organizing all of the available forces for an immediate attack. Sinclair’s Scorpions, Burt’s Bees, and at least ten other companies have joined him. Want me to set up a comms link to him?”

“No,” Sansar said, regaining control of herself. “Peepo’s ship is sure to have some sort of communications monitoring ability. If we call him, we’ll give away the fact that we’re not dead.” She shook her head. “No. Cooler heads will have to prevail upon him.”

The Space Ops technician sitting next to Current Ops jumped and sat up straighter. “Ma’am! Major Good! A large number of unscheduled ships just transitioned in, and more are continuing to arrive.”

“Can you be more specific?”

“Data is just coming in, ma’am,” the tech said. Her eyes jumped back and forth between focusing on her screens and a faraway stare as she listened to the commentary from the monitoring station. “At least eleven ships have entered the system so far,” she finally advised. “Five appear to be cruiser-sized, with an additional three destroyers and two frigates. There’s also a ship the monitoring station is reporting as ‘the biggest goddamned warship we’ve ever seen.’ Unlike the Tortantula icosahedrons, this one has been classified as a warship, and is over 5,000 feet long. For lack of a better term, they’re calling it a battleship, although it’s over twice as large as the normal battleship.”

“Damn,” Sansar said. She turned back to Current Ops. “What are the rest of the mercs doing?”

“Jim Cartwright has taken over from Nigel Shirazi. He’s leading all the mercs who can get to space to the stargate. He hasn’t said where they’re going.”

“I know where they’re going,” Sansar said. “And it’s about time they left.”

* * *

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

“Channel is open,” the comms tech yelled through the din of the command center, “I have more than 40 merc companies and counting on the line.”

“Excellent,” Jim said and linked to the channel through his pinplants. “Attention,” he said, “this is Cartwright’s Cavaliers Actual speaking. After consulting with the other Four Horsemen commanders, we agree our only viable response to this act of aggression is to temporarily yield the field of battle to the enemy.” In his mind, the computer interface showed each of the other communication lines from merc units as little floating avatars. Jim was glad they were looking at his avatar, and not the 20-year-old kid standing amidst the mayhem of the Cavaliers’ command center.

“This is cowardice!” a now-familiar voice bellowed.

“Nigel, you were there with the rest of us,” Jim said calmly, “and you see the same data we do. A dozen ships have transited in, and more arrive every minute. Earth has no navy. They’ll own the orbitals.”

“They have to land sometime,” Nigel persisted. “We’ll be waiting.”

“Do you honestly expect them to stand by the rules of war and not reduce our defenses from orbit? This invasion is already a violation of Mercenary Guild regulations.” A flash came in that showed more data on the arriving alien fleet. Jim silently cursed, he didn’t have time to play games with Shirazi. He muted Nigel and spoke again.

“I’m appealing to all of you. We have a plan; there are better options than suicidally wasting our lives. They will win here today; there’s nothing we can do. If we leave and give them this win, though, we’ll save a lot of lives. A lot of Human lives.” More data; the enemy was already engaged in Uzbekistan, assaulting the Horde’s base. He relayed the data. “The Horde’s buying us time with their blood.”

He took a breath and played the last card. “The Cavaliers are evacuating; it’s that simple. Those of you with ships, I urge you to follow. Even if you don’t have starships, you’re welcome to dock with Bucephalus. We can take several more ships. Others of you can do the same for those without hyperspace-capable vessels.” He looked at Nigel’s avatar. “Stay and die, or retreat to fight another day. That’s all I have to say. If you’re coming, acknowledge now.”

Jim waited for what seemed like an eternity. Eventually, a company acknowledged they would join the Cavaliers. Burt’s Bees said yes. Then Micky Finn signaled assent. A deluge followed. Copperheads, Ragnar’s Reavers, Roaring Saints, Red Lancers, Daredevils, Maddox’s Mad Dogs, Drake’s Rangers, Taint Nothin, Muerte Negra, Gitmo’s Own, Tom’s Total Terrors, Hellcats, Sinclair’s Scorpions and, Jim smiled, the Titty Twisters rounded out the local units. There were even a few from other countries who said they could make rendezvous outbound from orbit: Derniere Legion and Flambeaux Calais from France, Dood Wraak from South Africa, Laut Yang Tenang from Indonesia, the 1st Highland Regiment out of Scotland, and Espade Sangrenta from Brazil.

Only 22 units out of the 40 online could make orbit. Many of the remainder said they’d scatter; a few didn’t know what they were doing, and he offered them his prayers. At the last minute, he got a message from the commander of Yoru no Tori, the Night Birds, offering to assist in the lift.

A single avatar remained, that of Nigel Shirazi. Jim unmuted it.

“You have successfully usurped my command,” the man said, scorn dripping from his words.

“I usurped nothing,” Jim said, “I just followed through with what we agreed on. Are you coming or not?”

A second later, Nigel answered with a single-word text message, no audio. “Yes.”

Jim heaved an inward sigh of relief. He knew there’d be more trouble with Nigel; it was only a matter of time.

“Jim!” Hargrave yelled from across the command center. “Jim, let’s go kid.” Jim disconnected from the network and addressed the room.

“Everyone who’s going, run,” he said, “those staying, get as far from the complex as fast as you can. I can’t guarantee what might happen if the alien mercs catch you. Meet up with the Horde, if any should survive.” He quickly walked toward the exit. Hargrave fell in beside him.

“I wanted to say sorry,” the older man said, “I was wrong.”

“It’s okay,” Jim said. “Even a broken clock is right twice a day.” Hargrave laughed. A message came into Jim’s pinplants, and he staggered.

“What is it?” Hargrave asked.

“A massive nuclear explosion at Uzbekistan,” Jim said. His eyes got even wider. “Now there’s two.” He broke into a loping run.

* * *

EMS Bucephalus, Approaching the Stargate, Sol System

Sinclair’s Scorpions is attached,” the comms officer announced.

“Resume braking,” Captain Kim Su said. Everyone braced as Bucephalus again began to slow. Jim checked his pinplants; he’d lost track of the ships coming.

“Are we missing anyone?” he asked aloud.

“Only one,” the comms officer replied.

“Who?”

“The Revenge, sir,” the comms officer replied. “There are a number of other ships that have gotten off the planet but won’t make it to us in time.”

Cartwright shook his head. He could have guessed the last to join up would be the Revenge.

“Gate opening in 10 minutes!” the navigator exclaimed.

“This is going to be tight,” Captain Su said, examining the Tri-V tactical solutions. Bucephalus was the second-most heavily-armed ship in the flotilla after the Katana—the Night Birds’ command ship, a light cruiser. A scattering of escort frigates made up the rest of the Human merc firepower.

“We’d better hurry,” the comms officer said. “The battleship just ordered Stargate Control not to open the stargate for us and told them to keep us in-system. It’s turned to follow us.”

“They’d better open the gate,” Jim Cartwright said with a growl; “we paid a lot of money for this transition.” The situation was desperate. If they couldn’t escape, they’d have to surrender or fight. Considering the dozens of alien merc warships in-system, they’d be blasted to their component atoms. He considered a few seconds. If the battleship told him not to do something he’d been paid to do, he’d be forced to at least consider it, no matter how onerous or against his morals it might be. “Continue the approach,” he decided. “The Revenge will have to catch up.”

The minutes ticked by as they slowed to approach the massive ring of Earth’s stargate. A few Earth government picket ships floated nearby, taking no action. Jim wondered how the planetary government would respond to this act of war. No one had contacted them as they left. That was disturbing.

“Within five kilometers of the stargate,” Captain Su announced. “Gate needs to activate in the next 30 seconds or we’ll drift through.” It was now or never.

“The gate’s open!” the navigator shouted, his tone indicating his shock that it had actually happened. “One minute to transition,” the navigator added. He paused. “Forty-five seconds.”

Revenge has matched and is alongside,” a technician announced.

The ship shuddered slightly as the last ship joined, and the computer automatically adjusted the group’s engines to take its additional mass into account.

“That’s it,” the comms officer confirmed as Revenge, the flagship of Asbaran Solutions, magnetically locked onto the skin of the Bucephalus. Counting the Revenge, 38 Human ships were about to leave Earth behind. Twelve were hyperspace capable; the other 26 were clinging on for dear life. Seen from the outside, it was a giant, multi-headed mass.

At the navigation station, the officer in charge plugged the device Drizz had given Jim into the main computer. He watched dubiously as the machine interfaced with Bucephalus’ computer. A screen that normally showed navigational data dissolved into static and Captain Su shot Jim a worried look. A few seconds later, “Course Set” appeared, and Jim breathed again.

“Best of luck,” Jim broadcast to the rest of the fleet, “after we make contact with the Winged Hussars, we’ll meet you in Karma.” Eleven acknowledgements came back from the other ships.

“Here we go!” the navigator exclaimed as the enormous conglomerate hit the stargate. There was a moment of unmaking, and the Humans were gone.

* * *

Operations, Golden Horde HQ, Uzbekistan, Earth

Sansar bristled as a Veetanho’s rat-like face appeared on one of Operation’s Tri-V screens.

“Guild Master Peepo just took over all of Earth’s main communications nets,” a tech said.

“Let me hear what the bitch has to say,” Sansar replied. The tech nodded and turned up the volume.

“…I believe the Buma erred in making first contact with you,” Peepo was saying; “you were not ready. You needed longer to mature as a civilization, to come together as a culture, and to learn to follow the rules and strictures of an advanced society.

“For your rulers have chosen not to follow the rules. They have used nuclear weapons on civilians. They have meddled with genetics, bringing back the horrors of the ancient Canavar and uplifting races before they were ready to join the Union. They have experimented with outlawed technologies. They do these things on their own, without bringing them before the ruling council of the Mercenary Guild or any of the other guilds. History has shown that one thing happens when leaders choose to go it alone and flout the rules of civilized society—war.

“Rather than allow this to continue, and to give these decisions legitimacy by allowing Humans to become full-fledged members of the Guild, the Mercenary Guild has chosen to act and has called for a Guild Tribunal. We have decided to step in and take over as rulers for your planet while the tribunal is held to determine the future of your membership. Perhaps you can resume self-rule again in the future, but for now, it is in the best interests of the Galactic Union for the Mercenary Guild to assume responsibility for your society, for your own good and to preclude any other…unfortunate incidents…from occurring.

“As of now, the mercenary industry of Earth is under new management. All mercenary organizations will be subsumed as direct forces of the Mercenary Guild, and the industry for making equipment for war will be supervised by members of the Guild until the Guild Tribunal can be held. This tribunal will be held in six of your weeks at Capital Planet, and I call upon all your mercenary leaders to step forward to be judged, especially your so-called Horsemen. All mercenary force leaders must come and give an accounting of their actions. If they do not present themselves for judgment, they will be declared rogue and hunted to the ends of the galaxy.

“I know this is unpleasant, but it must be done for the good of the galaxy and the Galactic Union. Please do not consider fighting us. You need only look to the skies; our ships are large enough for you to see them there. We hold your orbitals and will use whatever force is necessary to ensure you do as instructed. 100 years ago, an example was made of your nation-state of Iran, and death can, and will, come again from space for any who attack those carrying out this lawful action.

“We will be contacting your planetary leaders to inform them of what is required. All mercenary leaders are to present themselves in one week at your world government headquarters for transportation to Capital Planet for the tribunal.

“That is all.”

The screens blanked out or went back to their previous programming, leaving Sansar seething as she stared up at them. “You think you’re going to take our planet and enslave us, you oversized rat? As Blue Sky is my witness, I’ll kill you myself!

* * * * *


Chapter Five


Assault Ship Fang and Claw, Earth Orbit, Solar System

“…All mercenary leaders are to present themselves in one week at your world government headquarters for transportation to Capital Planet for the tribunal. That is all.”

Peepo punched the button harder than she needed to, terminating the transmission, then stopped and closed her eyes. Despite the years of planning and the overwhelming amount of effort that had gone into the plan, the operation hadn’t gone as well as expected, even with her present to oversee it.

She meditated a moment, trying to determine where everything had gone wrong. Each of the attacks to decapitate the Four Horsemen had been flawlessly planned, but the execution had been lacking. Where before she’d assumed the failure was due to the incompetence of her subordinates—her planning had never been this wrong before—she was now having second thoughts.

Perhaps, just perhaps, it had been her planning that was wrong. No, the plan—both the overall strategic plan, as well as all the operational plans that had comprised it—had been well thought out and systematically arranged to bring about the downfall of the Horsemen. Yet, she’d just watched the operation to capture or destroy the Golden Horde go horribly wrong. The Humans hadn’t succeeded—the Horde had been destroyed in a nuclear blast—but it’d also cost her most of the army that’d been meant to help control the planet.

The plan was good; she knew the problem had been with the Humans. As she looked back at the other failed efforts to destroy the Horsemen, she could now see a similar thread running through all of them. The Humans hadn’t acted as predicted. It made no sense for the Horde to have blown itself up, but it had. None of the things the Hussars had done had made sense, either, but they’d worked.

The fault was hers after all.

The most competent commander she’d ever faced, Darius Shirazi, had been a genius at commanding troops and finding ways make his enemies beat themselves, by forcing them to do things that played to their weaknesses, not their strengths. If a force was good at defending, he’d draw them forth to make them attack. If an opposing force was good at assault, he’d keep them on the defensive. That made sound military sense, and Peepo had put his string of successes down to sound military planning. As she examined his career in her mind, though, she could see a new pattern emerging. Where Shirazi’d had his biggest wins, he’d done something that was either completely unexpected, something that had violated his own doctrine, or something that should have gone against his instincts for self-preservation.

What if it wasn’t so much that the Humans had been “lucky” as that they’d made their own luck by doing things their enemies hadn’t planned for? Yes—that was it. She’d failed to plan for all contingencies. She’d thrown away contingencies when they didn’t make sense. Although they hadn’t made sense to her, they’d made sense to this arrogant upstart of a race. Happily, all the contingencies were still in place for the tribunal, should they be forced to conduct one. If not, even better.

She opened her eyes and smiled for the first time all day. Even though the Horde had destroyed the majority of her combat shock troops, she was still in possession of their planet, and she was in no danger of losing it. While some of the Humans’ forces had fled rather than contest the space above their planet, they would be found. The majority had probably gone to Karma, and they wouldn’t like the reception they’d find there. Some might’ve gone to wherever the Hussars went when they disappeared, but that was only an inconvenience; they didn’t have enough ships to hold out against the forces she had under her control. She’d find them and ultimately destroy them.

The plan hadn’t worked as intended, but it had worked well enough. True, there was some mopping-up action that needed to take place, but the Humans’ backs had been broken. She held Earth. Once the trial was held, she’d be the planet’s governor, and everything else could be worked out. Better yet, she knew the Humans’ secret—and she wouldn’t underestimate them again.

“Your wishes, General Peepo?” asked her chief of staff, Captain Beeko, upon seeing her smile again.

“Although the battle didn’t go as planned, we’ve met our objectives, and it’s time to bring the Humans to heel,” Peepo replied. “Send the fleet units to capture the Humans’ colonies. Continue looking for the Hussars’ base and any ships that escaped. Destroy them when they’re found.”

“Yes, General. What about the planet now that we’ve lost the Tortantulas?”

“We still have enough forces to control their critical nodes,” Peepo replied. “I’ll take several companies of Besquith troops and meet with their leader. That way, there can be no chance of her misunderstanding my intentions. Send the rest of the Besquith to pick up any of the Horsemen that were left behind, and after that, any of the other merc companies that survived the viruses. We need all of them contained before they can do something stupid like starting a resistance movement. Also, send a company of MinSha troops to each of their CASPer manufacturing plants and bring them under our control.”

“Yes, General.”

“What’s the status of the Depik assassin?”

“Their governor continues to say there are none available for contract,” the chief of staff replied.

“Have you ever heard of this before?”

“No, General, I haven’t.”

Peepo frowned. “Neither have I. Perhaps the Depik need to be reminded whose interests they serve.”

“Shall I send a task force of ships to remind them?”

“No, not yet. We’ll see how they end up playing this. I would prefer NOT to have a race of bloodthirsty assassins angry at me, all things considered. In the meantime, go ahead and hire the Zuul assassin to do the job with the Peacemaker; that Human needs to be put down before she amasses too much power with her guild.”

* * *

Assault Ship Fang and Claw, Earth Orbit, Solar System

“You’re to kill the Human Peacemaker named Jessica Francis,” Captain Beeko said.

“Why?” the Zuul known as Lmurr asked. “What’s the Human done to you?”

“That’s not your business. Suffice it to say she’s starting to make a nuisance of herself and is endangering plans we have in motion. Big plans.”

“If they’re big plans,” Lmurr replied, “then assuredly, there’s a big payday for successfully completing this mission.”

“Indeed, there’s a big payday for completing it. There’s also a similarly large penalty for not completing it, or for bungling the job.”

“And that would be?”

“Have you ever seen anyone eaten alive by Besquith?”

“No.”

“I have. And trust me, you do not want it to happen to you.”

* * *

EMS Bucephalus, Hyperspace

Jim floated in his stateroom and finished reading the last of the files—data transmitted to him just before the fleet jumped into hyperspace. The number of merc units seemed large, but it wasn’t. Of them, only three were more than a single company in strength, besides his own Cavaliers. Two were special mission units, with no real combat weight. He sighed and rubbed his temples. This is all we have? he silently asked the stateroom.

Splunk bounced by, chasing the remnants of the hyperspace device Drizz had given him. As the Hussar had told him, after it reprogrammed Bucephalus’ navigational computer, it’d destroyed itself. Captain Su explained that the computer didn’t hold a destination after you entered hyperspace. Apparently, however it worked its magic, you only needed it for the first few moments. Once in hyperspace, the device had blanked the file in the computer, then melted down.

Jim had given it to Splunk to experiment with. She took it apart, examined the workings, then abandoned it. Jim had put it back together and given it to her to play with, and she’d been using it as a toy ever since. It sailed across the room again. As an arboreal species, she was as happy in space as it seemed any could be. He’d seen some Humans who’d kept cats and birds on their starships. Both animals seemed to adapt well to both freefall and variable gravity situations. He marveled at just how at home Splunk was in freefall. It was something he’d done many times over the months since she’d saved him on her world, Kash-Kah.

“Maybe space is our home now, too,” he said quietly. The atmosphere recycling fans made enough noise she didn’t hear him, even with her ears. Was it true—had they lost Earth? Hard to lose something you hadn’t fought to keep, wasn’t it? The revelation that his girlfriend—his first-ever girlfriend—had been a government spy who’d only slept with him to get information on the Raknar was bad enough. Being forced to abandon his home world and run with his tail between his legs was worse.

Jim realized his pulse was racing, and his fists were clenched, and he forced himself to take a few calming breaths. At their height, Cartwright’s Cavaliers had consisted of three battalions of CASPer-armed troopers, and two support companies of APCs, dropships, and transports. After nearly three years of hard work, he’d gotten them back to a full battalion, and the first company of Second Battalion had just formed. Though short on support, it was almost half of what his father had to fight with at the height of their power. Even his father would have retreated, though, instead of being annihilated.

Cartwright’s Cavaliers had always been a heavy assault company. Their forte was hitting targets with fast, powerful attacks that overwhelmed their defenses. They often dropped from space in HALDs, High Altitude, Low Deploy maneuvers perfected by his grandfather. Jim had done them several times, and they scared the shit out of him every time. If his father, at his height, and the other companies of Earth would’ve had no chance against a vast alien armada, what chance did they have?

Zero, that’s what, he realized. Bucephalus, with four other mercenary ships attached, was blasting through hyperspace en route to the Winged Hussars’ secret base. Yet, what would he do when they got there? For better or worse, he’d stepped in and stopped Nigel Shirazi from going full-Rambo against the alien invaders, thus preserving a fighting force. Most were on their way to the Karma system, while he went to the Hussars to ask for help. What the hell was he supposed to say to convince Alexis Cromwell, the Hussars’ commander, to come and help them retake Earth?

The Cavaliers followed him, took his orders, and were fiercely loyal, despite his young age and non-merc persona. At first, they’d followed him because of his name, and the backing of his former First Sergeant, Murdoch. But after proving himself in battle, their faith and reliance on his command ability had grown steadily. Now he was in titular command of all the remaining merc units? What the fuck have I done, he wondered.

Nigel had yet to come over from Revenge, despite Jim’s invitation. The man was pissed off, of that there was little doubt. Jim needed to lance that boil before it exploded in his face. Yet, it really served no purpose to have a confrontation at this point. Maybe Nigel would calm down and come to his senses in the days left before they arrived at the Hussars’ Home. No matter what Nigel thought of him, Jim reminded himself that they were both Horsemen, and that carried a lot of weight with the other mercs.

It was near ship’s evening, so he pulled his uniform off and found a pair of shipboard pajamas in his bag. As he was changing, he saw he’d somehow activated the morphogenic tattoo on his stomach. The Raknar was there, an almost perfect image of the giant alien-made war machine he’d bartered for after a contract more than a year ago. He’d never understood how the blind MinSha tattoo artist had known about Jim’s Raknar, and the uncharacteristically green MinSha had disappeared before Jim could ask.

He floated in freefall, looking at the mecha, which was upside down from his perspective. The machine resembled a headless ape in many ways, and still Jim felt like it was looking up at him. Or did it look like it was falling? Falling, he thought.

“Oh, shit,” he said, and used his pinplants to access the ship’s computer. Whenever they were in orbit, Bucephalus’ data stores were refreshed from the Cavalier’s headquarters’ computer. It also had a huge amount of data copied from the Union’s GalNet, the much more powerful and extensive version of Earth’s AetherNet. He spent a minute combing through the files on the Raknar. Splunk had grown bored with her game and was snuggled in the storage niche she used as a sleeping space. She was, however, still awake, and her big blue eyes sparkled as she watched him.

Within an hour, he had what he was looking for. The information confirmed what he thought. “That’s crazy,” he said, shuddering at the very idea. But was it really crazy? No crazier than any other ideas he’d had over the last few years. If it worked, it could be what they needed to take back Earth.

He finally finished dressing, only just remembering to turn the morphogenic tattoo back off, and turned off the compartments lights. Tiny marker lights remained on over the emergency equipment locker and the exit; both were things you didn’t want to be fumbling for in an emergency. He yawned with a tiny smile. Finally, maybe, an idea was forming. Splunk’s eyes caught the light from the exit marker and glowed slightly. “Goodnight, Splunk,” he said.

“Goodnight, Jim…<Skee!>” He yawned again, wrapping the light netting around himself so he wouldn’t bump around in his sleep, and secured it to the bulkhead near her niche. As sleep took him, images of ancient horrors haunted his dreams. Horrors and lost love.

* * *

Emergence Point, New Warsaw System, Winged Hussars’ Home

“Bring the ship to combat footing,” Captain Su said from her command station in the CIC. All over Bucephalus the alert claxon sounded, and the command center lighting took on a reddish tinge. All the ship’s offensive and defensive stations were already manned. The crew had been called to General Quarters an hour prior in preparation for arriving at their destination, 170 hours after they’d left Earth.

“The clock reads one minute,” the navigator reported.

“All combat systems report ready,” the TacCom, or tactical commander reported. He directed the ship’s offensive and defensive systems, leaving the individual section leaders free to work their respective systems and the captain free to command the ship.

“Very good,” Captain Su said. She glanced over at Jim, who was strapped into a seat near her. It was an extra position on the CIC, a courtesy to the Cavaliers’ commander going back to the early days of Human mercs. Jim nodded, and she returned the gesture. “TacCom, do not, I repeat, do not activate shields upon emergence. That goes the same for targeting any vessels we spot.”

“I understand, ma’am,” the TacCom said, disagreement easy to detect in his voice.

“We’re unexpected visitors here,” she reminded them. They’d been briefed several hours prior in a command-level meeting. Drizz, the Hussar’s representative on Earth, had let them know if they came in with their shields up and weapons armed, they were likely to be destroyed before they had a chance to say “hi.”

“Emergence in ten seconds,” the navigator said, “five…four…three…two…” there was a fleeting sensation of falling, which was disconcerting to most, then they were back in normal Einsteinian space. The navigator examined his instruments. “We’re in a system which appears to be the remnants of a nova of some kind. There’s a single red giant, and a planet unusually close to it. I can read no astronomical data outside of this stellar region.”

“That explains a lot,” Captain Su said. Jim glanced at her and she explained. “Novas create a cloud of particles you can’t see out of. I’d heard from the Horde members who’d been here that you couldn’t get a fix on your position inside the system.”

“How do you get back out?” Jim asked.

“They supposedly have a stargate.” Jim was about to ask how the Cartography Guild didn’t know about it, when the TacCom suddenly spoke up.

“Contact!” he shouted.

“Give it to me,” Captain Su ordered.

“I have two ships; they appear to be gunboat size.” Several people exchanged looks in the CIC. This wasn’t what anyone was expecting from the legendary Winged Hussars, the only one of Earth’s mercs to make a living as a space navy. Lots of merc companies, Human and otherwise, had warships, but the Hussars had an entire navy, reportedly dozens of ships. Their flagship, EMS Pegasus, was legendary. Or maybe infamous was a better term for the cruiser that, as legend had it, had destroyed battleships.

“We’re receiving a single word communication,” the comms officer said. “Identify.”

“Give me a channel,” the captain ordered. The comms officer pointed at her a second later.

“This is EMS Bucephalus, command ship of Cartwright’s Cavaliers, requesting permission to enter your system.” Silence answered her. She looked at Jim, and he could see she was nervous.

“Let me try,” Jim said, and she nodded. “This is Jim Cartwright, son of Thaddeus Cartwright, now commander of Cartwright’s Cavaliers. I’d like to speak to Alexis Cromwell.” Long minutes passed in silence.

“Update?” Captain Su asked her TacCom.

“No movement,” he said, “those two gunboats are just sitting there.”

“Are you getting any other readings from them?” the captain asked.

“They have correct energy signatures,” he replied.

“Yes, but are they scanning us?” Jim watched the sensor operators working at their stations. As this happened, Splunk floated over and landed on his shoulder. The Fae had been poking around the CIC somewhere. When they’d come to the CIC, he’d told her he wouldn’t be happy if she started taking anything apart, and she’d said she wouldn’t. However, over the time he’d known her, Splunk had found promises to be rather nebulous things.

She looked up at the Tri-V representation of the system, and her ears perked up in interest. He watched her bright blue eyes darting around, taking in aspects of the star system with quick precision. Again, he wondered just how much she understood.

“What do you want?” a strong feminine voice suddenly asked from the comms system. Almost everyone in the CIC jumped in surprise as the voice seemed to echo around the space. “More importantly, why are you here, and how are you here?”

“We want to talk,” Jim explained.

“We are talking,” she said.

“And we want your help.” Silence. “Is this Commander Cromwell? It sounds like it, from when we met in Karma, and you sold me back this ship.”

“That was hardly a private meeting,” the voice said, “but yes, you’re speaking to Alexis Cromwell. Now explain how you’re here.”

“Commander, I’d rather meet at your base and discuss this instead of floating out here.”

“Attempt to leave, and I’ll consider you an enemy and destroy your ship for trespassing.”

Jim looked at the two gunboats and lifted an eyebrow. “Colonel, while Bucephalus is hardly a proper cruiser, we aren’t terribly threatened by a couple of gunboats.”

“Oh,” she said, “is that all you think there is here?”

“Contact!” the TacCom hissed. The big Tri-V lit up with several bogies, mostly aft of their ship, which were quickly identified as cruisers and frigates. “We thought they were asteroids. Their masking is incredible.” Telescopic cameras focused on the biggest ones. In the center of a formation of four frigates was a cruiser, its nose pointed at Bucephalus. It was glowing brightly.

“Now kindly explain how you came to be here,” Alexis Cromwell said, managing to give the impression of both congeniality and a deadly threat at the same time, “and quickly.”

“Earth has been invaded by the Mercenary Guild,” Jim said, trying to avoid sounding as scared as he was. Unless he missed his guess, that glow was a spinal-mounted particle cannon, and a fucking big one, too. “Each of us in turn has been attacked in a plot to destroy the Horsemen and make way for an invasion of Earth. Your representative on Earth, Drizz, gave me and me alone, the coordinates for your system shortly before the planet fell.”

“If Earth fell, how are you here?”

“Sansar Enkh encouraged us to retreat so we could fight another day. She believed you were the key to us being able to mount an offensive to retake Earth.”

“And why would the guild take Earth? We don’t represent 1% of the Mercenary Guild’s fighting power.”

“Why don’t we sit down and talk about it?” he asked. The carrier hummed silently as a few seconds went by. The glowing spinal mount continued to be trained on his ship, and Jim became even more acquainted with the fact that he wasn’t ready to die.

“Why are you treating us like this?” another voice demanded on the line, and Jim silently moaned.

“Who is this?” Alexis asked.

“Colonel Nigel Shirazi, commander of Asbaran Solutions,” he said proudly.

“From what I hear, commander of the shadow of Asbaran is more like it.”

“We’re one of the Horsemen,” he snapped, “and don’t deserve to be treated in such a flippant manner. My father would never have tolerated this.”

“I knew your father,” she said, a laugh in her voice. “You are not your father.”

Jim cringed; he could almost hear the building explosion, so he quickly cut in. “Commander Cromwell, we’ve come a long way, and much is at stake. May we at least discuss this with you?” Yet another pause, and he wondered if she was talking it over with her lieutenants. He also hoped Nigel kept his trap shut before he said something they’d all regret.

“Very well,” she finally said. A frigate broke formation and began moving. “You’ll follow Hrunting, the frigate that has left formation. It’ll escort you to a place where we can discuss this development.”

“Thank you.”

“After that meeting,” she continued, “we’ll discuss if you’re to be allowed to leave.” The radio cut off, and Jim heaved a sigh of relief. She wasn’t the woman he’d talked to those many months ago. What had happened to her?

“Captain,” he said, gesturing at the frigate on the situation display, “please?”

“Of course, Commander,” Captain Su said, and gave the orders.

“Well, that couldn’t have gone much worse,” he said a minute later when they were underway.

“Oh, it could have gone much worse,” she said. “We could be floating debris right now.” Jim didn’t have a rebuttal to that, and the Bucephalus moved to follow the frigate. Behind them, some of the Hussars fell in as an escort, but Jim noticed an entire task force had stayed behind. Alexis Cromwell took no chances. After a minute, the glow went away on the cruiser’s spinal mount, and the armored doors closed. Only then did the captain let out her breath.

* * *

EMS Naitoheron, Karma Station

Commander Oda Shoji watched the countdown decrease from the CIC of his command ship, EMS Naitoheron. Their position within the Earth hierarchy of mercenary companies had been something of a sore spot. They’d been unable to participate in the Alpha Contracts 100 years ago. They’d been all set to purchase their first transport, but the Japanese government had balked at the idea. When Marai Maru, Japan’s first ship to the stars, returned and reported how hostile the galaxy was toward new races, the government withdrew further support. Marai Maru had been mostly a private venture, a small trading ship Japan had hoped to use to leapfrog the western nations. It hadn’t worked as planned.

When the 100 companies left Earth for the infamous Alpha Contracts, the Night Birds were left behind. Shoji had always been somewhat Zen about it as the Five Horsemen didn’t have the same ring to it.

His grandfather had left Earth with the second wave, having gained support from the Winged Hussars, and the company’s fortunes had been secured. Since then, they’d grown to be Earth’s preeminent merc transport company, with five ships and a nearly perfect record. That is, until Earth fell.

Shoji almost didn’t answer young Colonel Cartwright’s call. His people put a lot of faith in the wisdom age conveys, and the Cavaliers’ commander was young. Very young. However, he was the commander of one of the Four Horsemen, and the Night Birds had never refused their call. Shoji had personally helped the man lift his company back from their mission on Chimsa. That had been a saigai of epic proportions. He was just glad the Night Birds hadn’t been in on the initial operation, or he probably wouldn’t have survived.

Thus, when Cartwright-san had called, Commander Shoji had answered. He’d collected as many of the small, non-hyperspace capable ships as Naitoheron had docking points for, had Fokuro and Komori do the same, and had followed Bucephalus in its flight from the system. Yoippari and Naichinge-ru, the Night Bird’s two non-hyperspace-capable system craft, were safely docked to other ships.

“We are ready,” his XO, Kaigun-shosa (Lieutenant Commander) Tokogumi told him. “All stations report ready.”

“Arigato,” Shoji said with a bow of his head. He scanned the CIC to ensure everything was in place. He wasn’t one to take chances. The situation on Earth had him out of sorts, and he was uncomfortable. There hadn’t been time for the Horsemen to explain the situation, only that aliens were trying to wipe out or capture all the Human mercs. The presence of more than a dozen large warships gave the assertion a lot of weight.

He’d been tasked with getting the fleet to Karma, where they’d wait for the other Horsemen and then plan strategy. That, too, seemed like a good plan. Karma’s economy was largely built around the mercenary trade, and some shipping to the vicinity of Earth, a not-overly-populous region of the galaxy. The system was sort of like Switzerland had been in Earth’s Second World War. Neutral territory. It would be a good place to hole up.

“Emergence in ten seconds,” the navigator announced.

“Hai!” Shoji said, “All stations prepare for emergence.” The clock ticked down, there was that strange sensation of falling, and then the stars were back. The Tri-V showed the familiar star of the Karma system and much more.

“Contact!” the TacCom exclaimed. “We are being painted by multiple warships!”

“Prepare for evasive action!” Shoji ordered. He ground his teeth in frustration. Naitoheron was fairly nimble as far as combat logistics ships go, but not with four other ships attached. If he cast them lose, they’d be easy prey. His ship was roughly the size of a standard cruiser; she possessed oversized shields, but only had modest offensive capabilities.

“We are being hailed,” the comms officer said. He grunted and gestured, and a second later a voice, obviously translated into English, came over the CIC’s PA.

“Human mercenary fleet, this is Vice Admiral Bykel of the Maki merc company Treshle commanding battlecruiser Nimble Bow. By order of the Mercenary Guild, you are to stand to and power down all defensive systems, or you will be destroyed.”

“TacCom, how many?”

“At least eleven ships, sir,” the man replied. “Two battlecruisers, six frigates, and possibly a drone carrier. They have multiple firing solutions on the fleet.” Shoji looked at the Tri-V. The enemy ships were well arrayed. If his fleet ran for the stargate, some of them might get through; most of them wouldn’t. His ship was the most combat-capable of the eleven hyperspace-capable ships. No matter how he ran the numbers, it didn’t look good.

“You have one minute,” Vice Admiral Bykel informed them.

“Contact the fleet,” Shoji said, hanging his head. “Tell them we are standing down.”

* * * * *


Chapter Six


Winged Hussars HQ, Houston, Texas, Earth

Major Drizz looked up sharply as something crashed in the outer office, and the sounds of scuffling came through the closed door. He pressed the intercom button. “Is everything—”

Before he could complete the thought, the door to his office slammed open, and two Besquith strode in arrogantly. Drizz could smell their pheromones immediately; they were spoiling for a fight, and it took all his willpower to keep from cringing away from them.

“Oh, look at this,” said the first one through the door. “There’s a little puppy running this office.”

“It looks like his Human masters even let him off his leash, too,” the second noted. “I don’t even see a collar on him.” The Besquith cocked his head and stared at Drizz. “Do your masters know you’re running around loose?”

“I—I am nobody’s pet or slave,” Drizz said, almost able to get it out without stuttering. The combination of the two aliens’ scents was almost overwhelming in the close confines of his office as they approached his desk and looked down on him. They weren’t much more than shaggy fur, claws, and an enormous number of teeth; it was hard not to stare at their jaws, especially as they allowed their mouths to hang open with their tongues lolling out. “We—we are a family.”

If they were trying to impress him, it was working. He’d been in the space combat business too long and had forgotten how awful it was to be around apex predators like them.

“Family, huh?” the first Besquith asked. “Well, where’s the head bitch, then? We want Alexis Cromwell.”

“She’s not here.”

The Besquith holstered his laser pistol and leaned over Drizz’s desk, saliva dripping from his open mouth onto the paperwork sitting on the desk. Drizz could feel the creature’s hot breath on his face but forced himself not to shrink back. He was a Hussar; he would not cower from the Besquith.

“I didn’t ask if she was here,” the Besquith said. A rumble came from the alien’s stomach, causing a shiver to run down Drizz’s spine. “We know she’s not here. I asked you where she was.”

“I—I don’t know,” Drizz said.

“Oh, I think you do, and you’re going to tell me.” The Besquith chuckled. “It’s been a long time since I tasted Zuul. They told me to bring you in, but they didn’t say you had to be in one piece.” He snapped his jaws close to Drizz’s face, and the Hussar jumped back, unable to fight the subconscious reflex. “Maybe a little pain will sharpen your memory.”

“I don’t think that will be necessary,” Drizz said. He put his claws on his desk and slid his chair a little further back.

“Oh, but I insist,” the Besquith said. “I’m going to hurt you, and you’re going to tell us everything we want to know.”

“I only have one thing to tell you,” Drizz said. His claw found the button on the underside of the desk.

“What’s that?” the Besquith asked. Sensing a change in his prey, he drew his pistol again quickly.

“Fuck you!” Drizz pushed the button, and a large hatch opened under his desk. The Besquith screamed, and his laser fired, singeing Drizz’s tail and burning a hole through his chair as he dove forward and into the tunnel beneath the hatch. The Besquith’s claws raked Drizz’s heel as the alien dove forward to try to catch him, then he was gone and sliding down the shaft.

He heard the Besquith scream again; the shaft was barely wider than the Zuul’s shoulders, and the massive aliens couldn’t follow him. After a couple of seconds, the Besquith fired his pistol into the shaft. Drizz could see the flashes, but the tunnel sloped enough that the mercenaries no longer had a line-of-sight where they could hit him.

The darkness closed in on Drizz as he slid faster down the nearly vertical shaft, and he suppressed a shudder, both at the darkness and the narrow confines of the passage. He’d tried the tunnel once when the Golden Horde had installed it two years prior, and he’d decided he’d never use it. Having two near-feral Besquith in your office, though, will make you rethink a lot of things you were “never” going to do.

The shaft leveled off finally, and he slowed, coming to a stop near the end. He pulled himself forward, pushed the cover off, and dropped to the underground parking deck floor next to his hover car.

Drizz jumped in, started it, and put it into a hover. Fuck the pack, he swore. The Humans were right. They came for me. He hadn’t planned for this; he’d never actually believed the merc guild would attack, and especially not that they’d come for him. He’d figure out where he was going later; first he had to get away. Drizz saw the daylight from the exit portal and knew there was no way the Besquith could have beaten him to the street level.

And yet, two of the aliens stood in the doorway with laser rifles at the ready. He was trapped—there was no other exit. One of the aliens shouted something as they leveled their rifles at him. Drizz couldn’t hear what they said, but he didn’t care; he couldn’t allow the Besquith to get their claws in him. He pressed the throttles as far forward as possible and ducked behind the dashboard as the aliens began firing.

Several holes appeared in the windscreen before the whole piece shattered, spraying the interior of the vehicle with glass. He flinched backward as one of the pieces hit him just above the eye, then he leaned forward again, the throttles once again at max as he drove over the aliens. One of the Besquith tried to jump onto the hover car, and the front bumper caught it in the lower legs, cartwheeling him forward onto the hood of the car. The Besquith tried to grab him as the merc spun onto the roof of the car, but missed, then went over the top and slammed to the ground in Drizz’s wake.

Drizz yanked the controls hard to the left to avoid crashing into the building on the other side of the street, then back to the right to avoid a parked car. He was just passing the entrance to the building when the doors opened, and the two Besquith from his office raced out. They must have been in communication with the ones on the street, because they already had their pistols out and began firing as soon as they exited the building.

Drizz lost his rear window in a second spray of shattered glass, and several of the warning and caution lights on the dashboard illuminated as he made a right turn and put a building between him and the mercs. Sitting up, he tried to focus on the warning lights, but something was running into his right eye, making his vision cloudy. He wiped his forehead with the back of his paw, and it came away bloody. Great.

A horn sounded as one of the lights began to flash an angry bright red. The hover system had been damaged, and the car was reverting to ground mode. Awesome. He’d be less maneuverable now. He stopped to allow the wheels to come down and lock in place, then started forward again as the car next to him exploded.

Somehow the rear-view mirror had survived the earlier laser fire, and Drizz peered up into it to see a Besquith with a large rifle aiming at him. He slammed the throttles forward again, and the car started forward with far less power than it had earlier. Not only had he lost the hover feature, but the motor must have taken a hit that had decreased its efficiency. It would have to do. Drizz weaved through the afternoon traffic, trying to make himself a harder target, and saw a hover car stop next to the Besquith merc, who tossed his rifle in and jumped in after it.

The chase was on…and Drizz knew he was in the slower, less maneuverable vehicle.

* * *

Golden Horde HQ, Tashkent, Uzbekistan, Earth

“I’m going to turn myself in to the Mercenary Guild,” Sansar announced at the Golden Horde’s strategy session. The collective intake of breath from the assembled officers and non-commissioned officers of the Golden Horde indicated that particular course of action wasn’t one they’d expected to discuss.

She raised a hand to stop the questions she knew would follow.

“You can’t,” Staff Sergeant Walker said anyway. Although one of the more junior members of the assembled group, rank-wise, he’d previously owned his own merc company and still often thought like the colonel he used to be. “For all we know, the Merc Guild is behind this. If they get their claws in you, who knows what they’ll do. Certainly, they’ll try to use you to control the Golden Horde if they find out we still exist.”

“You’re right,” Sansar agreed. Walker sat back with a smile. “But,” she continued, “that’s exactly why I have to go. While we think they’re behind everything that’s happened to the Earth mercs over the last year or two, we aren’t sure of it, and even if they are the instigators, we don’t know why they’re doing it.”

“How about profit?” Lieutenant Lewis asked. “Since Earth came into the Galactic Union, we’ve certainly been cutting into their profit margins.”

“Well, maybe not at the start,” Lieutenant Martin added. “The early CASPer models were pretty crappy, but the latest ones are surely giving us an edge over a lot of the other races. They’re probably trying to stop us now before we get any new tech that gives us a further advantage they can’t overcome.”

“They may also be worried about the timing, too,” Major James Good said. “Earth is about to come up for full membership in the Union; once we do, it’d be a lot harder for them to pull this kind of shit. They had to do it now, before their window of opportunity closed.”

Sansar paused to consider. The arguments weren’t new; they’d debated the topic on a number of occasions as they tried to figure out the shadowy enemies’ intentions. Who were they? What were they trying to achieve? More importantly, why? While all the arguments made sense and had a profit-based motive—even the idea the guild hoped to make them slaves—something still seemed off. Everything that’d been done to the Humans seemed to be to control them, not eliminate them as a source of competition. While it probably couldn’t completely sterilize the planet, the battleship in orbit could’ve easily wiped out most of the major cities on Earth, yet it hadn’t fired a single shot or conducted any attacks of mass destruction.

Obviously, they didn’t want humanity dead, just controlled. Even the attacks on the Four Horsemen seemed to have been planned with that in mind—get rid of the mercenary leaders, and the rest of humanity would be easier to control. But why?

Her best technicians and analysts had been unable to answer that question. If the information existed, it was nowhere to be found in any of the normal civilian or military channels accessible on Earth or anywhere the Horde had monitoring stations.

“No,” Sansar said. “Well, yes, they’re probably acting before we become full members of the Galactic Union. Whatever it is our enemies are doing, it’s easier to do it to us before that happens. Unfortunately, we still don’t know who they are or what they’re planning. The few times we’ve been successful recently have been when we’ve done something unexpected. We need to do that again.”

“Doing what they’ve asked us to do will be unexpected?” Major Good asked. “Why would they tell us to turn ourselves in if that wasn’t what they wanted?”

“Oh, I’m sure they have a plan for what happens if we turn ourselves in—Peepo’s too good a tactician not to have a plan for it—but I don’t think that’s what they really expected. All along, everything that’s been done to us has been based on our normal reactions. Someone analyzed humanity and found out we have a fight or flight response to stimuli, and their plans were designed to counter both outcomes. When we didn’t immediately do one of those, the enemy forces were unprepared. I seriously doubt they think we’ll capitulate here; therefore, it’s what we need to do.”

“Capitulate?” Walker asked. “Give up? I’m not ready to give up.”

“No,” Sansar replied, “I am not suggesting we give up, only that we pretend to give up. I’ll turn myself in, which will buy us additional time to organize and find out more about our adversaries that we can eventually use to bring them down.”

“I’m all for continuing the fight,” Major Good said, “but I don’t see how turning yourself in is going to be helpful to our cause. With you on Capital Planet, they’ll be able to drag you around in front of the media and make you answer all of their trumped-up charges. Some of the things we’ve picked up, like the genocide charge against Asbaran Solutions, have the potential to be very explosive to a number of the alien races.”

“The opposite is also true,” Sansar noted, “which is why I doubt they truly want any of the Horsemen there to answer their charges. The worst thing possible for their plans would be for me to show up and provide evidence that shows they’re lying, and all of their charges are made up.”

“We don’t have that information, though,” Good replied. “Sure, we have some circumstantial info, but there isn’t a lot of hard evidence to the contrary. Hell, even I wouldn’t put it past Nigel Shirazi to nuke a bunch of aliens he thought killed his family.”

“Then you’d better start digging deeper,” Sansar countered. “I’ll need everything you can provide, organized and ready to travel in 48 hours. Go on the GalNet; get videos of all the events. Gun camera videos from the AetherNet. Anything you can find that may be relevant. Hell, call their offices and see if there’s anyone still there. Maybe they have info we can use. Find it!” She turned to survey the rest of the leadership. “While intel is doing that, we need to begin organizing our forces for future operations. Staff Sergeant Walker?”

“Yes, ma’am?”

“You’re promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and are now commander of Strike Fighter Squadron One. Your job is to find the best SalSha pilots we have, train them, and put together as many crews as we can find space fighters for. When we have enough to split it into two squadrons, you’ll be the wing commander and promoted to colonel. Any questions?”

“Ma’am, I—”

“You said you wanted to fight,” Sansar interrupted. “Here’s where your experience can best be utilized. You did a wonderful job with Thorb but face it—we got lucky. Next time, we need to be prepared to exploit any advantages we have, and to this point, no Human merc organization has ever had fighters—”

“So it’s unexpected,” Walker finished. “And since we’re trying to do the unexpected, this is important.” He sighed. “I get it. I don’t like it…but I get it.” He shrugged. “Where am I supposed to conduct this training? I have a feeling our friends in orbit won’t take kindly to us practicing there.”

“You’re going to have to take all of the SalSha, along with most of our remaining troops, to the Huss—”

Sansar stopped in the middle of her sentence and closed her eyes as Corporal Bolormaa Enkh broke in over her pinplant comm system. “Sorry to interrupt ma’am, but I have a high-priority message from the Houston office.

“Go ahead.”

“Ma’am, the agent we had watching Major Drizz of the Winged Hussars said the major activated his escape chute and is fleeing from a party of Besquith. Major Drizz is in a high-speed chase, trying to evade them. Our agent is in a position to end the chase and is requesting instructions.”

“End the chase. Save the Hussars’ agent and bring him to Tashkent. Lieutenant Colonel Walker will be taking him off planet.”

“Lieutenant Colonel Walker, ma’am?”

“Yes, Lieutenant Colonel Walker. That’s all; make it happen.”

“Yes, ma’am. Corporal Enkh out.”

Sansar’s eyes opened. “As I was saying, I want you to take all the SalSha and most of our remaining troops to a secret base the Hussars have.”

“Fine, ma’am. How am I supposed to get there if it’s a secret base? Even better, how am I supposed to get past the battleship that’s in orbit?”

“You’ll take the MinSha cargo ship we brought back from our last mission. Hopefully, that’ll get you past the blockade. It should still have all the codes necessary to look like a transport. Also, I have someone coming who’ll hopefully be able to give you directions to the base.”

“Ma’am, with all due respect, that plan is awfully short on details and really long on hope.”

“Well then, Colonel, I guess it’s time you start acting like a leader, put together a staff, and figure some of this shit out. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there are aliens on our planet. Your days of running away from your fears are over. The aliens are here. It’s either time to be the leader I think you are, or to let me know so I can find someone who is.”

Walker took a deep breath and blew it out, then nodded once in acknowledgement. “I’ve got more experience than just about anyone else here. It doesn’t matter whether I want to be a leader or not; it’s part of who I am, and I’m the best qualified to do it. I’m your man.”

“Good, then stop pretending you’re not and get to work.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Walker said, giving her another nod. “I’m on it. Can I have Captain Cunningham as XO of the squadron and Lieutenant Gracia as a troop leader?”

“You’ve got them. Captain Cunningham?”

“Yes, ma’am?”

“Congratulations, you’re promoted to major and are now squadron XO.” Her eyes scanned the room to find the other officer. “Congratulations also to Captain Gracia.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” they chorused.

Sansar looked back to Walker. “Anything else?”

“No, ma’am,” Walker replied. “I’m good; we’ve got this.”

* * *

Houston, Texas, Earth

Drizz knew he was in trouble. Despite his best efforts to escape and evade, the Besquith had caught up to him. It didn’t help that their car could hover, and his couldn’t, or that he could only squeeze about 70% of its normal power out of it. As he reached the outskirts of the city, he knew he was screwed. The traffic was thinning, and the Besquith were roaring up on his right side with one of them hanging out the window, preparing to fire. He had to get back to the downtown area; maybe he could lose them there for long enough to jump out and go to ground.

He saw an opening in the opposing traffic, and he slammed the stick to the left as the Besquith fired. The shot hit one of his wheels, blowing it out, and the increased drag while in the hard turn catapulted the stricken vehicle sideways. Drizz lost control as the car flipped and rolled over several times, finally coming to a stop on its roof, which crumpled slightly, leaving only an eight-inch gap where the window used to be.

Partially stunned, Drizz came to, hanging upside down in his straps, his arms hanging past his head. At least the blood wasn’t running into his eye anymore; it made it that much easier to see the pair of boots that came to stand outside his fractured window. Although he had hoped it was the Houston Police, one sniff was all it took to know for sure; they were Besquith.

“Well, well, what do we have here?” asked the voice of the first Besquith from his office. “It looks like the Hussar puppy broke his master’s car. He’s going to be in some trouble now.”

A second pair of boots joined the first, and the other Besquith from his office laughed. Drizz wanted to run—to flee—or even to say something witty, but he didn’t have the energy. He was done. Hanging upside down, his head hurt, and his thoughts were running too slowly; he probably had a concussion. It also felt like he’d broken one of his legs, and he had a variety of lesser injuries. He just wanted to curl into a ball and be left alone, but he knew that wouldn’t happen at the hands of the Besquith.

The first Besquith knelt and looked inside Drizz’s car. “Not so smart now, are you, Mr. Horseman? In fact, I’d say you looked like the last pile of shit I used to mark my territory on your secretary’s corpse.”

A flash of anger went through Drizz—he’d liked his secretary—then the enormity of his situation overwhelmed him; there was nothing he could do to get revenge for her. He’d had a laser pistol when he got into the car, but the holster was empty now, the laser a victim of the crash.

“So,” the Besquith said. “Would you like to repeat what you said to me in your office before you ran off like a whipped cur?”

“Yeah…” Drizz said, summoning up every last ounce of energy. “Fuck…you.”

“Fuck me?” the Besquith asked, drawing his pistol. “No. I don’t think so. My boss will believe you didn’t survive this crash, and I’m pretty much done with you.” He aimed the pistol at Drizz’s good eye. The muzzle looked huge. “Fuck—”

The Besquith’s head exploded, and blood and brains showered into both of Drizz’s eyes. He blinked as several more shots were fired, then wiped his eyes, trying to clear them. Both Besquith collapsed next to the car, with the first one missing most of his head. Yeah, fuck him. Drizz didn’t care who’d killed him, or if he was about to die himself; all that mattered was the Besquith died first.

More boots appeared. “Well, I shot the shit outta that one,” a Human male drawled.

“You blew his head off,” a female with a strange accent replied. “That was kind of overkill, wasn’t it?”

“No such thing as overkill with a Besquith,” the man said. “If’n you’re gonna shoot ’em, ya put ’em down for good. You don’t want one coming back at you. Besides, I hate those fuckers. Gimme a hand movin’ ’em.”

“Damn Besquith are heavy,” she said. “I thought you…” she grunted as she strained, then continued, “I thought you hated the Goka.”

“Hate them fuckers, too. Hate ’em more, if’n you really want to know. But I hate the Besquith a lot, too. I mean, look at the teeth on that one.”

“Yours doesn’t have teeth—you blew his head off!”

“Yeah,” the man said with a chuckle. “It was a pretty good shot, wasn’t it?”

The female didn’t reply, and both Humans gave a few more grunts as the Besquith bodies were dragged away, leaving thick blood smears.

A large Human male knelt and looked in the window. “Howdy, Partner,” he said. “Sorry it took us a minute to get here. You okay?”

“No, I’m not okay,” Drizz said. “I am, however, better than I was a few minutes ago. Thank you for killing them.”

“Nah, no problem. Like I said, I hate them bastards, and if they’re on Earth, they needed killing.” He paused to look at the interior of the car. “We need to get out of here right quick, and I don’t think we can get you out of that vehicle anytime soon, unless we flip it back right-side up.”

“Can we do that?” the woman’s voice asked. She knelt, and Drizz could see she was short and Asian; she looked very similar to Sansar Enkh. Ah, they must be from the Horde and—happily—weren’t working with the Merc Guild forces. Although he’d been relieved to outlive the Besquith, if they were members of the Horde, he’d probably live to see another day, too. He released a breath he hadn’t known he’d been holding.

“You an’ me lift that?” the man asked. “Prob’ly not. But I know who can.”

With a blaze of rocket fire, a CASPer slammed to the ground not too far away. “What’d I miss?” a metallic-tinged voice asked.

“’Bout time ya got here,” the man said. “Ya missed a bunch of Besquith killin.’ It was a lot of fun, but we need to get the hell outta here before more mercs come or the cops decide to show. Flip that car over—gently, the pup inside’s hurt—so we can get gone.”

Drizz was so happy to be rescued he decided to let the “pup” comment go. This time.

* * * * *


Chapter Seven


Golden Horde HQ, Tashkent, Uzbekistan, Earth

“Damn paperwork,” Lieutenant Colonel Walker muttered. This was the part of command he detested—the paperwork that came with it. It sounded great—buy 20 suits of armor and go to war—but then you got into the all the minutiae of what it actually took to keep those suits operational and the pilots inside them trained and ready. And now he had to do it with both CASPers and some hopefully soon-to-be-acquired space fighters?

Madness.

His madness, anyway. He knew he’d end up going crazy if he had to do both for too long, and he made a mental note to ditch one or the other of his jobs as soon as he could. It looked like he was stuck with the space fighter squadron, at least for the duration of the war, so he’d have to find someone to take over command of the soldiers as soon as possible.

Damn. That was the billet he really liked, too. He gave a mental shrug and forgot about it as a knock on his door sounded. He looked up to find a couple troopers and a Zuul with a cast on his leg. Walker did a quick facial recognition scan with his implants. The big cowboy-looking man was Staff Sergeant Keith Glass from the Houston office, and the woman was Sergeant Khulan Enkh. Gah, another Enkh. He understood the whole adoption thing…but couldn’t some of them choose a different surname?

“Sorry to interrupt ya, sir,” the man said with a think Southern accent, “but I was told to bring this here pu—” The Zuul put a claw on the man’s leg, and he stopped mid-sentence. “This here Winged Hussar person to you. Apparently you wanted to see him, sir?”

“Thanks, Staff Sergeant, I’ll take it from here.” The two soldiers turned and left.

Walker crossed the room and held out a hand to the Zuul. “Welcome,” he said as the Zuul shook it. “I’m Lieutenant Colonel Walker.”

“I’m Major Drizz of the Winged Hussars.”

“I’m glad you’re here, Major.”

“If it weren’t for your troopers, I wouldn’t be. They saved me from a very awkward situation.”

“So you now understand the Horsemen aren’t welcome here or anywhere else the Mercenary Guild holds sway?”

“I think they made their intentions quite clear.”

“That’s outstanding,” Walker said. “We’re planning on leaving tomorrow, and our only real option is your secret base.”

“As much as everyone seems to talk about it, I don’t see how you can still call it ‘secret.’”

“Okay, your base, then.”

“We call it Home.”

Walker sighed. Dealing with aliens was annoying some days. “Okay, so we’d like to go to your Home. I understand you can give us coordinates for it?”

“No, actually, I can’t. No one actually knows them, to the best of my knowledge.”

“Well, then how the hell do you get there then? I’ve got a ship ready to go. All it needs is a destination, and you say you can’t give me one?”

“I didn’t say that. I said I don’t know the coordinates. That much is true.”

Walker took a deep breath, held it for a count of three, then released it. “Okay, Major,” Walker said, speaking slowly so he wouldn’t totally lose his patience, “how then do you suggest we find our way there, if you don’t know how where it is?”

The Zuul reached into a pouch hanging from his belt and pulled out a little box in the palm of his paw. The box had a small interface cord sticking out from one side and the logo of the Winged Hussars on it. “This is a special drive that will link up with a union-standard hyperdrive computer and transfer the coordinates as we approach the stargate. It’s a single-use drive and will destroy itself after it’s used. If it’s tampered with, it’ll destroy itself. If you try to copy the coordinates—”

“I get it,” Walker interrupted. “It’ll destroy itself.”

“Correct. It’s impossible to save the coordinates, and it’s the last one I have. If something goes wrong with it, there’s no other way to get Home.”

“Then we’d better not mess it up.”

* * *

SOGA HQ, Sao Paulo, Brazil, Earth

Sansar approached the building wearing a nondescript pair of jeans, a T-shirt with a picture of a local band on it, and a ball cap with the logo of a janitorial service pulled down low over her eyes.

Security was tight at the world government headquarters. As Sansar approached the building that held the Secretary of the General Assembly’s offices, not only were there Human uniformed security officials, but also Human and alien mercenary troops as well. Currently there seemed to be a measure of détente in place, with the Besquith troops and the Human troops on opposite sides, while the local police force watched over the middle set of doors and kept the forces apart.

The mercs seemed to be eyeing each other more than they watched for trouble. Sansar didn’t blame the Human mercs—the Varangian Guard, a quick pinplant search determined—she’d have been very uncomfortable that close to the giant wolves. It wasn’t the sharp teeth that bothered her, so much as there were several rows of them. Once they got a hold of you, you weren’t getting away.

She tugged on the sleeve of the closest Guard trooper and asked, “What’s going on?”

The private gave her a quick glance and went back to staring at the Besquith. “Don’t watch much Tri-V, do you, little girl?”

Sansar bristled at the “little girl” comment, but he wasn’t looking at her and didn’t notice. “I’ve been kind of out of touch recently,” Sansar replied. “I’ve had a lot going on.”

“So much so that you didn’t know what today was? Today is the day the aliens are going to take over Earth.”

“They are?” Sansar asked. “Why would they do that?”

“I don’t know. The stupid Four Horsemen did something illegal and then ran off! If they don’t show up to account for themselves, the Mercenary Guild is going to take over governing Earth. This is all on those stupid Horsemen!”

“Huh. This is the Horsemen’s fault and not the aliens?”

“Of course it is. First they tried to unleash a plague on us, then they ran off.”

“So you don’t think they had Earth’s best interests at heart?”

“Hell, no!”

“So you’ll protect us then, right? We obviously don’t have anything to worry about when we have big, strong men like you to defend us little girls, right?” She laid it on thick, annoyed at his lack of faith in the Horsemen as well as his earlier comment. “You’ll kick those aliens’ butts?”

“Of course we will! The Varangian Guard always wins.” He puffed out his chest, although his eyes never left the Besquith.

“I rather doubt it,” Sansar replied, scorn heavy in her voice.

“Why’s that?” the trooper asked, instantly offended. He looked down at her.

“Because you’re a jackass. You don’t have any idea what you’re talking about or who you’re talking to.” She pulled off the ball cap and her black hair fell to her shoulders.

“Wait,” the trooper said. “I recognize you. You’re—”

“Sansar Enkh!” one of the Besquith roared. The aliens immediately raced over, bowling over the policemen in the process. Seeing them coming, the Varangian Guard troops interposed themselves between Sansar and the aliens, and a pushing match ensued. The Humans were at a size and strength disadvantage and were thrown aside, and they drew their weapons as they got back to their feet.

The Besquith responded by drawing their weapons, as well.

“Stop!” Sansar yelled in her best command voice, and all the mercs froze and looked at the diminutive woman.

“We must arrest you,” the lead Besquith, a staff sergeant, said.

“Like hell!” yelled one of the Varangian Guard. “She’s Human; we won’t let you!”

“Fuck that!” yelled another. The Guard started closing ranks around Sansar again.

“Stop!” she yelled again. The Guard members looked at her with faces full of concern and confusion. “It’s okay,” she added. “I’m here to go with them and answer the charges.”

“How’s this possible?” the Guard trooper she’d spoken with earlier asked. “You—you’re the head of the Golden Horde. You weren’t just ‘out of touch,’ you were dead! I saw it on the Tri-V.”

“You should put less of your faith in the Tri-V and more into the Horsemen. We can’t lead if you’re too dumb to follow.”

The trooper didn’t say anything and looked at the ground, his head hanging.

“Okay,” Sansar said, turning to the Besquith staff sergeant. “Take me to your leader.”

* * *

Avander Pharmaceuticals, Chattanooga, Tennessee, Earth

“Dr. Avander will see you now,” said the Veetch. The alien obviously thought he was stupid, Major Good decided, as it flipped one of its left hands to indicate the enormous mahogany door behind it that sported the nameplate, “Dr. Ezekiel Avander, CEO.” As it was the only door besides the one he came in, Good really didn’t need a lot of decision-making skill to figure that out.

Apparently, showing in visitors wasn’t part of the alien’s job description, as it went back to what it was doing without getting up. Nice.

Major Good walked to the door and turned the handle. The door was every bit the feature-piece it appeared to be; the solid mahogany door required a decent portion of his augmented strength to open. It was probably meant to overawe visitors; Good found it slightly annoying.

“Dr. Avander?” he asked as he entered the room. The office was as ostentatious on the inside as it had appeared in the waiting area. Luxuriously-appointed furniture was tastefully positioned throughout the room, with bookcases artfully filled with a variety of works, from classical masterpieces to the latest treatises on the art and practice of war. It was a tribute to an extremely wealthy man who had equally eclectic tastes. The ceiling seemed ever-so-slightly different. Perhaps rebuilt in the recent past?

The other feature of the room was a massive desk that matched the entrance door, upon which sat a forest of slates and monitors, to the extent that the man behind them was only glimpsed in portions and slices. From what Good could see, the man appeared in constant motion, working on a great many of the devices in front of him nearly simultaneously.

“Yes?” came a distant voice from behind the monitors.

“I’m Major Good,” the intel officer replied. “I’m here to speak with you about why you haven’t returned our calls.”

The motion behind the monitors ceased, and a hand slid several the monitors out of the way so Good could see the man behind them. Whatever Good had expected from the merc-turned-CEO, this wasn’t it. The man wore a faded leather jacket, and a giant stogie hung from the corner of his mouth. Lines from his implants trailed off to four of the slates. Although the man was closing in on 150 years old, he looked no older than 55, and appeared in top physical shape. The piercing blue eyes stared at him for a moment as if looking into Good’s soul, then the man smiled and waved him to one of the two chairs in front of the desk.

“Please sit,” the man said, “and call me Zeke.”

“Hi, Zeke,” Major Good replied; “we’ve called you a bunch, and you haven’t returned any of our calls.”

“There’s a damned good reason why, too.”

“What’s that?”

“I’m not interested,” Zeke said, and he started to pull the monitors back into their earlier positions.

“One second,” Good said. “Can I ask why you’re not interested? Our planet has been assaulted by aliens, and all you want to do is to sit here and run your empire? Trying to milk a few more credits from old men and women in search of the Fountain of Youth?”

“Look,” Zeke said. “I enjoyed my time with The Golden Horde, and I think I did very well for you. Certainly, my service helped garner some extra credits for the company. Now, I may not have the intelligence facilities the Horde does, but my network runs pretty deep, and I’m kept passingly familiar with anything important going on, anywhere on this planet, that might affect business. I’m well aware of the aliens on Earth and their intentions. I’m not, however, interested in coming back to work for the Horde; I have enough to do here.”

“What could be more important than joining the resistance?”

Zeke cocked his head and looked piercingly at the major again. “Do you know what we do here?” he asked.

“You help old people live longer through a variety of treatments and enhancements.”

“I help people live!” Zeke exclaimed. “I help them beat diseases that are untreatable anywhere else on this planet. I do this by working at the cellular level, fixing things that have previously been unfixable by mankind. I give people life!

Zeke turned one of the monitors toward Good. An image of a virus or bacteria cell was on it. “I can also take life,” he continued, his voice quiet, “just as easily as I can give it. You’re running around recruiting people for a war that’s already underway, a war that I am already fighting. Only my company can tailor viruses to do the things I want. To attack the creatures I want. Why am I not interested in coming back to the Horde? Because I’m far more valuable here.”

* * *

SOGA HQ, Sao Paulo, Brazil, Earth

The Besquith led Sansar to a familiar room—the SOGA’s office at the top of the headquarters building—then left, closing the door behind them. A Veetanho was looking out the window at the town of Sao Paolo in the distance but turned as Sansar walked into the room and said, “Well, this is an unexpected surprise. I didn’t expect to see you.”

“Didn’t waste any time moving in, did you, Peepo?” Sansar asked.

“If there is one thing I have learned about your race,” Peepo replied, “it is that symbology is important. If I rule from the Secretary General’s office, by definition, many of your people will automatically assume I am their legitimate ruler.” Her lips curled back in an approximation of a Human smile. “Don’t you see me as such?”

“I see you as a pain in the ass with some sort of grudge against us, who I am going to kill at my first opportunity. All I want to know is why.”

“Why what?”

“Why are you doing this? It isn’t because we have some sort of resources you need. Earth is nothing special. We don’t have huge supplies of F-11 or even red diamonds. There are other planets and systems that are far richer than us. The only thing we have is people, and even though we’ve been pretty successful with the last few versions of our CASPers, that still doesn’t seem to make sense. We may be winning more battles than we’re losing, but that doesn’t justify wiping us out.”

“Isn’t it obvious?” Peepo asked. “You’re rule breakers. You don’t do what you’re supposed to. You use nukes. You do planetary bombardments from beyond the 10-mile limit. You play with technology you’re not supposed to. It’s impossible to know what rules you’ll break or what forbidden science you’ll dabble in next. Left to your own, maybe next you’ll start experimenting with antimatter, for entropy’s sake! My message to the people of Earth said it all—your species isn’t ready to join the Union, and we need to govern you, not only for your own good, but for the benefit of the Union.”

“You don’t believe that,” Sansar said.

“That’s where you’re wrong. I believe it with every fiber of my being. There’s no telling what a Human will do at any given moment. Take your appearance here, for example. Not only did I not expect you to show up, I didn’t even expect you to still be alive.”

“Well, I’m happy to disappoint you on both accounts.”

“I didn’t say disappointed; I said it was unexpected. I’m quite happy to have you here, as your presence will lend legitimacy to everything I have planned.” She paused, then asked. “I’m curious, though, how is it you’re still alive?”

“That part’s easy; I wasn’t there when you attacked my base. Why you had to nuke my people, though, is something that seems extreme, even for you. Did you lose your temper, perhaps? Battle didn’t go the way you expected, and that was your final solution? Is this to be a hallmark of your administration of Earth? Should we expect more displays of unnecessary force from you?”

Peepo froze for a second as some of the accusations seemed to hit home, then she smiled again. “You may say what you want to, Sansar, but we both know I had nothing to do with nuking your base. The explosions were, as you say, extreme, and they cost me considerably in manpower expended. But this is exactly what I was talking about when I said you do the unexpected. I never would have expected you to sacrifice your remaining people once the battle was lost or to use nuclear weapons on your own soil. If you’d do that, what wouldn’t you do?”

“To keep out from under your claws? I would do nearly anything! My ancestors rode the plains of our country. They were free, and they passed that love of freedom down to me. You shouldn’t have come here; Humans will be free, and we’ll do whatever it takes to get that way!”

“No. No you won’t. There are already a surprising number of troops who have come over to our side, like the ones at the entrance to this building, and more of your civilization recognizes our authority every day. The majority of your race are sheep, and they’ll follow along blindly, no matter what they’re told to do.”

“That’s incorrect! Many of our mercenary units escaped. We’ll never do what you say.”

Peepo waved a claw dismissively. “A few escaped, but most were captured at Karma, and the rest of them will be found and destroyed. We have a galaxy’s-worth of resources to draw upon; how is it you think you can fight us?”

“I don’t know,” Sansar replied. “All I know is that we will.

“Those of you who fight will be destroyed, and the rest of your race will do as it’s told. If it doesn’t, your race will cease to exist.”

“What if the tribunal finds that we aren’t guilty of the charges you’ve leveled against us?”

“That isn’t going to happen. You will be found guilty, and you’ll have no option but to do what I tell you, or your race will be destroyed.”

* * *

Avander Pharmaceuticals, Chattanooga, Tennessee, Earth

Zeke watched through the window as the Horde’s intelligence officer left the parking area, his wizened eyes narrowed in concentration. From the adjacent room, through a hidden door, his grandson Zeb Avander came in. From the leader of a notorious gang to the elected Sheriff of Chattanooga, the younger Avander had proven up to the challenge. Retired from law enforcement a few years ago, the younger Avander now ran the day-to-day operations of Avander Intergalactic. At nearly 50 years old, he didn’t look a year over 30.

“Do you actually believe that bullshit you told him?” Zeb asked his grandfather, who chuckled.

“What’s more important is that he believes it.”

“You start a bio war with the aliens, the whole planet will lose.”

Zeke nodded and puffed on his cigar, blowing a huge cloud of smoke which the room’s hidden cleaners caught and pulled away. Despite years of dealing with his grandfather’s unpopular, and largely illegal habit, Zeb’s nose curled up in distaste. “I know that,” Zeke replied, “but I need room to maneuver. They’re right, a war is coming—not only is it coming, it’s already here—and I need to be off their grid in order to play that game.”

“Not even going to tell me what you have in mind?”

Zeke looked at him and winked. Zeb shook his head and walked out of the office. Once he was alone, Zeke pulled up the images of the alien-bioengineered viruses that had been infiltrated on a miracle laser treatment sold to an eager but gullible merc in the Horde’s logistics department. Zeke had discovered it in time to immunize his own people, but not in time to have mass treatments ready for the mercenary forces. Luckily, the Horde had somehow gotten ahead of the curve and had a treatment available in time. There were a lot of people who’d still gotten sick, but most were going to make it.

“You want to play that kind of game on my field?” he asked his display. “I’ll be ready for you, and I might even have a few surprises of my own.” Using his top-level access, he logged into the secret of his success—an alien-made manufactory just outside of Chattanooga. A company had bought it decades ago with the intention of using it to make aerocars. They hadn’t realized it was a pharmaceutical manufactory; Zeke had. Using the genetic engineering techniques he’d learned during his imprisonment, coupled with his own knowledge, he’d gotten control of the manufactory and set it to producing his life-extending treatments. They’d gotten quite rich from those.

Zeke punched in data and began writing a production routine. It’d be small and would go unnoticed by the teams operating the manufactory; he was sure of that. He was also sure he could make a difference, only that it wouldn’t be quite what Good was expecting. Zeke had learned during his years of enslavement to play a long game, and he intended to do just that.

* * * * *


Chapter Eight


Winged Hussars Prime Base, New Warsaw System

Jim floated forward in the shuttle to let his eyes take in the system the Winged Hussars had dubbed Home. A red giant star cast an eerie glow on the shuttle pilot’s face and made him think of an old-fashioned photographic dark room. Captain Su said she thought it must have flared in a failed super nova untold eons ago, creating the massive debris cloud that made it impossible to get a navigational fix from inside the system. Literally millions of asteroids orbited the star, remnants of worlds that once orbited it before the cataclysm claimed them.

One planet had survived. It was green with massive swirling cloud banks, hints of low mountains, and dark seas. It was frighteningly close to the ancient star, but it would have to be to get enough energy from that stellar body to have liquid water. Jim had to see it for himself, because it was, in stellar terms, utterly impossible. What kind of engineering did it take to save this planet from the event that had claimed every other planet in the system, he silently wondered, and what’s happened to that level of technology since?

“Course received, Commander,” the pilot said.

“Proceed,” Jim ordered and wedged himself against the back of the padded cockpit as the pilot applied thrust. He and his XO, Hargrave, were the sole passengers on this trip. Colonel Shirazi had refused the offer of a ride; his own shuttle was a few miles away on a parallel course. Jim could see dozens of tiny drone fighters surrounding the two shuttles as they accelerated toward the planet. It would seem Colonel Cromwell was taking no chances with her unexpected visitors.

A million asteroids glittered in the near distance as they left Bucephalus behind. Jim could see some were starships in high parking orbits around the planet as they headed toward a structure in a lower orbit. As they approached, it resolved itself into a structure of truly immense proportions. A triple ring station, similar to Karma station, only many times bigger. Many, many times bigger.

“Hargrave!” he called.

“Yeah,” the older man replied from the passenger cabin.

“You gotta see this space station.”

“I’ve seen a few hundred, kid. You seen one, you’ve seen them all.”

“Not like this, you haven’t.” There was a grunt followed by the sound of restraints being released, and a few seconds later Hargrave floated through the cockpit door. There wasn’t room for another with the pilot and Jim’s large frame, but the CO managed to squeeze over far enough for Hargrave to get a good look.

“Yeah, that’s a big one, all right.”

“Have you seen bigger?”

“One,” he admitted. Jim glanced over his shoulder at him. Hargrave had that distant look on his battle-lined face, the one he got when he was looking back to decades past. “It was an abandoned station near the core worlds. They think it was one of the first government’s big bases, or maybe one of the Dusman or Kahraman home worlds. Who the fuck knows, because the planet was wrecked. I don’t think a Goka could live there now. Anyway, there was this station orbiting in the LaGrange point between the world and its big-ass moon. This station was just immense. I mean, you could see its shadow on the planet’s charred surface as it orbited between it and the sun.” Jim gave a long, low whistle.

“Yeah,” Hargrave continued, “big. But the difference was, that station was shot to shit. Looked almost as bad as the world it orbited. I don’t know what kept it together, to tell you the truth. I know a lot of races had picked the bones clean, so it was nothing more than a ruin. Still, there it was.” Hargrave pointed at the station. “That’s a close second, though. Pretty neat seeing it in one piece.”

“There’s other things in higher orbit,” the pilot said, gesturing at the Tri-V projection on his navigational system. There were 10 or 12 large, dispersed structures visible. They lacked the hard returns of a spaceship yet were more resolved than debris.

“Can you zoom in on any of them?” Jim asked.

“Yes, sir,” the man said and used his pinplants to manipulate the Tri-V. The image exploded and zoomed in with dizzying speed.

“Never get used to you kids and your brain plugs,” Hargrave muttered. After the latest increases in Cartwright’s rosters, and a positive profit margin, Jim had paid for whoever wanted pinplants. A surprising number took him up on the offer, and most of the new hires had them as well. Less than 10% of the Cavaliers remained un-pinned.

“What’s that?” Jim asked. It looked like a floating cage of some kind.

“That,” the pilot said, “is a space dock. They’re building starships.”

“Holy shit,” Jim said. “Are all those returns space docks?” Using his pinplants again, the man zipped through all the sensor returns the same way he’d done the first. Each resolved into a little gossamer miniature space dock. Some were bigger or shaped differently, but all were obviously the same thing.

“Yes, all docks,” he confirmed. “I can find nine on this side of the planet.”

“They’re building a fleet,” Hargrave said.

“Another fleet,” Jim corrected. The Winged Hussars already had at least three, if rumors were correct.

“Where are they getting the resources and equipment?” the pilot wondered.

“Look around you,” Jim said. “If those asteroids are shattered planets, this system is the richest source of readily available resources in the galaxy.”

“And it all belongs to Alexis Cromwell,” Hargrave said with a chuckle. “Why does she even bother going outside and fighting?”

“Why indeed,” Jim echoed his XO.

* * *

As the shuttle slowed to approach the station, Jim watched through the rear cameras. It grew more massive every second. Miles across was his guess, several miles. The triple rings spun at an almost stately pace. How many thousands could live in that station? Tens of thousands? A hundred thousand?

As the shuttle fell into the shadow of the station, Jim was fairly certain at least part of the station wasn’t in as good a shape as the rest. Damage, or just neglect? he wondered.

“We’ve been given landing authority,” the pilot announced. Jim looked over his shoulder as the shuttle came to a stop a few hundred yards from a yawning bay in the center of the station. This was the hub that wasn’t rotating. He tried to imagine the mechanisms that allowed so many millions of tons to spin smoothly around this central section.

“Go ahead,” he said, and the pilot began the landing sequence. As they slipped inside, Jim could see someone had painted above the bay “Welcome to Prime Base.”

The pressure equal light came on, and the pilot released the door lock, allowing it to swing in and away. Outside, the bay buzzed with activity as personnel moved in to secure the shuttles to the deck. Jim was surprised they were mostly aliens. He recognized a dozen species, while several were unknown to him. He’d known the Hussars had a lot of aliens in their numbers; he just hadn’t been prepared for this many.

A series of poles rose from the floor, all connected by a light tether that led toward a now open exit from the bay. Obviously, this was a concession to visitors who might not be as at home in zero gravity as the workers were.

“Rolled out the red rope for us,” Hargrave said, and they both chuckled. A single long, sleek alien figure floated toward the shuttle, not bothering with the tether. Jim saw it was a Veetanho.

“Colonel Cartwright?” the alien asked as it arrested itself against the side of the shuttle.

“Yes,” Jim said, and the alien saluted.

“Lieutenant Commander Paka, Colonel Cromwell’s XO and second-in-command of Pegasus.” Jim smiled and returned the salute.

“I’m sorry I didn’t recognize you after our meeting on Karma,” Jim said.

“Not a problem,” she answered. “Many species have difficulties differentiating traits of other species. I’ve spent so long among Humans, I’m better than most.”

“This is Lieutenant Colonel Hargrave, my XO.” The two exchanged casual salutes.

She gestured to the rope. “If you’ll follow the tether to the lock, I’ll meet you there after I collect Colonel Shirazi.”

Jim nodded and Paka pushed away, presumably toward the other shuttle, so he and Hargrave both grabbed the tether and pulled themselves toward the exit door. Both were well versed in zero gravity movement and had no difficulty. Jim thought he’d gotten pretty good at null gravity operations until he watched some of the bay crew working.

A pair of mollusk-like Bakulu flew by using puffs of air they expelled to maneuver like little space ships. He was pretty certain the shells they used weren’t natural but manufactured for working in that environment. One of them glanced at Jim with one of its three eyestalks as it flew past. Elsewhere, a trio of elSha were wrangling a fuel hose toward Jim’s shuttle. It was fairly rigid and resisted their efforts, yet they acted as if it were the easiest thing imaginable.

Just before they reached the door, Jim noticed a windowed blister overlooking the bay. It was a command center, with several individuals inside. Two of them were Human; they were the first Humans he’d seen since arriving in New Warsaw.

They waited in the lock for a minute until they saw Nigel Shirazi and his second in command emerge from their shuttle and come down their own tether. Jim hadn’t seen the man with Nigel before, but unless he missed his guess the man had all the hallmarks of a sergeant. Jim nodded at Nigel as the man approached and got a glare for his efforts.

“If you think I’ve forgotten what you did on Earth,” he said with a snarl, “you’re greatly mistaken.”

“Do you mean saving all the other merc companies, or you specifically?”

Nigel’s breath sucked in and his eyes got slightly wider as he puffed up. It took quite a bit of self-control for Jim not to laugh. The other merc with Nigel, who Jim saw was wearing First Sergeant’s stripes, put a restraining hand on his commander’s shoulder and whispered something in his ear.

“Fine,” Nigel said. “I will put this aside for now.”

“Are we ready to meet the commander?” Paka asked.

“Yes,” Nigel said, “then she can explain why she sent an alien underling to meet me.” Jim coughed. “What?”

“You don’t know who this is?” Jim asked as the interior door opened onto a corridor.

“He didn’t give me time,” the Veetanho said. Nigel looked suspicious.

“This,” Jim said, “is Paka, the second-in-command of the Winged Hussars.”

Nigel’s jaw dropped. “An alien?”

“He’s observant too,” Paka said. This time Jim did laugh, but so did Hargrave and the sergeant.

“Why did the commander of one of the Horsemen choose an alien as her XO?” Nigel asked as they moved into a lift. The doors closed, and it moved up, settling them to the floor.

“Because I’m really good at the job,” Paka said as she eyed Nigel, “and I’ve been doing it long enough to have met your father.” Nigel looked genuinely impressed for the first time. “We fought together on several occasions. We’re very familiar with your prejudice against non-Humans. Familiar enough to see that you have some justification for these feelings. Your father could move past that prejudice. Can you?”

Jim grinned again. He liked this Veetanho, a lot. He could see why she was Alexis’ right hand…woman. Like all the Veetanho he’d met, she was shrewd and observant. They were also a very long-lived race. Hargrave had said Peepo was more than a century old. He still had difficulty believing Peepo was in command of the fleet that took Earth. Why had she done it? The lift reached a full gravity, or close enough that Jim couldn’t tell the difference, and they exited. A short way later, Paka gestured.

“Here we are,” Paka said as she stopped at a door guarded by a pair of Hussars marines wearing Mk 8 CASPers and sporting impressive-looking laser carbines of a design he’d never seen before. The closest to him had sergeant’s stripes painted on its shoulder armor and the name “Sgt. Johansson” on the chest. He couldn’t see the further soldier’s name.

As Paka came abreast, both saluted her, and she returned it, then touched the door controls. “Command Staff Meeting Room #1” was printed on the door as it slid aside. Inside was a conference table large enough for a dozen Human-sized beings. The familiar form of Alexis Cromwell sat at the head of the table. A MinSha with a slung laser rifle stood just behind the commander; the Winged Hussars’ logo was etched into her torso chitin, and she had a lieutenant’s bar on her arm.

“Colonel Cartwright, Colonel Shirazi,” Alexis said and gestured to the table, “welcome.”

“Thank you,” Jim said with a bow of his head.

Lt. Colonel Hargrave,” Alexis said with emphasis on his rank and a twinkle in her eyes, “good to see you again.”

“Ma’am,” he replied. Colonel Shirazi nodded slowly. The look on his face said he was slightly taken aback, though Jim couldn’t say why. He kept looking from her to the MinSha.

“This is Lieutenant T’jto, commander of the marine contingent aboard Pegasus.

“So it’s true,” Shirazi said.

“What’s that?” Alexis asked.

“You love aliens.”

She made a noise, somewhere between grunt and snort. “Do you know what I love, Colonel?” He just stared. “I love good soldiers, and T’jto is the best.”

Nigel seemed unconvinced but changed the subject. “This is my First Sergeant, Thomas Mason.”

“Pleasure to meet you, Colonel Cromwell,” Mason said with a salute.

“First Sergeant,” Alexis said and returned the salute. “Now that we’ve gotten the formalities out of the way, I’d like you to tell me how in entropy you got here, and exactly what happened in the Sol System.”

Jim reached into his pocket and drew out the little memory module Drizz had given him. He sat it on the conference table and, with a shove, sent it sliding across the table. Alexis snatched it up and eyed the module, rolling it over and giving the logo a good look. Her eyes unfocused for a moment, and the door opened. An elSha walked in and she handed it to the alien, who left without comment.

“Assuming that’s legitimate,” she said, “who gave it to you?”

“Your representative on Earth,” Jim explained, “Drizz. Sansar Enkh convinced him our only logical course of action in the face of invasion was to evacuate. The majority of the mercs who got off went to Karma, while we came here.”

“This contains the data we gathered on the enemy fleet on our way out of the system,” Nigel said, sliding his own chip across the table. Jim nodded; his late arrival made more sense now. He’d been gathering data on the enemy fleet.

Alexis picked up the item, a standard computer chip, and slipped it into a slot on the conference table. Instantly the table produced an extremely high-quality Tri-V image showing the area around Earth.

“Why did Colonel Enkh encourage you to retreat?”

“She feared the situation was unwinnable,” Jim said quickly before Nigel could complicate matters. Still, he fumed.

“You don’t agree?” she asked Nigel.

“No,” he said, “I don’t. I believed we had a defensible situation and should’ve taken advantage of it. They’d have had to come down to our territory, where we had the advantage.”

She looked down the center of the table for a moment, and Jim recognized her disconnected look; it was the same one he got when using his pinplants. “Colonel Shirazi, you realize this action against Earth is in direct violation of Mercenary Guild law?”

“What difference does that make?”

“Your data shows quite an array of ships.” The Tri-V quickly identified and highlighted all the ships noted by Revenge’s sensors. “It also represents an array of races.” She glanced up at the display. “Four, to be precise. That implies this action isn’t illegal…” she looked at Nigel, “it’s sanctioned.”

“Wait,” Jim said and raised a hand. “You’re suggesting the Merc Guild allowed this?”

“Allowed?” she asked. “I don’t know if that’s the right way to put it.”

“Then what is?” Nigel asked.

She shrugged. “Time will tell,” she said and stood up.

“Wait,” Jim said, “we don’t have time to wait.”

“We get regular couriers here,” she said. “One is expected from Earth in three days, and one from Karma in four.”

“I thought you didn’t have any fleets outside this system?”

“I don’t; these are just information couriers. Return to your ships; we’ll talk in four days.”

“Are we prisoners?” Nigel asked. She eyed him and cocked her head before answering.

“For now, you’re guests of the Winged Hussars.”

The MinSha lieutenant beckoned them toward the door through which they’d entered, and Alexis left via another.

“You’re welcome to stay on the station if you want,” the lieutenant said in English, to Jim’s surprise. Very few MinSha bothered to learn English; because they didn’t breathe through their mouths, it was a difficult language for them.

“Prime Base?” he asked.

“Yes, we call it Prime Base.”

“What was it called before you found it?” The alien cocked her heart-shaped head in curiosity.

“Maybe she’ll tell you that, some day,” T’jto said as they went through the door. Paka was waiting, talking to the two suited troopers.

“This was a waste of time,” Nigel growled. “This entire trip was a waste of time.”

“Easy, sir,” Mason said, putting a hand on his shoulder.

“No, it was, and you agree. Abandoning Earth was bad enough, but we should’ve gone with the fleet.” He cast a dismissive gesture at the closing door. “She won’t help; she’s safe and happy here, like a camel flea. This hidden base makes her safe, while we’re at the whim of enemies.”

“She hasn’t said no yet,” Jim said, then shrugged. “A few days won’t make any difference either way.” Nigel grunted and stormed off down the hallway with Mason. Jim delayed as he considered his options.

“That young man has issues,” Hargrave said, watching Nigel leave. Jim was worrying about his own issues, and he glanced back to admire the two CASPers guarding their commander’s conference room.

The machines were pristine in appearance, looking like they’d been uncrated just that morning. The sergeant’s suit he’d had a good look at; the one next to it wore corporal chevrons on its shoulder and the name “Culper” on the cockpit dome.

“Maybe we’ll stay here,” Jim said, “give us an excuse to look aroun—” he stopped mid-word and spun around toward the second CASPer. “Culper?” he asked.

“Yes, sir?”

“Rick Culper?” Jim stepped closer, not believing what he was seeing. A second later, there was a click and a hiss. A small buzzer sounded a warning as the Mk8’s cockpit split and rotated upward. The man sitting inside wearing a haptic suit was, undeniably, Jim’s childhood friend, Rick Culper. “Rick, oh my God, it’s you!”

“I’m sorry?” Rick said. Jim started to say something, then stopped. Three years had changed his old friend more than he’d have thought possible. To start, Rick had a short but well-styled beard. He looked as massive as before, yet it was the other man’s face that drew Jim’s eyes back.

“Rick,” Jim hissed. “What happened?” Rick cocked his head, a head that was horribly scarred. A line of scar tissue marked what Jim thought was a laser wound cutting into his head above his left ear and ending just an inch from his nose.

Rick caught where Jim was looking. He pulled his hand free from the CASPer’s arm to reach up and touch the scar. “Do I know you?”

Jim physically staggered at the words, unable to form a reply for several heartbeats. “Rick,” he said, “it’s me, Jim. Jim Cartwright?”

The man Jim had known since he was five years old looked at him curiously. It was the same look you’d give a casual acquaintance you haven’t seen in many years who you’re not sure you remember. The person might be familiar, but you can’t really place the name.

“Sorry, I don’t think I know you,” Rick said. Without another word, he closed the CASPer’s cockpit and resumed his post.

“Come on, Jim,” Hargrave said, laying a gentle hand on Jim’s shoulder, “we should go.” Jim allowed himself to be led away. All down the hallway, he fought for self-control. First his father hadn’t returned from a contract, then his mother ruined the company—and his birthright—and then his girlfriend turned out to be a government spy. Rick had been his best friend growing up. In many ways, his only friend. Now that was gone too. He was numb with loss as they turned out of sight.

* * *

“Why did you open your cockpit like that?” Sergeant Johansson asked over the squadnet.

“Sorry,” Rick said, trying to shake the itchy feeling he’d gotten in the back of his skull. The feeling he should have remembered something. “I thought I knew him.”

“You’d think you’d remember knowing the commander of a Horsemen unit.”

“That guy? Looked more like he ate a Horseman,” one of the other security detail joked. Johansson chuckled, but Rick felt like the little joke was wrong, even though it came out naturally. Maybe the man, Jim Cartwright, was more than he seemed. “We still on for tonight?” he asked, changing the subject.

“If you’re up to it,” Johannsson said with just the hint of a laugh in her voice. When he said he would be, in all ways, she did laugh. The Tri-V on the inside of his cockpit showed their shift time. Another hour, and they’d be relieved. Ever since arriving in New Warsaw, Commander Cromwell had kept around-the-clock marine teams and rapid response units on standby. The command staff didn’t say why; it just posted the watches.

When the ships arrived in-system, all hell had broken loose. Unscheduled ships didn’t arrive in New Warsaw. Ever. So when these appeared, everyone figured this was the threat they’d been hearing rumors about ever since their leader had stopped taking new contracts.

The commander of Cartwright’s Cavaliers, Rick thought. That same tickle. His kindergarten class, a retired merc talking about the Four Horsemen. Then it was gone as quickly as it had appeared. He gave his head a little shake and stopped trying to force himself to remember. A laser from a Pushtal pirate, before he’d joined the Hussars, had taken a big chunk of his memory, as well as how he felt and interpreted emotions.

Nemo, a medic with the Hussars, had offered to help recover some of Rick’s memories and brain functions; Nemo was a Wrogul, and he used his tentacles to perform surgery right through his patients’ skin. Without anesthesia. Nemo had inserted Rick’s pinplants, and having a being slide its tentacles into your brain was a singularly bizarre sensation he’d yet to get up the nerve to repeat.

Still, Commander Cartwright seemed certain he’d known Rick. Certain enough that he’d been distressed when Rick hadn’t recognized him. He glanced at the time. Maybe I’ll look up Nemo after all, he thought. Before more ships show up, and those aren’t friendly.

* * *

Alexis stood in the antechamber off the conference room and watched Jim and Rick through her pinplants. Using her pinplants, she could access every sensor, every log, every camera in the New Warsaw star system within seconds.

The young Cartwright was almost as much of an unknown as Shirazi. While one was uncertain and a bit unpredictable, the other was full of passion and fury. And kind of cute too, she thought. Leaving Cartwright, she found Shirazi and his First Sergeant, and she examined the commander of Asbaran Solutions. He looked like his father and his grandfather. However, he had more of his grandfather in his carriage, his demeanor, and certainly his intensity. Of course, Asbaran had always been the rage and fury of the Four Horsemen.

“<What is it I feel you thinking?>”

Please stop spying on me,” Alexis sent back. “I thought you were busy overseeing the final stages of construction in shipyard #2?

“<I can do more than one thing at time. When we aren’t in combat, I can do many thousands of things at a time.>”

Including spying on me.” There was no response.

“<You didn’t answer my question.>”

Correct, I didn’t.” The door opened, and Kleena came in. He led the Hussars’ super-science team, euphemistically referred to as the Geek Squad.

“Commander,” he said and held out the nav-stick Jim had given her.

“What’s the verdict,” she asked.

“It’s genuine,” he said. “The molecular ID is a match for one of the four issued to Drizz on Earth.”

She’d known it would be. The Hussars had helped with the modifications to Bucephalus ordered by Jim Cartwright’s father, Thaddeus Cartwright. When the ship arrived in New Warsaw, there was no question as to its legitimacy, only how it got here. She just wished Drizz had sent a message along with it.

“Is there anything else?” he asked. “Sato wants to run another test with the cutter.”

“No,” she said and nodded her thanks. “I wouldn’t want to keep our resident mad scientist from his toys.” He started to leave. “Kleena?”

“Commander?”

“Can he replicate half of what the shuttle has?”

“He thinks he can replicate it all.”

“Right,” she said patiently, “but I’m asking if you think he can.”

“Some of it, sure. If we have enough time.”

“I can’t give you any more people. We need to get those ships finished.”

“I know,” he said. “We’ll do the best we can.”

“You think everything they said is true, then?” Paka asked once Kleena had departed.

“I find it unlikely,” she said. “The guilds don’t play those kinds of games. Humanity has brought too much to the table. Their bottom line is up, thanks to us. Still…”

“Still, there’s the plot against the Horsemen,” Paka added.

She nodded. But were we really just the tip of the iceberg? “We can afford a few days,” she said and left. Lieutenant T’jto watched her go and stayed in the conference room for a few minutes, alone. Finally, she turned and left as the security team was due to be relieved. She didn’t notice a shadow in one corner of the conference room move ever so slightly as she left.

* * * * *


Chapter Nine


Alexis’ Quarters, Winged Hussars Prime Base, New Warsaw System

“<The courier is here.>”

Alexis sat up in bed, jarred out of a troubled sleep by Ghost’s voice in her mind.

I wish you’d learn a better way to wake me up, she answered, but got no reply. With a sigh, she got out of bed and quickly dressed. As she opened the door to her personal quarters, Paka was just reaching to press the call button.

Her Veetanho executive officer stepped back in surprise. “The courier arrived a short time ago,” Paka said.

“I know,” Alexis replied, tapping her pinplants. Paka nodded in understanding and followed her to her office. Alexis maintained several residences and offices in Prime Base, each aimed toward a different type of duty that might call her. When in-system, she stayed at all of them from time to time, with the sole exception of the one closest to the CIC. Thankfully, she’d never needed to stay there. She hoped she never did.

She called this one her command office. It was closest to the various meeting rooms and division commanders within the Winged Hussars. It was the most intricate and elaborate of her offices, and the one her mother had preferred; unfortunately, it was also the one she liked the least. Alexis touched the intercom control and connected to the comms department.

“Communications,” an efficient voice answered immediately.

“Have you received the packet from our courier?” she asked.

“Commander!” the person replied, surprised to have the CO herself interested in routine comms traffic. “We’re just now running it through the special encryption.”

The ship was a simple freighter, one of dozens the Hussars used as both transporters of goods, and message couriers between their various business interests. Though the company had withdrawn from any new contracts, other things were not as easy to stop. The courier from Earth arrived yesterday, confirming what Jim Cartwright and Nigel Shirazi had said. Earth had fallen to an alien-led merc armada.

Paka stood by silently as they waited for the custom encryption software written by Ghost to work its magic on the data packet. An ancient AI, it had lain dormant within Pegasus until found by the first Winged Hussars during the Alpha Contracts. Decades later, an EMP pulse had killed Alexis’ sister, but in that moment of tragedy, Ghost had inhabited the woman’s pinplants, effectively animating Alexis’ sister. Ghost now lived on Pegasus, acting as the ship’s drone controller and providing the Hussars with computer programs far beyond anything else available in the Union, like the unbreakable encryption used for messages between the Hussars’ commanders.

“Decryption complete, Commander,” the technician announced, and her desk flashed to indicate the data was available. Alexis quickly scrolled through the routine traffic to find what she wanted, then hissed when she did.

“Paka?”

“Commander?”

“Please summon the merc company commanders from Bucephalus.

“Just Cartwright and Shirazi?”

“No,” she said and shook her head, “all of those who are currently in-system.” The Veetanho nodded and left. Alexis returned to the dispatches, reading through them while she waited. By the time she was notified they’d arrived, Alexis was finished. She rose and walked into the meeting room.

Along with Nigel Shirazi’s unit, Jim had managed to bring along three other units—a light assault company known as Sinclair’s Scorpions, commanded by Alistair Sinclair; Bert’s Bees, a marine unit commanded by Frank Earl; and an infiltration unit called Drake’s Rangers, commanded by Lisa Drake. They all waited for her as she entered the chamber.

The three small non-Horsemen units were an unknown quantity. She’d heard of Frank Earl and worked with Bert’s Bees on a couple of operations. They were reliable marines without their own major space assets. They hired out as needed and had been around for quite a while, which spoke to their success. Earl was in his fifties, a little overweight and slightly balding, but he projected an air of quiet competence.

She’d also heard of Drake’s Rangers but had never worked with them. In the modern era of armored CASPers, they were an oddity, specializing in infiltration, and didn’t use the armored combat suits. With a reputation of getting in under almost any circumstance, they struck Alexis as more like spies than mercs. Lisa Drake was the CO and founder; she had a background in military intelligence in Earth’s world government. She appeared as impatient as Earl was patient but seemed much more alert as she took in everything around her without staring. She had her hair cut ultra-short and was built more like an athlete than a merc.

Last was Alistair Sinclair. Compact and powerful, he fit the bill of a merc in every way. His Scorpions weren’t as well-known, but they had a long history of successful small-scale assault contracts. They took high risk contracts and usually came back successful. Of the three, his expression most resembled Nigel Shirazi’s; anger. However, Alexis knew his anger was focused on the situation, not the people in the conference room.

She took a seat at the head of the conference table, then spoke. “First, thank you all for coming over.”

“We’ve seen three ships arrive so far,” Nigel said, not waiting for her to continue. “Why have you continued to keep us in the dark?”

“Not all of those ships carried relevant data,” she explained. “Now, will you let me continue?” He nodded slowly. “The first courier was from Earth and left three days after you left.” She took a breath. “The ship confirmed what you’ve said—Earth is occupied by a large alien merc force.”

The conference room erupted in demands for more information. Alexis held up her hands for quiet and waited. After a minute, everyone fell silent, and she spoke again.

“The second ship was a regular courier from a base we have in the Coro region. No information related to our current situation was included. The last ship, which arrived two hours ago, was from Karma. All the ships that fled there were captured by another alien merc force. Aside from whatever units are out there on contracts, we’re all that’s left of Earth’s mercenaries.”

* * *

The merc company commanders spent some time trying to come to grips with the situation they’d found themselves in. Jim was numb. He’d gone along with Sansar’s plan because it made the most sense. Nobody expected an ambush at Karma, home of Earth’s closest merc pit; it was largely considered neutral ground. Until recently, there’d never been a battle in the system, even when bitter rivals were there at the same time. It was even harder to grasp, as he was still struggling to come to grips with Rick Culper’s inability to remember him.

After he’d met Rick the other day, Jim had sent a query to the Winged Hussars personnel office. They confirmed Rick was the same Rick Culper Jim had grown up with. They also confirmed he’d suffered a near-fatal laser wound repelling pirates from a tramp freighter while en route to Karma in search of work. The rest was confidential. His friend, it would seem, simply didn’t remember him.

With an effort, Jim forced his concentration to the matter of Karma. He thought about the forces at their disposal, and a feeling of helplessness overcame him. If they’d been too few before, what were they now? Inconsequential, that’s what. Was humanity to be the slaves of alien races…or just annihilated? He glanced at Nigel and saw fuming rage. The other man looked at him and shook his head, blame obvious in his gaze.

“So what’s to become of us?” Alistair Sinclair asked.

“Yeah,” Lisa Drake added. “What are we going to do?’

“Do?” Alexis asked. “Nothing.” Everyone gawked at her, even Nigel.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“I mean we’re not doing anything. The war is lost. I don’t have the forces to face opposition like that, and even if I could defeat that kind of fleet, you don’t represent a fraction of the power we’d need to retake Earth.”

“You’re throwing us out then?” Nigel snapped.

“No,” Alexis said. “I’ve decided to let you stay.”

“And then?” he persisted.

Alexis calmly considered him for a long moment. Jim watched her, the way she held herself, the way she examined everything around her, and the confidence she radiated. For a second, he felt like he was looking at the female incarnation of his father. The similarities were startling. All except one important thing.

“Eventually we’ll be able to do something about it,” she said. “I have a new fleet under construction. It should be ready in about a year. We have crews to spare, but not ships.”

“A year?” Nigel yelled and slammed a fist on the table. “What will happen in a year?”

Alexis’ eyes narrowed at his display, then she lifted an eyebrow in what must have been amusement.

That wasn’t what Jim had expected. “You said something about other information from Earth?” Jim asked.

Alexis looked at him and gave a little sigh. “Paka,” she said.

“Commander?”

“Play them the recording.”

“Yes, sir.”

Everyone listened in silence, even Nigel, as the unmistakable voice of Peepo spoke about how humanity was now under guild control, that the race was denied membership in the Union, and all merc commanders must report to Capital and face a tribunal.

“What’s this bullshit about a tribunal?” Nigel snarled.

“They’re blaming us,” she said, looking at Jim and Nigel, “the Four Horsemen, for a number of crimes. The Canavars on Chimsa.”

“What?!” Jim yelled.

“The extermination of all life on Moorhouse, and the use of banshee bombs against same.”

“Outrageous!” Nigel roared. “The Besquith used them, not us! The Caroons were still alive when we left!”

“They’re dead now,” Alexis said. “They’re also accusing the Hussars of illegally attacking neutral space forces, and the Golden Horde of using bioweapons, among other things.”

“Wow,” Alistair Sinclair said. “They’re framing you with everything they did.” Alexis nodded solemnly.

“It’s an elegant move on their part,” Frank Earl agreed. “They’re using you to clean up a lot of messes.”

“Or they’ve been planning this all along,” Lisa Drake said. Alexis stared at her, and the room went deathly silent. “That’s what you think, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” she agreed. “They nearly destroyed us all. In the case of Asbaran, they came very close to succeeding.” Nigel looked like he was imagining strangling the leaders of the plot. “It all started with Cartwright’s, though,” she said, nodding toward Jim. “That was a subtle ploy. We think your mother was manipulated into bankrupting the company. Sorry to say, it wasn’t hard.” Jim shrugged. “They went after Asbaran next, then my Hussars, then the Horde. I can only guess that, since none of the plots wholly succeeded, they decided to do what they did on Earth.”

“But why?” Jim asked.

“Nobody knows,” Alexis admitted. “Though I admit, I’d like to ask Peepo.”

“Then let’s ask her,” Jim said. Her head spun around in surprise.

“I already explained we don’t have the forces.”

“Then we don’t go at them straight,” he said, “we do it sideways. Like you did that fleet.”

“That was complicated and risky. I almost lost Pegasus.

“Is that why you’ve been hiding here ever since?”

“What?” Alexis demanded. There was a general intake of breath around the table at the accusation.

“I understand,” he said. “You’re scared. This is a great place to hide.”

“How dare you,” she said, her voice low and menacing.

“My grandfather would spit on you,” Nigel said.

“I knew your grandfather,” Alexis snapped. “You’re not your grandfather.”

“Perhaps,” he agreed. “But at least I am not a coward.”

“This meeting is over,” she said and shot to her feet.

“You’re a Horseman,” Jim said, making her freeze. “You said it. The Four Horsemen for Earth. Was that a lie?” She left without looking back. Her XO, Paka, stayed for a couple of moments, staring at Jim, before eventually following her boss out.

“Well, that could have gone better,” Alistair Sinclair said with a laugh as they were escorted out of the conference room.

“You struck gold with those comments,” Frank Earl said to Jim and Nigel. “The look on her face…”

“They cut deep,” Lisa Drake agreed. “Blood flowed.”

“Now what?” Nigel asked as they walked down the corridor.

“We wait,” Jim said. For once, Nigel didn’t argue. “Let’s stay on the station.” Jim had a slight grin on his face. “If I’m right, this won’t take long.” He turned to their escort and asked for quarters on the station. The escort, a Cochkala in Hussars uniform, looked surprised, but said he’d take care of it. As they were led to another level, Jim smiled even bigger. If half of what he’d heard about Alexis was true, he’d set events into motion. He just hoped it was the direction he wanted. After a string of disasters, a little luck would be nice for once.

* * * * *


Chapter Ten


Winged Hussars Prime Base, New Warsaw System

Rick watched the collection of merc commanders leave the conference room. None of them were aware they’d been under observation. His entire squad was in an adjacent room in light combat armor. Alexis Cromwell was never without a squad more than a few feet away. They monitored the proceedings through their pinplants, ready to respond at a moment’s notice.

“Holy shit,” Sergeant Johansson said after the meeting room was empty. “I’m surprised she didn’t rip that fat kid’s head off and shit down his neck!”

Rick only nodded. He’d been out of sorts since meeting Cartwright’s commander, and seeing the exchange in the conference room hadn’t helped. He’d been intimately familiar with the trials and tribulations of the Hussars and their attempts to avoid destruction, including the battle at Karma and the subsequent fight in the Grkata system. The incidents in the “black nothing” after the battle were even more harrowing and highly classified.

“Dragon, stand down from stations,” Paka spoke to them over their pinplants. “Raptor squad has security for the rest of the day.”

“Acknowledged,” T’jto said, then addressed the rest. “Dismissed.”

“Boring job,” Trah’q clicked and began to shuffle out. The Xiq’tal trooper was the member of an immensely-powerful crustacean-like species and had replaced Oort in their squad. The Xiq’tal weren’t known to be as brutally murderous as Tortantula, but they were even harder to kill and essentially functioned as tanks. Rick hadn’t seen him fight yet but was looking forward to it.

“Hope it stays that way,” Johansson told the crab, who just grunted and skittered out of the armored room toward the armory. “Plans?” she asked Rick.

“I have an appointment with Nemo.”

“Oh?” she said and glanced at him as she slipped off the up-armor from her uniform. “I figured you’d given up that idea.”

“So had I,” he admitted, “but something made me reconsider.” The two walked to the armory and stowed their gear. Rick didn’t say anything more, so she didn’t push it. They were intermittent lovers at the least, possibly boyfriend and girlfriend at most, although they’d never discussed it. Rick was glad for that, because, other than a general sense of ease around her, and pleasure from their lovemaking, he felt nothing more toward her. That, of course, was part of the problem.

He grabbed a quick shower; when he was finished, the armory was empty. After donning a fresh uniform, he strapped on his sidearm, an old HP-4 he’d owned for years, and headed out. The wing of Prime Base the Winged Hussars’ command officers called home was always busy, with lots of staff coming and going on all kinds of business. With the large number of aliens in the Hussars, you learned not to be caught off guard when you spotted one you hadn’t seen before. However, seeing one you had seen before was another matter.

Rick was walking around the corner, just down from the conference room used for the merc commander meeting, when he spotted it. A humanoid figure, slightly shorter than himself, dressed in dark, loose-fitting robes was coming toward him. Instantly, something about the figure struck him as familiar. The other’s gait had a strange, loose, hunched-shoulder quality about it. Almost as if he were stooped over.

He couldn’t see the face as they passed each other; it wore its hood up, but Rick got the briefest flash of red from where the eyes would have been in a humanoid. The red was otherworldly, as if it were produced by a power source. He also saw a hand with long fingers and more joints than a Human hand. The skin was as black as space and so tight as to be skeletal.

Red eyes, his mind said, stooped over with skeletal black-skinned hands. The pieces were enough to fall into place. It was the same alien he’d seen in the Winged Hussars recruiting office back in Karma, just before he was hired. The alien had just seemed to disappear while Rick was completing his application. He stopped and spun around.

“Hey!” he called. The alien continued. “You, in the black robes.” The alien stopped and turned in a most peculiar method, as if its legs and hips didn’t work like most bipedal lifeforms. “Didn’t I see you back on Karma in the Hussars’ recruiting office?”

The alien reached up with those long-fingered hands and delicately pulled back the hood to reveal a head straight from a fever dream. The skull was more pointed than a Human’s, with exaggerated occipital ridges, and eyes that looked like glowing red coals. Its mouth looked more like a fish’s, and when it opened it revealed lines of glinting, razor-sharp silver teeth. There was no chin or nose to speak of, and the neck was pencil-thin and ludicrously long. The eyes narrowed, and it hissed.

Rick felt something, a tickle in the back of his mind, and his vision blurred slightly. He shook his head and took a step back. The alien put its hood up and started to turn away. “Wait, what the fuck was that?” Rick demanded. Had that thing just used some kind of crazy mind power on him? The alien spun back to look at him, hood half up. If Rick didn’t know better, it looked stunned. “Maybe you’d better let me see your ID.”

Rick had the authority to do that. Winged Hussars marines did double duty as security. In the months since they’d been locked down in New Warsaw, he’d been called in on a couple of barroom brawls, a disagreement over a gambling bet, and even a domestic dispute between a pair of Oogar. He’d worn his CASPer on the latter, just to be safe. However, he’d never asked anyone for identification. Who could be in New Warsaw if they weren’t supposed to be? No one—at least, not until now.

The alien opened his mouth and hissed again, narrowing its eyes even harder. Rick felt the same tingling. He grunted this time as his vision swam. As soon as it let up, he drew his HP-4.

“That’s it, freeze!” he ordered, but the alien was gone. “Son of a bitch!” he cried and ran in the direction the alien had been heading. Only a few dozen meters further, he came to a glideway, a tube with a continuously moving cable that had intermittent handholds. Several Humans were standing outside waiting for a free handhold to appear. They looked alarmed when he ran up, handgun drawn.

“What’s going on, corporal?” a woman asked, wearing the single bar of a lieutenant.

“Did you see a robed, black-skinned alien run this way?” She looked at her companions, two civilian men, who looked back at him. They all shook their heads.

“No,” one of the men said, “we haven’t seen anyone since we got here a minute ago.” Rick cursed and activated his pinplants.

“Lieutenant T’jto, this is Corporal Culper. I think we have a problem.”

* * *

Alexis Cromwell calmly slid the door to her personal quarters closed after acknowledging Sergeant Jakal at his post, then stood there shuddering. She’d never been more enraged in her entire life. How dare they say that? she fumed and began to pace back and forth. The gall of them, saying I’m a coward! “Impudent little shits,” she snarled aloud. She’d been fighting among the stars since before Jim Cartwright had been born, and while Nigel Shirazi was still running around playing with toys.

“<Why are you so upset?>”

I’m sure you were listening,” she replied.

“<I can monitor every comms channel, every camera, and every microphone in the system…if you let me. However, you have not let me.>”

Alexis grunted. That was all too true. Despite the fact they wouldn’t have had New Warsaw without Ghost, none of the Hussars’ commanders before her had ever completely trusted the machine lifeform. And neither did she. How do you trust the most alien of all beings? Compared to it, the most exotic life found thus far was easy to understand.

“Yet you listen in on my meeting.”

“<Yes. We are connected.>”

Don’t remind me.”

“<As you wish.>” Alexis grunted with finality and tried to think about something that needed doing. “<However, you dodged my question. Why are you so upset?>

“You heard them; they accused me of being a fucking coward! I’m Alexis Cromwell, the commander of the Winged Hussars. I do not back away from a fight.”

“<No,>” it said, “<you haven’t. Not until now, anyway.>”

“Now you, too?” It was quiet in her mind for a brief time, then she was surprised to hear her own voice talking.

“You were right, leaving was a mistake. Let them have their conflicts; I’m done with it.”

“What about Earth?” Ghost asked as the playback continued. “Aren’t the Four Horsemen pledged to defend your home world?”

“The other Horsemen know where to find us.”

“<And find you they did,>” Ghost said, in real time now.

Of course Alexis remembered saying those words, shortly after barely surviving a rescue mission of her own people. She’d risked her ship, her crew, and her own life to go after them, even when the odds were astronomically against her. Son of a bitch, she thought.

“Just leave me alone for now?” she asked. Thankfully, for once, Ghost did what she asked.

* * *

Descending from Orbit, Capital Planet

“Let’s go,” the MinSha officer said from the door of Sansar’s stateroom/cell. Throughout the week-long journey through hyperspace, she’d been kept in the single room, out of contact with anyone else other than the MinSha troopers who’d been assigned to guard her.

“You’re new,” Sansar said. “I don’t think I’ve seen you before.”

“I’m in charge of this unit, and the person responsible for making sure you get to the Merc Guild Headquarters in one piece. Apparently, they weren’t sure the Besquith troopers could be counted on to do that without eating you.”

“We’re at Capital Planet?” Sansar asked. The officer nodded. “I’ve never been here before. Where’s this system located?”

“Capital Planet is in the Gresht region of the Tolo Arm. It’s off the core, but not too far from it, astronomically speaking.”

“Core region? I didn’t know there was anything worthwhile here.”

“You’re correct; there’s very little of value nearby. Most of the worlds are only marginally inhabitable, and many are nuclear wastelands or mined out. Capital Planet exists as a testament to the galaxy’s history. The Union uses it as a reminder of what could happen.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, there was a great war in our past—”

“I’m aware of that.”

“Even before the war, though, Capital Planet was a dead world, as far as you or I are concerned. While it has an atmosphere, the oxygen levels are far too low for us.”

“How did it become the capital then, if no one could live here?”

“The first people who lived here weren’t oxygen breathers, and they liked the appearance of the planet. Their original name for it translated to ‘Beautiful desolation.’ Besides that, there were also some areas rendered uninhabitable during the galactic war due to radiation and…other issues.”

“Other issues? What do you mean?”

“I don’t know; there are places on the planet you can’t go, though. They’re listed as ‘too dangerous.’”

“I don’t get it. If the planet’s that bad, why didn’t they move the capital somewhere else?”

“It’s a reminder of what happened in the past and a cautionary tale for the future. Even the asteroid belt is a reminder of the Great War.”

“Why is that?”

“Because it’s not even made of asteroids. During the war, the two greatest fleets ever assembled met in this system. There were millions of major combatants on both sides; the minor ships and smaller fighters and drones were uncountable. Quarter was neither asked for, nor given. They battled for months, until one side was wiped out. Legend states that the winning forces—those who would later become the Galactic Union—only had 137 ships remaining after the battle. They won…but the cost was…words can’t describe it.”

Sansar nodded. “We have a term for that. It was a Pyrrhic victory.”

“What is that?”

“It is a victory that inflicts such a devastating toll on the victors that it’s almost as if they’d lost. Even though they were victorious, the damage done to their own forces negates any sense of achievement.” She paused and then asked, “Surely that must have ended the war, though?”

The MinSha cocked her head and stared at Sansar for a moment, then replied, “You’d like to think so, but no; the war continued afterward, although the battle caused a number of races and systems to withdraw from the conflict. The enmity between the leaders of both sides, though, was such that the war continued for some time, even after that battle.”

The dropship maneuvered, and the MinSha looked out the tiny porthole between them. “We’re here.”

Sansar looked out. “Beautiful desolation” it might have been to the founding race, but the beauty was lost on her. The terrain looked like the surface of the Moon, although it had more of an Earthly look than the Moon’s dusty appearance. A rock-strewn plain extended off into the distance, with only some brushy shrub analogues and rocks to break it up. For a capital planet, it was remarkably uninhabited.

The shuttle came around to the right as it neared the starport and overshot its approach vector. As it corrected, Sansar got her first look at the starport facilities, and she was amazed at its resemblance to pictures she’d seen of Earth’s pre-contact airports. From a massive central facility, several large arms extended like an octopus to the smaller buildings, and from each of those, little tubes extended to mate up with the dropships and shuttles clustered around them. Along the periphery, several large hangar-like buildings held larger transports.

Beyond the main starport building, two massive tubes led off to a collection of tall buildings in the distance. Through one of them, she could see a large maglev racing off toward the buildings. Besides that, nothing moved as far as she could see, and a sense of ennui overcame her. Sansar sat back in her seat, underwhelmed. “I can see why you’d avoid the planet,” she said. “It looks like a barren version of hell.”

* * * * *


Chapter Eleven


Winged Hussars Prime Base, New Warsaw System

“Tell Uuth what you saw,” T’jto instructed Rick. This was the first time Rick had met Uuth, a Zuparti in charge of the Winged Hussars’ Home Security Team. The Zuparti reminded him of a weasel, in more ways than just appearance. They were always in motion, small but perceptive eyes taking in everything around them. Its long, almost feline whiskers flicked, and its nose twitched. He didn’t know how old she was, though the grey streaked in her black and dark brown fur spoke of advanced age.

“It was a humanoid,” Rick replied, “near my height, wearing a dark robe which covered its entire body.” His eyebrows scrunched up as he organized his memory. A little of it was blurry, and that confused him. As he thought, he could see Uuth’s tiny eyes fix on the scar that cut into Rick’s head. Her eyes flicked down to a slate which was out of view. “Its skin was jet black,” Rick continued, “as black as I’ve ever seen. Humanoid hands, with long fingers.”

“There are no aliens like that working for the Winged Hussars,” Uuth said. She glanced at T’jto before looking back at Rick. “Anything else?”

“Yes,” Rick said. “When I challenged it, the alien lowered the hood covering its head.” He described the elongated and pointed head, the exaggerated eye ridges, glowing red eyes, and the fish-like mouth with silver teeth. He was about to add the crazy thin neck when Uuth interrupted him.

“There are no aliens that match that description in the database,” she said.

“What?” Rick said, jarred out of his recollection. “How is that possible?”

“Corporal,” Uuth said, “I understand you’re scheduled for a session with medical technician Nemo and Dr. Ramirez?”

Rick ground his teeth together. “Yes,” he answered tersely.

“Maybe you’d better proceed with that appointment.”

“You’re just going to ignore what I saw.” It wasn’t a question.

“I’ve reviewed the monitors in that area,” Uuth explained. “Although there’s a gap in the coverage area, we see you but not this alien creature you’re describing.”

“When it lowered the robe and hissed at me, it felt like worms in my skull,” he blurted, “maybe it can alter the camera’s reception or the recording?” This time it was T’jto who looked at Uuth. Rick had been about to mention that it felt like his memory was blurry in places, but he decided that comment wouldn’t help.

“We’re going to run some checks on footage elsewhere in Prime Base,” Uuth said and stood to her full four-foot height. “For now, please continue with your duties.” Rick looked between the two, then nodded. He knew there was no sense in continuing.

“Thank you for the report, Corporal,” Lieutenant T’jto said as Rick got up.

“Thank you, sirs,” he said and left.

After he was gone, Uuth spoke. “Is he stable?”

“Completely,” T’jto said without hesitation. “In fact, he was one of the few who could stand The Nothing, or the 2nd level of hyperspace, as Sato describes it.”

“From what I understand, that’s not necessarily a good thing.”

“That place was as disturbing as normal hyperspace is completely blank.”

“Are you going to report this to the colonel?”

“Of course,” T’jto said. “He is one of my NCOs; I have to. I just don’t know how to report it, especially with everything going on right now.”

* * *

Alexis hadn’t slept in the day since the meeting. She’d tried twice and failed both times, eventually giving up to return to her office and work on various projects. No matter what she did, she kept coming back to the meeting with the visiting merc commanders. All except Alistair Sinclair were younger than her, and all had stared at her with the same profound look of betrayal.

I owe them nothing, she thought over and over again, and every time she thought that, a tiny voice in the back of her mind repeated Nigel Shirazi’s accusation. You’re a coward. But who was she to risk the lives of every single Winged Hussar and their dependents on a lost cause? She was just considering a sleep aid when a message came in on her pinplants.

“Colonel Cromwell, this is the alert office. A ship has just arrived at the emergence point.”

“Understood,” she said. “Is the ready squadron standing by?”

“Manned, and ready to boost on command.”

“Good,” she said and changed to her tactical expert. “What do we have?

“<Data indicates a small ship, possibly a combat transport or a frigate,>” Ghost explained, then continued a moment later. “<Profile matches a MinSha design. While it would seem unlikely, this may be a scout for an advanced attack.>”

Acknowledged,” she said and switched back to the alert office. “Scramble the fleet,” she ordered and got up, preparing to head for the shuttle bay and Pegasus. “Notify the Hussars’ static defense commander of the situation.”

“Comms here,” another cut in, “we’re receiving a coded signal from the ship.”

“Identity?” she demanded.

“It’s Drizz from Earth, and his personal code matches!” Alexis stopped and heaved a sigh of relief.

“Stand down,” she said. “Send my regards to Major Drizz, and have him meet me here in my ready room as soon as he’s brought aboard.” She considered for a second. “Just in case, send American Pharaoh with Excalibur and Osman to escort them in. I’m eager to hear more about how he came to be on a MinSha ship.”

In the four hours it took the MinSha ship to be escorted to a parking orbit near Prime Base, Alexis grabbed a shower and put on the dress uniform her aide had laid out after hearing a representative of the Golden Horde was aboard the MinSha ship. When the shuttle arrived at the secure hangar on Prime Base, she was waiting.

Alexis floated in her formal uniform, black tunic and pants, snug, space black with gold piping. The only adornment was a silver colonel’s eagle, the logo of the Winged Hussars on one shoulder, the logo for Pegasus on the other. The Hussars were one of the merc units who didn’t go in much for decorations. The exception were their marines, who wore silver stars under their name badges denoting combat boarding actions and the name of their squad, also in silver.

With her in the bay were her XO Paka—a black and gold lined sash her version of a uniform—the commander of the Hussars’ marines, and all three squads of Pegasus’ marines, who’d been rotating as her personal guard since everything went to shit.

The door to the shuttle opened, and the first out was Major Drizz. He was wearing light duty armor with a sidearm; Alexis was a little calmer seeing that. If anyone tried anything here, there would be a lot of dead beings very quickly. The next out was a Human she didn’t recognize. He wore a silver oak leaf and the Golden Horde’s standard duty uniform. Flanked by Dragon Squad, she floated toward the shuttle.

“Commander,” Drizz said and saluted.

“Welcome back, Major,” she said and returned the salute.

“Ma’am, this is Lieutenant Colonel Walker of the Golden Horde.” The man came to a good zero gravity position of attention and saluted her, only having to use a foot against the shuttle to avoid spinning. Not bad for a non-navy type. “Walker, this is Colonel Cromwell, commander of the Winged Hussars.”

“Permission to come aboard, Colonel,” Walker said, holding the salute.

“Granted,” she said, returning it. Only then did he drop his own. “Lieutenant Colonel Walker? I seem to recall there was a Sergeant Walker on the Horde roster?”

“I got promoted,” he said with a twisted smile. Not so happy with that, either, she thought.

“Well, for Sansar Enkh to boost you to a light colonel, that says volumes about you.” He shrugged. Humble too, she thought. “Well, why don’t you two come up to the meeting room, and you can explain how you came here in a MinSha ship.”

“First there’s someone else you need to meet,” Major Drizz said, and beckoned to the shuttle. He had to repeat the motion twice before there was a response. It came in a chittering dialect that Alexis was surprised to realize her translator pendant didn’t recognize. “I’m sorry; he’s shy.”

“Tell whoever it is that there’s no reason to be afraid,” Alexis assured him, although she knew a dozen weapons were trained on the door, poised and ready.

After a moment, a long, sleek, fully-furred form slid from the shuttle hatch. Tiny black-on-black eyes shone with moisture, a little nose twitched, and a spray of whiskers shot to either side. She could see tiny sharp teeth. Its limbs were rather short for the long body, though well-muscled and quite dexterous. It didn’t move through zero G so much as swim. Here was a being as at home in space as her Hussars. She smiled in appreciation, even if she’d never met the race.

“Colonel Cromwell, this is Ensign Thorb of the SalSha.”

Her mouth narrowed in surprise. Not only hadn’t she ever met one, she’d never even heard of them before. Accessing her pinplants, a check of the Hussars net confirmed it wasn’t there.

“<That’s an interesting development,>” Ghost said.

What do you mean?

“<A Sha designation is one given by the Kahraman to a race which has been uplifted, specifically by them. However, there was no SalSha uplifted by the Kahraman during the war.>”

Why didn’t you ever tell me that Sha meant an uplifted race?

“<You never asked.>”

Alexis glanced around the bay. Within view were MinSha, elSha, and a couple of opSha. Her mind reeled from the revelation. The SalSha regarded her with keen interest. An unknown race? She started to ask how that was possible, then it fell into place. An unknown race’s name, uplifted, and her translator, which was interfaced with the net to translate any race’s speech in the galaxy, didn’t recognize this one. She fixed Walker with a laser-like stare.

“Mr. Walker, would you care to tell me where you came by a Kahraman uplifting facility, and what motivated you to use it?”

Walker sighed. “Perhaps we should have this discussion somewhere else.”

* * *

“Oh, come on!” Alexis exclaimed, “That’s a serious violation, and it’s a law the Union actually enforces!” Everyone around the conference table looked uncomfortable except Thorb, who was playing a game on a slate while everyone else talked. Although it appeared to be amusing itself, Alexis was pretty sure Thorb was also listening to everything that was said. The SalSha had excellent situational awareness.

“We know that,” Walker admitted. “We really didn’t have any choice in the matter.”

“Equiri shit,” Alexis said with a snort. “I ignored the bit about uplifting in Peepo’s list of charges. I figured it was just another trumped-up charge, or something someone else did, and they tried to pin it on you. Like the Canavar on the Cavaliers.”

“No,” Walker said and gave his head a slight shake, “this one was on us. You have to realize they weren’t playing by the rules either. We were at risk of being wiped out, and the damn malware program was tearing our CASPers up.” He gave a little shrug. “We had to improvise.”

“That’s a great way to put it,” Paka said. “You improvised by breaking a fundamental law of the Union.” Alexis couldn’t ride the new lieutenant colonel too hard. After all, the Hussars had a walking, talking violation of the fundamental laws themselves in the form of Ghost, which made it somewhat hypocritical of her to do so. For that matter, they’d been trying to duplicate the AI for almost as long as it had been part of them. But at least they’d had the good sense to keep quiet about it.

“How in entropy does the Union know about them?” she asked, gesturing to the SalSha.

“We have no idea,” he said. “Our intel people are puzzled by that. What we do know is we need your help. They’re actively hunting us across the galaxy.”

“I can attest to that,” Major Drizz said. “If it wasn’t for Walker and a squad of Horde troopers, I’d either be dead or a prisoner.”

“But you said Sansar willingly surrendered?” Alexis asked. Walker nodded glumly.

“She was hoping she’d get to the bottom of this if they took her to Capital. I’m afraid things might not be going as she hoped; the mercs under Peepo are moving in and taking over on Earth. They aren’t there to suppress; they’re setting up shop.”

Alexis was silent for a minute as she considered her options. “Okay,” she said finally, “I need to think this over. You have what, a company of troopers over there?” He nodded. “Good, have your people and the SalSha move over here for now. We’ll detain and question the crew of the Caw’kal for now.”

Walker nodded.

“How many of you are there here?” she asked Thorb.

“Thirty total,” he said without looking up from the game. Alexis shot Walker a baleful glare.

Walker shrugged. “They all volunteered after they saw how Thorb was changed. By that point, we couldn’t really say ‘no.’ In for a penny, in for a pound.”

“They all want to be space fighter pilots, like me,” Thorb said, with no small amount of pride in his voice.

“Oh, so you’re a space fighter pilot, are you?” Alexis asked, an amused grin on her face.

“Yes, I am,” Thorb replied. “I already have two kills to my credit, as well as one boarding action.”

Alexis’ eyebrows rose, and her eyes widened. “Is that true?”

“It is,” Walker said with a nod. There was a twinkle in the SalSha’s eye, but he also looked quite serious. Dr. Ramirez came in at that moment.

“Ensign Thorb, I’d like you to accompany Dr. Ramirez. He’s chief physician of the Winged Hussars.”

“More tests?” Thorb asked, giving Walker a pained look.

“I promise, I won’t hurt you,” Ramirez said, looking over the new race with fascination.

“It’ll be fine,” Walker said. “Real pilots have to get examined a lot to make sure they’re healthy.”

“Oh,” Thorb said. “In that case, fine!” He hopped up and took Ramirez’s hand, surprising the surgeon. He quickly recovered and led the alien out.

“See to the transfer of your personnel,” she said to Walker. To Major Drizz, she added, “Help the marines move the MinSha prisoners over. I’ve notified Lieutenant T’jto, who’ll oversee their interrogation.” She looked back at Walker. “Tomorrow at 0800 we’ll have a meeting with all the company commanders who are present. I assume Enkh authorized you to speak for the Horde?”

“Yes,” he said, albeit uncomfortably.

“Good. I’ll have your senior staff member in New Warsaw there as well.”

“One more thing,” Walker said and held out a data chip. “This is the record of our battle while Thorb was piloting a MinSha fighter. I think you should review this before you judge them.” She took it and gave him a little nod. Walker seemed to consider something for a moment, then shrugged. “I think you should look at it.”

“I will,” she said. “Until tomorrow then, Lieutenant Colonel.”

* * *

Alexis sat quietly in her office, her eyes staring off without focusing. Her attention was all inward, attending a virtual meeting of the Winged Hussars’ specialists and experts. For the last few minutes, she’d heard status updates on the construction. Everything was on schedule, but that didn’t change her original idea. None of the larger ships would be done for more than a year. Even if she reallocated resources, that would only bring a couple ships to completion a few months’ sooner, and it would leave the others half-finished.

Next was Lieutenant T’jto reporting the results of her interrogation of the MinSha prisoners, the former crew of Caw’kal.

“They don’t have any details on the contracts,” the lieutenant reported. “They were hired for logistics. Hot logistics.” That meant there was risk of combat, which explained why a merc race was in the mix. An uplifted merc race, she thought as she recognized another “Sha” race. Part of her was still struggling to come to grips with the new paradigm. How much of the galaxy was still a residue of a war 20,000 years over with? Did the MinSha know their own origin? She imagined they did, although it probably wasn’t something they wanted to advertise.

Next up came the report on the SalSha, the galaxy’s newest sentient race. Dr. Ramirez, with the assistance of the exotic Wrogul medical specialist, had performed a complete medical and psychological evaluation.

“I also reviewed the fighter data,” Ramirez said.

“What’s your conclusion?” Alexis asked.

“They meet all the qualifications of a sapient species. Lieutenant Colonel Walker also gave us neurological data on the Salusians, their race’s name prior to uplift. While it might not have been their intention at the time, the Horde have created what may be the galaxy’s preeminent pilots.”

“How so?”

“The biomedical ranking of spatial awareness is known as the Richthofen scale and goes from 0 to 99. The SalSha rate a 92. There’ve been other races who tested higher, but none of them are sapient, according to the GalNet. Their G tolerance indicates they can take around 30 Gs prior to injury.”

“The MinSha are better,” Alexis pointed out.

“That’s true,” Ramirez agreed, “however the MinSha can only tolerate 11 gravities for extended periods. The SalSha can take 20.” Mumbles around the virtual attendees made Alexis call for silence so he could continue. “It appears an adaptation for their aquatic conditions. According to the info Lieutenant Colonel Walker gave me, it appears they were being experimented on prior to being formally uplifted. Genetic markers give us some clues. Anyway, their g-tolerance makes them incredibly formidable combat pilots.”

“Is that it?”

“Not quite. Their intelligence rates above average, and that’s only with the forced implants of the uplift at work. They’re naturally curious, and not overly aggressive. I’d say they’re close to being fearless and seem to maintain excellent bonds of loyalty. They also like to fight, a byproduct of their somewhat hostile native environment—they look at fighting as a form of play.” He paused for effect. “While there are only 30 of them here, there are hundreds—probably thousands—more on their home world. If the genetic stock is sufficient, it’s likely the Golden Horde has just created the 38th merc race in the galaxy.”

“And committed the most flagrant violation of Union law I’ve ever heard of,” Paka said. The XO’s avatar floated in the virtual meeting space, its facial expressions identical to the real Veetanho’s—anger.

“Be that as it may,” Alexis said, “this is the situation before us. While this charge appears to have merit, none of the others do. They’ve gone so far as to accuse the Hussars of massacring innocents in the battles perpetrated against us.”

Alexis took a moment to gather her thoughts before continuing. “Earth is under occupation; Major Drizz has provided us with the details. Peepo is out of retirement and in command of a massive multi-race army whose mission seems to be to bring humanity to trial for our many abuses,” she said, adding as much scorn to the last as was possible in a virtual environment.

“Are they abuses?” Commander Kowalczy asked.

“Or is this just a case of revenge for your success?” Commander Yoshuka asked. Like Kowalczy, he was a task force commander, and the only alien to rise to that position in the Winged Hussars; something he was rightly quite proud of. When Alexis said she was closing the doors and asked the commander if he wanted to leave, he’d laughed in her face. That made Alexis proud she’d promoted him.

“There could be some of that,” Alexis said. “However, it doesn’t change the fact that humanity stands accused of crimes it didn’t commit. So…” she sighed, “we’re faced with a choice.” She looked around the circle of her closest aides, advisors, and senior commanders. “Do we stay here and weather the storm, or do we fight? What do you say?”

* * *

Cell 305C, Mercenary Guild, Capital Planet

The door to Sansar’s cell opened and a Besquith stood in the doorway. “Let’s go,” he said, motioning with his laser rifle for her to come, as if she couldn’t understand. Another Besquith with a laser rifle waited outside, and the two motioned for her to precede them down the cell block hallway.

“Are you guys expecting me to make trouble?” Sansar asked. Unarmed, one of the monsters could easily have torn her apart; two, with rifles, seemed like overkill. Literally. The first few times she’d been around Besquith, the scent of them, combined with the obvious things like their size, their numerous rows of teeth, and their ferocious-looking claws, had scared her so she could barely function. After a while, though, you kind of got used to the idea that they could kill you on a whim, accepted it, and went about your business. Besides, it pissed them off when you didn’t cower around them, which was fun…if also a little dangerous.

“It’s procedure,” one answered.

“Shut up,” the other said, jabbing the butt of his weapon into the other one’s shoulder. Sansar laughed. “You shut up, too,” the second added. He growled at Sansar and motioned down the hall with his rifle. “Go!” he ordered. “No talking.”

She turned and walked down the cell block, which appeared mostly empty, aside from two Tortantulas, two Besquith, and a Zuul. Most of them looked like they’d been there for a while and seemed resigned to their fates. The only one with any life was one of the Besquith, who tried to grab her as she walked past.

The alien was too slow; not only did Sansar dart out of the way, but the Besquith in charge used his rifle like a club and smashed the prisoner’s hand. Sansar was sure she heard bones break, but all the creature did was growl.

Sansar looked at the prisoners in disgust, not for anything they’d done, but for the lies sold to humanity at their induction. Humans had been told jails didn’t exist…and had believed their Union negotiator. As she looked at the Zuul, emaciated and in chains, she realized that was just one more lie Humans had been told in a many-miles-long list of lies.

The guards directed her through several passageways with a minimum of chatter, ultimately leading her to an unmarked door. The Besquith leader opened the door and motioned for her to enter. The small room appeared vacant, except for a Human-style chair in the center of the floor.

“What’s that room?” Sansar asked.

“It’s where you wait for trial. Go!” the leader said.

Sansar shrugged—by herself, she’d have better conversation than she’d had with the Besquith—and entered the room. The space looked about the same as it had from the outside, fifteen-feet square and painted white, but there was one feature she hadn’t seen from the hallway—the wall the chair faced held three rows of three Tri-V monitors with a tenth monitor set off below them. The Besquith shut the door, leaving her with the chair and the Tri-Vs. She didn’t see any cameras in the room with her, but she had no doubt they were there.

It was so obvious she was supposed to sit in the chair that she decided not to; instead, she walked over and inspected the Tri-V monitors. They seemed like normal monitors, although they were high-end models. Sansar frowned. Nothing but the best for those who were about to die.

The center monitor came to life with the image of a Veetanho. “Please sit in the chair. The tribunal will begin momentarily.”

“Sit in the chair? Where’s the tribunal to be held?”

“It will be held right here. The members are still assembling and will appear on each of the monitors when they’re prepared. My name is Leeto, if you do not recognize me; I’m the Guild Speaker, and I’ll be overseeing the tribunal.”

“I want to be in the presence of my accusers. How do I even know the beings on the monitor are who you say they are?”

“This is the last time I’ll tell you. Sit in the chair, Sansar Enkh.”

“And if I refuse?”

“There’s a detachment of Besquith guards outside your door who’d be very happy to put you in it and attach enough restraints that you won’t get out of it again.”

Sansar didn’t know if there were Besquith outside the door, but she didn’t want to find out. If Besquith were given the order to do that, they’d happily do it, and she would not like the outcome. She sat in the chair.

Within a few moments, the rest of the monitors came to life, showing the other members of the nine-member tribunal. Across the top were Guild Masters from the Selroth, Flatar, and Oogar races; in the center were Goka, Veetanho, and Tortantula Guild Masters; on the bottom row were Besquith, MinSha, and a race Sansar didn’t recognize.

She found the file listing all the mercenary races in her brain and ran through it quickly. That was it! The creature was a Goltar, and the listing showed it both in and out of the water. The alien looked like a giant squid, especially when it was in the water. On land, like it was now, you could better see its snapping red beak underneath the bony crest that rose over its head.

Not much was known about the Goltar, aside from the fact they had a permanent seat on the Mercenary Guild’s Council of Guild Masters. She’d tried to research the race when she was preparing for her VOWS but hadn’t been able to find much on the GalNet about them. After a lot of searching, she’d only come up with two bits of information. The first was a footnote in a several-thousand-year-old document that listed them as the leaders and foremost race of the 27 races of mercs in the Mercenary Guild. The other was a list of the members of the Council, which said their race held one of the positions but nothing else.

The fact there was no information on the race indicated to Sansar there’d been a power struggle at some point in the Guild’s history, and the Goltar had lost. Based on the fact they held the Speaker’s position, Sansar guessed either the Veetanho, or a coalition of Veetanho and some of their cronies, had replaced them and had the Goltar’s info deleted from the GalNet. She didn’t know how that was possible, or why, but if someone had gone to the trouble to have all that information removed, the struggle must have been of epic proportions.

She was surprised the Goltar had survived a conflict that resulted in the complete eradication of all information on them from the GalNet and wondered what sort of leverage they had over the other races that let them continue living despite their enforced non-existence.

“Okay,” Leeto said. “I believe we’re ready?” She looked left and right, and Sansar realized that, wherever the Council was, they were together. The rest of the Guild Masters nodded or did whatever their species did to indicate agreement, except the Goltar. If it moved, Sansar didn’t see it.

“As everyone is aware, we’re here today to discuss what to do to resolve the Human problem.”

“Wait,” Sansar interrupted as she stood up. “What do you mean, ‘the Human problem’?”

“I mean exactly what I said, the problem having to do with Humans,” Leeto replied. “If you interrupt me again, I’ll put you on mute and continue the proceedings without you.”

“But that isn’t fair,” Sansar replied. “The Guild bylaws specifically state that I’m allowed representation.”

“Yes, they do,” Leeto said; “however, it doesn’t appear you’ve brought a lawyer, so you’ve obviously chosen to represent yourself. If you fall afoul of the rules, you’ll be summarily removed, as any lawyer would be. The fault is, after all, yours for not bringing representation.”

“Where exactly does it say that?”

“It says it in the rules for parliamentary procedure. If you haven’t read them, you really should have. Now, sit down and don’t interrupt again.”

Sansar sat.

Before her backside hit the simulated wood of the chair, though, she’d already accessed the GalNet through her pinplants and searched for the rules on parliamentary procedure. The rules were downloaded as she sat, and she’d begun combing through them before her body stilled.

“Now, as I was saying, we’re here today to discuss what to do about the Human problem, Case Number 9035768J.” Most of the Guild Masters again nodded their acknowledgements, although the Goltar still remained motionless.

“The Human in front of us is Sansar Enkh, from the Human mercenary unit known as ‘The Golden Horde,’ which is one of their ‘Four Horsemen.’ As there are several charges against the so-called Four Horsemen, and I know your time is valuable, I’d propose we accept all the charges against the other Four Horsemen units, since they didn’t show up to represent themselves as they were duly notified they must.”

“Second,” the Besquith representative said.

Sansar raised her hand.

“Third,” said the Goka counselor.

“I believe the Human is trying to get your attention,” the Goltar announced through the rapid snapping of its beak.

Leeto looked at the camera for several seconds, managing to convey her annoyance without speaking, then gave the same look off to her left, ostensibly at the Goltar representative. She finally turned back to Sansar and asked, “What?”

“Speaker, I’m authorized to speak for all of the other Horsemen. By the way, raising my hand is the way Humans non-verbally indicate our intention to speak, in accordance with Rule 27B on how the Accused may address a council or tribunal.”

Leeto looked even more put out for a moment, then said, “It’s impossible for you to speak for them. According to the rules, you must be a member of the organization in order to speak for it.”

“I am, in fact, a one percent owner of all three of the other Horsemen mercenary organizations,” Sansar replied. “Here are the documents.” With a thought, she sent file copies to Leeto over the GalNet. “I’d like to have them entered into the record, in accordance with the standard evidentiary procedure.”

The other representatives looked at Leeto, who continued to stare at Sansar, obviously regretting her error in telling Sansar about the rules of parliamentary procedure. After a couple of seconds she shook her head and said, “I have three signed purchase documents, showing Sansar Enkh bought a one percent stake in each of the other units, for the sale of one percent of her organization to them. I also have three documents from the heads of the other organizations authorizing Sansar Enkh to speak for them. Entering them into the record…now.” They appeared on the tenth monitor.

After a few moments, the other members of the council indicated they’d viewed them.

“It appears the Human has authorization to speak for her comrades,” the Selroth announced through his rebreather apparatus.

“Yes…it does,” Leeto said. “Councilors, I’m going to have to ask for a recess for a few days. I wasn’t prepared to go through all the other charges, and I’ll have to assemble materials for you regarding the evidence I have.” She turned to the Besquith, “Do I have a second on a one-week recess?”

“Second.”

“Third,” the Goka added.

“In that case, we’re in recess until one week from now, at the same time.”

Before the monitors switched off, Sansar caught the look Leeto sent her. If she hadn’t been her enemy before, she was now.

* * * * *


Chapter Twelve


Winged Hussars Prime Base, New Warsaw System

“Corporal Culper?”

Rick looked up at the little elSha medtech dressed in a red sash and carrying a tiny slate. “Yes?”

“Dr. Ramirez just completed his conference and is available now,” the alien said, pointing down a hallway. “Examination Room #4.”

“Thank you,” Rick said, placing the medical department slate back on the table. It was set to display “Hussar News” network and entertainment, and Rick had been reading an interesting article about the project to adapt lifeforms to grow on the cold, dark environment of Home. He got up, a little hesitant, straightened his uniform jacket, and walked to the examination room.

Inside, the tall figure of Dr. Ramirez was unplugging a jack from one of his pinplants and coiling up the cable. “Corporal Culper, how are you doing?”

“Well enough,” Rick said, standing at attention.

“At ease, Rick,” Ramirez said with a grin. “I’m not in the service; I’m just a physician. Have a seat.”

“Yes, sir,” Rick said and sat on the edge of the chair. Ramirez shook his head and picked up a slate from the stainless-steel counter next to where he stood.

“You were scheduled yesterday; I’m sorry we had to delay.”

“That surprise MinSha ship,” Rick said, “with the otters.”

“Right, they’re called SalSha. And yes, the commander needed some information.”

“I’ve never heard of a race like that, or by that name.” Ramirez glanced at him for a second, then back to his slate.

“It’s a big universe,” he said. That glance—it wasn’t much, but it was enough to let Rick know something was up. “So,” Ramirez began, “you decided to let Nemo have a looksee at your injury?”

“Yes sir,” Rick said.

Ramirez nodded then glanced at him more closely. “You seem a bit upset.”

“I had an incident the other day.”

“Do you want to talk about it?’

“Frankly,” Rick said, “no.”

“Okay,” Ramirez said and touched a few controls on his slate. An adjoining door opened, and a water tank on treads rolled in. The Wrogul inside was a member of an aquatic race whose water environment was highly unusual—the liquid was toxic to most of the races in the galaxy. The alien reminded Rick of an octopus, just like when he had first met it and the alien had installed Rick’s pinplants. As soon as the tank rolled into the examination room, the octopus-like alien began pulsing with ethereal light. A speaker on the side of the transport spoke in flawless English.

“How are you today, Mr. Culper?” Nemo asked.

“I’m ready for you to try and fix my brain damage.”

“You understand I can make no promises?” Rick remembered all too well the Wrogul’s surgical procedures. The alien possessed the ability to perform surgery without the need of surgical devices. Two of its tentacles could physically pass through flesh and bone, bloodlessly, and perform the procedures. In addition, the Wrogul could naturally synthesize complicated organic chemicals. Nemo liked to refer to himself as an intelligent, mobile surgical bay.

“I understand,” Rick said.

“Very well. Dr. Ramirez, would you ready the patient?” Assistants came in and Rick was set on a table, face down, and given a light sedative. No shaving of his skull or even sterilization was needed. Rick had researched the Wrogul’s ability, and he knew some within the Science Guild considered the things the aquatic aliens did to be impossible. As he’d been a patient before, Rick knew better. “We’re ready to begin,” it said eventually. “Are you prepared?”

“I’ll never be fully prepared for this kind of thing,” Rick said with a chuckle. “Go ahead.” Rick felt something wet touch the back of his head, then with a shiver, movement inside his skull.

“Tell me when you taste yellow,” Nemo said.

Rick gave a little laugh. “What? How do you…oh, god!”

“Hmmm,” Nemo said with a satisfied sound, “I do love digging around Human brains. Your biology is so delightfully simple!”

“Don’t insult the patient,” Dr. Ramirez said from where he was monitoring Rick’s vital signs.

“I am sorry, was I insulting?”

“You could say that.”

“Oh,” Nemo said and was silent for a time. Rick felt like one of the times he’d taken some off-world drugs while out on leave from the marine company Micky Finn. He’d done it because he was the new guy, and that’s what you had to do to fit in. All he really remembered was how it had taken away his ability to control his own thoughts, and that was how he felt now. “It’s quite a mess in here,” Nemo said. “The scar tissue created by the medical nanites didn’t repair the damage so much as mitigate the effects. They’re usually not very creative unless a technician has them under control.”

“Can you fix it?” Rick asked, though it took a great deal of effort to make the words come out. He kept thinking about what the number 42 smelled like, and the sound of fresh calculus.

“Your cortex is fine,” Nemo said as things moved inside Rick’s skull, “the damage is in the hippocampus, so you’re having trouble getting to those memories.”

“I sometimes think I remember something, but can’t see the memory,” Rick said. It took a seemingly long time to form the words.

“Let’s see if we can find the damaged pathways?” Dr. Ramirez suggested. Nemo made an all too Human sound of assent.

“Try to think of something recent,” Nemo suggested, “something that was either traumatic or emotional.”

I don’t feel emotions anymore, Rick thought, then remembered seeing the black-skinned alien and fixated on that encounter. Nemo seemed to jump, and the tentacles in Rick’s brain made the inside of his thighs itch.

“You’ve seen a Sooloo!” Nemo said excitedly.

“A what?” Rick asked.

“A Sooloo,” he repeated. “They’re a very old, very mysterious race. They’re a lot like my race, and the Izlians. They’ve been around a long time. They fought for the Kahraman in the Great War. Those monsters modified the Sooloo, gave them some crazy abilities. At least, that’s what the rumor says. I believe more people have seen a Depik in person than have seen a Sooloo. One of their abilities is why, of course. They can cloud your memory, and make themselves seemingly disappear. It even masks some scanning equipment. Maybe your injury interferes with that. How long ago was this?”

“First time was in Karma station,” Rick said, “and then a few hours ago here on Prime Base.”

“What?” Ramirez snapped. “Did you say here on Prime Base?”

“Yes sir,” Rick confirmed.

“Nemo, I need to know about this race,” Ramirez continued. Gratefully, Rick felt the tentacles leave his brain, and he sighed with relief.

“There isn’t much more to tell,” the Wrogul said. “It looks just like Rick’s memory, according to descriptions I’ve seen.”

“Damn it, Nemo, I wasn’t in there with you,” Ramirez reminded the alien. “I can’t read people’s thoughts.”

“I don’t read his thoughts,” Nemo said in a surprisingly mulish tone. “I just pick up what he’s seeing relayed back through—”

“Nemo!” Ramirez interrupted, “This is important!”

Rick rolled part of the way over, resisted the urge to feel the back of his head, and started describing the Sooloo to Ramirez. “They’re as tall as a Human, with skin as black as space. They’re almost skeletally thin, with hideous faces and glowing red eyes.”

“Exactly,” Nemo said, trying to help. Ramirez had a slate and was furiously tapping in details. A Tri-V came alive above the device and aliens started rushing by almost too fast for Rick to see.

“Stop!” Rick said. “Back slowly.” Ramirez obliged. “There!” Rick said. “That’s it.” It was a perfect, if somewhat blurred view of the alien he’d seen twice now. The being had its cloak up, mostly covering its head, but you could still see one glowing red eye.

“Humans have encountered them,” Ramirez said, “though only a couple times according to this. It caused nightmares and killed two members of the merc team who surprised it. They called the alien a ‘Grimm.’”

“Fitting,” Rick said. “They’re right out of a terrifying fairy tale. I assume there aren’t any in the Winged Hussars?”

Ramirez shook his head. “No,” he said, “though I bet Alexis would love to have a couple. Like Nemo said, they’re incredible spies.” He looked back at Rick. “Did you say you saw one on Karma station?”

“Yes, right before I signed on. In fact, I saw it in the Winged Hussars’ personnel office.” Ramirez turned to the nearest comms terminal and called the head of security.

* * *

“Say that again?” Alexis asked.

The image of the Winged Hussars chief of HST looked askance. Alexis knew the facial expressions of the Zuparti well enough to recognize doubt and worry…but mostly worry. “I said, commander, that we have a report of a Grimm on the station.”

“A…Grimm, did you say? Is that a race, or some kind of event?”

“A race, sir.” Alexis had no recollection of anything by that name. Grimm? she thought. What, like the fairy tales?

“Uuth, I’m afraid I’ve no idea what you mean.” While she waited for her to reply, Alexis did a query through the Hussars network and got nothing.

“<It’s older than that,>” Ghost replied in her mind, and a file appeared in her pinplants. “<The Sooloo were a race of predators found on some backward world. They used an unquantifiable version of reflex telepathy to create holes in another creature’s memory, to steal food or even make kills. At least, that’s what they did until the Kahraman uplifted them. The SooSha were their intelligence arm and sometimes assassins. That latter function was eventually usurped by a more efficient race. There aren’t many records of them, and from scanning your Human databases, it looks like most people believe them to be a legend. Those who encountered them named them Grimms, likely after the fairy tales you mentioned.>

“I see now,” Alexis said, cutting Uuth off before she could continue. “They’re supposed to be able to mask their presence and even remove memory of it?”

“Yes, Commander,” Uuth said.

“Then how does anyone know that one is here?”

“That’s the strange part. The sighting was by a Human marine.”

“Who?” The Zuparti looked down, presumably at a slate.

“Corporal Rick Culper, the one with that nasty scar on his face? The report actually comes from Dr. Ramirez, who was working with Nemo on the corporal—”

“Entropy!” Alexis snapped. “When did this happen?”

“Well, after the first time Corporal Culper came to me with a report of seeing a strange creature I started doing some research…”

“Wait,” she interrupted again, “are you telling me he came to you about this Grimm once before?” The alien nodded. “When?”

“Yesterday, sir.” Alexis prided herself on not being overly emotional, but the anger and frustration on her face must have shown through, based on the way Uuth’s eyes got wide in alarm, and her whiskers twitched. “I hope you understand that suggesting a Grimm, a legendary being believed to be extinct, wasn’t something I could immediately take seriously. Even Lieutenant T’jto was skeptical.”

Of course she was skeptical; she’s a MinSha, Alexis thought. “Yes, Uuth, but I wish you’d contacted me with the first report.”

“I…I didn’t want to waste your time.”

“The commander’s job is to have her time wasted,” she reminded her, “but you’re not wasting it this time. Sound the general security alarm.”

“Commander?”

“As ordered,” she said and cut the connection. She used her pinplants to access the database of individual Hussars’ channels. “Corporal Rick Culper?”

“Commander Cromwell?” The young corporal sounded surprised.

“That’s correct, Corporal. I just finished speaking with Uuth in HST.”

“Oh, no,” he said. “Colonel, I’m sorry. I didn’t want to bother you with this.”

“No, Corporal, you should have. Right now, I need you to explain everything you’ve seen with the Grimm.” Less than five minutes later, she cut the connection with Rick and switched over to the special channel with Ghost. “Find that damned thing,” she said, almost shaking with rage. New Warsaw had been penetrated! Her very base was infiltrated, her home! It was intolerable!

“<I’ve been running searches on the recording logs,>” the reply came almost immediately. “<The last time I can positively place the Grimm, based on these recordings, is 12 hours ago in Docking Bay 3. From there, I extrapolate it boarded the transfer shuttle to the courier Détente.>”

And?

“<Détente transitioned through the stargate three hours ago.>

* * *

All the commanders in the conference room looked up as the rear door slid open, and Alexis Cromwell walked in. She had her nearly waist-length silver hair intricately braided in a ponytail that seemed to almost wag behind her. Jim noticed the way Nigel was following her every move, and suspected he knew why.

In the day since their heated meeting, Nigel’s stance on the Winged Hussars’ commander had changed, subtly. He was still upset at her unwillingness to scream and pounce, his standard operating procedure, but when they’d had lunch together with Alistair Sinclair, Lisa Drake, and Frank Earl, he’d almost appeared to have forgotten his anger at Jim. It appeared the fiery commander of Asbaran Solutions was conflicted.

Splunk once again sat on his shoulder, taking in everything going on around her. When Hargrave visited with a status report a few hours earlier, she’d smuggled herself aboard. As was usual with the Fae, she did what she wanted. When Jim got the summons, she’d been in his quarters as he emerged from the shower.

Jim was secretly relieved when Alexis called them to the conference room. Relieved and terrified, actually. She hadn’t complained when they’d decided to stay on Prime Base instead of returning to Bucephalus. But after Hargrave heard how the meeting went, he’d been less than thrilled to hear that Nigel had called her a coward. Just to be safe, Jim had his XO stay on the ship. If things got bad on Prime Base, he doubted the ship would stand much of a chance against all the firepower Alexis had, but he couldn’t leave them helpless.

“Thanks for coming so quickly,” Alexis said as she took her seat at the head of the table. Lieutenant Colonel Walker was there as well, and with the authority Sansar Enkh had entrusted him with, it meant this was almost a full meeting of the Four Horsemen.

“Have you decided?” Nigel asked immediately. Jim groaned inwardly.

“Yes,” she said. “Or rather, the situation has been decided for me.” She gestured and another person who’d come in with her moved into view. Jim hadn’t even noticed the Zuparti at first, and the nervous alien looked like it was somewhere between fight and flight as it examined the room. Like many aliens with furred bodies, it wore little in the way of clothing; it only had a light vest with a Winged Hussars’ logo on one breast and “Uuth—HST” on the other. “This is Uuth, head of our HST, our Home Security Team, here on New Warsaw.”

The alien nodded, and a Tri-V lit up above the conference table. It was set to “universal” setting, which mean it would display a 3D image based on the perspective of anyone looking at it from anywhere around the room. A rather blurry image of a black-skinned alien appeared, wearing a dark hood that appeared bright next to its ebony skin. The hood was partly back, revealing a wide, fish-like mouth full of sharp teeth and red eyes that glowed like burning coals. Data appeared next to it, and Jim realized Uuth must be controlling the display with her pinplants.

“This is a Sooloo,” Uuth said. “The race is known among Humans as a Grimm. They’re extremely rare in the Union and are rumored to possess some highly unusual abilities. Among those is a talent that allows them to mask their presence and make observers forget they saw them. The Grimm are intelligence gatherers. They’re spies, and they excel at this task.” Uuth looked around the room. “This image was taken on Prime Base 16 hours ago.”

The table erupted in shouting, and Jim used his pinplants to look up info on the Grimm. His own echo of the GalNet was considerably deeper than average, yet he had almost nothing on them. An account of a Human trader whose computer records were stolen; a single image on his security system revealed an alien which looked just like this one. Another account of a similar creature spotted on Earth, but no details on what it was doing there. The planetary governments had attempted to track it down but had found nothing.

“Please,” Alexis said, raising a hand. The room quieted. She sighed, and Jim realized just how tired she looked. “The Grimm is believed to have left the system aboard one of our couriers a few hours ago. Which means, shortly, the location of New Warsaw might be out.”

“Now that your safety’s at risk, you’re concerned?” Jim asked.

“Your earlier comments might have been in poor taste,” she said, “but they were true to the extent that I value my Hussars’ safety more than anything else. Also, you need to realize, we have a lot of Humans here. Families, and a diverse genetic stock.”

“You could save the species in a worst-case scenario,” Alistair Sinclair said. She nodded. “Jesus Christ, how long have you been planning this?”

“A defense against someone or something trying to wipe out humanity?” she asked. Alistair nodded. “Since we discovered this system a hundred years ago. When my grandmother read a book by Dr. Adelaide Black called The Galactic Union, it changed her perspective. She was the first to see the scale of what we faced. Dr. Black saw the results of galactic war. Planets all but destroyed. Worlds even better than Earth, scoured of all life.”

“There hasn’t been a conflict like that in, what?” Lisa Drake asked. “Ten thousand years?”

“Twenty thousand years,” Jim offered, then added, “but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen again.”

“Or won’t,” Alexis agreed. “Now maybe you see why I was so reluctant to get into this. And now, I don’t have a choice.”

“So what do we do?” Nigel asked. “Assault Earth?”

“Eventually, yes,” she agreed. Nigel slapped the table in exultation. “However, I haven’t given up on stopping that courier.”

“How?” Jim asked. “It has almost a day’s head start. Where’s it going?”

“Sulaadar,” she said.

Jim shook his head then spoke. “That’s a major trade world.”

“We’re painfully aware of that,” she replied, and Jim wondered if she had a history there.

“If the Grimm knows where you are, it’ll be able to get the info out, or just disappear in a heartbeat on the trading outposts or syndicate operations.”

“We had a run-in there a few months back,” Alexis said, confirming Jim’s thoughts. “The Transki Syndicate has taken over control of the trade routes there, and the Merchant Guild has basically ignored the situation. If our scout reports are accurate, there’ve been a dozen battles there since we left.”

“I don’t see how this helps the situation,” Nigel said. “In fact, it’ll be even easier for this alien to simply disappear when it gets there.”

“Not if we beat it there.”

Jim shook his head in confusion. “Beat it there? It takes 170 hours; how can you beat it there?”

“The five-day deal?” Walker asked. Alexis looked at him and narrowed her eyes.

“So you know about the shortcut?”

“Yes,” he said, “Sansar managed to get one from a stargate controller on our last mission. She had to give him almost a shipload of red diamonds to do it, but she managed.”

“Do you know how they do it?” Alexis asked.

Jim was more tuned in to this conversation than any he could remember in recent memory. He’d been more than a little distracted after his mother’s death, then the betrayal of…that woman. For the first time since then, she didn’t enter his mind. Hyperspace travel was like gravity, a rock-solid constant that you could put down as “established scientific fact.” It took 170 hours in hyperspace to travel from transition point to emergence point, period.

“Only that the Cartography Guild has some shortcut,” Walker said and shrugged. “I don’t know what it is.”

“You could say that,” Alexis said, then pursed her lips. “The common belief was that hyperspace was a static thing. Call it another dimension with different, but understandable, rules. By traveling in it, you can arrive at another point in exactly 170 hours. There are limitations on distance because of certain other rules.”

“But by the way you’re saying common belief, I take it there’re things we don’t know?” Frank Earl had a look of doubt mixed with confusion. When a Horseman talked, you listened. However, he’d made his living as a marine in the merc trade, plying the stars since he was a young recruit. His expression held a tinge of a young child about to be told Santa wasn’t real.

“Yes,” Alexis said, “in a manner of speaking.” The door behind her opened, and she glanced back, nodding to the man who entered. He didn’t appear to be more than 25, though he was Asian and could have been older. He wore a lab coat with a Winged Hussars’ logo on the breast, suggesting he was a civilian employee. He was accompanied by a reptilian elSha and a Jeha that looked like a four-foot-long millipede with its eyes on extendable stalks. Jim hadn’t had much interaction with the Jeha, although they were known throughout the universe as excellent ship builders and engineers.

“Everyone, this is Doctor Taiki Sato, our resident mad scientist. He’s the lead scientist of a special group of scientists and engineers we affectionately call the ‘Geek Squad.’”

Jim gave a snort of laughter, and Alexis winked at him. Nigel just looked confused. The name Taiki Sato was immediately familiar to Jim. “You finished the Human biome integration work that allowed pinplants to be commercially available,” he said.

“Yes, that was me,” the man said with a little bow. Jim nodded; the man was closer to 50 than 25.

Jim turned his head and tapped his pinplant. “Thanks,” he said. The other man bowed slightly again. “But you just disappeared a decade ago. Sold your biomedical research company to Avander and, poof, nothing.”

“I had a better offer,” Sato said with a twinkle in his eye. He swept a hand to the elSha. “This is Kleena, who’s in charge of our department.” The elSha nodded his head as he looked around the room.

“Dr. Sato is the brains behind the operation,” he said, “however, like many geniuses, he often lacks focus. My job is to keep him pointed in a useful direction.”

“True research should not be fettered by common needs,” Sato countered.

“Maybe another time?” Alexis said, and Sato gave her a little bow. “A number of months ago, after a series of serious battles, my flagship Pegasus was severely damaged just as we entered hyperspace. She has three reactors and can stay in hyperspace with just one. However, one was completely destroyed in an earlier battle, and another was damaged and needed repairs. We were hit by a particle beam that damaged the last reactor just as we transitioned to hyperspace. The final reactor was going to fail before we could fix any of the others.”

Jim noted everyone in the room was watching and listened in rapt attention. Frank Earl visibly cringed at this news. Jim was far from an expert in space travel. Despite that, he knew one thing without a doubt; if a ship lost power in hyperspace, it was all over. Nobody knew what happened to a ship in that situation, only that it was never seen again. “What happened?” he asked. Splunk hadn’t moved from watching Alexis the whole time.

 “We lost power and dropped out of hyperspace.” She took a moment to let that sink in to those in attendance. “Much to our surprise, we didn’t die. Obviously, since we’re here now.” There were a few chuckles as she continued. “We found ourselves…elsewhere. Where normal hyperspace is a featureless white nothing, this place was a pure black void. I’ll let Sato explain.”

The man moved forward and cleared his throat before speaking. “I was aboard Pegasus during this incident and was able to take numerous readings and perform some tests.” A Tri-V came alive in the center of the conference table. It was full of complex calculations. “What I’ve labeled as 2nd Level Hyperspace is a non-Newtonian space with highly unusual characteristics. As you may or may not be aware, quite a few tests have been done in 1st Level Hyperspace over the years since humanity encountered the Galactic Union. In most ways, that level of hyperspace is fairly normal, including the way gravity and power interact.

“2nd Level Hyperspace doesn’t follow these rules. A ship’s metallic structure creates a normalization field against the differing energy flux we encountered. However, gravity variations are all penetrating.” The Tri-V changed to show Winged Hussars marines jumping across open spaces to come ridiculously to a stop, as if they were experiencing an external force. Jim was surprised to see a Tortantula involved in the experiments, and one of the ship’s marines.

“Visual characteristics are reduced and, while radiation does provide limited returns, the physics behind it is completely out of whack.” Sato went on for some time, talking about the unusual conditions they’d found. Eventually, he wound down. “In summation, 2nd Level Hyperspace is what we’d expect from a dimensional shift from our own universe.”

“How’d you get out?” Earl asked after Sato had stopped talking. Now it was the Jeha’s turn.

“This is Ch’t’kl’tk, my chief engineer on Pegasus,” Alexis explained. “We call him Mr. Long.” Jim grinned again; he liked her sense of humor.

“With the time provided by being in a stable environment, we were able to fabricate another fusion power plant from spares and parts of the damaged plants.” The alien’s voice was a combination of nearly inaudible hisses and screeching, combined with the clicking the alien made by tapping the floor or its own carapace. Jim’s pinplants easily rendered the sounds into English. “We were short buffers, and the containment vessel was less than ideal; however, we did prevail. The problem we had was F11. Most of our reserves were lost during the explosions. As you know, without the heat and radiation dampening effect of F11, fusion power plants aren’t practical. We needed to replenish our reserves.”

“That’s where the other ships come in,” Kleena said.

“I’m sorry,” Alistair Cromwell said. “Did you say other ships?”

“Yes,” Kleena confirmed. “There are other ships where we found ourselves. Quite a lot of them, actually.”

“It’s possible that every ship that ever experienced a power failure in 1st Level Hyperspace is in 2nd Level,” Sato interjected.

“Yes,” Kleena agreed, taking up the lead again. “In fact, based on our examinations, some of the ships were not of any design ever seen before.”

“How far away were they?” Jim asked. Splunk glanced from him to the elSha as he answered.

“Distances were hard to measure, for the reasons Sato mentioned, but we estimated from a few kilometers to millions. It’s one of the other principle differences between the levels of hyperspace. We know that there must be ships nearby in the 1st Level when you’re traveling through it, because we often transition into hyperspace only a few hundred meters from another ship. Yet they’re invisible to us. Where we were, you could see the other ships.”

“You got F11 from one,” Alistair said, not really asking.

Kleena nodded. “We sent a shuttle over to search the nearby ships. It was a challenging operation, because ships experienced the same drag effect you saw in the earlier videos. It was then we discovered that the drag didn’t induce any inertia. It was possible to slow from a very high rate of speed without the effects of inertia.” More heads shook in amazement.

“We recovered F11 from one of those ships, a Maki battleship we’d previously engaged in battle,” Alexis explained. Kleena glanced at her with a somewhat surprised expression but didn’t add anything. “After we recovered it, we were able to return to normal space.”

“That’s amazing,” Walker said, “but how does that help with the Grimm?”

“It ties in with the five-day trip you learned about,” she said, “but Sato will have to help make sense out of it.”

“Each level of hyperspace is closely related to the other,” the scientist said, “but separated by a barrier. It’s a little like the surface tension of water. Our hyperspace field generators let us act like small insects, creating a hyperspatial pressure wave that lets us skim along the 2nd Level, taking advantage of that level’s non-Einsteinian nature. The trick the Cartographers manage is, when the stargate uses their hyperspace shunts, they send you into hyperspace at a different relativistic angle.” More calculations appeared on the Tri-V.

“Very few know about this ‘five-day trip,’ and those that do don’t understand how it works.” He gave a sly grin. “To tell you the truth, I don’t think the Cartographers understand it either.”

“Why’s that?” Jim asked.

“Because if they did, they’d offer a zero-day trip.” Now Jim was as confused as most of the others in the room.

“I don’t understand,” he said.

Alexis picked up the tale. “When we returned to normal space, back here, it was almost immediately after emerging from 2nd Level hyperspace. By accessing that level, you can get to your destination instantly.”

“Holy shit,” Frank Earl said. “Holy shit!

“Indeed,” Sato said with a laugh.

“Does the Cartography Guild know about this?” Jim asked.

“Actually, we don’t think so,” Alexis said. “Analysis of data we have from 100 years of monitoring commerce in the Union argues against it. We’ve seen numerous occasions where rich, powerful, well-connected operators would have benefited greatly from the use of this technology. Especially when we were being pursued. It is a remnant from the era of the Great Galactic war. Possibly the understanding is lost.”

“It’s more likely the procedure is too risky,” Sato pointed out. Alexis gave a slight nod, acknowledging the possibility.

“Only ships with hyperspace shunts can return from 2nd Level Hyperspace,” she explained, “making it a one-way trip for most.”

Pegasus has hyperspace shunts, then,” Frank Earl said, a wide grin on his face. “That helps explain some of your exploits.” Alexis gave one of her little smiles. “Not many ships that size have them. They’re horribly expensive.”

“They came as standard equipment with the ship,” Alexis said. Jim recalled the story that the Hussars had found Pegasus as a derelict, and that it was an artifact dating back to the Great Galactic War.

Jim had to smile, himself. He’d grown up with stories of all the Horsemen. These facts explained much of how the Winged Hussars became the richest, and perhaps the most powerful of their number. A ship capable of incredible deeds, incorporating ancient tech from a bygone era, and possession of the system they were in? “You found New Warsaw from something in the Pegasus,” he said, “didn’t you? Navigational data, or something.”

“Or something,” she agreed. The smile was gone now; there were some secrets she wasn’t yet willing to share.

“If you can simply intercept this alien spy by yourself, why are we here?” Nigel demanded. “Way back at the beginning you said the situation had been decided for you.”

“After speaking with the command staff of the Winged Hussars, we’ve come to the conclusion that attacks like this must not be allowed to stand. We’re in.” Everyone around the table nodded in satisfaction, even Nigel. “While this course of action represents great risk, the risk to humanity is greater. The Four Horsemen must face this, together.”

* * *

Alexis looked at them and gauged their responses to her announcement. Most seemed pleased. Jim Cartwright looked relieved. Daniel Walker was expectant. The three smaller unit commanders all looked attentive, if concerned. Nigel Shirazi appeared smug. She’d tried to come off as confident as possible. The truth was she only had a piece of the plan, and a small piece at that.

“One of our problems in confronting the fleet around Earth is ships. Simply put, I don’t have enough. The Hussars have never had battleships, and your sensor data confirms they do.” Alexis nodded toward Nigel as she said the last part. “You can overcome them with either surprise, or numbers. We won’t have surprise.”

“They aren’t expecting us to return,” Nigel said.

“You don’t think so?” Alexis asked. “They’ve tried to wipe us all out, but they couldn’t get their claws into my Hussars after we handed them their asses. Taking Earth was at least partially to try to lure me into a disastrous battle. I can’t pull the kind of maneuvers I did last time, for a lot of reasons. Instead, I plan to use numbers.”

“You said you don’t have more ships,” Jim said.

“Not on hand,” she admitted, “but I know where they are.” Using her pinplants, Alexis brought up a series of images. Starship after starship appeared and was moved to the side. Dozens in total. “We spotted these during our time in 2nd Level Hyperspace. We have crew. Far more crew than ships. The Winged Hussars has maintained an academy for over 75 years now. A lot of our trained people stay here; many take up jobs within the system after serving, others rotate on and off our existing ships. In all, we have enough trained or nearly trained crew for four times as many ships as we have.”

“You’re going to salvage those ships,” Jim Cartwright said incredulously.

“Yes, I am,” she answered. The room buzzed again. “But the Earth campaign will take more than ships. We’ll need forces and some massive firepower.”

“I can give you the firepower,” Jim said. Alexis nodded inwardly. She’d been counting on him to weigh in. “The Raknar can shift the tide in a planetary battle.”

“Those ancient rust buckets?” Nigel scoffed. “What good are they?”

“More good than you…” Everyone turned to the light, almost musical voice. Jim Cartwright’s little alien companion had her goggles hanging around her neck and was staring daggers at Nigel Shirazi. It would seem the Asbaran Solutions commander had hit a nerve with the alien. Alexis was more than a little surprised; she hadn’t known the creature could speak, let alone perfect English. Nigel looked at the alien, and his jaw fell open.

“Splunk, be nice,” Jim admonished her.

“Fuck him…” she replied. Nigel’s gawk turned to a splutter, and his face turned red. Splunk stuck her tongue out, and he growled.

“What Splunk is trying to say is, don’t underestimate what Raknar can do,” Jim said.

“One giant robot toy,” Nigel snorted.

“Commander Cromwell,” Jim addressed her, “may I use the Tri-V?”

“Certainly,” she said, and sent him the display’s address via her pinplants. A second later, the image of the ships was replaced with an ancient horror. A lot of pictures and a few clips of Canavar in action existed, but none of those compared to the truly horrendous images of a live one in glorious full ultra-definition 3D, as it was projected from the memory files in Jim’s brain.

It was obvious to Alexis he’d spliced together his own recorded memories along with external views from other combatants as he fought several of the alien behemoths. The external images of the Raknar spinning and firing, then using what looked like a battleship gun as a golf club to pulverize the titanic monster were incredible. If this was a movie, it would be a blockbuster, Alexis thought. But no one would believe it.

The replay came to an end as the last Canavar died in a spray of chitin and gore. Jim turned to Nigel, who was staring at the fading image, his eyes wide. “Tell me again how useless a Raknar is?” Splunk crossed her arms and smirked at Nigel. Yes, the little alien actually appeared to be smirking. Her long ears were up, and she looked ready for anything. “That aside, you do have a point, though,” Jim conceded. “We only have one operational, and another partly.”

“Even two of those isn’t enough,” Alexis said. Jim grinned. The Tri-V came alive again. This time it was the inside of a long warehouse. The image moved quickly, as if whoever took it was racing along at high speed. It slowed, the frame rate now visible. The warehouse was full of row after row of Raknar. “Where’s that?” Alexis asked.

“The planet is known as Badlands. It’s a modestly successful mining world, but it’s only successful because of slave labor being provided by the Aku. At least until recently, that is. I suspect the Peacemakers have put an end to that by now.” Jim showed his teeth in a savage grin. Alexis suspected he’d had something to do with that. “I’ve been all over the galaxy looking for intact Raknar. You find them here and there, though most have been ripped to pieces, gutted for parts, or have decayed into uselessness. Everywhere except here. I never found out why they have a huge stockpile of them on Badlands.”

“Buy some from them, then,” Nigel said, “the robots are still largely considered a curiosity. I understand most can be bought for a few hundred thousand credits. If they can do what you showed, they’d be a great investment.”

“Normally that would be the case,” Jim agreed, “except in this case the owners are rather peeved with me and found out I wanted them, so they aren’t willing to let them go to anyone. Believe me, I tried.”

“Who are the owners?” Alexis asked.

“The KzSha,” Jim said. Everyone exchanged concerned looks. One of the most brutal merc races in the galaxy, the KzSha were known for not giving a damn about most rules on a good day, or any rules on days they could get away with it. The fact that Jim had caught them enslaving another race didn’t surprise Alexis one bit. “But I think we can pull off a smash-and-grab.”

“Now you’re talking,” Nigel agreed, then made a face. “I hate wasps.”

“The problem is the Raknar themselves. They appear perfect, except for one thing.” The Tri-V stopped on one particularly good image of a giant robot, then a computer enhancement appeared of its torso. This one had four arms. From what Alexis had seen, that wasn’t unusual. The Dusman had made the war machines in a variety of sizes and configurations for different missions. However, the chest on this one was wide open, and the computer enhancement highlighted an empty spot.

“They took the reactor?” Alexis asked.

Jim sighed and nodded. “The Raknar used an incredibly advanced, ultra-small fusion core. Better than anything currently in use, when you consider the output levels and its low consumption of F11. The Raknar I have operational is using a modified ship’s fusion power plant. It’s much less efficient and larger than the native types. These were either salvaged and sold, or the Science Guild has them and are trying to duplicate their capabilities.”

“You need small reactors?” Alistair Sinclair asked. Jim looked at the older man, who was smiling. “I know where there are a bunch, just waiting for someone to grab them.” He grinned and shrugged. “Give us a boost to another trading system, and I bet we can deliver.”

“We’re cutting ourselves too thin,” Alexis said. “The entire Winged Hussars only has a couple platoons, and we’re all marines or garrison.” She nodded toward Walker. “The Golden Horde people here are primarily defenders. We need assault forces.”

“Now I can offer something,” Nigel said. “The colony of New Persia.”

“What about it?” Alexis asked.

“Asbaran Solutions helped fund it, and I suspect they will be loyal to our cause. When they hear Earth has been attacked, I believe many of them will join us.”

“There’s a bonus there, too,” Walker said. “New Persia is where Binnig has one of their test factories. They were developing the Mk 9 CASPer there and were making Mk 8s.”

“I didn’t know that,” Alexis admitted. The Mk 9 was the newest iteration of the tried and true CASPer combat suit. Rumors had it the Mk 9 was a game-changer, with advancements that made it an unholy terror on the battlefield.

She chewed her lower lip and considered. The pieces were coming together into a plan, albeit a somewhat ludicrous one. There was more that could go wrong than could go right, but it was a plan all the same. She’d made her career by making the impossible work, and she’d nearly lost count of the number of times she’d been in no-win situations and came out the other side.

“Here’s what I propose,” Alexis said, “I’ll loan Alistair Sinclair and his Scorpions a frigate to go get those power plants. Jim Cartwright, you’ll leave most of your personnel here to make room in your ship for those Raknar and come with me to get those ships.”

“Into this 2nd Level Hyperspace?” Jim asked.

“Yes,” she replied. He swallowed but didn’t say anything else. “After we get there, we’ll send you to grab those Raknar of yours. Meanwhile, Nigel Shirazi will take his Asbaran Solutions troops to New Persia, and see if he can get them to join us.”

“And the merc units held prisoner in Karma?” Jim asked. “I also have equipment I need to get from Karma Upsilon 4.”

“All things in time,” she said. “If we don’t stop that Grimm, there won’t be any place for us to fall back to. Humanity needs us to keep New Warsaw a secret. My plan is to use one of my small, stealthy intelligence cutters to intercept the courier and capture the spy before it can give us away. We’ll piggyback the operation for Jim Cartwright to get his Raknar onto the operation to stop the spy.”

“I’ll need some specialized movers fabricated,” Jim told her. “Flying frames capable of lifting 1,000 tons. They can be disposable if necessary. And we’ll need some shuttles; I only have four.”

“We can handle that,” she said.

“If we intercept the courier, what about the Grimm? How are you going to stop it if you can’t even see it?” Jim asked.

“For that, we have an ace up our sleeve. The man that discovered the Grimm is Corporal Rick Culper.” Jim sat up straight at hearing the name. “Before he joined the Hussars, he sustained a brain injury. One of the side effects of that injury was an ability to resist the Grimm’s special talents. I’m going to send him and his squad with you under the command of Lieutenant T’jto.” The MinSha standing behind Alexis nodded. “They’ll handle the boarding action on our courier ship.”

“How are we going to get out of 2nd Level Hyperspace to Sulaadar?” Jim asked. “Bucephalus doesn’t have hyperspace shunts.”

“We’ll send one of our specialty ships with you,” Alexis said. “Think of it as a blockade runner. After you’ve intercepted the Grimm, you can go after the Raknar, and our ship will return Culper and his squad back to New Warsaw, hopefully with the Grimm as a prisoner. The timetable is tricky, but my intentions are to return the salvaged ships to New Warsaw, where my shipyards can begin overhauling them, then I’ll head for Karma with Commanders Drake and Earl to support the breakout of the other Human merc units. Hopefully, Jim Cartwright will be arriving to get the equipment he needs for the Raknar, and this all happens by the numbers.”

Someone whistled while others nodded. It was a bodacious plan, to say the least. One that depended on nothing going wrong.

“And my people?” Walker asked.

“You’re to assume command of the Golden Horde garrison here on New Warsaw and defend the remaining free Humans. Our people are continuing their analysis of the SalSha’s abilities, and we want to run some evaluations in field conditions. If those work out, I’ll do as you’ve requested and will accept them into our flight training program. Until they’re ready, we think it’s best to keep them here, out of sight.” He looked unhappy but nodded in understanding.

Everyone around the table exchanged looks, and Alexis watched their reactions. She could see skepticism and concern. What she also saw, though, was hope.

“Sounds like a plan,” Nigel said. With that, they began working out the timetable.

* * *

Walker entered the Winged Hussars’ lab and found Alexis’ mad scientist, Taiki Sato, up to his elbows in some sort of drone propulsion unit. “Excuse me?” Walker asked.

“Can I help you?” Sato asked, looking over his shoulder. “Are you lost?” He pulled out one of his hands, but the other appeared stuck in his project.

“No, actually, I was looking for you. I know you’ve created a number of amazing things, and there’s something I desperately need.”

Sato turned fully around to look at Walker, spinning the propulsion unit as he moved. “Oh? What is it you’re looking for?”

“Well, I got overrun by a company of Goka once,” Walker said, stifling a shiver, “and would really like to keep from repeating that…ever again. I was just put in charge of our defenses, and I need something to protect against Goka.”

“Yes, they’re difficult to kill, but I’m kind of busy…”

“I can see that,” Walker said, “but, like I said, I heard you were a genius, and no one has been able to build this yet, so I thought…”

“What is it you have in mind?”

“I want a railgun round that functions like a mini-HEAT round. I want something that’s armor penetrating, that I can fire out of my railgun, but no one’s been able to design anything like that for me.”

“Hmm…the normal railgun rounds are how big? Ten millimeters,” he said, answering his question before Walker could. “I’d need a metal sleeve to allow the mechanism to function…” His train of thought continued, but Walker couldn’t hear what he said. After about a minute of muttering to himself he turned back to Walker and jumped slightly, as if not expecting him to be there.

“Do you think it’s possible?” Walker asked.

“Oh, absolutely,” Sato replied. “I’m surprised it doesn’t exist already. It should be easy to put together…Come back tomorrow, and I’ll have something for you.”

“Tomorrow?” Walker said. “Seriously?”

“Yes,” Sato replied, shooing him out of the lab with his good hand. “Now let me get to work or nothing will ever get done.”

* * *

“Commander Cromwell, do you have a minute?” Alexis was just leaving the conference room when Nigel Shirazi came up behind her. The session to hammer out the details had lasted almost six hours, and she was eager for some rest.

“Sure,” she said, “what’s on your mind?”

“Ships,” he said.

“You have your ship,” she said. “We’ll give you a code key to get back, like we said.”

“There’s a war starting,” he said. “They’re hunting Human mercs, especially Horsemen.” The two looked at each other for a minute, and Alexis admired his swagger. The man cut a fine figure for a young commander. He also had his grandfather’s good looks.

“What do you want, Nigel?”

“A few ships,” he said, “and a transport at the least. There are a lot of men on New Persia. A lot more than Revenge can carry. Plus, if we get any CASPers, they’ll take room—lots of it—and we need the CASPers.”

She regarded him more closely, deciding she’d underestimated him a bit. He saw her narrow her eyes and grinned slyly. Alexis laughed. “You’re more like your grandfather than I thought,” she said.

“So you’ll loan me some ships?”

“Sure,” she said. “I’m sure Jim Cartwright can take care of himself. He’s been wandering around the galaxy looking for those Raknar for months. He’s got a capable ship, too. But that tub of yours is pathetic.” It was Nigel’s turn to narrow his eyes, and Alexis’ to grin slyly. He laughed at his own expense, and she raised her opinion of him another notch.

“I’ll send a short squadron,” she said. “The Crown-class cruiser Whirlaway, the Legend-class frigate Durendal, and the transport Capricorn. Whirlaway is under Commander Yoshuka.”

“An alien?” Nigel asked incredulously.

“Yes, Nigel, an alien. He’s Maki, and they’re some of the best space-capable aliens in the galaxy. I’ve faced off against them many times.”

“You trust this alien with a squadron? Even after what you said?”

“I trust that person with my life, and I have, numerous times,” she said with steel in her voice. “You see, Yoshuka and his family have been here, in New Warsaw, for seventy years. His father served my mother.” He shook his head in amazement. “Nigel, there are over 60,000 dependents of the Winged Hussars here in New Warsaw. Fully 40% of them are aliens, from 26 different races at last count. We really don’t care what race you are, as long as you do your job and are loyal to the Hussars first and foremost.”

“Strikes me as risky,” he said darkly, a scowl on his face.

“We’ve been here almost 100 years,” she reminded him. “It’s worked that long.” Slowly he nodded.

“As you say, Alexis.” She gave a little grin. For some reason, hearing him call her by her first name brought a smile to her face.

“Bring yourself back alive,” she said, “I’m aware of your rather foolhardy tactics. We need live Horsemen, not dead ones.”

“I’ll do the best I can,” he said, and turned to leave.

Jim Cartwright was still in his seat, his eyes unfocused and lips moving slightly. Alexis knew he was probably talking with someone on his ship, most likely his XO. The little alien named Splunk sat on the conference table, just out of his view. She had a slate and was busily tapping away on it.

“<It is a curious being, is it not?>

Yes,” she answered Ghost. “Do you know about that race?

“<I do.>” Alexis waited a long time, but no more information followed.

* * *

“Can we trust her?” Jim turned toward Nigel, who’d asked the question as they walked down the corridor. Splunk didn’t look at the Asbaran Solutions commander. She hadn’t so much as glanced his way since the meeting. Jim didn’t think he’d ever seen her hold a grudge before.

“She’s a Horseman,” Jim replied. Nigel’s expression seemed to be a mixture of curiosity and doubt as they followed a Human Hussar, who was escorting them to the shuttle bay.

“She’s been hiding here for months while Peepo maneuvered to invade Earth. It sounds like she realized something was coming.”

“Not to the degree the Horde put it together,” Jim reminded him.

“Okay, sure, but still, she had the fleets to do something. Opposing an invasion is easier than invading. Her complaint about not having battleships falls short, especially with what she did to that huge fleet months ago.”

“She did say she pulled some moves she couldn’t do again.”

Nigel nodded slightly, his expression still one of evaluation. “Could she have stopped the invasion?” Nigel lifted a questioning eyebrow.

“Maybe,” Jim admitted. “But do I trust her? She’s loaning us ships, which means she’s weakening her own defenses. If I don’t stop the Grimm, she may well end up wishing those ships were still here. So the answer is yes.”

“She’s a bit of an enigma,” Nigel said. “She keeps her opinions to herself, and that’s very Arabic. She’s a stellar beauty, with none of the affectations you find in Earth women who are as lovely as she is. That hair too…” he said, shaking his head.

“A mutation, as I understand,” Jim said. “Something happened early with her family. Probably radiation.”

“We’re linking our fates with hers,” Nigel said. “I hope she has our interests in mind, as well as her own.”

Jim nodded as they reached the shuttle bay, and he turned to Nigel. The two men faced each other, one tall, lean, and muscular, the other somewhat shorter, not lean, and not muscular. “Good luck,” Jim said as he held out his hand.

“I don’t like you, Jim Cartwright,” Nigel said. “You’re soft and not at all what I’d expect from a merc.” Jim felt his jaw muscles tense as he held his ground, hand outstretched in a gesture of friendship. “But I’ve learned, in command you don’t have to like the people you fight with. You’ve also proven yourself a warrior, even if you’re an unconventional one. Good luck to you as well,” he said, taking the proffered hand. “I hope you secure these Raknar and stop the Grimm. I’ll bring back many warriors, and we’ll defeat Peepo. Together.”

“Until then,” Jim agreed, and the two parted company.

* * *

“I was able to make the rounds you wanted,” Sato said when Walker returned the next day, “and I fit them into the sleeve required to launch them from one of your CASPer railguns. Of course, the rounds are a little longer, so there’s less room in the drum for them, and your ammunition loadout will be reduced by about one-third.” He pointed to a CASPer ammo drum in the corner of the lab. “That one is loaded with the first production run of your mini-HEAT rounds. I call them WARM rounds.”

“What does WARM stand for?” Walker asked.

“It doesn’t stand for anything,” Sato said with a smile. “They aren’t quite as strong as a full-size HEAT round, so I thought maybe they were just a little warm, right?”

Walker sighed. “I see,” he said, giving the scientist’s pun a half-frown. “They’re going to work, though, right?”

“Absolutely,” Sato replied. “They’ll function as designed. I guarantee it.”

“That’s great. Thanks!”

“My pleasure. Just go easy on them when you first start shooting, in case they explode in the barrel when it’s cold.”

“What?!”

“Don’t worry, only a couple did that.” Sato mumbled to himself for a second, and Walker only caught the last bit, “…Marines are so picky about failure rates.”

“Is it going to work or not?”

“Yes, of course it’s going to work,” Sato replied. “I’m positive the round will function as expected. At least it did in my trials. And, even though it’s a smaller round because it had to fit in the sleeve, it’s still able to penetrate about two inches of steel armor.”

“That’s perfect,” Walker replied. “Thanks.”

Sato turned and walked out of the lab, and Walker heard him say as the door closed, “It’s definitely going to explode. Hopefully, it won’t still be in the muzzle when it does…”

* * * * *


Chapter Thirteen


Winged Hussars Prime Base, New Warsaw System

Ships that had sat idle for months came alive as crews arrived and brought their power plants online. The near space around Prime Base was a buzz of cargo shuttles, armament replenishment craft, and tankers. Alexis watched the area through data fed directly into her pinplants as she floated in her wardroom, adjacent to the CIC. It felt good to be back aboard Pegasus.

A few kilometers away, Whirlaway was formed up with the escort frigate Durendal and the transport Capricorn. The Asbaran Solutions ship Revenge floated nearby, dwarfed by the cruiser and transport. A squadron of that composition was unheard of, especially where combat might result. Winged Hussars’ doctrine stated a minimum of four warships in this situation; a cruiser and three frigates. By sending a single cruiser and a frigate, she was violating that doctrine. She dearly hoped there wouldn’t be any combat. They couldn’t afford to lose the cruiser.

“<Is it only the cruiser you’re concerned about?>”

Of course, what else would I be concerned about?

<Nigel Shirazi.>”

Alexis laughed out loud. The obnoxious Arab was far from the top of her list of concerns for this operation. There were a hundred other things she was more concerned about.

“Commander?” She cocked her head at the call from Hoot, her Buma comms officer.

“Go ahead.”

“Commander Shirazi is calling.” Alexis ground her teeth and shook her head.

“Put it through here.” A second later, the Tri-V on her desk came alive with Nigel’s grinning face. Despite herself, she smiled. “Commander, I understand from Captain Yoshuka you are about ready to boost for the stargate?”

“That’s correct,” he said. The slight Arabic accent gave his speech a rich quality she didn’t hear very often in New Warsaw. Exotic, she thought. “I just wanted to thank you for the ships.”

“I’m not giving them to you, Colonel Shirazi; they’re still under Yoshuka’s command. I want them back.”

“You shall have them, I promise, and we’ll bring back the soldiers we need, along with the new Mk 9 CASPers. That I promise as well.” She nodded, and he gave her that same self-assured smile. “Until we meet again,” he said, and he terminated the connection. On her status board, the tiny squadron began to thrust away toward the Winged Hussars’ private stargate. For once, Ghost didn’t butt in on her private thoughts.

Off in another direction, the Cavaliers’ ship, Bucephalus, had maneuvered into position near Pegasus. A tanker had just completed topping off her ship’s reaction mass, and the controller that handled traffic around Prime Base confirmed James Armistead Lafayette was en route. One of three specially-fitted cutters the Hussars maintained, the ships were the smallest vessels in the Union to have hyperspace shunts. They used them as high-risk couriers and intelligence ships.

Alexis located the ship in local space via the data feed from Pegasus’ sensor tech, a Selroth named Flipper. Her naming convention for alien crew members was renowned for its tongue-in-cheek nature.

James Armistead Lafayette was aft of them and braking with her secondary ion drive, as it was against the rules to use fusion torches around Prime Base. The ship itself was just 120 feet in length, with a narrow nose that widened out to a bulbous stern section that accommodated two oversized fusion plants. Because of the inverse square law involved in hyperspace travel, the smaller a ship, the larger the power requirements to keep it in hyperspace. Nearly half of the James Armistead Lafayette would’ve been power plant to start with, except she also sported hyperspace shunts.

Stargates were massive hyperspace shunts, providing a gateway to hyperspace. It took a massive amount of power to displace vessels into hyperspace, at which point the ships’ own generators kept them there. For a ship to have hyperspace generators and shunts was rare enough. For a ship as small as the Hussar’s intelligence cutters to have them was inconceivable. Alexis liked things that others considered inconceivable.

“We’ll be ready to get underway as soon as James Armistead Lafayette docks with Bucephalus, Captain.” The information came from Glick, her SitCon, or situational coordinator. His job was to coordinate actions between the various sections, and he was one of two Bakulu on her command staff. Glick’s compatriot, Chug, was Pegasus’ main helmsman, or in this case, helmsalien.

“Noted,” she said. “Flipper, can you confirm if Glamdring has left with Sinclair’s Scorpions?”

“Just now, ma’am,” Flipper replied immediately.

“Very well. Ms. Opal?”

“Commander?”

“Are munitions stores secured?”

“Yes, ma’am, secured for space. We have a full load of missiles and drones.” Alexis was still getting used to her new tactical commander, or TacCom. Her previous TacCom of several years had been promoted to lieutenant commander and was now in command of Durendal, which was on its way to New Persia with Nigel Shirazi. It was his first command, and well past time.

“Thank you. Paka?”

“Ma’am?” her XO replied immediately.

“As soon as James Armistead Lafayette has come alongside, set course for the stargate at one quarter gravity.”

“Will do,” she replied. A few minutes later, the Acceleration Stations claxon sounded, and the great old battlecruiser began to move. Soon after, they were approaching the stargate, and Alexis floated into the CIC.

“Stargate control reports recharge is nearly complete,” Paka said as Alexis drifted in. The Veetanho XO had been keeping things going behind the scenes for many years, and she’d given up her own command in the Hussars to serve under the company’s commander.

“Neutral stations,” she ordered.

“Neutral stations, aye,” the helmsman, Chug, reported.

“Order JAL and Bucephalus to dock grapple and prepare for transition.” With all thrust canceled, the two other ships moved in. With help from Pegasus’ computers, they carefully docked at two of the bigger ship’s four grapples.

“They’re both secured,” Paka reported. “We have good hyperspace linkage.”

“Fusion Plants 1 and 2 are at 100%,” Chief Engineer Long reported from far aft, “and 3 is on standby.” After the near-disastrous string of battles, Pegasus’ fusion plants had all been modernized and upgraded. They were 30% more powerful than before, as well as more resistant to damage.

“Stargate control confirms our transition timing and sends best of luck on the operation,” Hoot said.

“Acknowledge and thanks,” Alexis said. “All hands, prepare for transition.”

In front of the three combined ships, the stargate’s powerful shunts warped space, creating a quantum singularity, a portal to hyperspace they passed through. A pivotal moment of uncreation, and they were in another universe.

Okay, Ghost, it’s all you now.

“<Calculations underway,>” it replied.

“Hoot, patch me through to the crew and the other ships.”

“You’re on, Commander.”

“This is Commander Cromwell,” she said. “In a moment we’ll be doing something extremely dangerous; dropping out of hyperspace. Those of you new to Pegasus’ crew, and the other ships attached, please be prepared for a most unenjoyable experience. I can’t describe the sensations beyond the fact they’re…unpleasant.”

“<Calculations complete,>” Ghost said.

“Here we go,” Alexis announced to everyone, then replied to Ghost. “Do it.” Power was cut to the hyperspace generator, and the ships fell out of hyperspace.

* * *

Jim Cartwright was strapped into a seat in Bucephalus’ CIC when Alexis Cromwell made her announcement.

“Are you sure about this?” Captain Su asked. As the captain of his ship, she was in charge while they were in space. The plan to purposely cut power while in hyperspace struck her as just shy of clinically insane. Jim’s XO, Hargrave, was with the troops in the lower decks. Splunk was in Jim’s quarters.

“I trust Commander Cromwell,” Jim said.

“You aren’t sure about it either, are you?”

“No,” he admitted, “but that trust is enough in this case.” Su’s mouth turned into a narrow line as she nodded her head.

“You Cavaliers aren’t always the smartest, but you are good at making the right calls when instinct is more important than brains.”

Jim smiled, then his grin faltered as he began to wonder if that was really a compliment. Captain Su used the ship’s PA system. “All hands, prepare for transition to 2nd Level Hyperspace.” Afterward, she tightened the straps holding her into her chair and scowled. Jim was just beginning to wonder when it would happen, when it did.

Transitioning into hyperspace was, to many, an existential experience. Almost transcendent. Poets and philosophers had experienced it over and over to try to link it with something more. The transition to 2nd Level Hyperspace was not something poets would talk about; it was something horror writers would.

Jim’s mind screamed as his body was torn apart piece by piece. Then the pieces were set afire and sent spinning into a meat grinder. It seemed to last for an eternity, then it was over.

“Cào nǐ mā, that was awful!” Captain Su spat. The entire CIC crew looked like they’d been through hell and back. For that matter, Jim was pretty sure he had been, too.

“I wonder if Dante was writing about his trip to 2nd Level Hyperspace?” he wondered aloud.

“No visual from external cameras,” one of the CIC staff said. Jim nodded; they’d been told to expect that. He unbuckled.

“Where are you going, Commander?” Captain Su asked.

“I want to see for myself,” he said as he left the CIC. He floated down the corridor, but found he had to keep pulling himself along or he would come to a stop.

Like most warships, there weren’t many windows. A window was an opening through which laser fire could bypass armor. He went to a utility airlock on a lower deck, cycled the lock, and pulled himself over to the outer door. The window was only a few inches on a side, used mainly for visual verification of a docked craft. Still, it was enough to see out.

The black was just as he’d heard; as black as regular hyperspace was white. Black in a way regular space could never be, without stars, planets, or even distant galaxies. Plus, as he watched, he felt something in the back of his head that felt like ants crawling around in his brain. “Wow,” he said eventually.

“Commander,” Captain Su called.

“Go ahead.”

“We’re about to detach from Pegasus and dock with James Armistead Lafayette.”

“I’ll be right there.” He took a final look before pulling his eyes away and floating back to the CIC. By the time he got there, they’d already docked with the Winged Hussars’ cutter.

Bucephalus, this is Captain Crispin on James Armistead Lafayette.”

“Go ahead, James Armistead Lafayette,” Captain Su responded.

“We’re charging our shunts, and the necessary calculations have been transferred from Pegasus. We’ll be ready to transition back to normal space in five minutes.”

“Understood, Captain Crispin,” Su said. “Our engineers confirm a good linking of our field generators. We’re definitely ready to get out of here.” Jim rebuckled into his seat and settled back.

“What was it like?” Su asked after a time.

“Disturbing,” he said. “I hope I never see it again.” At exactly five minutes, they returned to normal space.

* * *

EMS Pegasus, 2nd Level Hyperspace

James Armistead Lafayette and Bucephalus have transitioned to normal space,” Flipper informed his commander.

“Very well,” she said. “Inform the Geek Squad it’s time to earn their pay.”

An hour later, Alexis half floated/half pulled herself into the conference room on Deck 19, Officers’ Country. Even though she’d been in the strange 2nd Level Hyperspace before, the effect of being in a zero gravity that slowed and stopped you was something she’d never get used to.

Alexis had grown up in micro-gravity and was as at home in it as any Human could be. When you pushed off from one side of a corridor, you were supposed to glide all the way to the other. Here, you’d come to a relatively quick stop halfway across. Emergency ropes had been strung across many open areas, and members of the crew were still getting stranded.

“Flipper, have you been able to fix our location based on the previous visit?” The Selroth was only wearing a liquid rebreather for the meeting. He usually wore a complete helmet in the CIC but seemed to prefer having his head exposed in group conversations like this.

“Scanning remains a hit-or-miss prospect here,” he explained. “Our sensor returns are scattered, and the time delay for energy travel is equally bizarre.”

“We’ve tried to fine tune the calibration,” Kleena said.

“We’ve implemented all the adjustments,” one of the two Jeha on the Geek Squad chimed in.

“It has helped,” Flipper said, nodding to the group of scientists. The two Jeha floated near the table, a few legs hanging on to keep from moving randomly. Kleena clung to a chair with his legs. The chair where Taiki Sato should have been was noticeably empty. “Based on the data, we appear to be about 50,000 kilometers, or whatever passes for a kilometer here, from our previous position. I’m just finishing the survey of near space…” he seemed to fumble for another word, then gave a shrug.

“Kleena, where is Sato?” Alexis asked.

Paka answered for him. “Flying around outside.”

“What?” She shot a withering stare at Kleena. “One of your jobs is to keep that mad scientist on a short leash.”

“And the next time I manage that will be the first,” he shot back. “He insisted on personally trying out one of the shuttles we reprogrammed to operate in 2nd Level Hyperspace.”

“He’s such a child.” Xander Opal, the new TacCom, wasn’t amused by the less-than-professional antics of the Geek Squad. She was a consummate professional and relatively new to the Winged Hussars. She’d been rescued from slavers during an anti-pirate operation nine years ago, and the remainder of her entire family had been killed when their ship was taken. After being rescued, she’d elected to join the Hussars instead of returning to Earth.

“His mannerisms may be…unconventional,” Alexis said as diplomatically as she could, “but that doesn’t detract from his accomplishments.” Xander gave a little snort, and Kleena took the opportunity to continue.

“Based on his further sampling of the physics here, the shuttles should be capable of very high rates of speed.”

“What about that crazy deceleration?” Chug asked. As Pegasus’ helmsman, such matters were of supreme importance to him. Two of the mollusk’s eyes were looking at Kleena, the third stared at a tiny slate affixed to his shell. The Bakulu were a tad difficult to get used to for some Humans.

“We confirmed the acceleration is linear, roughly half of your relative velocity per second, on a slightly logarithmic scale, until you are stationary.”

“The G forces would be lethal,” Chug persisted, “even to us.”

“Sato has taken the shuttle up to 250 mps, cut power, decelerated to a stop in 2 seconds, and the instruments detected no inertia.”

“Wow,” Alexis said. They knew from their previous visit that there didn’t seem to be much, if any, inertial effects to the phenomenon. However, when they’d taken a shuttle to salvage F11 after losing all of theirs, the pilot, Larry Southard, had kept their speed low and used the vessel’s thrusters to avoid excessive slowing. Unfortunately, he hadn’t survived the mission; his experience in the altered physics of 2nd Level Hyperspace would have been welcome, as would the experiences of Corporal Rick Culper and Sergeant Eva Johansson, the only two surviving Hussars to venture away from Pegasus on their first visit to 2nd Level Hyperspace.

“Sato is quite excited,” Kleena said. Alexis could understand why. Unfortunately, an overly excited Sato was not a very productive Sato.

“After we’re done here,” Alexis said, “please get him back on task?”

“<We’re wasting time,>” Ghost said.

I know,” she replied, then spoke to Paka. “We don’t have a lot of time here. As we saw last time, there are risks we simply don’t understand. Lethal risks. I’m told that, should any of the denizens that inhabit this realm make their way aboard, we’d be in serious danger.” A number of those around the table nodded, understanding that Ghost provided the information.

“As the captain requested,” one of the Jeha said, “we’ve prepared a total of six modified shuttles.”

“One of which Taiki Sato is using at the moment,” the other said. Alexis cast a baleful glance at Kleena, who nodded his snouted head and looked into the distance as he used his pinplants. The other Jeha spoke again.

“There will be room for 50 personnel in each shuttle, along with F11 stores, slates, repair parts, and enough supplies for three days.”

“Life support on the shuttles was stretched for this as well,” the other said.

“Excellent,” Alexis said and turned to her XO. “The crews are all briefed?”

“Yes, Commander,” she replied.

“Drone Control will send a flight of five high-endurance drones along with each shuttle to act as extended sensors, since radio and laser comms don’t work right here, and as potential fire support. The crews are all armed, but due to the necessity of having maximum technical ability aboard, there wasn’t room in the shuttles for marines.”

“My candidate analysis is complete,” Flipper announced. The conference room Tri-V came alive with a spherical near-space representation; the Pegasus was at its center. “We’ve identified seven thousand ships with the sensor improvements created by Sato.”

“Seven thousand?” Xander said, her eyes wide in amazement. She was the only one of the command staff who’d never been to 2nd Level Hyperspace. “I had no idea the Union had lost so many ships.”

“Hundreds of the ships do appear to be of Union design, but others are very old,” Flipper said. The thousands of little green markers on the map twinkled. They appeared randomly scattered. There were clumps in a few places, and some were large. “Most are unidentified in origin.”

“I think I can help with that,” Sato said as he pulled himself into the conference room, seemingly handling the strange physics of the place without missing a beat.

“Done playing in the shuttle?” Alexis asked.

“For now, yeah,” he said, missing the sarcasm, and easily slid into his chair. “In regard to the ships, I believe the interconnected levels of hyperspace is the explanation.” Everyone in the room stared expectantly at Sato who looked around curiously.

“Maybe you can explain?” Kleena suggested.

“Oh, sure,” Sato said. “I’ve spent some time learning about hyperspatial physics since our first trip here. It was never one of my interests until recently.” Alexis shook her head. The man had learned an entire scientific discipline in weeks. She had no doubt he was probably one of the most learned in the field now.

“The Union Science Guild has a large amount of data on the relationship between normal space and 1st Level Hyperspace. They appear to have zero knowledge about the relationship between 1st level and the others.”

“Meaning they don’t know about this place?” Alexis asked.

“Oh, no,” Sato said. “They know about it. The details are hidden from our eyes. You can find them, if you look at some of the footnotes, subtexts, and references that weren’t removed.” He made a snorting sound and said something in his native Japanese the translator didn’t catch. “The Science Guild scribes lack subtlety. Maybe they never thought someone would read all twenty-seven thousand papers? Anyway, it seems they weren’t interested in studying underlying cause and effect. They call themselves scientists? That’s part of the very pillars of science, to study how things interact.

“I’ve used conversations with Ghost to stretch my understanding even further. Based on my research of 1st Level Hyperspace, it’s a stretching and thinning of the normal fabric of reality. It’s closely related to normal space and, as you can see, all the regular rules of physics persist. Gravity, energy, sensors, etc.”

“You can’t scan for other ships there,” Flipper pointed out.

“Sure you can,” Sato countered, “but because of the thinning of space-time there, no ships are perceived by the instruments as being close enough to detect. Even if you passed into hyperspace just meters from another ship, and at nearly the same time, on that level the other ship could seem to be a trillion miles away and many weeks ago.”

“Space and time are altered there?” Alexis asked.

“Yes,” he agreed. “The passage of time is carefully controlled by the hyperspace computer in concert with the field generators.”

“Which is made by the Cartographers’ Guild,” Chug said. Sato nodded and pointed at the Bakulu helmsman.

“The five-day trip has nothing to do with the stargate then,” Alexis said.

“Nothing,” he agreed. “The closer you get to the 2nd level, the more the time dilation effect is felt, and the greater the risk of slipping into the 2nd level. The 170 hours seems to be linked with the skimming effect. It’s a safe rate of travel to keep you from falling through to here. It might be possible to make the trip instantaneous, but it’d be like an elephant tight-rope-walking on a spider-silk line.”

“<He’s quite smart, for a Human.>” Alexis grunted in agreement, then spoke, “How much about the second level are they hiding?” she asked. “Both the Science Guild and the Cartographers’ Guild?”

“The Science Guild, probably a lot. I find it hard to believe science can simply be forgotten. The Cartographers, I can’t say. Now onto the physics of this place, second level. Where the first level is a stretching of space-time, this is a compressed realm. Time is compressed, space is compressed, everything is compressed.”

“So that’s why you slow down instead of floating on?” Alexis asked.

“Yes,” he agreed. “After the first trip here, I compared computer clocks from Pegasus with those on Prime Base. 1st Level Hyperspace never resulted in so much as an hour’s difference. Our trip here seemed to take no more than a few minutes.”

“We were here for many hours, though,” Long complained. “I should know; we built an entire fusion power plant.”

“The time dilation,” Alexis said.

“Exactly,” Sato said. “It isn’t that you don’t float in zero gravity, because you still do. However, time is compressed, so those few instances of floating pass more like weeks, years, maybe centuries.”

“But,” Alexis said, and Sato scowled, “if time passes faster here, shouldn’t we have been gone years?”

“Compressed,” he said impatiently. “You experience more time here than there.” Alexis made an “O” shape with her mouth, and Sato continued. “As that compression is space and time, it means this area around us is actually compressed as well.” Alexis nodded again; that seemed to make sense of the travel issues they’d had with the shuttle the first time. “This space around us,” Sato said, waving his arms about, “could well represent that of many galaxies. Or the entire universe!”

“Entropy,” Alexis gasped. She started to say how should couldn’t grasp how that could work, then stopped. There was no way to explain how one felt about such a concept. All the universe reduced to a space smaller than a single solar system?

“<The situation has not changed here,>” Ghost said. “<This is just as dangerous a place.>”

Sato continued speaking, so Alexis set her pinplants to record his conversation while she spoke to Ghost.

The thing that attacked our boarding party earlier? You said you didn’t know what it was.

“<Correct, I don’t. I was designed to make use of the Nothing, but we never spent any amount of time here. The exact reasons were never explained, only that it was dangerous to remain. It’s not the nature of my kind to extrapolate without sufficient information, though it may be safe to assume that the being encountered, and the vessel we captured, are the reasons.>”

Do you think it’s possible that something lives here—that this is its native realm?

“<Possible, certainly. Probable, unlikely. We’ve yet to see evidence of any worlds or stars. Thus far, no life has been catalogued which evolved in deep space. Some sort of energy is required. The Nothing is void of any energy.>

Alexis switched back to the real-time meeting, part of her mind considering what Ghost had told her, the rest running back the time she’d missed at the meeting under high speed. Most of it was Sato continuing to go on about how fascinating the realm was. Just a moment ago he’d suggested that if they located a suitable ship, he’d like to stay and continue research.

“I don’t think that would be an optimal use of your time,” she said. The look on his face indicated he didn’t agree. “We’re facing a war against humanity; it would be best if we dedicate our time and efforts to the problem at hand. Should we prevail, there’ll be plenty of time to do your research.” He gave a small smile, and she knew she’d placated him…for now.

She turned to her XO. “Paka, are the crews ready?”

“All set,” the Veetanho said.

“Very well.” Alexis activated her command circuit. “Drone Control, drones into the black as planned. Search and prize crews to the shuttles. Operation World’s End is a go.”

* * *

EMS James Armistead Lafayette, Emergence Point, Sulaadar System

Captain Crispin floated into the marine squad bay, stopping at the door as custom dictated. Her eyes narrowed at seeing an Aposa on her ship. The alien might resemble a Veetanho, but the race didn’t have the calm, collected nature of the Veetanho. The Aposa got along with Tortantulas and Gokas. They liked to fight and kill. “Clear to enter, Lieutenant?” she asked.

“Come on in, Captain,” T’jto said. Rick was at the rear of the compartment playing poker with Johansson and Anderson. Their heavy weapons specialist, Trah’q, was asleep where he’d clamped onto a handhold with a couple of legs. As his carapace was slightly metallic, it made a handy table for their magnetic playing cards and chips. The Xiq’tal didn’t seem to mind.

The MinSha head of Dragon Squad was floating next to a weapons station, working with the Aposa, Private Yeet, to service a weapon. “What can we do for you?”

Bucephalus has moved into standoff position and gone dark. As per the plan, they’ll only be providing fire support if necessary. We’re in ideal position to intercept Détente as soon as she transitions to normal space in two days.” The captain looked at the disassembled equipment and the generally cluttered marine bay, and she scowled slightly. “Is your team ready?”

“We’re just going over some weapons,” T’jto replied. “We’ll be set eight hours before arrival, as planned.”

“Very well,” the captain said and left the compartment.

Rick had always marveled at the rather unique arrangement between marines and the ships they served on. The captain of a ship was the supreme authority aboard their vessel. Even a merc company commander would defer to them onboard. Yet the marines’ area was a little fiefdom of their own. A captain would always stop and ask permission to enter, even though they could do so anytime they wanted by regulation. Captains who barged into marine country uninvited could well find themselves with unhappy marines. Unhappy marines could be worse than enemy marines.

He glanced around the squad bay and shrugged. It was less than a quarter the size of their bay on Pegasus, so naturally it was cluttered. James Armistead Lafayette, or JAL as her crew of 43 called her, wasn’t designed for marines at all. The bay Captain Crispin had assigned to them had been auxiliary water tankage just 24 hours prior to departure. Hussars naval techs repurposed the space in just 12 hours, complete with an arms locker, medkit, and small autochef. Crowded, it might be, but they had everything they needed.

“Nosy bitch,” Anderson grumbled, tossing a five-credit chip onto Trah’q’s shell where it stuck with a little ting.

“Watch who you’re calling a bitch, asshole,” Johansson retorted as she anteed up.

“Sorry, sergeant bitch,” he replied, and everyone grinned, even Johansson. Rick liked Anderson. He’d transferred from Hippogriff a few weeks ago, and as a Hussars vet, he fell right into place. His record was spotless, and everyone figured he was due a corporal slot as soon as one opened up.

T’jto held up the magnetic accelerator cannon. “As soon as we get this MAC squared away,” she said, “we need to start stowing gear.” There were general mumbles and head shaking, and the lieutenant moved her head slightly so her multifaceted eyes could take in the entire bay. “Is that understood?”

“Yes, Lieutenant,” echoed from everyone except the sleeping crustacean. She nodded and went back to working on the weapon. Yeet glanced at them all, her whiskers twitching slightly. Her razor-sharp incisors gleamed slightly in the bay’s lighting. Teeth which could cut carbon fiber-reinforced armor.

“Please secure that power cable,” T’jto told her, and she went back to helping with the MAC. The Aposa had been hired after Anderson and was the least friendly member of the squad, even less so than Trah’q. She was typical of her species, from what Rick had read; they simply didn’t like others, not even their own kind.

They wrapped up the game just before the lieutenant finished repairing the weapon. Rick rapped on Trah’q shell, rather like knocking on a door, and the Xiq’tal’s eye stalks rotated up and looked around. “LT wants us to clean the squad bay.” Trah’q looked around and waved his big claw, his race’s version of a shrug, and helped stow gear. Rick had just closed a storage bin full of ammo when the ship’s alarm claxon sounded.

“Set Condition One throughout the ship!” The XO’s voice resounded down the companionways of JAL. Moments later, the sound of clanging airtight doors followed. Dragon Squad immediately began breaking gear back out and arming up.

“Wish we’d had room for our CASPers,” Anderson grumbled as he strapped on the armor he’d secured only minutes prior.

“In this little ship?” Rick asked. “Trah’q can barely fit down the hallway.” He pointed to the huge crab-like alien, who was busy strapping on his minimal combat gear. The Xiq’tal’s eyestalks looked at both of them without slowing his arming up.

The squad was ready in under two minutes, and LT T’jto was reported in. “Marine squad reports ready,” she said over the intercom. “Requesting situational status?”

“Marines, Détente just transitioned into the system.”

“That’s two days early,” Johansson said, voicing what they were all thinking. The op was for the marines to be in a boarding pod and to take Détente by surprise, either attaching to an airlock if the ship responded, or performing a dynamic entry if not. “So much for that plan.”

“Stand by, Marines, we’re working the problem.” The CIC cut the connection, and the marines had no choice but to wait.

* * *

EMS Bucephalus, Sulaadar System

“Battle stations,” the computer called. Jim maneuvered through the buzz of activity in Bucephalus to reach the CIC. He’d been about to take a shower on the gravity deck. Luckily, he usually disrobed there instead of flying through the ship naked, like most of the Cavaliers naval personnel tended to do. Two of his troopers with sidearms were next to the armored CIC door, and a red light was flashing around its outline, indicating it could close at any second if Bucephalus came under fire. You didn’t want to be in the door’s way should that happen.

“Commander,” Captain Su nodded as he sailed in.

“Captain, can I have an update?”

They’d been underwhelmed upon entering the Sulaadar system. After being briefed on the combat situation the Hussars had experienced there only months ago, Jim half-expected a fight as soon as they arrived. Instead, nobody seemed to care they were there.

“Ship just transitioned into the system.” That in itself wasn’t anything to note as unusual. A dozen ships had appeared since they’d arrived; all were freighters. “It has the Détente’s IFF transponder code.”

Jim checked his clock to confirm. Exactly five days since it left. The ship had used the five-day trip Alexis Cromwell talked about.

“We didn’t think they’d risk that,” Jim said. Captain Su gave him a hard look. “We haven’t discussed some of the things we were told by the Hussars. One of those is that a five-day trip though hyperspace is possible, though risky.”

“That’s a fact that would have been useful to know,” she said coldly. So would a lot of things I can’t tell you right now, Jim thought. “What course of action should we take?” Captain Su asked. Jim considered for a second.

“Jam them, full power.” Su looked at her sensor tech and nodded.

“They’ve spotted us,” the tech said. “The Détente is accelerating, 9 Gs.”

“That’s maximum according to the Hussars’ people,” the tactical officer reported.

“Bring us about,” Su ordered. “Full power once we match bearings.” The maneuver and acceleration alarms in Bucephalus blared a second before the warship yawed. Jim closed the buckles on his courtesy seat, locking the arm and leg restraints in place once he’d clicked in a pinlink. After she completed her turn, the fusion torch was fed reaction mass, and the ship surged forward.

“Full power,” the navigator said between breaths, “4.5 Gs.”

“Understood,” Su replied. Jim concentrated on breathing with an elephant sitting on his chest.

“They tried to transmit a moment before we jammed,” comms said.

“Did anything get out?” Su asked.

“If it did, it wasn’t much.”

“I have a firing solution,” tactical said, “laser charged, and missiles loaded.”

“Hold your fire,” she ordered, “until we have word from James Armistead Lafayette that this is our ship. Comms, get me Captain Crispin.”

“Go ahead, Captain Su,” James Armistead Lafayette’s commanding officer’s voice came over the laser communicator.

“We have a firing solution, Captain, which will last…” she looked at her tactical officer, who held up five fingers. “It’ll last for five more minutes. Can you confirm your aggressor has command?”

“They’re trying to run from an acknowledged friendly,” Crispin replied, “and we got their attempted burst transmission. We’re going to come up their baffles and go for a disabling shot. If we fail, you have permission to splash them.” Jim understood that. It meant the little intelligence cutter was going to fly up Détente’s fusion plume and fire a disabling shot at her engines. It was high-risk because the plume was like an energy weapon the closer you got, but the ship they were pursuing was nearly blind directly astern. In many ways, it resembled submarine warfare from the 20th century on Earth.

“Very well, James Armistead Lafayette, we’re standing by. Best of luck.”

Jim leaned back and let the gel pad of the seat absorb as much of his weight as it could. Bucephalus maintained thrust to extend their firing solution as long as possible. All Jim could do was wait.

* * *

In the minute before James Armistead Lafayette came about and lit her torch to full power, Rick’s squad raced at top speed to the central port of the ship. The vessel was small, with one main front-to-back passageway, known as the central run, which went just under the bridge. JAL was too small for a CIC. Just behind the bridge, a ladderway led from the central run up to her dorsal docking port, and another down to her ventral docking port. Another two companionways went port and starboard to two more ports. They’d docked with Bucephalus on her ventral port, and their now unusable boarding pod was mated to the dorsal. They knew if JAL managed to catch Détente, it would have to dock via the port or starboard ports.

As fast as possible, the marines spread out along the port and starboard companionways. Then, using the magnets built into their combat armors’ hands and feet, they clamped down against the rear-facing side of the companionway. Trah’q simply latched on to a few handholds. The extent of his armor was a section sealed over his breathing organ and mouth parts, and a bubble around his eyes and feelers. The Xiq’tal were nearly airtight naturally, being a deep aquatic race.

No sooner had they clamped in place than the PA blared. “Stand by for maneuvers and extreme acceleration. Repeat, extreme acceleration.”

“I wonder how extreme?” Anderson asked. JAL spun.

Rick was used to radical changes of direction from his time aboard Pegasus. The battlecruiser possessed a scary amount of maneuverability for its size, nearly equal to most frigates. However, JAL was mostly engine. When the ship suddenly spun, Rick honestly thought they’d eaten a missile.

“Oof,” he grunted as a six-G turn slammed him sideways so hard the magnetic grapple on his suit glove squealed and threw sparks from the steel decking.

“Oh, this is gonna hurt,” Johansson moaned. Rick silently nodded. If JAL could manage six-G turns…

Eleven gravities slammed them back against their combat armor with bone-jarring brutality. Rick struggled to draw breath, and his vision swam red, signaling imminent blackout. Had they been in CASPers, that would’ve been that. He’d simply have passed out until thrust was eased. The combat armor had a few advantages over the CASPer. In the big battle armor, you needed some room to move around. It was haptic in nature, responding to your limbs’ movements. The cockpit front was a good foot away from your head, and jammed with things like a miniature Tri-V, medical systems, etc. More like a battle robot than combat armor, a CASPer was out of its league in this sort of situation.

Combat armor was all encompassing. It was designed for fighting in space, and it was similar to what the crew of the ship wore in a fight, only armored. It was as functional and snug as a pair of pajamas. In addition, its sensors could tell when the Human occupant was under extreme G strain, and the armor lining in the lower limbs inflated. The effect was to restrict lower limb blood flow and help the brain remain functioning. It hurt like hell and jacked your blood pressure through the ceiling, but you stayed awake.

“Well this is fun,” Rick gasped through teeth clenched against the brutal gravity. He now weighed well over two tons. He’d been under 10 Gs before, though only for a few seconds. It was one of the few times he envied his lieutenant. The MinSha were among the most G-tolerant races in the galaxy. T’jto could take 11 Gs all day long. Or close to it, anyway.

“You Humans are pathetic.” That was Private Yeet. The Aposa were pretty damn tough, too, though Rick was sure he could hear her gasping for breath.

“Quit your whining,” Trah’q said. Like the MinSha with her insect-like physiology, the crustacean-analog Xiq’tal were well suited for this.

The command staff would be in their hydraulic combat couches in the bridge. The pilot was a Bakulu and almost as good at taking Gs as a MinSha.

“Prepare for five seconds of 15 Gs,” came the bridge’s warning over their headsets.

“Oh, f—” Anderson never got it out before another four times their weight was piled on top.

Rick swam back up from the void. His armor’s heads-up display was flashing a control icon, a sure sign he’d passed out. Rick used his pinplants to send the same icon back to the computer to prove he was conscious, and the controls came alive again. His suit said they were under three Gs and dropping. He felt like he’d been beaten by Oogar with baseball bats. His mind whirled for a second.

“Come on, Jim,” Rick said and lobbed the softball underhand. It was the 20th time he’d pitched a ball to his chubby friend, and he fully expected it to be the 20th miss. But Jim Cartwright locked his bright eyes on the ball, tracking it precisely until the right moment, and swung the metal bat with all his might. Clink! The ball soared into the late afternoon summer sky.

“I hit it!” Jim screamed.

“You did it, Jimbo!” Rick said, dropping his glove and sincerely applauding. “Way to go!”

“Call out,” T’jto said, snapping Rick back like a slap across his face. Jim Cartwright, he thought. He’s my friend! Rick had remembered something serious for the first time since he’d been shot in the head. He also felt a little happiness. That, too, was new. He suppressed the feeling for now and listened to his squad mates call out.

“Dragon 2, good to go,” Johansson said.

“Dragon 3, mashed but okay,” Rick said. He’d tell Johansson what he’d remembered later.

“Dragon 4, I think I have a couple popped ribs. I’ve taken a pain shot, I’m combat effective.”

“Dragon 5, fine,” Yeet said.

“Dragon 6, bored,” Trah’q said. All three Humans silently cursed.

“Bridge, marines are good, standing by.”

Détente has been disabled and is adrift,” Captain Crispin said. “We’ll be alongside in one minute. Marines, prepare to board.”

“Aye aye, Captain,” T’jto said. As one, those with faceplates on their armor reached up and snapped them closed. Rick heard his suit lock and felt the slight puff of atmosphere pressurizing inside. His heads-up display confirmed suit integrity, and he knew T’jto would see the same on her status board. “We’re ready.”

“All hands, prepare for opposed docking. This is a boarding action. I repeat, this is a boarding action.”

Rick used his pinplants to prepare his weapons. All of the troops were armed with weapons to both take the crew alive and to kill the Grimm. The situation was too unknown to predict. All they knew was the Grimm was aboard, it had just used a five-day trip through hyperspace (something Hussars ships weren’t capable of doing independently), and the ship hadn’t responded to the presence of Bucephalus the way it should have. Something was very wrong.

His internal clock ticked down. At almost exactly a minute, there was a violent shudder and a Bang! resounded through the ship.

“Capture!” someone called over the PA.

“Marines, you’re a ‘go,’” Captain Crispin said.

The light over the port lock indicated they’d use that one to dock. The door swung inward a second later. As JAL’s mission often called for unusual roles, her airlocks were quite large. Large enough for all of Dragon Squad to swarm into. If the Humans had been in CASPers, though, that wouldn’t have been possible.

“Yeet, open it,” T’jto ordered.

The Aposa leaped over and worked the control panel now linked with the other ship. A moment later she shook her head. “Jammed or locked out,” she said.

“Bridge, we’re going to have to force it,” T’jto said. “Sealing the inner door.” The inside airlock door swung closed, sealing them in. The outer door rotated aside, revealing Détente’s outer airlock door. Yeet again moved to the door and examined the glass. A simple tube with a liquid filled membrane. If there’d been vacuum on the other side, no liquid would be visible.

“Pressurized,” Yeet announced.

“Clear out,” T’jto said, then to Trah’q, “Private, breach the lock.”

“About damned time,” the Xiq’tal said and pushed off. Everyone was careful to stay out of his way as the massive crab grabbed the perimeter of the hatch with several legs, then brought his huge armored claw back and down with blinding speed and tremendous force. The attack was similar to a mantis shrimp on Earth, only generating more than 20 tons of precise force. Where the docking was loud, the stunning impact rang the Détente’s hull like a gong.

There was a whoosh of equalizing atmosphere as Trah’q’s claw punched through the thick, armored airlock door. It was loud, even through Rick’s helmet, and he was grateful they’d closed their face shields.

The alien struck several more times, then jammed the claw in and used it to shear the remaining steel between penetrations. With a final wrenching action, the lock failed.

“Hell of a can opener,” Anderson remarked, an instant before a laser nearly sliced him in half.

“Cover!” T’jto chittered, and the team pressed back against the walls of the airlock. Trah’q merely turned his claw side-on and held it sideways toward the enemy. Lasers scored but couldn’t penetrate his naturally-resistant armor.

Anderson’s body jerked, and his arms flailed about. Rick could see his eyes wide in surprise. He’d been shot by a laser more than once; he knew the cold kiss of death. Rick saw the pleading in Anderson’s eyes as he realized how badly he’d been injured. Then his face went slack, and his eyes unfocused. It was over.

“Captain Crispin, we have a KIA. We’re switching to lethal force.” T’jto said over the radio.

“Understood; good hunting.”

The MinSha glanced at her team once, then began giving orders. “Switch to heavy weapons,” she ordered. “Yeet, combat drones.”

“Roger that,” the Aposa said. She snatched the egg-shaped cylinders from her belt and heaved them into the breached lock where Trah’q was still taking fire. The devices ricocheted off several walls inside the other lock, then deployed their drives. Each one had a pair of ducted electric fans and a suite of sensors. Capable of operating for hours and transmitting data, they were invaluable tools in boarding actions where you hoped to avoid collateral damage. If they’d wanted the Grimm dead despite the crew, Captain Crispin would have just nuked Détente and been done with it.

The drones sent their data on an encrypted channel back to the controller; in this case Yeet. She then shared the feed on the squadnet. The virtual heads-up display created by Rick’s pinplants showed the view of both drones in their dizzying flight through the other side of Détente’s lock and into the ship. Few Humans could observe their immediate environment and simultaneously make sense of two data feeds with their eyes. The pinplants made it second nature.

“Fixed weapon,” Yeet announce as the drones orbited a medium laser emplacement which was hacked into the ship’s power grid.

“Killed by a damned booby-trap,” Johansson said and cursed. “Shut it down, private.” Yeet nodded and used her pinplants to order the drones. The machines weren’t much use against armored targets, as they each carried a tiny 1kw laser and just enough juice to power it for five shots, but that was enough against the laser emplacement’s power cable. A single shot severed it with a shower of shorted superconducting cabling. The laser fell silent.

“Good,” Trah’q said. “My claw was starting to get warm.”

“Corporal,” T’jto said, “secure Anderson’s body, then take point.”

Rick had known that was coming; the entire reason their squad had been sent was him. He’d proven to be at least partly resistant to the Grimm’s abilities. He retrieved an elastic cord from his equipment belt and secured Anderson’s remains to a handhold. He patted him on the thigh once before turning and pushing into Détente.

Entering the ship, Rick stopped at the passageway intersection a short distance past the laser emplacement where the weapon sparked and smoked from the sliced power cable. He used his suit’s remote camera on both suit gauntlets to look around the corner quickly.

“Nothing in the immediate corridor,” he reported. “No sign of a fight.”

“Understood,” T’jto said, “Yeet, send the drones out.”

“On it,” the Aposa said. The drones buzzed past where Rick floated and split to go in two different directions. Less than a second later, the signal from the drone that went forward cut off as a pair of laser beams lanced through the air.

“Fire from forward,” Rick confirmed.

“Engineering is sealed,” Yeet said, “that drone shows a laser weld on the door.” They all had the blueprints for Détente in their pinplants. The courier ship was a lot like JAL, though it had a larger cargo capacity and was unarmed. In civilian hands, it would have been classified as a free trader. With a crew of 11, its living spaces were minimal.

“There’s a good chance the crew was subdued and locked in engineering,” Johansson said. T’jto nodded her head in agreement.

“There’s a small shuttle docked under the bridge forward,” Yeet reminded them. “Our hostile could be making for that.” T’jto considered for a moment, then gave her order.

“Johansson, take Culper and Yeet, go forward, and secure the target. I’m taking Trah’q aft to the engine room to secure any possible prisoners.”

“Understood, LT,” Johansson said. Yeet, never one for formalities, just nodded. Rick guessed she assumed that course of action had the highest probability of violence, so she didn’t argue. They split into the two teams and proceeded.

The ship only had one main deck. The fore to aft central corridor they were on led directly to the engine room at the back of the ship. Up from it, the tiny shuttle bay was directly ahead, then up a short ladder and into Détente’s bridge from below. Like JAL, the Détente was too small for a CIC.

The corridor forward had four openings before it ended, two on either side. Rick pushed off and caught the doorframe of the first space to the right, using his momentum to swing inside. As he flipped around, he speed-drew his trusty Ctech HP-4, his pinplants already linked with the weapon’s integral sights. A red crosshair was superimposed over his vision, showing where the gun was aimed.

The room was crew berthing space with a tiny galley. Rick bounced off the far wall, scanning everywhere possible for someone to be. After his previous unnerving encounter with the Grimm, he wasn’t inclined to hold fire if he saw anything dark and shadowy. Especially after Anderson’s death. He was getting tired of losing squadmates.

“Clear,” he called over the radio.

“Clear,” Yeet said on the other side in officers’ quarters.

“Rebounding,” Johansson said as she flew past to the next set of rooms, storage and multiple purpose rooms. Rick was just flipping back into the corridor when his armor mic picked up a gunshot from where she’d disappeared.

Quick as a flash, Yeet launched herself ahead. Rick was less than a second behind. Despite wanting to follow her in after Johansson, he went to the other door on the opposite side of the corridor.

“Report,” T’jto called from aft.

“I shot a blanket blowing in an air duct,” Johansson said, the chagrin in her voice evident.

Rick entered the last room, the galley and common spaces, the same way he had the other. He was keenly aware that the further they went, the more likely they were to encounter the Grimm. Thus, each entrance was increasingly likely to result in violence. He still didn’t feel any fear for himself, but he did feel something for Johansson, with whom he’d been intimate for some weeks now.

Rick swept the room with his gun. Nothing was moving. He heard Johansson’s contralto voice mumbling about nerves, and his mind suddenly wandered.

“Did you get it?” Jim Cartwright asked as Rick came into the library. The two had started spending their lunch hour there to enjoy unapproved entertainment. There weren’t many places a 10-year-old could get privacy.

“You bet,” Rick said and pulled out a computer chip from his pocket.

“Excellent,” Jim said and took the chip. Jim had his lunch out already on the little table that they both considered theirs in the food-allowed area of the library. Rick would rather be out running or something, but Jim enjoyed this so much. His friend produced a slate and slid the computer chip into it. Music began playing with a man talking.

“There are those who believe that life here began out there. Far across the universe, with tribes of Humans who may have been the forefathers of the Egyptians, or the Toltecs, or the Mayans. Some believe there may yet be brothers of man, who even now fight to survive, somewhere beyond the heavens.” The music became dramatic and strange; improbable space ships flew by.

“Entropy, look at those ridiculous ships!” Rick said, shaking his head.

“Shhh,” Jim urged, “this is classic!”

“Culper, you with us?” Rick shook his head, the memory receding. It was coming back to him, but he had to concentrate on the mission.

“Yeah, sorry. Clear.”

“That only leaves the shuttle and bridge,” Johansson said.

“We’re cutting into engineering,” T’jto told them. “Can’t risk Trah’q’s trick, flying debris could cause a secondary explosion.”

“Roger that,” Johansson said, “we’re going to hit the shuttle, then the bridge.”

Rick pulled himself out of the room and looked across to Johansson and Yeet. Both had weapons in hand and were looking at the shuttle hatch. It was angled downward relative to the layout of the ship. The shuttle was designed to back into a notch under the nose of the courier, nestling in below the bridge.

“Rick,” Johansson said, “hold back and cover us in case it tries that mind-blurring thing.”

“Got it,” he said, and raised his weapon. Johansson and Yeet moved to either side of the shuttle hatch, and Yeet took out a breaching charge and armed it. Rick saw the movement out of the corner of his eye and shifted his view. A dark figure was half out of the opening hatch to the bridge. “Look out,” he snapped and moved his gun. The nightmare face with the red eyes looked at him, and his crosshairs blurred. A shot boomed out as the thing’s bony arm swung.

The Grimm lurched as Rick’s 13mm armor-piercing round hit it a glancing blow. Yeet slid sideways, looking for a clear shot, and inadvertently blocked Johansson’s angle. The Aposa also caught the grenade square in her chest. The blast tore her apart and sprayed the corridor and Johansson with blood, body parts, and combat armor turned into deadly projectiles.

Rick’s squadnet feed from Yeet and Johansson both went dead, which usually meant the armor’s occupants were dead as well. The Grimm spun away, and the bridge’s heavily armored door began to swing closed. Faced with choosing between his potentially-dead squad mates and their mission, Rick swung around and jumped as hard as he could at the door, already mostly closed. He shoved his left arm out, which went through to just below the elbow before his shoulder slammed into the hatch, and the door closed with a crunch.

Rick screamed. The knowledge that it wasn’t flesh and bone being crushed did nothing to alleviate the agony. He flexed the synthetic arm and pulled as his combat armor was crushed inward and the arm shredded. The motor in the door whined and protested, and smoke shot out from a housing. At the same time, the door went whang, whang, whang, and he felt something impact his arm. The Grimm was shooting.

He held on, and a moment later the motor’s safety finally kicked in and reversed its motion. His cybernetic arm, the one replaced after he’d lost his natural arm defending Pegasus from boarders, was bent almost 45 degrees and punched through the palm twice by gunfire. At least it doesn’t hurt anymore, he thought. The circuitry that made it work was completely wasted.

“I lost Johansson and Yeet on the feeds,” T’jto said. “What’s the situation?”

“I have the Grimm in the bridge,” Rick said. “Yeet is dead; I don’t know about Johansson. You better send Trah’q as soon as you have entry.”

“Will do, we just need another minute or two,” the LT replied.

Rick let go of his HP-4. It floated in place while he used his right-hand camera to peak through. A shot almost scored on that hand, so he jerked it back. The bridge hatch was still opening, though incredibly slowly. Its motor was in bad shape. Rick used his pinplants to review the second or so of imagery. The Grimm was at one of the bridge consoles doing something unseen. I don’t have a minute, he realized.

“Fuck it,” he said aloud.

Rick snatched up his pistol and swung around the opening door. One of Rick’s favorite sports in school had been gymnastics. He’d caught a lot of shit from the rest of the football team, but it made him a formidable running back. Years of training and experience as a merc had honed his natural zero-gravity skills.

As he came through the hatch, he spun. The armor on the rear of the suit was a bit thicker than the front to protect the life support and power packs. The Grimm fired, hitting the rear of his suit three times. The computer told him the first bullet hit his backup O2 tank, puncturing it. The second took out his primary rebreather. He didn’t need the computer to tell him where the third shot hit; he felt it tear through his lower back and into his abdomen.

For once, his relative emotionless state served to help him. He didn’t experience the panic many felt when they were shot. Instead he thought, fuck, not again. He finished the spin, his feet hitting one of the bridge chairs and bringing him to what the Grimm would consider a quick and unexpected stop. The impact sent a searing wave of agony through his stomach.

Rick did his best to ignore it, sweeping the gun up. There was the dark figure again, eyes fixing on him even as its gun fired past Rick and hit where he would’ve been if he’d kept going. Like before, the crosshair wavered in the red-eyed demonic stare. He brought the gun up the rest of the way and sighted through the backup manual sights, stroking the trigger several times.

The Grimm moved incredibly fast. Faster than a living creature should have been able to move. Rick tracked it, looking for a shot, only it didn’t come toward him. It leaped at one of the bridge panels. The schematic layouts of Détente in his mind told him it was the engineering controls even as the Grimm reached them. Oh no, thought.

“LT, get out of there!” he yelled into the radio, as the engineering section and the rest of his squad disappeared in a titanic explosion.

The blast imparted a brief, intense acceleration to the remains of Détente, sending Rick and the Grimm tumbling. An instant later, the rear of the ship effectively gone, the rest of the vessel experienced explosive decompression.

Rick and the Grimm hurtled to the rear of the bridge. The ship’s air was expelled before they could be pulled through the hatch, but not before they were piled into each other. Rick’s armor sounded a dozen alarms on integrity, the worst being his mangled left arm. It sealed all of them, with various levels of success.

The Grimm wasn’t wearing a spacesuit. To Rick’s fascination, it didn’t seem to care. The alien brought its pistol—a large hand weapon of unknown manufacture—around and tried to point it at Rick’s head. Rick responded by swinging his gun hand across, clubbing the Grimm’s weapon with his own. The Grimm’s gun flew away, and the alien responded by producing a knife from somewhere and stabbing Rick in the chest.

The blade slid between two armor segments with almost uncanny accuracy, and into his body. He gasped from the pain, and the alien twisted the blade. Rick’s vision swam. The Grimm’s face came close to his helmet, its glowing red eyes studying him as the life went out of his body. There was no sound in the vacuum of the bridge, so Rick didn’t hear when the gun went off; he just saw the Grimm’s head explode.

Rick floated away from the dead alien. He didn’t try to control his spin; he didn’t think he could if he wanted to. As he spun, he got a brief view of Johansson. She was halfway through the hatch, covered in vacuum-dried gore, her suit spewing atmosphere from a dozen breaches. Half the plumes were tinged red.

“Thanks,” he said in a softer voice than he’d intended.

“Least I could do,” she replied, barely a whisper. The gun floated from her hand as the leaks slowed and stopped.

“Corporal Culper to James Armistead Lafayette,” he transmitted.

“Corporal, we were afraid your team was taken out in that blast,” Captain Crispin replied.

“Most of them were,” he said. “I think I’m the only one left alive. How’s your ship?”

“We took some moderate damage,” she said, “but the blast wasn’t that bad from our position. Looks like a bad attempt at a fusion overload. How are you?”

“Alive,” he said quietly, “for now.”

“We’re sending over a rescue team.” Rick nodded, not aware she couldn’t see the motion.

“Reporting the Grimm is dead. Inform Commander Cromwell the leak is dealt with.”

“Well done, Corporal. You hang on, help is on the way.”

“Can you patch me through to the Bucephalus, please, Captain?”

“Sure, just a second.” As Rick waited, he remembered the time Jim had gotten around the school’s lockouts on adult sites, and the two 13-year-olds spent a glorious lunchtime studying the female anatomy. He smiled. He was tired. So very tired.

* * *

Jim hadn’t taken his eyes from the Tri-V tactical feed since the Hussars’ boarding team went onto the courier. Bucephalus had cut power after Détente was disabled and drifting. He’d watched and listened to what the James Armistead Lafayette relayed as the ambush was sprung, and the first marine died. My best friend who doesn’t remember me is over there fighting, he thought helplessly.

Then, the entire rear of the courier exploded into a million pieces. It was still moored to the James Armistead Lafayette, and it sent both ships spinning. Captain Crispin got the two mated ships back under control, and everyone waited for the marines to check in.

“Commander Cartwright,” the comms officer said, “I have a patch through to the boarding team.

“Put it on,” he said, temporarily forgetting he wasn’t in charge. Captain Su didn’t say anything.

“This is Commander Cartwright,” he said.

“Jim,” a weak voice said. The sound of hissing was audible in the background. “Jimbo, is that you?”

“Rick?” Jim gasped. “Rick, are you okay?”

“Could be better. But I remember, Jim. I remember it all.” Jim felt his eyes glazing over with tears. In zero gravity, they didn’t fall away, he had to wipe them.

“I was afraid you’d forgotten,” Jim said.

“I had,” Rick said, “but it started coming back a bit ago. I guess the surgery by Nemo helped after all.” Rick gave a wheezing cough. On one of the CIC screens, Jim could see a team of spacesuited personnel pushing off from James Armistead Lafayette to float toward the ruined Détente. The docking collar must’ve been damaged in the explosion.

“Hang on, Rick,” Jim begged, “help’s almost there.”

“It’s okay, Jimbo,” he said, almost too quiet to hear now. “I’m just sorry I never got to be a Cavalier.”

“You still can be,” Jim said. “I’ll buy out your contract after you’re better.” He waited for Rick to reply, but the line remained silent. “Rick, do you hear that? You hang in there, damn you. Don’t give up!” A full five minutes later, Captain Crispin came back on.

“The rescue team reached the bridge,” she said. “I’m sorry, there were no survivors.”

Sometime during the encounter Splunk had made her way to the CIC and was clinging to his uniform shoulder. The gentle sting of her claws was the only reassuring thing that kept him together. That and the knowledge that he was the Cartwright of Cartwright’s Cavaliers, on the CIC of his ship, in an alien star system, at war.

“Commander,” Captain Su said, “I’m truly sorry for your loss. I understand he was your friend?”

“My friend,” he agreed. My only friend. Splunk’s grip reminded him that wasn’t quite true. He somehow summoned enough self-control to speak again. “I’ll be in my cabin.” He pushed out of the CIC. The minute the door closed in his tiny cabin, he fell apart. He slid into the zero-gravity hammock and cried. It was all gone. What did he have left from before? Everyone was dead or gone. He was dimly aware of a delicate hand touching his pinplants, and then he fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

* * * * *


Chapter Fourteen


EMS Pegasus, 2nd Level Hyperspace

The porter finished delivering food to the command staff in Pegasus’ CIC, then left with the empty containers. The armored cocoon was a constant buzz of operations, now with the added sounds of the crew eating and drinking. Done in zero gravity, this took some extra management. Food was kept in containers, revealing bites only as they were taken. Drinks were taken from closed containers, sipped via a straw. Alexis gave her meal only cursory attention.

“Routine update arriving,” Hoot announced.

“Let’s see it,” Alexis said.

During the first trip to 2nd Level Hyperspace, it was discovered that radio only carried a few kilometers. To get around the communications problem, Sato recommended using drones outfitted as messengers. Every four hours, a drone would be sent by each of the six shuttles reporting their progress. Once the messenger drones were within range, they broadcast the shuttles’ status updates.

Because some of the teams had travelled further than others, the reports were spaced out over several minutes. It gave Alexis time to sort through them as they came in. Of the six teams, two were aboard ships and working to bring them sufficiently online to maneuver and dock with Pegasus. Both ships were Izlian cruisers, although there was insufficient data to identify the specific types.

Three other teams reported their search patterns were taking them near each other, and they were attempting to get better images of a cluster of ships. By the time she’d read those five reports, the last one had yet to come in. It was beyond the expected window.

“Possibly a drone failure,” Hoot suggested.

“Possibly,” Alexis agree. “Drone Control, send another messenger on an intercept trajectory for Shuttle 3’s search pattern.”

“Launching,” came the reply.

Half an hour passed with no response.

“<Probability is high that something intercepted the drone.>”

“Send drones to all the other shuttles,” Alexis ordered. “Tell them we’re moving Pegasus closer to Shuttles 4 and 6 to assist with their salvage efforts if necessary.”

“That will take us further from Shuttle 3,” Chug, reminded her.

“Understood. As soon as the drones are away, begin the move.”

Alexis stuffed the food into her mouth and washed it down with some lukewarm tea before stuffing the trash in a holding bag by her command station. There was a growing feeling of unease as time went by. Something was wrong, and they were in danger. Her instincts had saved the day many times in the past; she’d learned to honor them.

“Set Condition One,” she ordered Paka, who looked over in concern. “I’ve got a bad feeling.” Her Veetanho XO nodded and gave the order. With a slight rumble of near-frictionless bearings, the armored door on the CIC rotated closed and locked tight.

“Drones away; we’re maneuvering,” Chug said.

The maneuvering alarm sounded through the ship; a second later, they felt Pegasus’ massive bulk begin to turn and accelerate. They only boosted at one-half gravity, at her instructions. No matter how many times Sato said there was no ill effect from allowing the strange physics to stop them, Alexis didn’t trust it. She’d gotten stuck once in the middle of her wardroom when she’d leaped toward the door, only to come to a stop halfway across the space.

Time ticked by slowly, like it always did when the ship was at battle stations. Alexis watched the status board and monitored the constantly-updating feeds through her pinplants. More than half the crew had been aboard when Pegasus first visited 2nd Level Hyperspace. That seemed to have reduced the instances of injury. It was something to give her solace.

They passed relatively close to quite a few ships. The problem was, they were either of unrecognizable design, or were of unsuitable class. Sato was at wits’ end, wanting to board all of them to investigate.

“We have a sensor return from the rear quarter,” Flipper said. In the center of the spherical CIC, the main Tri-V status board showed near space, or near hyperspace in this case. A tiny little red Pegasus flew in the center, its aft glowing to represent the ship being under thrust. A little blue blip was flashing, marked at bearing 199 mark 205. Range was displayed as “XXX,” as the sensor returns couldn’t estimate range properly.

“Not any of our shuttles?” Alexis asked.

“Shuttle 3 departed in that rough direction,” Flipper said, eyes closed and using his pinplants to control the data stream. “However, they’d have needed to reverse their search course and come back at a different vector for this to be them.”

Opinion?” she asked Ghost.

<Almost certainly not our shuttle. As I know little about who or what may live here, I can’t surmise beyond that point.>” Alexis ground her teeth together. She wanted to send some drones to investigate, but she had a limited number of drones at her disposal. Almost half their complement was off being messengers or working with the salvage teams. If she launched a full combat group, that would leave Pegasus with almost none left in reserve. To make it worse, Ghost didn’t have confidence the drones would perform optimally in a combat situation here.

“Monitor the target,” she said finally. “Maintain course.”

After a time, it became increasingly obvious they were being followed. The sensor reading seemed to maintain the same distance despite Pegasus’ acceleration.

“We’re entering the sensor range of the area Shuttles 4 and 6 are operating in,” Flipper reported. The big Tri-V showed first one shuttle, then the other, as well as the ships they were moored to. Their screen of defensive drones made contact a short time later and relay was established.

Pegasus, this is Shuttle 4. We got your message and were expecting you,” the shuttle’s team leader called.

“What’s your situation?” Paka asked. “Any sign of other moving contacts?”

“Moving contacts? Negative, Pegasus.”

“You and Shuttle 6 be aware, we have a skulker tailing us,” Paka told them. “Intent unknown. We’ve also had no contact with Shuttle 3. It’s now two hours past contact time, and a second messenger drone we sent out hasn’t returned. We’re going to stop abreast of your location.”

“Thank you for the update, Pegasus. Our engineering team wanted to pass along that we’ve identified these two ships. They’re both Izlian designs. Shuttle 6 has a Tesha-class battlecruiser, and we’re on a Kosha-class heavy cruiser. We’ll have the Kosha powered up any minute, and the other team says the Tesha won’t be far behind.”

“Excellent,” Paka said. “As soon as you can maneuver, bring them alongside so we can begin docking operations.” Alexis and her XO shared a smile. The Kosha and the Tesha were both excellent warships. Their only downside was their age; neither were in common use much anymore. They were front line ships…5,000 years ago. She’d only seen a Tesha once before, as the core of a dilapidated system’s defense squadron. She accessed the data on the Kosha through her pinplants. A heavy cruiser. Nobody was using them anymore, preferring the better speed and versatility of battlecruisers. Still, she’d take it.

Alexis waited impatiently, considering sending more drones back for her missing shuttle. She decided to hold off until they could recover the two groups with Shuttles 4 and 6. As promised, the Kosha was soon moving. The big Tri-V relabeled Shuttle 4 as “Prize 1.” When the Tesha ponderously began to move, it became “Prize 2.”

The prize crews continued to report. As she’d suspected, both ships had serious damage. One to its hyperspace nodes, the other to its fusion plants. Like the ship Culper and his team had boarded the last time they were on 2nd Level, there was no sign of any crew. Neither alive nor dead. It was as if the ship had been meticulously cleaned of any biological material.

Of course neither design sported hyperspace shunts. Even if the crew had known how to get out of that level, without the shunts there was no way to escape. She was examining the damage reports on what would become the two newest Hussars capital ships when Hoot announced the messenger drones from Shuttles 1, 2, and 5 were in range.

“Queue the data, I’ll look in a minute,” she said, busily running a tactical assessment with the newest ships based on their standard fleet arrangements.

“<You should look at this immediately.>” Ghost said. Alexis instantly shelved her assessment and accessed the comms data.

Shuttles 1 and 5 had found a grouping of six ships which had apparently joined together after they’d arrived on the 2nd level, and Shuttle 2 had joined the other shuttles to help investigate them. The grouping was of interest as it was the first time they’d seen any signs of work carried out in that realm. The first middle range radar profile scan popped up in her mind and she gasped.

Is that what I think it is?” he asked Ghost.

“<Yes, it is.>”

The imagery was just coming up on one of the smaller Tri-Vs. Someone exclaimed in surprise and all heads turned to look at it. Those with Human-style mouth parts gaped.

“Change of priorities,” Alexis snapped, “Prize 1 and Prize 2, you’re to stick together and make best speed for the rendezvous coordinates we’ll be transmitting. Combine drone forces and task for rear defense. Chug, cancel previous waypoint. Set course for Shuttle 1, best possible speed.”

“What about the inertial effect, and the rule you established to keep speeds down?” the helmsman asked. One of his eyes was on his instruments, but the other two were staring at her. The Bakulu were notorious for rules and keeping to them.

“Belay it,” she said. “Four Gs acceleration as soon as it’s ready.”

High-G Acceleration Stations sounded, and the crew scrambled. None of them expected that kind of maneuver on the second level. Many only barely made it to a safe position when Pegasus’ three powerful fusion torches flared to life, and the ancient warship rapidly accelerated.

The transmissions from the shuttles were more than an hour old when the drones relayed them to Pegasus. Alexis had to stop herself from ordering five Gs more than once as the ship raced ever faster in the strange realm. Far faster than it had ever gone before. In just 20 minutes Chug announced they needed to flip over to slow.

“Continue at speed.” Every eye in the CIC looked at her, though many still stared at the images transmitted by the drones from their search. Then their destination was updated onto the big CIC as they came within range.

“I hope we can stop,” Paka said. In the 1,800 seconds, Pegasus had accelerated to more than 230 kilometers per second.

“Range?” Alexis asked.

“About 5,000 kilometers,” Flipper said, “best guess.” In 20 seconds, they’d be on top of the shuttles. The seconds ticked by one after another. Every instinct of the command crew cried out in panic as the sensors showed the shuttles and ships they’d found racing at them at insane speed. It was only their faith in Alexis Cromwell that forestalled complete panic.

“Kill thrust,” she finally said.

“Shutting down the torches,” Chug said.

“Brace for impact,” Paka said.

Pegasus’ three immensely-powerful fusion torches were dampened, and in less than a second, all thrust was canceled. Absent that thrust, the strange physics of 2nd Level Hyperspace kicked in, and the ship slowed by half its velocity per second, and a bit more. It was as if the 80,000-ton warship slowly slid into a feather pillow. She lost more than 115,000 meters per second in that first second, and nobody aboard the ship felt a thing. In six seconds total, Pegasus was at a dead stop, just 300 miles from their destination.

“Holy fucking shit,” Xander exclaimed in a gasping voice.

“That was amusing,” Glick, the SitCom, said.

The CIC broke out in a miniature release of energy akin to just having dodged death. In fact, most felt like they had. The only one who appeared perfectly calm was Alexis Cromwell, because her eyes had never left the display.

“This is Sato to CIC?” came over the PA.

Paka looked at her commander, then realized she wasn’t going to answer, so she did herself. “What is it, Mr. Sato?” Paka asked.

“Can you do that again so I can take some readings?” Someone laughed out loud on the CIC.

“Not right now. Please, we’re busy at the moment.” Paka cut the connection. “Orders, Captain?”

“Get Long to assemble as many technicians as he can spare. Cut the crew to the bare bones. Get them over to those ships right now and begin evaluations.” In the display floated what looked like mirror-images of Pegasus. In fact, they nearly were. Just a few hundred miles away were six more Egleesius-class battlecruisers, relics of the Great Galactic War 20,000 years ago.

* * *

EMS Bucephalus, Sulaadar System

“Come on kid, time to get up.” Jim’s eyes opened, and he looked at the unshaved visage of his XO, Hargrave, floating next to his hammock.

“What do you want?” he asked and rolled away slightly. Splunk slipped away and floated across the little cabin to grab onto a storage bin. Her huge blue eyes watched the two Humans with interest.

“For you to get back in the game.”

“Don’t you think enough people have died?” Jim demanded.

“Yes, I do.” Jim grunted in agreement. “That’s why you need to quit floating here feeling sorry for yourself and take command.”

“Have you ever listened to your best friend die, and there wasn’t a fucking thing you could do about it?”

“Yes, I have.” Jim looked back at his second in command and saw something he wasn’t expecting; understanding. “I was in a ship 250 miles above as he fought an insane delaying action so the rest of us could get off the planet. He and five troopers in Mk 6 CASPers held off at least a battalion of Besquith. Those old suits weren’t nearly as fast and well-armed as the Mk 7 you use. It was a suicide stand, and I listened to him die to save our lives.”

“Then you understand,” Jim said. “I can’t keep doing this. All the losses at Chimsa. Leaving Murdoch there like that.”

“You didn’t know,” Hargrave said, but Jim pushed on.

“My own family abandoned me when I needed them. I’ve killed my own kind just to save my sorry ass. When does it all end?”

Never,” Hargrave snapped, and Jim lurched. “I thought after all those meetings in New Warsaw where you fought so hard to get Cromwell to come out of her hole you’d realize that as long as Earth is in danger, we can’t stop. We don’t dare! Jim, you’re a Horseman, one of the Four Horsemen. Every Human merc alive looks up to you,” he saw the skeptical look on his face and added, “whether you believe it or not. And even if they might not look up to you, they’ll follow you. Turning Cromwell around wasn’t the first time, either. Back on Earth, just a couple days after that bitch of a girlfriend turned out to be a rat, you stood up and led us all out of there, or Peepo would’ve had us in chains.” Jim was listening now. He had no choice but to listen; Hargrave poked him in the chest every few words.

“Now you have a piece of a much greater operation. You sold the others that your god-damned Raknar can help turn the tide. Well, you and that food-thieving little fiend are the only ones who know how to operate them, and you seem to have a plan where to get more. So get to it, soldier!”

Jim still hurt, profoundly. Emotionally, he felt like he’d been beaten. Still, what Hargrave said was true. He needed to stand up, grow up, and be the commander his father had wanted him to be.

“Jimmy,” his father had said as Jim sat in his lap. It was the same office and same chair in the merc tower where Jim had held meetings only weeks ago, “this will all be yours someday.” Jim had looked around at the plaques, Tri-V images of victorious battlefields, shelves full of unit challenge coins, and innumerable memorabilia from a thousand worlds with eyes wide in wonder. “You’ll be the commander of Cartwright’s Cavaliers.”

“But how, daddy?” he’d asked. “How do I learn to do that?” His father laughed and gave him a little hug.

“Jimmy, great leaders aren’t taught; they’re born.”

“What’s it going to be?” Hargrave asked. “You gonna get this shit-show underway, or are we gonna go back to Earth and surrender to the traitorous weasel?”

Jim unzipped his hammock. “I need a shower,” he said, “and a clean uniform.” Hargrave nodded and pushed off toward the doorway. “What’s the condition of the James Armistead Lafayette?”

“Captain Crispin has completed repairs. To avoid notice, she’s planning on using her hyperspace shunts to slip out of here as soon as we’re underway.”

“Okay, send my regards and condolences on their lost marines.” Jim swallowed a lump in his throat but continued. “They did a fantastic job. Then request Captain Su to proceed to the stargate for the next stage of the operation, as planned.”

“Yes, Commander,” Hargrave said and snapped a little salute before turning to go. Jim was grabbing a towel and uniform when he thought of something.

“Hargrave?”

“Yeah?”

“Who was that friend you watched die?”

“Thaddeus Cartwright,” he said solemnly and left.

* * *

James Armistead Lafayette used her hyperspace shunts to leave the Sulaadar system as Bucephalus thrusted toward the stargate a third of the way around Sulaadar Prime.

Jim pulled himself into the CIC against a half gravity of constant thrust. Captain Su glanced up, then, noticing it was Jim, nodded in acknowledgement. Most of the CIC crew saw him as well. None of them gave more reaction than that. The truth was that they’d all lost friends in combat, and most respected Jim for managing to mostly hold it together long enough to leave the CIC.

James Armistead Lafayette has entered hyperspace,” Captain Su informed him. They still had a three-hour run to the stargate.

“Be nice to have some of those shunts,” he commented as he climbed into his customary chair in the CIC.

Bucephalus is too small to manage it,” Su explained. “We wouldn’t have room for half the troops if we put shunts on her. That’s why most of the shunt-equipped ships are battleships and dreadnoughts.”

“Damned expensive, too,” Hargrave agreed. The older man was hanging out by the door to the CIC in a jump seat. He rated a combat chair if he’d wanted one, but he didn’t like being in the CIC during combat. “I’d rather be near a CASPer if the shit’s going to hit the fan,” he’d told Jim long ago.

“Continue sensor sweeps,” the captain ordered. “Defenses on standby.”

“Are you expecting trouble?” Jim asked.

“The weapons fire here couldn’t have gone without notice,” she said. “We’re hoping the general chaos here might give us some cover. We’ll see.”

The time ticked down as Bucephalus boosted to the halfway point, then flipped over to begin slowing for the stargate approach. The captain timed the approach to coincide with a scheduled opening of the stargate. Getting the Cartography Guild to do an unscheduled gate activation was, to say the least, prohibitively expensive. They were only 20 minutes out when things began to change.

“I have two ships boosting from Sulaadar Prime toward the stargate at high speed,” the sensor operator announced.

“Can you identify them?” Su asked.

“They appear to be Seed-class escort frigates,” the sensor operator said, “with high probability.”

“Maki,” Captain Su said. “Good ships.” She saw Jim looking curiously. “Escort frigates that predominantly use missiles. You see them on interdiction duty because they can throw a lot of hell in a short period of time.” She looked back at the sensor tech. “Estimated time of intercept?”

“Thirty-five minutes,” he said. Su grunted. That was well past their expected departure time. “They’ll be in missile range in twenty minutes.”

“What if they don’t slow?” she asked.

“Missile range in fifteen minutes.”

“That’ll be their plan,” she said, “take a swipe at us as they pass and hope to disable our hyperspace generators.”

“Could they?” Jim asked.

“If they used nukes, yes. The EMP could cause enough breakers to trip that we would risk losing our field integrity if we went into hyperspace. As we found out from Commander Cromwell, that isn’t necessarily lethal. However, it might prove impossible to locate Pegasus, if she’s even still there. Which means we’d be trapped.”

The tactical Tri-V to one side of the CIC showed the two rapidly-approaching warships as yellow, not red. With General Peepo supposedly bringing charges against Earth mercs in general, and the Four Horsemen specifically, the last thing they needed was to fire on two ships without provocation.

Jim looked at the representation of the distant stargate in the Tri-V, a kind of donut in space. There were at least a dozen ships already near it, waiting for the scheduled opening. One was a Behemoth, a massive spheroid transport favored by the Merchants’ Guild for interstellar commerce.

“Wouldn’t they risk hitting that Behemoth if they fire on us?” he asked.

Su shook her head. “Not from the angle we’re approaching,” she said. Jim locked eyes with her and smiled big. She narrowed her own eyes, then they went wide in realization. “Commander Cartwright, you’re a sneaky son of a bitch.”

For the first time since his friend died, Jim smiled. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”

“You should,” she said. “Helm, prepare to skew our approach 27 degrees.” The Akaga-class merc cruiser fired her thrusters, altering her direction of travel while continuing to burn her fusion torch. The effect was to considerably alter the angle at which they were approaching the stargate. Effectively, they were arriving by swinging around to the other side of the Behemoth. Near the exit to the CIC, Hargrave nodded and smiled.

“That did it,” the comms officer said. “We’re being hailed.” Su pointed to order a channel opened and spoke.

“This is Captain Kim Su of EMS Bucephalus.”

Bucephalus, I am Captain Paskyl on Short Drift, with merc company Shaq u Estu. You’re the command ship of the Human merc company Cartwright’s Cavaliers?”

“You know we are,” Captain Su said.

“By order of the Galactic Mercenary Guild, you’re under arrest. You’re ordered to execute a turn and not pass through the stargate.” Su make a cutting motion across her throat, and the comms officer terminated the connection.

“Get me Stargate Control.” A second later, a corner of the Tri-V came alive with a connection. The image of an elephantine Sumatozou looked at them. Its bifurcated trunk moved about a face covered in intricate, natural red markings.

“This is Cronpopal, gate master of the Cartography Guild,” the Sumatozou spoke.

“Gate master, I am Captain Kim Su commanding Bucephalus, Cartwright’s Cavaliers.”

“We know of you,” Cronpopal said. “We also have a request from the Mercenary Guild to deny you passage through the stargate.”

“Is the Cartography Guild now taking orders from the Mercenary Guild?” The alien’s already tiny eyes narrowed, and the trunk tips balled into little fists.

“What are you saying?”

“Allow me,” Jim asked. Su looked a little concerned but bowed her head. “Gate master, I’m Jim Cartwright, commander of the Cavaliers. We consider this order illegal. The merc guild has unjustly imprisoned many of our people and has taken control of our world.”

“That’s no concern of the Cartography Guild. For more than 20,000 years we’ve operated the stargate network and stayed out of conflicts.”

“Then all we ask is for you to stay out of the conflict and let us go through, as we’ve already contracted and paid for.”

“Our guild is part of the checks and balances of the Union, Human,” Cronpopal said, as if he were lecturing a child on the basics of how the Union worked.

“And don’t those balances mean you stay out of intra-guild conflicts in the other guilds?” The trunk massaged the alien’s face, and Jim knew he was making points. “All you need to do is honor our contract and let us proceed through.”

“We’ve also agreed with the Mercenary Guild not to let you through. They’ve accused you Humans of some horrible crimes. I must side with precedent.”

“Maneuver complete,” the helmsman reported, “we’ll be behind the Behemoth in just a couple minutes.”

“Missiles in the black!” the tactical controller yelled. “Tracking a total of six vampires from both Maki ships.” On the Tri-V, the Sumatozou’s face went from calm to agitation. It leaned out of view, no doubt receiving the same news they’d just gotten.

“ECM!” Su snapped. “Fire full countermeasures. Close-in defense, prepare to take those missiles out.” She stopped, massaging her chin for a second. “Belay that last, no active defense.”

“Sir,” the tactical controller said, “those missiles will be wild, and there are a bunch of ships all around us.”

“Around us, and the stargate,” Su said. “Carry out the orders.”

At the electronic warfare stations, technicians attacked the inbound missiles with powerful radar beams, lasers, and energized titanium filaments ejected into space. The missiles, faced with a dizzying array of conflicting information, began to pick their targets. Each one chose poorly.

The communication board exploded with panicked calls from the ships around the stargate. None of them were warships, and most had little or no defenses. Cronpopal gestured and yelled.

“Those missiles are going wild; they’re targeting the other ships.” Someone off camera said something the translators didn’t catch. “Two are targeting the stargate! Do something.”

“Why?” Jim asked, understanding the captain’s brilliant gambit. “They’re no threat to us anymore.”

“Innocent ships will be hit. The stargate will be damaged! It’s against Union law to damage a stargate. You must do something.”

“Ten seconds to first impact,” the tactical controller said. Su nodded as Jim spoke.

“We didn’t do that; the Maki ships did. You have to ask yourself, why are they so desperate to stop us that they’d break Union law to catch us, when we’re supposedly guilty of breaking Union law.” Jim shook his head and spread his hands. “I’m afraid it might be a breach of law to do anything.”

“You must…”

“Must I?” Jim asked. The gate master appeared on the verge of panic.

“What do I have to do?”

“Just let us through.”

“Five seconds,” the controller said.

“Better act fast,” Jim said. Another second passed before Cronpopal screamed.

“Do it, you can pass!”

“Fire close-in defense lasers,” Su ordered. Dozens of small laser batteries opened up, throwing a web of coherent light into the streaking missiles’ path. Jim crossed his fingers that Bucephalus’ defenses were as good as advertised. He’d known Su was about to order the missiles shot down just before the gate master gave in. They’d had no intention of endangering innocents, even to save themselves. Besides, if the stargate had been hit, it would have stranded Bucephalus in the Sulaadar system and forced them to fight.

“Splash all vampires,” the tactical controller said.

“Give me a spread of ten missiles,” Su ordered, “five on each enemy ship. HE only, please.”

“Missiles away!”

“The Maki ships are altering course wildly,” the sensor tech said.

“They don’t know those missiles aren’t nukes,” Su said to Jim, and gave him a wink. Jim smiled. He missed Captain Winslow, but he liked Su. She had panache.

“Matching approach velocity,” the helmsman said. Bucephalus switched to ion drive to avoid damaging any of the other ships, which were all now moving toward the ring of hyperspace shunts which made up the stargate.

This was the hard part, Jim knew. If the slippery Cartography Guild master didn’t hold up his end of the bargain, they’d have to slug it out with the two Maki ships. Who knew what came after that?

The seconds ticked down on the clock to zero, and space began to shimmer and twist inside the ring of the stargate, creating a quantum discontinuity that ships started to touch, and disappear.

“My thanks,” Jim said to the gate master. The Sumatozou spat some untranslatable curse and cut the connection a split second before Bucephalus was unmade, then reappeared in hyperspace. “I wonder what that was at the end there?” Jim wondered aloud.

“Who cares?” Su asked. “No doubt the elephant will have fun explaining all this to the Merc Guild.”

“You think the Maki will be in trouble for endangering the gate?” Hargrave asked.

“I doubt it,” she said, “but who knows?” The pure whiteness of 1st Level Hyperspace surrounded them. They were safe. Jim unlatched from his chair and stretched. His back was stiff after the standoff. “That was quick thinking on your part,” she added. “Well done, Commander.”

“And you as well, Captain,” he said, and gave her a little zero-gravity bow. She smiled and returned it. “If you’ll excuse me, I better see to my men and begin planning for the next step of the operation.”

“See you in 170 hours, sir,” she said. Hargrave fell in with him as they floated back toward the trooper berthing area.

“Well done,” the older man said and patted him on the shoulder. “Your dad would’ve been proud.”

“I’d like to know more about that last mission,” Jim said. “Nobody ever told me what really happened.”

“I’ll tell you what; ask me some other time, and I’ll tell you all about it. Right now, I want you concentrating on what’s ahead.”

“That’s fair,” Jim said, and the two floated aft.

* * * * *


Chapter Fifteen


Cell 305C, Mercenary Guild, Capital Planet

Sansar looked up as the door to her cell opened. After a few moments, it closed again without anyone entering. With a faint, almost electrical, discharge, a small felinoid form materialized by the door.

There was a Depik in her cell.

Sansar sighed as a wave of dread threatened to crush her. The preeminent assassin race in the galaxy, most of their victims never saw their killers…unless they were supposed to, for some reason. Usually to be humiliated before their lives were extinguished.

“Greetings, Hunter,” Sansar said. “So, the Depik are working with the Mercenary Guild, and this is to be my end?”

The assassin looked at her, and its eyes slowly blinked.

“Is that supposed to mean something to me?” Sansar asked, cold sweat running down her back. “Because if your purpose is to scare me, you’ve succeeded.”

“No,” the Depik replied, “my intention isn’t to scare you. The slow blink is quite the opposite. It’s our equivalent of your smile.”

Sansar sighed and stood, then knelt in front of her cot.

“What are you doing?” the Depik asked.

“I know there’s no point in trying to fight you,” Sansar replied. “All I might do is make my ending bloodier and more painful. I’d prefer you just give me a clean kill.” A bad thought came to her. “Unless I am to die badly, in which case, I’d probably make at least a token effort to stop you.”

“You misunderstand,” the Depik said, doing the slow blink again. “I’m not here to kill you. In fact, I’m here to do you a service.”

“Oh?” Sansar asked, a note of hope in the syllable.

“Yes. Once, several of our lifetimes ago, the Golden Horde did us a favor and took care of one of our Hunters in her moment of need.”

“I’m aware of that. Her story is passed down among the leaders of our company.”

“Excellent. You must be aware there’s a contract out on one of your people, a Major Good.”

“I expected as much. I know he killed a Hunter at his house. I don’t know of anything my major did to warrant termination but could think of no other reason for the Hunter to be there.”

“There was indeed a contract taken out on his life.”

“Was?”

“I’ve decided to purchase it.”

“I don’t understand. Why are you telling me this? I can’t do anything about it from in here, and I doubt I could stop you if I tried.”

“I doubt you could, too.” She slow blinked again. “Happily for you, though, that’s not my intention. I’ve come here to offer you the opportunity to buy out the contract from me.”

Sansar patted the skinsuit they’d given her to indicate her prisoner status. “Sorry, I don’t have a single credit here, much less what I’m sure it would cost to purchase this contract. I don’t suppose you’d take my word that I’ll pay?”

“I’m sorry, but that’s not the way we work. I must have payment.” The Depik faded out again, then reappeared several seconds later. “How about the coin on your bed?”

Sansar stood and turned; there was now a one-credit coin on her cot that hadn’t been there before.

“A single credit? That’s what his life was worth?”

“Oh, no,” the Depik said, blinking slowly again; “the original contract was much higher. Much. But as a favor to you, I’ll allow you to buy it out for a credit.”

“I’ll take it, and gladly,” Sansar replied. A thought occurred to her, and she looked around the room. “Wait a minute—aren’t you worried about being seen here with me? There have to be cameras and other monitoring devices in here.”

“There are three cameras and two listening devices,” the Depik said. “But am I worried? No. I’m the Depik Governor, and I am…somewhat accomplished…at my craft. All the devices are currently inoperative. I suspect someone will be here shortly to move you to a new cell, so they can try to figure out what went wrong with them. I doubt they ever will, though.”

The assassin moved to the door.

“I don’t suppose you can get me out of here?” Sansar asked. “I’d be willing to pay for that, too.”

“At the moment, no, I cannot,” the Depik replied, slipping out the door. “You’re too well guarded, and I can’t extract you without compromising myself. The number of guards I’d have to kill would certainly indicate my participation, no matter how creatively I disposed of them. More importantly, though, it’s also likely you wouldn’t survive the effort, no matter what I did. You’re in the Mercenary Guild headquarters, after all. Forces are moving, however, that may bring opportunities in the future. I’ll do what I can; if nothing else, I’ll ensure your death does not go unavenged.”

The door shut behind the assassin, and Sansar collapsed onto the bed. Revenge, while nice, didn’t help her very much.

* * *

Cell Block 307A, Capital Planet

The Depik assassin had been correct—Besquith guards had come for Sansar shortly after the killer’s departure and moved her to a new cell. She’d been in the new cell for about 30 minutes when the lock released with a click, and the door opened. A figure in a brown, hooded robe walked in and stood by the door. Sansar couldn’t see within the hood very well, except for the gaping mouth in the center. There appeared to be an eye on either side of the mouth which tracked independently of each other and maybe one more above the mouth? She shuddered; the apparition was as creepy as anything she’d ever seen. She scanned through the info she had on alien races and came up with the race—Pendal. Great pilots. An additional personal entry noted that Nigel had said the Besquith had tried to enslave them.

“Greetings, Stranger,” Sansar said. “I take it you’re not a guard here, are you?”

“No, I’m not,” the hooded figure said. “I’m here about something else.”

“I’m glad I’m not in charge of security here,” Sansar said. “My cell has been Grand Central Station today. I assume you’ve done something to the cameras, too?”

“Too?” the being asked. It paused a second, then continued, “Ah. Yes, let me just say that there won’t be any memories of my being here. Beyond your own, that is.”

“Okay, that’s cryptic enough,” Sansar said. “As I don’t appear to be going anywhere, what can I do for you?”

“I’m here to warn you. You’re in great danger.”

Sansar indicated the cell with the sweep of a hand. “That isn’t much of a news flash. I’m here, defending Earth against a group of hostile aliens that seem to have something against us.”

“There are those here who don’t intend to allow you to leave.”

“So the trial is all a farce? I’m to be jailed for the duration of whatever it is that’s going on?”

“Jailed? No, you’re to be terminated. They believe they have enough votes on the Council to have you killed once the verdict is declared, and they intend to do so. You were never going to get a fair hearing in any event; you may not know it, but the Speaker is General Peepo’s daughter.”

“General Peepo’s daughter? I don’t understand—what have I done to deserve death?”

“You uplifted the SalSha, which would technically be enough to receive the ultimate penalty; however, you’ve done something much, much worse.”

“What’s that?”

“You’ve disrupted their plans.”

“Disrupted their plans? How did I do that?”

“You—and by ‘you’ I mean not only you, personally, but all of your race—have disrupted the plans of the Merc Guild by not following their rules. They’re gearing up for something, and your inability to do what you’re told worries them. To use metaphors from your race, you’re a wild card—the nail that sticks up and must be hammered down. The Council wants everyone in agreement for something, and they don’t think they can trust you.”

“What is—”

“I don’t know what their plans are, but we know they’re grand.”

“What’s bigger than the Merc Guild?”

“Taking over from all the other guilds and establishing their dominance over the galaxy?”

“You can’t be serious. How could they do that? Without support from the Cartography Guild, how could they move around?”

“Who says the Cartography Guild isn’t involved in their coup?”

Sansar thought furiously, trying to resolve the data she had with the new information. Most of the guilds didn’t have armed forces, so even though they might not like it, they wouldn’t be able to stop the Merc Guild. The Peacemakers were armed, but there were so few of them—by design—that they wouldn’t be much of a threat to Merc Guild rule. Still…something didn’t make sense.

“Why?” Sansar asked. “Why would the Merc Guild do that? Once they took over, wouldn’t that put them out of business? That could only lead to anarchy.”

“We don’t know,” the figure said. “With Peepo behind it, we’re sure it’s part of a grander plan, but we can’t foresee what the plan is.” It held up a hand. “This is a discussion for another time—my time here is short today.” It opened the door. “We’ve sent a message to your friends that they need to rescue you. You must delay the proceedings until they’re able to do so.”

Rescue me from here?” Sansar asked. “How do you expect them to do that?”

“I don’t know,” the being said. “They’ll have to find a way.” The being slid out the door. “You must be ready when they make their attempt.”

“What about you?” Sansar called. “Will you help? Who are you? How do I get in touch with you?”

“I’ll do what I can, and I’ll be in touch if I’m able.” It paused before the door shut to add, “We’ve met before, you know.”

“We have?”

“Yes, and I believe you called me Smokey.” The door shut behind him.

Sansar’s thoughts raced back to a virtual reality bar on the Dark Net where an unknown entity had tried to warn her that someone was coming for her. She could picture the being she’d called Smokey because it had taken the shape of a pillar of smoke. If this was the Pendal’s second intervention—and the race’s third if what Nigel Shirazi had said was true—they were somehow invested in these proceedings. What did they have to gain by helping humanity—even if it was only with information, so far? She thought long and hard on it but didn’t have any answers by the time she finally fell asleep.

* * *

Cell Block 307A, Capital Planet

Two Besquith once again escorted Sansar to her tribunal room, and she sat without having to be told. She wouldn’t start by being antagonistic; there was little to gain by it, and she risked alienating—she smiled at the word—any of the Tribunal members who hadn’t already made up their minds as to her fate.

The Veetanho Speaker was obviously against her, along with her Besquith and Goka cronies. The MinSha, Flatar, and Tortantula representatives, if not against her, probably at least leaned that way. The Oogar were antagonistic toward everyone; it was in their nature. The Selroth were generally neutral toward things that happened among the air breathers. Maybe the Goltar rep would give her a fair hearing, just to oppose the Speaker, but that only left her with one member on her side.

It didn’t look good.

Leeto looked to her left and right then said, “Let us begin. Once again, we’re here for Case Number 9035768J, or what to do with the Human problem.”

The way she said it made Sansar’s hackles rise, but she forced herself to let it pass.

Seeing no disagreement, Leeto continued, “You should all have received the additional documents on the charges against the other three of Earth’s so-called ‘Horsemen,’ and I am ready to proceed.” Sansar raised her hand. “What?”

“I didn’t receive those documents. How am I supposed to defend myself if I don’t know what I’m charged with?”

The Veetanho gave its version of a smile. “I sent them two days ago. I can’t understand why you didn’t receive them.”

Sansar frowned. “It could have something to do with the fact that I haven’t had GalNet access in my cell in three days.”

“That’s most unfortunate,” Leeto replied. “Did you mention that to anyone?”

“Yes, I told the Besquith jailors about it on several occasions, every day.”

Leeto shrugged. “That is, of course, most unfortunate, but it was never brought to my attention. You know how forgetful Besquith can be.”

“They are very single-minded,” the Goka representative added.

The Besquith rep smiled, oblivious to the derogatory statements, showing several rows of teeth.

Sansar was too angry to be scared. “I still don’t have GalNet access now, here in this room.”

“Really?” Leeto asked. “Let me have a technician investigate the issue.” She paused, and, a few moments later, GalNet service was restored. A flood of information flowed to her.

Sansar saw she had several messages waiting. In addition to Leeto’s message, there were two from lawyers promising representation and a quick resolution of her case. Right. If only it were that easy.

She opened the message from Leeto and the charge sheet inside it. As expected, there were the charges against Asbaran Solutions for genocide and using weapons from outside the prohibited 10-mile limit, but they were also charged with using nuclear weapons on civilians on two separate planets—including the Besquith home world of Bestald—and a host of lesser charges. The Bestald one was obviously trumped up, although the Asbaran rep she’d talked to had insisted the nuclear weapon on Moorhouse had been used after they left.

Against the Cavaliers, there were some extremely serious charges that had statutes dating back to the Great War. What? The first charge was developing Canavar and using them in battle. Blue Skies Above! Was it really possible the Cavaliers had done that? If so, why hadn’t they shared that info? It had to be a lie…but there had to be enough truth in there somewhere for it to be a believable lie. They were also charged with operating forbidden technology in the form of whatever had powered and turned Jim’s Raknar into a functional weapon of war. Once again there was probably some truth to it, but what evidence they had would have to be seen.

Her eyebrows rose as she got to the Winged Hussars—they were charged with operating an artificial intelligence! How was that possible? Moreover, how was it possible that the Horde had missed out on the fact that the Hussars had developed that capability? Even the Horde, in their most secure facility, hadn’t been able to develop a fully-functional AI yet. They’d come close, but it still eluded them…for the moment. Sansar had no doubt they’d figure it out eventually, but she was annoyed they’d beaten her to it. She shook her head, realizing it was probably just another trumped up charge; if the Horde, with all their computer and hacking experience couldn’t do it, it was unlikely the Hussars had been able to, either.

Sansar already knew the charges against her Horde. Operating a Kahraman uplifting facility and uplifting a non-member race. She internally shrugged. Those charges, at least, were valid. The Horde had done those things. They hadn’t wanted to, but it had been a life-or-death decision. If they hadn’t uplifted the SalSha, they wouldn’t have been able to return to Earth in time to stop the biowarfare plague that had been turned loose on Earth’s mercenaries. Most of them would now probably be dead, along with their friends and families, if she hadn’t made the decision to uplift the SalSha. She was guilty but fuck them! They’d forced her into making that decision.

Well, shit. Between them, the Horsemen were charged with just about every one of the really serious laws in the Union—all the ones they enforced, anyway—and, if the Horde’s case was an example, they’d actually done some of them. If the other Horsemen had actually done what they were accused of, she expected they’d probably been driven to it, like she had, but “being driven to break the law” probably wasn’t an excuse that would get her off.

She made a quick search on the penalties involved for breaking those laws and her shoulders slumped. Just about all of them indicated death was the appropriate penalty for any violation. She took a deep breath and blew it out, then shrugged. Well, at least they could only kill her once.

“Does the accused understand the charges?” Leeto asked, interrupting her reverie.

“Yes, I understand what we are accused of.”

“Good, then let’s begin. Regarding the charges against Cartwright’s Cavaliers…”

* * *

Cell Block 307A, Capital Planet

Sansar collapsed onto her bed, exhausted. For the third day in a row, she’d been forced to listen to witness after witness describe how bad a person Jim Cartwright was. She wasn’t sure any of the aliens had actually met him off of the battlefield, and it was obvious that losing to him had tainted their perspectives. A lot. He wasn’t the poster child of what a mercenary leader looked like, perhaps, but she’d always found him to be a pretty good guy.

Not so the aliens. To hear them tell it, he was Satan incarnate. After the last piece of evidence they’d presented today, though, she was starting to see where they were coming from. Leeto had ended with a video that had been taken in the Chimsa system. The scene had started with a Tortantula mass assault of a walled city, and she’d shivered, remembering what it felt like to be on the receiving end of one of those assaults.

Before the Tortantula carrying the camera could reach the walls, a 100-foot-tall Raknar came through the city’s gates and screamed, “Let’s do this. Leeeerooooy……Jenkins!” Missiles rippled out from its shoulder-mounted racks, and the Tortantula in front of the camera holder was blasted to pieces in a spray of black body parts.

The Raknar then began playing something she’d have loosely called “music,” although she didn’t recognize the song, while it went about single-handedly wrecking the Tortantula assault. It fired its weapons and stomped through the giant spider-analogues like a five-year-old might squash conventional spiders on a driveway. The song reached its chorus right as the Raknar stepped on a Tortantula close to the camera holder. “Let the Bodies Hit the Floor” was screamed over and over as, in slow motion, a giant boot came down like an inexorable force of nature to crush the alien, and bodily fluids erupted from under the foot of the Raknar as the Tortantula’s body exploded under the forces applied to it.

Even though it was a Tortantula, she was forced to look away, nauseated, and saw several of the tribunal members looking away as well. The Goka rep seemed fascinated at the Tortantula’s demise, and Leeto appeared to be smiling as she watched the other members’ reactions to the video. She finally stopped the video and looked at Sansar. “I think we’ve all probably seen enough of what Humans are capable of today. I suggest we break here for the day; I, for one, am going to need quite some time before I’ll be able to eat dinner.”

* * * * *


Chapter Sixteen


EMS Bucephalus, Ja-ku-Tapa System

Bucephalus transitioned into normal space and immediately took up a combat footing. The crew launched a series of drones to extend the ship’s sensor range and started burning the ion drive toward the system stargate more than five million kilometers distant. The ion drive was slow, especially on a warship the size of Bucephalus. It did have its advantages, though. One was that the drive system was lean and used little power in exchange for the specific impulse it provided. Another benefit was that it was extremely difficult to detect unless you happened to be within 12 degrees of the drive plume. A fusion torch, on the other hand, provided neutron flux which was visible all over a star system. Lighting one off was like sounding a gong after arriving. Hello, look at me! I’m here!

Bucephalus started life as an Akaga-class cruiser, manufactured by the Izlian race, and sold in bulk on the open market. Thaddeus Cartwright had purchased it “naked,” with just standard shields, power plants, and core weapon systems, then had it shipped to a Jeha shipyard. There, the brand-new ship was taken apart and rebuilt. After four of her six particle cannons were removed and sold (leaving one forward and one aft), her shield generators were upgraded and 10 amidships missile launchers added. Cruisers seldom mounted missiles, but the launchers were surplus and inexpensive.

When configured as such, the engineers found themselves with considerably more space. The supporting structures for the massive particle cannons took up a considerable amount of space. Stripped down, six more vehicle bays were added, as well as support shops and hangars for small craft, cargo space, and bunk space to accommodate an entire battalion of CASPer-equipped troops. A trio of retractable gravity ringlets were added for crew comfort.

The final benefit of removing the particle cannons was that her power plants were now greatly overpowered, no longer needing to generate the more than 60 gigawatts required to power them. Thaddeus and the engineers routed that surplus into an improved fusion torch, capable of pushing the lightened cruiser at more than nine Gs, a solid two Gs better than most cruisers her size. When Bucephalus arrived at Earth a year after leaving the Izlian shipyards, she’d been reborn as a lean, mean, mercenary cruiser, the likes of which were difficult to match.

While Captain Su was shepherding Bucephalus across the system, Jim was in the depths of the ship’s cavernous bays, hard at work. Normally crowded with troopers, gear, support staff, and drop ships, it was now nearly empty.

“Hope this works,” Hargrave commented as he helped a tech go through the startup sequence on a nearly-new Mk 8 CASPer. “One company of CASPers is pretty thin, if shit goes sideways.”

“It is,” Jim agreed, “so hope it doesn’t go sideways.” Hargrave shot him a sidelong glance and scowled. There’d been an unspoken tension between the two ever since Jim had ditched him at Karma Upsilon 4 six months ago to head off in search of Raknar, and the secrets to operating them. Jim had his reasons, but he’d lied to Hargrave to do it. Sometimes, Jim feared he’d damaged their relationship in ways he couldn’t easily repair. “I know I say this a lot lately, but trust me. I’ve been here before; I know the situation.”

“That was more than a month ago,” Hargrave reminded him. “A lot could’ve changed.”

“From what Captain Su is picking up from radio traffic, I don’t think it has. I’m hoping I can take advantage of that.”

“You’d better not be lying to me this time,” Hargrave said.

Jim flinched. “I said I was sorry about that.” Hargrave grunted. “The situation on Earth and Karma is bad. We need an edge, and I believe I can deliver that edge.”

“I still say the solution would have been to bring the entire unit here and flatten the place.”

“And that would play right into Peepo’s hand,” Jim pointed out. “We don’t have any beef with the bugs. This stuff doesn’t even belong to them. They’re squatters. Galactic Union law is clear on that matter. Finders, keepers. It’s more legal to steal than to kill the previous owners.”

“It’s like the Old West meets Pirates of the Caribbean,” Hargrave said, making Jim smile. Jim had shown that movie in Bucephalus’ mess hall three days ago. Unlike some of Jim’s more esoteric 20th century movies, the crew seemed to genuinely enjoy the movie. Even Hargrave had smiled and laughed at the eccentric pirate’s antics.

“The Union is pretty loose in the morals department,” Jim agreed, “until you cross a line.”

“Yeah,” Hargrave agreed, “then they slaughter you for it, or call in the iridium badges.”

Commander Cartwright?” a voice asked over his pinplants.

Go ahead, Captain,” he replied silently.

We’ve established coasting velocity. You can depart anytime in the next 10 minutes to meet your window.

Understood, Captain Su. Thanks.” Jim turned to Hargrave. “I gotta go.”

His XO gave Jim the once over. He was wearing light combat armor, complete with a visored helmet, a backpack stuffed with gear, and his favorite GP-90 Ctech pistol. In the combat environments Human mercs often found themselves, he might as well be naked. “I never noticed, but you’re still losing weight, aren’t you?”

“Yeah,” Jim said and smiled. “Maybe a pound a week, more or less.” Hargrave nodded and returned the smile.

“Your dad couldn’t resist the urge to take off by himself every god-damned chance he got, either. You are your father’s son.” He stuck out his hand. “Be careful, Boss.” Jim took it.

“You as well,” he said. “You guys will be a lot bigger target than I will if things fall apart.” Hargrave added a salute, which Jim returned. The young Cartwright was a lot more comfortable doing that now, after a couple years of being the company’s commanding officer.

With the gravity gone from the ship now that it was coasting, he released the foot magnets and floated toward the nearby ship. The vessel looked nothing like the Human-manufactured Phoenix dropships that would normally be occupying the bay. It looked alien. It was also many times larger and, frankly, beat to shit. Splunk had a panel open just behind the small ship’s bridge, and a dozen cables floated loose like someone’s unbound hair in the lack of gravity. Seeing that, Jim almost panicked.

“Splunk, do we have a problem?” The little Fae’s head popped out, and her ears perked up. She cocked her head, confused. Jim pointed at all the frayed and severed cables. “Can we go?”

“Sure Jim, <Skee!>” She unceremoniously gathered the cables, rammed them into the panel, wrapped her prehensile tale around a protruding sensor antenna for leverage, and muscled the hatch closed. Jim’s eyes went wider when a spark snapped from the panel. Splunk gave it a startled look, but when there was no more sparking, she flashed him a thumbs-up and headed for the hatch behind the bridge.

“Good luck, Commander,” Jim heard from a maintenance crewman working on suits nearby. Jim waved, then noticed several of them exchanging credit chits. Were they gambling on whether the alien ship would fly or not? He wondered if he should get in on that action, because if they were betting against Splunk making something work, they were about to lose some credits.

Jim sailed into the main hatch and reached for the close button. A note was taped on it. “No.” Splunk didn’t write much in English, so he recognized her writing. A crank made from welded together cast-off parts protruded from a panel with another note taped to it. “Yes.” Oh, joy, Jim thought, and hooked one arm through a brace to keep from flying around as he started cranking. Sure enough, the door began to cycle closed. At least it closed quickly, so he didn’t have to listen to the crew’s laughter for too long.

As he was finishing the door, the hull began to vibrate. Either they were about to explode, or the fusion reactor was starting. The door closed with a thump, there was a hiss, and his ears popped. The hull was pressurizing. That was good; he didn’t like breathing vacuum. He made his way quickly to the cockpit and found his partner there. She’d jury-rigged a dozen slates into an ad hoc computer system to operate the ship. Most of the original systems had melted down the last time he’d flown the ship.

“All good?” he asked skeptically and got another thumbs-up. On the slates, a dizzying array of status indicators were fluctuating, flashing, and buzzing. The only remaining control systems native to the ship all showed either no function or malfunction. He’d learned to read them quite well while trying to survive 170 hours in hyperspace on that bridge. By the end of it, he’d been forced to live in a spacesuit when the life support failed completely. Thankfully, this time all it needed to do was fly a few hundred thousand kilometers and land. Once.

Outside, through the streaked and pitted bridge windows, all work had ceased as the maintainers in spacesuits watched to see what happened. The rest had retired to the operations blister, a big, round collection of windows which allowed the control staff to view the bay from the comfort of a pressurized space. Great, I’m a distraction, Jim thought glumly.

“Juliet Charlie One, this is Bucephalus Launch Control. We’re preparing to depressurize the bay.” Jim picked up one of the Human-designed headsets and settled it in place.

Bucephalus Launch Control, this is Juliet Charlie One. We are airtight and ready for departure.” He glanced at Splunk, who was snugging a strap across her middle and fiddling with the plethora of slates. At least, he hoped they were ready.

“Venting,” came the controller again. One of the slates began an insistent beeping, to which Splunk tapped a display, and it silenced. Jim listened carefully. There were a few groans as the overstressed hull expanded in the decreasing atmospheric pressure, but that was all. In a minute, they were in vacuum, and the huge bay door was sliding aside.

“Release clamps,” Jim said over the radio. The hull echoed as the magnetic restraining clamps released the ship, and they floated up off the deck. He settled his hands into the gloves, which interacted with the alien-designed RCS system, one of the few original systems still functioning. After accessing the file in his pinplants that stored the configuration, he gave the starboard cluster a couple taps. The pops of the thrusters firing banged through the interior of the ship, and they moved to the left. “Excellent,” he said and smiled at Splunk, who was still playing with the slates.

“Juliet Charlie One, you are clear of the bay and free to maneuver,” Launch Control said. “Best of luck, Commander, and see you soon.”

“Roger that. Juliet Charlie One out.” Jim released the RCS gloves and took hold of the dual joystick flight controls. With a foot he nudged the power lever forward, and the fusion torch came alive. It wasn’t a smooth acceleration, but it was acceleration. He glanced over at Splunk’s array of slates and caught “Containment Nominal” on one of them. Knowing that must pertain to the alien ship’s finicky fusion core, he let out his breath. That was the part that’d almost gotten them killed the last time.

“Setting course for the planet,” Jim told Splunk.

“All good, <Skaa!>

I hope so, Jim thought as he checked their range from Bucephalus. Confirming the torch wasn’t pointed at his ship, he gave the dilapidated fusion torch more power, and they accelerated away.

* * *

His mission counted on a combination of several factors. The first was that the ship’s presence would carry with it an air of normality. The second was that, even if it wasn’t considered entirely normal, nobody would go out of their way to question it. The third, and this was the trickiest, was that nobody in charge had the registry information. He’d recorded the ship as a war prize from the merc contract he was on when it was taken.

The star system, Ja-ku-Tapa, may have possessed native life in the distant past, or not. When Humans first encountered it, the traders who made landfall were natives of the northern plains of the old United States. They took one look at the barely-inhabitable planet with its low, rolling, bone-dry hills, occasional plateaus, and scrub plant growth, and named it Badlands.

Luckily for those traders, the present occupants of the world hadn’t been there yet. Back then, a small mining consortium was running a largely unprofitable uranium extraction facility. The traders sold the miners some goods and left. Several years later, the consortium abandoned their efforts on Badlands and left the world to the dust devils.

Sometime after that, the KzSha moved in. A massive insectoid merc race the size of a Bengal tiger, the first Humans to see them reflected on how disturbingly close to cicada killer wasps the KzSha appeared. But while their Earth analogy was largely unaggressive if left alone, KzSha were the exact opposite. Their success as mercs had been hit-or-miss because they tended to overuse force, pillage during contracts, and execute captives. They could fly in a gravity three-quarters of Earth-standard or less, which was part of what had drawn them to Badlands. That, and they needed an out-of-the-way place for their newest business endeavor—slavery.

The KzSha dabbled in that trade until they came across a race called the Aku. The turtle-like race proved extremely resistant to radiation, which was a marketable trait. The Aku were also pacifists, who just wanted to be left alone and refused to join the Union, which made them an easy target for the KzSha. There were no Union laws against slavery for non-Union races. There were however, rules against decimating native populations for fun and profit, which is where the KzSha ran afoul of the Peacemaker Guild. Months ago, Jim had worked a contract for the Peacemakers, to stop the KzSha from committing genocide on the native population of Soo-Aku. He’d earned a bonus by leading the Peacemakers to this world and unmasking the operation.

Jim checked their approach and found it nominal. He’d been braking toward a direct reentry trajectory for 10 minutes while he read files via his pinplant. When he’d been to this planet with the Peacemakers to indict the KzSha, Splunk had found a warehouse full of Raknar. Not just any Raknar, but good ones; not the junk he’d been finding all over the galaxy. When he’d returned to Earth a few weeks ago, he’d also discovered that the KzSha had no rightful ownership of Badlands. No claim had been filed with the Cartography Guild. If you wanted to run an illegal slavery operation, of course you kept it quiet. But that meant the Raknar were fair game. Sort of.

The radio signaled they were being hailed by a directional beam. Jim double-checked his translator was set to active feed before answering the call.

“Approaching ship, identify.” His challenge in communicating was the language. KzSha didn’t speak with sounds, they used pulsating lights on the tips of their antenna. His reply was entirely a fraud, a visual computer replica of a KzSha, flashing antenna and all.

“This is Gatherer G-12 returning to base.”

“Gatherer G-12,” the reply came immediately, “there is no flight plan for your arrival.” Jim crossed his fingers that he wasn’t talking to a KzSha.

“We do not have to explain our coming and going to you.”

“That is correct, but under the Articles of Tribunal, you must submit to a scan of your ship.” Jim heaved a sigh. He was talking to a Peacemaker or a functionary of the Peacemaker Guild. After he’d thrown the KzSha under the galactic bus, no more information had been available about what had happened on Badlands. The galaxy wasn’t like Earth, with every interesting legal proceeding being available on Tri-V or the AetherNet. “How many of your kind are on your ship?”

“Two,” Jim replied.

“Parking orbit assignment is being transmitted. You will assume that orbit and stand by for inspection. Failure to follow protocol will result in your being shot down. Is that clear, Gatherer G-12?”

“Fine,” he said, trying to sound as disgusted as possible, unsure if disgust would transmit via light pulses. Splunk chirped, and he saw one of her slates displaying an orbital calculation. She showed him the data, and he nodded.

Flying the ship was mostly seat-of-the-pants, with its electronics largely wasted. Jim shot the approach by eye; now grateful he’d spent the weeks alone flying Pale Rider around the galaxy. Before his mission time alone, he’d only controlled ships a few times. How often does the commander of a heavy-assault, CASPer-equipped merc company get to fly spaceships? Never, that’s how often.

He hadn’t been in the assigned orbit more than five minutes when their sensors picked up a drone approaching. It was steadily broadcasting an identification code proclaiming, “This drone is the property of the Galactic Peacemaker Guild. Caution—Any attempt to tamper with this drone could have serious repercussions. You have been warned.” Jim used his pinplants to trigger the next step of his illusion.

“Gatherer G-12,” the radio relayed through the drone, “hold position for Peacemaker interdiction scans.” Jim didn’t respond. The drone flew past at a few meters per second. He knew he was being scanned by thermal, densometer, neutron flux, and likely X-rays. Next to him in the cockpit was a complicated little x-ray emitter that would make it look like two KzSha sat in the bridge. Sort of. The scan of the rest of the ship would reveal exactly what was there—nothing.

“Gatherer G-12, you are cleared to proceed.” Once again, he didn’t respond; he just performed a deorbit burn. In moments they were entering the ionosphere.

“All set?” he asked Splunk.

“Good to go, <Skaa!>.” Jim unbuckled and headed to the rear with Splunk. The Gs were building, and they needed to work fast.

KzSha personnel around one of the remote industrial complexes looked up at the sonic boom of a ship flying over. It was about the size of a Gatherer, which was unusual. There hadn’t been any Gatherers since the accursed Peacemakers came in and started nosing around. Most looked away, until they noticed the flashes. The ship’s reentry pattern was abnormal. In fact, pieces were falling off the ship.

Several pointed to their companions as the starship began to break up. Two of the outrigger cargo modules broke away entirely and spiraled away, trailing molten strings of fire once they were outside the reentry shield. A second later, the sky lit up with a bright flash as the reentry shield split and super-hot plasma chopped the doomed spaceship in two. A heartbeat later, the fusion core lost containment and the ship turned into a tiny sun.

* * *

Ten giant cargo shuttles entered Badland’s upper atmosphere in rough formation. The Peacemakers cleared them through after drone scan. Each identified as serving a commercial contract to deliver food and supplies to the KzSha outpost below. The contract was valid, and the Peacemaker guild showed it as filed in good order. The contract said nothing about what kind of ship would deliver the supplies, or how many. Nobody questioned where the 10 oversized cargo shuttles came from, since none possessed a hyperdrive and no ships were in orbit.

Lt. Colonel Hargrave was strapped into the bridge of the lead shuttle, hanging on as it rode the turbulence into Badland’s lower atmosphere. The planet really was a shithole. He didn’t have to have been there before to know that. If the KzSha considered it worth squatting, it was a shithole.

“Approach nominal,” the pilot told him. Hargrave grunted. He hated landing ballistically like this. It was one of the peculiarities old mercs picked up over the years. Fire him from orbit in a CASPer with nothing more than a few inches of ablative shielding, and he’d sleep through half the drop.

“Remember,” Hargrave said, “regardless of what ground control tells you, set down where the commander said.”

“What if they start shooting, sir?”

“We’re loaded with food and stuff,” he reminded the pilot. “They probably won’t.” The pilot’s head came around, and Hargrave winked.

“Shuttles, land on Pad Complex 29,” the translated KzSha came over the radio. The pilot beamed up at Hargrave. That was smack in the middle of where Jim Cartwright said they needed to be. “Be advised, there may be debris in the area from a recently crashed ship.”

“Acknowledged,” the pilot said then, after turning off the radio, looked at Hargrave. “Sounds like the commander made landfall.”

“Let’s hope it was a controlled fall,” Hargrave said as the pilot approached the landing area. Hargrave patted the pilot on the shoulder and turned to go. “Gotta get ready,” he said. “Call if anything goes south.”

Five minutes later, the 10 shuttles had settled onto the landing pad, and their ramps came down as several dozen KzSha scuttled over. These were from the non-warrior caste, flightless and unarmed—they looked more like beetles, where the warrior caste resembled wasps. They gathered around each shuttle as Human loadmasters came out to show them which crates to take. The KzSha weren’t inquisitive enough to wonder why the shuttles’ cavernous cargo bays were nearly empty, or why they all had some sort of mechanized vehicle slung under each of their wings.

The contract of resupply included fuel for the delivering company, so other workers rolled in the insulated LHYD/LOX lines to begin pumping the shuttles full of fuel for their return trip to orbit. The last pallets were considerably heavier than the others. Yet again, though, the workers weren’t curious; it was just work that had to be done. Those pallets were stacked in an adjacent warehouse on the ground, instead of on top of others, due to their weight. The workers left for other tasks, and the vicinity was quiet.

In the warehouse, a small door in several of the heavy crates slid open and the buzz of tiny ducted fans sounded as drones flew out. The drones circled the area, recording everything before stopping and hovering. The crates then opened, revealing a Mk 8 CASPer sitting inside each. Alpha Company’s Second Platoon, First Squad all got to their feet and examined their surroundings.

“Status check!” Hargrave ordered. In a few seconds, all 10 troopers in his platoon verified full function. He could see the 10 glowing green lights on his platoon leader’s status board, but it never hurt to double check. The damned suits better be working, he thought, we just got them right before everything went to shit. “Wonka?” he called.

“Sir?” Sergeant Willy “Wonka” Peskal should have been a lieutenant, but he’d refused promotion. Hargrave would happily have changed positions with him; being called “Lieutenant Colonel” had never felt right to him.

“Send the drones to objective. Find us a clear path.”

“Right away, sir.”

“Gries, Eng!” Shane Gries and Chin Eng were his scouts and, like most scouts, were friends.

“Sir!” the two men instantly replied in unison.

“Deploy to the warehouse doors and set up as sentries while we get organized.”

“Right away,” Eng said.

“On it,” Gries agreed.

Several minutes passed as the drones did their jobs. Wonka reported the drones were almost to their objective. An operation like this was one of the few times Hargrave wished he had wires in his brain like the kid. Jim seemed able to do several things at once, while he had to use finger and eye commands in the complicated combat suits. He found the right combination, and a corner of the Tri-V projection at the front of his cockpit showed a view from a racing drone. Ahead was a huge warehouse several hundred feet tall and at least a mile long. Then things went downhill.

“Contact,” Eng called out.

“Whatcha got?” Wonka asked.

“Ground car, four occupants heading this way. Worker and three warriors is my guess.”

“Fuck,” Hargrave said and clenched his suit’s hands into fists. “Someone must be coming over to see what good stuff they got.” It had been a concern in the operation, though not a huge one. Everyone figured they’d have at least an hour. They’d been wrong.

“O’Connell,” Hargrave called, “how’s Taz coming?”

“Ready in five,” the man replied.

Hargrave found the feed from Eng and did an estimate. “In five we’ll be dancing with the bugs.”

“I haven’t finished Taz’s programming.”

“Fuck the programming kid, kick it in the ass and let’s go!”

“Okay,” O’Connell said, “deploying.”

Hargrave watched the approaching car. There was a whir of motion to one side of the camera, and something shot past the car going the other direction. It was moving fast, throwing up a spray of rocks and debris as it went, veering left and right in a crazy pattern.

“Jesus, O’Connell,” Wonka said. “Did you give that thing some Sparkle?”

“I told you I didn’t have its programming verified,” O’Connell hissed.

On the monitor, the KzSha car swerved to avoid the wildly-careening thing, then spun around to chase it. Bingo, Hargrave thought, better than nothing. “Okay,” he said on the squadnet, “the Tasmanian Devil is doing its job. Do we have a path yet?”

“All set,” Wonka confirmed.

“Okay, by the numbers, move out.”

* * *

Jim heard the distant sound of light weapons fire and nodded. That should be his Cavaliers creating a distraction. At least he hoped it was. He ponderously got to his feet, wincing slightly at the pain in his left knee. A few hundred yards away, a group of KzSha workers were examining the remains of Gatherer G-12, or one part of it. They seemed particularly interested in the parachutes, since there weren’t any parachutes in a Gatherer ship. They’d helped slow the module’s plummet to the ground.

“Didn’t slow it much,” Jim mused. Splunk and he were nestled in a special crash harness in the center of the module. The Cavaliers’ techs had assured him it would keep them alive in up to a 50-G impact. His suit said the hit was closer to 75-G. He hurt everywhere. He was also pretty sure he had a torn ligament in his knee.

Jim had a nano-therapy medkit in his pack. The problem was, the devices were notoriously ineffective against those kinds of soft-tissue injuries. Oh, and they hurt like hell. Instead, he’d taken a minute to pull the modern equivalent of an ace bandage from his medkit and wrapped the knee. He swallowed a couple pain killers with some water from the reservoir built into the pack.

“Okay, Jim, <Cheek!>”

“I’ll be all right,” he said, testing the knee. It’s a good thing this rock is only three-quarters of a G, he thought. It would work.

Jim checked his pinplant’s clock. He’d seen the 10 blazing trails of the shuttles a bit ago, and now that a lot of the KzSha were chasing decoys and examining the wrecked Gatherer, he had a window. “Let’s go,” he said to Splunk. The Fae leaped and easily landed on his shoulder. Jim slung the pack over the other, and he headed off as fast as his hurt knee would let him.

He wove through several ancient buildings, most in deplorable condition. More than once he was forced to detour around other crumbled structures. Jim had the images he’d taken when he’d first arrived, and those given to the Peacemakers to use against the KzSha to prove they were holding the nearly-extinct Aku as slaves. None of the pictures showed this extensive infrastructure.

The KzSha facility was in and around a massive depression several miles across. The warehouse he was heading toward was on the lip of an overhang facing the facility. It took some climbing, and his knee didn’t appreciate it. Eventually, he cleared the edge of the hill and saw the warehouse. It was half-buried in the dusty ground, which Jim guessed was a result of eons of neglect and drifting dirt. It had that solid, chunky look of older pre-Union construction, which made sense for a warehouse full of Raknar. He was finally here.

When Jim had gone off on his own, he’d spent months prowling the galaxy looking for a few good Raknar. The stories said there’d once been thousands of them. Most were now parts of factories, their complex machinery broken up to build manufactories. Every one he’d found was in worse shape than the two he already owned. Usually much worse shape.

Data on them was just as rare. It was obvious to him; the powers that be wanted the era of the giant war mecha to never come again. After he and Splunk got the one working, though, he couldn’t let that happen. No way. Here was the key to freeing Earth from the invading armies, and maybe give them an edge nobody else had. It was clear the rest of the galaxy didn’t give a shit about humanity. If they were going to be safe and free, they’d have to do it themselves.

The area was nearly abandoned by the KzSha. While Raknar might be useful for salvage, that only tended to be the case if the mecha were near something that needed parts. Badlands had no industry to speak of, so the mecha remained as they were, slowly decaying.

Jim was in considerable pain and breathing hard as he approached the partially-buried warehouse. There were doors every quarter of a mile, most of which were partially collapsed. One was completely gone. That one was further down, so Jim headed toward a closer, partially-collapsed door. Before going in, he looked back down into the valley. It was more than a mile to the center of the landing complex, and he could still see burning debris from his former ship. Ground vehicles were all around it, tending to the fires he’d semi-intentionally started. Much closer, all 10 Cavaliers’ shuttles were visible. There were no signs of traffic around them, which was good.

“Raknar, Jim, <Cheek!>” Splunk said.

“We’re going,” he said as he looked around for a minute longer. “I’m just catching my breath.” He took one more look into the valley, noting its uniform shape. Does that look like a big crater? he wondered. Splunk was tapping impatiently on his shoulder, so Jim turned, trudged through the dirt, and walked up to the doorway.

The sand and dirt was piled up more than 20 feet, and it took Jim a bit with his bum knee to climb it. Splunk abandoned him halfway and went flying up the pile. In moments, she was at the top, jumping up and down excitedly and pointing.

“Raknar, Raknar, Raknar, <Skaa!>

“I…know…I…know,” Jim huffed as he climbed the last few feet to the top. He was breathing like a badly-tuned steam engine, and his vision was swimming as he plopped down on his sizeable butt at the top. But he was there! He took a drink from the reservoir in his pack and looked inside for the first time, thanking the fates that’d made Badlands only three quarters of a gravity. He doubted he’d have made it in a full gravity.

As he worked to regain his breath, Jim gazed on the lines of Raknar. These were similar to the two he owned, given to him as partial payment for a contract shortly after he’d taken command. At 100 feet tall and weighing nearly 1,000 tons, they resembled headless humanoids with elongated arms and short legs. The effect was vaguely simian. In his travels, he’d seen and heard about many other kinds, including some with four legs, some smaller, and legends of even bigger ones.

The warehouse they were stored in had clearly not been designed to hold them. Ancient metalwork was visible to support the mecha in their standing position. In places, concrete had been cut to make room for the bracing as well. He wondered what the warehouse had originally held.

When he’d seen the video taken by Splunk of this place, he’d estimated the building held at least 100 of the monstrous machines. Windows were few and far between, mainly just long slits in the wall covered with glass every hundred yards. As they were half-covered in drifts of dirt and sand, precious little light made it inside. Regardless, he could see his estimate was way off. There were at least 200 Raknar here. The mother lode.

Once he was able to stand again, Splunk jumped on his shoulder, and he walked/slid down the other side of the drift and into the building. In a minute he was standing next to the foot of a Raknar which was arguably in as good a shape as the one he had in Karma.

“I should’ve figured out how to take them all,” he said, his voice echoing in the cavernous building.

“What makes you think you’re taking any of them?”

Jim had his GP-90 out and spun, crouching slightly as he did. Splunk jumped to the side and out of view, and Jim leveled the weapon. The huge Oogar stood with his hands at his sides and no weapon in hand. As usual, they didn’t wear clothing, just a utility belt held up with suspenders, which held additional tools. A massive handgun was on one hip, close to hand but not out of the holster. On one of the suspenders was his blue tree-logo Peacemaker badge. He was, in fact, the same Peacemaker Jim had dealt with during the Aku incident.

Jim slowly holstered his pistol then smiled. “Take what, Peacemaker?”

“Commander Cartwright, don’t lie to me,” the Oogar said in his booming voice. It was difficult to disregard the orders of a giant purple bear, but he did.

“I only came back to check on your progress,” he said. The Peacemaker put his hands on what little hips he had and snorted. Shit, Jim thought. For a moment he considered just sticking to his story. Then from the next door further down, a squad of 11 CASPers sailed in on their jumpjets, sending up an explosion of dust from their jumpjets. Shit, he thought again.

The lead CASPer had silver oak leaves on both collars, so Jim knew that was Hargrave. As soon as the combat suit landed, they realized Jim wasn’t alone, and 11 arms spun around to point their miniguns at the Peacemaker.

“Stand down,” Jim transmitted using his pinplants. “This is a Peacemaker.”

“You okay, kid?” Hargrave asked. The weapons went down, but not all the way. Peacemaker or not, Jim knew if he said the word there’d be Oogar scattered all over the warehouse.

“Yeah,” Jim said, “we’re FUBAR, but no problem.”

“Why do you want these relics?” the Peacemaker asked after examining the CASPers with a critical eye. There seemed to be no fear in him.

“Don’t tell him shit,” Hargrave said.

“Before I say a thing,” Jim said, “how did you know?”

“That junk KzSha ship,” he said. “You registered it as a war prize. The scanning drone forwarded me the info as soon as it verified the ID.” Jim sighed. “So I ask you again, Commander Cartwright, why do you desire these rusting relics of a bygone era? I didn’t take you as a thief, rather as an honorable mercenary.” Jim considered his options. There weren’t many. He settled on the truth.

“Earth has been occupied,” he said.

“I hadn’t heard that,” the Peacemaker said. “Occupied by whom?”

“By an army of mercs led by General Peepo. First they tried to destroy the Four Horsemen, one after the other, starting with the Cavaliers. When that didn’t work, they invaded.”

“Maybe you’d better explain in detail.” Jim saw no harm in that, caught red-handed after all, so he did.

While Jim unrolled the story for the Peacemaker, Splunk carried on as if nothing had changed. At several points he caught sight of her scrambling up the side of a Raknar and disappearing inside, only to reappear out a different hatch. She either attached a little IR marker to the leg or continued to the next one. Halfway through Jim’s explanation, the sound of powerful lifting motors was audible. The sun was setting, and the final part of his grand plan was arriving.

“And you believe the rest of the Human mercs are prisoners on Karma?” the Peacemaker didn’t seem convinced or unconvinced. He just listened.

“We know that to be true, based on a report provided to Commander Cromwell.”

“The Peacemaker Guild has had good dealings with the Winged Hussars,” he said. “They’ve helped us from time to time.” Jim nodded. “Still, you haven’t said why you want the Raknar.”

“For an edge,” he said.

“I’m not sure I can stand aside while you steal these from the KzSha.”

“Technically speaking, they don’t belong to the KzSha,” Jim said. The Peacemaker leaned closer. “The KzSha are squatting here; they never filed a lease with the Cartography Guild.” Jim smiled up at the huge ursoid. “Finders keepers.”

“Interesting thought,” the Peacemaker replied. “My people have a similar saying; a possession in one claw is as good as desire in the other nine.”

“What are you going to do?”

The Peacemaker looked at the CASPers waiting nearby, then Jim, then out the doorway Jim had arrived through. “Have you seen the sunset on this world?” Caught off guard, Jim shook his head. “It’s quite beautiful.” The Peacemaker turned toward the exit. “I think I’ll go watch it. I trust you won’t do anything illegal in the hour it takes for the sun to set?” The Oogar Peacemaker looked back at Jim, and he’d swear the big purple bear winked, then trudged up the dirt and out of the site.

“What the fuck was that all about?” Hargrave asked.

“I have no idea,” Jim said, “but unless I miss my guess, we have exactly one hour to get these things out of here!” He looked around. “Splunk,” he yelled. “Splunk, we ready?”

“Good to go, <Skee!>.”

The squad of CASPers worked together to clear one of the massive doorways, which only took a few minutes. As soon as it was clear, one of the twenty crawlers Alexis had fabricated for him came rolling into the warehouse…followed by another, and another.

She’d far exceeded what he’d thought they were capable of in only a few hours’ work. A Winged Hussars’ manufactory turned out the machines based on Jim’s specifications. He couldn’t take credit for it; the Raknar-tender was a design he’d found months ago. While there wasn’t much on building or operating the Raknars, there was quite a bit on maintenance and handling.

Basically a tracked, articulated frame fit with powerful lifting fans, it rolled up in front of a mecha Splunk had tagged then, like a scorpion, bent up and over backward, grabbing the Raknar in a wrap-around bear hug. Using a combination of hydraulic and metallic muscles similar to what powered the newer CASPers, the haulers unhooked the Raknar from the wall and lowered them to a horizontal position. The tracks took over and rolled them outside. Once there, the fans came alive, and 1,000 tons of war machine was lifted up and away.

An hour later the Peacemaker walked down the dirt drift to find no sign of the Humans, and 20 empty spots in the walls. The sounds of powerful lifting fans retreated toward the KzSha complex. His radio came alive, telling him the KzSha armed forces were trying to scramble in response to an incident.

“Tell them to stand down,” he said, “by order of the Peacemaker Guild.”

“Understood, Enforcer,” the reply came back. Half an hour later, the roar of shuttles boosting into the night sky echoed up from the valley floor. He turned his head and saw the brilliant streaks of their engines burning upward. He contacted his assistant. “I need to prepare a communication packet to go out on the next Guild courier.”

* * *

EMS Pegasus, 2nd Level Hyperspace

“Is that report ready yet?” Alexis asked, floating back into the CIC. She’d been in the docking bridge, an exposed blister of windows that allowed for close maneuvering of the ship. Despite the disconcerting effect 2nd Level Hyperspace had on her mind, she’d wanted to look at the ships directly.

“Long said any minute,” Paka said. “How do they look?”

“Like Pegasus,” she told her XO. Her predecessors had done their share of looking for more Egleesius-class ships, all without luck. It only made sense. As tough and disproportionately powerful as they were, if any other examples of the deadly warships still existed from the Great Galactic War, everyone would know about them. The ship was rife with speculation about finding them there. The only one who didn’t seem to hold an opinion was the one who should’ve known the most.

Still no comment?”

<Not yet,>” Ghost replied. That concerned Alexis, because Ghost seemed to always have something to say.

“Engineer Long is reporting,” Hoot announced.

“On the Tri-V,” Alexis said and pulled herself over to her command chair. In normal space she’d have just floated over there, but 2nd Level Hyperspace was frustrating that way.

On the big Tri-V, six images similar to Pegasus appeared. Their Jeha chief engineer began speaking over the images.

“We were incorrect,” he said. “These are not six Egleesius-class battlecruisers.” The images morphed into wire frame drawings with measurements and details. “Four of them are; the other two are something else entirely. Their proportions are identical, but they only have shields, no offensive weaponry. The spinal mount door is larger and considerably more robust. The ship has four fusion torches instead of three and is lacking any shuttle bays. Frankly, I’m stumped as to what they are.”

“How about hyperspatial capabilities?” Alexis asked.

“All six have shunts.”

“Okay,” she said, “now the next question. What’s their general condition?”

“We haven’t been able to gain access to the two unusual ones. They don’t have airlocks either, so we’ve concentrated on the four Egleesiuses. They’ve all seen heavy battle. If I had a week, I could get two of them moving under their own power. Their interiors are a disaster. A lot of equipment has been stripped. Like the ships already salvaged, there’s nothing biological aboard. These also look like there were battles inside them. We found a section of a small craft that looks a lot like the one we salvaged last time. I think it was cut in half by weapons fire.”

“Are the hulls sufficiently intact?”

“Sure,” he said. “There’s a lot of damage, but none have suffered catastrophic damage. They’re all missing hyperspace generators. Looks like they were salvaged but the shunts, like ours, can’t be removed without chopping up the hull. There’s not enough F11 to run a backup generator. What’re your orders, Captain?”

“I want them all rigged for transition back to New Warsaw.” The connection was silent for a time.

“With those two Izlian ships, do you know how complicated the connections will be? Rigging three ships would have been challenging; six is crazy.”

“Eight,” Alexis corrected him, “I said all of them.”

“Commander,” Long complained, “that’s not possible.”

“Anything is possible, unless it’s impossible. Are you saying you can’t do it?”

“No,” he replied slowly, “running the power to pull the other ships with us isn’t the issue. With our improved fusion plants, we have a good surplus even with the extra-large hyperspace gateway we’ll have to generate. The issue is we’ll have to hook all these ships together. Throwing a cable over isn’t enough. Cruisers aren’t designed to hook to other cruisers. Smaller ships, sure. The stability issues are off the scale. One wrong move, and we could tear Pegasus in half or have one of the other ships pivot and smash into our hull.”

In practice, the Winged Hussars didn’t use parasite tactics very often. Large, combined fleets would have their battlecruisers and battleships carry squadrons of frigates and gunboats on their hulls. It reduced the power consumption of the larger ships and allowed the smaller ones to dedicate more of their design toward combat capability. The Winged Hussars preferred all their ships to be able to move through hyperspace by themselves. It was a more complicated tactical doctrine, but also more flexible. That was also one of the biggest reasons they had no battleships.

“Status on Prize 1 and 2?” she asked Xander who, as TacCom, was overseeing the delicate ballet of large and small ships around them.

“Prize 1 is secured,” she said, “Prize 2 is in process. The prize crew estimates an hour to complete.”

“As soon as they finish, have them taken by shuttle to Long on the Egleesius-class ships.”

“Commander, they’re scheduled to stand down for five hours of rest,” Xander reminded.

“None of us are getting enough rest,” Alexis retorted. “Give the order. Long, I’m sending over the remainder of the other prize crews. I want you to pick the best condition of those Egleesius and pour your efforts into getting her power plants working enough to run hyperspace shunts. We’ll move the two unusual ones over here to mate with Pegasus, while you get one Egleesius working and dock the other three with it.”

“That just might work,” Long said.

“Make it work,” Alexis said and cut the line. “Drone Control, now that we’re all together, recover the drones we’ve been using for defense of the prize crews and launch all remaining drones.”

“Mission?” the reply came.

“Intercept. Target the mystery signal behind us.”

In the hours since they’d met up with the teams that’d found the Egleesius ships, the sensor returns of the ship behind them had continued to keep its distance. It disappeared from time to time, but always returned. There was no doubt they were being observed.

“Acknowledged,” Drone Control answered.

“Captain,” Chug called.

“Go ahead.”

“Is it possible for us to return to New Warsaw with the two Izlian and the other two strange Egleesius, then come back for the rest?”

“I’m informed the shape of this place makes it unlikely we’ll appear anywhere near this spot,” Alexis said. “But it was a good idea.” Chug’s eyestalks nodded, and he went back to his duties. In reality, what Sato had said when she’d proposed that very idea an hour ago was that he doubted the physics of how 2nd Level Hyperspace appeared would be the same if they re-visited it and mentioned something about quantum uncertainty. The ancient warships were far too valuable to risk not being able to find them again.

“Drones recovered; launching fresh drones.” On the big Tri-V, twenty blue dots formed up like a school of fish and shot off toward the mysterious signal. Within a second of their acceleration, their mystery guest disappeared.

“Limit the drones’ pursuit range to one-third of their available fuel,” Alexis ordered.

“Acknowledged,” Drone Control replied. Once the drones were more than a few dozen kilometers away, radio ceased to work normally, and laser comms ceased not much past that. She ground her teeth as the perfect formation of 20 combat drones lanced away from Pegasus. 2nd Level Hyperspace annoyed her on a fundamental level. How were you supposed to operate in such an alien realm?

“Once the other drones are serviced, send a few out to act as relays.”

“Already on that,” Drone Control answered.

Minutes ticked by. Just as the first relay drones went into the black, the combat formation passed beyond sensor range and disappeared. Now the real waiting began.

“Long here.”

“Go ahead,” Alexis said.

“We caught a bit of a break. The two unusual ships appear to be designed to ride. They have easily accessible connection points that are quite robust. We can use them at the center of the formation.”

“Will that affect the grouping, having the ship with active shunts on the outside instead of the middle?”

“No,” Long said, “as long as the field is projected correctly, it won’t matter. We’ve started flushing the F11 jacket and running temporary computer controls to the Egleesius-class now designated EG1. So far everything looks like it’s in good shape. I don’t know how to program the hyperspace computer, though. We have extras, but this is different.”

<I’ll provide a computer module.>

“We’ve got that covered,” Alexis said. “I’ll have a module sent over from our…specialist, with the next supply shuttle.”

“Thanks, Pegasus.

Now,” Alexis said, “about those other two Egleesius-classes with no weapons, or even airlocks? Care to explain what those are for?

“<I can’t.>

Can’t, or won’t?”

“<Can’t. I don’t know what they are.>

For the all-powerful AI of the Dusman, you’re sure clueless when it serves your purpose.

“<I’m sorry you believe that. However, I only know what I was allowed to know.>”

Alexis, like those before her, was never sure about those kinds of statements Ghost made. Taking over her sister’s body after she’d been killed in combat threw its motivation into doubt for Alexis. How do you trust an AI that jumped into a biological body like some old Earth sci-fi movie? Yet, if Ghost had ever meant to betray them, it’d had a thousand opportunities before Alexis’s time, and a thousand since. If it just wasn’t always so obfuscating and mysterious about its basic nature, maybe she’d trust it more. Maybe. But maybe not.

Time moved still slower once the drones were out of contact. Sato said he was working on a means of longer range comms but didn’t have anything finished yet. The relay drone was almost to the established sensor range when the original strike group reappeared, minus four drones.

“Drone sortie has suffered 20% casualties,” Xander reported. Alexis nodded, considering that a good sign. It probably meant their skulker had been dealt with. A moment later more points lit up, only these were green, denoting unknown or enemy targets.

“Contact,” Flipper confirmed, “marking between 5 and 10 bogies inbound right behind the combat drones.”

“Oh shit,” Paka said. “Set Condition One. Prepare for combat!”

“Chug, bring us about to face the inbounds.”

“Coming about, aye,” the Bakulu helmsman said. The alarm sounded and, 10 seconds later, Pegasus fired her maneuvering jets and turned to the required heading. The somewhat larger bulk of the two Izlian cruisers floated unmoving nearby.

“ETA for targets to our threat box?” she asked.

“Estimate five minutes,” Xander replied.

“Ship reports at combat stations,” Paka confirmed. “Shields up, all tubes loaded.” The strange energy properties of 2nd Level Hyperspace meant missiles were the most effective weapons at their disposal.

“Give us a quarter G,” she ordered. “Let’s get some range between us and the salvage parties.”

Hoot spoke up, the Buma’s feathery head turning toward the commander. “Lieutenant Ewald on Prize 1 is calling.”

“Lieutenant Ewald, I’m a little busy.”

“Yes ma’am,” the young lieutenant replied, “I believe we can help. I have Reactor One at full power, and maneuvering and shields are online.”

“You’re an overachiever. I’m impressed.”

“My team deserves all the credit, Commander.”

“Those Izlian heavy cruisers were beam throwers. That means you don’t have shit for missiles.”

“Correct, ma’am,” he confirmed. “And what we had are gone; the magazines are dry. What I do have are some seriously-powerful shields, though; better even than Pegasus, actually. These heavy cruisers are designed to sit in the middle of the storm and soak it up. The point-defense lasers on three quadrants are reporting nearly 100% as well. Let me fall into formation and screen.”

Alexis considered for a second. The green aggressor dots were closing fast, and she had no idea what they were facing. It could be a wave of missiles, or 10 battleships. Ghost had warned her from the beginning that the Dusman considered this place extremely dangerous. Now she was beginning to understand why.

“How much reaction mass do you have?” she asked the Lieutenant.

“Estimate is about 200 G/hours.”

“Lieutenant, fall into formation.” A short distance behind Pegasus, the Izlian heavy cruiser’s fusion torches lit with a flash, clearing accumulated debris, and the huge ship accelerated smoothly. Two ships are better than one, she decided.

“Getting better sensor resolution,” Flipper said. “I’ve got nine bogies inbound.”

“Drones are flying with bingo-fuel indicated,” Drone Control reported.

“Time to launch another wave?”

“Ten minutes required to finish turn-around.”

“They’ll be in our threat box in three minutes,” Xander said.

“Hold drones aboard for my order,” Alexis said. “As soon as you have radio contact with the drones, split their formation to clear us a firing solution.”

“Affirmative.” The ship shuddered, the lights flashed, and alarms sounded.

“Forward shield impact,” Xander said, “estimated 20-gigawatt range!”

“What was it?” Paka demanded.

“No visible indications,” Flipper said, “checking the recordings.” Another shudder, and this time damage alarms sounded.

“Hull breach,” Afeeko, the damage control coordinator, or DCC, announced. “Deck Five, Section Three and Four.” The elSha looked at her commander in concern. “Radiological alarm.”

“There was no nuclear explosion,” Flipper said immediately, “I’d have seen it.”

“Unless nukes don’t work normally here,” Alexis said.

“Radiation teams to Deck Four,” Glick, the SitCon, said.

“Forward quarter shields down 50%,” Xander said, obviously in confusion.

“Chug, roll the ship. Could these be C-Plus weapons?”

“Faster-than-light projectiles wouldn’t give off energized radiation,” Afeeko replied. They were hit again. “I have another hull breach, Deck One!”

“Forward shields are fluctuating,” Xander said. “We have damage to the shield generators.”

“Prize 1 is pulling ahead,” Chug said. On the Tri-V, the larger bulk of the Izlian heavy cruiser was moving in front of Pegasus. Camera views to the side carried a good image of the cylindrical beast as she moved into position. Her shields flashed brightly as something invisible hit them.

“Drones are clearing our firing solution,” Drone Controls said.

“Xander, fire on those ships, full spread.”

“Aye, aye,” the TacCom said. A moment later the distant bump, bump, bump of missiles being ejected from their tubes resounded through the hull. Ten missiles, five from each set of launchers, fired with compressed gas. As soon as they were clear of the ship, their engines ignited, and they turned and streaked away. “Good launch; birds away. Time on top—30 seconds.”

The Winged Hussars’ ship-killer missiles were a proprietary design. Each missile carried two tiny nuclear bombs they’d dubbed “Squash Bombs,” with a nominal yield of five kilotons. They were designed to split shortly before impact, delivering their two weapons one after the other to increase the probability of dropping an enemy’s shield and getting a direct hull-to-bomb impact. A nuclear weapon wasn’t as destructive in space, nor from as far away. However, the lack of atmosphere greatly increased the effectiveness of hard radiation. A direct on-hull hit could be devastating to small- and medium-sized warships, and instantly fatal to unarmored foes.

“And…” Xander said, “impact!” On the screen there were a series of white pings, indicators of nuclear detonations. She scowled at the results. The targets all performed last-minute course changes. “Splash two, repeat, two bogies.”

“Any idea what they’re using on us?” Alexis asked as Prize 1’s shields flashed again and again.

“Not yet,” Xander replied. “Their weapons’ range was at least four times more than we expected.”

“No shit,” Afeeko grumbled. He was managing two DC parties now and was working to stabilize the shields. “Teams have radiological casualties on Deck Four.”

“Dispatching medical to Deck Four,” Glick said.

“Prize 1, status update?” Alexis called.

“Those things hit a ton,” Lieutenant Ewald said. “My sensor operator says he’s getting pretty good resolution. We’ve had to patch our own computers, but it looks like the sensor arrays have been modified. We’re sending you the data.” Xander gave the thumbs-up and information flowed into Pegasus’ computers.

“Can you give us some fire support?” Alexis asked. “The missiles were a dud.”

“Roger that,” he said, “firing particle cannon.”

The big war wagon fired its forward particle accelerator cannons at the enemy ships. Two of the weapons scored hits, and both resulted in kills. They were far more effective than Pegasus’ weapons had been on their first visit.

“Tubes reloaded,” Xander informed.

“Standby,” Flipper said. On the Tri-V, the five surviving bogies came to a ridiculously crazy stop, then began accelerating back the way they’d come. Alexis’ brows furrowed before she remembered the rules in 2nd Level Hyperspace. The ships must have simply cut power, spun around, and accelerated again. She made a mental note to have some missiles modified to take those sorts of maneuvers into account.

“Cease fire,” she ordered, “kill thrust.” Both warships cut their engines and stopped the same way the enemy had a minute earlier. On the display, the enemy ships continued to race away.

“I have some better images,” Flipper said. “These are composites from the data sent by Prize 1 and what I have.” A corner of the Tri-V displayed a ship that looked more like a sea creature than a spaceship.

“It looks like a manta ray,” Xander said. Alexis saw she was right. Long, slightly-swept wings with a thicker central superstructure. Weapons were slung under each wing, giving the ship a slightly fighter-like appearance. It also appeared to have an aft boom, which looked like a tail.

“That’s a most unusual design,” Chug said.

“Hold position until the bogies are beyond sensor range,” Alexis ordered, “then come about and return to salvage operation.”

“It’s unusual, but not unique,” Flipper said. He put another image next to the first. It was the shuttle they’d stolen/salvaged during the first trip into that realm. While not identical, the pedigree was evident.

“Look at this,” Xander said. One of the alien ships was hit by a beam from the Izlian heavy cruiser. The beam bounced off the manta ray ship like a mirror reflecting a laser. Where the beam hit the shield, there was a flashing glow that spread until the beam punched through. Then the alien ship exploded.

“Sato will be most interested in that,” Alexis said. Shields absorbed enemy fire, they didn’t deflect it.

“We seem to have made a powerful enemy,” Paka said.

* * *

An hour later Pegasus was back near the salvage operations. Prize 1 had taken no damage. In addition to her sensors being modified, it appeared her shields were as well. Sato had visited the hull breach, examined the sensor data, and had a conclusion as to the weapons.

“Gamma-ray lasers,” he pronounced.

“Those take an insane amount of power,” Alexis pointed out.

“Yes,” he agreed, “and they’re almost as dangerous to the ship firing them as the one being shot at. Shielding them is almost impossible. I don’t see any reference to them being used since the Great Galactic War. Apparently a few relics remain, though they’re mostly nuclear-pumped lasers enclosed in missiles, and not many of those.”

“Who would use such insane weapons?” Paka asked.

“Someone with nothing to lose?” Xander surmised. Alexis thought that had some validity. If there was a race trapped here, how far would they go in a fight? Every ship so far had been stripped of all biological matter. Were they being attacked by cannibals?

“<You’re only a cannibal if you eat your own race,>” Ghost volunteered.

Thanks for that at least,” Alexis said.

“Sato, can we defend against them better?”

“I’ve reviewed how the Izlian heavy cruiser’s shields were modified and have passed along some tweaks to Mr. Opal. It won’t be perfect without physical modifications, and with Kleena and the two Jeha over helping get EG1 ready, tweaks are the best I can offer. Still, it’ll cut down on the penetration factor at least.” Xander flashed a thumbs-up.

“Better than nothing. Thanks, Sato.”

The Izlian heavy cruiser’s systems were more online by the minute. The prize crew had another fusion plant running and were working on its main weapons, a pair of titanic spinal-mounted magnetic accelerator cannons. These were the big brothers of the smaller MACs Human CASPers often employed. They didn’t fire 10mm projectiles, though; they launched one-meter-wide, five-meter-long, super-dense impactors. Sato believed they’d also be quite effective at orbital bombardment.

“Lieutenant Ewald,” she said over the radio.

“Commander?”

“That maneuver of pulling an untested ship in front of my ship in the middle of the fight was one of the most reckless things I’ve ever seen.” On the Tri-V, the young officer stiffened slightly. “I’m placing a letter of commendation in your file.” Now he smiled, but she pointed a finger at him. “Don’t ever fucking do it again.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He didn’t look the least bit chastised.

“In addition, calling that ship Prize 1 isn’t suitable after it’s already seen combat. Considering the way it stood in the breach and sucked up enemy fire, I’m commissioning her as EMS Stonewall Jackson and granting you a field commission to lieutenant commander.” There was applause from the CIC command staff, and the young lieutenant commander blushed slightly. Ah, youth, Alexis thought with a wry smile.

“I don’t know what to say, ma’am, except thank you. I’ll do my best.”

“I know you will. Now, I see Prize 2 has her shields up, though weapons may have to wait until we return.” Glick, the SitCon, nodded. “Good, so we don’t have to spend as much time guarding them. Long, how about it?”

“We’ve installed portable fusion plants in the three we’re not trying to get power systems online on. They can all maneuver on thrusters now, though the crews have to remain in spacesuits, because there’s no life support, either.”

“What about the one you’re concentrating on? EG1?”

“It has the same fusion cores we did before the refit of Pegasus last month. They’re difficult to work on for the same reasons.”

“How long, Mr. Long?”

“We’re going to try a cold start in 30 minutes. But there’s a problem.”

“What’s that?”

“F11,” the Jeha engineer said. “We’re running low.”

Alexis cursed. “Are we going to have to bring a tanker with us every time we come here?”

“It appears to be as rare as biological matter,” Sato chimed in from his science bay. “On that note, we took some samples. The ships are utterly sterile. We didn’t find any sort of bacterial residue, even in sealed areas.”

“Could it be because they’ve been there for so long?” Paka asked.

“Unlikely,” Sato said. “Ships left sealed in space are like time capsules. You might get some decay, but once the oxygen is gone, whatever was there is there to stay. No, someone or something cleaned them better than any process we can imagine.”

“If containment fails,” Long explained, “we won’t have enough F11 for another try.”

“Right, all or nothing,” Alexis said. “Okay, we have a little time. Crew rotation for rest, 30 minutes. Combat-ready ships to remain on standby.” She looked at Flipper. “Watch the sensors closely. Those manta ray ships are fast, and I don’t want them sneaking up on us.”

“Yes, ma’am,” the Selroth sensor tech replied.

“Okay, back to work.”

Of course, “everyone who can take a break” didn’t include Alexis Cromwell. She popped her third stimulant, sucked coffee from a bulb, and stayed at her station. As the clock ran down, she waited eagerly for news.

“EG1 is reporting successful reactor start,” Hoot said.

“Yes,” Alexis hissed. “Begin docking operations with all ships.”

“Bogies,” Flipper said. On the Tri-V, a splotch of green marked the extreme range. However, they stayed at range and were joined by more splotches in another quadrant.

“They’ve brought friends,” Paka said.

“Long,” Alexis said. “Expedite that docking.”

“Way ahead of you, Commander. I’ve had my people linking all the ships to the two unusual designs, and this one to the grouping. We’ll be ready in ten minutes.” Ten minutes, she thought, that’s a long time.

“<Based on my analysis of their behavior, these beings can use sensors at longer range than we can.>

We’d assumed as much,” Alexis replied.

“<It also suggests they’ll attack in five minutes or less, depending on how many more groups appear.>”

Let’s be preemptive then,” she said, then spoke aloud. “Drone Control, configure all remaining drones for ship assault and launch ASAP.”

“Launch in 2 minutes,” Ghost responded in her public persona.

“Docking with Stonewall Jackson and Prize 2 underway,” Afeeko said. With chief engineer Long on EG1, the DCC had taken over for him.

“This is the bad time,” Paka said, and Alexis nodded. With the two larger Izlian ships mated to Pegasus, she lost most of her weaponry and almost all her trademark maneuverability. The shields between the ships would likewise suffer without hours of work to synchronize the field frequencies and power levels. Ships that jumped into enemy territory mated as such deployed as quickly as possible for just that reason. Taking the time to balance shields was something you didn’t do.

Damage control crews rushed to string connection cables between the three ships. Normally ships were set to do that, but they needed to be compatible. The Izlian ships weren’t the same design as the Dusman-built Pegasus, and having hard connections to their hyperspace generators was essential. Had they been smaller ships, Pegasus’ field would have been sufficient to encompass them.

“Drones in the black,” Drone Control announced. A total of 25 blue dots marked every combat-capable drone left at their disposal. Alexis had considered sending some to search for the missing shuttle one last time, then regretfully rejected it. She’d be risking her crew, and all the ships they were salvaging, for the dozen crewmembers on the shuttle. Based on the swarming enemy manta ray ships at extreme range, she was forced to assume the crew was already dead.

The minutes ticked by as their drones raced toward the enemy. When they were halfway out, the enemy advanced in force. “Looks like they don’t want to wait,” Xander said.

“Set Condition One,” Paka ordered. “Shields up. Stonewall Jackson, Prize 2 docking status.”

“They’re secure,” Afeeko said over the intercom. He was aft, assisting. “We can maneuver, carefully. Forward weapons are available. Need another minute to get the hyperspace connections in place.”

“Hurry,” she admonished. “Trouble is on the way. Long, status over there?”

“We’re ready,” he said, “just waiting on you. Computer module you sent is installed and reads status ready.”

“Very well, depart.”

“Commander,” he protested, “we can’t leave you here.”

“You can, and you will. You barely have shields and you’re a massive target. Get home; that’s an order.” A few seconds ticked by. “Long, do you understand? That’s an order.”

“Departing now,” he said. “Best of luck, Commander.”

“And you,” she said. On the Tri-V, they watched as the ancient Egleesius-class battlecruiser EG1 projected a discontinuity in the already strange fabric of 2nd Level Hyperspace. The ship’s hyperspace shunts then manipulated the discontinuity, which seemed to almost suck the conglomeration of ships in like spaghetti. In less than a second, they were gone.

“That looked horrible,” Xander said.

“One wonders if that’s how we look doing the same?” Flipper asked.

“I hope we never come back to find out,” Paka said, the sound of disgust obvious in her voice.

“Drones have engaged,” Xander said. On the screen, the blue dots of the drones were merging with the green dots of the alien ships. Where they’d been attacked by one group of nine aliens before, this time there were five groups. Flipper confirmed there were again nine ships in each group. When it came to tactics with the drones, Alexis always left it up to Ghost to fight her craft. She’d realized early on that the AI was far, far better at this than she’d ever be.

After the first engagement against the alien manta ray ships, Ghost had learned a lot from its losses. This time, clearly, it had a plan. Alexis was a little concerned to see it break her forces in two to engage the closest pair of groups. When two enemy ships disappeared almost immediately, Ghost was once again vindicated. It didn’t make the same mistake twice.

One of the unengaged groups of enemy ships turned to assist the other two. The remainder continued straight for Pegasus.

We won’t be able to recover your drones,” Alexis said.

“<Understood. Calculations are complete for the return to normal space.>

“Enemy will be in weapons range in 2 minutes,” Xander said. On the screen, Ghost’s drones were kicking the shit out of the enemy ships and were being killed themselves just as quickly. Alexis realized what Ghost was doing; using the drones to ram the manta ray ships. Expensive, but brutally efficient.

“Afeeko, call out when your people are aboard and clear,” Glick said, carefully watching the situation so nothing got away from him.

“Missiles?” Xander asked.

“Save them,” Alexis said and shook her head. A second later Afeeko called in.

“We’re secure, go!”

“Chug, do it!” The mollusk manipulated the controls with a pseudopod and his pinplants, and Pegasus disappeared from 2nd Level Hyperspace to instantly appear in regular space. “Checking location,” he said. The big Tri-V reset to show a red giant star dominating the view. “Confirmed, we’re in New Warsaw, in orbit near Prime Base.”

“Have the other ships arrived?” she asked Hoot.

“Traffic Control is calling us. It’s hard to make sense out of the babble in-system because all the new Egleesius-class ships appeared a few minutes ago.”

Alexis sighed and unbuckled. She turned to Paka. “Supervise separation and getting the Izlian ships into the shipyards, then get some rest. I’m going to rest in my wardroom.”

“Yes, Commander,” Paka said. “Congratulations.”

“Thanks,” Alexis said and pushed off hard toward her wardroom. She had just enough time to be surprised she didn’t stop in a few meters before she crashed into the wardroom door and knocked herself cold.

* * * * *


Chapter Seventeen


EMS Capricorn, Hyperspace, en route to the Torgero System

“How’s it going?” Captain Paolo Valenti asked as he looked over First Sergeant Thomas “Top” Mason’s shoulder. Formerly a member of The White Company, Valenti had brought the remainder of the shattered company into Asbaran Solutions after their massacre at the hands of the Besquith on Moorhouse.

“About like you’d expect,” Top said, gesturing toward the monitoring board. Leads from the board ran to 10 CASPers spread throughout the bay, all in simulation mode. They’d been running simulators since they left Earth, trying to train the newbies. They’d trained for the entire trip from Earth to New Warsaw, while they’d been in New Warsaw, and all the way through hyperspace to New Persia. “Most of the troops still look like what they were a couple of months ago—peasants from a backward-ass country. It’s a good thing we were able to pick up some veterans before we left Earth; they’re making a difference in the training.”

Top flipped a switch, and the Tri-V monitor showed the view from one of the CASPers. The occupant was looking around the side of a giant boulder, and the picture showed a field strewn with boulders. A near-continuous stream of railgun and laser fire poured out of a factory on the other side of the open area. “This is the view from Staff Sergeant Ken Donnelly’s CASPer,” Top said. He flipped another switch and the sergeant’s voice came from the speaker.

Nice and easy now,” Donnelly said. “When I give the word, we’re going to jump 50 meters forward, to that big group of boulders. Any questions?” Not hearing anything, he counted backward, “Three…two…one…GO!

The view shifted violently as Donnelly punched his jumpjets and roared into the air. The system showed weapons fire going underneath him; the enemy hadn’t expected a three-dimensional maneuver. Donnelly landed behind the next boulder in front of him and looked up; a CASPer hovered above the next rock to his right. The system marked him as Private Zardari. “Get down, Mirzaad!” Donnelly yelled, but the soldier hung there too long, and all the fire from the factory concentrated on him. Three lasers scored, two railgun rounds tore through him, and the CASPer dropped to the ground. The icon for Zardari went out on both Top’s board and Donnelly’s screen.

Top turned off the Tri-V screen. “Zardari wrecked a CASPer before we left Earth by landing too hard. Hurt himself pretty good in the crash, too. Now he’s overly cautious landing.”

Captain Valenti gestured to the monitor. “And as we just saw, that’ll get him killed in combat, too.” He looked down the row of CASPers in the bay. Two were immobile—their occupants “dead” in the simulation—the rest moved their arms and legs as they advanced on the factory and fired at the enemy.

“You’ve got Donnelly as the leader of First Squad?” Valenti asked.

“Yeah,” Top said, immersing himself back into the simulation.

“Well, keep at it, Top,” Valenti said, patting Mason on the back. “You’ve got your work cut out for you.”

* * *

EMS Whirlaway, New Persia Transition Point, Torgero System

Nigel Shirazi watched from the observer’s seat at the back of the CIC as the cruiser Whirlaway transitioned into the Torgero system. Almost immediately, there was activity at several stations around the CIC.

“Sir, we’re not alone!” the TacCon exclaimed.

“What do you mean?” Nigel Shirazi asked before the ship’s captain could answer, earning him a stern look from the Maki officer. He carried on anyway. “Do you mean in addition to the colonists on the planet?”

“Yes, sir, there are several ships here…we’re working to identify them.”

“Get me those IDs,” the captain, Commander Yoshuka, ordered. His bifurcated tail twitched as he turned to Nigel. “This is my ship to fight. If you’re going to interrupt me, I’ll have you removed.”

Nigel nodded and said nothing further, doing his best to keep his composure while every part of his being wanted to act right now. Being told what to do by a lemur didn’t help.

“Sir, I have the IDs for them,” the TacCon said a minute later. “Looks like a MinSha task group. I’ve got indications of a destroyer, a frigate, and a transport.”

“A transport?” Nigel asked, unable to contain himself any longer. “What the hell would a transport be doing here?”

“Looks like they’re sending down troops. There’re two dropships on the surface of the planet, about 11 miles from the main town.”

Nigel looked to the ship’s captain. “What are you going to do about the attack?”

“Before we do anything, we have to get rid of the ships in orbit. We’ve got them outgunned with a cruiser and a frigate to their destroyer and frigate. We’ll clear them away—that’s on us—then the rest is up to you.”

“Are you going to at least bomb their troops on the planet before they get to the city?”

“That’s against regulations,” the TacCon interjected. “We’d have to hit them from way beyond the 10-mile limit, and that’s against the law. Besides, by the time we get there, they’re already going to be pretty close to the city’s gates. If we shoot at them there, we run the risk of friendly fire.” He paused and then added, “Wait a minute…”

“What?” the ship’s captain asked.

“Sir, the ships are moving. It looks like they’ve seen us, and they’re trying to make a run for the stargate.”

“Well, we’re not going to let them get there. Nav, plot an intercept course to cut them off, and get us there now. Contact Lieutenant Commander Edwards onboard the Durendal and let him know we’re going after them.”

“Yes, sir.”

Nigel could feel the forces on his body alter as the ship changed course and began to accelerate. “Captain…what’s that going to do to our ability to stop their invasion of the colony?” Nigel asked.

The captain looked at the plot and back to Nigel. “I have orders from Commander Cromwell to keep our movements secret from the Union. As a secondary mission, I’m to destroy any Union combatants whenever I get the chance. We have this fleet outgunned, and they’re currently running to go tell their masters we’re here. I’m not going to let them tell the Merc Guild where we are, nor am I going to pass up a chance to destroy them. Unfortunately, the course to intercept them is going to take us outside the range we can successfully drop you. After we destroy them, we’ll bring you back to the planet.”

Nigel studied the attack in progress on the Tri-V situation monitor while the g-forces pushed him back into his seat as the ship accelerated. The last report he’d read from New Persia had stated that its primary defensive systems weren’t due to be installed by the Golden Horde for another month. There were at least four companies of MinSha troops down on the surface, and without heavy weapons, the bugs would probably run right through the colonists. After that…he didn’t know. Would they kill all the colonists? Perhaps…and that wasn’t something he was willing to wait around to find out. He looked up at the captain. “I cannot—no, I will not allow the MinSha attack to succeed.”

“We’ll get you back as quickly as we can,” the captain said, “but I can’t allow those ships to get away and let the Union know what we’re doing.”

“You’re not taking the transport with you to fight, are you?”

The captain chuckled. “To a battle? No. Not if I can help it. Why?”

“You take care of the enemy ships,” Nigel said; “I’ll go over to the transport and take it to the planet.”

The captain looked at Nigel, his brows twitching. “Without the support of these ships, I can’t let you take it down to the planet, or even into the upper atmosphere,” he said. “We don’t know what heavy weapons the MinSha may have brought down to the planet with them.”

“I don’t care.”

“Besides, by the time you get there and land, the MinSha will already be at the gates of the city; you’ll be too late.”

“Not only that,” the TacCon said, “but you’ve only got a company of troops onboard, and there are at least four times that number on the surface of the planet. You’ll get slaughtered!”

“I understand both of those issues,” Nigel said. He shook his head. “We’re not going to get slaughtered today, though, nor are we going to let the bugs capture the colony.” He turned back to the captain. “Just get me a shuttle over to the transport. I have an idea.” Nigel looked back to the TacCon and added, “And yes, it’s even going to be legal.”

* * *

The transport expelled the drop-pod like an old wet-navy submarine launching a torpedo, and all the blood went to Nigel’s head. The “drop” was from right at the limits of the suits’ capabilities, but it was either launch when they did, or get down to the planet and find out the MinSha had captured the town of New Persia.

As the g-forces subsided, he shook his head to clear it, then initiated contact with the other pods. Both officers made it, as well as both senior enlisted, and their icons glowed green on his heads-up display. Thirty-nine of the forty troopers also made it out; one of the new guys either hadn’t been able to figure out the drop-pod or it had broken on him; there was no time to worry about it.

It was the first drop for most of the troops—much less the first combat drop—which was much more worrisome. He opened a laser link to Captain Valenti. “Sorry this was so rushed, but we have to get down to the surface. We can’t let the suits at the manufactory fall into the MinSha’s claws, and I refuse to let them massacre my people yet again.”

“I understand,” the Italian officer said. He was nothing if not stoic, and he provided a leveling influence Nigel often needed. “At least there aren’t hordes of Besquith waiting for me in tanks and APCs this time.”

“And we know what we’re getting into this time, too,” Nigel added. Both men heard the unspoken, “I hope,” at the end of the sentence.

Nigel checked in with First Sergeant Mason. “Sorry there wasn’t more time to talk. What can I expect from the troops?”

“The officers and senior enlisted are solid, sir,” Mason replied. “Overall, I’d rate the troops as ‘average.’ We picked up some extremely talented troopers, many with combat time in some of the other units, but we also have several men who would be better off plowing a field than firing a railgun. We trained hard on the way here, though; if nothing else, at least I can now say they know which end of the laser the shiny light comes out of.” He paused, then added, “None of the Persians had ever even heard of VOWS a couple months ago; they’re as trained as I could get them in the time we had.”

“Thanks, Top,” Nigel said. “We’ll see in a few minutes.”

Nigel checked his sensors; the planet was 1,000 kilometers away, and they were racing toward it too fast. He tapped several virtual buttons, linked all his CASPers to his flight computer, and initiated the reentry program. “Here we go everyone!” he broadcast on the common frequency.

Although they’d been punched out of the transport a long way out, the Capricorn had established them on a good profile, close to their optimal reentry angles. Nigel could see flashes around him as the suits initiated controlled jumpjet burns, tweaking their angles to maximize their performance. Within a few minutes, their reentry fairings began to glow as they hit the outer fringes of New Persia’s atmosphere. The best part for Nigel was that it was all automatic; the newbies couldn’t screw it up unless they turned off the automatic reentry system.

“Listen up, you dumbasses,” Top transmitted over the common frequency. “I don’t care if it looks like you’re falling too fast; keep your damn booger pickers off the automatic flight program. Anyone I see turn it off had better hope the MinSha kills him, because what I’m going to do to you will be far worse.”

Apparently Top had had the same thought.

The g-forces grew quickly as Nigel’s pod forced its way through the thickening atmosphere. The suit came down feet first and, even in its normal configuration, was designed to take the stresses of reentry. He was even more prepared today, as there was no room left inside the fairings to move around in. Even though he was getting stiff because he couldn’t shift around much, his suit was well supported.

The forces on him abated, and he was finally able to hear the scream of the fairing as it ripped its way through the atmosphere. He could tell they were getting close as laser and railgun rounds began to streak past him. Never a deeply religious man, he prayed for the opportunity to exact his revenge, while hoping he didn’t blow up catastrophically.

* * *

Approaching New Chabahar, New Persia, Torgero System

“Incoming!” someone yelled over the radio.

Chiptayl looked up and saw several fiery streaks across the sky. Either the planet was having an unannounced meteor shower, or the expected Human attack was arriving. Chiptayl shook his head and fired at one of the Humans on the wall of the city. The Human fell backward with a hole through his head. If the Human reinforcements had been 10 minutes later, his force would’ve been inside the city.

This whole assault had been screwed up since its inception. They’d barely arrived when the Human fleet showed up, and his worthless fleet support had fled upon sighting them. The town they were supposed to capture was supposed to have been unarmed, but not only did it have a defensive wall, it also had people to defend it. Now reinforcements were arriving right as victory was almost within his claws.

“Press the attack!” he ordered. They needed to be inside the city before the Humans landed in their metal suits; those would be the professionals. While the city defenders were spirited, it was obvious the Humans they were currently fighting were no more than militia. Their aim was worse than any recruit right out of training, and they usually exposed themselves too long before firing, like the last Human he’d shot. But they had the wall, and his forces would need it themselves if they were to hold off the Humans’ damn metal suits.

Chiptayl fired several bolts at a Human on the wall, but this one was faster than the previous had been, and he ducked back into cover. Chiptayl risked a glance up, startled, and began counting. Not believing his eyes, he counted again, and his antennae shivered in delight. There were only 40 or so suits in the assault force. He had over four times that. They’d be okay after all.

“All units,” he transmitted. “Disregard my last. Focus all fire on the Human suits coming down from space. Kill them now!”

While they didn’t have a dedicated anti-air capability—they were just supposed to capture an unarmed town, the contract read—they could attrite the Human assault force before they were able to shoot back, then finish them off when they landed. His force would take casualties, but they could overcome the gods-damned Human suits.

He picked one of the suits streaking down toward him. It looked like they were trying to land directly on top of them—ludicrous, who did that?—and began firing. After his second shot, the suit seemed to fall apart into several pieces.

“I got one!” the trooper next to him shouted excitedly.

“No,” Chiptayl said. “That’s the heat shroud coming off. Keep firing!”

The suits fired their jumpjets and began slowing for arrival, but their shrouds continued racing toward Chiptayl, and he knew they’d probably kill any of his forces unlucky enough to be struck by them. “Spread out!” he ordered. He continued firing as the shrouds approached and saw a few explosions in proximity to the shrouds. That didn’t make sense, though…and then he saw them.

“What are all those little things?” one of his troopers asked.

* * *

Asbaran Solutions Assault Force, New Chabahar, New Persia, Torgero System

Nigel watched in horror as one of the icons on his screen went out. There was no yellow light for “Damaged” or red light for “Deceased;” it went out completely. One of the newbies must have taken a hit and exploded catastrophically. A second unit went out; one of the new hires. Nigel said another prayer, not wanting to go out that way. Before he could complete it, the computer blew the fairings, and the individual sections arced away from him.

Designed to confuse ground forces by creating extra radar returns, they continued toward the enemy as the computer fired his jumpjets and began braking. Along with them went 30 L bombs that had been packed into the fairing along with him. Nothing more than a sleeve to hold four K bombs and get them to detonate simultaneously, the L bomb had the explosive power of four sticks of C-4 and was, in effect, a CASPer-sized grenade. Over 1,200 of the bombs continued toward the enemy, spreading out in the wind stream to create a massive improvised cluster bomb.

Nigel triggered the pod on his shoulder and ripple-fired all 12 rockets, which raced past the L bombs to explode in the center of the MinSha force. Flashes around the battlefield showed that other members of his assault force were firing their rockets similarly.

Puffs of black smoke appeared as several of the L bombs were hit by ground fire and exploded, but the CASPers had slowed, and the bombs detonated harmlessly below them.

“Light ’em up!” Top transmitted as they came within range, and Nigel began firing with the rest of the assault force. The targeting solution was too complicated to send individual targets to his troops, but with the disparity of forces, there weren’t many cases of two of his troopers firing at the same bug.

Nigel fired a railgun round that hit a MinSha center mass, dropping it, then the L bombs hit, and the explosions looked like a rolling carpet of death as they detonated across the battlefield. An icon winked on his screen as the ground screamed up at him at over 300 kilometers per hour, and he leaned back and set himself into the proper position for landing. At 150 meters above the ground the computer fired the jumpjets again.

This was the part he hated, as the altitude continued to tick off at a rate that was far too fast this close to the ground. The numbers started to slow, and he risked a glance below him. A couple of meters to the right was a MinSha trooper, looking up at him from 10 meters below, her mouth open as the massive suit appeared to be coming right at her. Nigel cut the automatic program and gave a brief burst laterally, and 2,000 pounds of man and metal crashed down onto the stunned alien in a spray of blue blood as its chitin exploded under the force applied to it.

Then Nigel was down, and the blade on his left arm snapped out as his right arm pointed at the next MinSha and the railgun fired. Three of the rounds hit the alien, and it fell to the ground. He spun to the left, sweeping his blade down, and decapitated a MinSha as it tried to bring its laser rifle around.

That cleared the area around him, and he scanned the battleground while checking his heads-up display. The icon for Private Chaakar Barazani’s right leg went yellow, then red, and Nigel spun in the trooper’s direction and toggled his jumpjets, flying over Staff Sergeant Vernon Shepherd as he blasted a MinSha with his railgun while stabbing a second with his arm-blade.

Barazani was down, with two MinSha standing above him. He’d deployed his laser shield and was rapidly spinning it around while a MinSha fired blast after blast at him with her laser, trying to burn through. On the other side of the trooper, a second MinSha changed out the battery in her laser rifle and powered it up; Nigel could see he wasn’t going to make it there in time. He brought up his railgun and fired several times. The rounds missed but hit in front of the MinSha and distracted it. The alien looked up as the battery slid into place, saw Nigel coming, and fired at him instead.

With a thought, Nigel deployed his shield and the first two bolts ricocheted off. He toggled his jumpjets to add a little more boost so he could land on the alien, but the jets cut out and a red light flashed; no more jump juice. Without the extra boost to right himself, Nigel landed short of the alien, crashing to the ground while leaning forward. He almost got his feet under him, but then he slammed into the MinSha, and they both went down in a pile.

Nigel started to slide over the alien, but he brought his knees up, trapping the MinSha under the belly of the CASPer, then allowed the suit to slam down on the alien. Based on the amount of blue that covered several of the cameras, he figured the MinSha was done.

Sliding to a stop, Nigel rolled back to face Barazani. Corporal Cody Sain was behind the second MinSha, and he swung his laser rifle like a club, bashing the MinSha’s head into its thorax. The alien dropped to the ground as the rifle snapped with an audible crack! The corporal dropped it and drew a laser pistol from his hip.

Nigel climbed to his feet to find the battle well in hand. There were only a few MinSha left, all of whom had thrown down their weapons and raised their top pair of hands. He walked over to Corporal Sain as the platoon’s medic, Sergeant Cindy ‘Shrewlet’ Epard, arrived to treat Barazani.

“Kinda hard on the equipment, Corporal,” Nigel noted.

“I used to play baseball growing up,” the corporal said. “I guess it was just kind of natural to swing it like that.”

Nigel extended his blade and held it up. A couple of blue drops glistened at the end. “This never runs out of ammo and keeps you from breaking your rifle.” He pointed at the pistol the corporal held. “That’s a poor substitute for a rifle.” The blade retracted with a click. “Besides, it’s awfully satisfying to stab a MinSha rather than shoot it from a distance, you know?”

* * *

A large group of locals came out to meet the troopers as they approached the gate. “Thank you very much for your assistance,” the man in front said. He wore a long white robe with embroidery down the front and a turban on his head. “I don’t know if we could’ve held them off much longer.” He bowed. “I am Imam Hasham Madani; welcome to New Chabahar,” he said, gesturing to the gate.

“Thank you,” Nigel said. He opened his canopy so the locals could see him. “I’m Nigel Shirazi.”

“Welcome to New Persia,” the imam said. “Your family has been very generous in the past, but never was its support as timely as today.”

“Thank you,” Nigel said, “but we won’t be here long. Do you know if the CASPer factory is operational?”

“Why yes, it’s been functional for several weeks now.”

Nigel climbed down from the CASPer. “Good. I’d like to see it.”

“Certainly,” the imam replied. “I can take you there myself; it isn’t far.” He walked back through the gates and into the town, adding, “The factory has been a mixed blessing to my people here.”

“A mixed blessing? Why do you say that?”

“While it provides a source of employment for many of the younger people, it removes them from the workforce needed to farm and provide food for our people here. Although the income from it is expected to be outstanding, I’d rather not depend on buying food from off-planet. Shipments are late or disappear sometimes; that can’t be allowed to happen where food is concerned. Also…” His voice trailed off.

“Also, what?”

“No disrespect meant, Mr. Shirazi, but having the factory here also has unfocused many of the younger generation. They see the metal suits the plant produces and dream of battle and war—of leaving this world—and it detracts from their religious studies. The point of establishing this colony was to learn and grow in the faith, not to have the youth immediately run off to fight in other peoples’ wars.”

Nigel stopped and turned to the imam, forcing him to stop as well. “Imam, I understand and respect your perspective, and in a perfect galaxy, you’d have my support in bringing your dream to fruition. Our galaxy, though, is far from perfect, and there are forces moving to crush humanity like the MinSha did to our homeland back on Earth.” He gestured back toward the city gates and the battlefield beyond it. “That should be pretty apparent to you, especially today.”

“I understand that it’s important for the city to have good defenses—”

“It’s bigger than the city!” Nigel exclaimed. “It’s the entire galaxy! While some of the aliens are okay with our presence, there are others who want to be rid of us, and we need to fight, or we’ll be annihilated! Earth has been invaded! The factory needs to continue to make CASPers so we can stand our ground and fight back. You think those MinSha out there today were just a random occurrence? They weren’t—and they’ll be back! If we don’t fight, humanity will be destroyed!”

“What is it you expect of me?”

“The battle lines have been drawn, and I expect you to join with your people in support of our war. Our fight has been declared just by the imam of old Chabahar, and he’s declared jihad against the races that seek to destroy us. There are only two sides in this fight. You’re either with us—with me—and will assist me in avenging my sister Parisa and protecting our way of life, or you’re with the infidels. Which is it?”

The imam looked around at the hundreds of people who’d stopped what they were doing to listen to their discussion. Nigel kept the grin from his face, though he knew there was only one way the imam could go, despite his pacifistic nature.

“I don’t like it,” the man said finally, “but I don’t see any way for us to do anything other than support the jihad. We’ll do our best to ensure the war factory runs at peak efficiency.”

“And any men who wish to join me in the fight?”

“Will leave with my blessing.”

A roar of approval rose from the crowd, and Nigel could see dozens of men cheering the proclamation. He finally allowed the smile to blossom. He hoped the factory would have enough CASPers for all his new recruits.

* * *

Nigel watched the two CASPers march up the loading ramp and into the dropship.

“Those are the last two,” First Sergeant Mason said. “Even if all the newbies pass their VOWS, we’ll still have a couple suits extra. We also got the Mk 9 prototype and all the schematics for making them.

“Great,” Nigel replied. “Hopefully, we’ll get a chance to come back after the next production run and pick up a load of Mk 9s.”

Colonel Shirazi, Lieutenant Tweesoo,” the dropship pilot called.

This is Colonel Shirazi. We’re loading the last two CASPers now.

Roger that, sir, but I have two messages for you. First, Commander Yoshuka sends his regards. They met the MinSha force just short of the stargate and destroyed them. They’re collecting the survivors, but there won’t be many.

Copy. And the other?

The other is a bit stranger, sir. We just had a ship transition into the system, and the pilot’s asking to talk to you.

What’s the ship doing?

Nothing hostile, sir. It entered the system and stopped, and the pilot asked to speak to you.

Who is it?

He wouldn’t say. All he’d say is, he told you that when you needed him, he’d know. He said you need him right now. He’s requesting to bring a shuttle down to talk to you.

Tell him I’ll meet him at the gates to the city, and please ask Commander Yoshuka not to destroy their ship.

Wilco on both, sir. Lieutenant Tweesoo, out.

“Shit,” Nigel said.

“What is it?” First Sergeant Mason asked.

“Remember the pilots we had when we went to Bestald?

“Yeah, the really creepy Pendal ones?”

“Those guys, yeah. Apparently they’re here and want to talk to me.”

“Why?”

“No idea.” Nigel turned and started walking toward the city gate. “Let’s go find out.”

* * *

Nigel stood outside the gates of the city waiting on the shuttle, but all he could think of was Alexis’ lips. It would be a gamble to kiss her—a big one—but if he was going to go die somewhere, he didn’t want to do it without at least seeing how they felt. They were glorious. There’d probably be hell to pay for it. Still…he smiled. It would be worth it, even if just for the look on her face. Judging from the way she carried herself, she obviously hadn’t been kissed in a long time.

The shuttle landed in a cloud of dust, and Nigel had to turn his head to avoid the sand blasting his face. When he was able to see again, a small ramp was coming down from the back of the craft, and a figure waited at the top of it—a Pendal. About five feet tall, the alien wore a large brown floor-length cape with a hood. Its face was hard to see within the folds, for which Nigel was extremely grateful. The Pendal had two independently-tracking eyes on either side of a gaping central mouth, and a third eye above it. Nigel was pretty sure the third eye independently tracked, also. It was like looking at some sort of lizard back on Earth…except the third eye gave him the shivers. That and the mouth full of teeth that showed the alien was not a vegetarian.

For all the creepiness, though—and the second set of arms the alien had did nothing to lessen it—the Pendal were great pilots and could manipulate several sets of controls simultaneously. Two of them had proven their worth when Nigel had attacked Bestald, the home world of the Besquith. They’d done as much, or more, as anyone to ensure the mission had been successful. The overall mission to save his sister had failed, but that hadn’t been the Pendal’s fault.

Also, they were functional empaths, if not full telepaths; he’d have to watch what he thought, not just what he said.

Nigel and Mason approached the shuttle, and the alien waved them into it. “Be at peace,” the Pendal said when they hesitated. “We intend you no harm; in fact, our mission here is just the opposite. It is, however, brighter than we like outside, and there are far too many eyes on us for our comfort.”

Nigel looked back to the city and could see dozens of people watching, both from the walls and through the gates. He shrugged and walked up the ramp, with Mason right behind him. Nigel nodded to the alien. “Good to see you again…I think?”

“Yes,” the alien said, its voice nothing more than a harsh whisper. “I was your pilot on that mission.” The way the creature’s mouth was moving—what little Nigel could see of it inside the folds of the hood—didn’t appear to be in synch with its voice, and Nigel had to stifle another shiver at the eeriness of it.

“Do you have a name?” Nigel asked. “I don’t think I ever got it, and I’m not sure what to call you.”

“My name is unpronounceable the way your mouth is made,” he said. “For ease of conversation, though, you may call me Smokey. Where there’s fire, there’s me.” The alien paused, as if expecting a response. “Sorry,” he added. “That was supposed to be a joke to lighten the mood. I forgot how serious you are.”

“Hey, I’m not super serious,” Nigel replied. “I like having fun as much as anyone else.”

“Sure you do, Boss,” Mason said, patting him on the shoulder. Nigel turned and frowned at the sarcasm, and Mason laughed. “Yup, that’s your easy-to-get-along-with face, all right.”

Nigel turned back to the alien with a rueful look on his face. “Okay, Smokey, what can we do for you?”

“I told you when we were last together that the enemy of my enemy wasn’t my friend, although it might be someone I could work with. The time has come for me to work with you. Despite our warnings to your race, you’re in great danger.”

One side of Nigel’s lips turned up in a half-smile. “Yeah, I think we’ve pretty much figured that out. The Merc Guild is out to get us.”

“When last we talked, I told you some races could be very subtle in achieving what they desired, and I encouraged you to look beyond what was visible—to see the plans within your adversaries’ plans. Not everyone in the Mercenary Guild is necessarily against you, although certain factions would like nothing more than to enslave your entire species and turn you into a race of shock troopers the guild can use when and how it wishes.”

“I don’t get it,” Nigel replied. “How is that good for business?”

“It’s not,” the Pendal stated, “which is why we find it…interesting. It’s not good for business, unless the key business principle they’re looking at is to turn you into a money-making machine for the guild itself, which would seem to be against the interests of some of the guild’s members. There are strange things going on within the Mercenary Guild.”

“I thought you were empaths, or telepaths, or something.”

“What we are is none of your business. What we are not, though, is a mercenary race. There are decisions being made and plans being formed that are outside our reach.”

“And you want us to get inside and find out what they are?”

“No, we’re working on that on our own. What I’m here for is to tell you the tribunal is a sham. The Merc Guild intends to kill Sansar Enkh once the proceedings are over, just as they intend to kill you, Alexis Cromwell, and Jim Cartwright at their earliest opportunities. Your families and friends, too. They tried to hire Depik assassins to do it, but the Depik refused. The Depik generally don’t do mass-slaughter contracts, and they were quite annoyed at the way they were treated by the Mercenary Guild.”

“Assassins? What have we ever done to the guild?”

“You exist. You lead. Their goal is to remove the leadership of the Human race so they can turn Earth into a world that produces mercenary forces that will do their bidding, and their bidding only.

“They want to enslave us?”

“That’s exactly what they want to do, although it still doesn’t make sense to us why they want to do so. We know they had to act now, before you became full members in the Galactic Union, or it would’ve been too late…but we don’t know why. What we do know is the time you have remaining to save Sansar Enkh is getting smaller and smaller.”

“And you’re going to help us save her?”

“We don’t fight…but we may have some ideas how you can get close to her. There’ll be a window of opportunity in a few weeks when there won’t be any ships in the Capital Planet’s system. Beyond that, it’ll be up to you.”

“Why are you telling me this? Especially after all of that ‘enemy of my enemy’ crap?”

The Pendal pulled back his hood, and all three eyes focused on Nigel at once, and the hatred in the Pendal’s eyes hit him like a physical blow. “Sometimes,” the Pendal said, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and I’d do everything possible to save her.”

The Pendal pulled the hood back over his head, and Nigel took an involuntary step backward, as if released from an invisible hand that had been holding him. He shook his head to clear it. “Okay,” Nigel said after a moment, “you have ideas on how you can get us close. If you can do that, we’ll do the rest. I’ve never been to Capital Planet, so anything you can do to help us would be greatly appreciated. What have you got?”

“Come,” the Pendal said, waving him further into the ship. “We’ll sit and talk, and I’ll show you what we can do to help.”

* * *

Nigel and Mason watched as the shuttle blasted off and raced into the cloudless sky, leaving them on the dusty plain.

“Are you okay?” Mason asked. “You looked like Smokey hit you when he pulled back his hood.”

“Yeah, that was odd,” Nigel replied, “and I don’t mean just the whole three-eye thing. I could feel the hatred he had for the Besquith and Veetanho.”

“So you think he’s on the level.”

“I do.”

“And you’re willing to try this crazy scheme? To do a no-shit assault on Capital Planet and into the Mercenary Guild headquarters?”

“Yeah, I am. It’s so crazy, it’s gotta work.”

“Boss, I’ve been doing this shit a lot longer than you have. Sometimes things are so crazy, there’s no way they can work.”

“This is going to work, but we’re going to need more troops. The new guys we got here have the desire, but they don’t have the experience. Even most of the ones we brought aren’t ready for an assault on Capital Planet and experienced mercs.”

“I have a feeling the Golden Horde forces, especially that Walker guy, would be interested in getting Sansar Enkh back.”

“They’d probably be pissed if we went after her without them.”

“I would be, if our positions were reversed.”

“I agree. Let’s get everyone back to the ship. We don’t have a lot of time if we’re going to get there before they kill her.”

* * * * *

Chapter Eighteen


Four Horsemen Tribunal, Capital Planet

Sansar finally got her chance to rebut the evidence against Cartwright’s Cavaliers four days later, after another two days of Jim-bashing and a day where Leeto presented the evidence that Cartwright’s Cavaliers had genetically engineered a Canavar. Although Alexis had wanted to scream that a series of Tri-V images of a Raknar and a Canavar together didn’t constitute ‘evidence’ as far as Human laws were concerned, it had only taken one try to make a point before she determined it was better to wait her turn; all it did was piss off the Oogar, who was increasingly angered as time went by.

Sansar kept a secret smile to herself at the thought. Leeto must have promised him a speedy trial, and the Oogar was more and more agitated with each passing day; maybe it was better she wasn’t in the same room as the tribunal—there was no telling what a truly pissed off Oogar was capable of.

Instead of interrupting, Sansar had spent most of her time researching guild law and everything related to the charges she was facing, while listening to the evidence with only half her mind. She’d found some interesting discrepancies.

“Does the Defense have anything to present regarding the charges to Cartwright’s Cavaliers?” Leeto asked.

“I do indeed,” Sansar replied. “I’d like to go back to the video of the Raknar you presented.”

“Please tell me we don’t need to see it again,” the Selroth representative complained. “I wasn’t able to eat for two days after we saw it the first time.”

“No, Guild Master,” Sansar replied. “That’s not necessary. I, too, found it…disturbing. No, what I wanted to bring into evidence is that there were two voices you heard emanating from the machine, but neither of them were Jim Cartwright’s voice.” She mentally emailed several files to the group.

“The first of these is what the Raknar said first—‘Leroy Jenkins’—the second is the song that the Raknar played, and the third is an example of his speech from a Tri-V presentation, so you can see that it’s him. Voice print analysis will show that neither of the things the Raknar said were in Jim Cartwright’s voice.”

“So?” the Goka asked.

“So, the Speaker has yet to show that Jim Cartwright was actually the person inside the Raknar.”

“I have multiple sources where he admits to using the Raknar,” Leeto said. “I can call them up as evidence.”

“That’s fine,” Sansar replied, “but it still doesn’t prove he was actually in the Raknar when it was used. There’s no categorical proof he was in the Raknar when the unfortunate events we witnessed occurred.” The Goltar nodded its head; perhaps Sansar had scored a point, at least with one of the guild masters.

“Furthermore, while shocking, there are no statutes against using the Raknar in the first place.”

“Ah, that is where you are wrong,” Leeto interjected smoothly. “There are several statutes about prohibited items and using unapproved technology. The Raknar violates these.”

“Indeed, you’re right about the statutes,” Sansar replied. “And I took some time to look at them. You know what I found? I found that all the weapons of mass destruction used during the Great War were outlawed after the war. Everything, that is, except the Raknar.” She pushed the pertinent rules to the tribunal members. “I’m going over it again…Canavar…antimatter weaponry…several other things, but Raknars aren’t on the list.”

“That’s because the Dusman disappeared after the war,” Leeto noted. “There was no reason to outlaw them, as there was no one to run the Raknars anymore.”

“Still, they aren’t prohibited, so that charge is invalid.”

Leeto stared at her for a moment, then said, “Perhaps not, but I can prove that Cartwright’s Cavaliers has possession of several Raknars, and their use constitutes a rapid advancement of technology beyond what’s approved. Our society is predicated on gradual change; the Raknar represents a massive change that unbalances combat and gives an unfair advantage to Humans over any other races.”

“I’m sorry, Speaker, but I must disagree.” There were sharp intakes of breath from several tribunal members, and Sansar knew she was walking a fine line. “As we all know, Humans fight using metal suits called CASPers. These have been approved under guild rules.”

“And that alone gives you an unfair advantage,” the Besquith rep noted.

“Unfortunately, Humans don’t have your teeth,” Sansar said, “nor do we have the Goka’s laser-reflective shell, nor the Tortantula’s size and poison, nor the Oogar’s strength, and so forth. We’re physically handicapped with regard to most of the other mercenary races. Like the Flatar did with their hypervelocity pistols, we’ve used technology to level the playing field. The CASPers allow us to go toe-to-toe with the other races.”

“The early models leveled the playing field,” the Flatar rep said. “I’d submit the newer models give you an unfair advantage.”

“That’s an argument for another time and place,” Sansar said. “To date, no one has brought that up to the guild hierarchy for resolution. In the interim, CASPers are authorized to be used. I can quote the guild authorization number, if any of you would like.”

“That won’t be necessary,” Leeto said. “We’re aware that, at least for the moment, CASPers are authorized. There is, however, no such authorization for the re-integration of Raknars into mercenary companies.”

“Ah, but there is. The Raknar is nothing more than an upgraded and larger CASPer. As such, it represents a gradual change to a weapons system, which, as you already noted, is approved under guild law.”

“I see what you’re doing, Human,” the MinSha representative said. “You’re trying to play word games. I’ve seen your CASPers in action, and I know they’re less than three meters tall, while the Raknar, as described, is over 30 meters tall. Gradual change, as defined by the rules, is not allowed to be more than 10 times more powerful or greater in size. The Raknar fails that test. It’s more than ten times larger than your CASPers.”

Sansar smiled. “Thank you for making that distinction, Guild Master Gravayl, and I know you’re very familiar with them, because I’ve looked at you across the battlefield from my CASPer on at least two occasions I can remember. While you’re absolutely correct that the latest model—the Mk 8—is less than three meters tall, the original CASPer—the one that’s approved under guild law—is 3.1 meters tall. The Raknar stands 30.5 meters tall which is just less than 10 times the approved CASPer’s size. While it’s a small distinction, perhaps, it’s enough to be within the rules as they’re written.”

The MinSha rep cocked her head for a few moments, then nodded. “Your calculations are correct,” she finally said. “As such, the Raknar would fit under that definition.”

“But it’s not a new technology!” Leeto exclaimed in a louder-than-normal voice. “The Raknar have been around for thousands of years!”

“And no one used them, for a variety of reasons,” Sansar said. “However, those reasons no longer apply, and Cartwright’s Cavaliers has reintroduced them into its inventory.” She shrugged. “I guess the other races can use them, too, now that they’ve been brought back as a viable weapons system.” She chuckled. “Good luck with that.”

Leeto paused for a few seconds, staring her hatred through the camera at Sansar, then looked at her slate. “Let’s move on,” she said, conceding the point. “There still remains the matter of Cartwright’s Cavaliers genetically engineering a viable Canavar. As you’ve already acknowledged, Cartwright’s Cavaliers is the only company to operate the Raknar. As such, the pictures of the Cavaliers’ Raknar, in company with a Canavar, is damning.”

“And it would be,” Sansar said, watching as several sets of eyes popped up at her, “but that isn’t what happened. Can you please play the entire Tri-V video from which those pictures were taken?”

“I don’t have a video,” Leeto replied.

“Well, that’s disappointing,” Sansar said, and Leeto smiled at her. “Happily,” Sansar continued, “I have the original video those stills are taken from.” She sent a file to the monitor, and it began playing.

“This video was taken by one of the other members of Cartwright’s Cavaliers. I think you will find it…informational.” The video started, showing a Raknar fighting what looked like a giant Jeha. It was centipede-like, although it was at least 200 feet long. The first 100 feet rose into the air, and it snapped its two sets of enormous, serrated claws, while glaring at the Raknar with red eyestalks. The creature was covered in thick brown armor plates, and a soul-scraping scream issued from its segmented mouthparts.

“This, ladies and gentlemen of the tribunal, is what a real Canavar looks like in action. I hope I never have to face one on the battlefield.” The Raknar and Canavar began fighting near a ship, then a second Canavar charged into the mix, slamming into the Raknar and knocking it from its feet. The view shifted away from the battle. “As you can see, the Raknar’s not ‘with’ the Canavar; instead, it’s fighting the Canavar. The Cavaliers didn’t have the Canavar; someone else did.”

“Who?” the Goltar asked.

“I’m glad you asked. Just a second, and you’ll see.”

The video moved as the CASPer taking the video jumped to the top of a ramp protruding from the ship’s cargo bay. The ship’s interior was a gigantic pen, with four stalls for the enormous creatures fighting outside. That much was obvious, as there was one of the creatures in the last stall. The view shifted as the CASPer approached the stall, and the tribunal could see at least six different races standing on a gantry that crossed over the back of the monster. Sansar paused the video. “I think it’s pretty obvious that the Canavar is not a Human creation—none of the people working with it are Human.” She indicated a Besquith in the center of the group. As they watched, it gave orders to the other scientists and technicians.

“I think it’s pretty apparent that the Besquith is in charge,” Sansar said.

The camera approached the monster, and the view zoomed in on the restraints, spaced every twenty-five feet or so, that held the creature in place, then shifted as a figure climbed down into a hole dug just behind the beast’s “head.” At this point, rockets lashed out from the trooper filming the creature, and the screen went blank.

“The Tri-V camera was damaged by shrapnel at this point,” Sansar noted, “so this is where the video ends, but I think it’s pretty apparent that it wasn’t Humans who are developing Canavar, but the Besquith at a minimum, with the potential assistance of several other races. Of note, there were four of the beasts at Chimsa, and the Cavaliers killed all four of them. Jim Cartwright reported all of this in a chip he sent to the guild headquarters several months ago, but he never received an answer.”

“Obviously, that’s because we never received it,” Leeto said. “Had we received it, we’d have followed up on the report.” She made a show of looking at the chronometer on the wall. “I think this is as good a time for a recess as any. Why don’t we adjourn until tomorrow?”

“Second,” the Goka representative said.

“Wait!” Sansar called. “Aren’t we going to adjudicate the charges?”

“Third,” the Besquith rep said.

Leeto smiled into the camera at Sansar. “I’m sorry,” she said, “but we’re adjourned. We’ll discuss that another day.”

* * *

Four Horsemen Tribunal, Capital Planet

“What’s even more shocking than what Cartwright’s Cavaliers did,” Leeto announced the next morning, “is what the Humans of Asbaran Solutions did on Planet Moorhouse.”

Sansar raised her hand.

“The Human wishes to express herself,” the Goltar rep noted, drawing an angry look from Leeto.

“Yes?” Leeto asked, turning back to the camera.

“I’m surprised at your use of the word ‘shocking’ to refer to Cartwright’s Cavaliers. It was my understanding that yesterday we proved they did nothing wrong.”

“Nothing was proven or disproven,” Leeto replied. “You used a lot of legal frippery to confuse the issue, even though we know Jim Cartwright was in the Raknar outside Chimsa and that it’s a violation of the rules. Rather than get bogged down in legalities, though, I decided to press forward with the other charges. Does that make sense?”

“Well—”

“Makes sense to me,” the Goka rep replied.

“Seems like a good way to proceed,” the Besquith rep added, probably happy to not have to defend the presence of a Besquith directing the actions of the Canavar.

“But—” Sansar tried again.

“Excellent,” Leeto said, talking over Sansar. “Let’s move on and try to make some real progress today.”

“That would be appreciated,” the Oogar rep muttered in a gruff tone.

“So, as I was saying,” Leeto continued, “it was shocking what Asbaran Solutions did on Moorhouse.” She tapped her slate and several charts appeared on the Tri-V monitor. “As you can see here, the concentration of zinc-65 in the atmosphere after the Humans left is much higher than normal, clearly indicating the use of an enhanced radiation weapon.”

Sansar raised her hand but Leeto ignored her. After a few minutes, she put it back down and went back to searching the GalNet for pertinent information.

“The tribunal may not be aware, but in the assault on Moorhouse, a small number of Asbaran Solutions forces were able to evict an emplaced force of Besquith much larger than they were. Their ability to do so didn’t make much sense at the time, until the atmospheric sampling was conducted. The readings are consistent with the use of a banshee bomb.”

“Or maybe they were just smarter than the Besquith,” Sansar said, having heard the story of how Asbaran Solutions broke into the defenses—with huge casualties—from Nigel Shirazi. Her interruption earned a growl and a glare from the Besquith rep and a chuckle from the Flatar.

Leeto continued without acknowledging her, “We’ve also taken some samples of the fallout from the bomb that was used to destroy the Caroon mine—”

Sansar raised her hand. “You took fallout samples from Moorhouse?”

“Yes, we sent in drones to take samples when the Caroons filed a complaint. As I’m sure the tribunal is aware, a reasonable amount of the fissile material in a nuclear bomb doesn’t actually undergo fission; instead, it gets blown away in tiny fragments before fission can occur. These tiny pieces can be collected and identified, and the radioactive output of the sample can be used to identify the source of the material used in the bomb. In this case, the bomb was made with plutonium from Earth.”

Sansar raised her hand. “Can you be more specific on what part of Earth it came from?”

Leeto consulted her slate. “It appears to be from an area known as Russia.”

Well, that made sense.

Leeto looked into the camera. “As I understand it, that area is fairly close to the headquarters of The Golden Horde. It’s possible…no, I’d say probable, that Golden Horde personnel acquired it for them.”

“That’s stupid—”

Leeto jabbed a claw at her slate. “That’s it!” she exclaimed. “I’ve lost my patience with your continued interruptions and have put you on mute. You’ll be given a chance to speak when it’s your turn.” She looked to her left and right. “Now, as I was saying, I believe it’s probable that Golden Horde personnel acquired and passed on the fissile material to their comrades in Asbaran Solutions, allowing them to wipe out the town of Caroons…”

* * *

Four Horsemen Tribunal, Capital Planet

“You may now speak,” Leeto said, several days later, “but don’t abuse the privilege, or I’ll mute you again.

“Very well,” Sansar said. She sat up straight and looked at the camera. “You’ve said that nukes were used on Moorhouse, and you’ve accused us of doing it. I’m going to have to agree with you on part of that.”

Several of the tribunal members’ heads snapped up from the slates where they had—probably, based on their lack of attention to the proceedings—been playing games.

“Now we’re finally getting somewhere,” the Oogar rep exclaimed.

“Sorry,” Sansar said, “I’m only agreeing that they were used. I’m not saying we were the ones to use them. We weren’t.”

The Oogar growled, realizing he’d been tricked.

“Out of curiosity, how is it possible that nuclear weapons were used, if they weren’t used by Humans?” Leeto asked.

“There were two separate nuclear events,” Sansar said, “and they need to be looked at separately.”

“Okay,” Leeto replied, “let’s look at the one you used on the Besquith first.”

“We weren’t the ones to use it.”

“Prove it!” the Besquith rep exclaimed.

“I’d be happy to,” Sansar replied. “If we’d nuked you, would this have been necessary?”

She mentally pushed a video to the monitor, and the screen lit up to show a battle in progress between a Besquith armored force and a group of white CASPers. The melee became a free-for-all when another group of Besquith on foot arrived at the same time a platoon of silver CASPers ran into the fight from almost the same bearing. The Besquith armor solved the identification problem by indiscriminately opening fire on the Besquith troopers and CASPers alike, resulting in a giant slaughterfest. While the Besquith armor dealt with the silver CASPers, the white CASPers destroyed most of the armor, and the Humans were ultimately successful.

“As you can see,” Sansar noted, “the Besquith weren’t nuked. They were out-fought…when they weren’t killing their own troops.”

The Besquith rep growled, deep in its throat, and Sansar thanked her gods for not being in the room with the alien. She doubted the Besquith would’ve been able to keep from attacking her.

Sansar smiled at the camera. “That video was taken by then-First Sergeant Paolo Valenti. The environmental data pulled from his suit indicates the presence of zinc-65. The way you get zinc-65 is by using an enhanced radiation weapon with a shell of neutron-activated zinc-64. The resulting zinc-65 scattered about is a gamma emitter that will keep Humans out…but can be endured by Besquith. The level is consistent with the use of such a weapon several months prior…at the time the Besquith arrived and took control of the base from Asbaran Solutions. I personally wondered how this was possible, and now we know—the Besquith nuked them.”

“That’s not illegal,” the Besquith rep grumbled. “The use of nuclear weapons is bad for business, as having to reconstitute units and equipment eats into profits, but it’s never been illegal to use them.”

“Ah,” Sansar said, nodding. “So you admit to using them on Asbaran. That’s great, because those were delivered via banshee bombs, which are outlawed. Thanks for admitting it. I’m sure the tribunal will be very happy to discuss that with you.”

“I admitted nothing! I mean, I—”

“Humans are the ones on trial here,” Leeto interrupted his spluttering smoothly, “not the Besquith.” She cast a stern glance to her right, and the Besquith shut its mouth with an audible snap. “Let’s talk about the other bomb.”

“I’d be happy to. Humans didn’t use that one, either.”

“Of course you did. Nigel Shirazi did it to cover up the fact he stole all the red diamonds from the Caroon mine there, which is especially heinous and violates the good name of the Mercenary Guild, as the Caroons were his employers.”

“Actually, no, there’s no reason for Colonel Shirazi to have done so. There was a reparations clause in his contract with the Caroons; as they failed to tell him there were MinSha on the planet, he had all the authority required to take them as payment for his losses, which he did. He freed the Caroons from the MinSha, who’d been holding them hostage, then he left the planet. I can’t prove, but I suspect, the MinSha came back and nuked the Caroons so they could cover up what they’d been doing to them. Since they were probably unaware of the reparations clause, the MinSha probably thought they could get away with blaming Asbaran for it. Let’s face it, neither of us has any evidence for who nuked the Caroons, but only one group has any sort of motive, and that’s the MinSha.”

“Oh?” Leeto asked. “Well what do you say about the Winged Hussars and their use of artificial intelligence?”

“I’d have to ask what evidence you had of that, because nothing I’ve ever seen or heard has given me any indication the Winged Hussars has an operable AI. Where are they keeping this AI you’re accusing them of?”

“Probably on their hidden planet.”

“Hidden planet?” Sansar asked. “I guess you’ve now given up any sort of evidentiary procedure, and you’re happy just to make shit up? Are you hoping that if you throw enough of it against the wall, eventually something will stick?”

“So, you’re saying the Hussars don’t have a hidden planet somewhere that they go to?”

Sansar shrugged. “I wasn’t saying anything about a planet, I was asking about rules under which this procedure is being conducted. It seems to me that this is nothing more than a kangaroo court.”

“I don’t understand this word—kangaroo. What do you mean by that?”

“A kangaroo court is one where a group of people try someone for a crime without having any evidence, because they know the case would get thrown out of any self-respecting court that actually cares about things like, you know…evidence and procedure…minor little details like that.”

“We’ve brought plenty of facts against you.”

“You’ve brought plenty of accusations and circumstantial evidence, most of which I’ve disproved. What do you have that shows the Hussars have an operational AI?”

“We have a number of accounts where their ships and drones have acted strangely during battle. They were too far out from their controllers onboard ship to act in such a coordinated manner.”

“So, you’re talking about the fleet action that occurred recently, where you sent a grand armada against the Hussars, and the various members of the fleet started shooting at each other? Is that what you’re talking about?”

“Admiral Omega was in charge of that fleet—he’s never been beaten, in hundreds of years! He couldn’t have been beaten by such an inferior force without some advantage like AI!”

“Admiral Omega? Is that who was commanding the battleship that ended up getting hit by a giant asteroid? That’s some excellent leadership right there. One of the first things we teach our navigators at the Golden Horde—and we don’t have many—is to watch out for asteroids and other planetary bodies. Because, apparently, running into them with your ship is bad. I guess Admiral Omega was never trained on little things like that at any time during his lengthy lifespan. I think that kind of incompetence also calls into question his abilities in general…not whether the force attacking him had some sort of mythological artificial intelligence.”

Leeto stared into the camera, her mouth slightly ajar and her body quivering, and Sansar knew she’d hit home there. “Is there anything else I can answer for you, or are we done here?” Sansar asked.

Leeto looked at her for a moment longer, then closed her mouth and shook out her arms. “No, I think we’re about done for today, although we’re not finished. No, not by a long way.” Her lips pulled back from her teeth in an approximation of a Human smile. “Tomorrow, I’m very much looking forward to seeing how you explain this.”

The monitor lit up to show three CASPers surrounded by a large group of MinSha and two anti-aircraft vehicles. Two MinSha appeared to be dead—they were unmoving on the ground—and there was smoke coming from the AA vehicles, but the fight appeared to be a standoff. Without warning, one of the suits yelled, “Incoming!” and the group scattered before some sort of fighter crashed where the biggest concentration of MinSha had been standing. A fireball blanked out the screens for a couple of moments, then it cleared, and the cockpit of the fighter floated down under a triple-canopy parachute.

The cockpit hit the ground, the canopy flew off, and a huge amount of water spilled from inside it. Once the flow of water stopped, Thorb crawled out of the cockpit. He walked over to the CASPers, who were rounding up what was left of the MinSha, and said, “That was fun. Can I do it again after I’ve had a little more training?” The sound quality wasn’t very good, and the picture had obviously been shot from a long way away, but it was obvious the SalSha had been piloting the combat fighter.

Sansar’s heart sank. She had additional evidence she hadn’t shown yet that would help refute the Merc Guild’s claims, but it was for the other charges. With regard to the unauthorized uplifting of a race—which there was no doubt this was—she had…nothing.

* * *

Four Horsemen Tribunal, Capital Planet

Sansar watched as the video played again the next day. The quality hadn’t gotten any better, but it really didn’t matter. Walker’s group had missed a MinSha at the facility, who’d taped Thorb, and she was screwed.

Leeto stopped the video, focused in on Thorb, and had the system automatically clean up the video as best it could. At the end, she had a picture that was an excellent representation of the saucy little otter. “As you can see,” Leeto said, “this individual is obviously an intelligent species, and it was flying a MinSha fighter plane. I’m not aware that any of the mercenary races look like this species. Are any of the tribunal members? Does anyone even recognize this race?”

Leeto looked to both sides. “Let the record reflect that none of the other members recognizes this race, and it’s definitely not one of the 37 mercenary races.” She looked back to the camera. “Failing that, I’m forced to conclude Sansar Enkh and the Golden Horde took a non-sentient race and uplifted them while under the strictures of a contract, to help themselves successfully complete said contract, thereby breaking the law to gain an advantage they shouldn’t have had. Not only is this a death sentence for everyone involved, it will also result in reparations to the MinSha mercenary unit involved, their employer, the Golden Horde’s employer, and to the Mercenary Guild. Finally, it will also result in the decertification of the Golden Horde as an approved mercenary organization.”

The Speaker paused, staring into the camera as if looking into Sansar’s soul. “So,” Leeto finally said, “how do you plead to this charge?”

“Before I plead, I’d like to explain the situation the Golden Horde was in at the time.”

“Come now,” Leeto said with a touch of scorn, “it’s an easy question—a yes or no question—and we all know what the answer’s going to be. Did you uplift this race or not?”

“If you won’t allow me to explain, then I’ll have to say, ‘Not guilty.’”

“And how, exactly are we supposed to find you not guilty, when the evidence is on the screen before us?”

“To answer that, I need to explain what was happening at the time.”

“And as I have already said, we have no interest in listen—”

“I do,” the Goltar rep said.

“I’m sorry,” Leeto said. “What was that?”

“I’m interested in hearing what the Human has to say before we strip her of her company and kill her. I think she deserves at least that much.”

“I, too, would like to hear her story,” the Selroth said.

“I’d like to hear it as well,” the Flatar rep added. “I hope to never be in her seat, and I’m curious what would drive someone to do such a thing.”

It doesn’t matter!” Leeto exclaimed. “It only matters whether she did it or not. Did she use outlawed technology to perform an outlawed modification? I want to know other things, like where she got the technology to do it—but it simply doesn’t matter. All that matters is whether she’s guilty or not.”

“As a member of the race that was wronged in this, I’m curious as to her rationale,” the MinSha rep announced. “I would hear her story.”

“Well, that’s only four, and doesn’t meet the majority rule.”

“C’mon, Zzelban,” the Flatar said, looking to the side. “You know you want to know.”

“No,” the Tortantula said, “I’m more interested in what’s for lunch.”

“Aw, c’mon,” the Flatar implored. “I want to hear this.”

“All right,” the Tortantula agreed. “One of my daughters did a mission one time with Humans, and she said they were interesting to be around. Let her talk.”

The Oogar sighed. Once again, so close, only to be delayed…again.

“Fine,” Leeto said. “What’s so important that you must tell us about it?”

“Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for allowing me to speak, as I think it’s important to see what was happening at the time before you judge me. When we got to Trigar-2A, we were hit by MinSha fighters from the binary planet of Trigar 2-B. During the attacks, we shot down one of the craft, but it wasn’t so damaged that it couldn’t be made to fly again, and one of our officers knew how to fly that model. We planned for him to lead an attack on the MinSha base on 2-B. Before we could do that, though, we realized the paint on our CASPers had been laced with nanobots holding a variety of diseases. Not just things like a cold or flu, but truly horrific diseases like Ebola, hemorrhagic smallpox, and anthrax. All of these are horrific Human diseases that will kill the host in great pain.

“What we also discerned was the nanobots were mobile—they’d not only attack the CASPer drivers, but the maintainers as well. When those people went home and hugged their husbands and wives and kids, some of the nanobots would transfer over to them. Nearly everyone that had anything to do with a mercenary company, including millions of women and children, had been infected. Here’s the kicker, though—all the nanobots were set to open and infect their hosts at the same time. If we didn’t get back to Earth, and back to Earth immediately, the nanobots would infect innocent children, and that was something I couldn’t allow. I authorized the uplift of a couple of the Salusian race on the planet to fly the fighter we had, so we could use it to acquire transportation home.”

“Wait,” the Selroth said. “You have an uplift machine? Those are illegal.”

“No, we don’t have one; we found it on the planet. We found it in an abandoned C’Natt research facility—”

“Who or what are the C’Natt?” the MinSha rep asked.

“They were a client race of the Kahraman,” the Goltar rep replied. “They were research scientists who sought to develop new and better ways to slaughter people.”

“Yes,” Sansar agreed. She decided not to mention they’d recovered the equipment and taken it back to Earth with them. “The C’Natt were on Trigar 2-A millennia ago, trying to develop an aquatic analogue to the Canavar. They also experimented on the Salusians and brought them from a non-sentient state to the semi-sentient state they were in when we found them. I think this is important to note—the C’Natt had already partially uplifted them prior to our arrival.

“In the ruins of the research facility, we found an uplift machine we used to uplift one of the Salusians so he could fly the fighter we’d acquired. We needed someone who could take the 20 G’s required; our trooper couldn’t. I weighed the possible outcomes in my mind…uplift one Salusian or allow millions of innocents to suffer and die. It would’ve been genocide for our race. When faced with that kind of a choice, there really was no choice. I had to uplift the Salusian to save all those people.”

“I don’t understand,” the Oogar said. “Why did you paint your machines with this substance in the first place?”

“One of our logistics personnel was tricked into purchasing it. He didn’t realize it had been infected.”

“Where did the paint come from?” Leeto asked. “Who did you purchase it from?”

“We tracked the source of the paint to Chitaa, the home world of the MinSha.”

“That’s not what I asked,” the Speaker said. “I asked who it was that sold you the contaminated paint.”

“It was a Human importer working for Nicholas Imports and Exports, I believe,” Sansar said.

“If it was a Human who sold you the material,” Leeto said, her eyes surveying the tribunal’s members, “then I submit to the members of the tribunal that the disease aspect of her story is an intra-species act—probably one faction of Humans trying to gain an edge over another faction—which makes it irrelevant to this board of inquisition. Who cares what they do to each other? If anything, it shows the inherent untrustworthy nature of Humans; if they’d do this to themselves, there’s no telling what they’d do to other races. One need only look at Cartwright’s Raknar incident to see what little respect the Humans have for our lives.”

She paused as her eyes swept the panel members again. Obviously seeing what she was looking for, she pressed on. “Do I have agreement to strike any mitigating circumstances from this charge?”

“Second,” the Goka rep said.

“Third,” the Besquith rep added.

“All in favor?” Leeto asked. The MinSha, Tortantula, and Oogar each raised an appendage, along with the Goka and Besquith.

“Opposed?”

Only the Goltar’s tentacle went up. “I find the circumstances incredibly important to the decision,” he noted.

“Your opposition is noted,” Leeto replied. “Any abstentions?”

The Flatar and Selroth raised their hands.

“Wonderful,” Leeto said. “All mitigating factors have been struck from the record. The charge of negligent uplifting stands, as does Sansar Enkh’s statement that the unauthorized uplift of a semi-sentient race did occur as charged.”

“But wait,” Sansar said, seeing Leeto gaining momentum with her first clear “win” of the proceedings. “The actual paint came from the MinSha home world. That’s not intra-species at all!”

“I’m sorry,” Leeto replied, her tone conveying no sorrow whatsoever, “but a majority of the board members believe it is, and that’s all that really matters.”

“But—”

“No more interruptions will be tolerated,” Leeto said. “It’s time for us to vote. As to the charge of unauthorized uplift, what do you say?”

“Guilty,” the Goka replied. The rest of the members voted the same way, although the Goltar sounded pained to say it.

“I also say ‘guilty,’” the Speaker added, “making it unanimous.” She annotated the result on her slate. “With regard to a punishment, I’m forced to look at the body of evidence presented here. While the Golden Horde representative refuted some of the claims, by no means did she have an answer for all of them.”

Sansar raised her hand, but Leeto pressed a button on the table and the “Mute” light came on in Sansar’s room.

“As there was a confirmed violation,” Leeto continued, “and several non-refuted other charges, I submit that the Human race wasn’t ready—wasn’t mature enough—to follow the rules of the Mercenary Guild specifically or the Galactic Union in general. As such, I recommend the Mercenary Guild provide a caretaker government to run Earth, as well as any colonies that exist, for at least a period of 100 galactic standard years, and for however many additional years are necessary to verify they’re mature enough to govern themselves.” She paused.

“I disagree,” the Goka rep interjected into the silence.

“With what?” the Speaker asked.

She doesn’t appear surprised, Sansar thought. Rather, it looks as if she expected it. That can’t be good.

“I disagree that the Humans aren’t currently mature enough to govern themselves,” the Goka continued.

“So you think they are able to govern themselves?”

“Far from it. I don’t believe the issue is that humanity isn’t mature enough to govern itself; I think the problem is they’re psychologically incapable of rational interaction with others. Throughout their history, they’ve never done what’s best for the group or the species as a whole; instead, their leaders have always done what’s best for themselves or what was expedient, exactly as the charges against them in this tribunal reflect.”

Sansar could see where the line of questioning was going, and her stomach fell. Several counter-arguments and examples came to mind, but with the “Mute” light on, there was nothing she could say or do. She wanted to scream, to rage—to do anything but be forced to watch impotently—but there was nothing she could do, and she slumped in her seat as the script played out.

“The events certainly substantiate your insight into the Human race,” Leeto agreed. “What are you suggesting?”

“I think the Humans are sociopaths and psychologically incapable of governing themselves. In the interests of the Galactic Union, I believe the Mercenary Guild should govern their worlds, in perpetuity, forever.”

“That seems extreme,” Leeto said. “That would almost amount to enslaving the race.”

“When viewed from the opposite side,” the Goka replied, “I look at all the harm Humans could do if allowed to have continued free access to the Galactic Union unsupervised. If they’ll give each other horrific diseases, what would they do to us? It’s as the Golden Horde representative stated when she noted she could save millions of Humans by affecting one member of the Salusian race. On the galactic scale, think of all the trillions of lives across thousands of races that can be saved by reining in a few billion Humans. When viewed through that lens, how can we do any differently?”

“Your words are wise,” Leeto said, “and I think we’d be wise to heed them. As such, I propose the Mercenary Guild take over rule of Earth and its colonies, for the good of the Galactic Union, from this time forward, forevermore.” She smiled at the camera. “How do you vote?”

“I vote for the proposal,” the Goka rep replied.

“I do, as well,” the Besquith rep agreed. “If only for our own safety.”

Sansar felt like she was being held captive in a nightmare. The Goka calling someone else psychopaths? The Besquith worried about their safety?

“Sadly, I must agree,” the MinSha rep said. “Even after 100 years, some of them still can’t forgive us for bombing their planet, even though they struck first, and it was justified retribution.”

“Although I could vote for the first measure, I can’t agree that they should be governed by us for all time,” the Selroth said. Sansar had a moment of hope, but then the Selroth added, “I abstain.”

“The Humans have provided some great battles,” the Tortantula noted, “and I’d hoped to face them again.” It gave the Tortantula version of a shrug. “I abstain.”

“I agree with Zzelban,” the Flatar said. “I abstain.”

“Humans are liars,” the Oogar said, “and this has gone on far too long. I agree with the proposal.”

The Goltar stared at Leeto a moment before answering, but finally said, “The fact that you are happy with this outcome shows how little your race has advanced over the centuries, Leeto. The penalty is excessive, based on the proven crimes. Although it doesn’t matter, except to our honor, I vote against it.”

“I’ll go on record as voting for the proposal,” Leeto said. “That makes the vote five-to-one in favor of the Goka representative’s proposal, with three abstentions. The measure passes.” She tapped her slate. “Now, let’s talk about the punishment for Sansar Enkh.”

* * *

Sansar trudged into her cell. “Bad day at the office?” one of the Besquith jailors called. He slammed the cell door while they both laughed. Sansar collapsed onto her bed. The tribunal had, of course, sentenced her to death, by a unanimous vote. How could they not? She was guilty.

She looked up at the ceiling, trying to figure out where it had all gone wrong. In looking back at the day’s events, no matter how she played it, she’d been doomed to lose. The video of Thorb had been damning. If she had to do it over, though, she knew she’d do it the same way. Her life for the thousands of Golden Horde members it saved? A small price to pay. And for the millions of other Humans they’d saved? Totally worth it.

That didn’t make her upcoming execution any more exciting, though. She sighed.

Before she could contemplate the manner of her upcoming demise, there was a commotion at the door to her cell—loud voices, followed by large objects being slammed into a wall. After a couple of moments of banging, the sounds stopped, the door opened, and the Goltar representative slithered into her cell. Sansar could see the foot of one of the jailors in the hallway outside—the guard appeared to be horizontal on the floor.

That was pretty much the first good thing that’d happened all day. She sat up on her bed. “Are you here to break me out?” she asked.

“Unfortunately, no,” the Goltar said. “The tribunal has spoken, and you’ll be executed. There’s no other way about it.” It looked at her for a moment and then added, “You are guilty of the crime with which you’re charged, correct?”

“I am…however, I’m fairly certain it was the Merc Guild that put me into the position where I needed to uplift the Salusian in the first place.”

“Of course it did.”

“Wha—what?”

“I said, ‘Of course it did.’ There’s no doubt in my mind that the ruling council of the Merc Guild put you into the bind you were in so they could achieve precisely what they got today—the governance of Earth. The Speaker is the daughter of General Peepo, who’s the leader of the war plans against Earth. I imagine the war has been going on against you for many years; unfortunately, you didn’t realize it until now. The Veetanho, in case you haven’t noticed, are master planners and manipulators.”

“Is that what happened with your race?”

“Yes. Once upon a time, we were the leaders of the Merc Guild. We were tricked and betrayed by the Veetanho…and now they lead.”

“And that’s why I can’t find any information on your race?”

“The tides of time are fickle; they ebb, and they flow. They also conform to the needs of the historians. He who wins the war gets to write the GalNet history files. The Veetanho won, and they’ve marginalized us across the oceans of time. Although we may be forgotten, we’re not gone. Not yet, anyway.”

“If you aren’t going to break me out of here, why’d you take out the jailors?”

“They didn’t want me to speak with you and I…I disagreed with their position. I didn’t permanently injure them, but Besquith can be extremely short-sighted sometimes.” The Goltar paused, then shook out its arms. “I wish it were within my power to free you; however, my honor won’t allow it.”

“Even though you know it’s not my fault.”

“Even though it’s not your fault, you are, unfortunately, still guilty. I don’t see anything else you could’ve done—anything else you should have done—but you’re still guilty. I’m here to tell you I’m sorry for voting the way I had to. I believe that, had events unfolded differently, our races could have been friends, maybe even allies, on the guild council. It needs new blood, even if Humans bring a touch of disorder and discontinuity to it. Sometimes, creatures like the Veetanho need to be shaken up and taken down a step or five. I’d hoped you Humans would be the ones to do that, but it appears I was mistaken.”

“My death won’t end it,” Sansar said with a fierce look. “If anything, my death will drive more Humans to our cause. We hate to see people falsely accused, and these proceedings, as obviously as they were rigged, will only cause my people to fight harder. I may have failed here, but if you think we’re going to give up just because of my death, you’re mistaken…badly mistaken.”

“We shall see then,” the Goltar said as it slithered back out of the cell. “It’ll be interesting to watch.” The alien shut the door, and Sansar heard the lock engage. As the adrenaline left her body, she fell back onto her bed and began to cry.

* * * * *


Chapter Nineteen


Winged Hussars Prime Base, New Warsaw System

Alexis strode into the meeting room where Jim Cartwright, Nigel Shirazi, and Daniel Walker waited. Nigel had arrived a few hours ago and hadn’t had time for so much as a shower. He looked…handsome. She shook her head and settled for a nod to him. He noted the small bandage on her forehead. She hadn’t yet completely healed from the humiliation of knocking herself cold.

“I’m glad you made it back,” she said. “Commander Yoshuka reports you acquitted yourself well, and though it pains him, he admitted a grudging admiration for you.”

“The feeling is mutual,” Nigel said with that devilish grin.

“As you’ve no doubt heard, we’ve met with success across the board,” Alexis said, sitting at the table. “Commander Cartwright secured 20 of the Raknar, all in excellent shape, minus their power plants. The mission to stop the Grimm succeeded as well, but at a high price.” Nigel looked curious. “The entire squad of Hussar marines we sent were lost in the action. The corporal was a personal friend of Jim’s.”

“I’m sorry,” Nigel said and bowed his head. “We shall toast to him later.”

“Thank you,” Jim replied. Alexis looked at the young man, not even 21 years old. If she wasn’t mistaken, he had tiny worry lines around his eyes. So young, for so much responsibility.

“On our end of the mission, we found and secured eight capital ships. We’re still evaluating their use, and it’ll take a little time to bring them up to trim, but this changes our equation considerably. How’d you do?” she asked Nigel.

“The religious leaders of New Persia agreed to assist. We picked up 200 recruits and enough Mk 8 CASPers for all of them. We also have a prototype Mk 9, and all the schematics for it. The plant has shifted production over to making Mk 9s and should have production models ready for us whenever we can get back there to pick them up.”

“That’s excellent,” Alexis said. “The new recruits will take time to train, but I believe we’re in a position now to effect the rescue from Karma we planned.”

“Yes,” Nigel said. Jim smiled and nodded, as did Walker. “I have some new information,” Nigel added. “But let’s go over the Karma plan first.”

“Okay,” Alexis said, nodding. She looked to Cartwright. “Jim, the Raknar won’t help in this situation, so what we’re going to do is a straight assault. We’ve got your Raknar offloaded into storage, and once Colonel Sinclair returns with your power supplies, you’ll have all the technical support you want. Our chief scientist, Taiki Sato, is studying up on the mechanical engineering for them and will be ready to assist when we get back from Karma.”

“Sounds good,” Jim said.

“We’ll get Bucephalus ready for the operation. As your ship is more suitable, I think it makes sense if we have Nigel’s units come along with you.”

“I’m agreeable to that,” Nigel said. It appeared to Alexis the two men had become more amiable, if not outright friendly, to each other. Jim hadn’t brought his little alien buddy, probably because it didn’t seem to like Nigel in the least.

“Lieutenant Colonel Walker, are you agreeable to taking half the forces you have here along?”

“That sounds fine,” Walker said. “Our people are also working with yours on the SalSha. They’ve been flying some kind of bomber prototype?”

“Entropy, those things?” Alexis asked. “That was Sato’s brainchild back when I was a teenager. They were unusable by Humans. You’re more likely to die than succeed in flying one.”

“The SalSha love them. We don’t know if they’ll be able to use them strategically, but they’re good training ships.”

“I reviewed some of the data on them when I got back,” she said. “The SalSha are a little headstrong, their egos are too big, and they are more than a little crazy. Our pilot instructors in the Hussars Academy say they have all the key elements to be great pilots.” Everyone chuckled at that. “They’ll be in good hands while you’re gone. Everyone seems to like the slippery things.”

“They are rather…likeable,” Nigel agreed. She exchanged a smile with him, then pulled herself back to the present.

“Now, on the matter of the assault. I plan to bring two full squadrons, in addition to the Horde forces, Asbaran, and Cavaliers. My own marines will be bolstered by Commander Earl’s Bert’s Bees. I’ve already talked to him, as well as Commander Drake. We’ll be using her Rangers to infiltrate the station.

“Interestingly, a lot of the unaligned mercs in Karma are not happy with what’s going on. The place is half-deserted. I plan to insert Drake’s Rangers ahead of our main force. Their mission is to infiltrate Karma’s defenses so we don’t have trouble there, then warn everyone they can that if they don’t want to get splattered in shit, they’d best leave town.”

“That’ll keep civilian and unaligned merc casualties down,” Jim said, nodding in appreciation of the plan. “I like that. We don’t want to give Peepo’s crowd any ammo to use against Sansar.”

“About that,” Nigel said.

“<Courier arrival.>

“I’m sorry,” Alexis said, holding up a hand to forestall Nigel, “I have an important message that just came in.” He looked grateful for the interruption. Alexis used her pinplants to access the raw data from their courier. This one had come directly from Capital, a very difficult transition. She was immediately suspicious why the captain would take that risk. When she read his personal note, she knew the answer. Everyone was looking at her in concern now, so she suspected some of her emotions had slipped through.

“What is it?” Jim asked.

“The tribunal against humanity is complete.”

“Already?” Walker exclaimed in surprise. “Those things are supposed to last months.”

“Our sources in the Mercenary Guild HQ say they didn’t really bother with the rules of evidence.” Walker’s eyes went wide. “Sansar has been sentenced to death.”

“They wouldn’t dare!” Walker roared and shot to his feet.

“Yes, unfortunately, they would,” Nigel said. Everyone looked at him, and he sighed. “I have some…friends, who warned me this was about to occur while I was on New Persia. That was the other information I had.”

“What kind of friends?” Alexis asked.

Nigel looked at her for a moment as if considering what to say. “Pendals.” This time it was Alexis’ turn to look surprised.

“Those freaks? They aren’t friends with anyone. How did you come to have a Pendal as a friend?”

“Maybe friend is too strong a word.”

Jim had a vacant look, and a second later his face turned to surprise as well. No doubt he’d looked up the strange four-armed, three-eyed freaks himself. Alexis had only met one once before, and the encounter had given her a case of the heebie-jeebies for a week. She spent most of her life around aliens, and some of them were exotics. She’d rather sleep with a Wrogul than meet another Pendal.

“Why would they help you at all?” she asked. “They’re on the high end of creepy and almost as hard to figure out as a Depik.”

“We have blood between us,” Nigel said simply, then moved on. “Regardless, the information he gave me was correct. He also said the guild is out to enslave all of humanity. On the good side, though, they’ve offered to help.”

“We have to save her,” Walker said.

“I agree,” Nigel said immediately. “We can’t allow this to occur. It’s symbolic; we must take her back.”

“Whoa,” Alexis said and held out her hands. “This isn’t like Karma. We’re talking about the capital of the Union. Half the guilds have their headquarters there. The system has a ring of a million junked ships where the last naval battle of the Great Galactic War took place.” She’d seen it once; it was quite a sight. “How exactly do you think we can pull that off?”

Nigel shot her that infuriating grin. “Let me tell you,” he said, and Alexis listened to what had to be the most bodacious plan in the history of bodacious plans. “So, that’s it. I think it’ll work, as no one will ever expect it.”

“Wow,” Jim said and gave a little laugh. “How do you walk with those 20-pound balls clanking between your legs?” Walker chuckled, and Nigel gave him that smile again.

“You know what?” Alexis asked. “That plan is fucking crazy enough it just might work.”

* * *

Four hours later, Nigel and Walker had sold Alexis on their plan. It didn’t involve any of her naval assets, but it did have risk. She’d need to send a couple of her special drive keys so they could get back afterwards. Nothing else would change; New Warsaw was still the only safe place for them until they were ready to assault Earth.

The problem was she’d counted on Walker leading the Horde personnel in the raid, with Nigel’s company of Asbaran troopers to help. Sending those two after Sansar upset the plan; however, Walker refused to be left out of any rescue mission for his boss.

“If I don’t go, you can forget any help from the Horde.” Alexis had no choice but to relent and let him join. The fact it depended on the Pendals to succeed added an extra garnish of crazy in her opinion.

“<I give it at least a 3% chance of succeeding,>” Ghost told her, which didn’t help.

Jim had volunteered his own plan for Karma. Most of the original plan remained intact, except he and his personal platoon would be inserted with Drake’s Rangers in advance. The idea he’d had made her smile. She liked his flavor of bold more than Nigel’s flavor of almost crazy. Jim Cartwright had the family flare for the unconventional. She was also convinced that two entire task forces of Winged Hussars led by Pegasus could unfuck just about anything in Karma. After the second level of hyperspace, she was looking forward to a stand-up fight on terms she was used to.

Time was of the essence for the rescue plan to work, so Walker and Nigel departed that morning. Alexis met them in the hangar before their shuttle left. “Commander Shirazi, a second?”

He disengaged from his conversation with Walker. “Certainly,” he said. “Go on ahead, Walker; I’ll catch up.” Walker eyed them both, then saluted Alexis and floated out into the bay. Alexis drew Nigel aside.

“I’m more than familiar with your penchant for trying to splatter your guts all over the place to make a point,” she said. “I’d rather you didn’t do that.”

“Oh?” he asked. “Why’s that?”

“Why do you think? This is war, Nigel. The Four Horsemen are not only the most powerful fighting force Earth has, we’re its heart and soul. They need us alive. Having one of us die stupidly won’t rally the rest of humanity.”

“Are you sure that’s the only reason?” he asked with his grin.

She spluttered in surprise, particularly because her heart was racing. What in entropy is wrong with me? she asked herself. “No, not at all,” she said. “Just be care—”

It happened too fast for her to respond. Nigel grabbed her around the waist, and his lips were pressed to hers in a flash. She tried to push away, but he was strong, and warm, and flashes of light went off behind her eyes. Oh, holy hell, she thought as her body unconsciously molded itself to his.

Then he let her go, and she pushed back, her cheeks and neck flushed red with excitement and anger. It was one of the downsides of her white hair; her complexion was extremely pale as well. “Who do you think you are?” she spluttered.

“I like you,” he said, and threw in that infuriating grin again. “We’ll talk when I get back.” He caught a handhold and expertly flipped toward the waiting shuttle. Alexis smoothed her uniform and looked around. Nobody saw, thank god! Why, the nerve of that kid! She felt a flutter in her belly and a sigh slipped out completely against her will. She moved over to the door of the shuttle bay to see him holding onto the door of his shuttle, waving.

“Be careful,” she mouthed. He smiled and nodded, then blew her a kiss. “Asshole,” she said. That was an easy word to understand without hearing. He laughed and boarded the shuttle. An hour later, the ship was gone through the stargate. Alexis buried herself in fleet mobilization and did her best not to think about the handsome Arab man, or just how good that kiss felt.

* * *

SOGA HQ, Sao Paulo, Brazil, Earth

Peepo growled as she surveyed the conference room. Her staff had filled all the available seats when they’d first arrived on Earth, but now it was rare to have more than three-quarters of the seats occupied; today only 14 of the 30 seats were filled, an all-new low.

Something was sickening them, and few of the personnel in attendance looked “healthy.” From the Tortantulas with stiff joints, to the Besquith whose teeth had become loose, nearly every race was experiencing some sort of malady. Except the Veetanho; for some reason, her race had been spared.

“Let’s get started,” Peepo said, not wanting to dwell on it any further. She looked to the Besquith sitting on her left. “Brigadier General Sharith, how’s the recruiting going? Are you making your quotas yet?”

“Unfortunately, no,” General Sharith replied. “When we first started recruiting for the new units, we couldn’t get anyone to come to the recruitment centers. After you announced there’d be reprisals if that continued, we began to get people coming in.”

“So what’s the problem? Why aren’t you making your quotas?”

“Because all the Humans are stupid!” the general exclaimed with such vehemence that a tooth flew out of his mouth, narrowly missing Lieutenant General Chirbayl across the table from him. The MinSha’s head twitched to the side, and the tooth flew past harmlessly.

“What do you mean, ‘stupid?’” Peepo asked.

“Less than one percent of them have been able to pass the VOWS assessment test that Humans use to screen their people for mercenary aptitude.”

“They’re obviously not trying,” Peepo noted. “You need to motivate them.”

“We’ve been trying!” General Sharith replied, a little less forcefully. “We offered platoon leader positions to anyone who could pass the VOWS assessment.”

“Excellent,” Peepo said. “And what happened?”

“The average score fell another 10 points.” He dropped his head in shame.

“Well, it wouldn’t matter at the moment, anyway,” General Chirbayl said. “The production lines for their CASPers are currently stopped.”

“What’s the problem there?” Peepo asked.

“When we took over the plants, there’d been some widespread sabotage that destroyed the equipment used to produce the suits. After some of the saboteurs were made examples of, the line operators seemed motivated to get the lines running, but then they ran out of one of the components needed.”

“What’s that?”

“They’re currently waiting for a shipment of unobtanium dioxide from one of their suppliers. Apparently, that’s used for making some of the handwavium cabling inside it, and they can’t assemble any of the suits without it.”

“And you’re sure this material is necessary?”

“Yes,” General Chirbayl replied. “I looked at the production diagrams for the suit and the sales orders for the unobtanium. All the documentation was in order.”

Peepo tapped on her slate, accessing the AetherNet, the local node of the GalNet, as she turned to Lieutenant General Beelel. “What’s the status on producing more weapons for their CASPers?”

“We had to send back to our home world for replacements,” the Altar replied. “Their weapons are shoddily made. If they’re dropped, they fall apart. Most of them only get a few shots through them before they break. They fail all our criteria for functional weaponry, and we’re investigating how to adapt some of the other mercenary forces’ weapons to the suits. There have been significant interface issues.”

The Altar’s antennas twitched. “Honestly, General Peepo, I have to say I don’t see what all the mystique is with this race. Their troops are substandard, their gear is crap, and they couldn’t organize a youth’s birthday party without outside assistance. How is it that they ever win, much less win as often as they have? Are they really that lucky?”

“You’re all fools!” Peepo exclaimed as the information came up on her slate. She glared at General Chirbayl. “Did you even look to see what that unobtanium material was?”

“Yes, General. The entry the Humans showed me indicated it was a highly desirable material that’s extremely rare and costly,” the MinSha replied.

“It’s also one their writers use to denote something that’s scientifically impossible or fictional!” Peepo yelled. “They’re making it up to stall you!”

General Chirbayl’s coloring went green. “I’ll handle this.”

“See that you do.” Her eyes swept the table. “If they’re stalling with this, they’re likely stalling with other things. The VOWS assessments. Their weapons. For all I know, they may be behind the rash of diseases that seem to be sweeping through our ranks. I don’t know how, but we’ll investigate that, too. The Humans have achieved prominence not through luck, but through good equipment and leadership. Even though some of their leaders have escaped our claws for now, they didn’t take everyone with half a brain on the planet with them. There are people here who can fill out the new merc units we want to form. There are people who know how to make their CASPer suits and the weapons that go into them. Find these people! Make as many examples as you need to!”

The assembled staff nodded or made their racial variant of affirmation.

“Perhaps if we pulled back to space and were out of the toxic environment here, we could spend more time on strategy and less time trying to stay healthy,” the Flatar general noted. “Almost all the Tortantulas have come down with some sort of disease that’s stiffening their joints. When you have joints like they do, that’s an issue, and it makes them far less effective than normal. We were already undermanned, due to the losses at the Golden Horde compound; with fewer of them, and the ones we have handicapped, it’s hard to be everywhere we need to be.”

“No,” Peepo stated flatly. “We will stay. We’ll stay on the planet, we’ll find out what’s making us sick, and we’ll put an end to it. The Union needs us to be successful here…and we shall!”

* * * * *


Chapter Twenty


Karma Upsilon 4, Karma System

They’d taken almost an entire day to reach Karma Upsilon 4. When the independently-registered merchant ship transitioned into the Karma system, it kicked loose half a dozen smaller ships, which had all come along for the ride. None of the traffic control people at Karma would give it a second thought, or realize it was actually the Winged Hussars Heaven-class transport ship Perseus, and all the smaller craft were dropships.

The speed, ability, and creativity of the Winged Hussars’ shipwrights amazed Jim. They’d turned a vessel any merc in the galaxy would recognize as a dropship into a generic free trader in just a few hours, without affecting the function one bit. Then they did it again several more times. Two of the ships carried Commander Earl’s Bert’s Bees toward the parking orbits. Two more had Drake’s Rangers headed toward Karma station.

By the time Jim’s ship docked at his station, he had to hurry. Nobody was there; they’d all been on Earth at the time of the invasion. Upsilon 4 was still in development. They had a lot of supplies there, but the living areas were in dire need of refurbishment before he’d trust them with the lives of his Cavaliers.

The station’s power emanations were higher than he remembered, which was weird. The station’s slight yaw had been corrected, too, which was also strange. Splunk had assisted in fixing the station’s attitude control system, but Jim thought the computer had said it would take six months for the tiny thrusters to fix the movement. They’d only been gone a month.

He didn’t have time to worry about it as they scrambled into the station and down the cavernous halls to his destination. “Everyone stick to the plan,” Jim said to the platoon as they scrambled to get into the unusual sets of restraints, making their CASPers do things they’d never done before. “Double check them all, Top!”

“You betcha, Boss,” Buddha, his longtime friend and Top Sergeant, said.

Jim’s radio gave a series of three beeps. Hargrave confirmed he was in position. They needed to move. “Splunk, fire her up!”

“Here we go, <Akee!>

“For sure,” Jim said and sealed the cockpit.

* * *

Commander Oda Shoji of Yoru no Tori, also known as the Night Birds, was more than tired of being under arrest. His crew was carefully shepherded at every moment by Maki jailers. He personally hated the little lemur-like aliens, and the disdain they treated his crew with didn’t help. They’d been captive for weeks now, but their jailers had said recently the Humans would be moved soon. There was no word of what that meant.

During his captivity, he’d managed to get most of the lockouts on his systems removed. Shoji might be a pilot by profession, but computer technology was his personal passion. The family business was starships, so honor demanded he be where he was. It was an honorable profession, and he found happiness where he could. Hacking the ham-fisted attempts to lock him out of his own ship was one of those moments of happiness.

Even though he could resume control of his ship whenever he wished, it did him no good. The Maki marines were all armed, his crew was carefully watched, and he hadn’t been able to crack the armory codes yet. He’d used his clandestine access to confirm his other four ships were all being held in the same manner. Acting now would be premature, so he bided his time.

Learning to while away long hours was a skill all spacers learned early in their career, or they didn’t remain spacers. Shoji liked to play Mahjong against his crew when able, or the ship’s computer lately. It was a way to passively resist his jailers, using the computer he was supposed to be locked out of for simple amusements. That was how he happened to be in the computer when a warning system was triggered.

A maintenance hatch on the ship’s engine room opened from the outside. The Maki marines had zero interest in doing routine maintenance, leaving such drudgery to Shoji’s crew. He knew the hatch hadn’t been opened by his people because they were seldom allowed outside for maintenance, and only then with careful escort. Plus, if it were the Maki, they’d have simply used an airlock. Shoji gave a curious little grunt. There was only one possible reason for this alarm; someone was boarding Naitoheron without his jailors’ authorization.

He acted without further thought and disabled the alarm before any of the Maki in his CIC could notice. Then, using the same authorization he shouldn’t have had, he overrode his quarters’ door lockout. The Maki had taken all the weapons they could find. None of them considered his family’s swords, displayed on his cabin wall, as “weapons.” He carefully removed the wakizashi, choosing it for its maneuverability in cramped spaces, slid it through the belt on his uniform, and opened the door.

The Maki marine tasked with guarding the ship’s captain and XO looked up from the slate he was using to write a letter to a girl back home and gawked in surprise as 60 centimeters of super-sharp carbon steel slid into his neck.

Shoji quickly withdrew the blade and wrapped a towel around the dying Maki’s neck to keep the blood from going everywhere. The alien only struggled for a moment, and his XO’s door opened at the same time.

“You noticed the alarm?” the man asked, noticing the dying Maki marine the same way you might take notice of a man swatting a fly.

“Yes,” Shoji said. “Free the flight staff, kill only as necessary. I’m going aft.” The XO bowed in zero gravity, produced a pair of fighting knives, and floated toward the CIC.

Ten minutes later the last bolt floated away from the service shaft and the hatch popped free. The man inside held a compact laser carbine, and it was pointed at his head.

“Commander Oda Shoji?” the Human asked.

“Yes, that is me. Who are you?”

“Commander Frank Earl, Bert’s Bees. I request permission to come aboard, sir!”

“Permission is happily granted.” The marine extracted himself from the access port, along with four other men dressed in combat armor. “Commander, I assume this is not an isolated action, or we have endangered many lives.”

“No, all the Human ships are being boarded. We’re spread a little thin, but the aliens look to be caught with their pants down.”

“Good,” Shoji said. He gestured to the four engineering staff floating nearby. One had a bandage seeping blood on one arm, another looked to have a laser burn on his leg. They all held either small swords or knives. “We require weapons to assist.”

“I rather hoped you’d say that,” Earl said and handed over a spare laser pistol. “Let’s get these rat fuckers off your ship.”

* * *

Karma Station, Karma System

Major Kleet walked into her office in a fine rage. She’d only been asleep for a few hours when her adjutant decided to wake her. A pissed off Veetanho, short on sleep and patience, wasn’t something you wanted to see.

“What is it?” Kleet demanded of the elSha functionary she’d been saddled with. The reptilians made fair mechanics, but there were so many of them they tended to find their way into bureaucratic jobs as well.

“Major,” the elSha squeaked, “we lost contact with one of the marine units holding the Human merc ships in parking orbit.”

“Is that it?” Kleet said, her exasperation growing. “Is it the Maki marines?”

“Yes, Major.”

“They’re probably playing one of those tactical GalNet games they like so much.”

“But sir, the communication cut off in mid-transmission.” Kleet was about to say that was still not a big deal when she continued. “And now I can’t raise any of the marines on the Evening Bird ships.”

“Night Birds,” Kleet said. The elSha translators screwed up stuff like that all the time. “Raise the marine commander on their cruiser.”

“Yes, Major,” the administrator said, visibly relieved that Kleet was no longer mad at her. Kleet wasn’t mad; she was too busy planning how she’d have the entropy-cursed little reptile reassigned to the worst job she could imagine once it was proven she’d been woken up for a false alarm. Then the major’s communicator went off.

“Yes, what is it?” she asked while the elSha was trying to make the communications link.

“Major, ships just transitioned in. Lots of ships.”

“Whose?” she demanded, finally feeling some concern.

“They’re from the Winged Hussars, sir! Listen.” There was a pop and a voice in English came on, which her translator rendered into Veetanho.

“This is Commander Alexis Cromwell of the Winged Hussars. You’re holding Human mercs in violation of Merc Guild Law 109-2. If you stand down and release them, we’ll leave peacefully. Otherwise, there will be…trouble.”

“Entropy!” Kleet yelled. “Contact Admiral Galopooka, quickly, while the Humans are still coming in from the transition point!”

“Right away, sir!”

* * *

Admiral Galopooka had been bored stiff for weeks now. When the Humans simply surrendered without a fight, it had robbed him of the glory of smashing them. If the Winged Hussars had been there, he might’ve had a chance to exact revenge for his clan. His relative, Geshakooka, had died at the hands of the Hussars. Galopooka dearly wanted that opportunity. Despite being known as excellent ship builders and crews, Bakulu were also known for having a well-developed sense of vengeance.

Galopooka had his foot stuck to the command podium of his battleship’s CIC when the call from Major Kleet came in. He didn’t care for Veetanho very much. The race put on airs. He considered allowing the rodents to gain control of the mercenary guild a serious error. He gestured to his comms officer to put the major on. The rat was, after all, nominally in charge of the operation keeping the Humans prisoners.

“Why aren’t you getting underway!” Kleet demanded.

“What are you blathering about?” he demanded.

“Haven’t you been watching?” The entropy-cursed Veetanho looked like its eyes were about to explode out of its disgusting fluid-filled sack of a body.

“Watching what?”

“The emergence point. Look, you fool! It’s the Winged Hussars!”

Galopooka looked with some alarm at his sensor tech. The battleship was in shutdown mode. After all, nothing had happened in weeks. In fact, since they’d taken the Humans and their ships captive, almost all the other mercs had left. Just the previous day, a dozen transports had taken off as if they’d suddenly decided they had urgent business in another galactic arm. Good riddance, he thought. The sensor controls came alive, and the Tri-V showed two large formations.

“Confirmed,” the sensor tech said. “I show 2 battlecruisers, six cruisers, twelve various frigates, and two carriers. They’re identifying themselves as the Winged Hussars.” All three of Galopooka’s eyes stared in disbelief. He’d studied the Human merc company after they’d killed his family. They didn’t have that many ships. “They’re accelerating toward our threat box at four Gs.”

“Begin power-up,” he ordered, surprise turning to glee. He was going to get his chance at revenge.

“We have another ship,” the sensor tech said. “It’s an unusual design.” The tech kept working at his instruments and staring at them in confusion. “Density, propulsion, and profile are all wrong for a spaceship, but it’s coming straight toward us.”

“Is it a missile?” the admiral asked, annoyed at the incompetence of the sensor tech in his CIC.

“No,” the tech said, “it’s over 30 meters long. It’s closing fast!”

“Let me see it,” the admiral demanded. The station’s alarm started sounding, and he knew his crew would be waking and rushing to their stations in an orderly manner. The Tri-V broke away from Major Kleet, who hadn’t stopped screaming at the admiral, and centered on a…thing. He rearranged his eyes stalks to try and make sense of it. The fool of a sensor tech was right; it wasn’t a ship or a missile. It looked like…no. It couldn’t be. That wasn’t possible.

“Priority to shields!” he yelled. The TacCom looked at him in confusion; that wasn’t the normal power-up procedure. Shields came after propulsion. “Now!” He looked back at the hurtling thing and all three eyes shook in fear.

Battleships simply weren’t designed to go from standby to combat footing in a few seconds. The great ship’s three fusion power plants alone could take an entire minute to spin up to full power. One couldn’t simply dump hydrogen fuel into the core of a barely-contained star without expecting a potentially explosive outcome.

The admiral watched through his pinplants as a slow trickle of stations came alive while the massive war machine hurtled toward his ship. He’d watched once as a massive construction crane slowly destabilized and fell. Thousands of hours of work had come apart before his eyes, and all he could think was, It’s so slow. The shields-manned indicators were lighting up, and power was still below 10%. Too slow, he thought. A second later the Raknar slammed into his ship.

The impact location was 500 meters away from the DCC, and still the ship shook and rang like a bell. “Hull breach!” the DCC screamed. “Major penetration, at least 20 decks! Secondary explosions.” Galopooka had never felt an impact of that magnitude; he doubted many commanders had and survived.

“Isolating damaged sections,” an assistant said. On the Tri-V, a three-dimensional view of the spherical battleship appeared with a lance of bright red indicating the path of destruction.

“Entropy!” Galopooka gasped, his three eyes taking in all the damage indicators. The carnage was so extreme the computer said they were limited to one G of thrust or they’d risk destabilizing the entire ship’s structure. What sort of lunatic would launch a 20,000-year-old rusted-out robot at his ship like a missile? He splayed his eyes, their equivalent of a shrug. It seemed to have worked; his ship was critically damaged. It would take a space dock to repair his ship, but at least the attack was over.

“Continue bringing critical systems online,” he ordered, “TacCom, switch doctrine to static defense. Center all support ships on our damaged quadrant to reduce vulnerability. We can’t take the fight to the Hussars, but we can still hurt them from here.” Orders to the fleet were transmitted. Then more alarms sounded, and the DCC started yelling to his staff. “What’s happening?”

“The impact location,” the DCC said, manipulating controls with his pseudopods and managing messages with his pinplants, “I’m getting secondary reports of damage.”

“Isolate adjacent systems if necessary,” Galopooka said.

“I’m trying,” the DCC said, “but it’s almost like the damage is…moving!

“That’s impossible,” Galopooka said.

“I know, Admiral, but look.” The damage board showed the ruined sections in red. It’d been shaped like a cone, with the point the end of the impact position. Now that tip was creeping laterally. He tried to make sense of it. Sure, he’d never seen a ship damage profile like this, but there’d been no explosion like a missile would’ve caused, so how could it be moving? “The secondary damage has almost reached the main power room.”

“CIC, this is chief engineer.”

“Go ahead,” the admiral replied.

“There is some kind of damage affecting the space adjacent to engineering.” The connection was visual, and the engineer was using a hand-held camera to point at the forward area of the cavernous space. The admiral could just see the edge of a huge fusion power plant, the heart of the great battleship. Past it was an armored wall which provided protection to the power plants. Was the wall bowing inward?!

Galopooka was thinking of calling for a security team when the wall exploded inward, showering the room with massive chunks of steel. An instant later, engineering began to explosively decompress. The engineer was stuck to his station by his foot, so he stayed in place, and he saw a huge armored hand, at least three meters across, reach inside and jam something against one of the fusion power plants. The buffers, incredibly powerful magnets, grabbed it and clamped it in place as the hand withdrew.

On the main screen, the damage reports exploded across the secondary path, away from engineering and out toward the hull. Galopooka couldn’t understand what was happening. It didn’t make any sense. The damage moving, that hand, more damage. That Raknar couldn’t have been functional…could it?

The ship shuddered, and another hull breach appeared. External cameras caught a perfect image of the Raknar ripping through the hull, arms held straight up, fusion fire roaring from its back and legs as it accelerated away from the stricken battleship.

“Don’t just stare it at!” he screamed in rage and fear. “Fire, fire, fire!”

“Weapons stations aren’t live yet,” he heard someone say. “They come after shields.” Galopooka was about to yell again when the 50-kiloton nuclear bomb magnetically clamped to one of the ship’s fusion cores detonated, and the entire ship exploded into fire and debris.

* * *

“Yes!” Jim said, exulting in the manifest power of being the Raknar again. This time was so much better because he knew what to expect, and the Raknar was in so much better shape! All the weakened armor had been repaired, the jumpjets were working, and he was armed to the teeth.

The attack on the battleship wasn’t something he’d planned. Shortly after joining with Splunk and rocketing into space, the Raknar’s sensors took in the battlespace, recognized the fleet threat, and instantly chose the battleship as the highest-priority target. His logical mind rebelled; how could even a 100-foot-tall war machine take on a battleship half-a-mile wide? The answer turned out to be fun and exciting.

I can do anything, he found himself thinking as he slammed into the ship. Nothing can stand against me. The sensation of power was intoxicating. The hull of the battleship was melted by the Raknar’s jump jets as it approached, then the much lighter interior structure acted like honeycombing to cushion the deceleration.

Then, digging through the mangled superstructure and sticking one of the four nukes he carried to the fusion plant was a cakewalk, just like using the jumpjets to blast his way back out. The armor was already weakened near his impact point anyway, all he did was punch up as he hit. Every fiber of his being was quivering with energy. Come and get me! He laughed. The battleship turned into a nuclear fireball, and pieces of shrapnel bounced harmlessly off his legs.

“The prisoners, Jimmy!” he heard in the back of his mind.

Just ahead was a Bakulu frigate. His sensors showed the ship’s fusion cores were just beginning to power up. Too slow, Jim thought, and changed course. He flipped over feet first, like he had with the battleship, and fired his leg thrusters as he hit the frigate amidships. The frigate had only five percent of the mass of the battleship, and the Raknar was almost half its size. Jim hit the ship, and it crumpled like a cardboard box.

A big section of the hull sheered away as he wrenched himself free from the wreck. He snagged the debris, fired his jets, and swung the junk with all the Raknar’s force. Another frigate a mile away was cleaved almost in two as the fragment of its sister ship hit it.

“Jimmy, we have a mission!”

Jim spun for a moment after the throw and fetched up against still another frigate, though not hard enough to do more than crack its hull. He was uninjured. Jim spun around and grabbed the ship, armor plates crunching like eggshells under his fists. The Raknar’s sensors showed a cruiser just a few miles away. That one had its shields up.

So be it, Jim thought and, setting his angle correctly, he fired his jumpjets on full power. Fusion engines that could move the Raknar at many Gs of acceleration shoved the frigate sideways. The crew responded by bringing its own torch online, attempting to throw off the monster that was suddenly clamped on its side. Small anti-missile lasers fired at Jim. He laughed, as they did nothing more than burn paint.

The Raknar’s internal systems sensed the new thrust vector, analyzed it, and Jim unconsciously moved his legs to alter his own thrust. The frigate captain looked on in horror as his attempt to shake off the Raknar only succeeded in accelerating him into the cruiser with twice the velocity he would have had.

“Jim, god damn it!”

“What?” he said impatiently.

“The prisoners. You’re fucking up the plan.”

Slowly, oh so slowly, he remembered he wasn’t out there to destroy everything he could. But this is more fun, he thought. We have a job, another part of him thought. The part that was still Jim sighed and changed course. The Raknar headed for Karma station.

* * * * *


Chapter Twenty-One


Pendal Ship Saviour, Treakip System

“What can you tell me about the Mercenary Guild’s headquarters?” Walker asked.

The join-up with the Pendals had gone as Smokey had promised. The Humans had transitioned into the system, and the Pendal ship had arrived within an hour. A large cargo carrier with its own hyperspace shunts, the process to get the dropships and CASPers over to the Saviour had gone smoothly. The Golden Horde transport would wait for them in the system for 17 days. If they hadn’t returned by then, they weren’t coming.

“I can tell you quite a bit,” the Pendal replied in its harsh, whispering voice. “I’ve been inside the facility.”

“Really?” Nigel asked. “Do you know where they’re keeping her?”

“As a matter of fact, I do. She’s on the third sub-level, in Cell 307A.”

“How in the world do you know that?” Nigel asked. “I’d have figured they’d be guarding her pretty tightly.”

“Let’s just say that I’m able to get into some places where others might have a bit of…difficulty. Regardless, I know that’s where she is. There aren’t usually that many jailors actively guarding her and the other prisoners, though. It’s hard to get to that level and, realistically, how many Besquith does it take to control one small Human woman?”

“So it should be easy getting her?” Nigel asked.

“I didn’t say that. There are several platoons that are based in the building who fulfill routine ceremonial duties, as well as some who provide security and some who are guards in the jail. All of these are real mercenary forces. After the alarm is given, you can expect them to arm themselves and defend the guild hall to the best of their abilities.”

“Are there any of them that might help us?” Walker asked.

“None that can be counted upon,” the Pendal replied. “There are certain other individuals who might be of some assistance; my…associate was going to speak to one of them, so we may have some help. We can’t count on her, though, so we’ll have to plan it all out.”

“Who is this ‘helper?’” Nigel asked. “We don’t want to shoot her accidentally.”

The Pendal made a noise like steam escaping a boiler, which Nigel knew to be their version of laughter. “Don’t worry,” the Pendal said. “You won’t see her if she doesn’t want to be seen.”

“Okay,” Walker said. “What can you tell us about these platoons of armed guards and any sort of security procedures you’ve seen?”

“The normal security and ceremonial duties are performed by a company of MinSha. There are always several of them in the building’s atrium and scattered throughout the building. There’s also a security control station where the building’s cameras are monitored. There’ll be two in there, as well.

“There are also a company of Besquith who run things in the jail level,” the Pendal added, “and at least a company of Goka as a rapid response force.”

Walker twitched. “Fucking hate them,” he muttered.

“Okay,” Nigel said, “I don’t see any show-stoppers. The MinSha and the Besquith might have some heavy weapons or some big laser weapons we’ll have to watch out for, but they’ll be spread out. The Goka are tough and could be concentrated, but there aren’t that many of them. All in all, I think we can get this done.”

“There is one issue,” the Pendal announced.

“Of course there is,” Nigel replied.

“The only way to get to the third sublevel, where your leader is being held, is via an elevator on the second sublevel, which is controlled by the security station.”

“Where’s the barracks for the Besquith jailors?” Walker asked.

“By the elevator on the second sublevel.”

“And the barracks for the security forces?” Nigel asked.

“Near the security station.”

“Of course they are,” Nigel said.

“It’s where I’d put them,” Walker noted.

“Yeah, me too,” Nigel said. “We’ll have to split our forces. I’ll take and hold the security station while you go get your boss.”

“That works for me,” Walker replied. He turned to the Pendal. “So, how do we get to both places?”

The Pendal pulled a slate out of the folds of his robe. “I have a schematic I put together that shows you where you need to go.”


* * *

Cell Block 307A, Mercenary Guild, Capital Planet

The door slammed open, and a CASPer’s bulk filled the doorway. The suited figure didn’t say anything but waved for Sansar to come out. She tried to get out of bed but couldn’t. Something held her there; something kept her from fleeing. She looked but couldn’t see the chains. Sansar laid back and tried to scream, but a giant knife appeared at her throat, threatening to slit it if she moved or screamed. It began pressing down, and she could feel her skin part under its razor-sharp edge. She was powerless and about to die, with rescue so close…yet so far…

The door to her cell slammed open, awakening her from the dream, and two Besquith filled the opening, laughing. Sansar shuddered as she sought to return to the dream, unwilling to respond to the reality the two Besquith represented. She’d never seen them this happy before…and that could only mean one thing.

“So this is it, then?”

“Yes,” said the one she had privately come to call ‘Dumb.’ “Today’s your day to die!”

“And we get to eat you!” added the one she thought of as ‘Dumber.’

“Well, we don’t get to eat her entirely,” Dumb said as Sansar shivered involuntarily. “We have to bring her to the execution alive.”

“But we can still have a bite or two? I’ve never tasted a Human before.”

“I don’t see why not.”

The Besquith entered her room. While they were unarmed, they didn’t need weapons to dismember her; they towered above her, were many times stronger, and had razor-sharp claws and teeth. If you wanted to design a perfect killing machine, it would look very much like a Besquith.

Sansar vaulted from her bed, looking for something—anything!—she could use as a weapon as they closed in on her. While she’d let them take her back and forth to the tribunal without a fight, she was not going to let them abuse her. As nothing magically appeared to help her defend herself, she dropped into the Krav Maga fighting stance, hands up, elbows and chin down. She shrugged her shoulders up and rounded them forward, as ready as she was going to get.

“This is going to be fun,” Dumb said, chuckling. The two aliens split to come at her from different directions.

As they closed in on her, Sansar knew she couldn’t let them get their claws in her, or she’d be finished. Just before they reached her, she sprang at Dumber, using his bent knee as a stepping stone to leap and kick him in the jaw. She felt a crack in both her foot and the alien’s jaw as the blow connected, and her leg erupted in fire as one of its claws ripped through her prison attire and tore three bloody lines down her leg.

She landed and staggered to get her balance, trying to keep most of the weight off her damaged foot. She hadn’t had time to think about it, but the soft prison shoes weren’t up to the task of kicking something as hard as a Besquith’s head. Dumber growled, shaking his head to clear it, but Dumb only gurgled.

Risking a glance at the other Besquith, she saw it was spurting blood from its neck as it looked around in a confused manner, its mouth open, then collapsed to the floor.

“What did you do to him?” Dumber roared as it reached for her.

Sansar stumbled back away from the monster. Before she could say anything, a slash opened across Dumber’s throat, and it erupted in a spray of blood that rivaled his partner’s. He stood for a couple of seconds, looking at her, then fell to the floor near the other Besquith.

A small, clawed footprint appeared in one of the blood puddles, then a small furry form appeared holding a wicked-looking knife. It stopped to wipe it off on Dumb, then stood up and addressed the two Besquith. “Welcome to our negotiation,” she said. “Too bad it wasn’t a little longer.”

The Depik strutted over to Sansar. “I hate those things,” she said. “They think they’re such good killers, but all they really are is bullies. They could never match the skills of a Hunter.”

Sansar pointed to the cell floor. “You left two footprints.”

“I know,” the Depik said. “Although we normally don’t leave any indication we were around, this is a statement to the Merc Guild. Despite what they think, they don’t control us, nor can they tell us what contracts we can and cannot take.”

“Well, thank you, brave Hunter, for saving my life,” Sansar said. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m very happy you came, but I thought you said you couldn’t help me escape?”

“And I couldn’t, normally,” the Depik replied.

Alarm lights began strobing, and a siren wailed in the distance.

“Did you do that?” Sansar asked, nodding toward the siren.

“No, your friends did, I suspect. I was told they were coming and asked if there was anything I could do to help you.”

“Who asked you to do that?”

“A friend of yours,” the Depik replied. “I was told to tell you, ‘Smokey says hi.’”

Sansar pointed to the Besquith. “You’re sure you’re okay with that? They’re going to know I didn’t do that.”

“I didn’t have much time for alternatives,” the Depik replied. “Perhaps it would have been better if I’d gone for additional weapons and left you alone with them for another five minutes?”

“No, I don’t think that would have worked out as well,” Sansar said with a smile. “Thank you for coming.”

The Depik walked to the door, looked up and down the hallway, then turned back to Sansar. “Stay here and let me see about getting you a weapon.”

“Can you take me to my friends?” Sansar asked.

The Depik looked over her shoulder. “I’m sorry, but that’s impossible. If we’re lucky, though, I may be able to keep you alive until they get here.”

* * *

Above the Mercenary Guild, Capital Planet

Nigel stepped out of the transport and began falling toward the city. Although he’d done plenty of High-Altitude, Low-Deploy drops, he’d never been a big fan of them—too much room for things to go catastrophically wrong, and he usually touched down without a drop of jump juice to spare—so jumping from 10,000 meters was a walk in the park. As the planet’s gravity was slightly less than Earth’s, he also didn’t pick up speed as quickly, and as he descended, he almost felt like he was going too slowly. One thing the slower fall was good for, though, was getting a good look at the target area, and he turned two of his cameras down to take a look.

He laughed. A blind man couldn’t miss the target.

Where the rest of the capital—and the planet, too, for that matter—was stark, dead, and dotted with craters, the guild headquarters was best described as “grandiose.” It stuck up in the middle of the Capital City buildings like an oasis in the middle of a desert, beautiful and attention-grabbing. At 40 stories tall, it outclassed everything else in the city; the next closest guild structure was no more than half its size.

On the front of the building was an enormous guild logo, nearly eight stories tall, which spread from one side of the building to the other. “Power, Service, Profit,” it read in lurid red letters, with weapons supporting the first two tenets, and a pile of red diamonds illustrating the profit portion of the motto. Nigel thought about launching several rockets at the logo to fuck it up, just on general principle. Power and profit the guild had in bunches, but he had no idea who they were truly serving, aside from the guild’s own leadership.

He decided not to destroy the logo—the two honest people in the guild might happen to be sitting at their desks on the other side of the windows—and turned his attention to the landing area beneath him. He risked a second glance at the logo and smiled; perhaps he could hit it on the way out if he had extra ammo.

Nigel looked back to the landing area and saw two types of beings in the street in front of the guild headquarters. Some aliens were standing and pointing—obviously non-mercs, they had no concept of what was happening—and other aliens who were running, flying, and slithering as fast as they could to get into the guild hall and get their weapons. He began firing at them as he jockeyed his thrusters to get closer to the building. Additional fire swept past him from the other CASPers, and most of the non-merc aliens got the hint; soon everyone was running. It was beautiful.

He touched down as two MinSha wearing breathing masks raced from the guild with laser rifles. They’d failed to honor the threat, and twenty-three laser rifles and railguns splattered their blood and chitin across the front of the building in a series of macabre blue Rorschach patterns.

Nigel gave a quick glance at the icons on his heads-up display—all green—and started for the doors, scanning on both sides of him to see the rest of the platoon forming up on him.

Alpha Sierra One, this is Gulf Hotel One,” Walker called, “we’re down and entering the building.

Gulf Hotel, we are down and about to do the same. Minimal resistance so far. See you in a bit.

Nigel lowered his shoulder and smashed through the first set of steelglass doors. A second set waited for him, and he realized the front of the building was an airlock, like on a ship. He stepped back and fired several railgun rounds through the second set of doors in front of him. Lieutenant Justin Smith fired several more into the door, and together they smashed through the steelglass and into the atrium. Although the doors had been proof against hurricane force winds, they were unable to stop a ton of angry men and machines, especially when weakened by the railgun rounds that had already gone through them.

The platoon poured into the building’s foyer as the airlock breach alarms wailed, and the blue and white warning lights strobed. In the lightning-like flashes of the emergency strobes, Nigel drew up to a stop, amazed. For an organization that was nominally focused on things like death and war, the display on the other end of the atrium was mind-boggling, both in its size and scope. In front of him was a huge mural titled “The Last Canavar.” Nearly a full-size representation at least 90 feet high, a Raknar stood with a booted foot on a Canavar’s head, while it fired some kind of huge gun down into it.

The Canavar’s body trailed down to the right side of the atrium, where a series of 10 enormous cases contained what had to be actual Canavar skulls. Nigel shook his head at their immensity, hoping he never had to do battle with one. Between the video Jim had shown him, the mural, and the skulls, he realized that, if anything, the tales he’d heard about the fearsomeness of the Canavars—which he’d personally scoffed at—probably didn’t do them justice.

On the left side of the atrium were several cases showing the evolution of laser rifles and other armaments. They normally would’ve been impressive in their scope; instead, they paled in comparison to the Canavar display.

“Let’s go!” he yelled, shrugging off the effect of the display and moving forward. The rest of the platoon spread out and followed him as he raced across the open area.

* * *

Behind the Mercenary Guild, Capital Planet

Walker surveyed the landing zone as his troops came down almost like snowflakes in the lower gravity. Everything seemed slower…or maybe it was because there weren’t people trying to kill him at the moment, which gave him time to think.

The Mercenary Guild headquarters was obvious in its monstrosity, lording the guild’s wealth and power over the rest of the guilds on Capital Planet like a sixth-grade bully in a third-grade classroom. We have the guns and the power, it seemed to say, and all will bow down to us.

The Guild had Walker’s boss, though, and neither Walker nor the rest of the Golden Horde troopers were particularly in a mood to bow.

Unlike the front of the headquarters building, which faced most of the city, the back side of the guild hall faced a couple more blocks of smaller buildings—warehouses, mostly—then the blasted, cratered planet’s surface stretched out as far as he could see.

“Everyone’s down and formed up,” First Sergeant Muunokhoi ‘Mun’ Enkh reported. “We’re ready to move out.”

“Good, let’s go!” He started down the large ramp to the loading docks behind the building, then his conscious mind caught on something he’d seen, and he did a double-take behind him. There, across the street and down several buildings, a giant warehouse stood partially open. Inside, he could just see the outline of the gigantic humanoid structure his subconscious had recognized—Raknar!

He shook his head to clear it, then turned and raced down the ramp with the rest of the troops. The ramp was big enough to accommodate at least four hovertrucks simultaneously, with a dock at the bottom for each. Two of the slots were currently filled with massive vehicles being unloaded. Some of the people had obviously seen them land and were staring at them curiously. The other aliens had either had some mercenary service or were a bit sharper than the first group, as they threw themselves to the ground and tried to look as inoffensive as possible. After a few moments, so did the crews unloading the trucks and the workers on the platform.

With a roar of their jumpjets, the troopers launched themselves onto the loading dock, while keeping the workers there covered with their weapons. Walker was the last to land, and he quickly scanned the various aliens. None of the workers looked like merc races—mostly Lotar and Zuparti traders, with a few others—the closest to being dangerous was probably the Cochkala. He heard a wailing sound from inside the building.

Using his external speakers, he amplified his voice and spoke in Zuparti, “Everyone needs to leave immediately. You have one minute, then we’ll declare anyone still here a party to the conflict, and you’ll be shot. Leave now, and don’t come back today!”

Most looked up at him in surprise, not sure what to do. “Go!” he yelled, firing his railgun into the air. “Go! Go! Go!”

With that, the aliens jumped down to the ramp or into the backs of the two trucks as they started up the ramp. One Lotar was too slow making the jump and struck its head on the deck of the truck with a crack! It fell to the ground and didn’t move.

“Leave two troopers here to watch the docks, Mun!” Walker ordered. “Everyone else, let’s go!”

Walker raced across the large warehouse space that the loading docks led into, and toward the marked airlock. As he got a clear line of sight to it, he fired off two of his shoulder-mounted rockets, which raced ahead of him and exploded on the cargo-sized doors. As the smoke cleared to reveal a huge hole, he fired his railgun through the gap as he continued to run.

With a roar of flames, Mun landed in front of him at a full sprint and charged ahead of him. She fired a few more rounds as she raced through the gap in the airlock doors, then launched herself at the doors on the other side of the airlock. The doors shattered in a spray of steelglass, and she rolled to a stop on the other side.

“Stop!” a MinSha trooper yelled from a guard post to the right as he reached for his weapon. He was focused on Mun and never saw Walker as the Human put a burst of railgun rounds through the trooper. A second MinSha went down a half-second later.

Mun got back to her feet and put a hand on his chest, stopping his forward motion with a jarring slam. “The lieutenant colonel doesn’t get to lead assaults anymore, now that he is a lieutenant colonel,” Mun said on a private channel. “That’s what you have us troopers for.”

Walker realized she was right and motioned to the large doorway to the side. “Be my guest,” he replied.

“Glass, Figueroa,” Mun said, “lead the way down. Everyone else, follow them. Sergeant Enkh and Corporal Enkh, you stay here and guard our way out. Kill anyone armed that comes this way.”

Staff Sergeant Glass kicked in the door, and Sergeant Michael Figueroa dove through it. He did a roll and came back to his feet on a circular ramp. The ramp led both up and down, and it served as an alternate to the elevator system for the wide variety of aliens that had to transit between levels in the building.

Glass charged in behind Figueroa, didn’t see any threats, and vaulted over the railing and into the open area in the center of the ramp. He swept the ramp with his laser rifle as he descended, landing in a burst of flames from his jumpjets two levels down.

Also disdaining the ramp, Figueroa followed him down, steering to land next to him.

“Clear!” Glass called on the tactical net as he moved out of the ramp area with Figueroa next to him.

“Let’s go!” Mun urged, jumping the railing. The rest of the troopers followed, fanning out as they landed.

Walker was the last to reach the bottom of the ramp and saw the bottom level was marked as Sublevel #2. Perfect. “This is where the Besquith are,” he reminded them. “Shoot to kill.”

Glass moved to the side of the door that led out of the ramp area and kicked it in. A volley of laser fire slashed past him from the other side and into the Golden Horde troopers.

* * *

Cell Block 307A, Mercenary Guild, Capital Planet

The Depik materialized in Sansar’s cell holding two laser pistols and handed them to her. “This was the best I could do unnoticed,” she said.

“Thank you,” Sansar said, taking both. “Don’t you want one?”

The Depik slow blinked. “I have plenty of my own.” She held up her knife, which glinted in the strobing light. “This is all I really need.” She moved back to the door and added, “If you see anyone coming through this door, it isn’t me.”

Sansar looked around the room, but just as the empty space hadn’t provided a weapon earlier, it also didn’t have anything in the way of cover—the only furniture was the bed, and it was secured to the floor. She inspected it quickly, realizing that only the mounts on the front two posts held it in place, and set to work burning them off with one of the laser pistols. At lower power, with a constant beam, she was able to melt through the restraints, although it cost all that pistol’s battery.

Hearing voices in the hallway outside the door, she set the pistols down and yanked the bed out of its cubicle, then turned it on its side. She inspected it critically and realized that it wouldn’t do much in the way of stopping any serious weaponry, but at least it gave her something to hide behind. She grabbed the pistols and dove behind the bed as the door creaked open behind her.

“What do we have here?” asked a voice in Besquith.

She peeked over the top of the bed and saw a Besquith wearing a prison uniform standing in the doorway. Great, they’d released the prisoners…or that one had broken out. She wasn’t sure which was worse.

“Let’s have some fun,” the alien said as it threw the door the rest of the way open and entered her cell.

Sansar fervently hoped the Depik would return and deal with the monster, but as it approached, she realized that wasn’t going to happen, so she raised one of the pistols and fired. The beam, a weak one, hit the creature in the shoulder, and it drew back with a roar. Sansar pulled the trigger again and nothing happened; it was dead.

Realizing her mistake, she dropped the empty pistol as the Besquith charged her and raised the second pistol. The creature flinched as it came into view, and her shot hit the alien in the opposite shoulder. She fired again as the alien dove for her, hit it in the head as it crashed into her impromptu barricade, and the alien and the bed slammed into her, driving her backward into the wall.

She must have blacked out for a time, because when she came to her senses, she heard another Besquith laughing. “This is too easy,” it said. “I don’t know how you killed the others, but you will be mine.”

Her eyes sprang open and she saw the alien—the other former prisoner—was already in her room, surveying the damage from the earlier fights. It stepped over one of the Besquiths the Depik had killed earlier and threw her bed to the side. She looked around frantically, but her pistol was nowhere to be seen. It reached for her, and she tried to roll to the side, but it was too quick and grabbed her before she could get away. Pain strobed from her shoulders as its claws entered her, and the pain threatened to overwhelm her. A blinding white flash of pain crossed her vision as it lifted her off the ground. She felt the monster’s hot breath on her face, then she was out of the monster’s claws and falling. She hit and collapsed into a heap as the Besquith salivated on her.

When it didn’t grab her again, she looked up and realized the creature wasn’t salivating—it was spurting blood from several wounds. With a whimper it fell to the side, and the Depik appeared. “I really can’t leave you alone for a minute, can I?” she asked.

The Depik bent down and picked up the laser pistol from behind Sansar and handed it to her. “You are a mercenary, right? You do know how to use one of these things?”

“I killed one of them,” Sansar replied, “but I got knocked out, I guess, and the other grabbed me before I could come to my senses.”

“Well don’t let them do that,” the Depik replied. She nodded to Sansar’s wounds, which were bleeding heavily. “I imagine it hurts.”

“It does,” Sansar said. She checked to see if she had the working pistol—she did—then she climbed to her feet. “Is it time to go yet?”

“Umm, no,” the alien replied. “I was coming to tell you they’re sending a squad of guards to kill you.”

“What do we do?”

“We attack before they’re ready, of course,” the Depik replied. “I’ll hit them first. Wait for the explosions, and finish off any that are left.”

“Explosions?” Sansar asked, but the alien had already gone invisible. Sansar hobbled to the door—somehow she’d wrenched a knee in all the fighting, and her leg didn’t seem to work very well—and took a peek around the door jamb. A large group of Besquith with laser rifles were coming, killing all the remaining prisoners as they moved down the hall. Two of the monsters shot the Zuparti in the cell next to hers and she could hear the alien howl as it died. Apparently, the Besquiths’ executions were anything but merciful. Typical.

The squad turned toward her cell. Even with the assassin’s help, she didn’t see how they’d be able to defeat all the Besquith. This time, she was doomed.

* * * * *


Chapter Twenty-Two


Karma Station, Karma System

“They don’t seem interested in releasing them to us,” Paka said.

“No, it doesn’t seem like it,” Alexis replied. “Get me Commander Kowalczy on Alicorn.

“Commander,” Kowalczy said when his image appeared in the Pegasus’ CIC.

“It would seem they want to fight,” Alexis said.

“I agree, Commander. You know, you really should go by ‘Admiral’ in these multi-task force situations.”

Alexis snorted.

“At least ‘Commodore,’” Paka agreed.

“In a Gtandan’s eye,” Alexis growled, then grinned. “Maintain order of battle,” she said. “Take Task Force Two and assist the merc fleet in disengaging. Pegasus and my task force will go convince the Bakulu that fighting is a suboptimal solution.”

“Roger that, Commodore. Alicorn out.”

“Commodore, my ass,” Alexis said. “To Task Force One from Pegasus. Begin advance. Inform Chimera to begin launching.” The two task forces split, led by their escort frigates and cruisers, with the two battlecruisers in the middle and the fleet carriers in trail. As one, the carriers began disgorging a swarm of drones.

“Enemy fleet element hasn’t begun repositioning,” Glick said, the tone of his voice from the translator was curious. “We seem to have caused quite a bit of disarray.”

“You’re going to want to see this,” Flipper said, and the main Tri-V refocused on a fast-moving shape.

“Is that a Raknar?” Alexis asked. She cocked her head. The image was not great, because the distance was. Still, it could well be. “Where is it—” She was about to ask where it was going, because the plan was for the Raknar to assault the station, when it slammed into the side of the massive battleship. Debris, outgassing, and fires fountained from the hole and were instantly consumed by the void as the entire ship visibly shuddered.

“That won’t just buff out,” Xander said.

“Glad I’m not DCC on that tub,” Afeeko agreed.

Alexis knew it had to be Jim Cartwright. Nobody else had a working Raknar. It was also painted in Cavalier blue. But had she just witnessed a suicide attack? The kid hadn’t seemed unstable, though he did appear depressed a lot. Whatever the reason or motivation, the attack had kicked the shit out of the target. “Any chance the Raknar survived?”

Paka had a screen running data from what they’d witnessed. Velocities and stresses were estimated, then she spoke. “It was going about 500 meters per second at impact.” The display showed an explosion or weapon fire from the Raknar’s legs right before impact. The armor under it visibly distorted. “If that weakened the armor sufficiently, the result could have been similar to our boarding pods.”

“The internal structure of the ship slowed its impact,” Alexis said, and Paka noted.

“If so, the G forces were survivable.”

“If the suit survived,” Xander said.

“Raknar are pretty fucking tough,” Afeeko said. “I’ve seen some of the armor. A couple of races have used recycled pieces on their tanks. Tough doesn’t do the stuff justice.” Alexis was just trying to decide how to take advantage of the weakened battleship when the Raknar exploded back out of the ship, not far from where it had penetrated.

“I guess that answers the question of whether it survived,” Paka said. Then the battleship exploded. “Entropy!” As if that weren’t amazing enough, the Raknar then attacked one frigate after another which had been screening the battleship. The slaughter was disturbing. It finished off the display by shoving one frigate into the side of a cruiser, critically damaging both, and then flying off toward the nearby Karma station.

“I guess that also answers the question of how effective Raknar are in combat,” Alexis said. Every being with a head nodded. On the screen, the Bakulu fleet, or what remained of it, was beginning to reorganize. Doors were opening on one of the two fleet carriers. Someone must have finally noticed the Hussars’ inbound drone swarm. “Xander, charge the spinal mount. Target that carrier. Maximum charge, please.”

* * *

Jim wanted to turn around and finish off the alien fleet. The desire burned in him like a smoldering wildfire. He’d never felt more alive. Killing the Canavar was satisfying, but they had been mere younglings. Had they been fully grown, four of them could have easily defeated a lone Raknar. These ships, in space, while missing his active missile shield and without even an energy sword? That was a challenge.

The mission.

“I know,” he said, and he flew on toward the rapidly-closing station.

The prisoners he needed to rescue were in a secondary ring off the main hub in the lower gravity section. As he approached, a pair of defensive satellites opened up with what the Raknar classed as light lasers. Jim used the vernier thrusters to alter course and locked the right arm gun in place.

The Cavaliers’ engineers had taken the original improvised battleship gun Jim had used against the Canavar and modernized it, using a magazine-fed semi-automatic cannon weighing half as much, with a barrel shorter than the arm and meticulously integrated into the mecha’s systems.

Jim lined up and fired. The thunderous recoil rode through the Raknar, spinning it around further, and making it hard for the lasers to hit. The blowback worked the action and expended a casing the size of a large suitcase as it loaded another. When the spin was complete, he used the jets, controlled the spin, and fired a second time. The first satellite was blown to pieces as he fired the second time, wrecking the other.

Finally, he started to feel more in control. Jim didn’t know what had come over him back at the ships. It was like he couldn’t stop himself. He used his pinplants to trigger some music. The straining lyrics of Brian Johnson echoed inside the ancient mecha. I was caught, in the middle of a railroad track. I looked round, and I knew there was no turning back…Splunk cooed appreciation in his mind, and they went to work.

Karma station was a considerably softer target than a Bakulu battleship. If he wasn’t careful, Jim could rip the structure apart, and that wasn’t his goal. Especially since his perception showed a huge transport docking at the hub, right on schedule. He braked with his jumpjets off center to avoid washing lethal radiation over the station while compensating with his verniers. After he knew he’d killed enough momentum he tucked into a roll.

And I thought, what could I do, and I knew, there was no help, no help from you. He burned out of the roll, ending with his shoulder facing the looming station. Sound of the drums, beating in my heart. The thunder of guns tore me apart. You’ve been…Thunderstruck.

The thousand-ton Raknar slammed into the station. The instant he’d broken through the exterior hull he spread his arms and the metal groaned as he came almost completely to a stop within the huge bay he’d been targeting. The Raknar’s feet thundered down onto a MinSha dropship full of troopers which had the unfortunate luck to be parked in just that spot.

“Down and clear,” Jim said.

“’Bout time you got back on mission,” Hargrave replied. Dozens of compartment hatches opened on the Raknar’s armor, and a platoon of Cartwright’s Cavaliers poured out to attack the station.

* * *

“Highguard fleet is engaging Task Force Two,” Glick called out. “Commander Kowalczy says he’s punching through right now. Enemy force three battlecruisers, five cruisers, and eleven frigates.”

“Even match,” Alexis noted. Task Force Two contained a battle cruiser, four cruisers, eight frigates, and a carrier. She could see on one of the tactical Tri-Vs as Kowalczy sent his overwhelming drone force to rain destruction on the seemingly superior enemy force. Her own task force had faced the only enemy carrier in the system and obliterated it with a spinal mount shot before they could get a single drone in the black. “Remind the commander we just need to clear them out, not flatten them.” Glick bobbed his eyes and sent the information.

“Cartwright’s team has been inserted into the station and is freeing the other merc units,” Flipper said. The Tri-V changed to show the Raknar literally shouldering its way into Karma station. Jim had assured her it would be a minimal-damage entry. The 10-meter-wide jagged wound in the bay was anything but minimal. Considering how mangled the Bakulu fleet remnants she was cleaning up were, Alexis decided maybe that was minimal for a Raknar.

“Very good,” she said, “have Bucephalus detach and proceed to Upsilon 4 to retrieve the necessary stores while we hold the remainder of the ships at bay.”

“Merc fleet is under power,” Glick added. All the merc ships that had been held in parking orbit were now under power and combining into a fleet. A coded transmission just after Alexis’ fleets arrived let her know that Bert’ Bees had successfully boarded the ships and met very little resistance. Everything pointed to one fact; General Peepo hadn’t expected this move at all. She floated in her CIC, and a grin tugged at the corners of her mouth. Take that, bitch.

* * *

Major Kleet led her marines at a bounding run through Karma station. The panicked call from the MinSha force commander had been cut off mid-transmission, just like the one from the Bakulu battleship. The entropy-cursed elSha assistant couldn’t raise any of the picket fleet except scattered comms from Highguard units which, apparently, were also engaged. The entire operation was turning to shit. Suddenly all the unaligned merc units and civilians evacuating made sense.

“First Platoon around to the spinward entry,” she ordered, “Second Platoon on me.” They were in sealed combat armor because the entire section was decompressed—another clue something serious was going on. With no pressure, the doors swung open on automatic command. The bay was open to space, and even through the door she could see the legs and lower half of an armored robot. “Is that a Raknar?” she wondered aloud. Then a MAC round from a CASPer blew her head off, helmet and all.

* * *

This was the boring part of the operation. Jim watched as the Cavaliers waited for the marine response, then tore through it like tissue paper. He couldn’t help in the fight. Firing off an 18” battleship gun at a couple of Maki marines would be like nuking a garage. He itched to get back into the fight. Of course, he was too big to even leave the bay, except the same way he’d come in. So Jim waited where he was.

He watched the battle progressing outside through data feeds and played some music. He flicked the ruined MinSha drop ship around the bay a couple times until it lodged in the wall, then got bored with that too. Finally Buddha came on the radio.

“The merc units are freed,” he said. “The Maki guards surrendered when we came flying up in our CASPers.”

“Good,” Jim said. “Get them to the transport that’s docked. I’m going back external to provide cover.”

“Roger, Commander. You always sound like one of those voice actors who does movie trailers when you’re in that Raknar.”

Huh, Jim thought as he bent his legs and jumped. The entire bay deformed, leaving a pair of massive Raknar-foot-sized indentations as he flew out the hole he’d made without adding too much more damage. A movie trailer voice? Of course, he’d never considered how he sounded while Splunk and he were doing their thing.

Clear of the bay by a couple dozen meters, he angled his legs and gave a short burst of his jumpjets. The boost was enough to move him away, where he could roll around and fire the fusion rockets more effectively. In a minute, he was floating a kilometer off the station not far from the huge Winged Hussars’ troop transport.

Alexis decided evacing the Human mercs this way was superior to bringing in all their ships and loading them out. The crews would get the ships under escort to the stargate, and the transport could move all the troopers after them. The aliens who’d captured them had left all their gear on the ships anyway.

A spy drone sailed around the station heading toward the transport. It didn’t seem to realize Jim was anything except a random ship parked nearby. With an almost casual swing of his long arm, Jim swatted the drone into scrap like a mosquito. He gave a little grunting laugh at the tiny bit of violence.

“Hussars,” he broadcast, “the transport’s being loaded. You can begin your extraction.”

* * *

Alexis heard the broadcast from Jim and shook her head. He sounded like a politician, or some professional speaker. Was that reverb?

“Understood, Commander Cartwright,” Hoot replied.

“Task Force Two reports they’ve secured Highguard.” Glick said. “Minimal damage to friendly vessels. Not so minimal to enemy ships.” Several people chuckled.

“This just might go off without a hitch,” Paka said. Alexis almost snapped at her not to say that. Spacers tended to be on the superstitious side as it was. You didn’t tempt fate when vacuum and hyperspace were involved.

“Order Task Force One to begin moving toward the stargate. Empress Jito is to hold back to cover for Bucephalus.”

Pegasus began to accelerate slowly toward the stargate, and the frigate Empress Jito moved away and boosted back toward Upsilon 4. The transport Draco detached from Karma station and accelerated toward Pegasus.

“Transport is away,” Jim Cartwright transmitted in his deep altered voice. On the screen, the Raknar did a little flip and its fusion jets lit with a flash. “Returning to Upsilon 4.”

“Roger that,” Alexis said. “We’ll hold Highguard until you make it there. Chug, 2 Gs constant for the stargate.” Fifteen minutes later they flipped over and began braking. As soon as she was close enough, she had Hoot establish comms with the stargate control.

“You’re wanted by the Mercenary Guild,” the Sumatozou said, looking annoyed. She could imagine why. Karma was probably a pretty cushy job, normally. Now with the system turned into a war zone, he was charged with preventing her from leaving, and he probably wished he was in some other nowhere system, dying of boredom.

“Yes, we are,” she admitted, “and we’re leaving as soon as I give the order.”

“Not through my stargate, you aren’t.” Alexis smiled and the gate master’s eyes narrowed.

“I’m going to make this simple for you. We’ll send a drone over with 10 million credits. That’s four times the unscheduled gate fee for this location. Keep the rest, donate it to the Cartography Guild’s unemployed asshole association, I don’t care. But open the gate as we requested. Or…”

“Or what, Commander Cromwell?”

“Or I send over a platoon of marines to dig you out of that control room and throw you in an airlock and space your fat ass.”

“You wouldn’t dare!” the gate master snarled. “Kill me and my staff and you will never leave this system.”

“We’ll just operate the stargate ourselves.” The Sumatozou gate master laughed long and hard. Alexis waited patiently for him to stop. “Was something funny?”

“The operation of a stargate is our most closely-guarded secret,” he said, still laughing his deep bass laughs. “You don’t even get to learn the startup sequences for a stargate’s primary operating system until you’ve been apprenticed for 20 years. Yet you think you can just break in here and operate this facility? You, Commander Cromwell, are delusional.”

“<Repeat this code. Zeta, zeta, epsilon, nine, nine, nabla, obelus.>” Alexis repeated what Ghost had just said. The gate master took a step back from the Tri-V pickup in absolute shock.

“Now, gate master. Money or vacuum, you choose.”

“Contact!” Flipper barked. Alexis gestured at the gate master, and he was muted.

“Report.”

“A fleet just transitioned into the system. At least 20 ships. They carried enough delta V that they’ll arrive at the station before we could.”

“Cartwright and his people,” Alexis said. “Damn it.”

* * *

Jim had flipped his Raknar over and was slowing as he approached Upsilon 4. Bucephalus was already docked with the station, as was the Hussars’ frigate, Empress Jito. He was just a few minutes from coming alongside his cruiser and being brought aboard. All his troopers were in their cozy little compartments on the Raknar, no injuries. It had been a perfect operation.

“Commander Cartwright, this is Alexis Cromwell.”

“Commander?”

“There’s a problem. A fleet just arrived in system. We believe it is a relief unit, but they have their act together unlike the previous one. We can’t get to you before they arrive at the station. It also looks like they know where you are, probably from surviving elements of the Bakulu fleet. There’s a world of hurt coming your way.”

Battle! his combined self exulted.

“No,” he heard Splunk’s physical voice in his ear. “They are ready, and there are too many ships, <Skaa!>

“Then what?” he asked.

“Land, <Skee!>

“Are you sure?” He knew she was even before he asked.

“Jim, we’re going to send everyone else out, and I’m coming back for you with Pegasus. Remember, I have an edge.”

“You’d have to fight your way in, and they’d all go for you. No, Commander, the mission was to get all the Human mercs out. Complete the mission.”

“We’re not abandoning one of the Horsemen.”

“You aren’t,” he insisted. “We’ll see you at Home.”

“How?”

“I can’t say,” Jim admitted. “You just have to trust us.” Alexis scowled and stared at him. “I’m the commander of Cartwright’s Cavaliers,” he said, “and I sound really impressive. You should do what I say.” Alexis cracked up and shook her head.

“Don’t make me come back here and rescue your ass, Jim Cartwright. I’m not usually in the business of rescuing people.”

“See you back in that cool station of yours.” He changed channels. “Hargrave? You been listening in?”

“Here, Boss. Yes, but I don’t understand any better than she did.”

“To tell the truth, neither do I.”

“Boss?”

“I can’t explain. Keep the ships docked. We’ll be landing in the Raknar bay in 5 minutes.”

* * *

Splunk took her hands away, and Jim snapped back to his normal self. It was disconcerting, but it got easier every time they did it. “You okay?” he asked Splunk. She nodded her head, ears wagging and patted his head. Still, there was something wrong with her mannerisms. She seemed nervous. Outside, the bay was flushed with high pressure nitrogen, then pressurized with oxygen. The nitrogen made sure no residual radioactive particles lingered in the air, and it was a system Jim hadn’t managed to have repaired yet, so he was surprised when it worked.

“Who fixed the flush system?” he asked as he hung the oxygen mask up in the cockpit, not needing it now. “Did you do it?” he asked his Fae companion. She shook her head, and he narrowed his eyes. “What’s wrong?” She popped the Raknar cockpit and skittered out. “Hey, Splunk? What’s going on?”

He wanted to run after her, but he was 20 meters above the deck. Even in the low gravity on Upsilon 4, that was too far to jump. By the time he’d climbed down to the deck, she was gone, and Hargrave was walking in.

“Jim, what are we going to do? Staying here and getting captured doesn’t seem like a great idea.” Around them the platoon of CASPers he’d brought to Karma Station jumped down to the deck, braking with tiny pulses from their jumpjets.

“Hell of a mission!” Buddha said, stopping next to them and popping his cockpit. “You kinda went off the rails in that ship attack. The guys and I were afraid you’d forgotten about us.”

“I did,” he admitted. “When I’m linked into the Raknar, it’s not me anymore.” Both Buddha and Hargrave looked confused. “I can’t explain. Just like I can’t explain why coming here will keep us safe.”

“We don’t have enough forces to hold this place,” Hargrave said. “Three companies won’t do it; it’s too big. We’d need three battalions.” Jim nodded. Of course the older merc was right. “But they’ll probably just stand back and nuke the rock into dust.”

“Commander?” Jim heard over his pinplants.

“Go ahead, Captain Su.”

“A squadron of ten warships is closing on us. They’ll be in weapons range in five minutes. If I don’t detach, I’m a sitting duck.” A memory echoed in the back of his mind. Don’t let the ships go.

“Remain docked, Captain.”

“But, Commander…”

“Everything will be fine, I promise.”

“Very well, Bucephalus out.”

“<Jim, come to where we found the adversary.>

“Stay with the troopers,” Jim said. Hargrave gawked. “Like I told Captain Su, everything will be fine.” He headed through the massive tunnels, moving quickly in long, bounding strides. Then he was at the door to the bay where Splunk and he had encountered the strange robotic lifeform back when they first came to the station. The battle had almost killed him. He’d only survived by having Captain Su blow the cargo bay doors off, ejecting the creature into space. His internal clock said they had 2 minutes before the alien fleet would be in weapons range.

“I’m here, Splunk,” he said, then shook his head. She hadn’t transmitted those instructions on the radio! How had she done that? The doors rumbled open. The scene inside was one he could never have imagined in all his life.

“Hello, Jim, <Otoo!>

Splunk was sitting on a little chair hooked to a series of consoles. There were dozens and dozens more consoles, all constructed from full-scale computers, various different models of Tri-Vs, and a dizzying variety of slates. Sitting perched in front of many of those slates were an equally amazing variety of Fae.

“Surprise,” one of them said. It was white; the only one of that particular shade. All the Fae turned and regarded him with dozens of pairs of startling blue eyes.

One of the Fae chortled a sound of alarm. Jim was just standing there with his jaw hanging down, but he recognized the sound as one Splunk used when they were in danger. The white Fae turned and spoke in their language, galvanizing all the others to action. That one’s in charge, Jim thought. Enough of his presence of mind remained for him to be disappointed that it wasn’t Splunk who was in charge.

One of the Tri-Vs showed the approaching fleet. They’d launched missiles, and the weapons were tracking in. It looked like the aliens had decided it wasn’t worth digging him out of the asteroid base after all. They were just going to kill him.

“Watch this, Jim, <Skaa!>” Splunk said.

One of the larger Tri-Vs showed the planet Karma. It was far enough away that the orbiting station wasn’t visible. The missiles raced closer and closer. Jim tried not to panic, but it was nearly impossible. One of the Fae was saying something in a rhythmic manner. Was it counting down? Then there was a sudden feeling of uncreation as he was obliterated and reassembled in a single heartbeat. The big Tri-V showed nothing but pure whiteness.

“Are we in hyperspace?” Jim gasped. The white Fae looked at him and gave Jim an unmistakable thumbs-up. The other Fae all made their musical speech to each other for a few seconds, then began shutting down their consoles and disappearing into numerous small exits. In seconds, only Splunk and the white one remained.

“It wasn’t just you stealing everything in sight on Karma station, was it?” he asked Splunk. She nodded and the other one smiled. He’d only dealt with Splunk for a long time; having another one there was disconcerting. Not just because he’d now seen so many of them, but because this new one was so different. It didn’t have her curious, almost whimsical methods. This one was serious and liked to lock eyes and stare.

“Jim, this is Sly <Spee!>” He’d never heard the Spee before. Maybe it meant introduction.

“Hello, Jim,” Sly said and bowed its head. This Fae was similar to Splunk in many ways, but it was colored differently, was a bit bigger, and it had a tuft of long loose fur on the end of its tail, similar to the tufts on the end of its and Splunk’s ears. That’s a male, he realized, though he didn’t know how he knew.

“Hello, Sly,” he said. “How did you equip Upsilon 4 with shunts? I know you’ve been stealing a lot of stuff, but you can’t find shunts just lying around in a dusty warehouse.”

“Always had them here,” Sly explained. “This place mobile.” There was the sound of someone bounding down the hallway in their direction. Sly looked past Jim, then turned to go.

“I have a lot of questions,” he said. The Fae looked from Jim to Splunk then back.

“Later,” he said and was gone.

“Splunk,” Jim said after Sly was out of sight, “what the fuck?

“Jim, you in there?” Hargrave yelled as he came into view.

“Yeah,” Jim yelled back. Splunk hopped lightly up onto his shoulder. For the first time, he wasn’t sure if he felt reassured by it. Hargrave came into view and took in the room. It looked like nothing more than a garage sale CIC.

“What the hell, kid? Why didn’t you just tell us you rigged the whole place for hyperspace? You never cease to amaze me.” Jim looked at Splunk, who looked back, her bright blue eyes conveying nothing of what was going on behind them. He opened his mouth to tell Hargrave what he’d seen, and she gave his shoulder the gentlest of squeezes.

“<Later, please.>

“Surprised?” Jim asked his XO. Hargrave clapped him on the back and laughed.

“Captain Su wants to talk; she’d love to know how you managed it.”

“So would I,” he mumbled.

“What?”

“Nothing, I just said I look forward to it.”

Jim allowed himself to be led back down the corridor. He glanced back over his shoulder to see a single white Fae watching him intently. Then he was around the corner.

* * * * *


Chapter Twenty-Three


Inside the Mercenary Guild, Capital Planet

The Asbaran Solutions force began taking fire as they crossed the atrium. The first defenders were two of the MinSha, who were hiding behind a large desk at the far end of the space. They began popping up and firing at the Humans with their laser pistols, and two of the troopers answered with rockets from their shoulder pods. Both MinSha went down in a double flash of overkill.

As the platoon reached the desk and ensured the MinSha were dead—with all the blue blood and pieces of chitin scattered around, it was obvious they were—they began taking fire from the office wing to the left. In addition to the elevator that serviced the wing, a large circular ramp waited just off the main atrium, and aliens could be seen coming from the first six floors which opened onto it.

Several of his troopers’ icons went yellow as the enemy mercs scored hits; they needed to get out of the killing ground!

“This way!” Mason yelled before he could say anything, and the senior trooper raced off to a large doorway on the back wall. He didn’t stop as he reached it but barreled through it with a resounding crash.

Nigel fired a couple of rockets at the enemy mercs on the ramp for suppression and rushed after Mason with the rest of the soldiers.

The space behind the atrium was a warren of hallways and offices, but the platoon had a general idea where it was going and soon reached a door that was inset into the wall, with just a key pad outside it. The door appeared well reinforced, with no handle on the outside.

Nigel hurried up to find Mason eyeing the door.

“Got any ideas?” Nigel asked.

Mason pointed to a tiny camera above the door. “I suppose you could ask them nicely to let us in.”

“I doubt that would work.”

“Me, too. The only other option is to blow it.”

“I agree. Make it happen. We’re also going to need to set up some defensive positions. In addition to the security forces, it looks like every damn person here has their own weapons, too.”

“Damn mercs,” Mason said. Nigel could hear the smile in his voice.

“Yeah. My thoughts exactly.”

“Donnelly, Enkh, and Cortez, take your squads and start setting up blocking positions,” Mason ordered. “Shepherd, get over here and drop this wall.”

“Do you mean blow the door?” Staff Sergeant Vernon Shepherd asked.

“No, the door is reinforced. Blow a hole next to it, into the space beyond, and we’ll go through there.”

“Got it, Top,” Shepherd said, popping his canopy. While the grasping mechanisms of the CASPers continued to get better, Nigel realized some things—like handling explosives—were just easier when done with Human hands. Shepherd opened one of the storage panels on his CASPer’s leg and got to work.

“I got movement from the rear,” Staff Sergeant Kenneth Donnelly called.

“Over on the side, too,” Staff Sergeant Susan Cortez announced on the tac net.

“Status report, Donnelly,” Nigel asked, as he moved away from where the explosives were being placed.

“Just some light probing fire so far,” the soldier replied. “MinSha guards, maybe a merc or two.”

“Same here,” Cortez added. “Looks like they’re just trying to figure out who we are and what we’re up to.”

“That won’t take long,” Mason said on a private circuit to Nigel. “We can expect the MinSha to get geared up and respond quickly. Probably the Goka troops, too.”

Donnelly’s voice came through the tac net again. “I laid out some remote devices, and it looks like a big force of MinSha are coming,” he called. “They’ve got some heavy lasers, too.” There was a pause, then the staff sergeant added, “There’s a lot of enemy forces coming. It’s going to get ugly fast—there’s not a lot of cover in these hallways.”

“Do whatever you need to,” Nigel replied. “Knock down some walls and make your own cover.”

“That didn’t take long,” Nigel replied to Mason. “We’re not going to have much time to waste.”

“I’ll see to the explosives.”

“Please do,” Nigel replied as the first explosions rocked the building from the direction of Donnelly’s squad.

* * *

Under the Mercenary Guild, Capital Planet

Walker watched as Glass kicked in the door, then he dove to the side as laser fire erupted from the hallway behind it. He got a glimpse of several dark forms before he hit the ground and rolled to a stop. Several warning lights illuminated on his panel from his leg sensors, but he was still operational. Three of the other troopers had warning lights as well.

Before he could organize an attack, a grenade rolled out into the area. Staff Sergeant Antonio Rodrigues was at the doorway next to it, and he dove on top of it. The force of the explosion lifted him from the ground, and his icon went red. “Medic!” Walker yelled as two other troopers grabbed the legs of Rodrigues’ suit and pulled him from the doorway.

“Y’all like grenades?” Glass yelled. He pulled out an L bomb and armed it. “Eat this!” he yelled and tossed it through the doorway. The motion caused another round of laser fire, but he avoided it.

The oversize grenade detonated, and smoke and debris flew from the doorway. The laser fire dropped off, but Walker could see it reflecting from the smoke in the air.

Glass snuck a glance around the corner, then armed another grenade and tossed it through the doorway. It detonated, and he raced into the hallway immediately after, firing his rifle. The rest of the squad hurried after him to find the Besquith all dead. They’d set up two barricades; both had been destroyed by the L bombs, and Glass had finished off any that had survived the twin blasts.

The hallway led to another door that was as wide as the passageway. Glass eyed it critically. It slid from one side to the other; there was no way to easily kick it in like he had the others. He looked back up the passageway. “I can try to run into it and knock it down, but there ain’t gonna be a lot of room to hide once I open this door,” he said. “Perhaps y’all would like to move back to the barricades the Besquith set up, or maybe better, back into the stairwell?”

“There isn’t going to be any room for you to hide, either,” Walker noted, “and anyone in the stairwell isn’t going to be able to support you.”

“We could blow the door,” Mun said.

“I don’t want to waste the time needed to set that up,” Walker replied. “The Asbaran folks are going to draw a lot of attention upstairs, and soon; we need to get to the elevator, down, and back, ASAP!”

“How about this?” Captain Joseph Gracia asked. “How about if we back off to the barricades and hit it with rockets in the corners. Maybe that’ll be enough to knock it down.”

“Worth a try,” Mun said.

“I knew there was a reason I brought you,” Walker agreed. “Everyone back to the barricades!”

The platoon went back and took cover as best they could, and a soldier fired four rockets at the corners of the door. Although the rockets blew holes through the door where they hit, the door remained standing and didn’t look significantly weakened.

“Well, shit,” Walker said.

“Back to Plan A,” Glass said. “Cover me once I’m through.” The soldier started jogging toward the door, then leaned forward and toggled his jumpjets. Although the door hadn’t come down when the rockets hit it, it had been significantly weakened, and Glass burst through it easily, tearing the whole thing down. He crashed to the ground and rolled to a stop, then he slowly drew himself back upright again. As much as he jerked getting up, Walker could tell the suit was damaged; the yellow lights on his display for Staff Sergeant Glass only confirmed it. He’d just made it to his feet, wobbling slightly, when an antitank missile from the left hit him center mass. Glass’ life signs went to zero.

“No!” Walker yelled. He ran forward and around the corner. Almost a platoon of Besquith waited fifty feet further down the passageway behind a series of barricades. As he started to slow, 16 weapons swiveled to point at him.

* * *

Inside the Mercenary Guild, Capital Planet

Staff Sergeant Donnelly leaned around the corner and saw several flashes of blue. “There’s a lot of enemy forces coming,” he reported. “It’s going to get ugly fast—there’s not a lot of cover in these hallways.”

“Do whatever you need to,” Colonel Shirazi replied. “Knock down some walls and make your own cover.”

“Now he’s talking,” Donnelly said to Corporal Cody Sain next to him. Donnelly pulled an L bomb off the attachment point, armed it, and tossed it around the corner on the right side of the hallway. As fast as he could, he sent a second one down the hallway on the left side.

The detonations in the enclosed area were tremendous, even buffeting them from around the corner. Donnelly looked around the corner again. “C’mon!” he ordered. “First fire team, follow me.”

Donnelly rounded the corner; he could see through the clearing smoke that the explosives had ripped huge holes in the walls and left rubble strewn across the passageway. The force of the bombs had turned the wall material into powder, though; there wasn’t enough left to scoop up into a barricade, so he sprinted down the hallway and dove into the room on the right exposed by the blast. It was some sort of office space, though no one was in it. Two more soldiers joined him in the room, while two others went into the office on the left.

Although the explosions had stunned the opposing forces, it wasn’t long before the enemy was back and firing at them again. The Humans traded fire with the MinSha; neither side appeared in too much of a hurry to dislodge the other from their positions. After a few minutes, that began to worry Donnelly.

“Sain, I want you to run across the corridor and take a look down the hall while you do.”

“Why’s that, Staff Sergeant?”

“Because this just feels wrong. They aren’t attacking us; they’re just holding us in place. It’s almost like they’re waiting to spring something on us. Something big and nasty. I’d rather know what that was before they unleash it on us.”

“You got it, Staff Sergeant,” Sain said. He backed up a few steps, then charged across the passageway to where the other troopers were, while focusing all his cameras down the hall. He replayed the second’s worth of imagery slowly. The flash of black was exactly what the staff sergeant had been worried about. “Goka inbound!” he yelled.

* * *

Cell Block 307A, Mercenary Guild, Capital Planet

Sansar peeked around the corner, waiting for the explosions. She didn’t know what to expect, but if it didn’t happen quickly, the Besquith squad was going to be in her room.

Beep! Beep! Beep! She could barely hear it at first, then it took her a second to realize what it was.

The Besquith soldiers were closer and had better hearing. They realized what the noise was immediately; it was the sound of a grenade being armed. The noise grew louder as a second and a third were armed. The group looked frantically at each other—Sansar had never seen Besquith scared before—then all of them began pulling the grenades off their belts to throw them.

Sansar hobbled as fast as she could to where the bed lay and threw herself behind it.

The floor jumped as a detonation sounded from the hallway, then a second and third in quick succession. She climbed to her feet as quickly as she could and ground her teeth against the pain as she hurried to the hallway. All the Besquith were down, though not all were dead, and some were starting to rise slowly as they shook off the effects of the blasts. She hobble-jumped to the ones that were moving and fired once through the backs of their heads.

The Depik appeared and cocked her head at Sansar as she slow blinked. “It seems you’re not totally worthless, after all.”

“Well, thanks, I guess,” Sansar replied, picking up one of the Besquith rifles. It was trashed in the explosions. She had to try two more before she found one that looked serviceable. Although the firing stud was awkwardly placed for a Human hand, she thought she could make it work. She turned the rifle off “Safe” and fired it once into one of the Besquith bodies. Awkward, but it worked.

“Ready?” the Depik asked.

“Yes,” Sansar replied. “Why?”

“It’s time to go. Your friends need help.” Sansar realized that the background noise she’d thought was her ears ringing from the triple detonations was actually the sounds of muffled rifle and railgun fire. The Depik started running toward the sounds of weapons fire, then went invisible, leaving her alone.

Sansar hobbled after the alien as fast as she could, chewing on her lip to keep from screaming in pain.

* * *

Inside the Mercenary Guild, Capital Planet

Nigel watched as Staff Sergeant Shepherd inserted the detonator and ran back around the corner to where his CASPer was waiting. He climbed into the suit but left the canopy up. “Ready?” he asked.

“Fire in the hole!” Nigel yelled. “Do it!”

Shepherd turned a switch on the box, pressed a button, and the wall disintegrated in a massive explosion. Before the dust settled, Corporal Mirzaad Zardari and Corporal Joma Gabol were through the resulting 12-foot-tall hole and into the security control room. Nigel was right behind them, although the two MinSha troopers were already dead by the time he made it into the room. Both had innumerable cracks in their chitin from the overpressure of the explosion that probably had killed them, but the troopers had shot them each twice through the thorax, just to make sure.

Nigel looked at the security station and was surprised how much it looked like the ones in Tri-V movies. A bank of monitors sat above a desk with two chairs; they were in continuous motion, showing scenes from all over the Mercenary Guild.

“See if you can figure out how to operate the elevator in the jail complex,” Nigel said. “And hurry. We need to get Colonel Enkh out of there before the damn Goka attack.”

The two troopers jumped out of their suits, dumped the MinSha bodies out of the seats, and began assessing the console.

“We’ve got a problem,” Staff Sergeant Donnelly called.

“What’s that?” Nigel asked.

“All of the Goka disappeared.”

“What do you mean they disappeared?”

“I mean they vanished. They were milling about behind the MinSha, but now I don’t see them anymore.”

“We’re in the security station,” Nigel said. “I’ll see if I can find them on the monitors.”

“Please hurry, sir. I’ve got a bad feeling…”

“Looking…but I don’t see them.”

“That’s what I was afraid of.”

* * *

Inside the Mercenary Guild, Capital Planet

“Damn it,” Donnelly said as he signed off.

“What’s wrong?” Corporal Sain asked. “They’re gone. Maybe they decided there wasn’t a paycheck in it and left.”

“You obviously don’t know Goka,” Donnelly replied. “If there’s sanctioned killing to be done, they’re not going to miss out on it. They’re here…and they’re going to hit us from somewhere we’re not expecting it.”

A voice came over the building’s public-address system. “Attention, Humans. This is General Leeto. As you’re probably aware, I’m the Speaker for the Mercenary Guild. The trial is over, and Sansar Enkh has been convicted. You’re too late, as I’ve already ordered her sentence of death to be carried out. As you’ve probably noticed, you’re surrounded. If you turn yourselves in now, I promise you a fair trial for any crimes you may have committed. I’ll give you 30 seconds to throw down your weapons, or you’ll all be destroyed.

Nigel Shirazi’s voice replied back over the public-address circuit. “Molon labe.

I don’t understand the phrase,” Leeto replied. “That doesn’t appear to be from any of the major Human languages. I assume it means you’ll comply.

Actually, Leeto, that phrase was used two and a half millennia ago, when an ancient king told another leader to surrender their weapons. It simply means, ‘Come and take them.’ Why don’t you come down here, bitch, and try to take mine from me? In fact, I challenge you to single combat. Come down and face me!

I don’t think so, Nigel Shirazi. Yes, I know who you are, and your list of crimes is lengthy. There’s nothing to be gained by fighting you—you’re already under interdict for a variety of crimes. You have 10 seconds to throw down your weapons, or you’ll be destroyed.

I should have known you were a big chicken,” Nigel replied. “Don’t worry, though, I’ll be back for you another time.

Your time is up, Humans. Anything that happens is on your heads for violating the commands of your duly-appointed Guild Master.

Duly-appointed wind bag!” Nigel said.

“Let’s pull back a little,” Donnelly said. “Those Goka went—”

The ceiling above them exploded, and a horde of giant cockroach-like creatures dropped onto them.

“Contact!” Donnelly screamed over the tac net. He fired the railgun on his arm as fast as he could, killing several as they swarmed him. He initiated an L bomb with his other hand, knowing he only had moments. “Goka everywhere!” They were all over him, and he could feel their knives in the joints of his suit, questing for his soft flesh inside. He saw Sain go down with six or eight of the aliens on his suit; it was hard to tell. “They came from the ceiling. I’m—”

He dropped the L bomb as he fell.

* * *

Under the Mercenary Guild, Capital Planet

The Besquith had four barricades on alternating sides of the passage, with four troopers at each of the obstructions. Unable to stop his momentum in time, Walker did the only thing he could—he accelerated, catching the Besquith by surprise. As their weapons came up, he triggered his jumpjets and flew over their initial barrage.

The ceiling was almost 15 feet high, and his back scraped it as he rocketed past the first barricade. He toggled his thrusters, turning sideways in midair, and slammed into the second barricade. Most of the obstruction was furniture, which cushioned his fall by splintering into a million pieces, then his momentum sent him into the four Besquith hiding behind it. Over 1,000 pounds of man and machine crashed down onto them at nearly 30 miles an hour, pancaking them.

He rolled to a stop at the fourth barricade and pushed off it, collapsing the pile of furniture onto the Besquith hiding behind it as he rose to his feet. Turning, he saw one of the Besquith at the third barricade turning to fire at him, and he triggered his jumpjets again, scooping up all four Besquith at the defensive position as he passed by before driving them all into the wall. He shut down his jets as his forward motion stopped and pulled himself back out of the hole he’d created, firing several rounds through the pile just to make sure.

One of the Besquith at the first barricade fired at him, and his left shoulder went yellow, then a series of laser bolts and at least one railgun round from the rest of Walker’s platoon intersected with the Besquith’s head, and it exploded under the hammering like a watermelon under a sledgehammer.

Leaving the first barricade to the platoon, he stalked over to the fourth barricade, where the Besquith were throwing aside the debris scattered on top of them and getting to their feet. He spun as he approached them, and the blade on his right arm snapped out halfway through the maneuver to decapitate one of the aliens. As his right arm stopped and started coming back around, he raised his left arm and put three railgun rounds through the chest of the furthest one, splattering it against the wall.

Walker stepped forward and drove his blade through the chest of the next Besquith, then shot the last one at the barricade as the other alien’s dead body slid off his blade. He turned back to the first barricade in time to see Mun land feet first on the remaining Besquith hiding behind the obstruction. She bent over and stabbed it for good measure. Walker nodded inside his suit; it never hurt to be sure.

As the rest of the platoon swarmed over the barricades, finishing off any of the aliens that Walker had only mortally wounded, Mun walked up to him.

“Not sure what that was all about, sir,” she said, with a heavy emphasis on the last word to let him know her displeasure, “but I thought the lieutenant colonel wasn’t going to lead from the front anymore.”

“Um, yeah, I didn’t mean to do that,” Walker said, “but when I turned the corner, there was no way to stop without getting shot by an entire platoon of Besquith. It seemed easier to go forward rather than back.”

“How’s your suit?” she asked. “I see at least five laser burns on it and a couple of dents where other rounds hit it. There could be more, but it’s hard to tell with the other dings and bumps you got from slamming into every piece of shit you could find.”

“I’ve got a few yellow lights,” Walker admitted, “but I’m—”

Gulf Hotel One, Alpha Sierra One, we’re surrounded by Goka. If you can send anyone to assist, it’d be appreciated.

Walker wasn’t sure he’d ever heard Nigel ask for help before. Shit, it must be damn serious.Alpha Sierra One, this is Gulf Hotel One,” he replied. “I’ll be right there.

“Sir—” Mun started.

“I know what you’re going to say, First Sergeant, and you can save it. I’ve got more experience exterminating the damn Goka than anyone else, so this is mine to do. You stay with Captain Gracia and get to the elevator. There can’t be many more Besquith around, so hopefully, you’ll be okay. I’ll take four of our troops with railguns and go help Asbaran.”

Mun knew when to argue. This wasn’t the time. “Yes, sir. Good luck. Figueroa, Ritchey, and Vatta— Vataka— fuck, Vata, you three go with the lieutenant colonel.”

“Yes, First Sergeant,” Corporal Paul Vattakavanich said.

Mun spun around and spotted the trooper she was looking for. “Polanis, you go, too.”

“You’re sending the medic with me?” Walker asked. “What if the colonel needs medical assistance?”

“If there are Goka, you will have injuries. We’ve got medkits that’ll take care of almost anything the colonel may have wrong with her. Go, sir! It sounds like they need you.”

* * *

Inside the Mercenary Guild, Capital Planet

“Got it, sir!” Corporal Mirzaad Zardari called.

Nigel looked in from the hallway. “What have you got?”

“I’ve got the elevator to the penal level, and I’m in contact with First Sergeant Enkh. I’m about to send a load down.”

“Do it quickly!” Nigel exclaimed, sure he’d seen a flash of black up the passageway. Mason had gone up the other hallway to check on Donnelly. All of Donnelly’s squad was red, and Nigel fully expected they were dead.

“Coming in!” Mason yelled as he raced down the passage toward Nigel, with many Goka in pursuit.

“Down!” Nigel yelled.

Mason threw himself to the floor as Nigel triggered a series of rockets down the hallway. They blew up in the midst of the Goka. When the smoke cleared, there was one Goka body; the rest were gone.

Mason ran the rest of the way to Nigel. “They’re up in the ceiling moving around,” Mason reported. “I saw where they came through and got Donnelly’s folks. They’re all dead. Fucking cockroaches.”

“Pull everyone back in,” Nigel said. “We’ve got the elevator working, and the Horde folks are going down to get Sansar. We just have to hold them off a little longer.”

“You got it, sir. You take this side of the security station, and I’ll go help Lieutenant Smith with the other.” Mason went through the security station, opened the door on the other side, and raced off to join the other squad.

“They’re down to the prison level,” Corporal Zardari called.

“Good,” Nigel said, scanning the hallway. Hopefully the Horde wouldn’t take too long to find the colonel, or Asbaran was going to be screwed.

“Here they come!” Private Zangi Pitafi called from up the corridor. Nigel strode forward to meet them with his men. Hopefully, they wouldn’t take long at all.

* * *

Under the Mercenary Guild, Capital Planet

Sansar could see motion at the elevator before she got to it and stumbled to a stop. Two Tortantulas were waiting by the elevator control panel. They were, like every other Tortantula she’d ever met, huge—nearly 10 feet wide, with 10 long, hairy legs. If they charged her, there was no way she could take them both down with her laser rifle. She might get one if she was lucky.

She wasn’t sure what the assassin could do about them, either. It would kill them, of course, but she doubted that would occur while she was still living. The two aliens split up, increasing the difficulty of targeting them both, and came forward, working to encircle her.

Sansar hobbled backward, trying to keep both in sight. So close to escape, with her company’s forces so close to rescuing her, and she was going to become spider food. It’s just not fair! “Do we really have to do this?” she finally asked in frustration.

“What alternative are you proposing?” one of the aliens asked. Both of them stopped and stared at her.

“All the explosions you heard,” she pointed at the flashing lights, “mean my people are coming to break me out of here. If you promise not to eat me, I’ll take you along with us when we go.”

“Eat you?” the second Tortantula said. “You’d barely make a mouthful.”

Sansar chuckled at the alien’s perspective. She was tiny compared to them and wouldn’t make much of a meal. “You might not get much out of it,” she finally said, “but it would mean a whole lot to me not to be a part of your dining plans.”

“You’ll get us out of here?” the first alien asked. “Where? Just out of the building, or off this never-to-be-sufficiently-damned planet?”

“I promise you, on my honor as a Horseman, that if you don’t hurt me, I’ll get you out of here and off this sucky-ass planet, if it’s at all within my power.”

“You’re a Horseman?” the second Tortantula asked. “You’re pretty small to be one of them. How do you operate the suit, as small as you are?”

“I have one modified to accommodate me,” Sansar said. “Now, my leg hurts, and I’m getting tired of standing here. Do we have an agreement, or am I going to have to kill you?”

The two aliens laughed long and hard. “I like your spirit, Little Horseman,” the first Tortantula said. “I think I might just go with you because you make me laugh.”

“Me, too,” the second Tortantula added. “You have a deal.”

“Tell me, though,” the first one said. “Do you really think you could kill us both?”

“Not by myself,” Sansar said.

“And you were expecting help from your gods, perhaps?”

“No,” the Depik said, becoming visible underneath the first Tortantula. The alien skittered to the side in surprise, and the assassin jumped up onto a leg, then up onto the giant spider’s back, next to its ring of eyes. She lay down on its hairy back and held up her knife, inches from one of the creature’s eyes. “I would have helped.”

“You’re full of surprises, Little Horseman,” the Tortantula said. “I’d appreciate it if you’d ask your…friend… to slide back a little from my eyes. I’m happy to give her a ride but would rather there weren’t any…accidents.”

The Depik slow blinked at the giant alien, then sheathed her knife faster than anyone’s eyes could track. One moment it was there; the next, it was gone. She purred. “I could get used to this.”

“If you’re done playing around,” the second Tortantula said, “the elevator is moving. We need to be prepared to receive visitors.”

“Is it too much to ask to climb onto your back?” Sansar asked. “I don’t want to get stepped on, and I can shoot over you better than around.”

“That’s fine,” the alien agreed, lowering itself so she could climb up. “It’s just like the old days with Reefgar.”

The elevator bonged when it reached their floor, and Sansar could feel the Tortantula tense underneath her, ready to pounce. As the door slid aside, she almost squeezed the trigger before she realized who was on it. “Hold!” she yelled as the CASPers’ guns trained onto the Tortantulas. “Everybody, hold fire! They’re with me!”

Thankfully none of the CASPers fired, and after a few tense seconds, she could feel the alien relax under her. “Ma’am, one day you’re going to have to tell me how you got up there,” Mun’s voice said from one of the suits, “but right now, we’ve got a bug problem upstairs we need to deal with, so if you could squeeze everyone into the elevator, we’ll be on our way.”

* * *

Inside the Mercenary Guild, Capital Planet

Walker jetted up the inner part of the ramp and landed on the first floor with the four soldiers right behind him. He started off toward the security center, then stopped and turned toward the troopers. “Have any of you fought Goka before?” He received a chorus of negative answers and sighed. “Fuck.”

“What’s wrong, Colonel?” Corporal Vattakavanich asked.

“I have a…history with them,” Walker replied. “They’re like a cross between a cockroach and an armadillo, and they’re tough as fuck to kill. Lasers bounce off their shells. Sometimes railgun rounds will bounce off too, if they don’t hit squarely. The best time to shoot them is if they’re flying and their shells are open. I have some experimental rounds for them, but I don’t know how well they’ll work. Stomp on them, if nothing else.”

Polanis chuckled. “Stomp on the cockroaches. Got it, Colonel.”

Walker stomped over and stood in front of the medic’s CASPer. “Those damn bugs are tough,” Walker said. “We’ll be lucky if we don’t have to fight them. Keep that in mind.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Let’s go,” Walker said. “Keep your eyes open. The bastards could be anywhere.”

Walker tried to go as fast as he could, while still maintaining as much stealth as a half-ton mecha could, which wasn’t much. After a couple of minutes, he heard firing in front of him and zeroed in on it. Suddenly, as they rounded a corner, they found the battle, or at least part of it, as a mixed force of Goka and MinSha advanced on a group of CASPers. “Fire!” Walker yelled.

The small force spread across the passage and began firing, and the enemy troopers turned to meet them. The MinSha came at them in the air, flying down the hallway, while the Goka skittered down the passageway’s floor, walls, and ceiling. “Polanis, Ritchey, on the MinSha! Figueroa and V-man, with me on the Goka!”

Walker fired as quickly as he could at the giant cockroach-looking aliens, and the modified ammo seemed to work on them as he’d hoped. The mini-HEAT rounds hit the aliens, and the superheated metal washed through them. In Sato’s testing, the round had punched a hole through two inches of steel; it did wonders against the Goka. He shot four of the aliens as they approached, and suddenly there were no more. He looked up. The passageway was a killing ground for the troopers with their railguns, and the hallway was littered with the bodies of the MinSha. There were also six Goka…but there had been a lot more of them when he’d initially attacked.

“What the fuck?” Walker asked. “Where’d the damn things go?”

“I don’t know,” Vattakavanich replied. “One second, there were lots of them, then there were none.”

“They’re in the overhead!” one of the Asbaran troopers called. “Watch—”

The trooper might have completed the warning, but Walker didn’t hear it as the Goka detonated a small breaching charge to open the ceiling, and they were all over him. It was like Planet B’zuz, when he’d been overrun by the Goka, all over again. No! he thought, after a brief moment of panic, This time I’m ready!

He slapped one off his railgun arm and fired through its head. Then the one on his leg. Dead. Then the one on his other leg. His right shoulder went yellow, and he slammed himself backward into the wall, and scraped his back along it. The Goka dropped off. Two rounds through the thorax for being a pain in the ass.

The other troopers weren’t doing so well. Figueroa was down, his icon red, and Ritchey and V-man were covered in the aliens. As he strode over to Ritchey, one of the Goka drew a laser pistol and fired through the center of the suit. Ritchey dropped. As the aliens crawled away, Walker shot them. One. Two. Three. He nailed the fourth one as it jumped up to attack him and shot it out of the air. V-man’s icon went red, and he spun toward the trooper. He was down with one of the Goka on his chest. It dropped the pistol it was holding and launched itself toward Walker. He shot it in the face, and it was blown backward against the wall.

Polanis had been a few steps behind the rest of the troopers, and two of the Goka had attacked him. Somehow they’d gotten his canopy open, and the two were inside the suit with him. Polanis screamed once as he fell over backward, but it was cut off in the middle.

Walker raced over and grabbed a Goka with each hand, ripped them out of the suit, and slammed them together. They were still moving, so he did it again. And again. Then he threw them to the floor and shot them each once.

He heard a moan and turned back to Polanis. Dear God, he was still alive! The trooper was missing most of his face, including both of his eyes, yet he was still alive, and his arms and legs were convulsing.

Walker stood and looked down toward the Asbaran forces. “Medic!” he yelled. One of the Asbaran troopers came running. He couldn’t look back at Polanis—what was left was barely Human anymore—so he spent his time watching for any more Goka.

The trooper arrived—a Sergeant Epard, if the name on the mecha was correct—popped her canopy, and jumped down to examine Polanis with a medkit. She spent a couple of seconds with him, then drew her slug-firing pistol and fired it once into his head. The twitching of his extremities ceased.

Epard looked up from the smoking barrel of her pistol. “I’m sorry, sir; it was all I could do.”

“Damn it, I underst—”

Golf Hotel One, Alpha Sierra One, we need your assistance at the security center ASAP!

Golf Hotel One, I’m on my way!

Walker turned and headed toward the sounds of new gunfire, scooping up one of the laser pistols the Goka had dropped. Although now by himself, he’d tried out the new railgun rounds and knew he had a fighting chance against the Goka. If he could keep them off him, anyway. The pistol turned out to be a standard laser pistol, but one modified to use the whole battery’s charge in a single, ultra-powerful bolt. No wonder it had gone through their CASPers. He shook his head—what’s worse than Goka? Goka with fucking death pistols. Shit.

The building shook with what could only have been a rocket or similar explosive, and he stopped to get his bearings on where the sounds of fighting was coming from; it was close enough that he could hear it from both the front and the right. As he listened, he heard the clicking of the Goka as they ran. He froze, waiting to see where they were, and a platoon of Goka soldiers ran past him from left to right at the next intersection. He waited for them to clear the intersection, then followed them around the corner.

He entered the next passage; Nigel was 75 feet further down the hallway, fighting for his life, with what looked like a company of Goka swarming him. Walker fired at the closest Goka, and it dropped. A yellow light illuminated in his display—Low Ammo. He only had 25 railgun rounds left…and there were more enemies than that.

He decided to worry about it if he was still alive when the ammo ran out and fired at the next one. A shot through the thorax, it mortally wounded the trooper, but the alien’s scream caused several of the others to turn and face him. Within two seconds, half the attacking force turned and swarmed him instead.

* * *

Inside the Mercenary Guild, Capital Planet

Nigel fired his last rocket, knowing he couldn’t hold off the Goka by himself for long without them. He fired the railgun on his left arm as the company of Goka attacked, and the first one dropped. His knife blade snapped out as the railgun cycled; it was going to come to close quarters. He fired again, and again, dropping two more, then several of the Goka took to the air, complicating his targeting solution.

He’d initially advanced up the corridor toward the aliens, and he now gave ground as he developed a rhythm. Fire the gun, step back, swing the knife, and repeat. He lost track of how many times he fired at the Goka; part of the time the rounds bounced off rather than getting the kill. The low ammo light illuminated, then seemed like it immediately went red right after that. Then the gun went dry, and he was down to his fist and knife.

He pummeled one from the air, then cut off a leg holding a laser pistol at the first joint, but as he swung, he overextended, and a Goka landed on his left arm. The weight overbalanced him slightly, and he awkwardly tried to scrape it off with the knife as he tried to regain his balance. Before he could, two landed on his right side, and all of them pulled out blades, searching for joints to get into his suit.

Before he could get them off, more joined, and his vision was nothing but black as the Goka covered his cameras, searching for ways to get at him. Several of them found joints and pain erupted in his right thigh, his left shoulder, and his right arm. He knew he had to keep moving or they’d get him, so he staggered into the wall, trying to crush the ones on his front, then turned to the left and slammed into it again. The weight on his right arm lessened, and he was able to use his sword to scrape off the Goka on the back of his right leg that kept stabbing him in the thigh. The other Goka on his sword arm fell away, and he sliced into one on his left arm.

Vision returned as Walker pulled the one off his main camera, threw it to the ground on its back, and stabbed it, ripping through it in an explosion of guts. Able to see again, Nigel cut the head off the one on his left leg, then knocked the one off his torso and stomped on it.

“Turn around,” Walker ordered.

Nigel spun, and he felt something pulled from his back. He turned back as Walker slammed it into a wall headfirst, then threw it on the floor and stabbed it. He ripped the knife blade back out, then stomped on it. “Fucking hate those things,” he said. He looked up at Nigel. “You okay?”

“Yeah, cover me a sec.” He could tell from his bio-monitors, and the fact his foot kept sloshing in the blood at the bottom of his boot, that the wound in his leg was fairly deep, so he took out his medkit, dialed it up to “3,” and sprayed the back of his leg. When he was able to see through the pain again, his leg monitor was yellow rather than red. That would have to do for now. He treated two other, less serious wounds, then turned back to Walker. “I’m good…now. Thanks for coming for me.”

“My pleasure.”

Nigel looked around. “Where’s the rest of your platoon?”

“Dead,” Walker said, his voice flat. “They didn’t make it past the first group of Goka.”

Nigel’s jaw dropped. “You came by yourself?” Nigel asked.

“Yeah,” Walker replied. “It sounded like you needed help.”

“Fuck…” Nigel said. He stared at Walker’s CASPer for a moment, then shut his mouth and shook off his amazement. They had things to do. “Stay here a second and watch for the bastards while I get a status check,” Nigel said. He turned and walked the few remaining steps back to the security station and stuck his head in the hole. “Are they out yet?” Nigel asked.

“They got Colonel Enkh and just made it back up to the second sublevel,” Corporal Gabol replied. “They’re heading for the surface.”

“Good,” Nigel said. “Get back in your suits. We’re leaving.”

Nigel walked back and tapped Walker on the shoulder. “They got your boss and are heading back up.”

“I’ve been waiting to hear that all day,” Walker replied. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

* * *

Behind the Mercenary Guild, Capital Planet

The two groups of Humans, along with the two Tortantulas, met up at the loading docks and raced up the ramp to where the dropships were just touching down.

“Hang on a sec,” Walker said. “Wasn’t the Cartwright kid looking for Raknars?”

“Yeah,” Nigel said. “He kicked the shit out of a bunch of Tortantulas with one and thinks we’re going to need them since the Merc Guild now has Canavars.”

“Well, how about that?” Walker said, pointing to the warehouse where the Raknar could be seen.

“Stand by,” Nigel said. After a few moments, he said, “The pilots said they’d meet us there. They aren’t sure if they’ll be able to lift it.”

“Worth a look, since they don’t seem to be chasing us at the moment,” Walker said.

“It won’t take long before they organize something, though,” Nigel said.

“And I’m not staying here,” Sansar said. “I’m done doing what they want. It’s time to kill the bastards, and if that Raknar can help, let’s grab it. Quickly now!”

She started running as fast as she could hobble, and the rest of the mixed company followed. Walker, Nigel, then the rest of the group toggled their jumpjets to get there faster.

Walker slowed to a stop as he approached it. “Fuck,” he said, looking up. The mecha was enormous, with giant gantries on both sides that went all the way to the top. Several pieces had been removed and were laying on tarps in front of it.

“What do you think?” Sansar asked, as she pulled up with a grimace.

“I don’t know if it’s worth it,” Walker said. “They’ve got a bunch of pieces off. I don’t know if they were experimenting on it to try and get it running again, or if this one is special for some reason.”

“Does it matter?” Nigel asked. “Either way, if they want it, we don’t want them to have it. If we can get the dropships to carry it, I say we take it.”

“Makes sense to me,” Sansar said. “I think—”

An enormous explosion rocked the Mercenary Guild headquarters, and all eyes turned to watch as the end of the building closest to them sagged, and parts of the top 15 floors collapsed over the side.

“What the hell was that?” Sansar asked as Nigel slapped metallic hands with Walker.

“Well, we couldn’t carry all the suits and the bodies of our dead,” Walker said, “so we made them a nice little burial mound, using all the remaining explosives we had. It was booby-trapped so the first person to approach the pile of suits would set it off. I’d hoped to drop that whole section of the building, but it looks like we didn’t have quite enough explosives left. Still…they’re going to have to do some major-league renovations on that building before it’s habitable again.”

“That probably bought us a little time to get the Raknar, but I still don’t see a good way to get it out of here,” Sansar said, looking around. “I see a bunch of chains, but it’d take a long time to get it rigged.”

“If it would help us get out of here faster, or before any more troops get here,” one of the Tortantulas said, “we could probably run up it and get it chained up pretty quickly.”

Sansar nodded. “Perfect. Get to it.” She switched to the tactical net. “Everyone, Asbaran and Horde, both. Give the Tortantulas a hand so we can get the Raknar rigged for travel. The faster it’s rigged, the faster we’re out of here!”

* * * * *


Chapter Twenty-Four


Winged Hussars Prime Base, New Warsaw System

Splunk didn’t talk about any of the events for most of the week in hyperspace. Jim had a list of questions he needed her to answer, like where had all the other Fae come from, and how did they get to Karma? How had they known about the secret hyperspace shunts and systems on Upsilon 4? What was the Fae’s motivation for doing what they did? And, most importantly, why had Splunk never told him she could communicate telepathically with him? He shook his head. How well did he really know Splunk, after all?

He kept mostly to himself for the trip, enough so that Hargrave could tell something was wrong. The crew of Bucephalus and Empress Jito hailed him as a conquering hero. First he’d learned to operate a Raknar, now he had a mobile asteroid base! “Evil Emperor Cartwright,” one of the lieutenants on Empress Jito called him at dinner one day. Jim got up and immediately left. The next morning the man found him and formally apologized. Jim told him it was okay and laughed. Of course, it was anything but. Still, he let it go, and nobody joked about it again.

The crews of both ships had fun exploring the asteroid base. It turned out in the weeks since Jim had left it, the army of Fae had invaded and fixed everything from the hyperspace system down to the micro-gravity toilets. In seven days, he hadn’t found so much as a light that didn’t work. He began to remember that Adayn had called Splunk, “My Little Watchmaker.” Now that didn’t seem as funny.

In the book The Mote in God’s Eye, there were creatures called Watchmakers. They weren’t intelligent in the way most beings were. The aliens of the system where the Watchmakers were found used them as a biological repair system. They’d keep a few, and the Watchmakers would repair and even upgrade any technology they found. The problem was, if they were allowed to breed uncontrollably, they’d become evil, take over the ship, and try to kill you. Had the spy who pretended to be his girlfriend stumbled onto the truth?

Jim listened carefully to the crew’s conversations whenever possible, and even asked a few pointedly if they’d seen any other Fae. None had; not a single one. Wherever the Fae were, they stayed carefully hidden. Jim guessed that made sense. The creatures had managed to remain on Karma station, in large numbers, and had never been spotted. Of course, now he knew that all the sightings of Splunk stealing things were more than likely other Fae.

The day before they’d leave hyperspace, he found her in his office in Upsilon 4 with a slate, tapping away. She looked up when she saw him, then she looked down. He recognized her mood; she was sad. She got up to leave.

“No,” Jim said and held up a hand. “Look, Splunk, I just want to know. Why?”

“We help, Jim, <Skaa!> I ask others, they agree.”

“How did they get to Karma?”

“Stowaway,” she said and spread her hands. Jim nodded; that made sense. They were natural sneaks.

“How about Upsilon 4? You hacked that computer to get a lower price. Did you know this place could do this?”

“My friends found it. We’ve been all over Karma, exploring.”

“Lastly, why didn’t you tell me you could read my mind?”

“<Akee!>” she said.

“Yes, Akee,” he agreed.

“I thought you knew, Jim <Creet!>” He nodded his head. “You want Splunk to go, <Gee!>

“No,” he said, “I want Splunk to stay.” With a coo she jumped into his arms and snuggled under his chin. He sighed and snuggled her back. There was more to what was going on; he knew that much. But she’d answered his questions, and that would have to do for now. His story about discovering the hyperspace shunts when he’d bought the base had satisfied Captain Su and the others. After all, the base weighed more than a hundred million tons. It took less power to keep them in it than to run life support. Lots of spacers had surmised you could take a planet into hyperspace, if you had enough shunts or a big enough stargate.

“When can I talk to the others?” he asked.

“When they’re ready. Okay? <Cheek!>”

“Good enough.” They went to dinner on Bucephalus.

* * *

There was a sizeable war fleet waiting at the emergence point in New Warsaw. It seemed Alexis Cromwell was no longer in a trusting mood, but everyone was stunned when an asteroid base appeared. After Jim verified who he was, he convinced Alexis to save the questions for later while they got a few dozen ships to tug the incredible mass of the station out of the emergence point before another ship materialized inside the rock.

Nigel Shirazi arrived with Walker. Their rescue of Sansar Enkh had been a success, just like the breakout from Karma. The Four Horsemen had spit in the face of Peepo and her efforts to subjugate the Humans. Now there were 21 Human merc companies, in addition to the Four Horsemen, in New Warsaw. Alexis called them all to a meeting but wanted to meet with her fellow Horsemen first.

In a hallway on Prime Base crowded with boisterous, excited merc commanders, Walker walked over to Jim and shook his hand. “I found you another Raknar,” he said and held up a portable Tri-V. The Raknar was a different model than the ones he had; it seemed shorter and more powerful.

“That’s awesome, thanks,” Jim said. On his shoulder, Splunk eyed the image keenly.

“My guys couldn’t resist crawling around inside it.”

“That’s okay,” Jim said. “I doubt they could hurt anything.” Walker nodded and took something out of his pocket.

“In the cockpit, hanging from a support, we found this.” He handed it to Jim. It was a perma-V, a miniature Tri-V that didn’t need power and lasted forever. Jim looked at it in amazement. He’d seen articles about them before, but he’d never actually seen one in real life. “Look at the image.”

Jim took the device, about the size of a credit chit, and touched the control. An image sprang to life. Obviously taken from just outside a Raknar’s cockpit, the first thing he noticed was a Fae dressed in an outfit that looked like it was armored. In fact, unless Jim missed his guess, it was combat-armored and air-tight when a helmet was added.

The image pulled back automatically to show the Fae was riding on a shoulder. For a moment he thought it was a Human. Then he saw the rough features, and a moment later the extra set of arms. It was a Lumar. Jim looked from the image to Splunk and back. Splunk had nothing to say.

“Unless I’m wrong,” Walker said, pointing at the image, “now we know who the Dusman are. Who would have ever believed they were the Lumar? They’ve been right under our noses the whole time!”

“Can I hang onto this for now?” Jim asked.

“It’s yours,” Walker said. “It goes with the Raknar.”

“Thanks,” Jim said. The doors to the conference room opened.

Nigel Shirazi walked up and, to Jim’s surprise, held out a hand. “Congratulations on being the first asteroid ship captain!”

Jim laughed and took the hand. “Great job rescuing Sansar,” Jim replied. They locked eyes and held hands for a long minute.

“If you two are done bonding?” Sansar asked. Both men smiled and went in. They were surprised to see a table made in the shape of a four-pointed star, with four chairs placed between the points. Alexis stood behind one, waiting for them. To Jim’s amazement, the table looked like pure gold.

“I had this made from a single piece of gold we found in an asteroid here in New Warsaw,” Alexis said, confirming his belief. “You’ll notice there’s no head of the table. Here, we’re all equal.” She locked eyes with each of them, and they with her. “I wanted to meet for a few minutes before we go in with all the other commanders, so they understand. We are the Four Horsemen. We are united.”

“The Four Horsemen for Earth,” Jim said.

“The Four Horsemen for Earth,” Sansar repeated.

“The Four Horsemen for Earth,” Nigel agreed.

The Four Horsemen for Earth!” they all said in unison.

Alexis gestured them to seats. “Now, let’s talk about kicking the fucking aliens off our planet.”

* * * * *


Epilogue

SOGA HQ, Sao Paulo, Brazil, Earth

“This was just received from the guild headquarters,” General Chirbayl said as she put an image on the monitor. The scene was grisly—several Besquith were lying in pools of blood; all of them had their throats cut. Chirbayl zoomed in on several red marks in between them. Paw prints could be seen moving away from the bodies. “The prints are consistent with the prints of a Depik, as are the throat slashes of the victims. Of note, the Depik governor was nowhere to be found during the Human assault on the guild headquarters.”

Peepo nodded thoughtfully. “So the Depik have chosen sides, have they? They refuse to take our contracts on the Four Horsemen and other mercenary company leaders, but they’ll aid in a jailbreak from our very headquarters?”

“It seems so, General.”

“Well, we’ll see about that. I believe the time for the Depik to roam the galaxy without regulation has passed. They want to live above the law? No more. They’ve provided a service for us in the past, but it’s time to bring them to heel. Send a fleet to their planet and destroy any of their craft that try to come or go. Their planet is under quarantine until they remember they work first and foremost for us.”

“What about the Human mercenaries that escaped from Karma and Capital Planet?”

“We have them right where we want them. Their planet is ours, and now they’re all grouped up together. I’m expecting information soon on where that system is; once I have it, we’ll go there and wipe out the Horsemen and the other upstart Human mercenaries that fled with them. Soon, they’ll trouble us no more…”

# # # # #




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:

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07BRTDBCJ

Find out more about Thomas A. Mays and “In Revolution Born” at:

https://chriskennedypublishing.com

* * * * *




The following is an

Excerpt from Book Eleven of The Revelations Cycle:


Assassin

___________________

Kacey Ezell and Marisa Wolf


Now Available from Seventh Seal Press

eBook, Paperback and (Soon) Audio




Excerpt from “Assassin:”

Deluge closed his eyes and let the taste of spiced Khava explode over the inside of his mouth. It burned its way over his tongue and down into his belly, filling him with heat from the inside.

“You like it?” the Besquith trader growled. Deluge opened his eyes and looked up at the hairy alien. Besquith were not known for their charm, and this one seemed a representative member of his race in that department. It had somewhat beady eyes that glared at Deluge as he sat on the trading counter. Doubtless, the trader would have preferred for Deluge to remain on the floor in his bipedal stance. However, that didn’t make sense in the Hunter’s mind, given the immense difference between their two heights. Far better that he should spring to the counter and sit like a civilized being.

It wasn’t his problem if his movements were too quick for the Besquith to track. Nor was it his problem if that fact made the other being nervous. Though Deluge had to admit it was amusing.

“I do like it,” the Hunter said. “Your batch has a very good flavor.”

“I have more,” the Besquith said. “Five credits gets you the whole fish.”

Deluge slow blinked at the outrageous price, and let his mouth fall open in his Human smile.

“And what would I do with a whole fish?” he asked. “Especially at that larcenous rate?”

“Larcenous?” the Besquith growled, its voice dropping lower. “Are you calling me a cheat?”

“Larceny means theft. Technically I’m calling you a thief,” Deluge said. “But I suppose your language may not have such subtleties.”

He didn’t, truly, mean it as an insult. The Besquith didn’t seem to care. It let out a low snarl and bared its teeth, then lunged at Deluge, snapping his teeth a hair’s breadth from where the Hunter sat.

Or more accurately, where the Hunter had been sitting.

Because, of course, Deluge was in motion as soon as the Besquith started his lunge. He drove his powerful hind legs against the firm surface of the trading counter and leapt up into the air. A quick twist of his body allowed his front claws access to the large, pointed ears that sat atop the Besquith’s head. He dug his claws into those sensitive ears and used them as a pivot point to anchor his leap. His lower body flipped up and around to the point where his back claws could grab on. One caught the alien’s throat, just above the jugular, and the other hovered scant millimeters from the being’s vulnerable eye.

“Hunter, your pardon.”

The voice that spoke was Besquith, and female, unless Deluge missed his guess. It was also smooth and laced with respect, unlike the nervous, aggressive tone of the one he now had by the ears. That Besquith was busy whimpering in pain and fear as Deluge wrenched its head around so that he might look at the newcomer.

The newcomer stood in the curtained doorway at the back of the booth. She wore the rich silks of a wealthy Besquith trader, and the grey about her muzzle spoke of some experience. She inclined her head as Deluge met her eyes.

“I greet you,” Deluge said. He didn’t want to be rude, but he rather thought that in this particular situation, he might be excused the use of an abbreviated hello. “Welcome to our negotiation.”

“I am Jhurrahkk” she said. “I am the alpha for our people here on Khatash. You hold the life of my pup in your claws.”

“I am Deluge,” he answered. “Your pup was rude and attacked me. His life is forfeit on my planet.”

“This is where I propose we begin our negotiation.”

* * * * *

Get “Assassin” now at:

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B079YTRLFN/

Find out more about Kacey Ezell, Marisa Wolf, and “The Revelations Cycle” at:

https://chriskennedypublishing.com

* * * * *




The following is an

Excerpt from Book One of the Kin Wars Saga:


Wraithkin

___________________

Jason Cordova


Available Now from Theogony Books

eBook, Paperback, and Audio Book




Excerpt from “Wraithkin:”

Prologue

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: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01N0RGYZS.

Find out more about Jason Cordova and “Wraithkin” at:

http://chriskennedypublishing.com/imprints-authors/jason-cordova/

* * * * *



home | my bookshelf | | A Fiery Sunset |     цвет текста   цвет фона   размер шрифта   сохранить книгу

Текст книги загружен, загружаются изображения



Оцените эту книгу