Book: Legacy of War
Legacy of War: First Encounter
Joshua James Daniel Young
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“You ready to show me what you got?”
Commander David Hewett waited for a response as his old fighter sliced through space. Only a faint click told him that his wingman had gotten the message.
Communications were weak out here, but Hewett knew the real reason for the terse reply. Somebody was ready to show the old man up.
So let’s see you do it.
He glanced out into the inky Black, wondering what trajectory this little attack would come from. The cracks along the top of the cockpit, like the worn ridges along the sides of the ejection seat, were as familiar to him as old friends.
Hewett enjoyed the peaceful sound of his thrusters kicking along, waiting for the action to come.
Out of the corner of his eye, Hewett saw movement. He leaned forward as he turned for a better look. He was about to call out his opponent for such an obvious approach when his blood ran cold.
Dancing on the edge of his vision, just beyond the curve of his cockpit glass, was something impossible.
A Kaxek fighter.
His knuckles whitened as his grip instantly tightened on the thruster stick. His heart thumped wildly as he yanked forward as far as his restraints would allow, tracking the leading edge of the alien craft.
Am I seeing things?
He glanced forward to check his HUD display. The targeting system hadn’t registered it. When he looked back, the ship was gone. He squinted for several more seconds, trying to parse any movement out of the blackness beyond.
You damn fool. You are seeing things.
Hewett felt his shoulders relax. You’re losing it, old man, he thought. Just imagine what the rest of the fighter wing would say if they knew their commander was—
His port engine rattled, signaling a whisper of a disruption of his warp field by another ship nearby. This sent a sharp, noisy vibration through his cockpit that caused him to swear. At this moment, he was glad the mission demanded long-range comm silence. He didn’t want anyone listening on the Walker Pierce, some eight million kilometers starboard, to know he’d been caught by surprise.
Instinctively, Hewett glanced portside over his shoulder, and this time he spotted a distortion in space that signaled his real enemy out here today. Not some ghost from his imagination.
Damn it. He wasn’t allowing anyone to get the best of him, especially not her.
His mission today, ostensibly, was to inspect beacons at the edge of Union space for damage, wear and tear, or signs of enemy tampering. It was the duty of Union Naval vessels to perform this duty when not engaged in battle with their century-long enemy, the Kaxek.
The Kaxek hadn’t sabotaged a beacon in the last eighteen months—since the truce had begun. But after a century of bitter war, some didn’t trust the Kaxek to follow through. One was Hewett’s captain, Devlin Carter. Another was Hewett himself.
This little mock dogfight, on the other hand, was completely outside mission scope. But he considered it just as valuable.
Hewett had learned the value of readiness as war tore through sections of Union and Kaxek space. Here the two sides battled to reduce material, troops, and position. The Kaxek had hit military targets hard until forty-three years ago, when the namesake for Hewett’s current assignment had destroyed most of the enemy fleet at the Battle of Gamma Draconis. After that devastating loss, the Kaxek had changed their tactics from full assault to guerrilla warfare. They’d knocked out navigation beacons and harried Union ships with sneak attacks, until they’d inexplicably ceased hostilities.
A warning klaxon blared, and Hewett swore again. The 3D avatar of his fighter above his forward console lit with a display of a simulated plasma blast raking the starboard side. It wasn’t a fatal hit. His shield and warp field held. Hewett jerked his head right and followed the edges of his attacker’s ship just as it melted into the Black.
“Oh no you don’t!” he growled. With his hand on the stick, Hewett rolled the fighter 180 degrees. If he performed this correctly, the fighter’s flat bottom would barely scrape the edge of his attacker’s warp field to collapse it. He’d accidentally discovered this tactic on the front lines in a cross-the-streams moment decades ago. Hewett had found that the nudge of one fighter’s warp field against another caused it to collapse.
Until then, it had been a military secret that fighters, modeled on reverse engineering of Kaxek technology, had warp fields with the relative strength of an eggshell. Larger ships, with hulls made of super-strong metals, could take the stress of sudden power-downs if their warp field collapsed and slung them at sub-light speeds into the Black. But smaller fighters? Without sub-light engines automatically switching on to keep a fighter’s momentum going, a violent jolt could collapse the field asymmetrically. Individual parts of the ship would exit warp at different points in time, tearing the ship to shreds.
This was why instructors now taught the Hewett Maneuver in advanced aviator school as a last-ditch, do-not-try-this-at-home ploy.
A slight tremor through his fighter told Hewett he’d found his target. At once, comm silence broke, and a string of curses spat from the speakers. His sensors showed his attacker’s sub-light engines automatically engaged to slow momentum safely to sub-light speeds.
The new wing leader, Jada Shepherd, had chased him expertly in this training exercise. But Hewett couldn’t let her get the upper hand on him—not just yet.
Shepherd was one of two new crew members that had boarded the Walker Pierce yesterday. The other was the replacement XO, also a woman. That one, with a stick up her ass, he’d leave gladly to Captain Carter.
“Sir, no, sir,” she barked.
“Why did you let me catch you off guard?”
Over the comm, Hewett heard Shepherd mutter before she sucked in a breath. “What was that, Lieutenant?” he said sternly.
“Nothing, sir. It’s that these older fighters aren’t as responsive as I’m used to.”
“Are you offering me excuses, Lieutenant?”
Shepherd drew another sharp breath, and Hewett got a clue that his wing leader had a problem. “Switch to visual, Lieutenant.”
“Sir, you don’t need—”
“Visual, now, Lieutenant.” His no-nonsense tone forced her response.
His ship’s avatar winked out to display the holographic image of Shepherd’s face. Blood ran down her helmet’s faceplate.
“What happened?” he said.
“When I dropped out of warp, I banged my forehead. It’s nothing.”
Hewett could imagine her embarrassment. She probably hadn’t been nudged out of warp since flight training. He almost felt bad about it. Almost. “Head back to the barn and report to sickbay.”
“Sir, I’m fine.”
“Your helmet begs to differ, though I suppose we’ll be calling you Red now instead of Pink.”
“No, sir. I like my call sign.”
“That so? So your name has nothing to do with your training squadron punking you by dying your uniform pink?” That was the story he’d pried from Shepherd’s training officer.
“Sir, no, sir. Hazing is illegal, as you know.”
“Sure,” Hewitt said.
Shepherd was confident to the point that she was cocky, which didn’t bother Hewitt. He expected it from a good pilot.
“Sir, my board registers that nav beacon X-2125 is not operational.”
X? That letter told him the buoy sat closest to Kaxek occupied space. Hewett checked his own board and verified her observation.
“I’ll check it out,” he said. “These days, most likely, space debris hit it. Head back to the barn.”
“Sir, the regulations say—”
“I gave you an order, Lieutenant. Send out one of the other pilots when you return.”
“Yes, sir,” she said unhappily. “Once I get my warp engines started.”
“You do that. Striker out.”
Hewett peeled away as Shepherd started her sub-light engines to reach the velocity she needed to form a warp bubble. He slipped into his warp bubble seamlessly in the direction of the X buoys.
It was a relief. These past eighteen months had been all paperwork, patrols, and training exercises. The wing had grown so bored, some had gotten involved in their ships’ maintenance. That wasn’t a bad thing for them to learn, but it wasn’t their job. Hewett had maxed out on the different training and assignments his small wing could perform in the Black, making them grumble about that as well.
They were warriors with no war to fight. They could only stand ready. And if the Kaxek and Earth made a peace treaty, what then? Scuttlebutt floated that the forty-five-year-old Walker Pierce would see mothballs inside a year. Older officers like him would either take retirement or get assigned desk positions. Command would probably send him back to the aviator school as an instructor so he could watch the younger guys have all the fun. Hell, he wasn’t old, not yet.
Without warning, his ship shuddered, and klaxons on all systems roared. His avatar displayed a hit to his port engines. What the hell?
Hewett had but a second to check his forward HUD’s display, and couldn’t believe what he saw. His ship’s computer identified his attacker as a short-range Kaxek fighter.
Last time, he’d assumed his eyes were deceiving him. But this time he knew the instruments weren’t wrong, not after earlier. It hadn’t been his imagination then, and it certainly wasn’t now. A Kaxek had fired on him.
What the hell?
A short-range fighter meant one thing: A Kaxek warship lay in wait close by, possibly in Union space, against the truce agreement.
A bolt of adrenaline shot through Hewett. Options leaped into his mind unbidden, thanks to years of training. He had no time to investigate. He could engage his weapons for one sloppy shot, send a call to the Walker Pierce, or try to jump-start his collapsing warp bubble. But certainly not all three.
He knew the Kaxek well enough to know that communications would be jammed at this range. And one shot, even a lucky shot that disabled the fighter, wasn’t going to do much good with a warship nearby. His only chance was to make a run for it.
As his heart pounded, Hewett worked to stabilize his warp field, but the onboard computer refused his command to re-initialize it. Somehow the Kaxek had crippled it with a single shot.
Impossible! The Kaxek didn’t have weapons that powerful.
With a chill in his gut, Hewitt found his impulse engines dead as well. If he’d had them, at least he could coast to a stop, as Shepherd had done. But now he would hit sub-light at a dead stop, and parts of his ship would emerge from the warp bubble in splinters.
Hewett refused to give up even as reality dawned. This was it—his last mission. Even he couldn’t defy the laws of physics.
He took a deep breath as the hull of his fighter screamed the stresses of tortured metal, slamming into sub-light speed. Hewett’s ship tore into spinning fragments shooting into the blackness of space, taking his life—and his final report—into oblivion with it.
Legacy of War: First Encounter
Six Months Later
Carter twisted to avoid a right jab, only to discover too late that his jaw smashed into Foster’s left uppercut. He stumbled two paces as pain raced through his jaw and rattled his head. That was okay. Pain is the weakness that leaves the body, went the old SEAL saw. Of course, after twenty-two years of Navy service, much of it in battle, Captain Devlin Carter figured that if the saying were true, he shouldn’t have any weakness at all. The man in front of him was only too happy to prove it wrong.
“Get back here, you bastard,” Gunnery Sergeant Aidan Foster said. His face scrunched with the laser focus of a soldier ready to tear his enemy apart.
Carter rubbed his jaw and smiled. “Who stole your Wheaties this morning?”
Foster stepped back and snorted, then chuckled.
“That’s it? That’s your best shot? Wow, I bet you drop your opponents left and right at the first crack of your lightning wit.” Carter put his fists up. “Let’s finish this, old man.”
“Old man?” Foster quirked his eyebrow quizzically. “Who’s older? Not me.”
“So I have six years on you. Big whoop. The ship’s pool still has odds on you retiring first.” Carter stared at Foster, daring him to take another shot.
Foster’s eyes carried an evil glint. “That’s because the crew knows one thing.”
“You don’t know when to quit.”
Foster charged full-speed with his head down, and forced Carter to step right. But Foster twisted his torso and caught Carter in the gut with his shoulder, and tossed him over his hip. Carter flipped over to his back to hit the gym mat hard, jolting the breath from his lungs. He stared up at the lights hanging overhead, sucking in air as his spine protested this new abuse.
“I wouldn’t want to meet you in a dark alley,” he gasped.
Foster scoffed and offered Carter a hand up. “That’s why they call me Terminal Gun.”
Carter groaned. Foster had coined the term for himself. Carter hated that his gunny felt he wouldn’t land another promotion, but Carter’s recommendations had all been denied. That was his fault. He’d bucked the brass one too many times, and those officers who’d remained loyal to him had paid the price.
“You don’t make my job easy, do you?” A feminine voice filled the wide gym’s hollow spaces.
Foster reached for a towel hanging on a handrail off the bulkhead and swung it over his sweaty shoulder, smiling. “Hi, Doc.”
The ship’s chief medical officer frowned at both of them. Tamarin Shu had served five years on the USV Walker Pierce with both Carter and Foster. She’d lectured Carter so many times about how hard he trained that they replayed automatically when he saw her. You’re the captain, not one of the SEALs, and you don’t need to over-train. Those stress fractures you suffer take six weeks to heal each time, and weaken your bones. With your years in space in artificial gravity, and at your age, you need to take care.
“Good morning, Tam,” said Carter. “Need something?”
“No, sir. I mean, I had an appointment with Gunnery Sergeant Foster.”
“Yeah, we’re qualifying her on rifles today,” said Foster with enthusiasm. “But I thought that was after the staff meeting.”
Another voice came from the passageway. “You mean the staff meeting we’re supposed to have right now, Sergeant?” Because Lieutenant McWarren didn’t dare speak to the captain that way, she leveled her flinty gaze at her subordinate, Foster.
Carter and Foster exchanged glances as the XO stepped inside the gym, and Foster rolled his eyes. While Carter agreed with the sentiment, he knew he should have been more aware of the time. McWarren would stay over on her midnight-to-seven shift for the fifteen-minute staff meeting, to catch up on operational issues of the day before she took her off time.
Lieutenant Jaime McWarren clasped her hands behind her back, wearing her usual disapproving frown. In her late twenties, McWarren was too young for this position and her rank, even if she’d earned a reputation as a wunderkind strategist at Naval Operations. Why she’d chosen this duty eluded everyone on the ship. McWarren could have had a cushy career at Naval Operations and never seen a day of hard duty or battle.
“Glad you arrived, Lieutenant. No reason why we can’t hold our meeting here,” said Carter.
“As you wish, sir, but the master chief isn’t present.”
“Not a problem. He’s probably elbow-deep in grease anyway.”
McWarren didn’t react. Her first day of duty, when Carter had used that term, she’d pointed out there was no grease on a starship. Carter had learned quickly that his new XO didn’t have much of a sense of humor. That wasn’t going to change, it seemed.
Carter leaned over and hit the comm panel to key in Roy Brennan’s call code.
“You missed the staff meeting again.”
“Sorry, Captain, but I told you that I need those parts for the engine. Right now I’m applying spit and duct tape to keep the engines together.”
“And I suppose you stuck your finger in the dike, too?”
“Well, between your finger and your spit, that should do the trick. Anything else to report?”
“Then you’re excused from the rest of the meeting. Thank you, Chief, for volunteering your spit and finger in our time of need.”
“My pleasure, Captain.”
“Captain,” said McWarren. Her voice registered her protest, and her cheeks flushed against her light brown complexion. “Permission to speak freely.”
“Granted.” He shouldn’t, because she’d asked too many times in the past six months to speak freely. Carter rode the edge of his patience with her.
“We can’t keep ignoring Walker Pierce’s need for repairs. Not to mention we have two critical senior and one junior officer positions unfilled. We should make for Union Station Xena to attend to these issues.”
Carter could feel the sideways glances of Foster and Shu. They knew the line between speaking freely and openly questioning. McWarren simply couldn’t, or didn’t, see it. “I am aware of our operational status,” he said, careful to keep his voice even. “We’re on course for Dragon’s Den, and we’ll put in there.”
“But Dragon’s Den is now a non-Union port.”
This time, he let a little venom seep into his voice. “And your point is?”
“Regulations state that all ships’ repairs must be made with Union parts and personnel.”
“That’s true,” Carter said, “unless there’s a critical need. And Dragon’s Den is closer than Xena. I’d say that Chief sticking his finger in the engine to keep it running is a critical need.” He glanced at Foster. “Wouldn’t you say, Gunny?”
“That’s true, sir. He has other needs for that finger.”
“Is that so? And how do you have knowledge of what Chief Brennan does with his finger, Gunnery Sergeant?”
Foster shrugged his shoulders. “One would imagine.”
Carter chuckled. McWarren looked annoyed but held her tongue. Carter spent the next couple of minutes running through critical issues reports with the others. McWarren reiterated her longstanding request for more personnel and better rotation. In spite of everything, Carter liked McWarren; or at least, he didn’t dislike her. She spoke her mind to a fault, but there were worse faults.
After they were done, Shu left and Foster walked toward the showers, but McWarren hung back. “Sir.”
“Yes, Lieutenant?” Carter answered.
“I must lodge my objection to your course of action.”
Carter sighed. “Lieutenant, I don’t pretend to understand why someone at Command put you out here on the edge of Union space. You have plenty of shipboard experience, but it’s all inner worlds. Out here, we’re given autonomy by the naval charter, so my assessment is the final assessment. Is that clear? I’ve listened to all your objections more than once, and unless you have new objections to offer, I don’t want to hear them again.”
McWarren’s eyes widened, then narrowed. “I’m concerned about the ship and its crew. We are short three key positions.”
Carter rubbed the bridge of his nose. “You’ve already mentioned that, Lieutenant.”
Since Hewett’s death, Command had ignored his requests for new personnel. It was an unsubtle message. Don’t stir the pot with unfounded accusations against the Kaxek. Get the Walker Pierce back to port.
“Sir, Command supported my report that Commander Hewett died from a pirate attack.”
“I’m aware, Lieutenant,” said Carter. “And I didn’t agree with it then or now. Pirates have no motivation to down a Union fighter pilot.”
“The war depleted the Kaxek resources, and they want peace. The Kaxek sent ambassadors to Earth. They are negotiating—”
“Shit,” Carter said evenly, keeping his anger in check.
McWarren frowned. “What, sir?”
“They are negotiating shit.”
“They’ve offered nothing we can agree to in the two years they’ve been on Earth. I’ve seen those bastards fight, Lieutenant. They don’t dawdle at anything. They hit hard and fast, so this makes no sense at all. I don’t trust it, and I can’t see why UEN trusts it. And for the life of me, I can’t understand why you, as a strategist, trust it either.”
Carter spotted Foster leaving the showers, dressed in a fresh uniform. He needed one too, before he got on with his day.
“We don’t deserve to die as a race. The Kaxek are out there buying time, but they’ll be back, and I’ll bring that proof to Command. In the meantime, if the state of things on the Walker Pierce isn’t to your liking, then request a transfer. I’ll authorize it today.”
McWarren’s face drained of color. “Sir, no sir.”
“Then in the finest military tradition, Lieutenant—zip it. Dismissed.”
McWarren turned and strode crisply from the gym, and Carter let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d kept in. He was anticipating a nice shower when his wrist pager flashed notification of a call from the bridge.
“This is Carter,” he said into the wall comm.
“Sir, I keep seeing a shadow almost out of range.” Carter recognized the voice of Sensor Officer Drake. “I can’t determine what it is, and you left standing orders to report anything suspicious.”
“No guess on what it is?”
“The computer thinks it’s a natural phenomenon. Most likely a comet, sir.”
Carter stroked his chin. “Alert the CAG to send a pair of fighters out there to check it out. At least they can get some training in.”
“Right away, Captain.”
“‘Zip it’!” McWarren huffed as she batted the ball into the handball court wall. “Who says something like that?”
Your CO, that’s who. But that fact didn’t make it any better when she got slapped back for doing her job.
When the ball bounced toward her faster than expected, she smashed it hard enough for the kinetic energy of the return to sting her hand. The ball hit the wall with a loud pop that reverberated against the walls, and then whizzed past her to land out of bounds.
Just like her service on the Walker Pierce.
Why did she let Carter get under her skin? She’d done nothing wrong since boarding the warship. She had been excited and proud to land a billet on Carter’s ship. He was an officer whose family, like hers, had a long history of service to the Union and fighting the Kaxek. Sure, she’d arrived at the butt-end of the war. But she had thought, mistakenly, that she had more similarities than differences with Carter, even if he had a reputation of being a bit of a maverick.
Another strike with the handball shot pain through her arm. Behind her, the door to the compartment opened, but she focused on the ball whizzing at her. McWarren swore as she banged it into the wall, once again too hard.
“Geez, woman,” said a familiar voice. “With a strike like that, you could take out a platoon.”
McWarren rolled her eyes as she walked past Shepherd. The wing leader, also dressed in form-fitting workout clothes with matching lieutenant’s stripes, snatched the ball from where it bounced at the opposite wall.
“What are you doing here? This is your watch.”
“Even the wicked get a day off,” said Shepherd with a smile.
McWarren handed the ball to Shepherd. “You serve.”
“Far be it from me to protest the orders of my superior officer,” said Shepherd with a smirk. “But I just finished my workout. Let’s hit the mess for some coffee. I have the sense I’ll need fortification.”
With the lack of a wing commander, Shepherd reported directly to Carter, just as McWarren did. This made it easier to form a friendship with the wing leader than with anyone else on the ship.
Looking down at her workout clothes, the XO shook her head. “We’re not dressed for the wardroom.”
“So we’ll do the Dirty Mess. You know, where you aren’t the effing president of the mess, and aren’t confined to your own table, and don’t grant other officers permission to enter. We can talk like normal people.”
“Fine,” sighed McWarren. “But you’ll have to listen to me bitch.”
“So a day that ends in ‘y,’ then.”
As they walked through the featureless passageway to the elevator, the occasional passing crewman would nod and mutter, “Ma’am,” but since they weren’t in uniform, nothing more. They stepped into it, and McWarren called for deck four. The car dropped, and her feet lifted from the deck a hairsbreadth.
Shepherd chuckled. “The artificial gravity giving you a heart attack again?”
McWarren scoffed and glanced at her friend, who was entirely relaxed. She envied Shepherd’s ease in living shipboard. “The gravity lapse is a sign of the problem with the ship’s engines. Doesn’t that give you cause for concern?”
“Please,” Shepherd said. “Sailing on the Walker Pierce is like taking an ocean cruise. You want glitchy? Try spending a few of your formative years on your uncle’s tramp cargo hauler. You don’t know glitchy until you sit in your cabin with a pistol in your hand to protect yourself from pirates, because Uncle Jack was too cheap to buy a twenty-chip part.”
“It couldn’t have been that bad.”
Shepherd looked darkly at her. “There’s a reason the family disowned him.”
“Well, I have bad news for you. We’re going to Dragon’s Den. Isn’t that his corner of the galaxy?” This wasn’t the first story that McWarren had heard of Jada’s infamous uncle.
Shepherd snorted. “Hardly. He can’t show his face there. He has to stay further out these days.”
“Further out than Dragon’s Den? Isn’t that basically Kaxek territory?”
Shepherd gave McWarren another dark glance. “Like I said. We don’t talk about Uncle Jack.”
Damn, Shepherd thought, genuinely sorry she’d pried. There were outlaws and then there were outlaws.
Shepherd waved her hand. “Anyways, what’s eating you? Carter again?”
McWarren frowned. Her life up until she’d stepped onto the Walker Pierce had been analysis and strategy. Why couldn’t she figure out how to get through to the captain? Command didn’t like him navigating the edge of Union space. The Kaxek’s overactive territorial instincts were well known. “It’s my job to point out to him—”
Shepherd winced. “You did not—”
McWarren shook her head and changed the subject. “What’s on your nerves? You hit the rack on your off days.”
Shepherd shrugged. “Something doesn’t feel right.”
“In the ship.”
Now it was McWarren’s turn to shrug. “Now you sound like the captain. He first applied for shipbuilding school, but they assigned him to a combat position. But he still thinks he knows the ship better than anyone.”
“Geez,” said Shepherd. “Where the hell did you learn that?”
“Forget I said that,” said McWarren. Her cheeks heated. Damn it, next thing she’d blurt out that Carter was the grandson of this vessel’s namesake. It was a secret he kept, and she only knew it because she’d read his file.
“Just how deep are your connections in Command?” Shepherd ventured.
McWarren bristled at the question. “I cut ties. I told you.”
“For mysterious reasons.”
“No. For reasons I prefer not to discuss.”
“Because?” Shepherd held out the syllables in the word extra-long, encouraging McWarren to speak.
“None of your damned business ‘because.’” McWarren realized her tone was too sharp, and softened her voice. “Let’s get back to this mystical sense of yours.”
“It just seems like something will happen.”
“What kind of thing?” asked McWarren.
“It’s a warning vibe rattling my bones. But I’ll be damned if I can name the thing.”
A steward set coffee down in front of them. McWarren stirred in sugar and milk and stared into her coffee. Shepherd’s “sixth sense” in the air was legendary. She seemed to divine when to change course, to avoid enemy fire or figure out the best sector to find trouble. But it was only a “feeling,” as Shepherd claimed, and what stock could you place in that? For McWarren, the world was black and white. There was no room for shades of gray, like “sensing” that a problem lurked ahead.
Shepherd took a sip of her hot coffee, cringed, and looked like she was about to give McWarren another of her lectures on the poor quality of space coffee when her wristband flashed. She studied the incoming message and then slammed her coffee down. “Got to go to the landing bay,” she said hurriedly as she stood. “We do.”
“Why? What’s up?”
“That something bad I was feeling?” Shepherd’s face was grim. “I think it just happened.”
Foster had just spent the last half-hour with Shu at the indoor gunnery range, running her through best practices with a plasma rifle.
She was a fast learner. Not ready to drop everything and join the SEALs, but better than any medical doctor had a right to be.
“Lots of people struggle at first because the materials are so lightweight. Plasma rifles almost feel like toys, but they’re dangerous. The tech isn’t that different than FTL tech in many ways. We learned about those materials from the Kaxek, in the first ship we captured.” He realized he was babbling and stopped talking.
Shu nodded. “Yes. It’s in history lessons now,” she said softly.
He adored her gentle voice, which lilted on certain syllables. She was also smart and beautiful, and her uniform clung to her curves, revealing an appealing athletic figure. Shu usually wore a lab coat over her uniform, so when he’d seen her in the gym in just her standard issues, it had knocked him back.
“Oh, right,” Foster said. What an idiot he was. Everyone knew the story of how, when the Kaxek had first attacked, Colonel Alfred Walker had led a team of SEALs to board and destroy the three attackers. Earth had developed FTL technology from reverse-engineered Kaxek specs to prepare for future alien attacks. Kaxek materials had been critical in helping humanity bridge the gap to produce functioning plasma rifles.
“Thank you, Gunnery Sergeant. I feel much more prepared now.”
“We can do some more shooting,” he said. “We’re set up for a full session.”
Shu smiled. “I’d like that. But first, I wonder if you wouldn’t mind a quick chat?”
Foster studied her face, wondering what this was about. Her expression was ultra-serious, as if she had a grave issue to discuss. He was about to offer up the tiny range office, but it was a mess, and too many of his men would be traipsing through.
“Sure. We can go to the chiefs’ mess.” He glanced at a nearby ensign. “Lock up these weapons.”
“Sure thing, Chief.”
Foster found he instinctively moved his hand to steer Shu toward the door and, realizing he was about to touch an officer, drew it back at once. She didn’t seem to notice, which was good. They walked into the passageway side by side.
“Can I ask, Commander, when the Walker Pierce puts into port, what you plan to do?” he asked.
Shu raised her eyebrows. “What do you mean?”
“Have you had enough of us swabbies, and plan to go home?”
“Oh, no. I’ll never go home. I had thought about settling in San Francisco. I like the city, the temperate weather, and the vibrant Asian community. But that’s in the future. There’s always a shortage of Navy doctors, and I won’t lack for an assignment. Why do you ask?”
Foster let out a breath. “I have my twenty years in, and I thought about taking retirement and living planetside off my stipend and investments. Do some fishing.”
She nodded. “It sounds like a good plan. You’ve done well with your investments?”
“I put half my pay into my funds every pay period. Though with the talk of peace, I may have to rethink my portfolio. I’m heavy in defense stocks.”
“I must admit,” said Shu, “that I never imagine you retired.”
The elevator doors opened on deck four. “Why not? Did you think I’d become a grizzled old cuss, forever drilling men in the use of arms?”
“That’s not all you do, Chief.” Her tone turned serious. “I’ve noticed that you watch everything that happens on this ship.”
Foster shrugged. “Not having a master-at-arms, someone has to be sheriff.”
“That’s not it,” said Shu. “You’ve always kept your finger on the ship’s pulse, and the captain’s. So I’ll ask you: do you think Captain Carter has lost his objectivity in matters regarding the Kaxek?”
Foster stopped walking just as they reached the chiefs’ mess, and stared at Shu before he stepped inside. She followed, and the door shut.
“You’re asking me if the captain is fit for command, aren’t you?”
“Is not for me to question. I’ve found nothing I fault him for.”
“He believes the Kaxek aren’t serious about peace.”
“He may be right. We won’t know until they sign a peace treaty.”
“But don’t you find it odd that he won’t put into a Union port?” Shu asked.
For the Union to declare the Walker Pierce mothballed, and all of them dispersed to other assignments? Foster couldn’t imagine it. The Walker Pierce was his home, despite his talk about landlubbing it.
But before Foster could answer, a warning klaxon wailed. “Red alert. Medical team to the hangar deck.”
Shu pivoted and dashed of out the chiefs’ mess, and Foster followed her. They slammed into the elevator, and both of them breathed harder than they had a few minutes before. Foster looked at his wrist communicator. “A fighter’s coming in hot. Communications are down, and we don’t know the pilot’s status.”
“That’s one hell of a report,” said Shu. “All I’m getting is that an emergency team is on the way to the landing deck.”
Foster frowned. “Operations tells me that fighter is coming in too fast and the tractor can’t catch it. Damn! Who’s running the flight deck today?”
When the elevator door opened, Foster flew out down the passageway to the landing deck. Different crews crowded the hall, and Shu watched as Foster screamed: “Out of the way, out of the way!”
Crew members flattened against the bulkhead, letting them pass. When they got to the door that opened onto the landing deck, Foster tore through that too. Other crew members stood on the deck, and he screamed at them.
“Out of here! Everyone out of here! We need to depressurize the bay, because if that fighter suffered damage, it’ll blow up as it comes in. Out!”
From what Foster had told her about plasma rifles, and how they were a miniature version of FTL drives, Shu understood. Hitting the atmosphere with the engines engaged would ignite the oxygen in the landing bay. Brennan arrived, but Shu put her hand on his arm. “Foster’s trying to get the crew out of the landing bay.”
Brennan nodded and hit the communications panel. “Operations, this is Brennan. Get ready to depressurize the landing bay.”
Carter arrived, and then Shepherd, and between both of them, they pulled out the remaining crew, followed by Foster. They shut the landing bay doors, and Brennan and Carter both pulled on the manual locking wheel against the loss of pressure that was to come.
Shepherd activated the viewscreen in the bulkhead to watch the ship. As the lock clicked into place, Shu saw a black blot against the stars.
Foster opened his mouth to yell into the comm, but it was too late. The ship’s nose appeared out of the Black first, and seventy-five feet of fighter skidded down four hundred of the five hundred feet of deck. Shu gasped when it burst into flames. The firebrand bounced on the extended deck in the ship’s underbelly and crashed into the right bulkhead, and bounced back again to the middle of the deck. It pivoted in a full circle, a whirling wheel of flame.
“Fuck!” yelled Foster. “Blow the atmo now!”
Other fighters, tethered to the bulkhead for safety reasons, strained against their moorings as the atmosphere blew out of the landing bay doors. The flames on the fighter flickered, then died. Shu reached for the door.
“What are you doing? We need to pressurize it first.”
Shu’s cheeks colored. Her only thought had been to get to the pilot.
“Get a pressure suit on,” said Foster. “It’ll protect you from the heat of the burnt metal.”
“What about the pilot?”
“There’s nothing we can do,” said Shepherd behind her. “Not until we repressurize the deck. Come on.”
Shu nodded, but things seemed hazy, and she couldn’t seem to think straight.
Shepherd led Shu to a room to the right, where a nurse and the night shift doctor, Collins, suited up. “You remember how to do this, right?” asked Shepherd.
Shu bit her lip. She remembered. Anyone who worked on a spaceship or around the space yards trained in EMUs. Outside the door, the chatter of the crew waiting to get inside rose up like the clamor of crows. Shepherd pulled on her arm, and Shu’s staff stared at both of them.
“Tam! Get moving. That pilot needs you.”
Right. The pilot. Shu shook her head, dislodging the horrific scene of the fighter burning from her head. In medical school, they’d taught her how to focus, and that’s what she needed to do.
Shu donned the suit, and Shepherd checked the seals and then gave her the thumbs up. Shepherd pressed her head against Shu’s helmet and turned on her comm.
“Look.” She pressed some buttons on the control pad on Shu’s suit. “I’ve turned on your comm system. You’ll hear everything that’s going on. The bridge pipes in through here, and the other channel, this blue button, you’ll communicate with whoever’s wearing a suit. Let’s go.”
Shu, Collins, and the nurse followed Shepherd through the flight deck’s entrance. Collins and the nurse picked up bags that Shu assumed were medical supplies. A gravity-free gurney hovered over the deck, and Collins grabbed it. A fire crew streamed suppressant foam onto the plane while Carter, Brennan, Foster, and McWarren stood together watching the scene. The captain now wore a headset, which meant he spoke to the bridge.
“Captain, I need to get to the pilot,” said Shu.
“The hatch won’t release,” said Carter. Worry colored his voice. “Brennan’s team is coming with equipment.”
“Who’s the pilot?” said Shu.
“Ivan Svetsky. Jada sent him to check a sensor shadow. Damn it! This shouldn’t have happened.”
Shu sucked in a breath of oxygen from the pack on her back. It smelled slightly metallic, and she didn’t like it, but that was nothing compared to what Ivan must be experiencing.
If he was still alive.
Four of Brennan’s mechanics arrived and rushed to the ship. Two men wore protective gear, and carried the largest crowbars she had ever seen. Brennan walked to them, and they spoke briefly. One man in protective equipment called for a ladder, and one of the flight crew rolled one to the smoldering ship. Shu was glad her suit prevented her from smelling the burnt plastic metal and possibly charred human. Her stomach churned with nerves. As a doctor, she was supposed to remain calm and collected. As a human, her heart wrenched for the unfortunate pilot inside. She watched, muscles bunched in tension as the two men used their crowbars to pry open the fighter’s sky deck.
The two men cursed mightily and huffed while they applied raw muscle to the hydraulically-sealed bubble. With a pop, the sky deck opened. Other crew members pulled the bubble down. Even Shu could see that the sky deck, black with charring, was burned beyond repair. With a sinking heart, she guessed that the seals had given way, and flames could have reached the cockpit.
Shu sucked in a breath and climbed the ladder after Brennan’s two men climbed down. Collins climbed a ladder on the opposite side. They reached the top rung. Shu looked at the pilot, and then at Collins. Ivan was in much worse shape than she expected.
The pilot’s flight suit hung off him in black tatters. His blackened flesh was clotted with blood. Shu swallowed hard. The only part not burned off was Ivan’s flight helmet, which probably kept him alive, but he was gasping now. His pain must be beyond intolerable.
“Dr. Shu, I think his air supply is depleted,” said Collins.
“Right,” said Shu. “You take the left side and I’ll get the right, and we’ll pull up the helmet. Gently. He’s getting some air now because his suit ruptured.”
“I wonder how much smoke he inhaled,” said Collins through his suit comm.
“We won’t know until we get him to sickbay. But the fumes must have been noxious.”
Carefully, they pulled up the helmet, and Shu handed it to a member of the flight crew. “Hey, Ivan. We’ll help you,” she said.
Ivan shivered. It was the first sign of shock. They didn’t have much time to get him out of the fighter.
“Cold,” he mouthed. The poor man’s throat must be dry, and he couldn’t speak.
“I know. Hang in there, Ivan. We need to get you out, but it will hurt a bit.”
Ivan’s eyes met hers, and it hit her that the pilot knew his chances of surviving this night were iffy. Burns were the worst injury to recover from, even if minor. Over ninety percent of his body? Survival meant living for months in extreme pain. She’d have to induce a medical coma and get him into a bariatric chamber, and perform a host of other procedures.
“Let’s go. Lift him slowly, and let’s get him on the gurney and then to sickbay.”
“Oc,” Ivan wheezed. “Kaaa.”
But the jolt of the suspension arm lifting him made him gasp, and his head lolled to the side.
“He’s passed out,” said Collins.
Collins and the nurse took over, to lay Ivan on the gurney and rolled him out of the flight deck. Shu tried to follow, but Carter stopped her. “Did he say anything? What happened?”
Shu shook her head. “He can’t speak right now, Captain, and he won’t for a while. With the severity of his burns, the best thing for him is an induced coma.”
Carter’s mouth formed a tight line, unhappy with Shu’s report.
“If you’ll excuse me, Captain, I need to tend to my patient.”
“Of course,” said Carter. “But if he says anything... If it was the Kaxek that—”
“I’ll let you know,” said Shu. She shook her head after she slipped past, wondering if she had more problems than a patient skirting the edges of death.
Two Days Later
The thrum of the ship’s engines rumbled louder here at the stern of the Walker Pierce. Spread either side astern across the width of the vessel, the massive compartment comprised the huge tubes that contained the FTL engines. From the outside, the engine housings resembled PVC piping on steroids, for their size; but inside those walls was housed the power to sling the Walker Pierce unimaginable distances.
These engines were a profound realization of the human dream to travel the stars, and Carter refused to take them for granted, but he might take for granted Chief Roy Brennan’s skill in keeping them running. Carter noted the discordant whine of the engines, not at their peak, and winced. This and the list of needed engine parts Brennan had submitted caused Carter to wonder if they could make Dragon’s Den.
He found Brennan with his body on a mechanic’s creeper under a smaller pipe leading to the engines. The chief swore like a sailor as plastic struck plastic, while an assistant stood by looking sheepish.
“Is this where you stick your finger, Chief?” said Carter.
“Ach!” snorted Brennan in disgust. He rolled out from under the pipe and handed a plastic wrench to the assistant. “This is the wrong size. I need a three-quarter-inch one.”
“Yes, Chief,” said the assistant.
“And when you find it, get under there and loosen the relief valve by one quarter-turn, and only that. Or by God, we’ll blow into a million pieces.”
The assistant’s face paled. “Yes, Chief.”
“Good.” Brennan turned his attention to Carter as the assistant briskly went in search of the tool.
“Why did you tell him that?” said Carter. “A mismatch in the flow will only slow the engines.”
Brennan snorted. “I need to keep these guys on their toes. It’s my job.”
“I suppose it’s better than a snipe hunt,” said Carter.
Brennan raised a bandaged finger. “I’m putting in for a Purple Heart.”
“Are you sure that’s a duty-related injury?” Carter asked. Brennan flipped him off, and he laughed. “If I didn’t like you, I’d put you on report.”
The master chief snorted. “Then who’d keep watch on this rusty pile of bolts for you?”
Carter smirked. “And what’s that aroma from your office? It smells like coffee.”
Brennan’s mouth twitched. “Want a cup, Captain?”
“We still have coffee? I couldn’t get any in the officers’ mess.”
“That’s because I used part of my personal property allotment to stock up at our last Union port. Alpha Centauri coffee, too. Strong but smooth, because of the particular volcanic soil on Alpha Prime. Coffee is too important to leave to the vagaries of patrol duty.”
The master chief waved his hand toward his office, and they strolled across the deck.
Carter smiled. “This is why I like you. Always thinking ahead. What was the problem back there?”
Brennan grimaced. “A faulty oxygen flow regulator. It needs replacement, but I don’t have the part.”
“Nothing you can take off a fighter?” said Carter. He suppressed a smile. He remembered Shepherd’s reaction when Brennan had suggested the idea in the past.
“And have the wing leader relieve me of my balls? No thanks. Besides, the fighters’ flow regulators are too small to use on this behemoth.”
They entered Brennan’s office, a glass-encased cubicle stuffed with different machine parts in the bookcase behind his black desk. Parts littered his desk, too. The scent peculiar to the engine room—plastic and metal—hovered stronger here in this enclosed space. A holo display of the ship’s engine hovered over the desk, where someone—Carter assumed it was Brennan—had marked some areas in red. Brennan went to a coffee maker, which must be from his PPA too, where he pulled a pot on the burner and poured two cups.
“You’ll have to take it black, because I don’t keep cream or sugar here.”
“Just like all the good sociopaths, eh?” said Carter. He took the mug Brennan offered.
“That’s debunked, and you know it.”
“‘Debunked?’ Where did you learn that?”
Brennan stared into his cup. “An online psychology class,” he muttered.
“Whoa, Chief. Are you getting a degree? Looking to become a commissioned officer?”
“Bite your tongue, Captain. No. I wouldn’t have your job or any like it. You guys have to deal with too much BS with Command and the lame-brained directives they hand out.”
Carter quirked his mouth and sipped his coffee. He silently agreed with Brennan’s assessment. Sometimes he wondered how he’d gotten himself into the mess he was in.
Brennan continued. “And I have to make plans for the future. I’m closing in on my twenty years, and I’d like to teach engine mechanics, maybe at the Academy. But any school requires a college degree for instructors, so I’m working on it.”
Carter raised his eyebrows. “That’s spectacular, Chief.”
“Yeah, but some courses seem like so much bullshit to me, you know?”
Carter chuckled. “Where do you think officers learn to spin bullshit in the first place?”
“You’re a cynical bastard,” said Brennan.
“Scratch a cynic, and all you’ll find is a disappointed idealist.”
“Who said that?”
Carter shook his head. “Too many people to attribute.”
“Must make it true, but I don’t blame you. Retiring a whole class of ships because they’re too expensive to maintain? Ridiculous. There’s nothing wrong with the Walker Pierce that a good overhaul can’t fix.”
Carter blew out a breath and stared into his coffee. “It’s not the machine. It’s the message. The prototype of this ship took out the Kaxek fleet. They hate and fear the light cruiser class.”
“Just another reason to make more of them,” said Brennan.
“Not in the minds of diplomats. They consider it a gesture in the peace process to mothball these ships.”
“Gestures mean zip when the enemy’s raining death and destruction on you. What did Command say about Svetsky’s ship getting shot down?”
“I sent a preliminary report stating the bare-bones details,” Carter said. “But McWarren is working on the official one.”
“That one. DOD asked so many questions my head hurt.”
“Daughter of Dysfunction,” Brennan said. “That woman has a way of turning everything on its head.”
Carter sighed. “I know. But she’s good at her job.”
“Captain, you’ve got to be kidding. I see how she acts with you.”
“She’s doing her job. If she ‘yes sir’d’ me the entire tour, I couldn’t trust her.”
“Come on, Captain. She’s a pain, and you know it. And I heard some interesting gossip about why she left her cushy job at Command.”
Carter shook his head. “That’s enough, Chief. If you’re having a difficult time working with her, then adjust your attitude.”
Brennan grimaced and stared at his cup. Damn it. Carter hated dressing him down.
The chief looked up from his coffee. “How’s Svetsky doing?”
“Stable, but … not great,” Carter admitted. “We’ll know more when Shu puts on the skin grafts she’s growing now.”
Brennan shook his head. There was an awkward silence between them. Carter was about to break it when Brennan said, “I wish I could heal these engines like Shu can a human body.”
“You’re the best and brightest, too, Chief. I have faith in you.”
Brennan snorted. “Nice to know, but I can’t fight physics. If we don’t get new parts soon, they’ll tow the Walker Pierce into a Union port.”
“We have another day to Dragon’s Den.”
“Yeah, I heard. But the Union abandoned that port a year ago.” Brennan tapped his finger on his mug, and by the look on the chief’s face, the man thought he had a problem.
“What’s bugging you, Chief?”
Brennan swiveled the holoscreen toward Carter. He pointed to a long, thick cylinder that sat at the entrance of the vacuum chamber. “This thing. I’ve shown you this before, but now there are cracks in the cylinder. All of our troubles—the engines sounding bad and the artificial gravity acting funky—are because we need a new magnetic ring for the vacuum chamber. These things don’t last forever; the one in the starboard engine is forty-six years old.”
“Just the starboard-side ring?”
“Yeah, the portside engine got replaced after the last engagement we had with the Kaxek, remember?”
“I do now. Didn’t we sit in port for two weeks while the shipyard installed it?”
“We did, because we were at the end of the queue. It doesn’t take but a day to install it. We’ll need another day or so to rebuild the magnetic bottle for the vacuum chamber and make the adjustments to get in sync with the other engine. What if they don’t have one at Dragon’s Den big enough for our engine, though?”
“All starships use these, even non-Union ones,” said Carter. “Dragon’s Den should have at least one. And if not, all they do at Dragon’s Den is mine and refine the ore they’re comprised of. You can machine a ring if we get a cylinder roughly the size we need, right?”
“It’ll give my machinist something to do. But Captain, that’s a time-intensive task.”
“I count on you to get it done. I don’t intend to get tugged into the nearest Union space station with our tail between our legs.”
Brennan nodded. “Aye, Captain. When the Walker Pierce goes in, I want people to say, ‘That ship is like brand new’.” He glanced toward Carter’s hands. “Captain, is someone trying to reach you?” He tapped his wrist, and Carter looked at his wristband, which now flashed to call the bridge.
Carter touched the screen. “Bridge.” The youngish face of Ensign Zak Buckner flashed on. He had command of the bridge while Carter walked his rounds. “Yes, Zak?”
“You have an incoming message from Command.”
Brennan stood. “Use my office. I have more dike filling to do.” He shut the door as he left.
“Send it to Chief Brennan’s office,” Carter said.
The message flashed the seal of the United Earth Force, and then the face of Rear Admiral King. Because of the vast distance from Earth, the message was only one-way.
“Captain Carter, pursuant to regulations, you will put into Space Station Xena to give a personal report of the accident involving Lieutenant Svetsky. King out.”
Carter cursed under his breath. Make a personal report? Yeah, it was in the regs, but not strictly enforced. No. This was their excuse to order him to port, where they would take the Walker Pierce away from him. He’d known it would come to this sooner or later, so why was he surprised? He wished he was in his own office and not Brennan’s. At least he had Scotch there.
But then again, there was no amount of whiskey that could fill the hollow in his gut that swirled like a black hole right now.
McWarren stared at the blinking light indicating an incoming message. The day she’d walked out of the Office of Strategic Operations was the last time she’d ever expected to hear from her father.
She was wrong.
Just then her door chimed. “Come in,” she said.
“You decent?” said Shepherd. She smiled at McWarren, though McWarren noticed that Shepherd held a hand behind her back.
“You’re way too happy for the end of your shift.”
“That’s because I’m bearing gifts.” Shepherd pulled out the cup she hid behind her back and held it out. The aroma of coffee wafted from it.
“Where did you get this?”
“Chief Brennan. He keeps a private stash for emergencies.”
McWarren’s mouth quirked with disbelief. “And he let you have some for me?”
“Technically, no. It’s for me. But I thought you needed it more.”
“You’re too good, Jada. No wonder everyone likes you.”
“Me? No. It’s just I only have seven guys to hassle, not an entire crew like you. I wouldn’t want your job if they paid me a ton of chits to do it.”
“Way to motivate,” muttered McWarren.
“Wait. You have an incoming message?”
McWarren glanced at her holoscreen, at the blinking indicator. “Yeah. It’s personal.”
“Oh ho, so Jaime McWarren has a personal message. Who’s it from? A hot guy?”
“Get out of here, Shepherd. I just have a few to shower and get dressed.”
“That’s how you treat someone who brings you coffee?”
“Thanks for the coffee. You saved my life.”
“Fine. Good night.”
Shepherd exited, leaving McWarren alone in her cabin. But after her shower, as McWarren dressed, she couldn’t avoid the flashing incoming message light.
“Fine,” she grumbled. “Computer, play incoming message.”
The seal for the United Earth Navy spun out on the page and then dissolved into her father’s face. Admiral Malcolm King stared out with a grim expression.
Command has sent orders to Captain Devlin Carter to return to Space Station Xena as soon as possible. If Captain Carter fails to follow this order, then you are authorized to take command of the Walker Pierce and return her to a Union port.
Failure to follow these orders may result in disciplinary procedures.
Malcolm King’s fearsome visage dissolved.
McWarren opened her mouth and then closed it. I’m screwed. There’s no way Carter will do that. He knows that it’s the end of the line. They’ll pull the ship out of service.
And how the hell would she accomplish taking command? The crew gave their loyalty to Carter. She could end up in the brig for trying to take command. It would end her career on any Navy ship. No captain or crew would trust her. If she didn’t follow orders, she’d end up court-martialed, then jailed.
McWarren formed her hands into fists and pounded her thighs. The bastard, with his direct order, had just destroyed her naval career. Her only choice would be to return to her old job under the thumb of her father: that, or resign.
She huffed and headed to the elevator to take her to deck five, which housed the sickbay, supply, and the administrative offices for enlisted officers like Foster and the empty master-at-arms position. McWarren had intended to check on Svetsky anyway, but now, with her father’s message, she also had to speak with Dr. Shu.
There was only one way she could take command that wouldn’t cause a mutiny among the crew.
McWarren entered the sickbay, where the same dry medicinal odor hung in the air that hung in all hospitals. These past six months, McWarren had gotten used to the many smells that clustered in different areas, but the sickbay’s signature scent had “Heads up. You’re in a hospital” vibes.
Etched on the clear glass door were the words, “Sickbay. Chief Medical Officer, Lieutenant Commander Tamarin Shu.” The first room of the sickbay was a waiting room, with benches that ran around the walls for seating. No one sat there, so McWarren moved ahead into the examination area. As she entered the office proper, a shining curtain of shimmering light swept down either side and above. These were the light displays that signaled UV sweeps of the facility. McWarren’s first lesson in sickbay had been not to lean against the bulkheads, after the left side of her face had turned red. The force of UV light that killed bacteria and viruses was also the upper limit of UV light that caused sunburn. She hadn’t been burned worse only because the sweep stopped when it detected a human within a certain distance of the field.
On her right, five bays inset the bulkhead in line, and each one contained a bed, with a bright holo display hung over it. On her left, a long glass wall marked off Shu’s office, the dentist’s office, and a laboratory area. No one inhabited the first two bays, but the third one contained Shu and Svetsky.
McWarren noticed gentle music playing in the background. Shu held up her hand to indicate she’d be a minute, and continued to check the holo monitors to the side of Svetsky’s bed. McWarren couldn’t see much of him, as a glazed bubble covered him and only his head was visible. He had a breathing tube in his mouth, and his eyes were closed.
Shu sighed and then exited the room. “Good day, Lieutenant,” she said. The doctor’s eyes appeared tired. “What can I help you with?”
“How’s he doing?” said McWarren.
“Not you, too,” muttered Shu. “I’ve told the captain that no one can question Lieutenant Svetsky in the foreseeable future. I understand that you need to complete your report—”
“Whoa, relax, Doctor. I’m not here about that, but a related matter.”
“Yes?” said Shu.
McWarren took a deep breath. “It’s what we talked about before. About the captain.”
Shu frowned. “I share your concerns, but—”
“I need to know if his obsession with the Kaxek is clouding his judgment, making him unfit for command.”
Shu raised her eyebrows, but before she could respond, a gruff voice from behind asked, “What the hell?”
They both turned to see Foster standing in the doorway. His face contorted with equal parts disbelief and anger.
“Gunny,” said McWarren. “Please wait outside.”
Foster shook his head. “Not until you tell me what the hell is going on.”
Foster crossed his arms while McWarren turned to Doctor Shu.
“Sorry, Doctor,” said McWarren. “I’ll talk to you later. Can I use your office?”
“Yes,” said Shu, nodding.
“Foster,” said the XO. She stared at him hard, and pointed to the doctor’s office. She followed Foster inside, then hit the setting by the door to glaze the windows.
“What is this?” he said. “Why are you asking Tamarin about the captain’s fitness to command? Are you the one who put those ideas in her head in the first place?”
“That’s none of your business, and I don’t appreciate your interrupting my conversation with the doctor.”
“Everything on this tub is my business,” he said. Foster had lowered his voice so that it was almost a growl. He stood with his legs apart, as if he would haul the mutinous XO to the brig and lock her up himself. It was almost within his purview as acting master-at-arms, but not without the captain’s permission.
“Sergeant, we depend on how well you monitor what goes on in the ship. You do an excellent job with short staff, but how long do you expect that to last? Hasn’t it crossed your mind that the captain puts us all at risk with keeping this ship on patrol short on supplies and crew?”
“It doesn’t matter what crosses my mind, Lieutenant. Captain Carter has been an excellent ship’s master. He has my loyalty, and I’ll go further and say that of the crew.”
“Yes, and I suppose that if he leads you to hell and back again, you’ll all follow him. But it’s my job to make sure that I serve the best interests of the Walker Pierce’s crew.”
“Bullshit!” said Foster. “Command sent you to spy on the captain. Why else would they send someone from Strategic Operations here?”
McWarren’s eyes widened and then narrowed. “That’s what you think?” she said. “I’m a spy? That’s just perfect.”
The XO’s face screwed up, and she seemed ready to unleash on him when the ship jolted, and the artificial gravity failed for five long seconds. Suspended, Foster wondered what the hell had happened, while McWarren sputtered a stream of invectives.
They both fell to the deck with a hard jolt. The warning klaxon sounded, and the emergency lights flashed red. “All hands,” said the captain over the PA. “Report to inspection stations.”
McWarren exchanged a glance with Foster. The captain used the inspection station command only when he suspected hull damage.
McWarren pushed a button on Shu’s desk. “Foster and I are here. What’s up, Captain?”
“The starboard engine failed. This caused a disruption in the artificial gravity and our ship’s shields. Pinprick meteorites from the Dragon’s Den asteroid field bombarded the ship. Go to engineering and oversee the repair efforts. I’ll remain on the bridge and monitor the situation. I want a report on the extent of the damage from the meteorites ASAP.”
“Aye, aye, Captain.”
“What do you want me to do, Captain?” said Foster.
“Get to your station and oversee the crew there,” said Carter. “Sensor reports show that area is the hardest hit. Grab extra cans of sealant on the way. With one engine down, our oxygen and water supply—”
“I get it, Captain,” said Foster. “On my way.”
“What’s happened?” said Shu. She stood in the doorway of her office, with concern etched across her face.
“A system failure, Doctor,” said McWarren.
Foster huffed. “The starboard engine failed. And a by-product of our engines’ operation is water. That’s where we extract our oxygen.”
McWarren cut in. “But that’s not our biggest problem. When the starboard engine shut down, it disrupted our warp bubble, and therefore our shields. Our hull got hit with pinprick meteorites. We need to find and seal the breaches so we don’t lose atmosphere containment. And gear up, Doctor, because one or more crew has a through-and-through injury.”
As proof of McWarren’s words, two crewmen showed up at the door of the sickbay. One man groaned.
“Corpsman,” yelled Shu. She turned and rushed to the crewman.
“Let’s get going,” said McWarren. “What’s your inspection station?”
McWarren nodded. “Good.” She picked up her pace to trot down the hall, and Foster followed.
Foster sucked in a breath as they entered the elevator together. McWarren stared at her wrist comm while messages flashed across it.
“They found a large hole in the engine room,” she said. “Brennan’s team is sealing the breach now.”
“Four centimeters. At least, as Brennan said, it was easy to find.”
“Use his finger on that one?”
The elevator doors opened on deck five, which held the kitchen and the supply store. Crewmen ran past them, juggling tape and sealant, and a few carried sensor guns that would find the holes in the hull. Brennan came at them, carrying supplies. He shoved two tubes at Foster. “You should be at your inspection station,” he growled.
“What’s our status?” said McWarren.
“We’re dead in space, but I got the portside engine holding a warp bubble over us to maintain our shields and gravity,” Brennan said. His voice was gravelly, as if he’d done too much shouting.
“Estimated time for repairs?” said McWarren.
“Four to eight hours? I’m not sure until I get a total map of the damage. Lieutenant Cole is constructing the map for the outer hull, and his assistant is doing the inner hull.”
“Very good, Chief. Good work.” McWarren turned away and hit a comm panel to report to the captain. A minute later, she turned back around. “Gentlemen, what are you waiting for? Time is of the essence. Brennan, I’m coming with you to the engine room. I’ll be glad to help you carry some of that.” McWarren offered her arms to him. “Since my arms are thinner, it’s easier for you to slide the tape rolls on them.”
After transferring tape, Brennan and McWarren took off to the elevator, and Foster headed to the kitchen. He walked in to find the head cook shouting at his crew about throwing out the food and complaining about damaged pots.
“Let’s concentrate on the hull,” said Foster. “We can eat MREs for one day.”
That set the cook on another round of complaints, but Foster ignored him and got to work. By the end of his shift, they had sealed deck five well.
“All hands,” announced the captain. “We patched the holes we can find, and we’re getting underway to Dragon’s Den. Team One is to hold over until shift change at 1200 hours to give Team Two a chance to rest. We’ll resume normal watches at 1200 hours. Command staff, meet me in the conference room for a brief meeting at 1200 hours. Carter out.”
Foster sighed, but he could do five more hours, especially if he could convince Brennan to let him snag some coffee.
He wasn’t the only officer who’d hit Brennan’s office for the brew. Carter, McWarren, and Shepherd all stood inside while Brennan grumbled and poured cups for them.
“Don’t worry, Chief,” said Carter. “I’ll get you more to replenish your stash.”
“Won’t do any good if all the officers raid what I got.”
“Then it’s a good thing you haven’t told them about the whiskey,” Foster said.
Brennan glared at Foster while the others laughed.
“You’re holding out on us,” said Shepherd.
“Mind your business,” said Brennan with a scowl. “And you”—he held a cup up toward Foster—“I suppose you want whiskey in your coffee, too.”
Foster shook his head. “Nope. On duty until 1200 hours.”
“Thank God for small favors,” grumbled Brennan.
“We’re down to one engine now, Chief,” Carter said. “Is she going to get us to Dragon’s Den without issue?”
“Port engine is fine. Starboard is the troublemaker, though oxygen and water reclamation is going to be an issue until we can get into dock.”
McWarren spoke up. “Sir, I suggest we move to the water conservation protocol.”
Carter nodded. “Start it. We’ll use the rationed water for oxygen generation. Cook messaged me. Apparently Brennan authorized field rations for the next meal. Inform the crew.”
“Yes, sir,” said McWarren. “Go ahead, Captain, and get some rest. We need you in good shape when we reach Dragon’s Den. I’ll get the protocol implemented and notice the crew of the change of menu.”
Foster watched McWarren, and didn’t envy her. It often seemed the XO’s job was to deliver bad news to the crew. No one liked water conservation, and after two days, the Walker Pierce would smell grungy. Likewise, no one ever enjoyed the field rations. For a moment, he wondered if he’d been too hard on the XO. She wasn’t entirely off base with her concerns, even if she went about everything all wrong.
Carter’s wrist comm activated. He looked down at it, and one glance told Foster it was bad news. “I need the room,” Carter said.
As everyone exchanged glances and headed for the door, Carter went over to the console and waved his wrist over it to activate the message he was getting. Foster lingered near the door, as did McWarren.
“Bad news?” McWarren asked.
Carter didn’t turn around. “Ivan Svetsky is dead.”
Carter listened to Shu’s report, tired but determined to give her his undivided attention. “Was he in pain?”
“He was unconscious the whole time. It was his elevated cytokines that tipped us off to the inflammation,” she sighed. “But taking him out of the gel to get him into the hyperbaric chamber risked infection. We were damned either way. In the end, it didn’t matter. He crashed before we could do anything. Heart stopped.”
Shu sounded exhausted. After the engine failure, she’d been flooded with almost twenty crewman in a medical bay suited for half that number. Carter was sure she was blaming herself for Svetsky’s death, even though it was a miracle the man had lasted this long.
“Get some rest, Commander,” Carter said. “That’s an order. Let Collins handle a few hours.”
The fact that Shu didn’t argue with him told him just how tired she really was.
After the call, Carter tried to take his own advice. He had five hours before he had to go on duty, but sleep wouldn’t come.
After two hours, he went to take a run on the treadmill in the gym, forgetting that the artificial gravity was only working on one engine. While it would keep people’s feet on the deck, other machinery dependent on gears and levers just wouldn’t react as it should.
Carter knew the feeling. If anyone was responsible for what had happened to Svetsky, it was him. The condition of the ship, the lack of supplies, the injuries they’d suffered. All of it was on him.
He headed one deck down to the sickbay. Before he realized it, he stood at the entry of Svetsky’s empty bay, unsure of what had brought him here. If Svetsky had been able to speak, Carter could have gotten the answers he needed, but Svetsky had died with what he saw locked in his brain.
Carter told himself that all commanders watched good people suffer injuries, maiming, or death. The most difficult duty a commander had was writing the letter home. The service person’s family watched their loved one walk into danger for the cause of keeping them and their world safe. They all knew the risks, but hoped their loved one would survive. Carter would rather die a thousand deaths than watch any of the people entrusted to him suffer. But this was war, and there was no way to get around the fact that good people died in it.
His Command said that there was no war—that their enemy wanted peace. But every instinct Carter had screamed that this was a lie.
“Captain,” said Dr. Collins.
Carter turned his head. “Yes, Doctor.”
“Is there something I can do? You look tired. I could give you a sleep aid.”
Carter shook his head.
Collins cast a doubtful glance at him. “No one can work at peak efficiency if they’re sleep deprived.”
Carter pushed off from the doorway of the bay. “Says any doctor who trained while sleep-deprived during medical school and their residencies. I guess what’s sauce for the goose doesn’t apply.”
“Captain?” said Collins.
“Old Earth saying. Don’t they teach you kids anything?”
“My grandmother says that,” said Collins with a crooked smile. “Nice to know someone thinks of me as a kid. After today, I’m feeling my age.”
“That’s just the start of it,” said Carter. “Wait for ten, fifteen years, and you’ll feel it for real.”
“Thanks, Captain. I’ll keep that in mind.”
At 1145 hours, Carter arrived at the conference room. The Marines had a motto that they’d kept for the past 390 years—when you’re on time, you’re late. Carter, though not a Marine, found it good advice. His staff knew it too, and all of them were there waiting for him.
But there was a tension in the air that he rarely experienced with his most trusted officers, or even McWarren. She sat grim-faced and stared at her data tablet, while Foster stared at his hands. Shu seemed more reserved than usual. Brennan sat in stern silence, but considering that the weight of the ship rested on his shoulders, he should be the most concerned of all.
But this current attitude? It wasn’t about the state of the ship. It had to be about Svetsky. His death had hit Carter as a gut-punch, and from the crew’s subdued attitude, it had hit them too. Everyone had hoped he’d pull through.
“Captain on deck,” said McWarren as she stood. The others did too.
“At ease,” said Carter. “Take your seats. First order of business, we’ll hold a memorial service for Lieutenant Svetsky tomorrow at 1700 in the landing bay. Make your assignments for a skeleton crew. They’ll hear it through the PA system. Attendance is not required, but I expect many of the crew will attend. To keep disruption at a minimum, the service will be no longer than twenty minutes.”
Foster crossed his arms. “Twenty minutes,” he muttered.
“Is there a problem, Gunny?” asked Carter.
“No, sir,” replied Foster flatly.
“Good. Let’s get to this. Status reports. Brennan?”
“The one engine will get us to Dragon’s Den tomorrow. After that, the ship needs an engine overhaul if we expect to keep moving.”
Carter nodded. “I expected that. Foster?”
“Locked and loaded. In terms of weapons, we’re in good shape. One of the SEALs suffered a minor injury in a slip-and-fall while helping to seal the hull breaches. He’s bandaged up and left to the tender mercies of his buddies.”
“Good. Next,” said Carter. “Doctor Shu?”
“Except for Lieutenant Svetsky, most casualties were minor. There were twelve through-and-through injuries from the micrometeorites, and most were flesh wounds. They were all treated and released. I’ve marked the crew that should be on light duty in the medical log and notified their commanding officers of their condition.” Shu pursed her lips and fell silent.
Foster gave Shu a hard stare, as if he expected her to say something else.
Carter wondered what that exchange was about, but he wanted to wrap up this meeting so they could get on with their day. “Do you have more to report, Doctor?” he asked.
“That’s all at the moment,” she concluded.
“I’ve got the port engine running, and that’s all I can do until we reach Dragon’s Den and buy and install a new magnetic core.”
Foster looked unhappy.
McWarren kept her eyes on her data tablet. “I’ve filled the initial report of Svetsky’s death with Command, as per regulations.”
Yes. Just as she’d filed the original report of Svetsky’s accident within eight hours. There wasn’t a regulation she didn’t follow to the letter.
“For the engine failure and the micrometeorite damage, we have seven days to file the incident report. But in terms of today’s engine failure, we were lucky.”
“Lucky?” said Carter. “I’d say that the men and women of the Walker Pierce came through a potentially deadly situation displaying their remarkable skill and dedication.”
A deep silence emanated from his officers. Carter looked at each of them as their discomfort rolled off them.
“Permission to speak freely, sir,” said McWarren.
When did she not, ever? “Go ahead.”
“This was a preventable situation. We aren’t at war, but you’re taking risks with your ship and crew. When will this stop, Captain?”
Carter stared at her as the tension in the room thickened to the consistency of pea soup. “You know that answer, Lieutenant. We discussed it enough times,” he said.
“Permission to speak freely, Captain,” said Foster.
This was something Carter didn’t expect. Foster had something to say? “Go ahead, Sergeant.”
“Far be it from me to agree with our XO, but I’m seeing that side of it. Say we do make the repairs at Dragon’s Den. What then? Do we continue on this patrol, short-staffed and poorly supplied? Buying a core will eat up most of our credit allotment at the port. What about the other things we need? The positions we’re short? The XO’s question is valid.”
McWarren glanced at Foster in disbelief. So this was something they hadn’t discussed with each other. Carter often admitted to himself that he was a stubborn man, but he wasn’t stupid. He needed to stop and listen to his officers.
Carter sucked in a breath. “Is this how you all feel?”
Shu cleared her throat. “No matter what happens, Captain, Command will have questions. I think it’s in your own best interest to submit to a physical and psychiatric examination.”
“Doctor Shu is right,” said McWarren. “Command’s view is more rarefied than here on the front lines. They don’t see the gray in a situation. Their view is black and white. And right now, what they see is a captain who’s trying to punch holes in the truce. The more proactive you are, the more time you buy.”
What was left unsaid was whether any of the officers in the room actually thought it was a good thing to buy more time. Or did they all just think their captain was slowly losing his mind?
“Okay, McWarren. I’ll submit to the tests. And I’ll even put into a Union port, if you do one thing for me.”
“Find me proof that the Kaxek didn’t attack Svetsky. If you do, and the people here agree it’s proof, then I’ll pipe the Walker Pierce into Xena myself.”
“All hands,” announced Ensign Zak Buckner over the PA, “prepare for deceleration.”
McWarren sat in her office on deck two, the deck under the bridge, with the conference room and the command officers’ workspaces. Zak was the navigation officer, and McWarren had left him the conn. She needed time to work on the various reports that Command demanded of an XO on any ship.
She sighed and gripped the armrests of her chair as the ship’s one engine stopped. Many people thought inertial dampeners were for the gravity the ship generated, but that wasn’t true. Going faster than light increased the drag of the ship’s volume to unsurvivable proportions. She wasn’t looking forward to this deceleration because of what would happen next. Spaceships didn’t stop on a dime.
Because they were short one inertial dampener, the drag of the ship’s acceleration slammed McWarren into her chair. The next second, someone in the engine room made a manual adjustment to the one engine’s inertial dampener, but didn’t get it quite right. She floated slightly in her chair before the correct adjustment aligned the dampener to the g-force of Earth.
“Sorry, Lieutenant,” said Buckner over the com. “I must have miscalculated.”
“Very well, Ensign.” Zak was good at what he did, and there was no point chastising him. It was a complex set of numbers, even before taking into account the damage the ship had incurred. McWarren remembered her own navigation courses. It had been one of the most demanding modules of her training, and she’d nearly failed it. The correct coordinates had to be extrapolated from navigation beacons, the ship’s current speed, and its mass. Getting it wrong meant overshooting the Gamma Draconis sun, around which Dragon’s Den orbited.
She sighed and turned to her paperwork again. McWarren had thought that when she transferred to the Walker Pierce, she wouldn’t have as much to fill out.
She’d been wrong.
The second day after she’d reported to the Walker Pierce, she’d had to investigate Commander Hewett’s death. That was the day she’d first met Shepherd, who flew her out to the last position where the wing leader had seen Hewett. They’d found the debris field of Hewett’s ship, but nothing else.
Now she had to report on a second fighter pilot, and her father’s message weighed heavily on her mind. Carter had every reason, because of the ship’s condition, to go to Gamma Draconis. The vessel was in no condition to make it to Xena.
Find me proof that the Kaxek didn’t attack Svetsky. If you do, and the people here agree it’s proof, then I’ll pipe the Walker Pierce into Xena myself.
McWarren kept rolling the words around in her head. Considering the captain’s obstinacy in the past six months, would he follow through on his promise?
She had to find out.
She found Foster in the landing bay, speaking with the damage control officer, Lt. Adem Cole.
McWarren scanned the area for the fresh skid marks that Svetsky’s fighter had left in its wild ride inside the bay before it had spun to a fiery stop in the center. The crew had cleaned the worst of it, though the deck carried black burn marks. The bulkhead where the fighter had hit sported a dent. Red and white holographic accident-investigation “tape” marked off the two empty docks. Svetsky’s fighter lay in parts on the deck.
“Lieutenant, Sergeant,” she said.
“Ma’am,” the two men said.
“What have you found?”
“We finally separated the flight box from the debris, but it’s damaged,” said Cole.
Foster blew out a breath of frustration. “The intense heat, we surmise.”
“The Navy designed the flight box to survive extremes of heat and cold,” she said.
“I’m aware, Lieutenant,” said Foster.
“What do you suggest?”
“Hand it off to the sensor department for them to crack it open and extract whatever data they can. Those guys do freaky things with electronics,” said Foster.
“Sounds good. Any signs of strafing on the body?”
“If there was,” said Cole, “the fire obliterated it.”
“How long before you finish your investigation?” McWarren asked.
“Two or three days,” said Cole. “We’re examining every piece in every detail.”
“Do so, but make haste, Lieutenant.”
McWarren turned to leave, but Foster stepped in closer to her. “Lieutenant, may I have a word?”
McWarren nodded, and Foster led her to the pilots’ briefing room and shut the door. Foster called for lights. He tightened his jaw as if he was about to say something he thought McWarren wouldn’t like.
As the cabin illuminated, she glanced at him. Foster stood about 5’ 10”, with his hair cut close-cropped, almost shaved. He filled out navy blue shipboard jumps, the one-piece utilitarian jumpsuit for navy enlisted personnel, with broad shoulders over a stocky build. Not a man you wanted as an enemy.
“Permission to speak freely,” he said.
She searched his face for a hint of what was on his mind. This should be interesting. In the six months since she’d landed on this tub, Foster hadn’t spoken his mind to her except to accuse her of being Command’s spy. “Go ahead.”
“Carter is right.”
McWarren blinked. “About?”
“If he puts into a Union port, they’ll mothball the Walker Pierce.”
She frowned. “So you support his decision—”
“I’m just telling you what’s on his mind. My mind.”
“But you were questioning him, too.”
Foster blew out his cheeks. “Look. I don’t mind giving my life for my planet, and I’ve nearly done so twice. But—” He hesitated. “But I need a better reason than the captain’s suspicions. I need to know he hasn’t gone over the deep end, you know?”
McWarren pursed her lips. So Foster was looking for evidence that Carter still had his head screwed on straight, but he wasn’t backing away from his loyalty to him. Admirable in one sense, but disastrous in another.
“Well?” said Foster. “What about you?”
“I’m looking beyond the tests,” she said. “Eventually we have to put into a Union port, and I want to make sure the crew doesn’t suffer because of their loyalty to their captain.”
Foster scrunched his eyebrows. “How’s that?”
McWarren keyed up her email on her tablet and handed it to Foster. His gaze traveled the text once, and then again.
“Holy hell,” he said. “Why are you showing me this? And why are you getting direct messages from Admiral King? Doesn’t he run—”
“Yes, the Office of Strategic Operations.”
“And you came from OSO, so I guess I get it. But still.”
“I’ve known Admiral King all my life.”
“How’s that?” Foster said again. His perplexed expression displayed that he didn’t understand. McWarren didn’t blame him. She felt the same when it came to Malcolm King.
“He’s my father.”
Foster raised his eyebrows. Yeah. That surprised most people. She didn’t have the admiral’s dark skin or his blue eyes; she’d taken more after her mother. But she had his resolve, which showed in moments like this.
“And if Carter doesn’t put into Xena,” she said, “I have to take command, or it’s all our asses on the line.”
Foster left the pilot’s briefing room, blown away by the astounding information McWarren had shared. What did she expect? That he’d support her? What the hell would he do if she tried to take command? Escort the captain to the brig or confine him to his quarters?
He didn’t agree with the captain’s course, but that message from Command was chilling. It seemed like wild overreaction.
Foster managed to keep his mind on his work for most of the day, but the message kept nagging at him. He had to tell Carter. As the end of his shift approached, Foster tapped a message on his wristband, asking to meet with Carter, but before he finished, a text to call Lieutenant Cole flashed on his computer screen.
“Sarge, the fire destroyed much of the data, but there’s an audio file you should hear. I’m sending it to you now.”
Foster played the file, which spilled from his speakers filled with pops and squeals. But then a voice spoke, and it chilled Foster to the bone. It wasn’t a human voice, but the speaker pitched it to human hearing. It was a language that sounded like a human speaking underwater, unclear, the sounds rolling into each other in an incomprehensible mess.
Foster didn’t know the language, but in the few exchanges on the battlefront, he’d learned how it sounded. Few humans spoke Kaxek. In the decades they’d fought the aliens, the only contact humans had had with them besides battle was in the peace conferences, and limited to high-level United Earth Nations politicians. But another thought crossed his mind.
McWarren. As a strategist in the dark recesses of Command, had she learned the language?
He flashed her a message. “I have a question.”
McWarren’s tired face appeared on his holoscreen from her quarters. Her mussed hair lay in uneven hunks on her head. He’d interrupted her sleep. “What’s up, Sarge?”
“Question. When you were at Command, did you learn any Kaxek?”
“The language? Why do you want to know?”
Ah hah! Foster thought. No denial. “So you did.”
“It’s classified as to who learned Kaxek. The field isn’t deep...”
Fine. Let her play games. “So listen to this.”
Foster played the file and watched McWarren’s face. She scrunched her eyebrows. “Where did you get that?”
“It’s what’s left of the audio file from the flight recorder. What does it say?”
A perplexed expression crossed her face. “It’s really garbled. I’d have to listen to it again.”
Foster didn’t know if she was lying or not. “Okay, but does that prove what the captain’s been saying? That the Kaxek are attacking our fighters?”
McWarren shook her head. “Look, I’m no expert. For all we know, it’s a warning not to encroach on their borders. Space isn’t a piece of land. Objects we use to demarcate boundaries shift. They have a unique way of looking at borders.”
A warning klaxon sounded. “All hands,” announced the captain. “Report to battle stations.”
Foster didn’t have any time to spare. Instead of the elevator, he took the ladder inside the bulkhead. At the dead center of the ship, and without the plating that regulated the gravity on each deck, it was easy to rush up the ladder without using his feet. He met McWarren, who stepped out of the elevator, and they both made for the doors of the bridge. She swiped her wristband over the ID sensor, and so did Foster, as the doors parted for them.
The bridge was the ship’s smallest compartment. Different workstations lined the bulkheads: communications, life support, gunnery, sensors, and navigation clustering around a holographic chart displaying the Gamma Draconis system. Its red sun blazed in the center of the map, with the positions of the main asteroids marked in neon green. An electric-blue band displayed the general direction of the asteroid field that circled like a cloud around the sun in a thin ring. The trajectory of the Walker Pierce glowed in yellow, with a solid line that marked how far they’d traveled, and a dotted line showing their projected path. Two red dots stood in the Walker Pierce’s flight path to the slingshot around the sun, meant to put them in position to dock with the asteroid called Dragon’s Den.
Foster went to the gunnery station, where he would command the response of the weapons teams. McWarren went to where the captain stood by a holo display of the Gamma Draconis system. “What do we have, Captain?” she asked.
Carter had his arms crossed. “Don’t know. They aren’t answering our hails.”
“Non-military?” said McWarren.
“Sir,” said an ensign standing at the sensor station. “The configuration of the ships makes them commercial vessels. Their transponders report them as private enterprise ships.”
“Pirates or salvage,” said Carter grimly. “But probably both.”
“Both?” asked McWarren.
“It’s a scam of salvage operators. Watch this.” He nodded at the comm officer, then said, “This is Captain Devlin Carter of the United Earth Nations warship Walker Pierce. You are in our flight path to a slingshot around Gamma Draconis. We cannot adjust trajectory to make port at Dragon’s Den, so you must adjust yours. I suggest that you move your ships quickly.”
“Sir,” said the communications officer, Ensign Ballins, “we have an incoming message.”
“Pipe it, Ensign.”
“This is Captain Harper Walsh of the commercial salvage vessels Perilous and Nightfall. We’ve noted that you’re running on one engine, and we will gladly assist you to port. There’s no need for a lengthy trip around Big Red here.”
“Thanks, Captain, but we have everything well in hand, except for your ships’ positions. I repeat, move them.” The last two words Carter spoke in a no-nonsense tone.
“You don’t have authority here,” said Walsh in a less pleasant voice. “The UEN pulled out a year ago.”
“I’m aware of when the Union pulled its military. But this is still a commercial port governed under the UEN.”
“Then you haven’t heard that Dragon’s Den declared its independence from the Union. You’re trespassing, Carter.”
Foster glanced over his shoulder to catch Carter’s and McWarren’s expressions. McWarren opened her mouth to speak, but Carter shook his head.
“What’s that, Ensign?” said Carter, louder. “That’s a pirate ship configuration?”
“Now, wait,” protested Walsh.
“Sir, move your vessels, or I’ll blow them out of the system. Sergeant, fire a warning shot.” Carter nodded at Foster.
“Yes, sir. But you know, the targeting has been imprecise. I might hit one of those ships. And all I have left is those big torpedoes.” Foster lingered on the word ‘big’ for emphasis.
“I understand, Sergeant. Fire.”
“Wait!” said Walsh. “We’ll move our ships.”
“Do so. Sergeant, keep your target on those ships. If they don’t move fast enough—well, we can’t stop.”
Foster watched as one ship moved, but the other didn’t.
“What the hell?” said McWarren.
“What do you think, Foster?”
“No power signature,” he said. “That has to be their dummy.” It was a common tactic, though he’d never expected someone to be dumb enough to try it on the Walker Pierce.
“Then you know what to do,” said Carter.
“Yes, sir. Forward batteries, make ready to fire torpedoes one and two.”
“Fire,” Foster said. On his order, the gunnery staff released two torpedoes, and they flew from the Walker Pierce. Still, the second ship didn’t move. When they struck, the vessel crumbled instead of exploding. But behind it, a pyrotechnic display of light played against the backdrop of the red sun.
“Good shot,” said Carter. “Just to be sure, fire a few more spreads from the port particle cannons along our flight path. We’ve had enough excitement over the past few days.”
“Yes, sir,” said Foster.
“Did we just fire on a civilian vessel unprovoked?” McWarren said in a low voice to Foster. Her voice wasn’t accusatory, but Foster couldn’t help but think of the words in that message. Was he going to start questioning her motives for everything now?
“Many salvage vessels use a robot ship to help with towing,” he said. “It seems this Walsh character was using his to hide mines that he’d planted to disable us. In shooting down his tow robot, we also destroyed the mines, clearing our flight path.”
McWarren nodded and stepped back. It was probably not something she’d ever seen, working a starship in the inner planets. Foster was once again reminded of how limited her experience was. And this is the person Command wants to replace the captain with?
“Captain, we have another message from Walsh,” said the communication officer.
“This should be interesting. Pipe it.”
“Damn you, Carter. I’ll have your hide for destroying my ship. I’ll report this to the Dragon’s Den authorities. They have no love of the Union anymore, leaving us out here without support.”
“You do that, Walsh. We record everything that happens on our ship. Do you?”
“Here’s my answer, Captain,” said Walsh nastily.
A bright light flared across the holo map toward the Walker Pierce, and the ship shook while warning klaxons blared.
“Damage assessment?” Carter barked as the Walker Pierce finished her slingshot entry and left the Perilous in her wake.
“Single charged impactor,” said the ensign standing closest to Carter. “It hit a water reclamation feeder on our damaged engine. We weren’t using it.”
“But we’d like to start using it when that engine has power again,” Carter said tersely.
“Ah, yes, sir,” the ensign said. “I’ll add that to the repair docket.”
Carter rubbed his temples. How long will that list get?
A few hours later, as he finished his log for the day’s events, he again rubbed his temples. Walsh’s ill-conceived attack had caused damage to the electrical systems in Water Reclamation, and according to Brennan, that needed rewiring. At this rate, they could put in to Dragon’s Den up to a month.
Command wouldn’t approve.
He had gambled with his intuition, which was usually reliable. Why wasn’t it now? He felt in his bones that the Kaxek hadn’t given up. Heck, his grandfather had destroyed most of their fleet fifty years ago, and they still hadn’t given up, just changed their tactics. Why would they roll over and plead for peace now?
The damned thing about the Kaxek, he’d heard, was that they were so different as a species that there was no way to send in spies. Whatever the government knew about the Kaxek, they kept close to the vest. Even McWarren had declared that while at Command, she hadn’t been briefed on the exact nature of their enemy. Carter thought it damned strange, but then after spending most of his adult life on the front lines, he hadn’t had a personal encounter with a Kaxek either. They never let themselves get captured alive.
His door chimed. “Captain,” said Foster over the intercom. “We need to talk.”
“Enter,” he said, and opened the door from a button on his desk.
Foster walked in and set an opened bottle of whiskey on his desk.
“Is this your idea of a gift?” said Carter.
“You gonna complain about whiskey? I’ll take it back.”
Carter arched an eyebrow. “Were you bad again? When your father and I tried so hard to raise you right?”
“I’ve always been a difficult child, as is your favorite XO.”
Carter took the whiskey and slid it to the edge of his desk. “I’ll be on duty soon.”
Foster looked longingly at the bottle, then sighed. “Fine, be that way.”
“So what’s this about the XO?”
“McWarren knows Kaxek,” Foster said. “The language. When I played her the recording, I swear she made out the words.”
Carter tried to make sense of what he was saying. “How much have you had to drink? What recording?”
Foster furrowed his brow. “The recording from Svetsky’s flight box.”
Carter blinked, not quite believing what he heard. He leaned forward. “There was Kaxek on Svetsky’s flight recorder?”
“That’s what I said. But McWarren thinks it could be an automated message, or some other warning to back off from their borders.”
“But it’s Kaxek.”
Foster nodded. “That’s the first thing we needed to talk about.”
“That’s a hell of a thing,” Carter said, his mind racing. Was this it? The proof he needed? “Can’t wait to hear what the second thing is.”
Foster tapped the desk. “Did you get a direct message from Command to report to Xena?”
Carter cocked his head. “I did. How did you know?”
“Because McWarren got a message to take command if you didn’t. She’s pretty twisted up about it.”
“She got a … what?” Carter asked.
“Honest to God,” Foster said. “She showed it to me.”
“Wait. When did you and McWarren get so cozy? Should I be jealous?”
Foster snorted. “That’s what I like about you. Our world is falling apart and you’re cracking jokes.”
“They aren’t amusing, because what you’re telling me isn’t hitting my funny bone.”
“Wait. There’s more.”
More? Carter thought. What more can there be than that Command orders the XO to mutiny against her captain? “Yes?”
Foster slapped his hand on Carter’s desk, causing the whiskey bottle to jump. “She’s Admiral Malcolm King’s daughter.”
Carter stared at his friend, and alarms shot through him. An admiral’s daughter? The Malcolm King, Command’s top strategist? “How did you become a font of arcane information, Chief?”
“The message for her to take command if you don’t put into Xena came from him directly.”
Carter glanced at the time on his holoscreen, and checked the time and the pictured projected trajectory around Gamma Draconis. Four hours to go until hard brake for Dragon’s Den.
The door chimed again.
“Geez, you’re a popular guy,” muttered Foster.
It was McWarren was at the door. “Captain, may I speak with you?”
“I should leave,” said Foster.
“No, stay,” said Carter. “Enter.”
McWarren swept in with a fierce expression of determination on her face. Her gaze fell on the whiskey, and then on Foster. “What are you? The whiskey fairy? Are you looking to get the command staff drunk?”
“Only the ones that deserve it,” said Foster.
“Sergeant,” said Carter in a warning tone.
“Sorry, Lieutenant,” Foster said in a more chastened voice.
“Lieutenant, what can I do for you?” Carter asked.
“I’m reporting to you that an audio recording on Lieutenant Svetsky’s flight box picked up a Kaxek transmission.”
“I know. Foster told me.”
McWarren’s mouth twitched. “I see.”
“He also said you know the Kaxek language.”
“Spare me,” said Carter. “If you know what’s on that file, then I’m ordering you to tell me what was on it.”
McWarren stood stiffly and leveled her chin. “Sir, I’m under orders from Command not to reveal any Kaxek communication I come upon.”
“Sergeant, did you hear me issue a direct order?”
“Yes, sir, I did.”
“Do you see anyone from Command in this room?”
Carter stood and stared at McWarren. “Either you tell me what was in that communication, or I’ll have Foster escort you to the brig. We haven’t had to use it yet, but I’m sure it’s as a comfortable as a cell can be.”
“I wouldn’t say that, sir,” said Foster. “We don’t allow the prisoners pillows, blankets, or sheets, and the mattress is a piece of foam. We also make the prisoners strip to their flight suits so they don’t conceal contraband.”
“Really?” said Carter. “That does sound grim.”
McWarren rolled her eyes. “It was degraded and garbled.”
“But you heard something, and I want to know what it is.”
“As near as I can tell, it was a message to back away from Kaxek space.”
“That’s all it said?”
“That’s what I could make out. And my Kaxek isn’t that good.”
“Still, it shows—”
“It shows nothing, Captain. When Command hears it, they’ll assume Svetsky was near the border and engaged the Kaxek to provoke an attack, probably under your orders.”
“Gee, Captain,” muttered Foster. “They won’t give you a break.”
“Or it was a Kaxek who attacked our fighter unprovoked?” said Carter. “Either way, you’re failing to prove to me that it wasn’t the Kaxek that attacked Svetsky. So it looks like we’re going to Dragon’s Den.”
“Sir, may I remind you that you’re under orders to report to Space Station Xena as soon as possible? Command isn’t going to care about my success or failure in convincing you about Svetsky’s death.”
Carter scoffed, and appeared as if he wanted to give her a few choice words. “No,” he said in a low voice. “You may not remind me of that fact. Report to the bridge and recheck the calculations for the hard brake. Monitor Gamma Draconis for coronal mass ejections that could perturb our slingshot. We can’t afford screw-ups, Lieutenant.”
McWarren’s gut roiled as she walked onto the bridge. If not obeying orders wasn’t a major screw-up, she didn’t know what was. But she’d follow Carter’s orders, because it was clear that Foster supported him, and therefore so did the bulk of the crew. If Admiral King thought she could just assume command and ride the Walker Pierce, he didn’t have a correct assessment of the situation.
Captain Devlin Carter, war hero, had gone rogue, and the only way to get control of the Walker Pierce was for Union troops to storm it. And here in the ass end of the Union space, where the Union had pulled its base, that wasn’t likely.
“Officer on deck,” said a junior officer.
McWarren occupied her mind with the hard brake. When the moment finally came a few hours later, it was anticlimactic. The ship groaned and shimmied more than she’d expected, but part of that was due to the single-engine configuration. And part of it was just that the Walker Pierce was old.
“Captain on deck,” announced the junior officer, and McWarren turned to see Carter.
“We’re in the funnel, full burn for final stop at Dragon’s Den.”
“Sirs,” said the communication technician. “We’re getting a hail from the Sutāmainingu Corporation.”
McWarren exchanged a glance with the captain. Sutāmainingu Corp owned many of the operations on Dragon’s Den. She had read in the ship’s data library that since the Union had pulled out, Sutāmainingu Corporation had assumed the rule of provincial government for the area.
“Pipe it,” said McWarren.
“Union ship, our sensors detect a Union transponder code. Please be aware there are no longer Union facilities at the Dragon’s Den port.”
“Shall we respond?”
“No,” said Carter. “Sutāmainingu Corp won’t turn us away. But we can contact the port soon.”
“Yes, Captain. I’ll take care of it.”
Carter left, and they made for the asteroid belt that circled Gamma Draconis. While it didn’t loom large yet, McWarren noticed that the other ships in the system kept a wide berth from them. The communication technician shook her head.
“Is there a problem, Ensign?”
“Ma’am, this is damned strange. Usually, when we approach a port, other ships send us some chatter. It’s actually the fun part of this job. But these guys, they aren’t talking.”
McWarren didn’t need anything else to make her more nervous. “Send a hail to Dragon’s Den port to make docking arrangements.”
“Sir, they aren’t acknowledging our hails.”
McWarren muttered under her breath and sent a message to Carter, who replied quickly.
“Something isn’t right. Dragon’s Den isn’t responding to our hails.”
Within five minutes, Carter had arrived and walked straight to the communication officer. “Ensign, send a message to Dockmaster Loudon Wainwright. Make the header, ‘Don’t you want to collect?’ Also, send as the message, ‘Knock, knock, who’s there’?”
Carter walked to McWarren’s station.
“Do you know this man, sir?” McWarren asked. “Because I can’t imagine knock-knock jokes help anyone to get a docking berth.”
“Loudon and I go back almost two decades. We served together on the Independence and the Defiant before he had enough of the soldier’s life and ended up out here. He’s a good man. I can’t imagine him not answering our hail.”
Within ten minutes, the communication system sputtered.
“Captain, we have a message from the dockmaster’s office.”
“Is that you, Devlin Carter? I can’t believe you’d show your ugly face here.”
“Yes, it’s me, you old space dog. Why hasn’t your office responded to my XO? Too much time without a commanding officer around to remind you how to do your job?”
Wainwright grunted. “We don’t like Union ships lately, Carter. Maybe you should turn around.”
“Well, that’s a problem. I’ve got a ton of repairs the ship needs and you’re the only port we could reach. What’s the matter? Aren’t Union chits any good to you?”
“That’s not it,” growled Wainwright. “One of my salvage ships got hit by a Union ship today. Know anything about it?”
“You know damn well I do, Wainwright. Let’s not play games. Walsh tried to mine my flight path and then take my ship for salvage. I took that personally.”
Wainwright scoffed, and McWarren could practically see him shaking his head over the transmission. “Captain Carter. I should’ve known.”
“If you’d have stayed in, you would’ve had your chances.”
“And miss the fame and fortune of being dockmaster? You get one measly ship. I get them all.”
Carter smiled. “See, it all worked out.”
“Alright, Carter,” Wainwright sighed. “I’ll clear you for an open birth. But we’ve got lots of new procedures since Sutāmainingu Corp took over management. If you want repairs, you’ll have to go through their red tape.”
“We can do that.”
“Dock and meet me at the Fire and Whizz. And bring the chits you owe me. Your credit’s no good here.”
Foster hit the panel that unlocked the hatch, and the recycled air of Dragon’s Den whooshed in and collided with the Walker Pierce’s observation deck’s air. The distinct scents mingled, and Foster thought that the Walker Pierce’s oxygen smelled funky.
“Brennan needs to get on those air filters,” he and Carter said at the same time.
“Great minds think alike,” said Foster.
“Yeah, but let’s give Brennan props for getting us here. If it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t have.”
“You’re right, Captain. We don’t give the old coot enough credit.”
“Don’t let him hear you talk about him like that. He’s still ticked that you locked up his whiskey. I can’t have my chief engineer and my gunnery sergeant in the brig.”
“Hey, I don’t mean anything by it.”
They strolled down the length of the tube that connected the ship to the spaceport. Two Marines followed them. At the end of the walkway, an arched sign over the exit said, Welcome to Dragon’s Den. You are entering a sovereign port governed by the Sutāmainingu Corporation. Please obey all laws during your visit.
Carter waved his wrist communicator over the panel at the shut door, and Foster did the same.
“Welcome, Captain Devlin Carter and Gunnery Sergeant Aidan Foster. The dockmaster invites you to meet him at the Fire and Whizz Bar and Gaming Emporium. A car waits for you on the first floor by the elevator. Please move to the car. Your docking registration is in process.”
“A car? Wow, VIP treatment,” Foster said. He glanced back at the Marines following. “You guys don’t have an invite, but I guess we’ll let you come.”
Carter was less thrilled. “Docking registration is in process? What does that mean?”
“The dockmaster did mention new procedures with the new owners,” Foster said.
Carter looked skeptical. “I just hope Wainwright has the pull to make this go smoothly.”
The four men passed through the port’s gate area, and Foster scanned the vast, empty atrium. It seemed unusual that there weren’t any station personnel at the gate desk.
An automated female voice sounded from the PA. “Captain Carter and Sergeant Foster, please proceed to the lift to take you to your transportation on the ground floor.”
The two men exchanged glances. “I guess she told us,” said Foster.
Carter shrugged, but they entered the elevator. Foster bounced on his toes as they descended. The Marines looked unimpressed. It took a minute to adjust to the lessened gravity, but it wasn’t enough to lift him from the deck. It felt more like a misplaced step, where you lose your sense of placement to the ground.
They reached the ground floor and stepped out into a once-bustling but now silent spaceport lobby. A half-circle of different space travel providers stood in mute testament to a lack of business. The Union pulling out must have done more economic damage than Carter had imagined.
If they’d walked through the maze of Dragon’s Den’s above-ground tunnels, it would have taken them the better part of an hour to reach the Fire and Whizz. The automated car got them there in ten minutes. But when they exited the vehicle, Foster scratched his head. The Fire and Whizz was an activity hub, and was the crown jewel of Dragon’s Den main commercial strip. But the past couple of years had been unkind to the Fire and Whizz, and the entrance appeared grimy, as if someone had washed the shine off the once-eminent establishment.
Carter’s face settled into a grim expression. “The Union’s withdrawal seems to have hit Dragon’s Den hard. I hope the shipyard has the parts we need.”
“One would hope,” said Foster. “They must keep the mining ships in operation, so they probably do.”
A mining skiff buzzed the street overhead. Surprised, Foster flinched.
“Glad to know some things haven’t changed,” said Carter.
“Yeah, someone brought in a good haul,” remarked Foster.
“The street is weirdly empty.”
Foster scanned the street again, but he didn’t see so much as a lady for hire.
But inside the Fire and Whizz, it was a different story. They found the place packed, and a three-man band played upbeat folk tunes. The decor hadn’t changed since its old ‘pirate’s refuge’ days. Wide, vertical raw wood planks made up the walls, and an ornately carved bar stood at the left of the entrance, extending the length of the wall. A bank of lights lit the wall-length mirror behind the bar, and various bottles lined up on the counter behind. Scruffy patrons filled the plain stools. Tables sported a similar crop of customers. When they entered, a few heads turned, but soon enough they all looked away.
“I’m looking for the dockmaster,” Carter said at the bar. “He told me to meet him here.”
A door marked with a stencil of a male figure clattered open, and a portly man sauntered out, drawing his belt taut and threading it through the buckle.
Carter shifted to face him. “Loudon Wainwright,” he said. “Practically caught with your pants down as usual.”
Wainwright stopped and scowled as he gave Carter a once over. “Devlin Carter. You cleaned up alright, I see.”
“And you went to shit,” Carter replied.
Wainwright looked miffed for a moment, but then he broke out in a huge grin that ran ear-to-ear. He pulled in Carter for a handshake. “Let’s not pretend I didn’t look like shit before. I just had a better uniform back then.”
He offered the same meaty hand to Foster, and when he took it, Wainwright just about ripped his arm off.
“Any more of you?”
“The muscle’s outside,” Foster said, motioning to the two Marines who’d stayed by the door at Carter’s orders.
Wainwright glanced up and grinned and Foster saw for the first time he had some gold in his mouth and tattoos sneaking up around the neck of his jumpsuit. Wainwright was a long way from his Union days. “That’s smart. You never know when trouble will break out,” he said, like a man who knew just when trouble would break out and wanted to be there for it.
He turned to the bartender. “Bobbie, set these two up with a beer apiece.”
The man behind the bar nodded and drafted two mugs, and set them at the bar.
“Come this way,” Wainwright said. “We’ll step into my office.”
The office was the far right corner of the bar, in a half-circle of a booth raised from the floor by a step. Wainwright slid onto the leather seat and moved to the center of the table, where his mug sat. Foster set his cup on the table and sat on one side, and Carter on the other. Wainwright took a long draught of his beer, then slammed his mug on the table. “What can I do you for, Devlin?”
Carter shrugged. “No secret to it. It’s just what we said earlier. My ship needs repairs and resupply.”
“Do you, now?” growled Wainwright playfully. But was it playful? For the first time, Foster got a whiff of something he didn’t like in that big grin.
“Sure. I have a list.” Carter pulled out a pocket e-pad and laid it on the table. Wainwright fingered it indifferently, then picked it up and stared at the list.
“That’s impressive,” said Wainwright. “A month’s worth of solid work there and I could overcharge you on all of it.” He chuckled. Then he set the e-pad back down and slide it back across the table. “But I can’t help you.”
Carter glanced over at Foster looking mildly confused. “You what?”
Wainwright shrugged. “I can’t help you.”
“Why not? We’re already in dock.”
Foster didn’t like the vibe of what was happening. He looked around the bar, which was too quiet.
Then he realized he couldn’t see the Marines. A few of the men gave them predatory glances. He jerked his head toward the door to send the message that he thought they should leave, but Carter wasn’t paying attention.
“That’s true,” Wainwright said. His easy smile was gone now, a distant memory. “That’s very, very true.”
Carter scowled. “If it’s the cost, don’t worry. Overcharge us. I’ve got Union coin to back those requests.”
Wainwright opened his hands wide. “See, there’s the problem. You don’t.” He waited a beat. “The Union rescinded your credit line.”
Foster felt himself go cold at that. Carter stiffened, too. Foster had never considered this possibility, but he shouldn’t have put it past Command.
Wainwright took a long swig of his beer, then put it down hard. The sound echoed. The bar was quiet now. All eyes were on them. “You’re poorer than my whore of a mom,” he growled. “In fact, I have to arrest you for the docking charges.”
Carter stared hard at Wainwright. “Let’s go, Foster. We’re not welcome here.”
They both slid out of the booth, but when they stood, four rough men blocked their path. Foster now had no illusions about what was happening. He thought he saw two bodies by the door.
A man flew into the four, knocking one down, and struggled with him on the floor. One tried to help his fallen comrade, while the other two threw punches at Carter and Foster.
Foster threw his best punch, and the guy stumbled backward. But his attacker yanked a glass he’d bumped into and smashed the rim to make it a jagged weapon. To his right side, and ahead, Carter laid into the breadbasket of the man who’d assaulted him. The guy who’d helped them flailed on the ground with another of Dragon’s Den’s residents. Foster’s attacker lurched toward him, but Foster grabbed his arm and tossed the guy over his hip. The glass rolled under a booth table.
The local police stormed into the bar, and the forwardmost officer blew a whistle. “Okay, break it up. Who started it?”
“Those two,” said Wainwright calmly, pointing to Carter and Foster. “Arrest them.”
Tamarin Shu stood on the observation deck, staring down at the aberration that was Dragon’s Den. The large asteroid orbited Eltanin, the red giant of the Gamma Draconis constellation, but it had no spin. It had once had a lazy one, but the engineers of the Sutāmainingu Corporation had stopped it and installed geo-stabilizers in place, so that only half of Dragon’s Den burned under Eltanin. Darkside Dragon’s Den lived in perpetual night, with the population living brightside under artificial light. Her mother’s doctors had warned her that this wasn’t healthy for humans, but she had never been a woman to listen to others. When Shu had tried to influence her in not taking the governorship of Dragon’s Den, she’d scoffed.
“We own the largest operation there. Naturally we should govern it.”
Shu Eiichi was a stubborn woman.
As Shu gazed at Dragon’s Den below, she thought about the people who risked their lives and lived in horrid conditions. These were the individuals whose sweat and blood had built her family’s wealth, and it made her sick to her stomach. She was glad that the captain had disallowed shore leave. The shame of her shipmates seeing what her mother had wrought was too much for her.
She looked at the time on her wristband. It had been ten hours since the captain and Foster had left, and that seemed too long. Shu leaned forward to push the intercom key call to the bridge.
“It’s Dr. Shu. Has the captain checked in?”
McWarren didn’t answer immediately, which worried Shu even more.
“No,” McWarren finally said tightly.
Shu then realized that the entire bridge crew had heard this conversation. “Okay. When you have a chance, meet me in sickbay so I can discuss the latest casualties with you.”
“Will do,” said McWarren. Her tone came across to Shu as perplexed, but Shu went to the sickbay and waited for McWarren.
When she arrived, Shu didn’t waste time. “Do you know when to expect the captain?”
McWarren shook her head. “No. He didn’t say, but that doesn’t worry me. What does is that he hasn’t checked in.”
“So that raises your level of concern?” said Shu.
“Of course it does. But what do I do? Call up the dockmaster and ask if he’s seen them?”
“You should,” said Shu.
“I did, but the office wouldn’t take my call.”
“Baka yarō!” Shu swore. She stood suddenly and stared at McWarren.
McWarren blinked. “What did you just say?”
“I called the man a fucking idiot. How dare he ignore you!”
“Dr. Shu, while I appreciate your indignation, it’s not helpful.”
“Call him again,” said Shu.
“Excuse me? I’m aware that you’re ranked as a lieutenant commander, and my superior, but I report to the captain.”
“This isn’t about that. Call the dockmaster, and I promise I’ll get answers for you.”
“Why would you get answers?”
Shu huffed in exasperation that she’d contemplated revealing her secret to McWarren. She had told no one before. “It’s complicated,” she said. “Look, I’m sorry. I’m butting in, and I shouldn’t.”
McWarren gave her a quizzical glance and opened her mouth to speak, but then Shu’s intercom buzzed. “Dr. Shu,” she answered.
“This is Communications. We have a call for Lieutenant McWarren from the dockmaster’s office.”
“Pipe it through,” said McWarren.
The holo-display above Shu’s desk sputtered to life, and the bloated face of a man hung in the center. “I want to speak to the commander of the Walker Pierce,” he said.
“And you are?” said McWarren. Her frosty voice communicated that she wasn’t in the mood for nonsense.
“Dockmaster Loudon Wainwright.”
“I’m Lieutenant McWarren in command of the Walker Pierce.”
“Good. Then I rescind permission for the Walker Pierce to dock at Dragon’s Den, and you are to cast off immediately.”
“Why?” said McWarren. Her eyes narrowed as she stared at the dockmaster.
“You have no money. The Union has cut off the Walker Pierce’s credit at non-Union ports. You’re to cast off immediately, or we’ll take the ship as salvage.”
McWarren’s mouth became a hard line. “You try to step foot on this vessel, and you’ll meet forty battle-hardened SEALs who will hold their line. They might get into their heads to storm Dragon’s Den and take what we need by force. I don’t suggest the exercise.”
“You’re a feisty one,” said Wainwright. “But you’ll face the wrath of Sutāmainingu Corporation if you try it. Or rather, the Union will. Your military career will end.”
“Cut the nonsense. Where are Carter and Foster?”
Wainwright’s eye lit up with a disconcerting gleam. “In jail.”
“On what charges?”
“Debt, resisting arrest, and property damage,” said Wainwright.
“What property?” growled McWarren.
“They smashed up a perfectly good bar. Also got two of your own men killed.” He paused. “Both shot in the back of the head during the fighting. At any rate, the judge will sentence them in court tomorrow and assign them to an indentured work crew until they pay the damages and the Walker Pierce’s docking fees. We’ll add the cost of housing and feeding them to the tab. It will take them about, oh, twenty years to work off the debt. You can come back for them then.”
McWarren continued her murderous stare. “You said there would be a trial. How can you be certain of conviction?”
“I’m a witness to the events, Lieutenant, and my testimony will hold weight in the court.”
McWarren’s hands formed fists. “Remember my SEALs, Dockmaster.”
“Are you threatening a witness? How un-Union of you. But remember the Sutāmainingu Corporation,” he sneered.
Shu watched as the situation spun out of control. “Give me your command pad,” she whispered.
“Just do it, and I’ll have this ended in two minutes, with the captain and Aidan returned.”
Reluctantly, McWarren pulled the e-pad from the inside breast pocket of her uniform and unlocked it. Shu punched in memorized numbers.
“Check that transmission, Dockmaster,” Shu said. “That should take care of your docking fees.”
The dockmaster looked down. “There’s no money here. Just a name.” Surprise lit the dockmaster’s face. “Shu, as in—”
“My mother is your employer. As a member of the Board of Directors, I’m issuing orders to you now.”
The dockmaster’s mouth fell open comically. When he managed to speak again, his tone was chastened. “Yes, Ms Shu.”
“It’s Doctor Shu. And see to the list that our supply officer sent you. And we want our crew members returned immediately. They’d better be unharmed, or I’ll fire you myself.”
Loudon liked his lips. “Well, like I said, the two with them were killed. And they, ah, might have received a few bumps and bruises.”
“See to their care now! Don’t make me do it.”
“Yes, Dr. Shu. Wainwright out.”
McWarren’s mouth opened in surprise. “A board member of the Sutāmainingu Corporation?”
“Yes, and let’s not speak of it again, because my mother won’t like this one bit.”
“I’m not,” Shu grunted. “But my family is richer than God.”
If his head could stop pounding, Carter could get some sleep. Or had he been sleeping? He had trouble piecing together where he was. The temperature was too cold, the floor wet, and there was an annoying hissing noise that came from a ventilation system. When he opened his eyes, everything seemed white until he could focus.
He found himself sitting on concrete, surrounded by a wall at his side and back.
To the left was a wall of bars arranged in a hexagonal pattern that revealed the man in the next cell. Carter spotted the man that had fought with them at the Fire and Whizz. He lay unconscious, with his blond hair covering his eyes. Carter wondered who he was.
Ahead was a door composed of the same hexagonally-arranged bars. A walkway composed of standard ship decking separated Carter’s cell from a bank on the other side. Directly across from him, through the hexagonal slats, he found Foster in a heap.
“Foster,” he shouted.
His friend offered a weak groan.
“Guards!” Carter yelled. “Guards! You have a critically injured man here! Guards.”
“There’s no one here,” said the man in the adjacent cell. “They only show up at mealtimes, if then.”
“There’s no one watching us?”
The young man winced as he sat up. “Nope.”
“How do you know?”
“I had a little run-in with the authorities when I arrived. Wearing a Union uniform does that to you. As you found out.”
“You’re Union?” said Carter.
“Yep. Chief Petty Officer Jax Erdu, sir. Sorry for not standing to attention, but my legs are a tad unsteady.”
“Where did you serve, Erdu?” said Carter.
“My last post was Jefferson, sir.”
That ship was a heavy battle cruiser with a complement of a thousand. You had to work hard to distinguish yourself on a boat that size. “And what did you do there?” Carter asked.
“I was the assistant master-at-arms.”
“Yes, sir. Until I got my new posting.”
“The Walker Pierce, sir. I’ve been chasing you to report for duty, but you don’t stay long in any port.”
“So how did you end up here?”
“Dragon’s Den is the last stop, isn’t it?” Erdu asked. “I figured you’d land here, so I arrived and settled in, though my first couple of days weren’t pleasant.”
“If you spent them here, I can imagine.”
“How’s your man doing there?”
Carter glanced at Foster again. “Foster, damn it. Wake up!”
Foster coughed and flailed on the floor, the movements in his arms and legs uncoordinated.
“Sit up at least, Sergeant.”
“Okay.” Foster was silent for two heartbeats, which worried Carter. “Which way is up?”
“Opposite of where you are, which is face-down on the concrete.”
Foster put his hands on the concrete and pushed.
“How do you feel?”
“Better than you look. Jeez, Captain. How did four mudballers get over on us?” Foster winced as he stuck his legs out. “And where are my Marines?”
“Those weren’t just any mudballers,” Erdu said. “They’re from Thurban IV.”
“The heavy gravity planet?” said Carter. Hell, against men that had grown up in one and a half g’s, he and Foster were outclassed.
“Just the same,” said Erdu. “The Sutāmainingu Corporation brings them in on nine-month rotations for security.” He paused. “And I’m afraid your Marines are dead. If they were alive, they’d have been brought here.”
Foster cursed, then looked up at Erdu and squinted. “And you are?” he said.
“Chief Petty Officer Jaxon Erdu. Jax, for short. I’ve had orders to take the master-at-arms slot on the Walker Pierce.”
Foster grimaced. “And you’re here how?”
“As I told the captain, I’ve been chasing you through Union space to meet up with you. Not putting into a Union port made that difficult, so I figured the next place you’d put in would be here. I arrived a month ago, and have been waiting for you.”
“A month? When the Union cut off our credits?” Carter stared at Erdu, not ready to trust his story.
“It wasn’t easy. I hope you don’t mind, Captain, but I found a temporary gig while waiting. I barkeep at the Fire and Whizz. I was just coming on shift when the fracas brewed.”
“The Fire and Whizz,” grumbled Carter.
“And we’re in trouble, sir, based on what I’ve seen here. Wainwright will have us all placed in indentured work crews.”
“He can’t do that,” growled Foster. He stood shakily and glared at Erdu, as if the man was the source of their troubles.
“Dragon’s Den law says he can. And since labor is scarce, the judge who handles the cases convicts first, and doesn’t ask questions or listen to appeals.”
“Wonderful,” groaned Foster. He glanced behind him. “And no damned cots or a bench. either.”
“No one stays long. Our trials will be tomorrow,” said Jax.
“If we live that long,” groaned Foster.
The door the cellblock opened, and two of the men that had fought them in the Fire and Whizz walked in. “Okay, you three, back up to your doors with your hands behind your back.”
“Why?” said Carter.
“Time for your trial.”
“I thought that was tomorrow,” said Jax.
“Moved up. We wouldn’t want to deprive you of your right to a speedy trial. Look, don’t make a fuss. We don’t want to mark up your faces more than we have to.” The doors slid open, and one guard locked Carter’s, then Erdu’s, wrists in cuffs.
“How thoughtful,” snarked Foster. “Especially since you did such an awful job rearranging my insides. I thought you Thurban IV guys were tough.”
“Shut up, you,” said the guard. He pushed Foster forward before he put cuffs on him.
“Aw, I hurt your feelings,” said Foster.
“You know what my assignment is next week, rockethead? I’m supervising work crews. I’d love to get yours.”
“Sorry, big boy. You aren’t my type.”
“Move!” said the other guard. “The judge is waiting.”
Carter exchanged glances with Foster before a guard pushed him ahead. Foster’s gaze reflected that they were in deep trouble, and Carter hated that.
The door of the cell block rolled open, and Carter stepped out to walk down a long corridor that terminated ahead in a single exit. He knew that beyond that door lay judgment, and that not just he, but his entire crew, would suffer for his decisions.
The door opened into a room of white walls. A holoscreen flickered on.
“All rise. The Honorable Tolland Rickard presiding.”
The bald-headed judge was dressed in a traditional black robe, and stared impassively at papers under his hand. “Captain Devlin Carter, Chief Aidan Foster, CPO Jax Erdu, you face charges of debt, resisting arrest, and property damage. How do you plead?”
“Not guilty. We were—”
“I entered your pleas, and am ready to give judgment.”
“Wait. What kind of trial is this?” Carter asked.
His guard pushed him from behind. “Be quiet.”
“The video record is quite clear on the facts, Captain Carter, and Dockmaster Wainwright thoroughly documented the unpaid dock charges. I judge you guilty, and you will begin serving your sentence in the indentured work crews immediately. Guards, take them to the processing block now.”
“What do you mean, you don’t know where they are?” McWarren stared incredulously at Wainwright’s ugly mug.
“I’m sorry, Lieutenant, but they were processed and placed in a work detail, and I’m afraid the work crew manager hasn’t filed the papers yet to say where they are. There are thousands of asteroids here, and they could be on any of them. As soon as they turn up, I’ll call you, but your people on shore leave are being treated with the utmost respect. Dr. Shu made it quite clear what was to happen, and it will.”
“And you will locate our men.”
“Sorry, Lieutenant. Must go. Wainwright out.”
McWarren huffed in frustration. The man was insufferable, and he was surely stalling for time. But why?
She walked out of the captain’s ready room and stepped out on the bridge, and went to the communications station. “Has Lieutenant Shepherd reported in?” she asked the tech.
“Have her report directly to me as soon as she does.”
“Sir, I’m receiving messages from the different suppliers we’ve requested supplies from.”
“Pipe them to the captain’s office.”
“Yes, sir. And Chief Brennan wants you to message him.”
McWarren re-entered the captain’s ready room and called Brennan first. “Yes, Chief.”
“Lieutenant, I hear scuttlebutt that Dragon’s Den didn’t have the supplies we need to repair the ship?”
“That’s what they tell me.”
“They’re lying,” said Brennan with anger. “When the Union pulled out, they didn’t take all the supplies the Union stored. There should be a cache of our supplies locked up on this asteroid.”
“And the source of your information is?”
“I knew the man who was in charge of the Dragon’s Den Union Shipyard here.”
“And do you know where this cache is?” McWarren asked.
“They buried it brightside in one cave there.”
“How the hell did they get it there?” Considering how hot the bright side was, no human could work on it.
“Ma’am, begging your pardon, but the salvage crews around here have robot ships. We can use those,” Brennan said gruffly.
“With or without the owner’s permission?” said McWarren.
“Whatever it takes, ma’am, or we’ll rot on Dragon’s Den.”
He was right. Still, what Brennan proposed meant abrogating the rights of a sovereign port. “That might be difficult, Chief. We’ve not made friends here.”
“My buddy says there’s a certain asteroid that crosses between Dragon’s Den and the sun that allows a few hours of work. If you can get that information, ma’am, and some robot ships—”
“Thank you, Chief. My priority is retrieving the captain and Foster. Once we have them, we can move forward with other plans. I’ll keep you informed.”
McWarren received the message from the suppliers throughout: “Sorry. Can’t help you.”
She pushed back her chair and turned it to view the winking lights of the sprawl of Dragon’s Den. The Walker Pierce sat atop their docking tower of intra-system spacecraft, usually reserved for the giant ore haulers of the Sutāmainingu Corporation.
Why would these people help them when the Union had pulled their support and their money from this godforsaken place? She couldn’t imagine living in such a bleak place, and wouldn’t wish it on her worst enemy.
The captain’s door chimed. “Enter,” she said.
Shepherd entered, still wearing her flight suit, with her helmet tucked under her arm. She saluted, and McWarren straightened. She’d seen Shepherd this grim only two times: when she’d had to give testimony in Hewett’s death, and when Svetsky died.
“At ease, Jada.”
“No, this is important. While the wing was out, we spotted something you should know about. There are a couple of warships on the way here.”
Shepherd shook her head. “No, ma’am. One of my pilots is from Thurban IV, and he says they’re Thurban shipping vessels. But when we ran scans, we found the ships had six cannons apiece and ablative armor.”
“A private navy?”
“Looks like it.”
It was illegal. Earth colonies like Thurban IV shouldn’t have private navies. But at Command, McWarren had heard rumors that certain corporations were building their own, in response to the Union pulling away from the Union-Kaxek border.
“Hold on.” McWarren keyed Shu’s office. “Dr. Shu, can you come to the captain’s ready room?”
“Have you heard anything about the captain?” Shu asked.
“I’d like to speak to you about that.” McWarren switched off the communication. “Jada, ready your wing for a foray. I’ll need them battle-ready.”
“What’s your plan?”
“When I get one, I’ll tell you.”
“You have your orders. Dismissed.”
As Shepherd left, Shu arrived. McWarren filled her in on the day’s events so far.
“I’ll talk to the dockmaster,” said Shu.
“You tried, Tamarin, and his response was to ‘lose’ Captain Carter and Foster. Jada just told me shipping vessels outfitted for battle are on the way here. Does your mother keep a private navy?”
Shu’s mouth formed a tight line. “I don’t know for sure. Yes, I’m a board member, but since I enlisted, I’ve had limited access to my mother’s plans and business dealings.”
“Here’s the thing. If those ships belong to your mother’s company, then they’re illegally outfitted. If they’re coming to interfere with our activities here, then that’s an illegal action.”
“I agree. What do you need from me?”
“Two things. The second thing is, I want you to take command of the Walker Pierce.”
“Me?” Shu asked.
“You are the highest-ranking officer.”
“And where will you be?”
“That has to do with the first thing I need from you, and that’s to tell me I’m not absolutely crazy,” McWarren said. “Because what I’m planning sounds insane to me.”
“What do you plan to do?”
“I’m going to invade Dragon’s Den and take it over.”
Shu nodded. “I see.”
“It might get messy.”
“Please. My mother created the mess. You’re cleaning it up.”
“So I’m not crazy?” McWarren asked.
“Oh no,” Shu said. “You definitely are.”
Two hours later, McWarren, Assistant Gunnery Sergeant Eddie Melia, and forty SEALs landed in the streets of Dragon’s Den.
McWarren wasn’t actually there, of course. She’d pushed for it, but the SEALs had looked at her like she was crazy. Instead, she was in a VR helmet in her office on deck two. It piped into the visor of the battlesuit being worn by one of the team leaders, a Lance Corporal Pattson.
Pattson led half the SEALs through the port exit, where they immediately met resistance at the port’s doors on the ground floor.
The plan was to distract Dragon’s Den security. Melia and twenty-eight SEALs searched for the dockmaster and/or the captain and Foster’s location. These men rappelled from the open landing bay door of the Walker Pierce wearing full environmental suits. The reasons were twofold. In the mission design meeting, Melia had pointed out that the covered tubes that served as passages were choke points. Because of this, the actual Dragon’s Den security force was small, no more than twenty men, but they had control of the tubes. The second was the hope of surprising the Dragon’s Den force, as no one walked outside the covered passages.
Pattson and twelve of the SEALs, dressed in battlesuits, hoped to keep Dragon’s Den’s finest busy, while the second team located their wayward crew members.
And Dragon’s Den security started with an aggressive move.
With an ear-splitting boom and shattering glass flying, smoke filled the lobby of the spaceport. McWarren instinctively ducked. The battlesuit protected Pattson from the worst of the blast and suppressed the sound of the explosion. Because they wore breathing equipment as a precaution, the smoke didn’t affect their breathing.
“Go to heat-sensor vision,” said Pattson. He spoke through his mike, where they were all connected. McWarren assumed that Pattson’s suit switched over, but her own exterior VR display remained murky.
The SEALs returned fire with energy weapons.
McWarren saw only the crisscrossing of energy discharges across the darkness for several seconds. Then the return fire from the Dragon’s Den side subsided.
More glass shattered as one man fired a grenade launcher, and then a SEAL fired another. But instead of exploding, it whooshed out through the frames on which shattered tempered glass hung. It popped, and a gas oozed out.
“Check your masks,” Pattson said into his mike. “Our friends out there should go sleepy-time very soon.”
The weapons fire stopped, and Pattson and the other SEALs crept forward, scouting the scene ahead. Pattson switched the headlamp in his helmet on, and suddenly McWarren could see again. A pair of beams illuminated the scene. She spotted six men lying on the ground.
“Medic,” said Pattson, and one man hustled forward and checked the men on the ground, while his buddies trained their weapons on the downed men.
“They’re breathing,” he said. “No visible injuries.”
“Hensley, Wilson, secure these men. Jacob, Raheen, scout forward and report back. Alberts, Mendoza, catch their six.”
They started forward again, but before they’d gone more than fifty feet, the radio crackled with Melia’s voice: “We have identified the prison location and are proceeding.”
McWarren looked at a set of coordinates that appeared in her VR. They’d accompanied the transmission. “You have those coordinates, Pattson?”
“Get us there.”
A crash and the high-pitched sound of energy weapons slinging rounds woke Foster from a sleep into which he’d crawled to escape the pounding in his head. With a groan, he sat upright and leaned against the icy cement wall. Carter stood at the latticed entrance of his cell, staring toward the sounds.
“What’s that?” said Erdu.
Foster didn’t know what to make of Erdu, but the man’s story made little sense to him. Or maybe that was the head-scrambling Wainwright’s men had given him. He wasn’t sure, but he pushed himself to his feet. “What do you think, Captain?” he asked.
Just then, the outer cell door popped open. Through it, Foster spotted battle-suited soldiers fighting with Dragon’s Den security forces, but the struggle was brief. One battle-suited individual stormed the opening.
“Stand back and cover your eyes!”
The soldier hit the locks of Carter’s and Foster’s cells, and the doors slid open. The battle-suited combatant tapped the side of his helmet.
“Go ahead, Lieutenant,” a male voice said.
Then the clear voice of McWarren crackled through the battlesuit’s speakers. “Captain! I’m glad we found you.”
“Lieutenant?” Carter asked.
“I hope you don’t mind, but I decided to let the SEALs handle this. Lance Corporal Pattson here was kind enough to let me come along for the ride.”
Carter smiled in spite of himself. “It’s good to hear from you, XO.”
“With the permission of a board member of Sutāmainingu Corporation, we’ve secured Dragon’s Den. The only resistance we’ve encountered is local security forces, who are now under guard.”
“Wait. Board member? What board member?”
“I’ll introduce you when we get back to the ship.”
Carter pointed to Erdu. “You have to let this gentleman out.”
“And who is he?” McWarren asked.
Erdu came to attention and saluted. “Chief Petty Officer Jax Erdu, ma’am.”
“He’s a replacement that’s been waiting for us to show up here,” Carter said.
Pattson put his hand to his head, and Carter assumed there was a conversation going on. When the battlesuit’s speakers activated again, it was the voice of Pattson. “Stand back,” he said. “Everyone cover your eyes.”
Foster didn’t remember much of the walk to the Walker Pierce, and the SEALs may have carried him. When he woke, Shu stood over him with a concerned expression on her face.
“Sergeant, how many fingers I am holding up?”
“As many as you like?”
Shu frowned. “I’ll list ‘unresponsive’ in the report. That should keep you confined to your quarters for at least three extra days.”
“Okay, okay. Two.”
“Two? You sure?” She spoke with a doctor’s seriousness, but her eyes displayed amusement.
“Now you’re teasing me. Yes, two.”
“I don’t tease, Sergeant,” she said. And then she smiled. “I gave you medicine for the pain in your head and the concussion. As for your ribs, you have two hairline fractures. They’ll hurt when the pain meds wear off, but that will teach you not to brawl in a bar.”
“Don’t be sure about that,” said another voice. Foster saw Carter standing in the doorway. “Will he be okay?”
“Can’t promise that, Captain, because I’m not sure he was ever right in the head.”
“Can he sit in a meeting, at least?” Carter asked. “I need to get everyone together for a few minutes and sort out what’s happened and what we need to do.”
“You should rest, Captain. I told you that,” said Shu.
“And I will, once I get things squared away. Conference room, fifteen minutes. That should give you enough time to get your ass there, Foster.”
“And let’s find this board member of the Sutāmainingu Corporation that’s supposed to be on board.”
Shu winced. “No need, Captain. That would be me. My mother owns Sutāmainingu Corporation.”
Carter’s face washed with disbelief. “You?”
Carter pivoted and walked away, muttering to himself about crew members keeping secrets from him.
Foster couldn’t be more blown away; or at least he thought he couldn’t, until he sat with Captain Carter, McWarren, Shu, and Brennan. He wondered what black hole he’d been thrown into, since he’d heard so many weird things. Shu wanted the Walker Pierce to keep control of Dragon’s Den, and Brennan wanted a crack at the supplies on the bright side of the asteroid. But the biggest surprise was the news of the small armada on its way to Dragon’s Den.
“Captain,” said Brennan. “We need those supplies from the Union cache. I’ve checked the inventory in the Dragon’s Den shipyard, and they’re missing essential parts. Plus, I’m nearly positive there’s at least one magnetic core in the cache. It would make it far easier to get the Walker Pierce to 100% with that core instead of machining one.”
“What do you need?” said Carter.
“We need robot ships to help pull out the supplies. Most of it should be in cartons that the robot ships could retrieve.”
“Chief, we don’t have robot ships.”
“But,” said Shu, “the Dragon’s Den miners do. I can offer mining ships to help us get those supplies.”
Brennan scratched his head. “What am I missing here?”
“I’ll tell you later, Chief,” said Carter. “XO, you work with Dr. Shu in securing the cooperation of the mining ship captains. I’ll talk to Lieutenant Shepherd about running patrols to give us a heads up when these unidentified ships will arrive. Foster, you arrange security for the ship going brightside to retrieve the cache. I want two SEALs on each captain’s vessel, to make sure they cooperate. If they’re anything like that Captain Walsh we met coming in, they’ll be a handful. And since the clock is ticking, we need to move now.”
“Yes, sir,” said Foster.
And that was how Foster ended up on the bridge of the Perilous, sitting at the cusp of the light and dark sides of Dragon’s Den.
It turned out that Captain Walsh’s ship wasn’t just any old mining ship. She was the best in the Dragon’s Den fleet.
“I should space you both,” Walsh growled.
Between securing the town itself and looking for the renegade dockmaster, security ran short a few men, so it was just Foster and Brennan on Walsh’s ship. Despite Foster’s misgivings, he’d assigned Erdu to keep watch on the internal security of the Walker Pierce. He figured the new chief petty officer couldn’t get into too much trouble with a seasoned crew around him. Besides, Brennan wanted to be on the lead captain’s ship to oversee the recovery, and Foster didn’t want their grumpy master chief clashing with a disgruntled mining captain. After all, it had been Foster’s finger on the trigger when the Walker Pierce had destroyed Walsh’s robotic ship, Nightfall, just yesterday.
“Don’t be an idiot,” Brennan said. “We should space you.”
“Let’s just get this done,” Foster said. “Shall we?”
Brennan and Foster sat on the minuscule bridge, watching one asteroid move into position to eclipse a part of the Gamma Draconis sun, Eltanin. Two of the fighters crisscrossed the bright side of the asteroid, looking for the cache, but they returned no results.
“Are you sure it’s here, Brennan?” asked Foster. “It’s not some tale brewed in a few mugs of beer?”
“Nah,” growled Brennan. “I’d trust the man who told me this with my life.”
“That solid, eh?”
“I don’t trust you with my life, and you’re a fair-to-middling gunnery sergeant.”
“Watch it, Chief. I still have your whiskey hostage.”
“Aye, that’s what caused me to downgrade my rating of you.”
Foster blew out a breath and then stared at the path of the eclipsing asteroid. “Captain Walsh, show me on the holoscreen the path of the asteroid’s shadow on Dragon’s Den.”
“I’m not your sensor officer,” Walsh grumbled, before entering a series of commands. A map flashed on the man’s screen above his control panel. A red line ran across a darkened disk.
“Can you increase the resolution on that map? I’d like to see the topography.”
Walsh grunted, but his fingers pressed keys, and illuminated landmasses on the right side of Dragon’s Den showed sharply.
Foster traced the path of the eclipse and pointed to a spot under the eclipse’s shadow. “There. That group of mountains. The shadow gives us time to work.”
“You have a message coming in from your ship,” grumbled Walsh.
“Let’s see it,” said Foster.
Carter’s concerned face showed on Walsh’s screen. “Have you found the supplies?”
“We have a clue,” said Foster.
“Then hurry. Lieutenant Shepherd said those unidentified ships are close to Gamma Draconis. Sensors can parse out three of them now, and there could be more.”
“Walsh,” said Brennan. “Now or never. And if it’s never, Dragon’s Den will be undefended.”
The Dragon’s Den captain spoke into his headset and sent his robot ship down toward the set of mountains—or rather, large hills—set in the airless landscape. Two other robot ships, captained by two other miners, moved in at Walsh’s direction. When the vessels came close enough, a drone flew from the ships and dropped toward the promontories. Brennan and Foster watched as video from the drones played on Walsh’s holoscreen.
“Which one, guys?” asked Walsh. “I see a bunch of cave openings.”
The drones scanned the area with aching slowness, and Foster thought he’d go mad from waiting for them to complete their circuits. “Come on,” he said under his breath. “Which one?”
“Hah!” said Brennan. “There. The third one from the right.”
“How can you be sure?” said Foster.
“Look. There’s the Ace of Spades carved into the rock. My friend’s name was Spade. We called him Ace. And it looks big enough to take a magnetic core. Go,” he said to Walsh.
“This is a one-shot,” said Walsh. “I won’t hang around if someone fires on me because of you.”
“Yeah, yeah,” said Foster. He wondered what Walsh found fun about Dragon’s Den. This part of it, the working side, and its people were annoying.
An exploratory drone entered the cave with its headlamp blaring. Foster watched with singular attention as the drone inched past rocks and moved deeper inside.
“There’s nothing here,” said Walsh. “We should check something else.”
Foster and Brennan exchanged glances. “This has to be it,” said Brennan. He peered at the screen. “Wait. What’s that shadow?”
“Don’t know,” said Walsh. “But there’s another message from your damned ship. You have twenty minutes, tops. Those ships are moving fast.”
Too fast for private ships, thought Foster. That made little sense. Only military ships flew at that speed. Did Sutāmainingu Corporation illegally buy warships?
“There,” said Brennan. Excitement edged his voice. “To the left, in that depression.”
Walsh turned the drone into a hollow filled with stacks of boxes.
“I don’t see a core,” said Foster.
“That’s because it’s broken down in parts for assembly,” said Brennan.
“Go,” said Foster. “Get those boxes out.”
“Look,” said Walsh. “We don’t have the time.”
“Make the time,” growled Foster.
Walsh huffed, then spoke into his microphone to the other two ships. “No time for pretty. Make it fast and then get those drones to Dragon’s Den.”
The first drone coupled to the first box it came to and backed out of the cave. Walsh worked the controls with his attention firmly on his task. A shadow at the corner of the captain’s sensor screen grew larger.
“Those ships are coming out of their sling around Eltanin,” Walsh said. “And damn it, they’re moving at top speed.”
“Just worry about—”
“I’d like to,” growled Walsh, “But we’re getting another message from your ship.”
“Time to haul it back to base,” said Carter. “Those ships—” The message garbled. “… hidden … engine signatures … hurry …”
Foster leaned in. “What did he say?”
“It sounded like—”
The mining ship’s warning system roared to life, bathing the cramped bridge in red light and splashing the words ‘weapons signature’ across the sensor screen.
The message crackled back into sharp focus. “… say again, those are Kaxek warships hiding their energy signatures. Get—”
The message cut off. Walsh swore and furiously worked the control panel of his ship. “Damn it, we’re out of here, mates!” His fear exploded in his communication to the other ships. “We have company. Watch for enemy fire!”
“It’s Kaxek?” Brennan said stupidly.
“Damn it,” Foster swore. “Cap was right.”
“Well, congratulations to him,” Walsh said through gritted teeth, sweat suddenly beading up on his forehead. “Could’ve mentioned it sooner.”
Walsh swore as he turned the Perilous away from the bright side of Dragon’s Den sharply, causing Brennan and Foster to fall against the bulkhead. A blue-white streak of weapons fire sped past them and hit the planet, too close to the entrance of the cave.
Another streak hit the ship, and Walsh cursed as he lost attitude control. “Hang on!” he screamed.
What a laughable suggestion, Foster thought, as he and Brennan were tossed around the cabin like corks in the sea.
The mining vessel suddenly felt very small as it twirled and hurled toward the surface of Dragon’s Den.
“Sir,” said the sensor technician. “A Kaxek ship fired on and hit Walsh’s ship. It’s falling to Dragon’s Den’s bright side.”
Carter cursed under his breath. He barely registered the ship’s warning klaxon as it rang through the vessel and the bridge lights automatically dimmed, prompting the bridge crew to pay attention to their stations. The backlight of the different displays cast an eerie blue glow through the bridge.
His only focus was on the tactical display. Carter watched as three dots swarmed over the bright side of Dragon’s Den. He pressed his fingers over the virtual keyboard and summoned the projected visual image of the three ships taken from sensor readings. It was an extrapolation because, in actuality, you couldn’t “see” a spaceship from this range. Up close and personal, sure, if you caught the right angle from the solar system’s sun. But the extrapolation helped Carter to visualize his next steps.
Carter glanced at McWarren at that operations station. “How the hell did they get here so fast? They barely needed a deceleration burn.” He shook his head. “Not to mention they fooled our passive and active sensors. Want to bet their weapons are improved, too?”
McWarren shook her head warily.
“I’m guessing they don’t know about this little number at Command? Not something that came up in Strategy and Tactics?”
“We weren’t aware the Kaxek were even building new warships,” McWarren said.
Carter looked back at the holomap. He wondered if his grandfather’s had insides tightened as his did now when Grandfather Pierce had decided to ram the Kaxek fleet in this very solar system. His grandfather had died here, making him a hero and practically dooming his descendants to fleet service. But there wasn’t a moment that Carter regretted in his career, and he sincerely hoped that he wouldn’t regret this one.
If he lived through this. He had no illusions.
“Nav, calculate the first position at which the Walker Pierce will be visible to the Kaxek. Prepare the pulse cannon to fire on the closest Kaxek ship from the starboard side.”
“Yes, sir,” replied Melia.
The Kaxek ships kept a safe position just inside the firing range of Walsh’s ship. Carter keyed in the gunnery station to the holomap, and watched as the Walker Pierce broke the horizon. This was outside their firing range. He hoped.
“Slow to null speed, and hold our position,” said Carter.
“Yes, sir,” said Buckner.
“Sir.” Another voice came from the entrance of the bridge door, and Carter spotted Erdu there. “They’re looking to draw you into the fight.”
Carter looked away. He didn’t need a distraction now. “I’m aware, Mr. Erdu. If you insist on entering the bridge without permission, I suggest you stand there out of the way.”
McWarren stepped next to the holomap. “Sir,” she said under her breath. “I have a thought.”
“Spit it out.”
“Let’s take a page out of your grandfather’s playbook. The Battle of Clanadan. We studied it all the time in our advanced warfare courses. We have three nukes onboard, right? Let a fighter take one into the middle of those ships and detonate it before they can focus their shields. The EM from the blast at least will take out their electronics and shields and leave them dead in space.”
Carter grimaced. This is what too much time in strategy simulations and not enough time in the real world gets you, he thought. McWarren had a done a fine job in taking decisive action to deploy the SEALs against Dragon’s Den and Carter had told her so. But there was a fine line between decisiveness and recklessness.
“Assuming these new Kaxek ships are even vulnerable to that—”
“Only one way to find out,” she said quickly.
“Assuming that,” Carter continued, “They’re already firing on our people on the surface as we speak. Even if we did have a kamikaze pilot willing to try it, we don’t have time to pull something like that off.”
“I’m sure we—”
“At Clanadan they had hours to lure the Kaxek into a well-planned trap, one that had been practiced for weeks and was executed by two SEAL teams.”
McWarren looked like she was going to argue further when the communications officer cut in.
“Sir,” said Ensign Ballins, “the Kaxek are sending a transmission.”
What? This is new. “Let’s hear it.”
But the sounds were no Earth language.
“Lieutenant McWarren, what are they saying?” She pursed her lips and shook her head. “It’s coming too fast.”
“Slow down the playback, Mr. Ballins.”
The sounds played slower this time.
“It makes little sense.” McWarren sighed in frustration. “We know, um, you’re here. We know what you’re doing and will stop you.”
“They know we’re going for the supplies here. They must keep some type of surveillance,” said Carter.
But McWarren appeared unsure. “Why would they speak to us in their language?”
Suddenly traces of orange bolts shot from the forwardmost Kaxek ship’s guns. The holomap traced the salvos, one after another, heading right toward them.
“Sir?” said Melia. “Ablative armor?”
“Not yet, Mr. Melia. I want them to think that we’re defenseless.”
The ship shook, then groaned under the stress of the Kaxek’s destructive weapon.
“Sir,” said McWarren. “Damage control reports that shot breached the secondary hull in the landing bay and it vented oxygen. Damage control sealed off that compartment.”
A single salvo did that, thought Carter. “Switch the ablative armor forward.”
“Aye, sir,” said Melia.
More orange lines on the holomap shot toward the ship, but this time the ablative armor absorbed the kinetic energy of the blast.
“Orders, sir?” asked Melia. “Should I return fire?”
“No, Mr. Melia. We’ll let them think we can’t.” The starboard engine failure meant the particle cannon there should be offline. If the Kaxek could read their energy signatures, they’d assume that. But the Walker Peirce was old enough that manual power routing was still possible on the fly. “Shift feed from the port engine to the starboard cannon. Fire only when I tell you.”
More tracers shot from the forward Kaxek ship and then bounced off the ablative armor. But the light cruiser rocked in its orbit.
“Impossible,” McWarren said under her breath.
The raw power of the impacts had forced the ship to break free of the relatively weak gravity of the asteroid. They flew backward toward the dangerous asteroid field behind the orbit of Dragon’s Den.
“Hell,” muttered Carter as another blast rattled the ship, and the artificial gravity blipped.
This was more of a beating than he could have imagined at this distance. To call these improved weapons was an understatement. The Union had nothing like this.
Another jolt of the Kaxek weapon rocked the ship once more, but this time harder. Carter glanced at the holomap to find the forward Kaxek vessel moving into the redline of the firing range.
McWarren stood stock-still as she waited for the news of whether the cannon struck its target.
“Direct hit, sir!” announced Melia.
Carter barely reacted. “Sensor tech, what readings are you getting from the enemy ship?”
The tech shook her head. “No substantive damage, sir.”
Carter looked over at McWarren like this was her fault. Like she’d been the one to upgrade the Kaxek armor.
“Improved armor, weapons, stealth,” he counted off on his hand. “Everything you need for a good truce.”
He was right, of course. It was possible some of these upgrades had been in the works before the truce agreement, but the overwhelming likelihood was that the truce had simply been a ruse, and the Kaxek had intended to go to war all along.
Carter spoke again. “Melia, calculate a spread shot. Let me know when you’re ready.”
“Yes, sir. Ready now.”
The ship rocked as a dozen shots fired in rapid succession. They’d be less powerful individually, but previous incarnations of Kaxek armor had proven susceptible to the tactic.
“Sir,” said the sensor tech. “Multiple impacts. Scratch that, total impacts. All good hits.”
“Nice shot, Melia.”
The sensor tech’s voice rose an octave. “There’s no energy signature from the Kaxek ship’s starboard engine. Port engine is erratic.”
“Mr. Buckner, full speed toward that ship. Mr. Melia, line up a single power salvo.”
“Sir,” said McWarren urgently. “The other two ships are taking a position outside our range.”
“I’m aware,” said Carter. “We’re going to use this damaged one to cover our approach.”
It wasn’t a bad strategy. It might have even worked if the Walker Pierce wasn’t already on a single engine and straining to make half her usual speed.
The ship rocked so hard that each person on the bridge stumbled or fell.
“Bridge!” yelled Touma, one of Brennan’s section engineers, over the intercom. “What the hell! We’ve got a hole in the bulkhead that went into our remaining FTL engine.”
“Are you telling me we lost FTL, Mr. Touma?”
“For safety’s sake, we should run at sub-light capacity only. Running the FTL engine will release dangerous amounts of radiation.”
“Get those holes patched, Touma,” ordered Carter.
“Yes, sir,” said Touma.
“Sir,” said the sensor tech. “Another Kaxek ship fired at us.”
“Hard about, Mr. Buckner,” said Carter.
But the ship rattled again, and the bulkhead groaned, and the engine stuttered through the light cruiser.
It was simply an impossible task now. These Kaxek were nothing like the Kaxek of old. Their weapons range was greater by a wide margin. The Walker Pierce couldn’t even reach the two ships battering them at this range, let alone accurately target them.
McWarren didn’t have Carter’s sixth sense about the ship, but she didn’t need it. A handful more shots like that and the hull’s structural integrity would fail.
She wouldn’t let the Kaxek take the Walker Pierce or any of its crew. An urgent communication from Damage Control gave her an idea.
She sent a direct message to Shepherd, the fighter group’s wing leader, to confirm she was at the flight bay. Then she took a deep breath and looked up from her station. “Sir! Due to casualties from the last blast, Damage Control is requesting additional personnel to address the hull breach. Permission to assist Damage Control with the hull damage.”
Carter stared at the battle board, with his arms crossed. “And you would do what, XO?”
“At Command I saw plans that allowed a ship to erect a temporary force field to seal large hull breaches temporarily. I can help facilitate one at the breach, sir.”
Carter looked over at her and McWarren was sure that he could see right through her lie. He knew exactly what terribly thing she was thinking. In fact, she was sure of it. So sure that she was readying her follow up response when he simply said, “Go.” She rocked on the balls of her feet in surprise as he added, “Do what you have to do.”
Whether he knew what he was saying or not, she took his cryptic words as a sign from the universe that this was the right thing to do.
McWarren walked quickly off the bridge, because if she didn’t, she might stop herself. In her entire career she’d never disobeyed an order, let alone lied to a superior.
McWarren strode to the chute positioned next to the elevators the SEALs used for rapid deployment. It shot down the decks and ended at the corridor that led to their deployment compartment.
McWarren spun around to find the strange new chief petty officer, Jax Erdu, following her. He’d been on the bridge for no good reason, and now he was following her around. She didn’t like him when he wasn’t being strange. “What do you need, Erdu?”
She didn’t slow down for him. When he didn’t immediately answer, she jumped to the ladder and, putting her hands and feet on the rails, slid down in a rush. The XO’s heart caught in her throat as she fell, and she reminded herself that she had done this before. McWarren thought it was an irony that a naval officer was afraid of heights. It was ridiculous, because she knew that the chute’s anti-grav equipment slowed her fall during the last ten percent. Erdu followed.
“You didn’t answer me,” she yelled over her shoulder as she made way at the bottom and Erdu landed behind her.
“Answer what?” said Shepherd. She’d been standing at the bottom of the stairs waiting for McWarren, guessing where she’d come from.
McWarren stuttered to a stop. “Shit, don’t startle me right now.”
The ship rocked again, hard, and the lights flickered. Another solid hit. It felt like the walls of the ship buckled for a moment, then reset. Her ears popped.
“I think we’re past that,” Shepherd said.
And perhaps because of that, and how short the time was, McWarren just had to blurt out what she was thinking. “I need a fighter and a nuke.”
Shepherd frowned. “You’re my superior officer and all, but—”
“I’m flying a nuke straight into that cluster of ships.”
“The hell you are. I’ll do it. It’s my job.”
“No, I need you to take out the remaining fighters and hide my approach.”
“I won’t let you commit suicide,” said Shepherd.
“I don’t plan to die. I’ll eject before the ship strikes.”
“The blast will tear you apart in a flight suit.”
Another impact struck the ship, and the lights flickered again. This time they didn’t come back to full capacity.
“What about a battlesuit?” said Erdu. “It has its own air supply, and it can withstand weapons fire from a laser cannon. The lieutenant might survive the blast with one.”
Shepherd gave Erdu a hostile stare. “It’s bulky. She won’t be able to maneuver the ship.”
McWarren sucked in a breath. “I think this is a case of picking my poison. If I’m definitely dying with a flight suit, and maybe not dying with a battlesuit, I’ll take the battlesuit.”
“This is idiotic,” said Shepherd.
“We’re dead in space now. If we don’t turn the tables then the crew gets stuck here behind enemy lines with no one coming for us. Ready a fighter for me. That’s an order. If I’m flying out of here with reduced movement, I need that ship positioned and primed for launch.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Shepherd said icily. She put her helmet on and turned on her air supply as she headed down the corridor that led to the flight deck.
McWarren turned to Erdu. “You’re the new master-at-arms, yes? Can you prepare a battlesuit for me? I understand they need programming to accept a new assignment.”
Erdu nodded, and together they ran to the SEAL deployment compartment. McWarren faced the row of heavily armored battlesuits hanging from the wall. The suits looked like black death-dealing robots, and she knew from briefings that they were effective weapons.
Erdu quickly keyed something into a control panel, and two suits descended to the deck. The fronts opened up automatically. “Walk backward until your back hits the inside of the suit.”
As McWarren did so, the visor lowered, and the bottom lifted her so that she stared out of the visor. Readouts played out on the lower ledge. She blinked and then realized that the suit registered her heart rate, blood pressure, and oxygen level.
“State your name and rank,” said the suit.
“Lieutenant Jaime McWarren, executive officer, the Walker Pierce.”
“Assignment accepted, Lieutenant McWarren. Control is now yours.”
Something tapped her armor, and she jumped, then realized it was Erdu, now standing in a battlesuit of his own. He pointed to his ear.
“Connect with the active battlesuit,” she ordered.
“Go to the fighter and get inside,” said Erdu. “I’ll get you a nuke.”
The ship rocked, and this time an automated warning indicated a hull breach nearby. Klaxons sounded just outside.
“Go. The battle armor will help me carry the bomb.”
The landing bay was dark when McWarren entered. The only light came from the warming engines of one of two fighters that edged nose-outward from the launch bay. The lone helmeted figure of Shepherd stood by the ladder that rose to the cockpit of the closest ship.
“What are you doing?” McWarren asked.
“I’ll tow you out to the ships, then break away. This way, I can be sure you’ll make the target,” Shepherd said.
“Listen to me, Jaime. I’ve flown in battle conditions more than you. It’s just better if I get you in as close as I can.”
Erdu rushed in, showing more coordination with his battlesuit than McWarren did, and immediately Shepherd directed him to attached the nuke to the forward launcher.
“Okay, Lieutenant,” said Erdu through her headset. “I got it attached, but you know that you can’t shoot it from this gun port. The firing mechanism doesn’t line up with electronics inside.”
“I understand,” said McWarren. She didn’t expect they would. The two weapons deployed differently.
“Jaime, you hear me?” said Shepherd.
“I’m punching our velocity to get us to where I let your ship go. See the clock running on your dashboard?”
“That’s the countdown clock for the nuke.”
“Erdu programmed the nuke to go off in fifteen minutes.”
Before McWarren could process that information, Shepherd hit the throttle, and the ships lurched out of the landing bay and into open space. Four ships that McWarren didn’t even know were out there shot into the Black toward the Kaxek ships, making themselves targets to distract the enemy.
After several minutes of flying that left McWarren completely disoriented, Shepherd said, “This is as close as I can get.”
“What does that mean?”
“Catch you on the flip side.”
Before McWarren could answer, Shepherd released the tow line, and as she did, the Kaxek ships released a volley of cannon fire. McWarren could see the faint traces of the particle beams that caught the fiery light of Eltanin as they sped toward the fighters. But the tiny ships were slightly out of range, and they dodged the enemy fire as the wing deftly changed their individual trajectories.
McWarren’s fighter continued toward the enemy, apparently undetected, and she found she needed to change the trim, as the nuke changed the dynamics of how the ship flew. This was difficult, as the gloves of the battlesuit weren’t as deft as bare human hands, but she managed it. Her hand edged to the eject button, and she made sure she had it in position.
She watched the timer as it counted down, and at T-minus five, when she was sure she had the ship perfectly lined up to slide between the big Kaxek warships, she hit the eject button.
Frantically, she reached for the emergency release but the hand of the battlesuit was too big and clumsy. McWarren ripped up half the interior before realizing that the cable was broken. For all she knew, she’d snapped it when she got in.
She swallowed hard as the Kaxek ships loomed ahead of her.
Foster and Brennan whirled, pinned to the bulkhead like laundry on a spin cycle. The only redeeming grace about tumbling to the surface of an asteroid was that with no atmosphere and little gravity, the ship might not burn up or squash on impact. They might bounce. On second thought, that was only marginally better than getting crushed.
“Grab the friggin’ handholds,” yelped Walsh, and he clutched for a loop that stuck out of the bulkhead. In a crazy balancing act between his hands, the handhold, and the seat, he pulled his body back into the pilot’s seat and pressed a button at his command console. A pair of arms sprang from the ceiling and descended around him to lock him in place.
Foster reached for a handhold, and as his hand clutched the handle, a net sprang out and sealed him against the bulkhead.
“Brennan, grab the protrusion above your head.”
The grizzled engineer grunted and grabbed the one above his head, but a net didn’t deploy. His feet swayed under him, as they couldn’t touch the deck.
“Hold on, mates,” said Walsh. “I’m fighting the ship’s orientation, but I’ll have her righted—”
The ship rattled with a tortured scream of metal under stress.
“Oh, by the Saint’s Holy Name,” sputtered Walsh. “Space trash! How dare—”
“What’s going on, Walsh?” grated Foster.
“We’re landing, but don’t worry none.”
“You call this a landing?” said Foster sarcastically.
“Hey, this is on you, space cowboy,” grumbled Walsh. “I didn’t need to leave my bed to haul your asses around.”
Out of the forward viewport, the gray surface of the asteroid rushed at them. “Chief, grab another handhold!”
Brennan growled and twisted his body, to reach the next curl of metal jutting from the bulkhead as he strained to keep from flying into the back of the compartment. His hand closed around the metal projection, and with a click, mesh dropped and splayed him against the bulkhead.
“Those bastards blew the engine,” sputtered Walsh. “This will be—”
The shock of slamming into the asteroid rang through every bone and sinew in Foster’s body. As he gasped for breath, the console Walsh sat at broke apart in a wash of shards. Walsh cried out as the shrapnel struck him. More pieces flew through the cabin, pinging them and the bulkhead with needle-sharp barbs.
“Holy hell,” yelped Brennan.
Foster closed his eyes as the flak struck his skin through the netting and the ship rolled, not sliding, on the surface of Dragon’s Den’s asteroid. His head and back hit the bulkhead; then his face mashed into the netting once, twice, three times. Foster didn’t know how much more his head or his stomach could take, and wondered when the scavenger’s vessel would stop the incessant turning. Without the asteroid’s lesser gravity providing the needed inertia, they could keep rolling beyond the point where he’d pass out.
Keep it together, Foster. Could he will himself not to pass out? During training two decades ago, the drill sergeants had stuffed each of them in a centrifuge to gauge how many g’s they could withstand. Those that couldn’t pass a basic four g’s washed out of the space program, though those suckers got shipped off to combat training. Foster had pulled a five, which had qualified him for fighter training, but that meant he’d have to finish college, which he’d had no interest in doing then.
People, places, and things jumbled in his mind as his brain became more rattled. The people he knew, the one living, and the one dead. He turned his head toward Walsh, but the man’s head flopped as the ship twisted.
“Brennan,” Foster rasped.
“Still here,” grunted Brennan. “Not sure for how long—” Brennan snorted a noise of pain as the wreck boomed, then screeched as it came to a sudden halt. Foster shook his head to clear it and opened his eyes to find he was on his back, staring up at what was once the starboard bulkhead. Walsh sat unmoving, strapped to his seat. His head was turned at an unnatural angle.
Foster caught the slow hiss of atmosphere rushing into the airless void, and he struggled to find a way out of the netting. No way he’d die by oxygen deprivation.
“Damn it,” he swore. Then his hand passed over a depression in the seam, and the netting pulled away. Foster attempted to stand, and swayed in the lighter gravity of the asteroid.
“Brennan, man, get out of that net! We need EVAC suits. They must be here somewhere. Trail your hand on the seam and push hard into the depression to release the net.”
“Where the hell did Walsh get these damned things? They aren’t anything I’ve seen.”
Brennan stood clumsily, and immediately Foster saw blood streaming from the man’s neck.
“Brennan, your neck. Put your hand on it while I find a medkit.”
“What about Walsh?”
Foster grunted. He’d gotten a better look. “No helping him.”
In this sorry excuse for a spaceship, lockers stood at the back end of the compartment, and Foster stumbled to them and pulled them open. In the first was a pair of doubtful-looking, dirty muddy green EVAC suits that gave them a scant twelve hours of air. They were substandard, but Foster and Brennan had no other choice. It was either suit up or die. In the next locker, he found one medical kit, and thankfully there was a package of skin seal.
“Damn it,” said Brennan while Foster slapped on the skin seal. “How bad is it?”
Foster peered at Brennan’s neck. “Well, your head will fall off eventually, but this will hold it until we can get you to the doc. Now get in that suit.”
“And where do we plan on going on this rock, Foster?”
“I’m hoping to make that supply cache. If we’re lucky, there’s more than machine parts there.”
“We haven’t been lucky so far,” said Brennan.
“So it’s time for it to change,” said Foster. He pulled the ramshackle EVAC suit around his body. “Let’s get out of here.”
He pulled the visor hood onto his head and motioned to Brennan to check his seals, which the engineer did. Foster patted Brennan’s, then motioned for Brennan to follow him. He briefly glanced at Walsh, and Brennan put his hand on Foster’s shoulder and opened his communication line. “Like you said. No helping him. We’ll send the bastard’s people for him if we get off this rock.”
“What makes you think we won’t? The captain will come after us. He leaves no one behind.”
“Hope these cheap knockoffs hold up. Dirt green was never my favorite color.”
The pilot’s cabin door refused to open.
“Wait,” said Brennan. He ripped open a panel at the left of the door, and the various wires that should have been lit were dark.
“No power,” said Brennan. He felt around inside the cavity. “There’s the manual release of the lock.” His hand jerked. “Try it now.”
Foster pushed the door, and it slowly opened and stopped short. The ship’s tail section had been completely torn away, revealing a gray stretch of rocky soil and the orange orb of Eltanin over the horizon.
Brennan stopped short behind him. “What the ever-loving hell did they hit us with?”
Foster shook his head. “Beats me, but it was from orbit. An unfocused particle beam did this?”
He glanced upward and swept the sky, searching for evidence of the fate of the Walker Pierce, but didn’t see it. Then a bright flash lit the black carpet of stars.
Beside him, Brennan drew a deep breath. “You don’t think—”
“Don’t, Chief. The captain won’t let us rot here. Our first duty is staying alive, and we need to head to that stash cave now. We only have eleven and a half hours of air in these suits.”
“Yeah, if they don’t leak. Where the hell are we?”
“Can’t you tell?”
“Foster, I haven’t been off a ship except for shore leave for the past twenty years. And I don’t take shore leave that often.”
“Do I have to spell it out for you?” Brennan asked.
It struck Foster then what the problem was. People who spent a long time in spaceships found it impossible to navigate a terrain where a horizon stretched before them. Some couldn’t travel by water without getting seasick. Inveterate spacers, like Brennan, had trouble walking in an open natural space. “Can you make it to the mountains?”
Brennan looked away.
No, then. Standing on the asteroid disoriented Brennan. “All right, take my arm.”
“Take my friggin’ arm and keep up.”
“Holy hell,” said Brennan.
The chief took his arm, and Foster started for the ridge of mountains ahead of them. But walking in a lesser gravity than the standard one g wasn’t as easy as it sounded. Brennan stumbled on the rocky soil as they got a quarter of a mile away from the destroyed spacecraft.
“Sorry, Foster. I’m not feeling so good.”
Foster looked into Brennan’s visor, afraid that he might vomit, but he immediately realized there was a bigger problem. Blood bubbled from the lack of gravity around the bandage he’d put on Brennan’s neck. “Do you feel faint?”
“Absolutely not,” wheezed Brennan. Then he swayed and his legs collapsed under him, and he fell in slow motion to the ground.
“Shit,” Foster said as he grabbed Brennan by the front of his suit. The one good thing about Brennan passing out was that he couldn’t waste oxygen talking, but it worried Foster that Brennan had lost consciousness. There was no way to check how much blood he’d lost while wearing the EVAC suit.
Tamarin will tell me that I make a lousy medic, thought Foster.
He looked toward the wrecked ship. From this perspective, he found that not only both engines had sheared off, leaving the gaping hole in the cargo bay, but that the wings were missing too.
They were damned lucky to be alive.
There was no sense going back there. The pilot’s cabin had breached, and he couldn’t work on Brennan’s wound in an airless environment.
He looked ahead to the mountains, and to the area that bore the curious indentation that Brennan had pointed out that marked the stash’s location. There was nothing else to do. They both had to make that cave. With luck, there’d be supplies there that could help keep them alive until Carter pulled them off this hopeless rock.
If Carter was still around.
Foster glanced again up to where he’d seen the flash in space. No details came into focus in the haze. He couldn’t decide if that was good or bad.
With a sigh, he lifted Brennan and put the engineer over his shoulder. It wasn’t easy, due to the bulk and slickness of the suit. Foster had to throw his right arm over Brennan’s prone body to keep him from slipping off his shoulder.
“Hell, Brennan,” said Foster as he stepped forward. “What have you been eating that I’m missing in the chow hall? Maybe you should have put in some time in the officers’ gym. Ever think about that?”
Foster realized the irony of keeping up a steady stream of conversation with an unconscious man, especially when he should conserve oxygen. And no matter how many steps he took, it didn’t seem that the cave got any closer. At least he hoped it was a cave, because they needed shelter. It was entirely possible that whoever had laid in the stash had ripped out a part of the rocky ridge, filled it with gear, and then sealed it off again. Then there was nothing they could but wait for their air to run out.
“Well, Brennan, now you know why I call myself Terminal Gun. And this just may be it for us, buddy.”
One step at a time, he told himself. Foster pushed his body forward, aware that the extra exertion depleted his oxygen supply faster. Though his progress was molasses-slow, eventually the mountains rose around him.
The arm holding Brennan ached; Foster’s chest grew tight from the strain of moving both of them through the rocky landscape. It became more difficult to walk, because the ground grew steeper as he walked deeper into the cleft of the mountains.
Foster looked up, and the shadow that signaled the depression lurked deeper than a fold in the landscape. When he got close to the shadow, Foster spotted a crudely carved Union seal by a cave opening. The English letters “c” and “b,” carved into the stone, shone brightly in Eltanin’s light.
His feet slipped every other step because of the steepness of the incline, but having come this far, nothing would stop him. But when Foster staggered inside, his knees gave out under him, and both he and Brennan fell to the floor of the cave.
He had one thought before he passed out.
Carter, you ass, you better get here soon. If you’re not dead, that is.
Erdu climbed hand-over-hand up the chute that led to the bridge.
The lights were all red now. At least twice he heard the automated system, registering movement, call out that there were local decompressions. He wished he hadn’t left the battlesuit behind, but there was no getting back onto the bridge with it on.
Erdu regretted his part in sending the XO out in a fighter against forces that overwhelmed most battleships, but it couldn’t be helped. He’d needed to distract those battle cruisers, and the best way to do it was to send them a direct threat. He’d overheard her discussion with Carter and known exactly what she was planning when she’d raced out of the bridge. He suspected that deep down Carter did as well. Perhaps only subconsciously, but still, he had to know.
Erdu had one overriding objective, and that was to retrieve Devlin Carter, which was why he’d tracked the maverick Carter to the ass end of Union space. The rebellious captain had been challenging to find as he drove the Walker Pierce to a myriad of star systems. Each starbase or space station saw Carter long gone. Erdu had almost despaired of finding him, but his mission was too important to give up.
As Erdu entered, lights blinked at different stations while the crew worked at them. The holomap displayed the solar system, and Carter stood by it, watching the highlighted Kaxek ships.
“What the hell are they waiting for?” he muttered.
The weapons officer, whose name Erdu couldn’t recall, was standing next to Carter where McWarren had been before.
“Maybe we should...” he hesitated. “Get people clear?”
Carter grunted. “Abandon ship. You can say it. And you’d be damn right, too, if they were still firing at us.”
The weapons officer seemed as perplexed as Carter. “I just don’t see what they’re waiting for.”
“Sir,” Erdu snapped. “The only reason the Kaxek haven’t destroyed the Walker Pierce yet is that it’s a psychological prize for them. If they have a chance, they’ll haul it straight into the Empire.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“You, sir. The grandson of the man whose name graces this battle cruiser.”
Erdu had been told that Carter had a good poker face. Though he wasn’t aware of the game, he understood the concept. And in this instance, he had to agree. Not a muscle on Carter’s face twitched as he took a long, hard look at Erdu. He felt like he was being seen, truly seen, by the captain for the first time.
“What is this about, Chief Petty Officer?” Carter asked in a measured voice.
“Sir, I assisted Lieutenant McWarren is taking a fighter with a nuke attached into the heart of those Kaxek ships.”
This time, Carter’s poker face fell. “That’s suicide,” he hissed. So perhaps he hadn’t known, Erdu thought. Or hadn’t admitted it to himself.
“It might work, sir. At the very least, it’ll provide a distraction.”
Carter stared at him. “Getting my XO killed is your idea of a distraction?”
Erdu took a deep breath. “The Kaxek know who your grandfather was. And in their worldview, that makes you, as his descendant, public enemy number one. They’d love nothing more than to parade you through the streets of the capital as a prelude to war.”
“And you know this how?” said Carter.
“It’s my job, sir.”
“I wasn’t aware the chief petty officer’s duties extended to interpreting Kaxek actions.”
Before Erdu could reply, a light flashed on the battle board, and a red dot radiated outward.
“The nuke,” he said.
Carter and the bridge crew stared at the board, while five small blue dots turned away and headed back to the Walker Pierce. Carter pounded his fist on the counter under the board, and his jaw tightened. The sudden movement startled Erdu.
“Where’s the sixth fighter?”
“I had to jam the nuke into the launcher. The only way to deploy it—”
Carter stepped toward Erdu with fury in his eyes. His poker face was long forgotten. “So she would commit suicide? Who made that decision?”
“It was Lieutenant McWarren’s plan, and I helped her, in the best interests of the ship. And she planned to eject from the ship in a battlesuit before it reached the Kaxek ships.”
“So you’re telling me my XO got blown to bits, or is floating out there in a tin can?”
“Sir, these are extraordinary circumstances, and I believe she acted in the best interests of the ship.”
Erdu hoped McWarren had ejected before her fighter had reached the Kaxek. He didn’t wish her ill; she simply wasn’t as important as Carter was. None of them were.
“Pink to the Walker Pierce,” the communication system sputtered.
“Yes, Lieutenant Shepherd. Carter here.”
“Sir! The nuke dissipated the warp bubbles of two of the Kaxek ships. From what I can tell, the EM blast fried their electronics. They’re dead in the water, sir.”
“And the other one?” Carter asked.
“Any sign of Lieutenant McWarren?”
“No, sir. We couldn’t get close enough, but we’ll sweep by it now.”
“Do that, but send part of your wing to check out the area where Walsh’s ship was last seen. Sending you the coordinates now. Foster and Brennan were on that ship, looking for the Union supply cache. I’ll edge the ship toward that area, but I’ll limp in. I don’t want to give whatever Kaxek are watching the idea that we’re a threat.”
As soon as the connection broke, a voice boomed from the communication system. “Walker Pierce, Walker Pierce, do you read?”
Carter’s already angry face managed to darken another shade. “What do you want, Wainwright?”
“Less fireworks in my local space, for starters.”
“You can’t blame—”
“But I’ll settle for your ship in our dock,” Wainwright continued. “We can fix it up good, and have it ready for when the Squigglies show again. And they will show up again.”
“The Kaxek. This isn’t our first run-in.”
Carter paused at that. “That would have been nice to know before now.”
“It’s not information we’re sharing.”
“And what makes you so accommodating all of a sudden?”
“You just stopped those Kaxek,” Wainwright said. His voice had gone an octave higher.
Carter glanced at Erdu. “It wasn’t exactly the way we’d planned it.”
“Still,” he sighed. “Look, this went sideways between us, Devlin. I know that. All on me. But don’t hold that against the Den. There are lots of good people down here. Families. We need protection out here, and the Union ain’t granting it, and it’s illegal for Sutāmainingu Corp. to own battleships.”
Carter crossed his arms, and his jaw tightened. “We’re not in the private protection business, Wainwright.”
“Look, Walsh’s ship went down. We don’t know if anyone survived, and that includes your men. But our scavengers will look for them, and if we happen to find that Union supply cache, we’ll bring that in for you. We’re just asking for you to hang around for now. Maybe a war gears up, and the Union will be in charge here. Or not. I don’t know.”
“I’ll go where I’m ordered, Wainwright. That’s how this works.”
“Rumor is, you go where you want. That’s why you’re out here and none of your buddies are.”
Carter cursed under his breath. “We have leeway out here, but not enough for what you’re proposing.”
“I kinda think you do.”
The communications officer suddenly stood up and waved his hands urgently.
“Find my people, Wainwright, and we’ll talk. Carter out.” He looked at the communications officer. “Well?”
The officer immediately switched to another channel, and a Kaxek voice filled the bridge. Erdu could feel everyone in the room stop what they were doing and listen.
Erdu knew instantly that it was a distress call, and something else. Something much worse.
“Sir,” the comm officer said, exasperated. “Flight leader is hailing.”
“Record that Kaxek transmission for further review,” Carter said. “And send her through.”
“Sir, there’s a bunch of Dragon’s Den salvage ships here, blocking our flight path,” Shepherd said. “One has fired on us.”
“One fighter is coming home with minor thruster damage. Otherwise, we’re too fast.”
“So much for helping us. They’re supposed to help. I’ll call the dockmaster and rip him a new one. Any sign of McWarren?”
Erdu quietly moved to the back of the bridge. Carter was too involved in the discussion to notice.
“No, sir, and there’s no sign of debris from her ship.”
Erdu slipped out and quickly made his way to where he’d stowed his battlesuit; then he headed for the landing bay. The incoming damaged fighter reminded him that there were alert fighters ready on standby.
When he’d heard the Kaxek distress call, he’d heard one other thing, and that was their announcement that they had taken a prisoner. That had to be McWarren, and he couldn’t leave her with the Kaxek. They knew who her grandfather was too, and she was also a prize, albeit less so than Carter. But Carter was safe, it seemed, at least for the moment. McWarren on the other hand. He felt a pang of guilt. He’d been willing to sacrifice her to protect Carter. But he hadn’t expected her to be captured. She would be taken to the capital and charged with war crimes, and then…
Erdu didn’t want to think about “then.” What he needed was for this senseless war to stop. And to do that, he needed to frustrate the Kaxek as much as possible. He had come for Carter, but if he couldn’t convince him, McWarren could fill the same function.
He walked to one of the alert fighters with a sense of purpose.
Several heads looked up, and somebody yelled. But there was little that the deck crew could do against a fully kitted-out man in a battlesuit.
Erdu calmly climbed in, knowing everything he’d once hoped to accomplish on the Walker Pierce was about to be undone, practically the moment he’d come aboard.
He gazed out through the force field to the carpet of stars that lay within the Kaxek Empire. Would his crazy plan work?
If the stars had answers, they didn’t speak.
Carter sat in his ready room. Foster, Brennan, and McWarren were MIA. So was Erdu, who’d used a battlesuit to commandeer a fighter. The ship was barely flightworthy. Engineering wanted six weeks of repairs.
And there were still Kaxek out there roaming nearby. He’d heard nothing from Command yet. They should have gotten his relayed data packets from the initial encounter by now, so he expected to hear something soon.
His computer screen flashed a notification from the communication tech. He touched the screen to take it. Nothing happened. It took two more tries to connect: another sign of electrical problems. How many more things would go wrong?
“Well?” Carter said without preamble.
“I’ve got a team down there checking out the wreck,” Wainwright said, returning the favor. “Walsh is dead. We didn’t see your guys.”
“I’m sure that your men found their tracks on that asteroid of yours.”
“This is Brightside, Carter. No one goes on walkabout and lives.”
“They could in EVAC suits, and if they walked in the shadow of those mountains. Or didn’t Walsh adhere to regulations and keep EVAC suits onboard?”
Wainwright ignored his words. “I’m calling as a courtesy. I’m giving you notice I’m hauling your ship into space dock.”
“For those repairs the Sutāmainingu Corporation ordered.”
“Sut — I’m not tracking.”
“After I sent footage of the Kaxek ships, the boss called and said to get you fixed up, as in yesterday, and—” Wainwright blew out a huff in frustration. “I do what the people who pay my salary tell me. So I don’t care about what you want, Carter. I’m fixing up your ship. Shut up about it.”
“You’ll have to wait. I’ve things to do.” Like find out why my own Command can’t bother to respond to the footage I sent them.
“When the boss calls personal, then I pay attention.”
“But those Kaxek ships—”
“Only one is completely dead in space. The others bailed. And we’ll tow that out of the system and onto their side of the line.”
“What the hell, Wainwright?”
“We’re here at the edge of Union Space, and you’re not.”
Damn it. Valuable intel would get lost. “You can’t tow enemy ships to their territory.”
Wainwright scoffed. “What do you expect me to do with them?”
“Capture them. Hold them—”
“For what? The Union to show up? Fat chance. You’re the first Union ship to show up in a year, and this isn’t the first Kaxek we’ve seen.”
“Did you report it?”
“Before the Union pulled out, we didn’t need to. They saw it.” Wainwright made a dismissive sound. “But we’ve told them. Normal activity, they say. So I don’t know how you want to spin this little disaster with your people. I’m trying to help you out. Prepare for two vessels to haul you back to Darkside.”
“You’re just going to sweep this away? Tow their ship to their side. Tow us into port. And pretend they didn’t just show up with overwhelming firepower and attack us for no reason?”
“I don’t know what their reason is, but they came straight at you and your people, not us. So that’s something you have to square.” Wainwright paused. “You want the tow or what?”
Carter sat back, stunned by Wainwright’s nonchalant interpretation of events. “We can make it there on our own,” he said.
“If you want to make it hard on yourself, do just that,” Wainwright said. “Oh, I almost forgot to tell you. The big lady wants to talk to you. I’ll patch you into our comm system. Wainwright out.”
Carter scoffed. Shu Eiichi, the owner of one of the biggest corporations in the Union, wanted to speak to him?
His holoscreen flashed at his desk.
“Sir,” said Ballins, the communications tech, “you have an incoming message from Earth.”
A Japanese woman shimmered within the holoscreen. The richest person on Earth projected a modest and unassuming demeanor. She belied her public reputation as a ruthless businesswoman.
“I am Shu Eiichi of Sutāmainingu Corporation. I am pleased to meet my daughter’s commanding officer. I assume I address Captain Devlin Carter.”
“You do. Pleased to meet you, ma’am. Though I’m not sure why you wish to speak to me.”
“I understand your ship is in a dangerous condition.”
“Ma’am, any naval duty is hazardous.”
“Yes,” said Shu with great deliberation. She steepled her fingers. “May I ask if my daughter is safe?”
“Ma’am, I cannot speak with civilians about our personnel or operational situation. If you wish to speak with your daughter, then you may call her. My comm tech will patch you through.”
“My daughter chooses not to take my calls, Captain, so I am forced to ask this question of her superior.”
“She is well. That’s all I can say.”
“I understand. You have your protocols, and a damaged ship. Out of a mother’s heart and concern for my daughter, I will repair your ship, but I ask one thing.”
“What is that, ma’am?”
“Leave my daughter on Dragon’s Den. I will send a ship to retrieve her.”
Carter shook his head. “I’m grateful for the help, but I cannot promise that to you. Dr. Shu is a valuable member of my command team, and I need her on the Walker Pierce. I cannot dismiss her commission and set her on an asteroid like I’m a taxi service.”
Shu cleared his throat. “You misunderstand me.”
Carter was sure he didn’t. “I appreciate what you want to do for our ship, but if that’s your price tag, I can’t help you. She is a commissioned officer, and the only person who can withdraw that—”
“Yes. My lawyers informed me. The president of the Union is also not taking my calls. The Kaxek attacked my property, and the Union will not speak with me, so I am forced to take matters into my own hands. I am aware, because of my connections, that you’ve felt for some time that Kaxek intends to attack the Union.”
“That is no secret.”
“Your superiors have suggested that you return to a Union base.”
“Again, I cannot speak on these matters to a civilian.”
“I have the same thoughts as you. In fact, the stars speak on this matter. Death comes when the Serpents return to the Dragon’s Den.”
“The language of the stars is literal to those that can read it. There is a balance in the Universe, Captain, and while the Kaxek and humans fought, we had balance. But when the Kaxek withdrew, the Universe became unbalanced. Water always returns to the lowest point, and so will the Kaxek. We saw the foreshadowing of their return today.”
Carter’s expression must have betrayed him. He didn’t have time for this.
“Forgive me,” Shu said. “You are a man of honor. Do the right thing for the Union’s sake, Captain Carter.”
“I intend to, ma’am.”
The image of Shu winked out when another incoming message blinked on his screen.
“Sir!” said Ballins. “We just got another transmission from the Kaxek.”
Since when had the Kaxek gotten so talkative? “In their language?”
“In Earth common, sir.”
Carter frowned. “Put it through.”
With her fighter flying at 27,000 kilometers per hour, McWarren was five minutes away from the Kaxek ship. The bomb’s countdown clock in the dashboard ticked to how near to death she was.
Her stomach roiled, and if she had the time, she would puke, but she didn’t. It would make a hell of a mess inside the battlesuit. Then her own thought hit her. The battlesuit had enhanced strength. McWarren glanced at the canopy of the fighter overhead and hit it with both fists. The force of her strike, aided by the mechanics of the suit, broke the canopy’s seal. The convex bubble ripped away and floated into space, leaving McWarren strapped into the pilot’s seat. The cockpit’s interior artificial gravity died as the ship’s engines cut out, a safety protocol in a canopy breach. She noted that while it flew on inertia, the ship veered off toward one of the Kaxek ships, though the others were still well within range.
They were graceful, with two “wings” that swept around the cylindrical body. If McWarren’s life wasn’t in danger, she’d take a minute to admire the ship design.
But McWarren didn’t have a minute.
She maneuvered her hands to hook two fingers under each strap, and ripped them from the chair. McWarren flew from the fighter over the deadened exhaust apertures astern the ship. She’d developed a new appreciation for the fighter designer team. The microwave exhaust from the engines would have cooked her in the battlesuit. If she ever returned to Command, she would send the team two, no, make that three bottles of decent champagne.
McWarren spun head over end toward Dragon’s Den in the black of space, like canned meat rolling on the ground. She now understood why the SEALS called the battlesuits tin cans. It kept her alive now, but this unintended use was hazardous. The minutes to detonation crawled, and she considered other problems her situation generated.
A battlesuit could protect you from the radiation generated by a nuclear bomb on the ground. But in space, the blast dynamics of a nuclear bomb changed. Without a heat blast or shock wave, the radiation spilled from the explosion flew far into space. At a thousand kilometers away, she might be safe, but McWarren wasn’t sure.
McWarren tumbled, and caught only flashes of the fighter on its death-dealing flight. There was no light to reflect an image, and so the visor was her only viewport on the coming destruction.
“Suit, adjust the visor to show the nuclear blast.”
Her visor darkened, but then a bright flash projected on it. A radiating circle flashed inside her eyelids, coming straight at her.
She wasn’t close enough to get a dose of radiation that would overwhelm the suit’s protective abilities, but micrometeorites would soon pepper her suit. The battlesuit could protect a person from the radiation, but McWarren didn’t know if it would protect her from debris energized by the force of a nuclear bomb.
As her heart raced, McWarren tried to call up her memory of the suit’s specs. You could survive for days in a battlesuit, though she had heard that after day two, the inside of the suit got rank. The tri-magnesium shell and polycarbonate coating made it light and strong. It could take a pounding and shield you from the radiation of 6000 chest x-rays. But the suit’s design couldn’t withstand the stresses of deep space.
“Scan for Walker Pierce fighters,” she ordered.
“No Walker Pierce fighters are within scanning range.”
When Shepherd said that they’d find her, McWarren hadn’t thought it through. Now she saw her half-cooked plan hadn’t taken into account how her size compared to the expanse of space. Dragon’s Den lay thousands of kilometers from the Kaxek ships. She was between the enemy and a port that didn’t welcome a Union ship.
“Activate homing beacon,” she ordered. McWarren hoped that it was the Walker Pierce that caught the signal and not the Kaxek. She didn’t want to meet them here.
“Activated,” confirmed the suit. “Sensors detect incoming particulates. There is a 95% probability this suit will take damage. Recommendation: Stand down.”
“No kidding,” she muttered.
McWarren closed her eyes as the outer edge of the blast rolled over her. Inside the pressurized suit, micrometeorites pinged against the shell. “Integrity at 90%,” the suit announced in her ear.
“Suit integrity at 80%.”
McWarren bit her lower lip.
“Suit integrity at 70%. The polycarbonate coating has cracked in multiple locations.”
McWarren swallowed hard. The Walker Pierce deflected particulates with ablative armor. She had no such protection in this suit.
“Suit integrity at 60%.”
The pinpricks slowed, and she took a deep breath.
“Damage to the outer shell from the incoming particulates. Oxygen supply is at 80% and dropping.”
McWarren groaned. This, she thought, is what comes from acting like a hero. In the holos, heroes got rescued at the last minute. But having read many casualty reports, McWarren knew most soldiers rarely got rescued. If Shepherd hadn’t found her by now, it wasn’t happening. “Record.”
“To Rear Admiral Malcolm King, Office of Strategic Operations, from Jaime McWarren, Lieutenant, the Walker Pierce.
“When you receive this message, you will also have had news that I am dead. My situation is grave, and there is no rescue. Know that I took out many of our enemy, the ones you said only wanted peace. They don’t want peace, but they bought time to position themselves for war. These new ships of theirs are faster and deadlier. We have nothing like it. What we do have—”
“Oxygen level at 50%. Recommendation: Stop talking, to conserve oxygen.”
As if that would help her.
“What we do have are men like Devlin Carter. Listen to him. He knows what he’s talking about. And Father, you’ve been my inspiration. I hope you knew that even when things were difficult between us, I loved you. Goodbye.” She swallowed hard. “Stop recording.”
“Oxygen level critical at 20%.”
There was nothing to do but wait for the inevitable end as McWarren tumbled in the battlesuit. In the distance, the light of Eltanin winked with each revolution. Her head hurt, and her breathing stuttered as less oxygen made it to her lungs. A strange paralysis stole through her body, and she wondered where she was. Why was this room so cold? She should get up and turn up the heat, but her muscles wouldn’t move. Exhaustion gripped her, and if she could catch some sleep, she would feel better. Wasn’t that what her mother always said? That she needed to sleep more.
A bright light shone on her, and she scrunched her eyes shut. What the hell? It must be those Academy guys pranking her again. Wasn’t it enough that they’d turned her uniforms pink? No, wait. That wasn’t her. That was Pink. Did she have a call sign?
McWarren stopped spinning, and strange sounds burbled over her headset. Why wouldn’t they leave her alone? She just wanted to sleep.
The garbled voices appeared to grow excited. There was more than one of them, calling and answering in a strange song.
In a second, she no longer hung in the Black, but in a darkened room lit by blue lights streaking down the walls.
“Wait, what?” McWarren tried to say, but her words strangled in her throat. She shook her head, grasping for an understanding of her situation. A bubble dropped and encased her body.
“Oxygen detected,” said the battlesuit. “Replenishing supplies.”
Air hissed and settled around her in a cool mist. This air was wetter than usual, but it was clean, and it felt good to draw deep breaths. Her head cleared, and she glanced around. There were no clues as to where she was.
“Jaime McWarren,” said a muddled voice in English. “Progeny of Rear Admiral Malcolm King, who was the child of Commander Tobin King. Progeny of the Kaxek Killer, Alexander King. You are a prisoner of the Kaxek Empire.”
Several sharp pokes to his leg woke him, and Foster moved his arms to hear the crinkle of an EVAC suit. The foul air from failing oxygen scrubbers told him he needed to find another option for an air supply soon. He remembered passing out as soon as he’d hit the cave, and it must have been from an overload of carbon dioxide.
His dire situation hit him. Damn! He wore an EVAC suit, and a cruddy one. No way should someone stick it with a sharp object.
“Quit it,” he said. Foster’s own words reverberated in his head, clueing him in to the fact that the unit wasn’t sending his signal. He turned his aching bones to sit and stared into the hooded face of Brennan, staring at him. Brennan held up a canister and shook it.
“Want me to change your CO2 plug?” The grizzled engineer smirked at him.
Foster switched his comm to broadcast. “What do you think?”
“In general? Well, I need help to get the force field erected at this entrance so we can take these suits off. How the hell do I get a bum leg, anyway? It’s all numb. And one arm doesn’t feel so good.”
“I had to haul your sorry ass on my shoulder, since you passed out. You’re welcome.”
“I’m supposed to thank you for giving me a bum leg?”
“Excuse me. I’ll keep that in mind the next time you pass out because you glanced at a horizon. And are you going to replace my CO2 scrubber or not?”
“I changed it while you were unconscious. I was just yanking your chain. This one is spent.” Brennan lobbed the green canister toward the opposite wall. In Dragon’s Den’s microgravity, it lazily sailed across the cave, then bounced off the wall before it fell in measured slowness.
“Hilarious,” said Foster. “The air is nasty as hell.”
“That’s production by-products. So the filter is a little degraded. It’ll clear up soon.”
“So much for military quality.” Foster grimaced and rose to his feet.
“The light switch is on the right,” said Brennan. “And there’s more than just engine parts. It looks like the Union yanked everything from their part of the spaceport and stuffed in there.”
Light switch? What the hell? That sounded fancy for a supply cache. Foster peered into the narrow cleft, but couldn’t see far in. He plastered his body to the rough rock wall and sucked in a breath. He didn’t like tight spaces, which was odd, considering he was a career spaceman. But it was eerie navigating a space that forced him to hold on to the wall and walk sideways.
Dust kicked up underfoot, and Foster was glad for even his cheap EVAC suit. There was no telling what jagged rock would tear it open. The only sounds were his heart beating and his breathing.
Foster switched on the internal light in his suit, though he couldn’t see more than four feet ahead of him. If the Union had taken time to string a light panel in the space that held the supplies, then why hadn’t they wired a set in this corridor?
With no warning, the space in the tunnel grew wider. Reaching to the right, he found a perpendicular wall. Foster inched his gloved hand upward, feeling for the light switch Brennan had said was here. Finally, his hand hit an old-fashioned square box with a protrusion in the middle. Heck, this was ancient, from the first days of the Dragon’s Den settlement. He moved his hand on it and pushed it in the opposite direction.
Light blazed above and around him, blinding him until his eyes adjusted. As his vision cleared, Foster found he was at the entrance of an enormous cavern. Boxes piled on crates, reaching far above his head, three meters deep. The rearmost stack was more orderly than the frontmost. It appeared the last containers had been jammed into the cave in a hurry. A workstation sat to the right, and Foster stood before it, wondering if he could access its data.
“Computer, this is Gunnery Sergeant Aidan Foster.” He rattled off his service number, which sometimes worked on low-security systems—which he hoped this was.
No such luck.
Foster pursed his lips, then entered the Union override code given to security chiefs. The terminal stuttered, then flashed an index. He scanned the list and accessed the inventory of items. Even his jaded eyes widened. There was everything here but an actual starship, from tools to mechanical units to food and medical supplies. With this, the Walker Pierce could run for two years without resupply.
It was the proverbial chest of gold.
“Hey, idiot, how did you get in here without opening the hydraulic walls?”
Foster turned to Brennan. The narrow passage Foster had traversed had widened; he stood now in a broad opening with a row of lights blazing in its ceiling. “The lights come on when the doors open.”
Brennan snorted. “How else would they work?”
“You think you could have told me about the hydraulic doors?”
“Aye, I should have,” said Brennan with a smirk. “Good thing they still work. There must have been a geological disturbance to pry them open. Did you get into the computer yet? Otherwise it’ll be hell trying to find anything.”
“You sent me here because of my security codes, didn’t you?” Foster asked.
“The brass doesn’t give the overrides to anyone but captains and security types like you.”
He keyed in his code and turned away in search of a forklift, while Brennan studied the terminal. Foster didn’t see a forklift between the stacks, but his search led him to a corridor deep in a cavern. There were several doors here, and the first revealed, of all things, a kitchen, the second a washroom, and the third a barracks with several bunk beds. Hell, they could hole up for some time if they needed, once they got the cave entrance sealed.
Foster checked inside a double door across from the amenities and found the forklift on a power pad. Whoever had set up this place had gone to the extra effort of putting in a stable power supply. Why had this enormous amount of equipment been installed for a cache?
He drove the forklift back to the cavern. “Ready to be your picker,” he called.
Brennan reeled off an inventory number, and Foster scanned the numbers on the various crates. Foster discovered that the number sequence started at the computer terminal and moved sequentially around the cave. He found the first item second from the top on a stack of crates.
“Okay, got it.”
Brennan sent him searching through the cave five more times before he announced they had all the items they needed. He helped Brennan unpack the cartons and move the materials and tools to the front of the cave. The last carton held MREs, and Foster pulled two and followed Brennan to the cave entrance. The engineer lined the entrance of the cave with epoxy and a flexible cable. Foster offered to help, but Brennan waved him off.
Foster picked up an MRE. While he wasn’t a fan of them, they had one hell of a shelf life. The expiration dates on these were twenty years from now.
The label announced one as turkey and mashed potato. The box encased utensils, a drink, a meal, and a dessert. Foster pulled the thermo-seal of the meal and waited for the thing to heat.
Damn. What had happened? The meal hadn’t reached the expiration date. It should work.
“What the hell are you doing, Foster?”
“Trying to heat this MRE.”
“You gotta wait until you have 90% of an atmosphere. The heat seal works when exposed to oxygen,” Brennan said.
“That seems inefficient,” groused Foster.
“Well, you can’t eat it without enough oxygen to breathe.”
“The insufferable logic of space.”
“That’s true. But that’s the life we chose, eh?” Brennan sank next to him toward the front of the cave, and Foster handed him an MRE. They both stared out toward the rim of stars nearly washed out by Eltanin’s bright light.
Brennan glanced at an indicator on his suit. “We’re at 80%. We can take off these hoods now.”
“Don’t, then.” Brennan removed his hood and winced. “The air is stale, but it’ll improve. I hope.”
Foster took his off, and they sat down to stare out at the bright expanse of the valley filled with the light of Eltanin’s sun. “You can get one hell of a sunburn out there.”
“Aye. You did good getting us here.”
Foster nodded, continuing to stare as a streak ran across the sky.
“What do you think? Meteorite?” said Brennan.
Foster scoffed. “In an asteroid belt? That would be a surprise.” But then he noticed a change in its path. “Except a meteorite doesn’t change trajectory.” He scrambled to his feet. “Put your helmet on now!”
“It’s coming straight at us.” Foster pulled Brennan to his feet and slapped the man’s helmet on.
But his legs couldn’t gain traction against the lesser gravity of this asteroid. He tried to scramble backward when a sudden flash blinded him.
The cave rumbled under their feet from the impact of the object. Before Foster could gain traction, something metallic and roughly the size of a man rushed to the cave entrance. For a second he thought it was floating; then he realized it was riding a blur of whip-like appendages that extended from its oblong base. It looked like a spider and an octopus had had a baby and encased it in metal.
The thing skidded to a stop. As it examined them, Foster had never felt more in need of a weapon. He’d seen nothing like it, but its hostile intent rolled off in a palpable wave.
Then the unholy thing skidded toward them, and with adrenaline rushing through him, Foster dragged Brennan to the furthest wall. And then the flash of a plasma gun blinded Foster again, while the metal spider screamed a noise that made Foster shiver. When his eyesight cleared, he found the metal spider collapsed on the ground. An EVAC-suited human stood behind it.
“You must be Foster and Brennan. I see you made acquaintance with a Squiggly.”
Foster just stared dumbly at the newcomer, trying to comprehend what he’d just seen. “What the hell is a Squiggly?”
“Kaxek,” the man said. “In armor. At least, I think so. I’ve seen some archive stuff.”
Brennan let out a “Holy hell,” and just kept on staring.
“What do you guys say we get out of here before more come?”
“Wait,” said Foster. “Who are you?”
“Edward Wainwright,” the stranger said.
“Wainwright?” Foster asked. “Like—”
“I’m the dockmaster’s cousin,” Wainwright said. “And he sent me to find you two and bring you back to Dragon’s Den.” He looked down at the unmoving spider-thing. “Unless you want to stay here.”
As Erdu flew the Walker Pierce fighter that he’d stolen into the Black, he was sure someone would come after him. Worse yet, having left the warship, Erdu realized his broad-stroke idea to find and retrieve McWarren was an intention rather than an actionable plan. He didn’t know where McWarren was, and that was a gaping hole in his plan. The one thing he knew from the Kaxek ship-to-ship transmission the Walker Pierce had intercepted was that McWarren had been captured after turning on her emergency beacon.
His sensors told him two of the Kaxek warships hung unmoving in space between Eltanin and the asteroid belt. The nuke’s EM blast would have destroyed their electronics, and therefore, their warp bubbles. One seemed to be under power, but the other was completely still. He knew these weren’t the ships he was after. There was at least one more nearby.
Kaxek standard operating procedures would demand the Kaxek ship’s captain orbit Eltanin from the “back” of an asteroid, hiding it from view and shielding it from sensors.
The fighter’s computer had all the astrodynamics of the asteroids in their orbits, so it was easy to chart a course to Cassie’s Rock, which was the only nearby object to fit the bill. Eighty percent the size of Dragon’s Den, it had an irregular shape that gave it a spin much wider than Dragon’s Den’s, and wasn’t suitable for colonization.
Hiding back there also meant that the Kaxek couldn’t pick up readings through the asteroid. If he was lucky, he could approach from “under” the rock, and enter through one of several docking portals.
This meant, however, that he had to abandon his fighter and spacewalk to the ship. The ship’s shape wouldn’t conform to the docking portal’s dimension. His parent had always told Erdu that he had more guts than brains, and on this mission, he was fulfilling their expectations.
His ship edged out from “under” the asteroid, and he spotted the Kaxek ship. Unlike his Walker Pierce shipmates, Erdu could see well in low-light situations. The energy signature of the Imperial battleship was as clear to him as a full moon in a night sky. Erdu set the fighter for an orbit around it, so the Walker Pierce could retrieve it later.
He waited until the fighter took a rotation and came around to the Kaxek ship. Doing the rough math, he calculated when he needed to free himself from the fighter and float to the Kaxek ship. If he miscalculated, he could miss and sail in the Black until he died. It wasn’t a pleasant thought.
At the proper time, with a deep breath, Erdu released the fighter’s canopy and seatbelts and headed in the warship’s direction.
It was huge, four times larger than the Walker Pierce, but then it had to be. Two hundred Kaxek manned the ship, and they all needed an extensive amount of room to live together. Though humans and Kaxek were similar in some ways, this was one where they were different. Humans could—no, needed to—share space with each other. For Kaxek, with their strong territorial drives, close quarters would end up disaster written in blood.
Erdu kept the battlesuit still, so as not to disturb the delicate trajectory that would bring him to the hull of the Kaxek ship. He had to will himself to remain calm and patient. Wild movements in space meant a quick death, and he did not intend to die.
He had many hopes: the first being not to die, and the second that he could grab one or two of the handholds protruding from the hull. The third was that he could find McWarren and get her safely out of the ship. Again, this was a half-baked plan, revolving around the idea of stealing a transport. Unfortunately, he would have to knock the lieutenant unconscious while he piloted the ship to the Walker Pierce. His fourth wish was that the Walker Pierce wouldn’t blow him and the lieutenant to pieces before he landed.
The lower hull of the ship loomed larger before him, and he scanned it for likely handholds. He couldn’t find one close; then he hit the hull and slid along the outside. He was moving too fast, and if he didn’t grab something soon, he’d float into the Black.
An antenna stuck out from the hull. In desperation, Erdu twisted his body to reach it and threw his arms around it. The extra strength built into the battlesuit allowed him to hang on.
With the asteroid spinning before him, he appreciated the insanity of his plan. A regular EVAC suit would have meant his death. These suits were marvelous pieces of construction—probably the reason why the Kaxek made their own, modeled on these.
Erdu felt dizzy, and realized the battlesuit was overheating him, because it was set at 37C. His own temperature was twenty degrees lower, which meant he had to get out of this thing or die. Erdu tried to scan above him, but the helmet on either side restricted his eyesight.
“Suit, scan hull of this ship, locate and project handholds on visor.”
The visor shimmered, and about thirty tiny dots prickled on it.
“Suit, locate nearest docking portal and display.”
“Clarify ‘docking portal’.”
“Round aperture ten feet wide.”
The suit complied and displayed the closest docking portal. “Now, project the most efficient path to the docking portal,” Erdu said.
Again the suit did its work, and once again, Erdu appreciated its efficiency and design.
Hand over hand, the battlesuit brought him to the aperture. To the right side was a pad for emergency use, to enter the ship. Erdu entered his security override codes, the ones originally assigned to him. The Kaxek were far too clever to disable them. It was better to catch whoever tried to use them, but Erdu decided he wouldn’t get caught.
The aperture opened, and Erdu floated inside, and it closed. The atmosphere pressurized, and the battlesuit flashed all kinds of warnings. Erdu released the suit with switches on the inside, and it fell away.
Erdu almost congratulated himself when the shipside hatch to the docking port entered. A Kaxek undulated to move forward. The closest human equivalent was an octopus, except Kaxek skin was flat and evenly colored. It stared at him through its six eyes and raised an energy wand at him.
“Who are you?” it said. Without waiting for an answer, the Kaxek’s mandible clicked, and Erdu knew what that meant. The Kaxek would attack any second by launching its body in a graceful arc to piece him with its poisonous spine. The poison would paralyze him, leaving him vulnerable to whatever ill intent the Kaxek had.
Erdu attacked first.
Carter listened to the Kaxek message and then slammed his fist into his desk. They’d arrested McWarren for war crimes? Hell, the woman barely toted a gun.
He stormed on the bridge. “Where did that signal come from?”
The sensor tech looked up from his station and swiveled his head toward Carter. “We aren’t sure, Captain. They’re masking their position. Probably hiding in the rocks somewhere.”
“Can you give me a guess?”
The sensor tech glanced over at the comm officer, Ballins. Carter had the feeling they’d been talking about this. “If we assume that they’re as big as those other ships we saw, there are only a few places that they can hide.”
“And based on the message degradation,” the comm officer said, “my money is on Cassie’s Rock.”
“Show me,” Carter said, and he stepped to the holo-display as the location was highlighted. He took a quick glance at the other known locations of ships in the local space.
“All hands, battle stations,” said Carter. “Mr. Buckner, plot a course to Cassie’s Rock.”
“Sir?” said Buckner.
“Do it! The Kaxek has our XO, and they can’t keep her.”
“Yes, sir,” said Buckner.
“Call Lieutenant Shepherd to the bridge,” Carter said. “And Dr. Shu, too.”
The sensor officer set his jaw and stared firmly into his display. Buckner flexed his hands at the navigation panel, and Comm Officer Ballins twitched his jaw.
They weren’t ready for battle. The ship barely held together, and they only had one engine. But Carter would be damned if he’d let his enemy take his XO. He still didn’t know where Erdu, Brennan, and Foster were, but he would find them, and the Kaxek wouldn’t take Jaime McWarren and imprison her. He would make sure of it.
Both Shepherd and Shu arrived, and he ushered both officers into his ready room.
“Listen to this,” he said. Carter pressed replay. Shepherd’s face tightened, and Shu’s eyes widened.
“I don’t understand,” said Shu. “Why are they talking about her family’s war crimes? She doesn’t have relatives in the service.”
“She does,” said Shepherd. “Rear Admiral King is her father.”
“But how would they know that?” said Shepherd.
“That’s a question for later, Lieutenant. Saddle up and get ready to harry the Kaxek ship behind the asteroid named Carrie’s Rock. We think that’s where they are. We need you to confirm, and if you find them, do everything you can to make them hopping mad.”
“Yes, sir,” she said.
Shepherd exited with her mouth set in determination. Carter turned to Shu. “I need you to call the dockmaster now and tell him I have the authority to command him.”
“I’d need to make you an officer of the company,” she said.
“What is this about you and your mother offering me employment every five minutes?”
Shu frowned. “You spoke to my mother?”
“Yes, and she wants me to gather more concrete evidence on the Kaxek to present to the Union.”
She sighed. “She may. Shu Eiichi is cautious. But, Captain, can the Walker Pierce take more of a beating?”
“No. That’s why I need a Dragon’s Den salvage crew to back me up.”
Shu looked at her hands for a long minute, and Carter wondered if he’d pushed his chief medical officer too far. There had to be a reason why she’d divorced herself from the daily operations of the Union’s largest defense contractor.
“I’ll do it, Captain.” Her face warred with her words, showing she didn’t like the idea.
“Mr. Ballins, call the dockmaster and tell him Dr. Shu wants to speak with him.”
Wainwright’s image coalesced on the holographic screen.
“Dockmaster Wainwright,” said Shu. “I’m giving command of the Mining and Salvage fleet to Captain Carter. You will follow his instructions.”
‘Ma’am, begging your pardon, but we aren’t military. We mine rock and collect salvage where we can.”
“Yes, I understand. Now to reiterate. You will follow Captain Carter’s instructions, or we will find a new manager for our Dragon’s Den operations. Do you understand?”
Strained silence hung between them as Wainwright struggled with his answer. Carter almost couldn’t blame him, because Wainwright had no clue what he would need of the dockmaster.
“Yes, ma’am,” Wainwright said through gritted teeth. He appeared angry enough to spit nails, but Carter didn’t care.
Shu left the ready room.
“What is that you want, Carter?” Wainwright spat.
“The Kaxek have my XO.”
“We heard the transmission,” Wainwright said.
Carter studied the dockmaster. The man affected a casual air and an aura of low class, as if he knew nothing of importance. But he’d proven his smarts on more than one occasion.
“I can’t allow them to keep her prisoner.”
“I was afraid of that, too.”
“I want you to maneuver your ships around the asteroid Cassie’s Rock. I want them to see the ships.” It would also confirm that the Kaxek ship was there before Carter had to fully commit the Walker Pierce.
Wainwright shook his head. “This plan of yours sucks ten ways from Sunday. You’ve got a cornered Kaxek, and they’re stupider than Union warship captains. They’ll do something idiotic you won’t expect, and this situation will blow up in our faces. I don’t want my people hurt.”
“Just stay out of weapons range, and they’ll be fine.”
“Do you think I’m stupid, Carter? I’ve already deployed heavy mining ships there. They were big and impressive as hell. They can’t do jack but look pretty.”
“So you know they’re there.”
Wainwright said nothing. The bastard kept hiding things. Carter would wring his neck if he could get to him.
“Call the Kaxek and speak to whoever’s running that ship. Tell them that they better release my XO, or they’ll get the same treatment as the other two hanging dead in space.”
“I had hoped we could persuade them to move off due to the size of our fleet. I’m not of the mind to upset the Squigglies.”
Carter quirked an eyebrow. It was bad enough they’d lost Hewitt and Svetsky. He wouldn’t let the Kaxek take his XO. “Then it’s a good thing I don’t give a damn if you do.”
Wainwright’s image winked out, and Carter strode out onto the bridge. He studied the holomap and the icons on it. The disabled Kaxek remained in place, its twin slowly retreating toward Kaxek space. As his fighters approached the asteroid, four gigantic mining ships joined them.
“Captain, the dockmaster has sent a hail to the Kaxek ship.”
“Good. Let’s hear it, Ballins.”
Wainwright’s image appeared in a separate layer on the holomap, giving him a ghostly appearance.
“Kaxek warriors,” he said. “I am Dockmaster Loudon Wainwright. It’s been a while since you were here, and things have changed. The Union owns this real estate now, and they dislike sharing. I’m afraid I have to ask you to leave. Don’t worry. We’ll tow your companion ship to your border. We have no interest in you or your ships.”
“Back off your ships,” said a warbly Kaxek voice.
“You have plenty of room to move. Or will, when you release the Union officer you captured.”
“No,” said the Kaxek coldly. “This is not a discussion point.”
Carter waved at Ballins to open the line.
“Weapons? Who’s operating weapons?” Carter said loudly.
“I am, sir,” said a young ensign.
“Prepare a nuke to fire from the starboard side.”
“Who is this?” asked the Kaxek.
“Oh, that’s Captain Devlin Carter, the man whose great-grandfather destroyed the Kaxek fleet. He’s none too happy over this XO business, and I don’t know how much longer I can hold him off.”
“Never underestimate us, Carter. We have your officer, and the human will come with us. When we are done with the King progeny, we will come for you. Long live the Kaxek Empire!”
The signal dropped.
“Weapons fire now!”
“Report,” said Carter.
“Sir,” said the sensor officer. “An object ejected from the Kaxek ship, but I can’t tell what it is.”
“Sir.” This came from the weapons officer. “I read that too, but there’s a second object, and its energy signature looks like a nuke. And it’s heading straight toward Cassie’s Rock.”
Toward the asteroid? But why—
Suddenly Carter realized what they meant to do. Again, he’d underestimated their weapons. “How powerful would that nuke have to be to shatter the asteroid?”
The weapons officer was silent a moment. “It would take more than one...”
“Could we do it with our nukes?”
“If we fired every nuke we had simultaneously. But they just fired one projectile.”
Carter shook his head. Every ship close to it would get pounded with micrometeorites. Most boats—and the Walker Pierce, in its present condition—wouldn’t survive it.
“Pull back!” he snapped. “Every ship in the area, pull back. Now. Cassie’s Rock is about to explode. Helm, move it.”
“Yes, sir!” said Buckner.
Carter watched the battle board as his stomach turned sour.
“Sir,” broke in Shepherd. “I’m getting a weak transmission from one of our fighters. It’s in orbit around the asteroid. I’m grabbing him now.”
Shepherd didn’t have time for this. The debris would tear her ship apart. Carter couldn’t lose his wing commander or another fighter.
“Belay that. You have no time—”
But as he spoke, the asteroid exploded into a million pieces, sending jagged pieces of rock into every direction, and engulfing Shepherd’s fighter.
“Sir, the Kaxek ship is engaging their FTL drive.”
This was the moment when they needed to strike. The Kaxek would be at their most vulnerable in the power-up. But there was nothing to be done as the Walker Pierce retreated out of the debris field. Carter watched with mounting frustration as the Kaxek ship disappeared off the board.
“Hey!” yelled McWarren. “Show yourself!”
She sat alone in the dark at the middle of an illuminated bubble, without her battlesuit. After putting a bag over her head, they’d stripped the battlesuit through the bubble as efficiently as the mechanical valets on the Walker Pierce.
McWarren gathered that she sat in an oxygen bubble, as she caught a faint wisp of methane oozing under the edge. The correct oxygen/nitrogen mix poured in from a vent at the top of the bubble, so they were aware of what it took to keep a prisoner alive. This surprised her, because in the one hundred years they’d battled with the Kaxek, the aliens had taken no prisoners. No, these murderers preferred to slaughter their opponents, and they did it with cold dispatch.
If she hadn’t caught the anger in the voice of the Kaxek who’d spoken to her, she would have thought they didn’t have emotions. That was an intriguing notion. She planned battle scenarios without the intel that humans gathered. She hadn’t seen even a holo of a Kaxek in her years in the service. She’d seen no intel on their body structure or their military setup—or their government was lacking the intel, or it was restricted to all but the highest brass. Her father had told her she didn’t need to know those things to draft winning strategies, and he had been right, until the last time.
McWarren sat and hugged her knees. It had been a little over three years ago, and it was the last engagement of the war before the Kaxek had pleaded for a truce. Creighton’s Cross wasn’t a decisive victory; it was a Pyrrhic one. Even then, her father’s commanders had been shaken by the number of losses the Union sustained, as the battle took eighty percent of the fleet. But the Kaxek had suffered as well. They’d seemed crippled enough to devolve into harrying Union ships patrolling the border, but nothing more. Creighton’s Cross was a turning point in the war, and after all their harrying of Union ships on the border, the Kaxek had sued for peace.
McWarren would have taken the medal they’d offered for her part in the Kaxek defeat, if she hadn’t kept dreaming about the images and messages transmitted during and after the battle. Captains pleaded for more help as their ships got ripped apart by the enemy. Bodies of honorable men and women floated in the Black, with their faces and bodies distorted as their intercellular oxygen expanded their bodies to twice their size. Their eyes and tongues boiled from the cold of space meeting the heat of their flesh. Ships listed with giant holes ripped into the hulls.
Those nightmares had visited McWarren every night until she reported for duty on the Walker Pierce. On one of the few ships that had survived the battle, she’d experienced a sense of safety that she had no right to own. McWarren bore the responsibility for each death at Creighton’s Cross, and she couldn’t forget it. War crimes? The Kaxek didn’t know the depth of her war crimes.
The lights flicked off, and a sliding sound met her ears. The lights flashed on again, and she found something that looked like shellfish on a tray.
A burbled voice came from the dark. “We understand that humans eat shellfish. This is the only thing in our inventory we share in common.”
“I’m allergic,” she said.
There was silence for several long seconds.
“You lie, McWarren. Your bio-readings report no allergy to shellfish. Eat or do not. It does not matter. We’ll arrive in Kaxek space soon, and you won’t need food much longer.”
It was interesting that they spoke to her in English. The words come across slightly garbled, but understandable. Maybe they used a computer for the translation?
McWarren ignored the tray.
The Kaxek made an unpleasant sound that reminded McWarren of a scoff. The seafood aroma filled the space unpleasantly. She pushed the tray away with her foot, and it clattered as it skittered into the barrier.
The lights went off again, and she heard the sliding again. McWarren launched forward, and her hand met cold wet flesh that reminding her of vaguely of rotten egg. With a hiss, that flesh whipped her face with a sharp sting, and she scuttled backward.
“Give me a reason, human,” said the faceless voice in the dark. “You and your family caused many deaths. I would relish taking my revenge on you.”
McWarren touched her face, and her hand came away wet, and she tasted it. Blood.
“What is that foul odor?” boomed the Kaxek. Damn if he didn’t sound offended.
“That’s what happens when you maltreat a Union officer,” she said.
“No, not from you—”
McWarren heard a snarl—no, two—and rustling and yipping, as if two dogs wrestled in the dirt. The sounds stopped, and more sliding noises greeted her ears. McWarren reached forward, dreading what she might touch. But no, it was metal, and as she felt along it, she recognized it as the battlesuit.
“Can you get it on?” said a familiar voice.
“Erdu? What the hell—”
“I’ve come to rescue you. We don’t have much time. Others will be here shortly. Put it on. Humans can’t breathe this air.”
“I don’t know, Erdu, the suit was almost out of air.”
“I checked. It has enough to get us to the launch bay. That’s all we need. Once we get into the ship, you’ll be fine.”
“How the hell did you get here?” McWarren demanded.
“With a lot of trouble,” Erdu said. “Hurry!”
McWarren reached along the length of the armor until she found the power switch. Ice blue lines demarcating the sections lit up along the suit’s length. “Suit, stand and open,” she said.
The suit moved its massive body to a standing position, and McWarren stepped inside. Her nose wrinkled, and when she touched the side, a slimy film coated the inside. “It stinks in here, and the walls are wet.”
“Yeah, they probably had one of them try it on. It’s only for a few minutes. Hurry.”
“Can you turn on the lights?”
“No. That would alert security. Let me know when you’re ready. We’ll have to make a run for it.”
Wincing at the slimy sensation and the stench, McWarren backed in. “Suit, seal,” she ordered.
The suit closed around her.
“I’m sending the unit directions now. Just enjoy the ride,” said Erdu.
The suit moved, and then picked up the pace so that it made her run. It was damned weird not seeing where she headed, but now, in the armor, there was little she could do.
“Just a few hundred yards to go, Lieutenant, and the suit will stop. We’ll be at the transport that will take us out of here.”
“Transport? Where did you get a ship?” she asked.
“I’m a man of many talents,” Erdu said.
The corridor erupted with the crisscrossing blue scores of energy weapons. McWarren caught movements from the corner of her eye, tentacled creatures half-lit by the light from their weapons. The suit automatically began zigzagging to avoid the blasts, and McWarren saw the gaping maw of a launch bay beckoning. She scanned forward, looking for Erdu, but only spotted a Kaxek heading for the open door of a transport. It scurried in, and McWarren didn’t know what to do.
“Suit, disengage outside input.”
The suit halted its forward movement. That wasn’t what she’d intended.
“Come on,” said Erdu in her headset. “Get in the transport.”
“Erdu, there’s a Kaxek in that transport with you.”
Erdu swore. “Just get in, please, Lieutenant. We’ve got to leave now.”
McWarren turned and spotted a clump of tentacled Kaxek barreling toward her, and then turned to the transport again. One Kaxek to deal with was better than half a dozen.
She’d just launched herself forward when an energy weapon struck her suit. The armor stuttered in movement and then fell to the deck of the enemy ship. The arms and legs refused to move, and McWarren guessed the battlesuit’s electronics had been fried.
“I’m down, Erdu. Get yourself out of here. That’s an order.”
Edward Wainwright was a red-haired younger version of his cousin. The three days’ stubble on his chin and an emerging beer belly telegraphed he was on track to match his cousin’s misshaped form, even inside his impressive EVAC suit.
Foster and Brennan had gone back into the Union cache to select better ones for themselves.
“Hey, Union, hurry it up,” Edward complained. “We don’t have time for fashion choices. The Squiggly’s buddies will come after him. Who knows? They may have trackers in their body armor.”
“Shouldn’t you be watching our friend instead of eyeballing our junk?” Foster shouted back.
Edward mumbled something about crabby Union spacers, but turned back to the outer cave, and Foster and Brennan geared up in the Union EVAC suits.
“Jeez,” said Edward on their return. “What did you do? Take bubble baths and braid your hair?”
“Has anyone ever told you how annoying you are?” said Foster.
“Yep. Doesn’t do any good.”
“I see that,” said Brennan.
Foster and Brennan grabbed opposite ends of the armored Kaxek. And though Foster burned with curiosity to view what his enemy looked like under that armor, Edward would have none of it. His harangue to keep moving stirred Foster’s desire to punch the kid in the mouth, but as he was their ticket out, Foster restrained his impulse—for now.
Between them, Foster and Brennan hefted their attacker and dragged him from the cave. Even with the visor, Foster had trouble seeing across to the horizon. The light of Eltanin, despite being a red star, blazed on the sand on the airless asteroid. Even in the lower gravity of Dragon’s Den, pulling the spidery Kaxek was tricky. Foster checked his indicators to see the outside registered over ninety-five Celsius. Without the suits’ protection, even with an atmosphere, they’d fry.
Foster started down the hill, but his boot slipped on the fine sand, and then he lost his grip on the alien’s body armor. That made Brennan lose his as well, and the Kaxek glided down the incline like it was a dust-covered slide.
“Jesus,” said Edward. “We’ve got to get him away from the cave, or the Squigglies will be all over it.”
“Where,” said Brennan into his headset, “is his ship?”
Edward slid down the grade like a kid on a surfboard. “Let’s see.” He glanced around as if marking his bearings, then pointed toward another upward slope. “That way. Over the rise.”
“How do you know?”
“Jeez, for a spacer you don’t know much. See the tracks in the sand?”
Foster shook his head, nearly a useless move in a thick EVAC suit. “How do you see anything in this light?”
“Hah!” said Edward. He flipped up his first metallic-coated visor to show another, darker shield underneath, like the ones found on consumer EVAC models.
“Let’s quit the chatter and get working,” Brennan said, channeling his inner Master Chief. “Besides, I’m guessing our EVAC suits don’t have but a couple hours in this heat.”
“I’d say,” said Edward. “If you’re wearing Union garbage, which you are.”
Foster wondered where Edward thought he could get a better EVAC suit, and who made them. The double visor was an interesting take, and it helped to reduce the glare of the dust on Dragon’s Den’s surface.
Foster huffed as they trudged across a small valley with the sun. Eltanin poured pure radiation, unfettered by a protective atmosphere, onto their suits. Foster had trained in such environments, but many years ago. He had forgotten how uncomfortable an EVAC could get. The suit automatically cooled the body, but with the bright rays beating on him, the heat was an oppressive force.
Pulling the Kaxek along did nothing to improve his mood. God, he hated this thing, whatever it was. Its kind had caused untold death and suffering for humanity. He’d rather kill than bury it. But he supposed that its people would look for their unfortunate soldier, and that wouldn’t bode well for getting the supplies from the cache.
At the bottom of the slope, they stopped, and Foster glanced up the grade, then down at the Kaxek.
And then he saw one of its arms move.
“Guys,” said Foster. “Our friend is awake.”
“Holy—” said Brennan. But before he could finish his thought, the Kaxek twisted in an amazing display of its armor’s flexibility. Its armor glinted in the Eltanin sun as it rushed at Brennan and whipped him with metal-coated tentacles. Foster leapt and half-sailed in the microgravity. He grabbed the creature around its body and tried to yank it off Brennan, but the Kaxek twisted its metal casing as easily as any organic form and slipped from Foster’s grasp. It reared and slashed its appendages as if they were whips or swords. There was no way to get to it.
“Stand back,” said Edward. Brennan and Foster stepped backward, clearing a space around the alien. Edward raised his arm to fire, but the creature twisted, then bounded up the slope faster than Foster could draw his weapon. The Kaxek flew up the grade by digging its tentacles into the sand. Sunlight shot off its metal armor in blinding flashes, and though Edward shot, he missed. “Damn sun!”
“He’s getting away,” said Brennan.
“No, he’s not,” Foster growled. “He’ll tell his friends where our supplies are.”
As the Kaxek disappeared over the top of the hill, Foster charged with a weapon in hand, while Brennan and Edward followed. Struggling against gaining traction in the fine sand and moving in microgravity, sweat broke out on Foster’s brow, but he made the top.
And wished he hadn’t.
Instead of one armored Kaxek, there were four lined in a row, with energy weapons pointed at him.
“Down!” he said. “Four Kaxek on our twelve.”
Foster fell forward in slow motion, and as he hit the dirt, he pushed backward to slide down the slope. This was a terrible tactical position. Should the Kaxek storm the ridge, they would cook him, Brennan, and Edward with their weapons.
“Damn,” said Brennan. He winced. “I twisted my ankle.”
As if nothing else could go wrong, thought Foster. “That doesn’t affect your trigger finger,” he said. He sighed, then crawled on his elbows and knees to the top of the hill. When Foster peeked over the top, he found the Kaxek had moved toward the ridge, though not as quickly as he’d expected. He waved Brennan and Edward forward.
Then the Kaxek rushed forward suddenly, and the three of them shot at the enemy. The shots glanced off the Kaxek armor, almost harmlessly shearing off bits. Beside Foster, Brennan swore and muttered about “seeing the specs on those things.”
In rapid succession, the sand on either side of Foster gave way, and both Brennan and Edward started to slip back. “The sands are shifting,” Edward said, as if this meant something to Foster. “They’re in the settle phase. We’ll be exposed soon.”
Foster didn’t know what any of that meant, but it was clear that the little sand hill was rapidly shrinking.
He could turn and run. He probably should, but he wouldn’t let the supply cache fall into enemy hands. The pistols weren’t as effective at a distance. What about at closer range? He had two, assuming he’d have trouble reloading in the bulky EVAC, and now he was glad he did.
“What the hell are you doing?” said Edward, seeming to intuit what was happening.
“See you on the flip side,” said Foster.
“Foster, wait!” Brennan snapped.
But Foster was already over the shrinking hill. He charged in slow motion and shot at the Kaxek. At first, they appeared stunned and didn’t return fire, but then they rained their charges on him. At a distance, they weren’t any more effective than his. But as he grew closer, the charges sliced through his EVAC suit. The fabric self-sealed before he lost much oxygen. He moved forward and showered the enemy with shots from the pistols in his gloved hands. As he drew closer, more of the Kaxek armor shattered, and Foster smiled. One, then another, fell and lay motionless.
But the other two concentrated their fire at Foster’s chest, and the self-sealing function slowed. He gasped as the oxygen level fell in his suit.
Well, I got two, he thought. That’s a good day’s work.
Funny; he’d thought dying would be different. Foster thought death would frighten him, but instead, peace and calm filled him. He had no regrets in his life—well, none that passed through his thoughts in that moment.
As he fought his narrowing vision, Foster thought he must be hallucinating as a half-dozen dark spots appeared above him. The spots grew larger even as blackness closed in on him.
Finally they coalesced into the shapes of battlesuits descending from the heavens. Had Carter had found them? Plasma fire erupted between the Kaxek and the newcomers as Foster finally succumbed to the lack of oxygen.
The last thing he saw was a stylized image of a dragon.
Erdu watched with horror as McWarren’s battlesuit fell. There was no way he could fight off the knot of Imperial soldiers that covered the lieutenant. He knew the bloodlust that ran through them, and McWarren was lucky that she wore a metal suit. Those soldiers drank naked battle hunger while their prey ran ahead of them. They wouldn’t care that what they hunted was human. They’d use their piercing spines to take what they call their “soldier’s imperative,” but unlike a Kaxek, McWarren would die from the experience.
Erdu ran back to the transport hatch, but by the time he was there, more than a dozen Kaxek were swarming around McWarren. He was spotted, and concentrated fire drove him back into the hatch.
He slammed it closed and reentered the cockpit. He took one last look at McWarren’s trapped battlesuit lying on the launch bay’s surface; then his cockpit window blackened from high-energy impacts.
It was time to go. Erdu maneuvered the transport around, spinning on its axis, then leaned into the accelerator as he roared out of the bay, ignoring a Kaxek transmission to identify himself.
He had few choices now, and he’d be lucky to make it to Eltanin. He ran the numbers in his head once again, which made Erdu hope he’d calculated incorrectly. This was only a short-range transport, not designed for the stresses of lengthy interstellar flight. He wouldn’t have attempted this voyage if they weren’t just inside Kaxek space.
Erdu planned to get close enough so that the fluctuating interplanetary magnetic field of the red sun would catch his ship. It was the thinnest of desperate chances, but he had nothing else to rely on.
He’d moved far off his mission parameters.
An indicator light flashed on his dashboard, signaling a message from the Kaxek ship he’d just left.
“Ignore the incoming message,” he ordered, but some officious jerk bypassed his ignore order.
“I know who you are. Stop your engines. We will retrieve you.”
No, they didn’t know him. The past two years of his life had proved that.
Erdu pushed his engines to the maximum. They wouldn’t dare to fire upon him. And yes, Erdu’s parent wanted him home, but Erdu wouldn’t allow that to happen. He had too much work to do.
Through the translucent window of the pilot’s area, Erdu spotted bright orange tracers flying by him. His hearts raced as the thought popped in his head that maybe his parent thought he was too much trouble to keep alive.
But the plasma bolts didn’t strike.
Erdu put the different shots’ trajectories on his computer screen and saw they took care to shot around his flight path, but not through it. It did, however, corral him into a narrow flight path.
“Clever, Captain,” he muttered.
His screen flashed with four Kaxek fighters, coming at him faster than his transport could fly. He swore. Though they couldn’t “see” him in the Black, they had a fix on his hyperdrive engines.
Outnumbered, flying slower than his pursuers in the empty Black, and with nowhere to hide, he had few options. There was only one thing to do. “Computer, shut down hyperdrive engines.”
“The operation manual does not recommend that procedure at this speed. A hull breach is 90% likely.”
Then we’ll pray for the 10% possibility, thought Erdu. He wished for one of Walker Pierce’s battlesuits to hedge a bet against death, but he’d had to give McWarren’s his. The Kaxek had locked the lieutenant’s up in a lab on the ship, and it was getting an examination from the ship’s battle master crew. Any intel on the enemy was good intel. “Repeat. Shut down hyperdrive engines.”
The vessel shuddered as the computer complied. The ship’s hull screamed as the atoms of the metal flying at hyperdrive slammed into sub-light speed. The rattling continued, and Erdu sucked in a breath. He touched the computer screen to display the condition of the hull and watched microfractures form.
The ship slowed, and as the screaming of the metal ended, Erdu ran different diagnostics.
Ship’s hyperdrive engines. No damage.
Ship’s computer systems. No damage.
He touched the computer screen to display the hull’s condition again, and his luck didn’t hold. Microfractures laced the outer shell of the double hull configuration. Unfortunately, the inner hull showed the same fractures.
This shouldn’t have happened. The reason for the double hull was to mitigate the damage to the ship’s primary shell.
Sure, Erdu. Push a ship past its capabilities and then complain when you damage it.
Erdu heard his parent’s voice in his ear, scolding him for one personality defect after another. He acted recklessly and didn’t appreciate the perks of his position, or the responsibilities.
He banished his parent’s chiding voice through force of will. He didn’t have time for second-guessing, or his parent’s disapproving lectures. He had a people to save.
Forward, a bright light burst on the viewscreen, and Erdu swallowed hard. Someone had guessed his tactic and dropped out of hyperflight.
The ship’s computer confirmed it was a fighter. Damn, damn, damn. “Ship, engage sub-light speed.”
“The operation manual does not recommend that procedure with the current condition of the hull.”
“You know what’s not recommended? Mouthy AIs. Do it.”
The computer did not reply, but the ship rattled, and the speed indicator displayed increasing speed.
The question was, where the hell would he go? Eltanin was several light years away. Now, he’d depleted what energy the ship had by running faster than he should at hyperlight speed and then straining the engines by suddenly stopping them.
Erdu admitted that he hadn’t thought through the consequences of his actions. His parent had raised him to act, not reflect, and in this he followed in his parent’s repugnant footsteps. He had been lucky. Getting to Earth? More manageable than he’d thought. Inserting himself into the military structure? A little computer hacking had taken care of that. Finding his way to the Walker Pierce? Had taken some doing, but he’d managed. But he had no time to repair the ship. If he did, he had no place to take it before the ship’s energy was depleted.
His communication system lit up once more. Damn. Would they not leave him alone?
“Your ship suffered damage,” said voice over the comm. “Allow me to tow you in.”
Erdu ignored the fighter pilot. He scanned the star maps in the area, hoping for an unlikely solution for his three problems. Nothing. Then he compared his position against the navigation beacons, and a light winked.
Erdu extended his sensors, and there was a glimmer of hope. It moved at sub-light speed and headed toward Eltanin.
“What is that?” he asked the computer.
“It is a comet.”
“A comet,” said Erdu.
“An interstellar body made up primarily of ice—”
“Stop. I know what it is.”
The computer fell silent while Erdu thought over his crazy plan. He calculated the energy to get to the comet. Still, he realized there was a major problem with his plan—the fighter scanning his every move.
The ship jolted.
“The Imperial fighter shot at you.”
“You’re a master of the obvious, aren’t you?”
Erdu let out a breath when he found, to his relief, that the fighter hadn’t further harmed his ship. The Kaxek vessel could wreak more havoc on his failing systems. Still, perhaps the fighter pilot had picked up on the damage Erdu had already suffered.
That gave him another crazy plan. “Computer, cut all engines. Send a distress call to the fighter.”
The comm system lit up instantly. “What is the problem?” said the fighter pilot.
“Tell the fighter I’m unconscious.”
“You are not.”
“No. Tell him that.”
Erdu took a chance that the fighter would be greedy enough not to call the rest of his wing to retrieve him. And he fully realized that he left himself open to a more vicious attack, should battle lust run through the pilot’s veins. Erdu tore through the storage compartments in the transport’s bulkhead until he found a weapon. Only it wasn’t a weapon but a tool, a long one used to access the engine systems on the side of the ship. It had a hexagonal tip to reach the screws in the panels that shielded the engine.
Long and pointy. He touched the tip. And sharp.
He lay on the deck and imagined how the fighter pilot would enter. Then he had another idea.
“Set the gravity one-third of standard g higher,” he said. “When I say ‘release,’ return the ship to standard gravity.”
“But the boarding party will find it more difficult to move,” complained the computer.
Not for the first time, Erdu wondered how intelligent these ship AIs were. Their programming dictated they coordinate the complex information needed to move a vessel through space, not give commentary. “Do it. I so order.”
As Erdu waited, he went over his plan again. The fighter would wear a flight suit, and Erdu would need that. For his plan to work, Erdu had to stab the pilot in the face, ideally in the third brain that handled motor functions. That would disable the Kaxek, but leave him alive to heal.
Finally the hatch to his ship opened. Good. The atmosphere didn’t blow out, so that meant that the pilot had docked directly with the transport. That made things easier for Erdu.
A scraping sound alerted Erdu to the pilot’s arrival. His visitor wouldn’t be stopped by a stronger gravity setting, but it did weigh him down and slow him so his armor rattled on the deck. Erdu lay utterly still.
“What?” burbled the fighter as he bent over Erdu. “A Umahn? But where is the Erdu?”
“Release!”said Erdu. The gravity snapped to normal and he sat upright suddenly. Erdu jabbed the fighter through the exposed area of the Kaxek’s helmet, into his fourth eye and straight into the third brain. The Kaxek fighter pilot grunted his surprise, folded, and collapsed to the deck.
Erdu stripped the Kaxek of its flight suit, leaving the tentacled form looking lifeless on the ship’s deck. The disabled Kaxek burbled deep his protest in his oral cavity, but since his motor functions weren’t working, he could do nothing.
“I’m deeply sorry,” said Erdu. He spoke as he donned the flight suit. “I know you were trying to help me. Humans have a saying. ‘No good deed goes unpunished.’ I know you don’t understand, but I’m doing this for everyone’s good. In the years to come, I hope you will forgive me. Heal quickly.”
The Kaxek lay on the deck, his body shuddering—probably with the pain, Erdu reflected. He sincerely regretted the fighter pilot’s suffering.
“Continue to transmit distress signal,” Erdu told the computer.
Erdu bolted from the cabin and up through the hatch, and landed in the cockpit of the Kaxek ship. He used his security codes to gain control of the fighter, plotted a course to Eltanin, and fired the FTL drive. He’d be there in an hour, and with the Kaxek fighter, he didn’t need to sling around the sun to slow his speed on arrival. By the time the Kaxek captain figured out what had happened, he’d be out of range.
But it made him sick to his stomach that he couldn’t retrieve McWarren. And with the Kaxek ship’s captain alerted to the escape attempt, it would be impossible to try it again. His only hope now was to return to the Walker Pierce and convince Carter that he needed to mount a rescue. Otherwise, McWarren was a dead woman.
He considered other plans, but given that his parent had every soldier in the Kaxek fleet looking for him, his ability to act with stealth was stunted.
Erdu shuddered as he remembered the Kaxek transmission received by the Walker Pierce. “We know who you are and we will stop you.”
His resources were growing thin. Erdu’s last hope was his original plan—get Carter to help him. Retrieving McWarren would have proved his good faith. Now he only had his pleas to fall on.
The ship’s computer pinged. “We’ve reached imputed coordinates behind the Eltanin sun in relation to the Union spaceport. Warning. Foreign ship ahead,” it said.
“Identify ship,” said Erdu.
“Human. Class, fighter.”
“Condition of the ship?”
“Display markings on the fighter.”
Erdu wanted to yelp both in joy and dismay when he read the name of the pilot painted on the hull. Lieutenant Jada Shepherd. Pink. What had happened? Why was she here?
“Ship, establish tow and secure the disabled fighter for towing to the spaceport.”
“Warning. The operations manual does not recommend long-distance tows.”
This AI was as bad as the other one. “Do it,” he commanded.
At least he wouldn’t face Captain Carter empty-handed.
Carter refused to pull into Dragon’s Den spaceport until they found Shepherd. But despite hours of sensor sweeps, there was no evidence of the wing leader’s fate.
He closed his eyes and wondered what else could go wrong today. So far, his wing leader had been blown up. A corporation had commandeered his ship to repair it. And two of his officers had taken off without permission, to do God knows what. Chiefs Brennan and Foster were missing in action.
He didn’t look forward to updating his ship’s log.
“Sir,” said Ensign Drake, the sensor officer, “there’s a Kaxek fighter heading straight toward us.”
“Mr. Melia, put a lock on the incoming Kaxek ship.”
“Sir! The Kaxek ship is towing Lieutenant Shepherd’s fighter.”
Carter didn’t believe what he heard. “What?”
“A Kaxek ship—”
“Comm, hail either ship.”
“I’m getting a signal from the Kaxek ship.”
“Put it on.”
“This is Chief Petty Officer Jax Erdu. I need to speak with Captain Carter.”
Carter had already decided that Erdu’s contributions to his XO’s insubordination were ground for disciplinary action, but this wasn’t the time to address that. “What the hell are you doing on a Kaxek ship, Erdu?”
“That’s a long story, sir, and one I’m eager to tell you. I’m towing in Lieutenant Shepherd. She’s not answering my calls. I don’t know her condition, but the ship’s sensors tell me she’s alive. If you make ready for us, I can bring her ship aboard.”
“From a tow?” said Carter.
“These Kaxek ships have different capabilities from Union fighters, sir. Yes, I can bring her aboard. Please have a medical team in the landing bay.”
Carter pursed his lips while remembering Svetsky’s disastrous landing. He didn’t want to take any chances with what fighters they had left, or with Shepherd’s life. He pressed the communication button for the landing bay. “Flight crew, prepare for an emergency landing. Fighter pilots, empty the bay to give them room. We have two ships coming in at once. One of them is the Kaxek ship, so you’ll have to drop the landing bay force field to let it in. Give me the all-clear when you’re ready.”
“Erdu, we’re making preparations now. By the time you’re within range, you can land, but call for permission to land.”
Carter tapped his fingers on the holo console, watching the Kaxek fighter approach. This didn’t feel right at all. What the hell was Erdu doing in a Kaxek ship?
On the other hand, it was a valuable piece of hardware that Union intelligence would love to get their hands on. Maybe the brass had stood down from a war stance, but Intelligence never slept.
“Confirm the transponder signal of Lieutenant Shepherd’s fighter.”
“Captain, the landing bay is clear.”
“Dr. Shu, report to the landing bay. Lieutenant Shepherd may need medical attention.”
“What kind of injuries does she have?”
“Unknown. We assume Shepherd is unconscious.”
“Yes, sir,” Shu said. “I’ll be right there.”
Carter slid down the ladder to the seventh deck, to meet Dr. Shu coming out of the elevator with a nurse holding a medical kit.
“Captain, do we have any information?”
“The last I saw of Shepherd, she got caught in a nuke blast.”
“Close enough to get showered with debris from the blast.”
Carter took the position in front of the windowed door to the launch bay, and watched Erdu bring in the Kaxek ship. And yes, it was a fighter, with signature Kaxek gun ports, and he saw immediately that it was a rare prize. A sleek black oval with iridescent blue lights flowing over the hull, it was a thing of beauty. It didn’t have wings of any kind, which would be a new design he hadn’t seen. He wouldn’t mind having one of those in his garage. This one, though, would eventually end up in pieces in a Union space yard after Intelligence tore it apart.
With his heart in his throat, Carter watched Erdu ease the ship gracefully into the landing bay. Again, Carter was amazed. Erdu had total control over the speed because inertia didn’t play into its movements. This thing made Union fighters look like go-carts.
A brand new design. Yeah, the Kaxek had no intention of following through on a peace treaty. They’d spent time and resources to design and build new ships. They weren’t doing that for fun.
If the events of the past few hours didn’t convince Command that the Kaxek intended to ramp up their war, this ship was evidence of their intentions.
Erdu eased the ship to the deck, and incredibly, Shepherd’s fighter did the same. The force field over the landing bay shimmered and reset. Carter watched the atmosphere indicators on the panel next to the door as the bay repressurized. When the light switched to green, he opened the door. Shu pushed past him to race to Shepherd’s fighter. At the same time, the flight crew poured out of the pilots’ briefing room. The crew pulled moveable stair ladders to the ships, but the Kaxek ship opened from the side. Flight crew standing close to it stepped back, and Carter watched as a naked and shivering Erdu stepped out of the vessel.
“Get that man a jumpsuit,” ordered Carter. He had no idea why Erdu was naked, but he couldn’t stand there like that. Erdu’s movements were shaky. “You’ll report to sickbay to get checked out.”
“No need for that, sir,” said Erdu. “I’m fine.”
Shu was at the top of the ladder, and the flight crew got the canopy popped.
“I need an oxygen mask,” said Shu. She glanced toward her nurse, who handed her a mask with a concentrator canister.
“I hope she’ll be okay,” said Erdu.
Carter glanced at him. His face carried a pale blue cast, as if all his blood had drained away.
Shu murmured something into her wrist bracelet as two orderlies arrived almost instantly and loaded Shepherd onto a floating gurney. The orderlies lowered her to deck level and walked her past Carter. She was unconscious but breathing.
“She’ll be fine,” Shu said before Carter had asked. “She had several microbreaks in her suit that resulted in oxygen deprivation. We caught it soon enough. Unless there’s something else we’re missing, she’ll be discharged in a few hours.”
“Doctor Shu, Chief Petty Officer Erdu doesn’t look well.”
“I’m fine, really,” Erdu said.
Shu held a medical scanner over Erdu’s heart, and her mouth grimaced. She looked up into Erdu’s eyes.
“Get to sickbay now, Chief Petty Officer, or I’ll have an orderly drag you there. Patty?”
A woman instantly arrived next to Shu. “Escort Chief Petty Officer Erdu to sickbay. Get one of the other orderlies to help you. He might collapse at any moment.”
“Now, Chief Petty Officer,” she said.
“Yes, Doctor,” Erdu said as he reluctantly followed the nurse, who was joined by an orderly, toward the rear of the hanger.
Shu waited until he was out of earshot. “Captain, Erdu’s readings are bizarre. Heart rate, respiration, and blood pressure are all over the place.”
“Find out why, and report.”
Shu left the deck quickly, and Carter turned his attention to the Kaxek ship. It hadn’t landed on the deck; it sat a foot above the deck. Damage Control Officer Adem Cole whistled as he held a scanner up to the Kaxek fighter.
“Damn. It’s generating its own magnetic pedestal. It stopped on a dime with that energy to counter inertial forces. Wow, Command will love us.”
Cole put his head inside the ship and frowned. “I don’t see how Erdu could have flown it, though. There isn’t a single control that fits human hands.”
Carter’s stomach grew tight. The image of Erdu’s pale blue complexion flashed in his mind. His shaky movements. The strange readings. He touched his comm bracelet. “Melia, we have a security threat. Bring four armed Marines to sickbay.”
“Yes, sir. What kind of threat?”
“A single individual, but he could be very dangerous. I’ll meet you there. Don’t go in until I tell you.”
Cole glanced at him. “What is it, sir?”
“Just find out what you can about this ship and report to me. Only no dismantling.”
With his heart hammering, Carter ran out of the landing bay and used his command code on the elevator to bring it directly to him. An unpleasant suspicion blossomed in his mind, and as it took hold, he grew more worried for Shu and the others in the sickbay. Carter should have listened to his gut when it had told him that something was way off. When the elevator door opened on the sickbay’s floor, he bolted toward it.
Shu stared at him with surprise as he skidded to a stop. Melia and four armed Marines formed up immediately after him.
“Captain?” she said.
“Where is Erdu?”
“He’s in exam room four. He complained the disinfecting lights gave him a headache, so I turned them off, and the ambient lighting dow—”
Carter didn’t wait for Shu to finish. He rushed down to the exam room. “Full lights,” he ordered.
“No—” said Erdu.
But before he could finish that one word, the lights flashed on, revealing a misshapen Erdu lying on the bed. His face seemed to melt like wax candles, and one of his arms now was a tentacle.
The Marines with Carter leveled their weapons. Carter waited a beat then said, “I’m pretty sure I know what you are. But why don’t you go ahead and spell it out for me anyway.”
The answer he got was more than he was bargaining for.
“I’m Prince Jax of the Kaxek Empire, Captain,” Erdu said. “And we need your help.”
“I will not scream. I will not scream.”
The nightmarish creatures crawled over the battlesuit. Their tentacles whipped around McWarren’s field of vision. The sulfur odor inside the suit sickened her, but she didn’t want to touch the monsters outside the armor. Besides, they must use a different gas for breathing, since Erdu had insisted she needed the battlesuit for oxygen.
The battlesuit bumped on the deck of the hellish Kaxek ship as the creatures dragged it away from their launch bay. McWarren tried to move the arms and legs, but the suit didn’t respond to her commands. The blast the Kaxek had leveled at her must have shorted the electronics. She was stuck in a tin can with no way to defend herself, as the Kaxek rendered their not-so-tender mercies upon her.
They brought her back to the same space. She recognized it from the single light that shone from the cavern’s overhead deck. But instead of releasing her from the suit, they hauled her upright. Unable to move the arms and legs, she stood like a deactivated robot waiting for the scrap pile.
She hoped that Erdu had gotten away, and that he could get to the Walker Pierce. Maybe they could mount a rescue. Or maybe she’d be the first human to see Kaxek society.
“Umahn,” boomed a voice in her headset. “You will stay in your armor until we reach the Empire’s capital. Our technicians tell me there are Umahn food and water to sustain you inside your armor. This should be to your liking, since you would not eat our food.”
The light shut off, and she was alone in the dark.
McWarren switched on the microphone. “Well, this sucks,” she said, but no one answered. She doubted they’d left her alone after her escape attempt. “You know, I need to use the bathroom.”
Silence. McWarren supposed that if they knew there were food and water, they also knew that the suit could process human waste. It recycled liquid too, which gave the suits the unsavory nickname of “potty buckets.”
Her leg cramped. Damn it. You couldn’t stand encased in one place in these things for long, because they were built for battle, not as a prison. She couldn’t touch her calf to massage the tightened muscle. McWarren tried to wiggle her feet to relieve the cramp, but found them stuck fast inside her boots.
“Hey!” she yelled.
“God damn it, you bastards!”
“My pardon,” a voice whispered into her headset. “What is a bastard?”
“Who is this?”
“Eeeeya. Keep your voice down. The tone hurts.”
“Look, I have a cramp in my leg. If I don’t move it, the whole leg will goes numb. This can cause a serious condition, like a blood clot. That could go to my heart and kill me before you get a chance to” McWarren told the Kaxek a lie. But she figured that he wouldn’t have a clue about the human body.
“There is little I can do, progeny of King.”
“My name is Jaime. Jaime McWarren.”
“You do not want your parent’s designation?” it asked.
“I have my mother’s designation.”
“My female parent.”
“Female?” The voice spoke this word as if confused by the concept.
“The people that gestate the next generation.”
There was a long minute of silence as McWarren stood in the battlesuit. Her cramp grew tighter and more painful, and she sucked in a sulfur-tinged breath. Damn it. This suit was rank.
“You have separate classes produce offspring?”
This was an intriguing piece of information. “And you don’t?”
More silence. “No.”
Wow. The Kaxek were single-gendered? Intersex? Earth had hermaphroditic animals, with both male and female reproductive parts. Snails, worms, fish, of which a number self-fertilized. Others aggressively attacked those of their own species to fertilize them. If the Kaxek were such a species, what did this mean for their society, or their interactions with other sentients? This information bite illuminated the Kaxek territorialism and aggressiveness.
And she wondered just how much world leaders and the top military officers knew about their enemy. This information might have made a difference if she’d known about it when designing her battle strategies. Or it might not, but she didn’t appreciate getting left in the dark.
“How is it for you here? Are you safe?” she asked.
“You should worry about your situation since our tribunal will most likely execute you.”
McWarren was silenced by that thought.
The Kaxek made a humming sound, as if it thought over her words. “Is it true that you have vast expanses of water on your world?”
“Seventy-one percent of the planet is covered by water, and most of it is saltwater.”
The Kaxek hummed again, and McWarren wondered if she’d just given the Kaxek more of a reason to invade Earth.
“I’ve heard such things, but some of that sounded like lies.”
“I’m not lying,” said McWarren.
The Kaxek made a series of clicking noises. “Our military says the Umahns do not want peace. That you are difficult to deal with.”
“If you threaten our survival, we will defend ourselves. But left to ourselves, we leave others alone.”
Another series of clicking noises came over her headset, and McWarren had no clue what to make of them. Was the Kaxek communicating to another?
The overhead light went out, and McWarren stood in the dark again. Then she shivered, and realized the heating in the suit didn’t work. The Kaxek didn’t need to worry about executing her. The battlesuit would do it for them.
Then, without warning, her battlesuit opened and fresh oxygen hit her face. A weird rustling came from a short space in the dark.
“I have brought an escape pod. Get in, and I will do what I can to launch you before we get further into Kaxek space. We are not too far from your border. It will be a rough journey home, and it will get worse when they realize you have escaped.”
“Come with me,” said McWarren impulsively.
“Can you promise me you will not imprison me?” the Kaxek asked.
McWarren shook her head. “No, I can’t make that promise.”
“Then I will stay.”
“But you’re already imprisoned here.”
“Better the prison I know.” A door opened, showing the insides of a lighted orb. “I have programmed it for your breathing gas.”
McWarren stepped out of the battlesuit and hesitated. Was this just another way to kill her faster? “Why are you doing this?” she asked.
“Because my people do not need their passions inflamed by executing an alien war criminal. Your execution will only shore up the military’s position, and we’ll have no hope of peace. Out of all the races in the galaxy, yours has proven the most difficult to defeat. Now go,” said the Kaxek from the dark. “I hear the ship’s hyperdrive engines starting. We must get you out of here.”
Wait. Races? “What—”
“A friend is waiting to pick you up. Hurry.”
McWarren slid inside the orb, which smelled of ozone and sulfur, and the hatch shut. She didn’t know what would happen, or where she was going. All she could do is trust a creature who, by rights, was her enemy.
She tried not to breathe deeply. In the enclosed space, the air stank, and her stomach roiled, and the damned orb spun as if rolled down the hallway. Which, she reflected, it probably did. The light was off, and she lay in the dark, this time curled up to fit the impossibly small ball. Her calf spasmed again, and she wondered if she’d survive.
In a jolt, her body slammed forward, and the back of her head hit the pod’s bulkhead. Had the Kaxek ejected her from its ship? She got her answer in a few minutes as the bulkhead froze. That would only happen if the tiny craft spun in the Black.
She swallowed hard. Who was this friend? How long would McWarren be here? She realized her letter to her father was in the battlesuit, and he would never hear her last goodbye. The thought upset her more than it should. It wasn’t as if they got along, or like he approved of her decision to join the Walker Pierce.
McWarren lay shivering in the thing the Kaxek laughably called an escape pod. Hypothermia would get her before any rescue. How could she expect a recovery outside of Union borders anyway?
She congratulated herself for learning more about the Kaxek and making an unlikely ally. But what did that mean if she died in the Black before she could tell anyone what she knew?
McWarren continued to shiver in the Black, in the dark, with no one to answer her questions.
A roll of the dice
A turn of the cards
Drink enough whiskey
So you don’t know where you are
Some days all you have are bad choices
And the odds are slim to none
If I make it out alive
I’ll have a story to tell my sons
And if I don’t
Please tell Mama
All I had were bad choices
Because my daddy was one.
Foster woke to a song pounding in the background, and the mother of all throbbing headaches blinding his sight. He tied to throw his arm over his eyes to block out the light that stabbed him in the eyes. He’d never had a hangover like this and didn’t remember drinking, but that was the only thing his foggy brain could fathom. There were mornings when he woke up and couldn’t remember where he was or how he’d gotten there. Was this one of them?
He blinked and tried to will away the cotton candy sticking to his synapses, but that effort brought a round of nausea. Damn it. Why couldn’t he remember the bender he’d gone on? It must have been fun, because his body protested too much for it not to have been.
As if it had a mind of its own, his arm slipped off his eye, and he had trouble finding his face again. He blinked as his vision focused, and he stared at rough-hewn boards that formed the ceiling. Foster also caught the odor of stale beer seeping from the floorboards above his head.
“He’s awake, boss,” said a voice. Forms moved in the darkness beyond where he lay. The edges of his vision remained dark, so he didn’t know if the room was dark or if he was going blind.
“How do you feel, Foster?”
The voice had a familiar gravel quality. “Dockmaster Wainwright?”
“Aye. It’s me. Edward, give the man more oxygen.”
“I gave him enough.”
“Not for an Earther, Edward. Raised in abundant oxygen, they need a ton of it. Not like us.”
Half-formed ideas about lack of oxygen from deep-space training swirled in Foster’s head. Cerebral anoxia caused problems with concentration, attention, coordination, and short-term memory.
The younger Wainwright put a mask over his face. “Breathe, you bastard,” he said.
“Is that any way to speak to the man who saved your bacon out there, Eddie?”
“Don’t call me Eddie,” grumbled the younger Wainwright. “And you didn’t save us. The—”
“Edward,” warned Loudon. “Just give him air. We can get into the details later.”
“Details are pretty screwed up, if you ask me,” Edward mumbled.
Foster grabbed Edward’s wrists and pushed the oxygen mask away and sat up, his head still swimming. “Battlesuits,” he blurted out, the memory coming back to him in a jumble. “There were soldiers in battlesuits that came down and fought the Kaxek.”
“No shit,” Edward said.
Foster looked up at Loudon Wainwright, but he just crossed his arms. “Don’t worry about it right now.”
He looked around. “Where’s Brennan?” He tried to stand, but his knees buckled. His ass hit the pallet the Wainwrights had laid him on.
“Whoa there, space cowboy,” said Edward. “You aren’t going anywhere right now.”
Foster deliberately looked past the younger Wainwright to the dockmaster, who was clearly running the show. “Where’s Brennan?”
“I got him to a doctor here in the spaceport.”
“Doctor? What doctor?” In all the times that Foster had taken shore leave on Dragon’s Den, he’d never seen a hospital or a doctor’s office. And he’d never thought about it before, but now it seemed strange that he never had.
The dockmaster gave him a hard stare. “Just the Dragon’s Den version of one. Don’t worry about it. You sit tight here, and when I get your vessel towed in, you can go back.”
Foster didn’t like the dodgy answer. Wainwright looked stressed. Foster had found that when someone said not to worry, that was the time you did. “This has been fun, but I’d like to get to my ship now.”
“You need a doctor yourself, Foster,” growled the dockmaster. “Rest. By the time you get your legs back, I’ll have your ship towed in. I assure you that your crewmate is doing fine and will be back at your ship soon.”
Foster forced a smile, because whenever a person-in-charge said “your crewmate is doing fine,” most likely they weren’t. He motioned for Edward to give him the oxygen mask again. “Then don’t worry about me. Go about your day. I’m sure you’re a busy man.”
“Aye, I am. Eddie will look after you.”
“Thank you.” It’s always good to thank your kidnapper. Puts them at ease. “If you don’t mind, I am feeling lightheaded.”
Foster lay back and slung his arm over his eyes again. The dockmaster grunted, and his boots dropped lightly on the ground. Wainwright had lived here all his life, so his bones wouldn’t have gained the strength of some who grew up on Earth. There was no chance he could go off-world to an Earthlike standard-g planet.
Some fresh air hit Foster as a door opened and then shut, and a metallic sound from the door made him sit up. He’d watched enough ancient movies to know that sound, and a single glance confirmed what he sensed. Eddie had left with Loudon, and the bastards had locked him in the cellar.
Above him, the music pounded louder.
A roll of the dice,
A turn of the cards,
It must be someone’s favorite song, to play again so quickly. Or they paid staff to allow it. It didn’t matter to Foster. He was getting out of here.
Now if he could just figure out how.
He stood, and his knees bore his weight, so he made his way to the door. It was wood, which was strange, because even wood from a closer colony planet was a rich man’s purchase. Foster felt it.
A splinter stuck in his skin, and he swore under his breath before he pulled it out with his teeth. He pulled it out and stared at it. A low-quality wood like they used in theme parks. He hadn’t noticed it before on his shore leaves, but that’s what Dragon’s Den seemed like now.
Inferior quality, thin wood. Would such a door hold a Dragon’s Den’s resident raised in microgravity? Maybe. But an Earthman, raised in Earth’s gravity, who worked out almost daily in standard gravity? Someone trained to move his body in microgravity?
Foster stood back a pace and sent his foot flying into the door. Wood shattered and flew in slow motion in all directions. He started to climb out into the hall; then he heard boots rushing his way.
He pressed his back against the wall on the right-hand side of the door and thanked his luck when only the ginger-headed Edward Wainwright rushed through the blown-open door. Edward had a pistol out, but swept his eyes the wrong way to spot Foster.
Foster barreled up behind Edward and slammed his shoulder, sending the pistol flying. Then he grabbed Edward by his shirt, pulled him forward, and sent him flying into the wall on his side. Edward’s head snapped back; then he slid down the wall and fell to the floor.
“Sorry, buddy. I do appreciate whatever you did to get us away from those Kaxek, but I can’t let you hold me prisoner.”
Foster stepped out into the hall. He looked right, then left, trying to figure out the best way to go. Foster had heard the dockmaster walk to the right, so he turned left, figuring the road less traveled gave him a better chance to find a way out. Once he got to the surface, he’d make his way to the abandoned spaceport and wait for the Walker Pierce to arrive. Once he was on the ship, Wainwright couldn’t touch him. He still didn’t know what had happened to Brennan, but he figured he’d get some Marines suited up and go find the chief. He had to be somewhere on this rock.
The lights got dimmer the further he traveled, which seemed strange to him. The building on Dragon’s Den wasn’t all that large, and his feet seemed to get heavier, which was weird. It felt better than walking in microgravity, but still, this shouldn’t happen on an asteroid. He put his hand to the wall, and a vibration met his hands.
Foster continued his path, and the hallway lost all light. Still, the vibration became more energetic, and the gravity under his feet grew stronger. This was odd, and indicated a gravity generation field, but only space stations and ships used them.
He touched the wall again, and it slid away. He fell forward to a textured metal deck typical on spaceships. Foster looked up to see a vast space with a ship sitting in the middle. It wasn’t military, but looked more like a rich person’s yacht, with sleek lines and two Japanese symbols painted on the side. Foster couldn’t read them. He hadn’t gone that far in his study of the language, but the stylized image of two dragons on the tail stopped him in his tracks. They were exactly like the ones he’d seen on the battlesuits that had saved him.
He studied the rest of the apparent landing bay. On either side were four stories of porticos and doors and windows that looked like apartments rather than offices. The bottom row were different shop spaces.
It was an underground bunker. Here, Foster guessed, was where the people of Dragon’s Den actually lived. Ahead of him, he spotted a short, thin woman standing next to the familiar shape of Brennan. Brennan seemed to be engaged in an animated conversation with the woman, who turned toward Foster and issued orders in Japanese.
Four battlesuited soldiers with dragon insignia on their left breastplates rushed in from doors on either side of the bunker and pointed energy rifles at him. These were the bastards that had saved him. They were clearly a private security force, but how did they have military-grade battlesuits? It was against the law for civilians to possess or use military equipment.
“Put your hands up,” said one battlesuited guard. They appeared deadly serious, so Foster followed the instruction. What the hell was going on?
Without warning, the woman who spoke to Brennan pivoted and walked straight toward him.
“Welcome to Dragon’s Den, Gunnery Sergeant Foster. We haven’t met, though you may know of me. I’m Shu Eiichi, the mother of your ship’s doctor. Please take me to your captain.”
Erdu’s mouth oozed while it melted, and he shivered from the strain of retaining his human appearance. But the shock and pain of getting hit with UV light made it impossible to remain in this form.
He worked his mouth, but the human vocal cords he’d carefully formed after months of practice rapidly withered, and only incoherent squeaks emitted from his orifice.
“What’s wrong with him, Tamarin?” said Carter.
“I have no idea. I’m a doctor, not a Marine biologist.”
“You think he’s what? A fish?”
No. I’m what you’d call a mollusk, not a fish, Carter, Erdu thought. At least, we were before we crawled out of the ocean, like your ancestors. Only we did it later in our development than you.
Erdu had found human biological history fascinating. Primates didn’t exist on his home planet, or on many of the worlds the Kaxek had explored.
“What did you mean, that you need our help?”
Erdu wished he could tell Carter. This was the opportunity he’d spent two years of his life to obtain, but now he was melting into his Kaxek form, and there was no way he could speak to the human now. With a few hours rest, perhaps. Not now.
“Is he sick? Injured?”
“I know nothing about Kaxek physiology,” Shu said. “But he’s breathing, and moving.”
“Is he in pain?”
“Again, I don’t know, sir. He’s shivering. That might mean his body is in shock.”
“What can you do?”
“You don’t know. Damn it!”
Carter walked from the room and paced before the entrance of the medical bay. Erdu wished he could give Carter answers to convince the Walker Pierce’s captain to leave the system. They may have damaged a few Kaxek ships, but that only meant a more massive fleet would arrive soon. Carter’s actions would be the perfect excuse for the military to pressure Erdu’s parent to order an attack.
His body spasmed as his form released the last of the human matrix he’d created so he could walk among these creatures. He still shivered.
“Are you cold? Should I raise the heat?”
Erdu gave a noise that sounded like a whimper. Dr. Shu gazed at him as the human arms and legs returned to their tentacled shape.
“Can you make that noise again?”
Erdu pitched the utterance lower so that human ears could hear it. It would sound like a screech to them, especially if he let it out at full volume, but he couldn’t do that. It would damage human hearing.
“That’s a start. Let’s do two in succession.”
Erdu did, because he wanted to show how cooperative he could be.
“Good,” said Dr. Shu with a smile. “Let’s do two for ‘yes’ and one for ‘no.’”
Erdu made two short screeches.
“Let me confirm. You are Kaxek?”
“What did we just see? Was that a hologram?”
Erdu wished he could laugh. How much simpler would it be if holograms projected the human image he could create. It would be less frightening for all concerned.
“That was you changing your organic form?” she asked.
Erdu could only imagine what thoughts raced through their minds. How many Kaxek were living among them? Where did they live? Had they infiltrated the government? The military? “Yes.”
Shu drew in a breath, and her face flushed, showing her level of alarm. Carter gave him a piercing stare.
“Can all Kaxek change their organic form?” he asked.
A strangled noise escaped Erdu’s orifice. His shapeshifting ability was an aberration that only a few of his people could perform. “No.”
“A large number?”
Carter leaned over the bed with his hands on the edge. The human’s eyes narrowed, which was never a good sign, and Carter brought his face close to Erdu’s. His furious breath blew in Erdu’s face, and Erdu tried to draw back. Erdu reminded himself this was human intimidation behavior. It made other humans uncomfortable by edging into a perceived “safe” interpersonal space. But it was not deadly behavior, unlike such action from another Kaxek.
“I need to know exactly how many of you have infiltrated human society.”
Erdu gave one brief squeal. He couldn’t answer Carter’s question—not in the condition he was in.
“Captain,” said Doctor Shu. “I don’t think he can answer questions. Look at him. He’s shivering more. Medbay, warm patient bed two degrees Celsius.”
Warmth would help, but not much. Erdu needed a form that didn’t use as much energy as holding the human form. He might have the power to make that transformation, but what? What wouldn’t attract hostile attention on a starship?
“Damn it, Doctor. This thing has the answers we need.”
“That may be, but right now he’s a patient in my sickbay. You can get answers when he’s in better shape.”
“What if he doesn’t get better? We’ll have lost our opportunity—”
“Sir, we cannot interrogate an ill prisoner or crewmember.”
“Crewmember?” Carter frowned as he glanced at Erdu.
“We have Jax Erdu listed on the crew manifest. Until that status changes—”
“It changes now,” said Carter.
“Are you sure you want to do that? As a crewmember, we have more latitude with how we treat him. As a prisoner, our options narrow.”
Erdu shivered for a different reason at the doctor’s words. He’d thought until this moment that she was on his side. Now he wasn’t so sure. He saw the lights on Carter’s wrist communicator flash.
“Sir,” said a voice over the intercom. “There’s an incoming call for you from Admiral King. He ordered me to pipe it through immediately.”
No one should deal with a rear admiral without having a cup of coffee first. But since coffee was scarce, Carter had to face King without caffeine fortification.
“Excuse me, Admiral. I’m in sickbay. Let me move this conversation to a more secure location.”
“Secure? Are you telling me your ship isn’t secure?”
“Sir, we engaged with the Kaxek today, sir.”
“I’m aware. I saw the relayed data packets from your encounters.”
Would have been nice to know that, Carter thought. Still, he was glad to hear it. He was beginning to wonder.
“You understand that we’re in a truce with the Kaxek, correct?” King asked.
Carter blinked. “Sir, with respect, that was an unprovoked attack by advanced ships. If it weren’t for the actions of your daughter, we might well have been—”
“I’m aware of the engagement details,” King said. “And of what happened with my daughter, including her capture. We’re tracking the trajectory of that ship.” He paused. “A real fine mess out there, Carter.” If the admiral was especially upset at the loss of his daughter, he didn’t show it.
Behind Carter, Erdu squeaked something inaudible. Carter turned to look at Erdu, whose tentacles waved furiously at each side. He was glad it was an audio-only conversation. He didn’t want to explain Erdu now, especially since he didn’t understand why the Kaxek was here.
“What was that strange noise?” said King.
Oh, hell. Had King heard Kaxek speech before? While Carter had no love of the Kaxek, he wanted to leverage what he could from Erdu before Command swooped in and took him.
“Sorry, Sir. That’s a cat. A crewmember sneaked one aboard, but it’s earned its keep around here. Recovering patients benefit therapeutically from the presence of a pet.”
Shu’s eyes widened, then narrowed at Carter including her in his obfuscation.
“What’s your operational status?” King asked, irritated at Carter’s tangent.
Shu gasped, and Carter turned to see what had caused her surprise. And he stared at Erdu on the medbed, who now changed before their eyes. Hair sprouted from his body, his tentacles retracting. And then he folded, and reduced in size, while four of his tentacles formed into limbs. Carter blinked. What sat on the bed now was a black cat.
This day can’t get any stranger, he thought.
“Carter, report!” snapped King.
Carter blinked. “We took heavy damage in the last attack. We need a refit to get the Walker Pierce spaceworthy again.”
“Standby for orders, Captain Carter.” And then the signal cut out.
“Communications? What happened to the signal from Admiral King?”
“It terminated at the source.”
That was weird. Why would King end his call so abruptly?
Carter turned just as the cat-shaped Kaxek leaped into Shu’s arms. She promptly dropped him. Erdu hit the bed, but not four-footed like a typical cat. Instead, he flopped onto his side.
“Ouch!” Erdu said, with a voice that sounded like an old lady who’d sucked in a mouthful of helium. “You didn’t have to drop me.”
“That’s too weird,” said Shu.
“It’s just par for our day,” said Carter. “Nuke a couple of Kaxek ships, lose an admiral’s daughter, and a crewman turns into a cat. I don’t see what’s weird at all.”
Carter’s bracelet flashed again with a notification. “Yes, Ballins?”
“Sir, we just got communication from a ship inbound. Sutāmainingu designation.” Ballins paused. “Foster and Brennan are reportedly onboard.”
Carter looked up to see that Shu was as shocked as he felt. “ETA?”
“Two minutes, sir. They’re moving fast.”
Carter headed for the door. “I’d like you to come, Doctor. I don’t know what shape they might be in.”
Shu pointed at Erdu. “What should we do with him?”
“I’d put him in the brig, but with how he can change into anything, I can’t trust he won’t pull a trick and try to escape.”
Shu picked up Erdu and put him in the crook of her arm. “His mass is converted somehow,” she said, shaking her head. “He feels so real.”
“I’m conserving mass to allow myself to heal faster,” Erdu said, as though that made any sense at all.
Carter wondered how he would write this up in the ship’s log. Discovered CPO Jax Erdu is a Kaxek infiltrator with the ability to change shape at will. Last known form—domestic house cat.
Different questions rolled through his head as the three of them boarded the elevator. “Erdu, how many Kaxek can shapeshift?”
Erdu gave a wide-mouthed cat yawn. “Less than one-tenth of one percent of us. It’s very rare, and not a desirable trait.”
“How did you species develop this ability?” asked Shu.
“Unknown. We may have been a separate species, but integrated with the main species over eons. We aren’t sure.” He yawned again.
“Erdu, how many of you are in human space?”
“The two ambassadors, I know for sure. They received training to look human.”
“I don’t know. I broke with the government before I learned more details. Those with my defect usually hide. But because of my heritage...” He hesitated.
The elevator doors opened, and Carter walked ahead of Shu and Erdu and entered the landing bay.
“Captain on deck,” said an ensign. The men stood and saluted.
“As ease,” said Carter. His eyes lit on the small shuttle sat in the middle of the deck. The hatch was open, and Brennan and Foster stood outside. Foster held up Brennan.
“Hold this,” said Shu to Foster. She shoved Erdu at him and bent to examine Brennan’s leg.
“A cat? Where did you get this?”
“Deal with it, Foster. I’m busy,” she answered. “Don’t let it out of your sight, though.”
“Okay,” said Foster slowly. Erdu scrambled onto his shoulder and peered around the room.
“I’m fine, Doc,” said Brennan. “It’s just a sprain.”
Shu leaned over and scanned his leg with a small instrument. “For once, a self-diagnosis I agree with. A bad sprain, to be sure, but nothing more.” She stood.
“Permission to come aboard.”
All eyes swung to the Japanese woman standing in the hatchway.
Shu sucked in a breath and bowed. “Mother.”
Carter took stock of the woman. Business suit. Impeccable clothing. She appeared the embodiment of a wealthy businesswoman. She was about five foot eight, with short salt and pepper hair swept back. Shu Eiichi’s name was more than well-known. Though she avoided public attention, you couldn’t miss the woman who owned the largest defense company on Earth or the colonies.
“It is good to see you, daughter. I worried.”
Shu lifted her chin. “You need not.”
The elder Shu glanced around the landing bay, and her eyes hit every sign of wear, tear, and battle damage. The narrowing of her eyes told Carter she didn’t approve.
“Excuse me. I’m Captain Devlin Carter, commander of the Walker Pierce.”
“May I come aboard, Captain? I came to see you as well as my daughter.”
The doctor made a light scoffing noise, as if she didn’t believe her mother’s civility. But then the warning klaxons sounded, and the red emergency lights flashed, and Carter moved to an intercom. “Carter here.”
“Sir, five Kaxek ships just appeared and are due to arrive—”
The ship rattled as an energy blast hit the port side.
“Come about,” ordered Carter. “Put our shields between them and us.”
“Shepherd, get your alert fighters out there now and scramble whatever else we have.”
He turned to see both Shus staring at him. “Commander, get your mother to sickbay.”
The doctor nodded. With multiple bulkheads between the sickbay and the hull, it was the safest place.
“Deck crew, clear that Sutāmainingu ship so the fighters can deploy. Move!”
Carter stood at the door, herding Shu and her mother, Foster, and Brennan out of the landing bay, while the deck crew hurried to clear the bay for launch. Under Ensign Daniels’ commands, they lined up the fighters, without their usual regard for who went first. As soon as the door cleared of evacuees, the pilots in their flight suits, led by Lieutenant Shepherd, scrambled to climb in their fighters and launch.
The ship jolted once more, and the force field at the entrances of the bay wavered. Oxygen rushed out before it stabilized. The remaining deck crew held on to what they could as the ship rattled, and the hull squealed its protests. It seemed to Carter that the entire vessel spoke to him now, begging for help against the enemy’s relentless assaults.
The deck crew rushed past him, and Ensign Daniels grabbed his arm. “Clear the deck, Captain. If we get hit again, that force field won’t hold.”
In the dark, in the cold, deep uncharted Black without Union navigation beacons, McWarren lay in a half-meditative state. Her captivity within the escape pod had forced her to shut down to the bare essentials.
A long, hollow inhale.
A steady exhale.
Just her and the Black.
And smelling. She still couldn’t get used to the sulfur odor, and she gagged when she thought about it. Since there wasn’t enough space for her body, she figured vomit would just cramp her style.
A friend is waiting to pick you up.
Some friend. Jaime had floated in this tin can for what seemed like hours. Her stomach growled, and she wanted to use a bathroom. Too bad the battlesuit, outfitted for such contingencies, lay on the deck of a Kaxek battle cruiser.
Out of all the races in the galaxy, yours has proven the most difficult to defeat.
That was a bombshell. Other races? Though Earth scientists speculated, having run into one other sentient race meant there must be others, though humanity had yet to meet them. And here this Kaxek had confirmed their existence, and they probably weren’t friends with the Kaxek.
Your execution will only shore up the military’s position, and we’ll have no hope of peace.
These words indicated a level of discontent, if not open rebellion, among the Kaxek. But McWarren had no clue how deep it ran, or how many Kaxek supported it. Still, it was an intriguing proposition and something to exploit. Insurrection was a marvelous tool to distract an enemy.
As if she’d get a chance to report what she’d learned.
She might have dozed off, because she startled when a scraping ripped through the hull. But that couldn’t be, unless the Kaxek had found her. McWarren sucked in a ragged breath as her heart thumped, and her mind ran wild trying to figure the best way to survive this situation.
The Kaxek wanted her, so they wouldn’t kill her—yet. But that would only delay the inevitable.
No. If her death was inevitable, then she’d choose the time, and take some Kaxek out with her.
More scraping told her the enemy was about to open the pod. A whoosh told her they broke the seal, and she sucked in what air she could, because she didn’t know if there was oxygen outside the pod. Light poured around her as half the shell sprang away. She crouched and sprang, but the illumination caused her to close her eyes. She stumbled over the edge of the pod and landed on a deck. The captive air in her lungs flew out at the jolt, and instinctively she took a breath.
And found the air breathable.
“Whoa there,” said a grizzled voice. “I ain’t the enemy here.”
McWarren scrambled to her feet and turned to the voice. It was still too bright for her eyes to make out details. “Who are you?” She squinted, but could only make out the outline of a man who seemed impossibly thin.
“I’m your salvation, though I didn’t expect a human female.”
“What were you expecting?”
“Cargo,” he said flatly.
“You run contraband,” she said, realization dawning. “And through Kaxek space. You’re a pirate!”
The man snorted. “You do have a sense of the dramatic, though you’ve got to learn not to fall on your ass when you display it. Still can’t see? Lights—50%.”
The lighting dimmed, and slowly McWarren could discern the man in greater detail.
He was tall and lanky, with stark white hair. He seemed familiar, but maybe the pirate had that kind of face. He wore a sleeveless black tee shirt, and beige camo military pants of a design and color that was at least ten years out of date.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
He chuckled again. “That’s need to know.” The man abruptly turned and walked toward a hallway.
“Wait!” said McWarren.
“You’re trying my patience,” the man said. “And my patience is legendary. If I weren’t so generous of heart, I would have left before finding you. That damned Kaxek gave me the wrong frequency, and I barely missed two patrols before I caught the signal. Now you can do two things. One is sit down and shut up, or you can come to the galley and get a cup of coffee. Maybe some food. If I’m feeling generous.”
“Actually, I could use the head.”
He turned and cocked his head. “Okay, second compartment on the right, though don’t mind the lack of housekeeping. Might as well take a shower, too, because you stink like Kaxek.”
“Wait, you have a shower? A water shower?” McWarren asked.
“Go easy. I’m not a rich man and I don’t come across enough unclaimed ice asteroids to fill my tanks.”
“Sure, thank you.”
“And.” He stepped into the hallway and pulled open a locker. “Put these on.” He handed her a pair of camo slacks and a tee shirt. He pointed at the grimy uniform she’d been wearing ever since she’d rushed off the Walker Pierce. “If we’re stopped, I don’t want to explain why I’m hauling a Union officer in a uniform that smells of Kaxek.”
He pivoted with military precision and continued down the hallway.
After a trickling shower that was much too short, McWarren joined him.
“Coffee’s there, behind you,” he said.
“You’re spoiling me,” she said. “Coffee?”
“There aren’t many humans that don’t need a fortifying shot with this.” He pulled down liquor bottle from a compartment over his head, and poured a shot into his coffee cup.
“Who’s driving this bucket?” she asked.
“We’re on autopilot. That’s a top-of-the-line system there. I installed it myself.”
She poured a cup of coffee and sat at the opposite side of the table. He dropped a couple of nutrient bars in front of her. “Eat up. It’ll be awhile until we get to our destination.”
Jaime narrowed her eyes. “And when will that be?”
“When we get where we’re going. Damn it, you ask a lot of questions.”
“Just so you’re not the only one asking the questions,” he declared. “What the hell were you doing in a Kaxek escape pod?”
McWarren didn’t answer.
“See how it feels?”
There was something too familiar about him. “Where do I know you from?”
“We’ve never met.”
This was strange. “What did you say was your name again?”
“I never did.”
“Indulge me, then.”
“Jack Shepherd, for all the good it will do you.”
Jaime stared at him, and it all fit. How he looked and acted. She knew who he was. “Do you have a niece named Jada?”
“I did once, but I don’t want to talk about it.”
McWarren shook her head. “So where are you taking me, Shepherd?”
“Nearest Union port. That’s what the bounty certificate says.”
That was news to her. Why the hell would someone put a bounty out on her? “Why go all that way? I know where there’s a Union ship right now.”
“Eltanin. Dragon’s Den.”
Shepherd shook his head. “No can do. If I go to Dragon’s Den, I’ll get my head shot off, and yours too. Kaxek ships heading there right now, and I don’t want to get into the middle of that scrape.”
McWarren opened her mouth to argue the point, but then a warning klaxon sounded. Shepherd swore. “Damn it.”
“What is that?”
“That is a Kaxek patrol—looking for you.”
The ship rocked, and Foster knew he couldn’t stay here in sickbay when there was nothing wrong with him.
“All hands, battle stations,” announced the captain over the intercom.
“Look, Doc, I’m fine. I gotta get moving. Why don’t you look after your cat? Say, where did it go?”
Shu ignored his questions about the feline and continued to examine the readouts above his head. “Your blood oxygen stats—”
Foster twisted to see the readouts, too. “Are good enough. Why don’t you go slap an air cast on Brennan, so he can return to duty as well?”
Shu put her hands on her hips. “When did you become a doctor?”
“Not a doctor. Field medic. I’m a man of many talents.” Foster sat up and swung his feet off the medbed.
“You’re leaving AMA,” she said. “And disobeying orders. I do outrank you.”
“Yes, you do,” he said. “Outrank, outgun, and outclass me in every way.”
“Doctor Shu,” broke Carter over the intercom. “I need Foster and Brennan back on duty now.”
She sighed. “Yes, Captain.”
As he passed the next medbay, Foster glanced at Brennan. “You up for this?”
Brennan nodded. “Absolutely not.”
“That’s what I thought,” Foster said. He dialed the captain on his wrist communicator. “Your orders?” he tapped.
“Ready and deploy the Marines, in case the Kaxek attempt to board us. Then report to the bridge.”
“Aye, sir,” he tapped.
Foster arrived at the Marine deployment compartment and found the teams in their battlesuits. “Teams one through five, defend the landing bay. Six, seven, eight, nine, defend your assigned decks. Team ten, guard the bridge. I’ll coordinate from there. Let’s go.”
Foster’s heart picked up its pace as he raced to the bridge, dodging other Walker Pierce crew scrambling to reach their duty stations. Team Ten followed him, and on the deck that housed the bridge they broke off to take up their assigned positions. The training they’d engaged in for months on fruitless patrol now reaped benefits. Foster didn’t need to utter orders for the operations they’d practiced ad infinitum during the last year. Even Foster had practiced his run to the bridge.
The bridge door, per standard operation procedures, stood sealed shut. Foster gained admittance from his wrist communicator. The door slid open, and Foster took the gunnery station.
“Foster reporting, sir,” said Foster as he slipped his earpiece into his ear.
Carter nodded and returned to staring at the battle board. He stood with his arms crossed as he watched the grim situation. Five Kaxek ships closed in on the Walker Pierce’s position. Foster could see them on his display too, but the battle board gave a complete representation of relative distances. The board displayed that the Walker Pierce hung over Dragon’s Den in a vulnerable position. Carter needed to enact a plan, or they were all dead.
Carter nodded his head and Foster, from working with him for five years, knew that signaled the captain had decided his course of action.
“Sensors, confirm five Kaxek ships.”
“Yes, sir. Five ships. Moving at known Kaxek speed, within standard deviation.”
Foster didn’t know what that meant, but Carter nodded at the information as though it was a new part of his calculation.
“Navigation, plot orbit to a 180 arc around Dragon’s Den. Then pre-plot course to head into Eltanin’s sun on my order. In addition, plot continuous predictive trajectories of the incoming enemy vessels and relay information to the gunnery station and the fighter wing.”
“Yes, sir. Plotting orbit and continuous predictive trajectories.”
“Foster, set battery tracking at continuous aim for rotated and divided fire. Line up torpedoes for indirect fire within range,” Carter said. “They’ll come in with ships over and under us. We’ll lose the line of sight in the next maneuver, so be ready to adjust when targets come into range. Set torpedoes to engage within range based on projected trajectories.”
“Yes, sir.” Foster sent the command to the gunnery crews to target the weapons according to Carter’s orders. But Carter was correct. Foster had to monitor the situation second-by-second to not lose targeting opportunities.
“Communications, give me Lieutenant Shepherd on a secure channel.”
“Pink here, Captain. What’s your pleasure?”
“We’re going in like we’re trying to hide behind the planetoid. I want half your fighters a thousand kilometers above and half below the ecliptic of the planetoid. When the Kaxek come in over and under us, hit from below and above.”
“We won’t do much damage that way, sir.”
“I’m aware, Lieutenant. It’s a diversionary tactic while we strike with what we have. With luck, the Kaxek will think we have overwhelming defensive force and withdraw. But once you fire your initial salvos, break off and head toward Eltanin. We’ll join you.”
“Yes, sir,” said Shepherd. “Pink out.”
“Helm, execute navigation orders.”
Foster concentrated on his station as the Walker Pierce appeared to turn and run from the enemy. He ran the numbers in his head, and while he admitted that Carter had no better options, it was a plan based on hopes and prayers. The words to the song he’d heard on Dragon’s Den popped into his head.
A roll of the dice
A turn of the cards
Foster didn’t have time to worry about whether Carter’s plan was a bad choice. He hoped that he and the Walker Pierce would make it out alive, but at times like this, it was best to concentrate on the job. That’s why the Union paid him. He also didn’t have time to ask why McWarren wasn’t on the bridge, and no one mentioned it, either. And what the hell had happened while Wainwright had locked him up on Dragon’s Den?
The sensor officer, standing next to Foster, swore under his breath. “Captain, incoming energy pulse from the lead Kaxek ship.”
“All hands, brace for impact,” said Carter.
The deck jolted under Foster’s feet. The artificial gravity wavered, but then snapped into place, hitting Foster with a second shock through his body. But the Walker Pierce kept moving, though the ship rattled as they pulled out of Kaxek firing range. A horrible whine emanated from the engines and traveled through the hull.
“Engine room,” called Carter. “Damage report.”
“The second engine’s magnetic core cracked from that last salvo,” Brennan said. “We don’t have long before it shatters beyond repair.”
If the Kaxek didn’t kill them, the ship itself would.
“Emergency speed, Chief. Just keep it patched together for the next fifteen minutes. Otherwise, you’re fired.”
“Yes, Captain.” Brennan’s voice didn’t carry a hint of amusement. Their odds of survival plummeted if the engine failed.
Foster’s headset blipped, announcing someone wanted to speak to him. The only people who could cue his headset were the Marine team leaders or the captain. “Sarge.” The voice in his headset was that of the leader of Team Ten. “There’s a Ms. Shu at the door. She demands to see the captain.”
“The captain doesn’t have time for visitors.”
“Yes, sir, but she insists this is very important.”
“Escort her back to sickbay.”
“You got it.”
Foster scanned his station’s viewscreen as the Walker Pierce rounded the pole of Dragon’s Den and entered darkside space. As Carter predicted, the five Kaxek ships broke formation and took different orbits around Dragon’s Den.
His headset blipped once more. “Sarge, this Ms. Shu is a hard ass. She refuses to leave.”
It would displease Carter if Foster allowed Shu Eiichi on the bridge in the middle of a battle. “Then pick her up and walk her back to sickbay.”
Foster shook his head. Powerful people didn’t take “no” for an answer, but right now, Shu Eiichi had to.
As they sank to the ecliptic of the planetoid, the intervening mass interfered with the Walker Pierce’s sensor signals. Foster held his breath as the information on the battle board winked off. The predicted positions of the enemy ship flowed over his viewscreen, but that was just a computer’s best guess. Who knew what the Kaxek would do? Every crewman on the bridge, including Carter, fixed their gazes on the battle board. Their chance to survive hinged on the computer’s predictions of Kaxek movements and Carter’s assessment that the Kaxek would withdraw. Foster wasn’t sure that the implacable enemy would, but that wasn’t his call.
The Kaxek ships edged over the north and south poles of Dragon’s Den, and Carter held up his fist, signaling for the crew to wait. Foster’s heart seemed to beat louder now. He sucked in a breath as his fingers flew over his keyboard to enter corrected coordinates to the guns and torpedoes.
Foster mashed on his console and felt the familiar rolling sensation just at the edge of his awareness as the big COIL torpedoes roared clear of their racks and blazed into space. He had coordinates for the portside particle cannon, but the Kaxek ships were still out reach. He would need a few more seconds before he could fire those.
The Kaxek had no such limitations. Energy weapons from above and below their alien ships came alive. The night side of Dragon’s Den lit like a holiday celebration.
Foster felt the tremor of impacts against the hull. Then power flickered on his screen as a much larger Kaxek energy blast hit.
The console came back as the lights along the floor shifted red. An unaccustomed quiet settled onto the bridge.
The engine had died.
Foster felt others around him looking up from their consoles, but he refused to do so. The Kaxek had drifted forward just as the Walker Pierce did the same. The alien ships slid as one inside the red line on his targeting system.
Foster mashed down again on his console, not sure what to expect. The port cannons were fed by the lone functioning engine on that side. They had omnidirectional capabilities, and he’d programmed in a trio of blasts at the nearest ships, but who knew how much juice there was. It had been a calculated risk when he’d made the firing assignments, trusting the torpedoes to go after the furthest ships at greater risk of poor performance. At the time it had made sense. He’d expected to come into range of the nearest ships for the energy cannons almost immediately, and they could do more damage than the torpedoes. But he hadn’t counted on the Walker Pierce losing power in those few precious moments. Now he wondered if he’d doomed them by leaving the nearer targets alone in the initial barrage.
Unlike the torpedoes unracking, he’d feel nothing from the particle cannons’ discharge even when they were functioning properly, so he’d have no physical way to know.
C’mon, old girl, give me what you got left.
Tracer lines streaked across the tactical display on his console.
But a moment later, the console went completely dead. Even the emergency lights cut out for a moment, before they came back faintly. When his console came back, there was no tracking data. The sensors were offline.
“Chief Brennan. Damage report,” ordered Carter.
The line came alive with sound of frantic activity in the background as Brennan spoke. “Sorry, Captain. That last blast cut through the ablative armor near the core. We had to shut it down.”
“Understood,” Carter said, before switching to shipwide. “All hands. Prepare for a hard descent to Dragon’s Den.”
Foster blew out a breath. A hard descent onto a planetoid with little atmosphere meant they wouldn’t burn up, but nothing said they couldn’t crash. Still, they had no other option other than to find refuge on the former Union stronghold.
Carter glanced at the sensor technician. “What can you see out there?”
“Active is offline, but passive is back. I’m assessing now.”
“Did we hurt them?”
Foster waited with bated breath.
The sensor tech grinned. “Very badly, sir. Updating the battle board now.” Dots with data surrounding them returned to the battle board as the equipment called on some small emergency reserve of power.
Foster glanced down and saw that his tactical screen was now updating with the same sensor information the tech was relaying. It showed what he’d hoped. The torpedoes had doubled up on the engines of the rear ships, using a tactic to bypass their shielding under extreme pressure. But the cannons had done their part too, slicing into the hulls of the lead ships and leaving them to struggle with internal damage.
The Walker Pierce might have given her last gasp to power the shots that Foster had programmed in, but she’d made them count.
“They’re reacting like we’d expect, regarding the armor of their previous ships,” the sensor operator blurted out. He turned to the captain. “These aren’t like the ones we saw before. They must not have overhauled their entire fleet yet.”
Carter nodded ever so slightly as he tapped his armrest, and Foster sensed he was thinking the same thing Foster was. The Kaxek had as many old buckets still flying as the Union did. “But they still have outfitted weapons, even if shielding and speed haven’t been improved. That’s still a huge advantage.”
But not an impossible one, Foster thought. What had those previous ships been like? He determined to immediately review the last two engagements the moment he was out of the chair.
“Sir, the Kaxek are hailing us.”
Carter seemed to think it over. “Put it through.”
The familiar warbly sound of a Kaxek speaking Galactic Common came over the bridge speakers. “Carter, give us the Erdu, and we will leave.”
The voice sounded even stranger than before, as if it went through a mechanical synthesizer. Perhaps different Kaxek had different ways to translate their speech.
But the words themselves were even more confusing. Why would they want Erdu? Foster glanced at Carter, but he didn’t look surprised at all.
“Open a channel to sickbay,” Carter said.
“Bring Erdu to the bridge.”
“At once, sir.”
What the hell? Foster hadn’t seen Erdu in the sickbay.
“Carter,” said the Kaxek once again. “Do you understand? Give us the Erdu, and we will leave. Otherwise, we will board your ship and take the Erdu.”
“You can try,” said Carter. He looked at the battle board. “But I see one of your ships has lost both engines. Two more, a single engine apiece. One suffers a hull breach, and the last, well, you’re venting atmosphere.”
“You lost both your engines as well, and you cannot move.”
“I don’t need to. Dragon’s Den is a safe haven for me. Is it for you?”
“Their forces are puny.”
“Between us, we can hold you off until more Union troops arrive, and I assure you, they will arrive soon.”
It was pure bluff, as far as Foster was concerned. The Kaxek wouldn’t want to fight Dragon’s Den directly—how many atmosphere suits could they have, after all?—but they could do plenty of damage from a distance.
“Give us the Erdu.”
“Give us McWarren.”
At that moment, the bridge door opened, and Dr. Shu, her mother, and Jax Erdu walked onto the bridge. Erdu appeared tired and worn, as if all the energy had drained from him.
“Erdu,” said Carter. “These Kaxek demand your return.”
“They’re on a channel now?”
“Yes,” said Carter curtly.
Erdu straightened, opened his mouth, and let out a long string of burbles and short screeches.
Kaxek? Erdu spoke the enemy’s language? Foster noted that others around him looked shocked as well.
More screeches and burbles came over the intercom, and damn if it didn’t sound angry.
Erdu uttered more Kaxek, but this time it sounded more like a command.
The Kaxek answered curtly, and then feedback sounded over the speakers.
“Sorry, sir,” said Ballins. “They’ve broken off.”
“The Kaxek ships are beginning to withdraw,” the sensor tech said.
“So what is it, Erdu?” Carter asked.
“I told them that if they wanted to risk ending the life of the heir to the Kaxek throne, then they should attack, but my parent won’t be pleased. And sorry, but I may have mentioned that you’re holding me hostage and won’t hesitate to kill me. They’ll move off.”
“They can’t help you with McWarren, but I told them that if they harmed her, you would kill me.”
“What,” said the elder Shu, “is going on?” Her face was tight, and Foster could imagine Shu Eiichi hated not having all the intel on a situation. Dr. Shu stood next to her with an expression that said someone had rubbed her skin with steel wool.
“Sir, we’re getting a hail from the dockmaster of Dragon’s Den.”
Carter sighed and shook his head. “Put him through, Ensign.”
“Carter, I don’t know how the hell you aren’t dead yet, but—”
“I’ve got your boss here, Wainwright. Sure you want to go there?”
There was a long pause. “Walker Pierce,” he said cordially. “It appears both of your engines have blown, and your orbit is showing signs of decay. Would you like a tow?”
Carter glanced around the bridge. “I thought you’d never ask.”
“Let’s go over this again,” said Foster. “You’re the heir apparent to the Kaxek throne, and you’re leading a rebellion against your father?”
“Not father, parent,” said Erdu. He huffed in frustration. Humans had trouble understanding the Kaxek race, but Foster wasn’t stupid. Maybe this was a tactic to rattle Erdu during this interrogation? His initial impression of Foster had been that he was a “nice” human, or at least likable. Erdu now found his initial reaction hadn’t been correct. Foster acted fierce and cold. Any minute, Erdu expected Foster would torture him. “And not against my parent, though we don’t get along the best. Against the military.”
“But your parent is the Emperor. And he doesn’t control his own forces?”
“There are people within the Empire that would kill my parent to maintain the war with the humans. I’ve told you this six times, Foster.”
Foster slapped the metal table sharply. If Erdu weren’t so tired, he would have startled. Instead, he cast Foster a weary glance.
“We’re wasting time. We should go after McWarren before the Kaxek arrive at Dar’kun.” The homeworld was no place for a human.
Foster looked at a corner of the room that, Erdu assumed, held a security camera. “He’s not changing his story.”
“Bring him to the conference room,” said Carter.
Foster hauled Erdu to his feet. Not roughly, but he was far from friendly. “Let’s go,” he said.
Erdu endured the jerk on his arms and the shackles on his wrists, though he could easily slip out of them if he changed his form. But he’d already put himself in a terrible position with these humans by lying to them, and he didn’t want to provoke them further. He still needed the humans’ cooperation to pull this disaster out of deep water and put his plan on the right course.
They went up several decks, and Foster forcefully led him to a room with an enormous oval table. Captain Carter sat at the head, Doctor Shu in the seat next to his, and Shu Eiichi opposite her daughter. Brennan sat in a chair in the middle, appearing unhappy to be here. Jada Shepherd sat across from Brennan.
This, except for Shu Eiichi, was the command staff, and to have them gathered told Erdu that they would make an important decision.
“Sit,” said Foster.
Erdu took the seat at the farthest end, and everyone at the table looked toward him.
Carter spoke into the intercom. “Please tell Admiral King we’re ready to start.”
King? McWarren’s parent?
The holographic image of Rear Admiral King appeared in the middle of the table. King turned his gaze toward Erdu, and his eyes narrowed.
“I’ve heard your story,” said King. “I don’t believe a word of it. Command doesn’t either.”
Erdu sighed. “What would you have me say, Admiral? I’m truthful in my statements.”
“A ruse to convince you to step down your war efforts.”
“And it worked. And now my daughter is your prisoner.”
“Not my prisoner, Admiral,” Erdu said.
“And what’s this nonsense about trying her for war crimes?”
“Humans and Kaxek have different ideas about the role of the family,” Erdu said. “Kaxek families are generational. Since we don’t mate to reproduce, we tend to have offspring as needed to meet the needs of the family. The human term ‘tribe’ is probably more appropriate than ‘family’. Since your tribe has an extensive history of fighting us, your daughter is seen as responsible for the deaths your tribe caused.”
“More to the point, capturing her and putting her trial on display is potent propaganda. They’ll rally support with her death, and the cycle of war continues.”
King looked away and shook his head. “Captain Carter, I understand that Dragon’s Den is expediting repairs to the Walker Pierce.”
“Yes, sir. Under my chief engineer’s supervision, the repairs proceed quickly.”
“Good. When you’re underway, you will transport your prisoner to Earth immediately. We will negotiate for my daughter’s return.”
Erdu stared at the image of King. “As I told you, she’ll be dead before I ever make Earth.”
“Then Erdu, or whatever the hell your name is, if the Kaxek want war, they’ll have it. And we’ll have no mercy for any of you. I’ll look forward to your interrogation on Earth. King out.”
Erdu closed his eyes. His entire plan had gone wrong, and his people and humans would die for no reason.
There was no sound at the table for a long minute. Erdu would die for his people, and perhaps he should. His giant miscalculation would cost millions of lives on both sides.
“King has always been a hothead,” said Shu Eiichi, “though I suppose he speaks for those in the military that want to have something to fight. And they will not believe that the Kaxek will beat them. But they will, won’t they, Erdu?”
“We’ve never been defeated,” said Erdu. “It is, understandably, a point of pride.”
“And these other races you’ve spoken about? They cannot love the Kaxek.”
Erdu shook his head. “We spend resources on keeping what we have, but one day, they will fight back.”
“I think that is a reasonable assessment,” said Shu. “So we will have Earth defeated and ruled by an alien species, and get drawn into interstellar conflict with races we haven’t met yet? That is unacceptable. We cannot let this war go forward.”
Erdu raised his head.
“I take it your position hasn’t changed?” Carter asked. “You want me to betray my oath to the Union and become a traitor.”
Shu shook her head. “You’re being purposefully provocative.”
There were grim looks on the faces of everyone around the table. Erdu had the impression that this was a continuation of a discussion that had been going on for some time. Brennan looked like he was going to puke. Foster looked visibly angry.
Carter leaned forward. “I should’ve put you in the brig by now.”
“Amen,” Foster said, and Shepherd nodded agreement.
Shu met Carter’s eyes. “But you haven’t.”
“Command has all our data transmissions,” Shepherd said. “They know what we’re up against. The Kaxek are powerful, but not invincible. We don’t need to listen to some defeatist in fancy clothes.”
“I’m a realist, not a defeatist,” Shu Eiichi said. “The war with the Kaxek has been devastating. We’ve lost an entire generation to it.”
“You’ve done just fine by it,” Foster noted.
Shu Eiichi ignored him. “And now we’re going to dive back into a war with an enemy that has retrenched and regrouped and is clearly ready for more.”
“They regrouped because we let them,” Carter seethed.
“That’s right,” Shu Eiichi said, nodding her head. “And you came out here looking for proof of that, and you’ve found it.” She pointed at Erdu. “But now that we have proof of a schism within the Kaxek, not to mention a vital bargaining chip, the Union isn’t listening.” She leaned forward, her voice rising. “King won’t be passing that information beyond the Office of Strategic Operations. His office was responsible for the truce. And now that they’re reeling under the pressure of internal politics and his own personal humiliation, not to mention the capture of his own daughter, he’s not going to recommend that we try to deescalate with the Kaxek.”
“You don’t know that,” Carter said.
“You know what’s going on out here in the Black,” Shu Eiichi snapped. “But don’t tell me I don’t know what’s going on back there in the corridors of power on Earth. King’s Strategic Operations division is unchecked. They’ll bury all of this. What we’ve uncovered here won’t make a damned difference there. No one will even know.”
Carter studied Shu Eiichi. “Why am I not shocked that a woman who maintains an illegal army of her own would have a problem with authority?”
“Don’t pretend that makes me wrong, Carter,” she said. “And don’t pretend your own distrust of authority isn’t the reason you’re out here in the first place.”
Carter nodded like he’d made up his mind. He stood, and the other officers at the table did as well. “I’ll work within the command structure to make them see that we have an opportunity for something other than direct conflict here. I still have a few friends in Command that will listen to me.” He paused. “But I’ll not be disobeying direct orders.”
“It seems to me you’ve been doing that for some time,” Shu Eiichi said.
Carter shook his head. “I’d be stripped of command if anyone thought that. I’ve exercised discretion in line with the autonomy that the naval charter provides for. And—”
“Don’t give me that BS. You’ve been out here ignoring orders. Even Command knows that. But mark my words. Your days of autonomy are numbered.”
Carter pursed his lips and finished his thought as though Shu Eiichi hadn’t spoken. “And I will continue to do so.” He nodded to the others, and they turned to leave the room.
“Very well,” Shu Eiichi said. “You continue to be the good loyal soldier that you are, but just remember. When the time comes and you realize you can’t worship the masters of war and peace at the same time, I’ll be here.” She stood as well. “When you decide you’re willing to stop a war, Captain Carter, and your superiors abandon you, come see me.”
To be continued …
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A starship captain faced with an impossible choice.
An amnesiac awoken on an alien world.
A timecop lost in a constantly-changing history.
These stories and many more await inside the page of Portal, a short story collection from the mind of Daniel Young. Six distinct worlds with their own strange rules, pitfalls, and challenges.
Nothing is as it seems...
Copyright © 2020 by Joshua James
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