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Remains of the Dead

A Star Tigers story

Michael A. Stackpole


The tip of Thomas Firefly’s tongue poked pink out of the corner of his mouth. He looked up from the sketchbook, squinted at the liftloader Meka, then penciled in more detail on the machine’s arm. He used a finger to smear some of the graphite, roughly matching where a leaking hydraulic line had splashed dark fluid. When he looked up again, the Meka had vanished into the freighter’s hold.

Alicia plopped herself down on the packing crate beside him. “Not bad.”


“I still don’t get the why.”

He glanced over at her. “I like the feel of the pencil scratching on the paper. It adds tactile to the visual, makes it more real.”

“Not that, dummy.” She frowned, which somehow still didn’t diminish her cuteness. “And don’t give me the ‘action and adventure’ crap. That might work for Captain Hudson.”

“It’s not because I’m running away from you.”

She dug an elbow into his ribs. “Nice try, but not all clips have abandonment issues. The 301st, really?”

Thomas sighed and closed the sketchbook. “First unit, third planet …”

“Which is wrong since scientists have figured out that life actually began on the fourth planet. Mars, right?”

His brown eyes tightened. “And you a navigator.”

“Not like the Qian let us any closer than the far edge of the system.” She scratched at the back of her head. “You’re too smart to be doing something this stupid. You owe them nothing.”

“What them?” He shook his head. “You’re blonde-haired, blue-eyed, just like the folks back on Terra. If they dropped you in Iceland or Scandinavia, no one would look twice.”

“Until I opened my mouth.”

“Sure, we all have that problem, but look around you.” In the spaceport’s docking area, countless non-humans wandered, chatted and loitered, just as he and Alicia were doing. Thomas studiously avoided thinking of the others as alien, both for politeness sake, and on the basis of seniority. Humanity had been in the stars for nanoseconds compared to some of the species lurking around the landing pad.

“I’m looking.”

“You and I, even though we come from different Terran stock, are tons closer to each other and Terrans than we are to any of the species here. Just because the Arwarzhy clipped us from our home planet and sold us as pets doesn’t mean we’re not human.”

“But that’s not how the Terrans see it, is it?” She raked fingers back through her pixie cut. “They don’t want to acknowledge we exist.”

“Half the people in my enclave don’t want to acknowledge the Terrans exist.”


“Our people are furious that once Terran leaders made contact with the Qian, our brethren didn’t demand our immediate return. But, really, they couldn’t. It took them fifty years to prepare humanity to realize that there was life outside our solar system, and that we were going to be slowly worked into the Qian Commonwealth. Bringing us back, after generations of us had lived among the stars, would screw that plan up. I also think that lots of Terrans would have thought that we looked down upon them, since our people have been raised with Qian technology for centuries.”

Alicia stared at him openly. “You’re making my case for me. They’ve not done anything for us, and now you’re going to join a fighter squadron calling itself the Star Tigers? You know what most folks call it.”

Thomas sighed. “The Suicide Kitties.”

“That’s the polite translation.” She shook her head. “And they’ve already lost a pilot, even before their roster is full.”

“I heard.” Thomas looked down at the black, pebbled cover of his sketch book. “When the Qian cracked down on human trafficking, then took us and sorted us out, and put us in our own little preserves, my forbearers did their best to reconstruct our culture. We’d been clipped from all over the North American continent, but the Qian tossed us all together; so I was raised in mismatched stew of dozens of Native American traditions.”

“And according to Terrans, I speak Nor-Dano-Swedish with a Finn’s accent.” She raised an eyebrow. “And despite that mix, we don’t have a word for ‘you’re not making your case.’”

“Nor one for patience.”


“My case is this: my people have reconstituted a culture out of the half-remembered beliefs of kidnap victims. Most of them were outsiders anyway—the Arwarzhy knew enough to pick off folks who wouldn’t be missed or believed—so their grasp of traditions was weak at best. Or extreme. Sum it all up, though, and you get a culture that believes that some Great Spirit lives in the universe and is tightly tied to whatever rock you’re standing on.”

Alicia glanced at her chronometer.

Thomas chuckled. “So my point arrives. I got my surname, Firefly, when I became a man because I was smart, and I studied things like astronomy and because I wanted to fly. Really it was because I didn’t want to be tied to a rock. Some of the Elders understood—that about me, and what the reality of space meant for their beliefs. If I’d not run away to the spaceport and hired onto the first freighter that would have me, those Elders would have driven me there and paid for passage.”

“So, among your own people you’re an outsider, too?”

“Yeah. But with you and Captain Hudson, other spacers, I found my place.”

“And now you’re leaving it.”

“Because the 301st is something bigger than Terra or the clip colonies.” Thomas nodded toward one of the diminutive, large-headed, grey-skinned humanoids sitting across the hangar. “You think that Arwarzshy wouldn’t take us away and sell us to a collector if he had the chance?”

“He would.” Alicia nodded. “And there are collectors who would pay.”

“There are collectors that still have their collections. Likely have all the forms right, too, showing how they are paying humans to be test subjects, or actors in some slowly-unfolding drama. Point being, for a lot of these beings, we’re just pets that have slipped the leash.”

“And you think getting vaporized in the cockpit of some Shrike fighter is going to convince them otherwise?”

Them, no. Those who turn a blind eye to what they’re doing, you bet.”

“That’s incredibly brave, or incredibly stupid. Maybe both.” Alicia checked her chronometer again. “Cap needs us back at top of the hour.”

Thomas tucked his pencil into a slot in a leather case, then rolled it up and tied it off. He tucked it and the sketchbook in a satchel and looped it across his body. “Might as well head back now. Traffic is light enough we can get quick exit clearance for the shuttle.”

As they started across the spaceport, a couple of the Arwarzhy began to parallel their journey. Thomas would not have given it much thought save for the conversation just ended, and the fact that the Greys had one person on each side and two trailing behind them. If two more come up in front, we’re going to have trouble.

“Think they’re buying or selling?”

Alicia shrugged. “That or spying?”

Thomas considered the third option. Rumors were rife about this species or that straddling the line in the Qian-Zsytzii war. Many individuals played for immediate reward, while governments looked at long-term gains. The Qian Commonwealth was meant to benefit all, but species like the Arwarzhy chafed beneath regulations that stopped profitable things like trafficking in sapient species.

For them to be watching us means they believe that knowledge that I’m joining the Star Tigers is valuable. He didn’t think that was very likely. It wasn’t much of a secret that the unit had been formed, or that members were being recruited from among clips. And anyone smart enough to be spying would know that my value would be nothing until after I join the unit.

His dismissal of spying as a motive didn’t mean they were in any less danger. “Selling, I would bet.”

“I’m not inclined to take chances.”

He smiled. Her earlier shrug had dropped one end of a short, dense metal rod into her hand from within her flight jacket’s sleeve. Alicia might have grown up in the colonies, but whenever she tangled with Greys, she treated all of them as they were the Arwarzhy who clipped her ancestors.

And given those buggers’ longevity, any of them could be.

Four more of the black-eyed humanoids appeared to cut them off. Granted the shiny domed top of their bulbous heads would barely reach Thomas’ chin, but the Greys had a wiry tenacity that made them hard to put down. Four to one odds would give the Greys an edge. And experience will even things out.

Thomas and Alicia had fought with Greys before, together and separately. What the Greys had a hard time understanding was that in some colonies, martial traditions often centered themselves around preventing more kidnappings. Plenty of disobedient human children shivered to tales of Greys coming to get them and, later on, took deep interest in learning how to kick what passed for Arwarzhy ass.

He tightened his grip on the sketchbook. No species willing to call itself sapient was going to feel threatened by the book, but Thomas understood it for what it really was. In size and weight it compared well with a block of wood. Grey skulls were hard to miss and the book was heavy enough to deliver a nasty blow.

The Greys started to tighten the circle. If any of the other species noticed, they gave almost no sign. Those who did shifted to where they could watch the battle, or huddled together to place bets. Thomas might have thought them callous, but for many years, man-fights were popular amid the sporting classes within the Commonwealth.

Yet before the Greys could close and engage, a piercing scream echoed through the docking bay. No throat could have made that sound—and every spacer knew it well. Somewhere, deep in the bowels of a ship, an engine pod had overspun and was ripping itself apart. Right on cue, as the scream rose up and out of Thomas’ hearing, pinging and popping triggered banging and clanging. His head snapped around. Back from over near where he’d seen a Grey lounging beside a ship, a dark curl of black smoke began to rise.

The Arwarzhy saw what he saw, their dark, unblinking eyes growing even larger. The eight of them froze.

Thomas cut to the left, getting out of the line between the Greys and the damaged ship. Alicia followed tight in his wake. He rushed at the lone Grey on that side. The Arwarzhy gave way, darting back toward his ship. His move was enough to convince the others to retreat as well.

Alicia frowned. “I thought we were in trouble.”

“Better to be lucky than good.”

“And we’re both.” Her frown melted into a smile. “They don’t know how fortunate they are.”

“True.” He gave her a wink. “So let’s get to Swift before they make us prove it.”


Captain Gregory Allen dropped to one knee on the repair bay deck of the Unity. He steadied himself with his left hand. The decking felt like wood, matching the red-cedar appearance. It wasn’t wood—not wood grown the conventional way at least—but the Qian had chosen it to make the humans feel more comfortable.

He ducked his head, looking in toward where small, spider-like repair automatons skittered over his Shrike’s belly. The little silver and black machines seemingly moved at random, their actions dictated by the RA107 repair automaton hunched behind Greg. The RA107 was the size of a small pony, but matched its arachnid charges in design—which is why Greg didn’t like it lurking at his back.

The fact that it spoke in a mechanical approximation of human speech did nothing to quell his unease. “Systems repair, 75% complete. Cosmetic repair, 74% complete. Completion estimate at two Terran Standard days.”

Greg studied the tiny sparks marking the smaller spiders at work. “Thank you.”

“Gratitude is superfluous. We are just an adjunct to the Unity’s command system.”

“Gratitude is just being mannerly.” Greg straightened up, running his left hand along the ship’s skin. Up there, by the cockpit, his name had been painted in a clean, flowing hand. Just as my wife had painted it on my first fighter.

He looked away. His left hand balled into a fist. His right hand, which initially appeared to be as flesh and blood as the left, tightened into a crystalline mace of ice blue. One of the small spiders leaped from the Shrike to his sleeve, its forelegs tapping delicately against the prosthesis.

Greg flicked the automaton off with the snap of his wrist. It spun through the air, but landed on four legs. The other four slowed it, then the thing galloped back toward him, but leaped onto the RA107’s broad back and remained there.

Greg frowned. “I’m sorry. Is it okay?”

“Performance is undiminished. Your limb is functioning within normal parameters.”

“Great. Thanks.”

“Gratitude is …”

“Got it.” Greg concentrated and forced his Qian hand back into its original configuration.

The RA107 stepped laterally. “Data recovery and replacement to pre-damage state was 100% successful.”

Greg nodded. That meant that a picture of Jennifer and their daughter, Bianca, would be available on his fighter’s auxiliary monitor. He had no doubt that the Qian could have implanted a lens into his eyes that would allow him to call that picture up any time he wanted. Had they done that to him, he wasn’t sure he’d ever look at much else.

“Your ship is coming along, Captain Allen.”

Greg forced a smile onto his face, and drew his hands to the small of his back. “It is, Mr. Yamashita. How goes your reporting?”

The young Asian man shrugged. “I file the stories, but I have no idea as to when they make it back to Earth, get run, or have any feedback.”

“We are at war, Mr. Yamashita. There is bound to be some delay in communication for the purpose of security.”

“I know. I’m just not used to it.” Jiro shrugged. “Even when I was reporting on mining troubles in the asteroid belt, feedback came fairly quickly. I think my editors just aren’t sending any of it along. Instead they send things they want me to question the 301st about.”

“Such as?” Greg walked toward the lift. “I could use some coffee. Join me?”

“Sure.” The reporter reached the lift control panel first and hit the button. “To answer your other question, they’ve sent reports about the reaction to Maddie Fields’ death. Mixed bag. Most of the United Kingdom is sad because their pilot has died, but they’re also proud. Politicians have noted she’s keeping with the proud tradition of the RAF and the Battle of Britain. Lots of speculation on who will replace her. Two minorities—pacifists and the Earth-Firsters—are protesting any human death. A couple radical religious sects say they’ll protest the funeral.”

Greg preceded the reporter into the lift, then sent it down toward the galley. “That sort of thing still garners publicity. I mean, I understand they protested at my wife’s …”

“I shouldn’t have mentioned it. Forgive me.”

“No, it’s fine. I trust you didn’t do that to get a reaction for a story, right?”

Jiro’s eyes widened. “God, no. Look, I know that my presence isn’t the most welcome thing here, but …”

Greg rested his real hand on Jiro’s shoulder. “It’s fine, Mr. Yamashita. I do trust you.”

“To a point.”

“I am my father’s son. There’s always a point.” Greg nodded toward the lift’s opening door. “Your job is to report. Mine is to fight. We both know that we’re shaping opinion. We also both know that there is a particular opinion which is the narrative Earth’s leaders want to be accepted as the truth. I have no problem lying, so you don’t have to.”

“And that’s off the record, right?”

“Take yours black, if I recall correctly?”


Greg smiled, but refrained from quoting RA107 back at the reporter. Jiro Yamashita had been chosen as the only reporter from Earth to be imbedded with the 301st. What their home world knew of the Star Tigers could go through him—and countless censors between reporter and citizen. While Jiro was looking for stories, he and Greg had reached something of an accommodation, which allowed them to enjoy each other’s company.

Greg set the coffee mugs on the table. As with the rest of the Unity, the Qian had fitted it out in woods and brass, creating a massive art-deco warship that would have been at home in the works of Victorian novelist George Chetwynd-Griffiths. Actually, it owed more to the Disney version of Captain Nemo’s Nautilus than anything else, but Greg found that perfect. A fantasy set for a fantastic adventure.

Jiro accepted the coffee and wrapped both hands around the barrel. “Ever get the feeling that this is one giant experiment?”

“How so?”

The reporter frowned. “Ever since the 301st got ambushed, I’ve been asking for updates on who did it, how it happened, and I’m getting nothing. I mean, if it was the Zsytzii who tried to kill the Haxadissi ambassador, why wouldn’t the Qian tell us that? They recovered the enemy ship fragments. You can’t tell me that they don’t know.”

“I can tell you that.” Greg shrugged. “Three scenarios. First, it was the Zeez, but the Qian don’t want to panic folks by noting an incursion so deep in Commonwealth space. Second, it wasn’t. It was an internal matter based on Haxad or showing a rift within the Commonwealth itself. Either one of those are not going to be good for public consumption. Even if you did learn the truth there, your report would never make it back to Earth with that information in it.”

Jiro sipped his coffee, then lowered the mug. “The third scenario?”

“That they don’t know who it was, and that has the Qian terrified.” Greg exhaled slowly. “Probably the only time my father was candid about a problem in the White House was when he told me about a situation his father faced. It was after the Aeroflot jet went down over Samarkand.”

“Turcoman separatists used a captured Chinese SAM to shoot it down. That put your grandfather in the hot seat.”

“Blazing. And, yes, rebels was what it turned out to be, but no one knew it in the moment. No one knew it for certain for a week. And all that time there was pressure on my grandfather to act. Folks didn’t want to accept that he didn’t know the truth because, for their own sense of security, they needed him to know. Pressure was on, but he didn’t want to act and be wrong simply because it could ignite a war.”

“It did.”

“But later, and more controlled. It limited the panic, limited the damage. Folks had time to act and react.”

Jiro nodded. “Just like the decision to keep the Qian’s contact with world leadership quiet for a generation or three.”

“Yeah.” Greg smiled. “Of course, had things really gone to hell in a hand basket in central Asia, like as not we’d not be here. The Qian never would have brought us into the Commonwealth, even as a Protectorate world.”

“And that brings us back to the central question: why did they?”

Greg shook his head. It couldn’t have been because they needed troops, or needed human troops. They were allowing only a handful of humans to fight; and they could have drawn all the humans they needed from the various clip colonies scattered throughout the Commonwealth. No one on Earth had a good answer for why. Earth-Firsters figured it was a plot. Science Fiction geeks figured it was destiny. Various religious folks figured this was something between damnation or revelation. Most people, as long as they had food, beer, and holovids in abundance, really didn’t seem to care.

“I know you’re not comfortable with the idea that they have a reason they’ll share with us later, Mr. Yamashita. Neither am I. I tend to believe that they’ll share it with us once they figure we can handle it.”

“I suppose we don’t have a choice in the matter.” Jiro’s eyes narrowed. “So here’s another question, a minor one.”


“Why did you even bother with a mug for your coffee?”

Greg glanced down. His right hand had flowed around the mug, absorbing the handle. He tried to open his hand, but he couldn’t feel individual fingers. Not at first. He fought panic, then full feeling came back into hand.

Fingers redefined themselves and slowly came away from the mug. Still, his grip had left an impression in the ceramics, as if he’d gripped the mug tightly before it ever got fired. Still, the red, white and blue coloring remained, as did the Star Tiger emblem.

“I don’t know what that was.” Greg recalled that the RA107 said his prosthesis was working properly. “I guess, subconsciously, I didn’t want to spill and my hand …”

“That makes sense.” Jiro stared at the mug again, then sipped more coffee. “Will you report that to Xin when you get checked out for flight duty?”

“Don’t have to. I’m sure he knows.” Greg waved the artificial hand toward bulkheads. “The Unity keeps an eye on things.”

“Are you ever worried the ship knows more about you than you do?”

“Back to this being an experiment, are we? Where humans are being tested for unknown and nefarious reasons?”

“You make it sound like I’m an Earth-Firster.”

“Not my intent.” Greg shook his head. “Ridiculing their ideas just makes it easier for me to dismiss the possibility they might be right.”


Colonel Nick Clark read the message on the viewscreen built into his desk one more time. “The Haxadissi Ambassador has filed a complaint about our giving orders to her pilot, even though if we hadn’t given those orders, she, her staff, and members of her family would have died in that ambush? Not to mention the fact that her pilot followed so slothfully that he almost cost Captain Allen his life. And Command is using this complaint to suspend our operations?”

Vych Thziilon, the squadron’s Qian liaison officer spread her open hands. Little lights, like electric freckles, flashed along her cheekbones and forehead beneath lavender skin. Some even shot up into strands woven into her dark hair. “Colonel Clark, reading that message yet another time will not change the meaning of it.”

“Rereading certainly isn’t injecting any sense in it.” Nick sat back, relishing the squeak of a chair that needed just a touch of oil. The Qian never would have allowed that imperfection, save that they’d built his office to very precise instructions. Though the office overlooked the Unity’s flight deck, the decor had been modeled on that of a rustic lake cabin in Maine. The Qian had recreated it to perfection, right down to that squeak and the faint scent of pine.

He regarded the other female in the room. “Thoughts, Major Taine?”

Damienne Taine, her black hair woven into a thick braid, frowned. “If you expect, Colonel, outrage, I shall disappoint you. I am angry that Lt. Fields’ death is tarnished by this, but it is not out of character for the Haxadissi, I am given to believe.”

Vych nodded in agreement.

“On the other hand, sir, we are at half strength. Elizabeth Windsor is on her way to join us. Captain Rustov should be with us soon, too. In two days we should rendezvous with Thomas Firefly and Captain Allen should again be flight ready. Our other three pilots are inbound. Within the month we would be at full strength and able to train as a unit.”

“I’ve done the math, Major. Being under-strength hurt us at Haxad—but being full-up wouldn’t have helped much.” Nick tapped the viewscreen with a finger. “I should have seen this coming before anything that happened at Haxad. Ambush aside, we were set up. The Haxadissi would have complained about Terrans being their escort no matter what. There’s probably some number-superstition or symbolism in all this, too, right? Seven is not good, six is worse, plus Haxad is the system where the first Terran died, right?”

Vych’s hands came back in, slipping away into the folds of her robe’s overlarge sleeves. “Among the Haxadissi, seven is an auspicious number. Six is the equivalent of your thirteen. That a human died, but no Haxadissi did put them in debt to humanity.”

Nick closed his eyes for a moment. “So this is the best possible outcome for someone. The Haxadissi are humbled, we’re hobbled and the Star Tigers have been exposed as a political toy. Damn. Your Qian politics is a contact sport.”

Vych glanced at Major Taine for a heartbeat, then back at Nick. “Colonel, you must understand that politics is not being deployed alone against you. It is being used in your favor. As Major Taine pointed out, you have new personnel coming in. The Haxadissi complaint means you’re not being thrown into battle while hobbled.”

“I get that. I do.” His nostrils flared. “I know we have to refit, but when and where and how we go into action should be a decision made with me, not in spite of my wishes.”

“I shall make this known to Admiral Ghaetr.”


The Qian’s head came up. “No?”

“No, I’ll tell him when he gets here.”

The lights on Vych’s face flashed more quickly. “Am I to convince you that you do not want to take an action, or am I preparing to deal with an action taken?”

Nick met her gaze easily. “You remember all the visits I made when I was appointed to command this unit? I got lots of awards and medals and things for having done nothing. One of them was to get inducted into the Mnemnar-vyste.”

“No, Colonel Clark, that is not something you want to invoke.”

“I do, and I will.” He tapped the screen again. “This accusation against my squadron is an affront to my honor. I will challenge the Haxad pilot to a duel. My membership in the Mnemnar-vyste makes this possible. Actually, it demands it, doesn’t it?”

Vych hung her head. “It does, provided your superior in the society does not dismiss the dishonor.”

“I’m guessing Admiral Ghaetr will be happy to get here double-quick to do that.” Nick nodded toward Major Taine. “Major, you’ll want to prep Lieutenants O’Leary, Sun, and Early in protocols and formations for escorting the Admiral’s shuttle here.”

“Yes, sir.” She drew herself up to attention and snapped a salute.

Nick stood and returned the salute. “Dismissed, Major.”

The hatch had barely closed behind her when Vych looked up again. “Nicholas!”

He came out from behind his desk and took her hands in his. “I know what I’m doing.”

“You know what you think you are doing.”

“I’ve read the rules.”

“In translation, Nicholas.” She rubbed a hand along her brow. “The Mnemnar-vyste has existed for millennia. It was old before your Neanderthal and Denisovan species ceased to exist independently of your dominant humanoid species. The translation you were given is infantile in simplicity, devoid of nuance. And you have not seen the volumes of commentary and Court of Honor decisions rendered down through the aeons. What you propose to do is not as simple as you imagine.”

“And I’m sure the admiral will be happy to explain all that to me.”

She looked up at him. “You make an enemy where you need not.”

He gave her a wink. “There are only two types of fights worth fighting: those you can win, and those you must win. The first are optional. The second are vital. He’s got to see that we’re more than numbers and forms. If I have to be a thorn in his side to make that happen, I will be.”

“Yours is a philosophy about fighting with which the admiral will agree—because you cannot win this fight.”

Nick laughed. “It’s won the second I send a message to the admiral. If he upholds the dishonor, then I am free to fight a duel with the Haxadissi pilot. We know that won’t happen.”

“Perhaps it will. Perhaps that pilot will kill you.”

“I’ve seen him fly. If he kills me, I’m better off dead.” The human took her by the hand to the viewports looking out onto the launch bay. “We know that can’t be allowed to happen. Me killing a Haxadissi, and one killing me, are outcomes that create plenty of Chaos. So the admiral has to tell me that it’s not a dishonor. He’ll dismiss the Haxadissi charge, which frees us to act again.”

“But you agreed with Major Taine that waiting is best for the squadron, waiting until you get more pilots.”

“It is, but that leaves the choice to act in my hands. If I can’t establish and maintain control over my people, I lose.” Nick ran a hand over his jaw. “My grandfather fought in our First World War. General Pershing was in charge of the American Expeditionary Force. The French and the British both wanted to control our troops, and use them however they damned well pleased. Pershing knew that if he allowed that, Americans would be wasted. He didn’t let it happen and Americans ended up doing what the French and British had failed to do in a very long and bloody war.”

She reached a hand up and stroked his cheek. “You cannot imagine that your squadron, no matter how good, can win this war by itself.”

“Nope. But I have no trouble imagining some commander somewhere using us to plug a hole so his people can escape.” He raised his hand to hold her palm firmly in place. “You know me better than any Qian. You know me better than anyone. Perhaps even better than I know myself. Can you fault my logic?”

“No, but I can fear for your application of it.”

“Your admiral is not the first superior officer I’ve had to deal with.”

“As you have said, Nicholas, I know you. I also know much of him. He is not stupid. He knows what you are doing. He will feel he must break you.”

Nick nodded. “He’ll do his best, but he has a weakness.”

Vych’s facelights slowed their dancing. “Yes?”

The pilot pointed to the flight deck. “I’m betting he has no more of a clue about why we’re here than we do. He feels he has to act, but doesn’t want to get things wrong. I’ll make life hard for him, then give him an out. Unless he’s more dialed in than I can imagine, he’ll take it.”

“I do not know if he is privy to decisions made at a higher level than his own. Regardless, he will follow his orders to the letter. You best hope that his superiors—those who do know why you are here—provide him leeway.”

“If they don’t, it tells me even more.” He smiled against her hand. “So, will you help me craft a message that will annoy without blatant insults?”


“And help me through nuances?”

She laughed almost humanly—in a manner that she’d never exhibited when they first met. “It will be a … pleasure is too strong a word.”

“An education, maybe.”

“Definitely that, Nicholas.” Vych nodded solemnly. “Sooner started, sooner sent.”

He turned back toward his desk. “Then let the games begin.”


Thomas waited for Captain Richard Hudson to slide his seat forward before he slipped into his place at the auxiliary pilot console. Hudson, a rather large man with thinning brown hair and a bit of a belly, dominated the transparent forward cockpit dome. He fastened his restraining straps and laughed aloud. “No finer a day possible than flying.”

Alicia entered the crowded cockpit and took up the navigator’s station to the captain’s left. She sat with her back to Thomas, but they’d set up little mirrors that let them exchange glances. The one they shared now was the one they always shared after Hudson made his declaration. His joy teased big smiles from both of them.

“Mister Firefly, is the shuttle made fast?”

“Aye, sir. In the last pod. We had fourteen greens on the way forward. The visual run had everything looking good.”

“As expected. Do you concur, Miss Yorgensdottar?”

“Aye, Captain.” Alicia hit a couple of buttons on her console. A schematic of the ship came up on a secondary monitor. It showed the cockpit at the head of a long string of pods. One engine component sat behind the cockpit, and another seven pods back. The pods glowed green and their external hatches burned red. “Everything is in order and I have a course plotted.”

“Satisfactory.” Hudson looked to the right. “Bring the engines on line, please, Mister Firefly.”

“Aye, sir.” Thomas’s fingers played over his console. Instead of a ship schematic he got a spreadsheet full of numbers. He started the forward engine pod first, then brought the second engine pod along at two percent behind the first. A low thrum worked through the hull. The engines would cycle up and sync at 75% of capacity, which was all they needed to haul this load. “Five minutes to maneuvering, eight to speed.”

“Course requires us to come about to 315.3 degrees, up 21.76.”

“Noted, Miss Yorgensdottar.” Hudson unlocked the helm controls. “Departure Control indicated an Arwarzhy ship had an engine failure down there. You had nothing to do with that, yes?”

“No, sir.” Thomas glanced at the mirror. Alicia just shrugged. “We were there, and there might have been trouble, but their engine ripped itself apart, so they all ran off to check it.”


“Was there a reason you asked?”

“Might could be Departure Control had some questions asked of it about us.” Hudson brought his command chair all the way around. “I wasn’t worried about you kids. I am just glad I didn’t need to come down there and pry you out of some lock-up.”

“We’re happy you didn’t have to do that either, sir.” Alicia smiled. “We don’t know what they were up to, but it’s over now.”

“Don’t think that, Miss Yorgensdottar. With them, it’s never over.” He brought his chair around. “Am I good to throttle up, Mister Firefly?”

“Yes, sir.”

Hudson reached out with a massive hand. White scars twisted over the knuckles. He eased the throttle forward. The thrum increased, then the starfield beyond the cockpit began to shift.

Thomas’s console beeped. One of the cells in the spreadsheet showed red numbers instead of green. “Hang on. The rear engine just had a power drop. Off .21 percent.”

He hit a few more keys, bringing up a diagnostic image of the engine pod on his primary monitor. That shifted the spreadsheet to the secondary. “That’s weird.”

“More informative, Mister Firefly.”

“Sir, in the time it took to bring up the engine’s diagnostics, the problem corrected itself.” Thomas squinted at the screen. “In fact, it seems like the engine is running leaner. It’s picked up 2.31 percent efficiency. And …” More keys clicked beneath his fingers. “… and it’s matching the forward pod.”

Hudson looked over his shoulder. “They’ve never paired.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“Anything anomalous, Miss Yorgensdottar?”

“Green and red right where they are supposed to be.”

“Satisfactory. Coming about to 315.3 degrees, up 21.76.”

Alicia hit a button on her console. “This is transport Swift. Requesting clearance on outbound vector 315.3 by 21.76 up.”

“Clearance granted to jump at AU 1.73.”

“Copy command. AU 1.73. Swift out.” Alicia smiled. “We are good to go, sir. Wait, what’s this?”

She hit another button on the communications console. “Transport Swift.”

A melodious voice floated through the speakers. “Permission to come aboard, Swift.

“We’re underway and outbound. Please identify yourself.”

Thomas pulled data from the navigation console. “No ships near us.”

“This is Corzt-tan Kyan. In your tongue, Ship of Shadows. My request is sincere and urgent.” The cockpit hatch hissed open. “And perhaps a bit late.”

A humanoid figure stood in the hatchway. Tall and slender, with features soft enough to suggest it was female, the creature had blue flesh covered in tiny, scintillating scales. They became red and yellow around the face and on the backs of the hands—each of which had three fingers and a thumb. The red and yellow colors also swirled up the stalks of the two antennae atop her head. The compound eyes were the color of cold water at midnight, but glossy and alive. The creature wore rough-spun clothing, including a collared cloak. It had been thrown back over one shoulder, revealing the hilt of a blade at the creature’s waist.

Captain Hudson came around in his chair. Thomas expected him to bellow, pop the release on his restraining harness, and launch himself at the humanoid. His right hand rose toward his breastbone to do just that, then he stopped.

“You’re why my engines just got efficient?”

“It was the least I could do after binding my ship to yours.”

“You carrying anything that will blow my ship up?”

A webbed crest rose on the creature’s head between the antennae, but settled back quickly enough. “I have no intent to cause you or your ship harm. It is that you bring Thomas Firefly to a place I need to reach, and your ship is faster than mine. I will save time and fuel. You will save fuel. It benefits us all.”

Hudson looked at Alicia then Thomas. “Eyes on your stations. We’re making the jump. Miss Yorgensdottar, count us down to jump.”

“Aye, sir.”

Hudson pointed to the chamber aft of the cockpit. “Strap in there. We’ll be with you once we’ve made the jump. I don’t reckon you’re going to tell me much, but I’ll have questions a plenty for you to dodge.”


Once they made a clean jump into hyperspace, Captain Hudson engaged the autopilot. He spun his chair around and released his restraining straps. “Mr. Firefly, with me. Miss Yorgensdottar, if you don’t mind …”

“I have the con, sir.”

Thomas brought his seat around. “Sir, why aren’t you a lot more agitated about a creature that can park a ship on your ship, defeat your entry systems, modify your engines, and get inside the Swift? Do you know her? Is she even a her?”

Hudson tugged at the hem of his jacket. “I don’t know her. I’ve never seen her species before. But your question has the answer in it, doesn’t it?”

“I don’t know …”

Alicia turned around. “She did all the things you listed. She could have done more. What’s the use in getting upset?”

“Good point.” Thomas frowned as he freed himself from the restraining straps. “I guess I don’t like someone I don’t know, knowing about me.”

“Son, if that truly concerns you, your life will be long and sad.” Hudson patted him on the shoulder. “C’mon.”

Thomas followed him into the freighter’s small canteen. Their guest had removed her cloak. That revealed a second, shorter dagger bound to the upper portion of her left arm. Thomas checked for any others, but didn’t see any. Nor any blasters or odd items that might have been a weapon of some sort.

The creature dropped to a knee and bowed to them. “Your hospitality honors me.”

Hudson bowed his head to her. “You’re welcome here, of course. Didn’t see the second dagger before.”

She rose. “That you recognized one was enough.”

Thomas looked from Hudson to their guest and back.

The guest noted his apparent confusion. “I am of the Qwelanji peoples. I am known as Vreshvala. Neither of you have encountered my kind before.”

Thomas shook his head.

Captain Hudson folded his arms over his chest. “Not the Qwelanji.”

“We are much as you humans. Our world was also a protectorate, and many of us were journeyed to far-away by the Arwarzhy.” Vreshvala canted her head slightly. “That was long ago. We have since joined the Commonwealth as members.”

“So it as you did for the Grey’s ship down there, pulled them off my crew?”

“Distracted them, yes.” Vreshvala nodded briefly “But you, Captain Hudson, you left unsaid that you have seen the thenzar-dat before. You understand the meaning.”

Thomas shook his head, suddenly feeling like he was five years old again. “I don’t.”

“The knives mark her as one of the Njatta. They’re an organization of all peoples.”

Vreshvala’s mouth opened in an approximation of a smile. “We have an affinity for machines.”

Hudson nodded. “A talent. A genius, I guess. They are to machines and code what Martha Higgs-Hawking was to physics.”

“You are being too kind, Captain.”

“The other Njatta I saw only had one knife. He would have ranked below you, yes?”

“Rank is a concept with much fluidity among us.” A clear membrane nictated up over her eyes. “He would have had less experience than I, as perceived by our superiors, in that situation. You aided him, yes?”

“I got out of his way.”

“Often all the help one needs. I am sorry to burden you as I have.” She turned to face Thomas. “And I apologize for your distress at this conversation. You are anxious about how I know of your destination.”

“Pretty much.”

“I can only assure you that your enemies do not have it.”

Thomas raised an eyebrow. “I have enemies?”

“They are of no consequence.”

“That doesn’t help.”

Captain Hudson gave him a sidelong glance. “You volunteered to join a fighter squadron, and it surprises you that you have enemies?”

“I guess being surprised about that is kind of dumb.”

“I won’t let your commanding officer know.” Hudson slapped Thomas on the back. “Vreshvala, all you need from us is a run to the rendezvous with Unity?”

“That will be sufficient, yes.” She nodded solemnly. “But I shall leave you to your work. You will not even know that I am here.”


Greg had just come around the tail end of his Shrike when he saw the young man enter the flight deck and stop. The canvas kit-bag slipped from the young man’s hand as his eyes widened and mouth opened. He just stared, clearly not seeing much of anything, and Greg actually envied him.

Greg had first seen the flight deck back when the Unity was orbiting the Earth. He’s stood where the newcomer had, taking in the length of the deck and, at the far end, the opening that revealed the black void of space. For Greg, a portion of the view had been taken up with a crescent moon. Here a gas giant with rings and a couple of moons the size and color of Mars enhanced the view.

That little bit of envy triggered something inside Greg, something that slithered up ugly into his mind. It colored his assessment. The young man had shoulder-length black hair, wide face and dark eyes. He wore a flight suit from the freighter that had jumped into the system. He looked wrong. He had no discipline, no awareness of how silly he appeared, with his mouth open and his eyes unfocused.

He dares presume to be worthy of joining this unit?

Greg shivered. Where in hell did that come from? He looked down. His prosthesis had shaped itself into a crude spearpoint—one that looked as if it might have been chipped from stone. Like something his people might have made long ago.

Greg shook his head to clear his mind, then forced his hand back into a normal shape. “Can I help you?”

The young man looked at him, blinked a couple of times, then nodded. He took a step forward, then realized he’d dropped his bag. He hesitated.

“Just leave it.” Greg advanced, offering his hand. “I’m Greg Allen.”

The young man started to take his hand, then stiffened and saluted. “Captain Allen, sir. I’m Thomas Firefly.”

Greg returned the salute. “Glad to have you with us. You were with the freighter.”

“Yes, sir.” Thomas looked back over his shoulder. “I was trying to find my billet. I’m sharing a cabin with Lieutenant O’Leary. I got directions, but some Qian security officers wouldn’t let me get there.”

“Colonel Clark is meeting with senior staff. Their launch would have been down in the lower docking bay where you came in.” Greg jerked a thumb toward the stars and dark. “O’Leary is out on patrol for as long as we have guests.”

“Is there a place I should wait?”

“If you give me a minute, we can get coffee in the galley. I was just finishing my inspection of my Shrike.”

“Oh, wow.” Thomas drifted forward. “The holos don’t do them justice. I mean, the brass and wood, I know that’s all cosmetic and, at least among my people, this sort of style didn’t … wasn’t … a thing. But boy, those lines, the scalloped edges on wings and tail, it looks like a raptor.”

Greg smiled, the last traces of his negative reaction evaporating. “Have you flown one, or only simmed?”

“Only simmed.” Thomas’ brow furrowed for a moment. “I hadn’t put in to join the 301st. I didn’t even know about it, not really. I had just completed my testing to upgrade my pilot’s license. You know, maybe get a ship of my own. I passed, and then I got an invitation to join the unit.”

Interesting. Greg nodded. “You must have tested out incredibly well. You’re a Pioneer, right?”

“A clip, yeah. We don’t call ourselves Pioneers. Grew up in a colony. You’re Terran?”

“An Earther. And I’ve been told that calling someone a clip is impolite.”

Thomas laughed as he ran a hand over the Shrike’s tail. “Most of us don’t really like Pioneer. Sounds like we wanted to be out here. I mean, I do, but my ancestors didn’t have much of a choice. Plus, being of Native American stock, the word ‘Pioneer’ isn’t very popular.”

“Roger that. Just be aware that Lieutenant Early really doesn’t like to be called a ‘clip.’ She’s Pioneer all the way, and proud of it.”

“Thank you.” Thomas sighed. “And so you know, I joined the 301st for the sake of humanity, not wanting to prove myself or anything.”

And there you and Lieutenant Early part ways again. “Your knowing that means you’re a step ahead of most Terrans. Mind you, we’re all proud of where we’ve come from, but we know the score. Humanity is being judged here.”

“So where are you from?”

“North America. The United States. My father is the President.”

Thomas’ expression slackened. “Is that good?”

“You really don’t know?”

“No. I mean, I wish no offense or disrespect, but …”

Greg laughed. “None taken or imagined. Frankly, I’m relieved.”

“Because I’m ignorant of Terran politics?”

“Because I’d hoped all of that had been left back in Earth orbit.” Greg turned and pointed toward the lift. “Your admission just made me think I might have been right. Let me buy you a cup of coffee.”

“Yes, sir, a pleasure sir.” Thomas darted back and retrieved his bag. “Just one thing.”


“What’s coffee?”


Nick Clark had never warmed to the male of the Qian species. He found them to be arrogant, stubborn, willfully ignorant, intolerant and generally disagreeable. He’d have happily killed one or more because those that didn’t make it into the Warrior Caste dominated the bureaucracy. It wasn’t enough for them that you dotted Is and crossed Ts—you had to do it in the right font, with the right color, in the right file format and within some archaic calendar timing scheme that had nothing to do with reality.

Most of them are enough of a pain to be fighter jocks.

The only reason he’d not gone on a murder spree was that he dealt mostly with Qian females. They formed the ruling class. Even though the males stood half-again as tall as the females, and massed more than double than they did, the matriarchal nature of their society kept the males in place. Nick gathered that the women controlled all reproduction; so the males toed the line in order that their bloodlines would continue.

Aside from being physically bigger, with a deeper purple hue to their flesh, the other thing that marked males as different—at least among the Warrior Caste—was the lack of cybernetic augmentation. He’d never seen a Qian male as fully integrated as someone like Vych, but the warriors had no lights beneath their flesh. What they did, they did with nerve and sinew alone.

Admiral Rygh Ghaetr dominated Nick’s office, as if a demon summoned by some unholy ritual. Seamless flesh gave no clue as to his age, though the hair at his temples had lightened to a midnight blue. His uniform, black, had no decoration save for some red piping around the cuffs, collar and hem. Nick knew the Qian could see in the ultraviolet range, so he suspected rank insignia might be plain to Qian subordinates. The lack of adding anything Nick could see was simply meant to mock him.


The Qian shook his head. “I will not be here long enough to enjoy your hospitality. Your petition for a duel is denied.”

Nick affected an expression of bewilderment, letting his face slacken and his eyes widen. “Admiral, sir, I am distraught at not being able to pay you proper courtesy and respect as dictated by Mnemnar-vyste protocols. I would not have you think me disrespectful.”

“Colonel Clark, in a time of war, polite gestures can be a waste of time.”

“I understand, sir. I had hoped to thank you for having given us the assignment, which, I am sorry to say, resulted in the accusation by the Haxadissi Ambassador.” Nick clasped his hands behind his back. “I hope I did nothing wrong by issuing a challenge. I felt it was necessary, lest the shame of our performance should ascend to you, sir.”

The Qian’s dark eyes narrowed. “How could you imagine your shame would rise to shroud me?”

“Was I wrong in thinking that our orders passed through your office? Is it another officer I should apologize to?”

“They came through my office.”

“Then we have dishonored you.” Nick hung his head. Come on, take the bait. “I cannot imagine how you can bear that shame.”

“Colonel Clark, while your Star Tigers are of paramount importance to your world, what they are able to do is of minor consequence to the war effort. This much is not beyond your grasp.” Ghaetr’s chin came up. “There is nothing your unit could do that would shame me in the least.”

“Then there is nothing, sir, which we could do to increase the esteem in which you are held.”

“Quite probably not.”

Nick’s eyes sharpened. “So that puts you in a very crappy situation, doesn’t it, Admiral? But we knew you were there, because you got saddle with us in the first place.”

“What is this nonsense?”

Now set the hook. Nick spread his arms wide. “It’s pretty plain, Admiral. Your leaders, one and all, want humans as part of your war with the Zeez. Why, I don’t know. And your brothers in arms clearly don’t want anything to do with us. Even out here, even on Unity we hear about how we bounced around and down in tables of organization. We ended up with you because you didn’t have enough power to pass us off to anyone else. You would have made us stand down completely and would have forgotten us, save that I dared use my membership in the Mnemnar-vyste to force you to act.”

“Guard your mouth, Colonel. This is insubordination. I can have you removed.”

“No, actually, you can’t; and that’s your problem. If you can’t handle me and my unit, your career is dead. You’re not moving anywhere. Your fleet won’t be involved in any action that could bring you glory. You will be done.”

Ghaetr stabbed a finger at him. “You think you can pressure me into letting you act, no, dictate your fate? Do you really know why you fell to me?”

“Enlighten me.”

“You fell to me so I could smother you. And so that my sister’s son, who is in rank equal to you, and who has his own squadron of fighters, could be moved from my command to that of an ally of mine. My career might be over, but my family’s glory will shine through my nephew.”

Acid bubbled up from Nick’s stomach and burned in his throat. This isn’t quite going the way I wanted it to.

“Smother you I will, Colonel Clark. I set readiness standards for your unit. You will never measure up. You will never be cleared for full action. Your escort job was the highlight of your career. From this point forward, you will be a parade unit only. That is understandable to you, yes? Parade, never to see combat, just to pretend that you are warriors.

“You were correct that my leaders want you as part of the fight, but you failed to understand that what they need from you is not victory, but a lack of failure. I can guarantee that. Supplies arrive slowly. Maneuvers are rescheduled. Your training, testing, and maintenance cycles will speed up, but the vital demands of the war will slow service.”

Nick snorted.

“I believe that denoted amusement among your kind.”

“How do you know that, Admiral? Recent study, or did your family own some of us?”

That set Ghaetr back for a heartbeat, but no real sign of discomfort flashed over his face. “Your species was always known for being clever and inventive, but to be doomed by impatience and impulsivity. I would tell you that I had thought of giving you a chance, and that the incident at Haxad had forced me to reconsider, but we would both know that to be a falsehood.”

“If you smother us, you are making the worst mistake you can imagine.”

“My imagination is quite vast, Colonel Clark.” The Qian shrugged. “I have made mistakes before, but I have never erred when being cautious. Removing you is just being cautious. Risk you, I risk much. Your victories would be minor, but your losses major.”

Nick heard a finality in the admiral’s voice which started his stomach collapsing in on itself. I wanted to be in charge of our fate, now I am. I am not, however, in control of it.

The door to Nick’s office hissed open. A tall, slender humanoid entered. Nick noticed the knives immediately. He’d have gone for the small blaster in his desk drawer, except that the interloper didn’t reach for a blade and the Qian security officer outside his door had descended to a knee and had lowered his head reverently.

And Admiral Ghaetr had assumed the same position. “You honor us, Njatta.”

“The honor is mine, Admiral.” The melodious tone of the voice tagged the visitor as female in Nick’s mind. “I must ask of you a great service.”

Ghaetr looked up, all traces of anger and contempt gone from his face. Hell, he looks like someone who just got himself a pony for his eighth birthday.

“If what you wish is in my power to grant, Njatta, it is yours.”

“Thank you.” A webbed crest rose along her skull, and her two antennae quivered. “I have need of this ship, and of the 301st.”

Ghaetr blinked, and his lower lip quivered. “But, Njatta, this ship, this command, it is beneath your notice. The 301st is understrength and is not prepared for battle. I can recommend for you the Seyjat-yin. They are without equal.”

“I am well aware of your nephew’s unit, Admiral. You honor me with offering them. I am also aware that they are involved in vital operations elsewhere.” She turned and smiled at Nick. “But the 301st are known to be as yet unready for operations. Thus their participation would be a complete surprise to adversaries.”

“Yes, yes, of course. Of course.” Ghaetr lowered his head again. “Whatever you need, Njatta, it is yours. Will you wait until they are at strength or …”

“I fear my mission is immediate. We will depart as soon as you have boarded your launch and head back to your flagship.”

“I could, Njatta, remain to assist.”

“I would not keep you from your vital duties, Admiral.” She rested a hand on his head. “And I would delay your departure no longer.”

“Yes, Njatta.” Ghaetr rose, shot an unguarded glance at Nick, and wandered from his office.

Nick shifted his gaze to the visitor. “I don’t know what you have on him. I’m not even sure I want to know. He may be happy to turn us over to you, but what makes you think I’m going to do the same?”

“You will do it, Colonel Clark, because I know your secret.” The visitor nodded. “And it is that knowledge that tells me you are vital to my mission’s success.”


Nick sat at his desk and stared at a bottle of thirty year old Scotch. He wanted a drink badly, but not because he wanted to release tension or process emotions. If he had taken to drinking to relieve stress, his liver would be the size of Jupiter and he wouldn’t have drawn a sober breath in decades.

He wanted it because he understood the flavor, the smoothness of the alcohol. It would be something normal. The only thing normal in the last two hours. Despite that desire, he didn’t pull a glass out of his desk. He never drank alone. That, too, was normal, and he’d settle for that level of normal at the moment.

Vych entered his office, taking the bottle in with a glance, but without a comment. “Admiral Ghaetr’s launch is away.”

“What happened here?”

“Your meeting was not monitored, Nicholas.”

He leaned back in his chair and stared at a picture on his office wall. It depicted a man in a boat, doing his best to land a big fat trout. “You’re smart enough to know that I thought I had Ghaetr hooked, but he really had me.”

“I did try to warn you.”

“I appreciate that. I’ll pay better attention.” Nick frowned. “The 301st was done, then that … person came in. Ghaetr was more in awe of her than a kid visiting Santa. Sorry, that’s a …”

“I comprehend the reference, Nicholas.” Vych gave him a gentle smile. “The person is named Vreshvala. She is of the Qwelanji. They are long lived and she is far from her home.”

“He called her Njatta. His security people let her in here with two knives visible.” He shook his head. “You don’t have to explain it all, Vych, just enough.”

“It is an infinite universe, Nicholas. Incomprehensibly old. Full of chaos and yet, the laws which govern it shape life in common and parallel pathways. There are many species, and yet among them are common beliefs and philosophies. Those beliefs and philosophies—though each species would like to believe they discovered them—form a continuous thread that perhaps even predates the creation of the universe.”

The pace of lights playing across her face increased, but swirled through calm whorls and eddies. “The Njatta are a people who transcend species. You would call them a sect or cult, perhaps an order or fellowship in the sense of religious or familial organizations. The Njatta existed before even the Qian ventured from our first world. Honored are those who are called to join them.”

“What do they want?”

She hesitated, and the lights flashed bright before diminishing. “Knowledge, which is a most unsatisfactory answer. My apologies.”

“Why did the admiral agree with her request so quickly when she was asking him to let us do something and he’d decided we would never do anything?

“Nicholas, you need not be concerned with Njatta seeking power.”

“In my experience, those who say they aren’t seeking power usually are.”

The Qian nodded. “And in most cases, your concern would be well placed. But, you see, the Njatta have power already. They direct it for the benefit of all.”

Nick heard in her voice complete conviction. She believed exactly what she was saying. He knew she understood the wider universe far better than he did. He’d learned to trust her judgment. I’ll trust it now; or for now, anyway.

“She said she had a mission for us. Do you know what it is?”

Vych shook her head. “She is working with our navigators to plot multiple courses in multiple stages. The journey should take between eight days and one of your fortnights.”

He chuckled. “You like that word despite it having absolutely no meaning out here.”

“The feel of it is very human.” She smiled and the lights slowed. “You will have ample time to get Thomas Firefly flight ready.”

“I’ll want more, but I shall take what I can get.” Nick opened his bottom desk drawer and returned the bottle to it. “You will let Vreshvala know that I want to review her plan before we execute it.”

“I am certain she comprehends that.” The Qian pressed her hands together. “And you must comprehend that if you are successful in this mission, Admiral Ghaetr will never again be an impediment for the 301st.”


Thomas settled into the Shrike’s cockpit and exhaled the breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding. Though the simulator cockpits had been identical to the one in the fighter, just sitting in the real thing felt different. He knew it to be a matter of perception, but what his brain accepted, his heart ignored.

Because now I can fly.

The pilot’s seat had been covered in maroon velvet, and the interior done in woods and brass. The control console itself had a plethora of modern screens, but toggle switches and buttons had an ancient feel. Thomas had never seen their like on the command consoles of any ship he’d flown in but something just felt right about it all. Even though I have never seen Terra, something that appeals to Terrans also appeals to me.

Greg Allen, who stood on the stepped platform, leaned on the edge of the cockpit. “Good enough for you?”

“Yes, sir.” Thomas laid his left hand on the throttle assembly and grabbed the stick with his right hand. The cold metal spoke to him of power, yet he liked how it warmed to his hand. “Commo, auxiliary monitor, targeting lock, and damage template left; local sensors center; weapons, fuel, and flight control monitors right.”

Greg nodded, then pointed at the auxiliary monitor. “You can use that for displaying diagnostic subsystems if needed. I usually have a picture of my wife and daughter there.”

Thomas frowned. “I didn’t know any of us had left anyone behind.”

“They died a couple of years ago.” Greg held his right hand up. “In the accident where I lost this. I think a goal of organizing the unit was to have us all unencumbered, but some choices were made politically.…”

“I understand, sir. I’ll put a picture of my mother there. She died about ten years ago. I’ve not been back home since.” Thomas looked at Greg openly. “I’m sorry if I caused you any pain.”

“You couldn’t have known.” Greg shrugged. “In fact, I’m okay with your not knowing about that or who my family was. It’s not that I was running away from things when I chose to come out here. At least, I don’t think so. But having everybody see their death as a tragedy means my life gets defined as a tragedy. That would really dishonor my wife and daughter.”

“You’re very kind, sir.” Thomas gave him a solemn nod, then pointed to a slot on the console’s right side. “That’s the nomad dock?”

“Yeah, the ship’s brain. The simulators get data from the central computing resources, but the nomad just boxes it all up. Everything from astronavigation to family photos.” Greg smiled. “You’ve been simming well enough that I’m sure you get one on our next mission.”

“You don’t know what it is?”

“Nope.” Greg glanced toward Colonel Clark’s office. “The colonel generally doesn’t bother us with details that aren’t relevant.”

“But he must know.”

“Maybe. Then again, the Qian play everything close to the vest.” Greg’s green eyes narrowed. “You know that expression? From playing cards?”

“It’s usually said, ‘Qian secrets are never discovered by accident.’ Most people say that with some relief in their voices. You sound more suspicious.”

“Many of us are.”


“Of why they want us helping in their war.” Greg nodded at him. “You’ve been out amid the stars for ten years, did you say? Can you guess why they need us?”

Thomas scratched his head. “Sir, I can’t even tell you when the war began. I’ve been working haulers for, yeah, about ten years. I think I remember a navigator saying he had to plot around some restricted space maybe five years ago. The word ‘Zsytzii’ wasn’t anything I’d heard until three years ago.”

“About the time that news went public on Earth about the Commonwealth’s existence.” Greg ran a hand along his jaw. “We were told it was an invasion.”

“Could be.” Thomas blushed. “Among the haulers, politics isn’t talked much. Space stations and freeports kind of exist in a universe of their own. Sure, a fight somewhere might mean that we get a premium for something we’re hauling, or that a cargo is now contraband. Could be the Zeez are invaders, or someone pulling out the Commonwealth, or forces loyal to a military governor who’s rebelling. Stories about that sort of thing crop up here and there, but I mostly ignored them. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. I lived in a household that was steeped in politics. You’re not missing anything.” Greg patted him on the shoulder. “Does make me wonder, though, why you’d volunteer for the 301st.”

“Will you accept ‘action and adventure’ as an answer?”

“If you can get Mr. Yamashita to buy it, sure.”

“I’ve been pretty much avoiding him, sir.”

“Evasive maneuvers when dealing with journalists are definitely a survival skill. And it doesn’t really matter why you’re here, Mr. Firefly. You’re a good pilot and clearly an asset to the squadron. That’s more than good enough for me.”


Greg slipped the translucent block that was his nomad into the rack beside the briefing room’s door and took a seat at Colonel Clark’s left hand. He sat across from Major Taine. The rest of the squadron sat around the lozenge-shaped briefing table. Vych Thziilon and another non-human stood opposite Colonel Clark.

Greg rested a hand on the table. It looked to be made of walnut, with wood-grain easily visible; and certainly felt like wood. Greg smiled involuntarily because it reminded him of the bedroom set Jennifer had bought to furnish their first home. And when Bianca came along, he’d vowed to learn enough woodworking to make her a matching set.

But I never had the time.

Colonel Clark nodded. Lights flashed over the Qian liaison’s face and the hologram of green-blue world blossomed to hover of the table. “This is Thjenza 471.03. The name has no meaning, it’s just a catalog reference. There’s nothing terribly remarkable about the world except that the CO2 content makes it warm and we’ll be wearing scrubber masks so we can breathe. Earth gravity normal, a variety of wildlife and plants, but no native sapient species. It’s off the beaten path.

“From what I’ve just said you’ll have figured out that we’re going down there. Atmosphere is a little thick, but that shouldn’t be a problem for any of you. Perhaps, Njatta Vreshvala, you would care to expand on what we will be doing once we are down there.”

“Thank you, Colonel.” A webbed crest rose on the non-human’s skull. “On the world we will conduct a survey.”

Lieutenant Conn O’Leary, raised a finger. “Are you sure it’s us you’ll be wanting to do that? Wouldn’t there be some robots or graduate students who’d have a better grasp on what they were seeing?”

The colonel shook his head. “Within the last century there was a fairly extensive survey of the flora and fauna. Your nomads are pulling down those reports right now.”

A wave of impatience flared Greg’s nostrils. “What is the threat assessment? If there isn’t a threat, you wouldn’t want fighters.”

Vreshvala turned her face toward him, and he caught himself reflected in the compound eyes. “To my knowledge, there is no threat.”

“Then why …?”

She continued. “It is my feeling that you will be needed.”

“Feeling?” Something in her voice drained away Greg’s irritation. “So we’re coming along against the possibility of trouble?”

“That’s roughly it.” Colonel Clark’s eyes hardened. “Your nomads will have our training schedule. We have two days until we reach the system. You’ll each be drawing a rifle, pistol, and mobile sensor array for your nomad. I want you checked out on the firearms. I want you to have eight hours simming in that atmosphere. I want you to study the previous surveys—do that by wings. One of you gets flora, the other fauna. Captain Allen, I want you familiar with the geography. You’ll also liaise with Njatta Vreshvala as needed.”

“Sir, yes, sir.”

“One thing for all of you: this may seem like a nothing mission, but it’s only a nothing mission if you treat it like one. I don’t care if there is no threat down there, I want you acting as if that’s just a hive loaded with Zeez. You’re going to be sharp and prudent and get back here in one piece. We didn’t do badly last time out, but we’re doing better this time out. And better the next time. Look around this room. If you half-ass this stuff, one or more of us isn’t going to make it back. I know you don’t want that to be you; and you sure as hell don’t want it to be them. Understood?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good. Dismissed.”

Greg rose from his seat with the others, then looked at his two superior officers. “Is there anything else you need from me?”

Colonel Clark shook his head. “Not at the moment, Captain. Do your job and we’re fine.”

“Yes, sir.”

He slid his chair back into place, and retrieved his nomad. He grabbed it with his left hand, not wanting to tempt his artificial hand with it. Instead he let the fingers of his right hand drag along the table, relishing the sense of wood that they so faithfully reported to him.

“Captain Allen. May I impose on your time?”

“Yes, Njatta, is it? Is that a rank or your name?”

“It is an honorific. Please to be calling me Vreshvala.”

“Well, Vreshvala, I am your liaison officer, so I will help as I can.” He slid his nomad into a pocket, then waved her toward the door. “What is it I can do for you?”

They moved into the passageway outside the briefing room. “If I might, I would very much like to examine your hand.”

Greg hesitated for a heartbeat. Every since the Qian had helped pry him from the wreckage of two aircars and put him back together, people had been curious about the prosthetic he’d been given. The shapeshifting capabilities alone so far outstripped anything humanity had developed that his hand was practically a circus attraction. He firmly felt that people should mind their own business, and usually glowered when someone made that request.

But she’s not human. Orientation for all of the 301st’s pilots had included briefing about non-human cultures and their particular brands of etiquette. He couldn’t remember ever seeing or hearing about whatever Vreshvala was; but a number of species showed how much they valued someone by asking questions which, on Earth, would be considered rudely invasive.

He assumed it was something like that, so he peeled back his grey flightsuit’s sleeve and willed the arm to shift from pink to a light blue to mark where it joined his body.

She looked up. “Remarkable control, but that was not necessary. I can see in what you term ‘ultraviolet.’” She reached out with both hands and drew them from seam down toward wrist on both sides.

The pilot didn’t pull away, though he wanted to. He wanted to because her touch tickled, and that was a sensation he’d not felt … since Jennifer died. Then his arm numbed, but didn’t feel heavy. Instead, just the opposite. Had it not been attached to his arm, he was certain it would have floated to the passageway’s upper reaches.

Vreshvala canted her head to the side. “You have achieved excellent integration. It is beyond what diagnostics would have predicted possible.”

“Thank you, I guess.” Greg rolled his sleeve back down and fastened the cuff tight. “I don’t know that I’ve done anything special.”

“There are those who would disagree, Captain Allen.” Vreshvala opened her mouth slightly, simulating a smile. “I would ask you a question.”


“Who are you?”

Greg closed his eyes for a moment. He’d heard that question asked in a hundred different ways. Most often it was a casual request for information. Occasionally journalists would ask it in hopes some penetrating insight or gaff would be the result. He remembered his wife asking it in a multitude of ways, from gentle to angry.

Vreshvala’s intonation imparted a dozen different possible meanings for the question. Greg supposed that in her culture, such a question was meant to elicit a family history, so as to fix him in his own social context. But he also heard the request for serious thought. She wanted insight, not a gaff.

“I’m human, from Earth—Terra, if you wish. I am a pilot. I am a widower who has also lost his only child.” His eyes opened. Is this how I truly see myself? As human first, then my job? Is the only family I will mention the family that died?

Vreshvala laid a hand on his prosthesis. “You are not responsible for the deaths of Jennifer and Bianca Allen.”

He started. “I know that. It was an accident. A drunk in an aircar hit us. I’m lucky to be alive.”

“You are saying you know it, Captain Allen. Do you feel it as well?”

“I don’t know that there is a difference.”

She canted her head. “There is. To know is to accept another’s report of truth. To feel is to establish your own truth as reality.”

“I’m not certain I follow.”

Vreshvala clasped her hands together at her belt. “Peoples who are being able to see on a sub-atomic level, to be watching quarks combine, elements to combine, they know what they have seen. For you, for me, we must accept that what they report is true, but we cannot know it is true. Moreover, phenomena in the universe are not all composed of quarks and bonds. For example, did you know your daughter loved you, or did you feel it?”

“I, ah …” He thought hard. Can a person ever truly know what goes on in the mind of another? And are feelings not facts, too? Feelings clearly were facts, to deny that was to deny any validity for emotions. Do I concentrate on knowing because I don’t want to examine feelings?

“I feel that she loved me. I believe I know it, too.”

“Then you are not being unwise.” Vreshvala nodded quickly. “The reason I am asking this, am asking you to think on this, is that we are to liaise. This universe, you know of the existence of dark matter.”

Greg nodded. “And dark energy. Our senses and instruments can’t detect it, but mathematics and physics predicts it must be there.”

“That explanation will be sufficient.” She held her mouth open in imitation of a smile. “As I said in the briefing, I feel there is a threat. I do not know it. I wish you to understand that if I would tell you of a feeling, you would comprehend a greater validity to it.”

The pilot rubbed a hand over the back of his neck. “I’m getting the impression—okay, feeling—that in your language, there is a native term for what you are talking about and that we don’t have it.” Just as our ancestors who lived before the invention of the telescope never had the word asteroid. For those people asteroids never existed, so a word wasn’t invented for them.

“I are correct.”

“I’ll suggest then a word: gut-feeling.” Greg smiled and patted his stomach. “Humans tend to act a lot in concord with gut-feelings.”

Vreshvala glanced at his stomach. Some emotion or other played across her features, but Greg had no way of working it out. “Gut-feeling. I was unaware humans had sensory organs located deep within their body cavity.”

“Outside my area of expertise.”

“Except as being human.”

“True.” Greg nodded. “Is there anything else I can do for you at the moment?”

“No, Captain, you have been very helpful.” She rested a hand on his prosthetic. “If you find any way in which I can be of service to you, please do not hesitate to come to me.”

Greg watched her turn away, her dull robes obscuring all but the back of her head and the twin antennae. He wasn’t certain what that had all been about, other than maybe establishing rapport. I don’t know and am not sure what I feel.

He ran things back in his mind, and found himself lingering on memories of his wife. Her touch. The sound of her voice. His artificial hand, which had never touched her, warmed as if it safely tucked around her belly in bed. He could feel Bianca kicking in her tummy. He stared at his hand because that simply wasn’t possible, and yet he felt it.

He also heard her ask that question, “Who are you?” in a variety of ways. Innocently, when they first met, because she didn’t know. And again, at various points. Inquisitively. In mock surprise as he acted out of character. And angrily.

He couldn’t remember the circumstances surrounding her anger. He just heard it. She asked in a tone that made the question really into “Who do you think you are?” Why? What had I done? What did I fail to do?

He focused and tried to remember. He got nothing. No impressions, no flashes of vision. Nothing but a sinking, sick feeling in the pit of his stomach.

Greg leaned back against the passageway bulkhead. “Jennifer, I’m sorry. I never wanted to make you angry.”

Her warmth still lingered on his arm. He took that as a sign that her anger hadn’t lasted, and hadn’t been invoked that often. That made him feel better.

He even dared hope he had been forgiven.


Nick Clark couldn’t tell if the expression on Vreshvala’s face was one of consternation or bemusement—and he wasn’t certain he liked either. “I really don’t think I can break it down any more simply, Njatta. During our discussion about the mission prior to the briefing, you made no mention of a threat. I don’t like the idea that you would hold that back from me, then spring it on my people.”

“Colonel, when you and I spoke previously, I did not feel there was a threat.”

“And that further concerns me: I’d like to see the evidence which underscores this feeling of a threat. I need things to reassess our plans.”

The visitor nodded once. “I assure you, Colonel, that your preparations are sufficient.”

“And you know this how?”

“If they were not, I should feel a greater threat.”

Nick covered his face with his hands. You cannot blow up at her. He really still didn’t know what she was, but he recalled how Admiral Ghaetr reacted to her and knew that to go off on her would not work. It wouldn’t change her mind, and it would kill him in the eyes of Qian leadership.

Njatta, I am certain you meant that as a vote of confidence in my people. I will take it like that. I would hope that you also understand that because the Star Tigers are my responsibility, I need to feel comfortable with what we’re being asked to do. We’re less than a day out from Thjenza 471.03. If we have to change things, I need to know now.”

Vreshvala raised both hands. “I understand, Colonel, what you are asking. I would be reassuring you. I fear that I have exacerbated the situation because I told you that I know your secret. Allow me to explain, to give you context.”

Nick was pretty certain he wanted to be sitting down for this, but forced himself to move away from his desk and toward the viewports overlooking the flight deck. Context is what they always provide when they’re not going to give you the answer you want. “I’m listening.”

“In the history of the universe, Colonel, civilizations define themselves by their relationship with machines. They are consumed by them, transformed by them, or transcend them. Transformation can be a step on the road to consumption or transcendence.”

“I can see that.”

“Civilizations also accept or reject machinery, whether a mechanical age, an age of information, or an age where machinery and information are integrated. You would call that artificial intelligence. And there have been civilizations which have created technology which has consumed them.”

Nick chuckled. “Holovision has often been decried as such a technology on Earth.”

“So it is vilified by every civilization. It provides a false sense of omniscience. It provides much knowledge, but no wisdom; but people believe themselves wiser because they believe themselves better informed. They forget that they do not see everything, just those things others wish them to see.”

“And I wish to see more than you’ve showed me so far.”

Vreshvala nodded as she came to his side. “I know, Colonel. What you must understand is that the Njatta have an affinity or talent for machinery and information. Our capacity for understanding and seeing and analyzing data is quite vast. Civilizations which have come and gone may not be producing data now, but the simple reality of their having produced it in the past leaves shadows. The situation where someone tells you something and you say, ‘I didn’t know that,’ does not mean that fact did not exist, or that it is true, it simply means that you had a deficit in that area of knowledge.”

“I don’t want deficits in areas of knowledge as concerns this mission.”

“I am understanding that, Colonel. I also understand that any deficit in knowledge will not affect this mission.” She held a hand up. “Permit me an example. I said I know your secret. I do not need to know the particulars of your secret, just that you have one. It is a secret you have hidden from your people, yet it is a secret you remind yourself of because it is necessary for you to remain true to who you are. That person is the person who was chosen for this mission; and is the person who will keep your people alive. Their lack of knowledge will no more doom them than it will save them. It is immaterial to their success.”

This can’t be making sense … and yet … Nick’s eyes tightened. “What you are telling me is that we already have all the information we need to succeed in this mission?”

“Yes. Your people have the data and training which would enable them to defeat a Zsytzii force were one to be encountered.”

“A force of a certain size. What if they come with twice as many, or four times as many?”

“They do not have those resources, Colonel.”

Nick turned to face her. “If you can say that, it means you have solid intel on their military including deployment and orders. That’s enough to win the war.”

“The Njatta do not take sides in this conflict. We have been and will always be devoted to aiding civilizations in reaching their destiny. Victory of the Qian over the Zsytzii or the opposite would work against that.”

“You’re telling me that despite having the power to end a war and save lives, you’ll allow people to continue dying because you believe each race has a pre-determined fate in store for it? And you’re asking me to trust the lives of my people on your feeling about what will happen?” Nick shook his head. “There’s so much wrong with that I don’t know where to begin.”

Vreshvala brought her hands together against her stomach. “Do you recall, Colonel, when you watched your children play a game? Perhaps your chess. Or watched them put together a puzzle? You could see how things would turn out, but they could not. You could predict things with certainty which they never could have seen. You might even have warned them and they might have denied it. And yet you would be correct because of experience and superior reasoning and even a mind which was better developed to deal with puzzles and strategies.”

Nick saw where she was going and was of a mind to protest, but he wasn’t going to fall into her trap. Not only had she been right about watching children, but he’d seen the same when fighting against other nation’s pilots. Their methods, their doctrines, their weapons had all defined them; and his greater understanding of all those things had made him a superior fighter. Moreover, in the time he’d spent in the Qian Commonwealth, he’d run into non-humans that made him feel like a child.

“You’re telling me that I have to trust your superior judgment?”

“As a soldier, this is not a foreign concept to you.”

“‘Ours is not to reason why.…’ No. I guess it isn’t.” He exhaled slowly. “And yet, with all you know, you can’t tell me for certain that none of my people will die.”

“I cannot tell you that I will not die, Colonel. Yet I shall be there with your people and feel we will be safe.”

“I guess I’ve gone into battle with worse intel.” Nick refused to let his hands curl into fists. “I just better not come out with my people being worse for the wear.”


If grinning like a fool had been made a capital crime, Thomas Firefly would have continued smiling all the way to the gallows. His Shrike shot from Unity’s launch bay, inverted and swooped down into an orbit between the ship and the blue-green planet below. He tightened his turn and leveled out on O’Leary’s wing just as if they’d been flying together for years.

Simming has nothing on reality. Thomas had piloted freighters and loved flying the shuttle. He’d even spent time in some high performance air-cars, but they were all like walking compared to the Shrike. It responded to the slightest pressure on the controls and almost felt alive.

And I feel more alive flying it.

They settled in, waiting for the rest of the squadron to launch. The planet’s rings cut a delightful crescent through the void, shining brightly. Some of the asteroids and stones glinted brightly as they rolled through their orbit. Part of him wanted to head off to fly through the middle of them, but he knew that the visible rocks were the least of the dangers lurking there. For every stone he could see, there were thousands of micro-meteorites that would grind his Shrike to nothing.

He rubbed a hand along the wooden console. Not going to let that happen to you.

Clear of Unity, he hit switches to bring his weapons online. The nose-mounted Meson Cannon went green first, then all four of the wing-mounted lasers. The Baryon rocket launchers both lit green, and the magazine showed eight missiles fully functional. His shields reported back operational.

Colonel Clark’s voice came over the radio speakers in his helmet. “Five and Six, you’ll lead us in.”

O’Leary replied for the two of them. “Roger, Lead. Five, you’re on me.”

Thomas nodded, then keyed his radio. “Roger, Six.”

Thomas’ sensor panel showed seven shrikes and the small launch Vreshvala flew. To his mind it wasn’t a very remarkable ship. It looked like a cylinder that had been split top from bottom. It had a rounded taper at each end, with three engine pods grafted to the aft section. If it had any weapons, he couldn’t see them and his sensors didn’t report them.

Thomas and Lieutenant O’Leary led the way down. Lieutenants Early and Sun ran cover above while the colonel and Major Taine each took a flank. Captain Allen brought up the rear, and the Njatta ship ran in the middle of the formation.

Once they’d arrived in the system, Unity’s crew began downloading data from the handful of satellites the Qian survey team had left behind a century ago. The Qian pulled lots of meteorological data, but Colonel Clark had them concentrate on any ship data. Analysis had shown a few ships bouncing through the system, but none of them getting close to the third planet. Most never got closer than the gas giant orbiting ten times as far as the third planet because coming in closer created all sorts of gravitational problems for a smooth and swift jump back out into hyperspace.

Thomas kept his hand steady on the stick as his Shrike entered the atmosphere. The fighter bucked a bit, but settled down as he eased the throttle back. Lights flashed in his nomad as the ship reshaped the shields to help with aerodynamics. Soon the ship cruised through the atmosphere as easily as its namesake might ride an updraft.

He adjusted his inertial compensator to account for the world’s gravity, then followed O’Leary down through a layer of clouds. A kilometer and a half down they punched into clear air and came out bearing directly on a mountain.

“Five has visual on Olympus. It’s closer than expected.”

“No, it’s not, Five.” Captain Allen’s voice carried a note of amusement. “It’s just bigger than anything you’ve seen before.”

Thomas checked his sensor ranges. Damn. It is huge.

Snow capped the mountain and drew white veins down to where rainforest began to take over. Visible rock appeared grey, but had a soft glow to it—looking more like polished granite than any natural stone had a right to. The trees, Thomas came to realize, had been what fooled him because they grew on a massive scale. They could have hangared all the Shrikes in a hollow at the base of one of the trees. One of those hollows could house the town where I grew up. Snow disguised the depth of the mountain valleys and what appeared to be a stream curving around the mountain’s base had to be a truly grand river.

As they came within range, a red shape painted itself on Thomas’s head’s-up display. It corresponded to a plateau they’d located in the survey data. Vreshvala had chosen it as the place she wanted to set down.

“Five, take us into the landing zone.”

“Roger, Lead.”

The easiest way to guide the others down would be to blast a path through the undergrowth. With a flick of a thumb switch, Thomas could quad up his lasers and start landscaping. The trees might be tall enough to rival buildings which could house thousands, but the lasers would raze them in no time.

In his flight element, he’d gotten to study the flora on the planet. While the canopy appeared, from above, to be thick and impenetrable, the century-old survey indicated it was anything but. He shifted power to his belly shields, then chopped back his throttle and kicked the grav-lift generators in.

Dialing back the lifts, his ship descended slowly. The first carpet of leaves parted easily, letting him into a world of shades of green and blue. Tree boles grew more thick as he descended. Every hundred meters or so he passed through another foliage layer.

Finally, on the ground, he discovered a vast hollow beneath the roots of the tree he’d come down through. A quick scan indicated it was empty. He keyed his radio.”

“Conn, anything about fauna big enough to excavate a den in the roots of one of these trees.”

“Not that I saw, but such beasties might have been hibernating when the survey was done.”

Thomas flicked on his landing lights and added enough thrust to move into the organic hangar. He did a full circle and didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. Deploying his landing gear, he touched down and the soft earth gave about a half meter before stabilizing.

O’Leary brought his Shrike down and parked it near the entrance. The other Shrikes swooped down and in. Thomas smiled. It seemed appropriate to have Shrikes nesting in a tree. Well, close, anyway.

As the other ships landed, Thomas pulled on his breathing gear, slipped his nomad from the ship into a portable sensor package, and popped the canopy. He climbed out onto his wing, grabbed his laser rifle, and leaped to the nest floor. He sank into the soft loam to his ankles.

He joined Conn near the opening, crouching across from him, laser rifle at the ready. The undergrowth formed a solid green wall. He couldn’t see anything but rainforest, even though they’d landed on a plateau halfway up the mountain and no more than five hundred meters from an escarpment.

Unbidden, the lessons his Elders had taught about how life existed on a spiritual level came back to him. They’d pointed it out on an arid world where plants and animals clung to life and protected themselves with venom and thorns. That made it easy for him to discount what they were saying. But here? Here the abundance of life made their case wordlessly.

This place strengthens their case more than they could imagine. He smiled. I wish I had my sketchbook so I could show them.

O’Leary’s voice crackled inside his helmet. “Look alive, Firefly. The colonel catches you acting like a tourist, that’s what you’ll be once we’re back on Unity again.”

“Roger that, Six.” Thomas gave his wingman a thumb’s-up as Vreshvala’s launch squeezed through the opening. “Our tourist is here. I hope she finds what she’s looking for.”


Greg Allen did his best not to gawk at the trees soaring overhead. It had to be his imagination, but it seemed that the hole in the canopy had closed just a little in the short time it took for the squadron to land. He told himself it was just branches settling down and out, but he didn’t wholly believe it.

He couldn’t help but smile beneath his breathing mask. The rainforest and the size of the trees reminded him of a story he used to read to his daughter, about a girl who had become tiny and her adventures in the woods behind her house. He felt that small—and had no desire to meet hedge-hogs in waistcoats or gallant mice with swords and a sense of chivalry. Still the size of the trees humbled him.

Colonel Clark keyed his radio. “Major Taine, you’ll remain here with O’Leary and Firefly. Lieutenant O’Leary, deploy your external antenna array. Monitor comms. Let Unity know we’re down. Also pull data from the satellites and see if you can find out if we’re detectable down here.”

“Yes, sir.”

The colonel pointed toward the tunnel with his laser rifle. “Captain Allen, take point. You two will have our backs. Ready, Njatta?”

“Yes, Colonel.”

Greg checked his rifle, then headed across the landing zone and out into the rainforest. Traversing fallen foliage and other debris reminded Greg of walking on a trampoline. Things skittered and slithered beneath the leaves, the smallest of which was the size of a snowshoe. He didn’t see any signs that they’d been gnawed on much by animals. Mold and fungus seemed to be enjoying the feast however, with red and white spotted mushrooms rising waist high, with the diameter of a decent umbrella.

Maybe I am in that story.

He led them north-northeast and after a short walk they stopped at a rock face at the base of the escarpment. Tree roots hung down from above, or from smaller plants which had grown in niches here and that, but the roots had no purchase on the stone. Moreover, a rectangular space roughly four meters wide and twice that tall remained unobscured.

Greg studied it for a moment, then scanned it with his sensor-pak. “I can’t detect any sign of weathering. The survey team didn’t take readings on this rock, but stones had weathered normally otherwise.”

Vreshvala reached out with a hand and brushed her fingertips over the smooth surface. “It is stone except in the most important way.”

Greg frowned. “That being?”

“That it is not stone.” Vreshvala nodded toward him. “Touch it, Captain. With your hand that is a hand except in the most important way.”


Colonel Clark nodded. “Unless you have a compelling reason why you shouldn’t.…”

“No, sir.” Greg clipped the sensor-pak back onto his belt, then stripped off his right glove. His hand maintained all appearances of flesh and blood until it got to within a centimeter of the surface. His fingertips began to take on the glowing grey sheen. He wasn’t certain if that was better or worse than it jumping immediately to the jagged crystal form. It didn’t feel different—It doesn’t feel anything.

Then his hand met the wall.

He tried to classify what he felt. None of the normal tactile descriptors worked. It wasn’t pressure or heat or cold. It didn’t feel soft or hard. No pain. Just a buzzing or tingle, but not a vibration. Nothing is moving, at least not on a macro-level.

The Njatta canted her head. “That sensation, the nearest word in your tongue is cascade.”

“Yeah, cascade, that works.” He glanced at his commanding officer. “It feels the way water burbling up from a spring looks. Not a geyser, just a continuous rolling, swirling.”

“Thank you, Captain.” Clark looked at Vreshvala. “What does it mean?”

“It means we are safe to enter.”

The stone split down the middle and parted, not with jagged edges, cracking and rumbling, but with the soft silence of velvet curtains parting. Ambient light poured in, but the passageway’s ceiling remained shrouded in shadow. Even when Colonel Clark turned on the flashlight attachment for his sensor-pak, the light couldn’t reach the roof.

Greg followed Vreshvala into the passageway. It grew to accommodate them, giving Greg the sense that they had been swallowed by a snake and were being sped into its gullet. Yet even as that idea came to him, he felt no threat. The cascade continued and reassured him that they weren’t trapped.

Lieutenants Early and Sun remained at the doorway as the others explored. The passageway walls had a translucency which seemed to allow for the play of shadows within them. It reminded Greg of looking into a muddy lake and being able to see for the meter or two that sunlight penetrated, then all grew dark. The fleet shadows defied description, and Greg purposely didn’t try to ferret out meaning.

Colonel Clark slung his laser rifle over his back. “We’re inside a machine.”

Vreshvala turned, her mouth open, but not in a smile. “Very good, Colonel.”

“Obvious. You have an affinity for machines.” He glanced at the data screen on the sensor-pak. “Did you know this was here?”

Greg looked at her. “Did you feel it was here?”

“This system, this place, felt as other places have.”

“What is this?” Colonel Clark rubbed a hand over the back of his neck. “It seems like the heart of a glacier, but it’s not cold.”

“Colonel, you recall my saying that some species transcend. By this I mean that they move beyond necessities and limitations of physical forms—at least as we understand them. The people who created this place are such a species.”

As she spoke a tall, slender, ghostlike creature floated up through the stone in the glare of the colonel’s flashlight. It stopped as if trapped beneath a translucent layer of ice. Though twice as tall as Vreshvala, and a luminescent white, the creature closely resembled the Njatta in form. It had two antennae and the sail on its head stood a bit taller. It had the same three fingers and thumb on each hand, and compound eyes which featured four extra domes.

Vreshvala pressed her hands together. “That, I believe, is being a representation of the creatures which created this place.”

“Looks a lot like you. Is that why we’re here?”

“No, Colonel.” She bowed her head. “You have seen, in your travels, enough non-human life forms to recognize the functionality of what you are calling the humanoid shape. Some people believe that life was seeded throughout the universe, thus to be accounting for the commonality. Others believe that physical laws of the universe dictate practical pathways for evolution, and this determines the shapes we inhabit.

“There is no connection of which I am aware between this species and my own. These people have been ascendant for millions of years. My people, like yours, have been present on our world for far less time.”

Greg had drifted closer to the creature. “Why did they build this place?”

“I believe it would be, in your idiom, because they were hedging their bets. While a species may approach transcendence As a unit, some individuals will travel more swiftly toward that goal than others. This would be a place where they were storing their memory, their essence, against failure.”

Greg spun, his eyes narrowing. “You’re saying this is a seed bank. If they wanted to repopulate their world, they could do it from here.”

Vreshvala nodded. “That would be the purpose. The motive remains infinite. This could have been a museum. It could have been a project conducted by rebellious forces who stored an army here. This mountain could contain an army and all that is necessary to make that army function.

Greg shivered. “The lack of weathering is because this machine preserves itself. That cascade is this machine renewing itself.”

Colonel Clark frowned. “That would take incredible power.”

“It would, sir. I’m willing to bet that is what the forest is. It functions as a monster photovoltaic array. The roots run deep, and run into this mountain. All the plants could be connected, so everything feeds into here. As long as the sun shines, this place will preserve itself.”

The colonel nodded. “Until it gets a signal to decant or rebuild whatever it has stored here. Or, if it detects a loss of power, it probably is programmed start sending spores out, or to create and outfit survey teams to find other worlds.”

Greg turned to Vreshvala. “That’s what you came to look at. If these people, people who had enough mastery over their circumstances to harness the power of the solar system, were to burst out, it would be like a pocket of disease bursting into a population with no chance of opposing it.”

“I am not disputing your assessment, Captain. Likewise, recovery of this society’s military assets would be problematic.”

Colonel Clark scratched at the crescent scar on his chin. “Though I doubt we could do it, destroying this place and the weapons is unacceptable since it would be genocide.”

“We could not, Colonel.” Vreshvala stroked the passageway’s smooth surface. “Opening this site would be possible, but with the potentially horrible results we have been discussing.”

Lieutenant Sun Lan joined them. “Colonel, Major Taine tried to reach you. She is in communication with Unity. There is something you will want to see.”

Clark nodded. “I’ll leave it to you to learn what you can. I don’t mind admitting, I’m not seeing a simple solution to this problem. Hell, I’m not even sure if I can define the problem.”

“Your wisdom is a credit to you, Colonel.”

Greg let his artificial fingers brush the wall as the colonel departed. The cascade still thrummed through it, and another current ran beneath. For a moment he thought it was his heartbeat somehow reflected, but it wasn’t in sync with the throbbing in his neck. Not my heartbeat, but their heartbeats.

He shivered. After the accident he’d been in a coma for the better part of a year and a half. The Qian had rebuilt him. He couldn’t really remember anything from that time. He just had a sense of floating in a void, waiting for something. Is that what they feel?

Njatta, do you know anything of these people?”


“Have you found other, similar, repositories? Could you tell me if you had?”

“No, and yes.” Her shoulders rose and fell. “Whether or not I would be telling you is another matter. The Njatta know of many traces of lost civilizations. The universe, to be using a word of yours, is littered with them. Some ruins even indicate that those species had known of even older species, and so on. And we have found repositories, usually connected with colonies or lost world-ships; but I am unaware of evidence that another species hedged its bets this way.”

“There’s another question here, isn’t there?” Greg’s green eyes narrowed. “Colonel Clark said it would be genocide to destroy this place. Does that suggest that we have a moral responsibility to revive these people? Back on Earth, the debate has long raged over bringing back extinct species of animals. While the technology exists to do so, people have pointed out that whatever socialization these creatures knew would be denied them. While a beast might be a mastodon in form and genetics, it wouldn’t learn what it is to be a mastodon. The environment would be different, and there would be nothing there to teach it.”

“You would be correct, Captain, at least partly so.” She opened her arms. “This world is probably nothing like the one on which they evolved. There might not even be original genetic material here, but programs and machines that would rebuild them on a molecular level. Would they be the people they were? Did the best of them leave only their evil behind, or vice versa? I do not know if we have an obligation to resurrect them because that may run counter to whatever intentions they had in placing them here.”

Greg’s guts twisted. “What if this was meant to be a prison, to forever hold those who had committed horrific crimes? What if they were placed here and forgotten when the rest of them transcended?”

“Your suggestion is most intriguing and not a small bit terrifying.”

“I’m just thinking that what might appear to be the right thing could easily be a very bad thing.”

She tilted her head to the side. “What do you feel, Captain?”

Greg hesitated, then touched the wall again. “I feel they want to be alive again. And I feel that is a decision that I cannot make.”

“Our feelings coincide.”

Sun Lan came running back down the passageway. “The colonel, he wishes you to come. The Zsytzii have arrived. They’ve launched a survey ship, and they’ve got fighters covering it. Many fighters.”


“If this was the threat you were feeling, Njatta, you underestimate the Zeez or overestimate our skills.” Nick touched the screen on his sensor-pak and projected a larger image against a pale green leaf. “The Zeez entered the system with an Amcharac class battlecruiser. It masses three times what Unity does. It’s launched a survey ship and a squadron of fighters to cover it.”

As he spoke, the images changed from the long, rectangular starship to a representation of a standard Zsytzii “fighter.” Each one of their aerospace combat units consisted of an cruciform command ship—codenamed Crux—and five smaller ships which weren’t much more than a cockpit with a laser cannon on one end and an engine on the other. A Zsytzii squadron consisted of a half-dozen of the command ships, which meant the 301st were outnumbered five to one.

And that’s if they don’t launch more fighters.

The Zsytzii reproduced in litters of six males or up to three females. The females remained equal, but within a male litter, one child was the superior, and the five functioned as juniors. The juniors would never mature, physically or mentally, and had formed a very useful labor pool in Zsytzii history. Qian sources believed the superiors and his juniors had a basic psychic link but cybernetics had been used to upgrade the link and give the superior direct control over his brothers.

Nick looked at Greg. “Here’s the bad news. Unity is pulling this data through the survey satellites. The world is masking her presence, but the Zsytzii capital ship is parked on the route out of the system. We are outgunned and outmanned, even if five out of six of those ‘men’ are feral first graders. Would I be correct in assuming, Njatta, that letting the Zeez in here is unacceptable?”

“This was not the threat I felt, Colonel. And you are correct.”

Greg Allen held up a hand. “Unity can’t run out of the system sub-hype and find another jump solution?”

Nick shook his head. “Not without us, I have been told, and I’m taking that to mean we’re not leaving Njatta Vreshvala here. Immaterial, really, since running would concede the world to the enemy.”

O’Leary folded his arms. “Looks as if any donnybrook ends up with them taking it anyway.”

“They do have one weakness.”

Greg Allen looked at the projection again. “Sorry sir, I’m not seeing it.”

Nick brought the survey ship up. “You’re on a mission during a war. You’re here to find something. You can imagine there’s some urgency. You’re sending in a survey team that’s valuable enough that you screen them with fighters. Strikes me that the survey crew is your best and brightest, so they get things right on the first pass.”

Greg nodded. “All their eggs in one basket.”

“Exactly.” Nick killed the projection. “Two and a half hours until they hit atmosphere. That’s when we hit them.”

Nick glanced at his Shrike’s auxiliary monitor. It displayed telemetry coming in from the Qian survey satellites, via the external antennae array. It showed the Zsytzii ships coming in fast and still on their original approach vector. Their heading would take them to the plateau he and his squadron had just quitted.

Had that been his flight incoming, he’d have knocked the satellites down. The only reason they might not have was that a previous scouting trip had pulled telemetry from them, and the Zeez were still using them as a source of intel on the planet. To protect themselves, the Star Tigers had activated protocols which erased any sign of their presence.

Nick had dispersed his forces carefully. Njatta Vreshvala had followed his recommendation that she should take her ship, work her way around to the opposite side of the planet, and get out to report her findings to the rest of the Njatta.

He’d tried to get Unity to head out the same way, but Vych had refused that order. Though her refusal probably doomed Unity, she explained simply that to run and abandon the humans would undermine the Star Tigers’ legacy. While they both knew that no official record of this mission would ever exist, within the Qian hierarchy they would know the truth, and that counted for a great deal in the grander scheme of things.

Nick shook his head. He hated the very idea of “the grander scheme of things,” because most folks put the emphasis on grander when the important bit was scheme. He’d known from the start—all the Star Tigers had known from the start—that they were pawns in some great game. But even pawns can become Knights if they survive long enough. To enable them to survive had been his goal.

They’d settled on a basic plan. The Star Tigers would hit the incoming Zeez hard, then burn for Unity. Once all the fighters had been recovered, the crew would make a micro-hop to what appeared to be a gravitationally stable spot in the system. From there they would make a run at getting all the way out.

But if that spot doesn’t exist.… Fact was, the presence of rings around the planet played hob with gravitational solutions. Collisions between rocks could shift profiles and invalidate a solution in the blink of an eye. He shook his head. First problems first.

To wait for the Zeez, Nick had sunk six of the Shrikes in the large lake on the approach to the plateau. They’d inserted below the algae layer, sinking to a depth of ten meters. There the sunlight just made the water above glow with a milky jade light. It undulated a bit, almost like an aurora.

He looked for fish, but didn’t see any. Still, he smiled. “If we get out of here, I’m coming back and hooking something.”

The layer of water above would have made any sensor signals unreliable—at least from fighters at that range. Nick hit a switch, severing the cable to the external antennae array. The floatation collar on the device popped, and the antenna slowly sank into the darkness below his ship.

As the Zeez began to enter the atmosphere, Nick increased power to the grav-lift arrays. His Shrike slowly rose from the depths. Algae and water sheeted off as he broke the surface. Port and starboard, fore and aft, the other five pilots came up.

Greg Allen and O’Leary were ahead and to the left, Major Taine was off Nick’s right wing, and Sun and Early were back right. As per their plan, the Shrikes kept low to the water, skimming the surface, picking up speed. Then, three seconds from what had been the far shore, the fighters went vertical, aiming toward a shower of bright lights burning into the atmosphere above.

Nick brought his shields up to full and pumped all the energy into the front hemisphere. With the flick of a thumb he paired his Baryon Missiles and began to pick targets. Major Taine would be focused on the Superior in the last flight element, while he’d pick up the juniors. Likewise the other two flight elements would target the hindmost Zeez flight elements.

The second and most dangerous mistake the Zeez had made concerned their entry. Their shields allowed them to enter the atmosphere, but the friction between shield and atmosphere generated a lot of heat and a fair amount of plasma. That tended to interfere with sensor arrays. Either they’d been very careless, or were relying on the survey satellite data to show them what was going on down below. Regardless, they were coming in hot into an area that was about to get much hotter.

Nick flipped his radio over to Tac-three. “Mr. Firefly, you are clear to move.”

“Roger, Lead.”

The colonel shifted back to Tac-one. “Engage on my mark. Mark.”


Thomas nudged power to his grav-lift arrays. His Shrike began to rise. Using pedals and stick he navigated by pointing the ship’s nose up, then threading his way through branches and leaves. He could have blasted straight up through—his shields would have more than sufficed for preventing any damage—but he couldn’t bring himself to do that. Even if Greg Allen was right and the trees were just a mass of solar cells, something about the forest itself demanded respect.

Thomas smiled. He’d seen a lot to marvel at in his travels, so the wonders of nature weren’t foreign to him. But this was nature on an industrial scale, which was ancient, and it sent chills down his spine.

He popped up through the foliage and immediately locked onto the survey vessel. It glowed very brightly. About twice the length and four times the girth of Vreshvala’s launch, it was pushing a lot of super-heated air in front of its forward shields. The targeting computer immediately identified it, displaying a boxy ship with two engines at the back, four grav-lift generators on the bottom and …

What the…?

Launch-warning klaxons blared as the survey ship launched two Baryon rockets. Thomas yanked his stick to port, kicking the Shrike into a barrel-roll, then ruddered around back onto his attack vector. The klaxons still sounded, but his console reported no missile lock.

What are they shooting at?

The missile streaked past him, then vanished into the forest. An eyeblink later light flashed. Fire ripped a rectangular scar in the world’s green flesh. Flames rose and curled into black smoke above the Zeez charred landing zone.

No, no, how could they.…?

Thomas punched his throttle all the way forward and brought his Baryon rockets online. Pulling back on the stick he flew up above the survey ship’s glide path, letting the hot gasses in front of it shield him. He inverted, then tugged back more and dove straight at the coffin-shaped ship’s aft. At point blank range, his middle finger tightened on the firing button.

The Baryon rockets streaked in at the Zeez ship. The first slammed into a shield, but the explosion shredded it. As nearly as Thomas could figure, at the last minute the pilot had shifted energy to his aft shields, but they’d not reached anywhere near full capacity when his first missile hammered it.

Though blunted, that first detonation evaporated the ship’s thin armor and thinner hull. That breach, in the engine compartment, would have been more than enough to suck out crew members and any loose equipment. It wasn’t enough to destroy the ship, but it would have crippled it.

The second missile shot through the hole in the hull and exploded within the engine room. The blast melted the engines and destroyed the magnetic containment vessels which managed the fusion reaction. The super-heated plasma, freed of all restraint, expanded much as had the fireball in the forest below.

The ship’s internal bulkheads and hatches had been engineered to withstand the vacuum of space, not to contain the heart of a miniature sun. The heat vaporized them in an instant, and quickly thereafter gnawed through the hull’s support structures. Auxiliary engines and battery packs—which were all that powered life support and shields—vanished next.

The world’s atmosphere had its revenge. The survey ship broke apart roughly five kilometers above the surface. The pieces and parts sailed along on momentum alone, crashing into the fiery hole in the forest.

Thomas keyed the radio. “Lead, the lab is down. Repeat, the lab is down.” A light lit on his console, and a new warning klaxon began to blare. “And it looks like I could use some help.”


Greg replied to Thomas’s message. “Lead, Nine has him. Six, on me.”

“Roger, Nine, on you.”

Greg kicked his Shrike up and over, then dove. He shunted power to his aft shields just in case any of the juniors decided to follow him. He loaded two Baryon rockets, then picked out a senior and shot O’Leary the targeting info. “Take him with two.”

Greg shifted aim for the senior diving his flight on Thomas. “Nomad, prox-blast, four meters from target.” Once he got a confirmation light on the weapons’ display, he hit the trigger button with his middle finger.

The twin missiles lanced forward on bright flame, curving up from Greg’s line of flight as they tracked their target. The senior juked at the last second, rolling left. The first missile went past and exploded harmlessly. The second lit off closer, pinging shrapnel off the senior’s shield. A couple fragments made it deep enough to scratch paint off the ball cockpit.

While Greg could have hoped he’d take out the senior, he got the effect he wanted. The juniors, following in a tight pattern, followed their senior tightly as if they were fish in a school. The second missile exploded in the middle of their formation. Two of the smaller darts snapped in half. A third rolled away lazily, the pilot dead. The last two scattered and Greg flew through the heart of the explosion, rolling to drop onto the senior’s aft.

Below him Thomas’ Shrike danced through the air like a kite in a gale. The senior hung with him. Laser bolts sizzled past, but never so much as brushed one of Thomas’ shields. The Zsytzii senior aped Thomas’ movements, which had Greg doing all he could to stay on the Zeez’s tail.

“Five, break right to 45.1 on my mark.” Greg hit rudder pedal. “Mark.”

Thomas rolled and dove right. The senior inverted to follow. The second he started to dive, Greg hit the Meson Cannon’s trigger. The golden beam scintillated off the Crux’s shield, then punched through. The beam sliced one weapon pod off close to the fuselage, then cored through the armor over one of the engines.

A secondary explosion started thick, dark smoke trailing from the Crux. The Zsytzii ship began a long spiral down toward the surface. The ship straightened out and headed toward the black gash in the forest.

Red laser bolts crackled against Greg’s aft shields. He stood the Shrike up on its port wing, then completed the roll and swooped down toward the starboard. The two juniors in his wake had broken to port, not anticipating his full roll. If he pulled back on the stick, he could come back up hit them from below.

Before he did that, he took a quick glance at his threat monitor. They’d launched against thirty-six Zsytzii ships. Two seniors survived. Fifteen of the juniors were still in the fight. All of the Star Tigers remained operational, though sensors reported that Early’s Shrike had lost aft shields and one engine.

Which means the chances of her making it to Unity for evac are tiny if she has to fight her way clear.

He keyed his radio. “How are we playing this, Lead? It’s a target rich environment.”

“Problem is, Nine,” frustration ran through the colonel’s voice, “It just got a lot richer.”


Nick’s auxiliary monitor still pulled telemetry from the satellites. The Zsytzii’s Amchara battlecruiser had been lurking two and a half hours away—at least as measured by the possible arrival of fighters to reinforce the original squadron. That margin had been the only thing which gave the Star Tigers a chance of getting to Unity and making the micro-jump to safety.

The Zsytzii captain made a decision. Exploiting the same anomaly which Unity would have used to jump out, he jumped in, tucking his ship inside the planet’s rings. While that opened the way for Unity to make a run for safety, it also allowed the Zeez to dump two more fighter squadrons into the theatre. To make things even more exciting, the cruiser cut loose with several heavy Meson Cannon batteries, stabbing gold energy columns into the atmosphere.

If we had ground troops, they’d be mighty uncomfortable now.

Nick opened his radio to all tactical frequencies. “Tigers, break off, head down. Lose yourselves. Unity, evacuate. We’ll wait for you to come back for us.”

“Negative, Tiger Lead. That will compromise this world. We cannot let that happen.”

“No stopping it.”

Vych’s voice betrayed no emotion. “There is. We’re working out the solution now. We will destroy the cruiser.”

“It has bigger guns and range on you. You won’t get that close.”

“We will if we jump into it. There is a narrow gravitational window.”

Nick rolled his fighter, chopped back the throttle, waited for the junior on his tail to flash past, then burned him with a quad laser burst. “Unity you can’t do that.”

“Those the protocols, Lead. We will send for help for you.” Vych’s voice faltered. “Remember us well.”


At the colonel’s command, Thomas had rolled his Shrike and dove for the surface. Two juniors followed him. He pushed power to his aft shields and raced into the smoldering hole the Zeez had carved into the forest. He chopped the throttle back, then banked to starboard and plunged into the living forest.

In getting to his position to attack the survey ship, Thomas had noticed that the foliage had distinct tiers and tunnels. Gaps opened between the upper level, middle and then forest floor. Given that the uppermost leaves were a dark green, and the middle tier had more of a blue tint, he wondered if the seasons caused some leaves to fall and others to grow, continuing the energy harvesting.

Maybe I’ll escape to the southern hemisphere and see if it is different down there.

Laser bolts streaked past, lighting guttering flames in branches and boles. Thomas banked starboard, reversed his throttle, and dropped his Shrike a hundred meters. He made a flat turn to port and throttled up. He watched the junior ships adjust to follow and he smiled. I can lead you on this merry chase all day.

Apparently that conclusion occurred to one of the juniors. While they might mentally have been no more intelligent than a human in kindergarten, they clearly had that much cunning. While one pursued him, the other ship rose above the canopy and just started shooting.

Angry red darts laced the forest with fire. Thomas broke to port. Fire from behind spattered against his shields. The ship above him, apparently hovering and spinning, angled more fire from above. He rolled to starboard and dropped. That’ll work until I’m on the forest floor, then it’s just a matter of time.

He shifted power to his top and aft shields to buy himself some more time, then a brilliant white light flashed above him. The hovering Zeez junior vanished from his sensor screen. A heartbeat later the light representing the second one likewise died, but without any explosion.

Thomas hit his radio. “Thanks, Nine, for getting them.”

“Love to take credit, Five, but we’re still busy up here.” Greg’s voice tightened. “But if you’re free.…”


Nick rolled and broke for the atmosphere. “Unity, do not make that tactical jump.”

“We will evac non-essential personnel, Lead. They’re now yours.”


“Ships away.” The Qian’s voice softened. “Save them and yourselves.”

Ahead, coming up over the curve of the planet’s disc, Unity appeared. Dozens of evacuation pods burned away hard. They headed straight toward the planet, and two Zsytzii fighter squadrons broke off to pursue them.

Nick keyed his radio. “Evac pods incoming. Protect them at all costs.”

He glanced at his threat display. More of them than there are of me. Time to bag my limit.

Hauling back on the stick, he came in at a shallow angle at the atmosphere. He punched power to his belly shields and skipped off the planet’s gaseous shell, then boosted power forward. A junior that had been on his tail exploded behind him when its angle of attack drove it too steeply into the atmosphere.

He flicked his lasers over to pairs, rolled to port, then punched his throttle full forward. He shifted power to his forward shields, then tightened up on his trigger.

The lasers pulsed red fire into an oncoming cluster. The juniors jinked, which saved their lives and spoiled their aim. The senior at their heart cycled his lasers, then hit rudder to pull his fighter out of Nick’s line of fire.

Nick reversed his throttle, then brought his ship’s nose up and hit rudder. As the Zeez laser fire burned through where he should have been, he triggered his Meson Cannon. The gold beam linked the two ships. Much of the energy skipped away from the angled shields, then they collapsed. The beam scorched a black scar on the Crux’s nose.

Not enough.

Then the Crux exploded.

Nick glanced at his threat monitor. None of the other Tigers were even close. Moreover, Unity still appeared on his scope.

Worse yet, the stars are moving.

The radio crackled. “Lead, Unity cannot jump. The window has closed. We have failed.”

Nick’s heart leaped despite the resignation in Vych’s voice. He didn’t reply, however, because nothing he was seeing made any sense.

The stars, or what appeared to be stars, were indeed moving. A portion of Thjenza 471.03’s inner ring had detached itself. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of rocks, varying from things the size of a grain of sand to one captured asteroid larger than Nick’s Shrike, tumbled through space. They glittered and flashed in sunlight, deadly diamonds accelerating down into the planet’s gravity well.

That’s why your window closed, Unity.

The stone shower swept through space. Traveling at incredible speeds, each grain slammed into shields and ships with a force that collapsed energy fields and pounded straight through armor and hull. Cockpit canopies shattered. Engines exploded. Magazine detonations ripped fighters apart from the inside.

The asteroid broke against the battlecruiser’s shields, but battered them harshly. Shield projectors exploded. Nick’s monitors showed the battlecruisers shields to be so weak that his Meson Cannon could have cored its way into the hull. That wouldn’t be enough to kill it, but it would leave a mark.

Fist-sized stones fell in the asteroid’s wake, doing quickly what Nick’s energy beam would have labored to accomplish. Armor plates shattered. Rocky debris punched through the hull, leaving holes with glowing red edges. Smaller stones, and a few bigger, pummeled the Zsytzii ship, abrading all the armor, then grinding through whatever remained. In the blink of an eye the relentless assault cut away enough that Nick got to study the battlecruisers structure. The ship rolled, engine pods tumbling toward the planet, with equipment and crew members spinning into space.

In under a minute the battlecruiser went from a formidable engine of war to a cloud of debris indistinguishable from the storm of stones which had destroyed it. And it, with the remains of the fighters and the ring fragments themselves, made for a beautiful spray of shooting stars as they burned into the world’s atmosphere.


Greg Allen looked down into the steaming depths of the coffee Jiro Yamashita had brought him. The journalist sat opposite him at a round table in the galley, with Thomas Firefly taking up a third seat, hunched over sketching. “I appreciate what you’re telling me you saw from the evac pod, Mr. Yamashita, but I really cannot comment. You already know this mission is completely embargoed, and any attempt you make to relate what you saw will be suppressed.”

“I’m a journalist. I have to try.”

“I know. Fact is, I don’t really know what happened down there.”

Jiro looked at Thomas. “And you, Mr. Firefly?”

Thomas looked up from his sketchbook. “Captain Allen has it right. I can’t explain any of that. Not scientifically, anyway.”

Jiro leaned in, and Greg’s stomach tightened. Where are you going with this, Thomas?

“Tell me, please, Mr. Firefly.”

Thomas shrugged. “Traditions I was raised in stressed that everything has a spiritual life, and we’re just part of it. Look, you were down there for a bit, before your pod got recovered. Couldn’t you feel something more in the forest?”

“It’s not about me. You spent more time down there, saw things I didn’t.”

“Okay. My sense is that the planet’s spirit didn’t like it being attacked. What you saw, I guess, was the planet’s immune response.”

“Immune response.” Jiro frowned. “How exactly would that work?”

Thomas shook his head. “If I knew that, I’d be more than a fighter jock.” He looked stricken for a moment and faced Greg. “I can say that, right?”

“Call yourself a fighter jock.” Greg nodded. “Yeah, you earned that. Of course, your only kill was kind of hard to miss.…”

Jiro sat back, folded his arms over his chest. “What happened down there is only part of the story. I got evacced with all non-essential personnel. That means Unity was going to do something that would doom it as far as the Qian were concerned. Only reason they’d do that would be to protect something huge.”

“You don’t think a planet that’s alive would be huge?”

“Oh, I do, Captain Allen. I do. But …” Jiro arched an eyebrow. “It does make me wonder what other secrets the Qian have, and to what extreme lengths they’ll go to keep them hidden from the rest of us.”


Nick suppressed the urge to shake his head. “I think my people understand the need to keep knowledge of what we saw to ourselves. I do wonder one thing, though.”

Vych and Vreshvala both nodded toward him.

“How soon does a Qian ship arrive to do some damage and teach that world that we can’t be trusted, either?”

The Njatta raised a hand to shoulder height. “There is no need. There is no trace of this planet’s existence in any accessible database. It’s all been done away with. Instead, on navigational charts, Thjenza 471 is shown to be a collapsed star. It is a navigational hazard. No one will ever visit. No one will ever know.”

He laughed. “Our navigators know. My pilots know.”

“None of them could plot a course back to that world. No nomads or navigational computers will be able to successfully manage that task.”

“Someone could see it with a telescope.”

Vych shook her head. “Nicholas, you must fully appreciate what Njatta Vreshvala has told you. There is no location where an optical telescope could be placed which would detect that system. More sophisticated telescopes could collect data indicating it is there, but the Njatta have made it such that any analysis of that data would simply erase evidence of the system’s existence.”

“And you’re sure there’s no chance it will be discovered?” Nick read shock in the asymmetrical play of lights over Vych’s face. “Not to question your honor, Njatta, but it’s my experience that secrets don’t like to stay secret. And, frankly, given that the Njatta have their own agenda in the world, I know you have the information stored away somewhere in case it becomes vital later.”

Vreshvala nodded. “I did say ‘accessible.’ You are wise to question, but you should not worry.”

Vych smiled. “The Njatta are never wrong in matters such as this.”

“I’ve never had good experience with claims of infallibility.” Nick gave Vreshvala a hard stare. “Remember when you talked about my secret, my children?”


“I don’t have any children.”

“Indeed, Colonel Clark.” The Njatta cocked her head to the left. “My mistake. You do have children, and grandchildren; you just have not yet had the pleasure of meeting them.”


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