Book: Hold The Line



Hold The Line




Hold the Line


Ganog Wars Book 2

Contents

Dedication

Previously On Ganog Wars

Planetstrider

Prologue

1. Go To Ground

2. Fool's Errand

3. Locals

4. On the Run

5. Scouting

6. Grotto

7. Arena

8. Fight

9. Tourney

10. Elite

11. Ro'kan

12. Quarters

13. Knife's Edge

14. The Price

15. Nameless Ones

16. Put Em Down

17. Last Stand

18. Ambushed

19. Interogation

20. Master

21. Outmanuvered

22. Empress

23. Sparring

24. Sissus

25. Knock, Knock

26. Watch

27. Mobilization

28. Preparation

29. Imperalis

30. The Time is Now

31. Decision

32. Rumors

33. Ready for War

34. Feint

35. Ground War

36. The Beacon

37. Void Wraith

38. Haak

39. Not Amused

40. Great Day

41. Yippee Ki Yay

42. Audacity

43. Trust

44. After Them

45. The Price

46. Warp

47. End This

48. Pact

Epilogue

Press The Line

Destroyer Excerpt

1. Debris

2. You're In Charge

3. Hannan

4. Cat and Mouse



Dedication

For Mary. Your tireless support helps more than I’ll ever adequately express.



Previously On Ganog Wars

Whenever I pick up the 2nd book in a series I'm torn. Should I go back and re-read the first? Or just dive right in?

When I became an author I decided to offer readers a solution. At the beginning of every book I recap the previous book(s), just like you'd see on a television show. I try to make as funny as possible.

In an announcer voice... Last time on Ganog Wars.

Behind the Lines

The prologue opens with a prisoner interrogation. Takkar, Clan Leader of the Vkash, seeks to learn more about this mysterious Coalition of United Species, or CUS for short. Since CUS is a stupid acronym, I chose to go with Coalition instead.

Anyway, Takkar gets all villainy, complete with the muhahaha I'm going to invade the Coalition. He sets a trap, and we already know our heroes are going to walk into it, because... it's on the freaking cover. Like we can literally see them getting their asses handed to them. Plus, the title is Behind The Lines. Spoilers, right?

The Coalition sends a fleet led by Admiral Fizgig, an angry Tigris based entirely on my house cat, to investigate. Fizgig sends in a ground team, while her cloaked fleet waits in orbit. This ground team is commanded by Major Reval, who doesn't much like our protagonist, Nolan.

Nolan is the non-emo version of most Anime heroes, a dude in his 20s who's a total badass in a mech. Reval makes Nolan wait on the ships while he walks into an *gasp* ambush. We're totally shocked, since we just read the prologue...where we were told this was going to happen.

Reval is attacked by large ape-like aliens called the Ganog. Nolan decides to disobey orders, and leads his squad to bail Reval out of trouble. Then Things Go Badly (TM).

Up in space, Fizgig's fleet engages the Ganog. The Ganog start kicking her ass in a way the Void Wraith never achieved. She cleverly uses the enemy's own ships as cover, but knows that she's going to need to retreat...quickly.

Back on the ground things are going south. Early in the book we're told that there are three mounds erected around the city, and we have no idea what they're used for. We find out when 3,000 meter tall Planetstriders step out (see the cover of this book, or download Planetstrider).

The Planetstrider blows up their cruisers, catching Annie in the explosion. Nolan, Edwards, Lena, and Hannan are forced to flee into a rust storm. They take shelter, and realize they have no way off world.

Nolan leads a scouting party into an alien market, where they're approached by a Ganog named T'kon. T'kon says he knows where one of their people is, and will lead them there. Nolan reluctantly agrees, and is brought back to Aluki's shop.

Aluki is a whalorian, adorable little whale people...with rocket launchers. It turns out Annie survived, which is a good thing for me personally. I killed a fan favorite character in my Void Wraith trilogy, and have been informed that if I go the George R.R. Martin route snipers will be dispatched to deal with me. I'm constantly looking over my shoulder.

Meanwhile, Fizgig is trying to find a way to deal with the Ganog's superior technology. She returns to the Birthplace, a mysterious (terribly mysterious) system run by the Ancient Primo. Time passes at an accelerated rate there, speeding the Coalition's manufacturing.

The Coalition has created the Theta Cannon, which fires a micro-singularity. Fizgig's ships are armed with these cannons, but it will take time to outfit them all. Time Nolan and Alpha Company may not have.

We flip back to Nolan, who picks up a Coalition signal. He and T'kon lead the squad to the location, racing to beat the Saurian kill squads. There's a skirmish, and Nolan leads a pair of Coalition survivors to safety. Those survivors turn out to be Burke and Nuchik, both of whom hate Nolan and his squad.

Burke is kind of a dick about, well pretty much everything. Nuchik doesn't talk much, but when she does it's usually to say something dickish. Hannan gets tired of this, and smashes Burke in his smug face with a pot of soup. Things come to a head, but Nolan breaks it up.

He gives a rousing speech about teamwork, then we get a Team America style montage. Nolan's squad starts working together, assembling the parts to build a small warp device so they can send word back to the fleet.

Along the way Nolan keeps looking for something called Gorthians. If you've read the Void Wraith trilogy, you're like...okay, I get it. If not you're probably wondering WTF a Gorthian is. Every twenty-six millennia the Gorthians return to our part of the milky way to harvest it, and when I say harvest I mean eat. The only Gorthian we meet in that trilogy is a moon-sized giant floating eye. Of doom.

They tried that harvesting shit on earth, but Fizgig, Dryker, and Nolan were all like...yeah, no. I won't say more incase you haven't read those books.

Anyway, I bring up the Gorthians because Nolan keeps hearing the Ganog talk about 'Nameless Ones'. The more he hears, the more he thinks they sound an awful lot like the Gorthians. We don't find out if he's right in this book, but anyone who's read this far is pretty damned sure of the answer.

Nolan is pondering this very question when Krekon, the Ganog melter, pops onto the scene. He rolls into Nolan's camp with a whole lot of angry Ganog elites. Fortunately, Sissus is secretly working against Krekon. He manages to warn Nolan, and Nolan is ready when Krekon arrives.

There's a brutal fight where Edwards is crushed under a collapsing roof. All sorts of pew pew, BOOM. Then Nolan has a duel with Krekon, the toughest, baddest, gorilla alien you've ever seen. Nolan pulls it out at the last second and wins. We're shocked.

Beating Krekon gives Nolan the last missing piece of the puzzle. Now they have access to a ship, the one Krekon arrived in. So Nolan launches a desperate plan to get his people off world. He is going to assault one of the planetstriders, while everyone else captures Krekon's cruiser.

This last part should be easy, since Sissus works for Krekon. Sissus tricks the Ganog into opening the ship, and Burke leads a squad in to seize it. Aluki finally uses a rocket launcher. Annie drawls.

The second part is a little harder. How the hell do you do deal with a 3,000 meter Godzilla mutant mech thing? Nolan, T'kon, Lena, and Hannan scale the Planetstrider like it's a mountain. They're only half way up when the planetstrider punches out of the mound.

It fires into orbit, where Fizgig has led her newly outfitted fleet back into battle. They deploy their theta cannons, and actually have some success against the enemy. They're still getting pounded though (huh huh).

Nolan battles his way inside the Planetstrider's control room, where we receive a startling revelation. The technology is definitely Primo. That gives them an idea though. Instead of blowing up the control unit, they remove the core and plug in Edwards. Edwards gets to pilot a 3,000 meter Planetstrider. Pretty much his dream job.

Fizgig has severely damaged the enemy fleet, but is also taking heavy losses. Her flagship is hit, and things are looking grim.

Lena figures out how to use the Planetstrider's warp, so Nolan orders Edwards to warp them into space. They appear near Fizgig's flag ship, and just start wrecking shop. Ganog ships are blown to shit, and Clan Leader Takkar is forced to warp away.

It's almost a total victory, except for two problems. Fizgig's fleet has been savaged, and a lot of her booster mechs were inside Takkar's flagship when it warped away. Our very last chapter shows Khar realizing this, and trying to figure out what the heck he's going to do.

That leads us into the book you're holding. I really hope you enjoy it. If you do, please consider leaving a review. Those are incredibly valuable to indie authors like me.

Thank you so much for reading. =D

-Chris


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Hold The Line



Prologue

Takkar's pride mirrored the savaged hull of the Vkash's Fist, his flagship. It was scarred and pocked, with most of the cannons now nothing more than melted lumps. The main cannon was but a memory, and a cruiser-sized hole rent the hull. A thin, crackling membrane of blue energy was all that kept the ship's interior from being sucked through that hole.

The sting of seeing his mighty flagship humbled receded, as the ship itself receded. The shuttle carried him toward the Ganog capital world of Imperalis, the Jewel of the Ganog Imperium. He chose to focus on that, rather than his wounded warship.

His transport wound around the first ring, a sapphire band of ice and rock that orbited the violet world. That ring was fed by the shattered moon, an azure half-sphere. The moon was all that remained of the mythological battle that had birthed the Imperium. The War Before Time, they called it.

The shuttle zoomed closer to the world, dipping below the second ring. This one was smaller, and orbited a different axis. It had a more purplish hue--refracted light from the atmosphere below.

Below them lay the planet's southern continent, a volcanically active region dotted with great cities. The outer cities had been given to the lava, but those closer to the center of the continent were vibrant and alive. Billions of Ganog souls dwelled there, supported by an equal number of labor-slaves.

The ship descended toward the centermost city, a glittering mass of spires lining the slopes of Mount Kethar. The largest spire sat atop the summit, taller than Takkar's dreadnought was long. Thousands of glittering islands floated around the spire in rings, each ring a little smaller than the last. They slowly orbited their respective levels, much as the ice and rock above orbited this world.

Only clan or fleet leaders were allowed to dock at the top ring, the ring the shuttle was making for. Takkar still remembered the first time he'd been allowed to dock here, just after his elevation to fleet leader nearly two decades before. Each time he'd come, it had been to accept another award or promotion--always in praise of his abilities as a leader.

Today was far different. Today, the bonfire of his joy was gone, smothered by the ashes of dread. How would the empress react to his failure?

There was a very real possibility that she'd execute him and his family. Were he advising her, that would be the course he'd recommend. It would send a necessary message about the price of failure.

Yet the empress suffered from the special brand of pride enjoyed by the truly righteous. She considered herself both enlightened and egalitarian, and it was these qualities that Takkar hoped to appeal to.

A slender hope, but all he had.

He inhaled from his lower nostrils, his fur fading to soft grey as the ship floated toward the ivory platform. Only imperial guests were allowed to dock on the spire itself, but when one carried the kind of dire news Takkar had, one ignored such niceties.

"We have arrived, Clan Leader," the techsmith behind him hissed.

He'd forgotten the Saurian. Her red scales were shrouded in the grey robes of her order. She clutched her arcanotome to her chest, the glowing circuitry mostly swallowed by her voluminous sleeves. A black cable snaked from the tome to her temple, feeding pulses of light back and forth. The sight sickened him.

"Shall I send word to the empress?"

"Do it." Takkar leapt from his platform, landing on the ivory-colored metal with a muffled clank. He did not bring his elites, for none stood high enough to be allowed here.

Krekon would have, had he not been slain. Takkar had been forced to flee Ganog 7 before he could verify Krekon's fate, but his death was the only real possibility.

Takkar walked up the gently sloping ramp, toward the arched hallway leading into the spire. The doorway was smothered in gold, with glowing sigils bathing the metal in rich purple. He couldn't read those sigils, but his fur tingled as he passed beneath them--a testament to their power. Had the empress wished, he would have been incinerated upon stepping through.

He took his survival as permission to proceed, and continued up a short corridor that emptied into the spire's interior. The hollow depths disappeared into the distance both above and below; thousands of islands of all sizes slowly orbited the center of the spire, where a single cluster of islands stood above all others.

"I've summoned a platform, Clan Leader," his techsmith murmured. She gave a low bow, careful to keep her eyes downcast.

An unadorned ivory disk floated over, the sloped metal just large enough for a single occupant. Takkar's fur went pale, nearly translucent. He stepped onto the disk, which zoomed slowly toward the royal island.

He passed many curious onlookers, but he kept his gaze focused on the empress's island. He couldn't face their curiosity, or their derision. The idea that a clan leader would be accorded an unadorned disk was...unthinkable.

The disk finally rose to the level of the island, providing the first clue to his fate. The empress stood on the central dais, surrounded by a cloud of attendants. Today her fur was purple, an aesthetic choice no doubt intended to irritate him. As a simple elite, Takkar couldn't control his body the same way she could. His fur revealed his emotions; her metabiology made her fur a canvas to paint as she wished.

"Ahh, Takkar. Join us, please." The empress's melodious voice cut through the low conversations of her attendants, a knife through silk. They fell silent, turning as one to watch his approach. Every last Ganog around the empress was an adept, just as she was. They wore the short white robes of their order, the garments worthless compared to his own armor.

Takkar gave a start when he noted the crowd of black-robed figures along the rim of the dais, behind the empress. Their voluminous robes mirrored those of the techsmiths--but where the techsmith's were unadorned, these were stitched with eldritch runes like those adorning the spire.

Takkar counted the robed figures, noting six in total. The empress had a total of fourteen attendants. Having nearly half of them come from the seeker caste was unprecedented. During previous visits, he'd never seen more than one.

The seekers were gaining in strength. Alarming, but a matter to contemplate only if he survived the next few minutes.

"You've left your axe back on your ship," the empress mused. She puckered full lips, staring down at him regally. "Are you certain you don't wish to fetch it before your audience?"

"If I have need of my axe, then my life is over." Takkar kept his words simple. The empress was not merely an adept; she had the benefits of a full oral education, teaching her everything from mathematics to history. Many in the leadership caste disdained such frivolous pursuits, but Takkar suspected they undervalued knowledge.

"True enough. Then let us determine your fate. Tell me, Takkar. Why do I see only five dreadnoughts? Many of your cruisers are missing. The vessels I do see have all suffered immense damage. What's worse, I have a report that only two of your planetstriders are erecting mounds on the south slope." The empress glided across the floor toward him, halting mere inches away. She was beautiful, her delicate fur covering equally delicate features. "It would appear you've suffered the single greatest military defeat in living memory." She cocked her head, calling to one of the robed figures. "Utfa, attend me."

One of the black-robed figures left the others, taking slow deliberate steps in their direction. He reached up with both hands, exposing milky eyes and a leathered, hairless face. His swift, sure stride belied his apparent age. Like the techsmiths he carried an arcanotome, wired to his wizened temple--yet his frame was heavily muscled, and he walked with a warrior's grace.

He stopped next to them. "What is your will, Empress?"

"You are the keeper of our chronicles, and your arcanotome possesses the sum of our knowledge. Tell me, when was the last time the Imperium suffered a defeat of the magnitude Takkar has shown us?"

Pulses flowed to Utfa's temple from the tome. "It has been four centuries, your grace." He gave a shallow bow. "The Azi clan warred upon the Vkash clan. The Vkash followed Dokkar, a charismatic but unwise fleet leader. He led their forces into battle at Ganog 4. The Azi destroyed two dreadnoughts, and captured nearly all of Dokkar's labor-slaves and techsmiths."

"There--you see, Takkar? You've accomplished something not duplicated in four centuries. Have you anything to say that might convince me to stay your execution, and that of your family?"

"I have, Empress." Takkar reached slowly into his satchel. The empress's adepts shifted to combat stances, but subsided when he revealed the glowing cube from his satchel. "I hold a core, majesty--the holy heart of a planetstrider."

"Blasphemy," Utfa roared. He growled at the empress, using the kind of tone that normally ended in swift execution. "Highness, we must remove this relic from the view of the court. Having it out in full view risks attracting the gaze of the Nameless Ones. While my brothers and I would relish their attention, I do not believe you share that sentiment."

Takkar expected the empress to chastise the seeker, yet she did not. Instead, she placed a hand on the cube, inspecting it carefully.

"Tell me where you acquired it," she said. "Make the tale interesting, and you might even survive the day."


1

Go To Ground

Khar leaned into the turn, feathering the mech's booster. He whipped past one of the floating islands, using the wide ivory disk to break line of sight with his pursuers: three Ganog elites, all riding some sort of sky cycle.

High above, he eyed the hole in the dreadnought's hull, but it was already covered with a thick blue membrane; he had no idea if his mech could make it through. Even if it could, he highly doubted these elites were going to give him time to try.

Khar's mech zoomed around another island, buying him a few moments to think. He analyzed the situation, struggling for a solution. He was trapped inside a Ganog dreadnought, and that dreadnought had completed a warp to another system an unknown number of light years away. There were no Helios Gates this far out, and even if there were he had no Helios-capable vessel.

Another burst of plasma shot past him, and Khar guided the mech into a steep dive. He curved past several more islands, but he was quickly running out of room. The bottom deck of the vessel lay several hundred meters below. Above it was a final layer of islands. He might be able to lose them down there, under the last of the islands. It was dark, and a warren of tiny buildings dotted the hull's dark surface. There were an awful lot of them, enough to form the slums for a whole city.

His mech shuddered when something slammed into his main booster. Warning lights flared on the arm and shoulder, and the booster's reactor was flashing critical.

These warriors are much more skilled than those who pilot the bulky fighters.

Khar twisted the mech in midair, thumbing the booster's release. It tumbled free, and Khar swung the mech's leg around in a wide kick. It flung the booster at the closest Ganog, who tried desperately to avoid the sudden projectile. The booster caught him in the chest, detonating on impact.

A wave of superheated flame burst in all directions, enveloping both sky cycle and rider. The flames obscured the other two pursuers, and Khar used the opportunity to pop open his missile tubes. He had one volley left, just nine missiles.

As a Tigris, he'd have used instinct--but his synthetic body provided a better option. He projected the Ganog's flight path, adjusted for his falling velocity. Khar fired two missiles, adjusted his aim, then fired another two.

The first Ganog came streaking out of the flames, directly into the path of the pair of missiles. It ended badly.

The second Ganog darted from beneath the flames, changing his course unexpectedly. The pair of missiles shot harmlessly overhead, and the Ganog zoomed around in a wide arc.

Khar continued to fall, unable to adjust his flight without his main booster. That made him an un-missable target.

Khar raised his rifle, firing the particle cannon. It discharged a stream of superheated lightning, tagging the rear of the sky cycle. The vehicle began to spin wildly, and the rider toppled from his seat. The Ganog caught the handlebars, and began struggling back into his seat.

Khar fired again, this time catching the Ganog in the arm. Everything below the elbow disintegrated, and the Ganog tumbled away from his bike. The bike hit the island below, detonating spectacularly, and the Ganog plummeted out of sight over the edge of the platform. His scream echoed through the cavernous ship.

"Tigrana protect me," Khar muttered. He bent the mech's knees, taking quick breaths as the island rushed up at him. Three, two, one...

Khar fired his leg thrusters, a full five-second burn. It bled momentum, but not enough. He came down hard, the mech crashing into the ivory-colored metal in a tangle of mechanical limbs.

A klaxon chimed softly through the cockpit, and everything below the waist on the 3D model of the mech went from yellow, to red, to dark. The viewport spun wildly as the mech tumbled end-over-end toward the edge of the sloped island.

"No!" Khar roared. The mech's arm shot out, the fingers drawing lines of sparks as he slid toward the edge. He caught himself, pulling the mech's legless torso back onto the island.

Khar knew hesitation meant death. He couldn't be found here. More Ganog would be coming. He tapped the eject sequence, exhaling the breath he'd been holding when the cockpit groaned reluctantly open--not that he needed to breathe.

Khar leapt to the ground, rolling quickly to his feet. He scanned the area where he'd landed--some sort of orchard, from the look of it. Strange pink and blue trees grew all around him, ripe purple fruits filling their lower branches. A dozen pairs of eyes peered at him from the branches. They belonged to thin, slow moving creatures that reminded Khar of hiktik bugs back on Tigrana.

They didn't seem hostile, so Khar sprinted past them. His internal HUD clocked his speed at 32 KPH, about seventy percent of maximum. Faster than that wasn't recommended, as sustaining that kind of speed burned an inordinate amount of energy.

Khar's battery was already down to 73 percent, and he had no idea when he'd be able to find time to recharge. He pulled up short at the edge of another row of trees. A wide oval pod sat in a clearing, and as he watched, a stick-alien slowly emerged, like it was passing through liquid.

I hope that's a transportation device, because I don't have many other options.

Khar gave a reluctant look back at his mech. The internal self-destruct would ensure nothing useful could be taken from it, but he wished he had time to be sure.

Khar charged toward the pod, leaping to cover the last dozen feet. A ripple of ice passed over him as he entered the viscous liquid. It pulled him toward the center of the pod, then hardened into a rubbery gel around him.

Had Khar needed to breathe that might have been lethal, and for about the millionth time he was glad he'd chosen to give up his flesh-and-blood body. Many Tigris considered him a fool, while others eagerly awaited the production of more such bodies. Khar knew what he believed: This body was the best thing that had ever happened to him, and losing the ability to sire kits was a small price to pay.

The pod began to descend, rippling through the bottom of the island. It passed into a shadowed area, with only a few islands between it and the slums below. The pod increased the speed of descent, passing narrowly by each island.

Khar studied the islands as they passed, noting the similarities to a Tigris or human city. The buildings were roughly the same shape, the materials mostly identifiable. He didn't know what the white metal was, but it looked similar to the blue metal Primo used in the construction of their ships.

He passed the final island, and turned his attention to the buildings lining the hull. It was a shantytown, the buildings constructed from whatever debris or garbage these people could find. The buildings radiated chaotically along the entire bottom of the hull, snaking off into the shadows near the prow of the ship.

A few Saurians glanced up in his direction as the pod descended, but none stared long. People moved quickly down here, keeping their heads lowered. They moved with purpose, in exactly the kind of way Khar had seen back on Ganog 7. This place was lawless, and the people wore apathy and confidence as armor.

Flimsy armor, but for many it was likely all they had.

The pod finally slowed, then stopped a few feet above the ground. The gel thinned back to liquid, and Khar felt an invisible force push him from the pod. He dropped agilely to the ground, landing in a crouch.

He was in the middle of a small clearing, surrounded by what appeared to be shops. The deck, or what should have been the deck, was covered in thick, grimy soil. Khar didn't want to know what it contained, and was thankful he no longer had the ability to smell. His olfactory sensors conveyed the data, without the unpleasantness.

Khar picked an alley at random, and started to run. He darted around corners, trying to avoid people wherever possible. He came up short when he reached a squat black bunker with its door standing open. He had no idea what lay inside, but he needed to get out of sight. Quickly.

Khar darted through the doorway, and into the unknown.




2

Fool's Errand

Nolan resisted the urge to pace, but did adjust the collar of his dress uniform. He and the squad stood in a straight line, facing the top brass from three races. Most were human, but at least a quarter were Tigris. The remaining few were Primo, their multicolored skin and bulbous heads making them easy to spot.

All that was missing was the president. Part of Nolan loved that Dryker hadn't changed, even after being elected to the highest office in the Coalition. Always late to everything.

"I hate all this pomp and circumstance crap," Nolan muttered, tilting the brim of his hat to shade his eyes. He should have worn sunglasses, but HR had insisted that he would "connect" more if he showed his face.

Squinting into the sun still seemed stupid.

"Stop fidgeting, sir," Hannan said, elbowing him in the ribs. "We've dealt with worse. The old man wants to take some holos, so we can be propped up as heroes. After that we'll get real beef. Beef, Captain. We get to eat a cow."

"Not to mention no one is shooting at us," Burke said. He stood at the far end of the line--next to Nuchik, of course.

The pair had warmed to Nolan after the Battle of Ganog 7, but the fiery-haired officer was still distant.

"I take no joy from this either," Lena growled. She used a claw to pick at the collar of her uniform. "I look ridiculous, like a human. It is patently unfair that the Coalition is based largely on human customs. Though, I will admit I am eager to taste this...cow. Is the beast ferocious?"

"The males are." Nolan couldn't help but smile.

"If I could change one thing," Fizgig interjected, looking miserable in her dress uniform, "it would be adopting human fashion for our military. Discipline I understand, but fighting in these...garments is impractical. They serve no purpose. And they prevent grooming." Her ears drooped, and her whiskers twitched.

A sleek black shuttle rumbled by overhead, slowly settling onto the runway near the stage. The engines ran silently, other than a subsonic hum.

Hannan gave a low whistle, eyeing the shuttle.

Nolan shared the appreciation. "Kathryn's handiwork, I'd bet."

"A wager I would not take." Fizgig said.

The moment it touched down, a ramp extended from the back. A stream of soldiers began to emerge, moving to flank the stage. After the soldiers came a detail of more conventional security--the president's secret service. They wore fashionable black suits, and had no visible weapons. But Nolan knew they were there, from particle pistols to cybernetic enhancements.

The cloud of reporters along the edge of the fence began snapping holos, their attention all on the man emerging from the shuttle. President Dryker gave the crowd a single wave, then turned toward the stage. He removed a wide-brimmed hat, tucking it under the arm of his dress uniform as he approached. His beard was as unruly as ever, white tendrils snaking in all directions.

It was an interesting choice, wearing that uniform. Dryker had served in the old UFC fleet, and Nolan supposed wearing it reminded the press of that fact. He'd been made an honorary admiral in the Coalition navy when the charter had been signed, though he'd never served in the new military.

"Welcome home, soldiers." Dryker approached Fizgig, shaking her paw. He moved down the line, shaking each hand as he murmured more welcome homes. He smiled at Nolan, speaking through a clenched smile. "God, I hate this shit."

Nolan only partially succeeded in holding in his laugh. It was damned good to see the old man. Nolan maintained his plastic smile while they said the words, and pinned the medals. He knew all this ceremony wasn't for them. He didn't care about medals, and neither did anyone else in the squad. Hell, Hannan was probably offended by the notion. Burke was the only one who seemed to enjoy being there.

Reporters snapped an endless slew of photos, and when it was over the guards escorted them off the runway. The brass slowly filed after them, until they were finally alone.

"Thanks for putting up with that," Dryker said, rolling his eyes. "I never had the stomach for Fleet politics, and government is even more petty. Every inch of ground costs political capital, and this ceremony gave me a pretty good chunk. I'm going to spend it getting you the resources you need, Fizgig."

"Then suffering through this may be worth it," Fizgig allowed. She scratched at the back of her neck. "Will you not be joining us for the ritual consumption of this...cow?"

"I will, but we'll be surrounded by cameras. We aren't likely to have another opportunity like this, outside Fleet communications. This is probably the only place we can be frank with each other," Dryker said. He glanced at the Ganog cruiser parked near the planetstrider, then at the planetstrider itself. "Edwards is really in that thing?"

"Yeah, he's made a new friend." Hannan smiled broadly. "He calls the critter 'Rex'. I've never seen Edwards this happy. Annie's up there, too. She wanted to be here, but HR said she didn't really fit the image they wanted to convey."

"You should have told me." Dryker's face darkened, snowy eyebrows knitting together. "She should be honored, just the same as the rest of you."

"Yes, but it would cost you some of that hard-earned political capital," Nolan pointed out. "She wouldn't want to be here anyway. Trust me, she's having more fun than we are. So, have you started working on the planetstrider yet?" He badly wanted to ask about the connection to Primo tech, but held the question in.

"We've got a delegation from the Birthplace eager to study it, but they haven't started yet. I'll make sure they don't put Edwards through too much poking and prodding." Dryker turned to Fizgig. "So give it to me straight: How long do we have before these Ganog launch their next offensive?"

"Nolan?" Fizgig asked, shifting her feline eyes to him.

"I've spent time with T'kon, the Ganog who defected. He believes that Takkar, the enemy clan leader, will retreat to their home world, where he'll be judged by their empress. After she learns about us and our technology, she'll send her fleets in search of our manufacturing base. She'll want our cores, and our scientists. The Ganog are a slave-taking race. T'kon guesses two months before they invade, but it could be sooner."

"How much time before the 4th Fleet is outfitted?" Fizgig demanded. She still managed that thinly veiled Tigris savagery, even in her dress uniform.

A couple of the secret servicemen stepped closer, but Dryker waved them off.

"Six weeks. We can't shave any more than that," Dryker admitted. He heaved a sigh. "The good news is that the 5th and 9th will be outfitted two weeks later."

"That will not be enough to overcome this enemy." Fizgig folded her arms; her tail lashed behind her. "They will come at us with everything they have--every ship, and every planetstrider. I know this commander. I have seen him fight. He is aggressive. He will not wait long."

"I have an idea which might buy us some time," Nolan suggested. All eyes turned to him. "T'kon has told me a lot about his culture. The Ganog survive by invading new territory and plundering everything. For lack of a better term, they're space vikings. They conquer new worlds to plunder their resources. They're most interested in science, and in taking slaves who understand that science."

"Your reports have already explained that." Dryker stroked his snowy beard. "Get to the point, son. What do you have in mind?"

"What if we leaked intel about the largest Coalition factory in our space--the Void Wraith factory we captured, just before the end of the war? Fizgig fortifies the planet with her fleets, and we move the planetstrider there as well. We pull in the Tigris orbital defense platforms, and see if we can talk the Primo into moving one of their surviving carriers there."

They seemed interested, so Nolan continued.

"We convince the Ganog that this is the hub of our manufacturing. We get them to invade in force, and we ambush them with everything we have. We hit and run, picking off every unit we can. They take damage; we melt away--and they wipe out a worthless factory, one we strip before they arrive."

"Hmm, this plan is audacious," Fizgig allowed. "It might be workable. It will certainly buy us time, while weakening our foes." Her tail stopped lashing. "I see a major problem: How will you leak word to these Ganog? How can we be certain they will come to this world?"

"T'kon has volunteered to help us," Nolan said. "He wants to make it back to his clan, to bring them the core we gave him. Give me the Ganog cruiser, and let us escort T'kon back to his people. In exchange, he'll help us get word to the empress."

It wasn't a perfect plan, but what first draft was?

"And, conveniently, you and your squad get to accompany him, right?" Dryker asked, rather dryly. "You're in the bad habit of operating outside the command structure, Nolan."

"Yeah, he is," Burke muttered. He wore a half-smile, though.

"I know," Nolan said, "but you and I both know my squad gets things done, and this is something you need done. Can you think of someone better to send?"

"No, I can't," Dryker said. "Fizgig, where do you weigh in on this?"

"I do not like the idea of sending operatives into unknown territory, but it seems we have an opportunity. We should take advantage of it. I will begin formulating a defense plan, while we wait for the Birthplace to finish their work."

"What about Alpha Company? Someone needs to rebuild it," Dryker pointed out. He folded his arms. "You're the most likely candidate, and there's a promotion in it for you."

"I'm not the right choice, sir," Nolan protested.

"Oh?" Dryker raised an eyebrow.

Nolan nodded down at Burke. "Make Burke do it. He's got the experience, and the skills. And he was in Alpha since day one."

"Burke, how do you feel about that?" Dryker asked, sizing Burke up.

"Sir, I'll do the job if you need it done." Burke stated the words simply. Professionally.

"Then consider yourself promoted, Major Burke. I'll push through the paperwork, and start getting you the men and material you need. Your entire goal will be to prepare for the Ganog assault. Think you can handle that?"

"Yes, sir," Burke replied, confidently. "You give me the men and material, and we'll give you dead Ganog." Burke turned to Nuchik. "So what do you say, you want to help me rebuild Alpha?"

"I'm sorry, Burke," Nuchik replied, quietly as always. She avoided looking at Burke. "I always thought I was meant to be part of an outfit like Alpha, but after Ganog 7 I realize I'm a lot more valuable helping Nolan."

There was a tense moment of silence. Burke clenched a fist, and Nolan was positive he was on the verge of saying something. The major closed his eyes, opening them a second later.

"I understand." Burke gave Nuchik a warm smile, and squeezed her shoulder. "Keep him alive, and see if you can make them shower once in a while. Alpha will miss you."

Dryker gave an approving smile. He turned to Nolan, clapping him on the shoulder. "Sounds like your plan is a go, son. I can't say I like it, but I'll give you what you need. The cruiser is yours. I'd say be careful, but we both know you won't."

"Careful, my ass," Hannan said. She glared accusingly at Dryker. "Sir, you detonated a titan-class gauss cannon inside your own ship. By all rights you should be dead. You're the most reckless officer I've ever met. Sir."

"I can't argue with you there." The old man gave a mischievous grin. "Good luck out there. Part of me wishes I could go with you, but I'm too old for that shit anymore. I'm too old for this political shit, too, but I know I'll never be able to escape that."

"We'll do you proud, sir." Nolan promised.

"Nolan," Fizgig said, dropping her voice and moving a step closer, "if you are going on this fool's errand, I have a request. Discover Khar's fate, and if he lives...find a way to bring him home. You know what he means to me, and to my people."

"If he's alive, I'll get him out. I promise."


3

Locals

Khar stepped warily into the bunker, if that was what the low black structure was. It had no windows, though many of the other ramshackle buildings lacked them as well. That was probably a wise security feature, as these appeared to be lawless slums.

His eyes adjusted quickly, points of interest popping up in his HUD as he scanned the room. A small pyramid on a work bench appeared to be a power source. The flickering lamp hanging from the central ceiling was harnessing some sort of chemical reaction, and the analysis suggested it burned some sort of guano.

A narrow bed rested against one wall, and a small metal dresser had been loving crafted next to it. Whoever had built this place had time and skill, though clearly they lacked the proper materials.

Shouts came from outside, in an unfamiliar language. Khar's language processors started to work on the syntax, but he'd need a lot more to work with before he could understand what they were saying. He still had the Fox P2 gene enhancement, even in his current form. But they didn't, so he was forced to rely on technology.

Khar risked a glance through the doorway, then ducked back inside before he was spotted. Three sky cycles were hovering over the area, moving slowly over the buildings. Their riders were clearly scanning for someone, and it wasn't much of a stretch to guess they were after him. Given the explosion of his mech, and the confusion around the crash, it was unlikely they knew for certain he was alive. Hopefully, they were just being thorough.

He willed his body to shut down all unnecessary functions, reducing his heat signature. His reactor was well-shielded enough that he doubted their scans could pick it up, so hopefully if they could scan for thermal they'd assume he was just the ambient heat of the lamp.

The low whirring of the bikes came closer, pausing directly over the bunker. Khar remained motionless, waiting. Part of him longed to charge out and attack. His particle pistol would be devastatingly effective at close range, and with the element of surprise he might be able to overcome all three.

But Fizgig's low voice echoed through his mind, reminding him that the best predators all possessed the same advantage: patience. She could sit for hours, perfectly motionless, while waiting for prey to make a mistake. He must be the same if he wished to survive this.

The cycles whirred more loudly, then the sound faded as they zoomed away. Voices returned outside, the local denizens probably emerging from their hovels now that they felt it was safe. Khar didn't dare risk doing the same--not yet anyway. He needed time to plan and think, but doing that in someone's home wasn't feasible. He needed a hiding place.

A burst of unintelligible gibberish came a voice from behind him. Khar whirled to face the doorway, his pistol all but leaping into his hand.

The alien's already large eyes, magnified by a pair of thick lenses, widened in alarm. It raised short, stubby arms in a placating gesture, then let loose another torrent of squeaks and whistles.

The creature only came to Khar's waist, and had a thick, squat body. It wore a full environmental suit which appeared to be filled with some sort of bluish fluid.

Khar twitched the barrel of his pistol, gesturing toward the bed. The alien seemed to understand, waddling over to sit heavily on the bed. Khar examined the doorway, then realized that the door was simply a large piece of sludge-covered metal. He holstered his pistol, then heaved the door into place, sealing them in the room.

The alien was still sitting placidly on the bed, blinking curiously at him. Khar checked the chronometer in the corner of his HUD. It had been two minutes since the creature had entered. Depending on its biology, that might be enough time.

"Can you understand me?" Khar finally asked. He tried to make the words non-threatening, as he needed this creature coherent.

"Yes," the creature hooted. The sounds weren't coming from the mouth. They originated from a set of speakers somewhere in the suit. "You are in my home. I have nothing, yet you stay. I do not recognize your species, but if you are a predator there are better sources of food. So I have to wonder, why have you come here?"

Khar leaned against the door, considering. How much to reveal? "You say this is your home. What is it you do on this ship? And what is your name?"

"Mmm, I am a labor-slave for our glorious clan leader, Takkar," the alien said. The word "glorious" bled contempt. "My name is Halut. I can see from the way you are appraising my suit that you are unfamiliar with my species. We are the Whalorian. Mmm, how are you called, stranger?"

"My name is Khar," he rumbled. His battery ticked down to 45 percent, entering the yellow zone. "My race is called the Tigris."

"You are one of the aliens that the clan leader engaged on Ganog 7." The Whalorian leaned closer, peering at Khar through those thick lenses. "Mmm, I see, I see. You are not a flesh-and-blood creature, are you? You are synthetic."

"Yes," Khar said, though he didn't say to which question. It was true for both. "I need to return to my people. You have no love for this 'clan leader'. Will you help me?"

The Whalorian leaned back against the bed, hooting to itself as it pondered the question. "Mmm, that is a very interesting question. You asked what I did on this ship. Only the techsmiths are allowed to repair the great engines, but the labor-slaves have been given charge of the conduits that bring energy to all parts of the ship. Mmm, I repair these conduits."

"Okay." Khar wasn't sure he was tracking all the words that weren't fully translated, but he thought he was piecing together their social structure. "You must know the ship pretty well. I need to get back to Ganog 7. Is there somewhere on the ship I can do that? A warp room or something?"

"Mmm, not that we can reach. Labor-slaves are not allowed on the upper islands, and even if we could get there we'd need to convince a techsmith to activate the warp portal." The Whalorian hopped from the bed. Khar tensed instinctively, but the Whalorian waved him off. "No need to inflict pain. I am merely pacing. It helps me to think. Mmm, I wish my wife were here. She has a much better mind, you see. She would be able to construct a device to do what you ask. I cannot, however."

"Then what do you suggest I do?" Khar asked. He tried to harness the patience Fizgig prattled about, but it was difficult not to take his ire out on this alien.

"I have a solution." Halut raised his little arms triumphantly. "Mmm, we can take you to the shuttle bay in the base of the ship. We have just arrived at Imperalis and many ships will come and go. They will offload tribute, and take on supplies. If we can get you onto one of those shuttles, you can make your way down to the planet."

"And I can find a way to warp home from there?" Khar asked.

"Yes, yes!" Halut said, hopping back and forth. "The spire has many warp facilities. All you'd need to do is find one. They will transport you to any destination, if you simply supply the coordinates."

"Is there a cost for this service?" Khar suspected there must be, because this all sounded a little too easy.

"Mmm, I'm afraid so. Labor-slaves are not given money, so I cannot help you. You will have to find a way to pay for the warp." Halut waddled slowly toward Khar, patting his arm in what Khar assumed was supposed to be a comforting gesture. "There are many ways to earn credits in the capital. I can get you as far as the transports, but from there you must make your own way."

"Thank you, Halut." Khar patted him back, trying to mirror the gesture.

It was a tenuous plan, but at least he was doing something instead of waiting to be caught. If he could reach this Imperalis he might be able to gain valuable intelligence.

Assuming he survived, that intel might change the course of the war.


4

On the Run

Khar hefted an armful of black metal crates, carrying them from the pile at the end of the dock to the waiting transport. Both the transport and the dock were rusty and ill-repaired, an utter lack of maintenance that would have sent Fizgig into one of her legendary rages.

Even Khar found it abhorrent. Their technology was impressive, but their lack of discipline was appalling. There was no way a stranger could have entered a Coalition space dock and approached a ship. All Khar had done was walk up like the other labor-slaves, and the hard-eyed elites on the island above ignored him completely.

He hadn't even done much to disguise himself, beyond coating his armor in the grimy soil that covered the deck around Halut's home. If wearing his helmet was unusual, no one seemed to mind. Only a few other labor-slaves covered their heads, but thus far no one had given him a second glance.

Khar carried the crates up the ramp into the transport. This would be the tricky part. He carried the crates to the back of the ship, looking for a place to hide. Smuggling to the surface on a Coalition ship would be extremely difficult, if not impossible. Doing it here might be easier, especially if the guards didn't do an inspection before take off.

He walked to the rear of the ship, depositing his crates next to several other piles. Low voices came from behind the crates, and Khar leaned up on his toes to glance over the stack. Three aliens were playing some sort of game involving dice. One of them glanced up at Khar.

"You want in?" the creature growled. It looked like the other lizard-aliens Khar had seen, save that its scales were blue.

"Nah," Khar replied in what Halut called Ganog Common. He'd been around the Whalorian long enough for his translation unit to map the language. "I'd love to watch, though, if that's okay."

"Just don't crowd me," the Saurian growled, turning back to his dice. He gave a low hiss when they stopped rolling. One of the other aliens scooped up a small pile of golden chits.

Khar stepped around the pile of crates, dropping to a squat. He wasn't all that interested in the game, but the fact that it was taking place at all was important. These people had battered and grimy armor, just like him. They seemed unconcerned about discovery, and he had the sense that this was routine. They'd taken many such shuttle rides.

More labor-slaves carried boxes into the room, creating a wall of crates that gradually obscured them. That suggested that what they were doing was probably illegal, or that they didn't want to be discovered at least. Yet they didn't take any special precautions.

The final row of crates was loaded, and the ramp retracted up into the ship. The Saurians continued to gamble, more of the little golden chits changing hands. Khar eyed the currency carefully, scanning it into his data archives. He'd need to understand how it worked, and how to acquire enough to pay for a warp back to Ganog 7.

A deep thrum rolled through the ship, stuttering for a moment, then returning at full strength. The gamblers didn't seem concerned, so Khar tried to relax. The ship lifted off, but he could see nothing of their surroundings. That set his fur on end, an impressive replication of the emotion he'd have experienced before gaining a synthetic body.

He wished he could somehow watch the approach to the planet below, but there was simply no option to do so. Khar had no choice but to wait, so he focused on the gambling. It used four dice, each with ten sides. The sigils didn't correspond to numbers, and it took a few moments for his processor to translate. They were constellations. Star charts.

"Imperalis!" the Saurian roared. He bent forward, scooping up a large pile of chits.

Halut had explained that Imperalis was the capital, the world he was about to arrive on. He rose from a crouch, leaning against the wall. The transport descended sharply, and the wall began to shake. He recognized the vibration, and had experienced far worse when stationed on his first Tigris corvette. This was merely planetary re-entry. They'd be arriving very soon.

The shuddering stopped, and the motion became smooth again. Khar's stomach lurched when they descended suddenly, then all motion ceased. They'd stopped.

The blue-scaled Saurian scooped up his dice, dropping them into a worn pouch attached to his belt. All four gamblers rose as one, their nervousness evident. They peered between the crates, ready to run.

Khar eyed his reactor, still at 45 percent. Hopefully he didn't need to use much power to escape this vessel. He could trickle charge it with sunlight, but that would require him to be stationary for a prolonged period of time.

The ramp began to descend, letting in harsh purple sunlight. Khar's eyes adjusted instantly, focusing on the two aliens advancing up the ramp. Both snapped rifles to their shoulders.

"Scamps," one of them growled. He turned to his companion. "What do you want to do?"

"Give thanks, ka'tok," the second one boomed. "Today, you have avoided the gaze of the Nameless Ones. Instead of tossing you from the spire, to pay for this transgression, I'm going to pretend I didn't see you. In exchange, these crates are going to unload themselves."

The gamblers relaxed. They threaded through the crates, moving with purpose to begin the unloading. Khar fell into line, working diligently to unload the ship. The guards moved off by themselves, ignoring the work. That afforded Khar the opportunity to study his surroundings.

The world around him was majestic, immense. He was at the heart of a massive city. It stretched down the slopes of a giant mountain, the sprawl covering the land all the way to the horizon. The buildings were nearly all comprised of fluted white spires, and Khar imagined that the one he stood upon must be the largest.

The sky was a deep purple, streaked through with two bands. The first was a narrow ring of purple, bleeding into the sky around it. The second was blue-white, cutting through the sky at a much different angle. Ships of all shapes and sizes rose from the city around him, joining their brethren in high orbit.

The size and scope of this place was...humbling. Before the Void Wraith had come, the Tigris had been the most numerous race, eclipsing the upstart humans. The Primo were a faded race, inhabiting only a few dozen worlds. But the Tigris? They'd created true wonders, especially on Tigrana.

Yet all of it paled to the splendor of this world. It filled him with dread. If these Ganog controlled such a place, how would the Coalition stop them?


5

Scouting

Nolan ducked into the cruiser's cockpit, giving a friendly nod to the Saurian copilot. The Saurian didn't respond. It stared at Nolan with those flat, reptilian eyes, until it turned back to the console. He still had no idea what the Saurian's name was. In fact, Sissus was the only Saurian he could recognize on sight.

"What is it, human?" Sissus growled, without turning to face him. He was in the pilot's seat, staring at the approaching planet filling the viewscreen. His azure scales glittered under the dim lights above, made iridescent by the light.

"Have we been hailed yet?" Nolan asked. He stepped into the cabin, leaving the door open.

"No, but that is hardly surprising. The Azi are a dying clan. They lack the strength to regulate off-world traffic. They can barely even collect tribute." Sissus's voice was thick with scorn, even more than usual.

"Careful with your tone, Saurian." T'kon muscled his way onto the bridge, looming behind Sissus. "My clan yet lives, and we have come to restore them to greatness. If you enjoy the rise and fall of your chest, and would like to see it continue, I'd suggest you become invested in our successful return to power."

"I do not follow you, Ganog. I am a slave no longer." Sissus turned his chair to face T'kon. "This vessel is mine, not yours. The Coalition gave it to me."

"I'm not threatening the vessel. I'm threatening you." T'kon's fur darkened to a deep red.

Sissus shrank back in his chair, then turned to Nolan. "Captain, reason with this brute. I must tend to our survival. Even the atmosphere of the Azi home world is treacherous."

Nolan saw immediately what the Saurian meant. Flashes rippled through the planet's atmosphere, like lightning but on a more massive scale. Each bolt left a pink explosion in its wake.

"Fly the ship, Saurian," T'kon growled. He turned to Nolan, his fur softening to a lighter red. "Sissus speaks the truth. Entering this world's atmosphere is not without dangers. The explosions you're seeing are caused by pherozene gas. It's highly volatile, and interacts...violently with electricity."

"So our stealth tech will set it off." Nolan heaved a sigh. "So will our particle cannon, in all likelihood."

"True enough," T'kon allowed. "That is why I recommend circumnavigating the storm."

"Which I am doing," Sissus snapped.

The shuttle zoomed lower, circling a storm that covered the better part of the western continent. The cruiser began to shake violently as they descended. Nolan braced himself against the wall, "I already miss the Peregrine. Let's hope this rust bucket holds together."

"This rust bucket," Sissus growled, "is both my home and the home of my clutch."

"Sorry, Sissus. I meant no disrespect. Why don't T'kon and I give your people some space?" Nolan backed out of the cockpit.

Sissus gave a mollified hiss, so Nolan turned and moved up the corridor toward the cargo bay.

He slowed long enough for T'kon to catch up. "Do you really think it's a good idea to antagonize the captain? He was given control of the ship."

"We could take back that control at any time, and Sissus is well aware of that fact. He watched you kill Krekon. He understands that his people have no chance in battle." T'kon fell into step with Nolan as they approached the cargo bay. "Fear is the most effective motivator, and something Sissus has been bred to respond to."

"He saw me kill Krekon in a mech. Outside a mech is a whole different story, and sooner or later he'll figure that out. My world has a philosopher you'd like, guy by the name of Machiavelli. The ends sometimes justify the means, but intimidation isn't always the right tactic. Sissus could be in a position to save our asses in the near future. What if he and his people decide to leave with the ship while we're out meeting with your clan?"



T'kon looked troubled. His fur brightened to a shade of blue. "Perhaps there is merit to your words, yet it goes against our ways. Ganog are the rightful masters of our empire. We conquered the Saurians, because they are weak. Treating them as equals, it feels...inaccurate."

"Every species has its own merits," Nolan countered. "The Primo considered both humans and Tigris primitive--and in a lot of ways they were right--but in the end they needed our help to beat the Void Wraith and their Gorthian masters. The Saurians are risking their lives, just like we are. I think that entitles them to my respect."

They'd entered the cargo bay, where Hannan was prepping the rest of the squad. Burke was helping Annie into her armor, while Nuchik checked the action on her new particle rifle.

Hannan turned to the rest of the squad. "Captain on deck."

They snapped to attention, pivoting to face him.

Nolan saluted. "At ease."

He wasn't a fan of the formality, but Nuchik thrived on it. Hannan seemed to enjoy it as well, though for different reasons. She liked giving Nuchik orders, especially now that the scarlet-haired sniper snapped to when Hannan barked.

"Escort mission, sir?" Hannan asked.

"Not yet. T'kon is going to contact his man at a local restaurant. If it checks out, we'll probably meet up for a face to face. T'kon, give us the word when you're ready." Nolan walked over to join the squad, leaving T'kon plenty of room in the corner.

Presumably the man wanted privacy. Nolan certainly would have, were their roles reversed.

"Why is T'kon all ornery?" Annie asked, though she kept her voice low.

"Takkar's clan assaulted this world," Nolan explained in low tones. "From what I gather, they lost, and his clan has fallen on hard times."

"It's more complex than that, Captain," T'kon called from the corner. He rose, turning to face the squad. "It will help you all to understand why we are here, and what I hope to achieve. Captain, do I have your leave to explain?"

"Of course, T'kon." Nolan nodded his ascent.

"It is true that the Azi lost a great battle with the Vkash. Takkar disabled our only planetstrider, and when the storm to the south clears you will see it still standing there. We still possess our dreadnoughts, but one suffered significant damage in the battle for our world. We pushed them back, but they broke the back of our military. The empress has refused to repair our ships, something only she can do." T'kon's voice was pained, and his fur shifted to an oily purple, roiling and changing as he spoke. "I was the commander that day--leadership caste, our highest. After I lost that battle, I was banished to the warrior caste. The Azi clan would not have me, so I was forced to become a hunter. That is what led me to Ganog 7, where I hoped to injure Takkar."

"Ah," Annie said, nodding knowingly, "that explains why you got such a hard-on for Takkar." She spit a gob of black into the bucket near the foot of her mech.

Hannan's eyes had gone cold. "We'll get payback, I can promise you that. We have different reasons to hate that bastard, but the end is the same. Dead. Whatever it takes."

"Your fervor is reassuring, Lieutenant." T'kon nodded gratefully in her direction, his fur finally stopping at a soft brown. His nostrils flared, and he rose to his full height. "We are here to see if I can reclaim my position. I offer the means to repair our planetstrider, a gift of incalculable worth."

"You're talking about the core we gave you." Lena's eyes widened and she gave a toothy smile. "You want to revive the strider. How extensive is the damage? I'd be eager to see how the striders are made. I mean, if you want a little assistance. I don't mean to intrude on your work."

"Lena, you are what we'd call a techsmith." T'kon approached the Tigris scientist, giving a low bow. "We consider your kind the holy servants of the seekers. You are sacred--and even if you were not, you are useful. My people could never repair this strider, yet I suspect you could accomplish it with ease."

Nolan's respect for the Ganog continued to rise. "I appreciate you explaining the situation, T'kon."

"If I did not, there was a risk of confusion or animosity. The squad has already helped me inflict incalculable damage on Takkar. You killed Krekon, Nolan. I will never be able to repay that. Yet still, you help me further. The least I can do is convey what it is I ask you to fight for."


6

Grotto

T'kon took deep, even breaths through his lower nostrils. His fur was a soft chestnut brown, its natural state. He kept tight reign on his emotions, bracing himself for the meeting.

"That cave over there leads to the grotto. It's a place for dining and relaxation, but there is a great deal of etiquette surrounding such activities. Captain, would you be willing to ask the rest of your squad to wait here while we dine?" T'kon asked. The captain had been more than accommodating, and he was reluctant to ask yet another favor.

"I don't like it, but I suppose it's workable. Hannan, set up the squad half a click back up the road," Nolan ordered.

"Nuchik, find yourself a perch," Hannan ordered, already striding briskly back the way they'd come. "Annie and I will take up firing positions on either side of the road."

"Thank you, Captain," T'kon murmured. "I understand you have little reason to trust me. I wear the same face as your enemy, after all." He'd dropped his voice, and now walked slowly toward the wide slash in the mountain.

"This is your show, T'kon. I'm willing to bend where I have to. You're right that I don't trust you, at least not fully. Trust comes from understanding--and the more I learn about who you are and where you come, from the more I'll trust you. So I guess this is the best way, really."

T'kon strode into the cave mouth, forcing even breaths. It had been two years since he'd walked these halls. The hallway grew wider, finally spilling them into the grotto. Wide grey stone curved around azure pools. The water trickled through the open wall, then over a cliff on the south side of the room.

"My god, that view is incredible." Nolan walked toward the gap, pausing near the cliff.

"It is magnificent." T'kon gave a low chuckle. "It's called the Gap of Sho'rive, so named by our ancestors when they first discovered this place."

T'kon took a moment to enjoy the view as well. The gap overlooked a waterfall that spilled into the bluest lake any world had ever boasted. Beyond that lake lay the holdings of the Azi clan, tak orchards covering the rows of hills.

"T'kon, I did not believe it. Not until I laid eyes on you myself."

The voice was familiar, and T'kon turned slowly to face a man he'd never thought to see again. Fek was flanked by his attendants, both Saurians wearing the traditional jet black armor that marked them as sho'ka. He eyed T'kon curiously.

"You are no fool, T'kon. You know what returning to this world means for you. Yet I will not press you about your reasons. Have you eaten?"

"No, my friend." T'kon gestured at Nolan. "This is Nolan, a human."

"I'm not familiar with the species." Fek gave Nolan an appraising look. "He is armed, but doesn't look like a terribly effective body guard. Do you use him to scout?"

"He killed Krekon."

Fek's jaw worked, and his fur shifted to scarlet, then lightened to a warm orange. "He is an ally, then, I see. Welcome, Nolan. I am Fek of the Azi, and you are safe here. Please, remove your boots and enter the house of Fek. We will feast and drink to the death of the defiler."

T'kon removed his boots, then his gauntlets. He placed the gauntlets inside the boots, then pushed them against the wall in one of the empty spots between two other sets of boots. The floor was warm against the soles of his feet, and drew a contented sigh from him.

"Come, please," Fek offered. He walked with Nolan, letting T'kon trail behind. Such a move accorded Nolan much honor, while simultaneously snubbing T'kon. Since T'kon was a wo'kur now, he expected no less. He was clanless, what right did he have to stand beside Fek?

Fek led them to a private dining balcony covered by a fagu-hide pavilion. The ground was clear stone, giving the feeling of dining in midair. It was Fek's most expensive table, and denizens from lower tables gave them surprised looks.

"Fetch the best tak wine, and a full order of brous ribs." Fek waved at his attendants, and both departed swiftly. He waited until they were gone before speaking again. "We are alone now. Unfortunately, our meeting must be brief. I risk much being seen with you, but I do so because I believe you wouldn't return here simply to die. Tell me my faith is not misplaced, that you do not seek the gaze of the Nameless Ones."

"I have come to earn a place in the clan," T'kon began simply. He reached into his pack, removing the tritanium box that President Dryker had presented to him, and opened it to show Fek the contents. "This is no mere trinket to dazzle a techsmith. You are looking at a true core, one powerful enough to resurrect a planetstrider."

"By their unholy gaze," Fek whispered. He ran two furry fingers along the cube, then looked up sharply at T'kon. "Returning is still madness, but almost I could understand the risk. This is the one thing--the only thing--that might grant you a station in the clan again. But I must warn you to temper your expectations, T'kon. Things are not as they were when you left."

T'kon tried to suppress his disappointment, his fear, and his anger. He failed; his fur revealed the truth of things. "Tell me."

"Ro'kan has taken over, brutally purging warriors once loyal to you. His strength grows daily, mostly because he has the support of the seekers. He and Oako speak with one mind, and the warriors are listening. Yet that is not the worst of it." Fek stretched out a hand, resting it on T'kon's forearm. "Jehanna has spoken the words. She and Clan Leader are in union."

T'kon dropped his eyes in shame, his fur paling to ashen grey.

"What does that mean, T'kon?" Nolan asked.

"It means," T'kon managed, just barely, "that my wife has married a man who swore to kill me if he ever saw me again."


7

Arena

Khar followed the blue-scaled Saurian as they left the space dock. The guards hadn't paid them any further mind, and he relaxed slightly as the dock receded in the distance. The Saurian wove through the crowd ahead, his destination clear.

A large, round building stood across the street. It was ringed by a wire fence, and a stream of patrons flowed through into the yard around the building. Some stood talking in clusters, each drinking from a hollowed-out animal horn. Khar could smell the concoction from here--some sort of fermented fruit. Definitely alcoholic.

A sign swayed above the doors, with a stylized pictogram emblazoned across it in glowing red letters. The pictogram showed a man standing atop a pile of bodies, his fist thrust into the air triumphantly. Interesting.

The Saurian headed directly for the door, slipping inside. Khar followed, pretending to allow his eyes to adjust to the sudden dimness while he scanned the crowd.

There were fifty-seven occupants. The largest concentration was Ganog, followed by Saurian. Most were clustered around the cage dominating the center of the room. It lay at the bottom of several sets of stairs, and rings of stadium seating surrounded it.

Khar plunged into the crowd, working his way toward the first set of stairs. A fight was beginning, and he kept an eye on it as he found a seat in the back row. A Ganog with tan fur was facing off against an alien that appeared to be made entirely from rock.

"I don't like being followed," came a hiss from behind him. Khar felt the barrel of a pistol press against the back of his neck. "Now, I asked myself why you might be interested in me. The winnings from our game? Perhaps. You seemed quite interested."

"I'm not following you," Khar said, careful not to move. He had no idea what kind of pistol the Saurian was using, and wasn't eager to find out. "I just happened to come to the same place, is all. I don't want any trouble. I simply wish to watch the fight."

"Take off your helmet." The barrel pressed harder against Khar's neck.

Khar reached up slowly, keying in the sequence to remove the helmet. It popped off with a hiss, and he pulled it away from his face.

"Turn around so I can look at you," the Saurian ordered.

Khar sighed, turning to face the Saurian.

The creature's eyes widened. "You're one of the aliens the clan leader attacked. They'll pay thousands of credits for you. Maybe more."

Khar smashed the Saurian in the face with his helmet. Bone crunched, and the Saurian tripped. He tumbled into the wall behind him, and Khar was on him before he could recover. He punched the Saurian in the gut, using all of his enhanced strength. Bone cracked, and the Saurian sagged to the ground, unconscious and likely suffering from internal bleeding.

Khar glanced up, scanning the crowd for a reaction. A few people gave him curious glances, but no one seemed terribly interested. Rough crowd--though, given what they were here to watch, maybe that wasn't surprising. Khar bent to the Saurian, picking up the pistol. He studied it for a moment and discovered that it didn't have a safety. He slid it into his pack.

Then he rifled through the Saurian's jacket, withdrawing a clinking brown bag. He pulled back the drawstring, confirming that it contained currency from the game they'd played on the transport. He tucked that in his pack as well, then began moving away from the Saurian, pulling his helmet back on as he made for the door.

"Hold a moment, friend," came a pleasant voice from behind.

Khar froze, turning slowly to face the speaker.

The Ganog towered over Khar, grinning down at him. His lower nostrils were closed, and his fur was currently a warm orange-yellow. "I saw what you did to that Saurian."

"The disagreement was between the Saurian and me." Khar said, turning to leave.

"I also saw what you looked like without a helmet," the Ganog added.

Khar paused.

"Yes, I thought that might get your attention."

"What do you want from me?" Khar rested a hand on his particle pistol, readying himself to fight.

"I've got a proposition for you, one that will make us both a pile of credits."

Khar finally turned back to the Ganog. "Explain."

"I can get you a spot in the arena. You're an unknown, and I don't think anyone else saw how fast you moved. They'll underestimate you. We bet every chit we've got that you're going to win, and then we split the money. With that kind of money, I might just forget what I saw under that armor." The Ganog gave him a slow, predatory smile.

"I could simply kill you." Khar already knew he wasn't going to do so, but hopefully the Ganog didn't.

"That wouldn't be very profitable. In fact, it might get you fined. Or even imprisoned. There's no reason not to work with me. We both win."

"What's your name?" Khar asked.

"Bik. How about you, stranger?" Bik asked.

Khar considered his answer carefully. There was no reason to lie. No one here knew anything about the Tigris. "I am Khar of Pride Leonis."

"Well Khar of Pride Leonis, I'm going to go speak to the pit lord about getting you into the next match. Uh, before I do, I don't suppose you have any chits? The entry fee isn't cheap."

Khar reached reluctantly into his pack, handing the Saurian's pouch over.

"Hmm," Bik murmured, checking the contents. "It isn't much, but it will cover the entry fee. I'll use the rest to make bets. Why don't you just sit back and relax, in the meantime? Maybe have a horn of nectar?"

"All right." Khar nodded, returning to his seat in the back row of the little stadium. If he was going to be fighting in that cage, he wanted time to study his opponents.

Two Saurians were dragging out the rock alien, who was either unconscious or dead. The Ganog raised both arms triumphantly, roared at the crowd.

Khar smiled. Maybe these Ganog had a bit of Tigris in them. They seemed to value combat, at least. It was a welcome change from working with humanity, who had all these rules about where and when you could kill an opponent. Duels were outlawed. How unthinkably barbaric.

A red-scaled Saurian with a pair of crackling shock batons was led into the cage. He pointed one of the batons at the Ganog, yelling something that was swallowed by the surge of the crowd. The Ganog clearly objected, his fur going red-black.

The Ganog bull rushed the smaller Saurian, slashing at him with a vibro-sword. The Saurian melted back, dodging several wild strikes. The Ganog chased him slowly around the cage, slashing with too much force and not enough control. He was impressively strong, but Khar already knew who was going to win the fight.

The Saurian expended very little energy, only occasionally using a shock baton to knock the Ganog's sword away. The Ganog, on the other hand, was heaving like a bellows. All four of his nostrils were flared, and his eyes had gone wild. He rushed the Saurian again, and the Saurian finally counterattacked.

He dropped low, slamming the first baton into the Ganog's shin. The second came up between the legs, crunching into the Ganog's groin. Electricity crackled up and down the batons, surging into the Ganog. His body went rigid, but the Ganog broke loose with a roar. He staggered backwards, keeping his sword up defensively.

The Saurian followed up quickly, launching a flurry of quick blows. The Ganog blocked most of them, but several slipped through. Each shock slowed the Ganog, until the final blow dropped him to the dirty floor. The Saurian slapped his batons against the Ganog's temples, and the Ganog thrashed wildly for several seconds before going limp.

The crowd went wild.

"Great news," Bik said, rushing up to Khar. "You're next. You'll be fighting the Saurian."


8

Fight

Khar rolled his neck, then his arms. He hopped back and forth, performing a routine he'd perfected over two decades of training. Stretching was no longer necessary, now that his body was synthetic--but the routine focused him, prepared him to face an opponent.

Across the ring, the Saurian paced back and forth, occasionally offering an experimental whirl with one of his shock batons.

"Remember, Khar," Bik called through the cage. "You can use anything to win. Anything. No rules, friend."

"Good to know," Khar called back. He grinned savagely at his opponent. Thus far, everything he'd been told was in keeping with Tigris tradition. Kill your opponent using any means possible.

A warbling buzzer sounded, and the Saurian glided forward. His red scales had an oily sheen, and Khar was fairly certain that wasn't accidental. He'd covered himself with something, probably to make it difficult to grapple with him. He knew Khar was larger, making a contest of strength unwinnable.

"After I beat you senseless," the Saurian hissed, darting just out of reach, "I will take off that helmet, I think. I will show your face to the crowd, and then I will eat my fill of your flesh."

Khar calmly maintained his stance, his combat cameras recording every move the Saurian made. Metrics scrolled by on the bottom left of his vision. The Saurian was definitely fast, almost faster than Khar.

Almost.

"Then stop dancing over there, and come beat me, little lizard." Khar extended his arms, turning in a slow circle. He faced the crowd, urging them into a ragged cheer.

As he'd expected, the Saurian waited until his back was turned before launching his strike. His sensors detected the movement in the air, and the slight change in ambient temperature. He pivoted, jerking his wrist. A crackling blue blade shot from the housing on his wrist, twelve inches of pure plasma. He brought it up smoothly, knocking away the Saurian's shock baton.

The Saurian swung with his other baton, bringing it down in a strike at Khar's knee. Khar leapt backward, narrowly dodging the attack. The Saurian took the opportunity to disengage, dancing back to the far side of the cage.

"What kind of weapon is that, corpse? I think I will enjoy using it, after I pry it from your lifeless hand." The Saurian darted forward suddenly, bounding up into the air. He came down on Khar, launching a vicious kick. The blow caught Khar in the side, causing his diaphragm to contract.

If he'd been flesh and blood, that would have knocked the wind out of him. He'd have been vulnerable to a killing blow. But Khar had no need for the breath the Saurian had knocked away.

He lunged, slamming his helmet into the Saurian's face. Bone broke, and the Saurian tumbled back, a mass of purplish blood streaming down its face. The Saurian extended a forked tongue, lapping at its own blood. Its right arm came up low, aiming a shock baton at Khar's side.

The left arm was moving too, coming down on Khar's shoulder. Khar only had a split second to decide; he could not stop both.

He swung the dagger upward, knocking away the blow to his shoulder.

The other shock baton slammed into his side, and waves of electricity shot through him. His entire HUD flared red, half a dozen warnings scrolling past. Khar ignored them, reversing the parry he'd used to knock away the other baton. He rammed his blade forward, punching it through the Saurian's throat. The blade hummed more loudly, flaring as it punched out the back of the Saurian's neck.

Khar stumbled away from his opponent, allowing the Saurian to topple as he sought his balance. Some of the warnings cleared, but his left ribs were still flagged yellow. It would take several hours for the nanochrons to complete repairs.

A roar rolled through the crowd, cheers and screams echoing from all directions. Bik darted through the cage opening and, seizing Khar's hand, thrust it into the air.

"Khar!" Bik roared.

The crowd repeated it, then began chanting Khar, Khar, Khar.

"How ample are our winnings?" Khar yelled into Bik's ear.

"About five hundred credits, so your share is two-fifty. I'll go collect." He started for the cage door, but Khar seized his wrist.

"Wait." He forced Bik around to face him. "I need the money for something specific. There's a warp portal in the spire, right?"

"Yeah," Bik allowed, looking confused. "Why do you ask?"

"I need a warp to Ganog 7," Khar explained. "How much is that going to cost me?"

"Well, people from down below don't normally need to warp off-world. It's expensive. Probably five or six thousand credits?" Bik shrugged. "Listen, I can line up more fights. We can have the funds you need in a ten-day--two at the most."

"That's not soon enough." Khar's released the Ganog. "Can it be done faster?"

"Maybe," Bik mused. "I could try arranging a spire fight. Given that you took out Krissos, that might be enough to get you into the tourney going on tonight. You want me to try to get you in? There's a much bigger purse."

"Do it," Khar ordered. He extinguished his plasma blade, and moved to collect the shock batons. They could be useful.


9

Tourney

Khar stepped off the strange transport disk that had carried them up to the tallest spire. It had deposited them a little over halfway up, at what appeared to be a busy starport. Multiple tunnels led inside the spire, and there was a steady flow of people. The ships themselves all docked outside the spire, which made a certain kind of tactical sense.

"Now just remember," Bik instructed, hopping down next to Khar. "Keep your eyes down. Say nothing."

"I'm wearing a helmet," Khar pointed out. "They can't see my eyes."

They joined the back of a small crowd waiting to pass through a wide arch in the ivory spire. The arch was covered in strange glyphs--the kind that would have sent Lena into a lecture about ancient this or that--but Khar was more interested in the people making up the line.

Every last one was armed, though what they wielded varied from person to person. Some carried thick swords--others axes, or clubs. A few had pistols, but nothing heavier than a small sidearm. Most people seemed to opt for melee weapons, which gave him his first clue about whatever this spire fight entailed. It was probably in tight quarters.

"Once we're inside, you are on your own. You will step onto an island, and it will carry you to the fight. You and your opponent will arrive at the same time. Attack immediately, and do whatever you can to finish them. If you survive, a platform will carry you to the next opponent." Bik had already explained this three or four times.

"You've prepared me well, Bik. Assuming I survive, I will split my winnings with you. As agreed." Khar offered the Ganog his hand.

The Ganog looked at it for a moment, then fist-bumped him. Khar shrugged, and mimicked the gesture.

"May you avoid the gaze of the Nameless Ones, friend Khar," Bik said. He turned from Khar as Khar neared the doorway.

Khar continued to the doorway, but froze when the runes surged with brightness. The alien ahead of him, an orange-scaled Saurian, was bathed in crackling green energy. A split second later her body disintegrated, dissolving into the air around her.

"Uh, Bik?" Khar called over his shoulder.

"It's nothing to worry about. You are expected. You should be fine."

Khar wasn't as certain, but he forced himself to step under the arch. He held his breath, only releasing it when he was on the other side.

He emerged into a hollow structure filled with floating islands. He stood upon a narrow ring against the wall, and a number of ivory transport disks floated near the edge.

Khar peered over the edge, which disappeared out of sight, thousands of feet below. The entire spire was sprinkled with clusters of islands, each set at a different elevation. Cool wind rushed down from above, carrying the low hum of a foreign city. He had no idea how many people lived on the islands, but he guessed thousands--or even tens of thousands--on the larger ones.

The other gladiators were stepping onto the ivory disks, which carried them to the cluster of islands above. Khar stepped onto an empty one, staring up as the disk carried him aloft. He zoomed around to the right, rising two hundred and seventy meters before the disk slowed.

It hovered just beneath a medium-sized island, which his HUD informed him was twenty-two meters across. A moment later a second disk zoomed up, just a few meters away. A Ganog in ceremonial white garments sat in a lotus position atop the disk, eyes closed.

Khar studied him, trying to glean anything about the man. His calm was enviable, his fur a light, comfortable tan. All four nostrils were open, slowly inhaling deep breaths. He didn't at all resemble the hulking berserkers that had chased Khar back inside the dreadnought.

Khar caught movement below, and realized that there were many islands, each with its own arena bout. The audience floated on their own islands, drifting from one fight to another. The cluster was centered around a fight thirty meters below, and Khar guessed that his combat would be next.

The disk whizzed up, circling the island they'd been sheltering beneath. It had the same sloped, ivory surface as the disk he stood on, but gravel had been spread across the disk. A single misstep would send him tumbling over the edge. Another gust of wind rushed down from above, knocking a few of the stones from the island. They disappeared into the distance, quickly falling out of sight.

The robed Ganog moved into view opposite Khar, and both their disks stopped. They hovered an easy leap away from the island where their combat was to take place. The Ganog studied Khar, watching him impassively. He had yet to rise from his lotus position, so Khar relaxed. Presumably there'd be a signal to tell him when the fight began.

All around him islands began to rise, as Ganog moved into position over the island. A soft chime played, and Khar's opponent rose smoothly to his feet.

Khar leapt from the disk, landing lightly in a clear patch between pebbles. His opponent did the same, and they raced toward the center of the island. Khar was forced to dart around a particularly thick area of pebbles, and his opponent seized the advantage.

The Ganog arrived first, launching an aggressive kick that forced Khar back from the center. Ceding the higher ground was dangerous here, and clearly his opponent knew it. The Ganog moved fluidly, always preventing Khar from moving higher up the disk. He had less than four meters to play with, and beyond that, an endless fall to his death.

Khar pulled the shock batons from the shoulder holsters he'd taken from the Saurian, leaving the plasma blade as a surprise for later in the fight. He glided forward, launching a blow with the first shock baton. It forced the Ganog back a step, and Khar followed up with a slash from the other baton. That too forced the Ganog back a step, just past the center of the disk.

The Ganog launched another kick, his foot streaking through the air far more quickly than Khar could track. It slammed into his face, knocking him backward. He tumbled toward the edge of the disk, dropping the shock batons. One tumbled off the side, disappearing out of sight. The other landed a few meters to his left.

Khar rolled to his feet, weaponless. The blow hadn't done much damage, but the speed was insane. His sensors clocked it at 120 KPH, three times his own top speed. He circled the edge of the platform, keeping his attention on his opponent as he sought a path to his remaining shock baton.

The monk, Khar decided that's what he must be, was patient, every movement economical. He barely moved; instead, he waited for Khar to make a move for his weapon. It was an enviable tactic--and, had Khar been flesh and blood, tiring him out might have worked.

He checked his power supply. 42 percent.

Khar charged, reinforcing his muscles with every nanochron he could activate. He ignited his plasma dagger, ramming it into the Ganog's shoulder. The Ganog knocked the plasma blade away with an ivory bracer, but blood stained his robes red. Khar kneed him in the groin, but the Ganog brought up a knee to block. He head butted his opponent, catching the Ganog's broad forehead with his helmet's crown.

The blow caught the Ganog by surprise, and he stumbled back. Khar glided forward, launching a leg sweep that his opponent vaulted. Khar pursued, scooping up the shock baton. The Ganog skidded to a stop near the edge of the platform, adopting a defensive stance.

Khar hurled the shock baton at his opponent's chest. The Ganog had no choice but to dodge, leaping over the crackling weapon. That left him vulnerable. Mid-air, there was only so much control he could exert over his body.

Khar darted forward, punching the monk in the chest. The blow launched him backward, out over the abyss.

The monk fell silently, dropping past dozens of islands as he slowly disappeared. He never once made a sound, and he never broke eye contact with Khar.

Ragged cheering came from the islands above, and Khar looked up at the audience for the first time. There were several dozen, mostly Ganog. Their clothing was strange. Some wore light, airy garments that were mostly white, though those Ganog on the highest platform seemed to favor purple. Saurian attendants moved among them, offering refreshments as the Ganog chatted.

The platform zoomed up again, stopping next to Khar's feet. He stepped atop it, and it carried him into the air again. Above was a much larger platform, over a hundred meters across. Khar was not the only combatant being carried to it. He counted a dozen others, the survivors from the previous battles. Was this some sort of grand melee?

The disk carried him up to the platform, stopping at the edge. A single Ganog elite stood in the center, a massive axe over his shoulder. Khar's sensors put the creature at ten point six meters tall, every bit the equal of Khar's mech.

He looked around at the other combatants, and all were focused grimly on the elite. "By Tigrana, they expect us to kill that thing."

"No, they expect us to die," called another Ganog monk. He stood several meters away, in an easy combat stance. "We will charge him, and he will kill us. We have been sacrificed to increase his honor among the leadership caste."

Khar knew a moment's rage as he realized that he'd been duped by Bik. The Ganog was probably counting his credits, whatever they'd paid him for supplying Khar.

None of the other warriors was moving, each eyeing the others. Khar shook his head.

Cowards.

He ignited his plasma blade again, stepping forward. All eyes fell on him, and he stared back a challenge. "Are you children? Or are you warriors? Our foe is mighty, but so are we. Let us show him that size is no protection from our blades."

Khar roared, the sound echoing across the island. Then he sprinted toward his opponent.


10


Elite

Khar roared his defiance, low and deep and powerful. "I. Am. Tigris."

The elite pivoted to face Khar, removing the axe from his shoulder harness. He gripped the haft with both hands, sliding a massive foot backwards as he set to receive Khar's charge.

Khar leapt into the air, and the axe blade hummed a deadly arc toward his waist. He snapped out his plasma blade, slapping it against the axe. The blow was too weak to alter the axe's course, but the push launched him out of the path.

He landed lightly along the haft of the weapon, but only for a moment, then jumped, slashing at the elite's face. The elite stumbled backward, but not before Khar carved an angry furrow in the creature's leathery cheek.

The stench of burnt fur filled the arena, though Khar was thankfully insulated from it.

"I will end you!" the Elite roared. His arm shot out.

Khar tried to dive for cover--but not quickly enough. The elite seized him by the leg, raising him into the air. He roared, slamming Khar into the island with incredible force. Khar came down hard, smashing against the metal disk in a spray of sparks. His helmet tumbled away, and his mane spilled out, revealing his true nature.

Red warnings bloomed in every part of his body, especially the head and the joint connecting his left leg to the waist. Khar was dimly aware of being dropped, his body tumbling limply to the ground.

Above him, other combatants had engaged the elite. They attacked from all sides, their hesitation gone once one person had been brave enough to draw the elite's attention. Khar used his left arm to crawl away from the battle, toward the edge of the disk. His power was down to 36 percent, and was dropping quickly as nanocrons consumed power. He altered the repair instructions, focusing only on critical systems.

Cheers and screams of encouragement came from the islands above. The Ganog nobles were clearly entertained.

Khar scanned the crowd, seeking a leader. She was not difficult to find. A purple-furred Ganog in a white adept's robe stood at the edge of the highest island. She was flanked on either side by powerful looking attendants, who themselves were surrounding by clouds of lesser attendants.

She was beautiful, oddly enough. Khar knew she was alien, yet she wasn't so very different from a Tigris. She had delicate purple fur, about the same length as Khar's own. Her body was shaped like a Tigris's, and had the curves of a warrior. Her lack of a tail was disturbing, though.

Khar realized she was studying him the same way he was studying her. Then the elite stumbled to Khar's side of the platform, blocking his view. The elite swung his axe in a wide arc, severing a Saurian in two. The axe continued forward, and the elite adjusted the arc to catch a Ganog just above the shoulder. The headless corpse toppled to the deck near Khar.

"No," Khar snarled, climbing back to his feet. His power reserves were down to 22 percent, but the worst of the damage had been repaired.

Khar circled behind the elite, staying in its blind spot. He took several moments to scan the other combatants, trying to identify anyone of use. The Ganog monk who'd first spoken to Khar was still up. He rolled nimbly away from an axe strike, leaping to safety. The Saurian next to him wasn't so lucky; the flat side of the axe caught him, launching him off the disk. He screeched, toppling out of view.

Khar sprang onto the Ganog's back, digging his claws into a joint in the armor. He flung himself up again, landing on the back of the Ganog's neck. He buried his plasma blade at the base of the Ganog's spine, and the Ganog roared. Its fur blackened, and an armored hand shot toward Khar, who rolled backwards off the Ganog's neck, barely avoiding the grasping fingers.

The elite whirled, slamming a gigantic knee into Khar's chest. He was flung backwards, tumbling toward the abyss. Khar plunged his plasma blade into the deck, jerking to a sudden halt half a meter from the edge of the island. The elite started for him, but paused when the monk landed on his shoulder.

The elite swatted at the monk, but the monk rolled safely away. Khar used the time to climb to his feet, charging the elite again. This thing was strong, but if he kept stabbing it, it would die eventually.

"Stop." A clear voice rang out, dropping a veil of silence over every onlooker. The elite snapped his axe into a guard position, darting glances between Khar and the woman who'd spoken.

Khar risked a glance up, unsurprised that it was the purple-furred Ganog.

She was staring down at the elite. "You have allowed them to wound you, Kokar."

"This? It is less than an arachnis bite," the elite boasted. "These last two opponents are slippery, but they are no threat to me." He puffed out his chest, standing to his full height. "Give me leave to slay them, Empress. Please, do not rob me of my honor."

"Better that than these warriors rob you of your life. Your father would not thank me for that," the woman countered. She waved a hand, and a pair of disks descended toward Khar and the surviving monk. "This adept and the strange alien are now my property. Have them cleaned and fed. This ceremony is over."

"But, Empress--" Kokar protested.

"Enough." The empress glared down at him.

Khar was certain she was angry, but unlike the other Ganog he'd seen, her fur color didn't seem affected by her emotions.

"Kokar, I wished to spare you public humiliation, but you've left me no choice. That alien"--she pointed at Khar--"has more courage than you. He is a better warrior than you. His first blow nearly took your eye. His second could have paralyzed you. He went for the kill, both times. If he is able to do so again, there is a real chance you will die. Real enough that I am ending this farce. Your ketira is done, Kokar. They are my property now. Do you wish to dispute that claim?"

"No, your majesty." Kokar gave a long, deep bow. When he straightened his eyes were focused on Khar. "These two are your property, and I will not harm them." The unspoken yet lingered.

Khar tensed, unsure how to react. He'd just drawn the attention of the enemy ruler. Should he leap to his death to avoid capture? Or take his chances? Khar peered into the abyss, steeling himself.

The empress waved regally. "Escort them to comfortable quarters. I will summon them at my leisure."

Khar froze. He would have direct access to this ruler. The opportunity might arise to slay her.

If it did, he would take it.


11


Ro'kan

Nolan's hand strayed to his pistol again, and once again he forced it back to his side. He and T'kon walked through a wide corridor, entering the lowest level of a spire that wouldn't have occasioned much comment back in London or New York. He guessed it stood two hundred stories, though the estimate was rough.

The inside was hollow, and half a dozen islands floated above. They looked forlorn and small, barely touching the interior of the cavernous spire.

"Keep moving," one of the guards growled.

Nolan and T'kon were flanked by four Ganog elites, each carrying a war staff. Their armor was identical, much more so than the elites Nolan had fought back on Ganog 7. T'kon's head was held high, his posture rigid as he walked. If he heard the snidely whispered comments, he didn't show it.

He said nothing as they were escorted to the middle of the chamber. Several Ganog stood atop a raised dais, about a meter off the ground. Two of the Ganog were dressed in elaborate finery, while the rest wore black robes trimmed with scarlet runes.

"So it is true, then," boomed a large Ganog, one of the ones in elaborate finery. He walked to the edge of the dais, glaring down at T'kon. "I gave you your life, yet clearly you do not value it. Why have you returned, T'kon?"

The Ganog's fur was dull red. Anger? Annoyance? Nolan was still piecing together exactly how that worked.

"I will speak plainly, Ro'kan," T'kon said. "I have come with an ally from a newly discovered empire. This is Nolan, of clan Nolan. He is a member of the Coalition of United Races."

"What is that to me, T'kon?" The red in Ro'kan's fur deepened. "Thanks to you, we are in no position to conquer this...Coalition. So what do I care if they exist, or don't?"

"Because they freely offer new technology, Clan Leader. Technology that could restore the Azi to greatness." T'kon pointed at Nolan. "Show him."

Nolan opened the box he'd been carrying, exposing the glowing cube to the entire room. One of the black-robed Ganog rushed to Ro'kan's side, whispering in his ear.

Ro'kan's eyes tightened, and his fur faded to a dark, neutral grey. "My seeker tells me that this object is holy. Yet you claim that this...Coalition, they can manufacture them?" Ro'kan eyed T'kon closely.

"In great quantity," Nolan said. He stepped forward, raising the core for all to see. He stared up at the clan leader. "We're willing to share that technology, to help you get your planetstrider up and running."

"Why?" Ro'kan asked, dubiously.

"Because T'kon tells me that we have a common enemy." Nolan glanced at T'kon, continuing when the Ganog nodded at him. "If you will help us against the Vkash clan, we will help the Azi take back the worlds you've lost to them."

"You wish to challenge the Vkash?" Ro'kan laughed uproariously. "I'd forgotten both your temerity and your arrogance, T'kon. A nasty combination, those. Tell me, Nolan of the Coalition: are you making a gift of this holy relic?"

"I am." Nolan walked toward the clan leader, pausing when an elite interposed himself. Nolan handed him the box, then stepped back to join T'kon. "Consider it a gesture of goodwill. Consider also that we can provide more, and other types of weapons. We can help you get revenge."

The black-robed Ganog closed his eyes, and purple pulses began flowing from his temple, down a cable Nolan hadn't noticed until then. The pulses carried it to an object in the Ganog's robes, cradled between his arms. It looked like the arcanotome they'd recovered from the dead techsmith when they took the planetstrider, but the circuitry on this one was far more elaborate. He bent to whisper in Ro'kan's ear again.

Ro'kan finally nodded. "Your words are of interest; I cannot lie. Yet no matter what I ultimately decide, I will not do it hastily. I must know more about this Coalition, and exactly what it is you're offering. In the meantime, I offer you sanctuary here. You are welcome beneath my roof, until I reach a final decision."

Nolan cleared his throat. "Forgive me, Clan Leader, but my friends and I did not come alone. With your permission, I'd prefer to stay with our ship."

"Very well. What of you, T'kon? I'm certain Jehanna would wish to see you." Ro'kan's fur brightened to a smug yellow.

T'kon recoiled as if slapped, and took several deep breaths before answering. "Your hospitality is appreciated, Clan Leader. However, I must decline. I will be staying with our new allies." T'kon gave the shallowest bow still worthy of the name.

"Very well. I grant you leave to return to this Coalition vessel. But surely you cannot depart without at least saying hello. Join us for dinner, T'kon. Bring your new ally. I insist." The clan leader's tone put the lie to the request. This clearly wasn't optional.

"Of course, Clan Leader." T'kon sketched another bow, then turned on his heel.

Nolan followed him out of the chamber, resisting the urge to question him. "That must have been incredibly difficult for you. I'm sorry, T'kon."

"Thank you, Captain. Your sympathy is appreciated. I did not think it would be so hard to return." T'kon walked dazedly forward, his eyes far away.

"So who was that Ganog in the black robes? That thing he was carrying looked like an arcanotome." Nolan's sunglasses automatically darkened when they stepped back into the reddish light of the sun. He scanned the horizon, relaxing when he saw nothing resembling an ambush. He didn't see his squad either, which was a testament to their skill.

"That was Oako, a man that I once thought I knew. He was part of the warrior caste, one of my fiercest followers. Almost, I elevated him to the leadership caste. We were as close as non-blood can be," T'kon explained. He paused, facing Nolan. The wind played across his fur, which slipped a shade darker as he spoke. "Now, Oako is of the seeker caste. They are zealots, and are usually shunned by the leadership caste."

"Why?" Nolan asked. He started walking back the way they'd come. It was two clicks to the ship, but the gravity was lighter on this world. Walking was a joy after his time on Ganog 7.

"Oako now seeks the gaze of the Nameless Ones." T'kon shook his head sadly. "I'd never have believed it, had I not seen him in those robes."

"And that was an arcanotome?" Nolan asked.

"Indeed. All seekers carry them, and some of the techsmiths are allowed to as well." T'kon shaded his eyes, looking behind him at the spire. "They are not allowed to speak of it, and we have no idea what they do. Speaking of them is considered blasphemy, and outsiders to their caste are forbidden from knowing anything about them--other than that they are a repository of lore."

"And these seekers worship the Nameless Ones?" Nolan continued up the cobblestones, which had given way to gravel in many places. The road hadn't been repaired in a decade or more, and clearly saw heavy travel.

"Not precisely. Most people pray to avoid their terrible gaze, but the seekers do exactly the opposite. They believe it is their holy obligation to find the Nameless Ones, to enact their will." T'kon's fur lightened toward red. "The fact that Oako would throw away all he knows to take up their mantle is troubling, and for that I blame myself. My final defeat shattered our clan, casting many warriors adrift, spiritually. Oako is a casualty of my making."

Nolan didn't have anything comforting to say, so he merely nodded. They walked in silence, and Nolan used the time to consider these Nameless Ones. He already disliked the sound of them, and had the feeling the more he learned the worse that would get.

As of yet he had no evidence, but he strongly suspected Ganog culture had dealt with the Gorthians in the distant past. Setting up a religion to worship themselves sounded exactly like something the Gorthians would do.


12


Quarters

Nolan frowned at the doorway to their "quarters." Fek had given them a room, but the Azi Clan didn't seem to use any doors. There was no way to close off a room, or to get any privacy. That made discussing the kind of thing they needed to talk about doubly dangerous.

The best they could do was run the holodisplay in the corner. Its low drone provided white noise, which covered their voices if they spoke quietly. Right now that holo showed some sort of gladiatorial battle between two Ganog in white ceremonial robes. They resembled the karategi that many Earth martial artists wore.

"Sir, you sure we shouldn't be doing this back on the ship?" Hannan whispered. She lounged against the wall, deceptively calm, sharpening her pocket knife.

"I don't like it either," Nolan said, "but you heard T'kon. He said that Fek is the only one he fully trusts here. We need him. We could ask him back to the ship, but I'd rather he not get a look at our cloaking tech. T'kon trusts him, but I have my doubts." He trailed off as footsteps sounded in the hallway.

T'kon and Fek strode into the room. T'kon gave Nolan a respectful nod, and he and Fek moved to join the squad, who murmured greetings. Fek was shorter than T'kon, and his skin more leathery. Nolan wondered absently how old he was, and how long Ganog lived.

"I take it matters in the spire were not to your liking?" Fek asked, eyeing T'kon.

"You knew what I'd find. Why didn't you warn me?" T'kon demanded. There was little heat to it, though.

"You needed to see it for yourself. I had hoped doing so would convince you to depart this world. Ours is a dying clan, T'kon. All you can accomplish here is to die along with it."

Fek stared searchingly at T'kon, and Nolan felt a pang of empathy. He recognized that kind of loss.

"Perhaps, but I cannot accept that. Not while I draw breath." T'kon's hands clenched to fists. His fur darkened to a muddy brown. "Ro'kan is a prideful fool, even more so than I was at the height of my hubris. Yet he craves power, and we offer power unlike any he has ever tasted. I believe he can be made to see reason."

"I do not." Fek shook his head. "Things are bad, T'kon. If you really intend to go to this feast, then you will see for yourself. Ro'kan has given Oako his ear more and more of late. More warriors convert to the seekers daily."

"Why?" T'kon asked, his tone anguished. His eyes dropped to the stone floor.

"Can you blame them?" Fek snapped. "We cost them everything. They lost faith in the leadership caste. The best of them left is Ro'kan. Prideful, petty Ro'kan. Would you wish to follow? Those who seek the Nameless Ones are really seeking an end to their shame. And Oako does give them that, whatever it might cost."

"The cost is unbearable." T'kon thumped the table with his furry fist. "I will go to this feast. I will see for myself."

"Stand ready for combat then. You've shown Ro'kan that you have power he craves, and he may seek to seize it. He is far more likely to capture you and take you to Imperalis than he is to rebel against the empress." Fek shook his head again. "No, this path is madness. Leave now, T'kon. Find a different end. Takkar still lives. Seek your vengeance upon him."

"I have had my vengeance," T'kon snapped. "The empress will likely execute Takkar, and perhaps his entire family. We took one of his planetstriders, and crippled his fleet."

Nolan's gaze kept straying to the holo, drawn by the movement. The camera zoomed up over another island, showing a different pair of combatants. A Ganog in white robes squared off against a shorter foe in environmental armor.

Familiar armor.

Nolan found himself on his feet, drawn toward the holo. He circled it, watching as the combat unfolded. The Ganog adept delivered a blinding kick, knocking the armored figure down the side of a sloped disk. He nearly rolled off the side, but managed to arrest his momentum.

They exchanged a rapid flurry of blows, and the armored figure was getting the worst of it--until he ignited a blue-white plasma blade on his wrist.

A Void Wraith plasma blade.

The armored figure kicked the adept off the disk, and he tumbled into the depths of a truly massive spire. The armored figure raised his arms triumphantly, and the crowd erupted into applause.

"Hannan, Lena, Annie, get over here," Nolan ordered. They trotted over, clustering around the holo. "Are you seeing what I'm seeing?" He pointed at the holo.

Lena's eyes widened. "By the goddess, I know that armor. Captain, that's Khar. It must be."

"Fek," Nolan called, turning to the Ganog, "what is this we're watching?"

Fek looked irritated by the interruption, as he was still conversing with T'kon in low tones. "Those are the Royal Spire Games, fought on the capital. Its one of our most popular sports. Why do you ask?"

Nolan face split into a broad grin. "Because one of our people is on Imperalis. Khar is still alive."


13


Knife's Edge

Fizgig strode through the glass doors, onto the hotel's shaded veranda. It cut the heat to a manageable level, but Atreas was still too hot for her liking. She moved to the balcony, peering down at the newly rebuilt Alpha Company.

A dozen mechs painted a muted grey and white stood in a precise line, their pilots clustered around a mess table a little ways off. Only their commanding officer was missing.

Behind the mechs stretched an abandoned human city, left empty when the Void Wraith had harvested the entire colony. They'd constructed a massive factory, sprawling around the base of the largest space elevator Fizgig had ever seen. A thick white cable stretched into the sky above, disappearing into space.

It was a practical, effective design. Raw materials were harvested all over the planet, then refined into usable components on the ground. Those components were ferried into space, then assembled into their final form. Had the factory been online for more than a few days, it was unlikely they'd have won the war.

"You wanted to see me, Admiral?" Burke asked from behind her.

"I did." Her tail flicked behind her, sketching her anxiety. She turned to face Burke, pleased that the newly promoted Major was able to hold her gaze. "We've given you what you've requested. You have the latest iteration of our booster mech. They're lighter, faster, and pack the new handheld theta cannons. Yet every combat exercise has resulted in your total destruction at the hands of a planetstrider."

"Was there a question in there, sir?" Burke asked. He still stood at attention.

"Can your unit learn to kill planetstriders?" Fizgig asked, clothing the question in pragmatism.

"Yes, sir," Burke said. He licked his lips. "Sir, permission to speak frankly?"

"Granted." Fizgig folded her arms, leaning against the balcony behind her. She liked Burke. He'd been an excellent choice, perhaps even better than Nolan. Nolan was good, but he was far too self-reliant. Officers learned to make use of their subordinates.

"There are two problems we need to solve. The first is that a mobile planetstrider is a hazard in and of itself. The wind generated by one of their steps can knock a booster mech out of the air, and once we're on the ground we're helpless." Burke raised a hand to shade his eyes, looking at her candidly. "We need a way to immobilize the striders if we want to take them out."

"And the second problem?" Fizgig asked. She closed her eyes, enjoying the sun on her fur.

"You've got to find me more experienced pilots." Burke's boots clicked across the tile, and he stopped next to her. She could smell the goop humans smeared under their armpits. "We only have two months to get ready, and seven of my pilots have never fought a battle. The other five have never seen more than one. A third of them are going to break during their first engagement, and that's going to spook another third."

Fizgig opened her eyes. "Burke, I received a holo call from Dryker this morning. The Senate is attempting to pass a resolution banning the use of any Void Wraith technology. There is talk of impeaching him. Dryker fears that if we fare poorly against the Ganog here, it could lead to civil war. The races will fragment, and the survivors will be gobbled up by the Imperium."

"Sir, I--that's terrible, but what does that have to do with Alpha Company?" Burke rested his hands on the balcony, staring down at his new command.

"It has everything to do with it," Fizgig snapped. She turned to face the new company as well, staring down at the gleaming mechs. "I have been assigned an impossible task, Burke. I must use inferior resources to triumph over a superior foe. This Takkar is a canny, bold commander. He will come with a force many times stronger than our own. For our triumph to have even a glimmer of being born, I must best him in space. That is where this war will be decided."

Fizgig's tail thrashed behind her. She turned to Burke, fixing him with the same stare Admiral Mow had used on her in her youth.

"You have also been assigned an impossible task, but I cannot aid you any farther. You must work with what you have. Teach these men to fight, Burke. And find a way to immobilize the enemy. Do it without getting your unit wiped out."

"It doesn't make me feel any better that your job is harder than mine, but for what it's worth you've got my sympathy, sir. I should get back to training." Burke sighed, then started for the door. He paused in the doorway. "Admiral, I will do everything in my power to get them ready. I can't make any promises past that."

Fizgig closed her eyes again, once again enjoying the sun. "None of us can, Burke. None of us can."


14


The Price

Takkar hopped from the transport disk, moving to join the empress on her observation island. The empress was alone, save for a single adept. Not just any adept, either. Master Yulo himself.

The wizened master's fur was a pristine, snowy white. The type of color that every Ganog strove for, one adepts trained lifetimes to attain. Almost all failed. Takkar didn't fear very many adepts, knowing that as an elite he could overpower them with size and strength. Yulo was the exception. Even an elite would need to take care with him.

"Come join us, Takkar. We have much to discuss." Zakanna called, in that high, clear voice of hers. Her mannerisms were different than they'd been during his audience, more precise. More dignified. Almost as if her demeanor the previous day had been an act.

"Highness," Takkar muttered, giving her a respectful half-bow as he approached. "I'm surprised you were willing to meet me alone."

"Yes, that move will surprise a great many people, the seekers most especially." Zakanna smiled at Takkar. "I have a feeling that pleases you, does it not?"

"Of course it does. You know how I feel about the seekers--black-robed leeches, leading good warriors astray. They can't be trusted. Why do you allow so many in your court?" Not a wise question, perhaps, but if ever there was a time to be bold, it was now.

"Tell me Takkar," she replied, turning her attention to the space docks orbiting above the dreadnought. "How badly do you wish your fleet repaired?"

"Ah, here it is, then. The real reason you summoned me." Takkar didn't know why she was reluctant to speak of the seekers, but he wasn't in a position to protest.

"Indeed. You knew there would be a price for my aid. Are you ready to pay it?" Zakanna clasped her hands behind her back, staring up at the cluster of berths. Each held a wounded dreadnought, and a fleet of drones swarmed around them, slowly repairing battle damage.

"You know I have little choice," Takkar admitted. He loathed it. "Make your demands, Zakanna." Using her name was an insult, but if it bothered her she didn't show it.

"I want twelve worlds, of my choice," Zakanna said, mildly, as if asking him for a horn of nectar. "I want their labor-slaves, and their resources. Those worlds will be chosen from those you stole from the Yog a decade ago."

Takkar closed his eyes, flaring his lower nostrils. He sucked in several greedy breaths, struggling to find the words he knew he needed to speak. "Very well. I accept. You realize the position that places me in?"

"Of course I do." Zakanna smiled coyly at him. "You'll be committed. If you give away those worlds your own people will unseat you...unless you deliver them something even greater--such as a world that can produce cores."

"You are a cruel woman, Zakanna. I must admit that I am impressed." Takkar glanced at Yulo, and found the master's piercing eyes fixed on him. He looked quickly away. "I am neatly trapped. I must accept, and I must commit everything to victory against the Coalition. If I succeed, you are enriched. If I fail, you still gain back a dozen prime worlds."

"Indeed." Zakanna's expression grew serious. "Make no mistake, though, Takkar--I am also committed to your success. You must win this battle. Tell me, what have you learned of the enemy commander?"

"I have learned much about her." Takkar's fur settled into a blue-green, more curiosity than anything else. "The colonies we raided possessed many public archives. These archives speak plainly about the commander, a Tigris by the name of Fizgig. The humans speak of her with fear and anger, the Tigris with reverence. Her battle record is long and storied, and she's never lost a battle of any real significance."

"Can you best her?"

"I can best her, if I have the full support of the Yog Clan--if my dreadnoughts are repaired, and your planetstriders added to mine. You say that you are committed to this victory. Are you really?" Takkar eyed her soberly. Such candidness was rare among Ganog nobility, and he found it refreshing.

"Indeed I am. I will begin repairs on your fleet immediately. I will have a techsmith send you the list of worlds I require. You do not need to make their acquisition public until after the battle." Zakanna's gaze had taken on a strength Takkar would have sworn she didn't possess. For the first time he realized just how cunning she must be.

The Imperium believed in her decadence, her fixation on becoming an adept. They dismissed her, never realizing just how canny she was. That was a mistake he'd never make again.


15


Nameless Ones

Nolan took a deep breath, then forced himself into motion. He and T'kon walked into the spire, into the stronghold of a potentially hostile host. He glanced at T'kon. "You're certain you want to do this?"

"It is the only way, Nolan. Please, do as we've discussed." T'kon trailed off as they approached a pair of Ganog elites flanking the entryway into the heart of the spire.

"Hannan, sitrep," Nolan whispered under his breath, nodding politely to a Ganog elite as he threaded after T'kon into the crowd of Ganog thronging the main room.

"We're all in position, sir. If you get into trouble, give us the word and we'll blast the ever-living shit out of anything that chases you out of that building."

"Acknowledged. Thanks, Hannan." Nolan kept his plastic smile in place, unsure how he was supposed to interact with these Ganog.

The party was somehow both dignified and raucous. Laughter boomed throughout the room, warriors slapping each other on the back. Most held drinking horns, Saurian attendants moving quickly to refill them. Oddly, there was nothing resembling a chair in the banquet hall. Thus far, every last Ganog he'd seen had been standing.

He spotted a black robe moving in his direction, and suppressed the urge to ignite his plasma blade. T'kon had insisted Nolan not wear his sidearm, as that identified him as a warrior. Doing so meant other warriors could challenge him, and at least a few of the more drunken elites would probably do exactly that.

As Nolan had no wish to become a Ganog soccer ball, he was fine with just the plasma blade.

"No-lan," called a gruff voice. "I would have words with you."

Nolan sighed, then plastered his smile back in place. He turned to face the speaker, the black-robed Ganog who'd been approaching. Not just any Ganog, either--Nolan was fairly certain he was looking at Oako.

The Ganog had broad, well muscled shoulders under his robes. Tiny purple tattoos lined his eyes, some sort of sigils. The Ganog's breath was fetid, almost rotting. Nolan fought a gag reflex.

Oako clutched an arcanotome to his chest, the purple circuitry giving his features a demonic cast.

Nolan wasn't certain how to address a seeker, but clearly Oako expected a response. "Hello, Oako. What can I do for you?" he asked, rather lamely. He was out of his element, dealing with an entirely new species.

"Your race, what is it called?" Oako asked, his eyes narrowing under his shadowed hood.

"Human," Nolan supplied.

There was a brief flicker where Nolan caught recognition from the seeker.

"Where do you come from?" Oako pressed. Pulses of purple flowed up the black cable into his temple. Nolan darted a glance at the source, but could only see a corner of the arcanotome.

The casing looked like a book, the elaborate kind found in archival libraries. It was forged of a dark, oily metal. Large runes dotted the cover, their purplish glow peeking out from under the Ganog's robes.

Nolan was damned impressed. If you wanted to be feared, having your priests use technology you didn't understand, while looking like pre-dawn nightmares...Machiavelli would be proud.

"I'm told that this area of space is called the 2nd octant, right?" Nolan asked. He found the notion of dividing the galaxy up into eights both interesting and useful. It made it easier to classify where different species lived.

"That is correct."

"My species comes from the 3rd octant. We're called the Coalition of United Races, or the Coalition for short." Nolan studied Oako, and again saw recognition. He decided to seize the initiative. "I'm told that you seek the gaze of the Nameless Ones. I apologize if this is offensive, but can you tell me what that means?"

Oako eyed Nolan appraisingly for a long time. "The Nameless Ones are timeless entities that arrived in our space countless millennia ago. They devoured worlds, seeking to sate their endless hunger."

"I see." Nolan blinked. The similarity to the Gorthians was unmistakable. "I've heard T'kon speak of avoiding the gaze of the Nameless Ones, and given what you just described I can see why. Why do you seek their gaze if they're going to devour everyone?"

Oako's fur darkened, and his eyes narrowed to slits. He leaned closer, his hot fetid breath wafting over Nolan like chemical warfare. Nolan wished he'd worn his helmet. "You are ka'tok, but still a skilled warrior. I am told you killed Krekon in a duel. For that reason alone, I will converse with you as an equal. If you will tell me more of the technology you brought, I will answer your questions about my faith."

Nolan shrugged. "I'm not authorized to divulge much, but I'll answer what I can."

In truth, he could tell the Ganog whatever he wanted--but far better for him to think of Nolan as a servant to a higher power. Make him chase the secret, thus making it all the more believable.

"Is it true that your techsmiths constructed the core?" Oako eyed him with furious intensity.

"Yes, we manufacture them. They're used in many of our war machines." Nolan studied Oako right back. The Ganog gave a slight smile. "Most are manufactured at a single world, thousands every day. The shipyards are incredible."

Interest bubble up in Oako's gaze, but the Ganog didn't press. "You asked why we seek the gaze. At the dawn of our species, the Ganog fell under the terrible gaze of the Nameless Ones. They devoured many worlds, yet our form pleased them. They knew us for mighty warriors, and they gave us ships, and weapons. The Nameless Ones built Imperalis, birthing the Imperium. Aided by their Ganog fleets, the Nameless Ones devoured the second octant. When they finished, they left our space to seek other worlds to devour. Seekers understand that the Nameless Ones will return one day, and when they do we will stand ready once more. We will take up our arms, enacting their terrible will. That, little human, is why seekers seek the gaze of the Nameless Ones. We do this knowing that our race will suffer greatly, but after the Nameless Ones have enacted their plan they will depart, and our descendants will once again be free."

Nolan went numb. Pieces clicked together, enough that he finally thought he saw the whole picture. Or most of it at least. The Gorthians had come to the Primo empire, creating the Void Wraith. When they'd completed their eradication they were still hungry, so they must have come here.

The Milky Way was a damned large place. What if the Gorthians were migratory, slowly devouring the entire galaxy? They could stop in each octant, and by the time they made it back around the worlds they'd depopulated would be ready for another eradication.

"Thank you for explaining your faith, Oako." Nolan finally said, suppressing his growing anxiety. "Is that device your holy book?" Nolan nodded at the arcanotome.

"All books are holy," Oako countered. "The 'device' is my arcanotome. It is linked to my mind, sharing its vast repository of knowledge. Your kind do not possess such devices?"

"We store our data differently--in a central repository anyone can access using one of these." Nolan held up his comm device.

"You freely share such knowledge?" Oako's fur blackened. A riot of pulses flowed to and from his temple, and his eyes took on a faraway look. "Our conversation is at an end, human."

And he turned on his heel, stalking back the way he'd come.

"Sir," Hannan's voice whispered into Nolan's earpiece. "I can have Nuchik core that bastard if you'd like."

Nolan couldn't answer of course. He merely nodded at the seeker's retreating form, then turned on his heel and walked the other way. He muttered under his breath, "That didn't go well, but we stick to the plan."

"Didn't go well is an understatement," Lena's voice cut into the comm. "You and I both know who these Nameless Ones must be. All our fears are confirmed."

Nolan didn't reply, instead keeping his head down as he threaded a path as far away from Oako as he could get.

Ganog knowledge was a tightly guarded secret, with only certain castes ever allowed to see it. That made the warrior caste easy to control, because they were dependent on other castes to provide their weapons of war--and to tell them how and what to think.

He accepted a horn offered by a Saurian, but didn't drink. T'kon had warned him what they'd likely serve at the feast, and other sentient beings weren't on his meal plan.

Nolan drifted toward the back of the room, finally catching sight of T'kon. He stood at the back of the room, chatting with a trio of warriors. The conversation seemed amiable, though T'kon kept shooting distracted glances at the central dais. A light-furred Ganog adept in a white robe stood talking to Ro'kan. Her garment looked a identical to the ones the fighters had worn in the holo where he'd seen Khar.

She was pretty, in an exotic way. Her eyes rose briefly, and a soft red rippled through her fur. It was gone quickly, but Nolan saw who she was looking at. T'kon, her former husband.

It was straight out of Homer's Odyssey. The king had come home.

Nolan passed by T'kon, trying to catch the Ganog's eye. T'kon looked his way, and Nolan jerked his head at the corner. He turned to scan the room while waiting for T'kon to approach. Oako had moved onto the dais, and was conferring with two other black-robed seekers. All three had a flurry of pulses flowing to their arcanotomes.

"I've got to get one of those back to R&D," Nolan muttered, though he knew that this wasn't the time.

"That will prove difficult," T'kon said, moving to stand with Nolan against the wall. "They are holy relics, and their theft would provoke relentless pursuit."

"Yeah, I know we can't afford to grab one right now. Hey, Oako tracked me down and we had a little chat. I let slip that we have a massive naval shipyard where we produce most of our cores, and he immediately beelined for his people." Nolan tensed. "Looks like they're about to make a move. We need to get the hell out of here."

"Agreed. Remember the plan, Nolan. It is the best way," T'kon rumbled.

Nolan turned and sprinted for the exit, knowing that such a move would draw the attention of every elite in the room. Only prey ran.

Several guards shouted, and a few began the breathing that would transform them into mech-sized opponents. Plasma fire shot over Nolan's shoulder, scorching the wall. He sprinted forward, weaving erratically up the corridor as the Ganog howled after him.


16


Put Em Down

"Annie, are you in position?" Hannan demanded. She trotted up the ridge, crouching behind a massive granite slab. Her screen put the spire at one point three clicks, well within particle cannon range.

A steady trickle of Ganog weaved into the spire, though none seemed to emerge. Not that she could blame them. The alcohol was inside, and so was the food. Soldiers inevitably beelined for both, regardless of species.

"I'm on the south ridge, in position. If those Ganog get uppity, I'll put 'em down easy like. Got a clean line of sight on the tunnel leading inside." Annie's voice was excited, but relaxed. Hannan knew she'd do her job.

"Nuchik, what's your status?" Hannan dipped a bit further into cover, resting her mech's particle cannon against the rock slab.

"In position." Nuchik's response was clipped, as expected. She was so much like Mills.

Hannan had stationed Nuchik at nine o'clock, at a right angle from Annie. Elites that came out would see Annie's position first, and the elites would be too busy dealing with her to find Nuchik's sniper position. She had free reign to end targets, and if they came after her she could fall back with her stealth belt.

"There's flashes inside the tunnel," Annie called. "Looks like the captain is running in our direction, like a pack of kids that just farted into the O2 processor."

"What about T'kon?" Hannan asked.

"He's lagging behind," Annie drawled, "and I can see six...seven...nine of the big apes after him. How do you want me to play this?"

"Weapons free. Gun down anything that isn't our people." Hannan thumbed the thruster switch, warming the mech's main booster. It was the first time she'd piloted a post-atmospheric mech, but she had plenty of sim time.

Particle beams shot from Annie's position, lancing out of sight inside the tunnel. The captain sprinted into view, then faded from sight as he engaged his stealth belt.

"Looks like T'kon is in a bad way," Annie said, as the loud whine of his particle cannon came over the mic. "Should I haul him out of there?"

"Captain said we were to escort only, and fall back to the ship as soon as we were able to disengage. Let's see if he's willing to change those orders." Hannan opened a channel to the captain. "Sir, we're got a phenomenal tactical position, and I believe we can force the elites back inside the spire. T'kon has fallen behind. Permission to send in Annie to get him?"

"Negative, Lieutenant." Nolan said, almost immediately. "You have your orders. Escort Lena and I back to the ship, best possible speed."

"But sir, T'kon--"

"I know, but you're going to have to trust me, Hannan. I'll explain when we get back to the ship. For now, fall back as quickly as we can. Try to minimize enemy casualties."

Hannan killed the channel, cursing under her breath. She burst from cover, vaulting into the air on a rush of superheated flame. She flared the mech's thrusters, sailing hundreds of meters above the enemy forces. Hannan lined up her particle cannon with an elite. "Sir, can I get confirmation on that last? Minimize enemy casualties?"

"You heard me. Pick off a few, then cease fire. Fall back like we're fleeing before a superior foe."

Hannan didn't understand the strategy, but she didn't need to. The captain must have a reason. She stroked the trigger, and her particle cannon discharged a beam of superheated particles into the elite below. It caught him in the neck, coring the unfortunate Ganog. He collapsed in a heap, joined a moment later by a target picked off by Nuchik. Annie caught a third, and the rest fell back inside the spire to regroup.

"Move, people. Get back to the ship."

Nolan's voice was iron, and Hannan knew better than to press the issue. She feathered her jets, angling the mech toward where they'd parked the cruiser. Lightning flashed on the eastern horizon, the resulting explosion lightening the sky. She dropped lower, a little uneasy, despite the storm being several clicks out.

Below she could see Annie hauling ass toward the cruiser. There was no sign of Nuchik, but she'd have been shocked if there had been. Nuchik was like a ghost.

Hannan fed more thrust to the booster, then throttled it back. She began to plummet, her arc carrying her toward the cruiser's location.

Then she saw them. "Oh crap. Sir, we've been had. They've got two dozen elites approaching from the northwest. It's an ambush, sir. Looks like they knew where we were parked."


17


Last Stand

T'kon took a series of deep, frenzied breaths. He glared at his foes, channeling his anger, his loathing, and his burgeoning hatred for Ro'kan. He channeled it all into his body, using his metabiology to swell his size and strength.

The Azi warriors skidded to a halt, waiting for his transformation to complete before beginning their attack.

"Prepare yourself, traitor," a young warrior boomed. He rushed T'kon, who waited patiently. The youth wielded a double-bladed axe, and was both larger and stronger than T'kon. But he was slow, and had overextended himself.

T'kon kicked off the spire wall, flinging himself into the air above the youth. The youth's face split into a comical look of confusion, and T'kon seized his head in both hands, ending him with a single twist. The crack was audible even over the din of combat.

The axe clattered to the ground, and T'kon scooped it up, backpedaling away as more foes approached. "Come, then. I am ready!"

They surged forward as a mass, and he caught a glimpse of Ro'kan at the back of the pack. T'kon roared his fury, his fur going red-black as he sliced an elite in half. Two more rushed forward, pressing him. T'kon dropped the axe, batting away their blows with his armored forearms.

An elite tackled him around the waist from behind, shoving him into the wall behind him. T'kon ripped his dagger from the boot sheath, ramming the blade into the elite's eye. He struggled free of the mass, scooping up a discarded chopping sword.

T'kon sliced off the nearest warrior's arm, then beheaded a second warrior. He backed up to the wall, launching frantic strikes at anyone who approached. His enemies fell back, waiting on their leader. Ro'kan approached slowly, stopping outside T'kon's range.

"You fled with the human, because you knew he'd let slip his secret, didn't you?" Ro'kan's face twisted, his fur brightening to a wild scarlet.

"You're mad, Ro'kan," T'kon protested. He swung the sword in a tight arc, lopping off the hand of a warrior who strayed just a bit too close. "The human ran because he fears the seeker. Can he be blamed? Oako interrogated a potential ally, ruining everything I have brought you. Can't you see that, Ro'kan? This is the seekers, not the human."

Ro'kan looked conflicted, sizing T'kon up silently. Oako rushed forward, whispering into his ear. Ro'kan nodded grimly. "Oako believes that you know the location of these shipyards. If you do, tell us and I will accept your words as truth. If not, then it will prove what Oako claims, that you've been subverted by this...Coalition."

T'kon considered his response carefully. If he gave the location, Oako might suspect it was a lie. No, he needed to make them work for it. "I don't know where this world is. You assume they'd tell me such a thing? If you wish to learn the location, why are you wasting time with me? Find the human."

"Take him," Ro'kan growled.

The Ganog surged forward in a mass. T'kon collapsed under their collective weight. Kicks and punches rained pain upon him, and a fist caught him in the temple. Blinding light shot through his vision, and vertigo spun him into nausea. He refused to give up, roaring as he struggled to stand. T'kon caught one of the Ganog in the chin with his elbow, gaining a moment to breathe. It wasn't enough.

Ro'kan lunged, his sword punching through T'kon's shoulder, pinning him to the wall. He twisted the blade, and T'kon bellowed his agony.

"Stop resisting, fool," Ro'kan growled. "You know I won't allow them kill you, so don't think you can escape that way. Not yet, anyway. Not until you tell us the location of the human's shipyard. We will pry the secret from you; I can promise you that."

Yes, T'kon thought, keeping the grim joy from his fur. You will.


18


Ambushed

Nolan sprinted up the road, kicking up little puffs of dust. The slightly lower gravity made every leap take him much further than normal, and he ate up the distance toward the cruiser. He wanted to explain the plan to his squad, but he'd promised T'kon not to utter it until the deed was done.

Besides, he needed to save his breath for running.

He risked a glance behind him, and Lena wasn't too far back. Behind her, the elites had slowed, discouraged by fire from Hannan and Annie. Unfortunately, that left them wide open for the ambush the elites had set.

The first thing Nolan noticed about the group of charging Ganog was that several wore the stylized white gis. They were smaller than the Ganog warriors in armor, but moved with impressive grace. The Ganog moved swiftly, fanning out to encircle the cloaked cruiser. Nolan had no idea how they knew where it was, but clearly the improved stealth wasn't as improved as they'd hoped.

Either that, or Sissus had sold them out.

"Hannan, see if you can get them to scatter. Annie get your ass back to the ship ASAP, or we're going to need a new ride home." Nolan leaned into the sprint, angling away from the enemy elites as he tried to circle around the ship. "Nuchik, if you can get into position to deliver suppressive fire that would be helpful."

Instinct saved Nolan's life. He darted left, moving erratically down a gentle slope. A shot from a particle rifle cored a boulder less than a meter from Nolan, peppering his armor with shrapnel. "They've found me. I could definitely use an assist."

Nolan sprinted right for about thirty meters, dodging another particle blast. The Ganog were swarming the ship, and several fired at the spot where they're parked the vessel. The plasma washed over the shields, and the ship flickered into view.

"Sissus, this is Nolan. We've got company, and unless you want your shiny new ship to get all banged up, I'd suggest opening up with all turrets. Might be worth deploying your clutch in the cargo bay to give us cover while we board."

"I could do that, human. But I won't. Who do you think told the Ganog where to find you? You've brought us nothing but trouble, and shown nothing but discourtesy. I will not sacrifice my people to atone for your pet Ganog's arrogance." The ship began to rumble, then the engines fired. It raised slowly into the air, canting slowly toward the storm to the south.

The Ganog went berserk, and those with energy weapons unloaded on the ship's engines. Beams of scarlet streaked into the housing, and the left engine died with a sputter.

"Hannan," Nolan barked. "End them."

The shadow of Hannan's booster mech passed over Nolan, and a moment later a full salvo of missiles streaked down on the Ganog. They were flung about like toys, shrapnel and flame from the piranha missiles dropping several of the giant warriors.

The smaller adepts fared better, with only one getting caught by the blast. The rest leapt nimbly away, moving faster than any human could hope to match.

The distraction was exactly the cover Sissus needed to escape. The cruiser's remaining thrusters fired, and it accelerated up and away. It flew low and fast, popping over a decent-sized hill then disappearing on the other side.

"Hannan, we just lost our ride home. This just became win or die." Nolan skidded in the dust, plastering his body against a rock. Not that it would stop a plasma shot, but hopefully breaking line of sight would encourage the Ganog to pick other targets.

"So, the usual, basically," Hannan said. "I wish we had Edwards, but there's still plenty we can do. Annie, you have your shotgun with you?"

"Yes, sir," Annie drawled back.

"Run your mech over to Nolan, and swap out. Captain is a better pilot. Once you're clear, find some cover in those rocks."

"What about me?" Nuchik asked over the comm, in a rare show of verbosity.

"Kill things," Hannan ordered. "All the things."

Nolan could hear the smile in Nuchik's voice. "Can do."

A flash came from the ridge about two clicks over, and an instant later a streak of blue-white punched through the back of the rearmost elite's head. Its headless corpse toppled into the dust.

Hannan's mech glided over a cluster of Ganog, loosing a flight of missiles. They arced into the air, bursting into a swarm of micro missiles that peppered a trio of adepts. All three were flung away from the explosion. Two didn't rise, but the last stumbled off into rocky cover.

High above, lightning crashed, and a deafening explosion brightened the sky. It was echoed by a second, then a third. Nolan's head rang like a gong, and once again he wished he had his helmet. It was inside his mech...in the ship Sissus had just stolen. Along with Lena, and Aluki.

"Hannan, you okay?" Nolan asked, scanning the sky as he returned his focus to the battle. He blinked past the afterimages, unable to locate her mech.

"Yes, sir. Boosters are down to forty percent, so I'm going to have to land soon."

"Probably just as well with the storm. See what you can do to keep them off balance. Maybe we can get them to retreat." The ground shook, and Nolan spun. He relaxed when he realized it was Annie approaching. Her mech stopped several meters away, and he could hear the whirring of her cockpit opening.

Nolan rushed over, skidding to a halt next to her mech's leg. The chest module slid up, and the waist module slid down to reveal the cockpit. Annie hopped out, landing heavily in the dust. Her shotgun was cradled between her arms like a child. "All yours sir. I'll get my ass to cover. Good luck."

"Thanks, Annie." Nolan leapt onto the mech, pulling himself inside the cockpit. It was impossible to ignore the explosions and screams in the background, but he forced himself to tune it out. He settled into the command couch, and began keying in his command override.

The cockpit whirred shut, and the curved viewscreen lit up. It loaded the profile from his previous mech, grabbing the configuration from his comm. The reactor was still hot, so Nolan took an experimental step.

Annie's mech was functionally identical to his own, but it felt different somehow. For one thing the cockpit reeked of tobacco, but it went deeper than that. The control sensitivity just felt...a little off.

Nolan shook it off, turning the mech to face the combat. Friend and foe tags began appearing over every combatant in his field of view, though the system was incapable of differentiating between elites and the kung-fu versions.

"Shit," Nuchik over the comm. "Captain, I've been spotted. Not sure I should chance using my stealth belt with the storm so close."

"Nuchik, hightail it out of there," Nolan ordered. "Hannan, get their attention."

"On it, sir. I'm running out of missiles, though," Hannan panted into the comm. Her mech glittered in the air above the Ganog, a particle cannon shot taking off a leg at the knee. Six missiles streaked from her tubes, one at each target. Four found their targets, flinging those Ganog into the air. The last two dodged, bounding away into the boulder field. "Sir, I don't have the ordnance to put these guys down. Better do whatever you're going to do, Captain."

Nolan scanned the mech's readouts. Twelve missiles remaining. He popped the tubes, tapping his view screen twice over each visible target. He only fired at the elites, as they seemed less able to avoid the missiles.

His mech was forced back a step from the force of multiple launches, and the missiles streaked into the air, contrails in their wake. They swam unerringly toward their targets, detonating in rapid succession. Some of those targets were already wounded, some unprepared. Five of the six elites died, and the last lost a leg.

Definitely a good use of his last missiles.

"Captain," Hannan called, a frantic note to her voice. "I just lost my particle cannon. I could use an assist."

"Nuchik, get to cover and give the kung-fu looking Ganog something to think about." Nolan sprinted toward Hannan, firing a hip shot that nearly hit a robed Ganog. The shot made his opponent back off, giving Hannan time to block a kick from the other adept. She deflected it with her blade, but the blow still knocked her back a step.

Nolan poured on the speed, igniting his plasma blade as he closed. The adept seemed to sense his approach, spinning away from Hannan and turning to face Nolan. Hannan lunged at the adept's back, but the adept elbowed his arm away. In that moment Nolan risked another hip shot. This one caught the adept in the side, knocking him off balance. Hannan capitalized, ramming her blade into the adept's neck. The Ganog collapsed, sputtering as he coughed out purplish blood down the front of his white robes.

The second adept darted in, but another shot from Nuchik forced her back. She began breathing rapidly, eyes blazing as she glared at Hannan's mech. Then she vaulted into the sky, arcing away from the battle. She looked back, and Nolan recognized her. It was T'kon's wife.

"Hannan, any chance you can stop her?" Nolan asked, pivoting to search for other opponents.

"Negative, sir. She's moving at eighty-five KPH." A blue streak shot from Hannan's cannon, but the adept leapt nimbly over the shot. "She's slippery. Should I pursue, sir?"

"Negative. Fall back to Annie's position. We've beaten them, but there are plenty more elites in the spire. We're not in any shape to take them on right now." Nolan was acutely aware of how much material they'd just used. They might have a few missiles left between them, but he doubted it. That would make the next fight far more difficult.

"Sir," Annie drawled over the comm, "now may not be the time, but can you explain that shit-stunt T'kon pulled?"

"Yeah, I owe you all an explanation. T'kon came up with the plan, and I backed it. The Azi clan don't trust us, and T'kon didn't think we'd be able to deliver the payload."

"He stayed behind on purpose, didn't he? Furry bastard wanted to be caught," Annie said. "So they can torture it out of him. You know? That's damned clever."

"Something like that," Nolan admitted. "T'kon gives up the 'secret' location of our shipyards, and they send that data to their empress. Then we ride in and rescue T'kon. Problem is, I wasn't counting on Sissus stealing the ship."


19


Interogation

T'kon awakened to fragments of pain exploding through his jaw. Blood flowed from his mashed face, dripping down his chest. His eyes refused to focus, and he labored under a fog. It took several moments to gather his thoughts, sluggish and elusive.

"You've given me wert root, haven't you?" he slurred. It dulled the mind without dampening the nerves, so he could still feel every bit of pain inflicted.

"Ah, you're awake." Ro'kan said. He seized T'kon by the head, jerking it back so T'kon was forced to peer up at the man who'd once served him so faithfully. "You are no doubt wondering why you're still alive, T'kon. Don't worry, we'll attend to that soon enough. First, we are giving you one more chance to aid your clan. One more chance to die with a shred of honor intact. Isn't that what you want?"

"And what is this opportunity?" T'kon managed. He spoke slowly, drawing out the words one at a time through his shattered jaw.

"The core," Oako said, moving into the edge of T'kon's vision. The black robes didn't belong on his old friend, and part of T'kon still saw the laughing berserker he'd taken a dozen worlds with. Oako leaned closer, and T'kon could see dozens of tiny purple runes tattooed around his eyes. "It was manufactured in this Coalition, upon a specific world. Nolan said this world was the cradle of their technology. Their shipyards. Where is it?"

T'kon grinned through his ruined mouth, his fur going red-brown. "You are more ambitious than I thought, Ro'kan. First, you grant power to the seekers. Now, you will use them to bring this information to the empress, won't you? You plan to curry favor, to be included in her fleet when she invades this Coalition."

Ro'kan's eyes blazed, and he shoved Oako out of the way. Ro'kan loomed over T'kon, spittle flying as he roared his words: "You are nothing. Less than nothing. I will devour your heart, and leave your corpse as carrion. Og'ok, disgraced and forgotten."

T'kon's grin vanished. His fur drifted to a washed-out yellow. A genuine ripple of fear passed through him. He didn't hold with the religious trappings around mummification, but there would be very real consequences if his body were left to rot. Jehanna could protect their lives, but his children would never escape the shame of it.

"I have offended you. I apologize, Clan Leader." T'kon flared his lower nostrils, sucking in a painful breath as he closed his eyes. "I do not know the location of this world."

"He lies." Oako's words came on the heels of T'kon's.

"The seekers know such things, T'kon. They can peer into men's souls, did you know that?" Ro'kan released T'kon's head, stepping away. T'kon opened his eyes, staring at his former friend. "If Oako says that you lie, then you lie. The question is why? Why keep this knowledge from us? Why deny your clan a chance to regain the greatness you stole from us?"

The blow stung far worse than the one to his jaw had. T'kon knew Ro'kan was right; his own actions had led the Azi to this point. In a way, he was responsible for what had befallen Oako.

"I've given you a core, Ro'kan. You can restore our planetstrider, or perhaps capture a wild one. You don't need this human world to regain what the Azi have lost." T'kon suppressed a cough, triggering a fresh wave of pain.

"The technology you've brought is forbidden," Oako snapped. He backhanded T'kon, sending a fresh wave of pain through his jaw. "Even you should have known better. It is our obligation to return this core to Imperalis, where my order will humbly accept possession of it."

"Ro'kan, you can't honestly tell me that you are placing your faith in the seekers. Oako is mad. He is no longer the warrior we knew. He counsels you to throw away the power I have dropped into your lap. You can have a full planetstrider at your disposal. Surely that eclipses anything you think this...this mouthpiece can offer." T'kon spat a gob of blood into Oako's face.

Oako responded predictably, slamming his fist into T'kon's already fractured jaw. T'kon blacked out for a moment, and when he blinked himself back to the present there was a dark corona around the edges of his vision. His ears rang, and though he felt as if he were falling, his body somehow remained still.

"I tire of his blasphemy. I will seek counsel with my brethren. When I return, it will be with a pain bringer. If T'kon hasn't revealed the secret before then, I will burn it out of him." Oako spoke the words emotionlessly, then whirled and strode from the chamber.

"Oako clearly does not remember your legendary stubbornness as well as I. You and I both know you will die before breaking to pain." Ro'kan folded his arms, staring down at T'kon. Ro'kan's expression was unreadable, but his fur softened to a melancholy blue. "I do not hate you, T'kon. But neither do I pity you. You gambled for greatness, and lost. I was left to rebuild, beset by the twin titans. The Yog and the Vkash both eye our remaining worlds hungrily, yet we lack the strength to defend them. So I implore you one more time: Give me the name of these human shipyards."

T'kon turned away from Ro'kan. It was more difficult than he'd feared, and he battled a wave of guilt. This was proving more difficult than he'd expected.

"You disappoint me. Very well. Just remember that you left me no other choice." Ro'kan raised his voice. "Jehanna, if you please."

T'kon's breathing quickened. He'd planned to divulge the name before they involved her, but it was too late now. He closed his eyes, resisting the urge to look at her as her robes swishing closer. The sound was for his benefit, as he knew she could be utterly silent when she wished.

"Hello, T'kon," Jehanna said, her words a balm draining the fire from his wounds. "Look at me, ri'koh."

T'kon's eyes opened of their own accord. Jehanna stood there, her fur a lustrous, pearled, white. "Hello, Jehanna, wife of Ro'kan. I see that you've earned your fourth band." T'kon nodded at the newest stripe on her wrist.

"I've grown stronger in your absence." Jehanna smiled warmly, her fur going to soft red-pink. "Ri'koh, you will always have a piece of my heart, you know that. Please, give me the location of this world. Allow our clan to reclaim greatness. If you do, Ro'kan will let me speak the rites. He will see you buried with honor. Allow our children to remember their father's greatness. Please, T'kon."

She eyed him searchingly, and T'kon could not escape that gaze. His fur was a riot of conflicting colors, his emotions a maelstrom.

"Atreas." T'kon heaved a heavy sigh, closing his eyes again. "The name of the world is Atreas. I can provide you star charts."

"I believe you." Ro'kan's hand rested gently on his shoulder. "I will have a sedative brought. Show me this world, and then you may rest. Tomorrow, we will allow you to seek the void. I myself will stand as second."

T'kon bit down on his rear molar. The payload had been delivered. Now all he could do was wait for Nolan to rescue him.


20


Master

Waiting for the clan leader to seek him out was the single greatest test Oako had undergone since becoming a seeker. He longed to go to Ro'kan, to whisper the right things into his increasingly receptive ear.

Yet now was not the time for bold action. Oako moved to the chamber's edge, staring out into the roiling storm obscuring the horizon. If he approached now, Ro'kan would be suspicious. He was growing accustomed to the seekers, and the idea of seeking the Nameless Ones. Yet his old faith still lingered, and until its embers faded Oako must tread carefully.

"Oako." Ro'kan's strong voice came from the chamber's doorway. "I am troubled. Share a horn with me, and help untangle this problem."

"Of course, old friend." Oako moved to his cabinet, withdrawing his two longest horns. He filled them from the crystal flask, using last year's fermentation. He handed a horn to Ro'kan, taking a sip from his own. "Share the burden of this trouble. I am happy to bear the weight, as always."

Ro'kan drank deeply of the horn, belching loudly. "I have a dilemma. The news of this Coalition world is of great value. The empress could profit greatly from it, and I want to share it with her. Yet our lingering shame prevents me from approaching her directly."

"Could we use one of the other clans as an intermediary?" Oako asked, though he already knew the answer.

"I doubt they'd even receive our emissary. They'll stand back and wait for us to fall, never lifting a finger to help. Even if they did receive us, they'd take the credit for delivering this news." Ro'kan snarled. "It is maddening. Perhaps what is needed here is boldness. I could approach the empress directly. She would forgive the breach, given the power we bring."

"Perhaps, Clan Leader. I have heard that she is temperamental, and takes offense easily," Oako cautioned. He had heard that she was temperamental, though he seriously doubted that would prevent her from leaping on the technology Ro'kan offered.

"Hmm, then what do you suggest? You can see my dilemma." Ro'kan upended his horn, so Oako refilled it.

"There may be a way," Oako mused. He refilled his own horn, clinking it against Ro'kan's. "If you wish, I can approach Utfa. He is a seeker who attends the empress, and speaks for my order on Imperalis."

Ro'kan swirled his horn, considering. Oako resisted the urge to add to his argument, instead refilling Ro'kan's drink.

"Very well. Speak to this Utfa. Ask him to broach the subject with the empress, and see if he can arrange an audience. So long as we keep the world's name a secret, Utfa will not be able to steal the news, so I see little risk." Ro'kan's fur became a warm orange. "Thank you, Oako. You have eased my mind. I will depart immediately so that you may have privacy to speak to Utfa."

"Thank you, friend." Oako clapped Ro'kan on the shoulder. He smiled, waiting for Ro'kan to depart from the chamber before approaching the ancient communicator.

The crystal screen had been cracked centuries past, but it still functioned well enough. Oako opened his arcanotome, sketching several symbols on the appropriate page. The communicator's screen flickered reluctantly to life, connecting to a similar console thousands of light years away.

"Have you acquired the core?" Utfa's face filled the screen. His eyes had taken on a milky sheen, but shone with a feverish intensity.

"I have, emissary. I have and more." Oako bowed low, holding it for several seconds. Utfa had been the one who had shown him the path, and given him his arcanotome. He owed Utfa everything. Oako finally straightened. "T'kon has returned, and he brings allies from the Coalition. One of those allies let slip that they have a massive shipyard, the cradle of their technology. We have acquired the location of this world. It is called Atreas, and I'm sending the relevant star charts."

"You were wise to bring this to me. I will present it to the empress, so that our order might claim credit." Utfa's fur became the soft green of satisfaction. "What of Ro'kan, and the Azi? How fare your plans?"

"Fully a third of the warriors are mine. Not all have donned the robes, but more join daily. Ro'kan has a weak hold, and T'kon's return has further weakened his position."

"Wonderful. I have another task for you. Tell Ro'kan that the empress has summoned him, and ensure that he brings those warriors who will not don the robes. Tell them there will be glorious battle, that he will be in the vanguard to raid the world he has discovered."

"Emissary, is that not premature? What if the empress does not launch an invasion?" Oako didn't like contradicting Utfa, but the pulses of data from his tome were clear.

"I will handle the empress. She will invade, and the Azi will be in the vanguard. Tell him this, and bring the core to Imperalis immediately."

"Of course." Oako held his bow, even after the connection had been severed.


21


Outmanuvered

Empress Zakanna observed the training islands below her, with dozens of adepts divided into sparring pairs. Those with the greatest skill were on the highest islands, while initiates filled the lower. There were only seventy initiates--one-third the amount she had boasted at the beginning of her reign, just four years ago.

There were so many gaps, and the initiates were too green to fill them. Yet, they worked hard to cure that. In time, they would rise to the challenge.

Time. That was the thing she most needed, and the thing she suspected she had the least of. Her enemies were gathering, readying their strike. She didn't know where the blow would fall, or even who might hold the blade. But the blow would come, and it would be Utfa's hand that guided it.

"Empress, you sent for me?" a low voice called from behind.

She turned slowly, impressed that the adept had approached without her detecting his heartbeat. He was older than her by several years, and walked with a slight limp. He wore an easy smile, and his fur shifted from tan to grey and back again.

"I did. You showed admirable bravery in your battle with Kokar, despite your lack of training." She clasped her hands behind her back. "To honor you, I would offer a heart gift. What would you have, Meb?"

She loved this part of her duties. It was by far the most enjoyable part of being empress. She gave heart gifts too often, if Utfa were any judge. She didn't care.

"Empress?" Meb's fur tinged blue, just for a moment. The lack of control would never have occurred in a full initiate, must less a full monk. Meb licked his lips. "Empress, if this does not show too much temerity, my heart longs to be a part of your house. Teach me, and I will devote my life to mastery."

"Granted." Zakanna smiled. "I formally adopt you into the clan of Yog. Descend to the lowest level and find Ashira. Tell her to find you a place to sleep, and to begin your training."

"Thank you, Empress," Meb's voice cracked under the weight of his emotions. In time, he'd learn to control that. He bowed deeply, holding it for many seconds. He straightened, and stepped back atop his disk. It carried him away from her island, descending from sight.

Another disk zoomed into view, blocking the light of the sun that filtered through the spire's crystalline walls. She frowned, immediately regretting the lapse. Zakanna schooled her features into a slightly condescending smile, donning the mask with long-practiced ease.

The disk descended, and she was unsurprised to see Utfa step off. Of all her attendants, only he would dare risk elevating himself so high above her, or approaching without permission. Each day his temerity grew, but unfortunately his power grew with it. How long before it eclipsed her own? Had it already?

"Ah. Welcome, seeker," Zakanna said cheerfully. "I was just observing the training. It calms me, you see."

She knew that he thought her a simple child, focused on nothing but martial training and tea ceremonies. Zakanna did everything in her power to reinforce that view.

"I have brought news, Empress. Vital news." He gave only the most perfunctory of bows, little more than a nod, really. Nor did he ask her leave before plunging ahead with whatever he wanted to tell her. "My seekers are ever vigilant, and they seek more than the gaze of the Nameless Ones. We find many secrets, and this day we have uncovered one that will return your house to greatness."

"Tell me," she demanded, adding a bit of petulance. Not too much, just a hint. Utfa was canny enough to detect an overt subterfuge.

"We have discovered the location of the Coalition's war fleet. It is here that their ships are born, their weapons made. The world is ripe for the plucking, naked before your wrath. If you marshall your fleets, and include Takkar's, they will not be able to stop you."

"Interesting. I'd very much like to seize their technology. The idea that they can manufacture cores is intriguing, don't you think?"

Utfa's eyes narrowed. "It is heresy, and must be stamped out, Empress."

"I'm sure you're right. I'd like to invade, but Takkar's fleet is in shambles. He will be useless. I must have his ships repaired before we can begin. That process will take weeks."

"I have taken the liberty of speeding the repairs, Empress. They will be complete in two standard days," Utfa explained.

Decades of training served her well. She veiled her rage, knowing that Utfa must have moved Nyar ships in order to affect repairs on Takkar's. That was a power that she alone was supposed to wield, yet Utfa had convinced members of her clan to do as he wished, without so much as consulting her.

"Thank you, Utfa. You are so very thoughtful. I will begin making preparations to join my fleet."

"Empress, if I may. Your reign is...delicate. Leaving Imperalis now of all times is exceedingly dangerous. Takkar, despite his recent loss, is still our finest fleet leader. Give him another chance. Give him charge of your fleets, and allow him to lay this world at your feet."

Utfa clearly expected her to capitulate. Did she have a choice? The idea of remaining here while her fleets were absent--it invited assassination.

"I will give Takkar command, and I will entrust six of my dreadnoughts to his fleet. The seventh will remain here, as a symbol of my power."

"Are you certain that is wise, Empress? This Coalition has proven resourceful. Every ship will be needed."

Utfa didn't bother to hide his annoyance at her resistance, but in this she had no other choice. She must keep at least a token force here to defend herself. To do otherwise was madness.

"Thank you for your counsel, but in this I know my own mind. My dreadnought remains here, so the people may see it and know I watch over them." She added a hint of petulance, and a dash of self-entitlement.

"Very well, Empress. If you wish it, of course it shall be so."

"Was there anything else, Utfa?"

"A minor detail. Given that the Azi clan aided us in the finding of this knowledge, I thought it fitting that their fleet be in the vanguard." Utfa watched her with his milky eyes, sending shiver of fear through her.

"Very well." She waved magnanimously. "It is a minor favor. I grant it."

"Thank you, Empress." Utfa stepped atop his disk, zooming away without asking her permission.

She sighed. Games within games, all to stave off her enemies for another day.


22


Empress

Khar had learned the temple gardens well during his enforced stay. He'd endlessly paced each of the winding paths, and while he still appreciated the austere beauty of the flowers, his confinement had begun to wear on him.

A golden tray containing some sort of filleted meat floated up to him, and he sampled a slice. Unfortunately, he had no real sense of taste. His body could break down the proteins into usable repair materials, but the joy of feasting on fresh meat was gone.

The tray followed him as he paced, trying to understand what to do next. In theory, he was supposed to be rewarded for winning his battle, but he had no idea how or when. In the meantime all he could do was wait, and observe his surroundings.

It was something Khar had a great deal of experience with. He'd never forget languishing aboard the Primo carrier First Light, months rolling by while he and Dryker waited for the Primo to call their conclave. Surely this would be nothing compared to that. Still, he could not stop monitoring his chronometer.

A transport disk zoomed into view, then moved to hover near his feet. Khar looked around, but there was no crowd above. No cheering, or sounds of combat. So, it probably was not carrying him to a fight. Where then? "I suppose it doesn't really matter, does it?"

Khar stepped atop the disk, crouching to keep his balance as it zipped upward. He wound slowly past several islands, and used the opportunity to study them. Most had clusters of spires, miniature versions of the ones they floated inside.

Ganog adepts walked the gardens between them, moving with no apparent care or worry. They lived a completely monastic lifestyle, one that Khar couldn't really claim to understand.

He floated past a wider island, which contained a park filled with vibrant blue trees. The disk continued past another island where a dozen Ganog were sparring. It passed more temples, all more elaborate than the one he'd been waiting at.

Nowhere did he see a chair, or a bed. So far as he could tell, the Ganog didn't use furniture, or utensils. Possessions of any kind were rare. Storage devices were built artfully into walls, and were nearly invisible when closed. It was a much different culture, and one Khar admitted he was curious about.

The platform entered a largely empty area, then passed a cluster of more opulent islands. They were filled with fluted spires, pools, and gardens. The disk finally stopped above an island at the edge of the others. A woman stood on the very lip of the island, gazing down at the islands below. Her violet fur ruffled in the breeze, and her hands were clasped behind her back.

She didn't turn or react when the platform stopped a dozen meters behind her. Khar hopped down, making sure to grunt when he landed. If the sound alerted the woman, she didn't show it. Khar was unsure how to proceed, so he waited.

It gave him time to study the woman more closely. As expected, it was the elegantly furred Ganog from the arena matches. Her ivory-colored robes were immaculate, but her bare toes wriggled in the blue grass that covered much of the island. The artificial wind played across her fur, giving it an iridescent sheen.

He couldn't accurately judge Ganog age, but she seemed young. Newly come into the responsibilities of adulthood, and leadership.

"You sent for me?" Khar finally said. He was positive she knew he was here, so she must be waiting for him to do something.

The woman turned, eyeing him curiously. "You do not use the traditional forms. And your face is covered in my presence."

Khar realized he'd misstepped, but not how or why. There was so much he didn't understand. He removed his helmet, tucking it under his arm. His first four words had been damaging, and he assumed the next four would be worse. So he said nothing.

"What species are you?" she asked, approaching slowly. She moved like a dancer, flowing from step to step.

Khar sensed a lifetime of training, despite her apparent youth. "I am Tigris," he said, simply.

"Yes, I'd assumed so." She walked a slow circle around him.

"You know of my kind then?" Khar rumbled. His tail swished behind him, until he willed it to stillness.

"I've recently become acquainted with them, yes. The Vkash clan says you invaded our space, and that they've wiped out several of your fleets." She paused in front of him, taking his chin gently in one hand. She turned him one way, then the other, as if inspecting a beast of burden. "You are an interesting species. Powerful, clearly. And a predator, like my own species."

"You're not concerned to have an enemy in your midst?" Khar thought her demeanor odd. She seemed so...relaxed.

"I am confident in my ability to defend myself." She pursed her lips, circling him again. "You are larger than I'd been led to expect, but even after seeing you battle an elite I cannot see how your kind overcame Takkar."

"Good. I hope you continue to underestimate us," Khar shot back. Since he was here, he wanted answers. "There will be vengeance for your unprovoked assaults upon the Coalition, I can assure you of that. Mighty Fizgig will teach you to fear the Tigris."

"They were not my unprovoked attacks. I didn't attack your people, at least not yet. The Vkash did, and Takkar was well within his rights to launch just such an assault. If your species is strong, you will resist. If not, you will be conquered. Your people have a different way?" She stopped behind him.

Khar hesitated. He wanted to say yes, but the truth was both humanity and the Tigris were conquering species. They'd only ended their war because the Primo had threatened both sides.

"No, not so different I suppose. What will you do with me now that you know what I am?" Khar asked.

"Do? I don't understand."

"I'm an enemy. Surely you cannot allow me to walk free. You will seek the military secrets of my people, and I will die before giving them up." Khar folded his arms, staring hard at her.

"I have offered you bok'sha, and I will feast you for the customary nine days. After that time? You may depart if you wish. What do I care for one enemy warrior from a soon-to-be-conquered species? Surely you cannot believe you are of that much importance." She gave a musical laugh. "I asked you here so that I might grant you a heart gift, not interrogate you."

"What is this 'heart gift'?" Khar asked, dubiously. He forced himself to relax.

"Make the request that is in your heart, and I will do my utmost to see it fulfilled."

"I wish to be sent home to my people," Khar said, without hesitation.

"Granted. All I ask is that you adhere to our customs. Nine days, and I will warp you to the location of your choosing."


23


Sparring

Khar stepped from the transport disk onto one of the wider islands, at the bottom of what he took to be the empress's cluster. Two dozen Ganog adepts paired off, each launching a flurry of graceful kicks and punches. Every last adept was skilled, though some were clearly masters while others made basic mistakes.

Their art was different than the Tigris style. Tigris were taught overwhelming force and blinding speed--overcome your enemy through sheer ferocity. The way these Ganog fought was more about control. Control of your own body, and control of momentum. They redirected their opponents, using their own force against them.

One of the Ganog bowed to his opponent, then came trotting over to Khar. He was taller than Khar by a few inches, though less heavily muscled. He wore the same white robe as the rest of the initiates, but where they all had at least one yellow band around the right wrist his was empty.

"Ahh, I see you've been allowed to practice with us." The Ganog bowed, giving a welcoming smile. "We did not have time to speak before. I am called Meb."

"You were the Ganog that survived the fight with the elite." Khar returned the smile. "Rejoicing in shared survival is one of the ways of my people."

"It is so among the Ganog as well. Perhaps it is that way with all warriors, this rejoicing in survival." Meb's feet slid into a combat stance, and he raised a single hand over his shoulder, like a striking serpent. "As you are here, would you like to participate in the sparring? After seeing you fight I do not seek to win, but I've no doubt you could teach me."

"Maybe, but the style would be far different than what you're learning here." Khar glanced at some of the more proficient adepts. "Training in multiple styles can be confusing, even for veterans. Yet Mighty Fizgig always teaches that we must never stop learning."

Khar stepped forward, mimicking Meb's stance. He watched the Ganog's body carefully, waiting for the bout to begin. His enhanced sensors mapped every minute movement, from the flaring of Meb's lower nostrils to the faint perspiration.

Meb glided forward, launching a low kick. Khar hopped backwards, allowing Meb's foot to pass harmlessly by. He pounced, slamming his knee up toward Meb's groin. Both of Meb's arms shot down, his palms pressing against Khar's knee. He used Khar's momentum, flinging himself backwards into a showy flip.

Khar tracked his flight, waiting until the last instant to begin his kick. His foot shot up, catching Meb in the chest. The force of the blow sent Meb spinning backward, and the Ganog tumbled across the grass. He quickly regained control, rolling back to his feet.

"Your speed is truly impressive," Meb called weakly, rubbing at his chest. "What would you suggest I do differently?"

Khar cocked his head, considering. "Your style offers some advantages, but it feels very defensive. That can be a strength, but if you are going to fight defensively you can never allow a moment where you cannot predict what your opponent will do."

"Ahh." Meb smiled sheepishly. "So, moving away from you may have been correct, but taking my eye off you was foolish."

"Something like that. I am no master, though I stand close," Khar admitted, with more than a touch of pride. He was a skilled fighter, made infinitely more so by his technological marvel of a body. He'd not been recognized as a master, but if he were to return and test now, he knew he would be.

Khar felt eyes upon him, and glanced up. A shock of ice washed through him as he saw Zakanna once again staring down at him. She smiled mischievously, then disappeared from view.

"You intrigue her, I think," Meb called, circling Khar warily. "I can see why. You fight unlike any of our people. You have the brute strength of an elite, but the finesse of an adept."

Khar leapt, launching a pair of punches at Meb's chest. Meb blurred forward, seizing Khar's wrist. He twisted, flinging Khar across the grass. Khar rolled easily to his feet, scything a kick backward as Meb sought to capitalize. The blow flung Meb back into the grass again.

Khar stared at the metrics flowing past his HUD. "How are you able to move that quickly? It shouldn't be possible. Not for an un-enhanced person. Do you use cybernetics to enhance your speed?"

"No." Meb barked a laugh, giving an infectious smile. "What you see is our metabiology. Ganog can, if we study and practice, learn to control our bodies. Elites use this to grow in size and strength, harnessing far more than their bodies would normally be capable of. Adepts seek to master the whole of our bodies, to control everything from our heart beat to our metabolic rate."

"I've noticed that your fur doesn't seem to change color. At least, not as dramatically as the elites I've encountered," Khar pointed out.

Meb's fur darkened to a purple-pink, and he glanced away. "I still lack control. That shouldn't have happened. Our fur should never betray our emotions, unless we are undisciplined. Once I am a full adept, I will never show my feelings this way again."

Khar nodded as Meb began circling again. He was on the verge of asking another question, but hesitated. He wanted to know more about this metabiology--and while that was good, his reasons for doing so were not. He needed to collect data about the enemy, and return it to Fizgig.

He couldn't afford to make friends here, not when he'd likely be called upon to kill these people in the very near future. He didn't have the luxury of curiosity, nor could he afford the burden of friendship.

Khar met Meb's next attack, knocking the Ganog hard to the ground.


24


Sissus

"Today's shaping up like a bad day took a dump on a worse day, and the whole pile got left out in the sun," Annie groused. She spit a gob of black into the wet dirt, staring up at the roiling sky. "What kind of planet has a purple sky anyway?"

Nolan knew the rest of the squad was even more stressed, they just showed it differently. Nuchik muttered under her breath. Even Hannan wore the kind of frown he only saw when she dressed down raw recruits.

Their mechs were parked in a ravine, sheltered above by a rocky outcrop. Unless someone flew a low pass, it would be nearly impossible for them to be spotted from the air. Once the storm faded, he had no doubt that the Azi would begin hunting for them.

"We have a plan sir?" Hannan asked.

"I'm working on it." Nolan said, trying to sound confident. The dilemma was intense. They were without a ship, and the only place they might get one was the spire. Unfortunately, they lacked the firepower to take the spire. So what the hell were they going to do?

He surveyed their assets: three mechs and his personnel. He wished he'd gotten his own mech off the ship. Piloting Annie's wasn't the same, and left the squad down a lot of firepower.

"That's it!" Nolan leapt to his feet. "My mech has a quantum transponder."

"By now they could be across the galaxy," Lena pointed out sourly. "Even if they aren't, the transponder won't work if the cloak is engaged."

"But the communications will," Nolan realized aloud.

"How does that help?" Lena asked, whiskers twitching as she cocked her head.

"Aluki and Lena are still on the ship. Lena, at least, has been trained to seek cover inside of a mech in the event of trouble. Since there's only one mech on the ship, that means she might be inside mine. If we open a channel, she might respond."

"That just might work." Annie barked a short, harsh laugh. "One of these days you're going to be out of clever solutions, but I'm damnably glad that day ain't today."

Nolan pulled his comm from his pocket, thumbing the screen open. He tapped the comm icon, requesting a connection with his mech. For a long moment the connecting icon flashed across his screen, then Lena's furry face filled the screen.

"Captain," she whispered, bathed in the soft glow of the cockpit. "Sissus took the ship. The saurians haven't tried to open the mech yet. They don't have the codes, and they know it, so hopefully they won't try. What should I do if they try to get in?"

"Wake up the core and have Kay take over, but only if they try to get in. Otherwise, sit tight. Can you give me a situation report? Where are you and what's going on around you?"

"The ship has set down, a short distance from the original landing zone. The cruiser definitely took damage, I could feel the ship rattling as it landed," Lena explained. Talking seemed to calm her, and her ears perked up a bit. "Hold on. Yes, it looks like the ramp is going down. The saurians have moved outside, and are attempting to affect repairs."

"That means the cloaking is down." Nolan laughed. He tapped the locator on his comm, giving a whoop when the screen showed a green ping. "They're only about ten clicks away."

Nolan stared up at the sky, lightning still flashing occasionally in the distance. "They may have set down to wait it out, or to fix the engine. Either way, we need to hightail it out there before they have a chance to lift off. Sissus may not realize we can track him, and we could get the drop on him."

"If we leave now, we can cover ten clicks in a couple hours. That would put it after dark when we arrive," Nuchik said, to everyone's surprise. She seemed uncomfortable with the attention, and looked pointedly at the action on her rifle.

"Get saddled up. Annie, you can pilot your mech. I'll ride on the shoulder mount. Nuchik, you can do the same with Hannan's mech. Circle south, and see if we can keep that big hill between us and them until after dark." Nolan ordered.

"Move, people," Hannan boomed. The squad leapt into motion.

In moments they were ready to move out. Nolan scaled Annie's mech, carefully resting against the missile tubes along the shoulder. For once, he wasn't upset about the lack of ordnance. Sitting on top of loaded tubes seemed like a recipe for becoming fine red mist.

Annie's mech loped through the darkness, knocking Nolan about. He clung to the missile tubes, teeth chattering as the wind picked up. He was almost as annoyed about losing his helmet as he was his mech. Sissus was going to pay.

The squad moved in silence, using nothing but their running lights to illuminate the path. It wasn't comfortable, but Nolan didn't mind a little discomfort if it got him into position for a little payback. Their plan to deliver the payload had been perfect, but thanks to Sissus, T'kon could already be dead.

They circled the wide stone hill, a single piece of granite that had glowed in the light of the setting sun. Now it loomed in the darkness, shielding their progress from Sissus and his Saurians.

They reached the end of the rock, and Nolan spotted lights in the distance.

"Sir, I've got a confirmed sighting on the ship," Hannan whispered into the comm. Her mech had ranged about half a click ahead.

"Get into position with Nuchik, and give me footage as soon as you have it. Annie, go the opposite direction. Set up at a ninety-degree angle so we'll have a crossfire."

The squad executed his orders, their bulky shapes moving off into the darkness.

Nolan focused on the lights, which grew larger as they approached. The ship was parked on a rocky clearing, its ramp open. Half a dozen Saurians were clustered around a scaffold they'd erected beneath the engines, affecting repairs.

"I've got a visual on Sissus," Nuchik said over the comm.

"Hannan, what else do you see?" Nolan demanded.

"The Saurians look confused. I think they're having problems with the repairs. There are scorch marks around the engine, probably a blown thruster."

"Sir," Nuchik began, "if I'm going to take the shot--"

"Hold your fire, Nuchik. It's okay if--"

A streak of blue lit the night, streaking toward the parked cruiser. Nolan couldn't make out details at this range, but the shot caught a Saurian in the head. It was flung backwards twenty meters, and didn't rise. The shot sent its companions into a panic, and they began scrambling for weapons.

"What the hell was that, Nuchik?" Hannan demanded. "You just disobeyed a direct order."

"I had a shot, and I took--," Nuchik began.

"We'll deal with your insubordination later," Nolan cut in. "For now we have a fight to win. Annie, Hannan--close to short range. Warning shots only. We've got mechs, and they've got a wounded bird. We've already won this fight. There's no reason anyone else has to die."

"There was every reason for that bastard to die," Nuchik snarled over the comm. "That scaly traitor betrayed us, and I don't leave enemies behind."

"You know," Hannan said. "For someone who looked down on the 14th you've got a real discipline problem, Nuchik. If the old UFC was around, you'd have been right at home with us slackers."

"I. Said. Stow it!" Nolan roared. "I am in no mood for this crap. Secure that ship. Now."

Hannan's mech advanced into the lights around the ship, followed by Annie's. At the sight of the mechs, the Saurians immediately ceased all resistance. They laid down next to the ramp, and placed their hands behind their backs.

"All right people, get those Saurians disarmed and into the ship. Aluki, do you have access to the comm?" Nolan asked.

"Mmm, I'm here, Captain." Aluki's tone was contrite. "Apologies for the hasty departure, but I wasn't given much choice by the Saurians."

"I'm just glad you're safe. I'm going to need you and Annie to get that engine up and running. We need to get T'kon, and we need to do it before dawn."

Nolan's teeth continued to chatter, and he was grateful when Annie's mech finally ducked inside the hangar.

He only hoped they could still pull this off.


25


Knock, Knock

T'kon sank into a lotus position, tucking his legs underneath him. He held his back straight, his head erect. The motion had been performed hundreds of times, though never in front of so many onlookers. Every member of the Azi warrior caste was present, as were an alarming number of seekers.

After he'd come to a full resting position, other Ganog began to do the same. They settled to the chamber's smooth grey stone, dozens of the most influential Azi. T'kon knew them all, had fought and laughed with them. There was no laughter today.

The warriors wore grim, grey fur, marking the gravity of the ceremony. They knew one of their own was about to die. The black-robes' expressions were more dour, as if they disapproved, or were simply impatient to be about whatever their dark work might demand.

"T'kon of the Azi clan." Ro'kan's clear voice carried through the room. He stepped around to stand in front of T'kon, cutting an impressive figure in his full ceremonial armor. The azure armor hugged an impressively muscled physique, one even T'kon had to admit was worthy of a warrior. In his hands, Ro'kan cradled Azi's Fang, the weapon that T'kon had wielded for four years while he'd held the position of clan leader. "Today, we have come to accept your atonement. Today, your transgressions are wiped clean, your body prepared, your soul placed before the Nameless Ones."

T'kon's eyes snapped up to Ro'kan. Harsh whispers passed through the warriors, and their fur went dark. "What are you doing, Ro'kan? I do not seek the gaze of the Nameless Ones. You promised to perform the rites."

"And perform them I shall." Ro'kan took Azi's Fang in one hand, pointing the blade at T'kon. "I did not say which rites. Today, you shall be offered to the Nameless Ones. Your soul will be consumed, and when it is gone we will feast upon your flesh."

"No!" Jehanna shot to her feet. "This isn't right, Ro'kan. You gave your word, and now you are twisting it. T'kon was to be accorded honor."

"Your feelings for your former mate are understandable. I am sympathetic, my love. I take no joy in what I must do." Ro'kan looked genuinely conflicted. "Yet the seekers have spoken. His ways are heretical, and he has committed blasphemy. His offenses will draw the gaze of the Nameless Ones, and unless we offer him, that gaze will also fall on the Azi. I do what I must to protect our people."

Murmurs passed through the black robes, and streams of purple pulses flowed rapidly between their temples and their arcanotomes. They began rising to their feet, one by one.

Oako was the last, and stepped from their ranks. "You know what must be done, Ro'kan." He stared hard at the clan leader.

T'kon was understandably surprised when a voice spoke directly into his ear. It was Nolan. "T'kon, I'm hoping you're still receiving. We've got a lock on your position. Stand by for extraction."

No one else heard it, of course. They were still focused on the tension between black-robes and warriors, the few adepts moving to stand with their warrior brethren. That tension thickened, threatening to suffocate them all.

T'kon rose to his feet, drawing every eye in the room. He turned to Ro'kan, shaking his head sadly. "This is not the way, little brother. I know you seek to regain our strength, that you do what you must to protect our clan. I know that I have caused you to be in this predicament, and I wish more than anything that I could balance the weight of my actions. I cannot. Yet allying with the seekers is the worst form of madness."

"Heretic," Oako roared, stabbing a finger accusingly in T'kon's direction. "Silence him, Ro'kan. Give him to the Nameless Ones, before it is too late."

As if to punctuate his words, the spire rumbled, and a layer of dust rained from the vaulted ceiling. The stone exploded, huge chunks spraying into the room. The hole was massive, covering a hundred-meter span. Most of that hole stood over the black robes.

T'kon was already in motion, sprinting away from the falling stone. It plummeted to the ground with earthshaking impacts, smashing limbs or entire bodies. Many of the black robes stared up dumbly, doing nothing to avoid their own fates.

The warriors were affected, too, but most reacted more quickly. They leapt away from falling stone, or raised armored arms to protect themselves.

A wash of thrusters whined above, hot grit shooting through the room. Then a familiar cruiser backed through the hole, its cargo doors open. The ship descended quickly, its four turrets raking the crowd with plasma fire. Warriors fell back, beginning their breathing.

In the time it took them to transform, the ship wasn't idle. It dropped lower, and Saurians began leaping out. They carried rifles, opening up on the elites. The Ganog fell back, their ranks falling to chaos--chaos T'kon knew wouldn't last. They'd been surprised, but that surprise would be fleeting.

"Knock, knock, you furry bastards." Annie's drawl boomed from the back of the ship. Her mech came leaping out, vomiting a dozen missiles into the black-robes. Explosions lit the room; screaming Ganog were flung in random directions. Few rose, their blackened forms covering in superheated flame.

Two more mechs jumped out, each unleashing a volley of missiles. Where they landed, Azi died. Part of T'kon died with them, cringing with every explosion. He did not dare search the conflict to see where Jehanna was. He could not face the possible answer.

T'kon sprinted toward the cruiser, leaping up the ramp and into safety. Nuchik was crouched inside, smoothly picking off targets with her rifle. Nolan's mech idled next to her, his particle cannon firing shots into the mass of Ganog outside.

"Let's get the hell out of here, people." Nolan barked over the loudspeakers. Mechs began retreating back inside, still firing as the cruiser lifted into the air. The ramp rolled slowly closed, as the cruiser climbed safely back through the hole it had created.

T'kon was grateful that he could no longer see the combat. He wished he could tune out the screams of the dying.

Friend and foe alike, all were family.


26


Watch

Khar hopped off his transport disk, uncertain what to expect. He'd arrived at a temple on the highest island he'd yet been allowed on, all fluted white columns. Unlike most of the other islands, this one had real buildings. Many of the columns supported a heavy marble roof, though the walls stood open.

As with every other time he'd been picked up by a transport disk, no reason for the summon was given. Khar had no idea why he'd been called here, so he cautiously approached a gathering of Ganog near the center of the temple.

The empress stood at the center of that crowd, attendants ringing the dais she stood atop. They formed a small cloud on three sides, while the fourth was left open.

As Khar watched, an adept hopped from a nearby transport disk and walked briskly toward the empress. He approached up a marbled path, pausing to bow a few feet from the dais. The empress nodded regally, and the pair spoke.

Khar moved closer, but the conversation ended before he could catch anything. The Ganog bowed, then moved to join the group of attendants around the empress. Khar wasn't positive how he was supposed to approach, but suspected that was part of the test. The empress wanted to see how he reacted to unfamiliar situations. Putting him off balance might get him to reveal something vital about the Coalition.

Khar moved slowly up the path, walking with the same dignified pace the adept had used. He paused in the same spot, two meters from the dais. His bow wasn't as low as the adept's had been, and he noted the disapproving stares from most of the attendants--particularly the zealots in the black robes, though from what little he'd seen they eyed everything disapprovingly.

"You summoned me?" Khar asked. He didn't give the empress a title or honorific; judging from the stiffening frowns, that was a definite slight. He cringed inwardly. He hadn't meant offense, though in his defense he didn't owe this woman allegiance.

"I did," Zakanna replied, a musical lilt to her voice as if she were on the verge of song. "Tell me, Khar of Pride Leonis, why did your people ally with their sworn enemies?"

Khar was utterly unprepared for the question. His tail swished languidly as he gathered his thoughts. "I assume you are speaking of the humans, yes?"

"I am. I have been studying your history, and it seems that not long ago you and these humans were the bitterest of enemies." The empress walked to the edge of the dais with measured, graceful steps. She stared down at him, and as he had before Khar went rigid, allowing her to inspect him.

"My people do not like being used. Our government had been infiltrated by a race called the Gorthians, as had humanity. When it became clear that we were both being manipulated, we banded together to remove a greater threat." Khar knew he wasn't revealing anything she couldn't have obtained through a standard data core, yet he also knew the danger in cooperation. If he got into the habit of answering her questions, he might reveal something he hadn't intended. No doubt that was exactly what she was counting on.

"Oh, that part I understand. What I do not understand is why that alliance continued after you'd disposed of this Gorthian. Why form your Coalition of United races? Why not simply rebuild your own empire, then conquer humanity when you were ready? Your technology was stronger, your ferocity greater."

"Our people were few, our worlds barren. Its true that we could have rebuilt something like what we'd had before the Void Wraith darkened our skies, yet we did not. The war taught us something vital. Humans are resourceful and tenacious, and I call more than a few of them friend. With their aid, we can be far greater than we ever were standing alone. Besides, the Primo had already agreed to join the Coalition. We needed their technology."

"Ah, we've hit upon the true motive, I think." The empress looked Khar directly in the eye. "These Primo, whom my people have yet to encounter, they have the greatest technology. In joining this Coalition, your people received access to that technology."

Khar was silent, a growing surge of irritation eroding his patience. He was already tired of her questions. "Empress, allow me to be perfectly clear. I will not betray my people. I will tell you nothing of our technology, or our tactics." Khar clamped his jaw shut, glaring at the woman. He hated how much he enjoyed conversing with her, and saw the trap before him. If he became friends with her, his loyalties would be divided. He would not allow that.

"I have not asked you to divulge secrets, either technological, or tactical." The empress gave a soft laugh, and many of the attendants echoed it. None of the black robes were among those who laughed. "I do not seek to cause you to betray your people, but I can see that you quite naturally assume otherwise. Very well, enough of my questions. I assure you they were merely curiosity, but it was rude of me to pry. Allow me to make amends. I will allow you to stand among my attendants, watching as I dispense justice and heart gifts to those worthy. Nothing will be asked of you. You may watch me speak to my fleet leaders, and if you wish you may even attack me, though I would not recommend doing so."

"Why? This risk makes no sense. What if I escape?" Khar demanded, unexpected anger bubbling up. His emotions were more muted now that he had a synthetic body, but his brain and his nervous system were still very much Tigris.

"You raise an excellent point. Give me your word you will not attempt to run until the days of bok'sha are over. Do that, and you may observe everything during that time. If, at the end of it, you wish to return to your people with this knowledge, I will allow it. Is this a fair arrangement?"

Khar looked for the hidden hook. He knew it was there, but try as he might he couldn't see it. The kind of intel she was offering could not be passed up, and every last commander in the fleet would take it if given the chance. Would she kill him before the 9th day? Find some way to brainwash him?

Khar had no idea what her plan ultimately was, but he resolved to be ready when the blow fell.

"It is agreeable." Khar extended a hand.

The empress eyed it curiously, then her eyes widened in understanding. She shook his hand. "Then stay, Khar of Pride Leonis. Stay and learn." The empress trailed off, facing away from Khar.

He shifted to see what had caught her attention, noting a large transport disk. Half a dozen black-robed figures stepped off, surrounding a taller Ganog with milky eyes.

Khar moved to stand behind the other attendants, watching as the black-robes approached. Pulses of light flowed continuously from the cables attached to their temples, into the strange books they all seemed to carry. Computer of some sort, Khar guessed.

"Empress," the lead black-robe muttered. He inclined his head slightly. Many of the attendants whispered, as they had when Khar had shown the empress disrespect.

"Utfa, your presence is always welcome." Zakanna smiled warmly at the black-robe, though that smile didn't quite reach her eyes. "Have you come to advise me?"

"I have, Empress." Utfa finally bowed, though not very deeply. When he rose he fixed her with those milky eyes. "I have had a dream, Empress--one I do not think should be dismissed lightly. I dreamed that the Coalition was mobilizing for war, and that if we did not move swiftly our fleet would be wiped out."

Zakanna blinked, licking her lips before speaking. "Are you suggesting we deploy the fleet now?"

"I am, Empress. Send the dreadnoughts, immediately. Please, do it now or we will pay a furious price," Utfa said. He sounded desperate, and if it was an act it was a clever one. Khar's sensors could detect his vital signs, but he didn't have enough data to detect whether a Ganog was lying.

"Surely the assault can wait a few days. Repairs on the Vkash fleet are not yet complete," Zakanna protested. "We are far more likely to lose a battle if our ships are still damaged before it begins."

"Empress, I must insist--" Utfa began.

"You must do nothing," Zakanna snapped. Her eyes flashed, and fiery red rippled through her fur. Whispers passed through the crowd. "I have grown to depend on you, Utfa, and in a way it is my fault that you have overstepped your place. I have allowed too much latitude." Her eyes narrowed.

"Are you certain you wish to ignore my wisdom, Empress?" Utfa asked, his breathy voice just above a whisper. The threat hung in the air between them, and Khar caught a flash of fear in Zakanna's gaze.

She froze, seemingly unable to summon words. Finally, she spoke in a quiet voice. "I will begin the preparations."


27


Mobilization

Takkar flared his lower nostrils, drinking deeply of the recycled air as he stepped out onto his balcony. Standing here filled him with power, and confidence. From here he'd orchestrated the destruction of a dozen worlds, and the conquest of three dozen others.

Yet today it failed to inspire him. Partly that was because of the recent events, but mostly it was because of the view above. His fleet was assembling, moving slowly away from the cylindrical berths where techsmiths had swarmed them, working their will on damaged turrets and fractured armor.

He should be grateful that the empress had tended to his fleet at all, yet anger still smoldered in his chest. She'd restored all five of the main cannons, the gleaming barrels a brighter white than the rest of the ship around it. She'd restored many of the turrets, perhaps fifty percent per vessel.

The worst of the gashes had been closed, including the one the enemy fighters had used to enter his flagship. Yet the scars remained. Half the turrets were too damaged to fire. The hull was battered and pitted, with some sections weaker than others.

Almost, Takkar opened a channel to the empress. Almost he asked her why she did not wait another ten-day, or ideally why she did not wait three. Yet he did not. It could be construed as greed rather than prudence, and he knew he balanced on the tip of a spire. One sudden gust of wind and he'd be knocked into the abyss.

He knew that launching the attack prematurely was a mistake. This Fizgig was simply too canny a leader, and had already had several ten-days to prepare for his coming. He wasn't naive enough to assume they'd find this factory world undefended. She would be there, waiting.

His only hope lay in springing the trap, and somehow overcoming her. That was going to be damnably difficult with still-damaged ships.

"Clan Leader, I have been assigned to guide you." A raspy voice came from behind.

Takkar turned, his fur reddening as he faced the speaker. It was one of those cursed black-robes, a skinny male with sunken eyes.

"To guide me?" Takkar asked. He walked toward the seeker. "My techsmith hasn't arrived. I take it you are the cause of this?"

"That is correct, Fleet Leader. I took the liberty--"

Takkar stopped listening. He lunged at the black-robe, seizing him by the cable that connected his temple to the arcanotome. Takkar took three running steps, and heaved the black robe over the side of his island. The fool screeched his shock, arms windmilling and robes flapping as he fell. He made it all the way down to the fourteenth island, where Takkar's elites were dining. The black robe smashed to the ground near one of their tables, every bone shattered. After a moment the warriors began to laugh.

Takkar smiled, too, his fur lightening. He tapped a button on the backside of his gauntlet, waiting patiently for the long seconds it took a techsmith to arrive.

"You summoned me, Clan Leader?" the Saurian asked, stepping reluctantly from her disk.

"I did. You will attend me, as you usually do. If a black-robe seeks to take your place, have my warriors tear them apart. A few more deaths and I imagine they'll get the message."

"Of course, Clan Leader." The Saurian gave a low, correct bow. "Clan Leader, a message request was received three minutes ago, and has not been addressed."

"Who is it?" Takkar demanded. He wasn't terribly popular since his defeat, and requests for audiences were vanishingly rare.

"Ro'kan, of the Azi clan." She finally straightened. "Shall I open a connection?"

"Do it." Takkar turned to face the holo unit built into the pedestal near the center of his island. It saw little use as he preferred face-to-face meetings, but warping a man he'd never met onto his island without first asking permission would likely earn him an enemy. He had too many of those as it was, and Ro'kan had cause enough to hate him. No need to fuel that.

The holo unit hummed to life, displaying a life-like representation of Ro'kan's island. Unlike Takkar, Ro'kan was surrounded by a cloud of attendants. It was one of the most obvious signs of inexperience. That many voices caused confusion when a Fleet Leader most needed clarity.

"What do you wish of me, Ro'kan?" Takkar asked. His eyes narrowed when he spotted several black-robes standing behind the Azi clan leader. He counted quickly, realizing they outnumbered the warriors. Takkar's fur blackened.

"The empress has commanded that I am to fight in the vanguard when we assault the Coalition. I wanted to ensure that you were aware of this directive." There was a note of hesitation in Ro'kan's voice.

Yes, definitely new, this one. T'kon would never have made such a mistake.

"The empress has asked that I consider placing you in the vanguard," Takkar allowed. He exposed his teeth, glaring at Ro'kan. "I only allow true warriors into my vanguard."

"Are you questioning my honor, Takkar?" Ro'kan snarled, though not all the fear had left his eyes.

"I count seven black-robes behind you. You court the seekers like a child seeking his mother's breast. No true warrior would allow them to pollute his command island, certainly not during a battle." Takkar took a step closer to the holo unit, leaning toward the image of Ro'kan. "Have them removed from my sight. If you wish to curry to them, that is your own path to ruin. But if you wish to join me in battle, to fight at the head of this mighty fleet, then I had best not see a seeker on your command island again."

Ro'kan looked deeply troubled, and one of the black-robes stepped from the back ranks to whisper in his ear. He nodded, then turned back to Takkar. "Of course, Fleet Leader. You will not see them again."

Takkar severed the connection, frowning. The seekers were growing alarmingly in strength, and their influence over both the Azi and the Yog was deeply troubling.


28


Preparation

Fizgig used a paw to push the icon representing the Tigris orbital defense platform. The nudge moved it next to the top of the space elevator, where the factory itself loomed like a giant mushroom. That factory could produce hundreds of Void Wraith an hour, day after day, year after year. Provided one were willing to feed it both raw materials and a steady supply of sentient beings, of course.

The continent below glowed with a spiderweb of lights, the trams leading to mining operations crisscrossing the continent. There were thousands of deresium deposits, meaning they could make a near endless supply of troops and ships.

"Admiral, the 4th Fleet just arrived," Juliard called from her console. Fizgig nodded absently, filing the fact away. The 4th was the last of the fleets to be outfitted, and its arrival was bittersweet. It strengthened their numbers, but it also meant that no further reinforcements would be arriving. Not before the Ganog did, anyway.

"Have we had any word from Nolan?" Fizgig demanded. She kept her attention on the hologram, dragging a series of dreadnoughts from the palette of enemy ships. How many would they bring? A dozen? More?

"Uhh, I haven't checked in the last hour, sir. It's been hectic dealing with the fleet captains." Neither the slip nor the apology were typical for her. They underscored the intensity of the stress everyone had been under for the last several weeks.

"I will tend to it," Fizgig said. She fished her comm from her belt, scanning her messages. Fizgig tapped the message from Nolan, purring softly as she scanned the contents, then keyed in her priority channel and requested the president's office.

"This is Secretary Watts. How may I help you?" asked a dark-skinned human.

"Where is Dryker, human?" Fizgig demanded, leaning closer to the holo.

"Uh, I'll tell him you'd like to speak to him, Admiral." The human quickly vanished, and Fizgig heard retreating footsteps. A few moments later Dryker ambled into view. He wore a dark, tailored suit, with one of the slender neck ropes the humans seemed to enjoy.

"Hello, Fizgig. It's been a hell of a day." Dryker said. He withdrew a flask from jacket, taking a pull. "Has the payload been delivered?"

"Indeed. The payload has been delivered. There was more news." Fizgig licked her wrist, grooming behind her ear.

"You're going to make me ask for it, aren't you?" Dryker asked, replacing the flask in his breast pocket.

"Yes."

"Okay, what's this extra news, Fizgig?" Dryker asked, rolling his eyes.

"Khar is alive, and on the enemy's capital world." Fizgig didn't suppress the purring.

Dryker's bearded face split in a broad grin. "Is Nolan close enough to extract him?"

"The report doesn't say, but you know Nolan as well as I. He will not leave Khar behind, if there is any way to retrieve him."

"Wonderful. Keep me posted." Smiling Dryker vanished, replaced by The President. "I'm told the 4th arrived. That means you have all the forces you're going to get. I won't ask you to share it, but tell me you have a plan to beat these bastards."

"I do indeed, Dryker," Fizgig allowed. "I have had ample time to study them, and we are not starved for ammunition as we were in the last battle. When Takkar comes for me, I will be ready. We may not destroy them all, but they will leave here bloodied. What of your...political problems?"

"It's very simple, Fizgig. If you beat the Ganog, and we reveal the ruse, the waters will calm. If we mess up, they'll use this to hang me. You'll end up having to deal with a far less cooperative president." Dryker gave the tale matter of factly, giving an uncharacteristic shrug at the end. "So don't mess this up, and everything is fine. No pressure or anything."

"Yes, 'no pressure.'" Fizgig's tail thrashed behind her. "I will do all I can, Dryker. Just keep the jackals from your throat until I deliver you a victory."


29


Imperalis

"Mmm, Captain." Aluki's voice echoed through the cargo bay. "We've broken atmosphere and are making for the capital. They haven't challenged us, and it looks like we should be able to land safely."

Nolan looked up from the rivet he'd been tightening on the booster mech's right foot. "Acknowledged. Let me know when we're on the ground."

He squeezed the drill one more time, satisfied that the bolt was as tight as he could get it. The booster mech had taken a beating, and he was working on the left leg, while Annie focused on the right.

"You got that thing tighter than Bock's fist around a credit. Come on, we've done a good job. Admire our handiwork, Nolan." Annie gestured proudly at the mech, and Nolan had to admit to a little pride. The leg boosters had been repaired, a bank of bent missile pods was now straight, and they'd replaced the armor on the right shoulder.

T'kon and Hannan ducked through the hatch, both in full environmental armor, both armed with every weapon they owned.

"They're really going to let us walk around dressed like that?" Nolan asked, blinking.

T'kon laughed. "Captain, you still believe our culture resembles yours in some way. Here, might is all that matters. If you express a viewpoint someone disagrees with, they may decide to kill you. If you wish to avoid that fate, you kill them."

"It sounds like chaos." Lena said, scrunching her feline nose in distaste.

"It sounds like my kind of city," Hannan shot back. "I can't wait to see this place. Finally, a city where we don't get busted back to private for putting morons in their place."

"Figures that you'd fit in here," Nuchik said, eyeing Hannan balefully as she strode into the cargo bay.

"Says the girl who violated orders to pop a lizard like a grape. I think you'll fit in fine here too," Hannan taunted.

The exchange lacked the usual heat, though. It felt more like a ritual they were both obligated to perform. Nolan hoped so, anyway. He needed that pair working together.

"So here's the deal," Nolan explained. Everyone focused on him. "This is T'kon's show. He's got a few friends here, and we're just backup. We're going to help him find whatever info he can about Khar. T'kon calls the shots. If he tells you to do something strange, do it. We clear?"

There was a chorus of nods. Nolan clapped T'kon on the shoulder. "All yours."

"Thank you, Captain." T'kon turned to face them. His posture straightened, and his fur settled into a neutral grey. "Finding your companion will be easy enough. The games we observed back on Azi were from the royal spire. Somehow, your friend battled in the royal games. These games are designed to kill, and kill quickly. Yet if your friend somehow lives, those who tend the games will know. I have friends there, and am hoping one will tell us what we need to know."

"Assuming he is there, how do we extract him?" Nolan asked. "I'm guessing the Royal Spire is heavily fortified, right?"

"A direct frontal assault would normally be impossible--however, I was in a battle recently where a ship punched through the defenses of a full spire, disgorged angry death, and carried me to safety." T'kon's fur took on a faint, purplish tint. He gave a wide grin.

Nuchik started to laugh. The sound was a little terrifying at first, simply because Nolan had never heard it before. "You want to punch a hole in their palace, so we can take Khar right out of the middle of a televised sporting event? Captain, I know we don't see eye to eye on many things, but I have to say...I have never been so happy I requested an assignment."

"If you're happy about the prospect of kicking a hole in a hornet's nest, then pissing inside, well you're probably in the right outfit, sister." Annie elbowed Nuchik in the side, and Nuchik smiled. Annie turned to Nolan. "This plan sounds stupid enough that they might not expect it."

"Maybe. T'kon, if we pulled this off, wouldn't they mobilize an aerial response? We need to reach high orbit for the cruiser to warp, and there are a dozen dreadnoughts up there."

"You are correct." T'kon nodded. "If we were to attempt an extraction right now, we'd be unlikely to escape. However, if we wait a few days, it's very likely the fleet will be departing to make war on your people. When that happens, that would be the time to strike."


30


The Time is Now

Utfa's footsteps echoed through the cavernous spire, up into the darkness near the tip. At first glance the place appeared deserted, piles of rubble and refuse dotting a room that had not seen light in years. Empty spires had become increasingly common in the last few decades, making this place unremarkable, save for its proximity to the Royal Spire.

"They are waiting, Emissary," hissed a quiet voice from the shadows.

Utfa couldn't see the speaker, but he knew the Ganog's voice. They'd served as warriors in the Kthul clan, an eternity ago. Before either one of them had sought the gaze of the Nameless Ones.

"You have done well, brother," Utfa murmured, following the robed figure through a gap between two piles of rubble. They led to a hastily erected mound, a miniature version of the ones that sheltered planetstriders. Stone, metal, and garbage had been drawn together to create a simple refuge.

Utfa ducked inside, removing his hood as he stepped into the smoky dimness. A fire flickered in the center of the little room, a thin streamer of smoke disappearing through the gaps in the rough ceiling.

Six warriors knelt in a half-circle--three female and three male. They were the best of the latest crop, the strongest warriors who had yet to throw off the shackles of their caste. Any one of them would have been a formidable opponent, but together they were a force of nature. And they'd yet to take the arcanotome. There was no way to identify them as seekers.

"Welcome, brothers and sisters," Utfa began, moving to stand before the assembled warriors. Not a one looked up, a product of the earliest phase of their training. "You have been called here today to fulfill a mighty purpose. You will usher in the next world, the world of our masters, those whose names must not be spoken."

"In their gaze shall we be reborn," the six chanted as one.

Utfa gave a long, slow smile. They were prepared.

"Here is what you will do. You will approach the Royal Spire as supplicants. You will await the call to attend the empress. When you are summoned into her presence, you will slay her."

"Elder," one of the women protested, raising her head. Not high enough to look him in the eye, of course. "Will she not recognize us?"

"You will remove the robes you have been granted, and you will don the armor you wore when you were members of the warrior caste," Utfa instructed. He had, after all, considered this very problem. "When you have finished in this task you will be formally inducted into the seekers, and you will receive your tattoos. If you die in the attempt, you will be elevated by the Nameless Ones."

"Thank you master," the woman murmured, bowing her head.

"Go now. Remember that this death is necessary to the plans of our unknowable masters. If the empress draws breath when the sun sets, their terrible gaze will fall upon you, wherever you seek to hide." Utfa growled, making the words the direst of threats. Several of the warriors had their fur pale to ashen grey.

Utfa raised his arms, and the warriors stood as one. They filed from the room, drawing a second smile from Utfa. The volley had been loosed. It was the first herald of the great change that would soon overtake Imperalis and the whole of the Ganog Imperium.

Now, he needed to learn about these guardians.


31


Decision

Khar stood rigidly behind the empress, every inch a Tigris honor guard. He was out of place among the rest of her attendants, who stood in relaxed clusters, chatting amiably as they waited for the next audience.

This had been going on for several hours, as group after group of supplicants met with Zakanna. She'd been true to her word, allowing Khar to observe as she met with fleet leaders, clan leaders, and clusters of black-robed Ganog. Khar understood that they were part of a religious caste, though he had no idea where they fit in the hierarchy. Given the mixed reactions from the other attendants, it seemed they didn't either.

Almost, Khar believed that she'd keep her word and let him go at the end of the nine days. Almost. He knew it was unlikely, and was still resolved to escape before then. He knew where the warp portal was now, and knew how to get enough credits to use it, in theory at least. All that remained was finding the time and place to best slip away.

"Approach," Zakanna called in a high, clear voice. A cluster of six warriors had just arrived on the edge of the island, their fur a uniform brown-grey. Their armor was a variety of colors, and while Khar couldn't yet place the individual colors he knew enough to guess that they each belonged to a different clan.

That caught his attention. It was rare for the clans to work together, from the little he'd seen. They were in an endless game of one-upmanship, trying to outdo each other in their endless quest for glory and tribute. It wasn't unlike the Tigris, if he were being honest. If anything, the Ganog more closely resembled his race than humanity, or the Primo.

Khar watched as the warriors approached, the leader a female with a wicked scar across one cheek. She rested her hand on the hilt of a long knife, and the other warriors did the same. Khar tensed, studying their body language closely. They were guarded, ready for a fight.

He looked to Zakanna, and to her closest attendants. None seemed overly concerned, and the empress delivered a warm smile as the warriors approached. "Welcome. This is an unexpected gathering of clans. The Nyar and Kthul do not normally cooperate, and I am pleased to see you standing together. What request have you brought before us today?"

"Death," the woman said, simply. All six warriors moved as one, fanning out around the empress. Two of the attendants, both robed adepts, were in the way. The first was stabbed in the back repeatedly by a warrior, her body toppling to the warm grass. Blood already covered her back, and a thin stream ran into the grass.

The other attendant was quick, dropping into a defensive stance. He batted away the dagger that came for his throat, delivering a vicious counterattack with a punch to the gut. The warrior's armor absorbed the blow, and he responded with a head butt. The adept's nose shattered, and before he could dance away another warrior rammed a long knife into his side. The adept dropped, but the warrior continued to stab until the warrior stopped moving.

Most of the rest of the attendants fled. Not a single one moved to support the empress, leaving her alone in the midst of half a dozen assassins. She stood there, regal, beautiful, and deadly. The first warrior glided forward, staggering back as a kick flashed into his face.

Khar hesitated. Many of the attendants were still boarding disks, and now would be the perfect opportunity for him to do the same. He could likely escape the palace, while the guards swarmed this island trying to find the Zakanna's killers. He was certain there would never be a better opportunity.

Yet Khar struggled. The empress had shown him nothing but kindness, had demanded nothing of him. Her death would throw the Imperium into chaos, but Khar already thought he knew who'd most profit from that chaos. Utfa would seize control, and Khar had the strong feeling that Utfa would be far worse for the future of the Coalition than the empress.

Khar made his decision. He glided forward, igniting his plasma dagger. One of the warriors broke off to face him, and Khar triggered his evaluation subroutine. He'd been studying the way each warrior moved, and knew their precise speed. The warrior lashed out with his long knife, and Khar allowed it to pass within millimeters of his throat.

He lunged, ramming his cracking plasma blade through the warrior's eye. The scent of burnt flesh and hair filled the island as the warrior collapsed, giving Khar a moment to assess. Four warriors had surrounded the empress, while the fifth hovered in the background clutching a broken arm

Khar charged the pair of warriors behind the empress, forcing them to turn to deal with him. Both moved with skill and grace earned through years of combat, and even with his enhanced body Khar knew that beating them would not be easy.

He lunged at the first, his plasma blade finding nothing but empty air as the warrior leapt backwards. Khar shifted his attack to the other Ganog, reversing his momentum and launching a roundhouse kick. The kick caught the Ganog's hand, knocking the long knife spinning away. It landed in the grass half a dozen steps away, and the Ganog made the mistake of looking at the weapon.

Khar pounced, ramming his plasma-blade into the Ganog's chest. Such a blow would have killed a human, but the Ganog merely stumbled back clutching its chest. Khar followed up, ramming the blade into the throat. This time the Ganog collapsed.

The move was costly, and allowed the other warrior to get behind Khar. Red warning lights bloomed through his lower back as a long knife punched through and emerged from the chest, coated with the sticky red fluid that lubricated Khar's artificial body.

Khar brought his elbow back, crushing the Ganog's cheek with a sickening crunch. The warrior stumbled back, and Khar brought his plasma-blade around in a wicked slash. It caught the Ganog's arm just below the elbow, severing the arm and sending both weapon and arm tumbling to the grass.

"Khar!" Zakanna yelled. He spun to find her beset by the three remaining opponents. Two had a grip on her arms, pinning her in place while the last readied a strike with his long knife. If the blow connected, she'd be decapitated.

"No!" Khar roared, sprinting forward. His power reserves were down to 24 percent, but it would have to do. He leapt into the air, tackling the Ganog around the waist. They tumbled through the grass, wrestling for control. The Ganog was strong, far stronger than a human or Tigris of comparable size.

Khar was flung onto his back, and the Ganog straddled him. It pinned both his arms, then bit down into Khar's throat. It tore out synthetic flesh, leaving Khar's throat a ruined mess.

Then the Ganog made a mistake. It assumed Khar was dying, and rose from his chest, releasing him.

Khar rammed his plasma blade into the creatures crotch, then leapt to his feet. He seized the Ganog by the throat, pitching him off the side of the island. Khar spun to face the empress, who'd gotten free from the last two opponents. She was fighting defensively, one hand covered a red stain over her right side.

"I. Am. Tigris!" Khar roared, sprinting at the next opponent. His reservers dropped sharply as his body affected repairs, sending the gauge down to 9 percent. He didn't care. Khar rammed his blade into the warrior's spine, dropping him to the grass. He pivoted to face the last warrior, who shifted to match him.

The Ganog charged, but Khar was already moving. He leapt into the air, over the Ganog. As the Ganog sprinted by underneath, Khar's plasma blade darted out, sinking though the Ganog's skull. The warrior ran several more feet, then fell dead to the grass.

Khar landed heavily, his HUD a mass of conflicting warnings. He was low on power, heavily damaged, and unable to recharge without assistance.

"Are you all right?" the empress murmured, helping him back to his feet.

"I will live. Are assassination attempts a common part of your day?" Khar asked, sinking to one knee. Down to 7 percent. He shut down everything but critical repairs.

"No. Assassination is rarely used among the Ganog. This reeks of the seekers, of Utfa and his dark masters. If he's making his move, especially just after Takkar left with the bulk of my fleet, it can only mean one thing." The empress released Khar, groaning as more red welled across her robes. "I can use my metabiology to deal with this wound, but it will take time--time we may not have. I'm going to warn my people, then we will flee to my dreadnought."

The words were far away. Khar was briefly conscious of falling toward the grass, and then descended into darkness as he dropped into power conservation mode.


32


Rumors

T'kon was thankful for his environmental armor. His face was known on Imperalis, especially near the Royal Spire. All it would take was one warrior to recognize him, and he'd have far more attention than he'd enjoy.

He ducked into the arena, a small, ramshackle affair. It had a simple cage in the center, and seating for about fifty drunken patrons. The arena was utterly unremarkable, save for one thing. T'kon had been told that he could locate Bik here.

He'd never met Bik, but T'kon knew the type, and knew it well. After his fall from grace he'd needed to fight in arenas to survive, and every arena attracted scavengers like Bik. They sought warriors to prey on, earning their bread from the sweat and blood of their charges.

A drunken warrior from the Vkash clan bumped into T'kon, his fur darkening as he rounded. Another day T'kon would have bowed and apologized, despite the warrior being at fault. Today, time did not allow for such niceties. T'kon's hand balled into a fist, and he rocketed three rapid punches into the warrior's ample gut. The warrior staggered back, fighting for breath with all four nostrils. T'kon smashed his nose, and the warrior fell unconscious to the floor.

"I can see you're a true warrior," came an oily voice from behind. T'kon turned slowly to size up the speaker, a Ganog with ragged fur and no clan markings. Just the sort of masterless warrior T'kon had become, except one that appeared to have given up fighting. His body had become flabby, his muscles flaccid. "The way you dealt with that fool? Your talents could earn you a lot of credits in the arena."

"What's your name?" T'kon asked, already suspecting the answer.

"I am called Bik," the Ganog said, giving a quick nod. "I can get you a spot in the arena if you--"

T'kon's hand shot out, wrapping around Bik's throat. T'kon squeezed, not hard enough to kill, but enough to stem the flow of words. "Hello, Bik. I've been looking for you all day."

"Why?" Bik choked out. His eyes had gone large, and his fur was a watery, cowardly yellow.

"I'm looking for a friend, and I heard that you may have encountered him. An alien came through here, an alien with a tail, fangs, and short tan fur. His name is Khar, and I've been told that you sold him to the Royal Spire," T'kon explained, his grip tightening slowly. He pulled Bik closer to his face. "I'm going to set you down, and you're going to tell me about it. If you try to run, not only will I kill you, but I will eat your heart, worm. I will leave your body in the street as carrion." T'kon reluctantly set Bik down, waiting for a response.

"You don't need to choke me, and you certainly don't need the threats," Bik protested, rubbing at his throat. "I did work with Khar, first in the arena here, and then with the games. I didn't know him before, and we haven't been in contact since. I don't know how I can help you."

T'kon fumed, considering. He wasn't sure how Bik would be able to help, beyond confirming that he'd sold Khar to the spire. But T'kon was out of leads, and had no idea what to do next.

"Umm," Bik muttered, pointing at one of the banks of holoscreens along the walls. "Is he the one you're looking for?"

T'kon turned to the screen, and the instant his back was turned he heard Bik break into a run. T'kon considered pursuing, but there wasn't anything else he could learn in the short term. Besides, the screen Bik had pointed to was of great interest.

The empress stood regally in the center of the frame, a delicate hand wrapped around her side. The white cloth was stained a deep purplish-red, but she stood proudly. Behind her stood a single figure. A familiar figure. T'kon hadn't met Khar, but he'd seen enough holos to recognize the Tigris. Somehow, Khar had been taken into the service of the empress, and now stood protectively behind her.

T'kon watched numbly, wondering. Had the Tigris defected? Or was something larger at play here? He stilled his thoughts, listening to the empress's words.

"Earlier today I was assaulted by a group of six assassins. These assassins were warrior castes, from four different clans. I do not hold the clans responsible for their actions, yet such a thing has not happened in decades. This attack is troubling, and I will not stand idly by while waiting for another." The empress's clear voice competed with the noise of the arena, but T'kon tuned out the rest of it, focused on the beautiful monarch. "Thanks to Khar, the warrior behind me, I still draw breath. Had he not defended me, I would be dead--and even with his help it was a near thing. I strongly suspect who is behind this attack, but will not speak without proof. To that individual, I will say this: I am coming for you. Ready yourself."

The feed went dead, then shifted to a replay of an arena fight. T'kon cocked his head, considering. There was only one reason to make such a public pronouncement. She hoped to spur her enemies into another rash action, to force them to react, rather than proceed with whatever their plan was. The question, though, was who had the power to launch such an attempt on the empress's life? And why?

T'kon turned on his heel, heading for the door. He needed to get this news back to Nolan. They were swimming in deep currents, and he suspected they were about to find out just how deep those currents ran.


33


Ready for War

Takkar's organs ached, twisted apart and put back together by the energies of the warp. He knew from experience that the discomfort would soon fade, and he ignored it as he sized up the system they'd arrived in.

They'd appeared at the nadir of a blue-green world this Coalition called Atreas. It was closer to the star than many habitable worlds, and that, combined with vast oceans, made it both hot and unnecessarily humid. Cities crisscrossed the face of the world, as tattoos covered the faces of the thrice-damned seekers.

A single spire rose from the surface of the world, extending thousands of miles, past the atmosphere and into high orbit. That spire, a space elevator, the humans called it, connected to a fungus-shaped station. If their intelligence was accurate, it was here that many of their vessels and soldiers were produced.

Material from the planet flowed up the space elevator, enabling an endless production line. That production line, in all likelihood, was active right now, making more enemies. He couldn't see inside the station to verify that fact, but the truth would be evident soon enough.

"Readiness?" Takkar snapped, not looking at the techsmith.

"All vessels have reported, Clan Leader. We are ready for war, on your order." Her answer was clipped and efficient. Still laboring under fear, but not so much that she was useless. Excellent. She was the best techsmith he'd had in several full planetary cycles.

"What of the planetstriders?" Takkar demanded. This war would be fought in two parts, in the sky and on the surface of this world. Takkar must win on both fronts.

"They have arrived, on the southern edge of the target area," the Saurian confirmed. "A single planetstrider opposes them, and a number of small mechanized infantry. They match the specifications of those we encountered on Ganog 7."

"Interesting," Takkar murmured. He'd expected the planetstrider--they'd stolen it from him, after all. It made sense they'd used it against him. Yet they only had light mechanized infantry to back it up. It sounded like suicide. His planetstriders would make short work of theirs, and the mechs couldn't inflict enough damage to really matter. "What of the enemy fleet?"

There were a few visible ships around the station, but they looked like cargo vessels. There was not a single warship, not even a random patrol. Takkar's eyes narrowed. Was this a trap, as he'd feared?

"We're picking up a mass of cloaked vessels surrounding the station." His techsmith closed her eyes, purple pulses feeding into her from the arcanotome. "We cannot get accurate specifications due to the cloaking, but their configuration does not match that of any other vessels we've encountered."

"So our intelligence was correct. This system is clearly manufacturing a fleet of new vessels. Trap or no, we must advance. Order all vessels forward. Keep fighters docked until I give the word."

Takkar's fleet moved slowly forward, a dozen dreadnoughts surrounded by three times as many support ships. They closed with the station, moving deeper into the system. The ship rumbled briefly as it synced with the planet's gravity well.

"Fire a volley at the station, let's see how they react," Takkar ordered. He folded his arms, watching as every dreadnought primed its main cannon. A flurry of fiery blasts left their ship, streaking toward the station.

Sleek blue ships materialized, one after another. A dozen in total. Each ship intercepted one of the blasts, sacrificing itself to the attack. Takkar estimated the vessels as medium-sized cruisers, each with curved wings curling outward in front of the main body. They looked nothing like any of the vessels he'd already fought.

The new ships exploded spectacularly, not a single vessel surviving the volley from the dreadnought cannons. The sacrifice was troubling. It was unlike previous encounters, when the Coalition had done everything possible to keep their ships from destruction. There was a trap here, but Takkar couldn't yet see it.

"Clan Leader," the Saurian gasped, pointing up at the dreadnought's transparent upper hull.

Takkar stared up at the materializing ships, these of a much more familiar variety. There were far more than he'd faced in previous battles, perhaps seventy or eighty in all. Most were smaller destroyers and corvettes, but there were a healthy number of cruisers, and nearly a dozen capital ships.

The cloud of enemy vessels opened up on a dreadnought on his right flank, firing a mixed barrage of missiles, particle cannons, and bright, glowing stars. Those last were fired from the new weapon they'd deployed back at Ganog 7. It was that last weapon that made the difference, caving the dreadnoughts shield under the weight of artificial singularities.

He would enjoy that technology, once he'd wrested it from them.

Once the dreadnought's shields were down, the enemy fleets intensified their fire, and explosions bloomed all over its surface. Freshly repaired turrets detonated, deepening the scars in the hull.

"How long until the main cannon is primed?" Takkar growled, more than a little angry with himself. He should have staggered the volley, so that a few of his dreadnoughts could have fired at other targets. Using all the main cannons at once had been an error, and the enemy commander was punishing him for it.

The Saurian closed her eyes, pulses flowing furiously. "Forty microns, Fleet Leader."

"Deploy all fighters," he roared, clenching a fist and wishing he had something to smash. "Now. Do it now!"

A few moments later, fighters belched from nearly every dreadnought, hundreds winging their way toward the enemy fleet. The enemy continued to deliver a savage beating, focusing their fire on the dreadnought. Structural fires could be seen throughout the ship, and something bright exploded along the stern. The engines sputtered, then died. The dreadnought began to fall slowly into the planet's gravity well, drifting toward its inevitable death.

"Order all vessels to counterattack the moment they can fire." Takkar stalked back and forth, watching powerlessly as his fighters crept toward the enemy. He struggled to be patient, knowing that this was merely the battle's opening gambit. Fizgig had struck a blow, but he would strike back--and soon.

His dreadnoughts pivoted from the station to face the enemy, main cannons warming up to fire.


34


Feint

"Admiral, the enemy is warming up their guns," Juliard called from her terminal. Fizgig nodded, rising anxiously to her feet as she studied the enemy's tactical disposition.

"Order all vessels to cloak and disperse." She watched as, a moment later, her forces did exactly that.

Every ship moved to at least a hundred kilometers from its neighbors, all engaging the improved cloaking drives they'd been refitted with. One by one they winked out, the last disappearing even as the dreadnoughts began their barrage.

Scarlet beams sliced into the void, carving a path of destruction that found nothing to destroy. The beams passed harmlessly around them, the closest still forty kilometers away.

Fizgig gave faint, rumbling purr. "Any damage reports?" she asked, moving back to her chair. She sank gratefully into the mound of cushions, rubbing absently at her leg.

"Negative, sir." Juliard's tone was triumphant. "They didn't land a single shot."

"And the status on that dreadnought?" Fizgig gestured at the holo, which zoomed in on the wounded vessel.

"It's falling into the planet's gravity well, and Kay thinks it would take too long to repair her engines. There's no saving her, unless the other ships can somehow tow her out."

Fizgig was pleased. One of their massive warships was already out of the battle, though that still left eleven capital ships--not to mention the horde of smaller ones. She zoomed back out, studying the enemy's position. The battle would grow more difficult now that she'd sprung her initial trap.

How would this enemy commander react? Her previous encounters hadn't taught her enough, but her gut told her this Ganog was an impatient sort. He was used to quick victories, and she hoped that drawing him into a prolonged conflict would cause him to make mistakes.

"Sir, the enemy has turned their attention back to the station," Juliard announced. Her fingers flew across the keyboard. "Orders, sir?"

"Have the Void Wraith engage. Target their smaller vessels. Frigates, corvettes, and cruisers." Fizgig adjusted her posture, struggling to find a comfortable spot atop the mound of cushions. Her claws itched, and she wished she had access to her post.

Metallic blue vessels began decloaking, dozens in rapid succession. The sleek Void Wraith ships appeared in a rough wall between the Ganog and the station, but they quickly broke into smaller groups and began converging on enemy targets. They maneuvered closer, like wasps diving in to fight a larger spider.

Seeing the fleet of Void Wraith harvesters still tugged a shred of dread loose. She'd learned to fear these ships in the last war. They'd torn apart most of the Tigris fleet--and the humans had fared even worse.

Yet this time the Void Wraith worked for them, for now at least. Part of Fizgig understood Dryker's horror, his desire to throw away such a potent tool. The Void Wraith made wonderful shock troops, and spending their lives conserved that of her own forces.

"The Void Wraith are suffering heavy losses, sir," Juliard said, though Fizgig could see for herself.

Harvesters swarmed the enemy, but the enemy was ready. Their fighters harried the harvesters, and their capital ships picked off a dozen with another salvo from their main cannons. She counted a total of twenty harvesters disabled before they'd even really engaged their foes.

Unfortunately for the Ganog, that left eighty harvesters still firing. Blue energy crackled around the tip of each wing, pooling into a single ball of supercharged plasma. The harvesters flung those balls at their targets, a flurry rushing out into the enemy ranks.

The smaller ships were devastated, explosions blossoming all over the fleet as they detonated. A second wave of explosions began when wounded harvesters rammed their opponents. The cloud of debris thickened, slowly drifting toward the planet's gravity well.

Fizgig tensed as the Ganog fleet counterattacked. Another volley shot from the enemy's main guns, and the fighters had finally gotten within range to engage the remaining Harvesters.

"Sir, the Void Wraith are buckling." Juliard's voice wavered. "We're down to twenty-two active vessels."

Fizgig had expected the Void Wraith to fare better, but given the Ganog's superior technology she wasn't surprised. If they'd had time to outfit the Void Wraith with theta cannons this would have been a different fight, but right now the harvesters simply couldn't inflict enough damage to threaten the enemy's capital ships.

"Have the Void Wraith retreat, then regroup for another pass. Focus on any ship that has already suffered significant damage," Fizgig ordered.

She watched as the handful of Void Wraith zipped away from their opponents, each V-shaped ship flickering out of sight as they retreated behind the orbiting factory. She folded her paws in her lap, waiting patiently until the surviving ships returned.

The Void Wraith came around in another pass, suiciding into enemy vessels, one after another. Juliard turned to Fizgig. "Looks like we took out another fourteen smaller vessels, but the enemy still has over twenty cruisers, and eleven dreadnoughts."

"I can see that, Lieutenant," Fizgig snapped. She rose and stalked to the hologram, watching as the enemy fleet turned their attention back to the factory. It was too soon to allow them to destroy it, but neither did she want to risk her fleet in a direction confrontation. Not yet anyway. "What's the situation on the surface?"


35


Ground War

When he'd been a kid Edwards' father had beaten into him that he needed to find a way to live a good life. Unfortunately, dad had been maddeningly unspecific about what that meant, exactly.

Edwards had finally figured it out. Right now, he was living the good life. There'd been a time when he thought being a mech was cool, but controlling Rex was about seventy-two levels beyond awesome. Not only could they blow up much larger stuff, but he'd also made a friend. Maybe a best friend.

Sure, Rex wasn't much of a conversationalist, but he seemed to like hanging out with Edwards as much as Edwards enjoyed hanging out with him.

"Edwards, what's your status?" Juliard's voice came over the comm. Edwards had always had kind of a thing for Juliard, though he knew she'd never look twice at some dumb Marine. Now that he was a disembodied voice living in a cube it was even less likely he'd ever get her out on a date.

Eh, at least he had Rex.

"Uhh, looks like six--no, seven enemy planetstriders. They appeared about fifty clicks south, and are marching in this direction. Some of them look pretty nasty. Whoah, check out the one with whip arms. It's got, like, nine of 'em." Edwards zoomed in on that one, then panned back to look at the rest. "Doesn't look like they have any support with them, but I don't think they need it."

"Okay, the admiral wants you to stay alive as long as possible, while inflicting heavy damage," Juliard said. "Sounds a lot more fun than being up here."

"You ought to come down some time, Lieutenant. We could go for a joy ride," Edwards managed. He wasn't exactly asking her out.

"I'll take you up on that, if you can kill let's say...three of those enemy planetstriders," Juliard teased. "Good hunting, Sergeant."

"Oh, it's on. Rex, give us a battle cry."

The planetstrider stopped, its chest swelling as it sucked in a tremendous amount of air. A bellow like a deep horn rolled out over the city, shattering every window with miles. A couple of the enemy planetstriders didn't seem to much like it, and lurched into a run toward their position.

Rex was standing two clicks south of the factory, which sprawled around the base of the space elevator. The tallest buildings didn't quite reach the planetstrider's waist, so they weren't going to work as cover. Edwards turned the external camera toward the elevator itself.

"Yeah, that'll work." Edwards nudged Rex. "Hey big fella, keep that elevator between us and your pissed off buddies, all right?"

The planetstrider broke into a lumbering run, every gargantuan step crushing smaller buildings. They circled the space elevator's thick cable, using it to shield Rex from the other planetstriders. Two were quick enough to re-establish line of sight, so Edwards paused and raised the cannon arm.

The first enemy planetstrider slowed, but it was too late. Edwards released a beam of scarlet, burning a thick, black scar in the planetstrider's chest. This strider looked like Rex, but was taller and had a pair of missile batteries mounted to his shoulders. Both batteries fired a swarm of missiles, but the planetstrider's balance was off and the shots zoomed into the sky over Rex.

The next enemy collided with the first, and both went down in a tangle of limbs. They crushed dozens of buildings, and Edwards was thankful the city had been evacuated. This was doing trillions of dollars in damage, but people could find new homes.

Edwards maneuvered the cannon into line with the the missile boat strider, then he fired. The barrel vibrated as scarlet energy built within, finally discharging in a sixty-meter-wide beam. It slammed into the missile launcher on the strider's first shoulder, punching through and into the second. Both detonated.

A wave of flame and debris enveloped both the planetstrider carrying the missiles and the buddy he was still lying on top of. Smoke and dust swept out for thousands of meters, whipping the debris into a hurricane that shredded those buildings still standing.

"Well, look at that. I think we actually killed one." The top planetstrider was missing everything above the shoulders. The one on the bottom was still moving, trying to wriggle its way out from under its dead buddy.

The other planetstriders were closing in, and his orders were clear. "Run away Rex, fast as you can. Get on the backside of that hill over there."

Rex lumbered into an awkward run, leaving a shattered city in his wake. Edwards still couldn't believe no one was going to yell at him for that. They'd said not to worry about blowing stuff up.

Any level of destruction is acceptable. The president had said that.

Rex's rear sensors showed the pack of planetstriders, most clustered around the body of their fallen companion. They weren't chasing him though.

"Hey, Lieutenant Juliard?" Edwards commed. "Rex and I managed to down one, and wound another. We're falling back until the rest of our boys get here."

"Acknowledged, Edwards. You still owe me two more planetstriders."

"Oh, don't you worry about that." Edwards watched the enemy planetstriders recede into the distance, knowing he and Rex could get back just as quickly. "You just let me know when Alpha Company advances, and we'll blow the shit out of those bastards."


36


The Beacon

Utfa was thankful for his voluminous robes, for they covered his fur. It had gone muddy yellow, streaked through with brown red--nervousness and the worst flavor of fear. He pulled his hood lower, stepping onto the broad disk to join his dozen best adepts.

He'd never been this nervous, but then never had this much been at stake. The next few minutes would determine his fate, the fate of the Kthul, and possibly the fate of all Ganog.

"Begin," he murmured, clutching his arcanotome to his chest as he stepped to the center of the platform. The adepts made way, bowing deferentially as the disk began to rise into the air. Three similar disks followed, each containing a cluster of his best warriors. They numbered fifty-six in all, a small but potent force.

Normally, it wouldn't be enough to attempt what he was now daring, but Zakanna had pulled her forces back to protect herself and her precious Adepts. She expected Utfa to come for her, and it wasn't a bad plan.

Zakanna's forces still outnumbered his own, but Utfa wasn't attacking her directly. Not until he'd found and activated the beacon. Then, if the dream fragment were true, he'd have access to the guardians. The arcanotome's oldest archives mentioned them, but were unclear about what that meant exactly. They did indicate that it was a sizable and nearly unstoppable army--one that would serve the controller of the beacon with absolute obedience.

The platforms continued to rise, and Utfa tensed as they passed the first of the empress's islands. Her cluster was large, and it took many seconds to pass. Only one island was still lit: the prime temple. Zakanna was readying herself for battle, her forces no doubt lurking inside the grove of spires.

Utfa looked up, giving a pleased smile as the apex island came into view. He'd only seen it a few times, and even then only on the twin holidays, when they refreshed the wards to keep the Imperium from the gaze of the Nameless Ones.

From below, the Apex island was deceptively unadorned, a simple ivory island that would have gone unremarked even at the lowest levels of the Royal Spire. Their disks came even with it, rising high enough to provide a look at the island itself. In the center of a grassy field, a titanic blue cube bobbed up and down. That cube blazed with a bonfire of white circuitry. The cube rotated slowly, thrumming with deep power. Around the cube knelt four adepts. Only four. Utfa smiled.

"Protect the Emissary." Oako called, removing his hood. He moved to the edge of the island, and the adepts lined up to follow him. Oako turned to face Utfa. "By your word, Emissary."

Utfa opened his lower nostrils and drank deeply. He lowered his hood, his fur now a placid brown. "Kill the adepts, then form a ring around the Beacon so that I may perform the will of the Nameless Ones."

Oako led the charge, the forces from the other disks joining the howling horde as they surged toward the cube. All four adepts leapt to their feet, moving smoothly to support each other. Seeing that grace slid tendrils of terror around Utfa's heart, especially when he saw the last of the adepts.

Master Yulo's snowy fur ruffled under the breeze as he glided into formation with his brothers. His gaze finally found Utfa, and his mouth tightened into a line. "Utfa, I see you lurking back there. Stop this madness. There is nothing to be gained for your here."

"Kill them swiftly!" Utfa roared.

Yulo's eyes hardened. He sprinted forward several steps, then leapt into the air. As he neared the apex of his jump, his body rippled and changed. He grew larger, almost the size of a full elite. His corded muscles thickened, and when he slammed back into the disk, cracks radiated out around him.

Utfa's warriors hesitated, fanning out to ring the defenders. Even Oako seemed reluctant to engage, and Utfa couldn't blame him. No one wanted to be the first to die.

Yulo adopted a comfortable combat stance, his companions standing back to back behind him. "We are sworn to protect this place, and you must know your numbers are meaningless. But before we cut you down, I must know. Why, Utfa? This place is sacred, even to the seekers. Why defile the Beacon?"

Utfa finally stepped from the transport disk. He began his breathing as he walked slowly forward, willing his cells to accelerate, and change. Power surge through him, strength, and speed, and grace. It had been a long time since Utfa had felt the flow, and he welcomed it now.

"I would never defile this place, Yulo. You of all people know me better than that. How many times did we debate the whispers together?" Utfa reached up to his temple, hesitating as his hand settled around the thick black cable. There was no other choice. He gave the cable a sharp twist, and yanked it from his temple.

The flow of data stopped, leaving his mind in troubling silence. Utfa set down his arcanotome, then removed his outer robe. He dropped the heavy black fabric atop his tome, turning to hear Yulo's answer.

"I see. You do not consider the murder of your former brothers a defilement. Is that it?" Yulo asked mildly, his fur remaining perfectly white.

Utfa strived to keep the envy from showing in his fur, but the best he could manage was a dirty grey. Yulo's pristine white made mockery of it.

"I do not. You and I shared many ideas together, but we never agreed on the most important. You seek to avoid the Nameless Ones, praying that their gaze will not find you. Knowing that someday, if you do not face their terrible wrath, your grandchildren will."

Yulo's face hardened, but the snowy white remained. "And you believe that we have a responsibility to our children, to accept the Nameless One's will, knowing that after we have enacted it they will once again journey into the cold. Yes, we've had this argument many times before. What is different now, Utfa?"

"I prayed, and the Nameless Ones answered. I have spoken to one, and learned its will. The day we debated has arrived, brother. The Nameless Ones have returned, and their gaze lands upon Imperalis. It lands upon you." Utfa adopted a combat stance nearly identical to Yulo's.

"Once, you were my equal, but that day is a hazy memory. You turned away from your body, away from unity. The arcanotome has been a part of you for too long. Even now, its dark knowledge twists you. If you seek to battle me, you will die." Yulo stalked back and forth, moving with disquieting grace. His mind and body were truly one, something Utfa had never achieved.

"If I battled you alone, I have no doubt you'd be correct. Kill him," Utfa roared. He sprinted forward, deepening his breathing. His body grew denser, his muscles bulging to compensate. He wasn't as impressive as Yulo, but it would be enough.

Utfa launched a flying kick at Yulo, a kick the master easily parried. But it didn't matter. The battle had begun, and now that every seeker knew they weren't the focus of Yulo's rage they were willing to join it.

They surged forward in a wave, crashing over the adepts. Yulo batted aside a seeker, then shattered a warrior's face with his knee. The other adepts were nearly as skilled, each felling multiple opponents. Then Oako planted his axe in Kokru's chest, driving the adept to the grass. His blade crackled and hummed as he forced it deeper into the adept's body. The adept twitched once, then was still.

Oako's companions surged into the gap, pouncing on another adept. He went down under a flurry of blows, unable to deal with the combined ferocity.

"All your training, and for what?" Utfa taunted, laughing at Yulo.

Yulo snarled, the fur around his eyes deepening to scarlet. He leapt forward, sprinting toward Utfa. Utfa backpedaled, interposing another adept between them. Yulo's foot moved so swiftly the air hummed, and the adept's neck snapped. Yulo leapt over the body, and Utfa dove behind a full sized elite.

Yulo didn't pursue. Instead, the master changed direction, sprinting fast and low toward the edge of the island.

Utfa's eyes widened when he saw where Yulo's path was taking him. "No!"

The master bent to scoop up Utfa's arcanotome, then leapt off the side, disappearing silently out of sight. Utfa spun back to the combat, longing to kill. The other adepts were already dead, and his forces stood clustered around the beacon.

"We have won, master." Oako sank to one knee, as did all the others.

Utfa ignored him. He moved to the Beacon, a rising tide of rage blackening his fur.

Oako followed, wrapping a hand around his cable. He tugged it free, passing his arcanotome to Utfa. "You will need this to enact their will."

"I know the torment of not being able to hear the whispers." Utfa said, gratefully accepting the tome. He clipped the cable into his temple, sighing as the chorus returned. "We will find Yulo, and recover my tome. Until then, I accept your sacrifice."

Utfa turned back to the beacon, stretching out a hand to touch it. Power surged through him. He could feel the incredible energies flowing through the beacon, waiting for a hand to guide them. His hand.

Utfa used the sequence the whispers had shown him, and the energy responded.

A pulse of bright blue light surged from the cube. It burst in all directions, rippling through the Royal Spire. The wave of energy continued, washing over the surrounding spires, then the rest of the city. Hushed silence fell in its wake. Utfa waited for something momentous to happen, but many moments passed.

The entire spire trembled violently, and through the crystal walls Utfa could see the other spires swaying. Fissures opened near the base of many spires, the ground widening as white spires emerged. Five in all, each the equal of the Royal Spire itself.

The pristine spires rumbled, and a dark slit grew down the side of the three closest spires. The slit widened into a doorway five thousand meters high, and from that doorway stepped the most terrible weapon of war Utfa could have wished for. The creature, if that was what it was, stood as tall as a planetstrider. Yet it wasn't a planetstrider.

There was nothing organic about this titan. It was made from elegantly curved metal, the blueish tint made iridescent as it stepped into the sunlight. An enormous cannon jutted from its chest, and a city-sized booster was attached to its back.

"By their wrath," Utfa murmured. "I finally understand."

He yanked his gaze away from the titans as a cloud of ships emerged from each spire. They were curved, blue vessels, sleek and deadly.

The Nameless Ones had delivered a fleet to augment the Kthul's own.

From the base of each spire also came an army of tiny figures, their numberless blue forms filling the area around each spire. There were tens of thousands. Perhaps more.

Utfa tilted his head back, and laughed.


37


Void Wraith

Khar returned to consciousness from power conservation mode. His body had recharged back to 22 percent reserves, and the worst of his injuries had been repaired. It would have to be enough. He rose from his position against the marble wall, scanning the island where he'd awakened.

He was inside a spire, which vaulted high above. Colorful murals of nebulas and gas giants had been painted, creating the image that you were looking at the night sky. The walls stood open, allowing in an artificial breeze.

The empress stood on a small raised dais at the center of the room, about a meter above everyone else. A cluster of attendants stood around her, parting as a delegation of Ganog dressed in dark brown armor approached. They were hard-eyed warriors, not an adept among them.

Khar rose to his feet and padded silently toward the empress. The last group of hard-eyed warriors had tried to take her life.

"Hello, Kokar." The empress's clear voice cut through the low murmur of conversation. "I am glad that you came, despite the late hour."

"I am not," Kokar replied, sourly. His fur was a black-red. "What you have done could have lasting repercussions, Empress."

The name, and voice, were familiar. Khar couldn't place them. He didn't think he'd met this Kokar, a hard-eyed youth with a scar on one cheek.

Then it came to him. This was the elite he'd fought back in the Royal Games. The scar, delivered by Khar's weapon.

"What I have done is warn our people," Zakanna snapped. She closed her eyes, taking a deep breath. When she opened them her fur had gone back to soft blue. "I understand your concerns, and that of your clan."

"I'm pleased to hear that." Kokar did not look pleased. "You have made claims of betrayal. Do you have evidence to support these accusations? Something to implicate Utfa, or the Kthul? You know the Nyar hate them, but even we will not attack without proof. We are not your pawns, to punish clans that displease you."

"I accused neither the Kthul, nor the seekers," the empress countered. "I merely warned that my person had been assaulted, and called upon loyal Ganog to defend the capital."

"And how do you imagine that playing out, Empress? Everyone knows you have no love for Utfa, or the seekers. Everyone knows that you fear them. If you have been attacked, who else could it be by? Takkar wouldn't dare. The Azi have no teeth. My clan has no interest. That leaves only the Kthul. You meekly pretend not to have accused them, but that is precisely what you have done, unofficial or no."

"Of course I have. Are you mad, Kokar? You're chastising me for manipulation? Utfa has grown bold enough to attempt assassination. He sent six warriors to slay me while I held court, breaking every tradition our people have built." The empress's fur darkened to a deep blue. "You know Utfa as well as I. He will come for me, and soon. I do not know his plan, but I am sure it is devious. He's sunk his tendrils into every clan, even yours."

"Take care with your accusations, Empress," Kokar growled. He shifted into a combat stance, resting a hand on the haft of his axe. "No Nyar would disgrace our clan by adopting the robes of a seeker."

"Is that so?" the empress asked, mildly. She snapped her fingers, and two adepts trotted forward, carrying a body. A body in brown armor, just like Kokar. They dropped it in front of him. "This was one of the six assassins." Zakanna moved to the body, prodding it onto its back with her foot. "Look at the face, Kokar."

"I recognize him. He's one of ours." Kokar allowed. He folded his arms. "But assassination is a long way from overt attack. Utfa would never be so bold as to attack you directly."

"Wouldn't he?" Zakanna shot back. "Why not? His ambition is boundless, as is his mad faith. He believes my death--and the death of the entire Yog clan--serves the whims of the Nameless Ones. If he believes that, why do you believe he wouldn't dare anything to see their will done? The Nyar are his ancestral enemies."

As if to punctuate her statement, a tremendous crack echoed down from somewhere high above. Khar cocked an ear, listening. There were yells. Screams of pain. Plasma fire. Khar had no idea where the combat was taking place, so he watched Zakanna to see how'd she react.

"Do you see?" she roared, her eyes blazing. She stalked closer to Kokar, leaning over the dais as she eyed him a challenge.

"What are we hearing?" Kokar asked uncertainly.

"There is only one island above this one. Someone is assaulting the Beacon itself. Who do you suppose that might be, Kokar?"

The ceiling exploded, raining stone fragments. Khar leapt forward, tackling the empress from the dais. They landed heavily on the far side, and he found himself face to face with the empress. He could read the fear in her eyes, not for her safety, but for what was about to happen to all of them.

A figure rose from the pile of stone under the hole in the spire. He carefully wiped dust from his snowy fur, as he walked toward Zakanna.

"Empress," Master Yulo called. Khar rose, staring in confusion. Yulo was four meters tall, and far more heavily muscled than the last time Khar had seen him. "I came with news at once. The others are dead, slain by Utfa. He controls the Beacon, but I was able to steal his arcanotome." The adept held up a glowing purple book, circuitry shimmering on the surface.

Khar looked up through the hole Yulo had made. If he'd leapt from the apex island he'd fallen over six hundred meters, and looked no worse off.

The Nyar delegation had their hands on their weapons, but none had fired thus far. The empress turned to them. "You've heard it from Master Yulo--and, whatever you think of me, you all honor him. Will you help me against Utfa?"

"I cannot speak for my people. You know how my father views me," Kokar admitted. "But I can return immediately, and tell him all I have seen. I believe he will support you, and move to defend your dreadnought. Survive but a little while, and you will have our support."

The entire spire shook around them. It caused an odd sense of vertigo, because the island itself didn't move. The spire swayed inward, slamming into a neighboring island, then it swayed outwards again.

Through the spire's blue-tinted walls Khar saw new spires rising, gleaming in the purplish light of the sun. Shocked cries rose from the Ganog, and the empress adopted a look of horror. The new spires began to open. Colossal machines stepped from each spire, and Khar fought the urge to run when he realized what he was seeing. He knew that armor, those too thin limbs. How could he ever forget them? He'd lived as a Judicator, knew exactly what it was like to stare out from one of those cold, lifeless bodies.

"By the Nameless, what are those things?" the empress whispered.

"They are called the Void Wraith," Khar said grimly. "The ships you see emerging from the spires are Harvesters. The tiny figures around the base are Judicators. The giant ones? Those are something my people knew existed, but never had to face. They're called Omega Judicators."

"Their ships are already moving," Kokar said, spinning to face the empress. "It cannot be a coincidence that just after Utfa found the beacon, these things appear."

"They serve him, I'm sure of it." The empress paced back and forth across the dais. "Combined with the Kthul fleet, there's no way we can face him. Not without my dreadnoughts. What forces do the Nyar have in system?"

"We have three dreadnoughts, and a dozen cruisers." Kokar's fur darkened. "We did not expect betrayal. I must speak with my people at once, warn them to warp away."

"If that fleet leaves," the empress protested, "we have no way to reach my ship in orbit. We need their help."

"I cannot ask my fleet to risk the fury of these...Omegas. I'm sorry, Empress, and I know this decision may cost my own life in addition to yours. Yet my people must continue on, must continue to watch the Cold. Now more than ever."

"I understand," the empress nodded. "Go to your people, and send word ahead in case you are attacked." She turned back to her attendants. "Gather who you can. We will not be able to get a ship to orbit, so we'll make a push toward the Warp Portal."

"Won't they expect that?" Khar protested.

"They will." Yulo moved to stand next to the dais. "Yet we have no choice. We must defeat whatever lies between us and the portal, or we are lost."

A loud whirring came from below, a different cadence from the transport disks. A familiar whirring. Khar spun to the empress. "Prepare yourselves. The Void Wraith begin their assault."


38


Haak

Inwardly Zakanna had lost the battle to despair, but she maintained a small defiance. She would not let her emotions touch her fur, would not show her clan that a part of her had already admitted defeat. Yulo's presence made that easier, for she knew he'd disapprove of the lapse.

She turned to Khar. "Tell me of these Void Wraith. How will they fight? What are their weaknesses?"

"They will utilize cloaking, the same technology the Coalition uses. We took that from the Void Wraith. They utilize two types of line units: Judicators, and Alphas. The Alphas stand about four meters tall, but are otherwise identical to the smaller ones. When the Void Wraith are killed, their bodies will detonate a few moments later."

"Are they machines?" Zakanna asked, trying to understand how her enemy might think.

"No, they are the nervous system of a sentient being placed in a cybernetic body. They are capable of independent thought, though they will follow any order their master gives them without question."

"Thank you, Khar." Zakanna inclined her head at the Tigris. She hopped back atop the dais, raising her arms to get everyone's attention.

"Warriors of the Nyar, warriors of the Yog, prepare to carry our defiance to these Void Wraith. Deal with the larger ones, these Alphas. Adepts, kill the smaller. They will detonate upon destruction, so use their fallen as weapons against their brethren," she ordered in a high, clear voice. She stood tall, staring boldly at her followers.

A sleek, blue vessel rose into view over the island, its wingtips beginning to crackle with white energy.

"We only have a few moments. Scatter, quickly. Away from the dais," Khar bellowed, sprinting away himself.

The empress followed, with Yulo sprinting past the both of them.

Several of the warriors, including a pair from the Nyar delegation, were too slow to dodge. The Harvester fired, and the plasma ball shot into the dais. Warriors and dais were disintegrated, and a smoking crater was all that remained.

The survivors moved instantly, warriors beginning their breathing while smaller adepts fanned out between them. Yulo and Khar stayed close to Zakanna, both next to a cluster of pillars they could use as cover. She moved to the edge of a pillar to stand next to Khar, lowering her voice. "Will you fight for us?"

"No," Khar said.

He held her gaze in a way no Ganog would have dared. She enjoyed his brusque, casual defiance. So unlike the sycophants or mentors she'd grown up knowing.

"But I will kill Void Wraith, and I will attempt to keep them from killing you. Their appearance here makes something very clear, Zakanna. Your enemy is our enemy. If you survive this, you may end up being an ally. If you do not, my enemy grows stronger and he will hurl that strength at my allies. I have an interest in preserving your life."

"You cannot stop them from wiping us out, but die knowing that my death will embolden the people," she said. Her fur tingled, shifting to a clear, pristine white. She straightened, meeting Khar's gaze, tuning out everything else around her. "If I die fighting, the people will know. They will rise up, and oppose the seekers. Oppose the Nameless Ones. But they must see us struggle, see us give our lives as we ask them to do."

"I am proud of you, Zakanna," Yulo called from another pillar. His fur was snowy white, mirroring her own. "I have watched you grow, watching you learn, and err, and succeed. Yet not until today have you learned the final lesson."

"What do you mean?" she glanced down at her fur, not understanding. "I've struggled to achieve the white my whole life. I'm no different than I was yesterday, so why now?"

"You have accepted your death," Khar rumbled. His golden mane rippled in a sudden wind. Engines whined from below. They were getting closer. "In that certainly lies peace."

"You are familiar with the Haak?" Zakanna asked, blinking.

"I am unsurprised," Master Yulo said. He laughed, clapping the Tigris on his shoulder. "You could have been born Ganog, Khar of the Tigris. Yes, he is correct, Zakanna. The certainty of death offers a powerful focus."

"I am familiar with this...Haak. We lack a word for it, but the concept runs deep in my culture." Khar turned to face the edge of the island, and Zakanna followed his gaze. A second Harvester rose into view, wingtips crackling as it prepared another volley.

This vessel was closer, and gave her a much better view. It resembled a bird of prey, long blue wings curving inward until they almost touched at the tip. The vessel was sleek, and deadly. It was wholly unlike Ganog ships, or that of any other race she'd encountered--even this new Coalition.

Yet the vessel awakened a primal fear deep within her, a certainty that hundreds of centuries ago her ancestors had quaked under the shadow of these very ships.

A third vessel rose into view, then a fourth. Azure energy began crackling between their wingtips, each growing into a ball of blinding brilliance.

"Scatter," Khar roared, tackling Zakanna from behind. He carried her away from the pillar a hairsbreadth before a ball of energy streaked into the area where she'd been standing.

The force of the explosion hurled them across the island, but Zakanna rolled to her feet beside another pillar. Khar staggered to his feet next to her, smoke rising from the rear of his armor. Part of his mane had been burned away, but if he was wounded it didn't seem to slow him.

"Why aren't they firing?" she yelled to Khar, though her gaze was fixed on the ships. They'd moved to hover near each other at the opposite edge of the island.

"They're going to send in Judicators." Khar pointed toward the Nyar delegation. "That's the largest concentration of people. The Judicators are fairly predictable. They will advance on that position, and wipe that group out before shifting to other targets."

The ships descended lower, nearly touching the grass. Blue ramps extended from each, but no troops emerged. Zakanna's eyes narrowed. She opened her lower nostrils, catching a new scent.

"Pulse grenades!" she roared. Warriors in every cluster reacted as they'd been trained, lobbing pulse grenades onto the ramps. The grenades detonated in a staccato of explosions, and each explosion flung thin-limbed blue bodies into the air. Two seconds later, those bodies began to explode, in many cases catching their own troops.

A hail of blue plasma fire came from the ramps, then from the edges of the island around the ramps. Dozens of shots peppered her forces, drawing cries of pain. A nearby warrior took a plasma blast to the chest, staggering back a step.

"Meb!" Khar roared. The empress turned in time to see Meb crash to the grass, smoke rising from a wound in his chest.

Her forces flung a few more pulse grenades, but the fire didn't slacken. One by one they were picking off her people, and any warrior who charged the enemy position was cut down.

She moved behind the pillar, using it as cover. Khar and Yulo moved to neighboring pillars.

She turned to Yulo. "Master, what do we do? I see no way forward."

"I have no advice, little one. If we flee, it will be into the arms of more of these Void Wraith. If we attack, they will cut us down," Yulo called. His fur was still white, and she was surprised to find that so was hers.

"Then we will await death," she called, in a high, clear voice. "When it comes we will stab it in the eye, even as it drags us into the gaze of the Nameless Ones."


39


Not Amused

Takkar was not amused. He paced back and forth across his dais, alone on his command island excepting the single techsmith.

High above, the battle played out before him. His forces were finishing off the last few of the ineffectual blue ships, venting their collective rage. The real threat--Fizgig and her fleets--were safely hidden behind their cowardly cloaking.

That left the factory floating in high orbit unprotected. If he attacked it, it would force Fizgig to respond. Yet he doubted it would be that simple. She had at least one more trap, probably several more.

"Move into firing range on that factory," he ordered. Once again, the only way to deal with the trap was to spring it.

The techsmith's temple pulsed, and he relayed it to the techsmiths on the other vessels. Moments later, the fleet began drifting toward the factory.

They hadn't made it far when a massive object decloaked near the factory. It was unlike the other technology the Coalition had thus far used, an orbital defense platform forged from a bronze-colored alloy.

Cannons bristled across the surface, and those cannons launched a massive salvo at the Azi command ship on his left flank. Most of the cannon shots appeared to be some sort of primitive projectile weapon.

Not all of them, though. Half a dozen of the human's new theta cannons were nestled amidst the others. They sliced through the Azi shields, blasting massive chunks of the hull into space. White clouds of atmosphere puffed through the breaches as the vessel struggled to maintain shields.

"Focus all fire on the platform. Everything we have. All cannons, all fighters," Takkar roared.

A wave of fighters broke off from the fleet, streaking toward the platform in high orbit. He turned to the tech priest. "Magnify the target."

The view above zoomed suddenly forward, now fixed on the orbital defense platform. It wasn't the first Takkar had encountered, though it was certainly the largest. The technology was simple, yet effective. The projectiles from the smaller cannons stabbed into his fleet, detonating fighters. Over and over they fired, with a four-micron gap between each salvo.

"Our dreadnoughts are in range, Clan Leader," the techsmith murmured.

"Fire." Takkar folded his arms, smiling grimly.

Bolts of scarlet shot from every dreadnought, burning into the defense platform. Every shot destroyed a cluster of turrets, and when the volley ended the factory had lost over two-thirds of its armaments. Fire and debris sprayed out around the platform like a sea of shimmering jewels.

The remaining cannons continued to fire at the wave of approaching fighters, still inflicting significant losses.

"Finish them." Takkar paced back and forth, carefully studying his fleet's position.

He suspected Fizgig would come for him soon. She preferred wounded prey, and that meant the Azi dreadnought was her most likely target. They'd managed to stabilize their shields, but rather than retreat to the rear, Ro'kan was pressing the assault on the factory.

"Give me that Azi fool. Now!" Takkar roared.

A multi-legged holoprojector rose from beside a pillar and walked toward him. It broadcast a shimmering energy field, coalescing into a view of the Azi bridge.

"Ro'kan, what are you doing?" Takkar demanded.

Ro'kan's holographic form turned to face Takkar, eyes narrowing. Behind him stood two black-robed figures. One rushed forward to whisper in his ear.

"What you are too cowardly to do, apparently," Ro'kan taunted. "That station has damaged my flagship. I will exact a toll in blood."

"And this course was recommended to you by the seekers?" Takkar asked. He didn't bother ordering the Azi to abandon his course. He knew the fool wouldn't listen.

"What does it matter, Takkar?" Ro'kan demanded, his tone softening to resignation.

"Die well, Azi." Takkar gestured at the techsmith, and the hologram winked out. He turned to the Saurian. "How many of my clan guard stand ready?"

The techsmith's answer was instant. "Seventeen, Clan Leader."

"Have them warped to the Azi command island. Kill Ro'kan, the seekers, and anyone else who resists. They are to assume direct command. Have the dreadnought pull back to the center of our ranks."

Takkar's fury grew as the Azi dreadnought continued to fire on the orbital defense platform. They'd moved to an angle the surviving guns couldn't reach, and Ro'kan no doubt foolishly assumed that made him safe.

Takkar knew better. Fizgig would pounce soon, and the Azi dreadnought was the most likely target.

"Clan Leader, enemy vessels de-cloaking," the techsmith said, all in a rush.

Takkar scanned the space around the fleet. The enemy vessels were instantly tagged with red triangles -- they were attacking the rear of his fleet with the full might of the enemy. Over two dozen vessels had decloaked and launched a withering barrage at his forces.

They weren't aiming for the Azi. They weren't even aiming for a dreadnought. Clusters of enemy ships focused on cruisers and destroyers, easily overcoming the smaller vessels. After their skirmishes with the Void Wraith, many were weakened, easy prey.

"Continue the barrage on the defense platform." Takkar scowled up at the battle. He could order his fleet to engage, but if he did Fizgig would melt away. "Have the Yog forces break off to deal with the enemy fleet."

The Yog dreadnoughts pulled away from the doomed orbital defense platform, aiming their cannons at Fizgig's fleet. As expected, her vessels broke off immediately. They scattered, easily dodging the Yog cannons.

Takkar turned back to the platform and smiled. Its flaming wreckage rained down over the planet -- hunks of metal large enough to destroy cities.

"Clan Leader, the clan guard has reported. They've secured the Azi bridge, and have placed one of the Azi in command." The techsmith bowed, disappearing into her robes.

Takkar glanced upward, watching as the wounded dreadnought retreated into their ranks. Why had the seekers counseled Ro'kan to such reckless action? They cared nothing for glory, and that was the only reason for the risk. It was as if they didn't care if their Azi allies were eliminated--

He went cold. "Perhaps they don't care. Perhaps that is exactly what they are seeking."


40


Great Day

"Just take a quick peek over the hillside, Rex," Edwards instructed. Rex obligingly poked its reptilian head over the hillside, giving Edwards an excellent vantage of the combat below. If it could be called a proper combat.

Six planetstriders were laying into the factory they were here to 'protect'. Edwards wasn't too worried about the fate of some mostly empty buildings, but that didn't mean he could afford to relax. He'd been ordered to do as much damage as possible. Besides, if he could bag two more striders Juliard might actually come down for a visit.

He raised the cannon arm, poking it over the hill. None of the planetstriders were turned in their direction, so Edwards took his sweet time lining up the shot. He planted it square in the back of another strider with the missile batteries, and was delighted when it went up like a pack of firecrackers.

The thick billowing smoke began to clear, exposing a scaly leg. The planetstrider strode from the smoke, missing an arm. The control unit had been severely damaged, but the creature was still functional.

Edwards shot him again--this time, right in the face. The planetstrider stumbled back into the smoke, then crashed heavily to the earth. The force of its fall extinguished the fire, and the smoke quickly dissipated.

"That's two. Hope you're listenin' up there, Lieutenant." Edwards nudged Rex. "Get us back behind cover."

Just in time. The other planetstriders where moving in his direction.

"Looks like you pissed them off, Edwards," came a familiar voice over the comm. "I'm not sure that's a good thing."

"Burke, that you?" Edwards asked. "Uh, I mean Captain."

"Yeah, you bet your ass it is. Here's the deal, Sergeant. You knock 'em down, we keep 'em down. If you see them start swarming Alpha Company's position, see if you can convince them to back off."

"Can do, sir. All right, Rex. You heard the man. Charge, buddy." Rex lumbered up over the hill, right into a flurry of enemy cannon shots. Scarlet beams tore into the mountainside, and Edwards instinctively raised the claw arm to shield Rex's face.

After a moment he lowered it. "Wait, that was it? You pansies can't shoot for shit."

A scarlet beam hit Rex in the chest, knocking him onto his back. He slid down the mountainside, pulverizing millions of tons of rock.

"I stand corrected."

Rex waggled on his back like a turtle, crushing more rock until he was finally able to flip over.

"Okay, Rex. New plan. Head around to the other side of the mountain. We'll pop off a couple shots, then retreat back into cover."

Rex lumbered into motion, obediently circling the mountain. Edwards knew this was a basic tactic, one the enemy would probably anticipate. He couldn't think of anything better though, so what the hell? It took Rex a full minute to make the trip.

"Slow down a bit, bud. Peek up over that ridge there," Edwards ordered. He waited patiently as Rex carried them to the vantage he'd selected. "Wow."

The planetstriders were laying into the city around them, firing wildly. They swatted with robotic claws, trying in vain to smash the cloud of mechs irritating them. The nimble booster mechs easily avoided the ungainly behemoths. Edwards knew exactly how the poor striders felt. He'd hated sparring against Alpha Company, because he could never catch any of them.

Edwards took aim with his cannon, focusing on the closest planetstrider. This time, he aimed for the leg. The cannon began its familiar subsonic whine, then belched a beam of scarlet brilliance. The beam hit the back of the knee, melting bone and flesh. The strider was suddenly legless, and its fall crushed the last few buildings in that sector. The strider struggled to rise from the debris, flailing pitifully.

"Well done, Sergeant," Burke's voice came over the comm. "Just keep knocking them down, and we'll invade the control units."

"Hey, Juliard, you watching this?" Edwards asked. He didn't bother to disguise the pride in his voice.

"Yup, great work Edwards. Looks like I owe you a date."

"Just let me tidy up a bit down here first, then Rex and I would be happy to take you for a little drive." Edwards took another planetstrider at the knee, knocking it to the ground. Mechs swarmed it, zipping past flailing limbs as they converged on the control unit.

It was shaping up to be a great day.


41


Yippee Ki Yay

Khar flipped back to his feet, parrying another slash from the Judicator in front of him. Four more clustered behind it, all attempting to maneuver their way closer. He risked a brief glance behind him, relieved to see that both Yulo and Zakanna were holding their own.

They fought back to back, surrounded by endless foes. It was the kind of end every Tigris dreamed of--a legendary stand against an implacable enemy.

Sparks flew as his plasma dagger met his foe's, but this time Khar knocked the Judicator's arm aside. His blade rocketed forward, plunging into the Judicator's heart. Khar swept the Judicator's legs, knocking it to the ground. The blow had been enough to trigger the self-destruct.

He seized one of the Judicator's legs, slamming it into three of its companions. They went down in a tangle, then detonated. Robotic limbs and orange liquid were flung in all directions, coating Khar.

"Ugg, this goop is disgusting," Zakanna called. Khar turned in time to see her leap a meter into the air. Her foot blurred, slamming into the side of a Judicator's head with so much force that the blue metallic head crumpled.

The momentum carried the body into another Judicator, tripping it. Zakanna leapt on her foe, ripping off an arm with a tremendous yell. She raised the arm like a club, bringing it down on the Judicator's head. It went down, just as the first detonated.

Zakanna was knocked backwards by the explosion, but somehow rolled to her feet next to Khar. Her robes were stained, her fur singed, but her expression remained resolute.

"The Alphas have finished off the last of your warriors. They'll be coming for us next," Khar called, parrying a blow from the next Judicator. He fell back a pace, his back bumping into Yulo.

"We're out of room to maneuver," Yulo said. He darted forward, smashing two Judicator heads together with a sickening crunch, then darted back, his back once again nearly touching Khar's. "We cannot maintain this position."

Something rumbled above. Khar glanced up to see stone raining down. The uneven chunks fell from a hole in the spire itself, hundreds of tons of rock raining down on the far side of the island. Dozens of Judicators were crushed, and the resulting detonations killed dozens more.

A shadow appeared over the hole above, then the high-pitched whine of engines drowned out the sporadic weapons fire. The vessel descended through the hole, above the trio of Harvesters. The grounded vessels were easy targets. The cruiser opened up with a hail of Ganog plasma fire, tearing into the first Void Wraith vessel.

"Allies of yours?" Khar called over his shoulder.

"I do not recognize the vessel," she called back, deflecting another blow from a Judicator.

"Nor I," Yulo called. He head-butted a Judicator, then dropped another with a low kick. "At least they are not more of these twisted blue Nameless Spawn."

The second and third vessels were beginning to lift off. The cruiser spun, dipping its rear toward the Void Wraith. A ramp lowered, exposing the ship's cargo bay. Dozens of missiles streaked out, peppering the engines on both Void Wraith vessels.

The shots unerringly targeted the most vulnerable parts of those engines, the welds where they met. Those engines detonated, and both Harvesters crashed back down to the Island. One landed near the edge, tottering for a long instant, then plummeted over the side with a screech of metal on metal.

Khar ducked under a wicked swipe from a Judicator, momentarily losing sight of the cruiser. Something punched into his back, and he staggered to one knee. Red warning indicators flared in his lower back. He roared, lunged backwards with an elbow. It knocked the Judicator back a step, but another stepped into its place.

Zakanna stepped behind it, sweeping its legs, then finishing it with a blow to the head. She flung the body into the cluster of Judicators behind her; the resulting explosion filled the area with smoke and flame.

Khar took advantage of the momentary reprieve to stand up and move back into position with the others.

Explosions sounded from the far side of the island, growing closer. Then Khar heard a sound that drew a fanged smile: the whirring of hydraulic limbs. "These are allies. I recognize that sound. Those are Coalition mechs--our Linebacker class. I do not know how, but my people have landed a strike team."

The whine of engines grew louder, and the hot rush of thrusters blasted away the remaining smoke. The cruiser hovered twenty meters above them. A single figure with a rifle stood at the edge of the ramp, and she aimed the rifle in his direction.

The weapon discharged, and a harpoon sank into the ground at Khar's feet. The cable at the end snapped taut, leading back into the ship. The soldier clamped the other end to a bracket just inside the ship, then turned back in his direction. "Get in. Move, soldier!"

"Zakanna," Khar roared, kicking a Judicator from his path. "You first. Go. Now."

She opened her mouth to say something, but Yulo darted forward. He seized Zakanna, hurling her into the air. She sailed toward the ship, grabbing the cable just a few feet below the ramp.

"You next, Yulo." Khar gestured at the cable, snapping a kick behind to knock away another Judicator.

"Oh, please." Yulo looked at him as one would a kit who'd just stated something ridiculous. Yulo leaped, easily grabbing the base of the ramp. He flipped inside, disappearing out of site.

Khar grabbed the cable, climbing hand over hand toward the ramp. A Judicator leapt toward him, slashing into his leg with a plasma blade. He grunted reflexively, even though there was no pain, and climbed faster, finally getting a hand on the ramp.

An armored figure stepped into view offering a hand. It was the human who'd fired the grappling hook.

"Nolan?" Khar accepted the hand, and the human pulled him into the ship.

"Nope, he's down there wrecking shop in one of the mechs," a female voice said. Khar didn't recognize her. "Why don't you and your, uh, guests settle in while I go back to work?"

The woman picked up a particle rifle large enough to be mounted on a mech, then quickly set up the bipod.

Khar turned to look down at the island. Three mechs and a single Ganog warrior had engaged the Void Wraith. One of those mechs moved with a prescient grace. It was as if the pilot knew where his enemy was going to be, before the enemy moved.

Every missile found its target. His particle cannon ended Alpha after Alpha.

"Who is that warrior?" Yulo asked, nodding down at the mech.

"That," Khar boomed, grinning, "that, my friends, is Nolan, the man the Void Wraith most fear."


42


Audacity

Nolan walked his particle cannon down the line of Judicators, surgically targeting which ones he wanted to detonate. The resulting explosions destroyed every Judicator on the line, opening a sizable gap in their ranks.

"Mmm, Captain Nolan?" Aluki's commed. "Your ally and his companions are safely aboard."

"Companions?" Nolan asked, leaping backwards as he fired another volley of missiles. Another line of explosions, followed by the secondary detonations of Judicators self-destructing.

"He brought two Ganog with him," Aluki supplied. "Mmm, I recognize both. Master Yulo, and the empress herself. Both are extremely dangerous."

"Noted." Nolan turned his mech forty-five degrees. Annie had just opened up with a missile volley, tearing up the left flank. Nolan added a volley of his own, devastating their already weakened line.

T'kon took aim with a plasma rifle, coring an Alpha who'd survived the volley. "Nolan, you are killing five to my one. Even Annie is out-killing me." He sounded supremely offended.

Annie's rough voice broke over the comm. "Well, you gotta understand, darlin'." She paused, her mech belching another volley of missiles into a sea of Judicators. "Every bit of training we received was against the Void Wraith. When they taught us to pilot these things, it was against simulated Void Wraith. This just ain't a fair fight."

Hannan's booster mech shot into the air, and missiles rained down onto the disorganized Void Wraith. They gave back sporadic fire, but the shots washed harmlessly over Hannan's armor.

"Why don't their weapons touch you?" T'kon demanded, as he cored another Judicator.

"Because we have modulated shields designed to disperse Void Wraith plasma fire," Nolan explained. He emptied the last of his missiles into the crumbling southern flank. "I've gotten confirmation that Khar is safe. Let's get the hell out of here, people. Fall back to the ship."

The squad retreated in good order, Lieutenant Hannan delivering several small salvos of missiles to discourage pursuit. It really did feel like an unfair fight, especially after having to deal with the Ganog's superior technology.

"Man, I still remember being terrified of those blue bastards. I definitely like having the edge, for once." Hannan laughed over the comm. She fired a final salvo, then gracefully guided her mech to the cruiser's ramp.

Annie leapt in next, and Nolan leapt after. He grabbed the side of the ramp, pulling his mech inside the ship. A desultory scattering of shots came from the Void Wraith, but his shields held. The ramp began to slide close.

"I have never before seen such ferocity, or bravery," Khar boomed. He walked up to Nolan's mech, his broad Tigris face grinning out from that thick golden mane.

"Indeed," a purple-furred Ganog said. She wore an adept's gi, and walked with enviable grace. "I doubt anyone has ever mounted such an assault on a Ganog spire. The audacity is...impressive."

T'kon barked out an amused laugh. "It's not as original as you might think."

"I didn't hear you complaining when we pulled your furry butt out of that spire." Nolan pointed out.

"True," T'kon allowed. He gave Nolan a smile. "And the empress is right about the audacity."

"I do not care if you perform such rescues daily. Thank you for my life," a white-furred Ganog said. He gave a graceful bow, settling into a lotus position. "I am Master Yulo, and this is her highness, the Empress Zakanna of the Yog clan."

Nolan was thankful he was inside the mech. Yulo's muscles bulged, and while not so large as a full elite, he could have torn apart an unaugmented human. Nolan was numbed by the revelation. They had the Ganog Empress on board? What the hell was he supposed to do about that? Imprison her? Work with her?

First, he needed to find a way off-planet.

"Aluki, what's the aerial deployment looking like?" Nolan asked, allowing the question both on the comm and the mech's loudspeakers.

"Mmm, not good. There are dozens of those Harvesters hovering over the city."

"His name is Nolan?" the empress asked Khar. Then she turned to face Nolan. "Nolan, if you can find a way past the Void Wraith, I have a dreadnought in orbit."

"We'll see what we can do. Hannan, how do you feel about going for a little joyride?" Nolan asked. He checked the status of her mech. The armor wasn't too badly scored, but she was down to a handful of missiles.

"I'll give em hell, sir--just keep that ramp open so I can get back inside before you all zoom away into the sunset."

"Not just yet. But I want you to stand by to be deployed, in case we get into the thick of it." If it came down to combat with the Harvesters, their survival was unlikely. But goddamned it they weren't going down swinging.


43


Trust

Nolan dropped into the co-pilot seat next to Aluki. The Whalorian had proven to be a surprisingly adept pilot, expertly guiding the cruiser through the hole they'd made in the spire. She continued to surprise Nolan, and he was beginning to wonder if the cute bumbly alien thing was merely an act.

"Mmm, we are not going to break orbit if we have to deal with those Void Wraith." The cruiser slowed to a hover, just inside the hole.

"Lena, are you on comms?" Nolan asked.

"Yes, Captain." Lena's prim voice came back. "What do you require?"

"Can you give our cruiser a Void Wraith signature and ident?" he asked, unsure if the idea were even possible.

"You want to make us look like a Void Wraith?" Lena asked. "It's an interesting idea, but what if they have some way of detecting us? If they fire, we're dead."

"They won't. The Void Wraith have been in storage here for who knows how many centuries? There's no way they've been modified to deal with Coalition tech. And that means we know how these things operate. We should be able to slip right on by," Nolan insisted. "How quickly can you do it?"

"Give me a few moments. It won't take long."

"Mmm, Captain, a pair of harvesters are inbound." Aluki pointed at the approaching vessels, their sleek blue forms quickly growing larger.

"Lena, not to be that officer, but we're out of time." Nolan rose slowly from the copilot's chair. He was tempted to go back to his mech, but that wasn't going to help against harvesters. They needed the cargo bay closed to break orbit. Nor did he want to deploy Hannan. If Lena's plan worked, it wouldn't protect Hannan.

"I understand the need, Captain, but I cannot hurry this. You must find a way to deal with the harvesters. I'll inform you when I am finished. Lena out." Her connection was terminated.

That cinched it. "Hannan, I need you to deploy. Do whatever you can to slow those harvesters. Nuchik, get your extra oxygen tank and go with her," Nolan ordered. He ducked through the hatch, sprinting toward the cargo bay.

"Sir, Khar is a better pilot than I am. He should be the one that goes," Hannan said.

"No time. You're already in the cockpit. Get out there. Now!" Nolan roared, skidding into the hangar bay.

The ship lurched violently, and Nolan was tossed from his feet. He slammed into the wall, then into the ground. Mechs were tossed around, but thankfully their harnesses kept them from tumbling about the cargo bay.

"Aluki, what the hell was that?" Nolan demanded, climbing to his feet.

"Mmm, one of the harvesters fired upon us. I'm doing all I can to keep away, but they are faster and more maneuverable. If they hit us again, we will not survive." The Whalorian's tone was matter of fact, maybe even a bit cheerful.

Lena's voice came over the comm, her tone urgent. "Captain, please engage the cloak. Quickly."

"Aluki?" Nolan asked.

"Done." There were several moments of tense silence. "The Harvesters have broken off, Captain. Shall I plot a course to the dreadnought?"

"No. Head for the planet's nadir, and ready a jump to the coordinates I've reflagged in the system." Nolan leaned against the wall, removing his helmet now that there was no need to open the cargo ramp. He was relieved that he didn't need to send Hannan out there.

"Captain, what is the meaning of this?" the empress demanded, striding boldly up to Nolan.

"Uh-uh, fuzzy." Annie leapt to her feet, aiming her shotgun at the empress. "Take a couple big steps back from the captain. Would be a shame if I had to mess up that pretty face."

"It's all right, Annie." Nolan rose and walked to the empress.

Annie shrugged, then walked off to stand by her mech.

"Listen," Nolan said, then: "what should I call you anyway?"

"I am Empress Zakanna of the Yog Clan, and it is the fourth year of my reign." She delivered the words with a regal air that somehow avoided straying into pompous. "You may address me as Empress."

"All right, Empress. Here's what's happening. Your people have invaded Coalition space. Even as we speak they're assaulting our shipyards. As of right now, we are at war, and I am taking you prisoner." Nolan slid into a combat stance. Annie raised her shotgun again. The arm of Hannan's mech swung around to cover Yulo. T'kon aimed a weapon at Khar, and Nolan realized that Khar had stepped protectively in front of the empress. Lovely. "Khar, you are still a Coalition officer. I don't know what's gone down during your captivity, but we have the enemy commander in custody. I'm taking her to Fizgig."

"I would never betray our people." Khar relaxed, moving away from the empress. He eyed Nolan pleadingly. "Nolan, we need her alive and cooperative if we wish to stop the devastation at Atreas. She can do that with a single word."

"Nolan." The empress's voice dropped the temperature a good twenty degrees. "I know you believe you have the upper hand, but if you force me to fight, you will find out that you are sorely mistaken."

"Zakanna," Yulo snapped. He moved to stand before her, his fur going pale grey as he frowned at her. "Do not let your pride blind you. These people recognize the guardians Utfa has used to seize your capital. They know, and have defeated, these Void Wraith. We must sue for peace, and quickly. If you ever wish to retake Imperalis, you will need this Coalition to do it."

Zakanna deflated, her fur going a soft blue-white. "Very well. I will be a prisoner, for now. Take us to this system, and I will order Takkar to cease the assault. Then, perhaps, we can meet to discuss what comes next. However, before we depart this system we should dock with my flagship. Its firepower will be useful in the days to come."

He eyed her carefully, trying to understand her motive. A dreadnought was a powerful weapon, but if he went there he'd be surrendering himself to her power. If she really wanted to take her world back, she'd need the Coalition. But could he trust her?

"Mmm, Captain, you must see this," Aluki commed. A video feed sprang up on the wall-mounted holoprojector. The image showed the surface of the planet--specifically the capital city. The spires had all begun to glow.

"Empress, what are we seeing?" Nolan asked, staring uneasily at the growing brilliance.

"I do not know," she whispered, attention all on the image of her city.

The light brightened until the brilliance drowned out the rest of the image. The point of view shifted to orbit, just as a beam of pure white brilliance poured from the planet. It boiled the atmosphere around the city, the torrent blazing a path into space.

Four dreadnoughts sat at the heart of a cloud of cruisers and destroyers. The energy washed over them. When it was over, two dreadnoughts remained, both severely damaged. None of the smaller ships survived.

"What did we just witness?" Zakanna demanded, looking from Yulo to Nolan.

"Looks like they've got some sort of planetary defenses," Nolan said. "Hopefully that thing has a cooldown. Aluki, make for the empress's dreadnought and request permission to dock. Make sure they know who we have on board."

Zakanna eyed him curiously, silent for a long moment. "Thank you, Captain. I know it is difficult to trust me, but I assure you we have a common enemy."

"You've sold me, Empress. I just hope you're willing to live up to your word."


44


After Them

Utfa watched in rapture as the city's brilliance discharged into the sky. Pulses of data flowed into his mind, showing the carnage the shot had wreaked on the unsuspecting Nyar fleet.

"Their two remaining dreadnoughts will warp away before we can fire again," Oako cautioned. He folded his arms beneath his robes, peering at Utfa from under his cowl.

"Let them." Utfa barked a short laugh. "Both remaining vessels are damaged, and without access to the shipyards we now control, there is no way to repair them. We've destroyed a quarter of the Nyar fleet before the fools even know we are at war."

Utfa walked to the edge of the island, the Beacon pulsing and humming behind him. It allowed control over the guardians, but only of a rough sort. He could tell them what he wanted done, but not how to do it. That was dangerous, and could lead to unintended consequences. He'd need to take great care.

"Of course, master." Oako gave a half-bow.

Both paused, staring up at the hole that had been punched in the top of the royal spire. The Void Wraith had been tracking the ship that had extracted the empress. Several harvesters had moved to engage. Then, suddenly, the empress was gone. There was no more data about the ship, not its destruction, nor its whereabouts.

"What will you do?" Oako asked. Perhaps Utfa imagined the accusatory tone, and perhaps not. For now he chose to ignore it.

Utfa closed his eyes, pulses flowing from his temple into the arcanotome. He attempted to get the guardians to search for the empress, to no avail. Somehow, she'd vanished from their sensors. Utfa stalked back and forth, glaring through the hole in the spire.

"If she escapes--"

"I am no fool, Oako. I know what will happen if she escapes. She will become a rallying cry for the Yog and the Vkash. All who seek to avoid the gaze of the Nameless Ones will flock to her standard, forming an army bent on retaking Imperalis." Utfa rounded on Oako. "Yet the day is not lost. My clan's fleet waits in orbit."

Utfa had ordered the Kthul dreadnoughts to wait in high orbit, a healthy distance from the empress's forces. Until now he hadn't risked them, both to preserve his forces and to cast confusion on the situation. Right now, the empress might know that Utfa was the one controlling the guardians, but there was no proof--nothing she could hold up to the other clans.

Entering the battle directly was risky, yet he saw no other choice. It was time to reveal themselves, and their true allegiance.

"What will you do?" Oako asked. His warrior roots provided context for the question. Oako thought like a warrior, and craved a warrior's answer.

"I've ordered all three Kthul dreadnoughts to assault the empress directly. They will disable, then board her ship," Utfa provided. He forced himself to stop pacing, to take deep calming breaths through his upper nostrils. This was his moment of triumph, and if he wished to savor it, he must calmly attend to its completion.

"Why not have the guardians do that?" Oako asked. The suspicion remained in his tone, the barely concealed superiority. He felt he was a better battle commander than Utfa, despite never having led. The arrogance of youth. Utfa had been no different.

"The guardians have yet to reach low orbit. Having them cloak and mass will give the empress time to prepare. While the guardians are effective against smaller foes, I doubt they'd enjoy the same success against a full dreadnought. No, they will remain here to protect the capital."

Utfa didn't mention his fear that he couldn't adequately control the guardians, and that they might kill everyone in orbit, their forces included. If he asked them to bring the empress back alive, they might do it. Or they might kill everyone. By entrusting the matter to his clan, he ensured that it would be carried out as he wished.

Besides, there was little point in hiding his clan's activities after today. Seizing Imperalis would trigger a war, no matter what else occurred.

Pulses of data flowed into his mind. Utfa gave a wicked smile. His forces were closing with the empress's dreadnought.


45


The Price

The cruiser shuddered as it struggled to break orbit, drawing a wince from Nolan. It felt suspiciously like enemy fire, and there was nothing he could do about it from the cargo bay. He considered boarding his mech, but saw no point. Without boosters it would be useless in space, and once they reached the empress's dreadnought there was no way he'd be allowed to keep it.

Even with boosters taking a mech out there would be a bad idea. The Void Wraith had stopped attacking them for now. If that changed, they were surrounded. They'd be destroyed in seconds.

"Captain," Hannan said, speaking in a low voice. She approached with Annie and Nuchik in tow, stopping near the foot of his mech. "You got a minute, sir?"

"Yeah." Nolan noted that T'kon stood with the empress, Khar, and Yulo on the far side of the cargo bay. Their adversarial stance wasn't lost on him. Sides were being chosen, and he didn't like where people were coming down.

"Sir, it's not too late to take control of the situation. We can warp away the second we break atmosphere. Are you absolutely certain you want to dock with that dreadnought?" The tension bled into Hannan's tone, though Nolan could tell she was trying to mute it in front of the others.

"Trusting the empress is a risk, one that I might be court-marshaled for once this all settles. Here's the thing, though: Khar is right. Without her cooperation, there will be no way to stop the battle in the Atreas system." Nolan gave a heavy sigh. "I've got the growing suspicion that we're going to find the empress on our side, and that we'll need all the help we can get."

"Might be the case," Annie allowed. She wore a sour expression, her attention fixed on Khar. "Whatever happens though, I'd keep him away from the Ganog. He looks about two days away from going feral."

"That's not for us to decide. Fizgig asked us to get Khar home, and we're doing that." Nolan shook his head. "Just stay alert. When we touch down on that dreadnought we'll find out real quick whether or not this was a mistake. When that happens, follow my lead. If they decide to capture us, resisting will only get us killed."

"I don't like it sir," Hannan said.

Nuchik brushed a lock of copper her from her face, but added nothing.

"Me either," Nolan said. "In fact, I hate it. The easy thing to do would be to warp away, but in this instance I don't think it's the smart thing to do. I've got to play this my way." He caught her gaze, finding understanding there.

"All right sir, it's your call. Better you than me," Hannan said. She turned to Annie and Nuchik. "Annie, get your mech idling. Nuchik, get your rifle primed. At the very least, we'll stay ready."

Nolan knew the point of the orders as soon as she gave them. Giving them something to do would take their minds off the looming situation.

He moved to his own mech, pulling himself up the leg and into the cockpit. He left the cockpit open, but activated one of the internal holoterminals. Nolan keyed it to the ship's sensors, and began scanning the system.

They'd reached low orbit, and thus far the Void Wraith hadn't adjusted their position. It looked like they'd made it. He scanned the planet, but there was no sign of whatever ground-based weapon had fired before would fire again.

"Uh-oh," he muttered. Nolan looked up at T'kon. "Hey, T'kon, you guys are going to want to see this." He keyed in the command to activate the cargo bay's holoterminal, sharing what he was seeing.

Three dreadnoughts were moving to encircle the empress. They were supported by a small fleet of cruisers and destroyers--enough that he doubted the empress's single ship had any chance.

"I should have expected this," the empress called in a clear voice. "Captain, what you're seeing is the approach of the Kthul. It is they who seized control of my world, and I suspect they seek to silence me here."

"There's still a chance to just warp away," Nolan pointed out. "We can get you out of here right now, with no risk."

"Doing so would cost my dreadnought, and the lives of my soldiers," the empress protested. She looked uncertainly at the white-furred Ganog. "Master Yulo, what would you suggest I do?"

"Saving yourself is meaningless if your clan learns that you fled this battle prematurely. You need that dreadnought, and you need to be seen escaping." Yulo rested a hand on the empress's shoulder. "Sometimes doing what is right is difficult, but the price of doing otherwise is much higher."

"Aluki, how far out from the dreadnought are we?" Nolan asked over the comm. He could see the holo, but it was difficult to judge distances based on the limited information he was tapping into.

"We can be docked in sixty seconds, but those other dreadnoughts are going to reach it at almost exactly the same time," Aluki's high voice came back.

"All right, Empress. Hold on. This is going to be a bumpy landing."


46


Warp

The cruiser shuddered violently, sending Nolan lurching into his mech's leg. He clung on, as the squad struggled to do the same all around him. The empress and her white-furred companion stood calmly, rolling with the motion like ancient earth sailors on their mother sea.

"Mmm, we're taking collateral fire from the dreadnought flak cannons." Aluki's voice came over the loudspeaker. "Both engines are damaged. Hold on. I'm going to guide us into the hangar bay."

The ship lurched again, and Nolan's hand shot out to seize the bar affixed to the mech's leg. He tensed his arm, holding himself in place as the ship bounced its way through what felt like an asteroid field. Nolan hated not being to see what was going on, hated trusting his fate to someone else's reflexes and intuition.

"I am quite surprised by how competent your ka'tok is, Captain Nolan," the empress began in a conversational tone.

"If you refer to her that way again, you will regret it," T'kon interjected. His hand dropped to his sidearm. Both Yulo and the empress eyed him dispassionately, but Khar took offense.

The Tigris interposed himself between the empress and T'kon, staring up at T'kon with a familiar fire in his eyes. At least he said nothing, though Nolan noted the firm set of his jaw. His tail thrashed behind him, almost daring T'kon to take another step.

"Oh, for God's sake, enough with the posturing," Nolan snapped. The ship lurched again, and there was a tremendous groan as it slowed. He waited for the groan to stop before continuing. "T'kon, I know you and Aluki are close, but let it go. We have more important things to be concerned with."

T'kon ignored Nolan, his attention fixed on Zakanna. He removed his hand from his side arm. "You have ruled over our people from the carefully constructed world you created in that ivory spire. Where has that arrogance gotten you, empress? Manipulated and ultimately deposed."

"Perhaps, but mine isn't the only such arrogance, is it, T'kon of the Azi clan?" The empress's eyes blazed, and she pushed past Khar to stand next to T'kon. "We have arrived on my flagship, the heart of my remaining power. If, for some reason, I didn't wish to kill you myself, I could have any number of loyal clansmen do it for me."

"Hey." Nolan tensed. The sudden reminder of where they were was sobering. He needed to diffuse this and quickly. "I said hey." All eyes turned to him. Nolan stalked over to the Ganog. "Put this shit aside, right goddamned now. Zakanna--that's your name right? T'kon and the ka'tok saved your collective asses. You'd be dead back on Imperalis if not for them. How about you put aside your feelings and concentrate on getting us out of here? Didn't you say that the Kthul fleet was bearing down on us?"

Zakanna blinked, then her fur softened to an embarrassed pink. "Apologies. You are correct, human." She walked to the cargo ramp, slapping the button beside it. The ramp began to lower, giving Nolan the first glimpse at the interior of a Ganog dreadnought.

"I'm going to contact my people. Do you mind if we stay on the ship?" Nolan asked.

"I understand your mistrust, and your wish to remain in the ship. I'm afraid I must refuse. Your crew can remain here, but you will accompany me to the command island." Zakanna stalked down the ramp, and into a long, narrow hangar. It reeked of something that smelled like oil, and Nolan noted the rusted walls immediately. This place had been terribly maintained.

Yulo followed Zakanna toward a doorway at the far side, but Khar hung back a moment. Nolan moved to stand beside him, eyeing his friend searchingly. "I hope like hell you remember whose side you're on, Khar. You're scaring the crap out of me."

"I remember my friends, Nolan," Khar rumbled. He extended a paw, and Nolan accepted it. "You will always be part of me, and I will always be part of you. I know you do not understand my actions, but I promise that when you understand them, you will agree they are necessary."

Nolan barked a short laugh. "If you say so." He turned to Hannan. "Stay here and keep the shuttle powered up. Contact Admiral Fizgig and give her a full report. If she can stop the battle, wonderful."


47


End This

Zakanna quietly opened her lower nostrils, taking a single long breath before closing them. It helped to compose her, and in that moment she needed composure. She stepped off the transport disk, onto the command island.

Yogotho, her finest surviving fleet leader, stood atop the dais, calling out orders to the battery of techsmiths behind him. She looked up, trying to make sense of the battle as it raged across the system.

"Takkar has not fared well," Yulo murmured, also staring up.

"I only count nine dreadnoughts." Zakanna shook her head. "Over a third of the support ships are missing." She stalked to the dais.

Yogotho turned to her, giving a low bow. "Do you wish to assume command, Empress?" She noted the glare that Yogotho shot Nolan's way. The human stood back at the edge of the island next to Khar, both looking uncomfortable.

Zakanna considered the benefits of assuming direct command. She surveyed the system quickly, but other than scattered debris fields there was no direct sign of ship to ship combat.

"I will assume command." She leaped atop the dais, stabbing a finger at a techsmith. "Get me Takkar. Now. Then compile a report on the surface battle."

"I have opened a channel, Empress." The techsmith bowed, even as a spider-legged holo-unit scurried onto the dais. A hologram sprang to life above it, showing Takkar's command island.

Takkar stood alone, except for a single techsmith. His hands were clasped behind his back, and he stared upward, no doubt studying the battle. He turned toward the holo-unit, his fur darkening. "Now is hardly the time, Zakanna. I've given you everything you wished. What is it now? Be swift. I have a battle to run."

"The battle is over." Zakanna leaned closer to the holo-unit, glaring at the defiant commander. "Order your vessels to retreat to my position. Now."

"I'll do no such thing," Takkar roared. "The work is not yet done. We've nearly destroyed their factory."

"Takkar." Zakanna stepped back, flaring her lower nostrils and forcing her fur to a soft grey. "You have fought bravely this day, and no doubt could eradicate every last Coalition vessel easily. I can see that you were winning." She couldn't. In fact, there was still no sign of the enemy fleet. "This battle is no longer of import. The Kthul, under the direction of the seekers, have seized control of Imperalis. They've awakened an army of guardians. Over a quarter of the Nyar fleet has been eradicated. What you possess here is the sum of our fighting strength against the Kthul. If we lose it fighting this...Coalition, then the seekers win. Our people become slaves to the Nameless Ones, just as our ancestors did. Think, Takkar. I know how you hate the seekers. Do you really wish to play into their hands?"

Takkar's fur darkened to a deep red-black. Whirls of color flowed through it as Takkar labored under a maelstrom of emotion. Zakanna said nothing, allowing the storm to blow out. She knew Takkar, knew what he loved, and what he despised. Takkar hated seekers more than anything, more than he valued winning here...even against the foe that had so incensed and embarrassed him.

"Very well." Takkar raised a clenched fist, and the techsmith transmitted his orders. The Ganog fleet ceased firing on the doomed factory in low orbit. "Yet how do you expect to convince the enemy to withdraw? This enemy commander strikes from the shadows, and then quickly retreats. She has bled my forces, and there is nothing to stop her from continuing this."

"Nolan?" Zakanna called, waving the human forward.

He joined her in front of the hologram, nodding to Takkar. "Hello, Takkar. I've had my people contact Admiral Fizgig to request a cease fire. If you take no hostile action, she'll honor that. For now."

"Very well. Empress, are you certain this alliance is wise? We know little of these new aliens." Takkar frowned at Nolan.

"Takkar, the Coalition has faced a Nameless One, and killed it. For now, that is all I need to know. We have a common foe, and I believe the Coalition will see reason. If they do not, then I will unleash you to destroy them." Zakanna gave a simple shrug, as if the outcome didn't matter.

Takkar cocked his head thoughtfully. "Perhaps you are right. I would have expected another strike by now, yet there is no sign of her fleet."

As if in answer to his words dozens of Coalition vessels decloaked. They were clustered in high orbit, far enough away that they could easily interpose the planet between them and the Ganog. They made no threatening move, merely hovering there in orbit.

"Empress, we are receiving a signal from the enemy fleet. They are requesting a cease fire. They would like to send a delegation aboard." The techsmith gave a low bow, then backed away as she awaited a response.

Zakanna smiled. "Tell them we agree. Invite them to send a force of their warriors aboard. We have much to discuss."


48


Pact

Nolan offered an arm to help Fizgig down off the platform, onto the ivory ring bordering the empress's command island. She merely glared at him, hopping nimbly to the island. Fizgig turned to the center of the island, sizing up the empress and her delegation.

"It would seem she has kept her word," Fizgig said. "I see only a few attendants."

"She seems trustworthy--so far anyway." Nolan fell into step next to Fizgig as they slowly approached the empress.

She stood atop her dais, hands clasped behind her back. Her fur was a soft grey, almost white. Next to her stood Khar, his body covered by environmental armor. Only his head was exposed, his golden mane framing his leonine face.

On the empress's other side stood an unfamiliar Ganog, one who was glaring hatefully at Fizgig. He was taller than the empress, taller even than T'kon. His scarlet armor gleamed, and an enormous axe with a wickedly curved blade was strapped to his back.

A single Saurian in grey robes stood a few feet from the dais, attentively waiting for orders from its mistress. That was it. The empress had no other guards, and if he or Fizgig decided to attack her there was little she'd be able to do to prevent it.

That showed trust, which gave Nolan hope.

He approached, then gave a short bow. "Empress Zakanna, allow me to introduce Admiral Fizgig of Pride Fizgig. She is our finest Fleet Commander, and has engaged your forces both at Ganog 7 and here in the Atreas system."

Fizgig inclined her head at Zakanna, but didn't bow. Her tail swished slowly behind her, and her feline eyes were narrowed to slits. There was more white in her fur than when Nolan had last met her, but he had no doubt that she was just as lethal as she'd been in her prime. Probably more so.

"I am pleased to meet you, Fizgig." Zakanna returned the nod that Fizgig had given, mimicking it perfectly.

"I have only come because Nolan insisted. So far as I am concerned, you are an enemy--one who struck without warning, and has caused untold damage in both lives and material. Why have you called me here?" Fizgig spoke simply, as she would to an equal. It was a start.

"I have asked you here because I wish to end the bloodshed between our races," the empress explained. She waved a furred hand in Khar's direction. "Your companion has told me much of your species, and I believe attacking you was a mistake--one I'd like to rectify, before the war escalates."

"Really?" Fizgig asked dryly. "Because I was under the impression that you'd been deposed, and that you now need the Coalition as allies to win back your throne."

"I told you this was pointless," the other Ganog growled.

"Be silent, Takkar." The empress spoke quietly, and Takkar's jaw snapped shut.

"Takkar?" Fizgig asked, her eyes widening slightly. She smiled grimly up at the black-furred Ganog. "So you are the enemy commander I've been battling. You've an interesting style. It relies too much on brute force, but I cannot deny that it is effective."

Takkar opened his mouth to reply, but snapped it shut again at a look from the empress.

"Admiral--that is your title, yes?" the empress smoothly interjected. "You've suffered much at the hands of the Vkash clan, Takkar's clan. I lead the Imperium--or led it, until, as you say, I was deposed. Yet I still lead the Yog clan. I still command our armies, and our fleets--"

"You seek to deflect blame for the attack on Takkar," Fizgig interrupted. "And from the look of it, he's willing to accept responsibility. Yet I am no fool. I see three distinctly different forces out there." Fizgig pointed up at the dreadnought's transparent hull, at the cluster of Ganog ships. "Is one of those fleets from the Yog clan?"

"Yes," Zakanna reluctantly admitted.

"Your species, your empire, has warred upon us. Now, you face a civil war. Why would we intervene? We can simply wait for you to wipe each other out, while we grow strong." Fizgig folded her arms, her tail swishing a wide arc over her shoulders.

"I'll tell you why," Nolan said, surprising everyone. All eyes turned to him. "Admiral, we faced Void Wraith on their capital world. Not just any Void Wraith either. These ones had been kept in stasis for millennia. That army is the reason the empress was deposed in the first place. You and I both know what that means."

"Nolan speaks the truth," Khar roared, hopping from the dais to land near Fizgig. He stalked over, his posture more aggressive than Nolan had ever seen it with Fizgig. "The Void Wraith are puppets of the Gorthians, as are the seekers who now control them. These foul scum are tools of the Gorthians, and if we do nothing they will place the might of the Ganog at the command of our enemies. If we do nothing, we invite a war we may not be able to win."

"I have overlooked your disloyalty, Khar, because I consider you one of my own kits. Yet do not think I have forgotten it, or that it rests easy in my heart. I do not know what spell this...woman has cast over you, but it is clear to me that your judgement has been compromised." Fizgig's eyes narrowed to slits, and she took a threatening step toward Khar.

The larger Tigris retreated--not that Nolan could blame him.

"Believe as you will about my loyalty, but I speak facts, Mighty Fizgig," Khar protested. He pointed at the Ganog fleet. "That fleet is the best hope we have of retaking Imperalis from the seekers."

Fizgig appeared unmoved, and there was an awkward moment of silence, until the empress finally spoke. "Admiral, surely you can see the merits in an alliance. Both of us have been deeply wounded today."

"Not so," Fizgig countered, folding her arms. "There have been many Ganog bodies, but very few Coalition."

"What are you prattling about?" Takkar roared, glaring down at Fizgig. "We've wiped out your factories, both on the ground and in orbit. We've taken away your ability to make war."

"Have you?" Fizgig asked mildly. She gave a slight smile. "Or did you come to the system we chose, attacking factories that our people no longer use?"

Both Takkar and the empress were made mute by the revelation. Finally, the empress turned to Khar. "You knew about this, didn't you?"

"No, but had I, I would have said nothing." Khar said simply. He didn't make excuses, calmly accepting the empress's silent fury.

Takkar began a deep booming laugh. He leapt from the dais, landing near Fizgig. She slid into a combat stance, but Takkar dropped to one knee. He slowly withdrew his axe from his back and laid it at Fizgig's feet. "You have bested me, completely. In all ways. My fleet is wounded, while yours is unharmed. All for a world that means nothing to you. I do not know how you have accomplished this, but I am Ganog enough to admit when I am in the presence of a superior warrior. I have no wish to follow Zakanna, but I will follow you."

Fizgig's tail stopped moving. She cocked her head, studying the kneeling Ganog. "You have impressed me, Takkar of the Vkash clan. Your style is bold, and you have potential. If you temper your boldness with caution and cunning, you will be unstoppable."

"Does this mean you are willing to work with them?" Khar demanded.

"It doesn't really matter what I think," Fizgig said. She shrugged. "President Dryker and the sycophants known as Congress will have to make that decision. I can say this, though: I agree with the need for an alliance. I will urge Dryker to accept this alliance. Nolan is right about the Gorthians. They are playing a deeper game, and I fear that by the time we learn what it is, it will be too late."



Epilogue

Utfa stared up the wide stone steps, which ascended to the mountain top above. He'd been climbing for hours; now he paused to rest, staring at the holiest of sites. He'd always wanted to make the pilgrimage to Azatok, as so many others had before him.

Azatok lay beyond the borders of the Ganog Imperium. The world was just outside Kthul controlled space, and--if the legends were to be believed--this was the place where the Nameless Ones had handed down their final commandments to the Ganog. Then they had departed into The Cold, never to be seen again.

Until now.

Utfa started up the steps again, taking deliberate steps as he neared the summit. The summons had come from another dream fragment. The Nameless One had reached out to him through the arcanotome, touching his sleeping mind. Implanting the suggestion that he travel here.

And Utfa had obeyed.

He mounted the final step, entering a wide temple courtyard atop a single slab of granite. The buildings had fallen to ruin, all save the altar at the far side of the courtyard. Utfa approached it, watching warily. No Nameless One leapt out of the shadows, yet when he glanced at the rock face to his left a chill quite unrelated to the cold passed down his spine. The rock bore the carving from his dream--the carving that had spoken to him.

Utfa stopped before the altar, its stone stained scarlet by hundreds of generations of blood offerings. He reached to his belt, slowly withdrawing the dagger of ceremony. The blade glittered in the strange green light that filtered through the nebula dominating the night sky.

A quick stroke drew a line of pain across his palm, then droplets of blood began to fall. He clenched his fist, increasing the flow to trace the runes of Ptaff, slowly and precisely. When he'd completed the work, he flared his lower nostrils, sucking in a mighty breath.

"Terrible Nameless Ones, I tremble before your mighty gaze. This one stands ready for your judgement."

The words echoed across the courtyard, the echo carried off by the wind. These words were ritual, spoken by millions of seekers over thousands of years. There had never been a single response--and even after his dream Utfa didn't really expect one.

But something massive loomed into view over the mountain's craggy peaks. Utfa's mind struggled to give meaning to what he was seeing, but it failed utterly. He was left with the impression of tentacles, and too many eyes. Slimy, wet, skin. The scent of sweet, rotting meat, underscored with terrible corruption.

You seek judgement, and judged you shall be. The words oozed into his mind, insidious and terrible, with a million echoing whispers surrounding each word.

The thing approached, drifting slowly down the mountain. Still, Utfa struggled to make sense of it. Staring at it tore his mind in some inexplicable way. If he stared long enough, he knew he would lose himself to madness.

Utfa dropped to his knees, casting his gaze to the stones. He waited, panting, until he sensed the presence looming directly above. The odor was stronger, but still faint and insidious, just like the words.

More words oozed into his mind. You are an acceptable servant. You have accomplished the first task I have set you.

"I do not understand," Utfa murmured, immediately regretting the words. One did not question a god, even a benevolent one. And this god was far from benevolent.

Did you think it was your idea to take Imperalis? Did you believe that it was your hand that guided the guardians? The voice was amused. My gaze fell on you long ago. I molded you. Shaped your thoughts, and dreams, and desires. Everything you are, you are because I wish it.

Utfa couldn't answer of course. What did one say to that? He flung himself to the stones, prostrating himself before the Nameless One. He wanted to ask what it wished of him, but his terror at the prospect of speaking overwhelmed his curiosity.

You have accomplished much, yet more work remains. My brethren approach, and they will arrive with a terrible hunger. The traitors among your kind--the Yog, and the Vkash. The impudent Nyar. Their end has come.

Here is what you will do...



Press The Line

The story continues in Press the Line, which should be out in early June of 2017. If you'd like to read the prequel novella, Planetstrider, please sign up to the mailing list.

In the meantime, feel free to check out the first few chapters of Destroyer.


Before the Ganog, there were the Void Wraith. Destroyer is the first book in the Void Wraith trilogy, and I've included the first couple chapters so you can see if it's something you'd be into...


Hold The Line


1

Debris

Commander Nolan ducked through the hatch into the combat information center of the UFC Johnston. It was smaller than he was used to, the consoles set closer to each other than they'd been back at the Office of Fleet Intelligence. Seven people made the room positively claustrophobic, and he imagined that this was what sailors had experienced aboard submarines just a few centuries past.

"Captain, we're clearing the sun's corona. Inductive field down to twelve percent. I'm bringing thrusters online," Emo called over his shoulder in a strange southern drawl, completely at odds with his appearance. Waif-thin and pale, he wore black lipstick and white makeup. The left side of his head had been shaved, while the shiny black hair on the right side drooped over his face. He sat near the far end of the CIC, his simple chrome chair aimed at the view screen.

That view screen showed the most breathtaking vista Nolan had ever seen. Pillars of flame hundreds of miles high shot up around them, more than one coming perilously close to their destroyer class vessel. Emo deftly maneuvered around the flares, slowly gaining distance from the star. The fact that it was even possible to escape a sun's gravitational pull was nothing short of miraculous, but the Helios drives made it commonplace. They simply harnessed the sun's own energy.

"Commander, are you going to join us?" called a gruff voice. Nolan turned toward the voice, which had come from a chair on the opposite side of the room--one that was set a little higher than the rest, a subtle reminder that the person sitting there was in charge.

In this case, that person was a short man in his early sixties, a person Nolan had revered his whole life. The legendary Captain Dryker, hero of the Tigris war. His white beard was scraggly and his hair hadn't seen a brush since Nolan had boarded three days past, but the captain's eyes were sharp and his leanly-muscled physique was still that of a much younger officer.

"Yes, sir," Nolan said, realizing he was still standing just inside the narrow hatchway. He threaded between the communication consoles, wishing he knew the names of the two techs working there. He stepped up next to the captain's chair, folding his hands behind his back.

"You're two minutes early," the captain said, though his eyes were fixed on the view screen.

"Yes, sir. I prefer being early," Nolan said, though he had the impression that the captain wasn't really listening.

"Captain," Emo called, spinning his chair to face them. "You're going to want to see this. Check grid 729, sir."

"Noted," Dryker said, scanning a data pad sitting in his lap. He loosened the collar of his uniform, revealing a coffee stain on the cotton shirt underneath. Nolan waited for several moments while the captain scanned. Dryker finally looked up, meeting Nolan's gaze. "What do you make of this, Commander?"

He handed the pad to Nolan, who quickly scanned the data. "It's a debris field, sir. From the alloy, I'd suggest it's probably the remains of a Tigris vessel. It's smaller than I'd expect, though. A science vessel, maybe?"

"Very good," Dryker replied, giving a tight nod. "And what can you deduce from the situation?"

Nolan was silent as he glanced between the view screen and the data pad. There were a lot of disparate pieces, but he knew they added up to something--something the captain was already aware of. "There was a battle, and that battle was recent. Tigris don't generally send their science vessels outside their own space, and they certainly don't send them to a human colony like Mar Kona."

"Good, but there's a more urgent fact you're missing," Dryker said, eyeing Nolan frostily.

Nolan resisted the urge to blush. He'd only been aboard the Johnston for a few days, and didn't mind admitting that the war hero intimidated him. "Sir?"

"The debris is close, maybe three hundred thousand clicks from the sun's corona," Dryker supplied, raising an eyebrow.

"Ahh, I should have caught that," Nolan replied, finally understanding. He tensed. "The battle was recent. Very recent. If this had happened even a few hours ago the debris field would have already been pulled in by the sun's gravity."

The Johnston had cleared the corona, and was accelerating toward the debris field. As they approached the view screen's magnification shifted to provide a close up. Large chunks of bronze-colored alloy floated in space, sinking gradually closer to the sun.

"Set condition one throughout the ship," Dryker barked.

A blonde lieutenant in her early twenties gave a quick nod and a murmured response, then the lighting changed. The bright halogens faded to soft red, and a single warning klaxon rang across the deck. Nolan had never seen a ship of the line enter combat readiness, but he'd been trained for it back at the academy. He moved a step to the left, clipping himself to a handle on the side of the bulkhead.

"Captain, do you think whoever did this is still here? Wouldn't we be able to see them?" Nolan asked. It might be a stupid question, but he was genuinely curious.

"It's possible they could have retreated back into the sun, and they may have already used the Helios Gate," Dryker conceded, his eyes never leaving the view screen. "I don't think so, though. I'm guessing they're still in system. Emo, give me a system scan. Where could a vessel run to?"

"There are only two real choices," Emo said. "They could go for that asteroid field that used to be a moon, or they could be hiding in Mar Kona's shadow."

"They'd have to be damned quick to make it to the planet already," Dryker said, rising from his chair and crossing the deck to stand next to Emo. Nolan considered following, but chose to stay clipped to the bulkhead.

"Sir, if they are in the asteroid field, what are we planning to do about it?" Nolan asked.

"Captain," the blonde snapped, drawing Nolan's attention. Her blue eyes had gone wide. "Another vessel is emerging from the Helios Gate. It's clearing the sun's corona now. It's broadcasting an ident. Looks to be a Tigris Warship."

"Battle stations," Dryker barked.


2

You're In Charge

Nolan tensed as the Klaxon blared a second time. That was the only sign that anything had changed. The techs manning the comm stations didn't so much as flinch, instead keeping their focus and continuing to monitor the individual metrics that every warship needed in combat.

"Commander Nolan," Dryker said, brushing lint from the arm of his uniform. He looked up to meet Nolan's gaze. "You have the bridge."

"Excuse me? Uh, sir," Nolan said, trying to keep the shock from his voice. The idea that a captain would desert his bridge during a battle was unthinkable.

"Did I stutter? The shift has changed. It's 0800 and you're scheduled to take command, aren't you? I'm going to go get some chow," Dryker said. His tone was flat, completely devoid of emotion.

Nolan paused, glancing at the view screen. The Tigris warship loomed behind them, slowly clearing the sun's corona. The spike-shaped vessel dodged a solar flare, disappearing for a moment before returning to view. The thing looked like a high-caliber bullet: long, lean, and deadly. Three ports ringed the midsection, each capable of launching one of the dart fighters the Tigris so loved to employ. Above those ports were a smaller ring of turrets, designed to launch harpoons that would pin their foes long enough to grapple them.

"Sir, I'm not sure that's appropriate. I've only been aboard ship for three days, and I--" Nolan began.

"Nolan," Dryker snapped, taking a step closer. Nolan could smell coffee on the captain's breath. "You're an officer of the UFC, are you not? You're trained to command in combat--by OFI, no less. If the Office of Fleet Intelligence hasn't prepared you for battle, then why the hell are you on my ship?"

"Well, yes, I have been trained," Nolan began again. "But, sir, you've seen at least a dozen battles. Are you certain that--"

"I'm going to see about breakfast," Dryker said, ducking past Nolan and through the hatch. He paused to poke his head back inside. "Figure it out, Nolan. Or we're all dead."

Nolan took a deep breath and focused on the view screen. The warship was closing, but because it was exiting the sun's corona it hadn't had time to accelerate yet. They still had a little time to react. That time would be critical. The Tigris warship was three times their size. It was faster, better armored, and packed wall to wall with a race that lived for combat.

"Pilot," Nolan barked, trying to affect the same tone of authority Dryker had used. "Set course for the asteroid field around Mar Kona."

"Acknowledged, Commander," Emo replied in a lazy drawl. Nolan couldn't feel the ship accelerate, but the asteroids loomed larger as the Johnston made for them.

"You," he said, pointing at the blonde comm tech. "What's your name?"

"Lieutenant Juliard, sir," the woman said, blinking at him.

"Juliard, open a channel to the Tigris vessel and put it on screen," Nolan ordered. He moved to the captain's chair, pausing to inspect the smooth chrome. Then he sat, resting his arms on the cold metal. The chair had been designed for function, not form. Just like everything else on this rust bucket. The Johnston had been old when the war with the Tigris began, and should have been retired when that war ended.

"On screen, sir," Juliard said. Nolan glanced up as the screen shimmered. The asteroid disappeared, replaced by a very feline, very angry face. This Tigris had black fur and large yellow eyes. Its shoulders, arms, and chest were corded with thick muscle, and Nolan was thankful they weren't in the same room. This thing could probably tear him apart.

"You will die for this atrocity, ape," the creature snarled. When it spoke, Nolan caught sight of wicked two-inch fangs. A thickly-furred tail flicked over its shoulder, as though it had a mind of its own. "The Leonis Pride will be alerted to your cowardly actions."

Nolan attempted to explain. "We didn't destroy your science vessel. We--"

The view screen went dark.

"They've cut connection, sir," Juliard said, quite unhelpfully.

"Lovely," Nolan snarled. He leaned forward in the chair, thinking quickly. "Emo, how close are we to the asteroid field?"

"Not close enough, sir. I've plotted the Tigris intercept course. They're going to reach us about forty seconds before we make that field," Emo said, glancing over his shoulder at Nolan. Nolan had a hard time taking Emo seriously, and hoped his style of dress didn't mean the young pilot was bad at his job. They were going to need some top-notch flying in the next few minutes.

He considered his strategy for all of three seconds. Tigris had greater acceleration, which fit their MO. Their vessels had dense tritanium along the spike at their prow, which was perfect for ramming enemy vessels. Once they'd done so, hatches opened all along the tip to allow them to disgorge boarding parties. Tigris loved hand to hand combat, and their vessels didn't have any ranged weaponry beyond their harpoons and dart fighters. That had proven to be more than enough during the eight-year war.

"Full burn for those asteroids, Emo," Nolan ordered. He turned to a dark-skinned man he'd yet to meet. The man was standing at the gunnery station. "You, Lieutenant...Ezana? Bring turrets one through eight online, and prepare for dispersal firing. See if you can make them wary, at least."

"Yes, sir." The man bent back to his console.

Nolan punched a button on the tablet the captain had left him, and the view screen shifted to show the pursuing Tigris vessel. It had already exited the corona, and was accelerating toward them.

"Commander, they're gaining rapidly," Juliard said, her voice rising half an octave.

"Damn it," Nolan cursed, knowing they were playing right into the Tigris hands. Should they stand and fight? No, that way lay death. He needed a way to even the odds.

"Commander, they've launched three darts," Ezana shouted. "I'll try to intercept."

The entire ship shook as the starboard and aft turrets began firing. Each turret was a miniature gauss cannon, little brothers to the forward-facing main cannon underslung along the hull. Unfortunately, that cannon required them to be facing a foe, and Nolan wasn't about to risk that.

Three sleek, missile-like ships were rapidly closing the distance to the Johnston. Nolan held his breath as all eight turrets fired. White streaks shot into space--visible evidence of the breakup of the projectile housing, as each turret fired a depleted uranium core accelerated to lethal velocity with powerful magnets.

One of the darts exploded, but the other two took evasive maneuvers. The darts had no armaments, but their massive engines allowed them to rapidly close with their targets. Like their parent vessel, they had dense tritanium armor, which meant that only a direct hit would bring one down.

"Brace yourselves," Nolan roared, grabbing onto the side of the chair. The ship shuddered, then shuddered again, as both darts impacted.

Unlike the Primos, the Tigris didn't generally use conventional ordinance. Those missiles were troop transports.

He stabbed a button on the right arm of the captain's chair to send his voice across the entire ship. "This is Commander Nolan," he said. "All hands prepare to be boarded."


3

Hannan

Hannan settled her combat helmet over her bare scalp, flicking the switch that illuminated the targeting HUD. Her Head-up Display could be set to show a variety of things, but for this engagement, targeting was what she needed. She tucked her sidearm into the holster strapped to the leg of her TX-11 body armor, then picked up her assault rifle. Around her the rest of the squad was doing the same.

"Mills, you're on point," she said, tucking two more clips into the largest pouch on her belt.

"Sure," the handsome sniper said. He peered at her with those frosty blue eyes, expression as emotionless as a shark's. He didn't salute, and she didn't ask him to. He did his job, and that was enough.

"Edwards, keep your cool, all right? Wait for them to come to us." Hannan turned to face the largest member of the squad, a beefy man with a thick red beard and a shaved scalp. The private had a slightly vacant expression, which matched his demeanor. Edwards wasn't smart, but he was loyal and took orders well.

"Yes, sir," Edwards said, giving her an eager nod. He picked up his heavy assault rifle, the TM-601. It weighed nearly sixty pounds, about three times her own TM-30.

"Paterson," she said, addressing the oldest member of the squad. Paterson wore a neatly trimmed beard that was beginning to gray, and had been in the 14th even longer than Hannan. For some reason he'd never advanced beyond private, and seemed happy with that. "I want you to keep an eye on the kid." She didn't wait for a reply, exiting the armory and starting up the corridor.

"I've got your back, Duncan. Just stick close to me," Paterson said, clapping the newest member of the squad on the back.

"I don't need a babysitter," Duncan said, eyes flashing. The kid trotted up the corridor until he was even with Hannan. "Just show me where the Tigris are. I've been wanting a new lion-skin rug."

"Don't be an idiot," Hannan said, eyes narrowing. "Stay in position, and listen to Paterson. If you get out of line again, I'll toss your ass into the brig, Private. Am I clear?"

"Yes, sir," Duncan said, sullenly.

"Sarge," Mills called from up the corridor. He dropped to one knee next to the hatch leading down to B deck, one fist raised to indicate they should stop.

The squad froze, each making their profile as small as possible. Hannan glided forward, trying to be stealthy as she knelt next to Mills. "What have you got?"

"See for yourself," Mills whispered.

Hannan peered down the corridor. About forty meters away a bronze spike had shot through the hull. It filled the corridor, and the tip punched through the inner wall. The area around the breach was thick with viscous black fluid, which the Tigris used to prevent attacked vessels from depressurizing. She could see an outline along the metal spike, and knew immediately what it was.

"Boarding tube. They're going to pop out of there any second," she whispered. Hannan turned back to the quad, raising her arm and gesturing to the squad. They trotted forward, assuming defensive positions. Hannan waited until they were settled before speaking. "We'll have contact in a few seconds. As soon as that hatch opens they'll start pouring out. Let Mills pick them off. When they rush our position, cut them down. Let them come to us."

A sharp hiss sounded behind her, and Hannan whirled with a curse. The hatch along the spike slid down, and the first Tigris dropped into the hallway. It wore midnight armor that matched its fur well enough that she had a hard time knowing where the armor ended and fur began. The beast was taller than Edwards, and about twice as wide. It cradled a huge shotgun, a weapon the Tigris had adopted during the eight year war.

"End it, Mills," she whispered.

Mills brought the stock of his rifle to his shoulder, sighting down the scope. The motion was as smooth as it was fast, and less than two seconds later a sharp report echoed down the corridor. The bullet caught the Tigris above the left eye, and blood sprayed the bronze tube behind it as the beast collapsed to the deck.

Hannan ducked to the left side of the hatch as answering fire came from the Tigris. The corridor filled with the hot smell of gunpowder, and the pings of slugs biting into the other side of the hatch.

"They're going to rush us," Hannan called over the gunfire. "Get ready to push back."

She risked a glance around the hatch, and cursed when she saw the Tigris charging. Four black-furred cats bounded up the hallway, covering ten feet with every jump. She brought up the muzzle of her assault rifle and loosed a three round burst at the closest target. It caught the cat in the chest, but the heavy armor shunted the impact. The cat was knocked prone, but was otherwise unharmed.

Its companions bounded over it, and the first one leapt through the door. Edwards was waiting, and the deep angry booms of his TM-601 were deafening. The stream of slugs caught the cat in the face, sending it into a backwards spin. It flipped back through the doorway with a pitiful mew, but the next cat was already through. It landed next to Edwards, grabbing the barrel of his assault rifle with one hand.

It yanked the weapon from Edwards's grip, tossing it to the deck. Then the beast raked his armor with its claws, sending up a shower of sparks as Edwards toppled backwards. The cat leapt, pinning the big Marine to the deck as it savaged his neck armor with those massive jaws.

Another cat came through, but Duncan and Paterson were ready. Their combined fire drove the cat back, then a lucky shot from the kid caught the cat in the face. It slumped to the deck, its body straddling the hatch.

Hannan took a split second to assess, then decided that Edwards was most in need of help. She darted forward, ripping her sidearm from its holster. She planted the weapon against the back of the Tigris's skull, and squeezed the trigger. The beast's skull was thick, but not thick enough to take three high velocity rounds at close range. It collapsed onto Edwards, who groaned as he tossed the body aside.

"Thanks, Sarge," Edwards panted, his face and neck covered in blood. She hoped most of that was from the Tigris.

"Get some," Duncan yelled. Hannan's head snapped up, her stomach sinking when she saw what was happening.

Duncan had advanced past the hatch, into the hallway. There was no cover there, and he was completely unsupported. She was still rising to her feet when a black form flashed into view. It leveled its shotgun at Duncan's chest, and the weapon boomed. Duncan was picked up and hurled backwards, landing in a heap.

Paterson rushed into the corridor, unloading three-round bursts at the Tigris who'd shot Duncan. That Tigris went down, but answering fire from the other Tigris lit Paterson up. His body jerked as rounds punched through his armor, and he finally collapsed to the deck. Hannan knew he was dead.

"Mills," she snarled. "I'll lay down suppressive fire. I want dead cats, and I want them now."

"Dead cats I can do," he said. It was all he had to say. Hannan knew that Mills had more cause than most to hate the Tigris. His parents had been on a freighter wiped out by Tigris, during the war.

Hannan dropped to one knee, shielding her body with the hatch as much as possible. She switched her weapon to full auto, and sprayed the corridor with a quarter clip's worth of rounds. There were only three targets remaining, and all three ducked when she began firing.

Mills brought his rifle up. It coughed once. Twice. Three times. All three cats collapsed to the deck.

Hannan stopped firing, her chest heaving as she surveyed the carnage.

"We did it," Duncan said, stumbling awkwardly to his feet. His armor had been punctured over his right shoulder, which explained how he'd survived a Tigris shotgun blast. His gap-toothed grin made Hannan want to punch him. "We downed a Tigris boarding party. Hell yes."

"Shut up, kid," Mills said. "We got lucky."

"What do you mean?" Duncan said, blinking. He was unaware of the blood coming from Paterson's body, just a couple feet away.

"These weren't elites," Hannan said, wearily. She moved down to Paterson, gently closing his eyes. She gave Duncan a hard look. "These are nothing more than privateers, not true Leonis Pride. If we'd fought elites all of us would be dead, thanks to that stunt you pulled."


4

Cat and Mouse

"Emo," Nolan called, rising from his chair and moving toward the pilot's chair. "I want you to decelerate."

"You want me to do what? Are you crazy?" Emo said, darting a look Nolan's way that left no doubt how he felt about Nolan's sanity. He looked around to the rest of the bridge crew. "Where's the captain? This guy is going to get us killed."

"Ensign Gaden, I gave you a direct order," Nolan snapped. He seized the back of Emo's chair, the adrenaline surging through him. "Do it. Slow down to seventy-five percent acceleration."

Nolan spun to face the comm officer. "Juliard, tell Engineering to shut down engine number four."

"Aye, sir," Juliard responded, her voice calm. Though her expression showed a healthy dose of fear, she bent to her terminal and began punching in commands.

Nolan released Emo's chair and moved back to his own, eyes fixed on the view screen as he waited to see if his tactic would work.

"Sir, the Tigris are closing the gap between us. They'll be in range to grapple in nine seconds," Emo said, spinning his chair to face Nolan.

"I'm aware of that. When they're three seconds out, I want you to do a full burn in the three active engines. That should get us into that asteroid field," Nolan ordered, forcing himself to lean back in the chair.

"Ahh, I see what you're up to," Captain Dryker said, ducking through the hatch. He carried a plate of the yellow protein that passed for eggs, but tasted a lot more like styrofoam. "You want them to think we're more wounded than we are, that their boarding teams disabled an engine. Don't let me interrupt."

Nolan clenched a fist, then took a deep breath. Putting him in charge had been the worst kind of recklessness, but he'd only have a chance to be angry about it if they survived the next three minutes.

"The Tigris warship is following us into the asteroid field," Emo warned. He tilted the stick, and the Johnston bucked wildly as it swerved around an asteroid that dwarfed both itself and the pursuing warship.

Nolan was silent as Emo expertly threaded their way through the asteroid field. They passed within a dozen feet of chunks of rock large enough to crush their vessel. The Tigris warship showed up as a red blip on the mini-map in the corner of the display. It was close, but no longer gaining.

"Juliard, connect me to Engineering," he ordered, again forcing himself to relax in the chair. His next move was a gamble. If it paid off, they had a chance. If not--well, at least he wouldn't be around to be chastised for it.

"You're live, sir," Juliard said.

"Engineering, I want you to ignite engine four on my mark. Give it everything you've got," he ordered, leaning forward and raising a hand even though he knew they couldn't see it. Nolan watched the view screen as the Johnston plunged deeper into the asteroid field. Rocks of all sizes flew around them, and it was a testament to Emo's skill that they survived.

The Tigris vessel hadn't broken off, but the gap had widened as the cats struggled to keep up. They were bigger and faster, but less maneuverable.

"Mark," Nolan said, dropping his hand. The ship surged as the fourth engine came back online. "Emo, use that large asteroid as cover, then bring us about."

"Acknowledged, sir," Emo said, pouring on the speed. Nolan's stomach lurched as the vessel passed under the largest asteroid they'd yet seen. He couldn't actually feel the inertia, but his eyes tricked his body into thinking it could.

They passed under the asteroid and, as soon as it screened them from the Tigris, Emo flipped the vessel. The ship came about, its nose aimed in the direction from which the Tigris would appear.

"Ezana, warm up the main cannon," Nolan ordered.

"Target, sir?" the chief asked, a sheen of sweat covering his forehead.

"Use the turrets to soften up that depression at the base of the asteroid. Fire the main cannon into the rift that opens up," Nolan ordered, studying the asteroid. "Hold your fire until the moment the Tigris vessel comes into view."

The next eight seconds were the most tense of Nolan's life. He'd never been in a real ship-to-ship combat, and he had that eternity to contemplate the consequences of his plan. If it didn't work, they'd be helpless.

"Fire," Nolan roared, the instant the sleek body of the enemy ship appeared below them.

The gauss cannons began their staccato, sending slug after slug into the asteroid. A deep hum built within the bowels of the ship, then rose to a high-pitched whine. The Johnston's main gun--the most powerful weapon humanity had ever developed--fired a tank-sized hunk of depleted uranium into the asteroid with the force of a many-megaton bomb.

The shot sent a magnetic ripple from the barrel, as the cannon dispersed the excess energy. The rift they'd fired into became a canyon; a quarter of the massive asteroid peeled off as the explosion flung it straight into the Tigris vessel. The ship was tough, its tritanium hull strong enough to deal with the stresses of entering a star. But it wasn't tough enough to deal with the impact of thousands of tons of dense rock.

The Tigris vessel exploded in a brilliant shower of debris, and the bridge crew began to cheer.

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