Book: The Caphenon



The Caphenon

The Caphenon




The Caphenon


by Fletcher DeLancey








Copyright © 2015 by Fletcher DeLancey. All rights reserved.


First Smashwords Edition: March 2015


Editor: Nikki Busch

Cover Design: Streetlight Graphic


All rights reserved. This eBook is licensed for the personal enjoyment of the original purchaser only. This eBook may not be resold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you are reading this eBook and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.


The characters and events portrayed in this book are a work of fiction or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.








The Caphenon

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Table of Contents




Other Books by Fletcher DeLancey

Acknowledgments

Chapter 1 : Celestial stone falling

Chapter 2 : Night-three call

Chapter 3 : Reconnaissance

Chapter 4 : Alien surprise

Chapter 5 : Pallea search

Chapter 6 : Captain Serrado

Chapter 7 : Connection

Chapter 8 : Search and rescue

Chapter 9 : The last one

Chapter 10 : Pallea search II

Chapter 11 : Casualties

Chapter 12 : Seeders and Shippers

Chapter 13 : Machine on the move

Chapter 14 : Empaths and sonsales

Chapter 15 : Emergency statement

Chapter 16 : Staking claims

Chapter 17 : Comfortably trapped

Chapter 18 : Search for the searchers

Chapter 19 : Cultural exchange

Chapter 20 : Ground pounder

Chapter 21 : Combining forces

Chapter 22 : Return to the Caphenon

Chapter 23 : Translation

Chapter 24 : Battle strategy

Chapter 25 : Battle of the ground pounder

Chapter 26 : Listening to a leg

Chapter 27 : A common language

Chapter 28 : Base space

Chapter 29 : The Caphenon is melting

Chapter 30 : Revelations

Chapter 31 : Fleet orders

Chapter 32 : Alternative plan

Chapter 33 : An embarrassing inconvenience

Chapter 34 : Breaking Fahla’s law

Chapter 35 : A few things

Chapter 36 : High Council

Chapter 37 : Morning after

Chapter 38 : Flight of the Return

Chapter 39 : The alien and the templar

Chapter 40 : It’s done

Chapter 41 : Dinner and sex education

Chapter 42 : The right thing

Chapter 43 : Mission’s end

Chapter 44 : Last chance

Chapter 45 : Game of strategy

Chapter 46 : The challenge

Chapter 47 : Absolution

Chapter 48 : To a future

Chapter 49 : War council

Chapter 50 : The only way

Chapter 51 : Apology

Chapter 52 : Lifting the Caphenon

Chapter 53 : Captain on the bridge

Chapter 54 : Night watch

Chapter 55 : Battle of Alsea: Kylinn

Chapter 56 : Battle of Alsea: Miron

Chapter 57 : Battle of Alsea: Lanaril

Chapter 58 : Battle of Alsea: Ekatya

Chapter 59 : Battle of Alsea: Tal

Chapter 60 : Battle of Alsea: Kylinn II

Chapter 61 : Battle of Alsea: Ekatya II

Chapter 62 : War heroes

Chapter 63 : Private celebration

Chapter 64 : A bridge between sonsales

Chapter 65 : Dirt-side desk job

Chapter 66 : Choices

Chapter 67 : Recalled

Chapter 68 : Celestial stone rising

Chapter 69 : The last front

Epilogue

Glossary

Coming Soon by Ylva Publishing

About Fletcher DeLancey








Other Books By Fletcher Delancey


Mac vs. PC




Chronicles of Alsea


The Caphenon (Book One)


Without A Front I

The Producer’s Challenge

(Book Two; Coming in October 2015)


Without A Front II

The Warrior’s Challenge

(Book Three; Coming in November 2015)








For the ones who look up.








Acknowledgments


It feels trite to say “this book would not have been possible without my wife,” but it’s true. Maria João Valente encouraged my dreams from the day we met, which is only appropriate since she is one of my dreams—and my tyree. Sweetie, I’m sorry I made you into a writer’s widow, but it’s kind of your own fault.

I owe great thanks to Karyn Aho, whose detailed analyses of my various drafts helped me hone this story to a much sharper edge. It sure is handy having a professional psychologist on call to make certain my character arcs stay in the realm of reason.

Behind the curtain is a team of experts and assistants who helped with critiquing, fact checking, editing, and the myriad other concerns that crop up in the production of a novel. I’m grateful for the efforts of Alma Tiwe, who speaks English as a second language but can spot a grammar error at fifty paces; Erin Saluta, beta reader extraordinaire; Rick Taylor, writing instructor and lifelong friend (and was it ever stressful to hand over my manuscript to a person I’ve known since I was six); Saskia Goedhart, whose martial arts expertise made sure the fight scene was realistic; S.N. Johnson-Roehr, my go-to person for astronomy questions; and my editor Nikki Busch, who has a thing about commas.

Extra thanks go to proofreader Cheri Fuller, who went above and beyond her task description and is living proof that there is a place in this world for compulsively detail-oriented people.

Glendon Haddix of Streetlight Graphics gets kudos for putting together a beautiful cover despite my utter inability to describe what I wanted (I’m a wordsmith, not a graphic artist). He also spiffed up the map of Alsea, which was originally produced by my wife. A double dose of kudos goes to Maria for creating that map based only on my drawing—which consisted of two nebulous blobs for continents, a few city dots, and several pathetic mountain ranges that looked like a herd of carets.

Finally, I’d like to thank my publisher, Astrid Ohletz, for being so persistent in signing me up. It’s been a few years since I was last courted, but Astrid, you’ve got the moves.





The Caphenon

Chapter 1

Celestial stone falling


Bilseng Lokon was filling his cup at the shannel dispenser when the alarm went off. It had been so long since his initial training that at first he didn’t recognize the sound, but when it finally registered, he nearly dropped the cup in his haste to get to the desk. Dashing across the room, he threw himself into his chair and peered at the datascreen, his heart pounding with excitement. Celestial stones were a regular occurrence at this time of the cycle, but until now they had fallen on his coworkers’ shifts, never his.

Every stone that fell on Alsea held clues to the physics, chemistry, and possibly the biology of the universe, and there were scholar programs in five different cities waiting for their turn to examine one fresh from its journey. Any stone that revealed noteworthy findings was a coup, not just for his tracking group, but for the individual who had located it. Maybe tonight was his night. He grinned to himself. Why think small? Maybe tonight was the night for a stone that carried some proof of other life in the universe. His name would be in the history books.

Fingers flying, he set the tracking program and waited for the ground and orbital scanners to triangulate and extrapolate a landing site. Columns of data began building at the bottom of his screen, his excitement growing with them. But then his spirits plummeted as the columns separated into two sets.

That meant that the stone had split on entry, and a broken stone was never as valuable as a whole one. It tended to undergo far more damage as it burned in the atmosphere, if it survived at all.

He’d barely had the thought before one of the stone’s halves exploded. The first set of data columns flared up, the numbers changing so quickly that he couldn’t read them. Many dropped to zero and winked out, only to be replaced by new numbers that were still shifting. It must have been a big one if this many trackable pieces were still falling even after most of it had vaporized. What a find! There were so many leftovers that the scanners were unable to lock onto them all, causing the automatic prioritization program to kick in as the computer attempted to track only the largest and most likely to survive the descent. As far as he knew, a shower like this had happened just twice in the thirty-cycle history of the study. He was going to be the most popular scholar on the planet tomorrow when he handed out the coordinates of these pieces.

The data was streaming in so rapidly that the computer still hadn’t sorted out the dimensions of the debris left over from the explosion, so he shifted his attention to the second set of data columns. This half had remained intact, which meant it was probably smaller than the other or else far more solid in structure. The computer was still estimating its size, the data box stubbornly empty as he waited. He should have had a number by now, but with so many pieces falling all at once and every scanner sending a torrent of data, the program was overwhelmed.

It had managed a velocity estimate, however, and he stared at it in puzzlement. The number was much too low. Since the stone had entered the atmosphere on the opposite side of planetary rotation, its ground speed that high up—before atmospheric braking—should have been at least four times as fast.

He was just lifting the almost-forgotten cup of shannel to his lips when the estimated size appeared in its box. His involuntary start splashed hot liquid all over the desk, but he didn’t notice the mess even as he set the cup back in the middle of it. A chill ran through his body, leaving a sheen of sweat behind as he stared at the data box.

It was huge. A cataclysm in motion.

He could barely comprehend it. Something like this should never have gotten past their long-distance observation program; it should have been mapped long ago and missiles sent to nudge it off its deadly path. But here it was, as if it had just dropped into their orbit. Had it been traveling at a normal velocity, the damage on impact would have been almost unimaginable. It could have destroyed half a continent, or caused a catastrophic megawave if it landed in the ocean. Even at this speed, if it impacted a densely populated area, hundreds of thousands of Alseans would die. Maybe millions.

He smashed his hand down on the emergency switch and the vidcom popped into life, revealing a bored-looking warrior whose expression changed to alarm upon seeing his face. “What is it?” she demanded.

“Incoming celestial stone, three-fourths of a length in diameter!”

“Three-fourths of a—holy Mother!” she swore. “Where is it going?”

“I don’t know. The numbers are still running.”

Distantly he heard her making a call, repeating his information to someone else, not that he had any real information yet. The trajectory extrapolation program shifted through its numbers, zeroing in on the impact site as he watched in an agony of suspense. When the final coordinates lit up, he let out a cry of despair.

“Oh, Fahla! It’s headed for Blacksun!”

The warrior stared openmouthed for half a piptick before turning away and snapping out orders. Bilseng looked back at the coordinates, his heart clenched in his chest. Blacksun, the largest city on the planet. The seat of their government, their cultural heritage, their greatest temple…and his home. All of his family lived there. They were dead and didn’t know it.

He felt half dead himself, his emotions suddenly subdued. He could not think about the two million inhabitants of Blacksun now. He couldn’t think about his family. He needed to be a scholar—a trained scientist learning from the historical event now in motion. There was still work to be done, data to be gathered. And he could start by trying to understand why this celestial stone was moving so slowly.

With a swipe of his fingers, he moved the glaring impact coordinates off to one side and pulled up the physical outline box. The shape inside it was blurred as the program continued to compile data from the scanners, but even the blurred outline was strangely geometrical. He expanded the box, making the odd shape larger. It looked like a rounded leaf, broader at one end and slightly tapering toward the other, with an indent at the broad end where he imagined the leaf’s stem would go.

The image rotated on the screen, giving him a view from the next quadrant. Now he could see dome shapes both above and below the lateral plane of the stone, higher and broader on one side but reflecting the same general symmetry as the other. The higher dome wasn’t entirely round, remaining much thicker at one end than the other. When the image rotated into a third quadrant, that thick end resolved itself into what appeared to be three partial cylinders, perfectly aligned and touching on their long axes.

Never in all his studies had he seen a celestial stone like this.

The image sharpened, revealing perfectly smooth lines and edges. Too perfect. The domes, the arcs of the edges—they were all geometrically ideal. When the box finally lit up to indicate a full data compilation, he stopped breathing. It was impossible.

But it was undeniable. There was no way in Fahla’s universe that this could be natural.

He looked up at the vidcom, where the warrior was still speaking on her other call. Probably organizing an evacuation of Blacksun, as if it would do any good. She didn’t see him, so he still had time before making the decision that would guarantee his place in history. If he called this, he would either be hailed as the Alsean who first saw the dawn of a new era, or marked forever as the biggest grainbird his caste had ever produced.

“What else do you have?” the warrior’s voice interrupted. “Speed, impact strength—how big an evacuation zone are we talking about?”

“Less than it should be,” he said, still delaying. “If this were a normal stone, it would destroy half the Argolis continent. But it’s traveling at a fraction of the normal speed…” He trailed off, then made his choice. “Because it’s not a celestial stone. It’s a ship.”

The warrior stared. “A what?”

“A ship. An alien ship.”

Silence.

“Are you really telling me this?”

“Yes. Here, look.” He tapped the button to send the image from his datascreen to the vidcom. “Look at that outline. It’s perfect. Too perfect. Celestial stones don’t come in shapes like this. Not to mention that it appeared out of nowhere and it’s going too slow. It’s as if it just dropped into our atmosphere.”

When he reverted to their call, she’d lost some of her attitude.

“You’re saying that not only is there life in the universe, but it’s about to land right on top of Blacksun?”

“That’s exactly what I’m saying.” But his training demanded that he double-check, so he swiped the impact coordinates back on and gasped.

They had changed.

But the only way they could change was if…

“They’re flying it,” he whispered.

“What? Speak up, scholar!”

“The aliens. Whoever is on that ship. They’re flying it. It’s not headed toward Blacksun anymore. It’s going…about thirty-five lengths northwest of it. No, wait. Forty.”

“Does that mean we don’t need to evacuate Blacksun? Are you certain?”

As if he could be certain of anything right now. “If they’re flying it, it could land anywhere. I can only tell you what the data says at any given moment. Right now it says they’re landing forty lengths away from Blacksun. I think they’re trying to land in an unpopulated area.” Something inside him cracked, easing an unbearable tension. His family would not be annihilated after all.

“Perhaps they think we can’t detect them.” The warrior looked thoughtful. “If I were going to attack an unsuspecting population, I’d want to keep the element of surprise. Land where I could coordinate my ground force before advancing.” She pointed at him. “Keep your eyes on that landing data.” Before he could respond, she had already initiated another call. When she next spoke, it was with far more deference.

“Chief Counselor Aldirk. I apologize for waking you, but we have a global emergency.”





Chapter 2

Night-three call


Half a lifetime of training had Andira Tal on her feet and mostly awake before the vidcom could chime a second time. She yanked a robe over her sleepwear and strode toward the dining area, where the large vidcom hung over the table. A call at night-three could only be bad news, and the ID confirmed it. Chief Counselor Sunsa Aldirk would not wake her unless it was something he couldn’t handle on his own for a few hanticks, and there was very little that Aldirk couldn’t either handle or delegate.

“Yes, Aldirk,” she said as soon as the screen went active.

“Lancer Tal, we have both a state and military emergency. I’ve just received a call from Whitemoon Base, which patched me through to the Astrophysics Laboratory.” He paused, giving her time to wonder what sort of mess could possibly involve government, military, and astrophysics simultaneously.

“And?” she prompted.

“And we are possibly being invaded by aliens.”

Were it anyone else, she’d have thought it a prank. But even aliens were more believable than Aldirk pulling something like this. Wordlessly she gestured for him to continue.

“The lab confirms an incoming space vessel on a trajectory which will end fifty lengths northwest of Blacksun. It was initially flying straight toward the city, but the ship has been continually adjusting its heading. The scholar in charge is of the opinion that it’s attempting to land in an unpopulated area. Colonel Mendalia from Whitemoon Base postulates that the aliens think we can’t detect them and are attempting to surprise us.”

Shocked as she was, Tal could still see the hole in that theory. “They had to fly right past our observational satellites to enter our atmosphere. They’d be idiots to think we can’t detect them.”

Aldirk’s eyebrows rose. “I didn’t think of that,” he admitted. “Then why put down in the middle of agricultural fields?”

“I have no idea. But I do know we’ll be there to meet them. I’m putting Blacksun Base on immediate scramble, but they’ll need more time than we probably have to fully mobilize. We’ll have to have an early greeting party. I’m taking my Guards.”

“Lancer Tal! You cannot possibly go out there—”

“I cannot possibly stay here,” she interrupted. “Three thousand generations of Alsean history just ended, Aldirk. The only question now is what our future will be, and you would have me cower inside the State House while somebody else finds out whether or not we’re about to be exterminated?”

He looked at her for a moment without speaking, his face softening into an expression she’d never seen before. “Be careful, Lancer.”

“I will.”


* * *


Eight ticks was an impressive response time. Tal stood by her state transport, watching her Guards shout back and forth as they loaded gear and weapons, and felt a swell of pride in their professionalism. Like her, they’d all been asleep eight ticks ago. Now they were in full combat kit and preparing for a mission that none of them could have conceived of before now. And they were doing it without a moment’s hesitation.

Colonel Corozen Micah strode toward her, his bristly silver hair shining in the landing pad’s floodlights. “We’ll be loaded in another five,” he said as soon as he reached her. “But the biggest thing we’ve got are the shoulder-mounted launchers. I don’t like going in this way.”

“I don’t either, but we can’t afford to wait. The Astrophysics Lab says they’ll be landing before we even get off the ground, and we’re easily a hantick ahead of the fastest deployment a heavy weapons unit could make.”

“We could wait for the aerial support. That would at least give us class four and five missiles.”

“We could, but they’re still scrambling their launch and farther from the landing site than we are. Colonel Northcliff estimated they’d be arriving half a hantick behind us. Do you want to wait that long while aliens land their ship and do Fahla knows what?”

“I don’t want any of this,” he grumbled. “I liked it just fine when we thought other life in the universe was something we argued about over a bottle of spirits.”

She couldn’t help smiling. Even at a time like this, Micah’s gruff humor remained intact. “That argument is over for all time, Micah.”

They watched the Guards, having given all of the orders they could for the moment. After half a tick of silence, Micah asked, “Have you woken up to this yet?”

She shook her head. “No. You?”

“No,” he said, looking up into the night sky.

She followed his gaze. Though their largest moon washed out some of the stars, and the State House’s landing pad lights interfered with many more, the brighter ones showed through. She knew every constellation and in which seasons they came and went. Right now the Archer hovered over the northern horizon, her arrow—or his, nobody had ever agreed on that topic—aimed at the Winden fleeing toward the east. The Treecat was right over the Archer’s head, the final star in its tail marking the Northern Home Star, which forever remained still while all of the other stars moved around it. They were ever on the march, but always knew where their home lay. Every Alsean, even those who cared nothing for the constellations, knew where the Home Star was. She’d learned about it when she was four.

Looking at it now made her ache inside. These stars had always been her comfortable companions, their timelessness offering a sense of security and a connection to her ancestors. She had never minded night watches when she had been a Guard, so long as the sky was clear and she could see. The earliest Alseans had looked upon the same stars, seen much the same patterns, guided their travels by them. But now it all felt different. These stars weren’t safe anymore. Their mysteries weren’t just for scientific and philosophical exploration. Something had come out of them: a giant ship that even now was screaming through their skies with unknown intentions. Whatever happened next, Alsea would never be the same. The import of the moment was so immense that she still couldn’t grasp it, and yet she had to. She was the Lancer, and the whole world expected her to lead.

Never had the title weighed so heavily.

Her wristcom buzzed and lit with a message. She read it and stared at Micah. “It should be right over our heads in the next tick.”

As one they turned to face south, where the massive main dome of the State House loomed fifteen stories high. The landing pad sat at its base, a short walk from the Councillor’s Entrance. Paths radiated out in all directions, winding their way through the trees and formal gardens that made up the walled park. She had often been out for a run at this hour, enjoying the quiet, the rare privacy, and the darkness.

It was not dark now. Aside from the floodlit landing pad, the State House itself was ablaze with lights in all five domes and on every floor except the fifteenth, where her own quarters were located. She could see shapes hurrying back and forth across the large windows, everyone busy on some frantic errand.

“I don’t hear anything,” Micah said. “If it’s that close, shouldn’t we—”

An earsplitting boom cracked the sky in half, stopping her heart and sending every warrior on the landing pad into a defensive crouch. Simultaneous with the deep boom was the higher sound of breaking glass, and she watched in shock as seemingly every window in the State House exploded, the shards sparkling in the lights as they dropped to shatter on the ground below. A piptick later came the roar, louder than any transport engine she’d ever heard. It passed over their heads and moved off to the northwest, only gradually fading.

She straightened and tried to calm her racing heart. It hadn’t been an attack after all. For a moment she had expected the State House to explode along with its windows, taking her and everyone else with it. But the ship had kept going. It hadn’t even slowed down.

All activity on the landing pad had come to a standstill, her Guards staring at the State House or in the direction of the receding roar. Next to her, Micah rubbed his chest.

“Holy shekking Mother,” he murmured. “Now I know what cardiac arrest feels like.”

She nodded in agreement. “And we’re going to meet that with hand disruptors, rifles, and a few shoulder-mounted launchers.”

He met her eyes. “Second thoughts?”

“Second, third, and fourth. But we have no choice.” Raising her voice, she shouted at her still-stunned Guards. “Move it! Get the rest of this gear on board; we lift off in three ticks!”


* * *


Micah adjusted his molecular disruptor, which had gotten caught under his hastily fastened harness, and looked at the woman in the seat across from him. Tal was as stunned as the rest of them—she’d admitted as much—but it showed in neither her expression nor her posture. If aliens dropping out of the sky couldn’t rattle that woman’s composure, then he gave up on finding anything that could.

A slight bump signaled their liftoff, and he glanced out the panoramic window of her private cabin to watch the State House and its park drop away below.

“Hard to believe we just woke up thirteen ticks ago,” he said.

She nodded. “Hard to believe that thirteen ticks ago, the world was still normal.”

“Do you have a strategy?”

She gave an inelegant snort. “Yes, my strategy is to do a flyover of a ship that’s as long as Blacksun Base, including the training grounds, and see as much as we can in the middle of the night with only one moon for light. Then I’ll tell Continal to land, just as soon as I figure out where the shekking door of that ship is, and put myself and thirty of the Defense Force’s best up against Fahla only knows what. Unless you have a better plan?”

Her eyes flashed as she met his, and he found himself smiling.

“What?” she demanded.

“I’m just glad to know that you’re Alsean after all.”

“Because I have no idea what I’m doing?”

“Because you’re just as frightened as the rest of us. I’ve known you forever and even I can’t tell sometimes.”

She stared at him, then shook her head with a smile. “If this is one of your encouraging speeches, I have to say it’s not up to your usual standards.”

“I’m not certain there’s anything to be encouraged about. I just wanted to say…” His throat tightened, and he gave her a brisk nod to cover it up. “…that whatever happens, I’m proud to have served with you. And I’m proud of you.”

Well, he thought to himself, her composure can be shaken after all.

“Thank you, Micah,” she said after a pause. “You know I feel the same way. If we’re flying straight to our Returns, there’s no one I’d rather have at my side.”

He glanced out the window and cleared his throat. “Well then. Now that we have that out of the way, the answer is no.”

“No, what?”

“No, I don’t have a better plan.”







Chapter 3

Reconnaissance


The ship’s landing track is just coming into view now.” First Pilot Continal’s voice sounded unusually quiet over the com, and when Tal got her first look out the window, she understood why.

Ever since leaving the outskirts of the capital city, they’d been flying over the holdings and agricultural fields that made up most of Blacksun Basin. It was the middle of the growing season, two moons away from the autumn harvest, and the fields shone whole and pristine in the silver light of Sonalia.

But now she was looking down on massive destruction. A deep furrow at least a quarter-length wide had been dug into the landscape, with huge banks of soil thrown up on either side. Full-grown trees lay scattered beyond the banks like so many twigs, snapped off and hurled with more force than she could imagine. On and on the track went, straight as a sword, and as they flew beside it a thought niggled at the back of her mind. She’d seen something like this before, on a much smaller scale.

“Micah, do you remember when that commercial flight lost its vertical thrusters two cycles ago and had to land like an old-fashioned glider?”

He looked at her in surprise. “It does look like a crash track.”

“Either that, or these aliens have a very bad pilot.”

Continal was flying slower now, giving them ample time to study the signs of the ship’s passage. She couldn’t believe how long this track was. But then again, the ship had still been going faster than the speed of sound when it crossed over Blacksun. If it hadn’t been able to control its descent and had hit the ground at such a speed… She sucked in a breath, convinced now that her initial guess was correct. The aliens had crashed, which changed everything. If they’d planned an invasion, their plans had surely been upset. The odds were already looking better.

And if they hadn’t planned an invasion, then that scholar at the Astrophysics Laboratory was right, and the aliens had indeed chosen a landing site away from any populated areas. But not for concealment’s sake. They’d tried to save themselves by selecting the best crash site they could, just as she would if her own transport’s controls had suddenly ceased to function.

Was it possible they hadn’t wanted to hurt anyone in the process?

Don’t get too hopeful, she warned herself. See what is there, not what you wish were there.

“The trench isn’t as deep,” Micah said. “We must be getting close.”

They watched the trench grow more and more shallow, until it became a scrape.

I have the ship in sight,” Continal said. “Flying a circuit now.”

The transport banked, and as the ship came into view, Tal dug her fingers into the arms of her seat.

“Great Goddess,” Micah said in wonder.

Silently, she agreed. Knowing it was three-fourths of a length long didn’t prepare her for actually seeing something that enormous. Unless these aliens were the size of city buildings, there could be thousands inside. There were thirty-two Alseans on board this transport, not counting Continal, who would stay at his controls. What could they hope to do against what could very well be an army?

But as more of the ship passed by her window, it became increasingly obvious that it had suffered tremendous damage. Moonlight glinting off the silvery hull revealed dark areas where material had been torn away, mostly around the flatter outside ring of the ship. When she looked more closely, she could see that the entire hull was pocked with small marks: little nibbles rather than the slashes and gaps that had drawn her attention at first. It was difficult to imagine what could have marred the ship so equally over its surface. She’d have thought it was a design feature if it weren’t for the few intact sections, which were as smooth as a temple dome.

Smooth, she thought, and examined the ship with new eyes, focusing on the design rather than the destruction. It had no windows, no doors that she could see…and no landing struts, nor anything to hold it stable on the ground. It sat tilted forward on its rounded base, with what she assumed was the narrower bow of the ship resting on the ground while the broader, indented stern was high in the air. Curved around the top edge of the bow were alien markings, probably for identification. But the only reason to have markings on top would be if the ship was frequently viewed from above.

“Micah, this ship was never meant to land,” she said. “It’s not an airship. It’s a spaceship.”

He nodded. “I think you’re right. And they crashed it.”

“If there really is an army inside, it’s not designed to mobilize on the ground. Perhaps they had some method of dropping units onto a planet from orbit, but nothing built for a space launch could work the same way on the ground. And they’ve been here for twenty-five ticks already. If they were going to mobilize, they should have done it by now.”

“But they haven’t. There’s no sign of movement anywhere.”

“Maybe that’s why.” Tal pointed. “I don’t think that happened in the crash.”

They had completed their flight up one side of the ship and turned to begin scanning the opposite side. Here the damage was far more extensive, with black marks scoring the ship from bow to stern. They were deep, going all the way through the hull in several places, exposing jagged edges, dangling wires, and what looked like broken pipes.

“Not that I have any experience in diagnosing alien ship damage,” Micah said, “but that looks like they were in a fight. And lost.”

“Not necessarily. After I called you to scramble the Guards, Aldirk called me back with some data the astrophysicist had forgotten to mention. When he first detected this ship, there were two of them. But one exploded high up in our atmosphere. It was vaporized.”

Two of them? And this is the victor? Should that make us feel better or worse?”

They were passing around the other end now, having flown a complete circuit. Tal activated the com switch on her armrest. “Continal, have you seen anything moving? You have the forward view.”

No, Lancer. Nothing.”

“All right. Let’s go around one more time.” She tapped the com off. “Do you see anything that could possibly be a door? Or a hatch?”

“No, this thing is as smooth as a fanten’s nose,” Micah said. “Or it would be without all the damage. Wait a piptick,” he interrupted himself, pointing. “That wasn’t there before.”

She’d seen it at the same time: a tiny black opening just below the top of the enormous dome that rose above the plane of the ship. Immediately she ordered Continal to get them a full length away and hold position with that opening in view of her windows. As the transport banked south, she tapped the main cabin com and updated her Guards. “Stay in your harnesses for now; we may have to do some quick maneuvers. But anyone with a clear view out the right side, get your scopes out and keep a careful eye on that hatch. The coms are all open, so shout it out if anything comes at us.” She and Micah were already pulling their own scopes from their gear bags.

It took a moment to locate the hatch in her magnified view, but once she’d centered it, she could see a ladder built into the dome’s side. Small rungs led from the hatch down to the flat section and seemed to be made from the same material as the hull. To her surprise, the ladder continued along the flat plane all the way to the ship’s nose, then went over the edge and down to the ground.

That had definitely not been there before.

“Movement!” Micah said, echoed by several Guards over the com. Tal found the hatch in her scope again and stared in fascination.

One alien was on the ladder, beginning the downward climb, while two others were waiting on the lip of the hatch. They all wore uniforms of some sort, carried no visible weapons, and seemed strangely normal in appearance. Two arms, two legs, a head supported by a neck—she didn’t know what she’d been expecting, but it wasn’t this. They looked like Alseans.

The closest one to the ladder turned around and stepped onto the first rung. The first alien had stopped its climb and was looking upward, while the remaining one crouched down to watch. The middle alien gave an odd little hop, landing on the next rung with just one foot, then hopped again.

“It’s injured,” she said, and heard Micah’s rumble of agreement.

When the second alien had made it far enough, the third stepped onto the ladder and followed. It moved as easily as the first; Tal guessed the two uninjured aliens were protecting their colleague. All three were now on the ladder, descending slowly. There were no other signs of life in the hatch and nothing outwardly threatening.

“Continal? Any cover for us nearby?”

Yes, there’s a field boundary, marked with a line of trees. Shall I put us down?”

“Please.”

The moment they landed, Tal picked up her gear bag and headed out the cabin door. A few steps to the right brought her into the cockpit, where she leaned in the doorway to get a look at the tree line. “That will work. Keep the engines spun up; we’re taking off again in a few ticks. And keep your eye out those windows. If you see anything threatening, don’t worry about whether we’re in our seats. Just get us out of here.”

She turned and walked the length of the short corridor into the main cabin, where a sea of tense faces stared up at her. Micah was already there, leaning against the bulkhead just past the entry.

“Our tactical situation is dokshin,” she announced, and heard a chorus of fervent agreement. “That ship is in the middle of a grain field. The nearest cover is the tree line right next to us, and the aliens have the high ground. Nilsinian, you’re our best sniper. I need you to stay here with a spotting partner. Choose your Guard.”

“Nicolo,” he said immediately.

The younger Guard across the aisle held out her fist and bumped him. “Thanks.”

“Don’t thank me; you’re the one climbing a tree.”

The others chuckled, letting off a little stress.

Tal turned to Micah. “Shoulder launchers; how many?”

“Five. There’s no other cover anywhere, other than using the ship itself, and this is the best vantage point. But anyone shooting from here had better be damned certain of their range. Most of us are going to be between you and that ship. Lead Guard Gehrain, pick the team.”

“Betany, Majdic, Petironan, Taylari, Sofrensenner,” Gehrain called. “Get your gear and get ready.”

“Hold,” Tal said. “I want everyone on the same page before we separate. This is what we know so far: The ship seems to have been damaged in a fight. There was a second ship as well, but it exploded high up in our atmosphere.”

The shock of this information registered on all of their faces, but even now they maintained their fronts. She mentally marked another point to their professionalism.

“Colonel Micah and I suspect this ship was the victor in a fight with the ship that exploded, but the damage it took is what caused this crash. And I’m sure you’ve all concluded for yourselves, judging by that unbelievably long trench through the fields, that this ship was not in control when it landed.”

They all nodded as Gehrain said, “Yes, we did. So it’s likely that many of them may be injured or even incapacitated from the crash.”

“Exactly. As you’ve already seen, there are only three aliens visible at the moment, and one of them appears to be injured. If that ratio holds true for the rest of the ship’s population, we’ve already got better odds. The fact that they would even send out an injured…” She paused, looking for a word that did not yet exist. “…shipmate, with us hovering in sight, tells me that they’re probably not in good shape for a fight. Either that, or they’re baiting a trap. Let’s hope for the first, but be prepared for the second.”

“They’re carrying no visible weapons, which does not preclude much,” added Micah. “We have no idea what sort of weaponry they’re capable of producing, so be alert at all times.”

As if they could be anything else. “But keep your fingers off the triggers,” she warned them. “You are standing at the threshold of history. Our actions today could change the course of our entire civilization. Do not use any weapon without a direct order from either Colonel Micah or me. Clear?”

“Clear!” they shouted.

“Continal?”

I’m hearing everything, Lancer Tal.”

“Good. As soon as our long-range weapons step off here, I want you to set us down toward the center of the ship, under the flat section. Let’s get the bulk of it between us and that hatch. If the ship has working weaponry, it’s designed for firing at distant targets. Chances are they can’t hit anything next to them, unless we have the bad luck to park right in front of a disruptor or launcher or whatever they have.”

“I want a squad of three moving to the east end to watch for any movement there, and three more going under the ship to the other side.” Micah was addressing Gehrain while making sure the others heard. “The rest are with us.”

“Lancer Tal? Will we offer assistance to the wounded alien?”

She followed the voice to Dewar, their medic, sitting near the rear of the cabin. “I sincerely hope we can. I would rather make friends than enemies today.”

At that, the nervous energy filling the transport settled. They were still on edge, but not at the hair-trigger level she’d felt earlier. She nodded at Gehrain, who began barking out names and assignments while the sniper and launcher teams hustled their gear together. They were moving down the transport ramp not one tick later. As soon as they cleared it, Micah closed the ramp and gave the go-ahead to Continal. The transport was in the air by the time he and Tal had strapped themselves into free seats.

Tal used their short flight to recheck her molecular disruptor in its holster, the two throwing knives snugged against her hips, and the dagger in her left boot. The moment the transport landed, she threw off the harness and shouldered her gear bag. After pulling a disruptor rifle from the front rack, she joined Micah and Gehrain at the door. Gehrain already had his hand on the release.

“Continal,” she called, “keep the door locked and the engines warm.” She nodded at Gehrain, who dropped the ramp and led the way into the night.





Chapter 4

Alien surprise


“To think it looked big from the transport,” Micah said quietly.

Tal nodded, equally overwhelmed. Seeing this behemoth from mere strides away made its size almost beyond comprehension. The rounded base they were parked next to was the smallest section of the ship, but even it was more than half as tall as the State House. And while she couldn’t see the height of the flat section they were now moving under, or the dome above it, she’d noted their proportions earlier. The flat section was half the height of the base, and the dome on top looked to be about twice as high.

“I think we could fit two State Houses in it, stacked one on top of the other,” she marveled. There wasn’t a building on the planet that could compare.

“Fahla grant that these aliens are friendly. Because if they aren’t, we haven’t the chance of a fanten at the slaughter.”

The remaining Guards had formed a tight group around her and Micah as they ran toward the bow. In theory, the Guards were protecting them in the center, but she was constantly aware of the ship’s flat plane directly over their heads. At any moment a port might open to reveal a weapon-wielding alien, and then they’d all be perfect targets regardless of formation. But Gehrain’s order to form ranks fulfilled a psychological need, giving her Guards something to hold on to when nothing else was certain.

Nor was she immune to that need. Where the transport had landed, the grain was broken and flattened by the last sprays of soil the ship had flung out as it slid to a halt. Beyond that, the field was untouched, and she felt safer the moment they moved into the tall grain. Of course the impression of refuge was wishful thinking; the plants wouldn’t stop anything the aliens threw at them, including dirt clods. That didn’t keep her from crouching as she ran, making certain that her head was below the level of the grain.

The leading Guards stopped just short of where the bottom edge of the ship’s flat section rested on the ground. Tal straightened and walked past them, staring at the hull so close over her head. Then she reached up to touch it.

“What are you doing?” Micah whispered furiously. He’d followed her and now stood with his head bent, carefully avoiding any contact with the hull.

“It’s warm.” She ran her fingertips along it, fascinated by the heat and the soft feel of the material. “And spongy. Almost as if it’s alive.”

“It did just come through our atmosphere.” Gehrain had joined them. “That’s probably friction heat.”

“Still?” She dropped her hand. “It would have cooled off during the descent through the lower atmosphere, and it’s been sitting here for almost half a hantick. I don’t think it’s friction heat.”

She smiled when both of them reached up to feel for themselves. True, she’d been less than prudent, but who could resist touching the first alien ship in Alsean history?

They looked at each other, then back at her, their eyes wide. Micah rubbed his fingers together. “Remarkable.”

Gehrain said nothing, but reached up and touched it again.

Tal watched them while she tapped her earcuff and called their sniper. “Nilsinian, what are they doing?”

Still climbing down. They’re almost to the flat section, but the one in the middle is moving slower than before. There’s no movement anywhere else, or any other hatches that we can see on this side.”

“Windenal, anything on the back side?”

No, Lancer.”

“Parksor?”

Nothing over here either.”

“All right, this is where we split up,” she said, leaving the com open so the others could hear. “Colonel Micah and I will stay next to the ship, just in sight of the ladder. Senshalon and Basaltin, you do the same on the other side. The rest of you, head straight out into the field until you have the aliens in view. Since we have no idea whether we’re safer by the ship or out there, we’ll divide the leadership.”

“Understood,” Gehrain said. If she and Micah were taken out, at least the other Guards could still look to him.

“You’ll see them long before we will,” she told him, “so keep us updated if anything changes. Everyone in silent mode starting now.” She tapped her wristcom and confirmed the setting. From now on, any transmission sent via earcuff would be transcribed into text before being distributed to their wristcom screens.

A hand gesture sent Senshalon and Basaltin jogging away, and Tal led the rest as they edged around the massive bow of the ship. She could not get over the size of this thing. The flat part had seemed so narrow when viewed from a distance—and it was, compared to the domed sections. But for this ship, “narrow” translated to five or six stories high.

When they reached a point where the ladder was in view, Gehrain and the sixteen remaining Guards ran crouching into the open field. They were lost to normal sight moments later, safely invisible in the grain. Of course, if the aliens had thermal imaging devices, all bets were off. And why wouldn’t they? She slipped on her own thermal imaging glasses and shook her head.

Micah leaned back against the ship, holding his rifle to his chest, while Tal watched the heat signatures of her Guards going deeper and deeper into the field. When they stopped she whispered, “Gehrain, status.”

Their wristcoms vibrated with the answer.

They’re halfway down the flat section. The middle one is being supported by the other two and seems worse than before. Still no visible weapons.

Taking off her thermal glasses, she set her back against the ship and waited. A grainbird called from somewhere out in the field, living up to its reputation of not knowing whether it was day or night. The grainstems rustled against each other in a slight breeze, and the air was full of the scent of churned soil and crushed grain. It was surreal: every scent and sound around her was perfectly normal for a harvest night in late summer, but an alien ship was warm against her back and Fahla only knew what was about to appear on that ladder.

The waiting was by far the hardest part, making her hyperaware of everything, so at first she thought it was her imagination when she began to sense the aliens. Then her wristcom vibrated with a message from Gehrain, who was farther away but had direct line of sight.

Are you feeling them?

“Yes,” she whispered. It was growing stronger with every piptick.

Micah met her eyes, and she leaned over to put her lips next to his ear. “They’re broadcasting. Every emotion they’re feeling is on the wind. They’re like…like children, Micah. They have no fronts at all.”

Every one of her Guards had above-average empathic strength, with Gehrain being the strongest. Micah was the one exception, but he had other skills to compensate. Now he looked at her expectantly. “And?”

“And they’re hurt and frightened.”

“I like that better than aggressive. But it still may not be good. Fear can drive unexpected actions.”

As time passed and the aliens moved closer, their emotions grew so strong that Tal began to feel pressured under their weight. But she would not raise her blocks, and she knew Gehrain wouldn’t either. This was an unforeseen advantage and they’d be fools to give it up, no matter how uncomfortable it was.

Her wristcom vibrated.

They’re almost to the edge.

Micah turned and braced himself against the ship while Tal stood behind him, both of them holding their rifles low.

She heard the scraping before she saw a pair of boots appear over the edge, reaching down for the nearest rung. Once it found purchase, the alien quickly stepped down to the next rung and then stopped, its upper body still leaned over the top. More scraping sounds drifted down, and another pair of legs pushed straight out into the air while the first alien stepped down one more rung, now fully in view as it held on to its companion’s legs and guided them to the first rung. After a short struggle, the middle alien managed the transition between the flat plane and the vertical ladder. It rested for a moment before starting down, the hops from one rung to the next far more labored than they’d been when Tal had watched from her transport.

As soon as the second alien cleared the edge, the third appeared. And if Tal was correct in her separation of their emotions, the ones above and below were becoming increasingly distressed in their concern for the injured one.

“The middle one is their leader,” she whispered.

Micah nodded without taking his eyes off of them. “Or else someone of rank that they’re sworn to protect. But it’s strange that none of them have looked around. Surely they saw the transport come back.”

“They know we’re here. But their fear…I don’t think it’s because of us. I think it’s for each other.”

The first alien went down two rungs, stopped to hold the middle one’s injured leg steady through its next two hops, then rushed down two more rungs and stopped to help again. In this painful way they slowly closed the distance to the ground.

The first alien jumped the final rungs, standing with the grain reaching to its waist. That meant it was taller than Tal, but shorter than Micah. Still it did not turn to acknowledge them, instead helping the middle one through its final hops. Upon reaching the ground, the injured alien paused, resting its forehead on the nearest rung.

Tal was swamped by a wave of exhausted pain, as if the alien had refused to allow itself to feel until that very moment. This was swiftly followed by determination when the alien lifted its head again and turned, leaning on its companion as they both faced the grain field. The third alien hurried down the last few rungs to take up a protective post on the other side.

Their faces were startling for their very familiarity. Except…Tal looked more closely. It was hard to tell from this distance, but she thought their faces were smooth. If they had no facial ridges, perhaps that might explain their lack of fronting. And if they were as close to Alsean physiology as they looked, then the two on the right were female and the one on the left was male. They showed noticeable sexual dimorphism, with the two females being considerably shorter and less bulky than the male.

Her line of thought was interrupted when the middle alien reached into her clothing and pulled out a small, square device. Micah tensed in front of her, shifting his grip on his rifle.

The alien paused, then said something to her companions. Slowly, the other two raised their hands to shoulder level, palms outward. It was clearly meant to be a sign of nonviolent intent, and indeed Tal felt no threat from them.

But then the injured alien held the device aloft.

Micah’s rifle snapped to his shoulder and seventeen Guards stood erect in the grain, their rifles aimed and ready. On the other side of the aliens, Senshalon and Basaltin were aiming their weapons as well.

Death stood in the field, a hair’s breadth away from feasting.

“Hold!” Tal shouted, pushing Micah’s rifle down as she stepped past him. “Weapons down, fingers onside!”

The aliens had turned toward her voice, and the wave of fear she felt from the leader nearly weakened her knees. But it wasn’t for the alien’s own safety; it was directed toward the ship. She was frantic for the survival of her shipmates still inside.

The alien spoke. Though her language was incomprehensible, the words that issued from the device a piptick later were not. In a slightly mechanical but still feminine voice, it said: “Please do not harm us. We mean no harm to you.”

The shock she saw on Micah’s face echoed her own. That device had spoken perfect High Alsean. The mechanical accent was a little odd, but if Tal weren’t looking straight at a trio of aliens, she’d have thought she was hearing someone on the Council floor.

The alien spoke again, and the mechanical voice politely said, “We have injured inside, none of whom are able to descend this ladder. We must ask for your medical assistance.” It paused while the alien spoke, then resumed: “My name is Captain Ekatya Serrado, and I respectfully request an audience with Lancer Andira Tal.”





Chapter 5

Pallea search


“What’s happening?” Helder asked as she took her place in line.

“I don’t know.” Yarnolio looked around at their unit, hustling into its lines in varying states of readiness. Some were still fastening their jacket buttons and crash collars, others were tucking headsets into pockets. They’d all been woken by a scramble alarm, but nobody knew why. All he knew was that a scramble at night-three and seventy was never good news.

The briefing room door opened and Lead Guard Baskensteen stalked in, a reader card clutched in his hand and a forbidding expression on his face. All of the Guards snapped to attention as he mounted the podium.

“You have a mission,” he announced without preamble. “It might be the most important one you’ve conducted in your lives, so listen carefully.” He put the reader card on the podium and looked down at them. “A little less than one hantick ago, two alien ships entered our atmosphere. One of them blew up. The other crashed fifty lengths northwest of Blacksun.”

Yarnolio gasped, and Helder uttered a quiet, “Holy shek,” but Baskensteen was already holding his hand up for silence.

“I know this is a shock, and I know you have questions, but there are no answers yet. That’s part of your mission. The ship that blew up didn’t completely vaporize. Pieces of it fell all over central Pallea, and the Whitemoon Astrophysics Lab has tracked the impact sites of the largest ones. We need to find them, collect them, and bring them back to Whitesun Base. We know nothing about the materials this ship was made from or what sorts of dangers you might encounter, so you’re teaming up. Each team will have one pilot, one weapons officer, and one Guard in a full decontamination suit for collection duty. If the piece you find is radioactive, mark it with a beacon and leave it for later collection, but otherwise I want every piece brought back here in a sealed safety container.”

He began reading out names and assignments, sending each team out the door as soon as they had their data. The room rapidly emptied until only Yarnolio, Helder, and four others remained.

“Your assignment is a little different,” Baskensteen said. “You’ve got the biggest piece, and it’s too big for a rescue transport. Yarnolio, you’re flying the cargo transport. Helder, you’re the weapons officer. The rest of you are handling the logistics of getting that chunk into the transport. Check the winches, take plenty of cable, and be ready for anything. Yarnolio and Helder, I’ve already sent the coordinates to your reader cards. Any questions?”

Yarnolio had about fifty of them, but none that Baskensteen could answer. After a moment of silence, the Lead Guard nodded sharply and said, “Then move it out. The sooner we get some answers, the better I’ll feel.”

It was a tentick before they could get the gear they needed on board the cargo transport. Yarnolio and Helder made good use of the time, as he wrapped up the preflight checks and she programmed in the coordinates and calculated their flight plan. The moment their board confirmed that the cargo door was closed and latched, Yarnolio called out a liftoff warning to the crew and pulled back on the thruster yoke. Though they’d been efficient, they were still the last to leave. Every rescue transport at Whitesun Base was already in the sky.



“Hope nobody needs our help tonight,” Yarnolio said.

“No joke.” Helder frowned at the map display, where a red dot marked their destination. “It’s going to be fun pulling anything out of those mountains.”

He nodded. “Especially if I can’t even land. That area is solid forest on steep slopes.”

“Guess that’s why Baskensteen told them to check the winches,” she said, pointing behind her to the cargo area.

“Did you bring a harness for yourself?”

“Of course.” She punched him lightly on the shoulder. “Worry about your own job, grainbird. Let me worry about mine. I’ll handle the big weapons if anything scary crawls out and frightens you.”

It was the sort of teasing he heard every day on base, but tonight, flying through the darkness to pick up the largest piece of an alien ship, he couldn’t see the humor.

Helder’s smile slipped as the silence lengthened. “Er…you don’t think anything scary really is going to crawl out, do you?”

“I think that twenty ticks ago, we didn’t know if there was other life in the universe. And now not one, but two alien ships apparently took an interest in us. They didn’t call us, they didn’t communicate, they just appeared. What does that sound like to you?”

Helder’s voice was much quieter as she said, “It sounds like they’re not friendly.”

A beep on the console indicated an incoming communication from Base Control, with an accompanying text message ordering a scrambled channel. Helder tapped in the scrambler code and activated the com.

Whitesun Base Control to all recovery teams. New information from Blacksun Base. The crashed ship has been located and the Lancer’s Guards are on approach, Lancer Tal leading. Reported size of the ship is three-quarters of a length. It appears heavily damaged but intact. Current supposition is that the two ships were in a battle. Be alert for evidence of this and report anything you find immediately. Whitesun Base Control end.”

Yarnolio and Helder stared at each other.

“Three-fourths of a length?” she said at last.

“Goddess above,” he whispered. That was the size of a port platform, a mid-ocean floating city. These aliens had the equivalent of a port platform in space. It would surely house thousands. And who knew what kind of weaponry they had?

“If those ships were a similar size,” Helder said, “and that one shot down this one, then it must have enough firepower to level half of Blacksun. What in Fahla’s name are the Lancer’s Guards going to do against that?”

Yarnolio shook his head. Base Control had said just the Lancer’s Guards, not the Lancer’s Guards plus a heavy artillery unit or aerial support. That meant they only had portable weaponry. It would be like throwing pebbles at a disruptor cannon.

As they flew over the first foothills guarding the interior mountains, he murmured an old prayer. “May Fahla guide and protect them on the dark path they must walk.”

Helder put her hand on his shoulder, a gentle touch where she had punched him just a few ticks earlier. “And if she calls the heroes home…”

“…their deeds shall ever be taught,” they finished together.





Chapter 6

Captain Serrado


In her wildest dreams, Tal had never imagined an alien landing on Alsea and asking for her by name. She was so shocked that she spoke without thinking.

“I’m Lancer Tal.”

The device said something quietly, and though she did not understand the first word, she heard it repeat Lancer Tal. The alien nodded her head. “I knew you’d be here. I’ve been wishing I could meet you, Lancer Tal. Though not under these circumstances.”

This was getting odder and odder. Tal had more questions than she could give voice to, but she focused on the most important at the moment. “Are there any other ships we should be concerned about?”

“No.”

But the alien’s emotions did not match the answer, nor did those of her companions.

“If you wish for our help, a lie is not a good beginning,” Tal said.

They were startled by that, but the captain recovered quickly. “There are no other ships at this time. There may be later, but not for several days.”

Better. That was the truth.

“How many injured do you have?” Tal asked.

“There are twelve others.”

Twelve? She heard the astonishment ripple across her team, and could hardly keep her own jaw shut. That gigantic ship had been operated by just fifteen personnel? Was it self-aware? A life form of its own? Or perhaps that wasn’t what the captain had meant to say.

She handed her rifle backward, dropped her pack to the ground, and crossed the remaining distance between them. Up close she could see that the aliens were indeed smooth-faced, lacking both the forehead and cheek ridges of Alseans. Otherwise, they were remarkable for their sheer ordinariness. No tentacles, no antennae, no scaly skin, none of the usual tropes that Alsean entertainment vids employed so gleefully. No one had ever envisioned aliens who looked almost exactly like themselves.

“Captain Serrado, I think your translation device may have erred. Do you mean to say you have this many injured?” The voice dutifully translated as she held up both hands, then dropped one and held up two fingers of the other.

The captain nodded. “Yes. Twelve. Only fifteen of us stayed with the ship; the others were able to escape. Lancer Tal, I know you must have so many questions and I will answer them all—yes, I will, Commander,” she said to her supporting shipmate, who had shifted in place, his facial and body language reflecting the disapproval that poured out. “Surely you don’t think the Non-Interference Act still applies.” Without waiting for an answer, she met Tal’s eyes again. “I ask only for your aid in return.”

Tal had to admire a leader who would still drive a bargain even in the most dire of circumstances. “I accept your offer,” she said, and the moment the translation ended she was buffeted by their unshielded relief. “Are we as physiologically alike as we seem? Will our medications be compatible?”

“So far as I know, yes. But the person who knows the most about you is still inside.”

“And time is of the essence.” Tal thought she now understood the true source of the captain’s fear. “Then let us defer the rest until later. Dewar!” she called. As the medic ran toward them, she gestured at Gehrain and held up one finger, nodding when he immediately tapped Corlander. The two of them restrapped their rifles and followed Dewar. To Micah she gave the “all clear but stay alert” signal.

Dewar arrived and set her medical pack on the ground.

“The answer to your earlier question is now yes,” Tal told her. “We’re providing assistance. I want you to assess the medical situation aboard and relay it to Senshalon. He’ll contact Blacksun Healing Center for anything you need, including personnel and equipment. I’ll prep the center for an influx of…special patients. Gehrain and Corlander will be your backup.” She looked at the captain as the device finished its translation. “And they will need someone to guide them.”

“I’ll go,” offered the third alien.

Captain Serrado nodded. “This is my best pilot, Lieutenant Telorana Candini. She’s the reason we’re all standing here instead of burning in a city-sized ball of flame.”

“I will be asking you to explain that very soon,” said Tal. “But for now, let’s get you resting and Lieutenant Candini and my team up that ladder.” In truth, she was growing concerned. Captain Serrado was leaning more heavily on her shipmate, her emotions becoming less controlled. She seemed to be holding herself together through sheer force of will, and above all things, Tal wanted this woman healthy and in peak form to answer for herself.

Dewar was looking up the ladder thoughtfully. “Lancer Tal, I think we should call the Mariners. They have the most experience with pulling patients out of difficult locations.”

“Agreed. I’ll have Colonel Micah take care of it. You start your climb.”

“What about the captain?”

The moment Captain Serrado understood, she snapped, “I’m the least of the injured.” Collecting herself, she added, “You must take care of the others first. Please.”

“Is your leg broken?” Dewar asked, ignoring her with the practiced aplomb of any medic.

“No,” she said, but both of her companions nodded their heads.

“Give me just two ticks to make you more comfortable.” Dewar was already digging in her pack before the device finished, and the captain’s surge of fear was so strong that Tal thought she might lose control.

“Every tick matters, don’t you understand? They may be dying!”

“Dewar, give me a skinspray,” Tal said. “If she’s not critical, that will hold her until we can get her into more capable hands. Your skills are needed elsewhere.”

“Yes, Lancer.” Dewar slapped a skinspray into her hand, shouldered her pack, and began climbing.

“Take this, Lieutenant,” said a now-calm Captain Serrado, holding out the palm-sized device to her pilot. “It’s more important that you have it now.”

Lieutenant Candini nodded, pocketing the translator and reaching for the rungs. Despite having just made the long climb down, she was as fast as Dewar going back up. Corlander and Gehrain were right behind her.

Tal held up the skinspray and pointed to the captain’s wrist, gratified when the woman immediately held out her arm. Her resistance seemed to have faded the moment Dewar had set foot on the ladder. With a hiss the spray discharged its load of paincounters, and Tal met the commander’s eyes. “Help her over here. She needs to rest.” She pointed to a spot a few paces from the ladder’s base.

Some language needed no words, she thought as he began helping his captain through the grain. She took a few steps in the opposite direction, called Nilsinian in his sniper nest, and told him and the launcher team to stand down but remain where they were. The next call was to Continal, instructing him to pick up the teams on the east and north sides of the ship and bring them around to her location. That done, she waved in the rest of her unit. Quickly bringing them up to date—which made her realize how little she actually knew—she set Micah to work dealing with the Mariners and asked Senshalon to begin communicating with Blacksun Healing Center. Meanwhile, she called Counselor Aldirk and gave him what news she could.

“You may need to reinforce Senshalon’s authority at the healing center,” she added. “Whatever he asks for probably still won’t be enough. I need our best healers standing ready. Oh, and so far as I can tell, none of these aliens can front. It’s going to be draining for the healers.”

They can’t front!” Aldirk seemed more surprised by that than anything else. “How very…limiting.”

“Perhaps it’s just shock from the crash,” Tal suggested, though she didn’t believe it.

Perhaps. In light of this news, shall I cancel the scramble of the heavy weapons units?”

Tal turned to look at Captain Serrado, who was now lying in a patch of stamped-down grain with her head pillowed on what appeared to be a Guard’s jacket. Her face was pale in the moonlight, her eyes closed, and the commander radiated worry as he crouched next to her.

“Yes, cancel it.”

Very well. I’m afraid we shall have to scramble a different team, though. Several journalists have been quite persistent in calling my assistant with demands for a statement regarding the sonic shock wave, and at least two have expressed their dissatisfaction with our explanation.”

Tal rolled her eyes. “We’re going to have to put up a perimeter.”

I believe so, yes. You should have peace for the rest of the night—what little there is left of it—but it’s going to be difficult to keep this quiet after sunrise. I imagine a three-quarter-length alien ship lying in a field might attract some attention.”

“You have no idea. This ship is lying at the end of a five-length trench.”

Five lengths!”

Despite the situation, Tal had a tiny moment of satisfaction at being able to evince such a response from the ever-calm Aldirk. “Yes. They crashed, Aldirk. It’s a mess.”

Five lengths,” he muttered. “Then we’ll need aerial support to maintain the perimeter.”

“You have my authority to call up any resources you need. And you can start by telling Colonel Northcliff that her pilots have a new mission. They should be almost here by now, and they’re probably expecting a battle. I’m sure they’ll be thrilled to learn they’re flying perimeter patrol instead.”

Was that warrior humor?”

Tal smiled. “Perhaps just a little. There’s a considerable difference in glory between what they thought they’d be doing, and what they’ll actually be doing.”

Fahla spare us all from warriors and their glory hunting. Now, this may not be on the top of your list of concerns at the moment, but you and your Guards will want to return to Blacksun Base for the next few nights.”

“Why would—oh, the windows,” she said, remembering that terrifying moment.

We have every available pair of hands covering them with construction sheeting, but there isn’t enough sheeting in the entire city to cover the damage. I only hope it doesn’t rain for the next nineday or so.”

“So it was all the windows on the south side as well?”

Lancer Tal,” he said with exaggerated patience, “it was every window in Blacksun for a half-length swath from the southeast to the northwest edges of the city.”

“Great Mother! Is there enough sheeting on the Argolis continent for that?”

I truly do not know, but while you are dealing with aliens, I am dealing with merchants and builders.”

His aggrieved tone almost made her laugh.





Chapter 7

Connection


If anyone had asked, Ekatya Serrado would have said it was impossible to fall asleep after fighting a major space battle, crashing her ship, and dealing with a potentially fatal first contact situation that wasn’t predicted to happen for another century. But whatever Lancer Tal had injected her with must have been one Hades of a drug. It had magically erased the pain from her leg, and she’d given in to Commander Baldassar’s insistence that she lie down for just a few minutes. Now she looked up at a moon that was hanging above the horizon, huge and brilliant. It had been higher when she’d closed her eyes.

“You’re awake,” Baldassar said.

“Barely. How long have I been out?”

“Not too long. Forty-five minutes.”

“Forty-five minutes!” She put her hands in the dirt to shove herself upright, stopping in confusion when they sank into soft material. A bed? No, it was some sort of cot, set in a flattened part of the field. She’d been moved to the port side of the ship and there were two large shuttles parked nearby, their external lights illuminating a beehive of activity. There were Alseans everywhere, carrying boxes, poles, packs, and straps, and trampling even more of the grain. The farmer who owned this field was not going to recover much of the crop.

“One thing I’ll say for these Alseans, their doctors are efficient,” Baldassar said. “They got here five minutes ago, but look at that.” He nodded toward the ladder, and she looked over to see ten bodies swarming up the rungs, all laden with gear.

“They’ve been here five minutes, yet they already managed to treat me and get halfway up the skirt?”

“Oh, they didn’t treat you. That one did.” He pointed discreetly to the side, where she saw a man in dark civilian clothing speaking to the one Alsean she could recognize. As if aware of her gaze, they turned their heads simultaneously and met her eyes. After a pause, the doctor said something else while Lancer Tal nodded.

“Lancer Tal and some of her staff got you onto that cot after they brought their shuttle around,” Baldassar continued. “They wanted to carry you inside, but I made them understand that you’d rather stay here where you could see.”

“Thank you. That couldn’t have been easy.”

“Actually, it was. They seem to just…know, somehow.”

“Any word from Lieutenant Candini? Is she able to communicate through their radio system?” The failure of their communications grid had been one of the worst aspects of the crash. She knew nothing of her crew’s fate, but the ship’s computer had reported severe structural damage in every area where her remaining crew had been.

“Yes, one of their military people was here just before the doctors arrived and let me use his wrist radio. They’ve gotten into engineering. Commander Kameha and Trooper Xi need treatment but will be fine. Lieutenant Hmongyon is in serious condition, and they’re still looking for Troopers Shelley, Cuthbroad, and Mauji Mauji.”

“And Ensign O’Sullivan?”

“I’m sorry, Captain. He didn’t make it.”

She nodded tightly. “If that’s our only fatality, we’ll have beaten all the odds.”

“We already beat the odds just landing her mostly intact,” he said. “Thank the Seeders for Lieutenant Candini.”

Seeders my ass, she thought. If we have to thank the Seeders for our pilot’s skill, shouldn’t we be cursing them for cutting short a promising young life? O’Sullivan deserved so much more.

She wouldn’t let herself think about the others. Not the four-person weapons team that had saved this planet from a holocaust, and certainly not the one person who should not have been on her ship, who was deep in the habitat ring and would probably be the last person found. No, she would not think about it.

A nearby movement startled her, and she hoped her little jump hadn’t been visible when Lancer Tal crouched down beside her. The Alsean said something, but it was her expression that drew Ekatya in. Whatever differences they might have in language and culture, this was a leader who understood how she felt. There was sympathy in her eyes as she spoke again and slowly held out a hand. Ekatya hesitated, then reached out. The moment their hands touched she felt calmer, more hopeful. Perhaps she’d just needed to know that she wasn’t alone in this. O’Sullivan was dead, and others might be, but Lancer Tal knew what it meant to lose people in her command.

I am responsible for a ship, she thought. This woman is responsible for an entire world. She’s just found out that aliens exist, and she’s taking the time to hold my hand so I don’t crack up and completely lose it here in the middle of a damned field, in front of my executive officer.

How did you know? she wanted to ask, but Lieutenant Candini had their only translator and she had never felt so powerless.

Lancer Tal smiled at her, squeezed her hand, and let go. When she rose and walked toward another group of waiting Alseans, Ekatya let herself relax onto the pillow, feeling sleepy again.

“What was that all about?” Baldassar asked.

“I have no idea,” Ekatya said, closing her eyes.





Chapter 8

Search and rescue


“How is she?” Micah asked.

Tal squinted into the lights of the medical transport, watching as another treatment bed was brought out. “Let’s just say the leg is the least of her concerns.”

“Her commander told her about the fatality, then.”

“Yes. I’m not sure if I should block their emotions or not. It feels as if I’m invading their privacy.”

Leave it to Tal to worry about questions of ethics when aliens had dropped out of their skies, Micah thought. Usually he saw her father in her, but sometimes her mother’s heart shone through.

“Tal, they just crashed a giant ship into a producer’s field. They don’t have any privacy.”

She met his eyes. “And that’s just the first of the legal issues we’re going to run into, isn’t it?”

“You mean besides deciding who has jurisdiction over this ship and the technology inside it? You know the Council is going to argue itself into a blue cloud over that one.”

“It can try,” she said. “But I’ve been giving that some thought, and it seems to me that existing Alsean law might actually cover this.”

“Then you’re ahead of me, because I’d say this fits the legal definition of unprecedented.”

“Not if you consider it under marine salvage law. The captain of that ship is right over there. We can’t just take it away from her.”

“Doesn’t that depend on whether or not we recognize the government she represents?”

“We’re not pirates!”

“I agree. But I’ll bet you a moon’s salary that not everyone in the Council will.” In truth, he’d be surprised if some of the councillors didn’t leave skid marks on the chamber floor in their efforts to be the first to profit from the situation. The only question was whether the warriors, the scholars, the merchants, or the builders would be first out the door. The only castes who wouldn’t join the stampede would be the producers and crafters.

“What a headache,” she said. “It might have been better if this had been an invasion. Then I could focus on a nice, uncomplicated battle rather than the biggest snarl of competing interests the Council has seen in…ever.”

He looked back at the massive ship. “Speak for yourself. I’m happy not to be fighting that.”

“That’s because you don’t have to fight the Council.”

“And I’m happy about that, too.” He chuckled at her expression.

“You’re always a ray of light in my life.” She sighed. “We need the legal scholars on this before the posturing starts, which means I have to call Aldirk again. I’m telling him it’s your fault.”

Both of their wristcoms vibrated even as she was reaching for her earcuff.

“Aldirk?” he guessed before looking.

“No, the Mariners. They’re five ticks out.”

“You bother Aldirk. I’ll go meet the Mariners. Unless you want to trade?” He maintained an innocent look in the face of her glare.

“Be careful, Micah. One of these days I’m going to say yes, and then you really will be stuck.”

The Mariners had brought two rescue transports, which looked tiny in comparison to the medical transport. Micah clasped forearms with the pilots and updated their teams on the situation, while all eight of them stared at the alien ship.

“Not a problem,” one of the pilots said. “This will actually be an easy extraction. The ship’s not moving on a rough sea, there’s no storm trying to blow us out of the sky, and we’re not trying to pull unconscious dead weights out of the water.”

The other pilot nodded. “Agreed. But damn, I’d like a look inside that thing.”

“You and me both,” Micah said. “And probably everyone here, including the Lancer.”

At the mention of her title the Mariners began peering around, trying to look as if they weren’t looking. Micah thought that he shouldn’t be adding one more task to her already towering pile. But hadn’t she often told him that a leader was responsible to the people beneath her, and not the other way around?

Excusing himself for a moment, he called her and found her grateful for the interruption. Two ticks later, as he discussed rescue techniques with the pilots, he knew by the looks on their faces that Tal was walking up behind him. All eight Mariners drew themselves up into full parade pose, smacking both fists to their chests with a perfectly synchronized thump.

“Settle,” she said. They relaxed, and she offered her forearm to the first pilot. “Well met. I’m glad to see you here this morning. We have great need of your specialized skills.”

“Thank you, Lancer.” The pilot swelled to a point where Micah was afraid she might pop a button. “We’re proud to serve.”

Tal worked her way through the group, and by the time she’d clasped forearms with the second winch operator, the call they’d been waiting for came in on the open radio channel. One of the rescue teams was approaching the nearest exit hatch with two of the most critical cases.

As the Mariners raced back to their transports, Tal asked the team if the aliens would need immediate airlift to Blacksun or if the medical transport should wait for additional cases.

Immediate airlift,” said one of the healers. “They need surgery, and our healers will need time to determine what will and won’t be effective with their physiology.”

“Understood. Best guess, Healer: will they survive?”

I really don’t like to guess. But if they’re as much like us as we’ve been told, their injuries are not beyond our capacity.”

“Good. How far behind is the next team?”

Right behind us, but they have two stable cases and the fatality, all of which can wait. We’re still looking for two more aliens in the engineering sections, and the third team is only now reaching the weapons rooms.”

While Tal signed off, Micah scanned the ship, waiting for a hatch to pop open somewhere. When it finally did, it was several decks below and to the east of the first one. He stared in surprise as a ladder rippled into existence where none had been before, reaching from the hatch to the flat part of the ship.

“Where did that come from?” Tal asked.

“I don’t know, but I’d certainly like to.” He could think of ten applications for such technology without even trying.

“And the ladder went down,” she said. “How does it know which direction is down? There is no down in space.”

“Add that to your list of questions to ask the captain,” he suggested as they watched the first of the rescue transports lift off.

“It’s getting longer by the tick,” she agreed. “But not being able to understand a word she says certainly puts a wet branch on the fire.”

“Are you going to send her out with the critical cases?”

“That’s the first question I’ll ask her. Want to bet she says no?”

“No bet. She’s a warrior with injured troops. She’s not going anywhere.”

“Someday you’re going to take one of my bets,” Tal grumbled as she walked away.





Chapter 9

The last one


“Lancer Tal!” a voice called. Tal turned to find one of the assistant healers bustling up, a water flask in one hand and two more in the other. “How long has it been since you had something to drink?”

“Too long. Thank you.” She took the offered flask and drained it. Pushing the cap closed, she asked, “Are those for the captain and commander?”

“Yes, I was just on my way over.”

“So was I. I’ll take them.”

Trading her empty flask for the two full ones, she resumed her trek across the field and called Dewar for an update on their search so far. The alien pilot had directed a team as close as she could get them to the occupied weapons room, where a thermal scanner showed four aliens still alive, status unknown. Gehrain had stayed behind to assist the rescue team in breaking through the debris that blocked access. Now the pilot was leading Dewar, Corlander, and another healer deep into the ship, toward the one remaining possible survivor.

This ship is incredible, Lancer Tal. Beyond anything I’ve ever seen in an entertainment vid, that’s certain.” Dewar sounded out of breath, as if she were climbing. “But it’s not in the best of shape.”

“I’m not surprised. Are you safe?”

I don’t know, and neither does Lieutenant Candini. I’m not sure it matters.”

“Guard Dewar, there might be one more survivor. There are certainly four of you. It matters. If things start falling around your head, you will retreat. That’s an order.”

After a pause, Dewar came back on. “Lieutenant Candini says that we can retreat, but she won’t.”

How charming, a suicidally brave alien. Well, this at least was not her problem.

She arrived at Captain Serrado’s bedside and gratefully sat in one of the field chairs that someone had set up next to it. The alien commander occupied the other, his gaze intent on the rescue transport now hovering above the newly opened hatch.

Captain Serrado had been watching as well, but as Tal’s shadow fell over her, she turned her head. Tal held out the flasks and pantomimed drinking, relieved when the captain immediately took a flask for herself and handed the other to her commander, with what sounded like an order to drink it.

It was uncanny how easy these aliens were to understand. They appeared to have a military hierarchical structure similar to the warrior caste, with the captain exercising total authority, but also taking ultimate responsibility for everyone serving her. Just as clearly, the two subordinate aliens Tal had met so far were bound in service to the captain, and their emotions indicated that their service was willing. In the case of the pilot, more than willing: Lieutenant Candini seemed to feel a family bond with her captain, and that too was something Tal found familiar.

In fact, the only real differences she’d seen so far were their incomprehensible language, their inability to front, and their extraordinarily smooth faces. The lack of forehead and cheekbone ridges made them look a bit embryonic, and Tal had to consciously keep herself from staring. Other than that, they appeared normal. Even their hair fell into a normal range of color tones, though the pilot’s shade of red would be considered unusual. The captain’s black hair and dark blue eyes would have made her attractive if not for the missing ridges, and the dark skin, hair, and eyes of her commander would not look out of place in northern Argolis.

While the captain finished her water, Tal called Dewar again and asked if she could use the translator device. In the pause that followed, the commander said something and Captain Serrado pushed herself into a sitting position, staring upward. Tal followed her gaze to where two Mariners were riding a rescue cage down from their hovering transport.

Yes, I have it now,” Dewar said.

“Good.” Tal switched the com’s sound function from her earcuff to her wristcom and touched the captain’s shoulder. “Captain Serrado, there are two critical cases coming out right now. We will airlift them directly to our nearest healing center.” She waited while the distinctive voice of the translator sounded from her wristcom. The captain spoke one short word.

“Who?”

“I’m sorry, I don’t know their names. But my healers tell me that so long as there are no physiological surprises, we can heal them.”

“Thank you.” The words didn’t begin to convey her gratitude.

“You’re welcome. But Captain, this day’s work has just begun. I would like you to go with the transport, where our healing staff can make you more comfortable.” She paused, waiting for the translation to stop, then spoke over the captain’s response. “I promise you that we will do the best we can for your remaining crew members.”

“I’m not leaving,” Serrado said. “And if you were in my position, I don’t believe you would either.”

If only Micah had taken her bet. “You’re right, I would not. But I did have to ask.”

“I appreciate it. If I might make a request?” At Tal’s nod, the captain said, “This is Commander Amis Baldassar. I’d like him to accompany the first transport.”

So that was his name. They hadn’t had time for all of the introductions before the captain had handed off her translator.

“Captain,” the commander began, but Serrado cut him off.

“One of us needs to be there, Commander. And I need to be here.”

He acceded, and Tal called over the nearest Guard. “Parksor, this is Commander Baldassar. He’ll be accompanying the two critical cases to Blacksun. Please escort him to the medical transport and make sure the staff there understand his role.”

“Yes, Lancer.” Parksor waited politely while the commander rose. As the two walked away, Tal felt a waft of combined relief and guilt from Captain Serrado. Odd. Did she want to get rid of him?

The Mariners had reached the level of the exit hatch now, and with nothing else pressing at the moment, Tal stayed to watch. Captain Serrado didn’t seem to mind, making her relief at the commander’s departure even more puzzling.

One Mariner threw a cable toward the hatch, where it was caught by a member of the rescue team and hooked onto a ladder rung. A second tossed cable was used to draw the cage in, and when it was close enough, the Mariner jumped into the hatch and made the cage fast to the ladder. With the transport now tethered, the pilot’s skill level became even more critical. So far as Tal could see, she kept a perfect amount of slack in the cable, preventing any sudden movements of the cage.

The second Mariner was now off as well, and together they lifted an alien into the cage, securing their patient with several straps. One climbed back on while the other unfastened the main mooring, then jumped onto the cage’s opposite end. The nearest rescue team member unhooked the final tether and held firm while the pilot slowly took up the slack. When the transport cable reached full tension, the Mariners signaled their anchor, who let the tether fall.

Freed of its moorings, the cage and its three passengers swayed on the end of their cable as it was winched up. Soon it vanished through the floor hatch, which hadn’t even finished closing before the pilot picked up speed and headed toward the medical transport. The second rescue transport immediately moved into position and began lowering its own cage. It was just as efficient, and the medical transport was already on its way to Blacksun before the Mariners had landed with a third alien. This one was bundled into the protection of Tal’s transport, which was serving as a temporary shelter until the medical transport returned. Another patient was soon delivered, and finally a fifth, but this last alien was not pushed up the ramp into the transport. Instead, the gurney was set off to the side and draped with a sheet.

Captain Serrado stared at it, then turned her head away. Tal left her to mourn in private.

The last two engineers were found, and it was not good news: one was dead, while the other was trapped under a structural girder and needed to be cut free. The rescue team refused to give a prognosis, saying that they could not assess the patient until the weight was removed and the blood circulation restored. “It’s the most dangerous moment,” the lead healer told Tal. “Sometimes, when blood has been kept from a large part of the body for too long, it brings sudden death when it returns.”

Tal decided that Captain Serrado didn’t need to know that just yet.

Gehrain’s call was unexpectedly cheery. They’d broken through the last of the blockages to find all four of the weapons team waiting for them, alive and well, though considerably banged up. Three of them were able to walk under their own power, and with the fourth on a stretcher, they were all making their way out now. “We’re going to end up on the other side of the ship,” he said. “Top deck of the skirt—that’s what they call the flat section. Send the Mariners around.”

Happy to have something else to do, the Mariners were off the ground soon after. As they vanished over the top of the ship, the medical transport came back into view, returning from its run to Blacksun.

Tal called Dewar again as she watched it land. “Are you current?”

Yes, and so is Lieutenant Candini. Great news about the weapons team.”

“I’m going over to update Captain Serrado now. Ready to be a walking translator again?”

With Dewar on the com, she sat down next to the captain and gave her the bad news first. Serrado listened with every outward appearance of calm, but to Tal her pain was almost physically palpable. The news regarding the weapons team helped considerably. Judging by her level of relief, Tal guessed Serrado had already given them up for lost.

She sat by the captain while the medical transport gradually filled with stable patients and the two fatalities. Still there was no definitive word from the team that was cutting the last engineer free. Then came a flurry of transmissions, half of them medical jargon that Tal couldn’t even make out, until the word finally came. It had been very close, but the healers had managed to keep the alien’s system from crashing. They were on their way out and requested immediate transport to Blacksun.

With Dewar’s help, Tal passed this on to Captain Serrado, whose reaction was a quiet “Thank the stars.” She looked up at Tal and added, “Before you ask, no, I’m not going with that transport either.”

“I wasn’t going to ask,” Tal said, and was rewarded with a ghost of a smile. It soon faded into a rising tension, however. With all but one of her crew accounted for, the captain seemed to be winding herself tighter and tighter as the ticks moved past. They watched the rescue flight deliver the badly wounded engineer to the medical transport, which lifted off the moment the door was shut. As the sound of its departure faded, Tal heard birdsong and realized to her surprise that the sun was just under the horizon. She hadn’t consciously noticed the lightening of the sky.

The first rays of sunlight struck the ship, reflecting off the hull in a flare so bright that she couldn’t look at it. She rubbed her eyes, trying to blink away the afterimage, and heard Dewar’s voice on her wristcom.

We’ve got the last one! And she says she wants to tell the captain ‘It’s about time.’”

Tal laughed, startling Captain Serrado. “I have the captain right here. Tell her to go ahead.”

The stream of alien language that came over the com had an extraordinary effect on the captain. She held a hand to her mouth, tears shining in her eyes, and answered in a rasping voice that tried and failed to sound professional. Then she fell back to her pillow, covered her face with both hands, and silently wept.

Reeling from the explosive release of tension, Tal decided that she had listened to the captain’s emotions long enough. There was no tactical advantage to be gained from this. Raising her blocks gave her the sensation of having stepped from a busy city street into a hushed temple, and she took a moment to revel in the peace.

Her concentration was interrupted by Dewar. “Lancer Tal? My patient is asking to speak with you.”

“All right. Give her the translator.”

After a pause, she heard the voice that had so undone the captain, but this time it was speaking perfect High Alsean. “I don’t need a translator, Lancer Tal. I’m the one who programmed it in the first place. I just wanted to say thank you for taking such good care of us, and that I’ll consider it a tremendous honor to meet you.”

Shocked, Tal stared at her wristcom. Of course somebody would have had to program that translator; she just hadn’t considered…

Captain Serrado chuckled, wiped her eyes, and said something to Tal.

She says, ‘Don’t worry, she has that effect on everyone.’ Which I assure you is not true.”

“In this instance, I believe I’ll trust your captain,” said Tal, still feeling caught out. “And I look forward to meeting you as well. Perhaps then you can talk Captain Serrado into finally agreeing to medical care.”

She’ll agree. Now that we’ve all been found, she can stop keeping vigil.”

And that’s what it had been, Tal realized. Not just a warrior with injured troops, as Micah had put it, but someone who truly cared about the people who served her.

“You can’t see it from in there,” she said, “but the sun has just come up. Vigils end at dawn.”





Chapter 10

Pallea search II


The sky was lightening by the time Yarnolio’s transport neared the coordinates. He and Helder were in a considerably better mood now, having heard from Base Control that the aliens up near Blacksun appeared to be friendly. They still knew nothing about what had happened in their skies, but it did seem that the right ship had ended up in pieces, which gave his team a renewed interest in finding their chunk of it. After all, how often did one get the chance to examine alien technology?

“We’re at the edge of the grid,” Helder said. “Altering flight path to the search pattern.”

Yarnolio watched a grid superimpose itself on his flight map, waited until they had reached the corner of it, and banked the transport around to follow the first transverse line. “On pattern,” he said.

Helder tapped a control. “Activating thermal scanner. Although I can’t think it would still retain heat after this long.”

“That’s what your eyeballs are for.”

“Yes, thank you for your much-needed advice.” Helder punched the com button and called back to their crew. “Everyone look alert back there. We’re starting the search pattern over the general coordinates, but this thing could be anywhere on these slopes. The Astrophysics Lab got us this far; it’s up to us to finish the job. Eyes out the windows.”

She clicked off and stared forward, then turned to look out her side.

“If this is the biggest piece, and it fell from our upper atmosphere, wouldn’t it have made some sort of crater?” Yarnolio had been wondering about this for most of their flight. “Or at least flattened a bunch of trees?”

Helder shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe it disintegrated after it dropped off the scanner screens. Or maybe it landed in the bottom of one of these side canyons.” She pointed toward a narrow slot canyon branching off the valley they were currently crossing. “It could make a crater in there, and we wouldn’t even see it unless we flew right down the slot.”

“Great,” he muttered. “You know that’s what happened. We’re going to fly this whole damned grid and find nothing, and then we’re going to have to start eliminating those slot canyons one by one.”

“More flying, less complaining,” she said.

Two hanticks of mind-numbing boredom later, Yarnolio thought he had good reason to complain. Hunting for alien technology surely ought to be more exciting than this. At the beginning of their mission he’d feared for the Lancer’s Guards approaching that giant crashed ship, but now he envied them. They were meeting aliens and making history. He, on the other hand, was flying a cargo crate on a boring search grid and finding nothing.

The sun was well up now, which was both good and bad news. It made the search easier wherever its light reached, but the shadows it created were so dark by comparison that Yarnolio and Helder could see very little in the deeper canyons.

“Hold on,” said Helder. “Broken trees, bearing fifteen.”

Yarnolio looked in the direction she’d indicated. Sure enough, there were several broken trees, their freshly torn trunks gleaming against the dark green of the forest. And they were right above the vertical drop of a slot canyon.

“We’ll have to thread that needle,” he said. As he lined up his approach, Helder called the news back to the crew.

Yarnolio entered the canyon carefully, using his thrusters to bring the transport to a hover just ahead of the broken trees.

“Thermal scanners show nothing,” Helder said. “I knew they’d be useless. You’re going to have to take us down.”

“Of course, because all I wanted to do today was drop this crate into a canyon barely any wider than we are.”

“You complain like an old man.” Helder was peering out the front, as if the mere power of her will could light the shadows beyond their searchlight. “You fly like one, too.”

“Shut up and keep looking.” He watched the canyon walls slide by as they dropped deeper and deeper in, then checked his altimeter. They were down to double digits. He wasn’t planning to reach the singles. The way this canyon was narrowing, if they went too deep, he might actually wedge them in.

“Stop!” Helder cried. “There!”

In the searchlight dead ahead was a clear landing mark. But it wasn’t a crater. The flattened grass and brush in the center meant something large and heavy had landed at a relatively low speed, which was only possible if it had been able to control its descent. And the way the grass was blown flat all the way to the canyon walls…that looked like landing thrusters to him.

But that wasn’t the strangest thing.

“Where the shek did it go?” he asked in bewilderment.

“No way did that piece of junk get up and walk off by itself.” Helder sounded angry. “Somebody got here before us. Did Baskensteen give our coordinates to another team by mistake?”

Yarnolio angled the searchlight. “Helder…”

“Oh, shek,” she whispered.

A trail of broken brush and churned soil led away from the landing site, deeper into the canyon.

“It did walk off by itself,” Yarnolio said, dread coiling in his belly.

Helder was already activating the com. “Transport WSC813 to Whitesun Base Control,” she said, her voice admirably calm despite the fear he could sense rising off her skin.

Whitesun Base Control, go.”

A flash of white turned the shadows of the slot canyon into blinding daylight, and both of them threw their hands up in front of their eyes. Yarnolio felt the air grow warm around him as a strange crackling noise filled his ears.

May Fahla guide and protect us, he thought.

The canyon lit up a second time when the transport and its crew exploded into thousands of pieces, none larger than a handspan. They drifted to the canyon floor, some still burning, as the echoes of the explosion faded away.

A whirring, mechanical sound replaced the echoes, punctuated by solid, deep thumps as the machine emerged from the shadows. Nearly as large as the transport, it moved on four thick legs that crushed brush and small trees beneath them. It stomped through the debris field without pausing, flattening what few pieces of the transport remained, and made its way toward the canyon’s mouth.





Chapter 11

Casualties


Ekatya had agreed to be taken to the Lancer’s transport, but she had not agreed to be strapped onto that cot like an invalid. She’d had enough of lying around, and if she was going to be flown to a medical center, she would damn well arrive upright, a captain seeing to her crew. It hadn’t been difficult to convince the Alsean doctors of her intent. As Commander Baldassar had said, they just seemed to know. One of them even came up with a pair of recognizable crutches, which she gratefully accepted. The moment her personal swarm of medical attendants left her alone—or as alone as one got with a heavily armed soldier standing watch—she made her way into the bathroom one of them had pointed out and treated herself to the unbelievable luxury of an empty bladder and clean hands. It took a minute to figure out how to operate the tiny waterfall that served as a faucet, but some things seemed to be universal.

The guard didn’t stop her when she crutched out the door and back down the ramp, though he did follow her as far as the door. Trying to ignore the eyes on her back, she stopped at the bottom of the ramp and gazed up at her broken ship.

She should probably be feeling more heartbroken about its destruction. Certainly the light of day had not made things look any better, and she really was shocked about the damage to the hullskin. But after the battle, the crash, and the long hours of certainty that she’d lost more than she could stand, the sight of a grounded ship was no longer the stuff of her nightmares.

Of course, that just meant she’d set a higher bar for nightmares.

The now-familiar sound of a transport’s engines caught her attention. Lhyn and her rescuers had emerged on the starboard side of the Caphenon, and Ekatya hadn’t been able to see it. Now she felt her whole body settle as the transport appeared over the top of the ship and arced toward her. Everyone was out. She could move on.

The tiny transport landed just forty meters away, and she gave serious thought to crutching over to it. She might have done it, too, if a uniformed body hadn’t appeared in front of her. She looked up, seeing now-familiar features. Blonde hair held back in a clip, a chiseled profile accentuated by narrow ridges running the length of the cheekbones, and the three slim forehead ridges—one vertical, the other two arching toward opposite sides of the hairline—that were unlike anything she’d seen on a Gaian race.

“Right, of course you’d want to be here when she arrives,” she said grumpily. Lhyn’s return meant the return of communications. It meant questions and answers, and she had the feeling that Lancer Tal was not a woman willing to wait for answers any longer than she had to. But dammit, she’d wanted a moment with Lhyn all to herself.

The Lancer tilted her head, those intelligent ice-blue eyes missing nothing. Somehow Ekatya suspected the woman knew what she’d just said, even without a common language. Ashamed, she said, “I’m sorry. That was rude.”

Lancer Tal nodded and stepped over, standing at her side as they watched the transport ramp come down. They were almost the same height, and Ekatya wondered if the Lancer also had to deal with being prejudged for her shorter stature.

In her peripheral vision she saw another Alsean arrive, that tank of a man who never seemed to be far from the Lancer. With his stubbly hair and barrel chest, he looked like a recruitment poster for the Ground Warfare division of Fleet. He took up a post next to Lancer Tal and waited with them.

A stretcher emerged from the rescue transport, carried by two uniformed Alseans. Lhyn was sitting upright on it, her right arm in a sling that was securely taped to her chest. Even from here, Ekatya could see the dirt and grime on her face, which made her smile flash all the brighter.

“Broken in four places,” she called as they carried her closer. “But holy Shippers, these drugs are good!”

Ekatya’s first sight of a safe, whole Lhyn nearly cracked her composure, but at this she had to laugh. “I know. I’ve already experienced them. Mine knocked me out; why are you so bright and cheery?”

“Maybe because I was already knocked out earlier.” Lhyn’s smile faded. “I am so glad to see you.”

Her rescuers stopped in front of them and let down the stretcher’s supports, making sure it was stable in the dirt before one of them helped her off. She gave him a smile and what was surely a thank-you, earning two wide grins in response. Ekatya made a mental note to learn that word as soon as possible.

As the medics packed up their stretcher and prepared to leave, Lhyn addressed Lancer Tal and held up her good hand, palm outward. All of the Alseans seemed surprised by this, but Lancer Tal smiled and touched her own hand to Lhyn’s, speaking in what sounded like admiring tones. Then she introduced the man next to her, who touched Lhyn’s palm without hesitation.

Turning back to Ekatya, Lhyn said, “I hear you’ve already met the Lancer, though Lieutenant Candini said it wasn’t exactly formal. So let me introduce you to Lancer Andira Tal and her Chief Guardian, Colonel Corozen Micah. They don’t shake hands here, they touch their palms together. Just one, because you’re not family.”

“I’m pleased to officially meet you this time,” Ekatya said, holding up her hand. “Our first meeting wasn’t how I prefer to do these things.”

Lhyn translated, and both the Lancer and Colonel Micah smiled at her as they touched palms. Lancer Tal spoke at greater length and then waited, her eyes never leaving Ekatya’s.

“She said we have a little while yet, because Lieutenant Candini and the Alseans who pulled me out of there are still climbing down the ladder. They offered to airlift Candini out, but she refused.”

Ekatya snorted. “Of course she did.”

“You have no room to speak, Ekatya. I heard something about you climbing down twenty decks with a broken leg. Not to mention walking the entire length of the skirt to the bow.”

“I didn’t actually walk down the skirt. It was more like Candini and Baldassar carried me and put me down every few steps.”

Lhyn gave her a look of fond exasperation. “Yes, that makes it so much better. Anyway, we’re invited to wait, and to travel, in the Lancer’s personal cabin. I think that means a special cabin in her transport. They don’t call them shuttles.”

“That much I’ve figured out. And what would you do if I said no thank you?”

“Don’t you dare!” Lhyn’s look of horror faded into understanding. “It’s not nice to tease the injured anthropologist.”

“You’re right. Put it down to the injured captain not being her usual diplomatic self. Please tell Lancer Tal that I’m grateful for the offer.”

A flurry of Alsean conversation resulted in Lancer Tal leading the way up the ramp, followed by Ekatya and Lhyn, with the colonel bringing up the rear.

“There’s a nice bathroom here if you haven’t had the chance yet,” Ekatya said. “And judging by your face, you haven’t had the chance.”

“Oh, thank the stars.” Lhyn wasted no time asking their hosts, who stopped and pointed the way, with the colonel going so far as to show her how to open the door. That left Ekatya standing in awkward silence with them, wondering how Lhyn was managing with only one functioning arm.

She got her answer when Lhyn opened the door. “Ekatya? Um…would you mind helping me wash up?”

Glad for an excuse to see her alone, Ekatya hastened to help out. Lhyn held up a wet hand as she approached and said, “Turns out it’s hard to clean one of these when you don’t have anything to scrub it against.”

“You’re in for a rough few weeks,” Ekatya said as she wet down a soft cloth.

“Not necessarily. Their medtech is pretty advanced, from what I’ve been able to observe.”

“That’s good to hear, since I have three crew members in their hands right now who need a lot of help.”

She worked in silence for the next few minutes, getting Lhyn’s hands clean and then moving to her face. As she carefully wiped off the dirt and smudges, Lhyn said, “I’m so sorry about the fatalities.”

Ekatya paused, meeting her eyes, then resumed her work. “I don’t even know who one of them is. I’ve got two dead crew members and only one name.”

“We’ll figure it out. But you know you did the right thing.”

She did. It wasn’t even a question. But why did doing the right thing always seem to cost so much?

With one last gentle wipe of the cloth, she leaned in to place a soft kiss on Lhyn’s lips. Resting their foreheads together, she whispered, “I am so mad at you right now.”

“I know. I’m sorry. But I had to stay with you.”

“Do you know what I’ve been going through, imagining them finding you in pieces?”

“Probably the same thing I went through, lying there with no idea of who survived and whether anyone was left to find me—or whether it mattered.”

Ekatya pulled back. “It always matters.”

“Not without you. One year was already a test of my endurance, and that was knowing I’d see you again at the end of it. Forever? That’s outside my tolerance.”

“Mine too,” Ekatya admitted. She wanted to hold her, but the arm made it impossible, so she settled for another kiss instead. “We should probably get back out there, much as I don’t want to face that woman again.”

“Lancer Tal?” Lhyn asked in a surprised tone. “Why not? Hasn’t she been taking care of you and everyone else?”

“Yes, and that’s the problem. She’s too nice. Nobody is that nice, especially the leader of a pre-FTL world government who has just been confronted by aliens.” Seeing Lhyn’s frown, she added, “I know, you think she’s an admirable leader. But I’m telling you, there’s something off there. She doesn’t act like she has the best interests of her world at heart. She acts like she has our best interests at heart, and that’s just not how it works.”

“Let me get this straight. She’s giving you the wiggles because she’s not suspicious enough?”

“Yes!”

Lhyn chuckled. “You are such a Fleeter. Maybe she’s just exactly what she seems.”

“Nobody is exactly what they seem. Except you.”

“I’m hardly unique.”

“Of course you are. Why do you think I—”

A rap on the door startled them both, followed by a short stream of Alsean in a deep masculine voice.

“Colonel Micah says they need to speak with us when we’re ready,” said Lhyn.

“Then I guess we’re ready.” Ekatya picked up her crutches, tucked them beneath her arms, and tapped the door’s control panel.

They rejoined their hosts and were led across the front of the main cabin and down a short corridor, where the Lancer touched her palm to a biometric lock. Silently the door slid open and she stepped in, indicating the chairs on the far side of a small conference table.

Ekatya was impressed. The private cabin was in fact a sort of combined office and living quarters, lit by large windows from one end to the other. The polished wood conference table was directly in front of the door, surrounded by six chairs, and against the forward bulkhead was what looked like a pull-down desk made from the same wood. In the aft section of the room was an arrangement of four wide, luxurious-looking seats in two facing rows, snugged against the panoramic windows. The bulkhead behind them was wall-to-wall drawers and cupboards. Like the main cabin, the entire ceiling was transparent, giving the room a light and spacious feel. Looking up at her once-proud ship looming overhead, shattered and dead, she could have wished for an opaque ceiling instead.

She followed Lhyn around the conference table and waited as she pulled out a chair, noting curiously that it locked into a set of slides.

“Clever,” Lhyn commented, accepting Ekatya’s crutches and watching her maneuver into her seat. “Must be for conferences during flight.”

“This whole room is cleverly designed.” Ekatya took the crutches back, leaned them against the table, and relaxed into her chair. Now she was facing the interior bulkhead, which was just as efficient and attractive as the rest. Aft of the door was a waist-high preparation cabinet, complete with plates and glasses in wooden racks. Next to it was a sink, and beyond that was some sort of large cabinet. A food storage unit, she guessed, and was soon proven correct when Colonel Micah moved to it and began pulling out water flasks.

Lancer Tal took the flasks from him and handed them around the table, considerately opening Lhyn’s for her. She chose a seat directly across from Ekatya, while the colonel set a tray of some sort of fruits in the center of the table and took his own seat next to the Lancer.

“Captain Serrado,” said Lancer Tal, carefully enunciating the Common word for “captain.” With a serious expression, she spoke in measured tones and waited for Lhyn to translate.

“She said—” Lhyn stopped, a look of such sad understanding on her face that Ekatya needed no further explanation.

“So that’s three?”

Lhyn nodded.

When she could trust her voice, she asked, “Do we know who it is? Who they are?”

The Lancer gave a one-word answer to this question while pulling a transparent cylindrical device from a pouch on her belt. When she unrolled it on the table and tapped it, the device stiffened into a flat sheet, showing data on its now-opaque surface. After tapping it a few more times, she turned it around and slid it across the table.

Ekatya picked it up and immediately saw Commander Baldassar’s hand in this. Somehow, he’d not only found out everyone’s status at the healing center, but had also managed to convince an Alsean to let him send this image of his handwritten report. The words stared up at her, damning in their simplicity.


Fatalities: Trooper 1C Cuthbroad, Ensign O’Sullivan, Trooper 3C Shelley

Casualties, critical condition: Lieutenant Hmongyon, Trooper 2C Mauji Mauji

Casualties, stable: Trooper 2C Blunt, Trooper 2C Ennserhofen, Commander Kameha, Warrant Officer Roris, Trooper 1C Torado, Trooper 1C Xi


She wanted to throw the device against the nearest bulkhead. She wanted to shatter those names into pieces, so that they wouldn’t be true. For a moment her fingers tightened their hold, but then she made herself set it down and push it toward the Lancer. Without meeting anyone’s eyes, she opened her flask of water and drank, closed it again, set it back on the table, and finally looked up.

“Thank you,” she said. “For understanding how much I needed that information.”

Lhyn translated in a subdued voice. Lancer Tal dipped her head in acknowledgment, then spoke at some length.

“She said it was Trooper Shelley who died in the healing center. She’d lost too much blood. The Alsean healers feel terrible about it, because they could have saved her if they’d been able to replace the blood. But Alsean blood isn’t compatible, and of the crew members at the center, only two were a match. She said you might like to know that those crew members volunteered as much of their blood as Trooper Shelley needed, but…it couldn’t have been done safely. The loss was too great and the healers would not risk more lives.”

Ekatya closed her eyes and rubbed the bridge of her nose. “And we have hundreds of liters of blood sitting there in our medbay. Dammit!” She looked at Lhyn. “Would it be worth it to go back in there and bring some out? Lieutenant Hmongyon and Trooper Mauji Mauji, the ones still in critical condition, are they at risk because of blood loss?”

She waited for the translations, chafing at her limitations. The sooner Lieutenant Candini got back with that translator, the better. Lhyn was good, but the translator’s near-simultaneous capability was so much faster.

“She said they’ve already done transfusions and it should be enough. Perhaps later we can look into returning for other supplies, but for now she doesn’t think the risk is necessary.”

And what if you’re wrong? Ekatya wanted to ask. It’s not your people in danger of dying!

But of course it was. Lancer Tal had already put her own people at risk, rescuing the Caphenon’s crew in what had turned into a massive operation. And she had done it in response to a simple request, without asking any questions other than how many crew were aboard. No matter how unfathomable this seemed, or what ulterior motives she might have, these were facts Ekatya couldn’t deny.

She had promised answers in exchange. Answers she hadn’t yet given, and the Lancer hadn’t yet pressed her. It was time to get out in front of this and act like a captain instead of a patient. First rule of diplomacy: Never make someone ask you for what you’ve already offered.

“If my crew is safe, then I believe I owe you some answers,” she said. “And I’d guess your first questions would be, who are we and why are we here?”

Lhyn translated, then looked surprised at the response.

“What?” Ekatya asked.

“She said yes, those are her first two questions, and her third and fourth are, who was in the other ship and why were we fighting?”

Ekatya must have looked as surprised as Lhyn, because the Lancer smiled and spoke again.

“Ah,” Lhyn said. “They know the damage on the starboard side isn’t all from the crash, and they detected the explosion of the orbital invader. I told you they weren’t backward, Ekatya. You Fleeters always think that if a world doesn’t have FTL capability, they must be two steps away from cave art.”

“I don’t think that. How could I, with you to set me straight?” There had been so many discussions about that, with Lhyn getting predictably impassioned as she defended the complexities of the cultures she studied. Ekatya called it “pounding her lectern,” a phrase guaranteed to rile Lhyn up.

“Good to know I had some success,” Lhyn said. “Shall I tell them, or do you want me to translate for you?”

Ekatya felt weary at the mere thought of trying to explain so much via translator. “You tell them. Just keep me apprised now and then of what you’re saying so I can keep up.”

“What are my limits?”

“Make it a full debriefing.” At Lhyn’s intake of breath, she added, “We just crashed a ship on their planet. Their technological and social evolution have already been disrupted. At this point, the Non-Interference Act has gone out the airlock.”

“You’re sure?”

At her nod, Lhyn flashed a grin that seemed entirely inappropriate for the moment. But Ekatya understood. She’d just taken the restraints off, and Lhyn was free not to only tell, but more importantly, to ask. She expected there would be a lot of asking, possibly even more than Lancer Tal could handle without losing that calm reserve of hers.

As Lhyn began to speak, Ekatya reached for the fruit tray. She couldn’t remember when she’d last eaten. Settling back in her chair, she listened to the musical sound of the Alsean words and watched her hosts’ body language. This, at least, was a language she could understand.





Chapter 12

Seeders and Shippers


“It’s a long story,” said the alien who’d called herself Lhyn Rivers. “Captain Serrado has asked me to tell it to save time. I’m just trying to figure out where to start.”

Tal’s theory of pronounced sexual dimorphism had been disproven the moment Lhyn had unfolded her lanky body from the stretcher and stood, towering over not just Tal and Captain Serrado, but also Micah. Her long, loose hair was a blend of dark brown and silver, but it was her large green eyes that made the strongest impact, and the way she held a steady gaze.

Tal liked her on sight, especially the fact that her presented emotions so closely matched her real ones. She had opened up her empathic senses again, wanting to monitor this conversation with every tool at her disposal, and found that Lhyn’s emotions differed significantly from Captain Serrado’s. For someone who had just survived a life-threatening crash, Lhyn seemed remarkably cheerful. There were undertones of sorrow, mostly directed toward the woman next to her, but the overriding emotions were of relief and enthusiasm, which Tal found baffling. Not much baffled her when it came to empathic interpretation, which made Lhyn a curious puzzle.

“I would suggest starting at the beginning,” she said. “It’s a twenty-tick flight to Blacksun, and we can’t leave until your Lieutenant Candini and all of my Guards return.”

“And we want to know everything,” Micah added. “Starting with how you speak our language so well.”

“Because I’ve been studying you through your media broadcasts for more than seven of your moons, and I’m very good with languages. But that’s not the beginning, Colonel. For that I have to go back in time about one hundred and forty thousand of your cycles.”

“That might be an earlier beginning than we need,” Tal said.

“Bear with me. That’s when modern Alseans first appeared in your fossil records, isn’t it?” Lhyn asked.

“I’d have to ask a specialist, but it sounds correct. Why?”

“Are there any fossils predating those modern Alseans? Earlier forms that show a clear line of evolution resulting in your species?”

“Of course not,” Micah said. “Fahla created us to act as guardians of her world.”

Lhyn nodded. “You share that belief with many planets. Every race but one that we have found on Gaian worlds—by which I mean, worlds inhabited by a race with most of the same genetic markers we share—appeared at about the same time. But none of us were natives. None of us evolved on those worlds. We were planted there.”

Tal was reeling from the casual way she’d said “many planets” and almost missed Micah’s question.

“Then Fahla created other races to guard other worlds as well?”

Lhyn smiled. “Well done, Colonel. You’ve taken us right into the biggest philosophical schism in the galaxy. The only thing that all of us agree on is that a very long time ago, just as the original humanoids had evolved into their modern form, an ancient spacefaring race picked up a significant percentage of the global population and scattered it across the galaxy, seeding many different worlds. What all of those worlds have in common is a sudden appearance of modern humanoids in the fossil record. Only one planet in the galaxy has a fossil record with examples of earlier humanoid forms. It’s called Gaia, and that’s where Captain Serrado is from.”

The captain looked sharply at Lhyn, who quickly explained something in her own language. Captain Serrado nodded, visibly relaxing, and Lhyn continued her story.

“As more and more of these seeded populations made the leap into space, and then out of their own gravity wells and into interstellar travel, we began finding each other. But we never found any signs of that ancient spacefaring race, nor any indication as to why they spread our species all over the galaxy. Gradually, two major theories coalesced to describe our…benefactors.”

Tal waited, curious to learn the reason for the disdain lying on the surface of Lhyn’s emotions.

“One theory is that this ancient race was a benevolent one, guiding our evolution and making sure we had time to develop into another generation of spacefarers. After all, if the original Gaians failed to develop FTL—er, faster-than-light travel, they would eventually die along with their planet when their star burned through its hydrogen and began expanding.”

When she paused, Tal said, “We understand the physics. Every star system has a finite lifespan.”

“Right, I thought you would.” Lhyn took a sip of her water. “People who subscribe to this theory call that ancient race the Seeders, because they seeded other worlds with our species. They worship them as gods, and believe that the Seeders are still around, watching over us. Their ideology ranges from those who believe the Seeders merely set the mechanisms of life in motion and then adopted a non-interference policy, to those who believe the Seeders watch out for them—sometimes on an individual basis—and actively intervene in daily life.”

“You don’t subscribe to this theory,” Tal said.

“No, I don’t. Captain Serrado and I are both in the second group, which calls them the Shippers—because they shipped the original Gaians all over the galaxy and experimented with their development without a thought for their rights. And we certainly don’t believe that any Shippers care about us now.”

“I’m guessing these two groups don’t get along well in philosophical discussions,” Micah said.

Lhyn’s surprise sparkled on Tal’s senses. She hadn’t expected Micah to have a sense of humor. “We can if we’re friends. Unfortunately, the ramifications go deeper than just discussion. They play out in galactic politics, too.”

Tal leaned forward, her attention sharpened. “And now we’re getting to why you fought that second ship.”

“Yes. My world, and Captain Serrado’s, and many others are all part of a confederation called the Protectorate. It encompasses a large part of this quadrant, but not all of it. Many worlds choose to be unaligned, though frankly I think that’s a dangerous way to live, because it puts them at risk from Expansionists. That’s a general term for any race ascribing to a fundamentalist interpretation of the Seeders’ intent.”

Tal thought she could see where this was going. “They believe the Seeders intended for them to take over other worlds.”

Lhyn nodded. “Specifically, they believe that their own technological advancement is a sign of favor from the Seeders, and gives them the right to expand, to seed themselves, as victors in the development race. Terraforming an uninhabitable planet takes two to three generations and a huge amount of expensive technology. Seizing a habitable planet, and exterminating or enslaving the local, less advanced population, is easier, faster, and cheaper.”

“Mother of us all,” said Micah. “We were being invaded.”

Tal sat back in her chair, rocked to the core. “You saved us?”

Lhyn’s enthusiasm dimmed, allowing a residual fear and guilt to come to the surface. “I’m the reason you were endangered in the first place. My research group was supposed to be operating in strict secrecy. None of my staff knew where we were going other than myself and the captain of our research ship, and once we arrived here, there were no communications in or out for the duration of our study. But we were betrayed. One of my own team members sold the coordinates of Alsea to the worst of the Expansionists. We only found out because I have a communications genius on my staff, and he detected the transmission. At that point, all I could do was ask for help.”

She paused, her guilt stronger now. “I didn’t save you, Lancer Tal. Captain Serrado did.”





Chapter 13

Machine on the move


The machine had gone the wrong way up the canyon after recovering from its hard landing. The largely uncontrolled descent had rendered it unable to map the terrain from above, nor even to establish itself on the pre-loaded orbital maps. It had been spinning wildly most of the way down, recovering proper attitude barely in time to avoid smashing into the ground. Had the added depth of the canyon not given it a little more critical time in which to fire its thrusters, it would not have survived.

But it didn’t know which way to go. Only upon reaching a sheer wall that even it could not climb had it turned and made its way back.

After too much wasted time backtracking, it had rounded a blind corner in the canyon and found itself facing a shuttle, hovering thirty meters off the ground. The shuttle was identified as an enemy target and dispatched with a single mortar.

Simple. The Alseans had no shield technology, rendering their aircraft mere toys to knock out of the sky. The ground forces would be no more challenging. The only real challenge was in finding its way back to the fight. With communications knocked out by the Protectorate weapons fire that had sent it tumbling, it had no way of contacting other pacifiers or receiving orders. In the absence of new instructions, it would follow the original set.

Moving past the shuttle’s wreckage and through innumerable turns in the canyon, the machine finally emerged into a broader valley. After a pause it stomped forward, its line undeviating, until it reached the river that ran through the valley’s center. Without hesitation it waded straight into the water, which at its deepest came only halfway up its legs. It stopped in the center, turned downstream, and resumed its march.

Rivers led the way out of mountains. Primitives always settled near rivers. Somewhere along this path, the machine would encounter a settlement.

Then it would begin its mission.





Chapter 14

Empaths and sonsales


When every head in the room turned to her, Ekatya knew where Lhyn’s explanation had just landed. She was preparing herself for a difficult translation session when a light tap sounded at the door. Colonel Micah got up to open it, revealing an Alsean soldier who spoke a few short sentences.

“Lieutenant Candini is back,” Lhyn said quietly.

Ekatya watched the soldier touch his fist to his chest and retreat back down the corridor. “And just in time, apparently. I only got to use your translator for half a minute before giving it up again. It’s been a glaring absence, believe me. Why didn’t you make two?”

“Count your blessings. You’re lucky I made one.”

The Lancer’s medic entered the room with Candini right behind her. Both of them looked grimy and exhausted, and Candini’s spiky red hair was dull with dust. She’d also added scrapes on her hands to the collection on her face.

The medic stood at attention, bringing both of her fists together at her sternum before speaking to Lancer Tal in low tones. Interesting, Ekatya thought. One fist for a superior officer and two for the Lancer?

Candini reached across the table to hand the translator to Ekatya. “Thank you, Captain. I’m sure you missed this, but it was invaluable.”

“You needed it far more than I. Well done, Lieutenant. You helped to save nine lives this night.”

She’d meant it as a commendation, but Candini was too sharp. “Nine? Oh, no. Who else didn’t make it?”

“Trooper Shelley. The Alsean doctors did all they could, but she lost too much blood.”

Candini shook her head and began to walk around the table, but was stopped by the medic. This time her voice was loud enough for the translator to pick up. “I have to get back to my unit, Telorana. You’re making the flight in the Lancer’s personal cabin.” She leaned closer. “And I’m red with envy about it.”

“I’ll tell you what it was like,” Candini said, and they clasped each other’s forearms briefly before the medic vanished out the door.

As Candini pulled out the seat next to Lhyn, Ekatya caught her eye. “Looks like you’ve been our best diplomat so far. You’re on a first name basis already.” It was odd, hearing the translator begin speaking before she’d finished. What she wouldn’t give for an Alsean language chip in her node.

The two Alseans looked on with interest as Candini shrugged. “Kind of hard to stay formal when you spend six hours climbing through a wreck together. Especially with people who are risking their necks to save people they didn’t even know existed before now.”

“Guard Dewar is one of the best medics in the Alsean Defense Force,” said Lancer Tal. “We lend her out on a regular basis to emergency response teams. And Guard Corlander was a firefighter before he was sponsored into the ADF. Your people have been in the best of care.”

“I never doubted that,” Ekatya said. “We’re deeply grateful, and impressed by Alsean courage and compassion.”

“It seems that you and your people make the greater claim to both this day. Why would you risk your ship to save a planet that is not part of your Protectorate?” The Lancer’s gaze was suddenly intense, and Ekatya had a feeling that she was being tested.

“Because it was the right thing to do,” she said. “Why would you risk your people to save a group of aliens?”

The Lancer smiled. “Because it was the right thing to do.”

Ekatya smiled back, drawn to this woman despite herself. Her experience as a Fleet captain told her one thing, but her instincts were telling her another, and Lhyn seemed to be in love with Alsea in general and the Lancer’s leadership in particular. Perhaps it was time to trust her instincts.

Prepare for liftoff,” said a male voice over an intercom, and Ekatya heard the unmistakable sound of shuttle engines spooling up. Somehow it didn’t matter what the engineering or fuel source, all shuttle engines were recognizable. She glanced over at the wide seats by the windows, wondering if they should be belted in.

“Continal is a smooth pilot,” Lancer Tal said, apparently reading her mind. “We’ll be fine here. Tell us, what would have happened this night had you not interfered?”

Ekatya took another sip of water before beginning. “The ship we destroyed in your atmosphere belonged to a race called the Voloth. A long time ago they were signatories to the Protectorate, but they were impatient with our rate of territorial expansion. So they seceded and established their own territory, and took the easy way of doing it.”

“I told them about the Expansionists,” Lhyn said.

Ekatya felt a slight jar when the transport left the ground, but almost no sense of acceleration as it began to move. Lancer Tal was right, her pilot was smooth.

“The Voloth are the most…aggressive of the Expansionists,” she continued. “We’ve been fighting them since my grandfather’s days, trying to push our boundaries out and protect as many planets as we can. What happens to the planets they take over is sickening, because they aren’t content with corralling the natives on reservations or establishing an apartheid government and employing them as servants. They enslave them. Sometimes, if the planet is rich in resources but not in a good strategic location, they force the natives to strip their own worlds of all resources and then leave them there to die. But if the planet is suitable for colonization, the Voloth kill as many natives as they feel necessary and ship the rest off for slave labor, usually in mining and manufacturing operations.”

The Alseans were listening carefully to the translator, which finished a few seconds after Ekatya stopped. They shared a brief look of horror before Lancer Tal said, “And do they consider Alsea…suitable?” She almost stumbled over the word, her disgust palpable.

Ekatya hesitated, trying to find the right words, but there was no way to make this seem any less dire than it was.

“Alsea is located right outside the border of Protectorate space. That plus its pristine environment make it extremely desirable for colonization. With this planet, the Voloth would have an outpost practically in our backyard.”

The Alseans looked at each other again, then at her with matching expressions of understanding.

“They’ll be back,” said Colonel Micah. “Won’t they?”

Ekatya nodded reluctantly. “Your planet is an enormous prize. They thought they could take you with a single invasion group, but they weren’t expecting me to be here. When they—”

“A single invasion group?” Lancer Tal interrupted. “There was more than the ship you destroyed in our atmosphere?”

“A group consists of an orbital invader and two destroyer escorts,” Ekatya said. “We took care of the destroyers first. But we didn’t get to the orbital invader until it was nearly too late.”

“You destroyed three ships.”

“Yes.”

“Are there any other ships in your group?”

“No.”

Lancer Tal nodded, gesturing for her to continue.

“When the Voloth realize the invasion failed, they’ll send another force, but so will the Protectorate. There will be another battle; the only question is which force gets here first. I hope and believe it will be the Protectorate for two reasons. One, my ship was sent as an emergency response to Lhyn’s call for help. The Protectorate knew Alsea was in danger eight of your days ago. Two, I sent out a call for additional assistance before the battle began, the moment I realized the Voloth had already gotten an invasion group out here. But the Voloth had no idea that they would meet any resistance until I blew up their first destroyer. Even then, the captain of the orbital invader had every reason to believe his mission would be successful. By the time we could get past that second destroyer, the orbital invader was already in position. His ship almost certainly notified the Voloth homeworld of the battle, but I’m not sure it ever had a chance to relay the news of its failure.”

She stopped to let the translator catch up and marveled at the calm of these two Alseans, who were hearing information that would send most people running for the exits. Then again, why was she surprised? They apparently hadn’t batted an eyelash when the Caphenon had nearly dropped on top of their heads.

But perhaps the Lancer was more disturbed than she let on, because she picked up her water flask and drank for the first time since their meeting had begun. Ekatya, who knew something about hiding emotion with action, watched in sympathy.

Lancer Tal set her flask down. “This…orbital invader, you call it. I assume the name refers to an orbital insertion of the invading force?”

“Yes, it’s designed specifically for a hostile planetary takeover. It carries four wings of fifty fighters each, but those are usually reserved for the second wave. Its drop bays hold five hundred mobile heavy weapon platforms that we call ground pounders. They call them pacifiers.”

“Pacifiers,” Lancer Tal repeated. “As in, pacifying a resistant population?” She turned to the colonel and added, “Well, at least we know the Voloth are capable of irony.”

“Conquerors can always afford humor at a victim’s expense,” Colonel Micah said.

“And that’s exactly what they are, conquerors.” Ekatya had seen the aftermath too many times to keep the anger out of her voice. “Their pacifiers ruthlessly destroy not just any resistance, but also all infrastructure and even large population centers. Each one of them is nearly the size of your medical transport. They’re heavily armored, shielded, and loaded with a small ship’s worth of armaments. And from what Lhyn has told me of your weapons capability, I don’t think anything on Alsea could take one of them down.”

Colonel Micah visibly bristled. “Do not underestimate the skill and courage of the warrior caste.”

“I assure you I do not. That was merely a technological assessment, not an aspersion on your people’s courage.”

“Micah,” said Lancer Tal quietly. “Five hundred of them.”

They looked at each other again, and the colonel seemed to deflate. “Great Goddess,” he said in the same low tone.

After a pause, Lancer Tal asked, “What happened to the rest of your crew?”

“They evacuated when our fusion core overloaded. The only way to prevent a core breach was to shut down the reaction, which meant shutting down our engines. But we were already deep inside your gravity well at that point; shutting down the engines meant a certain crash. So I kept a skeleton crew to ride the Caphenon down, and ordered everyone else off.”

It took an exercise of will to not look at Lhyn. Oddly, it was the Lancer who looked over, watching Lhyn for a moment before returning her gaze to Ekatya. A tiny smile played over her face, and Ekatya felt a chill run down her spine. If she were a betting woman, she’d lay good odds that Lancer Tal knew exactly what Lhyn had done. But that was impossible.

The smile vanished as the Lancer leaned forward, crossing her hands in front of her on the table. “We haven’t found a sustainable means of fusion, though it has not been for lack of effort. But I know enough about it to understand that a reaction strong enough to propel a ship the size of yours, at faster-than-light speeds, would have to be the energetic equivalent of a small star. And shutting down such a reaction would not result in instant cooling. Am I correct?”

“Yes.” Ekatya wished now more than ever that she’d had time to be fully debriefed on Alsean science and technology. They were clearly more advanced than she’d realized.

“Then wouldn’t it have been safer for you to evacuate as well, and get far out of range of a possible detonation, than to ride it down and hope to survive a crash?”

“Safer, yes. But the orbital invader was still in action, and I could not allow it to drop its ground pounders. I kept my best weapons team on board, and they managed the kill shot. At that point, I would have abandoned ship if we’d had time, but…we didn’t.”

Lancer Tal’s gaze never wavered, but something in it made her nervous.

“Captain Serrado, you are not speaking the truth. You never had any intention of abandoning ship.”

What?” Lhyn burst out. “Ekatya! Is that true?”

Ekatya could not look away from those ice-blue eyes, which seemed to know everything about her whether she wished it or not. Her throat blocked her voice, preventing any response, but the silence in the room grew louder and more crushing until she was forced to break it.

“Yes,” she said.

“Oh my fucking stars,” said Lhyn. “I cannot believe—yes, I can believe it. And you were mad at me? This is why I stayed!”

“I couldn’t leave!” Ekatya’s voice was loud enough to stop Lhyn in mid-rant. “The Caphenon was headed straight for their largest city; it would have killed a million people. I couldn’t let that happen.”

“She’s right.” Lieutenant Candini spoke for the first time. “If we’d abandoned ship then, the Caphenon would have gone nose-first right into the middle of that city, and probably blown the armories in the process. The fusion core was still hot, too. We’d have done the Voloth’s work for them.”

“I ordered Lieutenant Candini to use everything she had to put us down outside that city. And she did. There was no other choice, Lhyn. Not one that I could live with.”

Lhyn’s anger faded from her expression. “Of course it was the right choice. But now you have to live with something else, don’t you?”

Ekatya was too aware of the others in the room to answer that question, but Lhyn’s eyes went soft as she reached under the table to lay a gentle hand on her leg. The small, private gesture of understanding nearly breached her control, and she had to blink several times before she could look back at the Lancer—who apparently had not moved a micrometer and was still drilling a hole through her with those all-seeing eyes.

At last she nodded and stood up. The room was hushed with expectation as she walked around the table and stood beside Ekatya’s chair. Then she went down on one knee and held up both of her hands, palms outward.

“Captain Ekatya Serrado,” she said in formal tones, “Alsea owes you a debt we can never repay. But if there is anything in my power to give you in payment for what you have done, please name it now, and I will do my utmost to provide it.”

“Shippers,” Lhyn whispered. “Ekatya, touch her palms. Do it now.”

She did, settling their hands together and watching as Lancer Tal intertwined their fingers and closed hers down. It seemed oddly intimate, but she was enough of a diplomat to let herself relax into it. Still, she wasn’t sure if she should close her own fingers or not.

Lhyn murmured something in Alsean to the Lancer, who nodded and patiently waited, still in her kneeling position, while Lhyn explained in low tones.

“She has just given you a gesture reserved for family or the closest of friends. This is the highest honor you could possibly receive, Ekatya. I doubt she’s done this with more than a dozen people in her entire life, and that would include her parents. And she kneels before no one. Take this seriously.

Startled, Ekatya reflexively closed her fingers, looking into the light blue eyes that no longer seemed icy. She felt suffused with a warmth, a pride in what she had done. There had never been a question that it was the right thing to do, but in this moment she felt at ease with it. Yes, there had been fatalities. Yes, they were entirely her responsibility. But three was a ridiculously small number compared to the million or more her skeleton crew had saved.

Three fatalities, she thought, and knew what her favor would be.

“I would ask one thing.”

“Name it,” the Lancer answered as soon as she understood.

“I ask for a memorial with full honors for Ensign O’Sullivan, Trooper Cuthbroad, and Trooper Shelley. When we take their bodies home, they’ll be buried with military honors, but it won’t be commensurate to their courage and sacrifice. They’ll just be three of many who have died in the line of duty. I want them to be recognized.”

Lancer Tal released her hands and stood. “We would be proud to provide a state funeral.”

“Not a funeral. A memorial. I can’t leave their bodies here.”

“Agreed, then. A memorial with full state honors.”

“Thank you.” She felt something ease inside, but that still left the biggest question of the day. As the Lancer walked back to her chair, Ekatya asked, “How did you know?”

Lancer Tal took her seat gracefully, crossed her hands in front of her again, and said, “Your emotions did not match your words.”

Lhyn gasped, her hands going to her face. “I knew it! You are empaths!” Her glee was entirely inappropriate to the moment, but there was no stopping her. “That was driving me crazy. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone back and forth, wondering if I was nuts for even thinking it. Holy Shippers, this is going to blow the whole damned roof off next year’s Anthropology Consortium meeting!”

The Lancer’s smile expanded into a full grin. “You, on the other hand, have no difference at all between your words and your emotions.”

Ekatya was reeling. Empaths? That was a myth, a relic of science fiction and overheated philosophy discussions. Modern science had conclusively established that such abilities were physically impossible. Empaths did not exist.

But she’d already known, hadn’t she? The way the Alseans had seemed to understand what she and her crew needed, even without a common language. Their instant acceptance, almost without question, that Ekatya was not dangerous to them. She remembered twenty weapons pointed at her and the Lancer shouting at them to stop, before she had managed a single word through the translator.

“You knew we meant no harm before I ever said it, didn’t you?”

Lancer Tal nodded. “All I sensed from any of you was fear. It took some time before I realized that it was fear for your injured shipmates. But you were never a threat.” She paused, then added, “Not to us, that is. Apparently you are a grave threat indeed to the Voloth.”

Ekatya barely registered the words, her mind too busy going over every interaction she’d had with Lancer Tal since the moment she’d seen the woman step into view. And then her face grew hot when she remembered the Lancer touching her hand as she lay on the cot, losing her mind worrying about Lhyn and the one fatality she knew of at that point.

Lancer Tal, damn her, saw everything. Even as Ekatya was thinking it, the woman spoke.

“Micah, please escort Lieutenant Candini and Lhyn Rivers to the main cabin. I wish to speak with Captain Serrado alone.”

“Oh, no,” Lhyn said as Colonel Micah rose from his chair. “You’re not going to talk about this without me here. You can’t. Ekatya, please!”

“She can stay,” Ekatya said. Her voice sounded thick to her ears.

“Very well.” Lancer Tal’s gaze never wavered as chairs moved and bodies followed each other into the hall. When the door slid shut, she stayed silent, waiting.

Even that was fuel to Ekatya’s ire. Was nothing in her mind private?

“What did you do to me in that field?” she said through gritted teeth. “I felt it. You changed something in my head.”

Whatever Lancer Tal had been expecting, it wasn’t that. For half a second she looked shocked before she could mask it. “I changed nothing. That’s not—Captain, I assure you that you haven’t been forced in any way.”

Ekatya shook her head. “I felt different after you touched me. Don’t tell me that was a coincidence.”

“No, it wasn’t, but I would never do what you’re thinking. Forced empathic control is a violation of our highest law, unless there’s consent or a warrant. Am I to understand that none of you can sense emotion?”

Lhyn, who had been watching with wide eyes, answered for her. “Not any Gaian race yet discovered. You’re the first.”

“Incredible,” the Lancer murmured. “An entire galaxy of sonsales.

The word didn’t translate, and Lhyn looked confused. “What does sonsales mean?”

“It means a person who is blind, but not in the visual sense. Blind to emotions. Among my people it’s considered a terrible burden, very limiting. Even the most ungifted Alseans can still sense their blood kin, but sonsales can sense nothing.”

“Then yes, we’re all sonsales,” Lhyn said. “But we’ve never considered it a burden because we never knew any other way.”

“And we appreciate having privacy inside our heads.” Ekatya was not letting the Lancer off that easily. “I’m still waiting for an explanation.”

Judging by her expression, Lancer Tal wasn’t used to giving them. “If you felt your privacy was violated, I apologize. That was not my intent. I was…” She paused, for once seeming less than sure of herself. “Sharing my own emotions. To help you. It wasn’t meant as an intrusion.”

Sharing her emotions? What did that mean?

But Lancer Tal was looking at her as if she’d said more than was necessary, and Ekatya went over the memory again. Yes, she’d felt different. She’d been worrying herself into a black hole and then—

She blinked in sudden understanding and saw the Lancer’s immediate relief. Apparently, her emotions were like big blazing lights to this woman.

“You calmed me down,” she said. “I was thinking you were the leader of an entire world and you were taking the time to hold my hand so I wouldn’t crack. I was sure you understood me, even though we couldn’t communicate.” Because she had understood. Great galaxies, this was going to take some getting used to.

Lancer Tal nodded. “Yes. That was my intent.”

And she had done that for someone she didn’t know? An alien she didn’t know? Ekatya was beginning to think that Alsean culture was like no other she had yet encountered. Empathic abilities must change the game considerably.

“Then I thank you for your kindness,” she said. “And I regret my accusation. It was based on ignorance, but that’s not a very good excuse.”

“I hope it is, because I claim it for myself as well. We all knew you couldn’t front, but it never occurred to me that you also had no experience with sharing emotion. Alseans experience that from infancy. Please understand, we have very strict laws governing emotional privacy. I would never invade yours without your consent. When I offered my hand, and you took it, I read that as consent. Any Alsean would.”

Lhyn blew out a breath. “Wow. Just…wow. Not only are you empathic, but you can project your emotions as well? And you learn this from infancy? To Hades with the AC meeting, I’m going to get a book out of this! What does it mean to front?”

Normally Ekatya enjoyed Lhyn’s enthusiasm for her research, but the anger she had only just managed to bank was still too close to the surface, and her lover had chosen the wrong moment to intrude.

“Do you know why she felt the need to calm me down?” she asked sharply. “Because I was lying there worrying myself sick about you. Because you were supposed to be safe in an escape pod, getting picked up by your own ship. Not on mine, getting your brains splattered across the nearest bulkhead.”

Lhyn at least had the grace to look abashed. “I know. You have the right to be angry, and I’m sorry I worried you, but—“

Holding up a hand, Ekatya said, “Don’t end an apology with ‘but.’ After that word it’s no longer an apology.”

“Can we talk about this somewhere else?” Lhyn asked in a lower tone, indicating the Lancer with a slight head movement.

“What’s the point? She knows everything we’re feeling anyway.”

It was strange how having her emotions practically printed on her forehead changed her attitude. Normally she’d rather do a hull walk without a space suit than let a stranger see into her private life. But knowing that Lancer Tal felt everything…why bother hiding what had already been seen?

Lancer Tal spoke into the charged silence. “Perhaps we should move to the window seats. They’re more comfortable, and you might enjoy seeing the view you missed on your way down.”

It was a blatant redirection, but Ekatya took it nonetheless. She began to push back her chair, pausing when Lhyn nearly leaped out of her own to help. Soon they were settled in the cushy window seats, and she had to admit it was a definite improvement. They were traveling over what appeared to be an endless expanse of cultivated fields, interspersed with threaded corridors of wild areas. Lhyn had said that the Alseans had a fascinating blend of agrarian and high-tech culture, and she could certainly see it now.

What a horror to imagine this bucolic landscape churned up by ground pounders, its people enslaved. What would slavery do to an empathic species?

She looked at the Lancer, sitting across from them with the translator at her side, and asked, “You shared your emotions with me twice, didn’t you?”

“Twice?” Lhyn perked up. “When was the second time?”

“Five minutes ago.” Ekatya held her hands palm outward to illustrate and only then made the connection. “This isn’t just consent, is it? It requires physical touch.”

“Not necessarily. A high empath can share emotions without touch, but it’s extraordinarily difficult, and there are limitations to what can be shared. A physical connection acts as a conduit.”

“You’re a high empath,” Ekatya guessed.

“Yes, I am. It’s something of a prerequisite for the title.” A small smile broke her serious demeanor as she added, “I cannot imagine navigating the tangled webs of self-interest and deceit in our Council Chamber without it.”

“There have certainly been times when I wished for something like that. Though my fantasies usually leaned toward telepathy.”

The Lancer chuckled. “There are no telepaths on Alsea, nor would I wish for that myself. Where would the challenge be in interpreting emotion if you could simply reach in and see where it came from?”

“You have to interpret?” Lhyn wanted to know. “Isn’t it obvious?”

Lancer Tal’s gaze grew intent, and Ekatya thought with some satisfaction that it was about time somebody else was on the other end of that look.

“You bear a heavy guilt, Lhyn Rivers. But why? Is it because you know you caused Captain Serrado emotional harm by not evacuating? Or because someone under your command, someone you were responsible for, sold us to the Voloth? Or is it for some reason I’m not aware of? I can feel your emotion, but that doesn’t mean I know the cause.”

Lhyn looked down at her lap. “Emotional harm?” she repeated, and turned to Ekatya. “It sounds so much more damaging when she puts it that way.”

“I spent the night in Tartarus,” Ekatya said bluntly. “The only good thing about it was that when I finally broke down, none of my staff were there to see it.”

From the corner of her eye she saw the Lancer nod, as if she had just confirmed a theory. But her attention was held by Lhyn, who was looking at her with a new awareness.

“I apologize,” Lhyn said. “I disobeyed your order and probably interfered with your focus in a battle situation. It was a split-second decision, I did it on instinct, and my instinct was to stay with you. I didn’t think beyond that.”

No excuses this time, no buts. Just an acknowledgment, and it wasn’t until now that Ekatya realized how much she’d needed it.

“Thank you,” she said. “I accept your apology. And for the record, while I hope to never go through another night like that one, I’m extremely glad you’re here now.”

As they smiled at each other, it occurred to her that she didn’t need empathic talent to know what Lhyn was feeling. Perhaps that was the true value of a relationship like theirs.

When they faced forward again, Lancer Tal was watching them with clear enjoyment. Ekatya had no idea why, and a moment later she wasn’t sure she’d seen it at all, so quickly did the Alsean turn serious.

“I hope you both understand that if it were in my power, I would be taking you to our healing center for surgery and a long, relaxing recovery. But the information you’ve shared has only proven that we need to learn a great deal more from you. As soon as you’re able, I’d like you to conduct a full debriefing with my High Council. The Voloth will return, and we need to prepare.”

As if there were anything the Alseans could do to prepare for that. The only preparation they could make was to hope the Protectorate forces arrived first; otherwise it would be a slaughter. But Ekatya was not about to say that out loud.

“I understand. We’re prepared to speak to your High Council as soon as your healers can get us into mobile stabilizers.”

That apparently didn’t translate, so she explained the concept of setting the bones and wrapping them to keep them from shifting during the long regeneration process. The Lancer looked surprised, then amused.

“I believe our healers can do better than that,” she said. “And after the night we’ve all had, we could benefit from a few hanticks of rest. There’s no need for a debriefing before this evening. It will take me that long to assemble the High Council anyway.”

“A hantick is slightly less than one and a half stellar hours,” Lhyn explained. “And that does sound rather nice. Though what I’ve really been dreaming about is a hot shower.”

“Now that, I’m certain we can provide.” Lancer Tal shifted slightly, leaning forward. “What will happen to the person who sold us?”

Lhyn met Ekatya’s eyes and shook her head. She couldn’t answer.

“Ordinarily, I’d be taking him into custody and turning him over to the Protectorate Enforcement Agency,” Ekatya said. “What he did is an offense against the entire Protectorate, not just one planet, so the penalty would have been very high. But in this case…” She hesitated.

“You have no ship.”

“No, that’s not the issue. I have no prisoner.” Ekatya watched Lhyn’s eyes close. “He was spaced.”

“She won’t know what that means,” Lhyn murmured. “There’s no Alsean word for it.”

Of course there wouldn’t be.

“I mean,” Ekatya said, “someone, or more likely a group of people, took him from his quarters where he’d been secured, put him into an airlock, and opened it to space. And somehow none of the security cameras on the ship managed to record it.”

If she expected horror in this compassionate alien, she didn’t see it. Instead there was a barely-hidden glint as Lancer Tal said, “He was executed.”

“Yes. Without trial. Which means that legally, he was murdered. But there’s no evidence and no witnesses, so the captain of Lhyn’s ship can’t do a thing about it.”

“Which means some of my own team are murderers,” Lhyn said.

“You don’t know that. It could have been the crew.”

“So you keep saying. But I don’t think the crew would have been so righteous.”

“And this distresses you,” Lancer Tal said. “Your trust was betrayed not once, but twice.”

“Yes, that’s it exactly. The first was shocking enough. Unthinkable, really. The second…” She trailed off.

Ekatya resisted the urge to offer physical comfort, but then remembered who was sitting across from them. The Lancer already knew how she felt about Lhyn; there was nothing to hide.

Lhyn’s astonishment when she openly caressed her hand was strong enough to chase away the shadows in her eyes, and Ekatya smiled, her mission accomplished. “I’m feeling a little envious of the Alseans right now,” she said, intertwining their fingers. “Imagine if I could just show you how I feel.”

“I think you just did.”

Lancer Tal said something so quietly that the translator didn’t pick it up, and by the look on Lhyn’s face, she’d missed it too. Ekatya was just about to ask when she realized that a city skyline had appeared on the horizon. Squeezing Lhyn’s hand, she tipped her head toward the window. “I’m a lot happier to be coming toward your city now than I was a few hours ago,” she said.

The Lancer turned in her seat to look. “And I’m happy to be returning at all.”

Lhyn said nothing, but her eyes were the size of saucers. Ekatya could only imagine what was galloping through that brain of hers. It wasn’t often that she had the opportunity to directly confirm or improve her studies of a pre-FTL culture.

Nor did it take her long to ask her first question. “Why is it called Blacksun? I never figured that out.”

“It was founded by the Wandering King,” Lancer Tal said. “He was the first to cross the mountains that ring the valley, and when he came over the final pass and saw the valley for the first time, he barely got a glimpse before everything went dark. It was a total solar eclipse.”

“A black sun,” Ekatya said in understanding.

“Exactly. So he called the valley Blacksun Basin, and when he founded the city, the name was already chosen.”

Lhyn was soaking it up. “And Whitesun?”

Lancer Tal smiled. “It has always been the great rival of Blacksun. The queen who founded it hated Blacksun, though I think in truth she hated the family that ruled it. She was determined that in her city she’d fix everything that was wrong with this one, including the name.”

“So she chose a name that was the exact opposite,” Lhyn said. “This is fantastic. Is that what happened with Redmoon and Whitemoon as well?”

“Redmoon is named for a relatively rare event, when both of our moons go into eclipse and Alsea, Sonalia, and Eusaltin are all lined up together. When that happens, it appears as if we have only one moon—a red moon.”

“Of course,” Ekatya said, though Lhyn looked baffled. “Because it’s reflecting the light from Alsea’s atmosphere instead of from your star.”

Lancer Tal nodded. “But Redmoon and Whitemoon aren’t rivals. They were founded by members of the same family, and historically they were allies more often than not.”

“Would it be possible for me to have access to the etymology of your place-names?” Lhyn asked. “It would fill in so many blanks in our understanding of your culture and history.”

Lancer Tal laughed, a full laugh that transformed her face and posture. “In my wildest fantasies, I never imagined aliens landing on our planet and asking me for an etymology of our place-names. Yes, of course you can have access. And I can’t wait to hear what you ask for next.”

She didn’t have to wait long. Lhyn peppered her with questions and Ekatya listened with half an ear, more interested in the view. As they drew nearer to the city, she realized that many of the buildings were domes, with two groups at the center rising well above the rest. Those groups were encircled by six smaller domes, which were still larger than most of the others in the city. Streets radiated out from the center like strands of a spider web, making it obvious where the power resided.

Then they were crossing the outskirts, and she could look down onto the city streets. They sparkled like diamonds in the early morning light.

“Great Goddess, Aldirk was right,” Lancer Tal said. “Half the windows in the city must have shattered.”

That was glass?

Of course it was. The sonic shockwave would have been ground-shaking.

“Will that cause difficulty for your people?” Ekatya asked. “Are they going to be exposed to weather issues while the repairs are made?”

“Not immediately. We’re still in the last moons of summer. But autumn in Blacksun Basin means the beginning of the rains, usually an entire moon’s worth at the start. We can only hope to get all of the temporary covers done before then. Replacing all of that glass—” She shook her head. “It will be two moons at least.”

“I would be glad to offer any assistance,” Ekatya said, before remembering that she no longer had much of a crew. “I mean…perhaps we can help you with materials.”

The Lancer looked at her quizzically. “Don’t tell me you happen to carry glass cargo in a warship.”

“No, but we can create the materials you need.”

Lhyn’s expression was just this side of dumbfounded. “You really did mean a full debriefing, didn’t you?”

The Lancer had that intent look again, but whatever she’d been about to say was interrupted by the pilot announcing their approach to Blacksun Healing Center. As soon as the translator finished, she said, “I must warn you that the healing center has been cordoned off by warriors. It’s not meant to intimidate, but as you might imagine, keeping you a secret will be impossible. I’ll have to make a planetary announcement later this morning, and after that the public will likely be ten deep outside the healing center grounds. The warriors are there to protect you.”

And this, Ekatya knew, was the true danger of an uncontrolled first contact situation. Not the leaders, but the public, with their fears backed by huge numbers. She sincerely hoped Lancer Tal had the power and charisma to talk her people down.

The landing was just as soft as the takeoff had been, and when she, Lhyn, and Lieutenant Candini had collected at the base of the ramp, they found themselves in the center of an entire unit of what Ekatya now knew were the Lancer’s elite Guards. Like Lancer Tal, they were all dressed in a combat uniform whose colors she was certain had been varying shades of greens and grays before, but which were now evenly dark, blending in with the bricked landing pad they were walking across. She hadn’t even noticed when the Lancer’s uniform had changed, but somehow, the fabric altered which wavelengths it reflected. Filing that away for a future Q&A session, she concentrated on crutching her way toward the large arch that gave access to the healing center’s main dome.

“Really, Ekatya, would it kill you to accept their offer?” Lhyn said.

“I am not going to be wheeled in to see my crew.”

“You are the most stubborn woman I have ever known.”

“Go easy on her,” Candini said. “That stubbornness is the reason the Voloth were vaporized instead of this city. And how much stubbornness does it take to refuse to evacuate when ordered?”

That shut Lhyn down, though Ekatya bumped her with her shoulder, letting her know she was no longer angry. In the crowd they were moving with, it could have been seen as an accident, but Lhyn’s expression smoothed out.

They passed through the arch and into a high-ceilinged room suffused with a sharp, bitter scent. Disinfectant, Ekatya guessed. Some things truly were universal.

A very tall, thin man in a dark blue uniform stood waiting. He bowed his head before the Lancer, but did not touch his fists to his chest. “Lancer Tal, I’m glad to see you safe.”

“Thank you, Healer Wellernal. May I introduce you to your last three patients: Captain Serrado, Lhyn Rivers, and Lieutenant Candini.”

The moment she understood, Candini said, “I’m not a patient. I’m fine.”

Ekatya looked at her pilot’s torn, filthy uniform and the scrapes on her hands and face. “You may be in the best shape of all of us, but that doesn’t mean you couldn’t use a bit of cleaning and antiseptic. Let them check you out, Lieutenant. That’s an order.”

“Yes, Captain,” Candini grumbled.

Healer Wellernal glanced from her to the Lancer. “Even among aliens, we can recognize the warrior caste.”

“Then you’re upholding a fine tradition.” Lancer Tal smiled at Candini. “Perhaps I can provide incentive for undergoing a healer’s examination by promising a hot shower and soft bed at the end of it?”

“Throw in a hot meal and you have a deal.”

“There you have it,” Lancer Tal told the healer. “You just have to understand warrior priorities. Give us the proper incentive and we’re perfectly cooperative.”

Ekatya recognized the diplomatic technique in that “us,” but even knowing what the Lancer was doing didn’t prevent her from feeling a sense of solidarity. Judging by Candini’s unconsciously straightened spine, she was similarly affected.

The healer turned towards Ekatya and Lhyn and spoke more slowly, giving the translator enough time for a simultaneous translation. “Captain Serrado, Lhyn Rivers, the surgery teams are waiting for you. Based on our healers’ field reports, I believe I can promise that you will both be fully mobile by the end of the day. Complete recovery will take another nineday, but as long as you limit your physical activities, you should barely notice the remainder of your recovery.”

Ekatya felt her jaw loosen again; it seemed to be a rather common occurrence today. “I’m sorry, did you mean the end of this day?” Was it a translation error?

He seemed to share her confusion. “Yes. Is that not acceptable? I apologize if you’re accustomed to more rapid healing techniques. Please believe you are getting the best care we can offer.”

“I believe you. We don’t have the technology to heal broken bones that quickly. On my homeworld, I’d be on these crutches for two weeks at least. It appears we could learn a great deal from you.”

Lhyn nudged her. “Told you. They may be pre-FTL, but in other ways they’re extremely advanced.”

“You did tell me,” Ekatya agreed. She didn’t like to think she’d been prejudiced, but the Alseans continued to surprise her. Just as soon as she had checked on her crew and was out of surgery, she was going to pick Lhyn’s brain of every detail. It was time to stop playing catch-up.

“The captain will want to see her crew first,” Lancer Tal said. “Give her any information she asks for on their condition and treatment plan.” She stepped in front of Ekatya and held up her palm. “I cannot stay, but you’re in good hands here. I’ll return as soon as I’m able.”

Ekatya met her palm touch, noting that once again it was a single hand. “Thank you, Lancer Tal. For everything.”

“It is we who owe thanks to you.” She moved to Lhyn, touching palms with her and smiling. “And you, my scholar friend, are so full of questions that I’m not certain how you have not burst open with them. Be assured that I have quite a few of my own. When you’re healed, and we’re all a bit more rested, we’re going to have a long conversation.”

Lhyn’s grin was ear to ear. “I’ll hold you to that.”

Candini was uncharacteristically shy when her turn came. “Lancer Tal, it has been an honor,” she said as they touched palms.

The Lancer looked at her for a moment. “I’m a pilot as well, Lieutenant. I’d be very interested to hear how you managed to land a ship that isn’t designed to land. Perhaps we can speak of that later?”

Brightening, Candini agreed. Then the Lancer was gone, taking half of her elite Guards with her. The other half stood patiently waiting.

“Damn,” Candini said. “That good-looking, and she’s a pilot too?”





Chapter 15

Emergency statement


Every radio and vid station had been relentlessly advertising the Lancer’s upcoming emergency statement, with accompanying warnings regarding its importance to all Alseans. Judging from the barrage of reminders to stop everything and listen at mid-one, either the world was about to come to an end or the Lancer was resigning and calling for new elections. Aldebron Fisk didn’t think the first was likely, and didn’t much care about the second, but his bondmate insisted on hearing it. So while Aldebron finished the midmeal preparations, Jamesan rounded up their children and got everyone seated in the dining area, ready to watch.

“Aldebron,” he called. “Put the lids on the pans and come in here. The Lancer is about to begin.”

Muttering about politics interfering with perfectly timed midmeals, Aldebron reluctantly washed his hands and moved into the dining area, where the vidcom was filled by the Seal of the Lancer. As he pulled out his chair, the seal gave way to a scene of the Lancer in her office, her dress uniform buttons flashing in the lights.

“Alseans,” she said, “today is a day that you will remember forever. Today is the day everything we thought we knew changed—when our history ended and our future began. It is the day that one sacrifice saved millions of lives.”

“Well, that’s quite a lead-in to announcing her retirement,” Aldebron said.

Jamesan hushed him.

“Some of you may have heard the rumors. Others heard the sonic shockwave. It is time to lay the rumors to rest, and explain why so many in Blacksun spent their morning sweeping up broken glass.” She paused, looking down at her desk, then faced the screen again and said, “Last night, just before night-three, a battle was fought above Alsea. Not in our skies. In our orbit. It was fought between two alien races, one of which sought to rob us of our resources, and the other which came to our defense. Despite not knowing us, this second race—the Gaians—risked their lives to protect us.”

With two active children running about, Aldebron’s household was normally full of noise. But for the next tentick, not a sound could be heard other than the Lancer’s voice, telling a story almost beyond belief. Had anyone else been spinning this tale, Aldebron would have laughed in their faces. But this was the Lancer, in an official announcement. And when the scene cut to a view of the gigantic crashed ship, his gasp was as loud as his children’s.

“Great Goddess above, would you look at that!” he said.

Rorin and Abbison burst into chattering excitement, pointing and exclaiming, and it was some time before their fathers could quiet them down. All four of them watched the rest of the statement with rapt attention, and when the Seal of the Lancer came onscreen once more, even the children were stunned into silence.

“She was right,” Jamesan said. “Everything we thought we knew—it’s all changed. The world our children inherit will not be the world we grew up in. We can’t even conceive of what they might experience.”

“Can we go see the ship, Ba?” Rorin asked. “Can we?”

“I don’t think so. I’m sure the ADF has hundreds of warriors ringed around that ship, guarding it.”

“Is that one of the aliens?” Abbison was pointing out the dining room window.

“What?” Aldebron and Jamesan looked at each other, then rose simultaneously and rushed to the window.

A giant machine, like a square building on legs, was moving down the river toward their property. Even as they watched, it stopped, turned, and appeared to look straight at them.

Aldebron felt his stomach flip. “That doesn’t look anything like the ship they showed.”

“Rorin, Abbison, we need to go out the back,” Jamesan said in a too-calm voice. “Let’s go.”

Aldebron knew he should go with them, but he couldn’t take his eyes off the machine. Something was moving on its front.

“Aldebron!”

“I’m coming,” he said, taking one last look before turning to follow his family. Then he flew across the room and crashed into the opposite wall.

“Jamesan,” he tried to call, but his voice didn’t work, and when he looked down at his body, all he saw was red.

The noise gradually came to his attention, a roaring sound that accompanied the blizzard of debris filling the air, bits and pieces of their house that was being torn apart around them. Praying that his family had made it to safety, he turned his head to see a pile of bodies in the doorway, all three of his reasons for living reduced to body parts that were no longer held together.

His scream made no sound.


* * *


The machine stopped firing. A thermal scan verified four bodies in the house, all of which were cooling.

It retracted the rapidgun, turned, and resumed its march. It had detected no transmissions from the house, so unless the Alseans had a method of communication it could not scan, its location was still unknown. Without knowing how many other pacifiers had survived the destruction of their ship, it could not afford to be discovered until it was in position for a real battle.

Until then, it would leave no witnesses.





Chapter 16

Staking claims


Micah watched from behind the recording crew as Tal wrapped up her emergency statement, surrounded by four hovering vidcams. It was well done, he thought. She’d made heroes out of the Gaians, while downplaying the threat of the Voloth. Until they knew more about what they were facing, it was the safest choice.

The crew chief called, “Cams off!” and the room burst into a hive of activity, with equipment being moved and packed and twelve voices speaking at once. Tal sat calmly at the center, listening to Aldirk, who had already made it to her side and was no doubt adding fifty-six items to her list of things to do.

Micah shook his head. How she could look so fresh after just two hanticks of sleep, he did not know. He still felt as if a fully loaded cargo transport had landed on him, though the shower and clean clothing had certainly helped. And he wasn’t having to deal with the political storm that was gathering around the State House.

Such storms were Aldirk’s specialty, though. He seemed invigorated, and was exhorting Tal to do something that, judging by her reaction, was not making her happy. Of course her front was perfect as always, not that it took much effort to hide emotions from Micah. But he’d learned to read her especially well over the cycles, and her too-calm posture was a giveaway. When she was controlling her emotions and facial expressions, her body went still as well. He often thought that high empaths depended too much on their strength, because Aldirk and the others in the State House had never understood that about her.

Ten ticks later, and with a suddenness that always surprised him, the hive of movement coalesced into a line of Alseans walking out, each carrying a gear bag. Micah closed the door behind the last one, drawing a relieved breath as quiet settled over the office.

Well, quiet except for the chief counselor’s voice.

“You may have a coup on your hands if you give that ship back to its captain,” he was saying. “Shantu has already left six messages indicating his readiness to board it and study its advanced weaponry, though I suspect he intends ‘study’ as a synonym for ‘strip.’ Parser has called twice about the merchant caste’s rights to the salvage. Eroles wants to know when her people will be allowed on board to examine the structure and materials, and Yaserka demands that everyone else be kept out until his people study absolutely everything, which he estimates will take half a lifetime.”

So the Prime Warrior, Prime Merchant, Prime Builder, and Prime Scholar had all been leaning their weight on Aldirk already. That was two-thirds of the High Council. Micah smiled to himself. He’d been right: only the producer and crafter castes hadn’t staked their claims.

“While I admire the…integrity of your position,” Aldirk continued, “I believe it’s untenable. You will have to pick and choose carefully which castes have access and when, because every decision you make will create an enemy. But the worst decision of all would be to make no allies and an enemy of every caste, especially your own.”

“It seems to me that the worst decision would be to make enemies of the Gaians,” Tal said patiently, and Micah had the feeling she was repeating herself. “That captain made the ultimate ethical choice, which tells us exactly how to engage with her. If we treat her with similar ethics and honor, we can expect her full support. If we act like a pack of pirates, we can expect her equally full resistance. Do you want to see what she and her Protectorate Fleet can do in defense of its property? I for one do not.”

“It is not their property anymore,” Aldirk insisted. “It’s on Alsean soil and abandoned by its crew. If these Gaians are as concerned with legalities and ethics as you say, then they could hardly fault us for a salvage claim.”

Tal rubbed her forehead, a sure sign that she was regrouping and preparing to argue from a different direction. “Aldirk, that ship’s fusion core has hardly even cooled down yet. We don’t need to be worrying about establishing property and caste rights just now. And has it occurred to any of those High Council grainbirds that most of what they might find on board won’t come with an instruction manual? Even if it did, it would be in an alien language. We would get far more benefit far more quickly if we convince the Gaians to cooperate with us.”

“What are the chances of that?”

“Pretty good, I’d say.” Micah settled into the guest chair next to Aldirk. “Lancer Tal has established an excellent working relationship already.”

Aldirk sniffed. “Based no doubt on their gratitude that she somehow kept twenty trigger-happy Guards from murdering them.”

“Would those be the twenty warriors who courageously stood between an unknown threat and the rest of Alsea, including its chief counselor?” Micah pretended to pick a piece of lint off his trousers. “What were you doing at that time, Aldirk? Oh yes, sweeping glass. An excellent job for a scholar.”

“Not quite, though I was directing the effort to source enough glass to repair this city. Rest assured I have your personal quarters right here at the very bottom of my priority list.” Aldirk tapped his reader card for emphasis.

Tal was smiling as she watched them. “I do hope my personal quarters are somewhat higher on that list?”

“Of course, Lancer Tal.”

It was interesting, Micah thought, how Aldirk’s voice never entirely lost its edge even when he spoke to Tal. Sometimes he wondered if Aldirk really did think that all of Alsea was beneath him, with Tal being higher than the rest, yet still sadly lacking. He’d mentioned that to Tal once, when they were relaxing in his quarters over a game of tiles and a bottle of spirits. She’d laughed and said he was probably right, but that didn’t change the fact that Aldirk was the best Alsean for the job. Besides, if he thought of her as higher than the rest, that was good enough for her.

“Speaking of glass,” Tal said, “I had an interesting exchange with Captain Serrado just before we arrived at the healing center. When she realized how much damage her ship’s passage had done, she offered to help—by creating the materials.”

Micah forgot all about irritating Aldirk. “Creating them? How?”

“Yes, I find it difficult to believe they carry a glass factory aboard,” Aldirk said. “They must know an entirely different—and portable—way to manufacture it.”

“That was my first thought as well, but the reaction of Lhyn Rivers made me think again. She was very surprised—no, shocked would be a better word—that her captain had revealed this. She said something about a full debriefing, which made me think there had been some prior conversation about how much of their knowledge and technology to share with us. I don’t believe that exchange was about glass.”

“It was about the creation process in general.” Aldirk had the look of a starving fanten whose feeding chute had just been opened. “I’d bet a moon’s pay they have a means of creating much more than glass. It would make sense, for a ship that flew among stars. Repair and restocking stations must be few and far between.”

“They also have fusion reactors, faster-than-light engines, and ladders that appear out of nothing,” Micah pointed out. “And those are just the things we know about. That ship probably contains technologies we can’t even imagine, so why wouldn’t they be able to create anything they wanted out of thin air?”

Aldirk sniffed again. “It cannot be thin air, Colonel. The laws of physics don’t change, even for highly advanced aliens. There must be some source material.”

“Yes,” said Tal, “but what if they’ve figured out a way to use a generalized source material? Something that could be transformed into whatever they want, the way embryonic cells can become any tissue or organ?”

The room went silent as they all considered the ramifications.

“That would truly change the world,” Aldirk said at last. “And it is sitting on our very doorstep.”

“It is, but Shantu and his ilk would trample it in their eagerness to find what they want to see, rather than what is actually there. We cannot allow it, Aldirk. I need your help to hold them back. Delay them, until we can prove that there’s more to be gained by making allies of the Gaians than by claiming their ship as salvage.”

Aldirk nodded slowly. “Now this is an argument I can work with. And I agree with you. But it’s a fine line to walk, and you’re risking your title on it.”

“If the Voloth return in a nineday and the Protectorate forces don’t arrive in time, or decide not to defend us, my title will be worth less than nothing. Better to risk it now and gather every tool, every weapon, every bit of knowledge we can to protect ourselves, than to play the politics game and lose our whole world.”

She was leaning slightly over the desk now, her intensity drawing them both in, and not for the first time Micah marveled at her ability to somehow turn that on. When she wanted to, Andira Tal could convince a Mariner that salt water was drinkable.

More importantly, she could convince Chief Counselor Aldirk to move stars and soil to support her position.

“Then we need a legal framework,” Aldirk said, “to keep the castes off your back and give you time.”

“Exactly. Which is why a word from you to the legal scholars will help smooth my path through this meeting. If they hear it first from a scholar, rather than a warrior, their ears will be more open.”

Aldirk activated his reader card. “That doesn’t give me much time. But I will do my best, Lancer Tal.”

“You always do. Thank you.”

The chief counselor rose and, with a courteous farewell to Tal and a bare nod to Micah, left them alone in the office.

Tal blew out a breath. “That took more convincing than I expected. Aldirk sometimes forgets that politics is not the lifeblood of our world.”

“It’s the lifeblood of his world,” Micah said. “He doesn’t think any other exists.”

She nodded, but he could see from her expression that she was far away at the moment. Crossing his arms over his chest, he relaxed into the chair and waited for her to return.

“When I woke up after my rest, I thought for a moment it had all been a dream.” Her eyes met his, and she gave him a slight smile. “But then I remembered. Aliens have landed on our planet, and instead of learning everything I can about them, and engaging in the greatest cultural exchange in the history of Alsea, I’m spending the day talking to legal scholars and fending off political demands. That’s how I knew it wasn’t a dream.”

“A dreamer will never be Lancer.”

“I know, but wouldn’t it be nice if a Lancer could dream once in a while?” She glanced at her wristcom and sighed. “Half a hantick for Aldirk to work his miracle before my next meeting starts. That gives me just enough time to shove a midmeal down my throat. Join me?”

“Gladly,” he said. “Your quarters or mine?”

She waved a hand at the construction sheeting already covering her office windows. “Well, since yours are at the bottom of Aldirk’s priority list, I suggest mine. At least there we won’t have the afternoon breeze blowing everything off the table.”





Chapter 17

Comfortably trapped


Captain Ekatya Serrado was bored.

She had visited all of her crew and seen for herself that they were in capable hands. More than capable, actually—the level of healing already apparent was shocking. Lieutenant Hmongyon had even been upgraded from critical to stable and was already awake. Given her injuries, Ekatya could hardly credit such a speedy recovery, but she couldn’t deny the evidence in front of her.

Reassured, she had submitted herself to the tender mercies of the Alsean healers, which had included a literal laying on of hands when one of the healers had rested her hand on the broken leg, closed her eyes, and stood there unmoving for at least five minutes. Ekatya had felt a wildly inappropriate urge to laugh. This was much too close to the vids she’d seen of faith healers, swearing that they could channel the healing energies of their Seeder gods. But the Alsean hadn’t done any of the usual theatrics—no chanting, no swaying, nothing to draw any attention. Instead she just stood there. When she was done, she lifted her hand, smiled at Ekatya, and left the room.

The remaining healers had bound her leg in some sort of hard case and informed her that she wouldn’t be moving off her bed until the case came off that evening. She did at least manage the concession of a shower, which had embarrassingly involved an assistant healer to help her, but at that point she was so desperate to get clean that she just closed her eyes and imagined it was Lhyn’s hands on her body instead. It worked rather too well, as she discovered when she opened her eyes and saw the knowing smile on the assistant’s face.

That had been several hours ago. She’d been trapped in this bed ever since: clean, comfortable, and dressed in fresh loaner clothing, but still trapped. She couldn’t work. She couldn’t read. She had no way of communicating with her evacuated crew or Lhyn’s ship, and communicating with the Alseans wasn’t much easier. They answered any questions she had about medical issues, but clammed up when she asked about anything else. At times she wondered what good it was having the only translator in town when there apparently weren’t any Alseans she could talk to.

The one person she really wanted to talk to was still asleep after her own turn with the surgery team. It turned out that Lhyn’s arm had been a much more difficult repair than Ekatya’s leg, necessitating sedation and thus a longer recovery from the operation.

So she waited, looking up at the ceiling and reflecting on the irony of being bored after the last few days she’d had. A sane person would be grateful for the peace and safety, not to mention the cushy bed. But as Lhyn had once said, sane people didn’t make good Fleet captains.

The monotony was interrupted when an assistant healer brought in a gently steaming cup of something that looked like tea. “It’s shannel,” he said. “Healer Wellernal said you can drink it now.”

“Why wouldn’t I have been able to before?” She sniffed the cup, which smelled a bit like nutmeg and oranges with a darker, richer note that she couldn’t identify. Then she took a cautious sip and felt the fire burn all the way down to her stomach. “Whoa.”

“That’s why,” the assistant said, clearly enjoying her reaction. “It’s good for you, but rather powerful.”

“It’s good for me? That’s a first. Usually when I like something, I’m not supposed to have it.” She looked more closely at the brown liquid. “Is this alcoholic?”

His smile widened. “No, we don’t serve spirits to our patients. But shannel opens up the blood channels, clears the mind, and makes you more alert. It’s also something of a global addiction. We’d probably have a riot on our hands if we didn’t allow it.”

She seized the opportunity to grill him about how it was made, where the leaves were grown, and anything else she could think of, but his duties called him away and she was left alone again. All too soon she finished her cup and gazed sadly at the bottom, wondering if using her finger to get the last drop would look too desperate.

Who cared? There was no one to see. She licked her finger and decided that if the Protectorate ever saw fit to sign a trade treaty with the Alseans, she’d make sure this was on the top of the list.

She was contemplating taking apart the small vidcom unit beside her bed just to see what Alsean manufacturing looked like when a light tap sounded at her door.

“Come in,” she called.

The door opened partway, but no one entered. “I’m told the great Protectorate captain is in this room; is that correct?”

Ekatya pushed herself upright at the sound of that voice. “Yes, it is. Did you wish to speak with her? I can see about getting you an appointment.”

The door opened fully, revealing Lhyn in Alsean hospital clothing, her arm in a hard case matching Ekatya’s. “Oh, I don’t think I need an appointment.” She stepped in, closed the door behind her, and added, “For me, the captain has an open-door policy.”

“Yes, she does. And she’s been waiting for you for hours.”

“Sorry I’m late.” Lhyn crossed the room and leaned over to wrap her good arm around Ekatya’s back.

Ekatya pulled her into a tighter embrace and held on, reveling in her clean scent and the warmth of her skin. “Finally,” she whispered. “I’ve wanted this since I gave the order to evacuate.”

“You mean a quick snuggle in the transport bathroom wasn’t good enough for you?”

“Not even close.”

Lhyn shifted away and looked into her eyes. “I’ve wanted it since you went on duty and left me in your quarters. One night was not enough.”

“After ten months? One night was like giving a starving woman a single raisin. It tasted fantastic, but now I’m more famished than before.”

Lhyn’s smile was more than she could resist, and she pulled her back for a kiss that made up for some of those hours of waiting. But only some.

When they finally separated, Lhyn rested their foreheads together. “Aren’t you afraid someone might come in?”

“If any of my crew come by, they’ll knock. And any Alseans will know exactly what we’re doing and probably run in the other direction.”

Lhyn chuckled. “Don’t count on that. They have a rather open culture when it comes to sex.”

“The things you get to study.” Ekatya ran a hand down the smooth braid now binding Lhyn’s dark hair. It made the light streaks stand out in an arresting pattern. “Don’t tell me you did this one-handed.”

“That would take a magic wand. No, one of the assistant healers had her hair like this, so I asked if she could do mine. It’s a little different from my usual. But what a relief to get it out of my eyes.”

“You could always cut it short, like Candini.”

“Candini can get away with it. I can’t. And would you really want that?”

“Not ever.”

With a knowing smile, Lhyn gave her one more kiss and then pulled over the nearest chair. “I still can’t believe we’re here, on Alsea. So many times I’ve wished I could hop in a shuttle and come down to see it for myself. I used to dream about it.”

“And then it turned out that all you had to do was stow away on my ship while I ditched it.” Ekatya saw the apology forming and held up her hand. “No, you don’t need to. I’m over it, really.”

“You’re sure?”

“I’m sure. Just, please don’t ever scare me like that again.”

“I’ll make that promise if you make it too.”

Ekatya opened her mouth to say I can’t, I’m a Fleet captain, but saw the look on Lhyn’s face and closed it again. “I get your point. But I do have to ask you something else. Why didn’t you tell me about their empathy? I was blindsided.”

Lhyn’s lips tightened as she broke their eye contact. “I’m sorry. In hindsight I should have. But…I didn’t know. It was just a theory.”

“You’ve told me theories before.”

That brought her head around again. “I’ve told you reasonable theories before. Theories that wouldn’t destroy my reputation if they were proven false. Can you imagine the ridicule? ‘Dr. Rivers saw some things she couldn’t explain, so she decided the Alseans are empathic.’ They would have laughed me right out of the next Consortium meeting and never taken me seriously again. I didn’t talk about this with anyone except a few members of my team, and then only because it was obvious that they were coming to the same conclusion.”

Ekatya could understand that; after all, her career also depended on the reputation she’d built. “But surely you didn’t think I’d laugh at you?”

“It wouldn’t have been the first time.”

“That’s not fair. You can’t compare this to the time you lectured me for forty-five minutes on the historical and political implications of male nipple piercings in the Gondurai culture. I really didn’t think nipples could be that important.”

Lhyn’s expression cleared. “But I was right.”

“You were right about this, too. Even if you weren’t, I wouldn’t have laughed, not after my nipple education. And I’d never have told anyone. You know that.”

“Yes, but look at what I do. Keeping secrets until the lid is lifted is part of my job. It’s a hard habit to break. You don’t tell me everything, either.”

“Because I can’t.”

“And neither can I.”

Ekatya was just about to argue that a theory did not qualify as a classified military secret when Lhyn sighed and added, “I almost told you in the bathroom. On Lancer Tal’s transport, when you were talking about how you couldn’t understand her behavior. We were interrupted by Colonel Micah before I could get up my nerve.”

Get up her nerve?

“Since we’re not empathic and you can’t read my emotions,” Ekatya said, “let me make something verbally clear. I think you’re the most brilliant scientist I’ve ever met, and even if I tease you sometimes, it doesn’t mean I don’t take you seriously. I never want you to have to work up the nerve to tell me one of your theories.”

It was funny how someone with Lhyn’s confidence in her expertise could turn so shy when someone else pointed it out.

“Thank you. I’d tell you that you’re brilliant as well, but the fact that any of this still exists right now is already proof of that.” Lhyn gestured out the window.

“Let’s hope it stays that way.” Ekatya reached for her hand, needing the contact. “So now that you’re finally here, how are you enjoying Alsean hospitality?”

“Oh my stars, have you seen this place? It’s incredible. I could have stayed in my shower for an hour.”

“Me too, except that I had company in mine.”

“You what?” Lhyn stifled a grin. “You poor thing. I can only imagine how much you enjoyed that.”

“Yes, and I thought I’d figured out how to make it easier by imagining it was you rubbing that scrubby thing on my skin instead of some Alsean assistant healer. It would have helped if she’d been brisk and impersonal about it, but it was practically a sexual experience. So I closed my eyes and thought about you.”

“And she was touching you, so she had direct empathic contact…”

“Exactly.”

Lhyn gave up and laughed outright. “You probably gave her a thrill. She’ll have something to talk about on her next break, that’s for sure.”

“Great, then the entire healing center can gossip about the alien captain who can’t keep her desires to herself.” Ekatya had a sudden thought. “Can you imagine actually being able to feel it when your lover is attracted to someone else? How do they ever keep affairs a secret around here?”

“They seem to, somehow. I’m not quite sure how, but they definitely have affairs.”

“Let me guess, you learned this from watching questionable broadcasts?”

“Hey, don’t be disrespecting my work. I’ll have you know it takes years of training to be able to watch that kind of programming and separate fact from fantasy.”

“Uh-huh. So while I’m pushing mountains of forms and filings around my office, you’re lying on a couch eating Telsarian cream puffs and watching Alseans have sex.”

“You chose your career, Captain. Don’t be complaining about it now just because you’re jealous of mine.” They smiled at each other before Lhyn added, “Besides, they don’t call it sex. They call it joining.”

“Joining? How…descriptive.”

“Actually, I’m reconsidering my entire conception of their sexual practices now that I know they’re empathic. They have another practice called Sharing, with a capital S, which they consider hugely important. Sometimes it’s a part of sex, and sometimes it’s done without any sexual connotations whatsoever. Until now I thought it was just a ritual to celebrate particular types of intimacy and familial connection, but now I think it might be a specific kind of empathic connection.” She looked at Ekatya more closely and chuckled. “Your eyes are glazed over.”

“An empathic connection during sex?” Ekatya shook off the visual images and refocused on her lover. “Sorry, I was just imagining.”

“I could tell.”

“Don’t tell me you’re not thinking the same thing.”

“That would be something, wouldn’t it? And now here we are, with two broken bones between us. Not only do we not get an empathic connection, we can’t even get a physical one. It’s enough to make me believe in interventionist Seeders, because only some asshole entity would find this amusing.”

“At least we had one night. Besides, I wasn’t supposed to see you or even talk to you again for two more months. As far as I’m concerned, this is a gift.”

Lhyn’s eyes went soft. “For a Fleeter, you say the nicest things.”

“For a Fleeter? Thanks. We’re not all crusty stiffnecks, you know.”

“There’s nothing stiff about your neck.” Lhyn stood up, leaned over, and nuzzled the body part in question. “Plus, it smells fantastic,” she breathed.

“So do you.” Ekatya was grateful she had two functioning arms and put them to good use for the next several minutes. Part of her still needed proof that Lhyn was all right, and holding this precious body went a long way toward convincing her psyche. But eventually she felt Lhyn shift, so she dropped one last kiss on her jaw and let her go. “You’re not comfortable.”

Lhyn sat again, still holding her hand. “No, but it’s hard to step away. I keep thinking about those hours I spent pinned to the floor in your quarters, wondering if you made it. I didn’t know how long I’d been passed out, but it didn’t seem promising that I couldn’t hear a thing. At least the power was still on, so I could see, and I’m sorry to say that your entire art collection hit the floor. Those beautiful figurines from the Galay Empire… But the funny thing is that the statue I bought you on Molocoor landed right in front of me, and it didn’t break. I kept staring at it and thinking, ‘She put it in a place of honor. It meant that much to her.’”

“Of course it did. You gave it to me.”

“I know, but ten months is a long time. Especially when we didn’t have that much time before. I’m not that great at keeping up my belief when I don’t have any reassurances. But staring at that statue, just a few inches away…I thought that if I didn’t make it, or you didn’t, at least I knew that what we had was real.”

Ekatya squeezed her hand. “It’s real enough that when I was lying in that field watching the rescue operation, all I could think about was whether you’d be one of the fatalities, and how I could possibly go on if you were.”

Lhyn gave her a watery smile and they sat in silence for a few minutes, lost in their thoughts. At last Lhyn drew her hand away and straightened in the chair. “Ekatya…” she said hesitantly. “I have a question, but I don’t want to seem like a callous idiot.”

“I can hardly think of two words less likely to describe you. What is it?”

“Okay, well…I’m really sorry about your fatalities and I know they’re hurting you, but…how did you get through that battle with only three? Actually, with none at all? You didn’t lose anyone until you crashed.”

And that was what made her so special, Ekatya thought. Nobody else she knew would pose such a question to her at such a time, if ever. But Lhyn’s need to learn and understand superseded everything else, and because of that, it never felt abrasive or intrusive. It was just…Lhyn.

“The first destroyer never even knew we were there,” she said. “We blew it to atoms before it got off a single shot, so my odds were considerably better than you think. That second destroyer gave us a lot of trouble, though.” She remembered the damage reports streaming across her board and shook her head. “Not to mention the orbital invader, because by the time we got to it, we were already pretty chewed up. The invaders don’t have nearly the weaponry that the destroyers do, but you don’t need a lot of weaponry to tear apart a ship with spotty shields and half its weapons bays offline. As for the rest, that was the Pulsar ship design showing its merits. It certainly lived up to its billing.”

“Which was?”

“That it would result in either very low fatalities, or a catastrophic loss.”

Lhyn’s eyes widened. “That doesn’t sound like a great bet.”

“I just proved that it was. Look at it this way: If the Pulsar design worked, it would protect everyone inside the battle hull, while the inner and outer hulls took all the damage. And that’s exactly what happened. Any damage that was enough to breach the battle hull would have to be so catastrophic that the ship itself would probably blow. Our inner and outer hulls were beat to shreds, but the battle hull held. Plus, the shock dampers meant that no matter what the rest of the ship was getting hit with, nothing behind the battle hull would feel the full shock. So very few people were thrown around, and almost no one was hit by flying debris. Those are the two main killers in ship-to-ship battle, and the Pulsar design practically eliminates them.”

“Now that you mention it, it was a pretty smooth ride,” Lhyn said thoughtfully. “I mean, I could hear that we were being hit, but it wasn’t until near the end that I could feel it.”

“Exactly. The triple hulls, the sacrificial decks, and the shock dampers all made sure that most of the physical impact didn’t reach us. Until we crashed, that is.”

“Yeah, that wasn’t quite as smooth a ride.”

“Can I ask a question now?”

“Of course.”

“What exactly did you mean about the Alseans having an open culture when it comes to sex?”

Lhyn laughed. “You lasted much longer than I expected before asking that one.”

Shifting her good leg into a more comfortable position, Ekatya said, “Well, if I can’t have sex, at least I can hear about somebody else having it.”





Chapter 18

Search for the searchers


It took Modro and Paraska a hantick and forty to reach the assigned coordinates of the lost cargo transport and another three hanticks of meticulous coordinated flight along a search grid, before Paraska came on the radio to point out the broken trees.

“You think they went into that?” Modro asked incredulously. “In a cargo transport? That canyon’s barely wide enough for me. I’m probably going to find them wedged in.”

Maybe,” Paraska said. Her cargo transport was right off his wing, hovering so close they could almost have opened their doors and shouted at each other. “Still doesn’t explain the lack of contact.”

“They might have blown out their electronics,” Modro reasoned as he lined up the nose of his craft with the slot canyon.

They must have blown out everything. Because I’m still getting zero readings on my thermal scanner.”

“It’s a steep canyon; you might need to be directly over them before the scanner can pick up the heat signature. All right, give me a few ticks. This is going to be tight.”

He pulled up even with the broken trees, then began a slow and careful descent into the canyon. Fortunately, the sunlight was coming from the right angle, lighting up the sharp edges of rocks that reached out for him.

“Yarnolio was insane,” he muttered, tapping the control just a hair to move away from the left wall. “He should have dropped someone in on a cable.”

They were probably here right after sunrise. This canyon would have been dark as night. Maybe he didn’t realize how tight it was.”

Modro was watching his altimeter shift into double digits and continue spooling down. The canyon didn’t seem to be getting any narrower, though. He might actually be able to land.

At twenty-five vertical paces his hand jerked on the control, the sudden stop rattling through his body. “Paraska.”

I’m here. What do you see?”

“This is definitely where that chunk of alien ship landed. There’s a big area of smashed brush, and it’s not from the transport. But…whatever landed here seems to have left.”

Speak again? Did you say it left?”

Modro tapped the vidcam switch and began recording. The video, embedded with his coordinates and transport number, would be uploaded in real time to an orbital relay and sent from there to Whitesun Base. Paraska would be able to view it directly from his transmission. “I’m looking at a landing site taking up half the width of this canyon and what appear to be thruster marks reaching all the way to the canyon walls. There’s a trail leading upcanyon from the landing site. A big trail; I’m seeing entire small trees that were crushed. And there’s another trail leading toward me. Switching to the rear vidcam.” He tapped another control. “Confirmed, the trail continues downcanyon. Whatever made this was very large and very heavy. Activating landing cam now.”

Another tap brought up the vidcam on the transport’s underside. He blinked, not understanding what he was seeing.

The exhaust from his thrusters was stirring up what looked like dead leaves, except this was the wrong season for them, and these leaves were mostly white and gray.

White, like the exterior shell of a cargo transport. And gray, like pieces of a metal alloy frame.

“Oh, shekking Mother,” he cried in horror.

Modro? What is it?”

“I think I found them.”





Chapter 19

Cultural exchange


By the time Tal left the State House, the sun was halfway to the horizon and she could not believe she’d spent an entire day immersed in meetings. There was a Fahla-damned alien ship sitting in a field to the northwest and twelve live aliens plus three dead ones in Blacksun Healing Center, and it was just the height of irony that those two items would not be the most important ones on her list. Though of course they were; everything she’d done today was in the service of Alsea’s future with these Gaians and what their knowledge could bring. But right now, as she flew her personal transport to the healing center, she felt a bit like a pre-Rite child just released from a day of boring classes.

She settled on the dark bricks of the landing pad, powered down the engines, and rested her head on the back of the seat, soaking up the silence. The ten ticks she’d spent flying here were the only moments of solitude she’d had all day, and she couldn’t quite bring herself to end them. The privacy shield kept her windows opaque from the outside, so she knew her Guards couldn’t see her moment of weakness. But just knowing they were out there waiting made it impossible for her to relax.

With a sigh, she popped the latch and stepped out, acknowledging the salutes Gehrain and the others crisply offered. Micah was there as well, having arrived half a hantick earlier to assess the health status of the aliens and act as liaison.

“Give me some good news, Micah, I need it,” she said as they began walking.

“Then Fahla is smiling on you, because it’s all good. The two critical cases, Lieutenant Hmongyon and Trooper Mauji Mauji, have been upgraded to stable and recovering. Everyone else, including the weapons officer who had to be carried out, now wants to know how much longer they have to stay and when they can either get back to their ship, or get out to explore Alsea. I’ll leave it to you to guess who asked for the latter.”

Tal cracked the first smile she’d managed since midmeal. “Our knowledge-hungry Principal Anthropologist, Lhyn Rivers.”

“Well guessed.”

“That must be difficult for Captain Serrado.”

“Because she wants to keep her people together?”

She looked over at him in surprise. “That’s right, I didn’t have time to tell you. They’re bondmates. But I get the feeling they don’t want anyone else in their crew to know.”

“I…see,” he said, and she knew his brain had just accelerated to the speed of light. “Well. That does put a different spin on things.”

“It’s why the captain sent her commander to Blacksun in the first transport. Whether her bondmate was found alive or dead, she didn’t want him there to witness her reaction. She knew she would come apart either way.”

He shook his head. “What a strange culture. I cannot imagine living among a race who can keep their bondings secret.”

“There’s more.”

He looked down at her expectantly, and she stopped, sending her Guards out of hearing range with a wave of her hand.

“Micah, they’re tyrees.”

His eyebrows nearly crawled off his forehead. “What? You said their entire race is sonsales!”

“That’s what they tell me. But there’s no denying it, not when those two relax around each other. The odd thing is that I don’t believe they know it. Perhaps there’s no recognition in their culture for a tyree bond, but I’m certain they have one.”

“Sonsales aliens capable of a tyree bond,” he murmured. “This is certainly a day of wonders.”

“True words. But I’m not confident that the Alsean public is ready for that concept.”

“That a gift straight from the hand of Fahla has been given to aliens as well? Yes, I can see why you might be concerned. Have you told anyone else?”

“No one. This is in the strictest confidence.”

“Understood.”

She waved her Guards in and resumed walking.

“Lieutenant Candini knows of their bonded status,” she added as an afterthought. “Commander Baldassar does not.”

“Imagine your second-in-command being unaware of such a critical fact,” he said.

“Perhaps the Gaians don’t see bond status as being a critical fact.” She’d wondered about that.

“If that’s the case, then they’re a stranger species than I thought.”

Healer Wellernal was waiting for them just inside the entry arch, reader card in hand, and insisted on describing the medical procedures for all twelve Gaians while Tal listened with half an ear. She wasn’t overly concerned how the Gaians had been restored to health, only that they were. However, his mention of their anatomical differences earned her full attention.

“Do you mean to say they’re gender-locked?”

Micah and the Guards in range looked as stunned as she felt, but Healer Wellernal nodded calmly. “Yes. And they have gender-specific reproductive organs.”

Micah leaned in and whispered, “What Fahla gives with one hand, she takes away with the other.”

He was right. The ability to temporarily alter gender for reproductive purposes, to choose which one of a pair bond would carry, bear, and nurse a child, was the great gift of Fahla that separated Alseans from the lower animals.

The Gaians had not been blessed. And Lhyn had said that no Gaian race yet discovered bore empathic ability.

A chill ran down Tal’s spine. Like every Alsean, she had grown up believing that Fahla had elevated them above all other life-forms, but here was actual proof, offered on the very same day they’d discovered they were not alone in the universe.

And yet—the Gaians were capable of tyree bonds.

“It seems we have even more to learn from them than we’d believed,” she said. “Being gender-locked must have enormous ramifications on their culture.”

“That’s what Lhyn Rivers said about our ability to shift gender. She already knew about it, but had a great number of questions and seemed eager to discuss it.”

“I’m sure she was. Did you answer her questions?”

Wellernal looked uncomfortable. “I was uncertain how much you wished us to share. Your instructions referred only to information on the medical condition of the aliens, and in the absence of specific guidelines, I chose to err on the side of discretion.”

Which meant that the moment she walked into Lhyn’s room, she was going to be buried under a blizzard of questions. Well, at least these questions would be coming from a burning desire to learn, unlike those she’d been answering in her meetings for the last several hanticks.

“You chose correctly,” she said, “but in the future, don’t worry about a cultural sharing. We want to know about them just as much as they do about us. Information must go both ways.”

She went to Captain Serrado’s room first, smiling to herself when she felt two empathic signatures inside. Of course Lhyn wouldn’t be in her own room.

While Micah and the Guards took up positions in the corridor, she tapped on the door and opened it to find Lhyn sitting beside the captain’s bed. They appeared clean and rested, and in Captain Serrado’s case, far less stressed. Knowing that all of her remaining crew would recover had done wonders for her, brightening her expression and relaxing the tightness around her eyes. She looked a little less alien in her white Alsean healing robe, which contrasted sharply with the glossy black hair that now hung freely around her shoulders.

Despite her matching robe, Lhyn looked a little more alien. Her hair had been pulled back in a braid, and the exposure of her face emphasized her lack of ridges. With her green eyes appearing even larger, she wouldn’t have been out of place in an illustration for a children’s story: Alsean enough to not be frightening, but alien enough to be clearly other.

“Well met,” Tal said, offering them each a palm in turn. “I see you managed more sleep than I did. I’m envious.”

For a moment she’d forgotten about the translator, and started when the mechanical voice began speaking shortly after she did. Captain Serrado tilted her head slightly, listening to it, then smiled when she understood.

“If this were a hotel, I’d give it a high rating,” she said. “I’ve never been in a healing center with luxuries like this one. Soft beds, fluffy pillows, glorious showers with floor pads that warm and dry your feet…if it weren’t for the fact that they won’t let me get out of this bed, I’d be happy to stay here indefinitely.”

“You heard what the healer said.” Lhyn tapped the hard casing around the captain’s leg, which was resting atop the bed’s covering. “If you want to walk tonight, you’ve got three more hanticks in this. And if you try to move now, you delay your recovery.”

“It’s easy for you to be cheery about it. You’re already mobile.”

Lhyn’s arm was in a similar hard case, but since it was strapped to her torso, she could still walk around without disturbing it. Tal sympathized with the captain.

“I nearly lost my leg once when I didn’t jump a sword stroke fast enough. They had me in one of those cases for two days, and the worst part of it was the itching. May I?” She indicated the chair next to Lhyn.

“Please do,” Captain Serrado said. “And Shippers, yes, the itching!” She vigorously rubbed her hand on the case as if that would calm the skin beneath. “Did you say a sword stroke?”

“Sword fighting is a living tradition for the warrior caste. It hasn’t been part of modern warfare for many generations, but the discipline, agility, and strength needed to learn proper sword fighting is excellent training for everything else we do. We learn it from the day we formally accept our caste. In some cases even earlier.”

Lhyn’s curiosity burst from her in an almost visible wave. “Can you tell me about that? I’ve worked out your six castes, and I know that if a child has parents of different castes, she or he can choose which of the two to enter. But what if the child wants to enter a different caste altogether? And when is it formally accepted? Can you change it once you accept?”

Tal chuckled, partly because Lhyn had taken so little time to live up to expectations, and partly because these questions weren’t the flavor she was expecting. “Yes, I can tell you about it. If a child wants to enter a different caste, there’s an aptitude test for it. Usually the castes that are challenged are scholar or warrior, since they’re seen as the two ascendant castes of our system.”

Lhyn turned to the captain. “In theory, the castes are equal. In practice, not so much.”

It did not reflect well on her culture, Tal thought, that caste inequality was so obvious as to be detectable by aliens from merely watching their broadcasts.

“It’s true, though I wish it were not. Only the scholar and warrior castes can put up a candidate for Lancer, because the high empaths are always directed into those two castes. Children are tested from an early age to determine their empathic rating, and if they pass a certain level, they’re sent away for training. At that point, they can only choose to be scholar or warrior.”

“So if a child has an enormous talent for art, but a high empathic rating, she can’t be in the crafter caste?”

Tal shook her head. “She can be a scholar of her craft, but not part of the caste.”

It was unfair, a wrong so ancient that it had been built into the bedrock of their culture and could not be eradicated. Tal fully expected Lhyn’s judgment, but felt nothing from her besides intellectual curiosity.

“What about the age of formal acceptance? And changing it after?”

“Formal acceptance varies. It can be as early as fourteen cycles or as late as twenty. Twenty cycles is when a child undergoes the Rite of Ascension and is considered an adult. After that, the caste choice cannot be altered.”

“What about you?” the captain asked. “Did you have a choice?”

“I did. My mother was scholar caste. But I always knew I wanted to follow my father into the warrior caste and take his name.”

“Take his name?” Lhyn’s excitement was in her voice. “Do you mean that family names are dependent on caste?”

“Of course.” How else would it be done?

Lhyn pumped her good arm into the air. “Yes! Check that one off.”

“If I didn’t know better,” said Captain Serrado, “I’d think you were actually happy about me crashing my ship.”

Tal was fascinated by the emotional currents in the room. The captain’s tone was teasing, yet there was a darkness of grief wrapped around her. And Lhyn’s immediate reaction was guilt, but when she looked at her bondmate and read her expression, the guilt morphed into relief. It was like watching two warriors on parade walk past each other without touching. How could these two be tyrees and still misunderstand each other’s true feelings?

“You know I’m not,” Lhyn said. “And I would give anything to see the Caphenon back in orbit with her full crew. But this is the greatest learning opportunity of a lifetime, and I can’t not get excited about it. Besides, you knew that telling me you were rescinding the Non-Interference Act would be like dangling a string in front of a cat.”

Tal took the opportunity for a question of her own. “You said that to Commander Baldassar as well, that the Non-Interference Act no longer applied. What does that mean?”

“It means I can ask you any question I want and tell you anything you want to know,” Lhyn said. “Which makes actual research one Hades of a lot easier. And I—” She stopped when Captain Serrado laid a hand on her arm.

“It’s the most important of our Rules of First Contact, which directs all of our interactions with newly discovered Gaian worlds. When a world has FTL technology, we can make contact, share technology, and if appropriate, initiate treaty negotiations. But pre-FTL worlds are to be left strictly alone to develop at their own pace. We study them, but the studies must be passive—observation only.” She directed a slight smile toward Lhyn. “However, the law is not universally accepted.”

“Because it’s wrong,” Lhyn said. “It handicaps science, but that’s not even close to the worst part. It sets up a two-speed galaxy, where some worlds get left to their own devices, while others are allowed to share technology and leap further and further ahead as a result. The pre-FTL worlds are never going to catch up. We’re creating a future where some of us become virtual gods, while others are stuck in the mud. It’s taking what the Shippers did and making it worse, instead of repairing the damage and working together.”

“Giving technology to a race that isn’t culturally or intellectually prepared for it is a disaster in the making. There’s a reason—”

“Oh, don’t spout the Fleet line to me. Of course it’s a disaster to fling technology around the galaxy without doing the research first. But a careful study can establish whether a race is ready. The Non-Interference Act is an all-or-nothing answer to a question that requires far more nuance.”

“Nuance isn’t something our politicians are particularly good at,” Captain Serrado told Tal.

Lhyn snorted. “You can say that again. They see two colors: black and white. And the whole shekking universe is shades of gray.”

“I see you two have discussed this before.” Tal was holding back her amusement with difficulty, but when they nodded their heads in unison, she gave up.

“A few times, yes.” The captain’s tone of voice implied that “few” was synonymous with “hundreds.”

“Fleeters are known for their blind obedience to law,” Lhyn said, with enough of a smile to take the barb out of her statement. “Scientists are more open to questioning the morality of it.”

“Fleeters know they can’t expect their crews to obey if they themselves don’t. It’s about leading by example.”

“Then who actually makes any decisions? The politicians?”

“Speaking as a politician,” said Tal, “I must point out that not all of us deserve such distaste.”

“You are an exception,” Lhyn announced. “Why do you think I’ve been so excited about meeting you?”

“I thought you were more of a warrior than a politician,” Captain Serrado said. “Not many politicians would suit up in combat gear to meet a potentially hostile situation.”

“I’m a warrior by caste and by preference. Unfortunately, for the last several hanticks I’ve been a politician.”

The captain nodded. “Once a warrior attains a certain rank and level of power, we’re all politicians, aren’t we? Nobody warned me about that until it was too late.”

“I can’t say no one warned me, but it’s true that certain other aspects of the title were emphasized to a far greater extent.”

“Ah, yes. The power, the prestige, the material benefits, the glory…and the fact that you make your own choices, instead of always abiding by the choices of others. But somehow they forget to mention that when you make the choices, you also bear the responsibility for the consequences.”

There were three dead aliens in the healing center’s cold room, and Tal could recite the names of the Alseans who had died under her direct command. She wondered if Captain Serrado could say the same, or if the number had grown too large.

“Because there can be only one leader,” she said.

“And the one is alone,” Captain Serrado answered. “But she wasn’t alone last night. And perhaps she is not alone today.”

The understanding that welled from her was so deep that if she had chosen this moment to say she was empathic after all, Tal would almost have believed her.

She remembered her father’s first rule, repeated over and over again: Watch. Listen. Never assume, and knew she’d made a mistake. In her confidence that she could see through this sonsales alien all the way to her innermost motivations, it had never occurred to her that the captain might be able to see through her. But they were both warriors, both leaders, both carrying the weight of their decisions. And didn’t it make sense that a non-empathic alien culture would have developed other methods of discerning emotional truth? After all, Micah made up for his own empathic weakness by being better at reading facial and body language than anyone she knew.

“I believe,” she said slowly, “that in this room, no one is alone today.”

Lhyn looked back and forth between them. “The weird thing about this is that I’m the living translator, yet I get the feeling you two just had a whole conversation without me. In about six words.”

Tal shared a smile with the captain. “Then let us bring you back in, because I’d like to learn more about the Fleet system of command. Captain Serrado, you said you must obey in order to set an example. But what are the terms of your obedience? What happens if you’re asked to uphold an immoral order?”

“I’ve never been asked to. But if I were, I have the right of refusal.”

“Sure, at the cost of your career and everything you’ve ever worked for,” Lhyn said.

“You would be punished? For making a moral decision?”

“How else do you maintain order in a system based on obedience?” Serrado asked. “There has to be a cost. What happens if you disobey?”

“I’m not the best example, since my oath of service is to Alsea, not to any individual. But if we use Colonel Micah as an example, his oath of service is to me. If I give him an order he feels he cannot obey, he has the right to withdraw the gift of his service. Service is always a gift, to be given and to be received. It cannot be forced, only earned.”

“Now that’s a system,” said Lhyn. “Imagine our politicians having to earn our trust.”

Captain Serrado pulled herself into a more upright position. “What happens when you have to order someone to do something that might endanger their life? How can you depend on obedience in crisis situations where everything depends on instant action, without question?”

“Ah. You believe obedience is easy when it’s safe, and harder when there’s danger.”

“That seems self-evident to me.”

“Perhaps it does in your culture. It does not to an Alsean warrior. For a warrior to break an oath of service due to cowardice would be…unthinkable, and the repercussions are devastating. It does occasionally happen, but it’s extremely rare, because none of us would be in the caste if cowardice were part of our makeup. We’re warriors because we wish to serve. A warrior who swears an oath and then runs from it is no warrior at all, and is stripped of caste. There is no greater punishment. Death would be preferable. In fact, death usually follows, because few Alseans could live as an outcaste.”

Once again, she was fascinated by their disparate emotions. Lhyn was leaning forward, her gaze intent as she soaked up everything she was hearing. For her, intellectual excitement crowded out any judgment.

But the captain was horrified. “You said the gift of service could be withdrawn at will. Forgive me, but how can you call it a choice when the consequence is a punishment worse than death? That seems no choice at all. At least I would only lose my rank and career.”

“There’s a world of difference between breaking an oath and merely withdrawing the gift of service. If you had sworn an oath to me, but later felt that you had become incapable of fulfilling your duties—perhaps because of age, illness, or unforeseen life circumstances—you could withdraw your service and I would have no choice but to accept your decision. The same would apply if you withdrew your service because I gave you an order that you felt was immoral. There would be no repercussions. The caste would protect you, and you’d have little difficulty finding another oath holder—that is, unless you made a habit of such withdrawals and developed a reputation for it. But for a well-considered act in a career of otherwise excellent service? In that situation, not only would you keep your rank, but I would be the one whose reputation suffered, because others would question why you, a warrior of good reputation, had felt forced to withdraw.”

“I love this system,” said Lhyn.

Captain Serrado patted her hand. “Of course you do. You’re all about questioning orders.” Turning to Tal, she added, “In theory, it does sound like an equitable system. We also have the right to withdraw, which we call a resignation. But if I resigned from my position, it would automatically equate a resignation from the Protectorate Fleet, which is similar to you withdrawing from your caste.”

Tal could not imagine. “Perhaps I’m not fully understanding. It sounds as if the consequences for withdrawing from your oath of service remain the same regardless of your reasons. All of them mean the loss of your caste.”

“We don’t have castes, so it’s not perfectly equivalent. Depending on my reasons, I could resign with or without my honor intact. The options open to me with my honor intact are very different from what would be available otherwise.”

“Of course.” At least that much made sense, but now Tal was reeling from her casual comment about not having castes. How did their culture function without them?

“Speaking of which,” Serrado continued, “I notice you place a great deal of importance on reputation. It’s all based on honor, isn’t it?”

“Yes. For a warrior, honor is everything. Always sought, always earned, right up until our Return.”

She saw the captain frown at the end of the translator’s words, but Lhyn explained.

“That’s their word for death.”

Tal shook her head. “No, not quite. It’s our word for what happens after death.”

“It is? How did I get that wrong?”

“Well…now that I think about it, we do tend to use the words somewhat interchangeably. But they don’t have the same meaning.” She felt the swelling tide of questions and held up a hand. “If you want to talk about the caste system, the warrior’s code, our political system, or any number of other topics, I’m more than happy to oblige. But if you wish to discuss theology, you should speak with a religious scholar. I’m certain the Lead Templar at Blacksun Temple would be thrilled to meet you.”

Lhyn gaped. “You would do that? Allow me to meet with one of your top religious scholars?”

“Why not?”

“Alone? Without a handler?”

“Why would you require a handler? Are you planning to attack her?”

Captain Serrado snickered, and Lhyn looked back and forth between them.

“Are you joking with me?”

In that moment, Tal pitied her and all of her kind. How utterly distressing to be forced to ask that question; to not simply know that she was teasing even though she wasn’t fronting. “Yes, of course I’m joking with you. But I do have to wonder why you’re so surprised at my offer.”

“Because…well, your healer wasn’t very forthcoming when I started asking him questions, and most of the staff in here seem afraid to speak with us, so we started to think that—”

Once again, the captain’s hand on her arm stopped her. “We weren’t certain which protocols were appropriate—how much you’ve authorized your people to share with us, and how much we should share with your people. The only information we’ve received has been of a medical nature.”

“I apologize for the misunderstanding. The healers didn’t have specific permission for information exchange other than medical data, so they chose to be discreet. I’ve already rectified that. And I’m happy to put you in contact with anyone else who can assist you.”

Lhyn stared in disbelieving joy. “Thank you,” she said.

Tal imagined living in a world where those two words could only be taken at face value, without the confirming depth of the emotions behind them. It would be half a life.

“You’re welcome. Please understand, both of you, that this…exploration of culture and technology and anything else we can share is just as important for us as it is for you. I have no interest in limiting your access to knowledge of us, because I’m hoping you’ll be equally open. I’m not offering access to Blacksun’s Lead Templar just for your benefit, Lhyn Rivers. It’s also for the benefit of our Lead Templar and anyone else who benefits from your knowledge through her.”

“Please, call me Lhyn. And I do understand. I just didn’t expect that you would actually be everything I hoped.”

“Given the fact that your view of me came from our broadcasts, I shudder to think what shape your expectations took.”

Lhyn flashed a grin that transformed her face. “You’re right. You probably don’t want to know.”

“Speaking of discretion,” Tal asked, “why don’t you want your crew to know about your bond?”

She wasn’t sure if they were surprised at her knowledge or the fact that she’d asked a personal question.

Serrado was the one to answer. “Because we haven’t decided where we’re going with this yet, so we haven’t made it public. It’s not that we’re hiding; we just didn’t want to tell people before we had something to say.”

“You wanted your privacy.” She certainly understood that, if not the part about not knowing where their bond would lead. Where else could it lead?

Serrado nodded. “But now it’s a problem, because I have a professional conflict of interest. I serve the Protectorate Fleet, but if Lhyn is in danger, I’ll be there for her regardless of my oath. I just never thought being with a scholar would test that.” With a glance at Lhyn, she added, “They’re not supposed to get themselves in trouble.”

“You said your ship was sent here in response to her request for aid.”

“It was. But I didn’t disclose my relationship with Lhyn when the orders came in, which breaks at least three regulations. I was afraid that if I did, they’d rescind the orders and send someone else, but there wasn’t anyone else close enough. And then I stretched my orders a bit when I attacked the Voloth.”

Lhyn sat bolt upright. “That wasn’t Fleet approved?”

“I’m sure by now it is. My orders were to protect your ship and make a show of force when the Voloth sent a scout ship. No one expected them to send an invasion group this quickly. When they came into the system, there wasn’t time to wait for official orders of engagement, but I have no doubt they were authorized. Alsea is much too valuable to lose to the Voloth. The real issue is that I crashed my ship onto a pre-FTL planet and shattered half the Rules of First Contact in the process.”

“And when you answer to your superiors for stretching your orders, losing your ship, and breaking those rules, you need a perfect reputation and service history to back up your decisions.”

Captain Serrado looked at her in approval. “Yes, exactly.”

“Then I understand your secrecy. Your crew will not hear of your bond from us.”

“Us?” Lhyn repeated. “Is it already common knowledge?”

It was rather endearing that they were so unaware. “Any empath with a mid-level or higher rating would know the moment they felt you together. This is not a secret you would ever have kept from us, but we’re happy to keep it for you.”

“Thank you, Lancer Tal. Unfortunately, I have to answer to my superiors as soon as possible, and that means getting back to my ship with Commander Kameha and Lhyn. The commander might be the only person who can restore our communications, and Lhyn needs to speak with her ship as well. I’m very concerned about the status of the escape pods and my crew, not to mention the arrival time of our reinforcements.”

Tal appreciated the strategy; it wasn’t a coincidence that the captain had made her request at this point in the conversation. Apparently, they had both approached this meeting with a specific goal in mind. “And you believe that you might cash in our debt to get your crew aboard and retain control over your ship.”

She felt the surprise, followed swiftly by resignation.

“I could learn to dislike negotiating with an empath,” Serrado said.

“I hope not; I’m enjoying negotiating with you. But there was no need for subterfuge. Part of my politician’s work over the last hanticks involved establishing your rights to your ship. The High Council must still be convinced, but I have the legal scholars behind me. It’s still your ship, Captain. You can go back as soon as you’re mobile.”

She had surprised the captain for the second time in as many ticks.

“All right, since you already know what I’m feeling and apparently most of what I’m thinking, I’m just going to ask. Why aren’t your forces already all over the Caphenon? Why would you just let us go back?”

“Because we’re not fools.” Well, some of the High Council could be, but the captain didn’t need to know that. “Anything we could learn from your ship would come in bits and pieces, probably dribbled out over cycles or even tens of cycles, because we would be so handicapped in our ability to decipher anything. We could learn so much more if you helped us—if it was an exchange of knowledge rather than a theft. Based on your astonishment at the idea of healing bones in one day, our medical knowledge is ahead of yours. Who knows what other Alsean knowledge or technology could benefit you? You’ve already shattered your law of non-interference, so why not start treaty negotiations and an exchange of technology? It is the next step, is it not?”

Captain Serrado was smiling at her. “Yes, it is the next step. And it would be my pleasure to initiate that process, but I’m not the final authority on this.”

“I understand that you’ll need to consult with your superiors. I also suspect that how you frame that consultation would have considerable influence on the result, would it not?”

“That depends on how Fleet and the Assembly view my actions. If they agree with me that the destruction of my ship was an acceptable loss to save Alsea, then I’m a hero whose word will have weight. But if they choose to focus on the fact that I shredded the Non-Interference Act, my word may mean less than nothing.”

“Then we shall hope you are a hero.” For more reasons than one, Tal thought. She had an alternative plan, but did not want to put it into motion if it could be avoided. There was time to see how the situation would unfold.

“Of course she’s a hero,” Lhyn said. “That’s not a subjective judgment. It’s objective.”

“I suspect the Voloth would disagree with you,” Serrado said, but her pride was palpable.

“The Voloth are atoms and debris now; their opinion doesn’t count.”

Serrado turned toward Tal. “That’s another reason I have to get back in contact. I need to call a cleaner crew out here.”

“A what?”

“A crew to clean up the battle debris. The orbital invader exploded in your atmosphere, so most of it burned up and the rest is on Alsea’s surface. But the two destroyers were still in orbit, and when I put them out of commission, I made a mess of your orbital space. If we don’t clean up the debris field, it will eventually drop down to your satellite orbits and start causing havoc.”

“Not to mention that unless you develop shield technology, it could prevent you from even leaving your own planet,” Lhyn added. “You’ll end up with a debris ring that could destroy anything trying to pass through it.”

Tal absorbed that in silence. Such a consequence hadn’t occurred to her, nor to any of her advisors. Of course, she hadn’t yet spoken with any physical science scholars. Still, it was another excellent reason to stay on the good side of the Gaians.

She glanced at her wristcom and said, “Evenmeal is in a hantick. You cannot move your leg for three. Perhaps you, Lhyn, and Commander Baldassar might join me for evenmeal at the State House, after which we would return here to have your case removed, pick up any crew who are fully recovered, and go to your ship. I am of course inviting myself along.”

“With how many of your Guards?” Serrado asked shrewdly.

“I would need three. Not enough to take over your ship. But you are uncomfortable at the thought of dining at the State House?”

They looked at each other. “You’re right, it’s tough negotiating with an empath,” Lhyn said.

The captain shook her head ruefully. “It’s not the thought of dining at the State House that makes us uncomfortable. It’s that Commander Baldassar would not expect to see Lhyn there.” She hesitated, then added, “The only member of my staff who knows that she’s my girlfriend is Lieutenant Candini.”

“Girlfriend?” Tal repeated the odd word. “A female friend? That is not what Lhyn is to you.”

“Incomplete translation,” said Lhyn. “How about lover?”

“But that is not what you are to each other either.” The confusion emanating from both of them reflected her own, so Tal was forced to ask. “Are you not bonded?”

Serrado looked at Lhyn, who said, “It’s their equivalent to marriage. And no, Lancer Tal, we’re not.”

“But you are in a pre-bond, yes?”

“Engaged,” Lhyn explained in a low tone, before both of them shook their heads.

“But you’re ty—” Tal stopped herself. “My apologies. This must be a difference in culture. On Alsea, when two people have the sort of connection that you do, they’re either bonded or in a pre-bond. Perhaps your relationship is too new for that.”

They moved from uncomfortable to embarrassed, and Tal began to feel as if she were walking on shifting sands. Clearly, the Gaians had different attitudes toward personal relationships.

“We’ve known each other for two stellar years,” Serrado said.

“A little less than one and a half of your cycles,” Lhyn clarified, shocking Tal. One and a half cycles? No tyrees ever went that long without entering at least a pre-bond. It simply didn’t happen.

“But we’re both bonded to our careers,” Serrado added. “And they’re not compatible.”

Lhyn nodded. “My work often involves being entirely out of communication for several moons at a time. And Ekatya gets sent all over the quadrant. When she answered my call for help, it was the first time I’d seen her in more than seven of your moons.”

Tal didn’t know what to say. Not only were they not bonded, they were physically separated for long spans of time? She would have doubted their tyree status had she not repeatedly sensed the strength of their bond. The Gaians had the gift of Fahla, but either they didn’t know it, or didn’t know what to do with it.

Her wristcom chose that moment to vibrate, an almost welcome intrusion given the sand trap she’d just stumbled into. But then she saw the message and was on her feet so quickly that both the captain and Lhyn were startled.

“My apologies; I must take my leave now. I’ll return as soon as I can,” she said, and bolted out the door without waiting for a response.





Chapter 20

Ground pounder


Micah was speaking on his com when Tal came barreling out of the alien captain’s room. She took one look at him and leaned back against the wall to wait, but everything about her posture spoke of restrained urgency. When she lifted her wristcom to read it, he knew she was doing the same thing he’d done when the message had come in: hoping the words might have changed.

They hadn’t. Code Black emergency, they read, and the sender was Colonel Debrett, commander of Whitesun Base.

Debrett was in charge of collecting all of the debris from the Voloth ship. Code Black meant a situation requiring the immediate attention of the Lancer, regardless of time or location. And Debrett was not an excitable man. Something was seriously wrong, and it had to do with the Voloth.

“Thank you,” Micah said. He tapped his earcuff, ending the call, and looked over at Tal. “They’re clearing out their conference room right now. We’ll have access in two or three ticks.”

“Let’s go, then.” Tal tapped her own earcuff as they walked. “Gehrain, I may need to have Captain Serrado and Commander Baldassar brought to the conference room. Be aware that Captain Serrado cannot be moved without a mobile chair. Yes, you will. Thank you.”

“I see you’re thinking the same thing I am,” Micah said when she closed the call.

“That we might have some live Voloth running around out there? Yes.”

The conference room was indeed empty by the time they arrived, a pile of dirty dishes and cups shoved onto the counter the only sign that its occupants had left in a hurry. Tal went straight to the vidcom and punched in the code for Colonel Debrett, followed by her own authorization. By the time they seated themselves at the table, the colonel appeared on the large wall screen.

“Lancer Tal.” He thumped his fists to his chest. “I apologize for contacting you directly, but this information could not wait for the usual com path.”

“If it concerns the Voloth ship, I have no doubt you’ve made the right decision.”

“It does. My warriors have finished their retrieval of the ship’s pieces—at least the ones that were tracked and could be safely transported to base—but we still had one team out. It was a cargo transport, assigned to retrieve the largest piece. At hantick seven and twenty-four, we received a radio call from this transport. Whitesun Base Control responded, but never heard back.” He paused, his stress showing in the tightness of his mouth. “The reason you’re only hearing about this now is that Base Control did not follow up on the aborted communication. Our entire wing of rescue transports was out on this mission, and the com traffic was extremely thick. One incomplete call did not register as important. I have already disciplined the warrior responsible.”

So they had a failure and an excuse for the failure, Micah thought. What had it cost them?

“As the rescue transports returned and the com traffic thinned, the absence of Transport WSC813 was noted and the com records searched. As soon as the aborted call was found, Base Control attempted to reconnect. When all attempts failed, Base Control ordered an orbital scan. The transport was not found, nor was there any signal from the transponder.”

Micah did not like where this was going.

“I assume you sent a search party,” Tal said.

“Yes, a rescue and cargo team, both fully armed. It took them three hanticks of searching, but they finally located what was left of Transport WSC813.”

Now he really did not like where this was going.

“The rescue pilot took vidcam footage,” Debrett continued. “I have it ready for you to view.”

“Proceed.”

The screen shifted to a steady view of what could only be the landing site of something very large. The pilot’s voice could be heard saying, “There’s a trail leading upcanyon from the landing site. A big trail; I’m seeing entire small trees that were crushed.” He continued to describe the scene while rotating between front, rear, and landing cams, and the moment Micah saw the landing cam footage, he knew what had happened. The pilot’s horrified curse echoed his own thoughts.

Demonstrating either tremendous courage or reckless disregard for his safety, the rescue pilot did an end-over-end flip in the canyon, saving the time it would have taken to rise high enough for a normal turn, then streaked down its length, following the trail until it emerged into a wide valley and disappeared into the river. The cargo transport joined it there and both pilots flew downstream, searching for whatever had vaporized a cargo transport and walked away.

The vid paused as Debrett’s voice said, “They flew for half a hantick before finding this.”

When the vid resumed, the image had changed to a small riverside property surrounded by gardens. It appeared idyllic until the cam zoomed in and revealed the shattered windows and debris, along with a series of holes stitched along the entire front wall of the house. They looked as if a driller had been hunting for food—a very large driller, with a beak capable of punching holes the size of an Alsean’s fist completely through the brick structure.

“Thermal sensors located four bodies inside. They were killed recently enough to still register, but barely.” Colonel Debrett was still speaking offscreen, but Micah could hear the anger in his voice. “Our pilots found this scene repeated in home after home as they flew downriver. And then they came to this.”

Micah clenched his fists when he saw the footage of the riverside village, or what was left of it. There had been perhaps fifty homes clustered on both sides of the river, with a small bridge connecting them. Every one of them was now either a blackened wreck or still on fire. Bodies littered the fields in the outskirts.

“The pilots looked for survivors. There were none.”

“None?” Micah asked in shock. “Not even the children?” Then he remembered Captain Serrado’s description of the Voloth strategy: to kill as many natives as they felt necessary and enslave the rest. He looked back at the scene with renewed horror. This was what the alien captain had saved them from—this, times a factor of hundreds.

“There won’t be any survivors,” Tal said, meeting his eyes. The rage in hers made them glow. “Not of any age. Colonel, why was I not notified of this earlier?”

“You were, Lancer Tal. I alerted the ADF as soon as the transport wreckage was found.”

“Then why—” She stopped, closing her eyes for a moment before pulling out her reader card and activating it. With a single shake of her head, she slid the card across for Micah to see.

There it was, the first item on her planetary security update, which Tal hadn’t had time to read because she’d been in one political meeting after another all day. Clearly a revamping of protocols was in order, and for a moment he almost felt sorry for Aldirk. But only for a moment.

“My apologies,” Tal said. “And your decision with the Code Black was absolutely correct. Did your pilots locate what did this?”

“Yes. Approximately ten lengths downriver, they found this.”

The scene changed again, and he heard Tal’s intake of breath. His own breathing had ceased entirely as he stared at something straight out of a horror vid.

Judging by the trees it was stomping past on its way downstream, the thing was nearly the size of the state transport. It moved on four thick, jointed legs, which navigated the uneven river bottom so smoothly that its huge block-shaped top barely shifted off level. It was a nightmare of tubes and wiring, with no regard for aesthetics. This was a machine designed purely for utility, and its only job was destruction.

“And they call it a pacifier.” The contempt dripped off Tal’s voice.

Colonel Debrett came back onscreen. “You recognize this?”

“Yes, Captain Serrado described it quite well. The Voloth call it a pacifier, but the Gaians call it a ground pounder. I prefer the Gaian name.” She tapped her earcuff. “Gehrain. Yes, bring them both immediately.”

“Are your pilots still monitoring it?” Micah asked.

“Unfortunately, they cannot. Based on their reports and the video, I authorized an attack by rescue pilot Modro. It did not go well.”

“Show us,” Tal said.

Debrett nodded, and a moment later the screen split, showing footage from both the rescue and cargo transports. Micah focused on the cargo pilot’s footage, which remained steady as it recorded the rescue pilot’s high-speed maneuvers on approach. Modro was taking no chances, making himself into a difficult target long before it could be expected that the ground pounder would be able to respond.

But it apparently had eyes on all four sides of that blocky top and was firing some sort of projectile weapon almost before Modro cleared the tree tops. He rolled his transport and fired back, his disruptors lighting up the shadowy riverbed.

To Micah’s dismay, that was all they did. Upon hitting the ground pounder, they shimmered along the surface of some sort of translucent bubble, which glowed brightly before fading back to invisibility. The ground pounder’s only response was to stop firing its weapon; otherwise it seemed entirely unaffected. The pause gave Modro time to pull up, but his reprieve was short-lived as a stream of projectiles followed his path. Somehow he managed to get out of range, only to loop around and come back for a second run.

Let’s see if this shekker can shrug off a missile,” he said into his com, and lined up for the shot. The ground pounder had also changed its weapon choice, opting for a pulsed laser that exploded trees right and left as they missed their target. Modro fired, and Micah held his breath as he watched the smoke trail streak toward the ground pounder. At the same moment, one of the laser pulses sliced off the tip of the transport’s wing.

I’m hit!”

He needed four eyes to watch everything at once, but the explosion of the missile drew his attention first. It had been a direct hit, and he waited for the smoke and flame to clear.

“Spawn of a fantenshekken!” His fist smacked the table when the ground pounder stepped out of the smoke cloud, apparently unharmed. “Did it even make a dent?”

“Doesn’t look like it,” Tal said.

They watched it fire a blizzard of weaponry after the retreating transport, landing two more hits that turned a limping retreat into a spiraling crash. As soon as Modro’s transport vanished, the machine turned its attention to the cargo transport.

“Get out of there,” Tal whispered, and Micah breathed a sigh of relief as the cargo pilot’s cams showed a rapid change of direction. It was streaking toward the rescue transport’s crash site when the rear cam recorded some type of missile approaching.

I’ve got fire on my tail,” said a woman’s voice. “Evading.” The cameras rolled through a dizzying series of maneuvers, and the missile vanished from the rear cam.

This thing is following us.” The pilot’s voice was less calm as she pushed her transport into a vertical climb. “Shek! I can’t lose it; it’s coming around for another go. It must be targeting my heat signature. Sutter, unlock missile one.”

Missile one ready,” said a male voice.

Let’s see if we can divert it. Ready…fire.”

Missile away.”

The transport’s forward cam showed a smoke trail arcing into the distance.

Dammit, take the bait, you piece of dokshin, take it, take it…no!”

The screen went white, then black.

Colonel Debrett appeared a moment later. “Guard Paraska managed to blow her cabin release just before impact, and landed with herself and her crew unharmed. The cargo transport is a total loss. As of right now she and her crew are still making their way cross-country to the crash site of the rescue transport, but Guard Modro is not responding to calls. We’re hoping that he’s merely unconscious.”

“As are we,” Tal said. “Do we at least have it on orbital scan?”

“Yes, we do. It’s still in the riverbed and still moving southwest. I’ve been informed that at its current rate of speed, it will hit the next village in just over two hanticks. I sent a squadron as backup when we realized what had happened to WSC813, but based on that battle footage, I redirected them to aid the downed pilots and crew. Engaging the ground pounder will require a great deal more firepower. I’ve already armed and launched my entire fleet, but it will take them another hantick and forty to arrive, and there are holdings and homes all along the river.”

“Have you issued an evacuation order?”

He hesitated. “Not yet. I wasn’t certain how much information you would want to give out at this time.”

Micah understood his reticence, given the fact that not five hanticks ago Tal had made a planetary announcement that the Voloth were not a threat.

Well, they were now.





Chapter 21

Combining forces


“What do you suppose happened?” Lhyn asked as the door closed behind the Lancer. “She looked like she was just stung by a desert wasp.”

“She’s the leader of an entire planet.” Ekatya turned off the translator. “Shippers only know how many emergencies she’s juggling at any given moment.”

“Hard to believe there could be an emergency more important than a bunch of aliens dropping out of the sky.”

Ekatya’s mind was already back to the Lancer’s most startling statement. “I can’t believe she’s giving me back my ship. It’s a treasure trove of technology, and right now I have no way to defend it. She could just walk aboard and take it.”

Lhyn shook her head. “That woman plays the long game. She’s not interested in short-term gain. She wants to pull Alsea out of the mud, and she knows she’ll get there faster if she does it with our cooperation.” She offered a knowing grin. “Still think she’s not acting in the best interests of her world?”

“I’m not sure what to think about her anymore. I keep looking for the real motivation behind all that compassion and forward thinking. It’s not very…political.”

“She said it herself: she’s not really a politician. Maybe their caste system has something to do with the way she views her office. Her predecessor was a scholar and apparently he was everything you’d expect in a politician, but if her goal is the pursuit of honor, then that would affect how she sees her title.”

“Oh, then scholars aren’t honorable?” Ekatya asked innocently.

“Very funny. You can’t generalize it to entire castes. But the ideals of each caste are different, and if she’s really striving for the warrior ideal, then she’s not going to be a typical politician.” Lhyn settled back in her chair. “Speaking of leaders, what was all that about leaders and who was alone today?”

Ekatya wasn’t quite sure how to explain it. Lhyn might be the head of her anthropology group, but that wasn’t the same thing as being a Fleet captain.

“Remember this morning, when we were coming in on the Lancer’s transport, and I accused her of messing with my mind?” she asked.

“You mean when you were practically smoking out the ears, and I was envisioning an abrupt end to a lovely friendship?”

“Yes, well…” She was embarrassed now, remembering how angry she’d been. “In my defense, I’d had an extremely long day, lost my ship, and was hopped up on alien drugs. And I’m not comfortable with the idea of someone rooting around inside my head.”

“I don’t think she roots around. She said that interfering with your emotions would break their highest law. Think about that. It means that the Alseans consider violation of emotional privacy to be more egregious than murder. They value the mind more than the body.”

Ekatya hadn’t considered it that way, but now that Lhyn pointed it out, it seemed obvious. “Oh, stars,” she said as the realization hit. “That means I accused her of worse than murder.”

“Yes, and she took it rather well, didn’t she?”

Ekatya rubbed her face. “I owe her one Hades of an apology.”

“You sure do,” Lhyn agreed cheerfully. “But you still haven’t explained the alone thing.”

It took Ekatya a moment to set aside her horror at having made such a gargantuan, and utterly rookie, diplomatic mistake. But Lhyn’s curiosity was up now, so she tried.

“She said that what I felt last night was her sharing her own emotions with me. So I started thinking about that—about which of my feelings were hers and which were mine. And they weren’t any different. I can’t tell them apart. What she was trying to do was show me, without a common language and at the most basic level of emotion, that she understood what I was going through. She knows what it’s like to be alone with the consequences of your decisions.”

“But you’re not alone.”

“When I’m on a mission, I am. There’s only one captain on a ship. And last night I was more alone than I’d ever been. It wasn’t just you, it was the ship and my crew and not knowing anything, not being able to ask, being helpless—I was just this side of going out of my mind. I kept wondering how high a price I’d have to pay for doing the right thing and whether this time it really would be too high. Lancer Tal knew all of that. In the middle of everything, she took the time to make me feel less alone, and the only reason she was able to do that is because she feels alone. There’s only one Lancer.”

“Oh.” Lhyn’s eyes widened. “I get it now. So all that mysterious talk was you telling her that she’s not alone. Because you understand her position.”

“Right. Which is probably presumptuous of me, since I’m commanding a ship and she’s commanding an entire world, but…a ship really is a tiny little self-contained world. And she heard me.”

“I think she did. You two were looking at each other like you were speaking your own language.”

Ekatya nodded. “Maybe we were.”

“Well then!” Lhyn beamed at her. “You being besties with the Lancer of Alsea can only be to my advantage. I’m looking forward to all of the highly placed people I’ll get to talk to because Lancer Tal wants to keep your girlfriend happy.”

“She wants to keep you happy because she wants to pick through that big brain of yours. It has nothing to do with me. So tell me, what are you going to ask the Lead Templar when you meet her?”

“Oh my stars, I have a list,” Lhyn said, and launched into a monologue that warmed Ekatya with its sheer familiarity. Was it only sixteen hours ago that she thought she’d never see Lhyn again? Yet here she was, relatively unhurt and unaffected by all that had happened. Nothing could squelch this woman for long, not even surviving the sort of crash landing that would go in the record books.

In that moment, as she sat in her alien hospital bed, Ekatya was deeply grateful that Lhyn had defied orders and refused to evacuate. It was difficult to imagine being here, working through this unplanned first contact, without her companionship and expertise. Not to mention that if Lhyn had evacuated, she would have been insanely jealous that Ekatya was interacting with Alseans and she wasn’t. Ekatya smiled at the thought.

“I get the feeling you’re not listening,” Lhyn said.

“Of course I—”

A tap on the door interrupted them. “Come in,” Ekatya said.

Nothing happened, and she muttered a curse as she flipped the translator back on. Lhyn chuckled before calling out in Alsean, resulting in a tall and very fit Guard entering the room. Ekatya recognized him from the group that had surrounded the Lancer, and now that she was looking more closely, she could see that the sleeves of his dark blue jacket bore three red chevrons. Obviously someone of rank.

He stopped and briefly bowed his head, then spoke in a deep voice. The feminine tones that issued from the translator a moment later made Ekatya’s head spin, and she vowed to get this language issue fixed just as soon as they made it back to their ship.

“Captain Serrado, well met. I’m Lead Guard Gehrain, sent by Lancer Tal. She asks that you and Commander Baldassar join her as soon as possible.” Without waiting for an answer, he turned toward the door and made a motion, stepping aside as a healer pushed a mobile chair into the room.

“Looks like you’re going on a trip,” Lhyn said.

“If I may, Captain?” The healer held out his hands, and Ekatya realized with considerable alarm that he meant to pick her up and put her in the chair. She looked for a reason to refuse, but the bed was higher than the chair, and any attempt to get in that thing by herself was almost certain to end in disaster. Stifling a sigh, she nodded and tried not to react as the healer slid his hands around her back and under her legs. With surprising strength and gentleness, he deposited her in the chair, arranged her cased leg, and pushed her toward the door.

“Wait!” Lhyn picked up the translator and put it on Ekatya’s lap. “Since I’m apparently not invited.”

Ekatya barely had time to say thank you before Gehrain whisked her away. At the second corridor intersection, she found Commander Baldassar walking toward them with another Guard at his side.

“Captain! You look quite a bit better than when I last saw you,” he said as he fell into step with them.

“Thank you; I feel better as well. The shower was at least half of it.”

He smiled. “Don’t I know it. Any idea what this is about?”

“None. I just got a notification and an escort, same as you. All I know is that Lancer Tal is the one who summoned us.” Only now did it occur to her that she didn’t even know where they were going. Was the Lancer having them flown to the State House?

Before she could ask, they were stopping in front of a nondescript door. Gehrain gestured for Baldassar to take over her chair, then tapped on the door and opened it. “Lancer Tal, the captain and commander are here.”

“Thank you, bring them in.”

Ekatya looked around with interest as Baldassar wheeled her through the door. It was clearly some sort of conference room, with a large viewscreen at one end. An older Alsean in uniform watched them from the screen, while Colonel Micah and Lancer Tal sat together at the table. The Lancer’s cordial warmth had vanished and she was all business now, wasting no time on formalities and speaking in clipped tones as she ordered the colonel onscreen to reset some sort of video. Then she held up a finger, forestalling any questions from Ekatya as she tapped first her wristcom and then her earcuff. “Aldirk, I need you to drop everything and issue an immediate evacuation order for—” She stopped and addressed the screen. “Colonel, the coordinates?”

The older warrior rattled off a string of code, which the Lancer repeated. “Do you have it? Good. This is an order straight from my office. Coordinate with the local militia, call in anyone you need, just get it done. Tell everyone within sight of the river to get out of sight of it. It doesn’t matter where they go, as long as they move away from the river.” She paused, then met Ekatya’s eyes and said, “More trouble than I needed today, that’s how much. Of the five hundred ground pounders on that orbital invader, it turns out the Gaians destroyed four hundred and ninety-nine.”

Ekatya’s stomach dropped. A ground pounder had survived? And gone undetected until now? She could only imagine how much damage it had already done.

The Lancer ended her call and motioned to Gehrain, who pulled out a chair to make room for Ekatya’s mobile version. “Gehrain, stay. I want you in on this too. Colonel Debrett, this is Captain Serrado and Commander Baldassar of the Gaian ship Caphenon. I’m hoping their expertise will help us. Captain, Commander, this is Colonel Debrett, the commander of Whitesun Base. Colonel, are you ready?”

“Yes, Lancer.” The colonel’s image was replaced by a scene straight out of Ekatya’s worst memories. She scanned the blackened village for bodies, then saw them lying scattered in the fields. A sour taste rose in her mouth when she saw how many of them were children.

“Those bastards,” Baldassar said in a low voice.

He probably hadn’t meant for the Lancer to hear, and the translator didn’t pick it up, but she looked over and said, “I share your sentiment. Even our worst wars were fought by the warrior caste against the warrior caste. To murder civilians and children is—” She broke off, and Colonel Micah spoke next to her.

“Unthinkable,” he said gruffly. “These Voloth are barbarians.”

“They would think exactly the same about you, simply because of your lack of technology,” Ekatya said. For an uncomfortable moment it occurred to her that her own prejudices weren’t too far from that, but she was no Voloth. No matter how backwards she thought a culture might be, it was never a reason for extermination.

“Lack of technology or not, we will destroy them.” Lancer Tal’s tone left no room for doubt. “We need to know everything about this ground pounder. Two of our pilots have already engaged it, with no success. A class four missile had no effect, and disruptor fire was nothing more than a light show. Colonel, show us the attack.”

The first thing Ekatya noticed was that the Alsean fighter looked exactly like the rescue transports she’d watched the previous night. Its pilot was extremely good, pulling some of the most wicked maneuvers she’d ever seen and actually managing to avoid the rapidgun at close range. It was futile, of course, but she had to admire his skill. Then she held her breath as he came around for a second run, facing down the laser cannon.

“They certainly don’t lack courage,” Baldassar murmured.

Ekatya nodded absently, her eyes glued to the screen. The pilot’s luck ran out, and she winced when the laser cannon found its target. Such bravery for so little reason; their missiles could do nothing against a ground pounder’s shielding.

The second pilot was nearly as adept as the first, judging by her attempts to avoid the Voloth missile. Firing a decoy was a smart strategy, but ultimately useless, and Ekatya closed her eyes when the screen went white. What a waste, all of them.

“They’re unhurt.”

Ekatya turned from the screen to find Lancer Tal looking at her, her light eyes showing a bit more warmth. “The pilot was able to eject her cabin. She and her three crew landed safely and are now searching for the other pilot. We don’t yet know his status.”

“Then I hope she calls in more good news,” Ekatya said. “If all Alsean fighter pilots are as skilled and courageous as these, then you have a formidable air force.”

“Modro is my best rescue pilot,” said the colonel onscreen, “and Paraska is my best cargo pilot. That’s why they were sent on the search-and-rescue mission. However, I can say with justifiable pride that all of Whitesun’s pilots are excellent.”

Ekatya was caught on his first statement. “Did you say rescue and cargo? Those weren’t dedicated fighter pilots?”

“No,” he said, looking confused.

“Do you mean that you have pilots who fly fighting ships and nothing else?” Colonel Micah asked.

Ekatya and Baldassar looked at each other. “Yes, and we’ve never run across a technologically advanced culture that didn’t,” she told them.

“You must be wealthy in both material resources and personnel,” Lancer Tal said diplomatically. “It would never occur to us to build four different transport types where two will do. Rescue transports have the maneuverability for fighting, and cargo transports can handle bombing when necessary, as well as carrying the heavier air-launched missiles. We change the designation depending on their armaments.”

“And that was a cargo—er, bomber pilot performing those evasive maneuvers?”

When they nodded, Ekatya revised her impression of the second pilot, whose ability to fling around a larger, less maneuverable craft was formidable. Given half a chance, she’d recruit both of those Alseans into Fleet and request them for her own ship. If she still had a ship.

“You mentioned a class four missile,” Baldassar said. “Is that the most powerful you have?”

“Paraska carried class fives,” said Colonel Debrett. “Their explosive yield is three and a half times greater than the class four that Modro fired.”

“Class five is our most powerful air-launched missile,” Lancer Tal added.

“Do you have anything ground-based with a larger yield?” Baldassar asked. “For instance, a self-propelled nuclear fission missile?”

All four Alseans looked at him in horror. “A nuclear fission missile?” Colonel Micah repeated. “For what purpose, destroying an entire city?”

“We don’t poison ourselves or our planet intentionally,” said Lancer Tal. “Do you have such weapons?”

“We do, but only for use in space battles,” Ekatya said. “The radiation poses no danger there. Well, no additional danger,” she amended. “Space is full of radiation. But many cultures originally developed them for use on land.”

“Not even in our nightmares,” Lancer Tal said firmly. “Alsea suffered a catastrophic nuclear accident eighty cycles ago. It killed more than twenty thousand before our engineers could design a means of scrubbing the radiation from the environment, and we have long memories. No Alsean would even suggest such a thing, let alone find support for its development.”

“Then I’m afraid my earlier statement stands. You don’t have a weapon strong enough to get past the ground pounder’s shielding.”

“What about a combined attack?” asked Colonel Debrett. “My entire fleet is already scrambled and on its way. If they coordinate their missile strikes, could they overwhelm whatever protects that machine?”

Now it was Ekatya’s turn to be horrified. “You’ve launched all of your assets?”

“All assets at Whitesun Base, yes. We’re the closest; it had to be us.”

“And how many is that?”

“Forty-nine each of fighters and bombers, not counting the two you just saw.”

Stars and Shippers, these Alseans were suicidal. Brave, but suicidal. They’d just seen the ground pounder take out two of their best pilots without breaking a sweat, and their answer was to send ninety-eight more to die? Plus the bomber crews—that was about two hundred and fifty warriors flying to oblivion right now.

She turned to the Lancer, choosing her words carefully. “Lancer Tal, I feel responsible for this situation. My job was to neutralize the Voloth, and I did not complete the task. Let me finish it now. We have the necessary weaponry. Lieutenant Candini can fly one of our fighters to wherever this ground pounder is located and kill it.”

The Lancer shook her head. “I would hardly call missing one out of five hundred a failure. And while we appreciate your offer, this is our problem now. We’re asking you to help us solve it, not solve it for us.”

“And I would not deny my warriors the greatest opportunity for glory they have ever encountered,” said Colonel Debrett. “Weaponry alone does not decide an outcome.”

Colonel Micah was nodding. “Strategy wins more battles than sheer power.”

Rarely had Ekatya felt more frustrated. Candini could polish off this damned ground pounder with two shots, yet these brick-headed warriors couldn’t see far enough past their pride to let her do it.

“Honor, Captain,” Lancer Tal said quietly. “We seek it until our Return.”

She was really beginning to hate having her mind read. Well, her feelings, at any rate. Taking a slow breath, she pushed down her frustration and tried a different approach.

“There is no question as to the honor of Alsean warriors. How could there be, when we’ve just watched a perfect display of it? But the fact remains that you do not have the means of disabling the ground pounder’s shielding. It runs on a feedback design that allows it to recharge its power source from both kinetic and electromagnetic energy.”

She could see that Lancer Tal was grasping the issue, but the others were not. Turning to the colonel on the viewscreen, she clarified. “Anything you shoot at the ground pounder will either bounce off the shield or dissipate across it. The shield will absorb the energy and redirect it to its power source. You’ll only make it stronger. There are two ways to break it. One is to punch through it, using so much power over a very tiny area that the energy net can’t handle the load at that point. For that you need a precision weapon, such as a phased laser with a beam half the diameter of a Gaian hair.” She pulled up one of her own hairs as an example. “And unless Dr. Rivers was wrong in her technology report, you don’t have a weapon like that.”

“And the other?” Colonel Micah asked.

“The brute force method. Overwhelm the entire shield with so much power that it can’t absorb it all. For that you would need a far more powerful impact. Not a combination of impacts, but one very short, sharp strike. A combined missile strike from all of your pilots would do it, but do you believe they could time a strike to half a second”—she snapped her fingers to illustrate—“while they’re all at varying distances and dodging unrelenting fire?”

When the translator finished, the room was silent.

“Perhaps we could combine our forces,” Lancer Tal said at last.

Ekatya wanted to cheer. For a moment she wondered why she restrained herself when they knew what she was feeling anyway.

“If you can disable the shielding,” Lancer Tal continued, “then our pilots can destroy the ground pounder. I presume that once the shield is down, it’s vulnerable to our weaponry?”

“Yes. The shield is the only line of defense it has. I’m sure you noticed that it was not constructed with a care for shrugging off weapons damage. There are critical components all over the surface, from power conduits to magazines for the rapidguns. Once the shield is down, it doesn’t take much to blow a ground pounder to atoms.”

“Now that’s a sight I’m looking forward to seeing,” Colonel Micah said, and the others murmured their agreement. The multiple voices confused the translator, but for once Ekatya didn’t need it. That was the sound of two hundred and fifty Alseans not dying for the sake of honor.

“But we have no time unless your fighters are much faster than ours,” Colonel Debrett said. “Even at the speed of sound, it would take three hanticks to fly from Blacksun all the way to central Pallea. The ground pounder will be at the next sizable village long before then, and I’m not certain the evacuation orders will reach every Alsean in time.”

Damn it, the translator didn’t convert their time scale. What had Lhyn said? A little less than a stellar hour and a half, right.

“That’s not a problem,” she said. “Our fighter can manage sustained atmospheric flight at four times the speed of sound. So that means it could be there in, er, three-fourths of a hantick.”

“Great Fahla,” said Colonel Micah. “Seventy-five ticks?”

A base ten system, Ekatya noted. Good, that made things simple.

Colonel Debrett was clearly taken aback as well, but recovered and shook his head. “That will still be close. By now the ground pounder is a hantick and eighty from the next town.”

“How long would it take to get from here to my ship, Lancer Tal?”

“About twenty ticks.”

“Plus the time to get a fighter out of the bay,” she mused. “Yes, it will be close. But we can do it if we start right now.”

“We’ll need to get back to Blacksun Base to coordinate this,” Lancer Tal said. “And Lieutenant Candini will require an Alsean copilot, both to guide her to the battle site and to maintain communication with us.”

“Agreed. How much time do we have before your pilots arrive, Colonel?”

The Alseans looked at the viewscreen, where Colonel Debrett consulted his wristcom. “We’re down to a hantick and twenty. They’ll be there before your fighter can join them.”

“Then tell them not to engage before it gets there,” Lancer Tal said.

“I need Dr. Rivers as well,” Ekatya added. “The translator will have to go with Lieutenant Candini again, and we’ll require the doctor’s services.”

Lancer Tal nodded. “We’ll bring her with us to Blacksun Base. Micah, call Colonel Northcliff and tell her that we need her best pilot for a cooperative mission with the Gaians. Whoever she chooses needs to leave immediately and join us at the Caphenon.

The colonel nodded and stood, speaking quietly into his com before he even left the room. Lancer Tal ordered Gehrain to round up the Guards, Lhyn, and Candini, in that order, and paused when Ekatya asked for Commander Kameha and Trooper Xi to accompany them.

“We don’t know the condition of the fighter bay or the fighters, for that matter. Kameha is my chief engineer, and he and Xi are the only engineers I have left who can climb that ladder.”

“Understood. Bring them as well, and meet us at the transport. Oh, and get someone to fly my personal transport back to the base.” She acknowledged Gehrain’s salute, then told Colonel Debrett to brief his pilots on the ground pounder’s shielding technology. “That should help them keep their thumbs off the firing switch,” she said, and the colonel agreed.

Ending the call, she stood up, stretched, and gave Ekatya a rueful look. “I’m afraid our evenmeal plans have been disrupted.”

“Well, at least I’m getting some of my crew back on my ship.” Ekatya smiled when Commander Baldassar stiffened next to her, no doubt dismayed by her lack of tact.

The Lancer seemed equally amused. “Don’t worry, Commander. If the captain were going to offend me, she’s already had numerous opportunities.”

Clearly, this didn’t help, and Ekatya almost chuckled before remembering that she had yet to fully apologize for the worst of those opportunities.

“Will you give me a push, Commander?” she asked, and tipped a nod at the Lancer while Baldassar was occupied with turning her chair toward the door.

Having a bunch of empaths around was disconcerting to say the least, but she was realizing some of the advantages as well. She trusted the Lancer’s current lack of offense, and knew that a real apology could wait and not be less valued for the delay.

As Baldassar rolled her down the corridor, she wondered what it would be like to have an empathic crew. Did Alsean warrior units even need a personnel officer?





Chapter 22

Return to the Caphenon


The Guards were efficient. It wasn’t ten minutes before the Lancer’s transport was lifting off, this time with everyone in the main cabin. Lancer Tal stood at the front, holding on to an overhead grip while explaining the situation to both her Guards and, via the translator, to Ekatya’s own crew. Baldassar then stepped up next to her with specific orders for Candini, Kameha, and Xi.

“Dr. Rivers will be accompanying us to Blacksun Base to complete the translation chain,” he concluded. “Communications will be our weak link, so be certain of your orders before you act.”

As he took his seat in the row behind Ekatya, she leaned across the aisle and spoke quietly to Candini. “Above all, do not take the kill shot. Leave it to the Alseans, even if they’re getting blown out of the sky.”

“Are you serious?”

“That’s an order, Lieutenant.”

Lhyn, who had discreetly chosen a place on the other side of Candini, added, “They’re an honor-driven culture, and there’s no honor in letting us do all the work.”

“Or take all the glory,” Ekatya said.

“What if I let their pilot do it? The one coming with me?”

Ekatya shook her head. “It can’t be our weapon or our fighter. It has to be them.”

“Don’t they know what they’re up against?” Candini’s voice had gotten too loud, and she cast a glance around before adding in a lower tone, “Captain, it’ll be like taking a slingshot to a gun fight!”

“I know, but it’s not our call. We have to respect their choice. Remember, we’re not even supposed to be here.”

“Neither is that ground pounder,” Candini pointed out.

Ekatya shared her feelings, but enough was enough. “Which part of ‘that’s an order’ did you not understand, Lieutenant?”

“Yes, Captain.” She slumped against her seat. “Well, Lhyn, you’re about to get a chance to study Alsean funeral practices.”

“Stop it,” Lhyn said. “If Captain Serrado couldn’t convince them to let us take care of it, nobody could. Be grateful they’re allowing us this much. You’re going to save lives.”

“Not enough of them,” Candini grumbled.

Ekatya thought about the dead bodies strewn all around that burning village. No, they hadn’t saved enough of them. But the Alseans deserved their vengeance.

The ride to her ship was shorter than she remembered from the morning, and the military transports that appeared on either side of their larger craft were certainly different.

“Escorts,” said Lancer Tal when she asked. “We’ve just crossed into controlled airspace. There’s a cordon on the ground as well.”

The windows were cut low enough that if she leaned over the empty seat next to her, she could see it: a seemingly endless line of vehicles and uniformed warriors, blocking fields and the few roads as far as her sight reached. On each of the roads, long lines of what she’d bet were civilian vehicles snaked off into the distance, and non-uniformed Alseans faced the warriors in large clusters.

She straightened and kept her face expressionless, but the Alseans were probably sensing her mixed feelings. On the one hand, it was good to know that her ship was being kept safe from unauthorized access. On the other, those people were much too close.

When Lancer Tal gave her a quizzical glance, she swallowed the lie that came too easily, remembering just in time that she couldn’t lie to this woman without being caught. Fortunately, her instincts were right: a simple head shake was enough to turn the Lancer away. The Alseans valued emotional privacy too much to press on when they knew it wasn’t wanted.

Before she was quite ready for it, she was once again looking through the transparent ceiling at her broken ship. Somehow it seemed shabbier now, a sad sight that was either her overactive imagination or the different angle of light.

The military escorts peeled away, and the Lancer’s pilot set them down on the port side of the Caphenon, near the bow. Candini, Kameha, and Xi were out the door shortly afterward, heading for the bow and the escape ladder. They’d need to climb back to the top of the skirt, run a hundred and fifty meters up it to get above the port-side fighter bay, then open an airlock and climb through brace shafts down to the bay.

All three of them were equipped with Alsean wristcoms now, as was Ekatya, and she felt much better with communication restored. She was also grateful to the four Guards who had unhesitatingly taken off their own wristcoms and handed them over at the Lancer’s request. The thin strip of transparent, flexible material had sealed itself around her wrist as if it were made for her, and she marked another point to the advanced level of Alsean technology.

As if called up by her thought, Lancer Tal returned from the front of the transport, where she had vanished to take a call. Carefully stepping over Ekatya’s encased leg, which stuck out into the access area, she leaned against the bulkhead and said something in Alsean.

Ekatya looked at Lhyn, who got up and stood next to the Lancer. “She said that since we’re waiting, perhaps you can answer one of the questions she and Colonel Micah have been puzzling over.”

“If I can,” Ekatya said.

Lhyn spoke, listened to the Lancer’s response, and said, “She wants to know about our hullskin. What it’s made of, how it forms a ladder, and how the ladder knows which way is down when there’s no down in space.”

“I thought she said one question.”

“Do you want me to translate that?”

“Go ahead.”

If there was one thing Ekatya had learned from a decade of diplomatic experience, it was that humor was the easiest bridge between cultures, so long as the humor was understood. And the Lancer clearly understood. She smiled as she listened, and her answer made Lhyn smile in turn.

“Damn it, I need a pad. I’m never going to remember things like that without being able to record them. She said—hang on, let me get this exactly—‘That’s the danger of letting a holcat get her nose under your hand. Before you know it, you’re petting the cat.’”

Ekatya was struck with the incongruity of the mental image, unable to imagine anyone petting the controlled woman in front of her.

“Starting with the last,” she said, “it doesn’t normally know direction. We program that in when we activate the ladder. There’s a control panel that allows us to select the end point, and it’s not limited to up and down. We can make the ladder diagonal or straight across, too. It’s much more convenient for hull walks than the old magnetic boots they used to use.”

“Not to mention that magnetic boots wouldn’t work on modern hull material,” Baldassar interjected.

“I didn’t know you programmed the ladder,” Lhyn said. “Guess it’s a good thing I never had to do a hull walk.”

“We usually program it,” Ekatya said. “But if an airlock is opened without any programming, and the sensors can detect a gravity field, then the ladder will automatically deploy toward that field.”

“Okay, stop. I need to explain this.”

They waited through Lhyn’s translation and its very short answer.

“And what exactly is the modern hull material? I’m curious about that, too. Funny, I’ve spent my whole life studying other cultures, and I don’t even know the basics about the ships I travel in.”

Ekatya nearly made a joke about how she should pay more attention in the captain’s bedroom, but remembered Baldassar’s presence in time. Turning as much as she could with her leg sticking out, she caught his eye and asked, “How do we make this as nontechnical as possible?”

He thought about it. “It’s a semi-organic, cybernetic, malleable skin designed primarily for radiation resistance. Its inherent memory of physical states was a secondary advantage that Fleet didn’t expect, but exploited when it was discovered.”

Lhyn rolled her eyes. “Oh, sure, that wasn’t technical at all.”

Ekatya saw the Lancer’s understanding as she listened. The Alseans might not have faster-than-light tech, but they were not scientifically illiterate by any means. If a warrior and political leader could easily understand the concept Lhyn had just repeated, what level were their scholars at? How far were they from developing FTL tech, anyway?

It occurred to her that the hundred-stellar-year wait for first contact that had originally been assessed was an old calculation. Lhyn hadn’t had a chance to file her report; the assessment didn’t take her findings into account. Maybe the Alseans weren’t that far off Protectorate contact, in which case the price she’d pay for breaking the Non-Interference Act wouldn’t be as high. Of course, there was the distinct possibility that she was indulging in wishful thinking.

“Now she wants to know how it resists radiation,” Lhyn said. “And I wish you could get Alsean language chips installed in your nodes, because we’ve probably hit the wall of what I’m capable of translating. At this point you need technical literacy. The translator database has that; my brain doesn’t.”

“I was thinking about that earlier,” Ekatya said. “Given the advanced level of Alsean medtech, is there any reason why their healers couldn’t do the installation? You know how to program them, right?”

“Of course. I programmed them for my entire staff.”

“Then maybe we should ask Commander Kameha and Trooper Xi to pick up some blank chips and a burner while they’re inside.”

“Better get a full medkit while they’re at it,” Baldassar said. “If I remember correctly, there are some special drivers they’d need to open our nodes.”

“Are you two seriously thinking about letting Alsean healers crack open your nodes?”

Ekatya rapped her knuckles on the leg case. “If I can walk when this thing comes off, then yes.”

“I saw what they did with our injured crew,” Baldassar added. “Torado is already on his feet, and Mauji Mauji and Hmongyon would both still be in critical if they were in a Protectorate medbay. We should be signing a treaty with these people for their medtech.”

“I’m already on it.” Ekatya enjoyed his surprise. “What, you think I can’t be a captain from a hospital bed?”

He raised his hands. “I never said anything of the sort.”

“Okay, stop for a minute and let me tell the Lancer what we’re talking about.”

Lhyn had just begun her explanation when a small transport appeared overhead, made a tight turn, and settled to the ground.

“That must be our pilot,” Baldassar said.

Lancer Tal said something to Lhyn and then strode down the transport ramp, Colonel Micah at her side. While they spoke with the new arrival, Ekatya contacted Kameha on her wristcom. “Chief, where are you?”

We just got in. The bay looks to be in surprisingly good shape. All of the landing clamps held and the fighters don’t even look jostled. Xi and Candini are heading over to prep one right now. But there’s something very odd about the condition of our hullskin.”

“Good news about the fighter bay. What’s wrong with our hullskin besides the obvious?”

It’s severely damaged, everywhere. Candini said the escape ladder wasn’t normal last night, but at least there weren’t any missing rungs.”

“No, they were all there.” She would definitely have noticed if she’d had to hop a distance of two rungs with a broken leg. “But there were bits and pieces missing along the entire ladder.”

It’s more than that now. Some of the rungs are gone, some cracked under our feet, and occasionally the side rails cracked, too. When we were walking up the skirt, hullskin pieces were coming off on our boots. It’s losing cohesion. And the entire hullskin, as far as we could see, looks like…well, it looks like something’s been eating it.”

She gazed up at her ship, realizing now that its shabbiness wasn’t her imagination. “You don’t think that could have been caused by recent events?”

I’ve seen a lot of weapons damage in my day, and this isn’t it. And the only way it could be crash damage is if Lieutenant Candini rolled the Caphenon on the landing. I think we’d all remember if that happened. There’s something going on here that I don’t understand.”

“All right. Take a sample and analyze it after you’ve safely launched Lieutenant Candini. Tell her that her copilot just arrived, so we’re ready to go as soon as she gets out here. Oh, and add a full medkit, a chip burner, and three chips to your list of things to collect. We need to deal with the language issue.”

You’re going to have Alsean healers install chips?”

Was everyone going to ask that? “Yes, I think so.”

Then may I request one for myself and Xi as well? We would love to be able to talk to these people.”

“Are you certain? We won’t be here for more than a few days.”

It’s worth the headache to be able to communicate.”

Ekatya looked at Baldassar. “Maybe we should offer it for everyone. I didn’t think the crew would want to go through the procedure for just a few days of benefit, but perhaps I’ve underestimated their curiosity levels.”

He nodded. “I’d say bring back fifteen chips. Enough for everyone, plus spares. Let them choose.”

Kameha was happy to receive the new orders, and Ekatya closed the channel just as Lancer Tal returned with Colonel Micah and the new pilot, who was introduced as Lead Guard Tesseron. He was a slender young Alsean with dark skin and a bright smile, which he directed at everyone. He had quite a few questions about the ship he’d be flying in, since his pre-mission briefing had been rather lacking in details. Lhyn was kept busy translating in both directions, and Ekatya realized too late that she should have kept the translator here instead of sending it up with Candini. She hadn’t known that the Alsean copilot would be here so quickly.

The ease Lhyn displayed with this musical language was marvelous. Ekatya could hardly wait to get an Alsean chip for herself; without it she couldn’t even discern the word breaks. But Lhyn flowed along, seemingly as comfortable as a native, and Ekatya felt a sudden swelling of pride. Lhyn was at the top of her field, courted by not just academies and universities but also the Assembly itself, which had more than once tried to recruit her into the Diplomacy Corps—a lost cause if there ever was one, Lhyn had said.

Lancer Tal flicked a glance her way, a small smile edging onto her face. Ekatya guessed it wasn’t the details on their fighter causing that smile. The Lancer had felt her pride.

Her wristcom vibrated, and she turned away to hear better. “Serrado.”

Captain, this is Xi. Everything’s a go and we’re opening the bay door now.”

“Understood. We’ll be watching.” She gave the news to Lhyn, who said a few words that had all of the Alseans craning their necks to look at the ship looming above. For their benefit, Ekatya pointed out where the door would be opening, and a few seconds later they saw the hull section sliding open to reveal a dark space behind it.

Ekatya frowned. The bay door wasn’t opening properly. It seemed to move in fits and starts, rather than the normal smooth slide, and stopped before it was halfway open. She tapped Kameha’s code into her wristcom. “Chief, what’s happening with the bay door?”

It’s the hullskin, Captain. It’s flaking off and warped, and it’s jamming up the door slides. This is as far as we can get the door open. But it’s far enough. Here comes Candini.”

Even as he spoke, a fighter emerged from the darkness and floated gracefully toward the ground, firing its thrusters to hover next to the transport’s windows. Candini, visible through the cockpit bubble, waved at them and raised her wristcom to her mouth. Ekatya activated hers as it buzzed. “I see you haven’t forgotten how to fly the small ones, Lieutenant.”

Not a chance, Captain. I’m officially reporting for duty. Let’s go help these people kick some ground pounder butt.”

Lhyn translated to the Lancer, who made a loud announcement to her Guards. When they sent up an enormous cheer, Ekatya grinned at her pilot.

“Candini, I think you just spoke their language.”





Chapter 23

Translation


Given the Caphenon’s smooth and rounded appearance, Tal hadn’t known what to expect in a Protectorate fighter. But Candini’s aerodynamic craft was a recognizable design, with a pointed nose and wings for lift. It looked sleek and fast, exuded danger, and Tal itched to climb in and try it out herself. And four times the speed of sound? Great Mother.

“You are one lucky dokker,” she said. “Want to trade places with me?”

Lead Guard Tesseron reluctantly tore his eyes away from the fighter, now slipping around the transport to park by the ramp, and gave her an enormous grin. “With all due respect, Lancer Tal, not in fifty cycles. This is the chance of a lifetime.”

She turned to Micah. “I’ve worked hard all my life. Shouldn’t I get a chance like this, too?”

“Even I want a shot at it,” he said. “And I can’t fly.”

“Told you that you should have learned.” She held out her forearm to Tesseron. “May Fahla fly with you.”

“Thank you, Lancer.” He released her, gripped forearms with Micah, then pulled his headset from his pocket and slipped it over his ear. Tal and her Guards were already on the emergency military channel, and when Tesseron activated his headset, every wristcom in the transport vibrated.

“You’re on,” she said.

With a nod, he turned and ran down the ramp. Candini already had the fighter’s door open and was waiting outside. She greeted him with a forearm clasp and practically shoved him into the copilot’s seat, snapping his harness herself to save time. A moment later she was in her own seat and the door was closing. Tal wasn’t certain it had latched before the fighter lifted off again, quickly gaining altitude until it rocketed away with a sudden roar. Ten pipticks later she couldn’t even make out a dot.

“Impressive,” said Micah.

“Damn, I want to fly that.” She shook her head as she lifted her wrist. “Continal, get us back to Blacksun Base, top speed.”

Yes, Lancer.” The transport was already in motion before he finished speaking. She took Candini’s seat next to Lhyn, while Micah sat on the other side of Captain Serrado.

“My apologies, Lhyn. We were interrupted earlier. You were saying something about translators?”

Lhyn gave her a rueful smile. “No need for an apology; it’s not as if you don’t have a few things going on. But yes, Ekatya is getting a little tired of depending on translators, even if one of them is me. She thinks highly enough of Alsean medtech to ask your healers to perform a simple cranial surgery on her and her crew.”

Tal wasn’t sure she’d heard that right. “A cranial surgery? For what?”

“To put an Alsean language chip into their nodes. Your healing medtech is ahead of ours, but we’ve gotten very good at cybernetics. We’ve developed a way to interface between the brain’s language center and an artificial language database. The node is the physical interface; it sits up against the skull right here.” She pointed just behind her ear. “The skull plating is very thick here, and it’s protected by the ear. Anyway, the node—well, it’s actually a lingual implant, but everyone calls it a node—is really just the hardware. The language chips are the important part. They hold the database and the software that enables translation.”

“Then the translator Captain Serrado was using is a crude form of what you carry in your heads?”

“No, not at all. Nothing I do is crude.”

Tal smiled. Coming from Lhyn, that was a statement of fact. She couldn’t detect any untoward pride, just certainty. “Let me restate. If her translator is similar to these…nodes, why is it so much larger?”

“Because it needs a vocal interface and sound amplification. That’s a whole different hardware system. Nodes can be much smaller because they only need to interface with neural bundles. The language chip itself is tiny. I could fit ten of them on my fingertip.”

“And that’s why you speak fluent High Alsean? Because you have one?”

Of all the ways that she might have caused offense, she would not have expected this to be it.

“I don’t have a node, Lancer Tal. My language skills are my own. And even if I did have a node, it would only account for two languages. I speak thirty-eight fluently and can get along quite well in fifteen more.”

After a momentary failure of her own language, Tal managed to say, “You have a gift from Fahla herself.”

Mollified, Lhyn settled back in her seat. “I don’t know about Fahla, but it certainly is a gift. It’s why I do what I do. Learning a language can’t be separated from learning a culture, not if you want to get it right. And I have to tell you, I loved learning High Alsean. It’s musical and one of the most elegant languages I’ve ever run across. You make Common sound almost harsh.”

“I would say thank you, but since I had nothing to do with it…”

“Actually, when I said you, I meant you personally. There are a lot of regional accents and dialects across Alsea, but every time I listened to you on a broadcast, I thought your phrasing and pronunciation should be standardized. And now I do believe I have embarrassed the Lancer of Alsea.”

Putting a hand to her warm cheek, Tal said, “Perhaps a little. But thank you for giving me something to be vain about.”

They shared a smile before Lhyn said, “Anyway, it turns out that while the node’s hardware is capable of handling any number of languages, the average Gaian brain isn’t. Every additional language exponentially increases the complexity of the connections, because it’s not just the knowledge of the language being sent, but also the neural signals for physical speech. After two languages, signals start getting crossed and you end up with errors. And because this isn’t organic knowledge, the person having issues doesn’t even realize it.”

“That makes sense. You referred to a language called Common before. I assume that’s a universal trade language?”

“Exactly. Which means most Gaians speak at least three languages: their native tongue, Common, and a third of their choosing. What Ekatya and Commander Baldassar want to do is pull out their second language chip and replace it with an Alsean chip. I can program the chips, and Ekatya asked her engineers to salvage the equipment from her ship. So once things calm down a little bit, we can show your healers how it all works and they can replace the chips.”

“Remarkable. And quite an advantage for a space-faring species.”

“It’s a huge advantage, though of course I find three languages rather limiting.”

Tal smiled. “I believe you.”

“Speaking of limiting, I haven’t had nearly enough time to ask you questions. Do you mind…?”

“Not at all. Now is a good time, actually. We can’t do anything else until we arrive at Blacksun Base. Ask away.”

“Great.” Lhyn sat upright, drilling Tal with the force of her attention. “First question: what is a front?”

“Ah, yes, you asked this once before. It’s an emotional block. One of the first things a high empath is taught is how to front her emotions from others. The second thing we’re taught is how to break through the fronts of others less strong. So you can imagine that there’s considerable incentive to develop a strong front.”

Lhyn’s eyes were wide. “I certainly can. Do only high empaths have this ability?”

Tal had to think about how to answer this one. “It’s not that we’re the only ones to have the ability. All adult Alseans have a front, but not all of them can attain any real strength with it. I have what we call a perfect front, which means that no one with a lower empathic rating can break it. If I don’t wish others to know what I’m feeling, they won’t. Gehrain also has a perfect front, as do most of my Guards, and since they’re chosen in part for their empathic strength, they’re fairly impervious. And all healers must have perfect fronts.”

“Oh! I hadn’t thought about that. Yes, I can see where that would be necessary. How fascinating.” Lhyn considered for a moment. “I can also see where it could be necessary for certain warriors to have perfect fronts. Anyone working on a covert mission, for instance.” At Tal’s nod, she continued, “And besides the healers, there must be any number of scholar caste professions requiring that ability. Lawyers and adjudicators. Mental healers. Negotiators…so this is why you shunt the high empaths into the warrior and scholar castes.”

“It is. But as you’ve seen, the result is not ideal, despite all of our laws mandating caste equality.”

“Yes, I’ve seen it. But you said adults. Children don’t have fronts?”

Tal shook her head. “That’s one of the things we love about them. There’s a tremendous innocence in being so open with one’s emotions.”

“Do you think of us as children?”

“I…” Tal hesitated, trying to think of a diplomatic way to answer, and was startled at the burst of satisfaction from Lhyn.

“I knew it! This is so intriguing. Of course you would, none of us have any fronts at all. We must seem like a strange mix of children and technologically advanced adults.”

“That’s an excellent description.” Tal gave up on diplomacy; Lhyn didn’t need it.

“Can you stop sensing emotions if you don’t want to? I mean, doesn’t it get overwhelming being around us when we can’t control ourselves?”

Amused, Tal said, “You haven’t felt overwhelming until you’ve been in a Council session. One hundred and eighty Alseans, only a fraction of whom are high empaths, and most of whom get emotional at some point or another. Some of them exceptionally so. Yes, I can block what comes in as well as what goes out.”

“Are you blocking us now?”

“There’s no need. You’re not feeling anything I would want to block. And it does take effort, so I’d rather not if I don’t have to.”

“Have you ever blocked us?”

“Yes.”

Lhyn waited impatiently.

“Well?” she asked, as Tal remained silent. “When?”

“When Captain Serrado learned you’d been found alive.”

Lhyn’s posture changed along with her emotions, but all she said was, “Ouch. I walked right into that one.”

Tal inclined her head, giving the Gaian time to recover.

“I just realized something,” Lhyn said. “We’ve known you for less than one day, and yet you know us better than almost anyone else in our lives. In the important ways, I mean. And in some ways I think you might understand Ekatya better than I do.”

“There is a great deal of truth in emotions. Why do you think high empaths spend so much time learning to front them?” Tal asked wryly. “Those who can hide the truth often have an advantage over those who cannot. But at the other end of the scale, the trust involved in openly sharing emotions is a gift that separates true friends from false, family from strangers, and bondmates from lovers. That you and Captain Serrado share so freely with me…” She paused, trying to find the right words. “Even though you’re not choosing to do it, I can’t help but receive it as a gift. It implies a trust that I’m compelled to return. I listened to Captain Serrado’s emotions last night because it was tactically sound. I stopped when it became an invasion of her privacy.”

“Shek,” Lhyn said. “We need those language chips. Ekatya should be part of this conversation.”

“I look forward to that.”

“So does she. I’m quite shocked that she’s allowing your healers to do the procedure. That says a lot about how much she wants to communicate with you directly. Of course,” she added with a smile, “it may also have something to do with the fact that my physical science and engineering knowledge is a tiny bit behind my cultural understanding.”

“With fifty-three languages packed in there, I hardly see how you have room for anything else.” Tal enjoyed Lhyn’s amusement, then realized they had arrived at the outskirts of Blacksun. She held up her hand, stopping Lhyn just as she was opening her mouth, and said, “We’re halfway to the base. It’s my turn.”

“But…” Lhyn’s posture slumped. “I suppose that’s fair.”

“How would your ship produce enough glass to repair every window in this city?”

“Now you really need Ekatya. I’m sorry, Lancer Tal, I don’t know how it works. I just tell it what I want and wait for it to appear.”

“Appear?”

“We call them matter printers. They convert matter from one form to another, and then print it in whatever pattern we ask for. Within the limitations of what’s programmed into the system, that is.”

“Where does your source matter come from?”

“Er…it has something to do with our sewage and recycling? Really, you’re out of my range here. You’ll have to ask Ekatya. I wish I could be more helpful.”

“That’s all right, you’ve already confirmed my theory. It’s a fascinating technology.”

“I guess it is.” She shrugged. “It’s such a normal part of my life that I don’t really think about it.”

Tal could only imagine what other miraculous technologies were merely a normal part of her life. Speaking of which…

“How do you travel faster than light?” she asked. “According to our scholars, that’s an absolute speed limit.”

“Okay, that’s it.” Lhyn got up from her seat and pointed at it. “You sit here.”

Tal stared at her, and a moment later Lhyn’s cheeks reddened.

“Right. Let’s pretend I didn’t just say that. Lancer Tal, if you wouldn’t mind taking my seat, I’ll act as a bridge between you and Ekatya, and you can ask her these questions.” She stepped into the aisle and crouched down, holding an armrest for stability, and looked over at Tal expectantly.

Hiding her smile, Tal switched seats. “Does Captain Serrado know that she’s about to be bombarded with questions?”

“Not yet.” Lhyn held a quick conversation with the captain, who appeared happy to oblige. She leaned toward the aisle, an expectant look in her dark blue eyes, and said something to Tal.

“She says ‘missiles away.’ Which means—”

“I think I’ve got that one by inference,” said Tal. “And I’m asking her the same question I just asked you.”

“Oh. Sorry, hold on.” Lhyn spoke a single question in her language, and the captain looked thoughtful. Behind her, Commander Baldassar said something. His face was carefully blank, but Tal could sense his disapproval. She guessed that FTL technology came under the category of things not to be discussed with backwards aliens.

The captain responded without looking at him, and his disapproval deepened. Tal kept her own expression blank, but she was enjoying the byplay. Then Captain Serrado gave quite a long answer, which made Lhyn’s forehead crease.

“I’ll start with the caveat that you’re going to want to repeat this conversation once Ek—Captain Serrado has her Alsean chip in,” she said with a quick glance at Baldassar. “Or with Commander Kameha; he’s her chief engineer. But she says to tell you there are actually two methods of FTL travel. The first is what we call surfing. We have a drive that compresses the fabric of spacetime in front of the ship, while expanding it behind the ship. The ship rides the differential between the compressed and expanded parts of spacetime, like a surfer rides a breaking wave.”

“But how do you avoid the consequences of breaking the speed limit?” Tal asked. “It shouldn’t be possible.”

“I hadn’t gotten to that yet. The trick is that the ship itself stays in normal spacetime. It’s protected by a bubble that keeps the altered spacetime outside. So even though the bubble is traveling faster than light, the ship and the people in it are not. Did that make sense to you? Because it didn’t to me.”

Tal chuckled. “It did, actually. How is the bubble produced?”

“Lancer Tal, there are limitations to my translation abilities, and that question goes right past them. You really have to wait until you can speak to the captain directly. But she did say that the shape of the bubble affects how much energy it takes to create it, and that’s one of the reasons our ships are shaped the way they are.”

“One of the reasons?”

“Right. The other reason has to do with the second method of FTL travel, which isn’t really FTL travel.” She saw the expression on Tal’s face and grinned. “This is what you get for asking an anthropologist about propulsion theory. I did warn you.”

“Yes, you did. But I’m impatient.”

“Let me just make sure I have this right.” Lhyn held another conversation with the captain, and Tal was interested to see Commander Baldassar drawn into it despite himself. He may have disapproved of sharing FTL tech with Alseans, but apparently he couldn’t stand the idea of inaccuracy in the data being passed on.

Lhyn shook her head as she turned back. “At this rate I’m going to need a headache med. There are different layers of space, and what you see when you look up is just the top layer. That’s the part we need FTL propulsion for, because the distances are so vast. But if you can get below that into the base layer, you don’t need—”

Tal’s wristcom vibrated, and she held up a finger to stop Lhyn. There was only one person who should be on this frequency right now, and she didn’t think Tesseron would be calling with good news.

Lancer Tal, we’ve got a problem.”

Switching the sound output to her wristcom, she held it near Lhyn and asked, “What kind of problem?”

Lieutenant Candini is losing flight controls. She doesn’t know why and says they should be in perfect condition, because she tested them during her preflight check. But they’re not responding properly.”

And at four times the speed of sound, any play at all in the flight controls could mean one of the fastest deaths in Alsean history. She watched Lhyn translate to Captain Serrado and asked, “Is it a speed issue?”

She doesn’t think so. We’ve already slowed to the speed of sound and the situation is not improving. In fact, it seems to be getting worse. We’re going to have to land.”

“Where?”

I think we can make Port Calerna.”

The southern edge of Argolis, then. That left a wide swath of ocean and half of Pallea between the weapons on that fighter and the ground pounder. “Hold,” she said, and turned to Captain Serrado. “I don’t suppose your weaponry can be easily removed from the fighter?”

Lhyn translated, and the captain shook her head as she answered.

“No, it’s too integrated. Wait, Commander Baldassar is offering to fly another fighter out.”

“We don’t have time. We’ve already lost seventy ticks.” And it would be at least another forty or fifty ticks before they could get back to the Caphenon, send Baldassar up the ladder, and launch another fighter. No, they would have to use the assets they had on site.

“She says the same thing. Lancer Tal, what do we do now?”

I have no idea, was Tal’s first thought. And though she knew the question had been Lhyn’s, it was the captain she faced as she straightened her spine and said, “Now we come up with another plan.”





Chapter 24

Battle strategy


At any other time, Ekatya would have enjoyed a tour of this base. It was magnificent from the air, with a huge dome at its center and paths radiating out to smaller domes, an airfield and hangars, exercise fields, a shooting range, and other areas she didn’t know the purpose of. Several paths led straight to the forest surrounding the base, where they vanished under the trees.

But a tour was the furthest thing from anyone’s mind right now. Candini had managed to land safely at Port Calerna, which was about the only good thing Ekatya could say for the whole evening. While her pilot was out of danger, two hundred and fifty Alsean warriors were now in dire straits, almost certain to be wiped out unless somebody could come up with a miracle. And once they were off the board, there was nothing standing between that ground pounder and the nearest city.

On top of that, her ship had unexplained damage to the hullskin and Candini’s fighter had unexplained damage to its flight controls. The fighter had operated perfectly on its last flight, and Candini would surely have noticed anything amiss in her preflight check. But the fighter bay had been breached during the battle, and Ekatya had a bad feeling about what that added up to.

They’d landed in a bricked spot removed from the airfield and close to the main dome. The Guards had spread out toward the smaller domes, which Ekatya assumed were the barracks, but she’d had no time to ask. Colonel Micah had taken over her chair and was pushing it at a great clip toward the main dome, while Lhyn jogged beside her. Lancer Tal was leading the way effortlessly despite her shorter legs, and next to her was Commander Baldassar.

They entered the dome through an arch topped by a stylized pair of crossed swords, passed briefly along a high-ceilinged, curving corridor with artwork in recessed alcoves, then turned down a short side corridor which ended at a lift. Lancer Tal pressed her palm to the biometric lock and stepped inside the moment the doors opened. Colonel Micah pushed Ekatya in, and Lhyn and Baldassar filed in last.

As the doors closed, Lancer Tal spoke to Lhyn.

“She said she’s sorry for the rush. This is her second home, and she wishes you could see it properly, rather than going straight to the deepest, darkest corner of it.”

It did seem as if they were going to a bunker.

“Her second home?” Ekatya asked. “Where’s the first?”

The lift arrived at its destination, opening onto another corridor with much lower ceilings. They started down it as Lhyn conferred with the Lancer.

“She really is part politician and part warrior. Half the time she lives at the State House, which would be our equivalent of a presidential palace, and the other half she lives here. Besides governing Alsea, she’s the commander of this base.”

“How on Gaia does she find the time?” Ekatya muttered. “Don’t translate that.”

“I thought Colonel Northcliff was in charge of this base,” Baldassar said. “Isn’t that who assigned the copilot for Lieutenant Candini?”

“I’d guess Northcliff is your counterpart—in charge of the base when the Lancer isn’t here, and taking care of most of the day-to-day work even when she is.”

“That make sense,” he agreed. “If this is the base that houses the world leader, then there’s a lot of prestige associated with being second-in-command. Probably more than being full commander of a smaller base.”

“Am I supposed to be asking the Lancer about this?” Lhyn asked.

“No, don’t bother.” They’d arrived at another set of doors, watched over by two well-armed Guards, and Ekatya guessed they were about to see a war room.

Lancer Tal pressed her hand to the lock and stepped through. As Colonel Micah pushed Ekatya in, she saw three Alseans standing up from their chairs on the far side of a long, curved table. The two women wore uniforms matching that of Colonel Debrett, while the man was in a rather showy outfit of tight pants and an embroidered shirt. All of them offered the two-fists-to-the-chest salute, though Ekatya noticed that the man’s salute seemed slightly less respectful.

Once they were all inside, she could see that the table faced a bank of viewscreens, most of which were showing flight footage from various transport cams. In the center, the two largest screens were taken up by the now-familiar face of Colonel Debrett, and what appeared to be a map tracking the progress of the fleet. At the top corner of the tracking map was a countdown, which Lhyn confirmed was the estimated time until the ground pounder hit the next town. It was currently at one hundred and four ticks.

Lancer Tal spoke with the three new Alseans while gesturing in turn at Ekatya, Baldassar, and Lhyn. Ekatya missed a language chip more than ever as she listened to their names being pronounced and realized that it was the only thing she was going to understand in this entire meeting.

Next came the introductions of the Alseans, with Lhyn translating after each one. The lean, dark-skinned woman was Colonel Northcliff, confirmed as commander of this base. The stockier woman with pale skin and short hair was Colonel Razine, head of the Alsean Investigative Force. And the man, with shoulder-length graying hair and shrewd eyes, was Prime Warrior Shantu, a member of the High Council and the most powerful warrior on Alsea after Lancer Tal. Ekatya thought she might have figured out the respect issue upon learning that. As Lhyn had told her earlier, every caste head was not just on the High Council but also the highest authority in the caste—except for the warriors and scholars, whose ultimate leader was the Lancer if one of their caste held the title. Ekatya would have bet a month’s pay that Shantu had been a candidate for Lancer when Tal was elected.

They settled at the table, with Lancer Tal at the center. Colonel Micah pushed Ekatya in next to her and then sat on the Lancer’s other side. Lhyn slid in next to Ekatya, and Baldassar took the next chair, making it easier for Lhyn to handle the translation duties. The other three warriors ranged themselves beside Colonel Micah.

Ekatya glanced over the Alseans, who surely represented the powerful elite of this culture. Lancer Tal was the smallest figure among them, dwarfed by the bulk of Colonel Micah and outweighed even by the slender Colonel Northcliff. But she radiated confidence and authority, and the high-collared crimson jacket of what looked like a formal uniform set her apart from the other military officials. Her blonde hair shone against the red, and when she turned her head, her light blue eyes seemed to look right through Ekatya until she faced forward again and spoke with Colonel Debrett.

Lhyn whispered an explanation. “She’s asking him if he’s brought the others up to speed. He says yes, including the ground pounder’s shield tech. Now they’re talking about our fighter; Shantu wants to know if it could be slung under a super cargo transport and shipped over.”

“Not enough time,” Ekatya said in a low voice. “And even if we had time, something that unwieldy would never get close enough to the ground pounder for Candini to get off a shot. They’d both be blown out of the sky.”

“That’s what Lancer Tal is saying.”

The Lancer turned to Ekatya and spoke, then waited for the translation.

“She says we need to start all over, which means full details on the ground pounder. Weaponry, power source, how it moves, everything. Stars and Shippers, I wish you had those language chips already. This is not my field.”

“I know. Don’t worry; just do the best you can.” Ekatya caught Baldassar’s eye. “Feel free to jump in if I miss anything.”

“But jump slowly,” Lhyn said. “And please don’t use your biggest and most technical words.”

Ekatya faced Lancer Tal and the others. “Starting with weaponry, you’ve seen three of the four types it carries. The rapidgun fires projectiles about this size, and the magazine holds fifty thousand of them.” She held her fingers eight centimeters apart and waited for Lhyn. All of the Alseans looked startled, though she wasn’t certain if they were reacting to the cartridge size or the quantity. Colonel Debrett said something that had the others nodding.

“He says that must be what was used on the houses along the river before the ground pounder got to the village.”

“We didn’t see that footage. But the bullets are designed for maximum disruption, both to living beings and property. They have vertical cuts at the top so that when they hit, the metal peels back.” Again she demonstrated while Lhyn spoke. “That means the force of impact is much greater, and it tears big holes through anything it hits.”

Lancer Tal spoke and held up her hands, making a circle with fingers and thumbs. Needing no translation, Ekatya nodded. “Yes, about that big.”

“Damnation! They shoot people with those?” Lhyn had forgotten her role and was staring at Ekatya with wide eyes. “That would blow bodies apart!”

“That’s exactly the point,” Baldassar said from behind her. “They’re not interested in survivors, Dr. Rivers. They’re interested in eliminating resistance.”

Lhyn looked sick. “This is why I’m in anthropology. Sorry, keep going.”

Ekatya moved on to the missiles, explaining that they used an artificial intelligence to stay on target.

“Not thermal scanners?” Lhyn asked after Colonel Micah said something.

“No, those can be too easily confused. The AI just needs to be shown its target and after that, there’s no escaping it. The only way to get rid of one of those missiles is to shoot it out of the sky.”

This seemed to confirm something for the Alseans, who nodded their heads and spoke amongst each other.

“They’re saying that explains why a decoy didn’t work.”

“No, it wouldn’t. But that was a smart idea under difficult circumstances. I was impressed with the cargo pilot’s instincts. Please tell them that.”

They all looked pleased, and Ekatya mused that warriors were the same the galaxy over. Compliment someone they were commanding, and they took it personally. She was the same way.

When she told them that the ground pounder carried fifty missiles, an almost palpable pall settled over the room. Judging by their expressions, they had just realized what she already knew. The ground pounder could take out half the fleet of aircraft currently converging on it, as easily as pressing a button. She waited for that to settle before moving on to the laser cannon.

“Its greatest tactical advantage is its nearly infinite power supply. So long as the ground pounder is mobile, the laser cannon will work, even after all of the bullets, missiles, and mortars have been fired. And unlike the other weapons, which are all designed for maximum destruction, the laser cannon is a precision instrument. It has a narrow beam, meaning it will slice through a target rather than blow it up.”

After Lhyn had translated, Colonel Debrett wanted to know why, if that was the case, the laser had exploded trees along the river when it was firing at the rescue pilot.

“Because the beam superheated the water in the trees. The water flashes to steam, the steam expands, and boom.”

“Oh, stars,” Lhyn said, forgetting to translate. “People have water in them, too.”

Ekatya wished she could have spared her this. “Yes, they do. And yes, that’s what happens if the beam hits a person in the torso.”

“Or the head,” Baldassar added unhelpfully.

Lhyn closed her eyes for a moment, then swallowed and translated for the Alseans. They didn’t seem fazed, instead discussing amongst themselves the probable function for such a weapon.

“To dismantle infrastructure,” Ekatya said. “You want to collapse a bridge? Just cut out the supports. Make high-speed transit systems unusable? One slice through the tube or the tracks. And you can destroy a power station with a few well-placed shots.”

This was received with much head-nodding, and Ekatya had the feeling that Shantu, at least, was taking mental notes. He was clearly the type of soldier who loved weaponry for its own sake.

“That leaves the mortars. They’re designed for maximum explosive power, to burn and disintegrate. Mortars are what destroyed the village, and a ground pounder carries a thousand of them. So as you can see, a single ground pounder could easily destroy twenty villages like the one we saw, along with half of Whitesun’s transport fleet, and still have plenty of weaponry left.”

“I never knew any of this,” Lhyn said quietly as the Alseans conversed. “Holy Shippers, what an awful creation. No wonder the Voloth subdue native populations so easily. They just blow them out of existence. I don’t understand the minds that can bring this kind of evil into being, let alone go out there and use it.”

Lancer Tal asked a question, bringing Lhyn to attention. “She wants to know how it operates. Is it all artificial intelligence, or are there warriors running the systems?”

Yes, that was a rather important part of the equation. “Every ground pounder needs four crew members to run it: one pilot, two weapons specialists, and one systems engineer.”

For some reason, that seemed to brighten everyone’s mood. Ekatya guessed it was the familiarity of knowing there were living people inside it, rather than the whole thing being some monstrous, indestructible machine. People could be killed.

When they had quieted, she added, “Each of the weapons specialists covers two sides of the ground pounder, which is one of its only weaknesses. The specialists can easily track a target from one of their sides to the other, but handing off a target to the next chair isn’t seamless. There can be a second or half a second of delay.”

This inspired some excited discussion, with a request for her to illustrate exactly which corners were the transition points. Lancer Tal opened up her reader card, tapped an image of the ground pounder onto it, and showed Ekatya how to draw on it with her finger.

Ekatya quickly identified the rapidguns, mortar barrels, and missile launchers, along with a few other details and arrows pointing to the sides each officer would cover. Lancer Tal then uploaded the image to everyone else’s reader cards and to the hundred transports currently flying toward their target.

The next half hour was spent in a strategy brainstorming session, with various Alseans asking questions that both Ekatya and Baldassar answered as best they could, while Lhyn worked harder than any of them. With the countdown clock inexorably marking off the ticks, the stress soon climbed to unbearable levels. It wasn’t helped when the original cargo pilot called in to report that she’d located the rescue pilot. He had managed to blow his cabin release, but since his transport had been in a spiral at the time, the result hadn’t been pretty. While his crash collar had done its job, it could protect only his head and neck. The rest had not fared well, and he was barely alive. She had stabilized him as well as she could and was waiting for the backup squadron, which by now was just minutes away.

Not long after that, another pilot called in to report that he had all of the downed crew aboard and was headed for the healing center at Redmoon. The remaining transports in the squadron went into a holding pattern, waiting to rejoin the rest of the fleet.

The brainstorming resumed, but Ekatya felt a new edge in the room. She wasn’t surprised when, after being told yet again that an idea would not work, Shantu threw his reader card on the table and shouted something. She’d been expecting someone to break, and he was her first pick. Lhyn didn’t even try to translate, instead curling her good arm on the table and resting her head on it.

Baldassar looked over her bent back with concern. “This is very hard on Dr. Rivers. We should take a break before she starts losing her accuracy.”

“We should take a break before all of us start losing our minds,” Ekatya said, but the Alseans had a different idea. Lancer Tal said something to Colonel Debrett, who nodded and vanished from the screen. In his place was the video footage they’d seen in the hospital conference room.

Lhyn looked up and groaned. “I do not want to see this.”

“You don’t have to.”

“Yes, I do.” She pushed herself upright and watched, her face pale.

When the video ended a new discussion started, with much pointing at the screen. By now Lhyn was so tired that she translated only half of what she heard. Then Colonel Northcliff snapped something, and everyone sat back while the video was shown a second time. Ekatya was getting heartily sick of watching those two transports get blown out of the sky.

As the screen went dark, Lhyn said, “I have a stupid question.”

“I doubt it’s stupid, but ask away.”

“You said that the shielding covers its legs too, but if it does, why isn’t the water level showing that?”

“What?” Ekatya asked in confusion. From the corner of her eye, she saw Lancer Tal leaning forward to watch them.

“The water level should be reacting to the shield, shouldn’t it? I mean…” Lhyn used her fingers to imitate a ground pounder, resting their tips on the table. “Damn, I need two hands. Here, do this.”

Ekatya put her own fingertips on the table in the same formation.

“Thank you. When it’s standing in the current, the water should be rising up across the whole face of the shield, right? So we should see it doing this.” Lhyn laid a horizontal finger across Ekatya’s, representing the water level. “But what I saw was the water rising higher against the legs. Just the legs. In between them, it’s not changing.”

Ekatya’s jaw loosened as she stared first at Lhyn, then at Baldassar. He looked as shocked as she felt.

Lancer Tal spoke urgently, and Lhyn sighed. “She wants to know why you two are so stunned. I told you it was stupid.”

Ekatya couldn’t help herself; she laughed. “Great galaxies, you genius of a woman! You’ve just found a weakness nobody in the Protectorate Fleet ever thought of!”

“I did?”

Baldassar was smiling as well. “You did, Dr. Rivers. We believed their shields were always bubbles, like the shield of a ship. They certainly are when the ground pounders are dropped from orbit, because that’s what protects them through the atmosphere. But once they’re on the ground they can’t maintain that configuration, because the shield has to interact with the ground. Or in this case, the river.”

“If it were still a bubble, it would be digging into the ground and slowing the thing down,” Ekatya said. “So they must have designed it to adapt to the surface it’s moving over. It’s shifting up and down to keep drag to a minimum.”

“Meaning it’s just above the surface of the water,” Baldassar said. “That’s why the only thing disrupting the water surface is the legs.”

“Meaning that anything under the water can actually pass under the shield.” Ekatya could not believe she hadn’t seen it before.

“Okay,” Lhyn said slowly. “How exactly does that help? I mean, you can’t fly a transport under it.”

“No, but something smaller might go unnoticed.”

Lancer Tal spoke again, and this time her voice had the unmistakable crack of authority. Lhyn straightened and began to explain. When she finished, all of the Alseans looked at each other in silence, then burst into shouts and exclamations.

“Well, that’s got them excited.” Lhyn had perked up as well. “Can they really beat this thing?”

“They’ve got a far better shot at it than they did before your little stroke of genius.”

The video was put onscreen yet again, but this time Ekatya watched it with new interest, focusing solely on the ground pounder’s movement through the river. Sure enough, as it waded downstream, the water rose up against the legs but remained level elsewhere. When it stopped to fire at the transports, the current flowing past it clearly outlined the legs and nothing else. It was a tiny detail, one that a roomful of military experts had repeatedly missed, because they were all focusing on the battle, the weapons, the strategy. But Lhyn, bless her pacifist, detail-oriented soul, hadn’t wanted to watch the fighting. She’d paid attention to the small things.

It was always the small things, wasn’t it?

Colonel Debrett came back onscreen with a triumphant grin that was matched by everyone in the room, and the ensuing buzz of conversation had a sense of confidence that had been lacking before.

Ekatya thought of something. “Tell them that whatever they use, it can’t have a power signature. It has to be inert or close to it, or the ground pounder will detect it.”

Lhyn passed that on, and the Alseans got down to business. Within fifteen minutes they’d come up with a simple and elegant plan. Colonel Debrett had tapped the best engineer in his fleet, a weapons officer aboard one of the bombers, to pull a class five missile and rig it for a radio-controlled remote detonation. That bomber and three others would fly far enough downstream to escape detection and give the warriors time to carry out their mission. They would lower the missile and their weapons officers, all four of whom would be needed to guide the heavy missile into the water and set it on the riverbed.

There wasn’t enough time to pick the warriors up again. Two of them would have had to stay behind anyway, one as a spotter and one to operate the detonator. But while Ekatya would have agonized over risking four of her people when only two were necessary, the Alseans seemed to feel this was just more glory to share around.

Lancer Tal activated some sort of holographic display on the floor and populated it with orbital map data of the river canyon in three dimensions. The same map appeared in two-dimensional form on one of the large viewscreens, with a blinking yellow dot indicating the current location of the ground pounder on both maps. It was alarmingly close to the next village. Debrett said the village had been evacuated, but Ekatya couldn’t help worrying. In her experience, evacuations were rarely complete.

After a flurry of discussion and much pointing at the holographic map, the Alseans determined that the ambush site would be just before a curve in the river, where the high canyon walls would enable the warriors to conceal themselves from both visual and thermal detection.

To give the scheme its best chance of success, the Alsean fleet would launch a full attack as the ground pounder approached the missile’s location, diverting its attention both from the hidden warriors and the minuscule power signature of the battery in the remote detonator. Ekatya thought it probable that if the ground pounder’s shielding was constantly flaring with energy from a bombardment, the battery’s power signature would be lost in the electromagnetic noise.

With the plan finalized, Ekatya sat back in relief while Lancer Tal spoke directly to the warriors nearing their destination. They’d run out the clock long before, and had been instructed to greatly reduce speed in order to delay their arrival. Upon hearing their new orders, they set up such a roar of approval that the room rang with it. Even Lhyn smiled.

Now began the hard part: waiting. There was nothing else anyone could do from here; it was all up to the Whitesun fleet. So they sat amid a low hum of conversation as the Alseans spoke with each other and occasionally with the Gaians, and everyone marked time while the weapons officer worked on the missile conversion. Lhyn was uncharacteristically silent, not translating the more general chatter and not interacting with Ekatya or Baldassar, either. She seemed to have mentally withdrawn, and Ekatya was unable to help.

It was a relief when Candini called in, giving Ekatya something to do that she actually had control over. The pilot had been busy dealing with the locals, getting her fighter towed in to a hangar, and going over it with a fine-toothed comb.

I’m glad you sent me off with an Alsean copilot,” she said. “Tesseron’s been invaluable. I don’t think I would have fared so well if it had just been me dropping in on these people, but he got everyone lined up and hopping. Must be that pilot panache; it’s universal.”

“So I’m told…by pilots. I think the Lancer’s direct order for cooperation might also have had something to do with it. But I’m more concerned about your inspection, Lieutenant. Did you find the problem?”

Yes and no. I found it, but I don’t understand it. It’s the hullskin, Captain. It’s showing the same type of damage as the Caphenon. It’s not nearly as bad—actually it’s hard to see—but I would swear it was perfect when we did the preflight in the fighter bay. The flight controls were as smooth as an ice cube on a hot body. Now they’re jammed up with tiny flakes and deformed hullskin. Besides that, the airflow over the wings has been disrupted. We probably wouldn’t have noticed at lower speeds, but at the rate we were going, small problems turn into big ones.”

That was for damn sure. “Do you think this is related to the issues you had piloting the Caphenon down?”

I’m really wondering about that. I thought it was weapons damage that kept the hullskin from forming the atmospheric flight extensions, but this makes more sense. It’s like high-speed metal oxidation, except hullskin isn’t metal. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say something is eating it.”

“That’s exactly what Commander Kameha said.”

Then we’re thinking alike. It’s the damnedest thing.”

“He’s looking into it right now. Maybe he’ll have some answers by the time we return to the Caphenon. In the meantime, get back here. I understand that your ride home has already been arranged.”

Yes, and this time Tesseron gets to fly. What’s happening with the ground pounder?”

“We have a plan. One of the military geniuses in this room came up with a weakness no one ever thought of.”

Really? One of the Alseans?”

“Dr. Rivers.”

Though Lhyn didn’t look away from the wall of viewscreens, Ekatya could see her smile.

Ha, fantastic! You never know about those science types, do you? What’s the weakness?”

“The shielding only goes to ground level.”

Okay. So what?”

“So this ground pounder isn’t on land. It’s in a river.”

I’m not…Oh! Holy Seeders, you’re going to mine it!” Candini laughed in delight. “So our high-tech solution is sitting on the ground with jammed flight controls, and you’re going to kill that thing with the technological equivalent of a rock. Never mind what I said about bringing slingshots to a gun fight.”

Lhyn sat up as a voice announced something, and made an urgent signal to Ekatya. “They’ve finished the missile modification.”

“We’re on, Lieutenant. Pray to your Seeders.”

Consider it done. Best of luck to the Alseans.”

Four of the viewscreens were now showing rapid flight footage, as the chosen bombers set out on their mission. On the larger tracking screen, four red dots separated from the rest and leaped ahead, soon appearing on both the holographic map and the two-dimensional one. They flew a wide loop around the blinking yellow dot indicating the ground pounder, rejoining the river some distance ahead and hovering in place.

Ekatya leaned forward, intent on the screens now showing video from the bombers’ landing cams. Three uniformed warriors came into view, each riding a cable down. The fourth screen showed nothing at first, but then the nose of a large missile slid out. Slowly it emerged, revealing itself to be taller than the Alseans.

The three warriors were already at the river’s surface and slid neatly into the water with hardly a splash. Two of them let go of their cable when they were waist deep, but the third ended up having to tread water. He swam toward the others and was soon able to stand. The bombers retracted their cables and swung away, looping back around to rejoin the fleet and leaving the last transport alone.

The missile was now halfway to the river. Its weight made the drop difficult; care had to be taken that no swing was introduced into its movement or the warriors waiting below would not be able to catch it safely. Ekatya found herself tensing as she watched, her gaze moving from one screen to another. A quick glance at the tracking screen showed that her urgent sense of time running out was inaccurate; the ground pounder was still three river bends away.

Finally, the missile reached the waiting hands of the warriors, who carefully leveled it out and unhooked the cable. It snaked back up, vanished into the aircraft, and reappeared not one minute later with the fourth weapons officer on it. She rode it down rapidly, landing next to the other warriors and taking her place at the tip of the missile.

Ekatya could imagine the physical difficulty of holding on to a heavy, wet, slippery missile while clambering over rocks in a river current. The warriors moved slowly, not wanting to risk one of them falling, and it took them several minutes to maneuver the missile to the position they’d chosen. Then they all sank under the surface.

Ekatya held her breath.

After what felt like too much time, one head popped up, then three, then a fourth. The warriors clambered back to the shallows and began hiking around the sharp bend of the canyon. They waved off the bomber, which retracted its cable and followed its compatriots.

At this point, everyone in the strategy room was effectively blind and deaf to the mission. Their last video contact had departed with the transport, and none of the warriors in the river would risk making a transmission that the ground pounder might detect.

All eyes were now on the holographic map and the baleful yellow dot closing the distance to the trap. The timing was critical. If the fleet arrived too soon, it would take heavy casualties trying to distract the ground pounder long enough. Arriving too late was even worse.

Now and again one of the colonels or Shantu would say something, but neither Lancer Tal nor Colonel Micah uttered a word in response. Eventually, the others gave up, falling into the same silent expectation that gripped Ekatya. She had always hated this part of a mission, when she had laid her plans, committed her people, and was reduced to the status of an observer. A battle of ships was much more to her liking, when she was fighting along with everyone else. She wondered how it worked with Lancer Tal. Did she ever see action as a warrior, or was she too high in rank for it? Given what she’d said about honor, it was possible that for Alsean warriors, no rank was exempt from fighting. She’d have to ask about it.

The ground pounder passed the last bend in the river.

Lancer Tal snapped out an order, and the tracking screen showed the entire fleet leaping forward. Within minutes they were in range, but still they held their fire. The ground pounder, not yet able to see or engage them due to the high canyon walls, continued its march. Closer and closer it came to the next bend, every incremental movement raising the tension in the room. Ekatya had been here many times herself, holding off until the right moment, but it was far more difficult to tolerate when she wasn’t the one giving orders.

A few minutes later she revised her difficulty rating upward. The ground pounder was now so close to the next bend that she was beginning to worry they might have waited too long, and her hands itched with the urge to give the order herself. She glanced at Lancer Tal, who seemed unnaturally still, her expression carved in stone as she watched the holographic display.

At last the Lancer spoke a single word.

The battle began.





Chapter 25

Battle of the ground pounder


The fleet had been divided in half, with the fighters charged with engaging the ground pounder while the bombers were assigned to eliminate the missiles it would fire. Both tracking displays showed a complicated ballet of fighters dancing back and forth across the canyon, while the bombers moved in a separate sphere outside them. The com came alive with voices, calling out status and location as the pilots fired on the ground pounder and then moved on, making room for the next attacker.

The second main screen was now rotating through the forward cam footage of each fighter on an attack run, as the pilot thumbed a switch giving its footage temporary priority in the system. Tal leaned forward, anxious to get her first look at the ground pounder in real time.

It was an ugly monstrosity, but it was also the most efficient, vicious killing machine she had ever seen. It reacted instantly to the attacks, firing out a never-ending stream of laser bursts and rapidgun bullets that were tearing the fighters apart. Not all of the pilots were as good as Modro had been, and most of them took hits as they strafed the river. They were also hampered by the canyon, which not only limited their approach path but also narrowed the range that the ground pounder needed to target.

But that wasn’t the worst of it.

Amidst the steady firing of its other weaponry, the ground pounder was launching missiles, one after another. The smaller viewscreens were showing missile tracks in the air, and the pilots were shouting warnings right and left. Every fighter that appeared over the canyon was marked and targeted, at which point it could only flee and hope the pilots on defensive duty would take care of it.

Most of them did. Some failed.

A red dot winked off the displays as a missile found its target. Then another. Then a third. Other pilots were reporting themselves hit by rapidgun or laser fire, but their lights stayed on, meaning the cabin itself was still intact. But every time a missile hit its target, a transport was disintegrated along with its pilot. They weren’t blowing their cabins in time.

Another red dot vanished.

“Dammit,” Tal whispered, clenching her hands into fists. “Get over the trap.”

The ground pounder hadn’t stopped moving, and she guessed its pilot was not liking the location. The high walls of the canyon may have made the fighters easier to target, but they also protected them once they were out of range, and kept the ground pounder from fully engaging the fleet. Those Voloth wanted to get out into a more open area, which meant that forward was the only option. But with warriors getting shot out of the sky, every piptick seemed too long.

One pilot managed to eject his cabin just before a missile hit, followed soon by another, and Tal’s hopes rose. Perhaps they’d lost all they were going to.

The thought had hardly crossed her mind when a fifth dot winked out. Just as the ground pounder reached the point where she thought the mine had been placed, two more dots went dark.

But then the river erupted into a geyser, the water shooting so far up that it breached the walls before falling back. A fat cloud of smoke billowed out, obscuring the cam of the fighter currently in the canyon.

As the system switched to the next cam, several voices shouted in victory.

They got it!”

It’s down! The shekker is down, kill it! Kill it!”

For Fahla and Alsea!”

A huge roar poured out of the com as every pilot repeated the battle cry. “FOR FAHLA AND ALSEA!”

The pilot now in the canyon slowed, giving Tal a good look. The ground pounder was indeed down, its square top partially submerged and at an angle. Large chunks were missing from its formerly intimidating structure, and she thought she could see a piece of it sticking out from the water some distance away.

“Yes!” She leaped to her feet, along with every other person in the room except Captain Serrado. She was gripping Micah’s arms in delight when a new voice came on the com.

This is Shankenthal, reporting from the river. The ground pounder has been disabled. Its legs are gone, the top is shredded, and the shield is down. It is no longer returning fire.”

“Confirm that it’s neutralized,” Tal ordered. “If we can salvage that tech and take prisoners, I want both.”

She’d barely gotten the words out when the pilot said, “Shek!” and threw his craft into a climb.

Correction, it is still weapons capable,” said Shankenthal. “The laser cannon just fired.”

Which meant the other weapons could still be online as well. The Voloth crew had probably been knocked senseless in the explosion, but if one was trying to get back on the job, there might be others. She looked at the faces on her team and saw their agreement. With an internal sigh at the loss of potential, she gave the order.

“Destroy it.”

There was a whoop as the next pilot dropped into the canyon and flipped on her cam. “Time to finish the job,” she said, sounding cocky as only a pilot could. “Eat this, you pile of dokshin!”

The laser cannon was indeed firing, and the pilot rolled one way and then the other before releasing two missiles in quick succession, setting off explosions that were even more spectacular than the first. Without the dampening effect of the water, these missiles connected directly, lighting up the canyon with a fireball that pulsed once, twice, then swept up the walls to blow itself out in the sky above. When the smoke cleared, the ground pounder had been reduced to a pile of rubble.

As cheers and chants filled the com, Tal exchanged arm grips and palm touches with her strategy team. When she turned to Captain Serrado, she paused at the unfettered joy emanating from the Gaian. Serrado may not have been Alsean, but she was just as invested in this battle as they were, and her triumph was just as fierce.

“Well done, Captain,” Tal said, holding up her hand. As Lhyn translated, Captain Serrado gripped her hand firmly. “And Lhyn, if you ever think of making a home on Alsea, consider yourself invited to be a permanent member of my advisory team.” She held up her other hand, connecting with both women.

It was like completing an electrical circuit. The shock was both physically and mentally overwhelming, giving her instant access to their innermost emotions. This sort of intimacy was reserved for the closest of family and friends, and even then only on the most special of occasions. She felt like a criminal trespasser. It took an act of will to casually release their hands when her instinct was to drop them as if they burned. Pasting a smile on her face, she leaned over to offer a palm to Commander Baldassar, then turned back to her own team with relief.

There was so much yet to do. They had to tally up the casualties and damages, and get the injured to the trauma center in Redmoon if they could handle the longer flight time, or to Whitesun if they could not. A second fleet was needed just to handle the logistics of repairing the transports that could be made airworthy on site and towing out the rest. The base at Last Port was preparing for that duty, but would not launch until dawn, as there was little point in leaving so close to sunset. They also needed to clean up the remains of the ground pounder, though that was a last priority. A higher and far grimmer one was dealing with its depredations along the river. The local militia, which had been dispatched earlier to enforce the evacuation, now had new orders and a very long night ahead.

Tal’s euphoria sank rapidly under the weight of the aftermath as the numbers began appearing onscreen. The entire battle had taken less than five ticks. And in five ticks, they had lost seven fighters to total disintegration, nine more to damage so extensive that the pilots had ejected their cabins, and had a further twelve reporting damage serious enough to need onsite repairs. Of the thirty-two fighters that had engaged the ground pounder before the missile explosion, only four had flown out clean.

The fatality list took longer. There were transports scattered all over the landscape, and not every pilot had been able to report in after ejection. Com silence could mean unconsciousness, or it could mean death. The fleet had divided up coordinates and was chasing down transponder signals, lowering rescue personnel as fast as they could. Every report changed a number on the screen.

Eighty ticks after the battle, the count was confirmed: ten warriors had gone to their Return. With the deaths of all six crew on Transport WSC813 early that morning, the total fatality count stood at sixteen—a number that was certain to multiply by a factor of at least ten as the bodies were collected from the ground pounder’s path of destruction.

When the final count of warrior dead was announced, Tal felt a spike of misery from the Gaian side of the table and realized that she’d been sensing a gradual buildup since the battle’s end. She hadn’t consciously acknowledged it before, having neither the time nor mental energy to focus on it, but now it was too strong to be ignored. She turned to see Captain Serrado enfold Lhyn in her arms, soothing the scientist as she cried into her shoulder. Lhyn choked out something in her language and wept harder, her good arm sliding around the captain’s shoulders and holding on tightly.

“I thought Captain Serrado didn’t want Commander Baldassar to know of their bond,” Micah said in a low voice.

“That’s what she told me.” But a warmron? Here, of all places? They couldn’t have made a more public announcement of their status if they’d spoken to a journalist.

Tal was at a loss. She didn’t want to walk into this, but every eye in the room was now on the two Gaians and there was no way to carry on as if this weren’t happening.

She rose from her chair and stepped next to Lhyn’s, pausing while Captain Serrado said something. Lhyn nodded and lifted her head, her eyes streaming as she looked up.

“Lancer Tal,” she said in a tremulous voice, “I am so sorry. So sorry.”

Tal frowned. “For what?”

Lhyn shook her head, unable to speak, and instead pointed at the report screen. Tal followed her gesture, then realized the issue.

“You’re blaming yourself for our dead?”

Fresh tears flowed as Lhyn closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and visibly steeled herself. “I chose my team. I handpicked them. Interviewed all of them, made the final hiring decisions. The person who sold you to the Voloth…I brought him here. It was my mistake. Ek—Captain Serrado and her crew saved you from the worst of it, but at the cost of her ship and three of her crew, and now this. Ten dead in five ticks! Six more this morning. Shippers only know how many in that village, and those burned bodies…oh, stars, the children. I did this.”

Tal considered for a moment, then reached around, pulled her chair over, and sat in front of the distraught woman. “If you’re to blame, then I should be furious with you. Alsea has paid a terrible price to stop this invader, and you say the culprit sits in front of me now.”

Lhyn nodded, her grief acquiring a sheen of apprehension. Next to her, the captain and commander were radiating watchful protectiveness, though the captain’s was an order of magnitude stronger.

Tal held up her hand. “If you touch palms with me now, I can show you how I feel about your role in this. Do you have the courage to find out?”

Lhyn’s eyes widened as she looked from Tal’s hand to her face and back again. Straightening in her chair, she slowly reached out, making a tentative connection that Tal immediately solidified, intertwining their fingers and closing hers down. She waited until Lhyn reciprocated, then said, “This is my view of you.”

Without breaking their gaze, she projected her appreciation of Lhyn’s kindness and lack of judgment, her enjoyment of their conversations so far, and most of all her gratitude for the stroke of brilliance that had saved a lost cause this night.

Lhyn’s misery was rapidly submerged under a sense of wonder. Even now, the scientist inside was taking back control, reacting not only to the emotions being projected but to the fact of the projection itself.

“Incredible,” Lhyn whispered.

Yes, there she was.

“And true,” said Tal. “Emotions cannot be manufactured. There can be no lies in a physical connection like this. Alsea owes you a tremendous debt. You’re a scholar, not a warrior, and I know from your emotions that you’ve never been involved in an action like this. So perhaps you don’t understand what those numbers really mean. They mean that we have done the impossible tonight, with far fewer casualties than we had any right to expect. We vanquished a pitiless enemy, because you found the key. I am not furious with you, Lhyn. I’m grateful.”

“I believe you. I can feel it. It’s…it’s beautiful! And the implications for your culture—I’ve only been studying half of what you are.”

Sidetracked already, and Tal hadn’t even finished what she wanted to say. She tightened her grip, bringing Lhyn’s attention back to the moment. “As a leader, you must take responsibility for those who serve under you. But there is a difference between responsibility and fault. You may be responsible for the man who sold us, but what he did is not your fault. And you have done everything you could to repair the damage. It is enough.” She released their hands and added, “There is one more thing, and I want you to translate this.”

Lhyn nodded.

Raising her voice slightly, Tal said, “Until last night, we didn’t know there were others like us in the universe. So we don’t have words in our vocabulary to describe you. But we do have a word to describe an alien who weeps for Alsean dead.”

As Lhyn translated, Tal looked from her to the commander, then locked eyes with Captain Serrado. “We would use the same word to describe aliens who rejoice with us in our victory, a victory they helped make possible.”

Pausing again, she made sure that every eye in the room was on them before smiling at the Gaians. “We call them friends.”


* * *


And that, Micah thought, was why Tal was Lancer and Shantu was not. Only Tal could take a sticky cultural situation and turn it into a defensive political weapon. By calling the Gaians friends, in this room and after that battle, she had staked out a position that Shantu and the High Council would find difficult to assail. How could they justify a takeover of the Caphenon when its captain and commander had shared in tonight’s victory? And by pointing out that Lhyn Rivers had wept for Alsean dead, Tal had reframed her. No longer just an alien, she was now an ally with a demonstrated emotional connection to Alsea. Not even Shantu could be insensible to that.

When Tal looked up at him, he allowed the smile that had been tugging at his lips to come to the surface and gave her a slight nod. She nodded back, then spoke with Lhyn in a quieter voice before picking up her chair and returning it to its place. “Colonel Debrett,” she said as she stood behind the chair, “I know the rest of this operation is in capable hands. Tomorrow, when your pilots have returned and have had time to rest, I would like to address them personally. In the meantime, give them my thanks for their exemplary actions, and tell them that the spirits at the base commissary are free tonight.”

“That might make them happier than anything else you could offer,” Debrett said with a grin. “I should warn you that your office will be getting a big invoice.”

“I’ll be disappointed if it is not record-breaking.”

“Then I will tell them to do their best.”

“Tell them they already have.”

Debrett nodded, bid farewell to the rest of them, and disconnected. All but one of the other screens went dark shortly afterward, as did the holographic display. The only thing remaining was the tracking screen, now showing the locations of the downed transports and the current fatality list. Micah knew the numbers were going to increase by leaps and bounds as the night wore on and the militia continued their grisly duty. He felt sorry for those warriors, who had enjoyed none of the sense of victory from tonight’s battle, but were faced with the worst of the losses. But even they did not have the hardest job. That would go to the mental healers, who would be tasked with contacting next of kin as the bodies were identified. And Aldirk would have to help coordinate a state funeral for the warrior dead, as well as any civilian dead whose families wished to take part in the public pyre lighting.

Tal may have shut down the strategy room, but the repercussions of tonight’s battle would ripple across Alsea for a long time to come.

Colonel Razine stepped up and offered her forearm in farewell. “It was a good night’s work.”

“Yes, it was. May it never be repeated,” he said, gripping her arm.

“Words for Fahla.” Razine tucked her reader card in its pouch and looked over his shoulder at the Gaians. “That was quite a statement Lancer Tal just made. I suspect not everyone on the Council will agree with her.”

“Lancer Tal could say that water is wet and not everyone on the Council would agree with her.”

A knowing smile crossed her face. “True. And it would be difficult to argue that these aliens did not save our necks from the sword.”

Colonel Northcliff joined them and gripped arms with Micah as she said, “Not difficult, impossible. And I do find it ironic that the scholar saw what a roomful of highly trained warriors did not.”

“I for one am not enjoying that irony.” Shantu stepped up and offered his arm. “While I’m grateful to the Gaians for their help tonight, we should all be embarrassed by our failure.”

“We didn’t fail, Shantu.” Micah managed not to roll his eyes. “Or did you miss the part where we blew that ground pounder to dust?”

“A feat we needed alien help to accomplish. Does that not seem a failure to you?”

“Considering that the ground pounder was also alien, no.” Northcliff didn’t bother disguising her impatience. “Lancer Tal expected us to do our best, and we did. I doubt she was expecting omnipotence.”

“Don’t worry, Shantu,” said Razine. “Lancer Tal didn’t think of it either, so you haven’t lost any face.”

“That is not what concerns me. I am concerned by the fact that we have apparently developed a dependence on aliens. First we’re told we need them to fight off the next Voloth attack. Then we’re told we need them to fight off one single Voloth ground pounder. Then we find out that we didn’t need them at all, if only one of us had thought of the shield issue. But we failed to do so.”

“If you think we still don’t need them for the next Voloth attack, you’re not living on the same planet I am,” Micah said. “It took the entire Whitesun fleet and a carefully planned ambush to knock out just one of those things. What are we supposed to do against five hundred?”

“Shall we clear out the room and find better things to do?” Tal had joined them. “I hear an evenmeal calling my name. And Shantu,” she added, “the High Council meeting will be tomorrow, not tonight.”

“What? Why?”

“Because our only mechanical translator is still on its way back from Port Calerna, and our only living one is tapped out for the day. Lhyn Rivers is not capable of translating for the duration of a High Council meeting. She has done enough.”

Even Shantu had to admit the truth of that, and grudgingly accepted a delay until the next evening. Micah watched him offer a forearm to the Gaians on his way out, making the minimal nod toward courtesy and apparently incapable of summoning a smile.

“That is one ungrateful warrior,” he said.

“Indeed,” said Northcliff. “He takes caste pride to new heights.”

“There’s a difference between pride and arrogance,” Razine observed. “My first oath holder used to say it was the hardest lesson for a warrior to learn.”

“And some of us never do.” Micah watched Shantu depart with a swirl of his cloak, and wondered why the man had been so impatient to leave. Eager to get out of the presence of aliens, perhaps? But it was a politically inept move, when the smarter play would have been to ingratiate himself with the Gaians, or at least make the appearance of approachability. Then again, Shantu had never been a true politician.

“Speaking of warrior pride,” said Tal, “I’d be grateful if the press somehow found out about the part our Gaian friends had in tonight’s events. But it shouldn’t come from me. Or you,” she added, looking at Micah.

“That doesn’t leave many options,” Razine said. “Colonel Northcliff, would you like to join me for a well-deserved evenmeal out? Perhaps at a very public restaurant where our conversation might be overheard?”

“That sounds perfect,” Northcliff said. “Have you any place in mind?”

“Of course. Though we’ll need to change into dress uniform to make the proper impression.”

“Wouldn’t it be better to go straight from directing a battle in your current uniform?” Micah asked. “It would be more authentic.”

Razine arched a brow. “That is why you’re in charge of the Lancer’s security rather than the Investigative Force. In my line of work, appearances are half the battle. And this,” she swept her hand down her uniform, “is not the correct appearance to draw eyes and ears.”

“I didn’t think you were concerned about eyes. Just ears.”

“Ah, but where the eyes go, the ears follow.”

“Spoken like a scholar.” Micah couldn’t resist poking her just a bit.

But the smile she gave him was smoothly polished. “Of course. One cannot head the AIF with pure warrior instincts. Those who best fill this uniform carry a fine blend of warrior and scholar. Much like the uniform of the Lancer,” she added, turning to Tal. “At least, when it’s worn properly.”

“I shall assume you mean I’m wearing it properly,” Tal said with a smooth smile of her own. “But I think we’ve left our guests out of the conversation long enough. Colonel Razine, Colonel Northcliff, I wish you an excellent evenmeal and an even better evening of judiciously spread gossip.”

They moved toward the Gaians, where Razine and Northcliff said their good-byes before setting out for their next task of the evening. It occurred to Micah that for someone like Razine, the battle strategies never ended. They just occupied different guises and locations.

Upon learning of the High Council rescheduling, Lhyn Rivers showed her relief in the slackening of her posture, and Micah noted that her responses seemed to slow after that. He recognized the signs. She’d been running on willpower alone, and now that the need for action had been removed, her energy had drained away. It was quite a contrast to the captain and commander, both of whom seemed energized by the battle. Their eyes were bright and they followed every word with close attention. He had no doubt that if another ground pounder suddenly appeared, Captain Serrado and Commander Baldassar would be more than ready to reactivate the strategy room.

Tal suggested that they all move to the base’s formal dining room, where they could share a quiet meal before returning the Gaians to Blacksun Healing Center. This was met with general approval and the captain’s fervent statement that she was more than ready to be released from her leg case and the mobile chair. For some reason, her frustration made Micah like her more. As they left the strategy room behind, he puzzled over that until the answer came to him. Captain Serrado was acting like an Alsean warrior, chafing at any physical restriction and anxious to get back to duty. It almost passed belief that he could be walking beside an alien and find her behavioral patterns not only familiar, but easily recognizable as belonging to the warrior caste.

He wondered about the four Voloth crew they’d just blown to pieces. Did they have recognizable behaviors, too?

The memory of a burning village and charred bodies made him shake his head. Whatever the Voloth might have in common with Alseans or Gaians was negated by their barbarity. Perhaps their Seeder gods were an analogue to Fahla, but if so, their manner of worship was twisted beyond recognition. Surely Fahla knew this and had protected Alsea, making certain that the right ship survived last night’s battle.

And if that was the case, then learning about and befriending these Gaians wasn’t just good strategy. It was a moral requirement.





Chapter 26

Listening to a leg


“Are you ready?”

Ekatya stifled her first answer, which was Of course, you idiot, and merely said yes. Who wouldn’t be ready to get out of this leg case?

“Very good. This will not hurt.”

She watched intently as Healer Wellernal cracked open the case and lifted off the top half. He held up a hand and spoke.

“Please do not move your leg yet,” the translator said. “It will be another tick or two.”

Ekatya nodded, once again feeling unsettled by the contrast between the healer’s voice and the feminine tones of the translator. With male speakers she preferred Lhyn’s non-simultaneous translation, which was less jarring. But she was grateful to have the device at all, which was newly returned from its trip to the bottom of the continent and currently her only translation option. Lhyn was napping in her own room, having barely managed to stay awake through their dinner—or evenmeal, as the Alseans called it. Ekatya had never seen her so tired before, not even after an all-nighter working on one of her articles. She suspected that everything was crashing down on her all at once. Until the battle, Lhyn’s intellectual excitement had both fueled her and kept her distracted. She hadn’t really let herself feel. But seeing the footage of the burned village and watching the Alseans fight so courageously against an enemy they hadn’t even heard of until today—that had hit Lhyn in a place nothing else could. It had jarred her so far out of her comfort zone that she’d gone to the other extreme, feeling too much all at once. Ekatya had seen it before, in young officers getting their first taste of failure that bore real-life consequences. But Lhyn wasn’t an officer, and she wasn’t trained for battle.

She was also stubborn as a mule, insisting that she be woken for her own case removal. Ekatya was more than tempted to let her sleep the rest of the night and deal with her ire in the morning.

Healer Wellernal finished scanning her leg with a small, cylindrical device and put it back in his coat pocket. Then he rested his hand on her calf and closed his eyes.

Ekatya held back her question, managing with some effort to stay quiet until he opened his eyes again and smiled at her.

“Your leg has healed perfectly. You may lift it from the case.”

She hesitated, not ready to believe it could be that easy. But the healer was waiting, and with no effort at all she pulled up her leg and held it straight.

“Stars and Shippers,” she whispered as she turned it this way and that.

His smile broadened. “I must admit, it’s a rare treat to have a patient so appreciative of my work. Usually I hear complaints about how long it takes.”

“You won’t hear any such complaint from me.” Ekatya couldn’t have stopped the grin on her face if she’d tried. “This is phenomenal. There is no such medtech in all the Protectorate. Can I walk on it?”

“Please do.”

She slid off the bed, landing on her good leg and only gradually taking the weight on the other. Not even a twinge. She took a careful step, then another, and then walked around the room in delight. “I feel like I could run!”

“Do refrain from that. At least for another nineday. Walking is fine, climbing stairs is fine, but running would be too much right now.”

She pulled out the chair next to him and sank into it with a sigh of bliss. “I’m not a runner anyway. Can I climb a ladder?”

“Yes, within bounds of reason.”

“I’m guessing twenty decks is not inside those bounds?”

He shook his head. “Had I not known you were a warrior before, that question would have told me. I suppose you could climb twenty decks if you were to take it very slowly. But my preference would be that you limit yourself to four or five decks.”

“All right. I can make that work.”

He made a note on his reader card and tucked it back into its pouch. “Do you have any other questions?”

“Yes. What were you doing when you touched my leg after scanning it?”

“I was listening to it.”

Ekatya glanced at the translator, wondering if it had erred. “I’m afraid I don’t understand. You can listen to a body?”

The question seemed to amuse him. “I suppose it would seem odd to a sonsales race. Our healing is not all science and technology, Captain Serrado. Part of it involves using our empathic senses. We listen to what the body tells us, and the more powerful healers can use projection to aid the body in repairing itself. I listened to your leg, and it told me that it was whole and stable. The scanner said the same thing, but we never put all of our trust in scanners if we can help it. A second, more organic opinion is always best.”

Lhyn was going to burst a blood vessel when she heard about this.

“Just to clarify,” she said, “when you say projection, you mean projecting emotions?”

He nodded.

“So emotions can heal?”

“Of course. Do you mean to say that your healers don’t know this?”

She thought about the times her doctors had told her that attitude mattered. “I suppose they do, but not like this. It’s more of a general belief that a positive mental outlook can speed healing. We do know that the brain and body are capable of much more than we understand, but we can’t force them to do what we want. It only seems to happen subconsciously. And even then, it never takes the form of such accelerated healing.”

“If you don’t know how to direct and focus it, then naturally it would not work well, if at all. It would be like…” He paused. “Like starting the engine of a transport but never giving it the command to fly. The energy is there, but without direction it doesn’t accomplish anything.”

She smiled at him. “I appreciate your effort in coming up with an analogy I can understand.”

“When one is a healer, one must learn to communicate with warriors. We see you more than any other caste.”

“I can well imagine.” She still hadn’t gotten over Lancer Tal’s casual mention of nearly losing her leg in a sword fight. “Which are the other castes you see more often?”

“The builders and producers tend to get themselves in trouble more than the rest. Mind you, they’re not nearly so bad as the warriors. At the other end, the crafter caste hardly ever darkens our doors.”

“I’ll bet you love crafters, then.”

“I’m bonded to one,” he said, his expression warming.

“What does she do? Or he?” She added the last a beat late, remembering Lhyn saying that gender distribution in Alsean bondings was quite different from Protectorate norms.

“She’s a musician. She plays the long bells in the Blacksun Symphony.” When Ekatya looked blank, he said, “Here, let me show you.” Opening his reader card again, he tapped it a few times and held it out. “This is my bondmate and her long bells.”

She took it and stared in surprise. A slender, light-haired woman stood in front of a row of gigantic hanging tubular bells, the smallest of which was nearly as tall as she was. “Ah. We would call these chimes, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen any so large. They must have a beautiful tone.”

“Yes, you don’t play the long bells if you ever hope to have a portable instrument.” He chuckled at his joke and took the reader card back. “We had to build a separate room just for her to practice in. Fortunately, the Blacksun Symphony has its own set, so she doesn’t need to move them very often.”

“I would enjoy hearing her play.”

He grew somber at that. “You may get your wish. I understand that your three fallen warriors are being given a state memorial. Chrysaltin is often asked to play at such events.”

They sat in silence for a moment. Then he cleared his throat and said, “I am sorry to have brought up a disturbing topic. Perhaps we should move on to the next procedure.”

“There’s no need to apologize. But yes, please tell me your thoughts on the language chip.”

Kameha and Xi had been picked up at the Caphenon and returned to the base in time to join them for evenmeal, and Kameha had thought to include a few pads with their supplies. Among the files he’d collected were the schematics for the lingual implant, which the healers had pounced on with great interest. After an hour with the translator and Kameha’s help reading the schematics, Wellernal had come to Ekatya’s room to set her free from the leg case and discuss his findings.

“It’s a fascinating technology,” he said. “I would enjoy exploring it in greater detail with one of your healers. But based on the schematic, the only real need for a healer’s services is in the installation of the implant itself. Once it has been installed, and the neural connections and skull tissues have regrown, changing out the language chips is more of a mechanical operation than a medical one. I could do it for you right now.”

“If it’s that easy, why does it require general anesthesia? And we always have a headache for two or three days afterward.”

“I can only assume your healers use general anesthesia to keep you from moving during the procedure. Given the size of the chips and their connectors, and the sensitive neural connections to the implant itself, any movement during a critical time would have significant ramifications. However, we would use a temporary paralytic instead. It would serve the same function, but your recovery would be faster. As for the headaches, I can’t see any reason for the procedure itself to cause them. My guess is that they’re a physical manifestation of the effort your brain must make to adapt to a different set of neural instructions. And while I can make no guarantees, I believe we can alleviate that with a little empathic guidance.”

Ekatya could almost laugh. It just figured that these Alsean doctors could add “headache-free chip swap” to their list of miracles. After healing her broken leg in less than one day, what was a little headache?

“In that case,” she said, “I’d like to schedule a few procedures with you.” It looked as if she’d be waking Lhyn after all.





Chapter 27

A common language


Tal strode toward the arch of the healing center, its white marble lit brightly by the morning sun. She felt more like herself today, having caught up on her sleep at last. A dawn run had blown the last of the spinner’s webs from her mind and she was ready to handle whatever the day would bring—which, she thought grimly, was going to be a transport full of dokshin. Today they’d get the final fatality count from the ground pounder’s killing spree, and she’d have to make another public announcement. That was bad enough, but the worst part of her schedule was the two hanticks she would spend sitting in front of her vidcom with a list of names, calling the families of the warrior dead. Though that was normally the duty of the base commander, in this instance she, Aldirk, Micah, and Debrett all agreed that the call should come from the Lancer. The most common war cry in their history, for hundreds of generations, had always been “for Alsea.” These warriors were the first to actually die for that cause.

Last night’s schedule had been rearranged over evenmeal, when the Gaian engineers joined them. Commander Kameha had managed to open voice communication between the Caphenon and Lhyn’s ship, and was able to report that all of the evacuated crew had been accounted for. Tal had watched five cycles of age drop off Serrado’s face at that news, but the change in her emotions was even more profound. The undercurrent of anxiety that had been her constant companion dissipated, and when she decided that a return to her ship could wait until the morning, Tal understood what had been driving her. It made perfect sense, given that the captain had refused to be moved until she knew the status of the twelve crew still in her crashed ship. How much harder must it have been for her to be cut off from news of the thousand others who had evacuated?

Just before she’d gone to bed, Tal received notice from the healing center that the language chip installation was not only feasible, but would be done that night. This morning she’d learned that every one of the Caphenon’s crew had opted for the chip swap, so Lhyn had spent her evening burning language chips, while the healers spent half the night methodically installing them. And now Tal would be able to speak to Captain Serrado with no translator between them, living or mechanical.

Gehrain opened the door, and she stepped through to find a different healer waiting. The older woman bowed her head and said, “Well met, Lancer Tal. I’m Healer Graystone, next-in-charge of the healing center. Healer Wellernal sends his best and wishes he could be here to greet you this day, but he didn’t leave until night-four, after the final language chip installation.”

“Well met, Healer Graystone. And if anyone has earned a night’s rest, it’s Healer Wellernal. I suspect he’s had less sleep than any of us since the ship landed.”

“You suspect correctly. I had to throw him out.”

“And healers complain about warriors.”

“With excellent reason, I assure you. But it’s true that we rarely take our own prescriptions.” She stepped back, indicating the corridor behind her. “With the exception of the two patients who cannot be moved, all of the Caphenon crew are waiting in the east conference room.”

Tal thanked her and began walking in the direction of the conference room. “Since I’ve not heard otherwise, is it safe to assume that all of the chip installations went well?”

“They did,” Graystone said. “And a remarkable piece of micro-engineering that is, too. I’m hoping that since Lieutenant Hmongyon is still incapable of travel to her ship, she might entertain me with a discussion of how this technology works.”

“Does Captain Serrado know that you have plans for her crew?”

“Just the ones staying behind. Besides, since learning that they’re allowed to share information freely, and then being given the language to do so, it appears that our Gaian friends are eager to speak with us.”

“What a lovely thought,” Tal said.

Graystone left her at the conference room, and Tal asked Gehrain and Corlander to come in with her. The other Guards flanked the door.

Ten smooth faces looked up at her as she entered. She’d gotten somewhat used to the lack of facial ridges on the officers and Lhyn, but the four new Gaians in the room were a fresh reminder of just how different these aliens were.

Captain Serrado immediately stood to offer a palm. “Lancer Tal, well met,” she said in flawless High Alsean. “I can’t tell you how much I’ve been looking forward to speaking with you.”

Tal had not seen her smile that broadly before and couldn’t help matching it as they touched palms. “Well met, and I feel the same. I must compliment you on your accent. You sound like a Blacksun native.”

“I should hope so.” Lhyn stood to offer her own palm. “Those chips have my name on them. If they weren’t perfect, I’d be embarrassed.”

“I didn’t say they were perfect.” Tal waited for the disbelief to hit her senses before adding, “I’m joking.”

“I hate that I can’t tell when you are. You must have a giveaway, but I haven’t figured it out yet.”

“I have.” Serrado gave Tal a conspiratorial look. “Don’t worry, I won’t share. She’ll have to puzzle it out on her own.”

Tal was a little startled at this new version of Captain Serrado. Of course, she reminded herself, until now the captain hadn’t been in a normal state of mind or body. Now she stood straight, in a crisp uniform her engineers must have brought from the ship, and radiated an easy confidence that hadn’t been apparent yesterday. This was a woman comfortable with her power and long accustomed to wielding it.

Commander Baldassar stepped up next, holding out his palm. “Well met, Lancer Tal. It’s nice to hear your voice instead of the translator’s.”

“Hey. I’m insulted.”

“I meant the mechanical one, Dr. Rivers.”

“I’m still insulted.” But Lhyn was fooling no one, as the smiles in the room attested.

“Now that we’re all hearing and understanding Lancer Tal for ourselves, I think it’s time for some proper introductions.” Captain Serrado turned to the remaining crew members, who stood up with a scraping of chairs. “Lieutenant Candini, my best pilot.”

“At the moment, your only pilot.” Candini stepped forward and touched palms. “It’s a great pleasure to meet you for real this time, Lancer Tal.”

“For me as well. I’m glad you’re no worse for wear after your unexpected landing. And thank you for keeping my pilot in one piece.”

“Not a problem. Besides, Tesseron repaid me by taking care of everything once we landed, and he was good company on the flight back. I now know all about the superiority of the Blacksun Vallcats in wallball.”

Tal chuckled. “Then you’re equipped to make conversation with half the residents of the city and more than three-quarters of the warriors at Blacksun Base. Wallball is either a sport or a religion, depending on who you ask.”

Captain Serrado beckoned to the extremely short, well-muscled chief engineer and the taller young man beside him. “Commander Kameha and Trooper Xi, who helped hold the Caphenon together long enough to wipe out a Voloth invasion group.”

Tal touched palms with both of them, thanked them for their efforts, and turned to the last four.

“And this is my best weapons team, led by Warrant Officer Roris. They’ve won five out of my last six drills, and I think the only reason they didn’t win the sixth was because Roris was still recovering from the Palasian flu that day. Oh, and they also knocked a Voloth orbital invader out of your sky.”

The woman who stepped forward had pronounced musculature, short brown hair, and an easy smile. “It’s a pleasure to meet the person who took such good care of all of us,” she said, holding up her hand.

“It’s a pleasure to meet the team who helped save my people. Taking care of you was the least I could do.”

“May I introduce my team, Captain?” At Serrado’s nod, Roris indicated the tall, burly man with a haircut like Micah’s and said, “Trooper Torado. He had to be carried out yesterday, but your medtech is incredible.”

“I didn’t even get to add another scar to my collection,” Torado said as he offered his palm.

“Did you want one?” Tal asked. “I’m sure I can arrange something with the healers.”

“No, that’s all right. But thank you.”

Tal was amused by the difference between the warrior swagger he presented on the outside and the nervousness that poured through his touch. She suspected that weapons teams weren’t often included in diplomatic meet and greets.

The shorter man whose haircut matched Torado’s was introduced as Trooper Ennserhofen, and the white-haired young woman with colorless eyes was Trooper Blunt. Both of them gave every appearance of laid-back confidence, and both were just as tense as Torado. But by the time Tal had touched palms with Blunt, she’d made an interesting discovery. It wasn’t meeting the leader of a foreign world that made them nervous; it was being around Captain Serrado. They viewed her with an awe that seemed to leave them tongue-tied.

“Tell me,” she asked the team, “what was the weapon that took out that invader?”

It didn’t surprise her that Roris was the one to answer.

“A Delfin-class torpedo. It’s the biggest thing in our armory. But we were too close to Alsea by the time we got the Voloth’s shields down; we didn’t have time to take it apart with a series of torpedoes.”

Next to her, Torado picked up the thread. “We only had one shot at it, so we had to get that torpedo past the Voloth’s hull before it detonated. That way the entire yield would be inside the ship. And we wanted it inside the armory.”

“Right,” said Roris. “So we used the rail gun to punch an entrance hole for it.”

“A rail gun? That’s what our heavy artillery units use. Though I suspect our projectiles are smaller than yours.”

“We have different types,” Roris said. “Some are larger and carry explosives; some are smaller and used for penetrating hulls and armor plating. We needed the penetrative force, so we used a small one.” She held her hands apart to demonstrate the size. “It carries a small explosive as well, to widen the hole.”

“Let me make sure I understand this,” Tal said. “You punched a tiny hole through the orbital invader with your rail gun projectile. And then you hit that little hole dead center with a torpedo.”

All four of them nodded.

“Impressive accuracy. But wouldn’t punching a hole through the hull result in decompression? It seems as if that would blow your torpedo off target.”

“That’s why it had to be right behind the rail gun projectile,” said Ennserhofen. “The shockwave counteracts the decompression, but only for a piptick.”

“Yes, the timing has to be perfect,” Roris agreed, and they all nodded again.

Tal turned to Captain Serrado. “I see why they’re your best weapons team. That kind of precision must take an enormous amount of practice and effort to achieve.”

“We’ve been together for six stellar years,” Roris said proudly.

“Yes, I know those three so well by now that I can tell them apart by the smell of their—” Torado stopped and turned bright red.

Blunt elbowed him in the ribs. “You idiot,” she whispered.

The embarrassment wafting off all four of them was a sharp contrast to the barely stifled amusement of their crewmates, including the captain. Tal was having a hard time not laughing herself. Instead she clapped Torado on the shoulder and said, “Treasure that camaraderie. It’s worth everything.”

He ducked his head and nodded.

Stepping back, Tal said, “Alsea owes all of you a debt. You saved us from an enemy we would never have seen coming, and then you saved us from your own ship, at great personal risk. Any repayment we could make would pale in comparison to your deeds, but at the very least, I can get you more comfortable quarters for the duration of your stay. You’ve each been assigned guest officer quarters at Blacksun Base. I’d have preferred to house you in the diplomatic quarters at the State House, but we seem to be short a few windows there.”

“The sonic shockwave from the Caphenon blew out half the windows in the city,” Serrado said, to the surprise of all the crew except Lhyn and Candini. “Since we haven’t any need for a weapons team at the moment, I want the four of you to work the cargo matter printers and see if we can help the Alseans replace some of that glass.”

Roris accepted the assignment for her team. “As long as they still work. And we’ll need specifications from the Alseans.”

“I’ll check them after we get the com relay going,” Kameha offered.

“And I’ll be happy to provide those specifications, along with a liaison from the builder caste.” Tal was already wondering how she could get a team of engineers in on the process.

“Chief, the matter printers are your third priority after you verify safe passage in the habitat ring.” Captain Serrado’s expression grew serious. “If Commander Kameha gives the all clear, we can retrieve our most important personal possessions from our quarters. We’ll probably never go back to that part of the ship, so make today count. And brace yourself for the possibility that some or all of us won’t be able to reach our quarters at all.”

“Obviously, we cannot replace anything of personal value that you may have lost,” Tal said. “But we can help with your practical needs. When you arrive at your base quarters this evening, each of you will find a credit chip loaded with cinteks. Base personnel will show you how to use them and take you wherever you may wish to go in the city. I think you’ll find that you have enough cinteks to purchase anything you need. And if you see anything you want but don’t need, buy that too.”

Serrado gave her a grateful smile. “Thank you. That’s very generous, and we all appreciate it.”

“It is a tiny repayment of a very large debt, Captain.” Tal glanced at the wrists that she could see. “Are you all wearing your wristcoms?”

“Yes, I distributed those last night,” Baldassar said. “And we’ve tested them out on each other, so we’re all familiar with them.”

“Thank you for that as well,” added Captain Serrado. “It’s taken a great load off my mind to have crew communications back.”

“You’re welcome. It’s a load off my mind as well. Blacksun is a big place; I don’t want to lose any of you in the markets tonight.” Tal turned to her Guards. “Allow me to introduce two of the Guards whose names are pre-programmed into your wristcoms: Lead Guard Gehrain and Guard Corlander. Some of you may recognize them; they were part of the team that spent the night in your ship.”

“Of course we recognize Lead Guard Gehrain.” Roris stepped forward and offered her palm. “You broke down the door to the weapons room. We never knew your name.”

“Well met,” Gehrain said. “And I’m pleased to see all of you looking much better than you did then.”

“Especially me,” Torado said, touching palms in his turn. “I was a bit woozy, but I seem to remember you carrying me part of the way.”

“Yes, we’re sorry you had to carry the heaviest one of us.” Ennserhofen grinned. “Too bad it wasn’t Blunt.”

Gehrain had to lean down to touch palms with Blunt. “You would certainly have been easier to carry. But it seems you were too smart to let yourself get hurt.”

“Ha!” Roris bumped Torado. “He only just met you and he knows you already.”

“Thank you for helping us, Lead Guard Gehrain,” said Blunt shyly. “You made a big impression.”

Tal stifled a smile as Gehrain flushed. Blunt’s attraction was almost physically palpable to their senses, but she would surely have died of embarrassment if she’d known. Poor Gehrain was going to have to tread carefully around this one.

“Guard Corlander.” Kameha moved to the front of the group. “I’m not entirely certain, but are you the one who pulled that ceiling panel off of me?”

“Yes, that was me.” Corlander held up a hand in greeting. “I’m glad to see you looking well.”

“I was more than glad to see you that night. Though considerably surprised; I wasn’t expecting to see an Alsean in my engine room.”

“Understandable. I wasn’t expecting to see an alien ship outside my city.”

Kameha chuckled. “I suppose not. Though you Alseans do take things in stride. Nobody seems to be very shocked at the idea of aliens.” He looked around as all three Alseans made similar sounds of amusement.

“Believe me, we’re shocked,” Tal said. “But you’ve been dealing with high empaths. We’ve spent our lives controlling our emotions. If you go out to the markets this evening, you’ll see all the shock you could wish. Prepare to be stared at.”

“Oh, I see. Well, I’m used to that.”

“Because you often make contact with other races?” Corlander asked.

Though Kameha didn’t show it on his face, his instant suspicion felt like an old and well-nursed emotion. “No, because of this,” he said, gesturing at his body.

Tal looked questioningly at the captain, who stepped in.

“They don’t understand, Chief. And they’re not judging you.” She turned toward Tal and her Guards. “Commander Kameha comes from a planet on the far outskirts of the Protectorate. His people don’t often leave home, and it’s even more rare that any of them join Fleet.”

By now the chief engineer’s suspicion had faded. “I’m from Gortok. It’s a high-mass planet with gravity almost one and a half times the Gaian norm. We’re all short and dense.”

“I think I may have confused you by calling all of us Gaians,” Lhyn said. “We do use that word to mean all humanoids in general, but more specifically it means those who come from the planet Gaia. Most of us don’t. My home planet is Allendohan, and our gravity is four-fifths the Gaian norm. Which is why we tend to be tall and slender.”

Tal and her Guards exchanged glances. “We never thought about how growing up on different planets might affect physiology,” she said. “Your Protectorate must have quite a diversity of body types.”

“It does,” Serrado agreed. “But as enlightened as we like to think we are, the truth is that we still look askance at anything different from what we’re used to. And Commander Kameha is different.”

Tal met the chief engineer’s eyes. “Your difference here is that you’re alien, not that you’re from Gortok. Alseans will stare at you and everyone else in this room in exactly the same way.”

Kameha gave her an odd little bow, then reached over and took a surprised Lhyn’s hand in his own. “In that case, Dr. Rivers, may I invite you to come to the markets with me? It would be such a pleasure to have people look at me the same way they look at you.”





Chapter 28

Base space


Ekatya walked up the ramp of the Lancer’s transport and reflected that it was practically feeling like home now. Amazing what a person could get used to.

“Lancer Tal,” she said as they stepped inside, “may I speak with you privately?”

“Certainly. Micah, OIC please.”

Colonel Micah, who had joined their group in front of the healing center, nodded and moved back onto the ramp.

Ekatya followed the Lancer across the main cabin and down the corridor to her private cabin. “OIC. Officer in charge?”

Lancer Tal keyed open the door and walked in. “Close. Officer in command.”

“Some things really are universal. At least in the military.” Ekatya settled into the cushy seat by the window with a sigh of pleasure. “Except these. If I still had a ship, I’d be asking you for a flight seat like this. The command chair on my bridge isn’t half so comfortable.”

“Probably because you’re not encouraged to fall asleep in your command chair.”

They smiled at each other, and Ekatya was reminded again of how much they had in common. Which was why she needed to get this out of the way.

“I owe you an apology.”

Lancer Tal looked at her in silence, and it took Ekatya a moment to realize that she wasn’t going to say the usual platitudes like No, you don’t, or I can’t think why. She already knew why.

Sitting up a bit straighter—these seats really did encourage slumping—she said, “Lhyn told me about your conversation yesterday evening, when you were discussing the ethics of listening to emotions. She was very affected by the fact that you blocked mine when I learned she was alive. As was I, because it hadn’t occurred to me that you would do that.”

“Why not?”

“Because you’re the first empathic race we’ve ever dealt with, or even heard of, and I’m operating in total ignorance. The only thing I’ve figured out so far is that I can’t apply standard expectations to you, and my past diplomatic experience isn’t worth much. Past experience told me that you’d use every advantage you had. Refraining from reading my emotions went against that. You valued my privacy over a tactical advantage.”

Lancer Tal shook her head. “Not that I don’t appreciate this view of me, but the truth is that if there had been a tactical advantage, I would have continued to listen to your emotions. There was no advantage to invading something so private.”

“You’re proving my point. And I repaid your courtesy by accusing you of what is probably the worst crime Alseans can commit. Not only that, but I did it immediately after you gave me what Lhyn said was the highest sign of your respect. I’m ashamed of that. Besides the fact that it was a diplomatic error, it was…well, less than I expect of myself. I apologize for making such a rush to judgment.”

“Thank you. I accept your apology. And since you’re giving me the gift of such direct honesty, I’ll do the same. You’re right, illegal mental coercion is the worst crime Alseans can commit, and to be accused of that was…” She trailed off, then finished, “Distressing.”

“I thought you said you were being honest. That was only halfway there.”

“Has our empathy become contagious?”

“No, but you were shocked when I made that accusation, and you called it ‘forcing.’ We also criminalize non-consensual acts, and besides the legal punishment, most Gaian cultures have very strong taboos against them. If anyone accused me of doing something like that…I’d be angry. It would be a personal insult.” Ekatya saw the confirmation in the Lancer’s expression and added, “I’m just glad that if I had to insult someone, I was at least smart enough to insult the best diplomat in the room.”

Lancer Tal chuckled. “Well put, and probably the nicest apology I’ve ever received.” She tilted her head. “You said we’re the first empathic race you’ve dealt with. You’re the first race of any kind we’ve dealt with, and I didn’t know what to expect either. But even if I’d already known there were aliens out there, I still wouldn’t have expected to meet one whose integrity shines more brightly than many in my acquaintance. You’re a credit to your race, Captain.”

Ekatya cursed the heat she could feel rising in her cheeks. “I’m turning red, aren’t I?”

“You are. Do Gaians not speak the truth about what they see in each other?”

She had to think about it. “It varies from one population to another. But for the majority of us…no, not really. We tend to be good at pointing out each other’s flaws and not so eager to point out the better traits. Maybe it all comes down to competition. We all want to think we’re better than the others, and we don’t want to give up any status or advantage.”

“Don’t imagine for a moment that Alseans aren’t just as competitive. But some things are harder to do when the emotional truth is there for anyone to see. Anyone powerful enough, that is.”

“You know, Lhyn is practically birthing a brick over the cultural ramifications of your empathy. She’s dying to get—” Ekatya paused at the rising mirth showing on the Lancer’s face. “What?”

“Birthing a brick?”

She had to chuckle. “Old saying. Do I need to explain it?”

“No, but I’m going to write that one down. It sounds quite uncomfortable.”

It broke any remaining tension between them, and Ekatya felt more at ease than she had since first sighting this planet on her bridge display. “I have more where that came from, if you want to start a list.”

“I only wish we had the time.”

“So do I. And it’s not often I wish I could stay longer on a planet, doing diplomatic duty.”

The warmth shining out of those light eyes made Ekatya think that perhaps it wasn’t such a bad thing having her emotions read. It was nice being able to leave things unsaid and know they weren’t unheard.

“We might be past diplomacy at this point,” Lancer Tal said. “Besides, I’m more interested in our informational exchange. Aren’t you?”

“Now that I’m done apologizing, yes. And speaking of such an exchange, you failed to mention that Alsean medtech isn’t just tech.” She saw the Lancer’s confusion and added, “The empathic projection.”

Her face cleared. “Of course. It’s such an integral part that I didn’t even think about it.”

“It’ll be a bit difficult to export that as part of a treaty exchange of technology.”

“True, but the empathic projection isn’t always used. For one thing, only the best healers can manage it. For another, it requires a significant effort. So it’s normally reserved for more critical cases, and sometimes for children.”

“And aliens.”

“Those too.”

“I didn’t get a chance to ask before all of the healers vanished to watch the chip swaps, but can you tell me how long my leg would have taken to heal without empathic projection?”

“It varies depending on the injury or illness. But they tell me that in general, empathic projection halves the healing time.”

“So you normally heal broken bones in two days instead of one? However will I sell such a disappointment to the Protectorate?” She shook her head with a smile. “You’re still far ahead of us. This is good; I’ve got something to work with.”

“In that case, it’s my turn.”

“Missiles away.”

The Lancer had opened her mouth to speak, but at this she paused and chuckled. “Are all of your sayings so visual?”

“Probably. And that’s a question for Lhyn.”

“Right. Then here’s one for you. How does your FTL work in that second layer of space? And what is that layer, and how do you get to it?”

“I thought you said one question. Is this the holcat issue?” They both smiled at the reference, and Ekatya pulled her new pad from its pocket on her jacket sleeve. “Our version of your reader card,” she said, holding it up. “But I think I like yours better. It seems less fragile.”

“You lost yours in the crash,” Lancer Tal guessed. “That must have come with your shiny new uniform. Your chief engineer certainly looks out for you.”

“He does. Kameha and I go way back. We met when I was a commander and he was a lieutenant. I thought he was a pompous ass and he thought I had my head up mine.”

“Sounds like the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” The Lancer looked as if she was trying not to laugh.

“A rocky beginning, yes. I think we were both overcompensating in our own ways. But that was a long time ago, and now he’s only pompous some of the time.” She stood up and switched seats, sitting next to her companion so they could both see the pad.

“Nice,” Lancer Tal said when the virtual screen popped into existence just above the pad. “Portable device, large screen. A different way of doing the same thing.”

“Yes, but ours don’t handle getting banged around very well. Yours looks practically unbreakable.”

“It is. That’s generally a necessity of design for my caste.”

Ekatya remembered Healer Wellernal’s comment about warriors. “I can see that. Now about your questions.” She activated the third dimension on the virtual screen and drew a cone shape, with the narrow end pointing down to the pad. Indicating the wide top, she said, “This is normal space. It’s huge. You have to have FTL technology to get anywhere, and by anywhere I mean even in your own star system. The distances are too vast for anything else to be viable.”

“I understand that. So what you call base space is this part underneath?” Lancer Tal pointed at the lower part of the cone.

“Right. It’s another dimension of space, connected to it but compressed. So up here, the distance between Point A and Point B is this.” She drew two dots on opposite sides of the top of the cone and a line connecting them. “But if you can get down here to base space, the distance between those same two points is far smaller.” Again she drew two dots, one on either side of the cone’s point. They were so close they nearly touched each other. “So the trick is to start from here, at Point A, drop into base space, fly to the other side, and then go back up to normal space to Point B.” She drew the lines to illustrate. “And there you are, clear across this huge expanse of space up on the top, but all you did was hop from one point to the other down here at the bottom.”

Lancer Tal was staring at the display in fascination. “That’s incredible. If any Alsean has conceived of such a thing, I haven’t yet heard about it. What is the difference in travel time?”

“A factor of ten thousand.”

A shocked gaze met hers. “Are you joking? No, you’re not, I can feel it. But…Great Mother, this is beyond anything we’ve even imagined could be possible. Ten thousand? How long would it take you to go from one side of the galaxy to the other?”

“Ten of our stellar years, which I think is about seven of your cycles.”

“Great shekking—”

“I do know what that word means now,” Ekatya said with a smile.

“Well, in this instance it’s entirely warranted. I think my brain just overloaded.”

“Then I hesitate to tell you the rest. Our scientists believe we’ve only penetrated the first layer of base space and that there are other layers beneath it, each of which compresses the fabric of spacetime even further. Current theory holds that if we could get into the second layer, we would reduce travel time by a factor of one million. And if we could do that, we could travel to the nearest galaxy in…let’s see…a little less than two of your cycles. The layer beneath that is theorized to be compressed by a factor of one hundred million. Getting into the third layer of base space would mean traveling between galaxies as easily as we travel from one star system to another. But we don’t know how to get there. And there’s a limitation in the first layer of base space. FTL travel is impossible.”

“Your FTL engines don’t work there?”

“No, that’s not it. The engines work, but the environment won’t allow anything faster than light speed. If an object attempts to break that speed limit, it…disappears.”

“And goes where?”

“That’s just it. We don’t know. We’ve sent probes equipped with base space transmitters, which means we should have been able to detect their transmissions from practically anywhere in the galaxy. We never heard back from them. About fifteen stellar years ago, some idiot explorer decided to prove that the scientists were lying about the speed limit, and went in there with great fanfare to ‘show the people the truth,’ as he put it. The truth turned out to be just what our scientists said it was. He was never heard from again.”

“It doesn’t sound as if he was much of a loss. On Alsea we’d call that natural culling.”

“Exactly.”

“You said three base layers. Is that it, or do they go on into infinity?”

Ekatya looked at her in admiration. “Are all Alsean warriors so scientifically literate, or just you?”

“My mother was scholar caste, remember. And I’ve always loved the stars. But thank you for the compliment.”

“You’re welcome. Anyway, you guessed correctly. We think they go on into infinity. And at some point, in one of those layers, spacetime is compressed so much that it becomes something else entirely and enables travel between universes.”

“That’s quite a theory. But even knowing how to accomplish that wouldn’t do you much good if the universe you went to didn’t have the same physical laws. Which most of them would not.”

“Right. Other universes might not even have matter. They might have antimatter instead, or nothing at all. Not places I’d want to go to.”

“Nor I. Getting back to practical application, then.” Lancer Tal pointed at the line Ekatya had drawn from Point A down to the bottom of the cone. “There must be some distance involved in this part of the journey. How does that compare to the distance you’re cutting off in normal spacetime? Or is this a supremely simplistic drawing and it doesn’t work like this at all?”

“It’s a supremely simplistic drawing. Here, let me try another one.” Ekatya erased the first sketch and drew two flat layers, one right on top of the other. On the top layer she added about fifty dots, closely packed. On the lower one she made five dots, evenly spaced across the same area.

“I think I see what you’re doing,” Lancer Tal said. “But shouldn’t there be fifty thousand dots on that top layer?”

“If I were being exact, yes, but you clearly don’t need them.”

“The dots represent adjacent points in space, yes?”

“Correct. There are fewer points in base space, but they cover the same area. Physically moving from one point to another down here doesn’t seem any different from moving from one point to another in normal space, and yet when you pop back out into normal space, you find you’ve moved a vast distance. The first drawing was a better representation of how the spacetime is compressed, but this one is a better representation of how the layers relate to one another. It’s not a matter of traveling any distance to base space. We just open a hole in normal space and drop through.”

“This might be the most fascinating conversation I’ve had in my life.” Lancer Tal’s eyes were bright with excitement.

“My astrophysics professor would have loved you. Most of us fell asleep when he talked about this.”

“Sign me up for his class.” She pointed at the drawing again. “You say you drop into base space. How do you get out of it again?”

“We drop into normal space. No, I’m not joking. You can’t think about standard orientations in this situation, because it doesn’t work that way. We literally drop, both directions. It’s as if base space pulls us in, and then normal space pulls us out again.”

“Convenient. And a little baffling.”

“If it makes you feel any better, it baffles us too. We use this method of travel every day, but we’ve never identified the forces that act on matter to pull it through. All we’ve done is rule out everything we can think of.”

“Then whatever is left is what it must be.”

“That’s the problem; there’s nothing left that we know of. So it must be an undiscovered force or set of forces. This is one of the biggest unanswered questions in all of Gaian astrophysics. If we could figure it out, we’d probably have the key to getting into the second layer.”

“It’s gratifying to know you still have unanswered questions. Makes me feel as if Alsea isn’t quite so deep in the mud after all.” Lancer Tal arched a wry eyebrow, and Ekatya remembered their discussion of the Non-Interference Act in her hospital room. How must that have sounded to someone on the other side of that law?

Probably as arrogant as a freshly minted ensign giving orders to a veteran trooper.

“If I learned anything yesterday, it’s that Alsea is most definitely not in the mud,” she said.

“Considering the source, that’s very good to hear.”

“You can consider the source far more educated now than she was when she landed in that field.”

“That has gone both ways. To the betterment of both of us, wouldn’t you agree?”

“I would, yes.” Ekatya was beginning to understand that for all of the Lancer’s skill at concealing her emotions, the truth was in her eyes. They were the one thing outside her control, and they were very expressive.

Lancer Tal examined the drawing again. “What do you use to open the passage into and out of base space?”

“It’s an extremely compressed beam of radiation, which we call pikamet radiation. It has the effect of pushing spacetime away from it, and we just follow the beam in. Which reminds me, you asked about our hullskin. The reason we need it is for travel in base space. The radiation levels there are commensurate with the compression of spacetime.”

“You mean they’re ten thousand times greater?”

“Yes. Without the hullskin, we’d all be fried practically the moment we dropped in.”

“Is your hullskin able to withstand radiation levels one million times greater?”

Ekatya shook her head. “And until we develop a different material that can, we’ll never be able to use the second layer of base space even if we could get into it.”

“Interesting. Radiation acting as a functional speed limit.” Lancer Tal looked distant for a moment, then refocused on Ekatya. “Speed limit. It makes me think…what if your probes, and that idiot explorer, blew themselves right out of the second layer of base space and into the one that connects galaxies? Or even universes? Maybe breaking the speed limit in base space means rupturing the barrier between layers.”

Ekatya could only stare at her.

“I’ve surprised you. Why?”

“Because you just learned about this concept fifteen ticks ago. How can you be coming up with theoretical extensions like that? It’s like a—” Ekatya stopped herself just in time. She’d been about to make a comparison that would have been perceived as insulting, and it made her realize that she was still prejudging Alseans. More specifically, she was prejudging Lancer Tal.

“Your mother must have been one Hades of a woman,” she said instead.

That earned her the largest smile she’d seen yet.





Chapter 29

The Caphenon is melting


Rarely had Tal been so reluctant to hear Continal’s voice as she was when he announced their arrival at the Caphenon. Her first real conversation with Captain Serrado had been so much more than she’d expected that having it interrupted was frustrating to the extreme. Perhaps next time she’d tell him to take the long way around.

“Here we go,” Serrado said. “The last time we came back, it hit me all over again that I’ve lost my ship. While I was in the healing center, and at your base, it was easy to forget. It’s impossible to forget when I’m looking right at it.”

“I’m sorry,” said Tal, and she meant it. Captain Serrado’s sacrifice was more than just an ethical choice. It was a profound personal loss, constantly present in the background of her emotions.

“Thank you. But it had to be done.”

The transport banked, and they both turned to the windows. When the ship came into view, Serrado gasped.

“Stars and Shippers! What happened to it?”

“I have no idea.” Tal was startled as well. The ship looked radically different, as if the outside layer was melting.

“It’s the hullskin. What in all the galaxies is doing that?” She stood up. “I need to talk to Kameha.”

“Captain, please sit down until we’ve landed.”

“Sorry.” She sat and fidgeted. “Kameha reported something happening with the hullskin yesterday, when we came to get the fighter. He took samples and ran a surface analysis, but he couldn’t get to his lab equipment and didn’t have any results by the time your people picked him up again. And Candini had the same problem with her fighter. The reason she lost her flight controls was because they were jamming up with warped and flaking hullskin. Something is seriously wrong.” She drummed her fingers on her leg, the impatience radiating off her, and was upright and striding for the door the moment the transport settled.

Tal followed, nearly bumping into her when she suddenly stopped as the door slid open.

Serrado gave her an apologetic look and held her hand toward the door. “Lancers first.”

“At least on their own transports.”

They arrived in the main cabin to find everyone staring up through the transparent ceiling at the ship.

“Captain!” Kameha leaped out of his seat and made his way to the front. “I’ve got to get into the fighter bay.”

“Why?”

“Because I have a truly unpleasant theory about what’s happening here, and to confirm it, I need to see if our other fighters have been affected.”

“And your theory is…?”

“I think this may be a new Voloth weapon.”

“I was really hoping you wouldn’t say that.” The captain ran a hand through her hair and gazed up at her ship.

“What do the other fighters have to do with it?” Candini asked.

“Because there are only two things this could be,” Kameha said. “A Voloth weapon or something on Alsea. Your fighter was fine until you flew it out of the bay. If this is something environmental, unique to Alsea, then all of the other fighters would have been exposed when we opened the bay door. They’ve been exposed all night because we couldn’t get the door closed again. If their hullskins are affected, we know where to start looking for the cause. But if they’re not…”

“Then we have a big problem on our hands,” Commander Baldassar said.

“Huge,” the captain agreed.

“Excuse me.” Lhyn raised her hand. “Non-military person here. Why would the Voloth target the hullskin? It’s not as if it’s breaking down the shielding, is it?”

No, it’s worse, Tal thought. She could already see the strategic ramifications.

“In a way, it is breaking our shielding.” Captain Serrado met her commander’s eyes, an unspoken dread passing between them. “No one can travel in base space without a functional hullskin. If this is the work of the Voloth, then they’ve found a way to cut the Protectorate off at the knees. They could make us incapable of anything faster than surfing.”

“Oh my stars.” Lhyn looked up at the ship. “This is not good.”

“No, it’s not. Chief, I still want you on the com relay. That’s critical. Candini, get up to the bay and have a look at those fighters. We can’t trust the hullskin ladder, so you’re going to have to do it the hard way. Roris, the lieutenant may need some muscle to help her get through to the fighter bay, so you and your team are going with her.”

“Yes, Captain,” said Roris.

“Commander, I want you to monitor the structural integrity readouts between our new com room and the fighter bay. Make sure they don’t have any surprises. And Xi, you’ll go with them as far as cargo bay six and see if we have functioning matter printers.” She looked back at Kameha. “Change of plans. We’re not using a ladder. What’s the best way for us to get to deck twenty-five from a ground-level airlock?”

Kameha gazed through the windows at the rounded lower part of the ship. “Aft central airlock,” he decided. “Should have the least crash damage, and it’s close to a brace shaft. If the shaft is intact, we’ll have an almost direct route to the com room.”

“Sounds good to me. Lead the way.”

At a nod from Tal, Gehrain opened up the transport door and activated the ramp. She and Serrado stayed back, watching the others file out.

“Lancer Tal, I’m not so certain you should come with us,” the captain said quietly. “Climbing a ladder directly to the airlock next to the com room is one thing. Crawling through a brace shaft in a potentially unstable area is something else.”

“What is a brace shaft?”

“Structural braces that connect opposite sides of the secondary hull. They’re hollow, so they’re also designed to be used as emergency routes through the ship in case of lift failure. I have no idea what shape this one will be in.”

“And you think I should forego my first look inside an alien ship because…it might be dangerous?”

Serrado’s stern expression melted into reluctant amusement. “Did I just make another diplomatic error?”

“Implying that the leader of the warrior caste is too afraid to take a risk? Oh, Captain, that’s a big one. But I can overlook it so long as you never mention it again.”

Next to her, Micah chuckled, but when they looked at him, he made sure his eyes were elsewhere.

“Very well. At least your uniform is more appropriate for this than the shiny one you wore last night.”

“That was my dress uniform. I was in it all day because I never had time to take it off. This is my standard uniform—much more comfortable. Practically made for climbing around alien ships, in fact.”

Serrado smiled. “Then I guess we’d better get going.”





Chapter 30

Revelations


Micah’s first impression of the Caphenon was one of cramped spaces. The airlock’s ceiling was low enough that Gehrain and Lhyn had to duck, and when they moved into the brace shaft, he wondered if Fleet screened for claustrophobics before allowing any personnel to work in engineering. It wasn’t that the shaft was too narrow; in fact, it was wide enough to allow for a landing on every deck so that a person could step off the ladder and let someone else by. But the dark, circular walls seemed to close in and press against one’s back, and when he gazed up the ladder, the perspective made the top of the shaft look as if even Commander Kameha wouldn’t be able to squeeze through. Perhaps the chief engineer had chosen his field for this reason. If all of the engineering work areas were this constricted, Kameha had an advantage over everyone else.

His second impression was one of soaring elegance. When he stepped out of the brace shaft behind Tal, he understood why she’d stopped moving.

They were in a long corridor, which curved slightly as it paralleled the ship’s hull. The ceiling was higher than he’d expected, punctuated by a series of arches that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the entrance of an Alsean temple. Each arch was bracketed by pillars topped with plants that cascaded all the way to the floor, while plants of a different species grew along the curve of the arch itself, hugging it and reaching toward the ceiling.

The doors that lined the corridor were also arched, matching the architectural theme, and also bore plants across their tops. Flowering species of various colors and shapes could be seen in alcoves apparently built just for them, which bracketed large mosaics of colored tiles. The mosaics were spotlit from recessed lighting in the ceiling, while other recessed lights shone upwards, giving the space a soft, welcoming feel. Even the air was scented, a subtle, woodsy smell of leaves and mulch and blossoms. If Micah hadn’t known this was a ship, he’d have assumed it was a place of worship.

“Welcome aboard the Caphenon,” said Captain Serrado. “One of the parts of it that’s still intact, that is.”

“This is…” Tal was at a rare loss for words. “Gorgeous, Captain. I didn’t expect to find beauty here. And I hope you don’t take that the wrong way.”

“Thank you, and I don’t. Keep in mind, we don’t just work here. We live here. Life is too short to live without beauty.”

“Words for Fahla.” Tal pointed at one of the plant-covered arches. “Hydroponics?”

“Yes. Air scrubbers do a lot, but there are only so many times you can scrub carbon dioxide from the air before you eventually need to put some oxygen back into the mix. These foliage plants are better air scrubbers than anything we’ve ever invented, because they work both sides of the equation, add humidity as well, and do it all on no energy other than the lights. Plus, the leaves are edible. They’re quite tasty.”

“And the flowering ones?” Micah asked.

The captain smiled. “Not everything serves a purely practical purpose. Those are epiphytes, able to grow without any medium at all. We value them for their blossoms. There’s an entire bay devoted to these, so they can be rotated in and out as they bloom.”

“How many full-time gardeners do you have on your crew?” Tal asked as they began picking their way down the steeply tilted corridor.

“Thirty-five. And if I know my head gardener, she’s probably having a fit right now thinking about the damage I’ve caused her babies. Every deck on the Caphenon is planted, but if you think this is nice, you ought to see our top deck. It’s a sacrificial deck, outside the battle hull, so we can’t use it for critical infrastructure. Instead we use it as an arboretum and lounge. When we don’t need full hullskin coverage, we roll enough of it back to uncover the viewports all over the top deck, and the effect is lovely. A park in space.”

Micah looked at the plants with new appreciation. The Gaians might not have castes, but they had producers who cared for the creations of Fahla even while hurtling through space. Remarkable. He’d envisioned warriors, scholars, and builders on this ship, of course. But not producers, and not crafters. Yet those mosaics were certainly the work of crafters. The only caste missing was the merchants.

“Are there shops on your ship as well?” he asked.

“No, Fleet ships don’t have independent shopfronts. We have goods and service providers, but they’re all Fleet personnel. Space stations and corporate liners are a different matter; they’re full of independent merchants.”

Little else was said as they moved downhill. The Alseans were too busy staring at their surroundings to ask any more questions, and the Gaians seemed subdued. Or perhaps overwhelmed, Micah thought. As a warrior who’d spent his career in the Alsean Defense Force, moving from one base to another with each promotion and mission, he’d never viewed his housing as a real home. Not until he’d moved to Blacksun to be Tal’s Chief Guardian. But these people took their home with them when they moved from place to place. How much more shocking it must be, then, to have that home ripped away.

And they had done it for Alsea. He and Tal, and every warrior he knew, would probably be dead by now if it weren’t for these Gaians. Most everyone else would be in the process of being rounded up for enslavement. Instead, Alsea was nearly untouched and here he was, walking down an awe-inspiring corridor of this massive alien ship.

He paused in front of one of the flowers, enjoying its light perfume and gently touching a yellow blossom. To his surprise, the petal beneath his finger turned blue, deepest in the center and lighter toward the edges.

“Are you a pre-Rite child, that you can’t keep your hands at your sides?” Tal’s voice was amused as she came up behind him.

“Look at this,” he murmured.

“Oh…how lovely.” She touched a different petal, and they both watched it react. “Is it responding to our body heat?”

“To the electrical field of your skin, actually.”

Micah didn’t recognize the voice and turned to find the shy young weapons specialist standing near as the rest of the group moved past.

“Are you a botanist as well, Trooper Blunt?” Tal asked.

“No, nothing so fancy as that. I just love plants, and these especially. They’re Filessian orchids. I always had one of these in my bedroom growing up. My favorites are the purple ones that turn yellow.”

Funny, Micah thought. When aliens drop out of the sky and save everyone from a ruthless species of slavers, you don’t think about them being children in their bedrooms.

Blunt was full of information about the various plants on the ship, and Tal kept her talking until they arrived at their destination. Half of the Gaian crew had already passed through an open door when Blunt said, “You should take an orchid with you, Lancer Tal.”

“I would love to. But will I be able to keep it alive in a different environment, off this ship?”

Blunt shrugged. “I can give you instructions. They’re pretty easy to take care of. And any orchid you take would at least have a chance of living. All the rest are going to die when the ship goes.”

“Blunt!” called a voice from inside the doorway.

“I have to go. It was nice speaking with you.” The young woman smiled and walked off to join her team, leaving Micah and Tal staring at each other.

Tal shook her head at him, warning him to say nothing, and they silently followed Blunt into the room. But Micah’s mind was racing.

The Gaians were going to destroy their ship.





Chapter 31

Fleet orders


Ekatya slouched in the chair that had been propped with its back against the table—the only way to comfortably sit in the sloping room—and impatiently watched Kameha fiddle with his console.

Their new com room was really a conference room, which Kameha had chosen yesterday after scanning the ship for the most structurally stable area with the easiest access. He’d done a lot of preliminary work the previous evening to get things up and running, including restoring full power to this deck.

Lhyn’s ship, the Arkadia, had kept a geosynchronous orbit over the Caphenon while its crew waited for news. Kameha had made radio contact with them last night, just long enough to establish a time for this morning’s call. The quantum communication system was fried, which made everything more difficult. Not only was the Caphenon’s com system unable to maintain a connection with any crew outside the ship, they were also limited to line-of-sight communication with other ships. The laser com—very old but robust tech—had come through the crash in fine shape, with only the targeting scanners showing damage. Now it was a matter of manually targeting the Arkadia, and Kameha assured her he’d have it in another few minutes.

Candini, Xi, and the weapons team were on their way, with no difficulties encountered so far other than the effort it took to move through the tilted ship. Baldassar had taken Lhyn and the Alseans to the lab next door, where he was explaining how the structural scanning system worked. Once he’d seen Xi to the cargo bay and Candini’s team to the fighter bay, he planned to give Lancer Tal and her group a video tour of the ship. It was a poor substitute for the real thing, but Ekatya would never again give a real tour of the Caphenon. She tried not to dwell on that.

“Got it!” Kameha said in a satisfied tone. “Hold on.”

She sat up straight, and a moment later was looking into the relieved face of Captain Habersaat.

“Captain Serrado, thank the stars! I’m so glad to see you.”

“I’m glad to see you, too. It’s been a long day and a half.”

“I’ll bet. We’ve been monitoring the broadcasts, so we knew some of you had survived, but Lancer Tal never gave any names. We’d been thinking the worst until Commander Kameha radioed us early this morning. I’m very sorry for your fatalities, but relieved that you and Dr. Rivers are all right.”

Ekatya was startled for a moment by his reference to Kameha’s morning call. But the Arkadia was still on ship time, while she and her crew had gotten their own internal clocks thoroughly out of sorts.

“Thank you,” she said. “I wish we’d had no fatalities at all, but considering what we managed to do, only three dead is something of a miracle.”

He nodded, the single braid of his gray beard swaying with the movement. “Indeed it is. It’s too bad you couldn’t see my bridge when you vaporized that orbital invader. For a couple of minutes it sounded like a bacchanal in here.”

That made her smile in spite of herself. “It was a Hades of a shot. Full credit goes to my weapons team.”

“I’d say partial credit goes to the weapons team, and full credit to the captain who was too stubborn to let the Voloth get away. I just wish you’d been able to pull the Caphenon out. To be honest, none of us believed until the last second that you wouldn’t be coming back.”

“There was only so much we could do with no fusion core. If I could have gotten out and pushed, I would have.”

“I know. And I have never wished more for a type six tractor beam and the power to run it. It was hard to watch that from here.” He gave a brisk nod and said, “Now I’m guessing you’d like to dispense with the small talk and get down to ship’s business.”

“I do have a few pressing concerns.”

“Of course. As I told Commander Kameha this morning, we have accounted for every one of your crew. We managed to bring one hundred and twelve aboard, and I wish it could have been more.”

“One hundred and twelve? That’s extremely generous of you, but it’s going to push your scrubbers to the limit, not to mention physical space. Where are you putting them all?”

“Well, just between you and me,” he said with a conspiratorial grin, “those academics hardly sleep anyway, so why would they need such large quarters? We managed to fit eight just in Dr. Rivers’ quarters.”

“I think I won’t tell her that. What about my wounded?”

“All aboard. Your chief medical officer was very efficient in letting me know who should get priority and sending those pods to us. I’m afraid some of your wounded didn’t have an easy ride, though. A few of them arrived in worse shape than when they left the Caphenon. But everyone is stable and on the road to recovery.”

Ekatya settled into her seat, feeling the worst of the tension leave her shoulders. Kameha hadn’t gotten the report on the wounded, just the number of crew accounted for.

“And now we’re like a mama spider in the web,” Habersaat continued. “One larger ship in the center of a whole swarm of little pods, plus a few shuttles.”

“Just so long as mama spider keeps them safe.”

“I will.”

It was an empty promise and they both knew it. If the Voloth made another attempt before Protectorate forces could arrive, all of those pods, the shuttles, and the Arkadia herself would be nothing more than targets on the shooting range. Ekatya couldn’t relax until her people were on something with a little more firepower than a science ship.

“What’s the estimated time of arrival for reinforcements?” she asked.

He sobered. “I wish I could answer that question. It would seem that Fleet has not yet decided to send a battle group. They’re sending a personnel ship to pick up you and your crew, and the Arkadia has been ordered to return with it.”

For a moment she thought she’d misheard, but his expression told her otherwise. “What in all the purple planets are they thinking? The Voloth could be sending another invasion group as we speak and Fleet is sitting around with its thumb up its ass? Does the Assembly want a Voloth outpost on our back doorstep?”

“They’re not telling me anything, Captain. I don’t understand it either. Maybe your orders will tell you more, because mine were distinctly lacking in specifics.”

“Then I need those orders sooner rather than later. Do you mind if we retrieve them now?”

“No, of course not.” He looked offscreen. “Thwyk, open a channel to the base space relay.”

“Channel open,” said a deep voice a few seconds later.

“Captain, your code?”

With a twinge of reluctance, Ekatya rattled off her correspondence code. Until now she had never given it to another living being, guarding it as fiercely as her command code. While she waited for the Arkadia to make the connection, she reflected on how ingrained some habits were, even when there was no alternative.

“Packet retrieved,” said the deep voice. “Sending now.”

“Packet received,” Kameha announced. He tapped his console a few times. “It’s on your pad.”

“Thank you. Captain Habersaat, I’m sending Dr. Rivers in while I take a look at these. And I’ll need to borrow your quantum com later as a relay.”

“I expected as much. Thwyk will assist whenever you ask.”

“I appreciate it. Thanks again for being the mama spider. You restored some lost years to my lifespan with that report.”

“We’re glad to help, Captain. Shippers know you saved our asses.”

After sending Lhyn into the com room, Ekatya stepped across the hall to an empty office, retrieved the chair from where it had ended up wedged behind a console, and sat down to read her orders. Five minutes later she stood up, put her foot on the chair, and shoved it so hard that it promptly wedged itself under a different console, making a gratifying crash in the process.

“Fucking, ass-headed, feeble-minded idiots!

She was still seething when a tap sounded on the door and Kameha gingerly poked his head in. “Captain, are you all right? I heard something breaking.”

“Yes, my Shipper-damned patience!” She wanted to break something else, but nothing was close to hand other than her pad—the pad with the most asinine orders she’d ever had the displeasure to read.

“Did Fleet not authorize the assault?”

“No, they did. We’re fine there, at least.” The rage was making her chest tight, and she shouldn’t have been surprised to see Lancer Tal appear next to her chief engineer. She looked concerned, which only served to make Ekatya angrier. At least Kameha had only known something was wrong by the sound of the chair hitting the console. But Lancer Tal was sensing her, and right now she didn’t need that.

A moment later she changed her mind. If the Alsean wanted to listen to her emotions, then let her get the full mental earful. After all, this concerned her.

“Commander, will you excuse us, please?”

“Yes, Captain.” He withdrew, leaving Lancer Tal watching her quizzically.

“Come in, Lancer.” She waited until the door had closed, then said, “I’d offer you a seat, but you’d have to pull it out from where I just kicked it.”

“That’s all right. I try never to be caught sitting in a small room with someone as angry as you are.” Lancer Tal braced herself with a hip against the nearest console.

“Because the best warriors always know when to retreat? Then you’re taking a chance, letting that door close behind you.” She slipped the pad back into its sleeve pocket, removing it from temptation. “I’ve just read my orders from Fleet.”

Once again she was reminded of how different the Alseans were. Most Gaians would have asked about the orders, or made some guess as to what they contained. Lancer Tal just crossed her arms over her chest and waited silently.

“The only good news I can give you is that Fleet authorized the attack on the Voloth invasion group. So somebody somewhere has their head screwed on straight. Unfortunately, whoever that is did not prevail, because I received a second set of orders countermanding the first.”

Lancer Tal dropped her arms. “The Protectorate is not going to defend Alsea?”

“As it stands right now, no. They’re not sending reinforcements, and I’m ordered to return with my crew to await reassignment. I haven’t spoken to my supervisor yet,” she added, “so I don’t have any answers as to why. It may not be a permanent decision. Certainly there’s some high-level maneuvering going on, because this business of countermanding orders only happens when the politicians are fighting over whose pants are bigger. Exactly who is maneuvering for what, I don’t know. But I can assure you, I’m going to piss on every desk in Fleet to find out. This is wrong on so many levels I can’t even count them all.”

After a long pause, Lancer Tal said, “Did the battle take place before or after the countermand?”

“Before. Are you actually worrying about my career right now?”

“You sacrificed your ship for us, Captain. It makes me feel a little better knowing you won’t be punished for that.”

“You are something else.” Ekatya’s ire waned in the face of such an unexpected reaction. “That’s the last thing you should be worrying about.”

“Not the last. But you’re right, this is not good news. Is there a timeline on when the Voloth might try again?”

“There’s nothing in my orders about that. Once Candini gives us some answers from the fighter bay, I’ll report to my supervisor and find out what’s really going on. I hope.”

The anger that surged back up was so strong that she saw the Lancer physically react to it, shifting her weight and widening her stance slightly. It was the instinctive response of a highly trained fighter to a threat, and even in her mood she could appreciate it.

“Three lives,” she said. “Three lives and my ship, sacrificed for the greater good, and some nameless morons are going to make it all for nothing. They are taking those courageous, good people’s deaths and spitting on them.”

Lancer Tal relaxed but made no answer, and it took Ekatya a moment to realize how that must have sounded to the person currently facing the annihilation of her entire civilization. She exhaled, shaking her head.

“I’m sorry. That was…thoughtless. I hope you don’t think I’m only angry on my own behalf, because it’s not true. I’m angry for your sake as well. For Alsea, and what looks like a senseless decision.”

“I know you are. Selfish anger feels different than anger on behalf of others.” Lancer Tal glanced at the door. “And there’s a summer windstorm of the latter coming this way.”

The door opened and Lhyn burst in, her face red. “Who are these Seeder-sucking asses at Fleet? You’re recalled and I’m supposed to just leave everything I’ve spent the last year working on so the Voloth can come and destroy these people? Are they insane? I’m serious; is there a clinical, medical excuse for this kind of irretrievably stupid decision making? Because otherwise, it passes all understanding!”

She paused for breath, her eyes wild, and Ekatya could only shake her head.

“I don’t know what’s going on, but I plan to find out. And then we’ll start working on a way to fix it.”

“How can you fix this?”

“I don’t know yet. Yet,” she said, when Lhyn looked ready to interrupt. “I don’t have all the facts. When I do, we’ll start looking for a way. I have to have faith that the people whose heads actually contain brains will prevail.”

“Now that is the very definition of faith. Belief without reason.” Lhyn turned to Lancer Tal. “I am so sorry. You and your people deserve better than this, and I’m personally embarrassed for my government. We came here thinking of ourselves as an advanced species, but actions speak louder than words, don’t they?”

“Actions do speak louder than words, as every Gaian I’ve met so far has already proven. Are all of you exceptions?”

“I don’t believe we are,” Ekatya said. “And I have one thousand, two hundred and sixty-four crew to back me up, plus Lhyn’s team of thirty-eight and the crew of the Arkadia.”

Lhyn shook her head. “My team of thirty-seven. You’re forgetting the one who started all of this.”

No one had anything to say after that.





Chapter 32

Alternative plan


“Headache?” Micah asked quietly.

Tal dropped her hand from where she’d been rubbing her temple. “Big one. It’s not often I envy you your empathic rating, but I do right now.” Being around Lhyn and Captain Serrado in their current emotional state was getting tiring, but she could not afford to raise her blocks.

“Gehrain isn’t enjoying it either.”

She glanced up to see Gehrain giving every appearance of listening closely to Commander Baldassar’s explanation of how the ship’s magnetic lifts worked, but the squint of his eyes betrayed his discomfort. He felt her gaze and looked over, smiling slightly as he acknowledged their shared dilemma. Lhyn and Corlander were propped against the console next to him, watching the tour with equal fascination.

“Right now I’m fantasizing about a nice, empty beach,” she murmured. “Just me, the water, and the sand.”

“In that case, I’m almost sorry to be giving you my news. Colonel Razine has what you asked for and said there were no issues.”

Her chuckle held no amusement. “I didn’t think there would be. We probably could have gotten them retroactively.”

“I know. I also know you’re happier doing it the right way.”

“There is no right way, Micah.” She moved closer to the commander, who was explaining that the magnetic lift system meant that no point in the ship was more than fifty-five pipticks away.

“That’s what enables us to put the habitat ring in the center of the ship, where it’s most protected, while the bridge is up on the top deck.” Baldassar tapped the console and showed them a panning view of the bridge. “Well, we call it the top deck. Deck one is physically deck two, with the real top deck being the arboretum. But we don’t start numbering our decks until the bridge.”

“Does it take up the entire deck?” Tal asked in surprise. The bridge was far larger than she’d imagined.

“Much of it, yes. We use the domed ceiling as a tactical and navigational display. Up in the arboretum, it looks like a hill in the middle of the park.”

“You should show them the arboretum,” Lhyn said.

“I will, after the bridge.” Baldassar tapped again, and now the domed display was active, immersing the bridge in what seemed like the middle of space. Part of a ringed planet loomed off to the left.

“Incredible,” said Micah. “Not just three-dimensional, but covering all directions for a hemisphere.”

“Exactly. Flat displays are good at conveying information, but they don’t mesh well with the way our brains take in data. A visual representation like this is better for instinctual spatial understanding, and I can tell you from experience that the tactical aspects in battle are a tremendous improvement over any flat representation I ever used. And it’s not just one hemisphere, Colonel Micah.” Baldassar tapped again, and Tal watched in fascination as the raised central part of the bridge lifted itself higher, while the floor beneath it seemed to fall away. Toward the walls, transparent panels rose out of the floor to ring the room, separating the majority of the crew consoles from the main space. A moment later the floor had become a star field to match the one on the ceiling, with the circle of transparent panels seamlessly melded into the visual image. The ringed planet could now be seen in its entirety.

“The floor display is a little trickier, because it doesn’t have the same curve as the ceiling, but it doesn’t take much of a curve to enable the wraparound imagery,” Baldassar said.

“And this is what you were using when you fought the Voloth?” Tal asked. When the commander nodded, she stared at the image and imagined Captain Serrado in that center chair, fighting a battle in more dimensions than she herself had ever had to consider.

And winning, she reminded herself.

“Aha.” Baldassar had been hunting through a data list and now straightened. “Here’s the security log from what I think was our most impressive action last year. We were responding to a distress call from a freighter group and found a nest of pirates.” He activated the file and the static image abruptly changed to one of bewildering action. The empty bridge of the video tour was now full of crew, sitting and standing at consoles. Those ringing the edge of the room were barely visible, their bodies blocked by the vertical floor panels. The tactical display was showing small ships flitting in all directions while larger ships sat off in the distance, firing a steady stream of weapons. Bursts of light bloomed and faded everywhere Tal looked.

“That’s our defense grid taking out incoming missiles and rail gun projectiles,” Baldassar said as he indicated the lights. “We have shielding, of course, but we prefer to keep that as a secondary protection.”

Tal focused on the central dais, which held some familiar faces. It was arranged in two concentric rings surrounding the central chair, with four consoles on the higher inside ring and eight on the outside, one step lower. There was Candini in one of the inside chairs, her short red hair instantly recognizable. She was focused on her console, the fingers of one hand flying over it while the other gripped some sort of drive stick. To her left sat Baldassar, his console also flanked by a drive stick, probably a redundant system. Dead center on the dais, elevated above everyone else in the room, was Captain Serrado. Her armrests had a series of controls on them, some of which she was using to rotate and tilt her chair up, down, and around, always keeping what she wanted in view. She called out one order after another, her voice level and calm as if she were watching a harmless light show rather than a pitched battle with so many different ships that Tal couldn’t count them all. It looked effortless for her, and Tal’s respect for the alien captain grew into something more. Fahla herself would have to admire such a display of competence under battle pressure.

“Are all Fleet captains this good?” she asked.

Baldassar’s smile was proud. “They wish they were. Captain Serrado is one of the best.”

Tal didn’t doubt it. She returned her attention to the battle, but all too soon they were interrupted by a call from the room next door.

“They’re in!”

Baldassar paused the playback and led their little group out the door. In the next room, the captain and her chief of engineering had been watching a video feed from the fighter bay, waiting for Candini’s team to enter. They’d reached the interior door some time earlier, but hadn’t been able to open it because a decompression in the bay during the battle had set off emergency measures. Captain Serrado had explained that the procedure for breaking the seal normally didn’t take long, but very little in the ship was normal at this point.

Roris was currently speaking to the captain while Candini trotted toward the nearest fighter. The fighter bay was enormous, holding twenty-nine fighters in two rows facing each other across a wide track which led to the half-open bay door. The thirtieth space, next to the door, was empty.

“They look good from here,” the captain was saying.

“Yes, but Lieutenant Candini said the damage to her fighter was impossible to see at a glance. It took her some time to find it.” Roris glanced over her shoulder at the lieutenant, who was now pushing a portable stair over to the fighter. Turning back, she asked, “Are we going to check the starboard fighter bay as well? And what about the shuttle bay?”

“That shouldn’t be necessary,” Captain Serrado answered. “Neither of them was breached in the battle, so they can’t have been exposed to a Voloth weapon or anything on Alsea. But we’ll need to get our shuttle out later, and we’ll check it thoroughly. In the meantime, let’s see if we can find any remnants of the weapon that punctured the hull in there. Your team is the best qualified to recognize fragments. Use protection.”

“Understood.” Roris stepped away and vanished from the screen, leaving the group in the com room staring at a distant image of Candini on the stair, bent over one of the fighter’s wings.

“Chief, I don’t know how long this will take, so let’s get you started on scanning the structural integrity of the habitat ring and the routes to our quarters. I can handle the next relay with the Arkadia now that you’ve got it set up.”

Kameha nodded and went back into the corridor.

“Why are your fighters still here?” Tal asked. “I would have expected you to use them in the battle.”

“Because it was a battle of warships. Fighters are used against smaller ships or other fighters. Their armaments can’t do anything against the shielding of a large warship, and if we threw them out there, they’d be in as much danger from our weapons as they would from the enemy’s. The crossfire in a ship-to-ship battle is intense.”

That made sense. “And the reason they’re not guarding your escape pods now? Did you not have time to launch them in the evacuation?”

“Actually, we did. In fact we launched all of our shuttles but one. But a fighter isn’t an escape pod, and it’s certainly not a shuttle. They’re not stocked with emergency food and water supplies or even a toilet. They’re not designed to dock to an airlock, and the air scrubbers won’t last for days on end. The nearest base is too far away and so were reinforcements.”

“So if you’d launched them…”

“It would probably have been a death sentence, unless reinforcements were closer than I’d thought.”

And a slow death at that. Once again Tal was impressed with the captain’s competence, especially her ability to think quickly under pressure. It made what she had to do harder than it already was.

After a few ticks of watching nothing happen, she asked if she could see what the chief engineer was doing instead. “I’d like a look at your housing area. And I’m guessing this will be the closest I’ll get to it.”

“You’re right, it is. And the chief won’t mind a little company.”

Tal left the room and paused in the corridor for a deep breath. When she felt centered, she walked into the lab where Kameha was now working at a different console. “Commander Kameha, I hope you don’t mind if I watch.”

He looked up with a smile. “Of course not. Though if you think the view in here will be any less boring than the one over there, you’re probably mistaken.”

She crossed her arms over her chest and leaned back against the console, keeping the open door in her peripheral vision. “Is this something that requires a great deal of concentration, or can I ask you a few questions?”

“Ask away. The ability to do at least six things at once is one of the entrance requirements for engineers.”

“For Lancers as well,” she said. When he turned back to his console, she slipped inside a mind so unprotected that it felt as if she were taking advantage of a child. “You must have a way to self-destruct the ship to keep it out of enemy hands, correct?”

“Yes, of course,” he said without a trace of suspicion.

“How exactly does that work?”





Chapter 33

An embarrassing inconvenience


“Captain Serrado. I’m relieved to see your face, especially after what we heard from the Arkadia yesterday.”

Admiral Tsao’s white hair was loose around her shoulders, a soft look that Ekatya had never seen before. Of course, she’d never put a call through at this time of night in the capital, either.

“Thank you, Admiral. I apologize for calling so late. This is the first chance I’ve had to get back into my ship.”

Tsao waved that off. “Are you all right?”

“Yes, thanks to Alsean medtech. I had a broken leg, but they repaired it in less than one day. I can’t even tell where the break was.”

Tsao’s eyebrows rose. “That’s remarkable.”

“It really is. Dr. Rivers had a broken arm; she’s fine now. One of my weapons team had to be carried out, but he just finished climbing through several decks worth of brace shafts. And I’ve got two crew members awake and in stable condition who would still be in critical if they were in a Protectorate medbay.”

“How does a pre-FTL society have such advanced medtech?”

“Because they are so much more than anyone thought. I haven’t even begun to explore what else they might have to offer, but I was certainly planning to. And then I received my new orders.”

“And you are not pleased.”

“That would be an understatement.”

Tsao sighed. “I’m not either. Then again, no one here is very pleased to learn that we’ve lost a Pulsar-class ship, not to mention the fact that said ship is now lying on a pre-FTL planet.”

“How bad is it?”

“It’s not good. Fortunately, you managed to time your battle extremely well, which has saved those bars on your collar. But perhaps you’d care to explain why you attacked the Voloth before you had authority to engage.”

Ekatya had rehearsed for this one. “Based on my briefing from Dr. Rivers, I felt confident that Alsea would be incorporated into Protectorate territory soon after her final report was published. I had already been ordered to make a show of force, which further indicated the Protectorate’s interest in this planet. The fact that the Voloth sent an invasion group without scouting the area first meant they had come to the same conclusion, and were attempting to seize the planet before the Protectorate could make a move. My oath is to uphold the interests of the Protectorate. Had I stood by while the Voloth seized Alsea simply because I didn’t have official orders, I would have put the safety of my career above the interest of the Protectorate.”

“So you acted on the spirit of your orders, rather than the letter.”

“Yes, Admiral.”

Tsao nodded. “Just between you and me, I respect that decision. We have enough officers who worry more about shielding their asses than fulfilling their oath. So let me assure you that while others are ready to assign blame for the loss of the Caphenon, I’m backing you up.”

“Thank you, Admiral.” Ekatya breathed a quiet sigh of relief.

“That said, you’re going to have to walk carefully for the next few stellar years. Losing a ship when orders were in flux was not a mark you wanted on your record. I’m sorry to tell you this, but I’m not at all certain I’ll be able to get you another Pulsar-class ship.”

And there went her relief.

“So I’m being punished after all?”

“It won’t be framed that way. It will simply be a matter of which ship is available when it comes time to give you a new assignment.” She held up a finger, forestalling Ekatya’s half-formed protest. “Punishment would be you losing those bars. You broke a dozen Rules of First Contact, including the biggest one. You’re calling me from the surface of a pre-FTL planet. Count your bars and your blessings.”

“Yes, Admiral,” Ekatya said, fuming.

“Now then. Captain Habersaat’s report gave us the basics of the battle, but I want to hear the details from you. Start from the beginning.”

Ekatya dutifully recounted the events of what now felt like a month ago. How they’d arrived and brought Lhyn and Captain Habersaat on board for an immediate strategic conference; how Lhyn had stayed on board after the captain had returned—

“Wait. Captain Habersaat mentioned this, but I’m still not clear on why Dr. Rivers needed to be aboard the Caphenon overnight.”

Time for a few carefully selected truths. “Dr. Rivers was distressed by the betrayal of one of her team, and even more so by the vigilante justice meted out to him. She told me that she needed a night off that ship and away from both her team and the crew, because she no longer knew whom she could trust. Since I always have empty diplomatic suites, I authorized her stay. It seemed a simple solution.” And it had given them the perfect excuse to spend their first night together in ten months.

“Hm. I’d imagine she has no experience in dealing with that sort of thing.”

“No, she doesn’t. Which is probably why she delayed her return the next day. And then the Voloth popped in before any of us expected it.”

“How did they not detect you immediately?”

“Because the Alseans are technologically advanced enough that Dr. Rivers and Captain Habersaat had to hide from them using their two moons. They sent out probes to relay the planetary broadcasts. When I arrived, I naturally joined them in their cover. It turned out to be equally effective in hiding us from the Voloth, at least at first. I also had the Caphenon running in gray mode, just in case.”

“Very astute, Captain.” Admiral Tsao gave her a brisk nod. “So they didn’t detect you until you powered up to intercept?”

“Correct. By which time I already had fifty shield breakers on their way, along with twenty-five missiles. The first destroyer went up in dust and vapor before it could even get its rail gun defenses online.”

She described the rest of the battle in dry terms that didn’t do justice to the incredible performance of her crew. She had a reputation for being relentless with drills, but it had paid off in spades. The second destroyer, alerted to her presence, had been much harder to kill. Its only job was to delay the Caphenon long enough for the orbital invader to drop its ground pounders, and without the luxury of time, Ekatya hadn’t had many strategic options. Retreating and fighting from a safer distance certainly wasn’t one of them. Instead she’d had to trust in her defensive batteries to take out the swarm of weaponry the destroyer launched, while simultaneously trying to find an opening of her own. When she’d warned Lancer Tal about the debris ring surrounding Alsea, she hadn’t been exaggerating. Besides the remains of two destroyers, there were countless spent missiles and rail gun projectiles floating out there. As the battle had moved closer and closer to Alsea, the destroyer had thrown so much at them that she’d wondered if it had anything left in its armories.

It did. With the orbital invader closing in on drop altitude, Ekatya had ordered Candini to punch her way through and give chase. They had no more time for evasive maneuvers. The destroyer had seized its chance, and the Caphenon had flown into a veritable blizzard of weaponry, taking so much damage that by the time they were finally able to land a kill shot, they couldn’t even shield against the shockwave from the destroyer’s fusion core explosion.

“And that’s what pushed our own fusion core past the redline,” she said. “If we’d just had a little more distance, we would have made it. But we ran out of time.”

Admiral Tsao was listening intently. “So this is when you ordered the evacuation.”

“Yes. We were already deep in Alsea’s gravity well by then, and we still had to take care of the orbital invader. When Commander Kameha told me that his team couldn’t get the fusion core back under control, I set two priorities. First, to protect my crew, and second, to protect Alsea. Both of them required taking the fusion core offline.”

“Which meant the Caphenon was going to crash onto Alsea at some point, no matter what you did.”

“Unless I destroyed it in the upper atmosphere, yes.”

“Why didn’t you?”

The question caught Ekatya flat-footed. “That wouldn’t have fulfilled my second priority.”

“It would have if you’d set an automatic course to ram the orbital invader and then gotten yourself and your skeleton crew out after activating it.”

“Admiral, the invader still had full maneuverability. It had no part in the battle up to that point and was completely intact. The Caphenon was down to thrusters and inertia. If I’d set an automatic course, the invader would have just moved out of the way.”

“I see. Now tell me how you managed to take it out with just a skeleton crew. Captain Habersaat had no insight into that.”

That was a story Ekatya was happy to tell, and the admiral’s eyes glinted when she heard about the precision team that had wiped out a Voloth orbital invader with one carefully timed double shot.

“I wish I could recommend them for an Eye of the Needle,” she said. “Unfortunately, the circumstances of your battle preclude any medals from being handed out. I won’t have the political support for it.”

“I understand.”

“Do you? Because you’d be in line for one too. Selfless bravery and sacrifice in saving a native population from a Voloth invasion…at any other time, I could nominate that for a Blue Star. I’m sorry, Captain Serrado. You deserve better.”

So do the Alseans, Ekatya wanted to say. Instead, she nodded and waited for the next question. As expected, the admiral wanted to know why she still hadn’t abandoned ship even after destroying the invader, and Ekatya’s answer seemed to satisfy her.

“There’s one thing I still don’t understand,” Admiral Tsao said. “Why didn’t Dr. Rivers evacuate with everyone else?”

Ekatya had been dreading this one. “She’s a bit stubborn, and she didn’t want to go back to her ship. I don’t think she considered herself under my command. I also don’t think she truly understood the severity of the battle damage.”

“She didn’t understand the severity? Does she think you go around making a habit of evacuating your entire crew in the middle of a battle?”

With a calculated shrug and a silent apology to her lover, Ekatya said, “She’s a scientist.”

Admiral Tsao stared for a moment, then shook her head with a disbelieving smile. “They are a breed apart, aren’t they?”

“They certainly are.” And that was the most truthful statement she’d made in this entire report.

“All right, then.” The admiral tapped her pad a few times, pushed it to the side, and crossed her arms in front of her. “Here is our situation, Captain. You just sacrificed a valuable asset to save a planet under Protectorate consideration from a Voloth invasion. Two days ago you would have been applauded for such an act. Now you’ve become an embarrassing inconvenience. Alsea is no longer under consideration, and we are not expanding our borders in that direction.”

“I understand that from my orders. What I don’t understand is why.”

“Because the Protectorate is now in negotiations with the Voloth to redraw our borders. And the deal they’ve offered us includes five planets in the Hadraka sector, in exchange for Alsea. Five inhabited planets.” She nodded at Ekatya’s shock. “It’s not an easy choice, but I do understand why so many in the Assembly are inclined to vote for it. We give up one civilization to save five, and on top of that, we get a peace treaty with mutually agreed-upon borders.”

Ekatya’s mind buzzed with the implications, but one thought stood out: Lhyn had been right. We’re creating a future where some of us become virtual gods, she’d said, and that future was here, right now.

“So we take the role of the Shippers now? We decide who lives and who dies? We give up an entire civilization to the Voloth just because the math works out?”

“Captain—”

“It’s not right, Admiral!”

“And is it right to give up five civilizations? We can’t save them all.”

“No, but we’ve already saved this one! And studied it, and learned so much about them. The Alseans have medtech that puts ours to shame; is that part of the Assembly’s considerations? Do they know that these people are empaths?”

Now it was Admiral Tsao’s turn to look shocked. “They’re what?”

“This entire race is empathic. And I’m not taking that on the word of Dr. Rivers. I’ve personally experienced it on several occasions already. Their planetary leader is a very strong empath; she knows exactly what I’m feeling and she’s proved it to me. Not only that, she can project emotions as well, and—oh, stars,” she breathed, suddenly understanding. “That’s what the Voloth want.”

“I’m not following you.” Admiral Tsao frowned. “Probably because I still can’t believe what I’m hearing.”

“It’s the truth. If the Assembly would wait for Dr. Rivers to make her report before selling off this planet—”

“It is not your place to tell—”

“They want empathic slaves!” Ekatya burst out. “Admiral, think about the timing of this. The Voloth learn about Alsea from our own anthropology team, and they send an entire invasion group mere days later. At the same time, they suddenly make us an attractive offer—a border agreement and one planet in exchange for five. Who could resist? But has anyone considered why they want this planet so badly? Think about the tactical advantage of having empathic slaves on their warships, in their negotiations, in their spy network. They’re playing us for fools, and the Assembly is letting it happen.”

“Captain Serrado, that is enough!”

She clamped her jaw shut and waited for a dressing down. But when Admiral Tsao spoke again, it was in a surprisingly gentle voice.

“Ekatya, what injuries did you sustain besides a broken leg?”

“None,” she said, forcing herself to speak calmly. “I am not delusional and I have not been hit in the head. If you would like to speak with Dr. Rivers about this, I can get her for you right now. She’s just down the hall.”

The admiral examined her closely. “You do understand how outrageous this sounds.”

“I do, yes. I didn’t believe it at first, even with all the clues staring me in the face. But it is a fact. The Alseans are an empathic race, and I’d bet my captain’s bars that the Voloth know it.”

There was a long pause.

“All right,” Admiral Tsao said at last. “Clearly, we need that report. Tell Dr. Rivers that she needs to submit her preliminary findings to me by eighteen hundred hours tomorrow—well, today, actually. I’ll make sure it gets to the negotiating team and it will be discussed the day after. In the meantime, your orders stand. And prep the Caphenon for destruction. If Alsea goes to the Voloth, we are certainly not leaving them a Pulsar-class ship to study.”

“Understood.” She’d been expecting that order, regardless of whether the Voloth took over. “What about salvage?”

“We don’t have time to send out a shipbreaker, and you’re too far out from the nearest base for your fighters to make the flight. The personnel ship we’re sending has room for one or two of your shuttles, but not your fighters. I’m afraid it’s a total loss.”

Ekatya nodded. “May I ask a question?”

“Go ahead.”

“Is there a moratorium on territorial movements during the negotiations?”

“Nothing will be happening for at least the next eight days, until the personnel carrier gets all of you out. You’re safe, and so is your crew and the Arkadia.” Admiral Tsao sat back in her chair. “Is there anything else you wish to report?”

“Yes, there is. While the Voloth have been sitting down with the negotiators and pretending generosity, they’ve perfected and tested a new weapon on us.”

That got the admiral’s full attention. “What sort of new weapon?”

“One that destroys hullskin.”

After five seconds of silence, Admiral Tsao said, “I really want to believe that’s the result of a head injury as well. But something tells me you have proof.”

“I do.” Ekatya held up the stasis container holding the mashed and twisted metal fragment that Roris had brought back from the fighter bay. “This penetrated our hull during the battle, and the shrapnel from it apparently hit at least one of our fighters. Both that fighter and the Caphenon are losing their hullskin. The Caphenon is in much worse shape; it’s so bad that we can’t even use the external ladders anymore. They won’t fully form and they fall apart. The fighter’s damage was minimal enough to escape notice during a preflight check, but at full atmospheric speed, it disrupted airflow and flight controls. Lieutenant Candini had to make an emergency landing. We just finished spot-checking several other fighters in the bay, which had been exposed to the Alsean atmosphere overnight, and they show no damage at all. That rules out the possibility of this being something unique to Alsea. It was the Voloth, Admiral. They have a weapon that can end our ability to travel in base space. And whatever it is seems to be almost viral; it spreads and gets worse over time. All it would take is one hit from this weapon to leave a ship stranded.”

“And now they’re negotiating with us for a territory swap.” Admiral Tsao looked very tired. “Well, tomorrow will be an interesting day. All right, Captain. Give me a report with whatever you’ve got and submit it with the one from Dr. Rivers. I’ll see if I can’t slow down these negotiations a bit while we consider the fact that we’re conducting them with an information deficit. It would seem the Voloth are not negotiating in good faith.”

“Imagine that,” Ekatya said dryly.

“Yes. Imagine that.”





Chapter 34

Breaking Fahla’s law


Lanaril Satran looked up from her reading at the tap on her study door. “Yes?”

“Excuse me, Lead Templar, but there’s someone here to see you.” Her clerical aide’s eyes were wide and he was exuding an odd mix of nervousness and awe. Someone powerful, then. Fahla save her from Blacksun politicians thinking their needs of the moment were more important than anyone else’s.

“And did you tell whoever it is that this is my quiet time? I would be happy to open my office in…” She checked the antique wall clock. “…another forty ticks.”

Petralsor grew even more nervous. “No, I didn’t. It’s Lancer Tal.”

It was on the tip of her tongue to ask if he was joking, but his emotions had already provided the answer. Nor was his astonishment any less than hers. Lanaril had long since given up on the piety of Andira Tal, who said and did all the right things to support the religious scholars and temples, but never darkened the doors of Blacksun Temple except for state events.

“Then by all means, show her in.” She carefully marked her place in the book before closing it and setting it on the small table next to her chair. By the time she’d risen and straightened her tunic, Petralsor was back.

“Please enter, Lancer Tal,” he murmured, bowing his head.

“Thank you.” The Lancer’s voice was equally quiet, and when she stepped in, there was a subdued air about her that contrasted sharply with every experience Lanaril had ever had with the woman before now. She’d always seen a vibrant politician in full control of her public image, but in this moment she understood that it was not the politician who currently stood in her study.

Petralsor closed the door almost soundlessly, and Lanaril stepped toward her guest, holding out a palm. “Well met, Lancer Tal. I would say it’s a surprise to see you, but I do hate stating the obvious.”

That earned her a small smile. “Well met, Lead Templar. I’m glad to hear you say that, because today of all days I have no use for the obvious.”

The glimpse of emotions that came through their palm touch confirmed her assumption, and she gestured at one of the comfortable, high-backed chairs facing the window. “This won’t be an official discussion, will it?”

“Not at all.” Lancer Tal sat gracefully as Lanaril retook her own seat. “And I do apologize for interrupting your quiet time. Your aide didn’t know how to say no to me and I’m afraid I took advantage of that. But my time is not my own right now, and this was my only opportunity.”

“You’re very gracious, and I certainly understand the demands on your time. Which can only have tripled since the arrival of our alien visitors.”

“At least.” She rubbed her temples and frowned, and Lanaril didn’t bother to ask before rising again to fill a glass with water from her sideboard. A quick check in the left-hand drawer confirmed that her kit was stocked, and she returned with the glass in one hand and a skinspray in the other.

“Here. It will help.”

Lancer Tal accepted both offerings with a grateful look, emptying the glass in one long drink and injecting herself with the spray immediately afterwards. With a sigh of relief, she let her head fall against the chair back and closed her eyes. “Ah, much better. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. Pardon me for asking, but don’t you have people who are supposed to take care of you? Because they’re not doing a very good job.”

“I’m not letting them. I don’t have time.” Her eyes opened again, and in the bright afternoon sunlight they seemed to glow. “Lead Templar, I need your counsel as the one who is closest to Fahla among all of us.”

“I see. Well, in that case, I am not your Lead Templar and you are not my Lancer. We are all family in the eyes of Fahla, and I don’t call my family by their titles. Please call me Lanaril, and if you don’t mind, I will call you Andira.”

The audacity of her request showed in the Lancer’s eyes. “I haven’t used that name in quite some time.”

“That’s not surprising, considering that you live with a title twenty hanticks a day, every day. And if you’re like the other warriors I counsel, all of your friends are warrior caste and have long forgotten you ever had a given name.”

“You’re certainly right about that.” Lancer Tal studied her. “Which does give me hope for this discussion. So yes, call me Andira.”

“I’m honored to do so. Tell me what concerns you, Andira.”

The immediate name usage startled her guest, who paused a moment before asking, “Can I assume, since we’re speaking on a matter of private counsel, that what I say stays in this room?”

“Yes, of course.”

Andira nodded. “Then this is what concerns me. I’ve just spent two hanticks making condolence calls to sixteen families who lost their loved ones yesterday. Every one of those calls was wrenching, but in every one I was able to say, ‘Your loved one died with honor.’ And when I was done, all I could think about was the fact that within the next nineday, it’s quite likely that I’ll be going to my Return as well. But I don’t know if people will be able to say the same thing about me. Lead—Lanaril,” she corrected herself, “I have lived my entire life by the Truth and the Path, and I’ve striven for honor at every opportunity. But the course of action I’m planning right now has very little honor in it. I need to know if you think I can still find a welcome when I Return to our goddess, despite what I have to do to save Alsea.”

Lanaril took a slow breath. “Before I answer that, I need to know a little more about your situation. First, what is your relationship with Fahla right now? Before you do this thing that lacks honor?”

“I’m not as impious as you probably think. Just because I don’t burn offerings doesn’t mean I don’t honor our goddess. It’s just that I don’t feel her in temples, in the places built by Alsean hands. I feel her in the places she built.”

“You’re an outdoor worshipper.”

“Are we that common?”

“Oh, yes. Though your type does make my job harder. I never know who you are until you come through my door. Your worship has no less value for its location; it’s just less convenient for me.”

Andira smiled. “Sorry about that. But I’m afraid even Blacksun Temple can’t compare to a good run through the forest.”

“Well, I’m rather proud of Blacksun Temple, but let me tell you a secret.” Lanaril leaned closer. “Fahla never specified that her people could worship only in her temples. In fact, she left our options wide open.” She laid a finger on her lips before adding in a whisper, “Don’t tell or we’ll find our budget cut in next cycle’s Council finance assessment.”

With a surprised chuckle, Andira said, “You’re not what I expected.”

“Good, because you’re not what I expected either. Funny how we all look so different without our public image, isn’t it?”

“True words.”

“And that’s what I love about my job. When people come to me, they show me who they really are. Somewhat different from your job, I suspect.”

“Even truer words. But I might have a little more insight into the sort of honesty you experience after spending a day and a half with the Gaians. They have no fronts at all. Everything they feel is there for the taking. It doesn’t even require a surface skim; they just bombard you with their emotions. And yet they’re all sonsales.”

“All of them?”

“The entire race. Every alien out there, on many different worlds. They’re all sonsales. Fahla gave her gift only to us.”

Lanaril sat back against her chair with a muted thump. “Great Goddess. I never thought—well, who would have—but this is—” She stopped and gathered herself. “I have so many questions.”

“And there’s one Gaian in particular who would love to answer them, if you don’t mind answering a thousand of hers in turn. She’s fluent in High Alsean, so there won’t be any barrier to an exchange of knowledge.”

“Are you suggesting that you’d allow me to meet her?” She was so excited at the thought that it took her a moment to see the pain in Andira’s expression. “Wait. This thing you have to do, that you’re so worried about—it has to do with this Gaian, doesn’t it?”

“She’s been betrayed twice already, and I’m about to make it three times. The third will be the worst of all.”

Lanaril reached out to rest her hand atop Andira’s, absorbing her distress. “Tell me.”

She did, and it was a story that took Lanaril’s breath away. She’d had no idea of the truth behind yesterday’s emergency announcement or that their world was so close to annihilation. Andira’s desperate plan was all that stood between Alsea and a horrifying fate, but it was a plan that required her to sacrifice her personal honor.

“Is there any moral law older than the law of self-determination?” Andira asked, her voice rough. “We put people who break that law five levels underground.”

“You have a warrant. You’re not breaking the law.”

“I’m not breaking Alsean law. But I’m breaking Fahla’s. Warrants are for criminals—or at least people we can reasonably assume have some guilt. This woman is an innocent. And if I die in the next battle, I won’t have had time to make up for it. There won’t be any redemption.”

“Oh, Andira.” Lanaril squeezed her hand. “That’s not how it works. Do you think that Fahla would just dismiss your entire life prior to this act? That wouldn’t give people much incentive to live with honor, knowing that it would all be moot after the very next slip.”

“It’s hardly a slip.”

“It’s not a slip at all. You have to do this. Fahla protects us, and she clearly protected us from that Voloth invader. But we can’t just sit back and expect her to do all the work. That would make us unworthy, and then what would be the point of saving us? Self-determination also includes saving ourselves. Fahla gave us her gifts for a reason.”

“Do you really believe that? The ends justify the means? We made the greatest warrior in our history an outcaste because he acted on that belief.”

“That’s a politician’s argument, conflating two very different situations.”

“How are they different? He united the seven kingdoms under the Alsean banner. He brought peace after generations of war.”

“Yes, and who did he do that for? Me? You? The baker who made his bread? He did it for himself. For power. Are you seeking power now? You already have it, Lancer Tal.”

The use of her title brought Andira’s eyes up. “And I’d give it up right now if it would save Alsea.”

“Then there’s your answer. It’s not about the act, it’s about the motive behind it. You’re acting on our behalf. Your motive is unimpeachable, and that’s what Fahla sees.”

She held Andira’s gaze, projecting her own conviction. This woman had burdens enough; she didn’t need a crisis of faith on top of them.

Andira was the first to look away, picking up her empty glass and holding it out. “Might I ask for a refill?”

“Of course you may.” Lanaril took the glass to the sideboard, understanding that her guest needed a little time to think. She neatened up the stack of books next to the fruit bowl before slowly pouring the water, and when she turned around, Andira was standing in front of the window.

“You have a lovely view,” she said as Lanaril came up beside her. “Though I imagine it’s a bit nicer with glass instead of construction sheeting.”

“I think you have a better one.” Lanaril handed her the drink. “You get to see this beautiful temple. I just see the top of the State House over the trees in the park.”

Andira smiled. “Your pride is showing. Thank you for this,” she added, and sipped the water.

“You’re welcome. And my pride is entirely justifiable. Only the Lead Templar of Whitemoon could lay claim to a more beautiful temple, and even then I’d have to remind him that Blacksun Temple is bigger.”

Andira sputtered and hastily took the glass away from her mouth. “I would give much to hear that argument.” She put the glass on the windowsill and turned. “I’m grateful for your words. You’ve given me hope that perhaps I can make peace with this. But I might be coming back to speak with you in a few days.”

“You’re welcome any time. You always have been.”

“Thank you. I, ah, haven’t made a habit of speaking to religious scholars…”

“I noticed,” said Lanaril dryly, and Andira chuckled.

“Well, it seems I’ve been denying myself a good debate partner. Despite the topic, I’ve enjoyed our discussion.”

“As have I. But I’ve enjoyed getting to know Andira Tal more. You ought to come out from behind that public persona more often.”

“There aren’t many places I can safely do that.”

“You can do it right here.”

Andira nodded and held up her hand. “Until next time, then.”

It was when Lanaril touched her palm and realized just how deeply her dread still went that the idea struck. Intertwining their fingers and closing her own, she held Andira in place and said, “Let me do it.”

“What?”

“The Gaian is coming here to speak with me, is she not? It’s the perfect time.”

Andira went still, her expression turning to stone even as the shock radiated through their palm touch. “I’d ask if you had any idea what you’re saying, but…you do. Why would you take this on yourself?”

“Because I’m a child of Fahla as well. This is a fight for all of us. I’m not a warrior, but this particular battle is in here, not out there.” She laid her other hand over Andira’s heart. “And it just might be that the scholar in this room is better equipped to fight that battle than the warrior.”

Andira shook her head. “I’m the Lancer. It’s my responsibility—”

“—to do what only you can do. Not the things that others can do for you.” Lanaril released their hands and stepped back. “Don’t be selfish.”

“Don’t be selfish? As if I want to take…” She trailed off. “There’s no glory in this, if that’s what you seek.”

“Spoken like a warrior. I seek no glory. Besides,” Lanaril added, indicating the room around them, “I’m already the Lead Templar of Blacksun. How much more glory do I need? This is not about honor, or glory, or a place in the songs of our children’s children. It’s about sharing burdens and doing what needs to be done. You have a task that needs to be done. I can do it more easily than you. Let me.”

Once again she held Andira’s gaze, but this time neither of them looked away. At last Andira inclined her head.

“You’ve convinced me. I’ll have your name put on the warrant.”

“You will? I mean…” She paused in the face of Andira’s knowing look. “I’m surprised. Pleased, but surprised.”

“As I said, you’re good at debating. I accept your points. And I’m grateful for your willingness to take this burden.” She glanced at the clock. “I must go. You’ll be hearing from Colonel Razine of the Alsean Investigative Force.”

“I look forward to it.”

“If you tell her that, she’ll wonder why for days.”

Lanaril smiled. “You really aren’t what I was expecting, Andira.” She walked her guest to the door and paused before opening it. “I forgot to ask. Why the scholar and not the captain?”

“Because the captain would be far harder to turn. It would be an even greater betrayal. And it’s not necessary; to have one is to have the other. They’re tyrees.” Andira opened the door. “But they don’t know it, and I don’t think we should tell them. Until next time, Lead Templar.”

She strode down the hall without a backward glance, leaving a shocked Lanaril staring after her.

“Tyrees,” she whispered to herself as she closed the door. “Alien tyrees. Oh, Fahla, what have you done?”





Chapter 35

A few things


“I’m not sure you’re going to fit through there.” Ekatya eyed the narrow gap.

“Sure I will,” Baldassar said. “It’s just a matter of shrinking the rib cage.” He pressed himself between the bulkhead and the debris, took in several deep breaths, then exhaled and pulled himself into the gap—and promptly got stuck. Ekatya was just thinking she’d have to yank him back when he grunted, jerked his body, and popped out on the other side. Brushing himself off, he gave her a triumphant grin. “Told you.”

“It’s a good thing these uniforms don’t have buttons anymore,” she said, slipping through with far less effort. “You’d have lost every one of them.”

They were the last ones to make the trek to their personal quarters. Ekatya hadn’t had time until now, after spending the day working with Lhyn on their two reports, and Baldassar had refused to go until he’d seen the rest of the crew safely back from what they were calling “retrieval missions.” Ekatya wasn’t sure what was left to retrieve from her quarters, given Lhyn’s description of their condition.

“I could never understand the point of buttons on a duty uniform anyway.” He led the way around a pile of ceiling tiles. “Seems like they’re designed for getting caught on things, or sucked in. Or messing up the magnetic balance of calibrated equipment. The Alseans love them, though. The ones on Lancer Tal’s uniform yesterday nearly blinded me.”

“That was her dress uniform. I gave her a little ribbing for it this morning.”

He glanced over his shoulder. “Are you sure it’s wise to be teasing her?”

“Are you worried?”

“Well…you’ve only known her for two days, and she does have total power over us. I’d hate to see you break some taboo you don’t know about and get us all thrown into the Alsean version of a brig.”

“Dr. Rivers says they don’t have brigs, they have dungeons.”

When he stopped to stare, she couldn’t keep a straight face.

“Kidding, Commander. I think we’re safe. They know our intent, after all. It’s hard to get angry at a tease if you know it’s well-meant.”

“I suppose that’s true.”

He set off again, rounding a corner a few meters later. Ekatya followed him into a length of corridor so clear of damage that she could almost have convinced herself that the last two days were a nightmare, and her ship was intact. Almost, that is, if it weren’t for the tilted floor.

But at least now she and Baldassar could walk side by side, which made the conversation easier.

“It’s rather amazing to imagine a culture without misunderstandings or the ability to obfuscate,” he said. “Doesn’t it make you wonder why they even need a warrior caste? I mean, just think about how many of our past wars happened because one side didn’t believe the other’s intent, or did believe it but was taken advantage of.”

“Don’t forget they can still deceive each other. It just takes a certain level of empathic strength to do it. Besides, many of our wars happened precisely because each side knew what the other intended. Things like territory and resource grabs start wars regardless of any understanding.”

“We do tend to find a lot to fight over.”

“That’s for damned sure. And the warrior caste isn’t limited to soldiers. That just happens to be all we’ve met so far. According to Dr. Rivers, it includes the other protective services as well, like firefighting, rescue work, law enforcement…and a whole category of jobs that are considered physically dangerous. She says one of the most popular broadcasts right now is a fictional story about a warrior who rescues and rehabilitates injured predatory species.”

“Now that is not what I’d have expected. A cuddly warrior.”

She smiled. “Just a suggestion, Commander: I wouldn’t use that particular phrase with any of our new friends.”

“Thanks for the advice.”

They came around a curve and were stopped by a tangle of debris making a maze out of the corridor where their quarters were located. Ekatya shook her head and began weaving through it. “It’s a fascinating culture,” she said. “I wish we had time for more exchange and less panicked report writing.”

“Do you think you can save it? Will the reports be enough?”

Her earlier humor abruptly vanished. “I hope to the skies that we can. The fact that we’re even having to fight for it makes me sick.”

“Me too. But you can’t dismiss those five worlds.”

“We don’t even know what’s on those five worlds. Dr. Rivers says they haven’t been studied. Or at least, she’s completely unaware of them, which is the same thing as saying they haven’t been studied.”

“By us. Apparently the Voloth have studied them.”

“Oh, yes, and the Voloth are so trustworthy. I just finished a crash course in exactly what the Alseans have to offer, and it’s considerable. What if those five civilizations are still using stone tools?”

“They’re still civilizations, though. Does their level of development matter?”

She glanced over in surprise. “What’s the point of the Non-Interference Act if the level of development doesn’t matter?”

He sighed. “I know. I’m just…not comfortable with this. You may not believe in the Seeders, but I do, and everything I was taught says we’re not supposed to play their role. We don’t have their knowledge or their ability to see what will be. These kinds of decisions aren’t ours to make.”

“Unfortunately, they seem to have left it up to us.”

“I can’t believe that’s true.” He shoved a half-attached section of bulkhead to the side, gesturing for her to pass before stepping forward and letting it fall back behind them. “There’s a right choice; we just have to figure out which one it is. The real danger is missing the sign, or misinterpreting it. But it will be there, for those who have the eyes to see.”

“Sometimes, Commander, I really do wish I had your faith.” She pushed her way past a dangling conduit and stopped in front of her quarters. “Well, time to see what’s left of it.”

“Good luck.” He moved down the hall toward his own door.

Ekatya tapped the lock panel and watched her door slide open. “And that’s probably the only thing that isn’t broken,” she muttered to herself. Taking a step inside, she stared in dismay at the disaster that used to be her home. The door slid quietly shut behind her, sealing her in, and she found herself very near tears.

Since the moment she’d known the fate of Lhyn and her crew, her every waking thought had been taken up with the things she needed to do, the things she wished she’d done, replays of the battle, replays and dissections of the conversations she’d had with Lhyn and Lancer Tal, and every other mental demand that cycled endlessly through her brain. But here in her quarters, truly alone for the first time in days, she felt more weary than she could ever remember.

She picked her way over to the sofa, shoved off the largest pieces of debris, sat down and buried her face in her hands. If she was going to cry, best to just get it over with so she could move on to the next item on her list.

But the tears refused to come, hovering maddeningly just out of reach, and she dropped her hands with a huff of frustration. She couldn’t relax enough to cry. There was too much to do and think about. Soon Lancer Tal would be sending someone to collect her and Lhyn for the High Council meeting, and she needed to check in with Kameha, who had taken Torado with him to muscle their way to the shuttle bay and see about launching their remaining shuttle. If all went well, they’d fly it over to Blacksun Base tonight and end their dependence on the Alseans for transportation, not to mention that she really wanted access to the shuttle’s quantum com. Of course, she hadn’t yet asked the Lancer for permission to park an alien shuttle at the base…

She shook her head. If she kept on at this rate, she’d still be sitting here when Baldassar came by on his way back.

Another piece of debris clattered to the floor when she rose, and she kicked it aside on her way to the bedroom. In the doorway, she looked at the unmade bed and remembered Lhyn smiling at her from that very pillow as she’d left her quarters to start what should have been just another duty shift. All she’d been thinking about then was putting in her time and coming straight back here, hopefully to spend another evening with Lhyn. Never in her wildest dreams did she imagine that when she returned, it would be for the last time.

She pushed a hanging cable out of the way and crossed over to the wall drawers, opening them one after another and creating a slowly growing pile of items on the floor. The palm-sized hologram base with all of her family photos. The soft pouch holding her kasmet game pieces, a gift from her grandfather when she turned sixteen. Rather prosaically, four pairs of underwear because she’d be damned if she’d wear this generically-sized Fleet-issued pair one more minute than necessary. Four pairs of her comfortable, soft socks for the same reason. A fifth pair of each went onto the bed, along with one of the uniforms she’d had tailored at Station Erebderis. A second tailored uniform joined the pile.

She added the wooden brain puzzler that her grandmother had carved for her when she was eleven, which had taken her two stellar years to solve. Once she’d solved it, she’d taken it apart and reassembled it so many times that the wood was smooth as silk from constant handling. With a smile, she moved one of the pieces out, ran her thumb over it, and slid it back in.

In the next drawer she pulled out the official notification of her promotion to captain, preserved in a transparency. She could just have this reissued, but it wouldn’t be the one that Admiral Tsao had given her during her promotion ceremony. It went onto the pile, along with her medal case.

She stopped, leaned down, and picked up the medal case again. The hinge creaked as she opened it. She ran her finger over the two gleaming medals, one red and one silver, and remembered Admiral Tsao telling her that she’d have been eligible for a Blue Star if only she hadn’t inconveniently fought her battle on the wrong day.

Just how meaningful were these, then? Did she get them because she’d fought on the right day those two times? Because her actions followed the political wind of the moment? She’d been so proud to be decorated with these, as if they were some sort of sacrament. She’d thought they meant that her courage, her quick thinking, her ability under extreme pressure to remember and act on her training had been recognized and admired by her superiors.

Snapping the case shut, she tossed it back in the drawer.

When she finished with her search, she pulled the bag from her thigh pocket, shook it out, and put the rescued items inside. Then she stripped off the generic uniform Kameha had brought her and changed into the clothing she’d set aside on the bed, sighing with relief when her uniform once more fit the way it was supposed to.

Next was the closet, where she looked over the pantsuits and dresses she’d worn to diplomatic events, conferences, and the occasional date. With a sweep of her arm she shoved them to one side and took her armored jacket off its hanger. After shrugging it on, she went to her bedside table and pulled out her hand phaser and holster, three spare power packs, and a handful of stun beads, all of which went into the designated clips and pouches on her jacket. The holster clipped onto her uniform belt with a satisfying snick, holding the phaser at the small of her back.

Much better. She hadn’t enjoyed the feeling of being the only unarmed one in the room, when Lancer Tal and her Guards carried weapons as if they’d been born holding them. It wasn’t that she expected to need any of this, but she also didn’t expect that the Alseans would appreciate losing the Caphenon. Hopefully, she could delay informing them of that little detail until right before she and her crew left.

She picked up her bag and headed to the living area to get a few things from her desk. As she cleared the doorway, she saw what she’d missed on her way in and stopped in shock, the bag dropping from her nerveless hand.

They’d never told her. Nobody had told her. How had she not known?

She remembered Lhyn’s brilliant grin yesterday morning and her cheerful announcement that her arm was broken in four places. But she hadn’t said it was a compound fracture.

The blood stains turned her light, Fleet-standard carpet a rusty brown, and they were everywhere. It looked…fucking Hades, it looked as if Lhyn had tried to crawl out from under that structural beam and smeared blood all around her body in the process. Ekatya couldn’t even imagine how much pain she must have been in. No wonder she’d passed out.

“Oh, Lhyn,” she whispered, and sank into a crouch as the tears finally came.

When she’d cried herself out, she stood up and went back into the bedroom. Yanking open the third drawer, she pulled out her medal case, detached both medals from their cloth bed, and threw the case on the floor. Back in the living area she knelt and carefully laid one medal on each of the two largest blood stains. When the Caphenon blew, the evidence of Lhyn’s lonely suffering would blow with it. Until then, she’d honor it the only way she could.

It was when she looked up from setting the second medal that she saw the statue from Molocoor. It was lying on the floor, right where Lhyn had said it was. Somehow it had managed to stay intact even with four people stomping around, shoving off that structural beam and stabilizing Lhyn’s injuries before carrying her out. Ekatya’s fingers shook slightly as she reached out and picked it up. She cradled it in her hands and thought that if someone had told her she could bring only one item out, this would be it.

Carefully she wrapped the statue in her spare uniform jacket, put it in the bag, and then moved to her desk. Her backup pad holding the entirety of her personal and work files, the irreplaceable two-dimensional photo of her grandparents on their wedding day, and a few other precious items found their way into the bag, along with two of the smallest, unbroken pieces from her art collection. When she was done, she hefted the bag in one hand and reflected on the fact that very little really qualified as priceless in her life.

Her eyes went to the bloodstains on the floor.

Very little indeed.





Chapter 36

High Council


Chairs scraped as six of the most powerful political players in Blacksun stood respectfully.

“Well met,” Tal said, setting her reader card at the head of the conference table. Aldirk walked around to his customary seat at the other end.

“Well met,” several voices answered, but every eye was on the empty doorway behind her.

“No, they’re not with me. I gave Captain Serrado a different start time for tonight’s meeting. She and Lhyn Rivers will be brought in one hantick from now.”

“Another postponement, how surprising,” said Prime Warrior Shantu.

“Not a postponement. A short delay. I need to speak to the six of you without them here.” Tal pulled out her chair and sat down, waiting while the others settled in. Aldirk, Fahla bless him, brought her a cup of shannel from the room’s dispenser. She took a sip and closed her eyes, enjoying the warmth.

She’d been in more High Council meetings than she could count, always in this room. It was the most posh conference room in the State House, high up on the fourteenth floor with a spectacular view. Unlike other such rooms, which tended to be larger to accommodate more people, the High Council’s room was intentionally small, reinforcing the elite status of the few people allowed inside. But the ceiling was high and decorated with intricate scrollwork, and the outside wall was entirely glass, lending the room a spacious feel. The walls were hung with ancient tapestries depicting the formation of the unified Alsean government, the table and chairs were five hundred cycles old, and the very air was heavy with history.

“Well, that has my attention,” said Prime Scholar Yaserka from his seat on Tal’s right. His gray hair was longer than Shantu’s, but he lacked the effortless style of the Prime Warrior. Where Shantu’s hair was wavy and fashionably cut, Yaserka’s was in a plain tail and looked as if it hadn’t been cut in several moons. He dressed conservatively and paid little attention to his appearance. In her less charitable moments—usually after a particularly contentious High Council meeting—Tal wondered if his very lack of affectation was an affectation, playing to the stereotype of a scholar so deeply cerebral that he had no time for the unimportant things.

Beside him, Prime Builder Eroles was dazzling by comparison. Like Shantu, she could always be counted on to sport the very latest in fashion, which today included a half-length cape that hung on the wall behind her. A matching cap sat jauntily on her shining black hair, its light blue color reflected in the brilliantly patterned suit that glowed against her dark skin and eyes. If Eroles owned dark clothing, Tal had never seen it. Shantu, on the other hand, never wore anything but. They were friends and always sat next to each other, the light and the dark, and a more unlikely pair Tal could not imagine. But no one made Shantu smile the way Eroles could.

Across from Shantu was Prime Merchant Parser, a short and unattractive man with neither the panache of Shantu and Eroles, nor the easy intellectualism of Yaserka. He sported the crooked nose common to merchants of the mountainous Pallean west coast, where fighting was the usual way of settling business disputes. Though any of the merchants could have had their noses set properly, for some odd reason it had become the fashion to let the breaks heal imperfectly. In that region, the more crooked a merchant’s nose, the more respect he or she commanded. But in Blacksun, Parser’s nose stood out like a beacon.

To his right was the willowy Prime Crafter Bylwytin, light of hair and skin, and by far the quietest member of the High Council. Between her and Tal was Prime Producer Arabisar, a lean woman with shannel-colored skin and slightly slanted eyes. She almost always wore her caste’s color somewhere on her person; today it was the green ribbon holding her chronometer to her lapel.

“Lancer Tal,” she said, “I think I speak for all of us when I ask: Why has it taken two full days for you to convene this Council? And from what I understand, you’ve undertaken quite a few unilateral actions in that time; actions in which we’ve had no voice.”

Tal covered her surprise that it had been Arabisar who’d asked the question. She’d expected it of Yaserka or Parser.

“The constitution transfers extraordinary powers to the Lancer’s seat in cases of global emergency. If this doesn’t constitute a global emergency, I hardly know what would.”

“Extraordinary powers, yes,” Yaserka said. “But not unilateral. And you are still required to report to us within a reasonable amount of time. In my opinion, two days after aliens start wandering around our planet is not a reasonable amount of time.”

“I concur,” said Parser.

Shantu had been nodding his head in agreement, but as soon as Parser spoke he stopped. Tal stifled a smile; Shantu’s unwillingness to visibly agree with Parser on anything had often worked to her advantage.

“First of all, aliens are not wandering around our planet,” she said. “The Gaians have been under guard and observation at all times, and they go nowhere without being shuttled there in my transport and under the watch of my Guards. Second, as you know I had planned this meeting for last night, with the intent of having you hear directly from the Gaian leaders. Unfortunately, we lost our translation capabilities before that, due to a little matter of an alien attack, which Shantu and I spent considerable time beating back with a great deal of warrior help.” She wasn’t above a little warrior pride herself, and if it brought Shantu over on her side, so much the better.

“Yes, yes. That explains yesterday. It doesn’t explain why we are now meeting at the end of a second day.”

Tal stared at Yaserka until he began to look uncomfortable. “When would you have had us meet? The only time I’ve been in my office all day was when I was making condolence calls to sixteen warrior families. Would that have been a more convenient time for you?”

Aldirk cleared his throat. “With respect, Lancer Tal, you were also in your office while you were recording today’s emergency message to the Alsean populace. Perhaps the members of this Council believe their need for personal consultation should have been a higher priority than the comfort of the families of the dead, or the prevention of a planetary panic.”

Yaserka glared at him. “You are twisting my words. I asked only for an explanation of this delay.”

“And you’ve received one,” Tal said. “This is the earliest time we could meet, particularly if you have any desire to speak with Captain Serrado. She’s been working nonstop all day on a report to her government, trying to make certain Alsea is defended by the Protectorate against another Voloth attack.”

“Oh, for the love of Fahla.” Bylwytin spoke for the first time. “Could you all stop snapping at each other long enough to tell us what is actually going on? I’d like to hear more about the aliens and less about the egos in this room. I already know all about those.”

“Yes, I’m sorry I asked.” Arabisar was sending eye daggers at Yaserka, and Tal would have bet her sword he’d put her up to the question.

“Then shall we continue our meeting?” she asked. After a round of nods, however reluctant some of them were, she looked at Bylwytin while addressing the rest. “I know you have many questions, and I promise to answer them as best I can with the limited knowledge I have.” Bylwytin inclined her head, and Tal turned to the others. “But I’m going to ask you to hold those questions to your chests for now. We have much to get through before Captain Serrado arrives. Aldirk, do you have the final count from last night’s battle?”

Aldirk picked up his reader card. “In addition to the ten warrior dead from the battle and the six from earlier that morning, the ground pounder killed two hundred and forty-seven civilians. One hundred and eighty-three of them were from the village of Duin Bridge, which was utterly destroyed. Sixty-four more were killed in their homes along the Roaring River. All of the civilian dead have been identified and most have been released to their kin, but we still have thirty-two bodies that have not been collected due to the inability to contact kin.”

“How is that possible?” Arabisar asked. “That’s a producer village in a region with little outward migration. The local caste house should have personal connections with everyone there.”

Aldirk nodded. “The caste house secretary informed me that the problem is not in knowing whom to contact. The problem is in reaching those individuals. Apparently Lancer Tal’s statement this morning did not allay public fear as well as we’d hoped.”

“They’re afraid to come and collect their own dead?” Shantu said in disbelief. “To the point of avoiding a call from the caste house?”

“It’s not unexpected,” Yaserka said. “There’s no precedent for this in all of Alsean history. Not to mention the fact that the warriors didn’t locate the ground pounder until it had already destroyed Duin Bridge. How are the people supposed to believe that they’re safe when you couldn’t guarantee it yesterday?”

Shantu’s eyes narrowed and Tal held up a hand. “Yaserka, you’ve been throwing darts since before this meeting even opened. Stop it, now. I had little patience left after my day and you’ve already used it up. If I don’t see perfect courtesy among all of you, I will not hesitate to throw the culprits out before Captain Serrado arrives. So if you want to meet her and ask your questions, act like the adults you’re supposed to be. Clear?”

All of them looked startled, but Bylwytin’s surprise melted into an approving smile. “I have no issue with that.”

“That’s because you’re always an adult.” Arabisar nodded at Tal. “I agree, Lancer Tal. Today is not a day for us to be divided.”

Tal waited while the others eventually agreed. “Good. Then what are our numbers for tomorrow, Aldirk?”

“Seven of the dead were retired warriors; their kin have requested that they be included in the state funeral. All of the others said they prefer a local ceremony at the caste house. I’m working on transportation for the retired warriors now.”

“I will handle that,” Shantu said.

“Thank you.” Aldirk made a note on his card. “In all, we’ll be burning twenty-three bodies tomorrow. I have—”

“Twenty-three?” Parser interrupted. “What about the three aliens?”

“The captain wishes to return their bodies to their homes,” said Tal. “They’ll be included in the memorial ceremony, but not the funeral.”

“They’re going to hold their dead until then?” He looked ill. “I heard that it would be half a moon before they plan to leave.”

“I don’t know where you heard that, considering that not even Captain Serrado knows when she’s leaving. But you’re correct in that they will be holding their dead for longer than we would.”

In truth, Tal had been startled by the captain’s refusal of her offer for a funeral, but with all that had happened since then, she hadn’t given it any more thought. Now she sympathized with Parser’s unease.

“They must have different funeral practices,” Yaserka said reasonably. “I look forward to learning more about them.”

So did Tal, now that she was thinking about it. “Regardless, we’re burning twenty-three bodies. Bylwytin, will you tell us what you’ve been able to put together?”

“With pleasure. Of course the Blacksun Symphony will be performing; that’s a given. The Voices of the Deep were very anxious to be included as well, and Lead Templar Satran will do the reading. I have one surprise for you: Kyrie Razinfin is flying in from Redmoon tonight and will solo during the Flight of the Return.”

Murmurs of approval went around the table, and Tal smiled at the Prime Crafter. “A coup indeed. Well done.”

Bylwytin returned the smile with a touch of pride. “I must confess that despite the appalling reasons for it, I’m looking forward to that part of the ceremony. It will be one for the ages.”

“I wonder what the aliens will think of the Flight,” Arabisar mused.

“If they’ve any sense, they’ll realize how fortunate they are to witness it,” Shantu said.

“Are the warriors ready?” Tal asked him.

“They are—and most anxious to honor their fallen. Colonel Debrett has asked to say a few words.”

“Of course. And Captain Serrado will be speaking on behalf of her fallen.”

That perked everyone’s ears, but since Tal was unable to tell them what the captain planned to say, Aldirk wrapped up his presentation and the meeting moved on.

“Eroles, will you bring us up to date on the window repairs?”

“Yes, it’s quite astonishing. My people tell me that the matter printer on that ship is nothing short of miraculous. They—”

“Your people are on the ship?” Yaserka cut in. “When I can’t even get my calls returned?”

“My people are doing their jobs, thank you. Would you like your office repaired or not?”

“Lancer Tal—”

“No one else is boarding the Caphenon right now,” Tal said. “I specifically approved the six builders Eroles recommended, and the cargo pilots can’t actually be said to be boarding. We’ll discuss this in a few ticks. Please continue, Prime Builder.”

“Thank you. As I was saying, the technology is miraculous. We shared our glassmaking process with their engineer, Kyne Xi, and he said our mix of ingredients was only marginally different from what the Gaians use. I’m told he programmed their matter printer for perhaps three ticks and then produced the first sheet of glass.”

Kyne Xi?” Shantu asked. “I understood they had no caste system.”

“They don’t, but in the course of discussing glassmaking, it was mentioned that kyne is the honorific for a builder, and Trooper Xi said he thought all engineers should have an honorific. So we’ve made him a temporary member of the builder caste and are calling him by the appropriate name.” She shot Shantu a challenging look. “You had first swing at them last night; perhaps you should have made an offer to the captain and her commander.”

He snorted, but his eyes crinkled as he met her grin. “We were a little busy fighting off the most dangerous foe our planet has ever seen. Next time we gather around a sheet of glass and drink a bottle of spirits, perhaps the topic will come up.”

“That is exactly the sort of interaction I hoped for,” Tal said. “You chose your people well, Eroles.”

“They’re good people. And they’re doing good work. Between the Gaians and my builders, we’re producing four-by-nine sheets of the highest-grade tempered glass at such a rate that we’ll be able to repair all of the reported damage within half a moon. There’s no difference between what the Gaian matter printer outputs and what our own factories can produce, except that they can do it a great deal faster.”

“That sounds like disruptive technology,” said Arabisar.

“No, it sounds like profitable technology,” Parser answered, and Tal could practically see the cogs turning in his head.

“It’s both,” she said. “And the topic of a High Council meeting all by itself, but that’s not what we’re speaking of right now.” She nodded at Eroles, who detailed the establishment of a virtual assembly line of cargo pilots between Blacksun and the Caphenon, taking delivery of the glass in the ship’s cargo bay and shuttling it to temporary depots.

“If I may,” Yaserka said. “Why are we pouring resources into repairing windows when we’re expecting a potential invasion? Shouldn’t we be preparing for that instead?”

“We’re preparing for that as best we can right now,” Shantu answered. “Fueling, arming, drilling…but there’s only so much we can do without knowing the exact nature of the threat and establishing a strategy to meet it. Hence tonight’s meeting with Captain Serrado.”

“Precisely,” said Tal. “And in the meantime, we have a very nervous population out there looking to us for leadership. We need to show them that we have everything in hand. We also need to show them that the Gaians are part of the solution. Having them help us with repairs accomplishes both objectives.”

Parser nodded. “That makes sense. The last thing we need is a panic-fueled economic crisis.”

“Not to mention that we can’t afford to expend warriors for riot control when we may need them for something a great deal more important than rescuing merchants,” Shantu added.

“Those merchants keep your warriors clothed, fed, and armed,” Parser snapped.

“Excuse me,” said Arabisar. “The producers keep everyone fed. The merchants just distribute.”

Tal could feel her headache coming back.

“Regarding the ownership of the Caphenon…” She paused as every High Council member leaned forward. “I have confirmed with our legal scholars that salvage law applies, and the ship belongs to its captain.”

Shantu and Yaserka both made noises of disapproval, but she spoke over them. “However, the captain does not intend to keep her ship.”

“What?” Shantu demanded. “Why not?”

“When can we have access?” Yaserka wanted to know.

“If I may finish?”

They sat back with matching glowers.

“Thank you. Now, what I’m about to say is classified at Level One. Captain Serrado plans to destroy her ship, but she doesn’t know that we know it. Do not even think of interrupting me now,” she said when Parser opened his mouth. He clamped it shut again. “So I’ve put my alternative plan in motion, and we’re already gathering the necessary information. Once the captain abandons her ship, as she must before she can give the order to destroy it, we can legally claim it. The catch will be making certain that she can’t go through with the self-destruct, which is initiated by a voice command from both the captain and commander. I’ve made certain those voice commands will be ineffective.”

She met Shantu’s eyes. “Before you ask, no, we are not taking over the ship proactively. There’s still a chance that Captain Serrado will be able to persuade her Protectorate to defend Alsea, and as long as that chance lives, she must be given room to work. The other issue is that if we take the ship by force, we’ll be locked out of every system protected by a command code—which I’m reliably informed is practically all of them. That lockout was the first thing Captain Serrado did when her ship crashed, for this exact reason. I’m taking care of that problem as well.”

Parser was smiling now. “You’re spinning quite a web, Lancer Tal. I must confess I’m impressed. You’re usually much less…covert.”

“I usually have much less at stake. There can be zero mistakes, which is why I delayed Captain Serrado’s arrival tonight. For this to work, she cannot suspect us of anything but blind belief in her intentions. If she even begins to suspect, we’ll lose our free access and any chance of learning what we need to know in time. We can’t possibly learn enough without their help, not in the time frame we’re facing. Now, she knows about high empaths and she knows she can’t lie when I’m in the room. She’s probably figured out that there are other high empaths here as well. We cannot put her in the position of answering questions about what she plans to do with her ship when she leaves. Ask her or Lhyn Rivers anything else you want; I’m sure you have no shortage of things you’d like to know. Shantu and I have no shortage of things we need to know. But do not ask her that. Let her think that the idea hasn’t even occurred to us.”

She looked around the table and saw their understanding.

“This information you’re gathering,” said Eroles, “will it include anything other than how to use the ship’s weapons?”

“The weapons must be our first priority, but yes, I have a list. The next thing on it is the theoretical basis of that matter printer.”

Eroles smiled. “Good.”

“You need scholars for that, not warriors,” Yaserka said.

“I agree. And very specific ones at that. Aldirk?”

“This is a list of the requirements for any scholars you may suggest,” Aldirk said, tapping his reader card.

Yaserka picked up his own reader card and scanned the file. His eyebrows rose. “I see.”

“I’m confident that we’ll soon have full access to the Caphenon,” Tal said. “The only question is whether we’ll be able to take immediate advantage of it, or whether we’ll spend the next ten cycles wandering around it like lost children—assuming we survive to the end of this moon. I think we can all agree that the latter option is not attractive. But there is more to learn than we could have imagined, and something for every caste. Yes, including the producers and crafters,” she said when Arabisar would have spoken. “You’ll want to see their arboretum and corridor plantings. They use plants for oxygen exchange, food, and simple aesthetics. Bylwytin, you might weep to see the way they’ve incorporated art into the fabric of their working spaces. Ask Captain Serrado about it when you meet her in a few ticks; I think you’ll find her happy to speak of her people’s accomplishments. But remember: it is critically important that you give the appearance of unsuspecting, technologically disadvantaged people.”

“Much as I would like access to that ship sooner rather than later,” Shantu said, “you’re right. This is a delicate situation and we need a consistent strategy. And I confess I’m rather enjoying the idea of knowing more than the aliens who think themselves so much more advanced.”

Of course he would. But in this case, Shantu’s arrogance worked in her favor.

She could live with that.





Chapter 37

Morning after


Ekatya woke to the most beautiful sight she could imagine, and spent several indulgent minutes simply enjoying it in the stillness of the early morning.

Just as she always had, though, Lhyn somehow knew when she was being watched even while asleep. Her eyes blinked open, and she gave Ekatya a drowsy smile. “Morning.”

“Good morning.” Ekatya reached out to brush the hair away from her face. “Thanks for staying.”

Lhyn rolled onto her back, stretched luxuriously, and turned over again looking far more awake. “You’re kidding, right? Like I’d waste a chance like this?”

“It was nice of her.”

“Lancer Tal is my favorite world leader ever. Seriously, who would have thought a politician could be that thoughtful and discreet?”

“Isn’t discretion the soul of politics?”

“Okay, yes, but not thoughtfulness.”

True. Ekatya had been just as grateful as Lhyn when Lancer Tal had shown them to their new quarters at Blacksun Base last night. Looking slightly embarrassed, she’d indicated the door in the outside wall of Lhyn’s room and said that it opened onto a veranda that would connect with Ekatya’s room. She hadn’t been certain whether or not to give them a room together, so she’d hedged her bets and given them separate rooms with what Lhyn promptly called the sneak-out option.

An option which they’d taken advantage of so quickly that they hadn’t had time to talk.

“Did you have any idea about their beliefs regarding hugs?” Ekatya asked.

“Well, I know they’re reserved about physical touch. But I’ve seen so many parents hugging children, bondmates hugging each other, and lovers…I did observe that friends don’t embrace, but we have several cultures in the Protectorate where that’s the case. There’s usually some alternate form of physical connection, and here it’s the palm touch. It didn’t occur to me that an embrace between non-related adults was actually an advertisement of a sexual connection.”

“We must have scandalized them in the strategy room after the battle.” Ekatya couldn’t help smiling at the memory. Lhyn had needed that hug, and she wouldn’t have done anything else even if she had known how the Alseans would interpret it, but it was still a bit amusing to imagine their reaction.

“For certain. I’m feeling a sudden urge to go find Commander Kameha at breakfast this morning and give him a big hug.”

The snort came out of Ekatya’s throat before she could stop it, and they both burst out laughing.

“This is why I love waking up with you,” Ekatya said. “Nobody else can make me laugh like that.”

Lhyn leaned over to kiss her before settling in with her head on Ekatya’s shoulder. “I love their word for it. Warmron. It just sounds so…warm, and sweet and fuzzy.”

Ekatya hadn’t thought about it. “Now that you mention it, it does sound nice. Like the toddies my grandmother gave me whenever I got sick.”

“Language is powerful. Words often reflect the emotions or values associated with them. Warmrons are clearly treasured in Alsean culture—if they weren’t, there wouldn’t be such a strong stricture against offering them outside the proper relationship. Which makes me really curious about that stricture. Where did it come from?”

“Why does it have to come from anywhere?”

“Every cultural restriction or observation has some source. There has to be a meaning for it. Usually, the origin is ancient and everyone’s forgotten what it was. Half the time there’s no longer any reason for it, because whatever made it important eons ago doesn’t apply anymore. My guess is that at some point a gazillion years ago, there was a perfectly good reason why adults who weren’t romantically connected shouldn’t hug each other. I’d also guess that reason doesn’t exist anymore, though the stricture still does, and that’s a damned shame. Imagine never being able to give a friend a hug when she needs one.”

“Or never getting one unless you have a spouse or a lover.” Ekatya had been through many a dry spell in her life—it came with being a Fleet captain—but there were always her grandparents when she went home on leave and the old friends she managed to meet now and again. “I guess I could live without hugs from friends if I had to. But from my grandparents?”

“Yes, that’s the one that really interests me. Restricting touch between non-related Alseans isn’t surprising, but restricting it within families…wow. Parental physicality is built into our DNA. And it’s so arbitrary, too. One day you can hug your mom, and the next day it’s your Rite of Ascension and boom, you can never hug your mom again. Ever.”

Ekatya ran her fingers through Lhyn’s hair while she thought about it. That was certainly a part of Alsean culture she couldn’t get behind.

Lhyn chuckled. “I’m just glad Lancer Tal had the tact to wait until we were alone before asking us about our supposed bonding advertisement.”

“I think ‘tact’ might be that woman’s middle name. She puts me to shame.”

“Ekatya, you just think you’re tactful. Probably because all you have to compare yourself to are other Fleeters.”

“Oh, you shouldn’t say things like that when you’re in this position.” Ekatya grabbed her and began tickling, which led to a laughing struggle until Lhyn agreed to take it back, which then led to a repeat of the previous night’s lovemaking. When they finally noticed the time, it was too late for anything but Lhyn’s rapid retreat.

“I feel like a teenager out after curfew,” she said, picking up her clothes from the floor.

“I never had this kind of fun as a teenager.” Ekatya watched lazily from the bed. “My grandparents were very strict.”

“And that explains so much about you. Stern in public, wild anywhere else.”

“Not anywhere. Just with you.”

Lhyn paused, an enormous smile on her face. “That might just be one of my greatest accomplishments. I only wish I could put it on my résumé.”

They shared a final kiss before Lhyn silently opened the door, looked both ways, blew a kiss back into the room, and tiptoed out.

Ekatya rolled onto her back and sighed. Wonderful as last night and this morning had been, she was getting tired of hiding. Maybe she should confess to Baldassar and be done with it.

“Bad idea,” she muttered. That was the problem with a lie of omission: the longer you let it go, the bigger it grew. This one was already too big to handle.

All thoughts of catching a little extra sleep had now fled. Grumbling, she threw back the covers. Might as well get ready for what promised to be another long day.





Chapter 38

Flight of the Return


“Fancy meeting you here,” said Lieutenant Candini.

“We do seem to spend a lot of time in this transport, don’t we?” Ekatya sat next to her pilot and fastened her harness. “Maybe you should ask them for training. Then they could give us one of their transports as a loaner.”

“Well, I thought I’d be flying our own shuttle today.”

“I know. But Lancer Tal does have a point. If she’s got nervous citizens to worry about, having an obviously alien shuttle zipping back and forth over their largest city is probably not going to help matters.”

In truth, Ekatya wasn’t happy with the Lancer’s decision either. But she understood it. Besides, the most important thing was that their shuttle had operated perfectly, landing at Blacksun Base with no sign of the hullskin issue that continued to eat at the Caphenon. And now she had access to a quantum com within easy walking distance of her quarters, which was also acting as a relay between the Arkadia and their pads. She could communicate, and she could leave.

Though the latter might be difficult, she mused as she watched Lhyn coming up the ramp with Baldassar. She was gesticulating as she spoke, her face alight, and Ekatya would have bet a week’s salary that she was telling him about their tour of the State House the night before. After the High Council meeting, which had been surprisingly low-key, Lancer Tal had offered a tour and Lhyn had nearly fallen out of her chair in her eagerness to say yes. They walked through high-ceilinged corridors and rooms steeped in history, and Lhyn asked so many questions that Ekatya was overwhelmed by the amount of information the Lancer gave in answer.

Her crew enjoyed the rest of their day as well. Xi and the weapons team had only good things to say about the builders who worked with them on the glass project, Kameha was impressed with the engineers he’d spoken to, and everyone came back from the markets in new clothes and high spirits. Ekatya was beginning to think she was the only one who remembered that they hadn’t actually been sent here on a diplomatic mission.

“I hear I missed out on a spectacular tour last night.” Baldassar stepped around Ekatya’s seat to slide into the row behind her.

Lhyn settled into the aisle seat across from Ekatya and leaned over toward them. “I was just telling Commander Baldassar about the Council Chamber.”

“Oh, that was spectacular,” Ekatya agreed. “Think of the Assembly Room, with one-fifth the number of seats and five times the elegance.”

“They’re that wealthy in resources here?”

Lhyn made a pishing sound. “They’re wealthy in history, Commander. And in the knowledge and abilities of their builders and crafters. The Assembly Room is ostentatious, like the Protectorate is trying to impress new member worlds with the collected wealth of the confederation. The Alsean Council Chamber doesn’t try to impress. It’s just…beautiful. My stars, the carvings! The benches are made of wood so polished that it glows, and every one has a story carved into it. The ceiling tells the history of Alsea’s greatest battles and the formation of the unified government, and it’s all carved so well that I swear some of those figures moved. I just wanted to lie down on the floor and stare up at it for an hour.”

“I think the Lancer would have let her,” Ekatya confided. “She’s got that woman wrapped around her finger.”

“I do not.” Lhyn’s cheeks pinked. “She understands me, that’s all. She’s half scholar, you know.”

“She’s also half warrior.”

“Yes, well, you can talk to that half.”

“I still haven’t gotten to talk to the pilot half,” Candini said.

Ekatya sat back and listened to the conversation around her, smiling at her crew members as they boarded and inevitably joined in. The hum of voices didn’t slow as the transport lifted off, and for a moment it felt as if they were all on leave, taking public transport to their next stop on the tour.

The next stop was the healing center, where she was delighted to find Lieutenant Hmongyon and Trooper Mauji Mauji waiting on the landing pad, just as Healer Wellernal had promised. They were still in mobile chairs, but looked alert and healthy, which by itself was a miracle. Only two days ago Mauji Mauji had been cut out from beneath a girder and nearly died in engineering, yet here he was, grinning up at her as she and Baldassar came down the ramp to collect them.

“It’s good to see you out of bed, Trooper,” she said. “Last time I saw you, there was a bit more hardware attached to you.”

“Thank you, Captain. I feel great. The Alseans have taken really good care of me.”

“Yes, they have.” Ekatya smiled at the assistant healer behind his chair and held out her hand. “Well met, and thank you for bringing my crew out.”

“Well met, Captain Serrado.” The assistant politely touched palms and exchanged a few pleasantries with her while Baldassar spoke with Hmongyon and her own assistant healer. At a pause in the conversation, she caught Baldassar’s eye and without a word they exchanged places. Touching palms with Hmongyon’s assistant healer, she reflected that sometimes a well-oiled team might as well be empathic.

After getting a few last-minute instructions from the assistant healers, most of which boiled down to “don’t tire them out,” she and Baldassar wheeled their remaining two crew members up the ramp and into the transport, which erupted with shouts and applause. Mauji Mauji slapped the hands of his shipmates as he was pushed down the aisle, and Hmongyon’s white teeth gleamed against her olive skin as she turned her head from side to side, greeting the others in a quieter but no less happy manner. Ekatya felt her shoulders ease a bit more as she locked Hmongyon’s chair in place near the rear of the cabin and watched Baldassar do the same with Mauji Mauji. They straightened and grinned at each other, and Ekatya knew they were thinking the same thing: all of their shuttles were back in the bay.

Once again the transport lifted off, flying back to the center of Blacksun to pick up its last passengers. Lhyn provided a running commentary for everyone’s benefit as they soared over the park with its domed buildings and spectacular landscaping.

“The big group of domes in the middle, with the wall all around its park—that’s the State House. The one over on the other side is Blacksun Temple, with the bell tower next to it. And the six domes making a circle around them are the six caste houses. Every city of any size has all six caste houses, but smaller towns may only have one or two, depending on the population and which castes are most represented. Of course the caste houses here are the biggest of all, just like the temple is. Lancer Tal says the unofficial motto of Blacksun is ‘Ours is bigger.’” She stopped when everyone in the transport laughed. “What? Oh, come on, take your heads out of the waste sump! They don’t even have…what you’re thinking of. Never mind.”

“Wait, what?” Candini asked. She glanced around and lowered her voice. “What the Hades are you saying? They don’t have reproductive organs?”

“Of course they have reproductive organs, you drive stick jockey. They do reproduce, after all. They just don’t have organs like ours.”

“But how is that possible? Every Gaian race has the same basic design!”

“The Alseans are different. In more ways than one.”

Candini looked at Ekatya. “Did you know this?”

“Not until they told me in the healing center.”

“Well, what do they have?”

Ekatya rested her forehead in her hand. “‘Join the Fleet,’ they said. ‘See the galaxy, meet new races.’ They never mentioned that I’d be giving sex education lessons to my crew.”

Baldassar laughed behind her. “They didn’t mention that to me, either. Dr. Rivers, isn’t there some version of Alsean pornography we can all watch for the educational value?”

“Oh, my fucking stars,” Lhyn said. “No!”

“I don’t need—” Candini stopped as she caught sight of the group waiting for them on the State House landing pad. “Wow.”

Ekatya leaned over to look out the window. The Lancer’s Guards were drawn up into a perfectly square formation, standing at attention in red dress uniforms with buttons so polished that the reflections were blinding her from here. In front of them stood the Lancer, also at attention, in a uniform different than the three versions Ekatya had previously seen. Apparently, there was a dress uniform, and then there was a dress uniform.

The transport settled to the ground, and Ekatya heard Candini suck in a breath as Lancer Tal strode toward the ramp.

“My heart,” Candini whispered.

“Great Seeders,” Baldassar mumbled at the same time.

Unlike her Guards, the Lancer was in solid black, with a full-length crimson cape rippling out behind her as she moved. A matching crimson sash went from her left shoulder to her right hip, and where it ended there was a cylindrical handle of some sort attached to her belt. Her blonde hair was swept up and back in a complicated twist, and a thin circlet of silver sat on her brow, holding a small shield at its center. As she drew closer, Ekatya realized that what she had thought was solid-colored material was actually black-on-black embroidery: the Lancer’s uniform was covered with images that told the same kinds of stories that the carvings had in the Council Chamber.

The door to the transport opened, and Lancer Tal swept inside with her head high and a regal air about her. Ekatya’s crew fell into a dead silence as they stared.

“Well met,” Lancer Tal said, her gaze taking in the crew. “Today we welcome you as honorary Alseans, while we mourn our dead together and celebrate their Return. I know we don’t share the same deity, but surely your gods and our goddess must be in company today, while their children find common ground in their loss.”

She looked at Ekatya, who realized that the ceremonial part of the memorial was starting earlier than she’d expected. Standing, she extended her palm. “Well met, Lancer Tal. We are greatly honored to be Alseans, even for a day, and look forward to sharing both our sorrow and our joy in this ceremony.”

Their palms touched and the Lancer nodded, a slight smile gracing her face. “May our fallen Return together.”

Ekatya had no idea what to say to that, but she was fortunately spared the necessity when the Lancer released her hand and turned to the door.

“Guards!” she called.

In perfect synchrony, the entire squadron of Guards brought their feet together, bowed their heads, and thumped their fists to their chests. The man on the front left edge of the square raised his head and stepped forward; it was Gehrain. The woman next to him waited a beat, then raised her head and smoothly moved in behind him. One by one, every Guard joined the line, marching toward the transport with a precision that left Ekatya beyond impressed.

She was suddenly very glad that she’d asked her crew to retrieve fresh uniforms from their quarters when they’d gathered their belongings yesterday. At least they were all clean and matching, which was about the best she could ask for given the situation. But they were still a sorry group compared to the gleaming magnificence of Lancer Tal and her Guards.

The Guards marched up the ramp and silently filed into the transport, peeling off to take their seats from the front to the back. They were still at attention even when they sat, their spines stiff and their faces resolutely forward. The Caphenon crew didn’t even try to speak to them, instead absorbing their serious mien.

Ekatya remembered that the conversation immediately prior to this had been about sexual organs and pornography, and for one wild moment she thought she might crack up at the sheer incongruity of it all. Instead she stood next to the Lancer, watching the parade of Guards and feeling more and more sober as they filed past. When they had all taken their seats, Lancer Tal ordered her pilot to lift off, then met Ekatya’s eyes and indicated her private cabin with a slight incline of her head. Ekatya followed.

In the cabin, Lancer Tal went straight to her conference table, where a package sat in the center. A single pull undid the string that tied it, and the package fell open to reveal a folded square of crimson cloth. She picked it up and shook it out, revealing a cape that matched her own.

“Captain Serrado, I know your access to personal items was somewhat limited, so I took the liberty of having this made for you. I guessed you wouldn’t be so impractical as to bring out a dress uniform when you were only allowing yourself a single bag.”

“You guessed right,” Ekatya said. “Only two days and you already know me that well? I should probably be worried about that.”

“Don’t be. May I?”

She nodded. It wasn’t as if she had any idea how to put on a cape, after all. They weren’t exactly part of the Fleet uniform.

The Lancer moved behind her and settled the heavy cloth on her shoulders. Walking back around front, she leaned in and fastened the chain and clasp. It felt oddly intimate, particularly when she rested her hand on the closed clasp for a moment, her palm warm against Ekatya’s upper chest. Then she stepped back, looked her up and down, and smiled.

“You may not look entirely Alsean,” she said, pointing at her own facial ridges, “but you definitely look less Gaian.”

The strange thing was, Ekatya felt like it. She certainly didn’t feel fully Fleet at the moment. “Thank you. It’s nice to know I won’t stick out like a sore thumb when I give the eulogy.”

“A sore thumb?”

“Old saying.”

“Really, you Gaians are amazingly visual.”

They sat in the decadent seats by the windows, and Ekatya listened closely while Lancer Tal gave her a quick rundown on what to expect in terms of her own involvement. By the time they landed she had a much better grasp of the logistics and felt certain that she could at least hold up her end. But she hadn’t had time to ask about the rest of the ceremony, so when Lhyn wanted details as they filed off the transport, she could only shrug her shoulders.

Candini elbowed her when she stepped off the ramp. “You look exceptionally non-Fleet, Captain. In a good way, of course.”

“Of course.”

“Very nice indeed,” Baldassar commented, and Ekatya began to feel self-conscious. But then Lhyn leaned in and growled softly in her ear.

Ekatya decided that she liked the cape just fine.

They’d landed just outside Blacksun, in a field that Lhyn had said was used for the annual Games, a worldwide sporting competition, as well as smaller cultural events. Permanent seating rose in curving tiers on opposite sides of the field, while the north and south ends were open. The low roar of thousands of conversations filled the air.

“Do you know how many people it seats?” she asked Lhyn.

“Fifty thousand.”

“Great galaxies. I’m giving a eulogy to fifty thousand aliens.”

“No, you’re not. You’re giving a eulogy to fifty thousand friends.”

When her crew had gathered around her, Ekatya told them what to expect and urged them to step smart when they followed the Lancer and her Guards onto the field.

“Or roll smart,” Hmongyon said.

“I’ve got that covered.” Torado stood behind her chair and gave a salute. Ennserhofen matched it as he stood behind Mauji Mauji’s chair.

Ekatya was about to comment on their piloting skills when Lancer Tal came up behind her and tapped her shoulder.

“We’re moving,” she said, and set off without waiting for a response. Ekatya hustled to catch up.

They were on a wide brick path that curved away from the landing pad and ran between two lines of trees to the back side of the eastern stands. Then it turned and paralleled the stands, going past one archway after another through which Ekatya glimpsed people hurrying to take their seats. A few stragglers were still arriving, walking in twos and threes along the paths that intersected this one and ended at the archways. Their group garnered a lot of stares, but everyone was polite and quite a few saluted Lancer Tal with what Ekatya now recognized was the unique salute of a warrior to the Lancer.

At last they reached the south edge of the stands, where the path opened into a plaza and the field came into view.

Twenty-three wooden platforms on stilts made a grand circle around the field, each hung with the red flag of the warrior caste and surrounded by artfully arranged lengths of wood. Beside each of the pyres was a rack holding a lit torch. Ekatya couldn’t see the bodies that lay atop the pyres—or, in the case of those who had been vaporized, the life-sized facsimiles—but they would be visible from the stands. Special sections of the stands were reserved for the families, Lancer Tal had told her, so that each family would have the best view of their loved one.

Three raised platforms sat in the middle of the field, festooned with banners of different colors. Two of them had multiple tiers, while the one in the center was full of empty chairs surrounding a raised dais in its center. One of the tiered platforms was also empty, but the other held what looked like a hundred musicians, all wearing long white tunics over navy-blue pants and a colored sash at the waist. Different musicians wore different-colored sashes, but they were all either blue, yellow, or green.

Those were the colors on the flag of the crafter caste, Ekatya remembered. They’d seen the caste flags outside the State House and again in the Council Chamber, and while all of the other castes had a solid-colored background on their flags, that of the crafters bore three bars of color. Lancer Tal had said that the crafters were always a caste apart.

Ekatya looked back at the pyres, draped in the red color of the warrior caste, and then down at the heavy crimson cape around her shoulders. It was the same shade. Not only was she an honorary Alsean today, but she was pretty sure that Lancer Tal had made her an honorary member of the warrior caste as well.

On the top level of the symphony platform were the enormous chimes she’d seen in Healer Wellernal’s image, and she looked around curiously for his bondmate. Ah, there she was, arranging what appeared to be a rack of different types of mallets.

Baldassar pointed at the platform. “What are those?”

“Long bells,” said Ekatya and Lhyn at the same time.

Lhyn looked over. “How do you know about them?”

“Healer Wellernal. His bondmate, Chrysaltin, plays them for the Blacksun Symphony. That’s her up there.”

“Did you notice that the heaviest, most difficult-to-move instrument is on the top level?” Baldassar asked.

“If they’re lower, they overwhelm the other musicians,” Lancer Tal said without turning around. “Ah, there are the Voices.”

“The what?” Lhyn asked, before answering herself a second later as a group of identically dressed Alseans walked toward the empty tiered platform. “The Voices of the Deep! They’re here!”

This time Lancer Tal did turn, smiling at Lhyn. “You’re a fan?”

“Oh, yes. If I weren’t a language specialist, I’d be a music specialist. The Voices are spectacular.”

“Yes, they are. And if you’re this excited about the Voices, I suspect you’re going to be thrilled with the soloist.”

“Who is it?”

Lancer Tal turned back to the field, but Ekatya could hear the smile in her voice when she said, “I think you deserve the joy of a surprise, Lhyn Rivers.”

Lhyn grumbled about wanting to know right now, but subsided as she watched the new group mount the platform and spread out along its levels.

“Is anyone going to explain to the rest of us culture-challenged Gaians who the Voices of the Deep are?” Ekatya asked.

“Probably the best choir on Alsea,” Lhyn answered. “Though the Whitemoon Temple Singers might argue about that.”

“The Whitemoon Temple Singers are good,” Lancer Tal agreed. “But not as good as the Voices.”

Ekatya was about to ask if this was one of those discussions that could get her into trouble in a bar, when she became aware of a low hum. The noise in the stands quieted, making the hum seem louder, and eventually she realized that it was coming from the Voices. They were still moving along their platform, still finding their places, but they’d already begun singing. It started as a single sustained note, going on and on, far past the ability of any one breath. The singers were working in groups, staggering their voices so that when any group took a breath, several others were sustaining the note. It was seamless and a very effective method of drawing attention to the field.

Without any coordination that she could see—didn’t they have a director?—the hum changed, climbing in register as the last singers settled into their places and turned. Then they all opened their mouths for a roaring crescendo of sound that shut off as abruptly as it had started.

The stands were silent.

A deep gong drew Ekatya’s attention to the symphony platform. Chrysaltin stood in front of the largest of her long bells, a sizable mallet in her hand. When the reverberations died down she hit it again.

Lancer Tal raised her arm over her head.

On the third gong, the Lancer dropped her arm and stepped forward. Gehrain led the Guards behind her in a perfect formation of six across as the symphony struck up a fanfare, all horns and deep drums marking the pace.

“She’s the first one on the field?” Candini asked.

Everyone looked at Lhyn, who shrugged. “I don’t know,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Ekatya watched the Lancer, walking alone in front of her Guards, and thought she understood. “She’s not a politician today. This is a state funeral for warriors. Today she’s the leader of the warrior caste.”

“And leaders go first,” Baldassar said. “Nice.”

Lhyn’s eyes were round as she looked from him to Ekatya. “Do you think? How interesting. If that’s the case, then won’t the highest-ranking officers follow her on?”

“I guess we wait and see.” Ekatya held up a hand when Lhyn would have spoken again. “I want to hear this.” Those horns were giving her goose bumps. And what did a high empath feel when she was marching into a stadium of fifty thousand people who were probably getting the same goose bumps times a factor of ten? Lhyn had said they could block their senses, but was it total?

The horns and drums rose to a crescendo as Lancer Tal reached the empty platform and mounted the stairs. Her Guards split into two lines and wound themselves around the base, taking up posts on all four sides. Two gigantic matching holograms appeared at the north and south ends of the field, showing a real-time image of the Lancer as she walked to the raised dais in the center and lifted both of her arms. It had been timed perfectly, with the horns reaching a point where it seemed that something had to break, before the long bells rang out in a bone-rattling tone and the symphony fell silent.

The long bells were still reverberating when Lancer Tal called out, “Warriors, advance!” Her voice filled the stadium, and the symphony began playing a march. It wasn’t as royal-sounding as the earlier fanfare, but the increased use of percussion made it seem more militaristic. A stream of crimson flowed onto the field as what looked like every warrior in the city marched in from the two northern corners, led by—yes, Lhyn had guessed right—all of the high-ranking warriors that Ekatya had met so far, plus many more.

The holographic images shifted to show various warriors as they swung along, starting with Prime Warrior Shantu, who for once was not in some fancy outfit but in a dress uniform matching those who were marching right behind him: Colonel Micah, Colonel Razine, Colonel Northcliff, Colonel Debrett, and a raft of other ranking warriors. The other stream was led by a squadron of Guards with the same three chevrons on their sleeves that Lead Guard Gehrain wore. Behind these leaders came what she guessed were the rank and file warriors. In all, there were hundreds—no, thousands of them. They filled the field with red, the two streams converging on the platform where Lancer Tal stood alone. The high officers mounted the platform and seated themselves, while the others echoed the actions of the Lancer’s Guards, streaming around the platform and arranging themselves in ever-deepening ranks, facing outward on all sides.

When the last warrior slotted herself into place, the entire field was a sea of crimson, broken only by the three platforms housing the ranking warriors, the symphony, and the choir. A final blast of horns and an enormous roll of drums finished the march, and silence settled over the field once more.

The only person on the main platform who hadn’t taken a seat was Lancer Tal. The holograms switched back to her as she spoke.

“Today is a day of deep sorrow and great joy, as we bid farewell to our loved ones and celebrate their Return. Twenty-three warriors fell before the weapons of the Voloth ground pounder. Seven of them were retired. They had put in a lifetime of labor and love in service of Alsea, and when their service was fulfilled, they found a quiet part of the central Pallean mountains in which to enjoy their well-earned reward. Instead, they were murdered by a merciless enemy.”

She paused while a low rumble of voices filled the air, tens of thousands of Alseans voicing their outrage.

“Six more warriors were cut down in their prime. They were searching for what they thought were inert pieces of an alien ship that had been destroyed in our atmosphere, but what they found was blood and death as this same merciless enemy blew them apart without a moment’s thought. Our warriors were merely obstacles in its path.”

Another rumble poured out of the stands, and the Lancer spoke more forcefully over their voices.

“Then came two hundred and forty-one civilians: Alseans who were producers, crafters, builders, merchants, and scholars. They had never fought a battle and never offered offense to anyone. They were not trained for war and should never have been targeted. But this enemy, these Voloth, were barbaric. They did not fight. They merely killed, indiscriminately, viewing us as nothing but targets on which to expend ammunition.”

Now the rumble became a roar, and Lancer Tal’s voice hit its most powerful register.

“But our Alsean deaths were not long unavenged! As the sun set that day, the ground pounder was blown into a thousand pieces, one each for the broken hearts among us as we mourn those it killed. The fireball reached to the stars!”

As the Alseans bellowed their approval, Lancer Tal turned to face the opposite stands.

“Before the Voloth barbarians died, before our warriors blew them into dust, they surely heard the battle cry that has defended Alsea for generations.” She took a breath, spread her arms wide, and shouted, “For Fahla and Alsea!”

Every warrior on the field shouted with her, as did fifty thousand Alseans in the stands, and when the chant went on three more times Ekatya’s goose bumps made a reappearance.

Lancer Tal paused, letting the echoes die down, and resumed in a slightly lower tone.

“Ten more died in the battle, but they gave their lives gladly to avenge the deaths of their fellow Alseans and to prevent the Voloth from killing even one more. Warriors live to serve, and around us are twenty-three of them, all of whom served and all of whom deserve the thanks of a grateful people. They stood between us and harm, and in so doing they fulfilled their destiny. Their deeds shall ever be taught.”

The warriors on the field and the Alseans in the stands chanted something that Ekatya couldn’t quite make out, but she heard the last part of it: “And if she calls the heroes home, their deeds shall ever be taught.”

Lancer Tal turned again. “There are more heroes among us today, heroes who are not Alsean but were surely sent by Fahla. Fifteen aliens risked their lives to protect us from the Voloth. Three of them died in the effort. We honor them as we would the best of Alseans, for they gave their lives in our service and we owe them more than we can ever repay.”

She lifted an arm to point to Ekatya, who straightened and said, “Look alive, everyone. We’re on.”

“Alseans!” shouted Lancer Tal. “I give you the heroes of the First Voloth Battle, the captain and crew of the Protectorate ship Caphenon!”

The symphony swung into a new march, this one accompanied by the chimes of the long bells, and Ekatya led her crew onto the field. A swarm of disc-shaped vidcams zipped up out of nowhere, one of which hovered directly in front of her, and she blinked as a twenty-meter version of herself appeared at the far end of the field.

Directing her attention anywhere else, she focused on Lancer Tal, who was saying, “Ekatya Serrado, captain of the Caphenon.” A beat later she spoke again: “Amis Baldassar, commander and first officer.” The gigantic hologram switched to Baldassar, who looked briefly surprised before getting his expression under control. Ekatya smiled; she’d have something to tease him about later.

Lancer Tal introduced them all by name, rank, and specialty—and even managed to pronounce Hmongyon’s name properly, a feat that Ekatya was certain had taken some practice. They had reached the outer edge of the warrior ranks now, and she was just beginning to wonder how they could possibly get through such a solid mass of bodies, when the warriors nearest them shifted to the sides and thumped a fist to their chests. As if by magic, a path appeared through the sea of red, ending at the steps of the platform. Without a pause, Ekatya led her crew through. Fist after fist thumped in a salute, and try as she might, she couldn’t keep her eyes from blurring. She thought of her medals, now lying in a dried pool of blood back on her ship, and knew that even if Admiral Tsao had guaranteed her a Blue Star for saving this planet, it would have meant nothing compared to this. Never in her life had she felt such an unabashed pride for doing the right thing.

When she reached the stairs, she had a moment of panic about her two injured people. How exactly were they going to get those chairs onto that platform?

Lead Guard Gehrain stepped forward and smiled at her. “Don’t worry, Captain. We’ll take care of them.”

She nodded her acceptance and mounted the wide stairs. A row of seats had been set aside for her crew, but the Lancer had said her place was on top, so she continued up the aisle between chairs full of officers, all of whom stood and gave her the same salute. Shantu nodded at her gravely, Colonel Micah gave her an encouraging smile, and then she was on the dais.

When Lancer Tal held up both palms, the spectators let out a collective gasp. Ekatya met her touch, allowing their fingers to intertwine, and over her shoulder she could see the gigantic hologram of the two of them with their matching capes rippling slowly in the breeze. She had to admit they made quite a picture.

Lancer Tal released their hands and turned, enabling Ekatya to watch her crew’s arrival on the platform. Baldassar was sidling along the empty row to take the farthest seat, with Lhyn right behind him, her civilian clothes making her stand out from the others. For that matter, Ekatya realized, she stood out from every individual on the field. Other than the musicians, Lhyn was the only person in this entire production who didn’t belong to a military organization.

She was distracted from that thought by the sight of Gehrain and Corlander lifting Trooper Mauji Mauji’s chair between them. They walked up the stairs in perfect lockstep, and behind them came two more of the Lancer’s Guards carrying Hmongyon. Trooper Blunt was sitting in the last chair of the row, next to the open space that had been left for the mobile chairs, and she graced Gehrain with a dazzling smile as he set Mauji Mauji down next to her. Gehrain responded with a big smile of his own, reaching out for a quick palm touch before heading back down with his fellow Guards.

“They’re getting along well,” Lancer Tal murmured over the music.

“They spent almost the entire day together yesterday, after you left with Colonel Micah. Is it as obvious to you as it is to us?”

“Probably a good deal more.”

The holograms weren’t focused on them at the moment, so Ekatya took a chance and asked, “Did you just announce to the entire world that you’ve given me honorary family status?”

“Yes, I did. There are few things I can give you that are worthy of what you gave us, Captain. That’s one of them.”

The symphony wound up its march, and silence settled over the field once again. Several little vidcams rose up around them, and this time Ekatya was better prepared when the holograms shifted to show her and Lancer Tal. Fortunately, all she had to do at this point was stand there and look confident while the Lancer spoke, detailing her battle with the orbital invader and spinning the tale far better than Ekatya had when she’d explained it to the High Council last night. She mentioned Candini by name and praised her expertise in avoiding a crash in Blacksun—to the sound of even more gasps—and then described the night-long rescue in which twelve of them had been saved, while three slipped beyond their grasp.

Ekatya couldn’t make out any faces in the stands, but every warrior on the field was turned toward them, and it was clear that Lancer Tal held them all in her hand. She was an excellent storyteller, making the Caphenon’s crew sound like the kind of heroes that only existed in myth.

Then she named the dead and said that their captain was here to honor their memories, and it was Ekatya’s turn to speak.

When the giant holograms focused on her face, she forgot everything she’d planned to say. Speaking on the com to a thousand unseen crew members was one thing, but this was out of her league. Lancer Tal touched her hand encouragingly, and a surge of confidence unlocked her memory.

She spoke of the way Ensign O’Sullivan had come aboard her ship, with all the cockiness of a freshly minted officer, and how Trooper Cuthbroad had promptly put him in his place during a simulated engineering emergency that had baffled O’Sullivan. Cuthbroad solved the problem in five ticks flat and pointed out that every gray hair on his head came from experience. To O’Sullivan’s credit, he’d chosen learning over pride, and the two eventually became inseparable. When Cuthbroad volunteered to stay aboard the Caphenon for its final flight, it was a given that O’Sullivan would stay as well. They were friends in death as they had been friends in life.

She talked about how Trooper Shelley had requested a transfer to the Caphenon specifically to work with Commander Kameha because of his reputation as one of the top engineers in Fleet. She’d been put on the night shift upon arrival, which was standard procedure for crew with less seniority, but it foiled her plan. After ten days she’d come to Ekatya with a shift change request, and when Ekatya had wanted to know why she deserved special treatment, Shelley had opined that seniority shouldn’t matter as much as capability, and she was more than capable. Curious to see if she had the skills to match her boast, Ekatya had given her ten days to prove herself. At the end of it, Kameha had recommended her permanent transfer to the day shift.

If she were speaking to a Fleet audience, Ekatya would have talked about the friends they’d made, the activities they’d enjoyed off duty—things that defined them outside their ranks and responsibilities. But this was a memorial for warriors, viewed by a race that had no understanding of Fleet culture. So she spoke of their accomplishments, how each of them had impressed her in their unique ways, and the fact that each had chosen to stay aboard when the safe thing to do was leave.

Lancer Tal took over, explaining that the Gaians had different beliefs regarding the treatment of their dead, so these three heroes would not be sent to their Return until they could do so on the soil of their home planets. Then she launched into her own eulogy, speaking on behalf of the seven retired warriors who had died in the attack on Duin Bridge.

When she finished, Colonel Debrett mounted the dais and eulogized the sixteen warriors who had died on active duty. It took considerable time, but Ekatya hardly noticed, so fascinated was she by the stories she heard.

With the eulogies over at last, Colonel Debrett returned to his seat, and Ekatya felt a twinge of envy. Lancer Tal had warned her that the caste leader never sat during a funeral of her people, and Ekatya was the de facto leader of her caste. So she stood there while the Voices of the Deep began a lament, and soon she forgot all about wishing for a chair. These singers were glorious. Their discipline and timing were perfect, as was the blending of their voices, and she couldn’t figure out how they did that without a director. Then it occurred to her—they were empathic. Not high empaths, obviously, but enough to feel their fellow singers and experience the music as one.

At the end of the song, they hardly paused for breath before beginning another, this time with the full symphony behind them. The Alseans in the stands joined in to sing what was clearly an old and well-loved ballad about the Battle of Blacksun. Ekatya made a mental note to ask Lhyn about it when she had the chance. Knowing her, she was probably singing along.

The holograms shifted continually during the ballad, showing various faces in the crowd, and then settled on what had to be the VIP section of the seating. There were the other five caste leaders, along with a bunch of dignitaries Ekatya didn’t recognize.

As the last notes died away, one of the dignitaries stood up. She wore a high-collared tunic of such dark blue as to be almost black, with a silver tree emblazoned on the chest, its branches reaching up to her collarbones. The holograms zoomed in on the tree, then moved up to her face, which Ekatya thought was quite beautiful. She had a light olive tone to her skin, dark brown eyes, and black hair that fell in soft waves to just above her shoulders. Her smile was warm and serene, lighting up her face.

“Lead Templar Satran,” Lancer Tal said into her ear.

“Great galaxies,” Ekatya murmured. “Your templars look like that? I might turn religious.”

Lancer Tal chuckled. “You wouldn’t be the first.”

The Lead Templar turned in place, scanning the crowd, and for a moment Ekatya would have sworn that the hologram had looked directly at her. It was certainly a valuable skill for someone who regularly addressed large crowds.

“When Fahla created us,” she said in a throaty voice, “she gave us one great responsibility. Above all others, above the duties to learn and grow and better ourselves, above even our love for our friends and families, is the duty to protect Alsea. We all do that in our own ways, large and small. Sometimes we can only protect the little piece of Alsea we live on. Other times, we are given the opportunity to protect much more, as the scholars and builders did when they created the nanoscrubbers to save us from a terrible nuclear accident.

“Three days ago, Fahla herself stepped in, for the threat to Alsea was greater than we knew. She sent us the Gaians, who fought the Voloth above our planet and defeated them, only to lose their own ship in the process.

“But Fahla has never meant for others to assume our responsibility when we are capable of fulfilling it ourselves. And so it was Alseans who dealt with the last threat of the Voloth, and Alseans who lie there now on their pyres. Though we mourn them, we also rejoice that they lived in honor, protecting our world and serving Fahla in the highest manner.”

She spoke for several minutes, telling stories that Ekatya thought were either fables or highly embellished history, and ended with a reminder that a Return, though sad for those left behind, was always a time of joy for those who were being reunited with the ones who waited for them.

When she sat down, Ekatya saw a vidcam zip up in front of the dais and braced herself. To her relief, it was Lancer Tal alone who appeared on the holograms next.

The Lancer spoke solemnly. “We have come to the final moments of our time with our dead. Please give your support to the families of the fallen, who now release their loved ones to take their places with Fahla.”

Twenty-three groups of Alseans walked onto the field, each heading for a pyre, and the symphony and Voices joined again in a composition that made Ekatya’s throat tight. The stringed instruments seemed to weep, as did some of the choral parts, and Ekatya wondered how the families on the field could avoid crying from the music alone. Perhaps they couldn’t—many of them were holding hands as they walked, seeking both physical and emotional comfort from each other.

The music intensified, the weeping changing to something more anticipatory, and the groups were now at their pyres. One person in each group took the torch from its rack and held it aloft, waiting.

The cue came in the music, which gradually built up to a crescendo of sound that collapsed into itself with the strike of the largest long bell. As one, every torch bearer touched their flame to the base of the pyre. The initial bell note faded but never died, and Ekatya glanced at the symphony platform to see Chrysaltin drumming softly on the bell, keeping the tone low and constant.

The flames curled around their fuel, hovering on the ground for a few breathless moments before climbing up the pyres, higher and higher, and the long bells climbed with them. Chrysaltin ran from one side to the other, striking high and low, softly and loudly, somehow turning the rich tones of the bells into the crackling of flames. Bells and fire grew together, the sound filling the stands as the flames reached the tops of the pyres, and then the symphony and the Voices joined in.

The swell of music raised the hair on the back of Ekatya’s neck. It was visual and aural overload, and she could only imagine how Lhyn must be feeling right now. She’d have been thrilled to watch something like this on a planetary broadcast, but to be sitting here, right in the middle of it all, feeling the bells and drums through her chest cavity…it was truly the experience of a lifetime.

Eventually she became aware of a low roar beneath the music, growing louder every second. It wasn’t the bells, nor the drums, nor the deepest of the stringed instruments. Something else was happening. She looked at the Lancer, whose gaze was fixed on the eastern sky. The question died on her lips when the roar became earsplitting and the first transports flew over the field, so low that she had to grab the rail to stop herself from ducking.

They kept coming and coming, five abreast in tight formation, and by the time the last ones flew over, she thought there must have been a hundred of them. The music grew more urgent and the transports returned, this time at a higher altitude, and began a complicated series of maneuvers that must have taken untold amounts of practice and skill. Back and forth they flew, around and higher and around again, putting on a show she’d have paid to see at any other time, and then the Voices and the symphony exploded into a crash of music at the same moment that a quarter of the transports fell out of the sky.

They dropped straight toward the spectators, red smoke flowing off their wings, and didn’t level out until they were nearly in the stands. Then they began circling directly overhead, the red bleeding off them, and the only sound was their engines and a long, sustained note on the highest of the long bells.

Except…that wasn’t the bell anymore, was it?

A sigh from the spectators alerted her to something happening on the field, and she looked over to see a woman standing motionless at the very top of the choir’s platform, her face lifted and her mouth open as she poured out a soprano note exactly matching that of the bell. Ekatya didn’t know when the bell’s note had died away and this one began; the transition had been seamless.

At last the singer ran out of breath. She paused for only a moment before resuming, now singing a soaring aria that dripped with loss, and the Voices and symphony slid into a heartbreaking accompaniment.

Lhyn turned around and widened her eyes at them before turning back and leaning forward, apparently not knowing where to look. Her head kept tilting up to look at the circling, bleeding transports and over again to watch the singer, then swiveling to take in the roaring conflagrations of the pyres.

“She knows,” Lancer Tal said.

“Who is it?”

“Kyrie Razinfin, the greatest voice of both my generation and the last. She and the pilots are performing the Flight of the Return.”

Ekatya looked up again and with a sudden realization began counting the transports. It wasn’t easy when they were continually circling, and she lost track twice before Lancer Tal said, “There are twenty-six of them.”

Twenty-three Alsean warriors had died. Three of those transports were for her people. The breath shuddered in her throat as the import of the ceremony suddenly overwhelmed her.

“Thank you,” she managed, and focused her blurry gaze on the singer before she could embarrass herself.

The aria dropped into a lower octave, and the music bridged into something else altogether. Something hopeful rather than sad, anticipating instead of mourning. Ekatya looked back up at the transports and discovered that their red streamers had changed to white. They were still circling, but every loop was a little higher than the one before. Far above, the other seventy-four transports continued their circuits, waiting.

Another bridge in the music, and now the hopeful tones had changed to those of joy. The drums swept in with a lively beat, the horns began to dance their notes, and the long bells rang out in celebration. The twenty-six transports circled higher and higher as the singer’s voice ran up and down in giddy time, telling of love, happy reunions, and an eternity of peace. Ekatya’s foot began to tap all by itself, so catchy was the melody and the percussive line backing it up. She wasn’t alone; many of the warriors on the field were swaying, wide grins on their faces. The Flight of the Return may have started as a lament, but it was ending as a party.

The beat became more insistent and the strings pushed everyone to a higher level as the music rose to what had to be its culmination. The Voices of the Deep joined the soloist, repeating a refrain over and over again, until the symphony, the Voices, and the soloist all joined together on a single triumphant note. Every head on the field looked up, and Ekatya followed their gaze to see the twenty-six transports in a vertical climb, shooting up and through the circle made by the others. The music held its crescendo, with drums and long bells drawing it out, until the twenty-six became distant dots and their circling compatriots exploded outward, flying away in all directions at top speed. With a crash the music ended, and Lancer Tal moved beside her, shouting as she threw her arm up. Her voice was joined by thousands more, and Ekatya looked around in surprise to see every warrior on the field, every officer on the platform, and Lancer Tal herself holding a sword aloft. A forest of shining blades speared the sky in a final salute, and the warriors roared out their farewell.

When the shout died away, there was no sound but the crackle of the flames.

Not a warrior moved until Lancer Tal pressed something on the grip of her sword and the blade collapsed into its base. The warriors followed suit, their movements rippling outward from the platform, and the Alseans in the stands burst into applause. Ekatya watched as Lancer Tal reattached her sword grip to her belt. So that was what the cylinder had been.

The symphony struck up a new piece, this one mellow and easy. Ekatya guessed it was meant to usher people out of the stands. “It’s done?” she asked.

“It’s done. The holograms are off as well.”

“Thank the stars. Those things made me nervous.”

“I know.”

Ekatya’s eyebrows drew together as she remembered her sudden surge of confidence just before she’d begun her eulogy. “That was you. You pushed me over my nerves.”

“I hope you don’t mind. I should have asked, but there wasn’t any way to do so without fifty thousand Alseans noticing.”

“I don’t mind at all. In fact—” She held up her hand, pleased when Lancer Tal clasped it. “Thank you. That was a truly beautiful ceremony. You certainly kept your promise; my crew could not have asked for a better send-off.”

“Holy Shippers.” Lhyn had found her way up to the dais. “That was fantastic. Utterly amazing! My heart is still pounding. And Kyrie Razinfin! Did you see it, Ekatya? She disguised herself as one of the Voices; I never noticed her until she dropped that white robe. It was all so…so…I don’t even have words.”

Lancer Tal’s face creased into a grin. “Now I know what it takes to strike you speechless. Though not entirely, I notice.”

“There’s so much I want to know about this! Do you have something I can read about it? Someone I can ask? How old is this ceremony?”

“Ancient, though the transports are a relatively new addition.” Lancer Tal held up her hand when Lhyn would have barraged her with more questions. “It’s not something I can speak about with you now. I’m sorry, Lhyn, but my duties don’t end with the Flight. The spectators may be leaving, but the families are not, and I must conduct my tour of the pyres.”

Ekatya looked past her to the pyres, where the warriors were giving respectful salutes to the families as they streamed past on their way out. What a contrast, to begin the funeral of your loved one in front of fifty thousand, and end it alone.

“Then I think we have no place here anymore,” she said. “Will your pilot take us back to our ship?”

“Yes, of course. And he’ll return your wounded to the healing center.”

“Thank you. We’ll leave you to your duties.”

Lancer Tal nodded and stepped away, then turned back. “I nearly forgot. Lhyn, Lead Templar Satran has agreed to meet with you tomorrow at hantick nine. She may have as many questions for you as you do for her. And you can ask her about this ceremony as well.”

She moved off the dais and down the steps, leaving Lhyn looking at Ekatya with wide eyes.

“Just when I thought this day could not get any better,” she said.

Ekatya took her hand and squeezed it. “Come on, oh great scholar. Let’s go see if Captain Habersaat has picked up a response from Admiral Tsao on our reports.” She tugged Lhyn to the edge of the dais before remembering to let go of her hand.

“Way to ruin my after-ceremony buzz. I still can’t believe she thought I could distill most of a year of research into a report on one day’s notice. Your admiral may be good at her job, but she’s terrible at mine.” Lhyn perked up when she caught sight of the soloist speaking with some of the Voices members. “Kyrie Razinfin! Can you believe it? I would love to talk to her.”

“Well, why don’t you?”

“She’s a superstar, Ekatya.”

“So? You’re an alien.”

Lhyn stopped. “Hey…you’re right. Do you mind?”

“Go.”

She bounced off without another word, making a beeline for the tall singer in her shimmering robe, and Ekatya looked after her with a smile on her face. She started when Baldassar spoke next to her.

“Star-struck, is she?”

“Very much so. I think if she had her way, she’d set up a lab here and not come back to Protectorate space for another five stellar years.”

“I hope she gets her way, then.”

Ekatya bit down on her retort, realizing just in time where that would lead, and for a brief moment she wondered if he’d said that on purpose. Then she remembered that Lhyn had called her by her first name just before he’d arrived. Had he heard it?

She groaned to herself as more of her crew joined them and the post-event discussion began. This business of keeping Lhyn a secret was getting worse by the hour. And it wasn’t even a secret to begin with; it was just a non-disclosure. It wasn’t supposed to matter. She’d knock out the Voloth threat, return to Protectorate space, and she and Lhyn would resume their relationship on their own time. No problem.

But now her ship was lying broken in a field, Fleet was having to send a personnel ship to pick up her crew, and she was already on some kind of shit list for fighting a battle on the wrong day. Admitting a non-disclosure and conflict of interest would probably be just what somebody was waiting for to bust her down to ensign. It certainly wouldn’t help her advocate for the Alseans. And if Baldassar knew about it, he’d be duty-bound to report it. Not doing so would put him in the same bind she was in now.

Her gaze fell on Lancer Tal, speaking with the nearest family at the base of their pyre. Alseans couldn’t hide their relationships even if they wanted to, could they? What a profound effect that must have on their culture.

And what a culture this was. She’d teased Lhyn about her enthusiasm, but in truth she now shared it. She just hoped that between the two of them, they could convince the bureaucrats back home.





Chapter 39

The alien and the templar


Lanaril Satran couldn’t remember the last time she’d been this nervous. By the time one became a Lead Templar, one was fairly immune to performance anxiety, but this was not exactly in her normal line of duties. She had her blocks up to silence the emotions of the handful of other worshippers in the temple, and she’d done all the usual tricks to center herself. They hadn’t helped.

She lit another bowl on the rack, its small flame joining those of the other nine in its row, and silently asked Fahla to give her the strength she needed for this day. The temple door opened in the middle of her prayer, giving her a jolt of expectation, but the tall woman entering alone wasn’t who she expected. Lhyn Rivers would be escorted in by the Lancer’s Guards.

Turning back to her bowl rack, she stared at the ten flames filling the top row and wondered if she should unlock the whole rack and light all one hundred of them. Sometimes, she was certain, Fahla appreciated prayers with a little extra oomph.

“Lead Templar Satran?”

“Yes?” She turned and barely held back a gasp when she saw the newcomer smiling at her. The woman’s face was bereft of any ridges. “Oh! I’m sorry, I didn’t realize…I thought you would be coming with Guards.”

Lhyn Rivers held up a palm. “They’re outside. I’m sorry as well; I didn’t mean to startle you. But I’m very pleased to be meeting you.”

Lanaril met her palm, absorbing the unalloyed pleasure and anticipation radiating off the Gaian. “Well met indeed. I did plan a more graceful greeting for your arrival. If you’d like, I can give it now.”

“Only if it will demonstrate some aspect of temple ceremony that differs from the usual social greetings. Otherwise, you needn’t go to any trouble on my account.”

“No, it wasn’t anything different. Just a little less embarrassing for me.”

“Please, there’s no reason. I’m here to learn from you. And I have so many questions.” She looked around the temple in delight. “I can’t believe I’m actually standing here. You have no idea how much I wished I could do this. Your temples are so beautiful, but seeing them on broadcasts is nothing like seeing one in person. And oh, the molwyn tree is gorgeous! May I touch it?”

Lanaril felt a little dazed, partly from Lhyn’s rapid change of subject but mostly from the sheer depth of emotion pouring off of her. Lancer Tal had not exaggerated about the Gaian broadcasting. It was like speaking to a child, except that Lhyn’s emotions held the richness of adult experience. And they were entirely positive; this woman was truly thrilled to be here.

She remembered Lancer Tal saying that the third betrayal would be the worst and began to grasp just what she’d signed herself up for.

“Of course you may touch it. The molwyn tree is here for all.”

“How old is it?” Lhyn asked as they walked toward the gnarled tree in the center of the temple. The morning sun slanted through the skylight and lit the tops of its branches, an effect Lanaril had always loved.

“As old as the temple. One thousand, three hundred and sixty-one cycles.”

“You’re kidding! I mean…no, you’re probably not. But the original temple burned in the Second War of Succession. I thought surely the tree burned with it. This is actually the tree planted by the Betrayer?”

Lanaril looked over in surprise. “You know Alsean history.”

“Only what we’ve been able to piece together. I’ve been studying your culture for more than seven of your moons, and your broadcast stations have made it much easier by airing so many documentaries. My team loves your documentaries.”

“I wonder if the writers and directors would have changed anything if they’d known aliens were watching.” She’d never considered how their culture might be viewed based solely on their broadcasts. “Do you watch the weepers as well?”

“Some of my team are addicted to Merchant of the Mountains. They count the days until the next episode, and I don’t even try to get anything done when it’s airing. You’d think, given the fact that we can record anything and study it later, that otherwise adult scholars could wait a hantick or two before watching their show. Apparently not. I’m told it must be watched as it airs or it’s not the same.”

Lanaril imagined a bunch of smooth-faced aliens rushing to watch that awful weeper and had to laugh. “To think that should be our cultural representative! I can only hope that you and your team don’t take it seriously. At all.”

“Oh, don’t worry. We’ve had a lot of practice at telling the horten from the hornstalk.”

Great Fahla, the woman even knew Alsean idioms.

They arrived at the edge of the tiles and stepped onto the wooden platform around the base of the molwyn tree. Lhyn stopped and went down to her hands and knees, peering between the slats. “Declano was right,” she muttered, and stood again. “So you use this to cover the soil and keep it from getting tracked all over, right? And meanwhile the tree has room to spread its roots.”

“Yes, exactly. The platform also serves as an attachment point for the drip irrigators, and keeps worshippers from compacting the soil.”

“Is taking care of the molwyn tree a specialty job? I mean, do the temple scholars do it, or do you have a producer on staff?”

“We have a producer.”

“What an incredible responsibility.”

“It is. And a revered position as well. It was a producer who saved this tree when the first temple burned. He stayed and kept the tree wet even though parts of the roof were falling all around him.” She pointed to the domed ceiling, where a circle of piping ran around the outside edge of the enormous skylight. “In those days the rainers weren’t permanently mounted; they used ladders and hoses. So the producer stood up on his ladder and sprayed the tree, over and over again, until the fire was finally out and the tree was safe. He died of smoke inhalation four days later. The Lead Templar named him the first Guardian of the Tree in honor of his sacrifice, and the position has held great honor ever since.”

“What a story.” They walked the last few steps to the molwyn’s black trunk, and Lhyn touched it with an unexpected reverence, looking up into its branches. “Oh! Is this why it’s silver in some of its representations? Like that beautiful tunic you wore at the funeral yesterday.”

Lanaril looked up at the shining silver undersides of the leaves. “This is why.”

“But then on the Alsean banner, it seems to be burning, yellow and turning orange toward the top. So that must be about the fire it survived.”

“No.” Lanaril wondered how much she should say. Well, Lancer Tal had said she didn’t think they should know they were tyrees. She hadn’t mentioned keeping the existence of tyrees a secret.

Lhyn was looking at her, waiting for more.

“A very long time ago,” Lanaril began, “two young people fell in love. One was the son of wealthy producers that owned a large amount of land and were very powerful in their caste. The other was the daughter of crafters, a talented metalworker. They asked their parents to approve their bonding, but all four refused.”

“The producers didn’t want their son to bond outside the caste,” Lhyn guessed.

“Yes, but more than that, they wanted their son to bond into another landowning family, so they could increase their wealth and power base. And the crafter parents were horrified at the idea of their daughter bonding into a family that disdained artistry. They feared she would be stifled and looked down upon, rather than valued for her skill.”

“What happened? Did they run away together?”

“No, they came to the temple to pray for guidance. The Lead Templar happened to be here at the time and overheard them, and when he spoke with them, he realized that their love was not just the infatuation of youth. They were tyrees.”

She paused, but Lhyn nodded. “So they had to be together.”

“You know about tyrees?”

“It’s an important concept in your culture. Though I don’t imagine they’re as common in real life as they are in your weepers.”

“No, not at all. Anyway, the Lead Templar could not allow tyrees to be held apart, so the next day he called in both families for mediation. It didn’t go well. The parents argued back and forth endlessly, the lovers grew more and more upset, and finally the Lead Templar threw up his hands and ordered everyone to take a break. He sent the lovers in one direction and the parents in another, and thought to himself that those parents were so stubborn only Fahla herself could convince them.”

Lhyn shifted, crossing her arms and leaning her shoulder against the tree trunk. Though she said nothing, the sheer weight of her focus was unsettling. She was absorbing every word.

“The lovers came to where you are now, weeping with frustration and fear. They laid their palms on this very tree trunk and prayed to Fahla to open their parents’ minds. And Fahla answered. The trunk began to glow. A golden flame shot up it and into the branches, setting every leaf alight with a fire that did not burn. It was so bright that none could look directly at it, and when it finally subsided, the parents asked their children for forgiveness and blessed the bonding. The Lead Templar himself was bond minister for them. Fahla had made herself very clear—a tyree bond could not be broken. The flaming tree on our banner is about the power of that bond.”

“What do you think really happened?” Lhyn asked. “Did the story of the lovers get conflated with the history of the fire?”

“That is what really happened.”

Lhyn’s emotions shifted into something more cautious. “Did it ever happen again?”

“Yes. There are several stories of particularly strong tyrees being blessed by the light of a molwyn tree.”

“Have you ever witnessed it?”

“If I did, I’d consider it the most fortunate day of my life. There’s no need to tiptoe around me, Lhyn Rivers. I can feel your lack of belief and I’m not offended by it. Not every Alsean believes.”

“Please, call me Lhyn. And I’m sorry, Lead Templar. I’d like to believe such a beautiful story, but…it doesn’t seem possible.”

“No, it doesn’t, does it?” Lanaril looked up into the silvery leaves. “Until three days ago, it didn’t seem possible that I’d ever stand here and speak with an alien.”

She felt Lhyn’s amusement before their eyes met.

“Nicely said. Is there a correlation between empathy and intelligence? Because every high empath I’ve met so far has been damned smart.”

“Intelligence goes with empathy, yes. But empathy doesn’t go with intelligence. Which is fortunate for us, because high empathy is relatively rare.”

“Is it? I guess my perspective is skewed. Almost every Alsean I’ve met has been a high empath.”

“Your perspective is very skewed. We’re less than one percent of the population.”

“One percent!”

“The great majority of Alseans fall in the mid empath range. Low empaths are almost as uncommon as high empaths. And sonsales are extremely rare.” She had the feeling that Lhyn was memorizing everything.

“Well, regardless of whether the story of the lovers is true,” Lhyn said, “the fact remains that the largest symbol on the Alsean banner is about love and family bonds.”

“Yes, of course.”

“‘Of course,’ she says. As if that were perfectly ordinary.”

“Ah. You think it should be about war or power or symbols of those who wield it. We had those, a long time ago. After all, the kingdoms were united by the most brutal force ever used on Alseans.”

“By the Betrayer.”

“Yes.”

“What did he actually do to get that name? Who was he?”

“No one knows who he was. He was made outcaste; his name was struck from the caste rolls and the archives. He was permanently erased from history.”

“Lancer Tal mentioned that was the punishment for warriors who broke their oath of service. Is that what he betrayed?”

“Oh, no. He broke something much more important than a mere oath. He broke Fahla’s covenant.”

There was the intense focus again. “And what is that?”

“Fahla gave us several great gifts. One of them was our empathy, but with that empathy came an equally great taboo. Empathy has two sides. It can give, and it can take. It can be used with love and tenderness, or it can be used with force. To break the mind of another, to force someone to act against their nature and commit terrible deeds—it’s the greatest crime possible. The Betrayer was a very high empath. He won his battles by systematically kidnapping one or two officers from the opposing camp, breaking them with empathic force, and then sending them back with only one thought left in their shattered minds: to assassinate their commander.”

Lhyn’s eyes were wide. “Holy Shippers. I never thought about it, but that’s the natural end point of power like that, isn’t it? No wonder you have such strong strictures against empathic abuse.”

“If we didn’t, we’d never have become anything but a series of violently taken, violently held kingdoms with a few of the most vicious high empaths in charge—and a cowering, desperate populace living their lives in fear. It couldn’t be allowed. When the Betrayer was found out, his punishment was swift and irrevocable.” She laid her hand on the molwyn’s trunk. “And yet, no one is purely evil. He did unite the kingdoms, and he built this temple.”

“And planted this tree, which became the symbol of your people.” Lhyn put her own hand on the trunk. “Amazing to think he held this when it was a little sapling. He probably thought his name would live forever.”

“That’s exactly why he was wiped from the caste rolls. There could never be an incentive for anyone else to follow his example. Not only did his name not live forever, it was utterly forgotten.”

Lhyn patted the tree and stepped back. “Sometimes entire cultures can be bent toward one destiny or another by individual decisions. Your ancestors’ decision to punish the Betrayer so severely changed your culture forever. I’ve studied many others that made different decisions in similar situations—not involving empathy, of course, but the pursuit of power is universal. What usually happens is that those with power are judged and sentenced by different standards, if they’re even judged at all.”

“Well, we do have some of that,” Lanaril admitted. “I wish it weren’t so, but it is.”

“But when it counted, your people rose above that. And Alsea became what it is as a direct result of it.” She pointed at the Alsean banner hanging over the entry, in the center of the six caste flags. “Not to change the subject, but can I just verify that I’ve got this right? The six points of light over the flaming tree represent the six castes, yes?”

“Yes.”

“And the star in their center is for Fahla?”

Lanaril nodded.

“So from bottom to top, your banner represents love and the bonding of family, the six castes, which play a sort of parental role over the families, and Fahla, who plays a parental role over everyone.”

“That’s an excellent interpretation. Some might object to your use of the word ‘parental,’ but it’s legitimate.”

“When a new bond is created, who has the authority to confer recognition? The castes or the templars, as representatives of Fahla?”

“Ah. I see what you mean. The castes don’t come into it unless there are children, who must be added to the rolls once as pre-Rite children, and once again as adults, when they’ve chosen their caste. But the actual bond recognition comes from the temples.”

“Is there always a Sharing at a bonding ceremony?”

“Yes, always.”

Lhyn gave her a wry smile. “I thought I had that one all figured out until I realized you’re empathic. Now I’m not really certain what a Sharing is anymore.”

“It’s a direct connection of the empathic centers. We can feel each other’s emotions at varying depths depending on our own abilities, whether anyone is blocking, and whether or not there’s skin-to-skin contact. But a Sharing bypasses the limitations. Even low empaths can feel the full emotional access of a Sharing.”

“Really? So when a bond minister conducts a Sharing at a bonding ceremony, then that means…”

“Every guest is feeling the emotions of the bonding couple. It’s a one-time access to their joy and love, a gift they give to their guests as a celebration of their bond.”

After a long pause, Lhyn said, “Wow. Just…wow. That’s incredible. I want to be an Alsean.”

Her plaintive tone made Lanaril laugh, but she sobered when she saw the gigantic opening that had just been handed to her. It couldn’t be this easy, could it?

“I cannot give you that,” she said, feeling her way through. “But I could show you what a Sharing feels like. Lancer Tal told me that she’s been able to project emotions onto you, so I know your brain is receptive. I don’t see why you wouldn’t be able to take part if you wished it.”

She winced at the immediate enthusiasm that poured out. And the trust; oh Fahla, the trust. Lhyn hadn’t the faintest clue that she wasn’t safe here.

“I would love that! Thank you so much for offering. Feeling Lancer Tal’s projected emotions was one of the most extraordinary and beautiful things I’ve ever experienced. I can’t imagine how it could get any better, but from what you say…are you certain you don’t mind doing this with a stranger? I mean, isn’t it usually done with family?”

“It is, but I don’t mind. After all, I’m as curious as you are. I feel privileged that you’d allow me access.” Lanaril hated every word that came out of her mouth, but it had to be done.

“If I can’t trust the Lead Templar of Blacksun, who can I trust?” Lhyn’s emotions made it clear she was joking, but Lanaril felt it like a needle in the heart.

Just about anyone else, she thought.

“If we’re going to do this,” she said, “we should go somewhere a bit more comfortable. My study is this way.”





Chapter 40

It’s done


Tal threw her reader card onto her desk with a curse. She hadn’t been able to concentrate on a damned thing since hantick nine, and wondered why she’d even bothered coming to her office. All she could think about was Lhyn in the temple, walking into a trap she’d never suspect, because why would the innocent suspect anything?

And now it was past time for midmeal. They’d been together for more than two hanticks. Great Goddess, surely it couldn’t take this long! What was Lanaril doing to her? Had she overstepped? Had something gone wrong? What if the Gaian brain reacted badly?

“Shek,” she whispered, dropping her head into her hands. “Shek, shek, shek. It should have been me. I shouldn’t have let her do it.” And she should have had a healer nearby. No, two healers, one for the body and one for the mind. She hadn’t thought this through to all of the possible outcomes and prepared for them. She hadn’t handled this the way she handled every critical strategy, and why not? Because she couldn’t bear to think about it.

“Fahla, don’t let her pay the price for that,” she murmured. “Please.”

Unable to sit any longer, she pushed her chair back and paced in front of the wall of glass that looked toward the temple—the glass that had just been replaced yesterday, courtesy of the captain whose tyree she had sent into an ambush. If ever there was a time to start drinking spirits before evenmeal, this was it.

When her vidcom chimed, she spun in place and raced across the room. Standing in front of the screen on wobbly legs, she took a moment to confirm the ID and activated the com.

“Is she all right?” she demanded.

Lanaril looked at her in surprise before her face softened in understanding. “Yes, she’s fine. There were no issues with the Sharing. It’s harder than Sharing with an Alsean—much harder—but it doesn’t seem to have any adverse effects. I’m sorry about calling so late, but she just left. We talked for a long time after our Sharing.”

Thank you, Fahla, she thought. “And it’s done? You didn’t have any problems with the empathic force?”

Lanaril shook her head. “No, no problems…because I didn’t use empathic force.”

“You what? What were you thinking?”

“Andira—”

“Don’t call me that, you’ve lost the right! All that effort to convince me to let you do it and then you just—shekking Mother! Do you know what you’ve done?”

“Lancer Tal!”

“What!” She was shaking with rage, her fists clenched and her mind racing. She was going to have to do it herself, and how could it even be done now when Lhyn had already had one Sharing? Where would she find the excuse? Great Mother, she might actually have to use physical force; she was going to be sick—

“Calm down! I didn’t do it because I didn’t have to!”

Tal stopped breathing. “What?”

“I didn’t have to,” Lanaril said in a lower tone. “She already made the decision.”

“She—wait. What are you saying?”

“I’m saying that all of your worrying, and all of mine—because you were right, it would have been a terrible betrayal—it was all for nothing. She’s made up her own mind.”

“But they’re tyrees.”

“I know. But they don’t. Regardless, she made herself very clear both in the Sharing and out of it.”

“Oh, Fahla.” Tal reached blindly for the chair and dropped into it. “And you don’t think she’ll change her mind?”

“Have you felt the strength of her convictions?”

“Yes, but I’ve only known her for three days. How do we know she won’t feel just as convinced the other way three days from now?”

“You’re trying to turn good news into bad, aren’t you?”

“I just…” Tal sighed and rubbed her face. “I can’t take anything for granted. We have to be sure.”

“Do you know what makes me sure? You.”

Frowning, Tal waited for her to explain.

“She admires you tremendously. I can hardly credit how strongly she feels about you on such short acquaintance, but then again, she’s studied you for over seven moons. And you did project your emotions onto her within ten hanticks of meeting her, which seems to have pushed her onto a whole different level. She sees you as representative of Alsea, which of course you are.”

“As a politician, yes, but—”

“No, not as a politician. You are Alsea to her. Think about it. She’s been betrayed twice. What happens to people when they’re betrayed? They look for something solid, something they can believe in. She believes in you.”

“Wonderful. Now I feel worse than ever.”

“Stop it. Fahla just handed you a gift and you’re looking for every excuse not to take it. Untie that knot in your chest and accept that sometimes things happen the way they need to.”

Tal took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “All right. I’ll accept it if you can tell me one thing. Why would Lhyn Rivers believe in me and not her own tyree?”

“Because she knows that you and she share the same motivation, except yours is much stronger. Her tyree’s motivation is…different.”

Tal thought about that from all sides before nodding. “That does make sense. And it’s a wonderful gift, but…it’s hard to accept it with any joy when I know what it means for Captain Serrado.”

“Perhaps they’ll surprise us and no one will be hurt.”

Tal knew better. She’d known better the moment she hatched this plan. “Captain Serrado will pay a price no matter which choice she makes.”

“You cannot take on every burden, Lancer Tal. Not even your shoulders are that broad.”

“No. You’re right.” Then she realized what Lanaril had said and shook her head. “Except for one thing. Call me Andira.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’m sure I’d like you to forget the first part of this conversation. Especially the profanity.”

“How odd; I didn’t hear that part.”

“Thank you.”

They spoke for some time, with Tal wanting every detail of the Sharing and their conversation afterward. When they signed off, she walked across the room to her sideboard and popped the stopper on a new bottle of spirits. The blue mist trickled down the neck and over her hand, a cool sensation that she’d loved ever since her father had first shown her how to open a bottle. Pouring a glass, she took it to the window, raised it in the direction of the temple, and said, “Here’s to motivations.”





Chapter 41

Dinner and sex education


“There she is,” Candini said. “About time. Hey, Lhyn! Over here!”

She waved, making what Ekatya thought was an entirely unnecessary scene, because how hard was it for Lhyn to find her shipmates in a mess hall full of uniformed Alsean Guards? But Lhyn smiled, waved back, and began threading her way through the tables. Heads turned as she passed.

“Why aren’t you in the officers’ mess?” she said when she arrived.

“Because our esteemed captain had the bright idea of eating with the regular Guards so we could make ourselves more visible, for public relations something or other.” Candini was already two glasses into her bottle of spirits and feeling no pain. “Anyway, sit down and have a drink. Lancer Tal sent over a case of this stuff, and it is amazing.” She yanked out the empty chair next to her and had a drink poured before Lhyn even sat down.

“Thank you.” Lhyn accepted her drink and looked around the table. “Am I very far behind?”

“Behind Candini? Yes,” said Baldassar. “The rest of us have shown a little more self-control.”

“Not true.” Candini pointed to the next table, where the weapons team was laughing uproariously at something one of them had said. “Roris and her team are ahead of me.”

“Let me rephrase. The rest of us at this table have shown more self-control.”

“And I have no idea why.” Candini took another sip from her glass. “Lancer Tal didn’t send this over for you to admire its color.”

“But it is a lovely color,” Lhyn said as she lifted the glass to the light. “I can tell from the shade of blue that this is expensive.”

“Because of course you would be an expert in Alsean wines.” Ekatya smiled as she raised her own glass.

“As much of an expert as one can get while watching broadcasts.” Lhyn sipped her spirits and made a humming sound. “Oh, nice. Give me a few minutes, Telorana, and I’ll catch up with you.”

“Finally!” Candini wrapped an affectionate arm around Lhyn’s shoulders and squeezed. “A woman after my own heart.”

Ekatya narrowed her eyes at the display, wondering if standing up and knocking Candini’s arm off would be too obvious. Then she saw the wink from her pilot and knew she’d been caught. Candini might be a little buzzed, but she was still sharp. “I think the women after your own heart are at the next table,” she said. “Along with the men. Maybe you should switch.”

Candini chuckled. “Not when Lhyn is at this one. I have too many questions.”

“Er…you do? Wait, do I get to eat something first?” Lhyn looked around for a server.

“You’re with the grunts, Dr. Rivers,” said Kameha from his seat next to Ekatya. “No one is waiting on you. Your food is up there.” He pointed at the counter on the far wall, where a number of servers filled plates for waiting Guards.

“Oh. Save my place then, would you?”

Ekatya deliberately did not watch her go, instead focusing on the conversation at the table as Kameha and Xi talked about the glass-making operation—which was now so smooth that they’d turned it over to the Alsean builders—and their impressions of the engineers that had come aboard for a tour and exchange of knowledge.

“These people are advanced,” Kameha said. “You wouldn’t think it looking at their agricultural base and the small size of their cities, but some of their technology and understanding is right up there at Protectorate levels. Did you know about their nanotech capabilities?”

Ekatya shook her head. “Not before I got here. Not before Dr. Rivers and I put together those reports, actually. I still have a list of things I want to discuss with Lancer Tal.”

“Well, I asked the engineers about that neat little collapsible sword trick we saw at the funeral. Xi and I were both itching to get our hands on one of those to see how it worked, but I figured a bunch of engineers was the next best thing. Turns out the swords use nanotechnology to lock the individual blade sections together. The seams are stronger than the metal itself.”

“So when they press the release in the grip,” Xi added, “the sections are launched out and joined at the molecular level.”

“Essentially an atomic weld,” Kameha explained to Candini, who looked as if she wasn’t quite following.

“Right, and then pressing the release again breaks the welds and collapses the sections. Really an intriguing bit of tech.” Xi sipped his drink.

“What I love about it is the blending of modern and ancient.” Kameha nodded to Lhyn, who had returned with a plate in her hand. “The blades are incredibly advanced, but the grips are a throwback to what they must have used a thousand stellar years ago. They’re works of art.”

“You’re talking about the swords?” Lhyn asked as she settled in. “Aren’t they beautiful?”

On the other side of Ekatya, Baldassar chuckled. “I have to admit, I didn’t expect our resident linguist and anthropologist to be admiring Alsean weaponry.”

“Not all of their weaponry. I have no interest in disruptors or rail guns or missiles. But those swords really are gorgeous. They’re a big part of the warrior mythos.”

“Blunt told me that Gehrain told her that warriors save for months—I mean, moons, to get their first swords,” Candini said. “It’s like a rite of passage.”

“Oh, Blunt did, did she?” Baldassar nudged Ekatya. “Who’s going to have the sex talk with her, you or me?”

“Definitely not me. I’m certain that’s in the first officer’s job description.”

“That reminds me.” Candini turned a gleeful smile on Lhyn. “You still have some information to share.”

Lhyn groaned. “Really? I just started eating, can’t you wait until I’m done?”

“Nope. Last time we got interrupted, I didn’t see you again for a day and a half. No more interruptions.”

“I want to hear this too,” Kameha said.

Xi nodded, leaning forward and crossing his arms on the table expectantly.

Lhyn looked around at them and then rolled her eyes. “Okay, fine. To start with, they don’t have penises.”

The men made “ouch” noises.

“Or clitorises.”

Candini pulled her head back like a turtle and grimaced. “Poor things!”

“Or testicles or the whole fallopian tube slash uterus thing.”

Ekatya held back a laugh, but it wasn’t easy while her senior staff were all showing various signs of horror.

“Then what the Hades do they have?” Candini demanded. Everyone else nodded.

“You know those ridges on their faces? They have more of those…elsewhere.”

Now they all looked speculative, and Lhyn chuckled. “I really wish I had a vidcam right now.”

“Never mind that,” Candini said. “What about these ridges?”

“They call them pelvic ridges. They start here at the top of the hips, run along the lower edges of the pelvis, and meet where, er, our most sensitive organs would be. The curve where they meet is called a molwine.”

“So instead of jiggly bits they have a hard ridge?” Candini sat back in her chair, her face undergoing an interesting shift of expressions.

“A very sensitive hard ridge.” Lhyn laughed when all of the crew leaned forward again. “Extremely sensitive when rubbed together, or nibbled—lightly, because biting too hard is apparently a good way to get kicked out of bed.”

Ekatya dropped her head and pinched the bridge of her nose as everyone at the table shifted uncomfortably. She had a head start on them, since Lhyn had explained this to her in the healing center, so she shouldn’t be laughing. But it was next to impossible to hold it back.

“But knowing how to bite just hard enough is considered an extremely desirable skill in a lover,” Lhyn continued. “And did I mention the neck ridges?”

“No,” Kameha said in a high voice. He cleared his throat and added in a lower tone, “I’ve never seen any neck ridges on an Alsean.”

“That’s a good thing, Commander. Because if you had, it would mean they were sexually aroused.”

“Come to think of it, I thought I saw some neck ridges on two or three of those engineers in your tour,” Candini said. “What were you telling them, anyway?”

“Nothing! And you did not.”

“They’re all engineers,” Baldassar said. “They could have been talking about spanners and gotten aroused.”

Ekatya gave up and laughed, leaning back and holding her stomach. The entire table joined in, and when the laughter trickled down to intermittent chuckles, Lhyn resumed her explanation.

“The neck ridges are sensitive too, though not nearly as much as the molwine. And both sexes have what we’d call a vaginal opening, except that it doesn’t lead to a uterus. It ends in a tiny little pouch designed to hold a sperm capsule next to an egg. Both sexes can produce the sperm capsule, too. And the egg.”

“I am so lost,” Candini said. “Are you saying they can fertilize themselves?”

“No, no. The pouch won’t accept a sperm capsule from the same body, and Alseans can’t produce both at the same time anyway. But I am saying that both sexes are capable of fertilizing eggs, and both are capable of carrying and nursing a baby.”

“How in the purple planets does that work?” Kameha wanted to know.

“Their sexual dimorphism isn’t as pronounced as ours. For instance, adult males still end up with denser musculature and thicker ridges, but both sexes have the same internal structures, and neither sex fully develops those structures until actual pregnancy. That makes it easier for males to flip all the way over to female if they want to be the ones carrying their offspring. So while females are the ones who can carry and nurse offspring with a relatively nominal change in hormone production—I mean, I’m sure you’ve noticed the Alsean women have breasts…”

Candini looked at the men, who said nothing, and nodded her head. “They noticed.”

“So did you, Telorana, don’t look so innocent. Anyway, the males can do the same thing; it just takes a more profound change in hormone production. They’ll grow breasts for nursing, and develop their internal structures for sustaining and growing a fertilized egg to a full-sized infant. Once the baby is weaned, the hormone surge fades away and they revert to their normal sex.”

“That is…fascinating and a little disturbing,” Kameha said.

“Why disturbing?”

“Er…”

“Because he’s stuck on the whole not having a penis thing.” Candini waved a hand in dismissal. “Never mind that. What I want to know is how the women make this sperm capsule, and how the Hades it gets from wherever it’s made into this pouch thing.”

“The sperm capsule and the egg are both made on demand, after a long period of very specific stimulation of the molwine. The egg is made in the pouch, where it sits and waits. The sperm capsule is made in a little fold between the molwine and the entrance. It’s ejected and then pushed into the receiving pouch.”

“Yes, but with what?” Kameha asked.

Lhyn lifted her hand and wiggled two fingers.

“No way!” Candini spluttered with laughter and pointed at Kameha. “You’ve got the obsolete model! Better upgrade, Chief.”

“Hey, I seem to recall you being very unhappy to leave Station Erebderis on our last visit, because you had to say good-bye to not one but two of those obsolete models.”

“Two?” Baldassar’s eyebrow rose.

“Brothers.” Candini sighed with the memory. “Identical twins. They did everything together.”

Lhyn looked at her incredulously. “I thought you said that was just a stereotype about pilots running wild on leave.”

“It is a stereotype. That doesn’t mean it can’t occasionally be true.”

“In Candini’s case, it’s not a stereotype,” Ekatya said. “So if the egg and sperm capsule are both made on demand, then reproduction is entirely planned, right?”

“Right. Which is why their global population is still only half a billion. I mean, there are accidents, but they’re not very common.”

Baldassar ticked off the points on his fingers. “So, planned reproduction, both sexes can carry and nurse a baby, males can become functionally female—”

“And females can become functionally male,” Lhyn interjected. “Just as the males undergo a hormone surge to produce that egg and then host it, the females undergo a hormone surge to produce the sperm capsule. That’s why their creation ceremony lasts five days, because it takes that long for the hormones produced from the molwine stimulation to result in gamete production.”

“Wait a minute,” Candini said. “They have sex for five days to get pregnant?”

“Well…not every minute of those five days. But yes, there’s a fairly regular need for stimulation.”

“Holy Seeders. No wonder they have ridges instead of jiggly bits. The jiggly bits would fall off by then.”

“That really does have profound implications for their culture,” Baldassar said. “If either sex can fertilize eggs or give birth, then there’s no selection pressure for sexual preference. There’s probably very little mate competition as well.”

“Exactly. It also has implications for their attitude toward recreational sex. With us, the sex we have for fun is identical to the sex we have to get pregnant—”

“Not all of it.” Candini winked and sipped her spirits.

“Fine,” Lhyn said, rolling her eyes as the others laughed. “The heterosexual penetrative sex we have is—”

Candini raised both eyebrows.

“I am not going to be any more specific!” But Lhyn was smiling. “Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that for the Alseans, those are two very different acts. Sex for fun is quick and easy and there’s practically no danger of pregnancy, even when it’s between opposite sexes. That’s why they call it joining, because it implies something that’s easily done and easily ended, and they don’t assign any emotional weight to it. I mean, it can be emotionally profound, but there’s no cultural expectation that it should be. They reserve their expectations of that kind of connection for the Sharing, which really does have emotional weight.”

Everyone wanted to know more about Sharing, and from Lhyn’s answers Ekatya knew she’d learned a great deal about it from her studies today. She caught her eye and sent a silent message, wanting to know how it had gone, but got only a slight head shake in response. Lhyn wasn’t going to talk about it in front of the others.

Funny, Ekatya mused as she sipped her drink. Lhyn could explain Alsean sex and reproduction in excruciating detail with her crew and not bat an eye. But emotions? Those were too private.

Maybe they were closer to the Alseans than they realized.





Chapter 42

The right thing


Lhyn slipped inside the room just as she had the two previous nights, and Ekatya was waiting with a bottle of spirits that she’d found on her sideboard. The accompanying note from Lancer Tal explained that what they’d had at dinner was merely excellent, while this was superlative. It wasn’t an exaggeration.

“Long time no see,” she said, handing over a glass.

Lhyn lifted it in a salute. “Yes, it’s been at least an hour since evenmeal.” Even when speaking Common, she often used Alsean words.

“I know, what took you so long?”

That earned a chuckle as Lhyn brought the glass to her mouth. “Wow. This is even better than the last bottle.” She set her drink on the side table and plopped onto the couch.

“I’m told it’s the finest on Alsea. Can’t imagine how much it must cost.”

“There are advantages to being globally famous heroes, aren’t there?”

Ekatya sat beside her. “VIP quarters, delicious food and fine wines, and a secret lover’s entrance? Definitely. So how was your day? I mean, the parts you didn’t talk about at dinner?”

This was the first day that Lhyn hadn’t been with or at least near her at all times, and she’d found it ridiculously distracting. Ten months without so much as a message, and she’d gotten along just fine. Now one day was a trial.

“Oh my stars, I had the most wonderful day. You would not believe it. I don’t even know where to start.”

“Start with your trip to Blacksun Temple,” Ekatya suggested.

Lhyn eagerly complied, telling her all about her introduction to Lead Templar Satran, the stories she’d heard, and how she’d finally gotten to experience the Sharing she’d been so curious about.

“It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever felt. You can’t imagine—it’s like being inside someone else’s mind. Except not quite, because you’re not outside your own mind. I don’t know how to describe it.” She sipped her spirits thoughtfully. “Remember the night we really connected? When we felt safe enough to tell each other the real truth about ourselves instead of the usual getting-to-know-you conversation? When we talked about how we felt, rather than what we did?”

“I remember.” It had been one of the most magical evenings of her life.

“Well, imagine doing that with someone you’ve just met. Instead of spending days or weeks or months building up the trust for it, you just connect your minds and share. And there it is, all the honesty and truth that we sonsales stumble over ourselves trying to put into words. It doesn’t need to be put into words, because words can’t describe it. It’s a huge rush straight to the emotional center of your brain. I just met Lanaril this morning, yet in some ways it feels as if I’ve known her for years.”

“Lanaril?”

“She said it was hard to stand on title and ceremony after a Sharing. And it really is. I don’t know, maybe I’m just not equipped to make the proper separation after something like that, but I can’t look at her in the same way now. Before we Shared, she was the Lead Templar, someone I didn’t know but liked on sight and was very happy to speak with. Afterwards, she was Lanaril, a friend I knew very well. It’s…hard to explain. But I didn’t want to leave. We talked for almost three hours afterwards, and I’d have stayed the rest of the day if she hadn’t had an appointment. I’d Share with her again in a heartbeat if she offered. Honestly, I’m a little depressed right now at the thought that it was probably the first and last Sharing I’ll ever have.”

Ekatya couldn’t relate, but she could see that Lhyn had experienced something profound. “I’m glad you had such a wonderful opportunity. No one deserves it more.”

“Thank you. I just wish you could experience it too.” Her expression hardened. “Actually, I think we need to ship the entire negotiation team out here so they can experience it. Maybe that would clear their heads. Did you get the same vibe from their response that I did?”

They’d finally heard back from the treaty negotiation team late last night. There had been separate messages for her and Lhyn, and while she hadn’t seen Lhyn’s, hers had given her a definite sense of the direction the team was going. It had also included Protectorate mining surveys of the five planets, which confirmed the Voloth claim.

“If your vibe said they don’t believe us about the empathy, then yes.”

“That’s it. They think I’ve gone native and lost all sense of perspective, and you’re suffering from a head injury.”

“I told Admiral Tsao I was fine.”

“And she probably believed you. That doesn’t mean the negotiators do. It looks to me like they have a vested interest in accepting the Voloth’s offer. They don’t want to hear from us that they should rethink it.”

Ekatya sighed. “I’m a little worried about that, too.”

“What are you going to do about it?”

“What do you mean? We’ve done what we can.”

“That’s dokshin. Of course we haven’t. I’ve got my team looking into those five worlds, because I don’t trust the Assembly when it says they’re worth the exchange, and I especially don’t trust the Voloth on it. And I’m going to submit another report incorporating what I learned today. Fuck them if they don’t believe us about the empathy; they should pay attention when I tell them the Alseans are hybrids.”

“They’re what?

“They’re hybrids. I should have seen it sooner. We’ve never found empathy in any other Gaian race, and we’ve never found a radically different reproductive system. I would dearly love to examine Alsean DNA, but we can’t get to your medbay and if we used Alsean equipment I wouldn’t know how to read the results. But Lanaril told me their creation myth, and I don’t think it’s a myth at all.”

Ekatya could barely believe this, but Lhyn had been right about so many things. She set down her drink and said, “Tell me.”

“Well, the first part is pretty standard. Fahla created Alsea, she populated the planet with all of its plants and animals, the usual. Where it differs is that her favorite creation wasn’t the Alseans. It was an ocean-dwelling species. That’s the species she loved, the one she gave her greatest gifts to. She gave them empathy and the ability to choose when and how to procreate—sound familiar?—and told them to build their cities in the sea. She said they should pursue beauty and knowledge to the highest levels, so they did. And they did it with a single-mindedness that precluded reproduction, because having and raising children interfered with what they wanted. Plus they lived for hundreds of cycles, so why worry about having kids when they were young? Plenty of time for that later.

“Except when later came, and they finally got around to trying to have children, it was too late. They no longer had the ability. They cried out to Fahla to save them, but when she came, she wept over them and said she couldn’t give back the time they had wasted. What she could do was give them new bodies so they could live again. She would give them a second chance. But the cost was steep: they would have to give up their homes and leave the sea forever. They would have to live on land.

“They agreed, and Fahla kept her word. She gave them new bodies that walked on two legs instead of swimming, and this time she shortened their lifespans so that they would never again forget how important it was to have families. And they haven’t.”

Ekatya’s head was spinning. “So you think—what, exactly? That after the Shippers dropped the Alseans here, they hybridized with some local species? I’m not a biologist, but isn’t the possibility of that about zero point zero one percent?”

“Under natural circumstances, yes. But I don’t think they were just dropped off like the rest of us. I think Fahla is a Shipper. Except we’d have to call her a Seeder, because she really did interfere with Alsean development. Or maybe she’s just the representation of a whole group of interfering aliens, I don’t know, but I’d bet everything I own that Alsea was already home to an advanced species when the original Gaians were brought here, and those Gaians were subjected to genetic experimentation with the DNA of that species. The story of the natives forgetting to reproduce—what if there was some sort of disease that destroyed their reproductive ability? Or maybe they polluted their environment too much, and it interfered with hormone production. It could be any number of things. The fact is, they’re gone, and the Alseans are here now, with a creation myth that says they weren’t the first. And everything we know about them proves they aren’t like any other Gaian race.”

“Great galaxies. That’s…mind-blowing.”

“I know. The Alseans could be our biggest clue yet to who the Shippers really were.”

“So you have a report to write.”

“I do. But what if that’s still not enough? It might come down to you.”

“Me? I don’t have that much power. My career is already on thin ice. All I can do is tell Admiral Tsao what I know and what you’ve learned.”

Lhyn gave her a look that said her intelligence had just undergone a sudden decline. “Of course you have that much power. Not in the Assembly, not in Fleet, here.”

“What are you talking about?”

“In six days that personnel ship will be here to pick everyone up. You’re planning to destroy the Caphenon when you go. If it comes to that—if we have to leave because the Assembly gives Alsea away—don’t do it. Leave the ship for the Alseans. It’s the only chance they’ll have against the Voloth.”

“Are you insane?” Ekatya gaped at her before getting her reaction under control. “That is not possible.”

“Why not?”

Sometimes she forgot just how different they really were, and how out of touch Lhyn was with everything it meant to be Fleet.

“First of all, it would mean not just throwing my career away, but quite likely my freedom as well. If you think Fleet wouldn’t court-martial and jail a decorated captain for aiding and abetting the enemy, then you’ve been in too many communications blackouts. And yes, that is exactly how they’d see it,” she added when Lhyn would have spoken. “Disobeying a direct order is bad enough. Disobeying it when I’m already in trouble is worse. But leaving the Protectorate’s most advanced ship design for the Voloth to pick apart? I’d never take another breath of fresh air as long as I lived.”

Lhyn set her jaw stubbornly. “You’re assuming the Voloth would win.”

“Of course they’d win. I know you love these people, and it’s true they’re a lot more advanced than I gave them credit for, but they’re no match against the Voloth. You saw what it took for them to neutralize one ground pounder; how do you think they could possibly handle five hundred? Or even a thousand, if the Voloth decide to bring two invasion groups instead of one? Not to mention their fighters.”

“By using the Caphenon’s weapons!”

“Lhyn…” She sighed. “The Caphenon is dead and broken. It’s built for space warfare, not atmospheric or ground warfare. It could fire missiles, yes, but those missiles aren’t designed to overcome gravity and atmospheric drag. They wouldn’t reach orbit, so they couldn’t be used against the Voloth ships, and if the Alseans tried to use them against Voloth fighters without tying in the defensive targeting system, the fighters would dodge them and laugh. The rail guns would fare better for manual targeting of fighters and ground pounders, but only those within range, and how many Alseans are checked out on those weapons? Zero. And—”

“You could train them,” Lhyn interrupted.

“Oh, for the love of flight.” Ekatya dropped her head to the couch back and stared at the ceiling. “I can’t believe you’re serious.”

“I am dead serious. If you’re so worried about the Voloth winning, or the Alseans not being able to use the Caphenon, then stay here and help them! If the alternative is going home to a court-martial, why not?”

“Because that’s not the alternative! I obey my orders, I keep the Caphenon out of Voloth hands, and I go home to get another ship.”

Lhyn looked at her aghast. “That’s no alternative at all! That’s—that’s abandoning these people! How can you even think of it? The Alseans are the most important Gaian race ever found, with the exception of yours. Besides that, they’re wonderful people with a beautiful culture. They saved you, they saved me, they saved every one of your crew when most races would have either feared us, tried to kill us, or stuck us in a holding cell while they took over the ship. If the Assembly votes the way we think it will, you might be all that stands between them and utter destruction. And you’d just fly away?”

“It’s not that simple.”

“Yes, it fucking well is!” Lhyn stood up, her fists clenched at her sides. “I have studied these people for ten months and barely scratched the surface of who and what they are. In three days of personal contact, I’ve learned more than I could have dreamed—more than I could have in five years of floating up there, watching broadcasts. They are the discovery of a lifetime, and I can’t fathom how you could turn your back on that. And we’re the reason they’re in danger in the first place! How am I supposed to live with the fact that I brought them to the Voloth’s attention and then merrily flew away, waving good-bye as the first ground pounders landed?”

Damn it all, she should have seen that coming.

“This is not your fault,” she said gently.

Lhyn glared at her, opened her mouth, and then shut it again as the tears came to her eyes. “Of course it’s my fault. And I can’t help them, other than writing another report that will probably get ignored. You’re the only one who can.”

Ekatya rose and pulled her into her arms. “Lancer Tal herself told you, showed you that it’s not your fault. Remember what she said about the difference between responsibility and fault?”

“I remember,” Lhyn whispered, holding on tight. “It helped then, but it doesn’t help now. And it really won’t help if that becomes a memory of a dead woman.”

“We might be getting upset over nothing. We don’t know how the Assembly will vote.”

“But we both have the same feeling about it. Don’t try to comfort me with a lie; it’s really not effective.”

Only Lhyn could sound like an academic even when she was in tears.

“You know, we’re forgetting one thing in all this. There are five other civilizations at risk.”

“Right, five others far outside Protectorate space that we haven’t studied. Would you trade a brand new Pulsar-class ship for nothing more than the promise of five shuttles?”

“You don’t know that they’re shuttles. They could be just as important as the Alseans. There are cities on those worlds.”

Lhyn broke her hold and stepped back. “I’ve been studying Gaian races my entire life. Trust me when I tell you that the likelihood of the Voloth giving us five civilizations as important as this one is somewhere in the minus range.”

“I do trust you, but that doesn’t mean those civilizations aren’t worth saving. Of course you feel passionately about the Alseans; you’ve spent most of the last year studying them. What if you’d spent most of the last year studying one of those five?”

“That would depend on what I learned. You’re trying to draw an equivalency here, but there isn’t one. There is simply no other known race in the galaxy like the Alseans. They are unique. And we can’t leave them to the Voloth.”

“But it’s not our decision. We’re not the ones in charge. I understand how you feel, and I share it, believe me I share it, but we don’t have the whole picture. We don’t know what else the Voloth are offering the negotiation team. At the very least, it’s going to be a peace treaty. Putting an end to border skirmishes will save thousands upon thousands of lives.”

“There are five hundred million lives on Alsea.”

“And what if the Voloth agree to hand over their new weapon? What if Alsea is the price for the entire Protectorate to remain safe from Voloth invasion? How many billions of lives is that?” When Lhyn was silent, she added, “I am not going to leave the Caphenon. It can’t be allowed to fall into Voloth hands. I’m sorry, but it’s the right thing to do, even if it doesn’t look like it from here. And it’s my duty.”

“It’s not the right thing, and fuck your duty. You bent regulations to come after me and keep me safe, so don’t tell me you’re always bound by your duty. I’m horrified that you’d risk your career for one person, but not for five hundred million of them.”

“I didn’t risk my career for one person; I risked it for you,” Ekatya snapped. “And if you think protecting you wasn’t my duty, think again. You’re a citizen of the Protectorate. Saving the Alseans was my duty as well, even if it wasn’t strictly in my orders, because they were under consideration for incorporation into Protectorate territory. If the Assembly votes against that, then I’ll have a new duty, which I will also fulfill to the best of my ability.”

“But you don’t—”

“That’s what I do!” Ekatya’s voice rose. “It’s how the system has to work. If my orders are to leave Alsea, then yes, I will hate those orders just as much as you do and I will regret their necessity every day of my life, but it won’t be the first time I upheld orders I hated and it won’t be the last.”

She stopped, breathing hard and trying to control her anger before it could dig a wider gulf between them. Lhyn’s caustic dismissal of the entire framework of her life had made that gulf too broad already.

Lhyn shook her head, the twin red spots in her cheeks betraying her own anger. “You told Lancer Tal that if you were given an immoral order, you had right of refusal. But you’re not even considering refusing. If you don’t think leaving Alsea to the Voloth is immoral, then I really can’t imagine what it would take. She wouldn’t just meekly obey like this.”

“I am not Lancer Tal!”

“You certainly aren’t.” Lhyn’s tone left no doubt that Ekatya was diminished by the comparison. “And the fact that you believe what you’re saying makes me wonder if I ever really knew you.”

Ekatya was so stunned that she could only watch as Lhyn turned and walked to the door.

“I won’t be around tomorrow. I have appointments at the university and then I’ll be starting my archival research in the caste houses. That will probably take days. After all, I’ve got to record as much as I can before you let the Voloth blow it all up.”

“Lhyn—”

“Good night, Ekatya.” The door closed behind her before Ekatya could say another word.





Chapter 43

Mission’s end


For the next three days no one saw Lhyn except at breakfast and dinner, where she ate quickly, made very little conversation—none at all with Ekatya—and left as soon as she could. She was a woman possessed, driven to learn and record as much as she could before the Alsean civilization vanished. The only time she wasn’t studying was when she sat in the shuttle to upload her results and talk to her team about what she needed to prioritize next.

After the third night alone, Ekatya took a risk and skulked over to Lhyn’s room. If any of her crew knocked on her door while she was gone, she’d have a hard time explaining why she didn’t answer, but at this point her rift with Lhyn was more important than hiding their relationship. Lhyn let her in and let her stay, and for a while Ekatya hoped that she’d come to her senses. That little fantasy was extinguished when they had a roaring fight before breakfast the next morning. It was much worse than the first one, with Lhyn pulling out every stop, to the point of actually threatening to stay behind when Ekatya and her crew left. Such an obvious ultimatum pushed Ekatya past her own breaking point. After informing Lhyn that she didn’t appreciate being manipulated for someone else’s definition of right, she stomped back to her quarters and barely remembered not to slam the door.

Lhyn vanished for the next two days, not even showing up for meals. But her ID appeared on the shuttle’s com records every evening, so Ekatya knew she was still out there, studying everything she could and sending it on to her team. She was also spending time with Lancer Tal. According to Candini, two nights in a row the Lancer had flown Lhyn to the base in her personal transport, the one she piloted herself when she wasn’t with her Guards.

Which meant that Lhyn was seeing more of the Lancer than Ekatya was. Three times Ekatya met with the Alsean war council, telling them everything she could think of regarding Voloth weaponry and invasion tactics, but at the third meeting she felt compelled to share what she suspected about the upcoming Assembly vote. It was strategically stupid—she was running the risk of the Alseans simply taking her ship, not that it would do them any good—but she didn’t think she could live with herself if she didn’t at least warn them.

That led to a very uncomfortable discussion in which Lancer Tal asked her to leave the Caphenon intact. When Ekatya explained the impossibility of such a request, Prime Warrior Shantu pointed out that the Protectorate had brought the Voloth to Alsea in the first place, and while its leaders clearly had neither honor nor courage, he believed Ekatya had both. Perhaps she would consider staying and fighting the enemy she had already beaten once. After an exhausting back-and-forth reminiscent of the fight she’d had with Lhyn, she finally persuaded them to accept the only thing she could offer: untraceable weaponry.

She hadn’t seen the Lancer since then, nor did any more Alseans come to the Caphenon for tours or exchanges of knowledge. The builders stopped coming for glass as well. Repairing city windows and presenting the image of a government in calm control was no longer a priority as the entire planet geared up for war. Mindful of their earlier success, the Alseans were laying mines all around their cities, only some of which were purpose-built. They didn’t have a stockpile of mines, nor enough time to manufacture what they’d need, so they were improvising with other explosives. Ekatya supplemented their supply with a quiet order to Roris to use the cargo printer, and now the Alsean cargo ships came for weapons rather than glass.

Manufacturing arms for the Alseans was certainly not part of Ekatya’s orders, but all evidence of their production would be atomized along with her ship. They were copies of the Alsean version, with no Fleet fingerprints on them, and Roris’s team would never breathe a word. If she could have disguised her missiles, she’d have handed them over as well, but there was no way to hide their Fleet origin. The Voloth would consider that a provocation, which was probably not the best way to start off a new peace treaty.

Kameha and Xi were kept busy prepping the Caphenon for its ultimate fate. The fusion core had been damaged during the crash and needed repairs before it could be initialized. Ekatya thought it was the height of irony that she had to repair her ship before she could blow it up. Since her team of engineers consisted of exactly two, those repairs took days. Even when Hmongyon and Mauji Mauji were released from the healing center, doubling the size of the repair team, Kameha estimated that they’d be done the day before the personnel ship arrived.

As always, he was accurate in his estimate, reporting the Caphenon ready late in the afternoon of their last day on Alsea. Less than an hour later, Admiral Tsao called in with the result of the Assembly vote. Ekatya took the call with a tiny spark of hope, but one look at the admiral’s expression quashed it. The only consolation was that a surprisingly large minority had voted against the deal.

The Voloth denied all knowledge of the hullskin-eating weapon, even when shown the visual evidence Candini had recorded of the Caphenon’s damage. That had been a source of great concern, with many Assembly ministers stating that the only prudent course of action was to give the Voloth what they wanted or risk having that weapon used in earnest. It wasn’t exactly a gun to the head, more like the unspoken threat of one. It had been enough. The arguments within Fleet had run hot, with the majority of officers opining that an appeasement policy was just asking for worse trouble in the future. Both Tsao and Ekatya agreed. Unfortunately, Fleet didn’t get a vote.

Ekatya gathered her crew in her temporary quarters, away from any Alsean eyes, and told them the news. It hit hard, and she spent some time letting them work through their anger and grief together. They’d been on Alsea just nine days, but it had been enough for all of them to feel that the Alseans were friends. When they finally drifted off to their own quarters, Ekatya popped the stopper on the bottle of spirits that appeared every day on her sideboard and drank half a glass in one gulp. Then she called Lancer Tal on her room’s vidcom.

That was the worst conversation she’d ever had, if only because the Lancer was so calm about it. She asked one more time for Ekatya’s aid, preferably by staying and fighting with her ship, but if not, then at least leaving the Caphenon for the Alseans to use. Ekatya felt like the lowest spit-mold in the galaxy when she refused. It only added insult to injury when she had to tell the Lancer to evacuate everything within twenty lengths of the ship. The explosion would be that devastating.

Unlike Lhyn, though, Lancer Tal was a warrior. She understood, and there were no more arguments, just a thank-you for all that Ekatya and her crew had done. When Ekatya signed off, she felt worse than ever.

She poured another glass and looked out the window, remembering her last fight with Lhyn. She’d tried to make her understand that sometimes it wasn’t a question of right and wrong; it was a question of wrong and more wrong. But Lhyn couldn’t see it, retorting that Ekatya was just rationalizing her own cowardice. That had only been the beginning of the harsh words they’d flung at each other, and Ekatya was truly regretting some of the things she’d said. Nor was tonight a good time to try to deal with it. Tomorrow morning they’d all gather at the shuttle, and forty-five minutes later they’d be rendezvousing with the personnel ship. After that she’d have days of travel time on a ship that was not her own, with almost nothing to do except reconcile with Lhyn.

She had a feeling she’d need every hour of it.





Chapter 44

Last chance


“I’m ready.”

Lhyn looked at her with a steady gaze that belied the turmoil of her emotions, and Tal respected her enough to pretend those emotions went unheard.

“Yes, you are,” she said. “You’re going to make quite a statement in those clothes.”

“A statement is all I have left to make. So it had better be a good one, right?”

Lhyn’s well-worn Gaian clothing was in a heap on the floor, and she was now dressed head to toe in formal wear suitable for a scholar attending a diplomatic function. The high-collared white shirt had bluestone buttons down the left side of the throat, complementing the dark blue vest that had arrived in a gift box from Lanaril. As Tal now knew, Lhyn had a special love for that silver embroidered molwyn design. The tree started just above the vest’s hem and extended up to her shoulders, its branches merging with the silver chain and clasp that held her matching half-cape. The entirety of the cape was covered with the same design, making for a striking look both front and back. The lighter blue pants had been tailored to fit her, and fell perfectly over shining low boots. With her hair up in a formal twist, she could have been mistaken for an Alsean from a distance.

“It will be,” Tal assured her, and held a hand toward the door. “Shall we?”

Lhyn swept past, clasping and briefly squeezing her hand as she went by. In the corridor, Micah, Gehrain, and ten more Guards formed a phalanx around them. Tal didn’t know what to expect when they met Captain Serrado, but she was making sure Lhyn could not be forced into anything.

They exited by the side door nearest the Gaian shuttle, where the Caphenon’s crew already waited, along with the High Council, Lanaril, Colonels Razine and Northcliff, and all of the base’s off-duty Guards who could fit themselves in the area. No matter how uncertain their future might be, no one wanted to miss the chance to see the alien shuttle depart.

Captain Serrado’s impatient worry was easily discernible even through all of the other Gaians’ emotions, as was her relief when she spotted Lhyn in Tal’s group. Then she saw the clothes and the protective, fully armed Guards, and for just a moment her face showed her horrified realization. A piptick later she wrestled herself under control and strode over.

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

“I’m not going,” Lhyn said.

“You’re what?” Commander Baldassar had followed his captain. “Of course you’re coming.”

“No, I’m not. I’ve asked Lancer Tal for permission to stay, and she said yes.”

“Lancer Tal’s permission is not the one you need.” Serrado’s voice was as hard as her expression. “You need mine, and I don’t give it. Commander, get the others on board.”

He hesitated, then nodded at Tal and her group. “Thank you for everything,” he said. “I’m sorry it has to end this way.”

“As are we, Commander.” Tal extended her hand and touched his palm. “Safe journey.”

“And to you.” He turned and walked back to the crew. “All right, everyone, let’s get on board.”

“But we didn’t get to say good-bye,” Candini complained. Others grumbled, but Tal couldn’t make anything else out as the group turned and began walking up the ramp to their shuttle door. When she looked back at the captain, she found an icy glare trained on her.

“You of all people should know that I have to do this,” Serrado said furiously. “Last night you certainly pretended that you did. And you know I don’t want to. Punishing me for obeying orders is not what I’d expect from the Lancer of Alsea.”

“Ekatya, stop it.”

Tal put a calming hand on Lhyn’s shoulder. “I’m not punishing anyone, Captain. I know you’re not staying. But Lhyn is, and that’s her choice.”

Serrado stared at her hand, and Tal suspected that if they hadn’t been surrounded by half the Guards on the base, she might be flat on her back right now. But when the captain lifted her eyes, all of that anger was channeled on Lhyn.

“It is not your choice. I’m in charge of this mission and I do not give you permission to stay behind on a planet that will be under Voloth control in a few days.”

“I don’t need your permission. I’m not part of your mission, remember? I wasn’t even supposed to be on your ship.” Lhyn stepped forward, pushing herself into the captain’s personal space. “And if you don’t want this planet to be under Voloth control, then shekking well do something about it!”

“So you’re making yourself a hostage? How dare you! I have ten people over there that I’m still responsible for, and three bodies that Candini and Baldassar just collected from the healing center. I can’t stay here because I want to, or you want to. I have to get them off this planet. I don’t have a choice.”

“You always had a choice. You just refuse to make it. Get them off the planet and come back.”

“I can have you dragged onto that shuttle.”

Tal thought she was just angry enough to try it.

“For what offense? Saying no to you? I’m a citizen of Allendohan, and I’ve broken no Protectorate law. You can’t force me.”

Serrado looked at the warriors surrounding them and shook her head. “You came prepared, Lancer Tal. I have to give you credit, you chose your ground well.”

“It’s not a battle.”

“I don’t know which is worse, that you’d lie about it or that you might actually believe it. You know what this will mean for her. How can you let her do it?”

“Because she asked me to.”

“And I’m standing right here, so stop talking about me like I’m some Shipper-damned possession that you’re fighting over. I made a choice. It’s mine to make. You have a choice to make as well.” Lhyn’s voice softened. “Please, please listen to me. You don’t have to go, and you don’t have to blow up the Caphenon. Take the crew off-planet, get them safe, and come back to us. Be the difference. You could change the fate of an entire civilization. Isn’t that why you went into Fleet? To be part of something bigger, to do something that mattered? You will never in your life have another opportunity like this. There will never be anything that matters as much as what you do right now.”

“You think changing the fate of five civilizations counts for nothing? Or making some sort of peace with the Voloth? I am doing something that matters. It’s just not the thing you think matters most. But you’re not the one who gets to make that determination, and neither am I.” She took a step back. “I have to go. This is your last chance.”

Lhyn stepped back as well. “I wish it were different. But I’m doing what I have to.”

“So am I.”

“No, you’re not. You’re doing what you think you have to.”

“It’s the same thing, Lhyn.”

None of the onlookers moved or made a sound as the two women looked at each other. Then Captain Serrado shook her head, turned around, and walked onto the shuttle.

Lhyn looked after her in shock. “I can’t believe it. She didn’t even say good-bye.”

“She couldn’t,” Tal said. “She wanted to, but she couldn’t. It would have broken her control.”

The shuttle door closed as its engines fired.

“Damn you warriors and your control.” A tear slid down Lhyn’s cheek and she reached for Tal’s hand, grasping it tightly as she watched the shuttle rise and turn. It hovered in place for a moment, then moved off and picked up speed, heading toward the Caphenon.





Chapter 45

Game of strategy


The shuttle was oppressively silent as they gained altitude. No one dared to speak, and Ekatya certainly wasn’t going to. Frankly, she was impressed that she’d managed to order Candini to lift off without her voice cracking.

She hadn’t even been able to say good-bye. Lhyn had sandbagged her in front of her crew and half of Alsea, and she couldn’t say anything without making an utter spectacle of herself. Lhyn must have known it. She didn’t want a good-bye.

Never would she have imagined Lhyn could do something like that. She was committing suicide, for all practical purposes, and had forced Ekatya to be a party to it. If her heart wasn’t so fucking broken, she’d be furious with her.

That would probably come later.

She was so caught up in her thoughts that she had no idea how far they’d gotten until Candini said, “Uh, Captain? We’ve got a problem.”

“What is it?” She straightened in the copilot’s seat and shook herself back to attention.

“Look.” Candini pointed, and at first Ekatya didn’t know what she was supposed to see. Then she sucked in a breath.

“That Shipper-damned, lying little—”

They were flying over the cordon of Alsean warriors around the Caphenon. The cordon that wasn’t supposed to be there, the one Lancer Tal had agreed to move back last night. She hadn’t evacuated the area. If Ekatya destroyed the Caphenon now, she’d kill a thousand Alsean warriors instantly, not to mention the civilians who still crowded just behind them, trying to get closer to the famous alien ship.

And there were a few farms scattered about as well. People living in their homes. People whose leader had just betrayed them, who were now living kasmet pieces in the most ruthless game of strategy Ekatya had ever played.

She still had her wristcom. They all did, just in case something went wrong. She nearly broke it while stabbing in the code for Lancer Tal.

Yes, Captain?”

“Pull back your warriors!”

I can’t do that. They’re protecting the best chance we have against the Voloth. I’m asking you not to take that away from us.”

“If you don’t pull them back, they’ll be vaporized in the next ten ticks.”

If you do, that will be on your conscience.”

For fuck’s sake, Ekatya! Don’t do it!”

She looked at her wristcom in horror. Of course Lhyn was hearing everything; why wouldn’t she be? She’d practically been in Lancer Tal’s arms when the shuttle had lifted off.

Are you hearing me? There’s still time to do the right thing. It’s not too late.”

She punched the wristcom off. “Get us in position.”

“Yes, Captain.”

They flew on through occasional clouds, heading for a point directly over the Caphenon. She stared unseeingly through the front window, hearing Lhyn’s last words over and over.

It’s not too late, it’s not too late, it’s not too late…

But it was. It always had been.

The shuttle slowed and came to a hover. Candini tapped in a few last commands and said, “The laser is locked on. You can speak to the Caphenon.”

Ekatya opened her mouth, but nothing came out. Behind her she heard Baldassar’s voice.

Caphenon, this is Commander Baldassar. Verify and respond.”

Commander Baldassar, voiceprint verified,” said the distinctive voice of her ship. Ekatya felt a lump in her throat; she hadn’t heard that voice in ten days. Kameha had restored it only yesterday, for this exact purpose. To hear it now, at the moment of its destruction…

“Initiate self-destruct on a five-minute countdown.” Baldassar sounded perfectly calm. She envied him.

Command recognized. Command code required.

He rattled off his command code, and she idly noted that now he’d have to change it.

Code recognized and verified. The captain’s command code is still required.”

Ekatya, please!”

A shiver flashed down her spine. For a moment she would have sworn she’d heard Lhyn’s voice. Turning in her chair, she found Baldassar looking at her with upraised brows. Behind him the rest of her crew watched expectantly. Everyone was waiting for her to make the choice, here and on the ground.

A glance out the window showed a crystal clear blue sky with a few clouds far below. They were too high to see the Caphenon anymore, but she could almost feel her ship down there, halfway to a self-destruct confirmation. It was waiting for her too.

Caphenon, this is Captain Serrado. Verify and respond.”

Captain Serrado, voiceprint recognized. Do you wish to confirm the self-destruct?”

She met Baldassar’s eyes and said, “No. Cancel the self-destruct.”

He didn’t seem surprised.

Command cancelled.”

“Lieutenant, resume course to the Gavinaught.”

“Resuming course.” Candini shot her a huge smile before turning back to her controls.

“I’m taking you all to the Gavinaught,” Ekatya said, sweeping her gaze across her crew. “And then I’m coming back here to do what I can against the Voloth.”

“I had a feeling,” Baldassar said. “Ever since I realized you and Dr. Rivers were lovers. I saw you holding hands on stage at the funeral. And Dr. Rivers has developed quite a habit of calling you by your first name. When were you going to tell me, by the way?”

“I wanted to. But it would have put you in the same compromised position I was in.”

“You mean the position of knowing that you had a conflict of interest? The same conflict of interest that’s made you incapable of carrying out your duties? You just disobeyed orders and left advanced Protectorate technology for the Voloth to find. You know it’s wrong, but you did it for your lover.”

“No. I did it because I’m not going to vaporize over a thousand Alseans just because they trust their leader. I don’t want that on my conscience.” And because Lancer Tal was more ruthless than she would ever have believed.

“Captain, I know this is going to sound harsh, but…they’re dead anyway.”

“You’re right, it sounds harsh. And not every order is correct, or moral, or even legal.” It was as if her subconscious mind had made the decision in spite of all the agonizing her conscious mind had done. She just wished it had informed her earlier. “This is not the right answer, Commander. There has to be a better way than simply handing the Alseans over to the Voloth. Especially considering that the Voloth wouldn’t even know about them if it weren’t for us. We dug the trap and now we’re going to throw them in it? I don’t find that correct or moral. And the fact that it’s legal says more about our laws than it does about Alsea.”

“It’s not our place to decide which orders are moral or correct. If the order is legal, we carry it out. You’ve broken that trust, so I have no choice. Captain Serrado, I am relieving you of duty. As of now I am in command of the Caphenon and this crew.” He looked around at the faces staring at him. “You know it has to be done. The captain has lost her perspective and she’s endangering a peace treaty between the Protectorate and the Voloth.”

There was a long silence.

“You know,” Torado said, crossing his arms over his broad chest, “Gehrain carried me out of that weapons room. He didn’t even know aliens existed before that, and he couldn’t communicate with me, but he saved me. I couldn’t figure out why we were abandoning them anyway, and now I’m glad they’ve got a chance. You’ll not get my support, Commander.”

“I’m with Torado,” said Roris.

“Me too.” Blunt’s voice was quiet but determined. Ennserhofen just nodded at Torado.

“I wouldn’t even be alive if it weren’t for them,” Mauji Mauji said. “Count me out of your mutiny.”

“It’s not a mutiny,” Baldassar said in exasperation. “It’s my duty! When the captain can’t carry out her duties, the first officer has to take over.”

“I don’t care what you call it,” Hmongyon said. “They saved me, too. I’m with the captain.”

Xi didn’t say anything, and Ekatya guessed he would have supported Baldassar if the others had. Since they didn’t, he was going to take the safe road. Candini and Kameha weren’t even in the equation; she knew they wouldn’t support this.

“Try relieving me of duty after we board the Gavinaught,” she suggested. “Right now it doesn’t seem like it’s going to work.”

He shook his head. “I’ve always admired your ability to instill loyalty. It’s one of the reasons I wanted a post on your ship. It’s also why I bypassed the voice controls on the Caphenon.

Her eyes widened when he pulled the detonator out of his jacket pocket.

“Baldassar, no!” She launched herself out of the seat at the same time that three other bodies rushed him. Baldassar went down hard, the detonator flying from his hand to skitter across the deck. Ekatya scrambled after it, swearing as it slid beneath a seat. Behind her, the struggle ended with a thud of flesh on flesh.

“He’s out,” Torado said, but Ekatya wasn’t listening. She’d finally gotten her fingers on the detonator and was staring at it in dismay.

“Oh, no. No!”

“Captain, the Caphenon is powering up,” Candini said.

Ekatya threw the detonator onto the deck and stabbed her wristcom again.

“Lancer Tal, pull everyone back now! The self-destruct has been initiated; you’ve got five ticks!”

The Lancer didn’t respond. Had she pressed something besides the recall button?

She was just punching in the full code when she heard Lancer Tal’s voice, but not from her wristcom. It was coming from the back.

Commander Kameha, please give me some good news.”

“Power levels are coming up normally.” Kameha’s fingers danced over the shuttle’s engineering console. “A little sooner than I expected, but the end result will be the same. The Caphenon is ready for action. Treat her well, Lancer Tal, she was my baby.”

Ekatya’s jaw dropped.

We’ll treat her with the utmost respect. Thank you for your help, and for sharing your knowledge. I wish you could stay with us.”

“I wouldn’t have minded it, actually. Seems to me I might have learned a few things from you.”

Far less than we could have learned from you. And Commander Kameha—you’re released. You owe me nothing. Live your life free and well.”

“Good-bye, Lancer Tal,” Kameha said.

Ekatya’s wristcom buzzed, and she lifted it in a daze. “What have you done?”

Don’t blame Commander Kameha. He was operating under…an alien influence. It’s not his fault and he shouldn’t be held responsible.”

Kameha shrugged. “Hold me responsible all you want. It was the right thing to do.”

Don’t listen to him. On every other topic, yes, but not on this one. And Captain, this is just a formality at this point, but the Alsean government is officially claiming the Caphenon as salvage. Your government abandoned it. We’ll take better care of it. Safe journey, and may Fahla fly with you.”

The wristcom went dead, and Ekatya sat heavily in the copilot’s seat. She had just been outmaneuvered at every turn. Worse, she’d lost Lhyn in the process. She hadn’t lived up to Lhyn’s expectations, so Lhyn had stayed with the woman who did. Lancer Tal didn’t have Ekatya’s handicap. She wasn’t beholden to an overarching authority, she was the authority. And now she had both Lhyn and the Caphenon.

“Captain?”

She closed her eyes. “What now, Lieutenant?”

“We’ve got another problem.”

Somewhere, somehow, she was certain that the universe was laughing at her.

“What is it?”

“We’re losing our flight controls. It’s the same thing that happened to the fighter.” The words were hardly out of Candini’s mouth when a slight shudder went through the shuttle’s frame.

“How in Hades—”

“I don’t know, but we were wrong. It’s not the Voloth. It’s something here. This shuttle was never exposed to anything Voloth.”

Kameha made his way up from the back. “Did I hear that right? The shuttle’s hullskin—”

“—is disintegrating, yes. We’re not going to make it into orbit.”

“Stars and Shippers,” Ekatya swore. “It was them all along.” That woman had known she couldn’t leave.

“We’re going to have to put down,” Candini said. “Where should I land?”

“Well, there’s not much choice, is there? Anywhere we go, we’re marked. They’ll take us back to Blacksun anyway, so we might as well save them the effort. And I’d rather arrive on my own terms.”

It was all she had left.





Chapter 46

The challenge


Any guilt Ekatya might have felt for even considering killing a thousand Alseans slipped beneath her outrage as she marched down the corridor, bracketed by Guards front and rear. Their shuttle had been met over Blacksun by four armed transports and told to land at the State House. She’d been disarmed the moment she stepped out, as had the rest of her crew. They’d even found Roris’s sleeve knife. And now her crew was sequestered in some heavily guarded room while she was being “escorted” to see Lancer Tal, the woman who had promised her any favor she could grant and betrayed her instead.

They stopped in front of a heavy pair of carved and inlaid wooden doors, which silently opened inward when Colonel Micah pressed his hand to the biolock panel. Four of the Guards took up posts on either side of the entrance while the rest accompanied her across the plush carpet and through the beautifully furnished anteroom to another door, this one half the size but no less gorgeous. Ekatya noticed the emblem of the tree on it before it, too, opened inward.

“Lancer Tal,” said Colonel Micah in his low rumble, “Captain Serrado is here.”

“Bring her in.”

The colonel stood aside and held out a hand, following immediately behind when Ekatya stepped past him. The other Guards remained outside.

Lancer Tal was walking out from behind a wooden desk whose apparent age and carvings matched those of the door. The wall of glass at her back looked out onto the park, and Ekatya’s anger kicked up a notch at the sight of it. Her ship had made that glass. Her people had handed it over to the Alseans. All in the name of cooperation, of aid, and all this time…

“I hoped you’d return,” Lancer Tal said, now standing in front of her. “But not like this.”

“Not like what? Not like an idiot who got taken in by the oldest game in the books?”

“You’re the furthest thing from an idiot.”

“And you’re the furthest thing from the honorable woman I thought you were. You knew I’d come back, because you knew I couldn’t get off this planet. Why didn’t you tell me? What game were you playing?”

“I didn’t know, Captain. That was as much a surprise to me as it was to you. And not a good one.”

Ekatya was taken aback. She didn’t know? Then what was destroying their hullskin?

The Lancer’s last statement sank in, and she understood. “You wanted my fighters.”

“Yes. But they all have hullskin, so none of them will fly. We’re almost as shekked as if you’d managed to blow the Caphenon after all. Except I haven’t lost a thousand warriors yet.”

The reminder of how she’d been outmaneuvered pushed her temper right back to the brink. “What did you do to Commander Kameha?”

“What I had to.” Lancer Tal gestured at the small conference table. “Would you like to sit down?”

“No, I don’t want to sit down! Do you really think we’re going to talk about this like reasonable people? One of us is not reasonable! One of us manipulated an honorable man into betraying his captain!”

“I didn’t manipulate him,” she said in that infuriatingly calm tone. “I compelled him. There’s a difference.”

“What do you mean, compelled?”

With a sigh and a glance at the table, Lancer Tal evidently gave up on sitting and crossed her arms over her chest. “I empathically forced him.”

She didn’t know why that shocked her so much. Of course it had been her first thought, but she hadn’t wanted to believe it.

“You told me that was the highest crime an Alsean could commit.”

“It is, if it’s done without a warrant. I had a warrant.”

“How lovely. And just how many of my crew did you have warrants for?”

“All of them.”

“Of course.” Ekatya looked up at the ceiling, trying to get herself under control. And to think she had apologized to this ruthless manipulator for suspecting her of exactly—

“Except you.”

“What?” Startled into meeting her eyes, she saw what looked like regret. “Why not?”

“Because I was in your debt. We were all in your debt. I wanted to keep you out of this if I could. And, well, I was hoping you wouldn’t need it.”

The implication hung in the air. I was hoping you’d refuse that order on your own.

Lhyn had tried so hard to convince her. And when all persuasion had failed, she’d stayed behind. A galaxy-class ultimatum: go and lose Lhyn to the Lancer, or stay and destroy her career.

All of them, she heard again, and then she understood. Lhyn hadn’t done that on her own. She’d been empathically forced. Twice Lancer Tal had brought her back to the base late at night; this morning she’d been in Alsean clothing and holding the Lancer’s hand. Ekatya’s imagination easily filled in the blanks, and her body went hot with rage.

Lancer Tal uncrossed her arms and shifted her weight, a subtle readiness response that made Ekatya even angrier. How could someone so tuned to emotions have so few compunctions about abusing them?

“You low-bellied slime worm,” she growled. “You spineless torquat!”

Both Lancer Tal and Colonel Micah looked puzzled, and Ekatya’s frustration mounted. She couldn’t even insult this woman, for Shipper’s sake; it didn’t translate!

Calling on everything she had learned about these people, she took a step into the Lancer’s personal space and said, “You motherless outcaste. You have no honor. You’re not fit to even be in the warrior caste, much less lead it.”

For a moment she was grimly satisfied to see both of them react. Finally, she’d found the words that meant something.

Then she was stumbling backwards, her head snapped back by the force of a palm strike to her chin. She hadn’t even seen Lancer Tal move. Barely catching herself in time, she straightened and turned with only one thought in her mind—and found herself facing the immovable wall of Colonel Micah.

He shook his head at her. “She’s wrong. You are an idiot.”

“Micah, it’s all right,” Lancer Tal said from behind him.

“I don’t think—”

“Micah. She’s not going to hurt me.”

Oh, but she wanted to, and Colonel Micah’s expression said he knew it. But he stepped aside anyway, obedient to the last woman on this planet who deserved it.

“Do you know what you’ve just done?” Lancer Tal asked, calm once again.

“Told a betraying little shit what she really is? Yes.”

The slur had no effect on the Lancer’s expression. “I strongly suggest you retract your words and apologize, right now.”

“I did apologize to you once. Remember that? Do you remember exactly what it was I apologized for? Yes, I can see that you do. Well, I am sorry—that I fell for your act. And the odds of me ever apologizing to you again are so low that it would take Kameha’s lab equipment to measure them. Don’t hold your breath.”

“Then I accept your challenge. Micah?”

“Where do you want to do this?” he asked, almost casually taking Ekatya’s upper arm in his vise-like grip.

“Training room,” she said. He nodded and began to pull Ekatya toward the door.

“Wait a minute!” Ekatya dug in her heels, but it was like trying to stop a boulder in motion. “What are you talking about? I didn’t challenge you.”

“And that’s why you’re an idiot.” Colonel Micah opened the door and pulled her through.

The Guards in the antechamber snapped to attention, relaxing only when Lancer Tal said, “Settle. We’re going to the training room; make sure no one else enters it.”

“Yes, Lancer,” Gehrain said, looking at Ekatya. He seemed sad, and she turned her head to keep him in sight as she was pulled through the room.

Trooper Blunt. She’d had a crush on Gehrain from practically the moment she’d laid eyes on him. And he’d spent quite a lot of time with her. Ekatya had thought it was cute.

She didn’t think it was cute anymore.

“He compelled her, didn’t he?” she asked Lancer Tal, who was now preceding them down the corridor. “Trooper Blunt.”

“Yes.” The Lancer didn’t look back.

“Don’t you people have any shame at all?”

Neither of them answered her.

They turned and turned again, finally arriving at a lift and boarding it in silence. No one broke it while they descended, and when the doors opened again, Ekatya glimpsed the lobby she’d first seen upon entering this building what felt like years ago. They were on the ground floor, then.

They must have walked all the way around to the back side of the State House before finally stopping in front of a door that had a light fixture over it. The Guards took up their positions while Lancer Tal activated the door, which slid open to reveal an enormous sunken room. The walls were hung with colored banners and weapons of all shapes and sizes, and in many places the floor was lined with soft mats. Level with the corridor was a wooden observation platform with a waist-high railing around it. Like everything else in this building, the wood was old and polished, but the shiniest part of all was the top. Generations of warriors had probably rested their arms there, watching the activity below.

Ekatya had only a moment to take it in before she was escorted to the right side of the platform and down three stairs to the floor, where she was finally released. She refused to rub her arm where Colonel Micah had gripped her so tightly, instead glaring at the Lancer as she descended the steps. “Now are you going to explain what this is?”

“This is a challenge. You insulted my honor; I can’t let that stand. You’ll have to back up your words. If you were Alsean, I’d tell you to pick your weapon. But I have no desire to harm you any more than we already have, so I think we should do this with hand-to-hand.” She glanced at Colonel Micah, who gave a single nod.

“You’re kidding. This is how you solve your disagreements, by fighting?”

“No, we solve our disagreements through our justice system and the governance of the caste houses and the Council. But this isn’t a disagreement. It’s a challenge—which you initiated, so don’t blame our culture.”

She’d blame their culture, all right. This culture had screwed with the minds of all of her crew. Everyone except her, and why was she left out? Because they thought they could control her through Lhyn. They’d turned Lhyn into someone else, a brainwashing victim who wore Alsean clothing and held the Lancer’s hand. That the very people she’d tried to save, the people three of her crew had died to save, would do this…if she’d known, she’d have let that Voloth invader do its worst.

“Captain, it’s not too late to end this now.”

Ekatya saw the fake regret in her expression, heard the concern that dripped off her lying tongue, and thought that she would never get a better chance to extract some tiny bit of justice. They were probably going to throw her in a dark room somewhere anyway, so she might as well make the most of her opportunity.

“Tell me how it works,” she said. If she didn’t know better, she’d think Colonel Micah actually looked impressed.

Lancer Tal took off her jacket and handed it to him, revealing well-muscled arms. “Any fighting style you want; no areas off limits except the eyes and ears. The fight stops when one person is either knocked out or surrenders. To surrender, say ‘I yield’ or slap the mat twice.”

Ekatya nodded as she took off her own jacket. To her surprise, Colonel Micah held out his hand, taking her jacket and turning to hang them both on pegs mounted in the base of the observation deck. Lancer Tal sat on the long, polished bench beneath the deck and began to undo her boots, and after a moment Ekatya did the same. When their boots and socks were tucked underneath, she followed the Lancer to the cushioned center of the room.

“When does it start?” she asked.

“Right now.”

“Good,” was all Ekatya said before lowering her shoulder and barreling into her. But the expected impact never happened—somehow Lancer Tal got out of her way and shoved her as she went past, nearly sending her sprawling. She turned the extra momentum into a forward roll and came to her feet, spinning in place with her arms up in a defensive posture.

Lancer Tal stood with her hands at her sides. “I hope your Fleet taught you better than that, or this is going to be a very short challenge.”

With a furious growl Ekatya rushed her again, this time lashing out with a fist. It was blocked, as was the next and the next, but the fourth attempt connected with a cheekbone so hard that she stepped back and bent over, shaking out her hand. “Fuck!”

She looked up just in time to see the kick before it connected with her side, sending her reeling. A foot tripped her up, and she’d barely hit the mat before Lancer Tal was astride her and smashing a fist across her jaw, which fucking hurt—her jaw had already taken one hit today. But the Lancer’s punch left her side exposed, and Ekatya landed a blow just below her ribs. The grunt it forced out gave her a moment of triumph, and she tried to follow up her advantage by digging one heel into the mat and dislodging her attacker.

It worked a little too easily, which she realized when the Lancer’s leg locked around hers and they rolled, ending up in exactly the same position as before. Another smash across her jaw, this time from the opposite direction, and she let out a shout of frustration. Did she have to keep hitting her there? Her jaw had now been tenderized from both sides and below; there wasn’t any part of it left that didn’t hurt.

She drove her fist toward the Lancer’s throat, a killing blow that she’d never have considered if she were in her right mind, but she was too far gone now. Lancer Tal blocked it and hit her across the jaw again, following up with a chop to the temple that had her seeing stars. Somehow Ekatya’s sheer rage got her free and back on her feet, and she managed a vicious kick to the ribs that she thought might have ended the fight, so pained did Lancer Tal look for a moment.

But only for a moment. The Lancer’s expression changed into something dangerous, and when she came at Ekatya it was with murder in her eyes. Everything after that was a blur. She was only aware of hitting and being hit, of falling and rising and falling again, and then there was a voice saying You took everything from me and it was some time before she realized that she wasn’t being hit anymore. She lifted her head, which felt as if four people were standing on it, and saw Lancer Tal crouched an arm’s length away. Her brain must have gotten rattled, because she thought the Lancer looked distressed. That couldn’t be right.

“I don’t think I yielded,” she tried to say, but managed only the first two words before coughing and spitting out the blood that she hadn’t known was in her mouth.

“Micah, would you get us some water and a kit?”

Slowly, Ekatya rolled to her side and pushed herself into a sitting position. “Is it over?”

“Do you yield?”

She didn’t want to. She really didn’t want to give this woman anything when she’d already taken so much, but her head hurt and it was abundantly clear that she was outclassed. And what was she fighting for, anyway?

“I yield.”

A flask of water was pressed into her hand as Colonel Micah said, “You fought bravely. Here, rinse and spit into this.”

She accepted the bowl he held out and gratefully rinsed the blood from her mouth. Then she drank half the flask. With her head a little clearer, she glanced between them and was baffled by their identical expressions of respect. “I didn’t fight that well. I just got my ass handed to me.”

Colonel Micah’s mouth curved into a grin. “You lasted almost six ticks against the leader of the warrior caste. Take the compliment, Captain. You fought well.” He handed a small case to the Lancer and stood. “I think you two have things to discuss. I’ll be outside.”

She watched him go. “What did he mean by that?”

Pulling items out of the case, Lancer Tal said, “In a moment. First you need some cleaning up.”

Instinct had Ekatya ducking and blocking the arm that reached for her face, and Lancer Tal sat back, revealing a damp cloth in her hand.

“It’s over, Captain. I’m not going to hurt you. Let me help.”

“Why would you want to? Haven’t you done enough?”

Lancer Tal dropped her head, and when she looked up again, there were tears in her eyes. “I did everything I could, and it wasn’t enough. I’m about to lose my whole world because I based my battle plan on assets I don’t have. I’ve failed my people, I made an enemy of someone whose friendship I treasured, and I’ll almost certainly be dead in a few days, so for the love of Fahla, will you just let me help?”

Shocked, Ekatya could only nod. She closed her eyes at the first touch of the cloth, expecting it to sting, but instead it cooled her hot skin and eased the pain. “What’s on that?”

“Anti-inflammatory salve. It will keep your face from swelling up.”

“Good. Because right now it feels twice the size it should be.”

“Don’t worry, it doesn’t look as bad as it feels.”

“It feels pretty bad,” she mumbled.

“I know. I’m sorry.”

She kept her eyes closed as the cloth moved around her face, soothing and cooling wherever it touched. The laugh rumbled up out of nowhere, spilling out before she could stop it. “Of all the things you have to be sorry for, the one thing that gets you to apologize is this? I will never understand your culture.”

The cloth left her face, and she opened her eyes to see Lancer Tal sitting back on her heels.

“You want me to apologize for the empathic force? I won’t. Would you leave anything undone if it meant you could save your entire civilization? It’s nice to sit in judgment from a secure seat, Captain. I wish my seat were as high as yours. I did what I had to; it wasn’t personal.”

“It wasn’t personal? You forced Lhyn to leave me and you don’t call that personal?”

“I didn’t force her.”

But she’d hesitated for a moment, and the loophole was obvious. “So you had someone else do it.”

“That was the plan, yes. But it turned out to be unnecessary. I know you don’t want to hear this, but Lhyn made that decision on her own.”

“You’re lying.”

“I’ve never lied to you. I haven’t always told you the whole truth, but I didn’t lie. Lhyn was never forced.”

A retort rose up, but then Ekatya remembered Lhyn’s impassioned arguments. That was entirely in character for her; she hadn’t acted out of the ordinary in any way until this morning. And the look in her eyes when she’d said she was staying, when she pleaded for Ekatya to stay as well…

She shook her head. “Then you really did take everything from me. Congratulations, Lancer Tal. You may not keep the victory for long, but you did win it.”

Lancer Tal stared at her without answering. At last she dropped the cloth and dug back into the box, emerging with a tablet in one hand and several transparent strips in the other. Holding out the tablet, she said, “Take this and keep it in your mouth until it dissolves. It tastes terrible, but it will seal the cuts inside your cheeks.”

Ekatya eyed it, thinking about how easy it would be to dispose of an inconvenient and no-longer-needed captain with a quick bit of poison, but at last her better instincts took over. “I suppose if you wanted to kill me, you could have done it with your bare hands,” she said, accepting the tablet. She popped it in her mouth and winced. It tasted like the bottom of her boot.

“Yes, I could have.” Lancer Tal’s touch was gentle as she applied a transparent strip to Ekatya’s face. “And I should be insulted that you’d even consider a motive like that, but I’ve already dealt with one challenge today and another one would tire me out and put you in the healing center, so I’ll let that one pass.”

Ekatya snorted, but couldn’t say anything with the tablet in her mouth.

Two more strips were applied before the Lancer spoke again. “I really am sorry about hurting you. But not even Micah could look the other way if I refused a challenge, and you knew exactly what to say. I thought I could knock that anger out of you more quickly, but you’re stubborn.”

Yes, I am, she thought, and fought down the tears that tickled at the back of her throat. So stubborn that she wouldn’t listen to Lhyn, dismissing all of her arguments with platitudes about duty and orders, and what had that gotten her? She’d given up everything and still been betrayed on both sides.

She should have been stubborn when it counted, not when it didn’t.

Lancer Tal finished with her face and held up the water flask. “Has it dissolved yet?”

“Ugh,” she said in answer, reaching for the flask. “You weren’t kidding about the taste.”

“I also wasn’t kidding about the benefit.” Lancer Tal picked up one of her hands and began brushing the cloth over her knuckles.

Ekatya held up her other hand, inspecting the abraded knuckles, then looked more closely at the Lancer’s face. “Why don’t you look as bad as my hands?”

“Because you kept hitting me on the cheekbones, like a first-season trainee without a sip of sense. That’s the most armored part of our faces.”

“Just my luck.”

“Well, if it makes you feel any better, that kick you landed in my ribs really hurt.”

Ekatya thought about it. “It should make me feel better, but it doesn’t.”

“Then maybe there’s hope.” Lancer Tal let go of her hand and picked up the other one, while Ekatya viewed the results of her ministrations. The abrasions already looked several days old.

“There’s more than just an anti-inflammatory in that salve, isn’t there?” she asked. “You’re accelerating the healing.”

“Yes.”

“Why are you doing this for me?”

“Because you’re the person whose friendship I treasured. I never wanted to make an enemy of you.”

“Well, you certainly did everything you could to make it happen.” But Ekatya couldn’t find the same anger that had been burning up her guts ever since things had gone to Hades in the shuttle. What would you do to save your world? she asked herself.

Anything. Anything at all, no matter the personal cost. What did one person’s honor or guilt matter when weighed against a holocaust?

Lancer Tal set her hand down gently. Shifting over, she used the cloth to wipe up the blood Ekatya had spat onto the mat, folded it up, and laid it next to the box. Retrieving one more tablet, she held it out. “If you want to keep your head from pounding like twelve units of Guards are marching through it, take this.”

Ekatya didn’t question this time, swallowing the tablet without a word.

They sat looking at each other for several uncomfortable moments before Lancer Tal asked, “Why do you keep saying I took everything from you?”

“Because you did. You put me in one impossible situation after another. First I had to choose between Lhyn and my responsibilities. Then I had to choose between wrong and more wrong. And when I decided not to blow the Caphenon, Baldassar—”

“You didn’t give the command?”

“No, I cancelled it. But apparently I’m just as transparent to my first officer as I am to you, because he had a failsafe in place and a detonator.” It was almost comical—Lancer Tal had a failsafe on top of Baldassar’s failsafe.

“We didn’t know that. We thought it was you.”

So now Lhyn hated her. Perfect. “When I cancelled the command, Baldassar relieved me of duty, which he had every right to do. My crew wouldn’t support him, but by the time I get off this planet—if I get off this planet—my captain’s bars will be long gone. That’s on top of the ship I already lost, and all right, that one isn’t your fault, but right now it feels like it. But none of that is as bad as losing Lhyn.”

“But I didn’t take Lhyn from you.”

“Stars and Shippers, she stood right next to you and told me she was staying with you!”

“No, she told you she was staying. Not with me.”

She stared, wanting desperately to believe, but she didn’t trust this woman’s word anymore. “Then I don’t understand. Why were you going to force her if it wasn’t to keep her for yourself?”

“Keep her—” Lancer Tal’s calm vanished into a look of utter shock. “You actually think…how could…Great Mother!”

For a moment there was such horror in her expression that Ekatya braced for the worst, but then the Lancer’s body seemed to collapse in on itself.

“No wonder you wanted to kill me. No, Captain. Not ever. Not in this lifetime or fifty others; I would never—” Her breath caught in her throat, sounding almost like a sob, but it turned into a humorless laugh instead. “I think you might be confused as to who the monsters really are.”

Ekatya was definitely confused. “You wanted to control me through her, didn’t you?”

“Not you. Your decisions. One decision, actually. I needed you to stay, to help us. You’re the only one who can command what’s left of your ship. But you needed the right motivation.” She paused, looked toward the ceiling, and then shook her head. “All right. Why not, everything we know is going to get blown to its Return in a nineday anyway. Captain Serrado, there is no way I could take Lhyn from you. Me, or anyone else. It’s simply not possible, because you’re tyrees. A tyree bond cannot be broken from the outside. And a tyree would do anything to save her bondmate, no matter the cost. That’s why you risked your career to save Lhyn even though you hadn’t yet committed to each other. And it’s why I knew that if Lhyn stayed, you’d come back.”

She remembered Lhyn saying something about tyrees when they were in the healing center. Some mythical type of Alsean bonding…oh, right.

“Soulmates?” she scoffed. “I don’t believe in that.”

“Nor do I, at least not the way Lhyn explained it. A tyree bond isn’t some magical fiction. It’s real and measurable, a very specific connection between the empathic centers of two people. It’s a bond that goes beyond the emotional into the mental and physiological. It’s profoundly deep and precious, and we consider it one of Fahla’s greatest gifts.”

“We’re not empathic.”

“Which is exactly why it’s so shocking that you’re tyrees and why I’ve classified the information. I really don’t know how the Alsean public would react to the idea of sonsales aliens being tyrees.”

“And why do you think that’s what we are?” Ekatya wasn’t buying this.

“Because I can feel it. The two of you broadcast it every time you’re in the same room. It’s impossible not to know. No high empath could avoid feeling it, and the way you broadcast, I don’t think mid empaths could miss it either.” Her expression gave way to a wry smile. “All this time I’ve wondered whether I should tell you, and when I finally do, you refuse to believe. Fahla does love her irony.”

“How am I supposed to believe in some deep and precious empathic bond when I’m sonsales, and yet somehow…I have it anyway? With the woman who left me, no less.”

“Fahla grant me patience. You have something I’ve only dreamed of, but you don’t know it, don’t know what to do with it, and don’t believe it! What I wouldn’t give to have what you’re intent on throwing away.”

Ekatya studied her. She did seem very earnest, and the fact that she was openly showing this much emotion said something about her level of honesty. “It’s an interesting concept,” she allowed. “And it sounds like a nice sort of thing to have, but I still don’t—”

“I could show you,” Lancer Tal interrupted.

“You must be joking. You think I’d let you anywhere near me after what you did to my crew? Not to mention the fact that you just beat me senseless.”

“I never took you for a coward.”

Ekatya waved a finger. “That sort of manipulation won’t work on me. I’ve used it too often myself.”

“That’s not manipulation; it’s the truth. You have a bond that shouldn’t be possible among your kind. It’s even rare among my kind. You shouldn’t be able to doubt that Lhyn loves you, yet you do because you don’t understand the bond you share. I can show you exactly how she feels about you, and you’re going to run away from that? There’s no other explanation besides cowardice. You’re afraid to know.”

“I’m not afraid to know; I’m afraid to let you touch me!”

Well, speaking of irony. She’d done her best to hurt this woman earlier, and now she’d managed it by sheer accident.

“Very well,” Lancer Tal said after a charged silence. She rose to her feet and held out a hand to Ekatya before shaking her head and letting her arm fall. “Get up. I’ll have you taken to your quarters.”

Ekatya frowned up at her. “Just like that?”

Lancer Tal crouched down, scooped up the aid supplies, and walked away.

Scrambling to her feet, Ekatya set off after her, trailing behind as her thoughts churned. A Sharing, that’s what she was offering. Why? To control her mind?

It didn’t make sense. If Lancer Tal had wanted to empathically force her into anything, she’d have done it long before this. Besides, they already had the Caphenon under their control, along with all of its weapons. They didn’t have her command code, but that was hardly important for their immediate needs. The captain’s command code wasn’t necessary to strip the ship of any portable weaponry or to fly the fighters, which weren’t going to fly for long anyway.

No matter how she considered it, she couldn’t find a strategic angle. And Lancer Tal had been stung by her refusal. That wasn’t an act.

The Alseans had an entire culture and legal system built around the importance of emotions. Lhyn had practically swooned after her experience with a Sharing. She’d said it was the most amazing thing she’d ever felt, like being inside someone else’s mind. An incredible intimacy.

So Lancer Tal had offered her a highly valued act of intimacy, supposedly for the purpose of showing her how Lhyn felt, and had been hurt when Ekatya said no. Was it really that simple?

The Lancer motioned for her to wait by the bench while she walked to a bin at the back of the room and threw the cloth in. Then she set the box down on the sideboard that took up half the wall, washed and dried her hands, and wrote a note on a pad. Straightening up, she winced and held a hand to her left side. But when she turned and strode back, there was no sign of pain.

Ekatya narrowed her eyes. “You’re a master of lying through omission. ‘Really hurt,’ eh? Past tense? I cracked your rib and you’re hiding it. Why?”

Lancer Tal sat down a bit too carefully. “Never show weakness to an enemy,” she said as she rolled on a sock. She looked unconcerned, but the small beads of sweat at her hairline gave her away.

“Did you take one of those pills to keep the Guards from trooping through your head?”

“Wouldn’t work on this.”

“What would?”

“It doesn’t matter.” She reached for the first boot, took a shallow breath, and began pulling it on.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake.” Ekatya brushed her hands away. “Let me.” She pushed the boot on, fastened the self-sealing straps, and did the same with the other. When she looked up, the Lancer was staring at her with an expression she couldn’t decipher. Ekatya sat down beside her and picked up her own socks. “I’m not your enemy,” she said, pulling on the first.

“You’re certainly not my friend. Friends don’t call me a motherless outcaste with no honor. I had no idea just how little honor you gave me credit for.”

Ekatya finished with her second sock and reached for a boot. “I was angry.”

“No joke.”

“You mind-fucked my crew.”

“We didn’t mind-fuck them.” She said the word distastefully. “We used empathic force, and only to get information. The only person who was actually compelled to act was Commander Kameha. You were going to blow up the one thing that even gave me a chance against the Voloth. What would you have done in my place?”

Ekatya pulled on the second boot and slapped down the tabs. “Any damned thing I could.” She met Lancer Tal’s eyes. “You said not even Colonel Micah could look the other way if you refused a challenge. What would have happened if you hadn’t fought me?”

“Micah would have had to report it, and Shantu would have thanked you every day for the rest of his life. The warrior caste leader cannot refuse an honor challenge and expect to keep the leadership. My government would have fallen, there’d have been new elections, and I’d have lost every shred of honor you don’t think I have.”

Maybe her brain hadn’t been rattled after all, because she was starting to see things more clearly. “And if I were an Alsean warrior, would this have been a fistfight?”

“No. It would probably have been swords, knives, or staves, and a few skin sealers and tablets wouldn’t have been enough to fix the damage. An honor challenge wouldn’t end until a lot more blood had been shed, which is why they’re not made very often.” She paused and added, “Well, not once we’re past our Rite of Ascension. Young warriors tend to say stupid things.”

“So I forced you into this, but you found a way to resolve it without really hurting me. Relatively speaking.”

“I told you, Captain. I never wanted to hurt you.”

Ekatya studied her bruised face and remembered how the Lancer had helped her less than an hour after they’d met, when she couldn’t possibly have had an ulterior motive for making an alien captain feel less alone. She remembered her look of happy enthusiasm when they’d discussed the principles of FTL flight and how she’d understood then that Lancer Tal’s emotions were all in her eyes. She remembered standing next to her at the state funeral and hearing her say there were twenty-six transports performing that aerial ballet of loss.

“The funeral,” she said. “You greeted me as a family member. Was that just for show?”

There it was, in her eyes.

“No,” said Lancer Tal, her voice rough. “It wasn’t. But I don’t expect you to believe me.”

“I do believe you.”

She was surprised enough to let it show. “I—why?”

“Because I’m not as much of an idiot as Colonel Micah thinks. Although, given what you’ve just told me, I can understand why he said that. Is a Sharing something you offer very often? That’s what you were offering me just now, wasn’t it?”

“It was, yes,” she said, still looking bewildered. “And no, I don’t make a habit of offering it to just anyone.”

Ekatya nodded. Yes, it really was that simple. “All right. I want to know.”

“Want to know what?”

“How Lhyn feels about me. What does it involve? And should you even be doing this now, or should we get you to the healing center to see if I did more than crack your rib?”

“You didn’t.”

“How many fights have you been in that you’re so certain of that?”

“More than I can remember.”

“Then I guess Colonel Micah was right. I did do well.”

That earned her a half-smile. “Yes, you did.”

Ekatya waited a few seconds. “Well? How do we do this?”

Lancer Tal tilted her head, obviously assessing her emotions. Then she scooted back on the bench and carefully pulled one leg across so that she was straddling it. “You need to face me.”

Ekatya matched her position.

“Close enough so that we can touch foreheads.”

“Seriously?” One look at her face answered that question, and she closed the distance until they were uncomfortably close. “Good enough?”

“Yes.” Lancer Tal slid one hand along the side of Ekatya’s jaw and wrapped the other around the back of her neck, pulling her head down so that their foreheads rested together. “Put your hand on the back of my neck.”

It was outrageously past her personal boundaries, and intimate beyond reason considering that they’d just pounded the stuffing out of each other. She was vividly aware of the Lancer’s forehead ridges and the way her skin held a light piney scent; of the very alienness of this woman who was about to enter her mind. But when Lancer Tal whispered, “Close your eyes,” she gave up and went with it. Lhyn had done this. She wanted to know.

At first she felt nothing. Then it began tickling at the edges of her consciousness, gradually growing until she had to concede that it wasn’t her imagination. She was really feeling it.

And it was incredible. The warmth, the affection, and underneath a rich love shining through, working its way into every cell in her body, suffusing her with a bone-deep certainty that she was treasured, cherished, loved above and beyond all others. She was unique. Chosen. The only one, and it filled her with a confidence she’d never had before. Lancer Tal was right; she couldn’t take Lhyn away. She simply had no power to compete with this brilliant light that seemed as if it should be shining out of her fingertips.

Ekatya forgot she’d ever had any reservations as she sank deeper and deeper into the bliss of their connection. She never wanted it to end. Was this how the Alseans went through life, feeling this sort of thing on a regular basis? How did they get anything done? She felt as if she were on a drug high, stupefied with happiness. If an alert klaxon had sounded right now, she didn’t think she’d be able to respond.

She had no idea how long she floated in this unimaginably sweet place, but it wasn’t long enough. When Lancer Tal whispered, “I’m pulling back,” her first reaction was to cling harder to her neck, trying to hold her there.

“I can’t, Captain.”

It was the use of her rank that broke the spell. Lhyn would never call her that, not in this kind of intimacy. She opened her eyes, looking into a pair that were the wrong color, and straightened up in embarrassment. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. It was your first time in a Sharing.”

“Oh, stars.” She started to rub her face before remembering it was a bad idea. “That was…I’ve never felt anything like that before.”

“I think it’s a cruel joke of the universe that you haven’t. Because it’s right there. That’s what Lhyn feels for you, and your emotions are just the same. It’s the strength and power of a tyree bond. There’s nothing else like it.”

Ekatya was still tingling with the aftermath, and knew she’d spend the rest of her life craving another hit like that. It was an instant addiction, and yes, a cruel joke that she’d never get to feel it again. But that she had even gotten to feel it once…what a gift.

“Thank you,” she said. “I don’t know how much that cost you, but it was priceless to me.”

“I’m just glad you accepted the offer. And you understand now?”

“Yes.” She reached out, gently touching a finger to the reddening marks along Lancer Tal’s cheekbone, and cringed at the memory of the violence that had put them there. She’d made a terrible assumption and acted like a jealous lover because she couldn’t credit the truth. “I’m sorry about this. If I’d known…”

The Lancer shook her head. “It doesn’t matter. And I’m sorry, too. We’re fighting the same enemy; it’s ridiculous that we should ever be on opposite sides.” She scooted backwards, putting space between them, and winced as she pulled her leg across the bench. Then she leaned back against one of the observation deck’s support pillars and closed her eyes. Of course she wouldn’t admit it, but whatever she’d done to project those emotions had taken something out of her. Quite a lot, by the looks of it.

“You need to get to the healing center,” Ekatya said. “Wellernal or Graystone could probably heal that rib just by resting their hands there for five ticks.”

Lancer Tal shot her a smile. “You should take a look at your face in a mirror before telling me what I need to do.”

“I’ve been treated. You haven’t.”

“Careful, Captain. A person might think you cared about the motherless outcaste.”

Maybe it was the aftermath of what they’d just done, or maybe her brain finally put it together, but in that moment Ekatya realized that Lancer Tal had always referred to her parents in the past tense.

She’d thought the outcaste part was the insult, the word that would hurt and anger the most. The motherless part was just trash talk, a throwaway word that hadn’t even registered as she said it.

“I was raised by my grandparents,” she said. “I never knew my parents. They were both career Fleet, and I wasn’t planned. My mother handed me to my grandmother the moment she’d weaned me, and she and my father went back to the front lines. The war with the Voloth was hot then, burning on several fronts, and there were ships getting blown out of space every few days. My father died less than a year after I was born. My mother lasted until I was four, and apparently she came to visit me on all of her leaves, but I don’t have any memory of it.” She looked up, meeting sympathetic eyes. “And now I’ve disobeyed an order and been relieved of duty. If I go back home, they’ll probably jail me. The truth is, I’m the motherless outcaste.”

After a short silence, Lancer Tal rested her head against the pillar again and said, “I had my parents until well past my Rite of Ascension. But I lost them both at the same time, in a transport accident. I was an only child, so that was the end of my family. There’s one aunt, but…” She trailed off. “My real family is Micah. He was there when I lit my parents’ pyres.”

Ekatya thought about how she’d feel if she lost both of her grandparents at the same time. Just imagining it hurt.

“For the record,” she said, “I’ve changed my mind about your honor. You didn’t have to Share with me, and it wasn’t easy for you. But you did, just so I could understand. Right after I tried to kill you, too.”

“You were never going to land that throat shot.” Lancer Tal’s eyes drifted closed. “As for my honor, you were closer to the truth than you think. I obeyed the letter of the law in everything I did, but it’s possible to do that and still break a moral code.”

“Are you talking about the empathic force?”

She nodded.

“Well, I can’t say I’m not still angry about that, but I also have to admit that if I were in your situation, I’d use every tool at my disposal. Every single one.”

And it was easier to forgive when she herself hadn’t been forced, and neither had Lhyn.

Neither had Lhyn…

“Oh, stars,” she whispered.

“What?”

“She left of her own accord.” Everything Lancer Tal had Shared with her just now—it was what Lhyn had felt before. Not what she felt now. “You said a tyree bond can’t be broken from the outside, right?”

“That’s right.”

“But can it be broken from the inside?”

“That’s the only way it can be broken. But it’s hard to do; one of the bondmates would have to do something unforgivable. And there’s not much a tyree cannot forgive.”

What was the one thing Lhyn couldn’t forgive?

She stood up so quickly that her head spun. “I need to talk to Lhyn. Right now.”

“Yes, you do.” Lancer Tal rose more slowly, but once she was upright, her spine straightened and she looked as if she could run from here to Blacksun Base.

Ekatya had to admire the façade. She handed over Lancer Tal’s jacket and pulled her own off the peg. As she slid her arm into the sleeve, the pad detected her body heat and vibrated, alerting her to a waiting message. She shrugged the jacket the rest of the way on and pulled out the pad, hoping and dreading that the message was from Lhyn.

It was.

This is what you tried to destroy the Alseans for, it said. Was it worth it?

Attached was a file from Captain Habersaat, marked Urgent. One of Lhyn’s team had finally managed to track down the original orbital scans of the five planets the Protectorate was trading for Alsea. She ran her eyes down the list of attributes and resources, getting all the way to the bottom before she realized what was missing. Aghast, she read it again.

People. There were no people. Abandoned cities, yes. Past civilizations, but no living ones.

What they did have was a substantial supply of valuable mineral resources—none of which had been listed on the mining surveys the negotiation team had sent her.

Her legs threatened to turn to rubber, and she sat with little grace.

“What is it?” Lancer Tal asked.

Ekatya couldn’t even speak. The idea that she could have been so angry at the Lancer’s betrayal now seemed laughable. She’d acted on behalf of her people, trying to save her world. The Assembly had acted for the benefit of whichever corporations wanted these resources. They must have bought the necessary votes in the Assembly while bamboozling everyone else with the doctored surveys. Her three crew, her parents, so many of her past crew members, friends, and peers—they’d all died in the war against the Voloth, and now some greedy torquats were privately negotiating with them, trading away an entire civilization for profit.

And she’d nearly done their dirty work for them, blindly obeying orders she’d known in her heart were wrong. She hadn’t listened to her own instincts; she hadn’t listened to Lhyn. The only thing that had stopped her was Lancer Tal’s ruthless strategizing.

“It’s that cruel joke of the universe you were talking about, times a factor of ten thousand,” she said. “And the fastest end to a tyree bond your culture has probably ever seen.”

She looked at the message again, so short and angry. Was it worth it?

She’d laugh if she weren’t so busy fighting back the tears. When Lancer Tal sat next to her, she blinked away the moisture and said, “You didn’t take everything from me. I did. But I have to tell you that your timing is atrocious. You showed me the truth of what I had after I threw it away. You couldn’t have done that a few days ago?”

“I didn’t think I needed to,” Lancer Tal said, and dammit but that hurt.

“Yes, well, never underestimate my ability to not see what I should be looking at,” she said bitterly.

“Can you tell me what happened?”

Ekatya was still staring at her pad, so she saw the Lancer’s hand reach out, almost touch her leg, and then retreat. I’m afraid to let you touch me, she’d said, and it had clearly made an impact.

She looked more closely at that hand. The knuckles were just as abraded as hers had been, but Lancer Tal hadn’t treated them. She’d taken care of her opponent but not herself.

Warriors were idiots.

“Where can I get another one of those cloths?” she asked.

“What?”

Pointing at the knuckles, she said, “The anti-inflammatory, super-healing accelerant whatever. You didn’t take care of yourself. Let me.”

“That’s not imp—” She stopped when Ekatya glared at her.

“Let me treat your fucking hands, all right? I need to get one Shipper-damned thing right today.”

Silently, Lancer Tal indicated the sideboard.

Ekatya stomped over and opened one door after another until she found what she was looking for. Wide eyes met her when she stomped back, and she forced herself to slow down. Given her mood, the Lancer was probably expecting the most painful treatment ever.

She crouched in front of her and took one hand into her own. “What happened is that my oath of service was violated,” she said, the harshness of her voice at odds with the care she was using on those knuckles. “Some power players in the Protectorate betrayed every principle I’ve ever fought for and made me a proxy for doing it. And when Lhyn tried to stop me, I wouldn’t listen. When you asked me for help, I wouldn’t give it. I didn’t think I could, because it’s honor and duty and the right thing above all else. We have to act for the greater good. Right? That means making the hard decisions.”

Lancer Tal didn’t answer, nor did she expect it.

“The negotiation with the Voloth is a scam. It’s not about saving civilizations or making peace; it’s about maximizing profit. There are no civilizations on those planets. And it would have been ever so helpful if I’d known that six days ago, or even this morning, but Lhyn’s people only found out the truth now. Probably right about the time I was trying to get that detonator out of Baldassar’s hands.” She paused and inspected her work. “Is this all right? Does it need more?”

“No, you’ve covered it.” Lancer Tal pulled her hand away and offered the other. “How did Lhyn’s people find out the truth when no one in the Assembly seems to know?”

“Oh, let me tell you about the fine art of buying votes. All it takes is having more wealth than the Seeders and the Shippers put together. You throw a little bit of that around, pledge to underwrite a reelection campaign or three, and there you go—Assembly ministers who will vote any way you tell them to. The key is to pick the right ones. You have to get the powerful ones on the right committees, the ones who control the information on whatever thing you’re interested in. Then you give them the doctored surveys that you want disseminated to the rest of the Assembly, and instruct your purchased ministers to push the vote your direction. Lhyn’s people found out because they didn’t get their information from the Assembly. They got it straight from the source.” She inspected the knuckles and went back for a section she’d missed. “You know what we need? We need empaths in our Assembly.”

“That would help, though high empaths could still do something like that without being detected.”

“Do you allow high empaths to control all of your Council’s most important committees and the flow of information?”

“No. For exactly that reason.”

“Right.” She released the hand and returned to her seat on the bench. “Let me see your face.”

“It’s not—”

“Don’t even try. I’m really, really angry.”

“Even Micah can probably sense that, and he’s a low empath.”

Ekatya ignored her. “And I need to stay angry, because if I don’t, I might start thinking about what I’ve just lost. So let me see your face.”

Lancer Tal turned her head without another word, and Ekatya got to work.

“The awful thing,” she said as she swabbed, “the part that’s so unfair, is that the man who sold you to the Voloth was instantly punished. He died a horrible death because his actions were so reprehensible that a bunch of academics turned themselves into a death mob. But the corrupt ministers in the Assembly and the people who bought them? They’ve done far worse, and they’ll never be punished. They’re too powerful.” Gently, she pushed Lancer Tal’s chin to the other side and began dabbing at the lighter marks. “It’s not as bad on this side.”

“You’re right-handed. And nobody should be above the law.”

“See, this is why Lhyn loves Alsea. Because its leader actually believes that. You may have mind-fucked my crew, but at least you got warrants first.”

“I wish you’d stop calling it that.”

Ekatya passed the cloth over her cheekbone ridge one more time and sat back. “Why?”

“Because that describes a vile and violent criminal act that I would never commit, nor would any of my Guards, and any Alsean that does is locked up forever in a place where they can never hurt anyone again.”

That sounded like something Ekatya did not want to learn any more about. “Then what would you call it?”

“Empathic force. But even that covers a whole range of possibilities, and what we did to your crew was at the very light end. You’re all sonsales; you have no protections. It took almost no effort to go into your people’s minds and give them a little nudge. All we wanted was information, enough so that we could operate your fighters and weapons ourselves. It hardly even qualified as force, and it didn’t interfere in any way with their normal characters or actions.”

“Except for Commander Kameha.”

“Except for him.”

“What did you do to him?”

“You know, we could have had this exact conversation in my office, when I asked you to sit down. We didn’t need to beat each other up to get here.”

Ekatya held up her hand and made a fist, marveling at the scabs that had already formed. “Actually, I think we did. And you haven’t answered my question.”

“Commander Kameha needed a…special effort. I had to bind his loyalty to me. He was still the Kameha you know, except that when he had to make a choice between obeying your orders or mine, he obeyed mine. That’s it.”

“If you’d told me that back in your office, I’d probably have hit you. Now I’m just resigned to the whole thing. So yes, we had to do this.” She remembered the Lancer’s odd words on the shuttle and said, “Did you…er, unbind him? When you said you released him?”

“I hope so. That was the intent, but there was no way to be sure when I couldn’t be there in person. Truthfully, I thought I’d never see him again, so it didn’t matter either way. He’d never have to choose again. But I’ll make certain of it now.”

Ekatya’s first reaction was to say Like Hades you will, but she’d just had a Sharing with this woman and come out of it fully intact. More than intact, actually. The time for deception was over; Lancer Tal was telling the truth.

“How much force did his ‘special effort’ involve?”

“Far less than I expected. Which means that he had no moral issues with what I asked him to do. I never had to force him to act against his character. He didn’t want to destroy the Caphenon, so I just gave him a reason not to.”

“And if you’d had to force Lhyn? If she’d been determined to leave with me? What would that have taken?”

For the first time, Lancer Tal wouldn’t meet her eyes. “More than I was comfortable with,” she admitted. “I had a crisis of faith over it.”

Ekatya thought it was a sign of emotional exhaustion that she couldn’t even feel angry at her for that. Or maybe this day had just redefined the threshold of what it took to really piss her off.

Or maybe, she mused as she watched the Lancer looking anywhere but at her, maybe she couldn’t find anger where there was so much guilt. Lancer Tal acted as if she were carrying the weight of a crime and facing a judge, but really, who was Ekatya to be that judge? She’d actually considered killing more than a thousand Alseans just so she could say she’d obeyed her orders. It didn’t matter how brief that consideration had been. And if it hadn’t been for the Lancer’s machinations, she would certainly have destroyed the one thing that gave the Alseans a chance. She would have single-handedly doomed them to slavery and death.

Lancer Tal had been prepared to hurt one person. Ekatya had been prepared to hurt five hundred million.

She sighed. “Well, I’m glad neither of us had to sell our souls.”

“Oh, Fahla.” The Lancer buried her face in her hands, and though she made no sound, the shaking of her shoulders betrayed her tears.

Ekatya didn’t know what to do. Alseans had strange strictures about physical touch, but…maybe a hand on the back was all right. She rested her hand there cautiously, then began a soft rubbing motion. “If this is how you react when you didn’t have to do it, I’d hate to see what would have happened if you’d had to do it.”

“It would have torn me apart.” Lancer Tal straightened and wiped her cheeks. “I went to the Temple for personal advice, and I haven’t done that in twenty-five cycles. I asked the Lead Templar if Fahla would still accept me.”

“What would happen if Fahla didn’t accept you?”

“I’d never Return. When I died, that would be it. No next level, no transformation, no exploration of the potentials we can’t reach in this world. The door would shut in my face and I’d be lost forever. And if that happened, then I can only hope the scholars who say the alternative to a Return is simple death are right. I’d prefer just…stopping. Never knowing what I couldn’t have.”

Ekatya watched her in astonishment. When she’d referred to selling their souls, she’d meant it metaphorically. But Lancer Tal had been willing to risk hers in the most literal sense. No wonder she’d fallen apart.

“What did the Lead Templar say?”

“Enough to make me feel marginally better. Not enough to put me at ease.” Lancer Tal met her gaze directly and added, “Thank you. I can’t tell you what it means to have your forgiveness.”

“Does that mean you forgive me for trying to blow the Caphenon?”

“I never blamed you for it in the first place. I just made sure you couldn’t do it.” She sighed and leaned her head against the pillar. “Not that it matters now. We can’t use your fighters, and I don’t see any way out of this without them.”

“I’m not ready to accept that, and I can’t believe you are. You would have sold your soul to save Alsea and now you’re just giving up?”

“I’m not giving up. I won’t do that until they kill me. But I’m tired, Captain.”

She looked it. Ekatya wondered how much of that was the Sharing and how much was everything else pressing down on her. Certainly a cracked rib couldn’t be helping.

“I’m tired too,” she said. “Tired of making choices that have been forced on me, and of playing the fool for some power-hungry assheads who see me as nothing more than a kasmet game piece to be moved on the board. Those people sold their souls a long time ago, and it wasn’t for anywhere near as good a reason as you had. I swore an oath to the Protectorate, but this isn’t what I agreed to.”

Lancer Tal turned her head. “What are you going to do?”

“What we are going to do is get you to the healing center. And then we’re going to figure out how to beat the Voloth. Because we can’t let them win, and we especially can’t let those slime worms in my own confederation win. I know you’ve claimed salvage and you had every right to, but as the newly returned captain of the Caphenon, I’m putting my ship at your disposal, as well as any of my crew who want to join us. I think you’ll find that almost all of them will.”

Reaching up, she unclipped the captain’s bars from her collar and held them out.

Slowly, Lancer Tal held out her own hand, her eyes wide. “I know you’re serious about this. And I really shouldn’t be asking, but don’t you want more time to think about it?”

“No.” Ekatya dropped the bars in her hand. “I’m putting myself at your disposal as well. As of now, my oath of service to the Protectorate is rescinded. If you’ll accept me, I’m looking for a new oath holder.”





Chapter 47

Absolution


Micah took one look at the two women walking out of the training room and knew they’d worked it out. Tal looked as exhausted as a new Guard after basic training, but there was a peace about her that he hadn’t seen since the moment she’d told him to get the warrants. Captain Serrado’s features were stern and set with determination, rather than the killing anger she’d radiated before, and her physical closeness to Tal spoke of watchful protection. He hadn’t expected that much, but he wasn’t about to question it.

The Guards were all too well trained to utter a word, but every eye was on the women’s bruised faces. Tal met their stares and said, “An honor challenge was fought and ended. Captain Serrado accepts my leadership, and I have accepted her oath of service.”

No amount of training could prevent the gasps at that, and even Micah’s jaw loosened. “Will there be a formal ceremony?” he asked.

“That’s not a priority. Corlander, you’re in charge of the Gaians for now. Take them back to their quarters and tell them that their captain is fine and will be speaking with them shortly. Put a watch on Commander Baldassar. Micah, Gehrain, please escort us to the healing center. We’re taking my personal transport.”

It wasn’t until they’d left the other Guards behind and were nearing the small transport that Tal told Gehrain he was flying. Micah looked at her more closely.

“It’s the rib, isn’t it?”

Tal nodded once and silently palmed the transport lock. “Captain, you’ll be in the copilot’s seat.”

Micah frowned as he watched the careful way Tal folded herself into the back seat. He’d seen that kick land, but she hadn’t been debilitated by it then. Something else was going on, and when she rested her head on the seat back and closed her eyes, he was certain of it.

“Gehrain, all possible speed,” he said.

“Yes, Colonel.” Gehrain checked the captain’s harness, started up the engines, and was lifting off not ten pipticks later.

Captain Serrado turned and looked back at Tal in concern. “She Shared with me. It seemed to take a lot out of her.”

Micah’s jaw dropped for the second time that morning. “She Shared with you?”

“I’m not dead yet,” Tal said, but she wasn’t opening her eyes. “I’m not asleep either, so perhaps you could speak to me instead of about me.”

“You Shared with her.” Micah didn’t know how to begin to deal with that. “What in—” He stopped himself in time and finished, “Were you certain it was safe?”

“Lead Templar Satran did it with Lhyn Rivers and had no issues. She did say it was much harder than Sharing with an Alsean. I’ll have to tell her she’s a master of understatement.”

“I’m guessing Lead Templar Satran didn’t do that after a fight, several skipped meals, and six hanticks of sleep over the past three days.” He’d watched her run herself into the ground since the moment that ship landed, always saying there was no time. It seemed to be her mantra, but that was ending right now. Sometimes a Chief Guardian had to take matters into his own hands, and when the Lancer was sitting half-asleep in the back of her own transport, it was past time.

“I know,” she said, and he wasn’t sure whether she was answering his words or his emotions. “It probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do. But it was the right thing to do.”

He met Serrado’s eyes and saw guilt there.

“Lancer Tal,” she said, “if anything happens to you because of me, Lhyn won’t just hate me; she’ll kill me first and then hate me. Your Guards won’t have to do a thing. Just so you know.”

Tal finally opened her eyes and smiled. “Noted, thank you.”

By the time they landed at the healing center, Tal seemed well enough to walk in under her own power, but Micah suspected that was more determination than anything else. Healer Graystone was on duty and met them at the door, escorting Tal into a private room and shutting the door in Micah’s face when he tried to follow.

Captain Serrado chuckled. “Healers are alike the galaxy over.”

Micah wasn’t amused. He leaned against the wall and waited none too patiently, arms crossed and fingers tapping a beat on his side. The others stood silently, Serrado gazing toward the window at the end of the corridor while Gehrain alternated between watching the door and checking their surroundings.

After fifteen ticks, Micah couldn’t stand it any longer. “I should be in there. What in Fahla’s name is taking so long?”

He could see Gehrain’s agreement, but Captain Serrado shook her head.

“Colonel, I don’t know the Lancer the way you do, but I know what it’s like to be the one constantly in charge, constantly under protection, and constantly on duty even when you’re not supposed to be. Let her have some privacy. She might need that more than anything else.”

“You’re right, you don’t know her the way I do. And you’re one to talk about privacy when she Shared with you. She has little privacy left after that.”

“What does that mean?”

He pushed off the wall and faced her. “You just felt every one of her most guarded emotions and you don’t get why that would be hard for her?”

“But that’s—I didn’t feel her emotions.”

Gehrain joined them. “That’s what a Sharing is, Captain. Perhaps you didn’t understand.”

“I understood just fine. You’re not understanding. She didn’t—” Serrado paused, swore softly in her own language, and shook her head. “She didn’t share her emotions; she shared Lhyn’s. So I could feel what Lhyn feels.”

Micah and Gehrain looked at each other in shock.

“No wonder,” Gehrain murmured.

Micah nodded. “Yes, that explains it. That plus the way she’s worn herself to a blunt edge this last nineday.”

“Then perhaps you could explain it to the sonsales alien?” The captain’s tone was sharp.

Micah gestured at Gehrain, who said, “What Lancer Tal did is much more difficult than a normal Sharing. It’s natural and easy to let your own emotions flow in a connection like that. But to remember your experience of someone else’s emotions and reproduce them, to project emotions that aren’t yours—that takes a high level of skill, a lot of training, and a lot of energy. I’ve done it before, and afterwards I was as hungry as a mountzar that just woke up from the winter sleep. Tired, too. And that was Sharing with an Alsean. If Lead Templar Satran said a normal Sharing was much harder with a Gaian, then…”

“Then she just pushed herself to the very limits,” Serrado finished. “For me.” She ran a hand through her hair and sighed. “And I wouldn’t let her go. She said she couldn’t do it anymore. Shek, I thought it was paradise and she was draining herself. Why didn’t she tell me how hard that would be for her?”

Because she was looking for absolution, Micah thought. And judging by the captain’s reaction, she’d found it.

“As a rule,” he said, “warriors don’t like to admit that anything could be hard for them. And Lancer Tal is the leader of our caste.”

“In other words, you’re all brickheads and she’s the most brickheaded of all? Now that I can understand.”

“Lancer Tal is your oath holder now,” Gehrain said reprovingly. “And she gave you a rare gift. She deserves your respect.”

“She has it.” Serrado’s eyes narrowed just before she poked Gehrain in the chest. “But let’s talk about you. How much respect did it take to abuse Trooper Blunt’s feelings for you? Lancer Tal told me what all of you did, and I understand it. I might even have done it myself if I were in your situation. But it wasn’t necessary to take advantage of Blunt’s trust that way.”

Gehrain flushed. “I didn’t take advantage of her. I just tried to be her friend.”

“Well, she seems to believe you could be more than that, and from what I saw, you gave her every reason to think so.”

Micah couldn’t help himself. The stress, the worry about Tal, the impending doom pressing down on all of them—it made him a little punchy, and he began to chuckle.

Serrado turned on him. “Exactly what is funny about that?”

He laughed harder, and when he could speak he said, “It’s not funny, not really, but Gehrain wouldn’t do that.”

She crossed her arms and waited for an explanation. Micah looked at Gehrain, who had turned a darker shade of red.

“I’m not…free, Captain. I mean, I have a lover. And he’d be even more angry at me than you are if I made sexual advances toward someone else.”

“An alien someone else. A female alien someone else,” Micah managed just before losing it altogether. He laughed uproariously and slapped his thigh, and when he looked up, the captain’s expression sent him off into fresh gales of laughter.

To his surprise, the captain began to chuckle too. Gehrain joined them, and all three of them were howling when the door opened and Healer Graystone stepped out, regarding them with the look of a parent watching a group of obnoxious children.

Micah sobered and straightened, followed quickly by the other two. “How is she?”

“Not as well as you, apparently.”

“Healer Graystone,” he said, injecting more authority into his voice.

She shook her head and looked at Gehrain and Serrado, who both took the hint and wandered down the hall. When they were out of hearing range, she said, “She has a fractured rib, which I’ve taken care of, but that’s the least of the problems. The real issue is that she’s on the brink of both physical and mental exhaustion. Did you know she’s been taking stimulants?”

“What?” he burst out before catching himself. Damn that stubborn… “No, I didn’t know.”

“For six days,” Graystone said sternly. “Which is at least three days longer than anyone should. Her body chemistry is showing some alarming aberrations as a result, and that little stunt with a projection Sharing put her right over the top. I’ve given her a treatment which should rebalance her chemistry, but it will take several hanticks before it’s fully effective. In the meantime, she’s asleep, and she’s going to stay that way until evenmeal at least. I’d be happier if she slept through until mornmeal tomorrow.”

“I’d be happier about that, too. But we have a war council tonight and it’s more important than ever that she be there. After that, though, I’ll make certain she gets a full night’s sleep.” Even if he had to stand watch in her quarters.

“Then you have your assignment, Colonel.” Graystone stepped away and called for Captain Serrado. “It’s your turn, Captain. I understand I might need to pay special attention to your jaw.”

As she led the captain through another doorway, Micah slipped inside Tal’s room. The window had been darkened, leaving the room in twilight, but there was still enough light to see Tal fast asleep in the bed. He tiptoed over and rested a hand on her shoulder, watching her breathe. After the way she’d walked in here, stiff and pained, it eased something inside him to see her face so relaxed and know that she was healing.

“You grainbird,” he murmured. “Stimulants and you didn’t tell me? How am I supposed to protect you from yourself?”

He should have been angry. She’d risked her functionality at a time when they needed her more than ever. It was reckless and dangerous, and the fact that she’d hidden it from him meant she damn well knew it. But standing here watching her, he couldn’t lay blame. She really was carrying the whole world on her shoulders right now.

“And because worrying about one world isn’t enough, you did a projection Sharing with Captain Serrado,” he said. “You couldn’t stand a tyree not knowing, could you? You had to show her.”

He touched her cheek with the backs of his fingers, a liberty he’d been allowed long ago when she was still a child. The connection gave him a low buzz of her emotions, subdued in sleep and indecipherable.

“Sometimes I think you have too much of your mother in you. I’m not sure it’s wise for a Lancer to have that big of a heart.” Leaning down, he pressed a kiss to her forehead and whispered, “Sleep well, Andira.”





Chapter 48

To a future


Tal opened her eyes reluctantly, expecting the worst. The crash after six days of stimulants was bound to be a killer, and that was without the added stress of a projection Sharing. But as she carefully sat upright, all she felt was a lingering fuzziness in her brain. And her rib was perfect. Graystone was a miracle worker.

Then she saw the time.

“Great Mother,” she mumbled. “Eight hanticks?”

She put her face in her hands. A whole day. She’d lost a whole day. What was the shekking point of putting herself through the stim use if she was just going to lose—

Her head snapped up again when she remembered. It had worked. Captain Serrado was on their side; she’d even given Tal her oath of service. They actually had a chance.

“Fahla, thank you,” she whispered.

The small vidcom unit by her bed blinked on. “How do you feel?” Healer Graystone asked without preamble.

“Surprisingly good,” Tal said. “But you knocked me out. I didn’t authorize that.”

“You’re in my healing center, Lancer Tal. You don’t get to authorize your own health. I’d keep you here longer if I could, but Colonel Micah has made arrangements. Your readouts look good, though, so I’m confident that the colonel can oversee the remainder of your recovery.”

Tal rubbed her forehead. Facing Micah was going to be the worst of it, she just knew it.

“You have thirty ticks before he arrives,” Graystone continued. “I was just about to come in and wake you. There’s a fresh uniform waiting for you in the bath. A shower and a good meal should clear out the rest of your hangover. And if you ever use stimulants for that long again, I won’t make it so easy on you.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

The vidcom blinked off without so much as a farewell from Graystone, and Tal shook her head. “Wellernal would have been more respectful,” she said to the dark screen.

The shower felt so good that she stayed in longer than she should have. She’d barely gotten her uniform on when she sensed Micah approaching, accompanied by a distinctive emotional signature. Perfect. With the captain here, she might escape the lecture.

“Enter,” she called as she pulled on a boot.

The door opened. “Want me to put on the other one?” Captain Serrado asked.

Tal looked up to see them both in the doorway, one smiling while the other had his arms crossed over his chest.

“I appreciate the offer, but I’m enjoying the sensation of dressing myself this time. Are you here to tell me what I’ve missed? I can’t believe Graystone put me to sleep this long.”

“Consider yourself lucky. She wanted to put you to sleep until tomorrow morning.” Micah gestured for Serrado to take the chair next to Tal. “I told her that wasn’t possible, but the deal is that I make sure you get a good meal first, then after the war council I make sure you get a good night’s sleep.”

“What are you going to do, tuck me in?”

“If I have to,” he said calmly.

She paused, then pushed down the last strap and sat back in her chair. “You’re serious.”

“Yes, I am. Ready for evenmeal?”

“Only if you’re not about to tell me we’re eating it here.”

He raised his eyebrows and walked back to open the door. “Bring it in.”

“Oh, good Goddess.” Tal watched in disbelief as two caterers entered, holding a small, cloth-covered table between them. It was already set with dishes and utensils for three. Behind them came another caterer pushing a wheeled cart laden with serving dishes.

Serrado scooted her chair over, making room for the table. The third caterer swiftly set out the serving dishes while one of the others fetched another chair from the corridor. Water was poured, a bottle of spirits was opened, and the caterers bowed and vanished, leaving the cart tucked into a corner.

Micah sat down and whipped out his napkin, inhaling deeply as he spread it on his lap. “Ah, it smells wonderful.”

She knew what he’d brought; that rich scent took her straight back to her childhood. “You’ve outdone yourself this time. Why am I eating in a damned healing center?”

“Because you need to eat a decent meal, which means dining where you won’t be disturbed or interrupted. That rules out the State House, the base, and every restaurant in Blacksun, leaving us…here.” He held up his hands, indicating the room, then reached for the nearest serving dish. “Oh, look, grilled fanten with marmello sauce. Captain, you must try this.”

“Thank you.” Serrado held out her plate, and Micah served her a healthy dose.

Damn him. She loved fanten with marmello sauce. And she understood exactly what was going on: if she complained or resisted, he’d hit her with the lecture right in front of the captain.

“Shek it all. Give me some of that,” she said, holding out her own plate.

Micah at least had the grace not to grin as he served her. “Black grain?” he asked, lifting another lid.

“Please. And tell me you have spear tips, too.”

He spooned the black grain onto her plate and lifted the third lid. “Why, look at that. Spear tips.” He added the small green vegetables to her plate, then served the captain and himself. Indicating a covered basket, he said, “There’s bread and grainstem powder as well, if anyone wants it.”

“I’m fine for now.” Tal picked up her spirit glass. “A toast to the interfering old Chief Guardian who knows far too much about my childhood.”

They tapped their glasses together and drank, and Tal took her first bite. “Mm. It’s delicious.”

“It really is,” Serrado said. “Was this a special meal for you when you were a child?”

“My father used to make it every cycle on my birth anniversary. And whenever I got sick, I’d ask for it. I’m not sick, Micah. An injection or two and a full day of sleep have done wonders.”

“Yes, it does help to have the right injections,” he said mildly. “But you’re not fully healed yet. A good meal and a full night of sleep should take care of the rest.” He smiled at her and took a bite.

She wasn’t sure which was worse, the anger she’d expected or this calm and subtle blackmail. At least the anger would have been over as soon as he’d finished his lecture. With this, she had the feeling he’d be holding it against her for some time to come.

Since she couldn’t say a word in her defense, she devoted herself to enjoying the food and before long had plowed through half the plate. Taking a moment to refill their spirit glasses, she said, “Now that I’m no longer starving, you can tell me what happened today while I was knocked out. Have you spoken with Lhyn yet?”

“No,” Serrado said. “She made herself scarce this morning, and I haven’t had a chance since then to go back. But I made quite a splash when I checked in with my crew. Everyone wanted to know what happened to my face. I told them I started it, but you finished it.”

“Should I be worried about assassination?”

“Only of your character,” Micah said.

“Very funny.” Tal dug back into her fanten and considered that she might need another serving.

Serrado chuckled. “They’re fine, Lancer Tal. In fact I think my weapons team likes you even more now. They’ve been in a few space station bar fights, and I had to discipline them for it, so they were thrilled to know I got into one of my own. Even more so to learn that you’ve probably been in more fights than all four of them put together.” She grew serious. “But one of the reasons I wanted to speak with you was to advise you not to mention the empathic force. So far as my crew knows, the only person you affected was Commander Kameha. He holds no ill will about it, so they don’t either. I don’t know that they’d be so forgiving if they knew they’d all been used.”

Tal winced. “Not the word I’d choose, but I understand. I’m surprised you’re not insisting on full disclosure.”

“Fleet officers have a saying: it’s our job to hold the umbrellas that keep the dokshin off. As captain, I have the biggest umbrella on the ship. I protect my crew from anything that would hinder their best performance, and that includes a lot of politics, Fleet intrigue, bungled orders, near misses, general idiocy, and information they don’t need to know. This falls under the last category.” She raised a finger. “On the condition that it won’t ever happen again.”

“It won’t happen again,” Tal said. “I never wanted to do that in the first place.”

“I know. I spoke with Lead Templar Satran.”

Tal nearly dropped her fork. “What does that mean?”

“I’m not sure what you’re thinking, but she said nothing about you.”

Relieved, Tal took a sip of her spirits and chided herself for jumping to conclusions. “My apologies. Please continue.”

“She told me about the Betrayer and what it means in your culture to do what he did. We talked a bit about Fahla’s covenant, and I asked her about the warrants. She said they’re never used for people who are known to be innocent, but this was a special case, and executing them was strictly limited to what was specified in the document itself. So then I asked Colonel Micah to show me the documents.”

Tal was impressed. “You did your research.”

“I wanted to know exactly what was done. And I’m satisfied that you acted with honor. In fact I can’t say that in the same situation, my own government would act with half as much restraint. Those warrants were very specific.”

“They had to be. I was asking a great deal of both my Guards and the scholars who had to act on them. You must understand that to a high empath, your minds are as unguarded as those of children. That’s exactly what it feels like. Ask any Alsean how they’d feel about empathically forcing a child and you’ll get a universal reaction of horror.”

“Any normal Alsean,” Micah added.

Tal tipped her glass in his direction.

“I do understand. At least, as much as a sonsales can. And that’s why I’ve decided that this information stops with me.”

“Agreed.”

“Good. In that case you can count on all of my crew joining you in this fight.”

Startled, Tal said, “Even Commander Baldassar?”

“That was…not a pleasant chat. We’re going to have trust issues for some time. But Baldassar hates being played for a fool even more than he hates the idea of disobeying orders and breaking the chain of command. He was as angry as I was when he saw those planetary scans.”

“Do those issues include trusting him in a battle?”

“In this one, no. After all, it will be his neck on the line.”

Tal paused as she was scooping out more spear tips. “I don’t understand. He’s not obligated to stay. Isn’t your personnel ship sending down a shuttle? One that doesn’t have hullskin?”

Serrado and Micah looked at each other, and Tal set the lid back on the dish. Obviously she’d missed something.

“We can’t leave,” Serrado said. “The personnel ship doesn’t have shuttles without hullskin. There isn’t a ship in the fleet that does. Even single-pilot fighters have hullskin, because otherwise they’d be helpless if they ever got separated from their ship. Most smaller ships can’t surf, so they depend on base space travel to go anywhere at all. They’re going to have to pull a shuttle out of a museum somewhere to get us off Alsea.”

“Good Fahla, I had no idea. I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault.”

But it felt like it. Tal had never banked on keeping all of the Gaians; it had been hard enough to deal with the guilt of keeping the captain behind.

“Do we know what’s causing the problem with the hullskin?” she asked.

“Not yet,” Micah said. “This morning we took samples from the Caphenon and gave them to both Yaserka and Eroles. We also gave Commander Kameha access to a lab and a team of his own to help him with our equipment. Between him, the scholars, and the builders, somebody should figure it out. Right now the working theory is that heating up the hullskin causes a reaction with some combination of atmospheric gases.”

“Which would be strange beyond belief,” Serrado said. “We’ve never run into anything like that before, and we’ve flown a lot of shuttles and fighters in atmospheric conditions. Besides, Kameha called me two hanticks ago and said his new lab team gave him a list of your atmospheric gases. There’s nothing on there that could cause this.”

“Your language chip even has the words for individual gases? How did Lhyn manage that?” Tal asked.

“She didn’t. One of her physical scientists contributed those translations, but even that wasn’t comprehensive. Kameha’s new team drew the atomic construction of each gas and numbered the protons, electrons, and neutrons. He said it reminded him of his school days. And just between you and me, I think he’s actually enjoying himself.”

“I remember taking tests like that,” Micah said.

“Me too,” said Tal. “But yours were easier. They didn’t have as many gases back then; Alsea was a younger planet.”

“And that’s how I know you’re feeling better, when you insult me.”

Serrado smiled down at her plate.

“Micah—it couldn’t be the nanoscrubbers, could it?”

“Yaserka mentioned that too. They’re looking into it, but he didn’t think it was possible. The nanoscrubbers don’t destroy physical material.”

“Nanoscrubbers?” Serrado asked. “I’ve heard that word before.”

“Molecule-sized machines built to scrub our environment,” Tal said. “You heard it during the funeral, when Lead Templar Satran talked about the ways we protect Alsea. I think I mentioned that we had a catastrophic nuclear accident some time ago. We lost far too many Alseans to radiation poisoning before our scientists designed the nanoscrubbers. But Micah’s right. They don’t destroy physical material.”

Serrado put down her fork. “Hullskin emits radiation.”

“Ionizing radiation?”

“Yes, but it’s not dangerous. I suppose it could be if a person stripped naked and laid on top of the ship for a few hanticks, but even clothing blocks it. It surely wouldn’t be the type your nanoscrubbers were meant to neutralize. Still, that’s the most likely lead we have.”

“Yaserka and Eroles will be at the war council,” Micah said. “If they’ve learned anything, we’ll find out then.”

They ate in silence for a few ticks, until Serrado dabbed her mouth with the napkin and said, “I had an interesting conversation with Admiral Tsao this afternoon. She was…less than pleased to learn that the Assembly voted on a fraudulent negotiation. By now the real scans of those planets have been distributed through Fleet channels and into the hands of a few ministers who can be trusted. I expect that by this time tomorrow, there’s going to be some very bad publicity happening for a few corporations.”

“Will they be brought to account?”

Her laugh was short and unamused. “I doubt it. They’ll counter with their own publicity, calling me the fraud and saying the files are fake. There will be an independent truth-finding mission formed, and when it comes back with the same results, they’ll say it was stacked with biased observers. It’s going to be a public relations battle, and one side has a lot more cash and power than the other. But my side has a few more political connections where it counts. I don’t think the peace treaty will survive—my guess is that the vote will be nullified and a revote called. The problem is that nothing in the Assembly happens quickly. The Voloth certainly aren’t going to wait to see how it all turns out. I wish I had better news, but Alsea is still on its own. Any help that may eventually be dispatched will come far too late.”

“I wish you had better news, too, but I wasn’t expecting a miracle.” Tal glanced at Serrado’s bare collar and wondered how she’d explained that to her admiral. “If you’d like your bars back, they’re still in my jacket pocket.”

Serrado shook her head. “It’s too late for that. At some point Baldassar is going to report in. I didn’t want his version to be the first that Fleet heard, so I told Admiral Tsao what happened and why I made the decision I did.”

“What did she say?”

“That I have serious issues with timing. She understands why I did it, but that doesn’t mean she can protect me. She wasn’t happy to learn about Lhyn, either. My Fleet career is over. I’m hoping I can start a new one here with you, assuming we all survive the next few days.”

Her voice was calm, but there was a difference between renouncing something and having it taken away. Captain Serrado was in mourning, and Tal impulsively reached across to rest her hand on the table.

“Please take it,” she said.

Serrado was startled, but hesitated only a moment before clasping her hand.

“I’m sorry,” Tal told her, projecting her regret. “Truly. I knew you’d pay a price no matter which choice you made, and I hate that I had to put you in that position. As a warrior and a leader I know what you’ve lost.” She tightened her grip and shifted the projection. “But if we survive this battle, then I swear on my honor you’ll have that career. If your Fleet is so foolish that it casts off one of its most skilled warriors because she made the only ethical decision possible, then I’m happy to profit from their idiocy. You are very welcome here.”

Serrado’s eyes brightened with unshed tears, and she nodded without speaking.

Tal let go of her hand. “We’ll have to create a new position for you. What do you think, Micah? First Alsean Ambassador? How about Admiral of the Alsean Space Fleet? Since of course we’re going to build one.”

“I’d say Admiral. And since she’s not in the warrior caste, she can’t be expected to report to Shantu. She’ll have to report directly to you.”

“Oh, you’re right. Won’t that raise some eyebrows? We could put her on the High Council and really shake things up.”

“Why would you do that to the poor woman? I thought you were trying to reward her, not punish her.”

Serrado’s laugh was scratchy with tears, but there was a spark of joy behind it. “You’re both a little cracked, aren’t you? I know what you’re doing, and I thank you for it. It really helps to know I have a home of sorts.”

“Not of sorts,” Tal said. “Just a home. Now all we need to do is protect it.”

“True words.” Micah set his knife and fork together on the plate. “And now that we have a mostly rested and very well-fed Lancer in charge, with a skilled Protectorate captain offering her services, we have a far better chance than we did this morning.”

“The well-fed part is certainly right.” Tal swallowed her last bite and laid down her own utensils. “Micah, thank you. That was delicious.”

“You’re welcome. There’s dessert, you know.”

“Panfruit pastries?”

“Good guess. Captain, would you like dessert?”

“I’d love some. May I help you clear?”

“I think it’s a three-person job.” Tal stood with the others, and they had the dishes piled on the cart in half a tick. Micah carried the pastry dish back while Tal and Serrado brought fresh plates and forks, and soon they were seated once more.

“Is this another childhood comfort food?” Serrado asked as she lifted a forkful. “Oh…it’s excellent.”

Tal nodded. “One of my favorites.”

“Mine too,” Micah said. “Actually, I think I’m the one who introduced you to them.”

“You two date back that far?”

“Tal’s father was my best friend before he met her mother.” Micah cut off another corner of his pastry. “It’s not possible to date back any further.”

“I can’t remember a time in my life when Micah wasn’t there,” Tal said.

“Amazing. You’re very fortunate.”

Tal paused and met Micah’s gaze. “Yes, I am.”

He smiled at her and held up his glass. “To a future even better than our past. If the battle hinges on honor and worth, we’ll have no worries.”

Lifting her own glass, Tal shortened his toast. “To a future.”

“To a future,” they agreed, and the room rang with the sound of tapping glass.





Chapter 49

War council


For the sixth evening in a row, Tal sat in the strategy room beneath Blacksun Base and faced a bank of vidcoms showing the commanding officers of every base on Alsea. But this night was very different than the previous five. Captain Serrado sat on her left, self-assured, fully informed, and planning her own part in the battle. It had fallen into place even better than Tal had dared to hope.

“I just wish we could move the Caphenon,” Serrado said. “It’s really in the worst position possible. The only working weapons I have that can easily target the skies over Blacksun are those in the engine cradle. If Candini had landed it with the port side facing Blacksun, we’d have a lot more to work with.”

“We can move it.” Prime Builder Eroles was in an arresting combination of purple and green, but on her it worked. “Your ship may be enormous, but it’s on a rounded base. That’s easy to shift. Give us half a day to set up the equipment and half a day to move it, and we can have it facing any way you want.”

“Can you level it out as well?”

“Yes. I imagine that would make things a bit easier, wouldn’t it?”

“Immensely.” Serrado leaned forward, her dark blue eyes shining. “Then if you can supply me with the personnel, and I have enough time to train them, the Caphenon can defend Blacksun from the ground pounders. Our defense grid is designed to hit incoming missiles moving at very high speeds. Ground pounders dropping straight in from orbit would be child’s play by comparison.”

The air of the room shifted as every Alsean there let out a sigh of relief. This was the best news possible. With Blacksun off the board, they had a much better chance of covering the other critical areas. Tal was particularly happy that she could now shelve the evacuation plan for Blacksun. Here, at least, the population was safer inside the city than out of it.

“But there’s still the matter of the fighters,” Serrado warned. “Those are much harder to hit, and they have powerful weaponry. Ordinarily, they’d be no threat to the Caphenon, but my shielding is spotty at best. As soon as the fighters figure out that the Caphenon is the real danger in the area, they’ll converge on it, and with my lack of shields they could conceivably destroy the ship.”

“Then you need shields,” Tal said. “Can we help you repair them?”

“I don’t know; I’ll have to ask Commander Kameha what he can do with unskilled labor.”

“Our labor may be unskilled in those specific repairs,” Eroles said, “but I would send you my best, and they’d learn quickly.”

“I believe they would.” Serrado smiled at the Prime Builder. “You’re giving me hope.”

“No, you’re giving us hope,” Tal said. “But how much of a threat are the fighters if they’re susceptible to the same hullskin issues your ships are?”

“Candini flew her fighter for thirty-five ticks before it developed problems. We flew our shuttle from the Caphenon to Blacksun Base and back again before the first issues came up, and even then we made a controlled flight back to the State House. Whatever is causing the hullskin degradation isn’t doing it fast enough to stop the Voloth fighters before they could inflict a great deal of damage.”

Tal supposed that would have been too easy. “Then we’re back to worrying about repairing your shields. But that does give me an idea. Instead of trying to do battle with those fighters, which we know is going to result in catastrophic losses, what if our pilots delayed them instead?”

“Play a game of chase?” Colonel Razine asked. “I like it.”

“Devious.” Shantu’s tone was approving. “I like that, too. We’ll make them run themselves into the ground, literally.”

Several ticks were spent discussing specific maneuvers and strategies for delaying the fighters before they turned their focus to arms.

“Is it possible to transfer some of your weaponry our way?” Colonel Debrett asked from his screen. “I’d certainly welcome the opportunity to take this battle on the offensive, rather than waiting for a ground pounder to step on a mine.”

Serrado shook her head. “The rail guns and missile launchers are too deeply integrated into the ship’s systems. I can give you missiles to rewire and detonate remotely, and they’re easily powerful enough to destroy a ground pounder. The catch is that they’ll destroy everything else as well, for a half-length radius. And the warheads are nuclear.”

A buzz of dismay filled the room.

“If it comes to that, I’d rather deal with radiation issues than watch Alsea fall to the Voloth,” Tal said. “What if we stockpiled nanoscrubbers in advance and had them ready for deployment immediately after the battle?”

“But you’re still talking about a zone of destruction a length in diameter.” That was Colonel Spalldon, speaking from Redmoon. “An explosion like that would wipe out entire villages.”

“Obviously, we wouldn’t use them near villages,” Shantu said. “The Voloth will be targeting cities first, before they fan out into the countryside.”

“So you’re going to blow up length-sized blocks of cities instead?” Spalldon rolled his eyes. “Yes, that will cause far fewer fatalities. Not everyone will evacuate, and we won’t have the time or personnel to enforce the order.”

“I think it’s time we all accepted that fatalities are going to happen regardless,” Shantu snapped. “This is a battle for our very survival. Get over any fantasies about a clean win.”

“If we’re talking about using nuclear warheads for offense, then we need to reconsider our evacuation plans,” said Colonel Razine. “It makes little sense to evacuate civilians from the cities only to blow them up or irradiate them with Gaian warheads out in the countryside.”

The door opened and Yaserka rushed in, disheveled and out of breath. “I’m sorry I’m late. But we know what’s happening to the Caphenon.

He could hardly have planned a better entrance; every eye in the room was trained on him. Straightening his rumpled jacket, he walked up to the empty chair next to Eroles and sat down.

“Are you going to tell us any time soon?” Razine asked in a too-calm voice.

“It’s the nanoscrubbers.”

“You said that wasn’t possible,” Micah said from his seat on Tal’s right.

“I didn’t think it was. And it’s not, if the nanoscrubbers were still what we released all those cycles ago. But they’ve modified themselves.”

“Your nanoscrubbers are…self-aware?”

“No, Captain. They’re not sentient. But they were programmed to replicate themselves when their targeted radiation was plentiful, and then go dormant when that energy source was absent. That design meant there had to be a certain amount of artificial intelligence built into them. Somehow they’ve shifted their original programming. Instead of passively waiting for an energy source to come to them, they’re now actively seeking it. That’s why they’ve begun to break down physical matter.”

“But from what I understand, the type of radiation our hullskin emits isn’t the type the nanoscrubbers were built to target.”

“It’s not. But it’s a new type the nanoscrubbers haven’t seen before. That radiation signature isn’t native to Alsea, which means it’s not on the exclusion list the nanoscrubbers were programmed with. So they’ve decided it’s a food source. They’re drawn to it like flies to dokshin.”

Shantu snorted, and Tal covered up her smile. When Yaserka was excited, he sometimes forgot to keep up the image of the upright, perfectly-spoken scholar.

“Stars and Shippers, that explains everything. The hullskin only emits radiation when it’s active. The Caphenon’s hullskin has always been active; it’s an automatic function. If the ship has any power at all, the hullskin is active, and even after the crash we still had backup power. But Candini’s fighter and the shuttle—their hullskins were only active during actual flight. As soon as the engines are turned off, everything is off.”

“Which is why you had no signs of damage even when your shuttle sat outside for days,” Tal said.

“No visible signs,” the captain corrected. “But the nanoscrubbers were probably breaking it down the moment we fired the engine and flew it out of the bay. Then we powered it down as soon as we landed and there went the energy source.”

“So there’s a window of time that you can fly before the damage gets to the point where flight controls are compromised,” Tal said. “Which we already knew. This doesn’t help us with the Voloth, but maybe it can help you get your people off Alsea.”

“I don’t think so; the window is too small. Definitely not long enough for a shuttle to drop in, pick us up, and get back into orbit. And even if it were, I wouldn’t trust a shuttle in the atmosphere at escape velocity with a compromised hullskin.”

“It’s dependent on speed,” Yaserka interjected. “The faster you fly, the more nanoscrubbers you collect along the way.”

“Of course. That’s why the fighter was affected so much more quickly than the shuttle…and why the Caphenon was already showing so much destruction even when we landed, because we were traveling at such high sp—oh, holy Hades.” Serrado’s emotions sharpened into the fierceness that Tal had felt from her once before.

“Lancer Tal, you have a weapon. A shockingly powerful one. Your entire atmosphere is a weapon.” She laughed in delight and looked around the room. “Don’t you see? You don’t have to worry about the Voloth fighters. On atmospheric entry they’ll be rocketing through at twenty times the speed of sound. They’ll collect enough nanoscrubbers in the descent to destroy most of their flight capability before they get close enough to fire a shot. You’ll wipe out half the invasion force without lifting a finger.”





Chapter 50

The only way


“I think we should adjourn for the night and come back tomorrow morning. We’ve hit a wall and we’re getting nowhere. We should all get some sleep and come back fresh.”

Micah’s calm voice was a balm to Tal’s ears after the shouting she’d been listening to. It had been nearly two hanticks since Captain Serrado had given them so much hope with her realization about the Voloth fighters. Two hanticks of discussing how to deal with the ground pounders that would be landing all over Alsea’s two continents, far from the range of the Caphenon’s weapons. Blacksun would be protected, but try as they might, they were not coming up with acceptable plans for the rest. No matter how they divided their forces, planned, strategized, theorized, or fantasized, they were looking at catastrophic loss and destruction. Tal wanted to put her head on the table and weep. The price for fighting off this invasion was going to be immeasurable, and Alsea would never be the same. Besides the horrific losses to their infrastructure and architecture, they were probably going to lose an entire generation.

“We don’t have time to sleep,” Shantu said.

“We don’t have time not to sleep,” Micah corrected. “Our world is depending on us and we’re sitting here going in circles.”

“And making a lot of noise doing it.” Eroles sighed. “He’s right, we’re getting nowhere. Maybe there are better ideas, but none of us are seeing them tonight.”

“Then we reconvene right after mornmeal?” Debrett asked from his screen.

All eyes went to Tal, who nodded. “Yes, I think that’s best. Hantick seven.”

The room buzzed with good nights and farewells, and the screens blinked off one by one as the other base commanders retired for the night. Tal pushed her chair back and stood, grateful to be moving at last.

The captain remained in her chair, staring straight ahead. She’d been quiet for the past thirty ticks, having tired of the increasingly useless discussion, and Tal couldn’t blame her.

“I’ll walk you to your quarters, Captain.”

“Hm?” Serrado looked up at her, then around the room. “Yes, fine, that’s…” She trailed off, her eyes focused on nothing at all, and frowned.

Tal glanced at Micah, who shrugged and turned to clasp Northcliff’s arm in farewell. Shantu stepped up and held out his arm, and Tal had just grasped it when Serrado spoke.

“You have to mind-shek them.”

She dropped Shantu’s arm and swung around in shock. “What?”

The captain’s distant expression was gone, replaced by a look of determination. “You have to mind-shek them. I’ve been sitting here for two hanticks listening to you try to find a way to beat superior weaponry and shielding with inferior technology, and it’s not going to happen. It’s never going to happen. Starting over tomorrow morning isn’t going to change the reality of that. But you’re ignoring the one weapon you have that they don’t: your empathy. Destroy their minds. Make it impossible for them to fight. Tell them to kill themselves. Or each other.”

The room went silent.

“It doesn’t work that way,” Shantu said at last. “Though I admire your cold blood.”

Tal nodded. “Empathy isn’t telepathy. We can’t tell them to do anything. And it’s impossible to compel a person to commit suicide, unless that was already part of their mindset and you’re just encouraging it. Self-preservation is the most basic instinct of all. Not even the strongest empath could overcome that.”

“Then make them kill each other. I know you can; your Betrayer did it.”

“Great Mother.” Colonel Razine came over and took Tal’s chair. “I don’t think you realize what you’re suggesting. Even if it were possible, it wouldn’t be worth it.”

“Why isn’t it possible?” Serrado met Tal’s eyes and added, “You would have forced Lhyn to act against her own character and do what you wanted her to. How would you have accomplished that?”

For a moment Tal could hardly breathe, and she couldn’t look away. Colonel Razine saved her.

“It would have taken a Sharing. To bind a person’s future choices against their will requires a deep reset of their emotions.”

“And I doubt the Voloth would stop, open the hatch, and invite us in for a Sharing,” Shantu said.

“No, wait.” Tal was able to think again, now that Serrado’s attention was on the others. “We don’t have to affect future choices. We have to affect present ones. She’s talking about covert projection.”

“I am?”

“No, she’s talking about fatal covert projection,” Yaserka said.

“That has never been used in warfare—”

“Nobody could do that—”

“The fifth level of the Pit is full of prisoners who could—”

“Shekking Mother, you would release the worst filth of Alsea on us? What happens when—”

“How ironic that an alien would have a better understanding of the stakes than—

“This is madness. Perhaps warriors could sink that low, but the scholars—”

Tal’s ears were ringing as the voices rose louder and louder, six highly agitated Alseans shouting over each other while Serrado looked on in confusion.

“Shut up!” Tal roared.

The arguments stopped abruptly.

“Much better. Now let’s try this again, one at a time. Captain Serrado is right. We have to use every weapon at hand, no matter how distasteful.”

“I agree,” Shantu said. “This is our survival we’re talking about. Leave the philosophical debates to the religious scholars. Fahla’s covenant isn’t meant to bind us to utter destruction.”

Colonel Northcliff nodded. “Does Fahla’s covenant even apply to alien invaders? I don’t think it does.”

“I may be in the minority here,” said Colonel Razine, “but I do not believe we should sell our souls to save our bodies.”

“I can’t believe you’re even considering this.” Yaserka was so horrified that his front slipped, exposing his emotions. “The Voloth won’t have to destroy us; we’ll do it to ourselves!”

“Speaking for the builders, and possibly all of the mid and low empaths,” Eroles said, “the idea of the entire high empath segment of the warrior caste engaging in mass covert projection is terrifying. If you break Fahla’s covenant now—and in a way that is unprecedented in our history—then how do you wind that back down? How do you go back to what you were before and give up that power?”

“I understand your concern, but—”

“No, you do not, Lancer Tal! You’re one of them! You have no idea how the rest of us feel.”

“Eroles…” Shantu spoke in an unusually quiet voice.

“Oh, don’t try to soothe me. You’re one of them too. It’s easy to sit on your side of the fence and say this is a temporary necessity. Try being one of the vast majority of Alseans who depend on the high empaths to hold themselves in check. You’re talking about shattering the one thing that holds you back, and you think we shouldn’t be worried?”

“Excuse me,” Micah said. “You do not speak for all of the mid and low empaths. This low empath understands exactly what the stakes are. And I clearly have a better opinion of high empaths than you, because I don’t view them as wild animals pulling at the chain, just waiting for it to break.”

“That is not what I meant—”

“It certainly sounded like it—”

The voices rose once more, and Tal pinched the bridge of her nose. A touch on her shoulder brought her head up to find Captain Serrado standing in front of her. Tal leaned in to hear her over the noise.

“I’m sorry, Lancer Tal. I had no idea I’d be stirring up a wasp’s nest. But you have to do this. It’s the only way.”

“I know it is. But as you can see, it’s not going to be easy.”

Serrado watched them argue for a few more pipticks and shook her head. “Easier than slavery and death. Hey!” she shouted suddenly, startling Tal. “Eyes front, now!”

The room went silent as everyone stared at her in surprise.

“Thank you. Now, I’m not Alsean, so I have no say in your philosophical debate, but perhaps I can put it into a different context for you.” She reached around her back, pulled out the hand phaser Micah had returned to her earlier, and held it up. “This is a deadly weapon. I’ve been carrying it among you since the morning after we crashed. In the past I have used it to injure, and I have used it to kill. But I’ve never felt the urge to use it on innocent people, nor would I be allowed to get away with it if I did.”

She let her hand fall, but kept the phaser in view. “Your high empaths have deadly weapons built right into their heads. They’ve been among you every day for thousands of cycles. From what I understand, they also don’t feel the urge to use those weapons on innocent people. And the tiny minority who do are not allowed to get away with it. Am I correct?”

“You’re correct,” Shantu said. He was actually smiling.

“Then I don’t see how using empathy in battle will be any different. It’s a weapon. Use it when you need to; put it away when you don’t.”

She holstered her phaser. “Lancer Tal tells me that empathy is one of Fahla’s greatest gifts to your people. I believe her. She Shared with me this morning, and it didn’t feel like a weapon then. It felt like the most beautiful thing I have ever experienced. She didn’t force it on me, though she certainly could have. I really can’t imagine her suddenly turning into a different person after using her empathy in a battle. Quite the opposite, in fact. Your problem isn’t going to be holding back high empaths who have suddenly discovered the joy of hurting people. It’s going to be helping high empaths who have had to use their gift in a way they never thought they would.”





Chapter 51

Apology


Ekatya straightened her jacket, took a fortifying breath, and knocked on the door. Footsteps sounded inside, a very familiar, long-legged stride, and her nervousness increased. Then the door opened inward, and she met Lhyn’s eyes for the first time since she’d tried to leave this morning.

Lhyn looked her up and down. “Huh. Thought you’d be in worse shape than that. You don’t look so bad.” She left the door open and walked back inside. It wasn’t exactly an invitation, but it wasn’t a rejection either.

Ekatya closed the door behind her and ventured as far as the living area, standing uncomfortably in the middle of the room. Lhyn had gone to the sideboard and was pouring two glasses of spirits.

“Sit down,” Lhyn said without turning.

She sat on the couch.

Lhyn came back with the glasses, handed one over, and pointedly sat in the chair opposite the couch. “I’ll give you credit for showing up, at least. But I don’t know what you’re expecting from me. I’m so angry at you that I can’t even—” She stopped, a hitch in her breath, and took a large gulp of her spirits.

“You have every right to be. I know I screwed up.”

“Is that what you call it? What a small word that is for trying to sell out an entire civilization. Not to mention leaving me. Oh, and beating up on Lancer Tal after she did nothing but help me. And you. And every fucking person on that shuttle.”

Shippers, but she had her work cut out for her. Lhyn was not going to make this easy.

“Okay,” Ekatya said carefully. “I know you’ve heard about our fight. Did you also hear why we got into it?”

“No, but I assume you were pissed off when you realized she beat you at your own game.”

“I wasn’t playing a game.” She heard the edge in her own voice and made herself slow down. “Anyway, that’s not why we fought. I thought she used empathic force on you.”

“You what?” Lhyn put her glass on the side table and leaned forward. “Are you kidding me?”

“She admitted to forcing Kameha and said she had warrants for every member of my crew except me. I thought that explained why you showed up in Alsean clothing and refused to leave.”

“Oh, I see. It couldn’t possibly be because I have a mind of my own and the willingness to do the right thing. I told you I was going to do that three days earlier. You just refused to take me seriously.”

“Well, if it makes you feel any better, Lancer Tal did an excellent job of disabusing me of my assumptions, right about the time she left me on the floor of the training room. It was like a first-year cadet getting into a fight with the combat instructor.”

“I heard you had to go to the healing center. Are you really all right?”

Ekatya tried not to read too much into her concern. “I’m fine. Lancer Tal patched me up, and then I did the same for her. At least, the parts that I could. We had a…good talk afterward.”

“Stop right there. What do you mean, the parts you could?”

“I, er, cracked her rib.”

After a pause, Lhyn said, “Some cadet. Either you’re better than you say, or she’s not as good as you think, or she let you hurt her.”

“She—” Ekatya stopped. It had never occurred to her that Lancer Tal might have let herself get hurt. No, it didn’t make sense. But she had definitely limited herself in the fight, and that had probably meant she hadn’t been able to defend as aggressively as she would have if she’d been prepared to do real damage.

“She was trying not to hurt me too badly,” she finished. “I’m afraid I wasn’t operating under the same rules.”

Lhyn shook her head and reached for her glass. “Well, I’m impressed with your honesty. But it’s not helping your cause much. What did you talk about afterward?”

So much for honesty. If she said they’d talked about her tyree status, Lhyn would dismiss the idea out of hand. Now was not the time.

“She helped me understand what is and isn’t acceptable in terms of empathic force, and told me exactly what she and her people did to my crew. I’d assumed the worst, but…it wasn’t like that. And we talked a little about our families.”

Lhyn stared at her, an unwilling smile tugging at one corner of her mouth. “You talked about your families.”

“Ah…yes?”

“After you beat each other up.”

“Yes.”

“You are eggs from the same bird, you realize that, right?”

She hadn’t thought about it that way. “I guess we are. I mean, we’d be in the same caste if I were Alsean, and we do a very similar job.”

“It’s not the job. It’s your personalities. And that warrior mentality.”

Ekatya shrugged. “I like her.”

“And that’s why I can’t understand how you could leave her and all of her people to the Voloth.”

“It wasn’t personal.” The words were hardly out of her mouth when she remembered Lancer Tal saying exactly the same thing this morning. “And I didn’t do it. If you heard about my fight, then I hope you heard about that, too.”

“Why do you think I even let you in this room? If you hadn’t cancelled that self-destruct, we wouldn’t be talking right now.”

“Then what can I say except I’m sorry? You were right. It took me too long to realize it, but I did. And I was coming back for you.”

“I know,” Lhyn whispered, her eyes tearing up. “But you left me. You walked away without saying good-bye and you left, and I thought that was it. And now you’re sitting here and I’m just supposed to forget that happened? You broke my heart. I can’t fix that in one day.”

Ekatya ached to hold her, but she stayed where she was, her own eyes misting. “You left me too. And you did it in such a way that I couldn’t say good-bye. I thought you did that on purpose, that you didn’t want a good-bye. I couldn’t believe you would stand in the middle of an entire squad of Guards, in front of half the damn base, and—” She stopped and cleared the tears out of her throat. “You’re not the only one who got her heart broken.”

“I didn’t leave you, Ekatya. I begged you to stay.” Lhyn’s eyes overflowed and she wiped her cheeks. “I begged you to stay and you looked at me like I was one of your crew pissing you off.”

Ekatya couldn’t stand it any longer. Crossing to Lhyn’s chair, she knelt beside it and touched her hand. “I’m sorry. I felt ambushed, and I was angry. But I am so glad that wasn’t my last view of you.” She kissed Lhyn’s hand, folded it in her own, and reached up to wipe away a fresh tear. “I’m glad you let me in tonight, if only so that I could say I love you, and I will do my best to make sure you believe me at some point. Hopefully soon.”

“I love you too. But right now that’s not enough. Do you understand?”

“Yes, I do. Would you like me to go, then?”

Lhyn nodded, then shook her head. “I don’t know. If I had half a brain, I’d take you to bed right now, because we’re in the end times, aren’t we? Roris and Commander Kameha gave me a reality check today. I know you tried to tell me, but…I guess I didn’t want to believe how little you could actually do. They said you can save Blacksun, but the city might become the last refuge.”

Ekatya smiled. Finally, she could be something Lhyn might be proud of. “Their information is a little out of date. First of all, I think the Alseans have a much better chance of beating the Voloth than I would have dreamed a day ago. And second, I just finished introducing Lancer Tal to Admiral Tsao.”

“You what?” Lhyn sat up straight, her eyes wide.

Ekatya kissed her hand again, let it go, and returned to her seat. “The balance of power has changed. I haven’t had time to tell anyone else yet, but in tonight’s war council we finally found out what was happening to the hullskin.”

She explained everything they’d learned, and what it meant in terms of the Voloth fighters. “But the most important thing is that it’s not the Voloth who have a devastating weapon. It’s the Alseans. And while the Assembly ministers might not know their asses from a hole in the hull, they do know how to act in their own interests. They would be utterly insane to let the Voloth take this planet now. It holds a weapon that could destroy either side.”

“Are you saying—”

“Reinforcements are on their way.”

Lhyn gasped and covered her mouth as the tears flowed anew. “Oh, my stars. Ekatya…”

“Of course the peace treaty hasn’t been annulled yet, so we’re in a little political limbo right now. Seems to be the theme of my life lately. But Admiral Tsao thinks that will be wrapped up by this time tomorrow. She’s already holding general orders of engagement and has sent the nearest ships to respond. There are three destroyers and a Pulsar-class ship heading this way. They’ll be here in seven Alsean days. There’s a Core-class coming as well, but it’ll be a day later.”

“Will they be in time?”

“I hope so. Our spies say the Voloth weren’t able to pre-stage an invasion force during the negotiations, because they’ve had to bring ships in from the other side of their territory. The group I wiped out was the only one on this side. Whatever they send will be coming from their central system, so if they sent it the moment that treaty was signed—and we’re all sure they did—it’s also seven days away. It’ll be close. We’re still planning the battle as if we were entirely on our own, just in case. But I hope to all the highest powers that we won’t have to fight it.”

Lhyn launched herself across the space and threw her arms around Ekatya’s neck. “Thank you. Oh, thank you, this is so fantastic!”

Ekatya closed her eyes and offered up her own gratitude, to Fahla or the universe or whatever she needed to for this moment. Then she felt Lhyn crying and tightened her arms. “If we’re not facing the end, does that mean you won’t take me to bed after all?” she asked.

Lhyn chuckled in spite of her tears. “No, you idiot, I won’t.” She pulled back and sat next to Ekatya on the couch. “You don’t get sexy times just because you might have saved a planet.”

“Great galaxies, you set a high bar. What do I have to do, then?”

“Just…love me. Give me some time.”

“I’ll give you all the time I have.” Ekatya paused. “Is six days enough?”

Lhyn’s laugh was the loveliest sound she’d heard all day. They might not mend this tonight, but they would mend it. That promise was all she needed.





Chapter 52

Lifting the Caphenon


“The countdown has been activated. The lifting of the Caphenon will commence in twenty pipticks…fifteen…ten…five…and there it goes. Slowly, carefully…what a beautiful sight.”

Tal put her reader card on the desk and focused on the vidcom. Like every other person on the planet, she’d had the live coverage of the Caphenon’s move onscreen since this morning, a constant background to the various meetings and panicked questions that never seemed to end. At the moment, however, she was gloriously alone and enjoying the opportunity to watch with no distractions.

It had taken the builders a full day to assess the project and get the heavy equipment out to the site. Overnight they’d assembled the gigantic construction levers, braces, and sky grips. When Tal had turned on her vidcom first thing this morning, she’d been impressed with the transformation of the scene. The Caphenon was in the center of a forest of equipment that towered over it, cables and braces going every which way and seeming to trap the ship in a web. All morning she’d waited for the lifting to begin.

The narrator spoke again, his voice hushed in deference to the import of the moment as he directed the viewers’ attention to the nose of the ship. Sure enough, Tal could see it rising, ever so slowly. A few clods and fine streams of dirt fell from the hull as it lifted off the ground, and then there was space beneath it.

A photo of Candini’s fighter appeared in the top corner of the image, its sleek silver hullskin shining under the hangar lights.

“This Gaian fighter, now housed at Port Calerna, has only minimal damage from the nanoscrubbers,” the narrator said. “Looking at it, we can easily imagine how the Caphenon once appeared.”

“It was magnificent,” Tal murmured, remembering her first flight over the ship. Funny how her perceptions had changed. Then she had viewed it as alien and dangerous; now she saw it as the savior of her city and the future of her people.

She didn’t view the Gaians in the same way, either. Once it had been a constant jarring experience to look at their smooth faces; now they just seemed rather exotic. And Captain Serrado… Tal smiled, remembering her bringing a chaotic war council to order with one barked command. Her eyes had been flashing and she’d stood there in perfect control of the most powerful people on the planet. Even Shantu had admired her, and that was quite an accomplishment.

As if called by her thought, Captain Serrado’s emotional signature appeared at the edges of Tal’s senses. She closed her eyes, concentrating, then shook her head. No, they hadn’t fully reconciled yet. Apparently, when Lhyn had told the captain she needed time, she’d meant it. Tal couldn’t understand it, but Serrado seemed to. She was far calmer now, suffused with a confidence in Lhyn that had been entirely absent the morning of their Sharing.

Tal waited, feeling the signature grow stronger and stronger. When it reached a peak, she called out, “Come in, Captain.”

Her office door opened. “I’m never going to get used to that. Couldn’t you let me knock just once, so I could at least imagine that you don’t know exactly where I am?”

“Certainly. Go back outside.”

“Not quite what I meant,” Serrado said as her eyes went to the screen. “Oh, they started! I thought they wouldn’t be lifting it for another hantick.”

“They finalized the prep a little early. Have a seat; we’ll watch together. Would you like a cup of shannel?”

“I’d love one.”

Tal filled two cups from her dispenser and carried them to the small conference table, earning a grateful smile.

Serrado wasted no time sipping her drink. “Even if you didn’t have the best leverage imaginable with your nanoscrubbers, you might be able to wring substantial concessions out of the Protectorate by offering this in a trade treaty. I still can’t believe it’s good for me.”

“It’s good for you in moderation. I’m not sure your consumption could be called that. I’ve heard tales from Commander Kameha; he said he was surprised you tried to leave Alsea in the first place when that would have meant no more shannel.”

“Kameha has a big mouth.” Serrado watched the vidcom for a few moments. “The Gavinaught is gone.”

“And you don’t know whether to be glad or sorry.”

The captain appeared focused on the broadcast, but her emotions told a different story. “Sometimes, talking to you is like talking to a therapist. You’re right, of course. My crew is finally safe, after floating around in defenseless little pods that are no picnic to live in for one day, let alone the ten days they were stuck. The ones on the shuttles fared a little better, but they were just as defenseless. I’m so relieved they’re back on a decent ship, with room to move and real food while they head back to Protectorate space.” She turned to face Tal. “But…that’s it. That was my crew. They’re gone. I said good-bye to a lot of people this morning. And now I’m not a captain anymore.”

Tal pointed at the screen. “Yes, you are. That’s your ship they’re lifting. You’re going to command a crew on it. A mixed crew to be sure, but it will be your crew.”

“And after that?”

“I don’t know. Only Fahla knows what will happen. But you’re a born commander. One way or another, you’re going to end up in a command chair. Hopefully serving Alsea, but if that’s not what you want, I’ll make certain your Fleet gives you the reward you deserve.”

“How exactly are you going to do that?”

Tal lifted her cup of shannel. “Leverage.”

Serrado smiled and held up her own cup. “It’s what makes the universe expand.”

They tapped their cups together and resumed watching the broadcast, which was now showing an overhead view.

“I’ve been meaning to ask about the writing on your hull,” Tal said. “I assume the larger word is Caphenon.

“Yes. The other part is the ship’s identity code: SPF-PC03. It means Ship of the Protectorate Fleet, Pulsar Class, third off the line.”

“This is only the third ship ever built of this class?”

In her peripheral vision she saw the captain nod. “It was one of Fleet’s newest and finest. So you can see why they were so happy to hear I’d ditched it.”

“As a politician who deals with budgets and appropriations, yes, I can. But as an Alsean who benefited from your decision, I am in fact very happy that you ‘ditched’ it.”

Serrado didn’t turn her head, but a small smile appeared. “Somehow, Common slang doesn’t sound quite right coming from you.”

The broadcast switched back to a head-on view. The nose of the Caphenon was already a body length off the ground.

“What happened to the escape pods?” Tal asked.

“All linked together and marked with a signal buoy. At some point, Fleet will send a cargo ship out here to pick them all up. Probably at the same time they send out the cleaner crew.”

“I imagine the captain of Lhyn’s ship was relieved to reduce his passenger list.”

“Thrilled, actually. Tempers fray when people are jammed together that closely. His security staff was run ragged, and he was getting calls at all hanticks of the day and night. Now he can relax and focus on being our early warning system. Which I hope to all the powers we won’t need.” She glanced over. “How did you get the High Council to agree to our plan?”

“I didn’t. I bypassed them entirely. With the full support of Shantu, which is a first. But we don’t have time for a debate on this, not in the High Council and especially not in the full Council. I used my emergency powers, and it’s made me pretty unpopular in the State House at the moment. If they want to call for a vote of no confidence, they’re welcome to do so once we’ve survived. But with Shantu backing me up, and most of the warrior caste behind us, it’ll be difficult to pass that vote.”

“The warrior caste has that much power?”

“When it comes to a vote of no confidence, all of the castes have the same voting power. But it’s going to be the warriors fighting and dying in the next few days. After that, it’s hard to imagine the other castes voting against what the warriors ask for. At least for a little while.”

“It’s going to be the scholars dying, too.”

“I know.” Tal sighed. “There’s no way around it. There aren’t nearly enough high empaths in the warrior caste to cover every area. I’m not sure there are enough high empaths, period. Covert projection is a specialist skill; it takes training to push emotions into another mind without physical touch acting as a conduit. I’d guess one out of ten have the ability to do what we’re asking. Once we rule out those who are too young or too old, we’ve knocked the number down by half. The conscientious objectors will reduce that by at least half again, possibly even three-quarters. I think there will be more objectors in the scholar caste than not. Then there will be the ones who are too terrified to volunteer, or are the sole family support—by the time we collect the volunteers tomorrow, I doubt we’ll have more than thirty thousand. There are four Voloth in every ground pounder and we’ll need one empath per Voloth, so we’ll end up with somewhere between seven and eight thousand units. Scatter that over the land mass of two continents, and factor in how many of them are going to get blown to atoms before they even manage to make a connection, because they’ve never done anything like this before…”

She trailed off, and they watched the steadily climbing Caphenon in silence.

“What happens with that no-confidence vote if our reinforcements arrive in time and there’s no battle after all?” Serrado asked.

“Then I fight a political battle instead of a physical one. And if Fahla gave me the opportunity to choose, there wouldn’t be a question.”

“True words.”

“You’ve been on Alsea too long. You’re picking up our phrases.”

“I find myself saying ‘shek’ too, even when I’m speaking Common. It’s kind of…satisfying.” She waggled her eyebrows at Tal, who couldn’t stop a snort of laughter.

“When you say ‘shekking Mother’ we’ll know you’re fully assimilated.”

“You might be waiting a while for that one. But speaking of Fahla—that was brilliant, having Lead Templar Satran next to you for your announcement yesterday, when you called for volunteers. She made a very convincing case that Fahla would approve of the plan.”

“I knew she would. She made the same case to me when I went to her for advice. And it was impossible for us to move ahead without the support of at least one powerful religious scholar. I imagine Lanaril will have her own battles to fight, though. Not all of the templars will support her position.”

“Let’s just hope they have the luxury of arguing about it.” Serrado sipped her shannel and asked, “Where will you be if the Voloth get here first? The strategy room?”

“In a transport with Gehrain, cleaning up anything you leave around Blacksun.”

“What?” She set her cup down abruptly. “Are you insane? You’re the Lancer! You can’t risk yourself; what happens to Alsea if you get killed?”

“Alsea would elect a new Lancer, just as it would if I didn’t go into battle. I’m the leader of the warrior caste, Captain. That means I fight in front. If I ran from my oath of service, they’d push me out of this office so quickly I wouldn’t have time to pack.”

Serrado stared for a moment before picking up her cup again. “This is what you were talking about when I was in the healing center. About your oath being to Alsea.”

“Exactly.”

“Then I hope you meant to say ‘in a transport with Gehrain and ten other high empath Guards.’”

“My Guards are needed elsewhere. And Gehrain and I both have experience at covert projection in combat. Not the fatal version, obviously, but we know what we’re doing and we know how to pick out the most important minds in a ground pounder. It’s not the pilot or the engineer we need to worry about, it’s the two weapons specialists.”

The cup clattered back to its saucer. “You’re going out with one Guard? You had twenty when you met us!”

“Thirty, actually; you just didn’t see the others. I didn’t know what the threat was then, and we had no time to deploy more of our warriors. Now I know exactly what the threat is, and just how useless our weapons are against it. Can you tell me that it would be any safer if I took along my entire unit?”

“No, but couldn’t you at least take two more?”

“There aren’t enough. Every one of my Guards is worth ten high empaths who have the ability, but not the training. Our resources are spread too thin as it is.”

“Don’t get yourself in trouble, Lancer Tal. It’s hard for me to make friends like you. I’d like you to stick around for a while, if you don’t mind.”

Her concern and affection washed over Tal, a warmth she once thought she’d thrown away. “I’m planning on it,” she said, and when Serrado held out her hand, she gladly took it.





Chapter 53

Captain on the bridge


Ekatya stepped out of the sky grip’s lift and strode along the length of its horizontal arm. The first time she’d done this, walking on a narrow metal floor with only the open cross braces of the grip’s arm between her and an eighty-five-meter drop to the ground, she’d been a little nervous. It certainly wasn’t her usual method of reaching the bridge. But it was faster than climbing through brace shafts and easier than being lowered from a transport. That was four days ago; now she enjoyed the walk. There was something exhilarating about approaching her ship from the outside, walking to the bridge from a great height, and seeing the skirt of her ship spread out below.

But it was also a little sad. Every time she entered her ship this way, she saw the damage. Not just from the nanoscrubbers, which was bad enough, but from what they’d had to do to free up the missile launch tubes, rail gun frames, and laser cannons. The openings of the launch tubes were flush with the hull, covered by a thin door and the hullskin, and the rail gun frames and laser cannons were normally tucked inside the hull as well. Only half of the launch tubes would open, due to the damaged hullskin, and the rail gun frames and laser cannons were hopeless. They’d had to send Alseans in with welding torches to cut away sections of the Caphenon’s hull, manually freeing the weaponry, and the end result was hard to look at.

The other side of that was knowing that the Voloth fighters would have the same problem. Their weaponry was also carried internally, allowing for atmospheric descent, and was only activated when needed. By the time the Voloth tried to bring their weapons outside and online, they’d find them locked in by nanoscrubber damage. And they wouldn’t have friendly, efficient Alsean builders hanging off safety lines, cutting their hulls open for them.

She reached the end of the arm, securely fastened to the airlock, and stepped through. It was always a little startling going from the open air and height of the sky grip to the close, dark airlock access shaft. From here it was a crawl. The access shaft was an emergency exit and hadn’t been designed for repetitive use. But the Alseans had cleaned it and put down some sort of spongy material, making it more comfortable to crawl through. Still, there was nothing dignified about pulling oneself out of an access hatch. One of these days, she was just going to do a forward somersault out of it.

She’d barely straightened up and brushed off her uniform when Commander Baldassar said, “Captain on the bridge!”

It had become a private joke between them. These days the bridge was nearly empty, with only the weapons boards being staffed by Alsean warriors. Her own team was down in the port-side weapons rooms, running their new Alsean shipmates through more drills. Every operable weapons room on that side of the ship was now staffed, as well as the few working rooms on the starboard side. Roris had been very impressed with the speed at which the Alseans had picked up the basics. Ekatya never told her that they’d already known half of it before they started.

She and Baldassar had managed to recover a working relationship, and while it wasn’t the same, it was more than she’d expected. When the Protectorate learned about the nanoscrubbers and decided that Alsea was at the very top of the list of planets to be protected, Baldassar had come to her and apologized, mortified that his instincts had been so wrong. He’d been looking for a sign from the Seeders and thought her concealment of her relationship with Lhyn was it. A decision built on deception had to be the wrong one. His real error, he said, had been in not waiting long enough to learn about the deception of their own government.

He’d done what he thought was right, and she couldn’t blame him for the fact that she’d given him a reason to take her command. So they forgave each other and here they were, commanding an alien crew from a nearly empty bridge and preparing for a battle her ship was never designed to fight.

“Thank you, Commander,” she said. “What’s our status?”

“Would you believe we have shields?”

“You’re kidding.”

“Commander Kameha finished this morning. I can’t believe it either, but he said that Fleet needs to make an immediate offer to those Alsean engineers. Apparently, they’re quick on the uptake.”

“That part doesn’t surprise me. I’d like to recruit a few of their pilots as well. Speaking of which, I have good news. Remember the pilot that took on the ground pounder? He’s out of the healing center and ready to fly.”

Baldassar shook his head with a smile. “Definitely a warrior. Bounces out of the medbay bed and wants to get back in the fight.”

She looked at his relaxed expression and wished once again that they had never been forced to opposite sides. “If there is a fight, I’m going to miss you on the bridge when the fireworks start.”

“It’ll be strange. I’ve never been outside the Caphenon during a battle before. But they need me more out there than you do in here.”

“I just wish we had a few more pilots to help out. And fighters that will fly for longer than forty-five minutes.”

“Forty-five minutes might be enough.”

“For here, yes. Not anywhere else.”

With such a short limitation on flight time, it had been impossible to train any of the Alsean pilots on their fighters. Candini and Baldassar would be the only ones with decent weaponry, and they’d be shooting down as many Voloth fighters as they could. Nobody thought for a moment that the Voloth pilots, finding themselves in uncontrollable craft, would make the slightest effort to avoid crashing into villages or cities. Quite the opposite, in fact: Ekatya expected that they’d make their last seconds of life a suicide run. A fighter crashing into a village could wipe it out if the fusion core blew. But if they were targeted in the air, the explosion would be harmless and the only damage would come from falling debris.

Blacksun and the surrounding villages could be protected, to some degree. The rest of Alsea would not. The Alsean fighters couldn’t shoot them down because the nanoscrubbers didn’t affect shield generators. Which was good for the Caphenon, or they’d have no shields at all. For the Alseans, it would be a disaster.

Baldassar took her through the list of repairs and updates, and just for a moment it felt like a normal day. Then Kameha called in about testing the shields and Ekatya realized they would have to back the sky grip away. The braces holding the ship in place would be inside the shielding, but the sky grip was too large and too distant.

“Well, I guess I’m sleeping in my duty cabin,” she said. “I’m not going to be caught outside with no easy way in if the Voloth come.”

“Just like old times, eh? I remember you coming onto the bridge from your duty cabin more than once.”

“It was never by preference, believe me. The bed in my own quarters is a lot more comfortable.”

“I’m not feeling sorry for you. I’ll be sleeping with Candini in the fighter bay.”

She grinned at him, and his eyes widened as he realized what he’d said.

Every Alsean on the bridge turned to stare when they burst into laughter.





Chapter 54

Night watch


Bilseng Lokon sipped his shannel, trying to fight off sleep. He’d been here for two and a half hanticks and his shift was almost over, but this last half hantick was a killer.

He looked around again, still not able to believe he was sitting in the Gaian shuttle. It was a dream come true.

When Lancer Tal had put out the call for volunteers, he’d been heartbroken that he couldn’t sign up. Never in his life had he hated his mid empath rating quite so much as that day. But he’d been determined to help in some way, so he’d called Whitemoon Base, told them who he was, and asked for a job. Any job.

It seemed his name had weight, because it somehow made its way up the chain, and he’d nearly fainted when an assistant to Chief Counselor Aldirk had called to ask if he would like to be one of the lookouts. While the Gaians apparently had devices that could link to the shuttle’s quantum com, the war council didn’t want to depend on a single com method for something so crucial. Someone had to watch the quantum com every tick of the day and night, and all of the Gaians were needed elsewhere. Well, except one. He’d almost fainted a second time when Doctor Lhyn Rivers had walked up to him upon his arrival at Blacksun Base and told him she’d be training him. She was training all of the Alseans on lookout duty. He missed her next few sentences, because he was too busy staring at her smooth face and big green eyes, and only when she’d stopped and smiled at him had he realized she was speaking perfect High Alsean.

The training was simple, really, so he and the other Alseans jumped at the chance to ask as many questions as they could once they’d all had a few turns on the com. Doctor Rivers seemed happy to answer them, and asked her own in turn, telling them she was delighted to have the opportunity. She’d asked them to call her Lhyn, but he couldn’t. She was too beautiful and strange and altogether amazing to call by only one name.

He’d also met Captain Habersaat of the research ship Arkadia, which was now functioning as a lookout ship. The captain had the most eye-popping cluster of hair on his face. Until now it had never occurred to Bilseng that aliens would have body hair, because Alseans didn’t. But this Gaian had a beard like a male dokker. It hung low onto his chest and was twisted into a braid with a little bead hanging near the end of it, and Bilseng could hardly take his eyes off it while they talked on the com.

But that was during his training, which had been the single most exciting day of his entire life, even counting the night he’d found and tracked the Caphenon. Now he was finishing his second watch, and though he’d never have thought it possible, he was bored. There was only so much you could do, even in an alien shuttle, when your job was to keep a vidcom in your line of sight at all times.

The worst part was that he needed to urinate. Shannel kept him awake, but it also filled his bladder. And he just knew that if anything was going to happen, it would happen while he was in the Gaian version of the toilet.

He took another sip of shannel and stared at the dark screen. Then another sip.

“Shek it,” he grumbled, and stood up from the chair. Keeping the vidcom in view, he sidled away, moving toward the back of the shuttle. He turned his head to check his progress, glanced back at the vidcom, and gasped.

It was on.

“This is the Arkadia. Who—”

Bilseng landed in the seat so hard he nearly burst his bladder. “I’m here! I’m here!”

“It’s the Voloth,” Captain Habersaat said.

Bilseng didn’t wait to hear any more. He activated the code that had been pre-programmed into the wristcom they’d given him, a special code that went straight to Lancer Tal. She picked up immediately, even though it was only a quarter hantick past dawn.

Which is it?” she demanded.

“The Voloth,” he said, and wiped his sweating palm on his pants.

How many?”

“How many?” he repeated to Captain Habersaat.

The captain looked grave. “Two invasion groups. Four destroyers and two orbital invaders. They’re on approach right now. You have one hantick, maybe one and a half before they reach drop altitude. The Fleet forces are still half a day away.”

Bilseng repeated the information.

Fahla save us all.” Lancer Tal cut off the call.

A tick later, Bilseng heard it through the open door of the shuttle.

The bells of Blacksun Temple were ringing.





Chapter 55

Battle of Alsea: Kylinn


“Kylinn!”

Someone shook Kylinn’s shoulder and she groaned. She’d been up half the night, tossing and turning in this awful bunk they’d given her on the base, and it felt as if she’d fallen asleep five ticks ago. Her brain couldn’t drag itself awake.

Footsteps ran along the floor, the barracks door opened, and the faint sound at the edge of her consciousness abruptly increased in volume.

Bells.

Kylinn sat up, wide awake in an instant as the fear poured through her system. Whitemoon Temple was ringing its bells. The Voloth had come.

She rushed to get dressed, nearly falling over the other three scholars in her four-day-old unit. They ran outside together and found their eight Guards already waiting in full combat uniform. The warriors must have slept in their gear.

Bare pipticks later they were roaring down empty streets in the roofless skimmer, the wind whipping past their faces. Soon they passed out of the abandoned city, speeding over the fields to their assigned station atop a hill.

Then they waited.

After all the rushing and stress, it was the wait that killed her. They stayed on the hill with nothing to do except listen to the wind and birds, watch the swell of the ocean, and admire the early morning sun glinting off the domes of the city. Her city. She’d been born here fifty-four cycles ago and never wanted to leave. People said Whitemoon was the most beautiful city on the planet, and she’d visited enough of the others to know it was true.

The thought that today might be Whitemoon’s last was choking her. It had already been hard enough watching it empty out over the last few days; people fleeing in all directions as they headed toward relatives’ homes and designated evacuation sites. Yesterday her bondmate had called from his mother’s village and said their son had been asking if they’d ever be able to go back. Kylinn had cried then, because she had no answer. She didn’t know if there would be a city to go back to—or if she’d be alive to see it if there was.

For more than a hantick she sat in the grass and tried to drink in as much of the scene as she could, imprinting it on her memory. Then all of the warriors lifted their wristcoms at the same time, their eyes intent on the message.

“They’re coming,” said Lead Guard Helmor. He was their unit leader, a young man half her age but with more assurance than she’d ever have. “Get ready. Remember what Prime Warrior Shantu said in your training. There are many ways to debilitate, but the most basic emotion of all is fear. Make them afraid. Think of the most frightening thing that has ever happened to you, and project it. Make them so afraid that all they can think about is getting out. It can’t be the kind of fear that makes them want to fight. It has to be the kind that makes them want to run and hide.

Kylinn and the other scholars nodded. They were two men and two women, ranging from the woman barely past her Rite of Ascension to the gray-haired man she knew was over the cutoff age. He’d volunteered anyway, and confided to her that his bondmate, a retired warrior, had Returned just a cycle ago. He was fighting in his bondmate’s place.

They stood and watched the late summer sky, waiting for their first sight of the Voloth. For long ticks there was nothing. Then, suddenly, the sky was full of dots.

“Great Mother,” Helmor said. “They must have dropped fifty just on Whitemoon. I’ll bet Whitesun got hit with a hundred.”

The dots seemed to be unmoving in the sky, but she knew that was an illusion. Then one of them approached and whipped past a cloud so rapidly that she gasped, understanding for the first time just how fast they were falling.

“May Fahla guide and protect us,” Helmor murmured.

They all joined him, their eyes on the sky and their voices quiet. “… on the dark path we must walk. And if she calls the heroes home, our deeds shall ever be taught.”

I am going to be a hero today, Kylinn swore to herself. I will protect my family, my city, my world. Fahla, please give me strength.

The dots became dark lumps, then blocks as they drew nearer the ground and she could see them better. They were horrendous, nothing more than tubes and wiring and metal all cramped up into a rectangular shape.

“That’s ours.” Helmor pointed.

She followed his finger to the one that would fall nearest their location. Its descent slowed, and she realized it was firing thrusters. All of the ground pounders were slowing now, coming in for a leisurely landing as if nothing could harm them. In that moment she hated them. Barbarians, thinking they could destroy her world.

“Everyone in the skimmer,” Helmor ordered. “We have to get you closer.”

They ran for the skimmer, which rose up on its cushion of air and swooshed over the fields, drawing closer and closer to the monstrosity that was coming down for a landing. Kylinn never took her eyes off it, and just when she thought it could not get any more frightening, it unfolded. Four gigantic legs opened up, reaching for the ground as it slowed to a near hover.

“This is it!” Helmor shouted as the skimmer came to a halt. “Find their minds! Do it now!”

Kylinn reached out. Though it was a long range for her, she could sense them. They were full of excitement, arrogance, and contemptuous anger, and for a moment she wondered how aliens she’d never met could already view her as if she’d wronged them. They were ready to mete out justice for an offense she hadn’t committed.

Focusing harder, she fell into one of the minds. But another scholar was already in it, so she pushed into the next one.

She’d had four days to think about what her most terrifying experience had been. Now she closed her eyes and concentrated, remembering a time when she was eleven cycles old and had thrown a rock into a wasp nest to see what would happen. The wasps had boiled out, and she’d been covered before she could even move. It had hurt, oh Fahla, nothing had ever hurt that badly, and she had turned and run, screaming, hardly able to see and having only one thought in her mind.

Run! Terror! They’re hurting you, they’re killing you, get to safety, run!

The ground pounder’s legs were almost touching the soil when the thrusters shut off and it dropped the rest of the way, landing heavily. For a moment nothing happened, and then a hatch flew open in the bottom of its giant square head, next to one of the thick legs. It must have been twenty paces straight down, a distance that would easily break bones, but the alien that jumped out didn’t care. She screamed as she fell, and when she hit the ground, she didn’t move again.

Another came out and began clambering down the leg, crying out in an incomprehensible language. Kylinn felt his mind and knew this was hers.

Terror! Run! You’re not safe, you’re going to die, it hurts, it hurts!

He let go of the leg and fell the last five paces, landing on his back. Then he stood up and screamed, flailing his arms, beating at his body, scratching bloody marks down his face. Another alien dropped out behind him and fell straight down. This one rolled over and began crawling away on his forearms, dragging what looked like two broken legs behind him.

The mind Kylinn had been digging into suddenly went dark, and her alien dropped like a sack of grain. She looked up in shock to see the fourth Voloth leaning out of the hatch, a weapon in his hand. He turned and shot the one that was crawling, then turned again and shot the female who had already jumped and died.

Crying, he dropped his weapon and climbed down to the ground, where he curled up in a ball at the base of the leg and rocked back and forth.

Kylinn looked at the others in her unit. The three scholars were gray-faced and trembling, and when she raised her own hand, she could see it shaking as well. But the Guards weren’t looking at the Voloth. They were staring at the scholars.

“Mother of us all,” said one of them. “Mother of us all!”

Even Helmor looked horrified. Then he met Kylinn’s eyes and shook his head. “All right, come on!” he shouted. “This is what victory looks like. This is what we need them to do. It’s for Fahla and Alsea!”

“For Fahla and Alsea,” the other seven repeated, but their voices were low and Kylinn could easily feel their fear.

“Listen, we’re just as frightened as you are,” she said. “But that’s my city. I will do whatever it takes to protect it, so my family can come home. And when this is done, I don’t ever, ever want to think about this day again. Now take us to the next shekking ground pounder so we can kill it.”

But it wasn’t her little speech that broke through the warriors’ fears. It was Rafalon, the older man fighting for his bondmate, who reassured them when he turned and vomited into the grass.

“Fahla, forgive me,” he moaned, falling to his knees. “Oh, Fahla, help me, please.”

Kylinn went down next to him and grasped his hand. Projecting her understanding, she said, “Fahla doesn’t need to forgive you. You did what you have to, what she needs you to do. She gave us this gift to protect Alsea. But we’re not done. Come on, get up. There are more of them.”

He looked at her with streaming eyes. “I don’t want to do that again.”

“You have to. I’m sorry, but you have to.”

Helmor came to Rafalon’s other side and put an arm around his back. “She’s right. We have work to do. Get up. We need you.”

With their help, Rafalon rose and stumbled forward. The warriors closed ranks around them, united once more.

“What do we do with him?” asked the young Guard nearest the ground pounder.

They all turned to look at the remaining Voloth, who was still rocking and crying.

“We’ll have to tie him and leave him,” Helmor said.

They got back into their skimmer and closed the distance to the ground pounder, which was even more gigantic and frightening close up. As soon as they pulled to a halt, the young Guard jumped out and ran toward the Voloth, only to bounce off the shield they’d been warned about.

“Shek! That kicked like a dokker!”

“Well, perfect,” Helmor said. “We can’t even get in there when the damned thing’s disabled.”

He looked at Kylinn, who had no idea how she’d become the ranking scholar in this group. But she nodded, closed her eyes, and pushed herself into the Voloth’s mind. It was a black hole of gibbering terror, and she quickly pulled out again. Swallowing hard, she said, “His mind is shattered. He’s not going to bother anyone ever again.”

“That’s good enough for me.” Helmor waved the Guard back in. “Let’s go.”





Chapter 56

Battle of Alsea: Miron


“Come on, come on!”

Miron raced toward the skimmer with rest of his unit. They’d watched the ground pounders dropping all over Redmoon and had gotten to their first before it even landed. He and the other three scholars did what they’d been told to do, and the ground pounder simply fell out of the sky. It hit so hard that the leg sections broke up, and he knew that his alien was dead. The other scholars reported varying levels of pain and agony, so it seemed pretty certain that this ground pounder was out of commission. They hadn’t even had to get out of the skimmer.

The second one was harder. It was already on the ground and firing shells toward Redmoon, lighting up the early morning sky with explosions. They’d gotten almost within range of it when something moved on the side facing them and a laser pulse hit the ground right in front of their skimmer. Somehow the Lead Guard managed to keep it upright, veering behind a small hill. He yelled at them to get out, to run up the hill and get in range, and they managed. Dropping to the grass atop the hill, they projected into the invaders’ minds. The effects were horrific. One Voloth opened a hatch in the floor of that blocky top and fell out, and the ground pounder stomped on him. Then it stopped moving, and two more Voloth dove out, breaking their necks when they hit the ground. The last one never appeared, but Hil, the young woman who was in his mind, said that he’d just…broken.

Now they were running back to the skimmer, the Lead Guard shouting at them to hurry. Every tick that passed meant more shells being lobbed into Redmoon, more buildings being destroyed, more Alseans dying. Not everyone had evacuated. But even if there hadn’t been a single soul left in the city, Miron would have given his last breath to save it.

They piled into the skimmer and moved off, the Lead Guard hardly waiting for the vehicle to fully lift up on its thrusters before putting it in gear.

“We don’t have decent cover,” one of the warriors called over the wind rushing past.

“It doesn’t matter; we can’t wait.” The Lead Guard drove straight ahead, slicing across the fields toward the monster that was stomping ahead of them. “Start projecting now!” he called over his shoulder.

It was too far out. Miron knew it was too far, but he tried anyway. He could feel their minds, but he couldn’t grasp any of them. And then he was flying through the air.

He hit the ground hard and rolled some distance before coming to a stop. Coughing the acrid taste out of his mouth, he sat up and looked around.

The skimmer was a burning hulk of metal, and all around him were bodies. Some of them moved; others didn’t.

He felt the thumping, the vibrations going through his legs as they rested on the ground. One of the scholars screamed.

“It’s coming back! It’s coming for us!”

Miron twisted around and saw the giant block of tubes and wiring moving toward them. He was mesmerized by the sight, unable to do anything but watch their impending death.

“Stop them!” someone else shouted. “Come on, stop them before they kill us!”

Jolted into action, he reached out and slid into an alien mind that was now within range, reeling when it immediately snapped. His own terror must have amplified the effect. Reaching for a second one, he shoved his fear at it, mentally screaming for it to die. It snapped as well.

The ground all around him sprayed upwards as projectiles ripped up the land, and something tugged at his leg. When he glanced down, everything seemed to slow.

His leg was lying half a body length away, torn and bloody at one end. A shard of bone protruded from the place on his body where the leg had once been. His ears filled with a dull roaring sound as he stared at it. The bone was so white that it didn’t look real…and maybe it wasn’t real. After all, it didn’t hurt. He couldn’t feel a thing.

He looked up at the ground pounder, now standing motionless on its giant legs. Some sort of gun was still pointed at him, but it had stopped firing. Still wrapped in that strange, slow calm, he reached out and found nothing left of the Voloth. At least one of the other scholars had been able to get to them. This ground pounder would never fire another shell at Redmoon.

He watched the blood pouring out of his leg and remembered reading somewhere that when it spurted like that, it meant his heart was pumping the blood out.

“I guess that’s it, then,” he murmured. Then he smiled. “But we got three of you.”

Chapter 57

Battle of Alsea: Lanaril


Lanaril had bolted awake when her temple’s bells began ringing. Throwing on her clothes, she’d grabbed her reader card and run straight out of her private quarters and into her garden, looking up for the first signs of the Voloth. When nothing was immediately apparent, she activated her reader card and checked for Lancer Tal’s announcement.

It took another tick to appear, and stated in short, terse sentences that two invader groups had arrived, which meant one thousand ground pounders and four hundred fighters. The ground pounders would be dropping in from orbit somewhere between one and one and a half hanticks from now.

Which meant it was time for her to work.

As she’d expected, her temple quickly filled with worshippers, some of whom she knew well and many more she’d never seen before. Never had Blacksun Temple shone with so many bowl offerings. Every single rack was fully alight, and her staff were kept busy refilling them with oil. She moved among her people, offering what comfort she could, and the time passed all too quickly. Then she heard the first explosion and rushed out the door, along with almost everyone else in the temple.

It took only a moment to see that the explosions were far overhead, so far that the sound reached them several pipticks after the light did. The Caphenon was doing exactly what Captain Serrado had promised. It was protecting Blacksun, and Lanaril was suddenly certain that they were safe. She put an arm around the shoulders of the small child standing next to her.

“We’re going to be all right,” she said.

The little girl smiled. “I know. Isn’t it pretty?”





Chapter 58

Battle of Alsea: Ekatya


Ekatya watched the ground pounders on the Caphenon’s bridge display and reflected that she’d never before fought a battle with only half the display active. There was no reason to activate the floor panels. It was disquieting, as if she were fighting half blind. On the other hand, it also felt a little too easy. Their targets were moving at relatively slow speeds and falling toward a distant location, rather than flying straight at them. They were also far larger than any missile or rail gun projectile. The Caphenon’s sensor grid had no problem tracking them, and the Alseans were doing an excellent job of firing when the grid told them to. There were a few blank spots in the grid, due to nanoscrubber or crash damage, but Roris and her team were covering most of those sections. Their manual targeting was the best in the Fleet.

In fact, she really didn’t have much to do. All of her work had been in the preparations, and in steadying her new crew when their nerves began to show. Even the most trained and hardened warriors could falter when an overwhelming alien force appeared in their skies, but they’d shaped up nicely. None of the ground pounders were getting through.

No sooner had she thought it when she saw one slip past.

“Target entering grid alpha-four-two,” she said. “Manual fire.”

“I can’t!” The warrior sounded frantic. “There are three more in my grid, I can’t get them all!”

“That’s all right. Get the ones you can; our backup will take care of the rest.”

It was a good thing she’d been in so many battles. She no longer had to fake her calm the way she had in her younger days. Half of her job right now was simply projecting serenity, assuring the sensitive Alseans that everything was under control. If she’d been faking it, they would probably have imploded by now.

The ground pounder was on the other side of Blacksun, too far for Candini or Baldassar. She tapped her earcuff, activating the pre-coded link.

“Lancer Tal, you’ve got one coming your way. Sending coordinates now.”

We’re ready.”

She checked the grid against the map of Blacksun Basin spread out on her lap and punched the Alsean coordinates into her wristcom. “Here you go. Good hunting.”

Finally, something to do. You’re putting on quite a light show here. We were beginning to feel useless.”

“I can hardly think of a word less likely to describe you. Be safe.”

Don’t worry, we will.”

Ekatya signed off and returned her attention to the display, not quite as calm as before. It didn’t matter what Lancer Tal said. She was going to worry.





Chapter 59

Battle of Alsea: Tal


The ground pounder had already landed by the time Tal and Gehrain got there in the cargo transport. Tal set them down as close as she dared, behind a hillock, and it took them less than two ticks to run to the cargo hold, lower the tailgate, and drive out in the skimmer. No sooner had they swung around the hillock than they saw the bloom of light, followed by a streak arcing toward Blacksun.

“It’s already firing! Speed it up!” Tal shouted over the wind.

Gehrain pushed against the throttle to no avail. “I’m going as fast as I can!”

“Damn, damn, damn!” Tal reached out, but the Voloth were too far away. They needed to close the distance.

Gehrain went from cover to cover, never letting up on the throttle but always seeking to keep something between them and the ground pounder. Tal tamped down on the temptation to tell him to shek it and just go straight. He was doing the right thing; she needed to calm herself. But watching that ground pounder shell Blacksun was firing her rage like nothing had ever done before. Five ticks ago she’d still been conflicted about what she’d have to do, but not anymore.

Her senses brushed against alien minds.

“We’re there,” she called and focused hard, trying to find one of the weapons specialists. She felt a burst of concentration just as another mortar launched and latched on to that mind.

Betrayal! Spies, threat, they’re going to kill you, kill them first! Kill them! Kill them! Betrayal!

Gehrain pulled to a stop just past a large boulder and focused with her.

The ground pounder kept moving, but it was no longer firing. Tal dug deep and pushed out the rage and fear as hard as she could.

Kill them now! Before they can kill you!

The ground pounder took two more steps and stopped. Tal pulled back and extended her senses in a wider net.

“There are only two left,” she said. “One of them is my weapons specialist.” She prepared herself to break his mind.

Gehrain nodded, then stopped. “Wait—”

“One,” Tal finished. The mind she’d been in a moment ago was gone.

They looked at each other.

“Now what?” Gehrain asked.

“Take us in.” Tal wanted a closer look at this thing. And with only one Voloth left alive—either the pilot or the engineer—there wasn’t much it could do.

They pulled up near one of the gigantic legs and Tal hopped out, keeping close tabs on the remaining Voloth mind. Based on the feel, she thought it might be the engineer.

She leaned down, scooped up a stone from the ground, and tossed it toward the leg. The shield lit up, flashing into existence for half a piptick before vanishing again, and she felt a brush of wind past her ear.

“Damn. I think I almost put a rock through my skull.”

“Could you not do that again, please? Colonel Micah will have my head if I let you get hurt.”

Tal leaned down again, choosing a stick this time.

“Lancer Tal—”

“It’s just a stick. It won’t hurt me.”

“This is such a bad idea,” Gehrain grumbled.

Tal ignored him and slowly pushed the stick toward where she thought the shield was. Slowly, slowly…

A faint blue glow appeared around the tip of the stick, but nothing pushed back at her, and the rest of the shield stayed dark. She held her breath and pushed her stick forward at a glacial pace. The blue light traveled down its length, marking the exact boundary of the shield.

“Look at that,” she marveled.

“How is that possible?” Gehrain was next to her now, staring in fascination.

“Captain Serrado said the shield reacts to both kinetic and electromagnetic energy. So I was thinking, what if the kinetic energy is too low? This thing is designed to absorb huge impacts, like rail gun projectiles, and capture the energy for itself. I thought maybe if something moved slowly enough, the shield wouldn’t be able to respond. It wasn’t designed with such a low kinetic energy in mind. It’s not enough to power the shield, and it’s not enough to be a threat. Who could ever get close enough to a ground pounder to stand here and gradually push something through?”

“Nobody, unless it was already disabled.”

“Exactly. It’s a design flaw that nobody can take advantage of. No Gaians, that is. But we can.” Holding the stick with one hand, she pulled her disruptor from its holster with the other. “The night we destroyed the first ground pounder, Captain Serrado sketched out a schematic for us. If I remember correctly, that box right up there is the shield generator.”

“Be careful, Lancer Tal.”

She took a deep breath, then exhaled slowly as she touched the tip of her disruptor barrel to the shield. Another faint blue glow appeared, but that was the only reaction. She pushed it through, angled it upward, and fired.

The box exploded in a shower of sparks, but the blue lines remained around her disruptor barrel and the stick.

“Shek. That wasn’t it.”

Gehrain lifted his wristcom and tapped it. “Captain Serrado, this is Gehrain.”

Are you all right?”

“Yes, both of us. But could you tell us exactly what the shield generator looks like on a ground pounder? And where it’s located?”

Where it’s—what in all the purple planets are you doing?”

“Breaking into a ground pounder.”

There was a short silence.

It’s a rectangular box high up on the inside of one of the legs, just under the floor of the cabin. Gray, with one thick cable going in at the top and five smaller ones coming out at the bottom.”

“Got it,” Tal said. She’d been off a little; it was the box just above the one she’d destroyed. She fired again, the box exploded, and the blue lines vanished.

“Holy shekking Mother,” Gehrain said. “I think you did it.”

Tal moved her disruptor forward and back. Nothing. She waved the stick in the air. Nothing.

“Tell Captain Serrado thank you,” she said as she dropped the stick and walked forward, her mind focused on the engineer.

Get out. You have to get out, it’s not safe, it’s not safe, danger!

A hatch clanged open near one of the other legs and a female Voloth began climbing out. Tal waited until she cleared the hatch before shooting her and was already jogging over as the body hit the ground with a sodden thump. She holstered her disruptor, found the first rungs, and began to climb.

At the top of the leg she poked her head through the hatch and recoiled at the gore. The three dead Voloth had been hit so many times with weapons fire that the cabin walls were splattered with blood and brains. Wrinkling her nose, she pulled herself through.

Gehrain was right behind her. “Ugh,” he said, looking around. “We overdid it.”

“Tell that to the dead in Blacksun,” Tal said. “These shekkers got off six mortars before we could stop them.” She looked around at the dizzying array of controls covering all four walls.

“We can’t operate one of these,” Gehrain said.

“No. Damn, I was hoping it would be simpler.”

They looked at each other.

“We have to find another one,” they said at the same time.

Tal nodded. “If we can do a forced Sharing with the operators, we can put one of these in action.”

“And then we’ll have the weapons to shoot down those fighters when they come,” Gehrain finished.

“Or other ground pounders. This could save a lot of lives. We need to get the word out.” Tal lifted her wrist and punched in the all-call. “This is Lancer Tal with an emergency message.”





Chapter 60

Battle of Alsea: Kylinn II


“Hold up.” Helmor stopped and read something on his wristcom. The other four warriors did the same.

Kylinn sagged against the skimmer in relief. She hadn’t wanted to get in, because getting in would mean rushing off to their next ground pounder, and the one they’d just killed had taken everything she had. It had also cost them three of the warriors and the two younger scholars, whose bodies were being left behind. Plenty of time to collect the dead later, Helmor had said as he’d tucked a small beacon in the chest pocket of one of his fallen warriors. Kylinn thought that of all the horrors she’d seen this morning, those abandoned bodies were the worst.

Once the ground pounders had landed and were on the move, they were an entirely different thing to deal with. They had eyes on all four sides and fired awful weapons in all directions. She didn’t see how her unit was going to survive this day. She didn’t think they’d even survive the next half hantick.

Her thoughts were interrupted by shouts of excitement from the warriors, and she lifted her head to see Helmor looking at her with a fierce grin on his face.

“Lancer Tal figured out how to break their shielding,” he said.

“She—how? What does that mean?”

“It means our mission has changed. We’re not going to kill the next one. We’re going to use it.” He pulled his reader card out of its pouch and activated it. “Everyone sit down and rest for five. Lancer Tal is sending out instructions and images of the shield generator. We need to regroup and make a new plan.”

Kylinn sank to the ground, only too happy to sit. Rafalon slumped next to her, looking twenty cycles older than when she’d met him four days ago.

“We’re not going to kill any more?” he asked.

“That’s what he said.”

“Thank you, Fahla.” He rested his head against the side of the skimmer. “How does anyone live with this?”

“I don’t know.” But given that she didn’t think she’d live to see sundown, it didn’t seem all that important. Still, she pitied Rafalon. After this third ground pounder, it was clear that he was the one whose projected terror had been so overwhelming that the target had turned homicidal. Kylinn emphatically did not want to know what Rafalon carried around inside of him that could do that. Somehow she suspected it wasn’t a childhood memory of stinging wasps.

She would have been content to sit there all day, but it seemed like mere pipticks before Helmor was squatting in front of them.

“All right, this is what we’re going to do,” he said. “Next time, don’t project fear. You only need to make them stop moving and stop firing. We want the Voloth alive and still able to function, so you can’t shatter their minds. Project regret instead, the sense that what they’re doing is wrong. Sorrow, grief, anything to make them think they can’t do this anymore.”

“That should be easy,” said Rafalon. “Since that’s exactly how I feel right now.”

“Then what happens?” Kylinn asked.

“Then we take down their shielding, and you two are going to do a deep Sharing with them.”

Kylinn sat up straight. “You’re joking. No, you’re not joking. I can’t Share with them! They’re barbarians. I hate them!”

She had to hate them. She was killing them. They were trying to kill her. No way could she Share with that.

“Why are we Sharing with them?” Rafalon asked.

“Because you need to bind them to you, to do what we want. We’re going to use this next ground pounder to kill the others. We’ll be riding inside it, protected. You’ll be safe there. The Voloth will keep doing what they’re doing, except they’ll be working for us instead. They have the weapons that can take out the other ground pounders and the fighters that will be coming in the second wave.” He looked them over and softened his tone. “It’s the only way to save Whitemoon. It’s the only way to save Alsea. You have to Share with them, and make them feel that you’re the ones they need to protect.”

Kylinn could hardly believe her ears, but Rafalon nodded. “I can do that. I’d rather do that than what we’ve been doing.”

“Good,” Helmor said. “Let’s go.”


* * *


They got lucky with the next ground pounder, which was moving alongside a stream. The high bank on one side gave them good cover and allowed them to get close without being seen. Kylinn and Rafalon crawled up the bank to its edge and barely lifted their eyes above the grass while they projected at the Voloth.

Rafalon was right. All she had to do was project her own feelings: the exhaustion, the grief, the horror at what was happening to her world. It was all so…

Wrong. It’s wrong, wrong, you have to stop, you can’t do it anymore, it’s wrong. Stop now.

Even though they had to cover two minds each, it wasn’t as difficult as she’d thought it would be. Active, present emotions were stronger than memories, and on top of that, the Voloth had no defenses. They responded immediately, their regret and grief flowing back along the link, and the ground pounder came to a halt.

“Perfect,” Helmor said. “Now hold them there. Don’t let them move. When I give you the signal, make them come out.”

He didn’t wait for an answer, and Kylinn couldn’t have given one if she’d wanted to. She was entirely occupied with holding the two minds in her grasp, going from one to the other and back again, in and out, sending and receiving, getting caught in the loop of grief and despair and shame. She hardly noticed when the warriors ran down the embankment, though she saw the flare of the shield a few ticks later. One of the minds in her grasp became fearful, but she soothed it and it calmed.

She was so focused that she didn’t notice Helmor’s signal, or the first few times he called her name. Then she realized he was shouting at both her and Rafalon, and when she looked up, the five warriors were using the legs of the ground pounder for cover. The shield was down.

She let go of the mind she was in, pulling back enough to skim both of her Voloth. Their horror and shame didn’t diminish with her absence, so it seemed that her projected emotions had taken a firm hold. She glanced at Rafalon, whose eyes were closed.

“We have to get them out,” she said.

“I know. But I don’t know how. Not without breaking them.”

“Make them feel that it will all be over if they just come out. They’ll be safe outside.”

He nodded, and together they pushed the Voloth out.

In the end, it was easy. The Voloth came out quietly, their heads bowed with grief, and the warriors disarmed and bound them without a fight. Each was held in place by one of the Guards, while Helmor gave Kylinn and Rafalon some additional instructions that had come from Colonel Razine, the head of the Alsean Investigative Force.

“She said that if you’re not experienced in a forced Sharing, the easiest way to get through and bind them to you is…er…” He scratched the back of his neck and looked down. “You have to use love.”

“We what?

“Think of the people you love. Your children, your bondmates, whoever. Think of those people and push those feelings in. Colonel Razine said it will reset their loyalties.”

“You want me to do a forced Sharing with that,” Kylinn pointed in distaste, “and treat him like my son?”

“I think I get it,” Rafalon said. “It’s the other end of the spectrum. We made them so afraid that we broke their minds. They’re completely susceptible, so what happens if we make them feel loved instead? And make them think we’re the ones who love them? It will break their minds a different way. They’ll forget who they’re loyal to and transfer it to us. That must be what the colonel means by a reset.”

“Great Mother.” Kylinn wasn’t sure she could do this.

Rafalon stepped up to the Voloth nearest him. “This is for my bondmate,” he said.

Kylinn felt him projecting assurance and calm, and the Voloth looked at him as a child would look at a trusted adult. Rafalon smiled at him—she had no idea how he managed that—then positioned his hands and pressed their foreheads together.

It took some time, but when Rafalon finally pulled away, the Voloth sniffled, wiped away a tear, and smiled at him with a look of adoration.

“It works,” Rafalon said. “It really does. But it drains you; it’s not like Sharing with an Alsean. And you have to push really hard to get past the existing loyalties. They’re very, very deep.”

Helmor raised his eyebrows at Kylinn. “Well?”

She hesitated. Then she realized how ridiculous it was that she would be more reluctant to Share love than to project terror. What did that say about her?

“For your bondmate,” she told Rafalon. “And my family.”


* * *


Helmor looked down at the device in his hand. “It’s not one of ours. Kill it.”

They were riding in the ground pounder, which was a lot smaller on the inside than she would have thought. The block on top looked large, but most of it was taken up by equipment and weapon stores. The actual cabin space was relatively small, and there hadn’t been room for all of them. Three of the warriors had stayed behind, with only Helmor and one other Guard accompanying Kylinn and Rafalon. Helmor had apparently been expecting that, based on Lancer Tal’s instructions. Her instructions had also specified putting one of those little beacons on the outside of the ground pounder before moving out. Any ground pounder not broadcasting on that frequency was Voloth controlled.

At this point in the battle, they were finding fewer and fewer of those. Most of the remaining ground pounders were already under Alsean control.

Kylinn pointed at the vidcom, the only piece of equipment in this entire machine that she could recognize. “Yes,” she said, smiling and projecting her approval.

The Voloth weapons officer smiled back and turned to his controls. Kylinn heard the now-familiar thump of a missile being launched, and the ground pounder that had been on the vidcom was replaced with an expanding ball of flame.

It was amazing how easy it was to communicate with aliens when they loved you and would do anything they thought you wanted. All she and Rafalon had to do was point and either smile or frown. Even the slightest projection of approval or rebuke hit the Voloth like a freight hauler.

The disturbing part was that these Voloth were happily blowing up their own people. Rafalon had been right when he’d said it would break their minds in a different way. They weren’t really Voloth anymore. Whoever they’d loved before, whoever was important to them—all of that was now submerged beneath the loyalty that she and Rafalon had pushed in by force. She didn’t know how they’d ever remove it. Did anybody? Would it even be merciful if they did? Then the Voloth would realize what they’d done, and how could they live with that?

Rafalon’s weapons officer said something excitedly and pointed at a different screen. Helmor went over to look.

“It’s got to be some sort of radar or lidar,” he said. “And it’s showing twenty blips at what I think is a high altitude. It’s the fighters.”

The Voloth spoke again and looked at Rafalon for instructions. Rafalon looked at Helmor.

“Hold on.” Helmor spoke into his wristcom. “Whitemoon Base, this is Lead Guard Helmor. Can you confirm twenty enemy fighters over Whitemoon?”

Confirmed,” said a woman’s voice. “It’s the second wave.”

“I think our Voloth can take care of them. Stand by.”

Rafalon pointed to the screen, then put his hands together. With a sudden movement, he threw his hands apart and made a noise like an explosion.

The Voloth all conferred with each other and then settled into their stations. They waited, presumably until the fighters came in range. Kylinn’s weapons officer said something short and sharp, and Rafalon’s answered in a similar tone.

Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump.

One after another, they launched their missiles. Ten pipticks later, the blips began vanishing from the screen. Soon they were all gone.

Rafalon looked over. “I think we just saved Whitemoon.”

“I think we did, too.” Helmor lifted his wrist. “Whitemoon Base, you can rest easy.”

We can see that,” the voice said over what sounded like a lot of people cheering in the background. “Many thanks, Lead Guard. It’s all over now but the cleanup. Looks like there are six Voloth-controlled ground pounders still out there.”

“That shouldn’t take too long.” Helmor grinned at them. “Let’s finish it.”





Chapter 61

Battle of Alsea: Ekatya II


Ekatya knew they were in trouble when the second wave appeared on her display. The Voloth fighters were coming from the southwest.

She’d been afraid of this. The orbital invaders had too much time to watch the battle below and assess the real danger. Their captains knew the Caphenon was here, and they knew she’d blown most of their ground pounders out of the sky long before they could cause any damage to Blacksun or its environs.

So the fighters were flying directly toward the bow of her ship, where her armaments were the weakest. She’d had the Alseans turn the ship broadside to Blacksun, giving her the best chance of saving the city, but now she was stuck in this position. Soon the pilots would find that their controls were mostly frozen, at which point they’d realize they had only one shot at her ship. There was no doubt in her mind that she was facing a squadron of fifty suicide bombers.

“Roris, get your team and take over the gamma-one weapons room. We have incoming Voloth fighters.”

It’ll take us fifteen minutes to get there, Captain.”

“I know. Do it anyway.”

She alerted the warriors in the bow weapons room, then tapped the control to divert the com to her own fighters. “Baldassar, Candini, we need you on support. We’ve got fifty Voloth fighters coming in from the southwest and targeting the bow of the Caphenon. How much flight time do you have left?”

I’m good for another twenty minutes,” Candini answered.

Twenty-five,” said Baldassar.

“Then get out there and see how many you can take out before our defense grid has to do the rest.” The grid that for this battle would consist of one beat-up weapons room, which did not have functioning computer-assisted targeting.

They acknowledged the order, and within half a minute two blue dots rose up onto her display and accelerated southwest, streaking toward an overwhelming enemy force.

The plan had been for them to be in fresh fighters for this part of the battle. They’d used Alsean super cargo transports to lift out eight fighters and stage them around the western half of Blacksun Basin, allowing Candini and Baldassar to swap out their rides as soon as the hullskin damage began affecting flight controls. It had taken two days to complete those preparations, and Ekatya had been certain that four spares each would be plenty. But she had never expected or even imagined the sheer quantity of ground pounders the Voloth dropped on Blacksun. It was an unprecedented attack, and her pilots had needed every bit of their flight time to take care of ground pounders in outlying areas that the Alseans hadn’t been able to cover. Several villages between here and Blacksun owed their continuing existence to Candini and Baldassar.

But they were on their last spares and had no time to return to the Caphenon to launch two more fighters.

Fight with the weapons you have, her grandfather had always told her. Not the ones you wish you had.

She had two pilots in fighters that were ticking off their last minutes of viable flight time, a weapons room full of inexperienced Alsean warriors operating the defense grid on manual control, and a crack weapons team that was crawling through brace shafts and over debris right now, racing the clock.

Surely her grandfather would understand if she spent a few moments wishing with all her strength for thirty more fighters and a fully operational defense grid.

She tapped her earcuff. “Lancer Tal, do you have any assets near the Caphenon? Or along the river southwest of here?”

No, Captain. There are ground pounders out there, but none of them are ours yet. We’re working on it.”

“If you can’t turn one in the next ten ticks, then I suggest you evacuate anyone in the immediate vicinity of the Caphenon. The Voloth fighters are coming after us, not Blacksun.”

There was a short pause.

I’m sending my fighters. Hold on.”

“Negative, your fighters cannot assist. Don’t waste them.”

With all due respect, Captain Serrado, you do not give me orders.” Lancer Tal didn’t take the time to sign off before ending the call, and Ekatya silently cursed the woman’s intransigence.

There was nothing to do now but wait and watch as two blue dots drew closer and closer to fifty red ones. The Alseans on the bridge were silent, calmly watching the display with her. For them, the most important part of the battle was already won. Blacksun was safe, or would be as soon as the Alsean forces could finish the mop-up. Their own fate was less of a concern.

Candini and Baldassar engaged the Voloth well outside Blacksun Basin. Ekatya had hoped it would be a lopsided fight, but the blue dots immediately went into evasive maneuvers.

Shipper shit,” Candini cursed. “They’ve got missiles!”

They must have dropped later than some of the other fighters and learned from their experience,” Baldassar said.

So they’d opened their missile launch tubes as soon as they’d cleared the upper atmosphere, Ekatya surmised. Great. The fighters might not have full maneuverability, but the missiles did.

A red dot vanished, accompanied by a crow from Candini.

Gotcha! That’s what you get for—whoops.”

One of the blue dots went straight up and over a pursuing red one, coming back down behind it. The red one blinked out.

Two for two. Oh, thank you for flying right into my crosshairs. That’s three,” Candini said as another red light blinked out. It was followed quickly by a fourth.

Get busy, Candini, or I’ll catch up,” Baldassar said.

Not likely.”

Ekatya had never been so proud of those two as she was right now, listening to them banter back and forth as they dodged missiles and pursued the Voloth. But the distance was closing rapidly, and there were still too many fighters.

“The Caphenon is opening up,” she warned them, and ordered the Alseans in gamma-one to start firing.

Hitting a ground pounder as it descended was entirely different from hitting a fast-moving fighter flying straight down one’s throat. The Alsean warriors did their best, firing both laser cannons and missiles as they’d been instructed. But every cannon shot went wide, and the Voloth had working defenses, shooting down the missiles as they neared. Candini and Baldassar were making the only kills, and Ekatya was getting a bad feeling. They were running out of time.

A rapid volley of laser shots lanced out, taking down two Voloth fighters one after the other.

Yes!” Candini shouted. “That’s more like it! Keep it coming.”

Ekatya smiled. “Roris, is that your team down there?”

It is,” said Roris shortly. “Little busy right now.”

For five minutes her crew inflicted heavy losses on the Voloth, and Ekatya was beginning to think they might actually pull this off. Then one of the blue dots dropped out of the fight, heading steeply toward the ground.

Just lost pitch control,” Candini reported. “Sorry, Commander. I’m out.”

More for me,” Baldassar said, but his voice sounded strained.

In the next two minutes, he and Roris’s team took out seven more fighters. It wasn’t enough.

Ekatya hit the all-call. “This is the captain. Brace for impact.” She wrapped her hands around her armrests and held on.

Roris’s team had switched to the rail guns, spraying out projectiles as the nearest fighters closed in. Two went down, but one got through and slammed into the Caphenon’s shields at full speed.

Once before, Ekatya had been in a ship that was rammed by a fighter. The shields had held, but the impact was so powerful that it displaced the ship in space. It was a rough ride, causing quite a few injuries.

On the ground, her ship had no room for displacement. While their newly repaired shields held, the shock transmitted through the ship felt as if they were crashing all over again. Ekatya barely managed to stay in her seat, but the Alseans on the bridge weren’t so fortunate. All of them hit the deck; one failed to rise again.

Ekatya checked the display and barely had time to shout, “Brace, brace!” before another fighter exploded against their shields.

The impact tore her out of her chair and threw her over the first ring of consoles. She landed heavily on a console in the second ring and didn’t have time to push herself off before a third fighter impacted. This time she was launched some distance across the deck, landing hard enough to make her dizzy. It took a moment before her vision cleared and she could see the display again.

Captain, that last one wiped out the shields,” Kameha said on the com. “We’re unprotected.”

Ekatya’s eyes widened when she saw how many fighters were still in play. Unless Roris’s team suddenly achieved a 100 percent kill rate, they were not going to survive. It almost wasn’t worth it to get up, but if she was going to die, she’d do it standing. With a groan she dragged herself to her feet.

I’ve lost flight controls,” Baldassar said. “I’m out. Come on, Roris, there are only four left!”

Four? Ekatya thought dazedly. The display was full of fighters. Thin lines signifying rail gun projectiles traced their way toward a group of four, and she could not understand why her weapons team was ignoring the others that were rapidly closing in.

One of the targeted fighters vanished, but the other three crossed the red line on the display. They were inside the range of the defense grid; the Caphenon could no longer protect itself.

Ekatya watched with a strange detachment, waiting. There wasn’t even time to warn her crew.

The other fighters swarmed in, converging on the three. In quick succession, all three vanished, along with the dots that had flown into them. The remaining fighters rocketed around the Caphenon and climbed upward, bleeding off speed and leveling out into a holding pattern.

Only then did the fog lift from Ekatya’s brain. Every dot on her display was white.

Lancer Tal had sent her fighters, just as she’d promised. And without any weapons that could penetrate the Voloth shielding, they’d used the only thing they had.

She stumbled to the nearest console and leaned against it, hardly able to believe it was over. Her arm felt heavy as she raised her wrist and opened the general military channel, then tapped her earcuff.

“Captain Serrado to Alsean pilots. Thank you for the well-timed assist. We would not have made it without you.”

You’re welcome, Captain,” said a male voice. “After what you did for Blacksun, we were happy to return the favor.”

Lancer Tal to Continal,” a familiar voice cut in. “Report.”

There was a moment of silence before the first male voice came back on.

This is Lead Guard Tesseron. I’m sorry, Lancer Tal. First Pilot Continal gave his life in defense of the Caphenon, as did Guards Lathensal and Sunkirk.”

She’d never even seen him, Ekatya realized. She only knew him as the calm voice on the com of the Lancer’s transport; the pilot who flew so smoothly that she never felt a thing. And then he had flown straight into a Voloth fighter to save her ship.

“For Fahla and Alsea,” she whispered.





Chapter 62

War heroes


When the transport deposited Ekatya, her Gaian crew, and her temporary Alsean crew on the landing field at Blacksun Base, they were hailed as returning heroes. Joyful warriors overran the field, greeting and saluting everyone they could, and in a few cases enveloping a returning Alsean in a full-body hug. Ekatya couldn’t help smiling at those, knowing now what a public hug meant.

Then a body thumped into hers and she was pulled into her own hug by a breathless Lhyn.

“You did it! They did it! I still can’t believe it!” Lhyn whooped and let go just long enough to dive in for a passionate kiss. It was the first one she’d offered since their rift, and after a moment of surprise Ekatya took full advantage. When they finally broke apart, she couldn’t take her eyes off the sparkling joy in Lhyn’s face.

Candini bumped Baldassar with her elbow. “Hey, you were right. They’re a couple.”

“Very funny.” But he was smiling. “You’re a little late making it public, you know.”

“So, Lhyn, does that mean she’s out of the brig?” Kameha asked.

Lhyn wrapped an arm around Ekatya and turned. “It means things look different when you’re watching ground pounders explode over your head. And when you hear that a certain ship came within a second of blowing sky high. I’m so happy to see all of you, and so fucking proud that I want to kiss you all.”

“Well, it’s about time,” Candini said, and came toward them with her lips pursed.

Laughing, Lhyn grabbed her by the shoulders and kissed her first on one cheek, then the other, and then right on the lips.

Candini stepped back, her cocky grin not quite up to its usual standards—most likely due to the flush that was suffusing her cheeks.

“You should have realized by now that Lhyn doesn’t know how to bluff,” Ekatya told her, laughing with the others. “I’m proud too, of all my crew. I already told the Alseans that I’d recruit them into Fleet any day.”

“Who are you kidding?” Lhyn said. “They’re going to build their own fleet.”

They looked up at the sound of engines and saw another transport coming in at a very low altitude. It roared over their heads, waggling its wings, and the warriors on the field began shouting and laughing, thrusting their fists up to the sky. The transport flew back around and settled to the ground, its door opening before the engines had even spooled down. Lancer Tal stood in the entry and raised both fists in a victory salute. Her uniform was filthy, but her face bore the biggest grin Ekatya had ever seen on her. The sea of warriors surged toward her as she walked down the ramp, accepting their salutes and offering her own arm-clasp greeting to every warrior in range.

Ekatya and her crew stood alone, apparently forgotten as the Alseans pushed and shoved to get near the Lancer.

“Well, we were heroes for a few minutes, anyway,” Ekatya joked.

Lhyn tugged her closer. “You saved Blacksun. They saved their world.”





Chapter 63

Private celebration


Tal palmed the door lock and waved in her guests. “Welcome to your new home.”

“Wow,” Lhyn said. “This is gorgeous. Oh, look at the tapestries!” She walked to the wall for a closer look.

“There she goes.” Captain Serrado gave an exaggerated sigh. “We won’t be able to talk to her for the next half hantick while she analyzes the imagery.”

“Be quiet, please. I’m analyzing.”

Tal laughed and stepped in behind them. “Can you analyze while drinking? Because I didn’t carry this bottle up here just to watch it sit on the table.”

It had been the longest and most surreal day of her entire life, and while she should have been dead tired, her body still buzzed with energy. Judging by the gigantic impromptu party that was still going on in the park outside the State House walls, she wasn’t the only one. Blacksun was still celebrating, as was almost every other city and village on Alsea, but she’d had enough. She’d recorded her global announcement; issued her personal thanks, congratulations, and condolences to the warrior and scholar castes; made holographic appearances at the celebrations in Whitesun, Whitemoon, and Redmoon; and appeared in person at Blacksun’s bash. She was more than ready to celebrate—and mourn—privately.

Moving the Gaians off the base and into the State House diplomatic suites gave her the perfect excuse. Aldirk had overseen the move for most of the crew, but Tal had insisted that she be the one to show the hero of Blacksun to her new rooms. It was the finest guest suite in the State House, one floor below her own quarters, and she couldn’t think of a better pair of occupants for it. The suite had two bedrooms, but based on what she was sensing between these two, only one of them would be used.

They ended up in the living area, where the furniture was arranged to face the wall of glass. At this time of night the park was normally dark, but now it was full of lights, music, and dancing bodies. Occasional fireworks popped up over the trees.

“How long are they going to be at it?” asked Lhyn.

“All night.” Tal uncapped the bottle and poured three glasses. “They partied for half the night after the Blacksun Vallcats won the wallball championship two cycles ago. You can bet this one will go on until dawn. Now, I should warn you that this is not the spirit you’re used to. It’s a bit stronger, but I’m in the mood for it.”

Lhyn accepted her glass and gave it a careful sniff. “No offense, but it smells like the stuff Ekatya uses to polish her boots.”

Serrado lifted her own glass. “That sounds like a recommendation to me. Do you sip it or gulp it?”

“That depends,” Tal said. “Are you a mouse or a warrior?” She saluted them both and drank half her glass, enjoying the burn as it roared into her stomach.

Serrado followed suit, smacking her lips afterwards with a satisfied look. “Oh, I like this.”

Lhyn coughed and said, “Mouse. I’m definitely a mouse.”

By the time they were halfway through the bottle, Lhyn had transformed herself into a warrior, their sides hurt from laughing, and they were descending into the mellow phase of deconstructing the day.

“You’ve really shaken the tree, Lancer Tal. Captain Xanderwit was shocked when he came into the system.” Serrado was more relaxed than Tal had ever seen her, sitting almost sideways on the couch with her boots off and her feet up on the table. The bruise on her temple had already deepened to a lovely purple, and she’d been limping slightly when they walked through the State House, but she was clearly feeling no pain now.

“He came barreling in with the fusion core practically going nova, and the first thing he got was a furious transmission from the Voloth fleet commander accusing the Protectorate of negotiating in bad faith. Because of course it couldn’t be the Alseans who wiped out the entire inventory of not one but two orbital invaders. It had to be the Protectorate arming you. Though I can’t think what sort of arms he was imagining, because we’d have needed half the Ground Warfare division to do what you did. And there would have been far more casualties.”

“I’m surprised all he got was a furious transmission,” Tal said. “From what you’ve told us of the Voloth, I’d have expected them to greet Captain Xanderwit with a wall of missiles.”

“Well, it probably helped that Xanderwit had three destroyers with him. That evened the odds a bit and I’m sure it made the Voloth commander think twice. But the fact that the invasion force wasn’t called back even after the Assembly annulled the peace treaty means their orders were to get here first and take Alsea before Protectorate forces could arrive to defend it. They did get here first, but then the unthinkable happened and the invasion failed. I’m guessing their commander didn’t have any orders as to how to proceed in that event, and as I’ve recently learned, acting in the absence of orders tends to get a captain in trouble. He’d already lost every asset in his invasion force. Attacking Xanderwit’s group might have lost him everything else. He did the only thing he could do: bluster, make threats, put up a good show of aggrieved martyrdom, and retreat with promises of later retaliation.”

“I still can’t believe you had so few casualties,” Lhyn said.

“We had relatively few fatalities,” Tal corrected. “But we have a lot of casualties.”

“You do?”

Tal poured herself another drink. This probably wasn’t a conversation for a fuzzy brain, but it was far too late for that.

“What we asked our high empaths to do is something that takes a lot of training to do safely. The only people who get that training are the ones who work in the protective forces.” She tried to think of an analogy they would understand. “Captain Serrado, if you needed to train Lhyn to manually aim and fire every one of the Caphenon’s weapons systems, how long would that take?”

“That depends. Do I want accuracy? Then half a cycle at least. A cycle would be better. You’re talking about three different systems, and two of them handle several different payloads, which all behave differently.”

“And how much time would it take for you to show her which button to press to fire a missile that was already loaded, aimed, and ready?”

“About two pipticks.”

“That’s what we did. We showed thousands of high empaths how to fire a missile that they didn’t know how to control. We showed them the most powerful, blunt methods possible to get into the Voloths’ minds and bend them to our will. There wasn’t time to teach them how to do that safely, for either the Voloth or them. When you fire a missile, it just leaves the launcher and you’re still in one piece in your ship. But when an untrained high empath does what we asked them to do…” She shook her head. “That missile destroys everything, and it takes part of them with it.”

“I’m not sure I’m understanding,” Lhyn said, but Serrado was looking at her with a growing dismay.

“In the beginning, we asked them to find the darkest, most terrifying parts of their minds and hurl it at other living beings. That is far more personal than simply killing with a disruptor. They’ll never be able to forget what they did or what happened as a result. We have Voloth prisoners with shattered minds, who are permanently stuck in a single, horrifying memory. They cannot be healed. Some of the religious scholars are already calling for mercy killing.”

“Oh, my stars.” Lhyn’s eyes were wide. “Has that ever happened before? I mean, religious scholars advocating that?”

“Never. And I’m not sure our second method was any more merciful, to either the Voloth or our own people. We told them to find the deepest, most encompassing love in their hearts and force it into an enemy. It’s not possible to do that and not feel something for the person you forced that Sharing on. When the prisoners were collected after the battle, they were devastated to be separated from the high empaths who turned them. And the empaths had to stand there and watch Voloth crying and fighting to get back to them.”

“What a price to pay,” Serrado said.

“Wait, you said it wasn’t any more merciful. But it was love instead of terror. That has to be more merciful, doesn’t it? They didn’t shatter their minds.”

Serrado caught Tal’s eye in understanding. “It was still a missile. A missile with a different payload, but it probably caused a similar amount of damage on its way in. Right?”

Tal nodded and glanced down at the party in the park, still going strong. “They have every reason to celebrate. We all do. But there are high empaths going home tonight who will never be the same.”

“Can you help them?” Lhyn asked.

“We were already taking steps to set up a counseling system. We just didn’t realize the full range of counseling we’d have to offer. This is much more than breaking Fahla’s covenant. Or maybe it isn’t; maybe what we’re seeing now is the reason that covenant is in place, because the consequences of breaking it are so traumatizing.”

“But it had to be done.” Serrado refilled her glass and offered the bottle to Lhyn, who shook her head.

“Oh, there’s no question about that.” Tal held out her own half-empty glass to be topped off. “You were right, Captain, it was either this or annihilation. It’s just ironic that in the most critical battle Alsea has ever seen, it wasn’t the warriors who paid the real price. It was the scholars. All because we didn’t have time to train them, because they were never meant to do what they did.”

They drank in silence until Lhyn asked, “What will happen to the Voloth now? I mean, the ones you turned?”

Tal looked at Serrado, who shrugged.

“Good question. Fleet’s at a bit of a loss now, because they don’t even have a way of getting us off the planet yet. They’re still looking for a fully restored non-hullskin shuttle somewhere that’s actually flightworthy. Getting almost four hundred and fifty Voloth prisoners into orbit…that’s going to be tricky.”

“I doubt the Voloth commander has any idea what he’s asking for,” Tal said. “They’re not going to get very many real soldiers back. They’ll get either broken shells or brokenhearted soldiers who won’t want to leave.”

“What about the ones you and Gehrain turned?” Serrado asked.

Tal might have been a bit tipsy, but she understood the real question. What would have happened if you’d done that to Lhyn?

“We’re trained, as are most of the high empaths who serve as Guards. We left ours intact.” She remembered a cabin full of gore and added, “Well, not the first ones. But the ones that we turned are unchanged, except for the instruction we left preventing them from ever attacking us again. But they’ll have to live with the knowledge that they killed their own people. So I guess how well they do will depend on how the Voloth treat them.”

“From what I know of the Voloth military, my guess is ‘not very well.’”

Lhyn looked between them. “I have to say this is a first. I’ve never felt sorry for Voloth before.”

“Your sympathy does you credit,” Serrado said, “but they brought this entirely on themselves. They bit off more than they could chew.”

“Yes, but it wasn’t the soldiers who did that, was it? They were just following orders.”

“You mean like I was following orders when I tried to blow the Caphenon and leave Alsea?”

Tal’s eyes widened as she felt that hit Lhyn right in the center of her chest. These two might be together again, but they clearly had some unresolved issues.

The room was uncomfortably silent. A few more fireworks popped outside.

“You’re right,” Lhyn said at last. “I’m applying a double standard. And they’re an invasion force; it’s not as if they didn’t know in advance what their orders would be. I just…I hate all of this. I mean, I’m happy Alsea is safe, but the price is so high.”

“And it will keep climbing,” Tal said. “We still don’t have the body count. Whitesun took heavy shelling before our units could get control of the ground pounders there. So did Redmoon and Port Calerna. Other cities were less damaged, but none of them escaped intact. Even Blacksun wasn’t entirely safe, and we had the Caphenon.” She lifted her glass. “And thank Fahla we did. Not even in our worst-case scenario did we plan for the possibility of the Voloth dropping three hundred ground pounders on one city.”

“In my experience, that’s a first. They really wanted to break you.” Serrado reached out and rubbed Lhyn’s leg as she spoke, a silent apology. “They must have expected that they could bring the rest of the population under control more quickly if they simply wiped out the capital city.”

“Okay, I’ve changed my mind,” Lhyn announced. “I don’t feel sorry for them anymore. Three hundred? You didn’t tell me that.”

“Best fireworks display Blacksun ever saw.” Tal remembered something she’d meant to share. “I forgot to tell you. Healer Wellernal called earlier this evening. The first post-battle baby was born at Blacksun Healing Center at mid-four today. Guess what the parents named him?”

They looked at her expectantly, and she smiled.

“They named him Caphenon.”





Chapter 64

A bridge between sonsales


The two ninedays after what was now called the Battle of Alsea were a dizzying blur. Tal concluded that her task list was the world’s first perpetual motion machine, never shrinking no matter how hard she worked to cross items off. And it was impossible to make anything a priority, because everything was equally important.

They had to remove the mines they’d laid around their cities, which had done their jobs to devastating effect whenever a ground pounder had stepped on one. Tal wished a few more of them had stepped in the right places, saving the effort of removal. Though the triggers had been designed for the immense weight of the ground pounders, that didn’t make the job of digging them up a safe one. As far as she was concerned, the battle wasn’t really over until the last mine had been pulled out.

They’d begun repairs on buildings—and in some cases, entire city blocks—that had been damaged in the shelling. At times Tal could forget how much devastation the ground pounders had managed to inflict, since her own city was almost entirely unscathed. But when she toured the hard-hit cities of Port Calerna, Whitesun, and Redmoon, she was aghast at the destruction. Vids and reports didn’t do it justice, but standing in front of an eight-hundred-cycle-old caste house that was now a pile of rubble brought tears to her eyes. They had been so very, very fortunate in fighting off this invasion, but the price was still high.

On the other hand, not a single temple had been hit. Given that they were the largest buildings in every city except Blacksun, where the State House was larger, this was something of a miracle. The templars pointed to it as proof of Fahla’s direct involvement in the battle: she had not allowed her houses to be touched by the Voloth. Tal’s communication team advised her to jump on that theme and declare that the pristine condition of the temples was also evidence that Fahla had approved the temporary breaking of her covenant. Tal thought that was a cynical use of a miracle, but she was too much of a politician to say no. The messaging went out, and within a nineday her team reported with great satisfaction that it was working. The voices calling her a war criminal had quieted somewhat, unwilling to publicly argue with a statement that so many Alseans took to heart.

Two villages in the plains north of Blacksun Basin were nearly wiped out by crashing Voloth fighters that had come down far from any Alsean-controlled ground pounders, and three more in central Pallea had suffered the same fate. The Natural Disaster Response Agency was working at a feverish pace to provide food, shelter, and clothing to those who had lost their homes. The healers were overworked to a ridiculous degree, taking care of casualties not just from the battle, but also from the many accidents that had occurred during the mass movements of people both out of and back into the cities.

The state funeral for warrior and scholar dead was the biggest in modern Alsean history, taking place over a four-day period in Blacksun, Whitemoon, Whitesun, and Redmoon. They had so many fatalities to honor that it took the combined fleets of all four cities to perform the Flight of the Return at each event. The transports were so thick in the skies that they blotted out the sun, a sight that put a lump in Tal’s throat every time. A commemorative vid of the highlights from the four ceremonies was selling as fast as the government public station could produce it, with all profits going to the assistance fund for those who had fought and suffered.

Tal attended the ceremonies accompanied by what was left of her Guards. Prior to the battle she’d sent them all over Argolis to head up the high empath units, or in Micah’s case, to shepherd a unit of scholar caste empaths. Her people were among the most highly trained in the Alsean Defense Force; it had made no sense to keep them around her when they were desperately needed elsewhere. More of them had returned than she’d had any right to expect, but she’d lost Parksor, Nicolo, Betany, Sofrensenner, and Continal. Each loss hit her hard, but the worst of all was Continal. Micah was testing out new pilots, and every time one of their voices sounded over the state transport com, she felt Continal’s absence keenly. He had been a solid, assured pilot who was never intimidated by her title. These new pilots were all too young and too jumpy around her.

She took some solace from the fact that Continal had died a hero. The crafter caste, which was busy designing war memorials all over the planet, had proposed one to be placed near the new ground floor entrance planned for the Caphenon. It would be a sculpture of an Alsean fighter in mid-collision with a Voloth fighter. Three spotlights shining upward from the point of impact would symbolize the Return of the pilots who gave their lives to save the Caphenon, and their names and ranks would be inscribed in the base.

It was as close to immortality as a warrior could hope to get, and Tal could not have wished better for him. But when she saw the proposal, she had to lock her office door for half a hantick until she could get control of her front.

There were four hundred and forty-six Voloth prisoners to deal with, most of whom were being kept sedated as an act of mercy while they tried to figure out what to do with them. On the positive side, they also had one hundred and eighty intact or reparable ground pounders, and quite a few of the sane Voloth prisoners were anxious to help them learn about the technology and weaponry if it meant they could see “their” empaths again. That was a line Tal wasn’t sure they should ever cross, but at this point she’d retired her emergency powers, so it was up to the Council to decide. It was currently the topic of a hot debate.

Also being debated were the negotiations with the Protectorate. Shantu and a significant percentage of the warrior councillors were fiercely opposed to any negotiations at all, on the grounds that the Protectorate had not only brought the Voloth to Alsea, but had then turned its back on them until it realized that Alsea had something it wanted. “We didn’t need their help then; we don’t need it now” was a common refrain. Tal understood their position, and in private she would admit to a strong desire to tell the Protectorate negotiators just where they could shove their treaty offers. But that was her anger speaking, not her common sense. If Alseans were to break out of their gravity well and join the other races in space, they would need technological assistance. And if there was one thing she was certain of, it was that Alsea should never again be a sitting target, with none of her own people out there to keep watch or help stop attacks before they reached the planet.

Fortunately, the other five castes were open to negotiations, and Shantu’s warrior bloc was outvoted. They still made enough noise that Tal had to incorporate some of their demands into the Alsean offer, largely because Shantu’s political power was so strong. She’d made him the commander of the Pallean forces, with his center of operations at Whitesun, and it was because of him that Whitesun had survived as well as it had. The Voloth had dropped a hundred and fifty ground pounders there, and with no Caphenon to stop them before they could land, the battle at Whitesun had been the worst of all. Shantu was a hero and the darling of Alsea’s second-largest city.

Captain Serrado and her crew were indispensable in these ninedays of insanity. They offered their translation services with the Voloth prisoners, their matter printers to help with repairs, and their engineering know-how to understand the ground pounders. Candini and Baldassar asked to be trained on cargo transports and were soon helping with relief flights as well as deliveries of repair materials.

Most helpful of all was the assistance of Lhyn and Captain Serrado in the negotiations. The Protectorate representatives had Alsean language chips installed, eliminating one source of confusion, but Tal was at a disadvantage. Not only did she not have the political or technological knowledge to make sure Alsea wasn’t taken advantage of, but she couldn’t use her empathic senses over a quantum com. It was like flying a transport blindfolded, and she despised it. But she trusted Serrado and Lhyn, and they made it very clear that they were on the Alsean side of the table. With their assistance, and the fact that the Protectorate was desperate to get its hands on the nanoscrubbers, Tal was reasonably certain that she was wringing out every concession she could.

Serrado certainly thought so.

“You realize that you’ve completely upended the Non-Interference Act,” she said after evenmeal one night. Lhyn was over at Blacksun Temple, speaking with Lanaril, and Serrado had invited Tal to keep her company.

“I thought you did that.”

“Funny, you are. I just crashed a ship here and locked it up when I left. I certainly didn’t give you blueprints for fusion core technology, surf engines, matter printers…” She shook her head. “You’re the first non-FTL world to vault right over the Act and into parity with Protectorate races. Or you will be once you get started building your fleet. Speaking of which, has there been any progress on the great orbit debate?”

“No, it’s still going strong. And I still don’t know which side I’m on. Shuttles would be more expensive, harder to scale up for the numbers we’d need, and require far more maintenance. The space elevator makes more sense in terms of expense, cargo capacity, and ease of maintenance, not to mention the time factor. We’ve already got the nanotechnology for the cable; we just needed a few hints in the manufacturing department for the sheer scale of it. But I can’t shake the feeling that it’s a terrible idea to put our entire orbital capacity in one or two elevators. A couple of missiles from the Voloth and that would be the end of that.”

“Then don’t choose. Build both. You can have space elevators for cargo and a smaller fleet of shuttles as fast transport for personnel and small cargo loads, not to mention emergency backup. As for the exposure factor of the space elevators, you’ll have the same issue with orbital shipyards. No matter what you do, building infrastructure in orbit means you’re exposed to orbital attack—that is, if anyone feels it’s worthwhile to attack you. I’d say that having the capacity to destroy a ship’s hullskin would make most Expansionists think twice about trying it.”

“So long as that threat keeps them at bay long enough for us to get our infrastructure built. This is not going to be done quickly.”

“No. But in the meantime, I know where you can get some nice surplus Fleet ships for a reasonable price.” Serrado raised her eyebrows rakishly, and Tal chuckled.

“I’d guess you have all sorts of shady acquaintances from wandering around space stations.”

“I wish. It’s a bit difficult for a Fleet captain to make any shady acquaintances at all. Being the shining representative of military order doesn’t exactly open those kinds of doors.”

Tal watched her, sensing the grief that always accompanied the captain’s thoughts of Fleet. “If you could go back, would you?”

“I don’t know. I know I can’t go back to the way it was. What Lhyn and I had before wasn’t satisfying even then; it would be worse now. And I’m no closer to figuring out a way to balance a Fleet career with a non-Fleet relationship. Neither is she.”

“Is that why you haven’t told her you’re tyrees?”

“It never seems to be the right time. It’s not a concept she’ll accept easily, and…well, she still hasn’t recovered her trust.”

Tal looked down at the glass of spirits in her hand.

“Just spit it out, Lancer Tal. You’ve had that look on your face several times over the last three ninedays. It can’t be healthy to keep that inside, whatever it is.”

Startled, she glanced up and found a knowing gaze on her. “Sometimes I forget how well you can read emotions.”

“I may be sonsales, but I’m not literally blind.”

“There have been times when I’ve questioned whether you’re really sonsales.”

“That’s because you depend too much on your empathic senses and forget about all the others. My senses have been telling me for quite some time that there’s something you’re dying to know but afraid to ask.”

“Afraid?”

“Sorry. Reluctant.”

“Better,” Tal said, fooling neither herself nor her friend. She fidgeted with her glass, turning it a few times as she tried to find the right words. “Why haven’t you told Lhyn what we were prepared to do to her? She trusts me, yet I’m the one who—” She stopped, unable to say it even now. “It just feels backwards. You’re the one she should trust.”

Serrado gave her a sad smile. “That’s why. Because she needs someone to trust that way, and right now it isn’t me.”

“So you’re giving me what you can’t have.”

“More like I’m not taking something away from her that she needs.”

Either way it was humbling. “Thank you. I know you’re doing it for her, but…it’s a beautiful act of love and I’m benefitting from it. Her friendship means a great deal to me.”

“It’s not a sacrifice. And she’s not the only one who trusts you. You’ve earned it, so stop feeling so damned guilty.”

Tal had to chuckle, because it shouldn’t have been a surprise that Serrado would see that as well. “Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could simply order our emotions out of the way?”

“I’ve tried. It doesn’t work.”

“It doesn’t work for us either. So we front them instead.”

“You may front them from Alseans, but only because they don’t know you.” Serrado pointed at her own eyes. “Your emotions are right here.”

“They are?” No one had ever told her that.

“Yes. But I get the feeling that most people don’t look at you that closely. They look at the persona instead.”

Tal nodded. “It’s just a different kind of front.”

“And not many people see past it, do they?”

“Micah does.” She felt a familiar signature brush her senses. “Lhyn is in the building.”

The door opened a few ticks later and Lhyn blew in, full of news about what she’d learned from Lanaril.

Tal sat back and listened, absorbing the dissonance that was always present in their emotions. It was deep enough that she’d never have sensed it in an Alsean without probing, but the way the Gaians broadcast everything, even their unrecognized emotions were on the wind for anyone to feel.

She couldn’t be a bystander to this anymore. It looked to her as if they’d never resolve it. All they had was words, and they weren’t even using those.

Patting the couch cushion next to her, she said, “Lhyn, I need to tell you something.”

A burst of alarm came from Serrado, who was now straight-backed in her own chair. Tal gave her a reassuring nod.

“What’s going on?” Lhyn sat down and looked at her expectantly.

“Do you remember, when Captain Serrado walked on that shuttle and tried to leave, that I told you she’d come back?”

Lhyn’s emotions dimmed, as if she were shutting down. “I’m not likely to forget it.”

“I know you’re not. There’s something I didn’t tell you at the time. I wasn’t guessing about her coming back, and it wasn’t a platitude to make you feel better. She couldn’t leave, because a tyree would never leave her bondmate in danger. As long as you were still here, she couldn’t go.”

She watched the realization dawn.

“You think…no, that’s not possible. We’re not empathic.”

“That’s what makes it so surprising. But there’s no doubt you’re tyrees.”

“But…how can that be? I don’t even—” Lhyn stopped, and Serrado closed her eyes in pain.

“Only because you can’t feel it,” Tal said. “Would you like to?”

Serrado’s eyes flew open. “Lancer Tal, you can’t. The last time put you in the healing center.”

“I’m not on the edge of exhaustion, and that’s not what I’m proposing. It was taxing then because I had to project emotions that weren’t mine. I don’t have to do that now. I can just connect the two of you.”

“You mean, like a bond minister?” Lhyn asked in astonishment.

“That’s exactly what I mean.”

The emotions tumbled over each other until one rose ascendant.

“Then yes. Whatever is there, I’d love to feel it. That is, if Ekatya is willing.”

“If I’m—” Serrado shook her head. “I’d hoped by now you wouldn’t have to ask. Of course I’m willing, but I’m not entirely convinced it won’t be hard on the Lancer. It takes energy to make that connection, doesn’t it?”

“Yes, but it won’t come from me. It will come from you.”

“How does that work?” Lhyn wanted to know, while Serrado fixed Tal with a skeptical look.

“I’m not certain. I’ve never had the privilege of doing it before—at least, not with permission. But I accidentally did it after the battle with the first ground pounder, when I touched palms with both of you at the same time. The power coming out of you almost knocked my legs out from under me.”

“I don’t remember that,” Lhyn said.

“That’s because she hid it too well. You front on several levels, Lancer Tal.”

“Requirement of the job. But I’m not fronting now. I want to do this. We owe you so much, and I…have a personal debt.”

After a pause, Serrado nodded at Lhyn, eliciting a bright smile that faded a moment later.

“Now I’m nervous,” Lhyn confessed. “If it doesn’t work, I’ll be crushed.”

“I promise you it will work.”

“A promise from a politician?” But her spirits were rising, along with her sense of anticipation. “I’d rather hear that from a warrior.”

Tal held out her forearm, smiling when Lhyn took it in a respectable warrior’s clasp. “On my honor as a warrior.”

“Then I’m ready.”

“So am I,” Serrado said, “but you’re going to have to tell me what to do. I expect Lhyn already knows.”

“She needs bare skin. In the ceremonies, they always wear robes or shirts that fasten in front so the bond minister can touch the skin over their hearts. I have to change my shirt.” Lhyn was off the couch and heading for the bedroom almost before she finished speaking, leaving Serrado looking down at her own shirt.

“Good thing I wore the zip front today.” She pulled the zipper down, baring a smooth expanse of skin, and Tal wondered if this might not be such a good idea after all.

“You’ll need to sit here, next to Lhyn,” she said, standing up and pointing to her former seat.

“They stand in the ceremony,” Lhyn called from the bedroom.

“That’s because they’re also connecting all of the guests,” Tal answered. “You don’t have any.”

Serrado came around the low table and sat on the sofa. “You’re sure this isn’t going to hurt you?”

“I’m sure.”

Lhyn reappeared in a shirt with half the buttons undone. “Will this work?”

“That’s perfect.” Tal waited for her to sit next to the captain before pulling the table closer and taking her own seat, her knees brushing the couch in the space between them. “As Lhyn said, I’m going to rest my hands over your hearts. You’ll complete the connection by putting your hands on the back of my neck. But don’t do that until I tell you.”

They nodded and scooted closer, their legs touching hers. She closed her eyes, taking time to center herself. If her experience in the strategy room was any indicator, she’d need all her concentration to keep her blocks intact against the emotional force she was about to tap into. She wished she’d thought to ask Lanaril about this before making her rash offer, but it was too late now.

She reached for Lhyn first, sliding her hand in the opening of her shirt and resting it against the swell of her left breast. Lhyn held still, watching her with a trust she didn’t deserve. It took a few pipticks before she could bring herself to reach for Serrado, and she hoped no one noticed the slight trembling of her hand.

The moment she made contact with Serrado’s skin, the raw power electrified her body, stiffening her spine. Her intake of breath was audible, and they both looked at her in concern.

“It’s fine,” she said, though the hitch in her voice didn’t convince them. “Just give me a piptick.”

Her hand wasn’t yet in position, and as she carefully moved onto the curve of Serrado’s breast, the power intensified. It shouldn’t have; Gaians didn’t have the empathic neural network that Alseans had. But clearly something was there—or at least, it was in these two women.

The torrent of emotions washed over her, sucking away her control. Only once in her life had she attended a tyree bonding ceremony, and while it had been an incredible experience, it was nothing like this. Either the bond minister or the bondmates themselves had guided the Sharing, but the Gaians had no ability and Tal had never done this before.

“Lancer Tal,” Serrado said sharply. “It’s been more than a few pipticks. Tell us what’s happening or I put an end to this.”

Tal hadn’t detected their mounting worry; the sheer strength of their emotions was overwhelming her ability to parse them. But now that Serrado’s anxiety had spiked out of the background, she used it as a guide for separating the rest.

“I’m all right. It’s just so…immense. Great Mother, the power of you two…” She took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and inhaled again. By the third breath she was gaining control over the energy coursing through her body. She envisioned it recharging her muscles, fueling her brain, shoring up her blocks, strengthening every part of her until she was ready to send it out again. Then she lowered her head.

“Make the connection,” she said.

Their hands felt cool as they slid onto her neck, and a moment later their heads came to rest against hers. It startled her until she realized it was a more natural position, allowing each of them to support the others.

And now she had an outlet. With one more deep breath, she released the power in her body.

“Oh my stars,” Lhyn gasped.

“Great galaxies. It’s so strong…”

“Because I’m not projecting remembered emotions. This is you, as you are in this moment. Now stop worrying about me and think about each other. What do you want your tyree to know?”

It didn’t take them long to adapt, and the ticks that followed were so profound in their intimacy that Tal knew she would never feel anything like it again. All her life she’d dreamed of a tyree bond, of being part of something so blessed by Fahla. But this had to be the next best thing. She might be a mere guest, but the emotions were inside her as well. For as long as she could hold this connection, the warmth, the love, the sense of being utterly indispensable to another’s well-being—these were hers, too.

And they melted the small, hard cores of betrayal that both women still harbored. For all of Serrado’s understanding of Lhyn’s needs, she’d never understood her own.

“Ekatya,” Lhyn whispered at last. “I didn’t realize…I’m so sorry.”

“I am, too.”

“I know you are. I actually know. Why can’t we have this all the time? The time and heartache we could have saved—”

“No, we couldn’t. There are no words that could communicate this.”

“Not when the trust was lost, I suppose.”

“Not ever. They’re just words. We have to believe in the emotions behind them, and I—” Serrado’s voice cracked. “I never believed you felt like this. Not until Lancer Tal Shared with me, and then I thought it was too late.”

“I didn’t think you did, either. Not in my heart. I hoped, and Shippers know I wanted it, but there was always this little voice…”

“Do you believe me now?”

“Yes,” Lhyn murmured. “How could I not?”

Serrado made a small sound, the only outward sign of the profound shift taking place in her heart. “We can’t forget this,” she whispered.

“We won’t.” This time, Lhyn’s belief was absolute.

They fell silent then, reveling in their shared experience, and Tal felt it all. The astonishing part, the part she hadn’t remotely envisioned, was that the strength of their bond grew while she held them in her hands. It had already been strong enough to overwhelm her, but that was before they’d felt the truth in each other.

Love feeds love, her mother had often told her. She’d never really understood that until now.

A chuckle rumbled up before she could stop it, startling the others.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “but I was just thinking about a certain assumption Captain Serrado once made. Do you still think anyone could possibly come between you?”

“Not in this lifetime. I was an idiot.”

“Yes, you were,” Lhyn said, but her voice held no edge, only the exasperated affection that was flowing through their link.

“In my defense, I didn’t have the Alsean advantage. And now I can see just how big an advantage that is. What you showed me in our Sharing—it wasn’t half the strength of this.”

“Believe me, I know.” Tal’s body had been buzzing with it for what felt like half a hantick.

“That’s twice now you’ve given me a gift beyond price. And considering what we’re doing at the moment, I really think you should start calling me Ekatya.”

“Finally. I wondered how long it would take you. She was calling me Lhyn more than a moon ago.”

“Yes, but you’re not representing Fleet and the Protectorate.”

“Ekatya, you’re practically in a threesome here. I hardly think you’re representing Fleet and the Protectorate right now.”

Tal laughed so hard she nearly lost her positioning, and that seemed to be the cue for the others. They released her neck and she straightened, wincing as her back protested being bent for so long. Carefully, she pulled her hands away and dropped them in her lap, feeling diminished with the loss of the connection. But there seemed to be some echoes of the link still connecting the two Gaians, its residual power humming quietly to her senses.

“Oh, ouch,” Lhyn said as she rested against the cushion. “No wonder they stand at bonding ceremonies.”

Tal checked her wristcom. “They also don’t hold the connection for forty-five ticks.”

“It was that long? Wow, that flew by.”

Serrado—Ekatya, Tal reminded herself—was watching her silently.

“I would be honored to call you Ekatya,” Tal said. “And you’re right, given what we’ve just experienced, formality has no place between us. Please call me Andira.”

“Me too?” Lhyn asked.

“Of course, you too.” Tal pushed the table back and stood, gratefully stretching her spine. “And now I think the two of you have more to discuss, without me in the room. So if you’ll…” She trailed off as Ekatya held up a hand.

“Andira, you’ve shared so much with us. Will you let me share something with you before you go?”

Tal nodded, wondering what she had in mind to make her so serious.

“I know your culture limits this in adults,” Ekatya continued as she stood up. “But mine doesn’t. We can give them to anyone who is special to us, and I want to give one to you. Please accept this as the gift I mean it to be. It’s the only way I have to demonstrate how much your friendship means to me.”

Tal was still trying to figure out what that meant when Ekatya moved in and wrapped her up in a warmron.

A warmron!

Hesitantly, she raised her arms and slid them around Ekatya’s back. It should have been an egregious violation of their tyree bond, but Ekatya was warm and pliant, and Lhyn looked on with an approving smile.

“Good,” Ekatya said. “But you need to relax more. You’re stiff as a support beam.”

“That’s difficult when it feels as if I’m breaking fifteen laws.”

“You’re not breaking any laws,” Lhyn said. “You’re engaging in a cultural exchange.”

Ekatya tightened her grip and rested their heads together. “Thank you, my friend,” she whispered.

It was the my friend that did it. For the first time, it occurred to Tal just how much Ekatya had reached out of her own comfort zone in their interactions, first in the training room and now here. Perhaps it was her turn.

“You’re welcome,” she said, tightening her own grip. Then she gave in, allowing herself to relax and absorb the sheer pleasure of holding Ekatya in her arms. If this was a test of her resistance, well, she’d just have to fail.

“Better,” Ekatya murmured. She ran a hand up to the back of Tal’s head, holding them impossibly closer, and Tal felt chills all the way to her toes. One more squeeze and Ekatya let go, stepping back with a wide smile on her face. “Once you relax, you give a very nice warmron. And I think I just corrupted the Lancer.”

You have no idea, Tal thought. She chuckled to cover her discomposure. “Not a single person on Alsea would dream of doing what you just did. But I wish they would.”

“You’re usually more accurate than that,” Lhyn said as she rose. “There’s at least one other person.” And before Tal knew what was happening, she was swept into her second-ever illicit warmron.

With their height difference, she could tuck her head beneath Lhyn’s chin. This time she relaxed quickly, finding it easier when the warmron wasn’t so charged with temptation.

Not once in her adult life had she considered embracing a woman she hadn’t joined with, but now she wondered about the limitations. A joining could be as simple as a mutual release for pleasure, but her first Sharing with Ekatya was ten times more intimate, and what they’d just finished was the most intimate thing she’d ever done, clothed or not. Why was a warmron allowed for one but not the other?

“If this is what I get for linking you, we could do it again tomorrow,” she said.

Lhyn rubbed a gentle hand up and down her back. “You’d never have to ask permission. I’d jump at the chance any time you’re willing to offer.”

“So would I,” Ekatya said.

Tal felt dazed when she was released, but cycles of diplomatic experience got her through the farewells. Ekatya escorted her to the door and stopped her as she crossed the threshold.

“Consider your debt paid,” she said in a low voice. “I know she would say the same.”

“Are you ever going to tell her?”

“No. And I hope you won’t let your guilt push you into telling her yourself. You wouldn’t be doing her any favors.”

“I know. So the matter is closed.”

Ekatya hesitated. “Not quite yet. I need to ask you one thing.”

“Missiles away.”

The Gaian phrase lightened Ekatya’s serious mood, but not for long. “You said a tyree bond can’t be broken from the outside. I understand that now. But what would have happened if you’d had to do what you planned? Would she…I mean, would we—?”

“Yes,” Tal said. “Not even empathic force can break a tyree bond. Even if I were the worst person on Alsea and forced her to love me, the only way I could keep her at my side would be to make sure she never saw you. Because the first time she did, that bond would wake. She’d be drawn to you without knowing why. No matter how many stones you throw in the water, you cannot dam the ocean.”

Ekatya leaned against the doorframe. “I hardly know what to do with that. It’s as if I just walked into a room stacked floor to ceiling with gifts, and they all have my name on them. It’s so overwhelming that I don’t know which one to open first.”

Tal looked past her to Lhyn, who was still in the living area and speaking into a pad, no doubt recording her experience of the first dual Gaian Sharing. “Open that one,” she suggested.

Ekatya followed her gaze and turned back with a smile. “Believe me, I will. But that’s the easy part.”

“It’s not a ship, and you’re not the captain. You don’t have to know how it all works. Just accept the gift Fahla gave you. She knows what she’s doing.”

“Maybe she does. If anything could convert me to the Seeder side of the argument, it would be your Fahla.” She straightened and added, “But that’s a conversation for another time. As for that prior matter—it’s closed.”

They shook on it, a comfortable warrior’s clasp, and said their good nights. Ekatya walked back inside, and just before the door clicked shut, Tal heard Lhyn’s voice.

“Wow, nice view. Do I get to unzip that last little bit?”

Tal leaned against the wall by their door and closed her eyes, needing a moment to get that vision out of her head.

Who was she kidding; she’d never get that out of her head. With a sigh, she pushed off the wall and headed back to her own very empty quarters.





Chapter 65

Dirt-side desk job


They Shared again the very next evening. Ekatya would never have asked, not wanting to impose, but Lhyn had no such compunctions and Andira seemed happy to take part. An hour later, when the link ended and they crashed back into their tiny, limited selves, Lhyn said, “If I live to be a hundred and ten, I will always date my life as either before or after my first Sharing with you.”

“Not your first Sharing, period?”

“That was spectacular. But it was with a stranger. I mean, Lanaril is a friend now, but Sharing with you is on a whole different level.”

“You’re tyrees,” Andira said, as if that explained everything. To her it apparently did.

The next day Lhyn invited her to Blacksun Temple for a midmeal with Lanaril. Ekatya had met the Lead Templar only once before, and while she’d liked her, she wasn’t entirely comfortable around someone whose career was religion-based. But Lanaril was so delighted to be able to discuss their tyree bond openly that they spent the entire midmeal speaking of nothing else. Ekatya came away more impressed than ever by the profundity of their bond and the status it gave them in Alsean culture—or would give them, if they ever went public with it.

On their way out, Lhyn steered her to the ancient molwyn tree in the center of the temple and rested a palm on its trunk. “This is going to sound odd, but would you put your hand here?”

Ekatya touched the smooth bark. “Okay. Why am I doing this?”

Lhyn looked expectantly into the boughs of the tree for several silent moments before letting her hand fall away. “I just wanted to test something.”

She was reluctant to explain, and it took the entire walk across the park to the State House before Ekatya learned the origin story of the Alsean banner.

“When Lanaril told me that, I dismissed it out of hand,” Lhyn said. “It was so obviously an oral history that had been embellished and turned into myth. But I thought the whole concept of tyrees was fiction, too.”

“So you were hoping that since you were wrong about one thing, maybe you were wrong about the other?”

“No…I was hoping we were that special.”

Though she tried to hide it, her disappointment was obvious.

“And I thought I was competitive,” Ekatya said teasingly. “We’re the only known tyrees of our entire species and you want more?”

A reluctant smile spread across Lhyn’s features. “I guess that does seem a bit ungrateful.”

“I should say. Andira would probably give her left arm to have what we have.”

“Maybe her right arm. Since she’s left-handed.”

They reached the Councillor’s Entrance to the State House and were saluted by the warriors flanking the door. Ekatya returned the salute, having long since grown comfortable with the gesture. It was when they reached their suite and Lhyn was puttering around the living area that she had a shocking realization.

She was happy here.

For a month, Fleet had dangled her on a string, telling her “it’s complicated” whenever she asked about her fate. On the one hand, she’d disobeyed orders in a spectacular fashion. On the other, she’d helped save the Protectorate from a disastrous shift in the balance of power. It seemed that half of the Fleet brass wanted to court-martial her while the other half wanted her to run for public office. Since she couldn’t leave Alsea, there was no urgency in resolving the debate. So they argued, and she waited.

But it wasn’t in her nature to sit around and do nothing, so she’d spent the last month helping the Alseans in general and Andira in particular. In the process she’d settled into a de facto position of ambassador, though she was never quite sure whether she was representing Alsea or the Protectorate. And everywhere she went, Alseans looked at her with expressions of awed respect. They called her the Savior of Blacksun, for Shipper’s sake. She was globally famous, Andira was offering a shining career and telling her to write her own orders, Lhyn never wanted to leave, and then there were the Sharings. If she left Alsea, she’d leave those behind as well. That was about as appealing as kicking a narcotic habit without medical assistance.

She rested a hand on the window and looked down at the park, a view she’d come to love. Never in her adult life would she have believed she could be happy with a dirt-side desk job. But here she was, grounded and content.

To Hades with Fleet, she thought. It was time for a new chapter in her life.


* * *


That evening the call came from Admiral Tsao. They’d found a shuttle.





Chapter 66

Choices


Tal saw the figure waiting by the side entrance as she and Gehrain turned the corner and ran the last part of their circuit.

“Looks like I have company for my cooldown,” she said. “Take the rest of the night, Gehrain.”

“Thank you, Lancer Tal. Have a good night.”

“And you.”

She slowed to a walk as Gehrain jogged toward the State House and past Ekatya, offering the salute that nearly all of the warriors gave her these days. It seemed they had spontaneously adopted her into the caste and decided her rank was the equivalent of a colonel.

Ekatya returned the salute, making Tal smile. A nod was sufficient acknowledgment, but the captain insisted on the full ceremony. It was a gesture of respect and had earned her a great deal of goodwill.

“I felt you halfway across the park,” Tal said as she drew near. “Walk with me?”

Ekatya fell into step beside her. “It’s late for a run.”

“This is the best time in the summer. Besides, nobody bothers me at night.”

“I hope you don’t mind that I am.”

“You’re not. But something is certainly bothering you.”

They had reached the edge of the State House and turned toward the distant wall before Ekatya spoke again. “I got a call from Admiral Tsao. It seems that after a moon of non-answers, Fleet has suddenly found consensus. They’re offering me a ship. A Pulsar-class ship.”

“So they finally realized what they’d lose if they let you go. Will you take it?”

“I don’t know. Last moon it wouldn’t have been a question. Now…everything is different.”

The overhanging trees gave way to a clearing with a small fountain in its center. When Ekatya looked up to the sky, Tal followed her gaze. Clouds were blotting out half the stars, and she could smell rain coming, a sure sign of autumn. Its arrival would herald a moon of relentless rains in Blacksun Basin. They had so much to do before then.

“Here’s the strange part,” Ekatya said. “There is no Pulsar-class ship available. They’re offering me a new one off the line; it’s under construction right now. There must be twenty qualified captains in Fleet who would sacrifice their own grandmothers to get that ship, and I’d bet none of them spent the last moon under threat of court-martial. So it seems more than a little odd that they’re offering it to me.”

“I don’t know how qualified those other captains might be, but I know you. Perhaps there’s hope for that Fleet of yours after all.”

“Or perhaps somebody interfered.”

“I have no idea what you’re referring to.”

“That might be the first outright lie you’ve ever told me.”

“Has your tyree bond conferred empathic abilities, then?”

“No, but I remember you making me a promise. In your office, the day they raised the Caphenon. You said you’d make certain Fleet gave me the reward I deserved. As I recall, there was something about using shannel as leverage.”

Tal chuckled. “I didn’t need the shannel.”

“I didn’t expect you to admit it so easily.” Ekatya stopped walking and put her hands on her hips. “When did you put that in the negotiations? I thought I was there for all of them.”

“You might have missed one or two. Possibly Aldirk forgot to notify you of the schedule.”

“Aldirk never forgets anything. You cut me out of the negotiations so I wouldn’t know.”

“I’ll get stiff if I don’t keep moving.” Tal walked on, waiting until Ekatya reappeared at her elbow. “You couldn’t be involved. The negotiations were about you specifically.”

“All right. I can accept that, but why not tell me?”

“Because I didn’t know if I’d be successful and I didn’t want to get your hopes up. A good politician never publicizes a deal until it’s done.”

“You can’t tell me that was the work of a politician.”

“I owed you.”

“You think you owed me. I didn’t crash my ship because of you.”

This time it was Tal who stopped. “You were under threat of court-martial because of me. Because I took away your choices. I wanted to make sure that whatever you decided about your future, you did it with a full range of options.”

Ekatya stared at her and then shook her head. “You’ve made it worse, you know. We had midmeal with Lanaril today and talked about tyrees, and afterward I realized that I’m happy here. I’m happy doing what I am, living where I am, having Lhyn as a full partner. She’s in anthropology paradise, and on top of that she’s respected for her own work in a way she wouldn’t be as a captain’s wife. She never wants to leave. I was ready to plant my boots on the ground, and now—” She cut herself off and repeated, “You’ve made it worse.”

Tal touched her arm and they resumed their walk, passing into another path lined by overhanging trees. “My intent was to give you a gift, not make your life more difficult.”

“I know. And I appreciate it, truly. It’s just…I finally felt settled and suddenly everything is in flux again.”

“That’s your perception, not reality. You can stay just as settled if you want.”

“But I don’t know what I want; that’s the problem! Shippers, if anyone had told me a moon ago that I’d actually be questioning a new Pulsar-class command, I’d have thought they were insane.”

“I want you to stay,” Tal said. “You have so much to offer us, and you’ve proven your worth ten times over. But I don’t want you to stay because you think it’s the best you can manage. If you’re going to serve Alsea, it should be because it’s what you truly want to do, the best of all the options. Alsea doesn’t need a warrior whose oath is halfhearted.”

She felt Ekatya stiffen, a spike of irritation lancing through her turmoil.

“Are you trying to push me out?”

Tal had to smile. “You’re just stubborn enough that pushing you might be the way to make you stay. But I’m tired of feeling guilty every time you mention Fleet and think you’re hiding your grief. You mourn it because it was taken away from you. Now here it is, being offered to you on a golden plate. Either you take it and regain what you lost, or you turn it down and stay here. But if you turn it down, it will be your choice this time, not mine or anyone else’s.”

“My choice and Lhyn’s. She has a say in this.”

“Yes, she does.” Tal wondered if Ekatya realized how much she’d changed in a few short ninedays, to give Lhyn such a voice in her decision. “What was her reaction?”

“I haven’t told her yet. I wanted to speak with you first.”

“When do they expect an answer?”

“I have twelve days. That’s when the shuttle arrives.”

“They found one? I suppose I’ll hear that in tomorrow’s contact.”

“It’s some retired pilot in his eighties whose hobby is restoring old shuttles. He leaped at the chance to fly for Fleet again.” Ekatya chuckled. “I can’t wait to tell my crew they’re going to be flown out of here by someone old enough to be their grandfather. In a few cases, their great-grandfather. And Candini is going to birth a brick when she sees that shuttle.”

They shared a laugh over that image, but Tal was focused on one detail.

Twelve days might be all she had left.





Chapter 67

Recalled


Fate did not give Ekatya as many choices as Andira did.

When she let herself back in the suite that night, she found Lhyn standing at the wall of glass, staring out at the lights of Blacksun. Even from the door she could see the tension in her stance.

She crossed the room and wrapped an arm around Lhyn’s waist. “What’s wrong?”

Lhyn sighed. “I forgot I have a life.”

“Could you be a little more specific? Because I don’t see you having a life as a bad thing.”

“My year is up,” Lhyn said in a monotone. “The Institute is recalling me.”

Ekatya sucked in a breath. Of course. Of course they’d recall her. “We lost track of time.”

“Completely. I was thinking it’s only been a moon and three days since we landed, but I’ve gotten so used to Alsean timekeeping that I never converted. And now I’m told there’s a shuttle on its way to pick us up in twelve Alsean days.”

Ekatya did the math in her head. “Two stellar months,” she said. “We’ll have been here two months.”

“My year is up,” Lhyn repeated. “And Chancellor Tlesik called me personally to make sure I understood just how excited everyone is to see my full report. The last time Chancellor Tlesik was excited was when he finally cured his hemorrhoids.”

Ekatya couldn’t help chuckling, and even Lhyn cracked a smile. “Well, if anything could make that man dance a jig, it would be knowing that his Institute has a lock on your data. You’re going to be in great demand, you know.”

“I know. They’re already scheduling talk shows. Talk shows! I haven’t seen my team except by quantum com in almost two months, and I’ve gathered so much data here on the surface that it’s going to take me another half year just to go through it all, and they’re expecting me to pull conclusions out of my ass on live broadcasts. How am I supposed to do that? Not to mention the fact that I don’t want to leave.”

“I don’t either. But you have to, don’t you? The Alseans have blown the Protectorate apart politically, and they’ve turned a lot of disciplines upside down. Theology, xenobiology, military strategy… They’re a technologically inferior race that didn’t just defeat the Voloth, but annihilated them. The Assembly did a complete about-face and tossed the Non-Interference Act out the airlock for them. And on top of everything else, they’re empathic and not even fully Gaian. And you’re the only one who really knows about them.”

“That’s not true. If you think I’ll be in demand, what do you think they’ll want from the Fleet captain who became best friends with the Lancer of Alsea?”

“Stars and Shippers,” Ekatya said in sudden realization. “That’s what the admiral meant.”

Lhyn looked at her knowingly. “You got a call, too.”

“I was just coming to tell you about it. They’re offering me a new Pulsar-class ship, as soon as it comes off the construction line. But until it’s ready, I’m supposed to liaison with a new task force headed by Minister Staruin.”

“The leader of the Reform Party is heading a task force focused on Alsea? That’s big.”

“She didn’t say it would focus on Alsea. She said it would be reviewing the Non-Interference Act, and I was the perfect military liaison since I shattered the Act into a thousand pieces. But I think you’re right; it’s mostly going to be about Alsea.” Ekatya leaned against the window. “I was going to ask you to help me decide what to do. But if you’re going back, so am I.”

“You were going to ask me?”

She remembered Lhyn saying There was always this little voice and decided it was time to put a nail in that coffin. “Of course I was going to ask you. I told you once that I was married to my ship, and it wasn’t much of a joke then. But two months ago, I was lying in a field looking at my crashed ship and realized that there was something much more important in my life.” Reaching out for Lhyn’s hand, she added, “I know it didn’t seem like it when I tried to leave. But looking back now, I didn’t have a chance. Did I ever tell you that I heard your voice up there?”

“Well, I was talking to you on the wristcom…”

“No, I’d cut off communication by then. We were in the middle of giving the orders for the Caphenon to self-destruct, and right after the ship said my command code was required, I heard you plead with me not to do it. For a moment I thought I’d left the com open; it was that clear.”

Lhyn was looking at her oddly. “I did beg you not to do it. Out loud. I was standing right next to Andira and talking to the sky.”

Ekatya felt a chill. “I think I heard you.”

“Holy Shippers.”

They stared at each other in silence until Lhyn squeezed her hand and said, “I guess we’re stuck with each other.”

“I guess we are.”

“So we’re going back?”

“We have to, don’t you think? If you don’t, you’ll lose your position at the Institute and your reputation—”

“I don’t care about—”

“—and the Alseans need you to advocate for them,” Ekatya finished. “They need me, too. Think about it. How fine is the line between fascination and fear? The Alseans are an empathic species who destroyed the Voloth with nothing but their minds. How long would it take some reactionary politicians to paint them as an even greater threat than the Voloth?”

Lhyn stared at her. “I never thought of that. Sometimes I hate your military mind. That’s horrible.”

“But it’s reality. And the only way we can fight it is if we get out there with the truth. With the details. The more familiar we make them seem, the better it will be. And who better to tell their story than us? You’re the scientist who learned their language and know more about their culture than anyone in the Protectorate. I’m the Fleet captain who fought the Voloth with the help of Alsean warriors. Alsea needs us, but they need us out there more than here.”

“But I’d rather be here,” Lhyn said. “Shekking Mother, I hate this.”

“It’s not forever. We’ll come back.”

“You’d better believe it. My life’s work is here. You need to understand that. I’ll go back because you’re right, we have to. But I’m only staying as long as I can be that advocate you talked about. When the data is out there, when my book is published and I’ve done the talk show circuit, I’m coming back.”

“Then so will I.”

Lhyn nodded, a single tear slipping down her cheek. “I’m going to miss them.”

Ekatya folded her into a hug. “Me too. But they’ll have the quantum com on the shuttle, not to mention that Kameha repaired the quantum com on the Caphenon. Andira has a pad and you can give one to Lanaril, too. We’ll always be in contact.”

“It’s not the same.”

“No, it’s not. But it’s better than nothing.”

“We won’t have any more Sharings.”

“Yes, we will. Just not for the next year or two.”

“I’ll miss her,” Lhyn whispered.

“I know,” Ekatya said, squeezing her more tightly. “So will I.”





Chapter 68

Celestial stone rising


“History loves a cycle,” Micah said quietly. “But this has to be the shortest one I’ve seen.”

Tal nodded; it was indeed a familiar scene. Once again they were standing on the landing pad at Blacksun Base, waiting for the crew of the Caphenon to leave. And just like before, one Gaian was staying behind.

“I wish I could stay with you,” Lhyn was saying to Commander Kameha. “I’m so envious.”

“But you’ll come back, yes? Because I’ll miss our trips to the market.”

Lhyn laughed and gave him a warmron, an odd sight given her great height and his diminutive stature. But Tal understood Gaian warmrons far better now, having received them on a nightly basis as she, Ekatya, and Lhyn made the most of their remaining time. She watched this one with a smile.

Retaining Commander Kameha as her new Chief of Advanced Technology had been an enormous coup, raising her status in a Council that hadn’t entirely forgiven her for breaking Fahla’s covenant. It seemed that saving the planet wasn’t a good enough excuse for some, and she was fighting a public relations battle. Having the Gaian chief engineer at her side while she made the announcement was the political highlight of the moon, and Kameha had been overwhelmed by the enthusiastic reception. All one hundred and eighty ministers plus the six caste Primes pounded on their wooden armrests in a cacophony of approval, and Prime Builder Eroles immediately invited Kameha to join her caste as an honorary member. Prime Scholar Yaserka bounced up right afterward, issuing a counterinvitation for him to join the scholars. Hoping to keep the moment from devolving into an argument, Tal suggested that Chief Kameha take some time to consider his options. But he shook his head and informed the Council that he already knew where he belonged.

“In twenty cycles I’ve never gotten my fingernails completely clean,” he said. “I’m a builder at heart.”

Now he stood out from his former shipmates as they took turns saying good-bye. The Gaians were all back in uniform, having given up the Alsean clothing most of them had adopted over the past moon. But Kameha wore a formal Alsean suit, his light blue caste color prominent in the half cape that rustled in the breeze. Tal was certain Eroles had arranged for that outfit; the woman was positively gleeful about her new caste member. Not only that, but she seemed to think Tal had something to do with Kameha’s choice. As a result, she’d dropped her vocal protests against Tal’s use of emergency powers.

Aldirk was right: intent counted for nothing in politics. Usually, that worked against her, but every now and then fortune smiled instead.

“How’s she taking it?” Micah asked as Ekatya stepped in to give her chief a warmron.

“She’s happy for him. And a little envious, like Lhyn.” And already mourning the absence of a friend, though Tal would not reveal what Ekatya had not voiced. But she and Kameha shared a long history; such things were not easily replaced.

“She doesn’t mind that you poached him off her crew?”

“I did not—” Too late, Tal saw his broad grin and thumped an elbow into his ribs. “I’ll have you know that my considerable powers of persuasion were not required. He was happy for the invitation and said he’s ready for something more challenging than repairing starships. The idea of helping us come up to Protectorate levels appeals to his sense of adventure. Besides, he’s very intrigued by our nanotechnology.”

“And yet the first thing you have him doing is directing the repairs to the Caphenon.”

“Yes, but I don’t think it will take him long to train our engineers. Then he can get started on what he really wants to build.”

“The space elevators.”

Tal nodded. “We won’t be depending on the Gaians for long.”

Ekatya had separated from Kameha and was now striding toward Tal and Micah. “Are you ready?”

“I am,” Tal said. “Micah’s a bit nervous, though. You might need to hold his hand.”

“Certainly. Colonel Micah?” Ekatya held out her hand with a straight face.

“I assure you that will not be necessary. Lancer Tal is merely using me as a proxy for her own fear, since admitting to it would be political suicide.”

“I must have misheard, then. I thought you called this shuttle a rattlebucket held together with string.”

Ekatya smiled. “It doesn’t look like much, does it? But Fleet tested it for three days before shipping it over here. If I’m trusting Lhyn in that, you can be certain it’s safe.”

While the shuttle was large enough to carry the Gaians as passengers, it had no space sufficient for the three bodies that had been in cold storage for the past moon and a half. Since a second trip would be required, Ekatya had invited Tal to fly up with them and see the ship. She hadn’t needed to ask twice.

They followed her aboard, where a grizzled man with a spectacular bush of white facial hair waved at them from the pilot’s seat and spoke a stream of Common.

“He’s thrilled to have you on board and says not to worry, he won’t let Candini touch anything.”

“As if I’d want to,” Candini said from the copilot’s seat. “Have you seen this control board? Analogue switches!”

“But I notice you couldn’t resist sitting up front,” Tal said.

“Because I have to make sure he doesn’t kill us.”

The pilot said something else, prompting a snappy reply from Candini, and Ekatya rolled her eyes. “You don’t want to know. Here, let me help you strap in.”

It wasn’t like any transport Tal had ever seen. The seats were bolted directly onto the sides of the windowless fuselage, one on each side of a narrow aisle, and all of the gear went onto segmented overhead shelves with heavy netting holding it in place. The other Gaians were already in their places, with what looked like padded metal bars making a cage around their upper bodies.

Ekatya directed her to one of the empty seats in front and pulled down the metal harness, locking her in place. After settling Micah across the aisle, she said something to the pilot and slipped into the seat behind Tal.

A swaying motion told Tal they’d lifted off, and then an invisible hand pressed her in place as they lurched upward.

“Continal would have had something to say about those skills,” she called over to Micah. “I wish to Fahla he could be here.”

“He went to the best Return possible,” Micah answered.

“I know. That doesn’t make it any easier. And can you not find any pilots over the age of twenty-six? I swear you’re picking them out of first cycle training.”

“I found one who was fifty and you complained about her, too.”

“She was too nervous.”

“Has it occurred to you that the common denominator in all of these too-nervous pilots is you? You scare them.”

“Then they’re not right for the position.”

Whatever Micah said next was lost in the roar of engines, and the hand that had pressed on Tal’s chest earlier was now trying to shove her right through the back of the seat and into Ekatya’s lap. She closed her eyes and concentrated on breathing for what felt like a quarter hantick, until both the pressure and the roar abruptly eased. For a few moments she enjoyed the relief of not feeling crushed, and the next thing she knew her feet were floating up.

“Stars and Shippers, this thing doesn’t even have gravity plating!” Ekatya said from behind her. Raising her voice, she called, “All right, everyone, it’s going to be rough when we pass into the shuttle bay. The ship will be on full gravity, so we’ll be going from null to full in the blink of an eye. When I tell you, hook your feet under those rungs and wrap your hands around the armrests. Make sure your head is resting against the seat back and for the love of flight, please don’t get sick.”

Switching to her own language, she called up to the pilot. His reply was respectful on the surface, but there were waves of amusement coming off him, and Tal knew he’d intentionally neglected to mention the lack of gravity.

Her only complaint about her first-ever experience with weightlessness was that it didn’t last long enough. She’d have given much to release her harness and test her personal flying skills inside the shuttle. Since that wasn’t an option she played with her wristcom instead, taking it off her wrist and lightly batting it this way and that.

“Are you twelve?” Micah asked from across the aisle.

Tal grinned at him. “At the moment, yes.”

All too soon the pilot called out a warning, which Ekatya repeated in High Alsean. Tal refastened her wristcom and positioned herself as she’d been instructed, right before a ten-story building fell on top of her. For a few pipticks she couldn’t even get her lungs to work, since they were squished down in the bottoms of her boots. Then her body rebelled and she clenched her teeth against what felt like her entire collection of internal organs as they crawled up her throat and tried to get out. The gagging sounds from behind her indicated that she wasn’t the only one.

Though the pilot was smart enough to not laugh out loud, his mirth stood out against the emotional background. Tal was ready to kill him until her internal organs returned to their rightful places and she could sense his subtler emotions. He was a pilot from another time, feeling used up and done until he’d gotten the call to rescue another generation of warriors. Knowing that he had the stamina to withstand something these youngsters couldn’t…well, if Tal were in his place she’d be laughing inside as well.

Disembarking took considerable time, as each of the Gaians stopped to touch palms with her and Micah and say good-bye. Tal found it more difficult than she’d expected, especially when Candini offered a warrior’s arm-clasp and a toothy grin.

“When you get those shuttles built and you need someone to train your pilots, call me,” she said. “Because you’ll want the best.”

“Good thing I already know her. And speaking of the best, I never did find out how you landed the Caphenon with no engines. It must have been like dropping a stone from orbit.”

“Thrusters,” Candini said. “All the residual power of an overheated fusion core channeled through a hundred thrusters around the edges of the ship. It didn’t do much to slow our descent, but it gave me just enough control to miss Blacksun and keep the bow pointed forward while we were sliding.”

“Not only that,” Ekatya interjected, “but she kept the bow up until we’d come to a complete stop. Then she finally let it touch down. If she’d lost control of our pitch in that slide, we’d probably have been spread over several square lengths in very small pieces. It was the most virtuoso flying I’ve ever seen.”

Candini blushed, a rare outward confirmation of the emotions she normally kept hidden. “Just doing my job.”

“Then I’m deeply grateful that Captain Serrado knows how to find the best. Not only did you save my city, but you left me with a beautiful ship, a fortress, and a scientific laboratory all in one. All we have to do is a little reassembly.”

The biggest surprise was when Trooper Blunt stopped in front of her. She was the last one off the shuttle, and Tal had expected her to slip out with the other members of her weapons team. Instead she held up her palm and closed her fingers around Tal’s, a bold act for the shy young woman.

“I just wanted to thank you for saving the plants,” she said. “I know you must have so many other things to worry about that are probably much more important, but it really meant a lot to me that you saved them, too. Every time I went back aboard after the battle, I expected to see the orchids starting to die. But you had people in there watering them by hand.”

Tal smiled. “When he believed he was leaving, Commander Kameha made me promise I’d take good care of the Caphenon. Those plants are one of the ship’s systems, just like the fusion core. They were included in my promise.” She leaned in and added in a lower tone, “Besides, the producer caste would have had my head if I’d let the one part of that ship they claimed rights to wither away and die.”

“So it was political?”

“Don’t let her fool you,” Ekatya said. “She has a Filessian orchid in her office. And she was insistent that I find one of our gardeners to put on the quantum com with her Prime Producer. I believe a total transfer of care instructions took place.”

“Which one?” Blunt asked. “The orchid in your office, I mean.”

“The purple one that turns yellow. You were right, it’s beautiful. I can see why it’s your favorite.”

“You remember that?”

“Of course.”

Poor Blunt was so overwhelmed at the thought that she stammered her way through their farewell and chased after her shipmates as soon as she could. But when she reached them, her back straightened and she had an extra spring in her step.

“You are one Hades of a politician,” Ekatya said. “It can’t possibly benefit you to remember some personal detail about my most junior weapons officer, but you just sent her out of here walking on air.”

“One never knows when goodwill might pay off. Besides, Blunt did more for us than she’ll ever realize. Now I believe you promised us a tour of the ship?”

“She’s always going to wonder what you meant by that,” Micah murmured as they followed Ekatya down the ramp.

“I know. Serves her right for leaving us.”

The shuttle bay was smaller than the Caphenon’s, as was the rest of the ship. The captain—a stocky man with a square jaw and a rarely seen smile—toured them around with pride, but Tal couldn’t help comparing everything she saw with the Caphenon. So far as she could tell, the only claim this ship had to superiority was that it hadn’t been crashed. She thought Trooper Blunt would be particularly unhappy with the lack of orchids. The plantings on this ship seemed limited to practical oxygen exchange; aesthetics and a pleasant floral scent weren’t a consideration. But while the Caphenon smelled fresh even with half its systems offline, the air here smelled faintly metallic, a constant reminder that she was in an artificial environment.

Then they entered a lounge area with floor-to-ceiling windows, and Tal stopped in her tracks. Micah was equally stunned.

There was Alsea, blue and white and impossibly beautiful, just as she’d seen it in countless satellite images. But this was the real thing. She was really here.

“Incredible,” Micah breathed.

Tal nodded silently in assent, barely aware of the conversation around her as Ekatya took up the slack. She managed to drag her eyes away long enough to touch the captain’s palm when he offered it, but didn’t even notice when he left.

“Good thing you saved this for the end of the tour,” Lhyn said. “They’re not going anywhere now.”

“Not unless it’s a global emergency.” Tal walked up to the window to rest her hand on it. From here, without the rest of the room or the window’s frame in view, it felt as if there was nothing between her and space. For a moment she fiercely envied Ekatya, who had spent her life seeing things like this in places Tal would never go.

But then she focused on the great jewel of her planet, unconquered and pristine beneath them, and felt a peace settle over her. This was her home; protecting it was her highest duty. Seeing it from here served only to reinforce the rightness of so many decisions, from choosing the warrior caste to breaking Fahla’s covenant. She might never be tyree, but perhaps that was Fahla’s plan. Her life partner was there, hanging in space, a prize the Voloth had failed to take. A prize she would spend her life guarding.

They stayed in the lounge for a hantick, drinking something fizzy from the bar and trying to remember everything that needed to be said. Micah was mostly quiet, his gaze rarely leaving the view. When Ekatya and Lhyn invited Tal to see their quarters, she told him to stay there and enjoy it.

“I cannot,” he said staunchly. “My place is with you, especially on an alien ship.”

“I’m not at risk, Micah. I’ll be with Captain Serrado. Take a moment for yourself; you won’t get one like it for some time to come.”

“Colonel Micah, she’s perfectly safe here. But even if she weren’t, I assure you that I would defend her with my life.”

“Me too,” Lhyn said, which made both Tal and Micah smile.

“You’re sure?” he asked.

“I’m sure.” Besides, his true wish was as clear as a summer sky. She would not have him standing in a windowless corridor, guarding a closed door, when he could sit here and enjoy such a view.

He acquiesced, which spoke to the strength of his desires, and Ekatya led them out of the lounge. They walked down an unremarkable corridor, into a magnetic lift, and down an equally unremarkable corridor to a door that looked like any other. After confirming Ekatya’s voice command with the ship’s system, the door slid open.

“It’s not a suite in the State House, but they’re the nicest quarters on the ship other than the captain’s,” she said as they entered the utilitarian room.

Tal thought it was pleasant enough, though decorated far too blandly for her tastes. But it was an outside suite with actual windows, and that alone made it prime real estate. She found the placement of the sofa baffling, however: under the windows and facing inward, not outward. If she had these quarters, flipping that around would be the first thing on her agenda. How could anyone sit here and not look out?

“Andira,” Lhyn said, “we didn’t really ask you here to see our quarters.”

That got her full attention, and when she focused on their emotions, she knew. “One last Sharing?”

Ekatya threaded her fingers through Lhyn’s. “Yes, but…we’ve been talking, and we have an unusual request. You’ve always linked us together, but you’ve never Shared yourself.”

A chill ran down her spine. “It was never about me.”

“But it should be,” Lhyn said. “Lanaril Shared with me when we were still strangers. I consider you one of my closest friends now, yet I’ve never had that with you.”

“It finally occurred to us that we’ve been selfish,” Ekatya added. “You always made it about us, always so careful to hold yourself out of it. From what I understand, and from what Lhyn says, that’s not a true Sharing. You’re not getting the benefit.”

“Of course I am. Do you have any idea what a gift you’ve already given me? Tyrees allowing a Sharing outside the bonding ceremony?”

“I know how rare it is,” Lhyn said. “But I also know that you can’t relax into it, because you’re always holding up your blocks. We want to get it right this time, so you can enjoy it the way we do.”

Tal looked from one to the other, desperate for a reason to say no and unable to think of one that wouldn’t hurt them. But then she remembered that they had no experience sensing the emotions of anyone but their own tyree. Surely the chances were infinitesimal that they’d ever recognize what she’d kept out of their link.

When she agreed, their happiness made her smile despite her misgivings. In truth, it had always been an effort to keep up her blocks against the force of their energy. Lhyn was right; she hadn’t been able to relax.

Ekatya unzipped her uniform jacket, revealing an Alsean button-front shirt beneath. As she undid the top buttons, she said, “Not quite regulation, I know, but I’m not on duty.”

Lhyn had worn an Alsean jacket and now unzipped it halfway to reveal nothing but smooth skin. She gave Tal a lopsided grin. “We were pretty sure you’d say yes.”

They stood in the middle of the room, and Tal took one last look at the impossible view out the window before focusing herself and sliding her hands into place. As always, the jolt stiffened her spine—she’d never gotten used to it—but she lowered her head immediately and said, “Make the connection.”

“That quickly?” Ekatya asked.

“I don’t need to fortify my blocks this time.”

Ekatya laid a cool hand on Tal’s neck as she rested their heads together. “Oh! That’s different.”

Lhyn followed suit. “It is different.”

“Richer.”

“Warmer,” Lhyn agreed. “I can sense the increased complexity, but I can’t really tell where you end and Andira begins.”

Good, Tal thought. And as her friends lost themselves in the Sharing, she finally relaxed and let go.

Fourteen days ago, when she had linked these two women together for the first time, she’d thought she would never experience anything more intimate.

She was wrong.





Chapter 69

The last front


When Andira withdrew, breaking their link, Ekatya felt as if something had been physically ripped away from her. She wondered if it was because this had been her first Sharing involving direct contact with an empath’s emotions, but when she straightened and saw the sad smile on Andira’s face, she suspected the real cause was simpler than that. Their friendship might be young, but it went deeper than almost any other in her life, and she was already missing it.

She watched Lhyn throw herself into Andira’s arms and reflected on the irony of the situation. She’d come here because of Lhyn, and now she was leaving for the same reason.

But they were not leaving as the same people, were they?

Andira had lost her reticence when it came to hugs and embraced Lhyn tightly, closing her eyes as they held each other for the last time. Then Lhyn whispered something in Andira’s ear and kissed her cheek.

Andira’s eyes popped open, a look of such shock in them that Ekatya nearly laughed. Apparently, while hugs might be all right now, kisses were still culturally awkward. Too bad for the Lancer that she was going to get another one.

Lhyn let her go and said, “Ekatya, will you walk her out? I’m not really up to it.”

“Of course.”

Lhyn squeezed Andira’s hand. “Thank you for everything. And this isn’t good-bye. We’ll come back as soon as we can.”

“I’m counting on that,” Andira said. “Alsea won’t be the same without you.” She held Lhyn’s hand for a long moment before letting it go and meeting Ekatya’s eyes. “Shall we?”

It was a quiet walk to the lift. After the emotional intimacy of that last Sharing, there didn’t seem to be anything left to say. Colonel Micah was also subdued when they collected him, and no one spoke as they returned to the nearly empty shuttle bay.

“Micah,” Andira said when they reached the shuttle’s ramp, “I’d like a moment with Captain Serrado.”

“Of course.” He stepped up to Ekatya. “Captain, it has been a very great pleasure. And if I live until Fahla brings us home, I will never forget the sight of you shouting down the war council like an instructor with a batch of new trainees. It was the treat of a lifetime.”

She clasped his outstretched arm. “I have to admit it was rather satisfying. But there are certain things an outsider can get away with more easily.”

“You’re not such an outsider anymore. Farewell, and may Fahla guide you back to us.”

“Farewell, Colonel. Let me know if your war council needs more training; I’ll see if I can’t return sooner.”

He nodded and made his way up the ramp, where the pilot waited to settle him into his harness. Ekatya watched him go, rolling his final words around in her head. She suspected that from a man like Colonel Micah, being considered “not an outsider” was a high compliment indeed.

When she turned back, Andira was no longer making any effort to hide her sorrow. The look in her eyes brought up the lump that Ekatya had been swallowing ever since their Sharing had ended.

“You get used to saying good-bye in this job,” Ekatya said. “But in this case, it’s not helping.”

“I’ve never had to get used to it. Nor would I want to acquire any expertise. This is…” She trailed off, the consummate politician for once at a loss for words.

“Hard to believe I once wanted to kill you.” Ekatya smiled at the surprised laugh that elicited.

“You did a terrible job of it.”

“And thank your Fahla for that. I’d have lost one of my best friends and never even known it.”

Andira’s expression stilled. “I’m losing one of my best friends right now. But I know it all too well.”

“You’re not losing me. You know I’ll come back.”

“In my line of work, promises don’t always mean much.”

“Mine do,” Ekatya said firmly. “And even if I didn’t have my own incentives to come back, Lhyn would drag me here.”

“True words.” Andira managed a ghost of a smile. “Fahla knew what she was doing when she made you tyrees. She brought us the only people who could have saved us.”

“I think you saved yourselves. Lhyn put it pretty well when she said I saved Blacksun, but you saved your world.”

Andira reached out for her hand, lacing their fingers together. She studied their clasped hands for several seconds before looking up with the most open expression Ekatya had ever seen on her.

“I hadn’t planned to say this, and part of me is still convinced I shouldn’t. But I underestimated Lhyn, and if you hear it at all, it should be from me. Ekatya…had you not been tyree, I would never have let you leave without doing my best to share more than emotions.”

She should have been surprised, but some part of her had already known. Tightening her grip, she said, “Had I not been tyree, you would have succeeded.”

They stared at each other for a moment before Ekatya pulled her into a hug and kissed her cheek. She held on for a long time, until she was certain she’d pushed the tears back down. Letting go at last, she said, “Good-bye, my friend. For now.”

“For now,” Andira answered hoarsely. She stepped back, stiffened her posture, and thumped a fist to her chest. Then she turned and walked up the ramp without a backward glance.

Ekatya did not leave until the shuttle was out of sight.

In her quarters she found Lhyn in front of the viewport, looking down at the planet. Without a word, she crossed the room and wrapped an arm around her waist.

“Did she tell you?” Lhyn asked.

“Yes. Which explained why you didn’t walk her out. And why she wouldn’t let down her blocks in our Sharings.”

“She’s so lonely, Ekatya. I wanted her to have at least that much with you. I could feel it, during that last connection.”

“I felt it too, but I didn’t recognize it. You seem to be better at that than I am.”

“No, I just know what it feels like to be in love with you.”

Ekatya turned and kissed her. Maybe there was something left over from their last Sharing, because she could have sworn she felt a little jolt of electricity when their lips met.

“She saluted me before she left,” she said. “I’ve never seen her salute anyone.”

“Because she doesn’t. The Lancer salutes no one. But I guess the Savior of Blacksun is in a different category.”

“So is Andira Tal.”

Lhyn made no answer except to hold her more tightly. Past her shoulder, Ekatya watched the blue and white beauty of Alsea and imagined a tiny shuttle taking its leader back home.





Epilogue


“It’s a pleasure to have you on board, Lancer Tal.” The young builder looked as proud of the ship as if he’d put it together himself.

“It’s always a pleasure to be here. And this is certainly an easier entrance than the one we came through originally. You’ve all done a spectacular job.”

After three moons of work, the Caphenon was transformed. A new entrance had been cut through the hull, opening directly into what was now a lobby on the bottom deck. Upon clearing security, workers and visitors moved into the brightly lit corridor, where the plants grew in lush profusion and the art had been cleaned and painstakingly repaired. A few steps down the corridor, the magnetic lift waited to whisk passengers to any point in the ship in half a tick or less.

Tal nodded at the young man, who looked toward the ceiling and said, “Deck eighteen, section four.”

“Confirmed,” said the ship. The doors slid shut, and a few pipticks later they slid open again. Tal had felt no movement.

“Remarkable,” she said. “You’ve finally worked out the last of the shakes.”

“That was Kyne Sharroden. Chief says he’s a miracle worker.”

Though she still thought of him as a commander, Kameha had lost his rank when he’d resigned his Fleet commission. He’d suggested Kyne Kameha, using the honorific for a member of the builder caste, but it hadn’t caught on. The builders and scholars working under him had universally named him Chief, and nothing was going to change that now. Tal had teased him that within another moon she was bound to forget his family name.

The Caphenon’s ongoing repairs were now down to basic cleanup and restoration. The work crews were going deck by deck, transforming each in turn to a sparkling, orchid-scented space. When they reached the habitat ring, they began crating any personal possessions they found, labeling them with the name of their owner and storing them against the day when the space elevators were constructed and the Gaians’ belongings could be returned. The newly clean and empty crew quarters were being maintained as emergency housing in the event of the unthinkable. Eventually they would construct shield generators for their larger buildings, but that was far down the list of priorities. Right now the Caphenon was the only place on Alsea that could withstand a Voloth attack.

It was the issue of Gaian property that had brought Tal today. The work crew had reached the captain’s quarters, and she’d left standing orders that no one would pack up that suite until she cleared it.

“Here it is,” the builder announced. He turned and leaned against the wall next to the door, where he would wait until she came back out.

“Thank you.” Tal tapped the entry button and stepped through.

After the pristine condition of the corridor outside, she was unprepared for the destruction in this room. Ceiling tiles lay in pieces everywhere, while conduit and cabling slumped in piles where they’d been cut free during repairs. A heavy structural beam had crashed down near Ekatya’s desk, spilling something in the process that had stained the carpet a rusty brown.

Tal’s gaze had already moved on before her brain registered just what that stain was. Her head snapped back and she stared in horror.

Lhyn had been brought out of the habitat ring, the last one to be rescued. She’d never said anything about i