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Purge of Prometheus

Purge of Prometheus


Jon Messenger Purge of Prometheus









CHAPTER 1:

    Yen Xiao stood among the wreckage of the laboratory. Spikes of pain roared through his head as he wobbled unsteadily on his feet, his mind drained after his uncontrolled outburst of psychic energy. He clenched his eyes tightly shut, squeezing free tears from the corners of his eyes as he ran shaking hands through his long dark hair. Around him, the room lay in waste. Tables were overturned and twisted, pushed to the far walls from where Yen stood; the area around him stood clear of rubble, his own body clearly the epicenter of the destruction. Beakers lay smashed on the floor and noxious fumes flooded the room. Yen hardly noticed, his own pulse seeming to burn his veins as it coursed through his temples.
    As he opened his eyes, Yen’s focus fell on the mangled corpse near his feet, the body illuminated by the large screen hanging on the wall; the one surviving piece of technology within the room flickered its blue image lazily throughout the decimated room. The face of the corpse was mangled, the once proud Terran features no longer recognizable amongst the dangling strips of muscle and tissue. Flesh was stripped from both arms where the Terran had attempted, unsuccessfully, to shield himself from the blast. The body had once belonged to the Terran geneticist Doctor Solomon, a man who Yen had been ordered to bring back alive.
    Doctor Solomon was the lead scientist for the Terran Empire and had been responsible for controlled genetic mutations that had led to thousands of deaths on Alliance planets throughout known space. It was on his orders that the Terran Fleet invaded Interstellar Alliance space a few months before, resulting in the first major conflict between the two forces since the Taisa Accord nearly one hundred and fifty years ago. In retaliation, the Alliance sent their fleet on an invasion of their own, directly to the Terran home world: Earth. Using untested warp technology to bypass the Terran orbiting defenses, the Alliance landed their forces on the planet’s surface where, led by the psychic warrior Yen Xiao, they cut a swath through the surprised Terran defense forces. It had been during a conflict with one of Doctor Solomon’s genetic creations, a Terran modified with his own psychic powers, that Yen had pushed his own abilities beyond their capacity. Though he had killed the Terran psychic, Yen felt the control of his own powers slipping away until, finally confronted by the doctor, his energy lashed out on its own accord, destroying the lab and killing not just the doctor but Yen’s own squadron.
    His power mostly spent now, Yen still struggled to maintain control. He clenched his hands into tight fists, reveling in the pain it caused as his fingernails scored deep cuts into his yellowed skin. The pain and endorphins his body released in response seemed to settle his mind and corral his mental focus. Nostrils flaring, he breathed deep the intermixed fumes of the laboratory and brought his visible shaking under control. He had failed his mission of bringing back the scientist alive, but he survived. Right now, that seemed to matter more to Yen than anything else.
    The spikes along his spine bristled as he heard another noise in the room. Spinning, he glared at the Alliance soldiers entering the laboratory. They halted, alternating their surprise between the carnage of the room and Yen who stood unscathed but haggard in its center. The torn bodies of a dozen Alliance special operations soldiers littered the room, their remains tossed haphazardly amongst the broken tables and equipment along the room’s walls.
    The first soldier into the room, identified as a Magistrate by the rank on his lapel, pulled his assault helmet free from his head. Yen didn’t recognize the Uligart soldier, but he wasn’t surprised. The assault had consisted of more than one million soldiers, who landed throughout Earth’s surface.
    “What the hell happened here?” the Magistrate demanded, his privileged officer mannerisms apparent in his behavior.
    His words ran like razors along Yen’s spine. The tone rang in disharmony to the silence of the room and sent more spikes of pain spreading through his mind. Yen tilted his head away as though physically struck.
    “The good doctor,” he said, indicating the body on the floor, “must have set up a trap for us.” The lie rolled off his tongue fluidly. “When we entered, he set off an explosion that killed himself and all my men.”
    “And you are somehow unscathed?” the Magistrate asked disparagingly.
    Yen’s eyes shot open once more and he glared at the Uligart, who backed away in shock. “Do you have any idea who I am, you little pissant?” Yen demanded, his voice taking a dangerous edge. “I am Yen Xiao! I have crushed the Terran forces beneath me as I strode confidently through their meager ranks! And I should crush you beneath my heel for even insinuating wrongdoing on my part!”
    The Magistrate cleared his through and stammered an apology. “Forgive me, sir. I was not aware of who you were. It was dark in the room when we arrived and we were overcome with…”
    Yen interrupted him with a wave of his hand. His angry outburst had sent his powers spiraling away from his control once more, and he feared completely losing his grip on his energy once again. He breathed in a slow cadence in order to allow his body and mind time to relax, regardless of the rest of the Alliance soldiers watching him in silence. If his powers were so easily slipping away from him now, how long would he be able to maintain control before he endangered everyone around him? What if he lost control while onboard a ship? His powers had the ability to tear through the hull and suck his lifeless body into the vacuum of space. Yen shuddered at the thought before taking another deep breath.
    “Forget about it, Magistrate,” Yen began softly. “Get your men together and prepare to evacuate the planet. Our mission here is already done.”
    As the Magistrate began barking orders to his soldiers, the blue screen behind Yen flickered to life. The lazy blue glow was replaced by an oversized face of the recently deceased Doctor Solomon. The face stared into the destroyed room, a look of somber sobriety cast over the doctor’s features. As he spoke, his voice was amplified by hidden speakers along the walls.
    “My name is Doctor David Solomon. If you are watching this video, it means that I am already dead.”
    Yen flinched at the loud sound, but stood entranced as the video continued. The other Alliance soldiers slowly entered the room, drawn by the sound of the Terran’s voice.
    “Five years ago,” the doctor continued, “I inherited the Terran Mutation Project which was created nearly one hundred years ago as a safeguard against invasion by the Interstellar Alliance. However, in all that time, the Alliance and the Empire have both stoically remained fastidious about the terms of the Taisa Accord. Both sides remained loyal to the non-invasion agreement and obeyed a no-fly zone through the approved Demilitarized Zone.
    “Though both sides strictly obeyed the precepts of the Accord publicly, our spies sent back information to the Lords’ Senate that the Alliance planned military operations against Terran outposts. I was approached, following this discovery, to turn the Terran Mutation Project from a defensive to offensive weapon. My results were spectacular! My shining accomplishment with the Project came with the modification of the Seque, a domicile load-bearing creature native to a galaxy within Alliance occupied space.”
    Yen frowned deeply. He clearly remembered his encounter with the Seques, having been part of the Alliance strike force that investigated the loss of communication with one of the largest cities within the galaxy to which the doctor was referring. What they had found troubled Yen: blood and obvious signs of conflict littered the city, but no bodies were found, the inhabitants of the city replaced by the Seques who roamed freely through the streets. It was what happened next, though, that haunted Yen ever since. The Seques had risen up with deadly intellect and decimated the nearly one hundred person assault team. Their sharp horns and jagged teeth tore through the thick body armor of the Alliance soldiers, leaving piles of dead littering the streets. Of the one hundred that landed on the planet’s surface, only four escaped, finding a small shuttle concealed within a military outpost on the outskirts of the city.
    “…lavished with praise by the Lords’ Senate,” Doctor Solomon’s message continued as Yen remembered his haunting encounter. “It was truly the highlight of my career. At least, it was, until a chance encounter with an Oterian smuggler flying through the Demilitarized Zone. After being taken captive, the Oterian revealed his cargo, a strange substance that was later designated as Deplitoxide. The disenfranchised smuggler agreed to provide more of the chemical to us, which we weaponized for rocket attacks against Alliance ships. Armed with the new weapons, I ordered the fleet into Alliance space.
    “Initial tests were very promising, until the small fleet was destroyed by an Alliance counterattack. The rest, as they say, is history.”
    The image of the doctor sat silently on the screen. Yen, lost in his own thoughts, turned away in disgust and prepared to leave, but froze when the doctor continued.
    “Well, it would have been history, except that I wasn’t done with my research. Deplitoxide had too many uses outside of ship to ship engagements to be content with our results. The chemical’s ability to transmute heat and energy had far reaching implications, many of which the universe will experience now that I’m dead.”
    Yen turned back to the screen as the image changed. Where the face had stood before, it was now replaced with a computer representation of a star system, the sun glowing brightly in the center of the concentric circle orbits of the planets. A small green disk appeared near the sun as the narrative continued.
    “The Lords’ Senate had approved one last bit of research, knowing that a strike by the Alliance was highly probably after we invaded their space. The research was as intriguing as it was revealing. The thesis of our research was simple: if the Deplitoxide had the ability to transform the engine fuel of ships into a black tar, then the effects on a burning sun would be catastrophic.”
    The excitement in Doctor Solomon’s voice was barely concealed as the diagram began moving. The green disk lowered gently toward the glowing representation of the sun. As it struck the sun’s surface, the screen flashed brightly before the glowing orb rapidly darkened and cooled, leaving behind a black husk where the sun had previously stood.
    “To that end, the Terran Empire pre-positioned canisters of Deplitoxide in orbit around forty-three different suns in thirty-two star systems. As this message is playing, signals are being sent to these canisters. If we can’t defeat the Alliance by force, then we’ll simply have to kill them where they live.”
    The image transformed back to that of the doctor, who was smiling broadly. “While I know I will always be remembered for this brazen scientific gambit, I can only hope my research is continued by those who would not live under the yoke of Alliance domination. I was known in life; let me be immortalized in death.”
    With the message finished, the doctor’s face froze on the screen before the message began replaying once more.
    “My name is Doctor David Solomon. If you are watching this video, it means that I am already dead.”
    Yen shook his head in disbelief. Trillions of people lived through Alliance space, many of whom would now be in jeopardy if what Doctor Solomon was saying was correct.
    “…the Alliance and the Empire have both stoically remained fastidious about the terms of the Taisa Accord…”
    Without suns to grant life-giving warmth to the planets, they would be damned to unnatural winters. Crops would die in the fields. People would freeze to death as temperatures plummeted. Millions, if not billions, would die of exposure and starvation.
    “…disenfranchised smuggler agreed to provide more of the chemical to us, which we weaponized for rocket attacks…”
    Yen knew that there had to be a way to stop the signal before it was sent. He rushed over to the computer console and tried to access the control prompt. Every combination of codes he tried, however, resulted in a small red phrase flashing across the screen as the message continued. “Access Denied,” it read over and over again as Yen tried to hack into the Terran system.
    “…we can’t defeat the Alliance by force, then we’ll simply have to kill them where they live…”
    Yen slammed his fist into the computer console and gasped for breath as the power surged through his system. His nerves burned as his combined rage and frustration poured adrenaline into his blood. The air wavered before his eyes and bile burned in his throat.
    “…I was known in life; let me be immortalized in death…”
    “My name is Doctor David Solomon…”
    With an angry flick of his hand, the screen exploded into a shower of plastic and glass. The room was suddenly cast into a soothing silence and the power, having found a release, slowly subsided. Yen turned to the soldiers, both mortified and furious.
    “Gather your men,” he said, “and get ready for an immediate evacuation. We need to get back to the Fleet now!”

CHAPTER 2:

    Keryn Riddell cut the heavy gravity acceleration as she entered the Orthorius Galaxy and began her decent toward Othus, the only inhabitable planet in a galaxy dominated by a burning, swollen yellow sphere. The eighth planet in the system, the atmosphere around Othus had evolved to repel the heavy radiation that poured from its large sun. As a result, the sky above the planet held a sickly, radioactive green hue. Despite being located so far away from the sun, the planet’s atmospheric temperature was significantly higher than most inhabited planets in the known universe. Keryn, who had already been suffering during the long voyage to Othus, was not looking forward to further discomfort added to that which she had already endured.
    Twisting the latch that held her harness closed, Keryn stretched her stiff muscles as much as the cramped cabin would allow. Though the inhibitors on board her ship, the Cair Ilmun, greatly reduced the pressure of the increased gravities a craft would encounter during long transits between galaxies, the technology wasn’t able to transform the intense accelerations into a single gravity. As a result, a crew traveled for months at a time feeling as though a foot constantly pressed against their chest. They struggled for breath and moved as though they carried an extra thirty percent of their body weight.
    Keryn clicked the microphone strapped to her throat, engaging the intercom that ran through the small vessel.
    “Regular gravity restored,” she announced in a voice that seemed strained and tired. Though faint through the heavy metal door that separated the cabin from the crew quarters, she could hear the cheers from a relieved crew.
    It was good to hear them cheer, she thought. The last time she had heard them cheer so exuberantly was when the entire team of seven first descended on Pteraxis, the last known location of Cardax and his black market organization. She remembered that their cheers were short lived. Their attempt to capture Cardax then had resulted in disaster, with two members of her team killed and McLaughlin, who was still in what passed for the ship’s the sick bay, only stabilized after being wounded severely when a grenade landed near by.
    The door to the cabin slid open and Adam Decker, one of the only two Pilgrims that had volunteered for this mission, entered into the cramped cabin. His shaggy blond hair brushed the transparent ceiling as he stooped, his muscular upper body bent forward in the confined space. Keryn turned to the best of her ability and flashed him a warming smile, glad to finally have company on the bridge of the ship. The Pilgrims were an odd ally in the war. Born Terrans, they had turned against the Empire’s teachings, siding instead with the Interstellar Alliance.
    “How are you doing up here?” he asked, rubbing his left shoulder in an attempt to work out the stiffness that can only be experienced by prolonged exposure to heavy gravity.
    “I’m tired and extremely sore,” she replied. She turned back toward the front of the ship, focusing on the telemetry bringing them into the galaxy.
    “Are we still following his trail?” Adam asked sternly, he masked his contempt behind a cool composure and level voice, but she knew it was there, festering.
    Keryn looked down at the computer screen, watching their path perfectly follow a trail marked on the digital readout.
    “We’re no more than a day or two behind him,” she replied, freely showing signs of the same anger that Adam subdued. “We’ll catch back up to him soon enough.”
    The pair flew on in silence, watching the galaxy reveal itself as they skirted along the dark side of one of the super-heated planets orbiting the swollen sun. It wasn’t so long ago, Keryn thought with surprise, that she had never heard of the name Cardax. Though a successful smuggler, Cardax had flown under the radar of Interstellar Alliance, doing jobs on the outer rim galaxies and not causing too great a disruption to commerce in the universe. That changed just over a year ago, when Cardax stumbled upon an organic compound called Deplitoxide. Deplitoxide was composed of single-celled organisms that rapidly reproduce when exposed to extreme heat. Their outer membranes absorbed intense volumes of heat and converted the remaining matter into a viscous black byproduct. Cardax turned the organisms into a weapon, capable of completely disabling ships once missiles with Deplitoxide warheads were launched into their engines. The organisms fed on the superheated fuel that all ships used for interstellar transport, leaving behind a thick, black tar that ruined engines.
    Following his discovery, Cardax became a successful pirate, striking ships throughout the major trading route. His success brought on a small but loyal faction of followers, but also caught the eye of the Interstellar Alliance delegations. Warships were sent after Cardax, who quickly abandoned his smuggling operation and fled for the Demilitarized Zone. It was on the border of the Interstellar Alliance territory that Cardax did the unthinkable: he sold Deplitoxide to the Terran Empire for his immunity.
    For that, if for nothing else, Keryn and her crew were ordered — and willing — to capture and return him to the High Counsel for justice. But Cardax had made the hunt more personal when he killed two of her crew and severely wounded a third.
    Her painful reminiscing of their first encounter brought a question to mind that she should have asked as soon as Adam had entered the cabin.
    “How is McLaughlin?” she asked with genuine worry in her question.
    Adam shrugged. “He’s resting in the sick bay.”
    Keryn nodded, but didn’t feel very reassured. The ship’s “sick bay” was a converted storage bay, now lined with a cot and the minimalistic medical equipment they had on board.
    “The auto-injectors have been keeping his vital signs stable,” Adam continued, “but it won’t do anything for his missing arm. He’s still burning up with a fever, too.”
    “It’s been a long time,” she said quietly.
    “He should have gotten better, I know,” Adam replied, expressing the concern that she had been thinking. The grenade that struck McLaughlin had been a gift to Cardax from the Terran Empire. Their research into biological and genetic weapons had far exceeded that of the Interstellar Alliance and the grenade had been a byproduct of that scientific investigation. The explosive blast of the grenade had shredded through the soft flesh of the Pilgrim’s right arm, nearly severing it above the elbow. The open wounds, however, had caused the rest of the damage; the wounds allowed a biological agent into his body, one that was slowly breaking down his organs on a cellular level. Current Alliance technology had been, thus far, unable to cure him. Only one organization on their side of the war had the ability to heal him: the High Council. Comprised of the greatest military and scientific minds from among the races of the Interstellar Alliance, the High Council personified the brain trust that created the greatest in military strategy, technology, and medicine. But the High Council wouldn’t agree to treat their wounded until they completed the mission on which they had been sent. Without the capture of Cardax, McLaughlin would die.
    The Cair Ilmun dropped its wing and brushed through the atmosphere of one of the Orthorius Galaxy’s superheated gas giants, using the gravitational pull to accelerate toward Othus and the two large Cruisers currently orbiting the planet. Within the ship, the inhibitors continued to suppress the increase in gravities and the two in the cabin were uninterrupted in their conversation.
    “You think we’ll have any trouble with them,” Adam asked, gesturing toward the two Alliance Cruisers defending the planet. Their mission had been one of secrecy, which meant they were operating outside the normal boundaries of legality.
    Keryn shrugged. “Those two are just for show. They’re only here because we’re near a world on the demilitarized zone.”
    The sensors crackled to life as the closest Cruiser sent an automated IFF — identification friend or foe. Without any input from the crew, the Cair Ilmun sent its auto reply, identifying it as a member of the Alliance.
    Keryn didn’t slow her approach as the Cruiser processed her reply, nor did she and Adam cut short their conversation.
    “They may be armed to the teeth,” she explained, “but Othus is a smuggler’s haven. Unless a ship shows up with gun’s blazing, I’d be surprised if those Cruisers ever left their orbit.”
    Othus was a renowned holdover for notorious smugglers. Sitting on the demilitarized zone, it offered refuge for both Alliance and Empire citizens. The result was one of the most diverse societies, full of as many Terrans as any other race.
    Before long, the monitor in front of Keryn came to life, and a digital readout appeared.
    “Access has been granted. Please accept our welcome to Othus. Alliance Cruiser Dormark, out.”
    “You may want to head back and make sure everyone is strapped in,” Keryn remarked, turning back toward the forward controls and reaching for her pilot’s harness. “Things are going to get bumpy once we hit the atmosphere.”
    She smiled softly as she heard the cabin door slide shut as Adam left. Adam had been a loyal friend to her for many months, having volunteered for this mission. She was glad to have him by her side, even under such cramped confines. Keryn pushed forward on the accelerator and the Cair Ilmun sped between the two Cruisers and toward the planet’s surface.
    Depressing a series of buttons on her control panel, the cabin suddenly darkened as the clear alloy viewports turned dark in anticipation of the burning deceleration through Othus’ radioactive green atmosphere. She extended panels that would assist with building friction during their descent and braced for the rough entry. The Cair Ilmun struck the atmosphere at over one and a half gravities. The force of their impact with sudden gravitational friction shook the ship violently and created a sonic boom in their wake. Though the controls jumped in her hands and her arms strained under the constant vibrations, Keryn guided the ship through the roughest parts of the entry and into the smoother sky over the planet.
    The Cair Ilmun passed through the soft, flowing green clouds like a fish through water, leaving rippling waves in its wake. Keryn untinted the darkened windows and stared at the planet’s surface. Othus stretched out before her in an endless jungle and sweltering swamp lands. The heat from the surface radiated from the exposed earth, causing trees in the distance to dance to the planet’s unique rhythm. Large viridian leaves were a perfect compliment to the bright green of the sky.
    Glancing down at the display, Keryn waited for the sensors outside the ship to calibrate to the alien atmosphere. Slowly, readings began bouncing back from the surface scans, painting a picture on her display of heavy energy readings. In the distance, the city of Miller’s Glen glowed like a torch on the thermal scans. Adjusting her trajectory, Keryn accelerated toward the jungle outside the city.
    She clicked the throat microphone, activating the intercom once again. “Prepare for landing.”
    Keryn landed her ship in a grotto far outside town. She and the crew had identified the spaceport on the other side of the city and had considered landing there. However, any chance they had to surprise Cardax would be one she would take advantage of. Approaching from the far side, and from outside the city, was their best chance at capturing the Oterian.
    She shut down the fighter’s engines, keeping only the necessary auxiliary systems running. Intense sunlight flooded the cabin and she squinted her eyes against it momentarily. The thick shaft of light exposed the purple and red markings and deeply tanned skin that was the trademark of her race. She pulled free the clip that had held her hair from her face. Shaking free her long silver hair, she crinkled her nose at the smell that suddenly assaulted her.
    “Is that really what I smell like?” she asked in horror. She couldn’t remember the last time she had showered and the coveralls she wore while piloting hadn’t been changed or cleaned in weeks. The rebreathers that cleaned the air in her ship were already strained and did little to clean away the grime that she acquired after chasing Cardax for the past few months. Shrugging away her own scent, she slid back the hatch to the cockpit of the transport ship and climbed out onto yet another unfamiliar world. Othus’ unique flora and fauna crunched underfoot as she finally stood on solid ground again.
    The side hatch to the ship slid silently open and her remaining crew emerged. The three crew members — Adam; Penchant, the Lithid assassin; and the Avalon Cerise — stretched stiffly and squinted against the invasive sunlight. The halogen bulbs that glowed within the ship’s crew quarters were a poor replacement for true sunlight.
    “Welcome to Othus,” Keryn remarked with a sigh, in mockery of the message from the Dormark.
    Cerise turned in mock indignation, her pale, anemic body and large feathery wings stood out in stark contrast to the vibrant colors of the jungle. Sweat beaded along her hairline and her golden locks, matted from sweat and lack of washing, clung to the side of her head. She looked around and her eyebrows rose in surprise.
    “Another smashingly beautiful country,” Cerise said ruefully, her privileged upbringing reflected in her thick dialect. One could almost consider her pompous beyond toleration; Keryn still had difficulties with that. “I can only imagine the magnificent cultural advances that such a backwater planet has managed.”
    Keryn frowned. She didn’t care much for Cerise as an individual, but she knew Cerise was dedicated to proving herself once again as a soldier. Though frail by appearance, the Avalon appearance belied a surprising strength. The large, feathery wings allowed for limited flight, enabling Cerise to operate both as a scout and air coverage should the group get into trouble. Keryn opened her mouth to respond, but was interrupted by a low, rumbling voice.
    “Enough of the small talk,” Penchant growled from behind the obsidian, featureless Lithid face. His clawed hands and spiked tail twitched in irritation. “Less talk, more getting me out of this heat. The sooner the better.”
    “Alright, everyone,” Keryn said sternly, once again taking command of the assault team. Reaching into her pack, she pulled out a map of the area and laid it out on the ship’s wing. As the others gathered around, she began the mission briefing.
    “We’ve been over this before, so none of this should be a surprise. Cardax probably set up shop near the spaceport. He knows we’re following him, so he’ll be established close to his ship for an easy evacuation. That’s why Penchant, once we get in the city, you’ll establish our safe house in this district.” She gestured to a market district that approached the spaceport from the south. “Once we have the safe house, we’ll block access to the port and flush him out of his hole.”
    Keryn looked up from the map and met the eyes of her soldiers. “Remember, we may have a map, but he knows this city better than we do. These are his people.” Her voice gained a solemn edge. “There’s a good chance that this is another ambush. Stay on your guard.
    “You all know your roles. Cerise, you’re the closest thing we have to a medic. Take care of McLaughlin and be ready for air support if we run into trouble. Adam and Penchant, you’re with me. And, Penchant, get into character.”
    The black skin of the Lithid shimmered and rippled, as though a stone had been dropped into a pond. His form stretched and twisted, melting like wax before coloring and hardening into sharp Terran facial features with blazing red hair and beard. His clawed hands retracted, to be replaced with calloused and fleshy fingers. Where a dark Lithid had stood moments before, a bearded Terran now stretched its limbs.
    “Better?” Penchant asked, his low growl the only thing that still remained of the talented doppelganger assassin. He stood naked, his new pink skin warming under the bloated sun.
    “Much,” Keryn replied, suppressing a smiling. “Now try putting some clothes on before you embarrass Adam.”
    The other two members of her strike team went about changing out of their coveralls and switching into more inconspicuous clothing. Turning away from them, Keryn proceeded to do the same.
    Keryn stretched her lithe body and, covering her violet eyes, glanced toward the sky. A vibrant yellow sun burned brightly in the faintly green sky and the heat from the enlarged sun made her uncomfortable. Though only moments outside the cool confines of her ship, Keryn could already feel the sweat rolling down her back.
    Propping open a hatch near the right wing, she pulled out a small travel bag and dumped its contents onto the flat of the wing. With little thought to modesty, she unbuttoned her flight suit and let it fall forgotten to the ground. She quickly donned the lightweight blue shirt and brown pants that she wore when not suffering from the gravitational forces of space travel. Clipping her pistol to her side, she pulled on the long, thin jacket to hide its presence. With a cursory glance around the grotto, Keryn placed her flight suit and the bag back inside its compartment. By the time she was done, the other two members of her assault team had also changed and were ready to leave the ship, their own sidearms carefully concealed amidst loose fitting clothing. Content, the three turned and began the three-mile walk to the city.
    The group walked through the humid jungle in relative silence, each lost in their own thoughts. For Keryn, her thoughts were repeatedly pulled back to her own disappointment at her current assignment. As the Squadron Commander aboard the Revolution, Keryn had excelled, much like she had done in the Academy. Her uncouth battle techniques and quick reflexes within her squadron had established the Revolution as one of the flagships of the Interstellar Alliance Fleet and, as such, she had been poised to lead the assault on Earth’s orbital defenses. As the Fleet prepared to make the experimental warp to Earth, however, the High Council had approached her with a different mission, one that she wanted to refuse but found herself unable to deny.
    Instead of leading Squadrons of fighters during the largest assault in the past few centuries, Keryn had been delegated to a seven-soldier assault team hunting down a smuggler fugitive. She had trouble accepting her assignment as anything less than a demotion for some unknown affront against the High Council.
    Decker’s yell pulled her from her thoughts. As they broke through the trees, Keryn found Adam removing his shirt while balanced at the lip of a small outcropping of rock. Beyond him, sparkling in the warm sun, a river bubbled past from a waterfall a few hundred meters upstream.
    “Well I’ll be damned,” she muttered, happy to think that she might finally wash away some grime. If nothing else, it would give them the chance to blend into the city, as opposed to looking and smelling like they had just flown halfway across the universe.
    Her thoughts were interrupted by a loud splash, as though flesh struck water at an uncomfortable angle. Keryn’s eyes glistened as she heard the sound and a smile crept across her face.
    Paddling giddily near the center of the lagoon, Adam laughed to himself while vigorously rubbing a bruise spreading across his side.
    She didn’t wait for an invitation before stripping off her jacket, kicking off her boots, and dropping her pistol absently on top of the growing pile of clothes. With little thought to prying eyes, Keryn pulled her shirt free and unbuttoned her pants, adding both articles of clothing to the pile. Standing naked on top of the rocks that lined the shore of the river, the swollen yellow sun glistened off her wildly attractive form, her red and purple tattoos tracing the curves of her body.
    As Keryn braced herself for her jump into the cool waters, Adam sat in the water and admired the firmness of her athletic and curvy body, his bruises already forgotten. He watched longingly as she started her sprint toward the edge of the rocks, intent on throwing herself into the stream. Moments before her feet left the rock outcropping but much too late to stop her momentum, Adam snapped out of his fantasizing, suddenly scared.
    “Stop!” he yelled as her feet left the rock.
    She tucked her legs under her, pulling her knees to her chest in anticipation of hitting the water. She struck the surface of the water, hitting her backside first and knocking the wind from her. Her body unfolded as she struck the solid surface of the water, its surface bowing but not giving way to her weight. Skipping like a stone, Keryn could feel the welt already forming on her bottom. Slowly, her momentum petered out until she came to a rest. When finally stopped, she broke through the surface of the stream and was dumped, unceremoniously, into the cold water.
    Spitting river water from her mouth and brushing her silver hair out of her face, Keryn clutched her bruised backside and gasped for breath.
    “What the hell was that?” she screamed after finally taking in a lung full of air.
    “I tried to warn you,” Adam replied, swimming over to her. “Apparently the surface tension on this planet is significantly higher than anywhere else we’ve been. I found out the hard way too,” he finished, showing the spreading bruise on his ribs.
    “You could have warned me just a little sooner instead of just…,” she paused, “staring. Now you owe me one.”
    Adam covered the rest of the distance between them in a couple powerful strokes of his arms. “However can I make it up to you,” he replied in mock penitence. He stared deeply into her eyes, his blue reflecting in her deep violet eyes.
    A coarse laugh caused them both to turn. Penchant stood on the embankment laughing. Though capable of changing forms at will, the Lithids could do nothing to change their voices, which remained rough and gravelly.
    Keryn narrowed her eyes and stared at the bearded persona Penchant had adopted. “Don’t start laughing now, Lithid. This isn’t just a social stop along our way. You may not have sweat glands that excrete body odor, but the rest of us smell terrible and are going to scrub thoroughly before getting dressed. I’m not spending a few days in close confines with us smelling that bad.” She turned to Adam, who had inched closer through the dense water. “That means you, lover boy.”
    Dejected, Adam swam away and began scrubbing some of the grime that had collected over their months of travel. Penchant moved around the edge of the water, keeping watch over the two as they washed.
    As Penchant stood on the far shore, staring at the encroaching wilderness, Keryn finished her diligent washing and walked onto dry land. She stood, letting the hot sun dry the beads of water that rolled down her naked back, down her strong legs, and pooled on the ground at her feet. Tilting her head, Keryn began ringing the water from her hair.
    Glancing over her shoulder, she called to Penchant. “Gather our clothes and come across. Give us a quick recon of the area ahead, while we get dressed.”
    Penchant turned and disappeared down the far shoreline just as Adam emerged from the water, shaking himself dry like a dog.
    “Are we sure we’re up for this?” he asked, the flirtatious humor now replaced with deadly focus.
    “Unfortunately, no,” she replied, frustrated. “We know Cardax won’t be alone within the city, so we’ll have to be careful. On Pteraxis, he didn’t know what we looked like and it still ended badly for us.” Penchant approached them from out of the jungle. He dropped their gathered belongings at their feet and both Keryn and Adam began dressing.
    “Aside from his crew, we have to assume that Cardax came here because he knew he was being followed and could find sanctuary. That means we are definitely walking into a trap. What we don’t know is how many men he’ll have waiting.”
    “So we go in, guns blazing?” Adam asked, excitement reflecting in his blue eyes.
    “No,” Keryn said, firmly. “We aren’t carrying enough firepower to bring down an entire city and, for all we know, Cardax has the entire city supporting him. No, this mission is going to take a level of stealth.” She glanced over at the Lithid. “Penchant is our ace in the hole. He’s the one face Cardax will never recognize, no matter how many times he sees him.”
    “Stealth,” Adam grimly echoed. While an exceptional fighter with both firearms and hand-to-hand combat, Adam had never excelled at stealth. His towering frame and Terran features made him easily recognizable in Interstellar Alliance space.
    Keryn sympathized with Adam’s frustration. She would have preferred to enter the city with guns drawn, firing round after round into anyone stupid enough to ally themselves with Cardax. She still reveled in the memory of destroying one of Cardax’s two escaping ships at Pteraxis. But, even as skilled as they were, they simply didn’t have the firepower to win an extended war with Cardax and his cohorts. The enemy had the option to win the war simply through attrition.
    Buttoning her pants and pulling her shirt over her head, Keryn turned toward her two patriots. “Knowing Cardax, he’ll be near the spaceport, so we’ll start our search there. My worry is that even though we’ve looked at the map so many times my eyes feel like they’re going to bleed, we don’t know the city. Cardax does. We don’t know how many enemies we will face. Cardax does. We don’t even know where he’s hiding inside the city, even though we know where to start. What I do know is that the course of the war with the Terran Empire hangs in the balance. If we succeed, we can defeat the Terrans once and for all. If we fail, it will be more than just our lives lost. If that isn’t enough to motivate you, than ask yourself one important question.”
    She paused, smiling wickedly. “If you’re dead, how are you going to be able to take your revenge on Cardax, one broken bone at a time?”
    Adam and Penchant both laughed maliciously, knowing what she was referring to. Both had gone through the same special operations training that Keryn had, to include interrogation techniques. Clipped to the belts of all three of them was a small pouch, which contained a small rock hammer and a pair of serrated scalpels. When it came time to gather information from Cardax, it would not be a pleasant experience for the Oterian smuggler.
    Keryn latched her belt around her waist, adjusting her sidearm on her hip, and pulled on her coat. Adam strapped his tinted goggles onto his forehead, his blond hair jutting over the top of the round glasses, and tucked his modified rifle firmly against his side, allowing it to virtually disappear beneath his loose jacket.
    “Alright you two, let’s get going,” she said, turning toward the humid jungle. “We’re burning daylight.”

CHAPTER 3:

    As Doctor Solomon’s pre-programmed speech played, the gears and hydraulics controlling the dozens of satellite dishes whirred to life as his computer program ran though its start up protocols. Each dish moved independent of one another, each finding a programmed target in Earth’s orbit. As they clicked into place, one after another, they began broadcasting the same signal.
    The data bursts leapt from the Earth, striking seemingly dormant satellites in Earth’s atmosphere. The long-range telemetry satellites, finally glowing with previously latent power, fired small maneuvering rockets, realigning toward their remote targets. Firing massive bursts of energy and encoded data, the signal launched into the void of space.
    The signals traveled, unhindered, through the vacuum of space. Invisible to the naked eye, the signals passed within mere meters of traveling ships and crossed over heavily trafficked trade routes.
    For some signals, the journey lasted mere hours before reaching their targets. For others, the journey would take months of near light-speed travel before it would reach the receptors that remained angled toward the distant Earth.
    The signals with the shortest distance reached their targets before anyone knew of the danger. They struck their target with such speed that warning sirens were never raised. Silently, their untimely death traveled through the void, intent on their demise.
    The first signal struck a small heat-shielded ship, which hung in a low orbit around the sun of the Protagon Galaxy, which was inhabited by a race of amphibians that had supplied minor military support to the Interstellar Alliance. Though unmanned, the ship received the signal and altered its course. Dipping its wings, it began a haphazard decent onto the surface of the sun. The metal plating on the ship began to bubble as it entered the sun’s atmosphere. The damage to the ship increased as friction and heat from the surface struck the hull in waves. Strips of metal began to run like wax under the intense heat and panels broke free and disintegrated under the assault.
    Through the waves of ambient heat, the ship continued its suicidal decent. The nose of the ship broke apart, exposing the alloy girders that formed the framework of the craft. Fire and acrid smoke filled the cabin of the shuttlecraft, setting fire to the minor furniture that decorated the stripped quarters. As the ship neared the surface of the sun, the last of the metal plates on the exterior of the ship melted away. The girders themselves began to twist and bend under the temperature and pressure, exposing a single black canister that seemed impervious to the overwhelming malevolence of the yellow sun.
    As the last of the ship was destroyed, the single black canister fell free, pulled downward by the intense gravity of the sun. The cylinder struck the liquid magma, splitting open and gushing Deplitoxide onto the sun’s surface. The black chemical spread from the canister hungrily, multiplying and converting the magma in growing tendrils emanating from the point of impact.
    Across the Protagon Galaxy, the amphibians crawled from their watery homes to watch in horror as a black plague spread across their sun. Tendrils of darkness spread across the southern hemisphere of their sun, greedily devouring the warmth and light that spread across their planet. The blackness swelled until only slivers of sunlight still remained, and even then the ravenous chemicals continued their conversion of the magma into the dormant liquid covering the sun. The amphibians watched as darkness spread across their planets, casting them into an unnatural night. Without the life-giving sun, a chill began to permeate the planets. Temperatures plummeted and, though the amphibians dove deep into their underwater homes, they couldn’t escape the cold.
    Throughout the known universe, the signal reached out to pre-positioned objects. In the Raalst Galaxy, home to the Oterians, two seemingly harmless satellites began their suicidal descents into the red and yellow suns. Near the blue sun of the Avalon’s home galaxy, a canister was ejected from a passing freighter. Beginning with the closest galaxies, suns disappeared one by one under the poisonous chemical.
    And still, the signal continued its destructive course.

CHAPTER 4:

    Keryn and her crew pushed through the thick jungle until they came to the outskirts of Miller’s Glen. With most planetary and all interstellar travel being conducted by air, there were very few roads that led into the city. This allowed the jungle to creep nearly to the outlying buildings. The trio stopped at the edge of the city, thus far unmolested and unseen.
    Reaching under the collar of her jacket, Keryn exposed the radio strapped to her throat. Pressing the talk button, she called back to the ship.
    “Talon Base, this is Talon Six,” she called, using the call signs she had established with Cerise before leaving the ship.
    After waiting a moment, the small radio receiver concealed in her ear crackled to life. “Talon Six, this is Talon Base.” Cerise’s soft, effeminate voice, typical of the Avalon species, replied over the radio.
    “Task Force Talon has reached the city limits. Radio signal reception beyond this point is unknown, but expect delays or communications blackouts due to the tall structures. We will be maintaining radio silence for outgoing messages unless in an emergency, but will still be able to receive signals. How copy?”
    Cerise’s voice carried smoothly over the radio. “That’s a good copy. Talon Base will be expecting radio silence for incoming signals.”
    “Talon Six out,” Keryn finished her transmission, once again concealing the radio under her jacket collar. She turned back to the other two members of her assault team.
    “Remember,” she said, “stealth is the key. Make yourself inconspicuous.”
    “Stealth,” they both replied in unison.
    Stepping out of the foliage, Keryn and her team slipped past the large stone buildings that marked the beginning of the city. Miller’s Glen sprawled like a miniature metropolis; its stone buildings quickly gave way to the metal and glass structures that jutted from the center of the city in progressively taller and larger buildings. To Keryn, they looked like demons clawing over one another on their way out of hell; their metal spires rose like hands reaching in vain toward the emerald sky. The skies above the city were full of recreational crafts, flying in a carefully orchestrated three-dimensional overlay of airways.
    The entire city encompassed no more than two square miles, but the inhabitants packed as much activity into such a small space a possible. Market stalls spread down the narrow streets as merchants hawked their wares. Fabrics from all corners of the known universe stood proudly beside exotic fruits from distant home worlds. Illegal Terran technology was brazenly displayed on the streets by sellers who had little to fear from Interstellar Alliance police forces; the police forces were rarely seen on planets so far removed from commonly traveled space.
    Miller’s Glen had been founded as a melting pot of races interested in interspecies trade. Merchants arrived in an amalgamation of ships, each representative of their home worlds and unique physiology. After clearing away a patch of jungle, they established a trading village that catered not just to the legitimate merchants but to black market salesmen and smugglers. What began as a small trader’s haven quickly grew as travelers near the Demilitarized Zone began spreading word of the potential wares available in the small jungle city. The more the money flowed freely through the streets of Miller’s Glen, the larger the established stores. Street stalls were moved into one story stone buildings; one story stone buildings were moved into glistening towers of metal and glass; and those in the glistening towers cared less and less about the quality of inhabitants living in the streets below. The town, in essence, became the perfect hiding place for a traitorous smuggler like Cardax.
    “Give me an update,” Keryn said, smiling broadly as merchants flashed their wares from their street stalls.
    Adam glanced around, as though deciding what to buy from the nearby tradesmen. “Majority of the populace is armed. It appears that there are bodyguards located at the entrance to most storefronts. Any frontal assaults here are suicidal. Stealth will have to be the word of the day.” Adam grimaced at his own recommendation.
    “Penchant?” Keryn prodded the Lithid for his input.
    Penchant stared at the hypnotic dance of the small craft flittering overhead. Above them, his faux blue eyes narrowing to see past the smaller ships, he could see the larger merchant vessels floating toward the far side of town like bloated insects.
    “The spaceport is located on the far side of town,” his coarse voice seemed out of place on his smooth Terran exterior. “We can assume that Cardax landed there. He wouldn’t travel far from his ship, knowing that he’s being pursued. There are a couple bars and hotels in that area that would cater to Cardax’s tastes.”
    Keryn nodded in agreement and led her team through the densely packed streets. They left the flowing shorter stone structures and entered into the cavernous streets of the financial section of town. Though the large buildings blocked the sun, green light filtered down the street, reflected over and over again on the glass exteriors. Here, the flamboyantly dressed merchants gave way to smartly dressed management. The inhabitants of the center of the city consisted of those who had once found themselves hawking wares on the street corners, but had turned a simple stall into a financial empire. Their trade goods were seen across countless worlds and they each had thousands of employees. Some were legitimate businessmen; some no better than mob bosses ruling a business empire by fear and violence. Keryn often had trouble differentiating between the two.
    Eventually, the trio found themselves exiting the financial district and were surrounded by the prefabricated buildings and housing subdivisions of those who called Miller’s Glen home. The spaceport dominated the far end of town; a massive steel tower with spiraling arms, each firmly attached to a merchant vessel, space yacht, or in some cases personal warships, their sides rippling with armaments. Despite having Alliance Cruisers in orbit, those in Miller’s Glen knew that they were a facade of security and unlikely to engage any merchant, legal or not, entering the city.
    Though this part of the city consisted mainly of residential neighborhoods, Keryn and her crew were unable to escape the constant vendors that created the basis of Miller’s Glen. Glancing at the other two, Keryn noticed the stern looks and darting eyes, true signs of hunters on the prowl.
    “You both look like you’re on a mission,” she said coyly.
    Penchant tilted his head to the side in a remarkably Lithid movement. “We are on a mission, Keryn,” he said.
    Keryn laughed. “That’s my point. You’re not supposed to look like you’re on a mission while on a mission. Stealth is wasted if every person we pass thinks you’re up to something illegal or immoral.” She waved her arm around, drawing their attention to the numerous merchant booths. “Take a moment to look around and peruse the trade goods. It’ll make you look a little more natural in Miller’s Glen. Buy something, so people think you’re supposed to be here.”
    Begrudgingly, the trio split up and started looking at some of the nearby booths. Watching over her shoulder, Keryn laughed as she saw Penchant stiffly pick up a silk scarf, rolling the fabric between his fingers. For a race who had mastered the techniques of infiltration and mimicry, the Lithids still had a long way to go when it came to social graces.
    As Keryn turned back to her own booth, Adam slid up beside her. Absently picking up one of the large, circular metallic plates that the vendor was selling, his attention remained on her.
    “A fine plate,” the vendor began, spinning his sales pitch. He leaned across the table as he continued. “Made from some of the finest metals in the known universe. Very rare. Very rare, indeed. It would make a great addition to an existing collection or a great start for a young entrepreneur like yourself.” The merchant looked back and forth at the two customers. “Or, perhaps, it would make a beautiful gift for the beautiful lady?”
    Smiling, Keryn took the plate from Adam’s hands, admiring her own reflection in the shining metal.
    “What do you think, honey,” she purred. “Is this beautiful plate worthy of such a beautiful woman?”
    She turned the plate in her hand, watching the viridian sky reflected off the plate. The plate froze in mid turn, however, when Keryn noticed a dangerously familiar reflection caught on the metal surface. The massive Oterian frame that pushed its way through the crowd behind the pair was unmistakable. The over eight-foot frame, shrouded in dark brown fur, was capped with hooked horns that bent forward.
    “You will buy it for me?” she exclaimed, improvising cool serenity to quell her momentary panic. Smiling broadly, she threw her arms around Adam’s broad shoulders and pulled his head into her neck. With a flip of her head, her silver hair cascaded over his face. Burying her own face in his strong throat, she effectively hid both their identities from those passing close by. Adam, well trained to respond to unusual situation, wisely remained silent.
    “Cardax is here,” she whispered as the smuggler walked obliviously past the duo, “passing within a few feet of us.”
    “Should we take him now,” he inquired. She felt the arm not around her thin waist shift to the weapon hidden beneath his coat.
    Keryn shook her head slowly in the crook of his neck. “Now is not the time. Just observe his movements. We’ll want to engage him when it’s not quite so public.” She snuggled closer against his body. “Remember: stealth.”
    Adam shifted until his eyes were able to glance from under the waves of her thick hair. Cardax and his guards, all of whom were significantly shorter than the smuggler himself, walked quickly through the crowd. Few people stood in their way, most making way for the massive Oterian. For those who did not move quickly enough, Adam watched as Cardax’s brown fur bristled with anger before his meaty hands shoved helpless bystanders into nearby carts and stalls.
    Two blocks past where Adam and Keryn shared their warm embrace, Cardax and his crew entered a two story structure, accentuated with glowing neon lights. With danger now passed, Keryn pulled away from her teammate and turned to look up the street. Feeling a gentle tap on his shoulder, Adam spun tensely toward the stall. Startled, the merchant pointed at the plate still clutched in Keryn’s hand.
    “So you decided to buy her the plate?” the merchant asked hopefully.
    Keryn glanced down at the shiny metallic plate. Shrugging, she tossed it to the merchant, who fumbled as he tried to catch the quickly spinning metal. Finally clutching it tightly to his chest, the vendor released a sigh and set the plate onto the table. He glanced furiously at Keryn.
    “We changed our minds,” she said. “But I’ll give you a ten-piece note if you tell me what business that is about two blocks up.” She pointed at the neon-encased building that Cardax had entered.
    He started to respond rudely, but thought better when he noticed the dangerous look he was receiving from Adam. “It’s the Black Void. It’s a bar.”
    Keryn looked across the street to where a bearded Terran still examined the local fabrics. “Penchant,” she yelled, getting his attention. “Find us a place to stay while we’re here.”
    Adam and Keryn exchanged glances. “So what now?” he asked.
    “Now, I think it’s about time you bought me a drink, honey,” she said with a sickly sweetness. They stepped away from the booth and began heading up the street.
    “What about my money?” the merchant yelled behind them.
    Adam glanced over his shoulder. “We changed our minds about that too!”

CHAPTER 5:

    Keryn and Adam slipped into the Black Void, allowing the door to stay open only briefly in order to minimize the amount of bright light that flooded into the dark bar. Their silhouettes were gone from the doorway before most patrons registered that the door had been opened.
    Thick, acrid smoke hung like curtains within the Black Void and a mixture of voices and languages overwhelmed the senses. The center of the room housed an assortment of tables and stools, some crafted to support the physiology of the more rare races. A large crescent bar dominated the back wall, with an assortment of alcoholic beverages as wide-ranging as the clientele of the Void. Keryn and Adam, however, pushed their way through the crowd and found seats in the booths that lined both side walls. The tall backs of the benches and taller dividing walls allowed privacy while also minimizing background noise enough that they could hold a conversation. The benches were as much a statement of life in Miller’s Glen as the armed bodyguards that lined the street. The tall backs had been built to allow privacy from prying eyes and probing intrusions during immoral practices and illegal transactions, allowing dark dealings to take place in so public an arena.
    Keryn felt uncomfortable as she took her seat. Adam had taken the seat facing the bar itself, while she had been forced to sit across from him with a view only of the front door. While both observation views were necessary for their mission, Keryn felt exposed and vulnerable without being able to see who was approaching the table from behind her. Reaching beneath the table, she unlatched the locking mechanism that held her sidearm in its holster. She felt a momentary relief knowing that she could now easily draw her pistol, should the need arise.
    “Do you see him?” Keryn asked, cursing herself again for placing herself with no observation of the bar. Judging from Adam’s narrowed eyes, he had already spotted Cardax among the crowd.
    “He’s at the bar, along with a couple of his crew,” Adam replied.
    Cardax’s large Oterian body dominated the area around the bar. His size was eclipsed only by the amount of noise he made while barking orders to both his cohorts and the patrons of the bar who, unfortunately for them, sat too close. Even from where they sat, his loud voice carried through the thick air and din of conversations.
    “What the hell are you looking at, dog?” Cardax yelled at one of the drunkards who only barely held himself steady on a stool at the bar. Swinging his massive arm, Cardax lifted the man from the barstool, watching as he crashed limply into one of the nearby tables. His guffaws carried across the room, accompanied by the prodded laughter of those in his proximity.
    In the ensuing silence, a woman approached the table. Keryn tensed at her approach, unaware of her presence until she appeared suddenly at her side. Haggard and worn, the older woman, frocked in a dirty dress whose color matched the dark wood of the Void, exuded a sense of misery and apathy.
    “What can I get you?” she asked brusquely, her thin patience already worn from the long day’s work.
    “What do you have on tap?” Adam asked nonchalantly. The woman glowered at him with undisguised hatred.
    “We’ll have two of whatever is on tap,” Keryn quickly interceded. The quicker the woman left, the less attention would be drawn to the booth in which they found themselves hiding.
    “Coming right up.” Turning, the woman walked away in disgust.
    “A friendly bunch, here,” Adam said drolly.
    “Focus less on your drink,” Keryn warned, “and more on Cardax. Is he still up front?”
    Adam glanced past her shoulder to the front of the bar. Cardax’s large frame still dominated the area as he broke into another story of his pirating adventures. He seemed at ease in the bar, as though he were a frequent customer. Even the bartender seemed to cater to the massive smuggler. His minions, however, responded robotically to the Oterian’s moods. When he laughed, they laughed in response. When he grew angry, they flashed steely eyes around the room and rested their hands on the butt of their pistols. They were clearly less his friends, and more his bodyguards.
    “He’s still there, but I’m getting concerned about the growth of his following,” Adam remarked. “It seems that he has an ever expanding legion of peons and pissants. If we get spotted here, we may be in for more of a fight than what we bargained for.”
    “Then keep your head down and try not to be seen,” she advised. She wanted to crane her head around the side of the booth and observe the action for herself. Instead, she began mentally marking her avenues of assault, in case a gunfight was unavoidable. With a limited view of the bar, however, she returned to her role of watching the door. After a few minutes of watching, one Avalon was all that entered, his wings ragged and his clothes dirty. He walked past all the tables and took a spot on the opposite end of the bar from Cardax. If this was to be her reconnaissance duty for the night, it would be a long night indeed.
    “The waitress is coming back,” Adam warned, mere moments before the older woman reappeared with two metal mugs in her hand. She gracelessly dropped the mugs on the table, sloshing pungent brown liquor onto the table. Adam handed her a five-piece note and shooed her on her way.
    Leaning forward, Adam sniffed his mug. “This smells awful!” he exclaimed, his nose twitching as though he were fighting off the urge to sneeze. “This is exactly why you should always give me a chance to find out our options before ordering a drink. I don’t know if this is Lithid Uapa or a Yulon home brew, though I believe that both of them are capable of melting through the hull of a ship,” he muttered to himself.
    Keryn didn’t seem to hear his complaints. She looked into her own glass and immediately recoiled as something sinister surfaced in the liquid. “I’m not sure what this is,” she began, “but there is no way in the known universe that you are going to get me to drink this.”
    Laughing, Adam shrugged. “We can always take it home with us and use it to clean our weapon parts.”
    “My weapon hasn’t even done anything bad enough to deserve treatment like this,” she said, horrified. “I mean, there’s actually something floating in my drink.”
    Adam raised his eyebrow in curiosity. He reached across, grabbing her glass and tilting it toward him, spilling a little more of the liquor onto the table. It quickly congealed into a sticky mess.
    “I’m at a loss. I have no idea what this is,” he said as he let go of her glass and pulled his arm back across the table. As he did, his elbow nudged his own mug, which went spiraling off the side of the table and struck the ground, dumping out its contents onto the boot of a passing patron.
    “Hey,” the patron yelled, “watch what the hell you’re doing! Do you know who I am?”
    Adam reached down to pick up his mug. “I’m really sorry, it was an accident.” He looked up at the plump Terran as he retrieved his fallen glass. “Maybe I can give you some money for new…”
    Both Adam and the Terran paused in mid sentence. Adam immediately recognized the Terran, though last time they had seen each other, the Terran had been firing a pistol at him while covering Cardax’s escape from Pteraxis.
    “You!” the Terran hissed, flinging back his coat and reaching for the pistol strapped to his leg.
    Adam reached for the rifle under his coat, but couldn’t maneuver the long weapon while leaning over out of the booth. He lunged backward in an attempt to bring the rifle to bear, but found himself, instead, staring down the barrel of the Terran’s loaded handgun. Stuck in the narrow booth with no hope of getting to his rifle, Adam squeezed his eyes shut and awaiting the gunshot. The gunshot reverberated in the confines of the booth and Adam jerked involuntarily. Moments later, however, he realized that he hadn’t been shot and quickly opened one eye.
    Keryn sat across the table from him, her pistol free from its holster and smoke rolling from its barrel. He turned his head, opening his other eye, and watched Cardax’s crewman stagger as red blood flowed freely from a bullet hole in his chest. He finally collapsed into a chair at a nearby table, which broke under his weight. His body floundering, he finally came to rest on the floor amid the wreckage of the wooden seat and lay still. Complete silence permeated the room as the patrons looked back and forth from the body to the two armed soldiers in the booth, Adam finally getting his rifle free from his coat. In unison, the bar erupted into chaos as patrons stampeded for the door as Cardax and his men drew their weapons.
    “Get out of the booth, now!” Keryn screamed as gunfire erupted and the back of the booth above her head disappeared under a volley of bullets and shattering wood.
    Keryn leapt from the bench, skidding across the dirty floor until she found herself partially concealed behind a table. Kicking the closest table legs, she flipped it down until it was able to provide some cover to the incoming volley of rounds. She had taken a quick inventory of the room as she was moving to better cover and knew that she and Adam were outnumbered nearly six to one. She didn’t like the odds, but she’d been in worse situations.
    Adam leaned around the destroyed booth wall and fired his rifle. Flames jumped from the front of the barrel as its slugs tore into one of Cardax’s men who had jumped down from one of the stools. The force of the blast sent him tumbling over the bar, smashing through the discarded glasses and bottles. Adam quickly returned to what remained of the booth as they started firing again.
    “What happened to stealth?” Adam yelled to Keryn as he fired a couple more rounds at the bar.
    “Shut up and keep firing!” she yelled back as she reloaded her pistol. The table that she was behind was quickly being torn to pieces. She recoiled as a large hole appeared near her head and she was pelted with shards of destroyed wood. Someone at the bar had a large caliber rifle and was using it to demolish the poorly crafted furniture in the middle of the room.
    “Shoot them,” Cardax screamed angrily as he flipped over a table of his own and took cover.
    Keryn bolted from behind her table and ran for the booths on the far side of the room, firing wildly at the bar as she did. After the first couple crewmen had died, the others had wisely joined Cardax behind tables and the bar itself, using the furniture for cover. Most of her rounds went wide anyway as she ran, striking the wall and shattering liquor bottles, but it kept her enemies suppressed behind their tables while she was exposed. Diving into one of the booths, the gunfire quickly returned.
    She could hear the roar of Adam’s modified rifle and knew that he was still fighting, though she knew that things were about to get worse for the two of them. Neither one had been in a good position to start a gunfight nor had their defensive positions improved after they became separated. If they didn’t find a way out of the bar soon, neither of them would walk out of the bar alive. To emphasize her concern, the large caliber rifle fired again, this time removing a significant section of the booth wall behind which she had taken cover.
    Counting the bursts of gunfire, Keryn waited until the automatic rifles stopped firing as they reloaded, then leaned back around the booth. Her first round struck one of the riflemen as he reloaded, her shot hitting him in his shoulder and sending him spinning. Her second shot struck the same rifleman in the spine as he turned around, dropping him limply to the floor. As the other rifleman brought his machine gun to bear, she jerked back behind cover.
    “Kill them both,” Cardax yelled through the din of gunfire. “If you want on my crew, you will bring me both their heads!”
    Keryn dropped the magazine from her pistol and counted the bullets she had left. She grimaced as she realized she only had five shots left in this magazine and only one more full magazine on her belt. At the rate they were going, she would be out of ammo long before they were out of enemies. She glanced across the room at Adam. Through the haze of smoke and gunfire, she could see him huddled against what remained of the booth, crouched down under cover as he reloaded his rifle. His sneer reflected her feelings: they were in trouble.
    Behind the bar, the bartender stood with his large caliber rifle; the other three men crouched near the liquor cabinet quietly cheered him on as they reloaded. He took aim at the rightmost booth, the one behind which the woman was hiding. Though the man with the rifle on the left had done more damage to the building, it was the accuracy of the woman’s pistol that had killed more of the men. He tucked the stock of the rifle firmly beneath his arm and took aim. Motion from the corner of his eye made him hesitate and he spun to the end of the bar. Standing there, looking worn and tired, stood an Avalon, his wings tattered and dingy. The bartender vaguely remembered the Avalon drinking at the bar before the gunfight began and was surprised that he hadn’t fled with the rest of the patrons.
    “Get your ass down unless you want it shot off,” he growled at the Avalon, who looked up him with an emotionless face. “Are you deaf?” the bartender snarled, leaning toward the Avalon who stood rigid beside the bar. “I told you to get down!”
    The Avalon’s hand shot out. The pale anemic fingers elongated as he struck, transforming into a jet black hand ending in razor sharp claws. His clawed fingers pierced through the bartender’s throat and severed the artery in the man’s neck. Blue blood poured from the bartender’s neck, spraying the bottles behind him and pooling on the floor at his feet. With a gurgle, he stumbled into the liquor cabinet behind him, pulling down bottles as he fell. Collapsing onto the floor, the three surprised gunmen behind the bar turned toward the new threat.
    With his other hand, the Avalon pulled free his automatic pistol and began firing at the crewmen. The three crewmen who had chosen to hide with the bartender tried to run for cover, but the bullets tore through their surprised bodies and shredded through the wooden bar. Their bodies danced under the assault of rounds until the Avalon stopped firing and dropping for cover on the far side of the crescent bar.
    Cardax turned as his men were executed behind the bar. Howling in rage, he turned and began firing at the hiding Avalon, his bullets gouging the top of the bar above the tips of the dingy wings. “They’re behind us, too,” Cardax yelled in frustration. “Kill that one too!”
    Keryn watched from around the booth as Cardax’s men turned and began firing at the stooped Avalon who had taken cover once again. While the Avalon remained trapped by a hail of gunfire, two of Cardax’s men moved around the edge of the bar in order to trap the new assailant. The Avalon caught Keryn’s eye and he smiled wickedly.
    “Now!” the Avalon yelled in a gravelly, familiar voice.
    Keryn stepped out from behind the booth and opened fire on the two men moving toward Penchant. The first of the two men dropped, a round striking him firmly between the shoulder blades. Her second shot struck the other man in the small of the back, tearing through his body and leaving an exit wound the size of a fist in his stomach. He stared in horror as blood and organs began seeping from the gaping wound. The man tried taking a step forward, but slipped in his own blood and tumbled from his feet. He didn’t get back up.
    Adam ran from behind his booth and launched himself over the closest overturned table, landing next to a surprised Uligart who had been using it for cover. He swung the barrel of his rifle down like a hammer, striking the Uligart’s face with the smoldering hot metal. The man dropped his pistol and collapsed to the floor, clutching his burned face. Adam continued the momentum of his swing until the barrel pointed ahead once more, aiming at a man who had leapt from behind a nearby booth. Pulling the trigger, the large caliber bullet tore into the side of the man’s head, spraying the wall behind him with blood and fragments of skull. The man dropped quickly to the ground and twitched violently; his motor controls destroyed by the explosive round.
    With almost all of his men killed, Cardax leapt from his hiding place and ran between Keryn and Adam as he made a break for the door and freedom. Penchant, his skin now shedding the Avalon exterior and returning to its natural ebony exoskeleton, yelled a warning as he shot one of the remaining crewmen.
    Keryn dropped her pistol, which was now dangerously close to being out of ammunition, and pulled a smaller weapon from her hip. Pulling the trigger, her projectile struck Cardax in the shoulder. Not slowing, the Oterian reached behind him and pulled loose the small dart. Staring in confusion, he tossed it to the side and continued running for the door.
    The second dart struck Cardax in the small of the back. As soon as it broke through its skin, it began pumping a strong sedative into his bloodstream. Cardax knocked it free, but his movements became jerked and uncoordinated. Bumping into a table and knocking a couple bottles onto the ground, Cardax struggled toward the door.
    Her third and final dart stuck firmly in the back of his thigh. Cardax’s body seized, his legs moving like dead weights. Gurgling in angry defiance, the Oterian smuggler pitched forward and smashed through a table, coming to rest unconscious on the bar floor.
    Keryn sighed heavily and wiped the sweat from her brow. Looking over, she watched as Penchant killed the two crewmen who had been wounded in the battle. Adam walked over to her, choosing not to watch Penchant execute the men, and leaned forward, resting his hands on his knees. His breath was haggard and he was bleeding from a wound on his left arm.
    “You’ve been hit,” she said, concerned.
    Adam glanced down as though noticing for the first time. “It’s nothing,” he coolly replied. “I’m more exhausted than anything else.”
    “Penchant,” she said through hitched breath, “please tell me you managed to secure us a room nearby.”
    The Lithid climbed over the rubble and joined the other two in the middle of the room. “Of course I did,” he said from behind the featureless black face. “It’s in a nice building only three blocks away.”
    Keryn and Adam exchanged exasperated looks. They both turned toward the massive sleeping form of the Oterian. Keryn had no idea how she was going to manage to drag his body for three blocks.

CHAPTER 6:

    Yen paced impatiently by the door as the docking arm stretched toward his ship. He had chosen to dock with one of the external ports rather than waiting for the arduous docking within the internal hangar bays; he just didn’t have time to wait today. The hiss of air flooded the connecting passageway between the Revolution and his small transport and began twisting the sealing latches before the light above the doorway turned to green, verifying that the air beyond was breathable. He had left Earth in a hurry, allowing only sufficient crew to man his ship to board before they departed the planet. Though the rest of the Alliance was celebrating an unprecedented victory over the Terran Empire, he knew that their greatest threat was still to come. Yen desperately needed to pass the information gleaned from Earth on to the High Council. The fate of the universe couldn’t be gambled against soldiers celebrating their comparatively minor victory. Once the last seal released with a grinding of metal on metal, the door swung open as his ship entered zero gravity in order to match the connective tunnel between the ships. Though gravity would be reengaged once he boarded the Revolution, there was no way to pressurize the connection enough to match. Now weightless, Yen pulled himself forward, hurtling himself down the narrow passage, reaching the far door in seconds. Without waiting for the rest of his crew, Yen pulled himself inside and closed the door behind him, initiating the pressurization of the ready room.
    Once gravity was reestablished, Yen shoved open the interior door and stepped into the antechamber, surprised at how many people awaited his return. Nearly half the ship lined the sides of the room, cheering wildly at the victory over the Empire and congratulating him on successful command of such an intricate invasion. Yen tried weakly to smile, but his mind was too preoccupied to be bothered with trivial niceties. Giving only meek nods of thanks and mumbles of appreciation, he forced his way through the crowd and into the main hall of the ship. As he left the antechamber, technicians appeared at his sides. Presenting hand held screens that scrolled volumes of data, his crewmen described troop movements and casualty statistics in a tsunami of information. Feeling suddenly overwhelmed, Yen brushed past them angrily, stopping them both short of the lift that would take him to the bridge. As they tried to step aboard, Yen psychically shoved them off the lift, watching with perverse pleasure as they crashed over one another into the hallway. Entering his command code for access to the bridge, he waved playfully as the doors slid shut on their stunned facial expressions.
    Yen rode the lift in silence, feeling the thrill he’d come to associate with the release of his power. It had become so simple to use his powers, not just to psychokinetically push someone off an elevator as he had done moments before, but to control someone’s mind like he had done on Earth. It became reflexive, like an extension of his own body. He took control of someone’s mind and, with a mere thought, forced them to shoot themselves in the head.
    With the memory came a wave of nausea. Yen remembered looking in the Terran’s eyes as they pulled the trigger, seeing the tears stream down their face. He didn’t know when it had begun, this perverse pleasure he got from using his powers, but it was starting to genuinely frighten him. Less and less, he felt like he was in control of the power surging through him. Much like on Earth, his power had taken the control and killed not just Dr. Solomon, but his own men as well. Now, firmly back among the Alliance, how long would it be, he wondered, before he lost control again? And would he still feel the perverse pleasure when it happened?
    As the elevator slowed to a stop, the doors slid silently open on the bridge of the Revolution. The excited celebrations of the lower decks were contrasted by the somber mood of the command deck as the Avalon Captain Hodge turned at Yen’s arrival.
    “Welcome back aboard,” she began, her voice singing the words in her high-pitched tone. “We received your report and have sent word to as many planets as we can reach with our communications array. A few have already begun filtering back to us. A few galaxies, including Protagon, have already replied. It seems that the message wasn’t just a bluff.” A little anger and stress crept into her soft voice. “If this is already happening, then we can really expect that… how many galaxies total?”
    “Thirty-two,” Yen replied, exhausted.
    “Then we can expect thirty-two galaxies to be without light or heat unless we do something soon.”
    “Ma’am,” interrupted Vangore, the Wyndgaart communications officer. “I’ve got a message coming in. It’s coded high priority.”
    “From another galaxy?” she asked.
    “Negative, Captain,” he replied. “It’s being sent from a cargo transport traveling in sector Alpha-Alpha-Two-One.”
    The members on the bridge turned to the display screen as the universe map highlighted in the designated sector and zoomed in. A dual sun galaxy appeared in the display, showing a pair of inhabitable planets.
    “What’s the message?” Captain Hodge asked without looking away from the display screen.
    Vangore paused, his head tilted to the side as he replayed the message. Straightening, he turned to the Captain with an astonished look. “The transport claims that the entire Terran Fleet just dropped out of heavy acceleration in their sector.”
    Captain Hodge sat up straight in her chair. “I thought the enemy was in orbit deep in Terran space?”
    “I’m running a scan now,” replied Merric, the Pilgrim tactical officer, as he brought up reports on his display. “Ma’am, our ships have gone in for a visual. They were decoys, ma’am, every one of them. The decoys are sending off false signals that make them look like the Fleet.”
    “And no one thought to look?” she cried, indignant. “We plan the greatest assault in Interstellar Alliance history and no one thinks to get a visual on the one element that could put our entire plan in jeopardy?” She took a deep breath as her cheeks flushed red with fury. “Don’t we have a space station in orbit at Alpha-Alpha-Two-One?”
    “Roger, ma’am,” replied Vangore, “but I can’t raise them on any of our hails.”
    They’re already dead. Yen heard the words whispered in the thoughts of all the people in the room. He felt his skull begin to ache again as his telepathic power came unwanted.
    “Then they’re already gone,” Yen stated, echoing the thoughts of all the officers on the bridge. Turning to the Captain, he continued. “Ma’am, I strongly recommend that we get the ground force back on ships immediately and give pursuit. If the Terran Fleet is already in Alliance space, then they already have the advantage. The only way to regain the upper hand is to pull heavy accelerations and get ahead of them.”
    “Squadron Commander, your opinion would be more valuable if we had some idea of their destination,” Merric replied condescendingly.
    Captain Hodge turned to Yen with an expectant expression. “Where do you think they’re going?”
    “Exactly where I’d go if I were invading Alliance space,” he replied. “I’d go straight for High Council. I’d attack Arcendor.”
    Captain Hodge nodded in agreement. “Magistrate Tylgar, set a course for Arcendor at once.” As the pilot set the course, the Captain seemed lost in thought and concern. Yen understood why. Arcendor wasn’t only the location of the Parliament, the civilian command for the entire Alliance. It was also the location of the Academy, the training ground for all new officers and pilots in the Fleet. But, most importantly for Captain Hodge, Arcendor was the Avalon home world. The Terran’s most likely course of action would also destroy her estate and kill her family.
    Captain Hodge pulled the communication console closer to her and entered her command code into the panel. With the Revolution as the flagship for the invading Fleet, Captain Hodge was the only commander in orbit around Earth that had access to send out a Fleet-wide announcement, including to ground forces on the planet.
    “Attention all Alliance forces, this is the Revolution,” her voice echoed throughout every ship and communication channel used by the Alliance. “We have scored a major victory over a complex and difficult adversary today.” She paused as distant cheers were heard throughout the ship. “The Terran threat has been struck a nearly mortal blow today by the combined might of the Fleet and ground forces. However, our work is not done. Much like the hydra of mythology, we have cut off the head of the beast but have not slain its body. We could stop now, satisfied that for now the beast is defeated. But if left to rest, the body of the hydra will grow two heads where only one stood before.
    “The hydra’s body, the Terran Fleet, still threatens our survival and the well-being of the entire Alliance. Even now, the Terrans move into Alliance space in a maneuver as devious and underhanded as we have come to expect from these honorless monsters. They move against your homes, your families, and your livelihoods. They threaten to destroy all that you have and all that you love. They hydra’s head has been severed, but its body still thrashes blindly against your homes.
    “It is time we put an end to this monster, once and for all. We did not fly halfway across the known universe simply to strike the head from the beast and then limp home to await its rebirth. Today, I lead you all to battle against the rest of the Terran monster. I know you all are tired. I know that the battle for Earth has been hard fought with many losses to our brave soldiers. But I ask that you not give up now. I ask that you find strength for one more fight and help me destroy the Terran Fleet once and for all.”
    Her noble speech done, Captain Hodge began issuing commands. “All ground forces, report to transport ships for immediate lifts to your awaiting Cruisers and Frigates. Ships of the Alliance Fleet, prepare your navigation and tactical stations to receive new coordinates for immediate departure once ground forces are secured. Ladies and gentlemen, soldiers of Alliance, today marks the beginning of the end for a war that has lasted much too long. Revolution, signing off.”
    The crew on the bridge smiled warmly at her speech, feeling bolstered by her words. Only Yen still frowned. She noticed his displeasure and arched an eyebrow. “You didn’t approve of the speech?”
    “You conveniently forgot to mention that all their loved ones will die anyway, once the Deplitoxide finds their galaxies’ suns,” he said bitterly.
    “I didn’t forget,” she hissed quietly enough that only Yen and she could hear. “Some things are better not mentioned. Right now, they need to think the end is in sight. They need hope more than anything else, and telling them about what’s happening on their home worlds will rob them of that hope”
    Yen felt his headache spreading, tingling in his shoulders and arms. “Our soldiers are not to be toyed with. They are not your playthings!”
    “No,” she yelled at him, startling the rest of the crew, “but they are soldiers and they will follow orders, much like I expect you to do. Our conversation is done, Squadron Commander!”
    Yen spun and stormed off the bridge as transport ships began docking with the Cruiser. He stormed through the hall, heading toward his cabin, and shoved aside crew and workers who ran hurriedly to their stations in preparation for departure from orbit. By the time he reached his cabin, the air around him shimmered violently and the power flowed visibly from his body in pale blue tendrils of psionic power, feeding off his anger. Like parasites, the tendrils drained his own strength to fuel theirs, leaving him weak as he staggered into his cabin. He stumbled toward the table in the center of the room, his black eyes glazed and unseeing and his thin lips pressed tightly together, drained of blood. As he leaned heavily against the table, one of the tendrils lashed out and struck the chair nearby, shattering its back and twisting the metal frame.
    Closing his eyes tightly, he concentrated on reining in the power; he tried to pull the lashing tendrils back within his body. Sweat broke out across his handsome face as he strained. The force of restraining his power felt like an attempt to harness the might of a supernova and force it into his skull. The strength of his psychic power seemed too great to be contained in within his weak form. Struggling, he regulated his breathing and chanted his mantra, slowly at first as he fought for breath, soon relaxing into the familiar cadence he’d used as long as he could remember.
    Yen had once been a master of his power, his strength evolving over the past few years into a formidable might. But since overextending himself in order to defeat the Terran psychic, his ability to manage his power was running like sand through his fingers. He retained enough control to push people aside or destroy a computer screen, but the true power had grown its own sentience and no longer desired to respond to his command. A reflection of his own darkness and anger, his psionic energy had become dangerous to everyone around him.
    As he pondered this shift in domination, his power slowly receded until nothing of its uncontrolled self remained visible. Yen that stood in the room, alone and exhausted. Rushing into the bathroom, he felt the bile rush up his throat and collapsed in front of the toilet just in time to vomit violently. His abdomen clenching tightly, he emptied his stomach and he was only able to dry heave. When Yen finally felt stable enough to stand once again, he absently flushed the toilet and stood before the sink, splashing water on his face and washing out the bitter taste from his mouth. The psychic glanced at the mirror and frowned at his own appearance. His yellowed skin looked pale and sickly in the bathroom light. Bruises had spread beneath his dark, ink colored eyes, which had sunk into his face leaving the impression of a skull. Even his dark hair had lost its sheen and hung flat around his face. He looked like a broken remnant of the man who had once prided himself on his appearance.
    Disgusted, Yen left the bathroom and returned to the main room of his cabin. Unlike most crewmembers who cooked, entertained and slept in a single room Yen’s station as squadron commander afforded him a suite. His main room held a dining table and kitchen, and he had a separate sleeping room with a private bathroom. Pulling a glass from the cupboard and pouring himself something strong to drink, Yen drained his glass quickly. He enjoyed the burning sensation that washed the bile from the back of his throat. The drink sat heavily on his empty stomach, but he didn’t care as he poured himself a second. The burning alcohol temporarily washed away the concerns that began creeping into him mind once more, questions of how long he could maintain control of a power that yearned to be set free.
    Yen poured himself a third, fourth, and eventually a fifth strong glass of liquor before he realized his mind was too cloudy to consider any complex questions, much less restrain a wayward psychic power. Staggering to his bed, he collapsed into its inviting covers. He no longer cared enough about sleeping in his clothes. It was a concern that he filed away for future contemplation.
    As Yen slipped fully into sleep, he didn’t notice the last of the ships dock, nor did he notice the announcement that blared through the ship, warning of impending departure from Earth’s orbit. Solidly asleep, he groaned only slightly while shifting positions as the Revolution steadily increased gravity as it sped toward Arcendor and battle with the Terran Fleet.

CHAPTER 7:

    Adam adjusted the thick straps that held Cardax to the metal chair, which had, in turn, been bolted to the floor to ensure no chance of the large Oterian escaping. Cardax’s head rolled limply, the smuggler still unconscious from the sedative that had been pumped through his system at the bar. Though the amount of sedative had been excessive, all three members of the strike force were glad to have the extra time to finish preparing the room.
    Penchant opened his backpack in the corner, removing a spray can and moving toward the single small window in the room. Spraying thick foam over the window, the room was suddenly cast into darkness, save a small, exposed bulb that hung from the room’s center. Aside from blocking out the light and prying eyes, the foam was an effective sound insulator. Though Cardax was guaranteed to make an exceptional amount of noise, his yells wouldn’t carry beyond the small room.
    Keryn, meanwhile, hooked a thick cloth through Cardax’s loose jaws and tied it behind his head, forming both a gag for his impending screams and a muzzle, should he chose to try to bite a member of the team. With the gag fixed in place, she attached two soft rubber stoppers to his horns, making their tips padded and relatively harmless. Everything about Cardax was only relatively harmless; he would continue to pose a threat until he was finally killed.
    Standing again, after ensuring the leg straps were firmly attached, Adam checked the fluid bag that hung from a pole behind him. The viscous yellow liquid dripped slowly into the tubing, which Adam traced down to the large bore intravenous needle he had placed into the artery running through the Oterian’s neck.
    Satisfied that everything was prepared, she gave the signal to wake Cardax. Pulling a syringe from his small case, Adam injected a clear liquid into the fluid bag. Almost instantaneously, the smuggler’s eyes began to flutter and his head rolled from side to side. Snapping his eyes wide open, a muffled scream of surprise escaped from around the gag and he struggled, in vain, against the leather straps. Cardax felt drained and not in full control of his muscles. He tried to concentrate on his surroundings, but his thoughts seemed to flow through a sea of fog; they rose just long enough for him to grasp at coherent thought before sinking below the surface and out of reach.
    “The lethargic feeling you’re experiencing right now is due to the sedative that is being pumped into your bloodstream as we speak,” Keryn began in a soft tone, bending slightly at the waist so that she was eye level with the seated Oterian. “You can continue to struggle against your restraints all you want, but it will be in vain. You are now my pet, subjugated and calm.”
    Keryn walked around Cardax’s back, running her fingertips gently over his broad shoulders and stroking the back of his head. Leaning forward to whisper into his ear, she continued, “I will be asking you some very important questions over the course of this evening. If you are cooperative, this will be a short and relatively painless experience. If you lie to me or refuse to answer, I will discipline you as though you were a disobedient pet.
    “I want to ensure you have a full understanding of our version of discipline, I want to introduce you to Mr. Decker.” She clenched his hair between her hands, forcing him to face toward Adam as he approached. In his hand, he held a serrated scalpel, which he twisted to catch the dim bulb’s light.
    As Keryn spoke, her voice took on a violent and malicious edge. “You will answer all of our questions tonight, one way or another. Do you understand me?”
    Cardax stared at Adam with fearful eyes, feeling helpless so long as the sedative continued to run through his veins. He shook his head futilely, trying to pull away from Keryn’s firm grasp. Seconds ticked by as all the members in the room remained motionless. Finally releasing a sigh, Keryn frowned.
    “That was a question, Cardax,” she said with a disturbing calm, “and you failed to answer.” Looking up, she motioned to Adam, who stepped forward, still twisting the scalpel with surgical precision. Cardax let out a muffled scream, his eyes wide with panic.
    Adam placed a firm hand against the smuggler’s chest, forcing his back firmly against the cold metal chair. “If you struggle,” Adam warned, “this will be much more painful than it really needs to be.”
    Cardax twisted under the pressure on his chest, but couldn’t manage enough strength to break free of Adam’s restraint. Adam placed the scalpel against Cardax’s muscular chest, slipping its blade underneath the thick fur and piercing the skin. Flattening the blade, Adam moved the serrated blade in between the skin and muscle in the smuggler’s chest before applying a downward pressure to the handle. The razor-sharp blade cleanly severed through connective tissue between Cardax’s skin and muscle, causing excruciating pain. Jerking madly, the Oterian screamed and tried in vain to break free of his bonds.
    Keryn felt her pulse quicken, beating a maddening rhythm in her chest. Her breathing became labored and sweat beaded along her temples. Each scream felt like claws being drug down her spine. Clenching her eyes tight, she grinded her teeth against the invasive noise.
    There had been a time when Keryn would have welcomed the screams; she would have allowed herself to swim in his agony and would finish, sweaty and weary, but exhilarated. But those were darker times; times where she had lived her life for no one but herself. Her darker self had been a defense after losing her brother and becoming estranged from her remaining family. She had worked hard to separate that sadistic person from the woman she had become. But now, hearing the merriment in her own voice as they tortured Cardax, she felt less like she was swimming in his suffering and more like it was threatening to drown her; she felt as though she was clawing for air toward a surface that grew further and further away as dark hands pulled her deeper into her own masochism.
    Struggling for breath, Keryn released the Oterian’s head and stumbled back until she was able to lean against the far wall. She felt the bile building in her throat, threatening to make her physically ill. Adam stopped, withdrawing the scalpel and standing straight, blood still dripping from his hand and the smuggler whimpering softly in his chair. He looked concerned, but Keryn wasn’t interested in his sympathy. She walked hastily from the room, fearful that speaking would betray her emotional turmoil.
    “Is everything okay?” Adam asked as she stormed past him.
    She stopped at the door, breathing deeply to control her shaking hands and quivering lips. “I’m fine,” she said quickly, wanting to be free of both the room and her thoughts. “Continue without me.”
    Stumbling out of the back room and through the living room, Keryn pushed open the front door and stepped onto the balcony of their second-story hotel room. The warm air washed over her and carried away her nervous tension. Closing her eyes, she turned her face toward the sun and let its heat melt into her bones. She heard the soft click of the door behind her, but didn’t turn.
    “Are you okay,” Penchant asked, his face now formed into that of a youthful Uligart, the sharp bones protruding from his cheeks and forehead. “You left in a hurry.”
    “I’m fine. It…” she paused, trying to find the right words to explain. “It got a little too intense in there for me. I just needed some fresh air and a change of scenery.”
    Penchant nodded in sympathy if not understanding. “After chasing him for so long and after all he did to us, I figured you would have wanted to be present for his… questioning.” He paused before the last phrase, wisely choosing an ambiguously descriptive word.
    Keryn sighed. “I thought I would have too, but my heart just isn’t in it. I would have felt better just putting a bullet in his brain. Shooting him is impersonal; I can do it from a distance without even seeing his eyes.” She turned toward him and leaned against the railing, motioning toward the inside of their hotel room. “This, though… I don’t know. It just seems brutal. It’s too intimate for my tastes. I’ll leave it all in Adam’s capable hands, and yours, if you feel so inclined. I can pull watch out here while you two do what you need to.”
    Penchant nodded again as though in understanding of her sentiments. His eyes, however, still reflected the same concern she had seen in Adam’s when she stormed out of the back room.
    Smiling softly, she laid a hand on Penchant’s arm. “I’m fine, I promise. Go back inside and do what you need to do. I’ll let you know if I need anything.”
    Turning, Penchant opened the front door and disappeared inside. She shivered as, for a second, Keryn swore she heard a muted scream.

    High above the assault teams sadistic tortures, a single craft dropped out of heavy accelerations and found itself entering the Orthorius Galaxy. The ship had been pulling heavy gravities during its acceleration into the system. Had the ship been manned, any living creature inside would have been pulverized under the weight. But this ship wasn’t manned, which was essential for its purpose.
    The long-nosed craft, a design that would have normally harbored the flexible body of a Lithid pilot, began making minute adjustments to its trajectory. It bypassed the gas giant, which was on the far end of its elliptical orbit around the sun. It wove gracefully between the planet’s two moons. Set on its purpose, the ship maneuvered only enough to avoid obstructions, but otherwise remained on a straight course.
    The two cruisers in orbit around Othus immediately detected the ship, but their continued hails were subsequently ignored. The Dormark’s tactical officer called over the intercom, notifying the Captain that an unidentified ship had entered the system. The Captain, a tall and lanky Lithid wearing full military regalia, checked the reports of the craft’s activity, and then ordered the ship destroyed.
    Two rockets leapt from tubes on the starboard of the Dormark, the computer brains in each automatically adjusting the missiles’ burns toward an intercept with the unresponsive vessel. Once far enough from the ship, both rockets began an intense burn, accelerating at speeds that no living creature could hope to outrun.
    In response, the unidentified ship began a heavy acceleration of its own. Weaving in evasive patterns, the Lithid craft remained oriented toward its goal: the swollen sun of the Orthorius Galaxy. The two rockets continued to accelerate, quickly gaining on the evading ship.
    “Two minutes until detonation, sir,” the tactical officer aboard the Dormark announced to the helm.
    The small vessel adjusted its trajectory once again in response to the gaining rockets, deviating from its course and entering a thin asteroid belt surrounding one of the nearby planets. The missiles, in pursuit, entered just over a minute behind. All three ships, all controlled by computers, maneuvered and danced through the asteroid, making millisecond corrections to speed and course that no living creature could have made.
    Halfway through the asteroid belt, the Lithid ship cut a sharp turn to the right, allowing its wing to clip a passing rock. Spinning chaotically, the asteroid tumbled toward the oncoming rockets, bouncing haphazardly from rock to rock, creating an avalanche of stones pirouetting toward the oncoming missiles. One of the two missiles, trapped as three asteroids tumbled toward it, was crushed under the colliding stones and detonated prematurely. The second rocket, avoiding the debris, adjusted course and continued pursuing the ship.
    The ship launched from the asteroid belt, making constant course adjustments due to its damaged wing. Its speed dropped as it tried to regain control of the slowly spinning craft. Alert sirens rang throughout the ship as the second rocket darted from the asteroids as well, now only a few thousand feet behind.
    “One rocket destroyed, sir, but the second rocket has gained on the ship,” the tactical officer of the Dormark cried out excitedly in the helm. “Detonation now in 15 seconds.”
    Ignoring its heavy spin, the craft launched itself toward the swollen sun, now dominating its frontal view screen. Turning, the rocket accelerated into massive gravities, quickly closing the distance between the two. The Lithid vessel pushed its engines as hard as they would burn, but with the damage to the wing it was unable to escape the deadly missile. The ship had not yet entered the atmosphere of the sun and had only begun to feel the gravitational pull of the sun’s field when the rocket struck. Exploding in a colorful burst of plasma and burning fuel cells, both ship and rocket disappeared from the tactical monitor on the helm of the Dormark.
    “Unidentified ship destroyed,” the officer announced with a smile.
    Above the sun, debris and shrapnel from the explosion got caught in the gravitational well of the swollen sun. Among the torn pieces of hull and destroyed engine casing, a single black canister fell into the sun’s orbit.

CHAPTER 8:

    Yen awoke with a start as the intercom blared through the confines of his room. He heard the words echoing through the haze that clouded his mind, and jolts of pain reverberated through his head with every word spoken. Though he tried to sit up, he found the effort futile and collapsed back into bed, his head hurting worse than ever. With a slight smile, however, he realized the pain was from the alcohol the night before and not from the invasive psychic powers. His smile disappeared when the intercom sounded once more.
    “Squadron Commander Xiao,” it blared, causing aches that rolled from his temples into his teeth. “Your presence is requested immediately in the War Room by Captain Hodge. Please verify receipt of this request.”
    Yen yawned and brushed the hair out of his face in order to better wipe the sleep from his eyes. He fumbled, searching for the transponder on his nightstand, but only succeeded in knocking his alarm clock onto the floor. He heard the crackle of the intercom as he noticed the transponder resting absently on the floor, no doubt still sitting where it was dropped forgotten the night before.
    “Squadron Commander Xiao,” the announcement continued, funneling its request directly into his room. “Your presence is requested…”
    “I’m awake!” he roared, drowning out the intercom with his own angry yell. “Can’t you hear me, you asshole? I’m awake!” Reaching down, ignoring the lights that burst in front of his vision as he bent over, he grabbed the transponder and activated its signal.
    “I heard you the first three times!” he yelled into the microphone.
    “Many apologies,” the voice replied over the handheld receiver. “Captain Hodge requests you at the War Room for a strategic conference.”
    “Yeah, yeah,” he muttered to himself before pressing the send button. “Let her know that I will be there shortly.”
    He tossed the transponder across the room and threw his legs over the side of the bed. Though he wasn’t sure if he could keep down breakfast this morning, Yen’s belly still growled angrily as bile sloshed from side to side in his empty stomach. As much as he would have preferred a chance to eat, he was already running late. He didn’t want to be the reason all the other officers on board had to wait to start the meeting.
    He stripped out of the pajamas that his aides had clothed him in the night before and staggered, naked, to the shower. His yellow skin stood in stark contrast to the sterilized white tile of the bathroom as he entered. Turning on the water, he let the jets wash over his body. The spines on his back rose in response to the pleasure he felt as the hot water cascaded onto his tense shoulders and ran, dripping, from his long dark hair. Trying his best not to lose track of time while enjoying the shower, he pressed the knob to deactivate the water and grabbed a towel from the peg on the wall. Yen dried quickly and pulled on his dress uniform; its dark grey fabric signified that he was an officer of the Alliance Fleet while the rich purple piping along the shoulders and sleeves signified him as Squadron Commander.
    Exiting his room, Yen’s boots clicked loudly on the metal floors of the ship as he made his way to the lift. Stepping inside, he entered his command code and the doors slid shut before him. He felt a twisting in his stomach that he knew was a sickly combination of hunger and nerves, the latter being caused by him being late to the meeting. He dreaded confrontation with any of the senior officers, though there were only two that outranked him aboard: Captain Hodge and Eminent Merric, the tactical officer. Still, with his powers acting so unpredictably, even the smallest disagreement could quickly turn lethal. His fears subsided as the doors opened on the War Room. Though he was the last to arrive, many had still not taken their seats around the circular table that dominated the center of the room. Small clusters of officers — with their orange, yellow, and red piping signifying their ranks — stood around the numerous displays on the side walls, many of which showed the progress of the Alliance Fleet as it raced through the void of space.
    As Captain Hodge, her own captain’s piping a brilliant white, noticed Yen enter, she called the room to order and invited them all to take their seats. Yen made his way through the crowd and sat two seats down from the Captain; only Merric sitting closer to her due to his rank. The others spent little time with cordial salutations, instead focusing on the three dimensional map of the universe that floated above the center of the table.
    “Welcome, all of you,” Captain Hodge said, drawing their attention to her position at the table. “We are faced with a situation we were not expecting and have, therefore, not planned for accordingly. We are now pursuing the entire Terran Fleet through space in an attempt to destroy the last vestiges of Terran existence. However, we are also facing one of the biggest catastrophes in Alliance history as one after another of the suns in Alliance space are being blacked out by Terran deception. You all received data streams this morning informing you of the specifics, but all information at this time is fluid. I now invite Eminent Merric to fill you in on the details of what we know.”
    Taking her seat, Merric stood instead. Yen raised an eyebrow as he watched the other officers pouring through volumes of data on the screens before them, updating themselves on the attacks against the galaxies’ suns. He was sure he had received the information himself, but hadn’t bothered to check his files before staggering from his room this morning.
    “Thank you, Captain,” Merric began, his low voice carrying in the vaulted War Room. His fingers began flying across the keyboard before him; his actions reflected in movements among the floating diagram above the table. One after one, the representations of suns disappeared from the screen, replaced by silent black orbs. “To date, seventeen suns have been corrupted by the Terran assault. A list of affected planets is on your display screens now. As you can see, we’re looking at approximately three point two trillion individuals now trapped on dying planets. These numbers are, as always, an estimation since it is unknown how many people escaped on ships once the suns were attacked.”
    One of the Warrants, the working class of officers on board the ship, on the far side of the table raised a hand. Yen recognized her as one of the weapons bay Warrants, responsible for the maintenance and operability of both the plasma rockets and rail guns. Her handsome face was framed by her Wyndgaart tattoos and her eyes were serious as she waited to be recognized.
    “Warrant Scyant,” Merric said, pointing at her position. Scyant rose to her feet and addressed the group.
    “Do we have any information yet on how to reverse the Deplitoxide affect on the suns?” she asked. Yen was impressed that she had done enough research since receiving the packet this morning to clearly identify the chemical being used from memory. Having asked her question, she took her seat again at the table.
    “Unfortunately we do not at this time,” Merric replied. “However, we are currently awaiting a response from High Council on our possible courses of action. Regardless, the destruction of the suns is not our primary concern. The Alliance Fleet is being sent solely to pursue and destroy the Terran Fleet before it is able to reach Arcendor.”
    His fingers flew across the keyboard as the map zoomed in on a specific sector of space, dominated by a multitude of red dots. “We have been receiving partial reports from freighters and commercial ships operating throughout Alliance territory. So far, we have tracked the Terran Fleet through four galaxies as they move toward Arcendor. From the estimates we have received, we believe…”
    “Don’t we have ships defending these galaxies?” a young Magistrate asked from a few seats to Yen’s left.
    Merric glowered at the younger man, obviously slighted for the interruption. “Yes, we did,” he emphasized the last word venomously to ensure no further interruptions. “The Terran Fleet has been sweeping into galaxies en mass, annihilating any meager resistance that can be offered by one or two Cruisers located in orbit around the inhabitable planets. In some instances, though it has been rare, the Terrans have left a small defensive force behind in the galaxy, usually consisting of one or two ships. We believe this is being done only for galaxies of strategic interest or along major concourses that they believe our Fleet would be taking in an attempt to stop their insurgency.”
    Merric zoomed in again on the series of red dots on the map. “We believe from the reports we’ve received that the Terran Fleet consists of forty-four ships. That is ten ships more than what are currently in the Alliance Fleet.” Merric paused for effect, but noticed that little of the room seemed surprised by the situation. Clearing his throat, he continued. “However, we have the advantage of fighting in familiar space and we have a higher concentration of weaponry per ship than do the Terran vessels.”
    “And while we continue in pursuit of the Terran Fleet,” the young Lithid Magistrate chimed in once more, to Merric’s dismay, “are we to leave our families to die on frozen planets orbiting lifeless suns?” His question caused a stir of discontentment among the other officers around the table. Sidebar conversations broke out, with a number of Magistrates and lower ranking Prestiges agreeing with the sentiment of the Lithid.
    The noise of a dozen independent conversations rolled through Yen’s mind, rattling within the close confines of his skull. His headache slowly grew, though he was no longer sure if it was solely the result of his inebriation the night before. Reaching forward, he slammed his hand down on the table. The sound reverberated in the vaulted room and silence fell as everyone turned toward him. Looking up, his black eyes appeared as maelstroms of barely contained power.
    Yen spoke slowly and softly, letting his words carry across the crowded room. “There is a chance for those trapped on the planets. Before we invaded Earth, High Council ordered a small contingent to hunt down the source of the Deplitoxide and bring it back in order to make an antidote to its destructive effects.” Yen found his thoughts wandering, the beautiful face of the Wyndgaart pilot appeared in his vision. He lost himself in the memory of her touch, the feel of her soft skin against his, the love they shared. She had saved his life once and, more importantly, saved his soul when he thought he would be consumed by the burgeoning power.
    Focusing on the room once more, he noticed that all faces stared at him in anticipation. “If anyone can find a cure for our current dilemma,” he continued, “Keryn will.”
    “If High Council already had the foresight to send someone to find a cure,” the Captain interceded, halting any chance for a debate on the subject, “then I am content that a solution will be presented shortly. However, it doesn’t negate our own responsibility to destroy the Terran Fleet. Eminent Merric, please brief the officers on the most recent piece of information.”
    Merric stood once more and pointed at the map, indicating a number of red dots that broke away from the main collection. “As you can see, recent information indicates that half the Terran Fleet has separated themselves from the rest of their ships and is moving into an intercept position between us and Arcendor. That means that they know we’re coming to stop them. I encourage you all to spend the next few days devising a plan to overcome their blockade as quickly as possible so as to not slow our advance toward Arcendor. I will be meeting with select groups of officers shortly to begin devising a strategy. In the mean time, check and double check your assigned sections to ensure we are ready for combat. Now that the Terrans know that we are coming, it won’t be long before we’re fully engaged. The Terrans are fighting for their lives against us, but we are fighting for the survival of everything we know and love. Don’t underestimate them, but don’t expect them to underestimate us either.” Turning, he nodded to Captain Hodge and took his seat.
    “Ladies and gentlemen, I stress the importance of our responsibility here,” she said. “Let’s ensure that we are forever remembered for our decisive defeat over the Terran Fleet.”
    Forever remembered, Yen thought as a chill rose up his spine. He couldn’t help but think of how close her words sounded to those of the Terran madman who started this war in the first place.

CHAPTER 9:

    Keryn leaned against the railing outside their hotel room and breathed deeply of the warm city air. Despite the warmth, she found herself shivering. Inside, she had been close to losing control and falling back into her former self. Even despite her control, she could feel her sadistic half crawling through her mind.
    You can’t escape me, the Voice said curtly in her mind. We are one and the same, you and I.
    “Shut up,” Keryn whispered out loud. She pressed the heels of her hands against her eyes, willing the Voice to go away.
    You can’t just want me gone and I’ll vanish, it said. I’m a part of you, now and forever.
    The whispering continued in her mind. When she had first heard the Voice as a child, she had panicked, certain that some critical synapses had burned away within her mind. Dementia, she had thought then. But then she learned the truth, not just about the Voice but about herself. And it scared her nearly to death.
    But we had been great together, the Voice said, knowing her thoughts. And, in the end, you gave in to me.
    “But I never will again,” she growled toward the bustling city. A startled man standing on his own balcony a few rooms over looked at her startled. She turned angrily. “What the hell is your problem,” she barked ferociously at the man. Surprised, he turned and disappeared quickly from view.
    You’re already so close to me, cooed the voice. It isn’t much further until you realize our potential together once again.
    Scared terribly after her first encounter with the Voice, she had taken herself off rotations for pilot duty despite being Squadron Commander, choosing instead to remain locked within her quarters on board the Revolution, keeping away from people who, like herself, would question her sanity. And though the Voice was silent for a long while, she knew it would never go away. She was a Wyndgaart, and the Voice was as natural to their physiology as the tattoos that traced her body.
    The Wyndgaarts were savage warriors and exceptional soldiers. Their skills in hand-to-hand combat were trained, to a degree, within nearly every unit within the Interstellar Alliance. But their talents were not something the Wyndgaarts trained from generation to generation. Deep within their genes, their rage and savagery was given voice, a voice that carried the combat memories and skills of generations of their predecessors. For most Wyndgaarts, they came to accept the Voice and fuse it with their own, resulting in dark personalities and great heroics on the battlefield.
    But Keryn had chosen a different path. She balked at the idea of accepting the savagery of her species and, instead, chose to attend the Academy. She had been a rarity, even in the prestigious institute that trained all military fighter pilots. But in order to train her mind for the complexities of three-dimensional space combat, she had to suppress her own Voice.
    Suppressed, but not forgotten, her Voice whispered.
    Never forgotten, Keryn thought darkly. She had given in to the Voice once before, while engaged in the complicated acrobatics of space combat. She had been close to dying, with Terran fighters chasing her through the void of space. The Voice had called out to her and, in her fear, she had given in to it. She had watched the rest of the battle as though through a fog. The had performed maneuvers that she would have never thought of alone, her ship spinning wildly and firing again and again until all her pursuers had been killed. Together with the Voice, Keryn had been unstoppable on the battlefield. But she always remembered the gleeful and childish laughter that, for the longest time, she didn’t even recognize as her own. Keryn killed hundreds, if not thousands, of Terran soldiers that day, finally bringing down a bloated Terran Destroyer by herself. But, throughout it all, there had been the laughter and, though she hated herself for it, the joy.
    Joy is a small price to pay for greatness, the Voice said playfully. We returned from that mission a hero. They couldn’t throw enough medals on you for destroying so many of the enemy.
    “But you’re not me,” Keryn said firmly. “I have managed great things without you and always, always, without the pleasure that you take in killing!”
    You didn’t seem to have so many issues with me when you were faced with your own impending death, the Voice said angrily. I made you great. What happened after the battle? They made you the Squadron Commander. Your own Squadron to command! You never could have managed that without me!
    The Voice’s words struck a chord within Keryn. She felt her resolve strengthen and a calm smile spread across her lips. “I’ve never relied on anyone before, and I’ll never again find myself relying on you. So why don’t you just shut up for a while?”
    Looking over the balcony, Keryn drank in the sights and sounds of Miller’s Glenn, letting the merchants’ yells and the engines of flying craft drown out the Voice within. She let the mental techniques she had learned during her time together with Yen wash over her and finish pushing the Voice from her mind. Gradually, the Voice faded into the background before disappearing all together.
    She leaned against the balcony railing and sighed heavily. The Voice was persistent and dangerous, but was still under control. Reaching to her throat, Keryn activated the microphone. “Talon Base this is Talon Six, over.”
    “This is Talon Base,” Cerise replied over the shortwave radio.
    “The package has been delivered and is being… unwrapped.” She smiled, in spite of herself, at the verbiage. The smile disappeared as Keryn started to wonder if that was a result of the Voice or her own sick humor.
    “Roger,” came Cerise’s curt reply, her dialect elongating the vowels.
    Keryn dropped the military pretext before continuing. “How is everything back at the ship?”
    There was a short pause in the transmission. “We are both doing well. Things are dreadfully uneventful here.”
    Keryn caught herself nodding, quickly stopping when she realized Cerise couldn’t see the movement. “How is McLaughlin?” she asked bluntly, dropping even the codenames they normally used.
    “He’s…” The signal stopped and Keryn waiting for a reply. She had asked a difficult question, especially for Cerise, who had feelings for the Pilgrim. “He’s the same,” Cerise finally replied. “He’s stable, but all I can do is make sure he’s comfortable right now. The quicker you can get done with the package, the quicker we can bring him back to his old self.”
    Keryn smiled, still surprised by the tender emotions the Avalon showed toward someone of Terran descent. “We’ll be done shortly, Cerise, and then be back at your location. Sit tight for just a little while longer. Talon Six, out.”
    Though it was early afternoon by her account, the sun still blazed brightly in the sky. Keryn started to wonder how long a day lasted on Othus, never having time to do research on the planet before their arrival. Judging from the crowded streets and packed booths, she assumed there were still quite a few hours before the sun set on the horizon.
    The two vendors directly below her balcony vied for the attention of passers by, one selling fruit and the other exotic pottery. From her balcony, pieces of conversation reached her ears.
    “…lovely pottery, m’lady,” one yelled at a woman passing the booths. “This is the finest quality…”
    “…grown right here on Othus,” said the fruit dealer.
    The pottery dealer held up a kiln-blasted vase, its surface heavy with a dark lacquer. He smiled broadly at a young couple that stopped by to view his wares. The man and woman, decked in colorful robes, were blatant tourists new to this part of space. The merchant’s shoulders relaxed as he began his sales pitch, spinning a wild yarn about the rarity of the pottery and the uniqueness of the specific pattern painted on its surface. Keryn laughed to herself as she watched. From her high vantage point, she could see the box at the vendor’s feet, pushed under the heavy shade of the booth’s table. From the top of the box, Keryn could see at least three other vases just like the one in the vendor’s hand.
    The door behind her cracked open and she turned at the sound. Adam’s familiar blond hair and strong Terran features were all that was exposed through the thin opening of the door. Even trying to cover the rest of his body, Keryn could see a splatter of blood smeared across his cheek. As Adam stepped out of the way, she entered the cramped hotel room.
    Adam stood, his chest bare as he tried futilely to wipe away the blood that coated his muscular forearms and hands. Pointing at her own cheek, she let him know about the smear that had made its way to his face. He scrubbed furiously as Keryn looked around the rest of the room. On an end table next to the sofa, the bloody, serrated scalpel had been dropped arbitrarily as Adam passed through the room toward the front door.
    Finally wiping away the majority of the gore on his arms and face, Adam looked at her sternly. “He told us everything we wanted to know,” he said matter-of-factly. “Deplitoxide is a derivative from a plant growing in the swamps of Beracus, in the Falitan Galaxy.”
    Keryn recalled what she could of the Falitan Galaxy. It was a galaxy off the main trade routes, damning it to relative obscurity. Try as she might, she couldn’t recall anything of importance about the small galaxy except that it only had two or three planets in orbit around its tiny red sun. She had to assume that Beracus was the only inhabitable planet among the few planets in orbit. It wasn’t hard to see why it would have been unexplored before Cardax arrived and found Deplitoxide among its flora.
    “Penchant is cleaning up the room as we speak,” Adam continued flatly. He paused, the look of concern returning to his face. “He’s still alive back there, but he’s in bad shape. If you wanted to speak to him…” His voice trailed off, leaving the sentence incomplete.
    “No,” Keryn replied, shaking her head. She had no intention of giving the Voice more reason to creep back into her thoughts. “Go wash yourself while Penchant finishes in the back. I’ll head back onto the porch and make sure we’re not interrupted until everything is finished.”
    Adam stepped toward the single bathroom, but paused in mid step. “We did the right thing here,” he said, without turning around to look at her. “The ends truly do justify the means here.” When she didn’t immediately reply, he walked into the bathroom, closing the door behind him.
    “I know,” she whispered to the closed door. Turning, she went back outside and closed the door behind her. She was glad to be back outside; Keryn had always been amazed at how easy it was to feel alone when there were so many people around her. The noise surrounded her like a cocoon, enveloping her with so many sounds and distractions that they merged into a single hum of activity, each lacking distinction from the next.
    Closing her eyes, she took in the sounds and smells of Miller’s Glen. City living had always been an escape for Keryn; a world so unlike that of her home that she was easily able to forget the pressures of her race and the Voice it carried. Night after night during her time at the Academy, she and her friends had slipped away into the city, losing themselves in pulsing beats of clubs and potent drinks at the bars. It seemed fitting that she found herself in another city, losing herself once more among the sights and sounds.
    Keryn shivered as a cold wind blew over her body. She opened her violet eyes, surprised to feel a breeze on such a warm planet. Glancing at the crowd, she found that she was not the only one surprised. Many of the patrons and vendors on the street passing in front of the hotel had stopped their bartering and glanced around, confused.
    A shadow fell over Keryn and in surprise she turned to find what had blocked the sunlight from her face. Others turned as the shadow spread down the street, carrying with it a cold wind. Screams started to spread as, one by one, the citizens of Miller’s Glen looked up at the sky. Her eyes turning all the way to the sun itself, Keryn’s mouth fell open and her eyes wide in surprise. Nothing had come in between the sun and Miller’s Glen to create the shadow. The shadow had come from the sun itself. At the base of the sun’s southern hemisphere, a black spot grew over the surface of the swollen orb. Black tendrils spread across its surface, casting thick shadows onto the planet below.
    Shaking free of the spell that had befallen them all, people began running for cover. Like cattle, people on the street pushed and strained against one another as some ran inside buildings and others ran toward the spaceport on the edge of town. Merchants fled, leaving behind piles of substandard food and trade goods that they had been selling at high prices. The streets were in chaos, punctuated time and again by sounds of gunfire and the screams of those unfortunate enough to fall and be trampled by the fleeing masses.
    Keryn lunged from the railing and threw open the door to the hotel room. “You guys need to see this,” she yelled into the room. “Now!”
    Adam, who had pulled on pants but remained barefoot dripping with water from his shower quickly joined her on the balcony. As the cold blast of air struck him, he shivered reflexively. Penchant quickly joined them as well, appearing in his natural state and still stained with Cardax’s dark blood from his clean up in the back room.
    “What the hell?” Adam asked, breathlessly, as he stared up as the vanishing sun. He shivered again in the cold air; the temperature in Miller’s Glen was dropping rapidly as the sun continued to disappear. Staring at what remained of the sun, only half the sphere was still yellow. The rest had been consumed by the inky darkness.
    As they watched, the darkness spread both on the sun’s surface and across the planet below. They stared as another quarter of the sun vanished; the planet was cast into a growing twilight. Keryn squinted against the fading light of the sun, straining to see a flicker of movement in orbit above the planet. Her eyes spreading wide, she pointed near the base of the now nearly black sun.
    “Do you two see that?” she asked. Following her lead, Adam and Penchant watched as two separate concentric blue circles expanded in the sky. “Is that what I think it is?”
    Adam clenched his jaw tight as he watched the blue circles spread. “They’re plasma explosions,” he said, his voice sounding dead and in disbelief. “I think we just lost the two Interstellar Alliance Cruisers in orbit.”
    Keryn shoved at them both, trying to push them back inside the hotel room. “Get back inside. I think this is about to get a lot worse for us all.”
    Slamming the door behind them, Keryn pulled free the radio on her wrist. “Cerise, this is Keryn.”
    Static was the only reply she heard in her earpiece. Pressing the talk button, she tried to reach the Cair Ilmun again. “Cerise, this is Keryn. Respond!”
    As she released the talk button, static again leapt to life on the otherwise silent radio. Her hand shaking, she pushed the button one last time. “Cerise, please answer me,” she said weakly. Letting go of the button and hearing static one more time, Keryn turned toward the other two, tears in her eyes.
    “I think we might have lost the Cair Ilmun too.”

CHAPTER 10:

    Placing his hand on the smooth metal of the fighter’s hull, Yen perused the line of ships in the gargantuan hangar bay. The small Duun fighters were dwarfed by the mass of the bay, holding the full complement of his Squadron’s ships. Even the Cair ships, made for transporting assault teams, seemed insignificant in the hangar.
    Though he moved from fighter to fighter, his thoughts were miles away, stuck invariably on Keryn’s face, the Wyndgaart who saved his life and with whom he had fallen in love. The thought of her smile and touch haunted him as he went about his tasks, checking fighter after fighter in his Squadron. Absently, he typed the closest ship’s serial number into his palm display, bringing up the maintenance report for the ship. It said what he already knew it would: the ship was immaculate. Yen had the best crew and pilots in the Fleet under his command, and it showed in his vessels.
    “It’s still good, you know,” a female voice called from behind him, her voice seemingly lost in the vastness of the hangar. Yen didn’t have to turn to know who it was. Among his pilots, only one had truly become his confidant and friend.
    “Warrant Morven,” Yen said, turning toward the attractive Warrant Officer. Though her blond Pilgrim hair was tussled and grease smeared on her cheek from working on her ship, he was still warmed by her smile. Iana Morven was one of the higher-ranking Warrants under Yen’s command. Though there were a number of full officers on board the Revolution, Yen was the only officer in the Squadron; all other pilots and staff were Warrants or Crewmen. The theory behind the rank dispersion was that the life expectancy of a fighter pilot was so low that it was a waste of Alliance resources to train full officers, only to have them die on their first mission. Yen, however, had always found solace in the lower ranks, finding their camaraderie more genuine and conversations more palatable.
    Yen lowered his display screen before he continued. “Sorry, I was distracted.”
    “I know,” she said, leaning against the edge of the fighter’s low wing. “That’s the third time you’ve pulled up the maintenance report on that specific fighter.”
    She crossed her arms over her ample chest, concealed poorly by a thin grey sleeveless shirt. Her maintenance coveralls had been unzipped, the top half of which hung lazily around her waist. Iana raised an eyebrow, encouraging Yen to explain. Yen scowled, knowing she already knew what was on his mind, but willing to play the game with her.
    “My heart just isn’t in the inspection today, I guess,” he explained, covering the truth with his poor explanation.
    Iana smiled smugly. “It’s interesting you mention your heart, since that’s the reason you’re not paying attention to what you’re doing,” she chided. “You’re thinking about her again, aren’t you?”
    “What if I am?” Yen said defensively. “Keryn is out there trying to find a cure for the latest Terran attack and all we’re doing is polishing fighters and adding fresh coats of paint. She’s doing something substantial, not to mention that we have so much riding on the success of her mission.” Yen scowled to himself, regretting his decision a few months before the invasion of Earth to tell Iana about his feelings for Keryn. Still, though obviously hurt by his rejection of her advances, Iana had still remained a close, if not brutally honest friend.
    “It’s not her mission you’re worried about,” Iana said, shaking her head and reaching out to place her hand on his arm. “It’s okay to admit that you’re worried about her. Truth be told, I’m sure she’d like to know how much you cared.” She turned her head away as she continued. “But…”
    “But?” Yen asked, suddenly feeling like he had been led into a trap.
    “But we need you to be less of a whipped puppy and more of a Squadron Commander,” Iana said harshly. “In the near future we’re going to be engaged in the greatest series of battles ever fought by the Interstellar Alliance. You are going to be a key part of that assault, leading the fighter Squadron from the Alliance flagship.” She placed a hand on each cheek, pulling his face down so he was eye level with her shorter stature. “We need… no, I need a commander who will be focused and tactically aware. I can’t have you getting distracted at the last possible moment, not when so many lives depend on the decisions you make. Focus, sir.”
    Yen placed his hands over hers and gently pulled them away from his face. “I wish it were that easy, Iana. With everything else going on, I can’t seem to get her out of my head. Every time I let my mind wander, it naturally wanders to her.”
    “Then you need something to take your mind off of her,” she said coyly, stepping close so that her firm breasts pressed against his arm. “And I don’t mean another hobby, you need something that will match the ferocity with which she got into your head the first time.”
    Yen didn’t have to be psychic to understand what she meant. It also wasn’t hard for him to see that she was offering herself as his distraction. He felt his eyes wandering past her face and toward the exposed cleavage, more pronounced by her loose sleeveless shirt hanging open in the front. Though he couldn’t deny that Iana was attractive and possessed a very well endowed body, he just didn’t feel the yearning that he expected when he looked at her so clearly throwing herself at him.
    “You’re probably right,” Yen began. “But…”
    “But,” Iana stated, smiling at the irony but appearing crestfallen nonetheless.
    “But I just don’t think I’m ready to grab a woman, especially one that I care about and have known for so long, just to appease my physical desires. I think there should be a deeper commitment.”
    “You’re a strange man, Yen,” Iana said as she turned to leave. “But I’m not wrong. You need to find someone, and soon. Overcome your need to make sex more than what it is and get it out of your system. If you can’t get your head in the game, you’re useless to us as a Squadron Commander. Just think about it.”
    Yen watched her leave, her hips swaying in an obvious taunt toward his decision. Though the thought of Iana’s ample breasts pressing against his body did cause a stirring in his loins, his ideations were quickly interrupted as his transponder crackled to life.
    “Squadron Commander Xiao,” the stern male voice stated. “This is Eminent Merric.”
    “This is Yen,” he replied as he continued to watch Iana walk away.
    “Yen, I need you to report with me to the aft weapons bay,” Merric called over the radio. “Captain Hodge has tasked us both with ensuring that all weapons bays are in perfect order during the next inspection.”
    “Roger,” Yen said curtly into the radio. Unless provoked, Yen often chose to remain in the hangar as opposed to traipsing through the stuffy halls of the ship and examining weapon systems that had no bearing on his tactics within the Squadron.
    “I will meet you there,” Merric replied, his tone as emotionless as usual. “Eminent Merric, out.”
    Yen collected his equipment and, buttoning the top button on his dress uniform to ensure compliance with uniform regulations on the ship, left the hangar and made his way toward the aft weapons bay. The walk was long, having to go from midship to the elevators that would take him to the upper floor where the weapon systems were housed. He used that time to think about what Iana had said. Perhaps she was right. Perhaps he did need something to distract him from his thoughts of Keryn. However, Yen knew he was right to not accept Iana’s offer in the hangar bay. Building a relationship, even for only one night, with a subordinate was a recipe for disaster, especially when he was required to make decisions that toyed with the lives of all his pilots, including Iana’s. Emotions would be a hindrance in such a situation. Still, he couldn’t help but agree that a distraction would serve him well. Distracted as he was, Yen barely noticed when he arrived at the large metal doors that led into the aft weapons bay, having traversed the entire ship while lost in thought.
    As the doors slid open, Yen stepped inside the busy weapons bay. The silence of the Revolution’s corridors was quickly overwhelmed by the oppressive noise within the room. Vehicles drove across the open floor, some carrying plasma rockets delicately in their padded claws while still others bowed under the weight of tons of the dense slugs for the rail guns positioned throughout the room. In the midst of the chaos, Merric stood beside Warrant Scyant, her dark hair tied back in a professional and practical bun and her uniform immaculately maintained. As he approached, he was able to admirer her Wyndgaart features, including her body tattoos of blue and green which complimented her deep green eyes.
    Both Merric and Scyant turned as Yen approached, their conversation halting. Scyant struck a stiff salute as he reached the pair, her stern military bearing unwavering even in the course of working in the weapons bay. He returned her salute, ignoring Merric’s inquisitive looks as he expected his own salute. He cleared his throat, a nervous tick Yen had noticed whenever he felt an awkward silence spread, and returned to perusing his reports.
    “During the last exercise involving your weapons bay,” Merric continued, picking up his conversation where they had left off before Yen’s arrival, “your section did not maintain the high standards expected by the weaponeers of this ship.” He looked down, consulting the series of numbers that scrolled across his screen. “The return fire by the rail guns was inaccurate and would not have maintained a proper field of suppression against any pursuing ships.”
    Scyant’s face appeared carved from stone, only the slightly rosy patches of color on her cheeks belied the frustration she felt. “Sir, with all due respect, I explained previously that we have been waiting for the proper instruments in order to fully calibrate the rail guns, instruments that have been on order for over four months. The fault here lies with Logistics. If you would kindly ask them when I can get my instrumentation, I’ll ensure that my weapons bay is compliant next exercise.”
    Yen smiled, appreciating the fire he heard barely masked behind her calm demeanor. Though she addressed the fault as being that of the Logistics cell, Yen knew as well as Scyant did that it was Eminent Merric who oversaw that section. Her own thoughts, clearly imprinted in the front of her mind, told Yen what she really thought: any fault in the Logistics cell was a direct reflection of its piss-poor leadership. Merric, thankfully, seemed oblivious to her subtle berating, and continued his rant.
    “This ship cannot operate if everyone simply wants to point fingers at one another,” he said. “We want results, not excuses. Fix the issue before the next exercise.” Merric turned toward the missile tubes and loading racks for the rail guns, confident that the issue was at a close. He didn’t notice the glare he received as he stepped toward the first missile battery. “Now walk me through the weapon systems themselves.”
    As the trio stepped off toward the four missile batteries located in the rear of the ship, Warrant Scyant explained at great length the inner workings of the missile tubes and collections of plasma rockets. She maintained the same stoic facial expression, even while fielding numerous inane questions from Merric, who seemed eager to catch her at a fault or cause her to stumble over an answer. Yen frowned as he watched the exchange. His powers reached out toward Merric, probing as the officer talked. He could sense the concealed glee in Merric’s mind, a happiness that came at the expense of the confidence of others.
    As Yen focused once more on the conversation and less on Merric’s thoughts, he caught the tail end of a mundane description. “…furthermore, that’s exactly why it’s important to maintain good order and discipline within your missile crews. Without your leadership, this entire rear half of the ship, as well as the engines located below you, could disappear into a cloud of…”
    Yen reached out with his powers, a fine blue filament of power emerged from the gently shimmering air around Yen, striking Merric’s mind like a scorpion sting. Merric paused in mid sentence, his eyes cloudy and his jaw slack. Slowly, Merric closed his mouth and blinked heavily, turning slowly toward the ten rail guns further toward the aft of the ship.
    “Why don’t you show me the rail guns,” Merric said, his condescending tone replaced with a calmer voice. Yen reached out with the filament once more, striking Merric in the back of the skull. “If you please, Warrant Scyant,” Merric said, motioning for her to lead.
    Scyant’s cool demeanor melted as her forehead wrinkled in confusion. She looked back and forth between the two officers; Merric gestured politely toward the rail guns as Yen smiled wickedly to himself. Turning hesitantly, she led the way further into the bowels of the weapons bay.
    Yen cheered quietly to himself, proud both of his ability to save Scyant from the inconvenience of dealing with Merric and, more importantly, of so clearly controlling his powers. Though he felt pressure build behind his eyes after even the most subtle use of his powers, both the scanning of their thoughts and the suggestions he placed in Merric’s mind worked without error. He would suffer through the pain and pressure, if only he could control his powers more thoroughly.
    As Scyant led the pair toward the rail guns and the metal slugs resting a safe distance away, Merric shook his head as though trying to dislodge a bad idea. He looked left and right before finally tilting his head as though straining to hear sounds in the distance. Merric glanced over his shoulder toward Yen, who raised his eyebrows in expectation. Opening his mouth, Merric stuttered as he tried to talk, then quickly closed his mouth and hurried to catch up with Scyant. Yen felt pride swell in his chest.
    The trio stopped nearly thirty feet away from the series of rail guns. Though Yen had helped operate one of the rail guns on the Revolution once when the ship had been severely damaged by a Terran Destroyer, the simple, yet incredibly effective technology never ceased to amaze him. Ten openings spread across the rear wall of the weapons bay, representing the ten rail guns located aft on the ship. Each opening contained three long metallic poles, located in a triangular pattern around the edge of the opening. Yen knew from experience that each of these was highly magnetic, their forces enough to rip even the smallest metal object from a person’s grip like a deadly projectile. The rails’ surfaces, pocked with grooves, directed the magnetic energy toward the outside of the hull.
    When loaded with one of the heavy metal slugs, whose own magnetic field was polarized against the rails, the conflicting magnetic fields kept the slug aloft as it was propelled down the shaft and out the rear of the ship. The rail gun technology was not technical, but it was effective. Without friction in the void of space, the speed with which the slugs were launched from the ship never decreased, the slugs maintaining their velocity and momentum until striking and tearing through another object. Yen had seen the fury of a full volley of rail guns being brought to bear upon an enemy ship. The slugs weren’t explosive, but they didn’t need to be. Their velocity ripped through the thick metal hulls of enemy ships, decompressing multiple floors and creating a vacuum by which dozens of crewmen were killed by just a single slug. Technical they were not, but deadly just the same.
    Merric asked few questions as he inspected the rail guns, his mind distracted by thoughts he simply couldn’t grasp or currently comprehend. Within minutes, he shook his head in frustration and turned away from Scyant and Yen.
    “This all seems…” he paused, trying to gather his thoughts through his muddled mind. “This seems to be in order. Good job, Warrant Scyant. Um, keep up the good work.”
    With his cryptic departure done, he stormed toward the exit to the weapons room, lost once again in his own confusion. Yen turned to the Warrant, smiling broadly.
    “That went better than I could have expected,” he said mischievously.
    Scyant’s face broke into a beautiful smile. She turned to Yen, her eyes twinkling; she seemed like a different person all together from the stern Warrant who had been giving the tour moments before. With her smiling, Yen could see why others found her so attractive.
    “I don’t know what you did, but I can’t thank you enough,” she said, nearly stumbling over her own words in her excitement.
    “I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Yen replied, his own smile broadening to match hers.
    She leaned forward and, in a more hushed tone, continued. “You need to be careful, sir,” she said, nearly whispering. “If Merric figures out what you did, you could be in big trouble.” She straightened and smiled again. “Still, I don’t know how I can ever repay you for saving my ass.”
    Yen looked at Warrant Scyant, admiring how her tattoos traced the curves of her high cheekbones and imagined how she would look with her hair down, framing her handsome face. Iana’s advice resounded in his mind. Maybe it was time he tried a distraction.
    “I know how you can repay me,” he said confidently.
    Scyant’s eyebrow raised inquisitively, her smile never faltering. “And how would I do that?”
    “Have dinner with me tonight. My quarters.”
    She paused as she considered his offer. Nodding, she agreed. “I’ll be there at nineteen hundred.”
    “I’ll see you then,” he said, his spirits feeling bolstered for the first time in quite a while. Still, the pain ached behind his eyes as though he had overused his powers once more. Scyant braced in a salute, which Yen returned before turning and leaving the weapons bay.

CHAPTER 11:

    The Terran destroyer passed through the debris field now surrounding Othus and assumed an orbit around the planet. Fragments of metal and remains of former crewmen bounced off its hull. The view screen on the destroyer showed the swollen black sun, its heat sequestered and its darkness now throwing the planets in this galaxy into an unnatural night. Its crew was still cheering the destruction of the two Alliance Cruisers when it launched its small fighters and large bombers into the atmosphere of the planet.
    The first few fighters dove quickly toward the planet, the dozens of ships pouring through the atmosphere glowed from the friction of entry like meteor showers in the night sky. They immediately began pursuing ships trying to leave orbit, streaking through the sky with deadly intent. The bloated merchant vessels were no match for the quick fighters and soon the sky was littered with explosions as plasma rockets and large bore automatic machine guns tore through the slower ships.
    The larger bombers, slower on their entry but twice as deadly as the Terran fighters, moved into positions over the planet’s major cities. A single bomber took up orbit above Miller’s Glen, its sleek silver, arrowhead shaped hull glistening even in the unnatural twilight caused by the blackened sun.
    Merchants and citizens alike throughout Miller’s Glen fled the city toward the spaceport, eager to climb its spiral body and reach their ships. The Terran fighters had ignored the spaceport, focusing instead on destroying the ships and recreational vehicles that scattered like insects under the assaulting Terran fleet. Those fleeing toward the spaceport felt a false sense of security; the slightest glimmer of hope shone in their panicked minds that there was escape from the impending massacre. Keryn and her crew, still huddled inside their hotel room, knew better than to hope. There would be a slaughter of the planet, and death would come from the bomber hovering above the city.
    As people packed into the spaceport, its body filling with those who had run across the length of the city searching for escape, the bomber turned slowly in the sky, taking up station above the port. On the bottom of its sleek form, two doors slid open, exposing the black depths inside. With no more than a whisper, a pair of glowing orbs dropped from the ship, blue and purple plasma swirling within their core. As they fell deceptively slowly toward the planet’s surface, a thick ion trail followed in their wake, trailing a colorful menagerie of released energy. Engines whined to life along the spaceport, pilots eager to skip as much of their pre-flight checks as possible in their hurry. But none of the ships were quick enough to escape the two falling plasma bombs.
    After striking the top of the spaceport, the bombs unleashed unholy energy. The port exploded outward, its debris shattering through the glass walls of the tall towers in the center of the city. Explosion after explosion rocked the port as the ships along its reaching arms ignited in the inferno. From the center of the explosion, a shockwave erupted. Out of town, trees were blown from their roots and rock formations crumbled under the assault. Inside the city, the devastation was much worse.
    The shockwave rolled rapidly through town, not slowing at all as it leveled all the stone structures and warehouses closest to the spaceport. The thousands that died in those buildings had barely enough time to release a unified scream of terror before their existence was erased from the universe. As the wave rolled on, people closer to the center of town fled as ceilings collapsed on those indoors while the unlucky ones still on the streets were torn apart by stones and shards of wood as booths and carts that lined the street were transformed into flying instruments of death.
    Within the hotel, Keryn and her crew dove for cover as the shockwave hit their building. The windows exploded inward and the air itself was replaced with a reverberating angry roar of unleashed power. The walls shook and pieces of the ceiling collapsed, smashing through the sofa and destroying the end table that had held the bloodied scalpel. They covered their ears as the sound of ripping stone erupted from the back room. The insulated wooden door that separated the rooms rattled as though possessed as the firestorm rolled over them.
    Though it seemed like an eternity to Keryn, the door slowly quit rattling and a strange silence permeated the room. She took her hands from her ears and shook the dust from her hair and face. Her once tan body was coated with a pale white film; the air itself was full of the vaporized stone and wood, a direct result of the destruction of half the city. Glancing around, she let out a sigh of relief as Adam pushed his way from underneath a slab of the ceiling. A black-clawed hand burst forth from the ruined sofa on the far side of the room and Penchant, looking worse for wear, drug himself from the wreckage.
    Laboring for breath, Keryn looked them both over. “Is everyone…” She was overcome with a coughing fit, her lungs struggling to take in oxygen amidst the thick particles in the air. Recovering, she tried to continue. “Is everyone okay?”
    Neither Penchant nor Adam replied, both content to simply nod in agreement. Blood flowed freely from the reopened wound on Adam’s arm, the gunshot wound not even given a chance to heal before being torn again in the explosion. Keryn had never had much luck figuring out the physiology of the Lithids. Penchant looked no different than before, save the dust that clung to his body. But his movements seemed jerked and unstable, so she had to assume that he had not made it through the explosion unscathed, regardless of his tough exoskeleton.
    Adam moved toward the door leading into the back room, his hand held over his face in an attempt to keep out the pollutants in the air. Leaning his hand against the wall, he pulled on the door but to no avail. The heat from the explosion had swollen the wood, jamming the door into its frame. Stepping back, Adam assumed a fighting stance before striking forward with his foot. The wooden door splintered on its hinges, hinges that were partially melted in the blast. The entire door collapsed inward, allowing Adam a surprising view of the city. He glanced around uncertainly. The walls and ceiling had all been torn free, finally resting somewhere further within the city. Only the thin floor remained, though even a section of the floor was missing. More importantly was what had previously been firmly attached to that section of floor.
    Adam turned away from the destroyed back room. “Cardax is gone,” he said weakly. “Gone for good, if I had to take a guess at it.”
    Keryn nodded, her vision blurry and eyes stinging as sweat pulled the plaster and dust into her eyes. Wiping them ineffectually with the back of her hand, she walked toward the balcony door. Pulling on the handle, she had to jump hurriedly out of the way as the door, frame, and part of the wall collapsed into the room. Stepping onto the gaping hole, she peered out into the ruins of the once beautiful city. In the center of town, the once proud emerald spires lay in ruins. The metal girders that had once held the towers aloft now jutted from their remains like rib cages of an animal graveyard. Fires burned freely from a multitude of structures, their flames leaping high into the artificial night.
    Looking the other way, Keryn let tears flow freely from her eyes as she witnessed the decimation that had occurred when the two plasma bombs struck the lower city. Even through the thick smoke and debris, Keryn could make out the outline of a massive crater; a crater that took the lives of everyone within the once tall space port. The land around the crater was cleared of debris. Not even the foundations of buildings could be seen from where she stood and the ground itself looked smooth, as though the intense heat had turned the ground to glass. She cried for all those who lost their lives; even those who were criminals and smugglers had deserved a better fate than this. But she cried most of all for the sounds that reached her ears: cries of those wounded, their limbs removed or pierced by debris. They cried out in a rising crescendo of pain and suffering. They begged for help and aid. They cried out for their loved ones who were dead or missing. Their cries fell on deaf ears.
    Adam and Penchant joined her on the balcony. Even the guardrail that she had leaned against only a few minutes before was gone now, replaced by a warped metal interpretation of modern art. Looking toward the sky, Adam’s shoulders fell in defeat. Following his vision, Keryn saw the thick, box-shaped ships descending toward the surface. The troop transports from the Terran destroyer in orbit made their landing on the glassy surface outside the crater and, even from their distance, the trio watched wave after wave of Terran soldiers march off in organized military order.
    Small fighters still scurried overhead, destroying what remained of those who tried to escape the planet. Other fighters shot off into the distance, searching the areas beyond the cities for survivors and those who tried to escape. The Terrans gave no quarter and had no mercy for anyone on the planet, whether Interstellar Alliance or merely civilian traders. The Terran destroyer sat in orbit, its ships patrolled the skies, and Terran soldiers now marched through the streets.
    In less than thirty minutes, Othus had fallen to the Terrans.

CHAPTER 12:

    Slipping a white silk shirt over his head and tightening the belt on his black hide pants, Yen turned toward the kitchen and retrieved the meal he had prepared earlier. He stared at the food, not sure if Scyant would be impressed with his attempt at culinary perfection, but he hoped it would be good enough to set the mood. Placing the food on either side of the table, he lit the two candles that stood in a candelabrum. The flickering candles accentuated the low lighting in the room. No sooner had he stood back to survey the evenings preparations then he heard a faint knock at the door. He walked to the door, taking a deep breath. Yen was surprised at the amount of nervousness he felt as he went to welcome Scyant to his home.
    As the door slid open, Yen’s breath caught in his throat. Scyant’s dark hair had been pinned on top of her head, tendrils of which cascaded over her neck and shoulders like a fountain. Her blue dress, which clung tightly to her athletic body, accentuated the curves of her small but firm breasts and complimented both her tattoos and her burning eyes. Scyant’s scent filled his nostrils, a perfume that reminded Yen of distant oceans crashing against intimate beaches.
    Ignoring the desire he felt for the attractive Wyndgaart, Yen motioned inside. “Please, come in.”
    “Thank you,” she said, her voice barely a whisper. She seemed sheepish compared to the strong woman who had stood defiantly before Merric earlier that day. She stepped inside and, as she passed, Yen admired the large tattoo of a predatory bird splayed across her back. She turned to him once inside, her eyes seeming nervous and hesitant.
    “You don’t think this is a good idea,” he said flatly, sensing her apprehension.
    Scyant shook her head. “No, it’s not that,” she began. “I just want to make sure that I’m here for the right reasons. So many of the other Warrants take pleasure in hunting the officers on the ship to claim yet another notch in their bedpost.”
    Yen’s thoughts roamed to Iana. “But you’re not like that?” he asked.
    “No,” she answered quickly. “No, I’m not like that. I genuinely want to get to know you better.”
    “Then why don’t you come in and have a seat before our dinner gets cold. I’ll let you get to know me for as long as the night lasts and then we’ll see where everything leads, no expectations.”
    Scyant smiled and took her seat at the table, allowing Yen to push her chair in as she sat. They ate slowly, spending most of their time between bites asking questions of one another and laughing at stories shared from their days either in the Academy or on board other vessels. Scyant proved to be a fountain of comical stories about Crewmen mishaps within the weapons bay, stories that would have had her brought up on charges should someone like Merric find out. But she told her stories just the same, feeling at ease around Yen. To Yen’s dismay, he felt the pressure building behind his eyes once more and questioned, not for the first time, if she were truly here for her own reasons or because he had planted a subliminal suggestion for her to come to dinner. Pushing those doubts from his mind, he enjoyed her company as they ate and shared experiences. As he stared into her bright green eyes, the curves of her breasts heaving as she laughed, Yen felt his lust for her returning. His emotions rolled off him in waves, crashing against the far walls and rebounding, filling the room with psychic energy. His lust was overwhelming his control over his powers and Yen’s breath grew labored as his heart began to race. Eager for a break, Yen stood suddenly and grabbed both the plates.
    “I’m…” he paused, his speech failing him. “I’m just going to clean these real quick, then I’ll be right back.”
    Yen turned away and took the dishes into the kitchen, dropping them into the sink. The air around him grew hazy as the defined edges of the cabinets blurred in his vision. He leaned heavily, savoring the cool stone of the countertop as he struggled to regain control. Surging against his skin, Yen felt the power’s desire to be free crashing against his iron will, sending sparks roaring up and down his spine. He took a deep breath, not wanting to spend too long in the kitchen and give Scyant a reason to grow concerned. As he turned, however, he found her standing close behind him.
    “I didn’t hear you…” he managed to say before she stepped forward, pressing her body firmly against his and kissing him deeply. Yen’s spine grew rigid as the power responded to her touch, pushing him forward as his lips hungrily sought hers again. They kissed without the playfulness he had experienced before with Keryn, but with an animalistic passion. As he struggled for breath between moist lips and probing tongues, Yen managed to push her back to arm’s reach. Part of Scyant’s hair had fallen, disguising half her face in shadows. Even in the darkness, he could see her eyes burning for more as her chest heaved with desire.
    “Are you sure you want this?” he asked breathlessly. “Are you sure you don’t want to take it slower?”
    Gently pushing his hands away and gripping firmly the front of his shirt, Scyant stared into his eyes. “I’ve never wanted anything more,” she purred. “Now why don’t you show me your bedroom?”
    Leading him by his shirt, Scyant took Yen from the kitchen and through the dining room, halting only briefly as she searched for the light in the bedroom beyond. With it found and dimmed so that only a soft ambient light filled the room, she led him inside. Releasing his shirt, she reached behind her and untied the strings that held her dress so close to her body. She let the straps fall over her shoulders and slipped the dress down to her waist, cupping her supple breasts coyly with her hands. Glancing over her shoulder, she whispered softly.
    “Get undressed, then you can watch me.”
    Yen hurried to pull the white shirt over his head and undid his belt, tossing it across the room in his haste. The shoes tossed aside and socks removed, Yen pulled free his pants and stood before her, naked. Smiling as she admired his body, Scyant slipped the dress to the floor and removed her hands, revealing her naked body. Yen’s breath caught in his throat as he ran his eyes along the length of her body. As he stepped forward, another jolt of pain ran through his mind and he paused, staring at Scyant as though seeing her for the first time. To his mind, her behavior seemed like that of a fantasy, not a real woman. His power was flowing freely from his body, and Yen was afraid of knowing what influence it had on Scyant’s behavior tonight.
    “Scyant,” he said, “I’m not sure this is such a good idea. I don’t think you’re doing this for the right reasons.”
    Scyant placed a finger on his lips before grabbing him firmly around the waist and twisting, sending his sprawling onto the bed. She climbed onto the bed next to him and slipped a leg across his body.
    “Let me decide if I’m making the right decision or not,” she said, her voice quivering with anticipation.
    She rocked up on one knee, placing the other leg across his body and straddling his prone form. Reaching down, she ran her fingers down his chest, pausing as she lowered her hips into his. Her back arched in pleasure and a soft moan escaped her lips as their bodies merged. Yen’s own body exploded with pleasure, the feeling heightened by his wayward power. Every move of her body sent spikes of warmth radiating through his abdomen as she rocked back and forth in rhythm with his hips. Yen sat up, his previous doubts forgotten as he embraced Scyant, her legs wrapping around his back and they continued to move in unison. They kissed, her lips greedily searching for his in between haggard breaths and groans of pleasure. Yen closed his eyes, letting his senses fade away and focusing only on the motion of their two bodies. Around the pair, wrapping around their writhing bodies like a cocoon, the air wavered wildly like dancing flames in a fire, reflecting the heat of their combined passion.
    They moved together, his breath leaving him in rough grunts in response to her ever-increasing moans. He opened his eyes as she moaned louder and he froze in place. Where Scyant had once stood, Keryn now straddled him, writhing in the same pleasure Scyant had moments before. She continued to move, opening her own eyes and looking into his concerned face.
    “Don’t stop,” Keryn moaned. “Please don’t stop.”
    Yen felt his power roar from his body like an avalanche in response. His hips moved of their own volition as tendrils of power stretched from his body, touching, caressing, and probing Keryn’s. Her hitched breath and cries increased as his power enveloped her, caressing all parts of her body as they made love. Keryn’s hips began to move quicker as her moans grew increasingly louder. Yen felt warmth spreading in his stomach and tried to fight against it. His passion was like a tidal wave that he was trying to stop with only a single towel. As Yen felt himself become overwhelmed with the motion of their rocking bodies, he heard Keryn scream out in pleasure, her body tightening against his as he matched the ferocity of her orgasm.
    Finally spent, they held on to one another, their sweat intermingling as Yen’s power collapsed into his body. Slowly, they lowered down toward the bed until Keryn was able to slide from on top of him, to collapse exhausted into the bed.
    “That was absolutely incredible,” Yen heard the woman next to him say in a voice very different from Keryn’s.
    He turned toward the woman and stared into Scyant’s sparkling green eyes. Overwhelmed, he watch tears stream from her eyes. Her chest still heaved as she struggled for breath, her whole body spent from the experience. The air around him slowly settled; the shimmering subsided until he was left alone with the Uligart beside him.
    “I can’t believe how powerful that was,” Scyant said breathlessly.
    Yen felt the pain building within his skull. The soft light of the room seemed suddenly like he was staring into the center of a sun and he squinted against is brightness as his headache grew. The pain spread from his temples into his neck and shoulders, stiffening them with tension as he gritted his teeth against the pressure.
    “Are you okay,” he heard Scyant asked, genuine concern reflected in her voice.
    He looked at her again, her naked body covered in sweat. His eyes passed over her small breasts as he looked up toward her face. Frowning, Yen suddenly couldn’t figure out why he had found her so attractive earlier that day. Her body, though athletic, seemed lacking and, while handsome, was still far from beautiful. Scyant sensed his displeasure and absently covered her chest with her arm.
    “What’s wrong?” she asked, seemingly scared of his pending response.
    “This was a mistake,” he growled, the pain in his head threatening to split his skull in half. “You need to go.”
    Scyant sat in stunned silence as she stared at Yen. Tears unrelated to her pleasure welled in her eyes, but she still didn’t move. His anger growing, he felt the power reaching out again, probing eagerly. Yen knew that his power would not be caressing were it released this time around.
    “Go!” he yelled at her, shocking her into action.
    Visibly crying now, Scyant got out of bed and hastily pulled on her dress. Yen noticed now that her dress seemed a poor cut for her body, hardly accentuating what she barely had to begin with. She turned as though to say something venomous in response, but froze, her mouth agape, when she met Yen’s evil stare. Turning, sobbing loudly, she rushed to the door and fled out into the hall beyond.
    Yen leaned back into bed, his mind racing and a battle being fought along his nerve endings. He cringed in pain, knowing that sleep would be hard to find tonight. A thousand other thoughts crossed his mind — that he needed a shower to wash her smell from his body, that he had a meeting with Merric and Captain Hodge tomorrow to discuss upcoming strategy, and, most importantly, that he truly did miss Keryn’s touch — but he lacked the conviction to do anything about any of his thoughts at the moment. Instead, he reached over and remotely turned off the lights in the room, sitting in blissful silence and cradling his head against the wracking pain within.

CHAPTER 13:

    All was quiet now in a city once teaming with life and activity. Not the sort of quiet one normally thinks of. Not silence, but a solemn hum of death and defeat, a murmur of subjugation. The sun had been gone from Miller’s Glen for two long weeks and a bitter and unforgiving cold had settled across the city. The dropping temperatures dumped more than two feet of snow over the ruins of the once bustling trading city. Buried beneath the snow lay metal and glass like assassins’ daggers, waiting patiently for the clumsy or tired to collapse upon their blades. The stone and exposed girders protruded from the snow like giant’s fingers, probing the surface of Othus.
    Beyond the city, the jungle had quickly withered and died. Without sunlight, the proud green leaves had faded to brown before passing quietly in the eternal night and falling forgotten to the ground. The undergrowth that had once hindered movement now laid shriveled, mere shadows of its former self. Where once the lush green jungle had stood now lay a graveyard of foliage; the skeletons of trees twisted idly in the frozen wind. The world had died, a stark reflection of life within Miller’s Glen.
    Following the invasion, the Terrans had herded the survivors of the bombing to the far side of town from the spaceport crater, far away from the barracks established for the Terran soldiers. Their new homes, in which once lived a single family, now housed dozens of men and women. At night, the floor was littered with the bodies, people too exhausted to make their own space and too cold to complain about the body heat.
    By daybreak, loudspeakers, barking orders for them to dress and gather for the day’s labor, roused the homes. Marched day after day into the heart of the city, the survivors slaved and died, trying to clear away the rubble and bodies of those who had been lucky enough to die in the explosion. Those who hadn’t managed to collect warmer clothing to protect themselves against the arctic winter. Some died of exposure; they collapsed into the snow and disappeared under the surface, their blood as frozen as the ground. Others dug under the snow with numb hands, not noticing that blisters spread and tore open, only to be replaced by more.
    Bundled with coats stolen from one of the surviving shops in the central part of town, Keryn, Adam, and Penchant stood in the frozen wasteland and watched as the Terrans paced back and forth while they supervised the clearing of the old city. The Terrans stood confident, their bodies warmed by the insulation within their combat suits and their weapons bristling with deadly energy. Reaching down, the trio moved a rock or two into an awaiting cargo truck, hovering a few inches above the snow surface.
    The invasion force had said little after the destruction of Miller’s Glen. They had made their point when they dropped two plasma bombs on the city. Little more needed to be said after that. Conversation between the trio had been light immediately following the invasion as well. They had gathered their belongings in sober silence and moved quietly through the streets, ignoring the cries of the wounded and dying. Even then, the temperature had started dropping, leaving the damp air cold and the wind strong enough to cut through their thin jackets. Passing through the ruined towers of the business district, they found stores with wares openly displayed in the windows and bodyguards long since gone, either from the destructive explosion or from fear. They had smashed open windows, stealing the thick wool jackets that they still pulled tightly across their bodies and the insulated boots on their feet.
    Keryn reached down and dug through the snow as a Terran passed close by. Moving a large stone out of the way, she uncovered a small hand buried beneath a collapsed stone wall. She looked at the hand dispassionately, her heart hardened to the bodies that littered the city like confetti. Gesturing toward the other two, they moved the rest of the stone slab and pulled out the body of a young girl, her blond hair caked with dried blood. Penchant took the girl’s body in his clawed hands, his face always an emotionless mask, and tossed it into the truck alongside the rubble they had collected.
    The trio had been quick to hide their weapons on the far side of town, in an abandoned department store, certain that being caught with them would be the same as a death sentence. The Terrans had been conducting thorough searches of the survivors. The haggard people were lined up outside randomly selected buildings where the Terrans had set up registration booths. As they entered, the survivors were photographed, their information added to a computer database, and then were unceremoniously stripped of their clothing. Each person was thoroughly searched for hidden weapons and explosives and underwent a genetic scan before their clothes were returned. All Lithids that had assumed a different form were identified, forced to assume their natural state, and tagged with a tracer bracelet.
    Penchant turned back to the uneven rubble, scratching absently at his bracelet. He wanted nothing more than to pull it from his wrist, but they had already identified the explosives that were firmly attached to the perimeter of the thin metal band. Unsure of how potent the explosives would be, they had wisely decided to leave it well enough alone.
    As a whistle blew over the installed loudspeakers located throughout the city, the trio collapsed heavily in the snow, caring very little about the cold that seeped into their skin. For two weeks, they had been laboring in the city, unable to escape. The Terrans had established a curfew and enforced it with deadly efficiency. The time they had chosen, time that would have been considered nighttime before, had been chosen arbitrarily. It was always nighttime in Miller’s Glen.
    Keryn looked dejected as she collapsed in the snow next to the other two, ignoring the frigid cold that spread into her skin. Adam pulled out a nutrient bar, the staple of their new diet. Grimacing at the texture, he swallowed hard, forcing the rubbery food down his throat. The Terran guard nearby gave them an erstwhile glance before turning and pacing further up the street, the light on his helmet adding to the strong illumination from mounted spotlights which filled the ruins in which they worked. When he was far enough away, Keryn dropped the facade of being beyond exhaustion and the defiant look returned to her eyes.
    Reaching into her thick winter jacket, Keryn pulled out a battered piece of paper. Unfurling it on a piece of stone rubble, her lithe, tan fingers traced the outline of a crudely sketched city. They had created the map over the past two weeks as they transferred through a myriad of work groups, clearing rubble from different parts of the city. Overall, they had mapped the major locations of the Terran occupation force.
    “We need to get off this planet.” she said bluntly. “We can’t stay here. I don’t know about you, but I have no intention of slowly but inevitably freezing to death.” The other two nodded in agreement. “We need a plan, something the Terrans won’t expect. Ideas?”
    Adam reached over, pointing to a collection of hastily drawn buildings near the easily identifiable crater. “These are the barracks they established for the soldiers. They’re prefabricated structures, the type that burn easily if given the right incentive. We could take out most of their invading force with a couple well-placed explosives.”
    Keryn shook her head. “No, no, that won’t work. We might be able to take out their entire occupation force in Miller’s Glen, but what’s to stop them from just glassing the planet from space after that? No, we need something that won’t result in the entire city being destroyed… again.”
    “Then we get out of the city,” Penchant suggested. He pointed out a series of dotted lines that ran through all parts of the city. “We have mapped the majority of their patrol routes and could easily avoid them. We sneak out of the city one night after curfew and find another way off the planet.”
    “We can avoid the patrols easily enough, but they’ve set up sensors all along the perimeter of the city,” Adam replied. “We trip one of those and we’ll be lucky if they just set off an alarm. More than likely, we’ll be triggering an explosive that will be just strong enough to amputate both our legs as a warning to others. Anyways, where are we going to find help? From everything I’ve heard, they’ve taken control of every major city just as efficiently as they did Miller’s Glen. There’s no place left to go to on the planet”
    “And smaller cities?” Penchant suggested. “They might have small puddle-jumper ships that could get us off planet.”
    Adam and Keryn both shook their heads. “The Terrans glassed them all,” Adam explained. “If it was too small to bother occupying, they just destroyed it.” Adam raised his hand to stop Penchant’s inevitable next question. “And getting a ship out of one of the warehouses here will be suicide. We don’t have the access codes to get inside or open the bay doors on the roof. And even if we did, we’d be swarmed with soldiers before we got off the planet.”
    Keryn stood and stretched her legs. She covered her eyes as she watched the other survivors eat their lunch meal, their clusters of groups spotting the white landscape. Where they had trudged back and forth through the deep snow, the intersecting walkways had turned to brown mush as the snow was trampled underfoot. By this evening, however, the new snow would have hidden any disturbance from the day before. When they arrived for work tomorrow, the landscape would be pristine once more.
    “There is another option,” Keryn said flatly, knowing how the others would respond. They looked up from their meals. “There is another ship out there.” They had the same conversation at least three times previously, always with the same recommendation: just wait. She was tired of waiting. And, more importantly for her, the Voice was tired of waiting as well. At night, when others had already fallen asleep for the night, the Voice crept into her thoughts, urging her into action. She wasn’t sure if her resolve was weakening or if she genuinely agreed with its rhetoric, but she was starting to believe the Voice was right.
    “We don’t know that the Cair Ilmun survived, Keryn,” Adam said chidingly. “If you go out there, you could be walking into a trap.” He put a hand on her strong calf. “We couldn’t afford to lose you.”
    Keryn looked down, surprised to see genuine compassion reflected in his eyes. She wanted to reply, but the blaring whistle sounded again, notifying the workers that lunch was over. Keryn quickly slipped the map back into her jacket. The others stood, separating only slightly across the rubble to avoid suspicion, and began loading rocks into the back of the truck once more.
    Adam passed her, heaving a large stone into the back of the flatbed truck. As he walked past her again, he paused, his hand slipping affectionately around her waist. “Promise me you’ll stay with me, just a little bit longer,” he whispered gently into her ear. As Adam slipped past her and moved back into the rubble, Keryn stood both stunned and, to her surprise, yearning for his touch once more. She stared after him, unsure of how to respond.
    She lifted a few rocks absently and loaded them on the truck until her immediate area was clear of debris. Glancing around, Keryn looked for the Terran guard who would quickly separate any survivors who strayed to close to one another for too long. Congregating outside the sleeping areas was strictly forbidden under the new regime. Not seeing the guard anywhere nearby, she meandered through the rubble until she was only a few feet away from Adam. His back was still turned as he moved another stone and he hardly noticed as she stepped through the dirty mush that accumulated on the ground and stood by his side.
    “I don’t think I have much of a choice,” she conceded, wanting to recapture the tender moment they shared a second ago. “Even if I wanted to go, I have no idea how I would get out of the city unnoticed.”
    A polite cough interrupted the two and they turned to find Penchant standing nearby. “I think I might have found a solution to your problem.” Gesturing, they followed his gaze to where he had been removing the rubble of a collapsed home. Beneath the shifted rubble laid Keryn’s answer and her encounter with Adam fled from her mind.
    On the ground where Penchant had been working laid an exposed sewer entrance.

CHAPTER 14:

    Yen awoke with a start the following morning, his throbbing head sending sparks of white exploding in his vision. Even from his prone place on the bed, he knew that trying to stand today would cause immeasurable suffering. His requirements, including his meeting with the Captain on the bridge later that morning, forced him up.
    Crawling from bed, his mind screaming in protest, he pulled his knees underneath him and tried to stand, using the bed as a support. As his feet were pulled underneath him, a sickening sense of vertigo overwhelmed Yen and he staggered forward, dropping to his knees. Bile rose, burning the back of his throat and causing him to gag. Fighting off the pain in his skull, Yen rushed to the bathroom, sliding to his knees in front of the toilet only moments before he vomited violently into the bowl. Yen stared in horror as he saw the water in the bowl turn bloody red, the coppery taste filling his mouth and dripping from his lips. His vision hazed, wavering as though looking through a desert mirage. Above his head, a sharp crack resounded, followed by a crash as his toiletry kit dropped from the sink’s countertop. Looking up, Yen noticed the wavering tendrils of power, larger and more powerful than he had seen them before. A single tendril pulled away from the now shattered mirror as another drew its length across the sink. Still others curiously searched the shower to his right or rolled lazily up the length of the doorway.
    Fear tightened like a belt around Yen’s chest. The exertion of his power last night had left him drained, emotionally, physically, and mentally. What worried him more, however, was that last night had acted like a catalyst, driving the power free from his body. He watched as the tendrils, each the width of his leg, groped their way through the small bathroom. Shaking his head, Yen knew that he didn’t stand a chance at containing the power in his present state. Taking advantage of his weakness, the air around him whipped chaotically, shimmering and blurring the world around him. Standing, he wiped the blood from his mouth and nose with a tissue before turning and walking back into the bedroom. As he entered, he heard objects dislodge from on top of the dresser and shatter on the floor below. A drawer blew free of the nightstand, crashing onto the floor, its contents erupting into the room like snowfall. Yen staggered to the bed, his head throbbing as the power parasitically drew more and more power from his body, the tendrils now lashing out aggressively toward the few standing objects in the room. Collapsing into bed, he pulled the pillow over his head in an attempt to block out the sound of destruction being caused by his wayward psychic energy.
    Yen groaned and threw the pillow across the room as the pain refused to subside, echoing in metal spikes rocketing back and forth within his skull. Snarling in a hollow gesture, he pushed himself into a seated position. Crossing his legs, Yen closed his eyes and tried to block out the scraping of his power running its tendrils across the far walls. Instead, he let his mind sink into itself, imagining a calming and empty plain of white. He took deep breaths, practicing a meditation technique that he had used since the initial onset of his powers during puberty. Wordlessly, he mouthed the same words over and over, a mantra to relax his body and mind. He continued his mantra, straining his concentration against the growing pain in his head. Slowly, the sound of his power’s destructive rage subsided. His body shuddered, the pressure of maintaining his powers inside growing exponentially. The world settled once more, no longer shimmering as though his body were exuding extreme heat. He didn’t know how much time had passed since he began his meditation, but he truly didn’t care, knowing that it was safer for everyone if he regained some semblance of control before leaving his room. He knew, however, that he would need to leave soon if he were to make his meeting on the bridge.
    Throwing on his uniform, Yen paused at the dinning room table, staring at a half-filled glass that he never cleared from the night before. Opening his hand and placing it on the far side of the table from the glass, Yen concentrated, focusing his wayward power on pulling the glass to him. The simple action should have been thoughtless, especially after the impressive display of power earlier, but as a few minutes passed Yen had managed to do no more than rattle the glass in place. Gritting his teeth, he tried again, straining to pull the glass across the slick table. Rocking back the forth, the glass responded to his power but refused to move. Yen clenched his hand into a fist. His vision narrowing, Yen stared at the glass; the veins at his temples and on his forehead pulsed with the exertion. The glass began rattling, rolling dangerously on its edge but not tipping or spilling the remnants of the wine within. Darkness crept into the edges of Yen’s vision and his breathing became labored as consciousness threatened to leave him. Straining still, Yen leapt backward as the glass shot from the table, flying across the room before shattering into the cupboards within the kitchen. Where the fragile glass had struck, the wood was splintered from the explosive impact. Yen stared in surprise at the unleashed power, cursing himself for still lacking the control he desired. Absently, he used the back of his hand to wipe away the blood that seeped from his nostril as he felt the pain in his head swelling once more.
    Knowing he was already late, Yen shuffled into the hall outside his quarters, squinting against the harsh light. As he moved to the elevator that would take him to the bridge, he passed Crewmen in the halls, catching snippets of thoughts as his power reached involuntarily into their minds. Shaking his head, he slammed his fist into the call button for the elevator, urging it to hurry to his floor. As the doors opened, he slipped into the relative coolness and darkness of the waiting lift. Glancing over, he noticed a Crewman First Class standing rigidly with his arms behind his back, having not been told to relax in front of a superior officer.
    “At ease,” Yen mumbled to him. Though he visibly relaxed, he still kept his eyes directly ahead. He said nothing, but his thoughts were an open book to Yen, who continued to scan the minds of those around him.
    He looks terrible, the Crewman thought. Having access to the Officer’s Mess must also include access to their stores of liquor. He…
    Yen growled to himself, shaking the thoughts free from him mind. He glared at the Crewman, who glanced over and nodded respectfully to the Squadron Commander. As the door opened onto the bridge, Yen quickly exited the elevator and covered his eyes against the harsh light. He quickly noticed that other officers on the bridge sat around in obvious disdain and impatience. Nearly an hour late, Yen could understand their frustrations.
    “So glad you could finally join us,” Merric said sarcastically from his seat at the Tactical Station. Yen felt his words slice into his mind, Merric’s voice continuing to grate on his nerves.
    “Enough, Eminent,” the Captain chided from the helm. “Regardless of the delays, we still have a very important business to discuss. In less than a month, we’ll be engaging the rear vanguard of the Terran Fleet. They are already moving to intercept, which means that they will be firmly into position…” She looked inquisitively toward Merric, who looked down to examine his data.
    “Less than a week, ma’am,” Merric finally answered.
    “…less than a week before we arrive,” she finished. “Still, that means that they will be firmly entrenched, using the cover of the orbiting planets to their advantage while we, having pulled hard gravities the entire two months, will enter the system defenseless and exhausted from the travel. We will be at the disadvantage, which will lead to even further delays in our attempt to protect the Alliance capital on Arcendor.”
    Captain Hodge leaned forward, her pale wings pulled in tightly against her back. “What I need is ideas and lots of them. I need a way to turn their advantage into ours. I need a way to decimate their significant vanguard while taking few if any losses to our own Fleet. You all are my premier officers on board, my tacticians. Give me ideas.”
    As the group was prone to do, a silence ensued as they wordlessly jockeyed for position. No one wanted to voice their opinion first for fear of being overshadowed by another shortly thereafter. Instead, they all sat in silence and reanalyzed their own strategies, ensuring no loophole existed that could be exploited by a rival officer. To Yen, the world suddenly turned into an explosion of sound as voices and ideas overlapped into a hazy grey of background noise. Occasional voices rose to the forefront and Yen grasped at the fractured ideas like life rafts in the rising flood of thoughts.
    …decoy missiles, programmed to appear like an element of the Fleet, one voice called out in his mind. Use their strategy against them…
    …double envelopment, like a trident, called another, the female voice whispering in his mind. Let the Destroyers engage the center column who will be firing solely reflexively and defensively while two smaller elements maneuver…
    A single voice rang out louder than the others, its smugness and overconfidence apparent even in his thoughts. As the voice explained the strategy in great detail, Yen focused his attention solely on the sound of its arrogant tone, drowning out everything else in the room.
    “The Terrans are operating in a very narrow window of opportunity,” the voice explained in the small bridge. “If they can’t get into position ahead of the Alliance Fleet, then all advantage will be lost and their ships will be annihilated, regardless of their numbers. We use their reliance on the projections of our Fleet’s arrival against them. Since we’re already burning our engines at maximum speed while traveling through open space, we’ll have to use a different technique to accelerate our timetable.
    “My recommendation is to use the gravities of planet’s we’re passing by already on our route to our advantage. There are three gas giants that we will have to cross near during our two-month trip. All three of them suffer from intense gravities, between fifty to one hundred times that of a normal gravity on board our ships. If we slingshot around these three planets, skimming across their atmospheres, we can shave over a week off our journey, putting us in the sector of space just ahead of the Terran vanguard.
    “The passage through the increased gravities will be hellacious on the crew as even the gravity inhibitors on board won’t be able to suppress the combined might of the planets’ gravities and those of higher accelerations. However, the couple hours of discomfort will be worth it for the positive gain we will receive as we establish our own ambush for the Terran Destroyers.”
    As the voice stopped, Yen felt the pressure build again behind his eyes and nearly cried out in pain. Blinking strongly, he focused once again on the room and looked around, surprised to see everyone staring at him. He looked from face to face and realized, in horror, that the arrogant voice he had been hearing was his own. As he finished his scan of the room, he saw the shocked and infuriated expression plastered across Merric’s face and knew that while it had been his voice telling the plan, it had not been his own idea. Before Merric could say anything, however, Captain Hodge stood from her chair.
    “I will assume that the reason you were late to this meeting,” she began, “was because you were finalizing the details on your plan.” A smile broke across her thin lips, one that Yen mirrored to the best of his ability. “I think the idea of using the gas giants to slingshot ahead of the Terrans is brilliant. Does anyone else have another idea or anything to add to Squadron Commander Xiao’s?”
    She looked from officer to officer, but they all shook their heads, knowing their own plans jeopardized the ships in the Fleet significantly more than did Yen’s. When she finally reached Merric, her eyes rested on him longer as she watched the blood drain from his red face.
    “Eminent Merric,” she asked, “do you have anything to add?”
    “No, ma’am,” he said through tightly clenched teeth and jaw muscles that clenched and unclenched in his fury. “I have nothing to add to the brilliant plan.”
    “Then this meeting is going to be prematurely concluded,” Captain Hodge said. “Navigation, begin plotting a course that will take us into the atmospheres of the gas giants. Commander Xiao, good work.”
    Yen had no urge to stay on the bridge. Between his growing migraine and open hostile feelings rolling off of Merric like sheets, Yen was quickly feeling nauseous once more and had no desire to vomit blood in front of his commanding officer. Instead, he slipped quickly into the lift and closed the doors behind him, leaving the rest of the bridge crew trapped until the elevator returned for them. He hurried through the doors as the elevator stopped on his floor and, entering his code, he slipped into the enveloping darkness within. Taking a seat at the table, Yen placed his head in the crook of his arms and breathed deeply of the cool air in his room, glad to be out of the stifling discomfort of the bridge. Moments after sitting down, however, he heard a code being entered into his door. He turned as the door slid open and light flooded into the dark room. Standing in the doorframe, silhouetted against the bright light, Merric glowered at the seated Yen.
    Merric stormed into the room as Yen slid out of his chair and moved around to the backside of the table, keeping the furniture in between himself and the infuriated tactical officer. His head ached as he sought the words that would placate the understandably upset officer.
    “You stole my idea,” Merric snarled. “That was my plan and you know it!”
    Merric lunged around the right side of the table, but Yen quickly moved as well, keeping the table between the two. The jarring movement caused another spike of pain to run through his skull and the air around him wavered slightly. Yen noticed a faint blue glow emanating from his hands. He was barely maintaining control of his powers, but Merric barely slowed to notice.
    “I spent two days on that plan and you plucked it from my mind, you cowardly thief!”
    “Merric, I’m sorry,” Yen tried to explain. “I didn’t even realize I did that to you until it was already too late.”
    “I don’t want your pathetic excuses,” Merric yelled, spittle flying from his lips. “How dare you steal from me? Do you know who I am?”
    Merric’s voice continued to dig into Yen’s mind, planting jagged hooks beneath the tender flesh of his brain and jerking, ripping toward the surface. Cringing from the pain, Yen watched as a single blue tendril slid from his sleeve and wrapped itself around his fingers. So fascinated was he by the power breaking free of his grasp, he didn’t notice as Merric came around the table and grabbed the front of his shirt, pulling Yen up onto his toes so he could look eye to eye with the Pilgrim officer.
    “I should ruin your career,” Merric said, his eyes wide with hatred. “But ruining your career wouldn’t be satisfying enough. Instead, I’m going to take my retribution straight out of your skin!”
    Yen shook his head, the lancing pain blurring his vision. “Not right now, Merric,” he said passively.
    Yen’s obvious lack of concern over his predicament angered Merric further. “You don’t tell me what I can and can’t do,” he roared. “I tell you!”
    His eyes flaring a soft blue in the dark room and tendrils spreading from his sleeves and from the spines on his back, Yen’s hair whipped wildly in the windless room. “I said,” Yen began, his voice augmented by the unleashed power, “not…”
    The first wave of energy slammed into Merric. Though he kept his grip on Yen’s coat, his feet slid backward on the tiled floor.
    “…right…”
    The second wave snapped Merric’s head back, singeing the flesh on his exposed neck.
    “…now!”
    As Yen finished his sentence, Merric was lifted from his feet and tossed across the room, slamming painfully into the kitchen cabinets before being dropped to the floor. His forearm twisted awkwardly behind him as he landed, his mass snapping the bones. Merric cried out in pain, clutching the fractured limb, but still glared at Yen with murderous rage. He leapt to his feet, his shirt torn, exposing the smoldering flesh beneath. Small lacerations across his arms, face and chest bled freely, staining his dark grey tunic with darker smears of blood.
    “How dare you assault a superior officer,” Merric stated, his own ego overriding the shock in his system. “I will end your career for this. I will have you brought up on charges and executed!”
    “No,” Yen explained calmly, his body aglow with uninhibited psychic energy, “you won’t.”
    The power struck Merric like an avalanche. The force stripped flesh from his body and scalded through the layers of muscle before dropping the burning coals into the organs beneath. The meat melted from his arms as Merric threw up his arms protectively in front of his face, exposing the bones beneath. Yen felt the panic grow within him and tried in vain to reel the power back, but the sentient pyrokinetic power continued to lash the officer. Merric opened his mouth to scream, but his tongue melted and his eyes boiled and burst in their sockets. Choking on his own scorched flesh, Merric collapsed to the ground, twitching only briefly before he stopped moving all together.
    The power satiated, it drifted back into Yen’s body. He shivered in horror, watching the smoking body lay still on his kitchen floor. Though he felt disgusted at what he had done, there was a whispering voice that he couldn’t ignore in the back of his mind. He may be horrified, but Yen had never felt more in control of his powers than he did at this moment. His powers, once chaotic and unwieldy, seemed eager to bend to his resolve. Eager to test out his control, he reached out his hand, gently lifting Merric’s body from the floor. Yen rolled his fingers and the body moved in concert, turning in mid air in response. Satisfied, Yen placed Merric back on the ground and began formulating a plan to save both his career and his life.

    Yen walked down the hallway of the ship, the air around him dancing as he headed toward the engine room in the rear of the Revolution. In front of him, Merric’s body floated down the hall, suspended solely by Yen’s control. Yen reveled in the power he felt, knowing that he now had the ability to fully wield the power, to shape it as he saw fit.
    As Crewmen passed him in the hall, Yen reached out, the thin blue filament reaching into their minds and rewriting their memories. In their eyes, Yen walked alone with a sadistic smile spread across his face. He nodded in response to their salutations and asked about their health as he walked, all the while leaving them oblivious to the torn and shredded corpse only inches away. As he entered the elevator that would lead to the bowels of the ship, he stood beside a Warrant on his way to the engine room. Merric floated lengthwise before the two men in the lift. The pungent smell of his scorched flesh stung Yen’s nostrils, but the Warrant didn’t notice, instead standing rigid in the presence of a senior officer. Two senior officers, Yen thought ironically to himself.
    When the lift opened to the engine room, the Warrant gestured for Yen to exit first, which he did, his package in tow. Moving quickly toward the plasma port on the back of the enormous engines, Yen halted, letting the heat from the exhaust wash over him. Even from the distance, Yen could feel his cheeks grow pink from the heat emanating from the engine. With barely a flick of his wrist, he sent Merric’s body drifting toward the plasma port, the blue and purple flames licking the inside of the walls within. As his legs began to enter to port, Merric’s skin blistered and smoked, the acrid smell drifting to where Yen stood in anticipation. The body entered and was engulfed in the flames, the heat from the plasma vaporizing the skin and scoring the dense bone until they, too, crumbled to dust within.
    “Ashes to ashes,” Yen mumbled to himself as another Crewman walked obliviously past.
    Satisfied that the body would never be found, Yen turned back toward the lift and waited impatiently for it to arrive. He still had to clean the kitchen of any evidence that might remain. But right now, he had more pressing concerns. He allowed his face to go slack, his mouth parting slightly. His brow furrowed in concern and he raised an eyebrow.
    “What do you mean he’s missing?” Yen asked quietly to the empty air.
    He was pretty sure that would be believable, but just to be sure he’d practice for the rest of the day in front of his mirror.

CHAPTER 15:

    At the end of the workday, the survivors shuffled wearily back to their homes, eager for a good night’s rest, yet still weary of living in such cramped quarters. With the doors locked for the night and the loudspeakers announcing that curfew was in effect, most of the rest of House 12 bedded down in the common room for the night. Keryn, however, lay awake on the floor and stared at the ceiling, marking the texture of the panel above her head for the hundredth time. Her heart raced and adrenaline already coursed through her veins. She knew she had to wait just a little while longer before sneaking out of the house, but locating the sewer entrance made her excited to the point that she had trouble holding still.
    Once Penchant had shown them the opening, the trio had moved some of the existing rubble so that a fallen wall jutted two feet above the entrance like overhead cover, making the area as nondescript as the surrounding ruins. Keryn had turned in circles, marking all the major landmarks under the spotlights. She prayed then as she prays now that she would be able to find the entrance again in the dark.
    Nearly an hour passed, an eternity to Keryn, before she slipped wordlessly from underneath her blanket and stepped gingerly over the strewn bodies that inhabited the common room of House 12. Her body heat in the middle of the group was hardly missed; the bodies quickly shifted to fill the gap left by her departure. She was nearly to the door when a shadow detached itself from the wall. Stifling a surprised yell, Keryn visibly relaxed as she recognized the shaggy blond hair.
    “You know you don’t have to do this,” Adam said, reaching out and taking her hand. “If nothing else, I could go with you.”
    “No,” Keryn replied, shaking her head softly in the darkness. “No, you can’t come with me. It’ll be dangerous enough with just me being out after curfew. I can’t risk us both on my wild whim.”
    “Then just…” he paused, his big hand fidgeting with hers nervously in the ensuing silence. He finally looked up, concern reflected in his blue eyes. “Then promise you’ll come back to me.”
    Keryn reached up and placed her hand on his face, her fingers caressing his cheek as he leaned affectionately. He lowered toward her, his warm breath dancing in white clouds in the cold night. Keryn’s heart raced in her chest as she leaned forward, her lips brushing against his. Adam slipped his arm around her waist and pulled her into him, their kiss deep and passionate. Emotions suppressed for so long flooded through them both, finding an outlet in their shared kiss. Finally, Keryn pushed herself away, her breathing heavy and her cheeks flushed. Looking at Adam, she saw the same fire that she felt in her veins reflected in his eyes.
    “Come back to me,” he whispered once again into the darkness before opening the front door, the lock already picked in anticipation. “And be safe.”
    Without a reply, Keryn slipped out into the night and she heard the door click softly closed behind her. She stood for a moment with her back resting against the door, emotions flooding through her mind. Closing her eyes, she pushed away the memory of Adam’s burning eyes and thought again of the course she would have to take to reach the sewer entrance. She wished she could have brought the map with her, but she couldn’t risk it falling into the hands of the Terrans if she were caught. Instead, she would have to go on memory alone. Opening her eyes again, she took a deep breath and ran into the night.
    Keryn knew the dangers as she set out into the night. If spotted, she would be shot on sight by the Terran patrols. But remaining unnoticed would not be easy. Aside from the roving guards, spotlights scanned the open areas, spotlights that were manned by armed guards in towers. Above all, Keryn feared the fighters that made randomized passes over the city after curfew, scanning continuously for violators.
    As she passed from building to building, ensuring that she stayed as close as possible to the alleyways that ran between them, she cursed the lack of heavy snowfall. Any other night, it would have been near blizzard conditions, but not the night she snuck away. Looking behind her, she could already see the trail she left as she pushed through the thigh-deep snow banks and the lack of precipitation would not cover her tracks. Desperation set into her, the inevitability of her impending capture settling over her and driving her on at a reckless pace. Counting the streets in her mind, she knew it was only a few more blocks until she reached the forgotten department store, which she knew to be her only detour before escaping the city.
    As she covered the next two blocks the snow began to fall heavy and thick, Keryn was glad to see that the heavy snowfall was filling in the tracks behind her. Already, the trail of her crossing the street after leaving House 12 was disappearing, consumed by the aggressive winter. Up ahead, only one more block, she could see the outlines of the department store. It’s windows shattered from the bombings, Keryn knew it wouldn’t be hard to enter, assuming she made it there. Reflecting her fears, she began hearing voices coming from a cross street between her and the store. She froze, shrinking against the building and crouching low into the snow drift. From the side street, four Terrans in full armor entered onto her street, laughing at one another’s stories, but deadly serious in their scans of the area. Keryn forced herself lower into the snow, ignoring the biting cold.
    “Don’t turn left,” she mouthed into the snow, knowing that her tracks would be easily discovered if they walked past her hidden location. To her relief, the soldiers glanced only briefly left before turning to the right and walking up the main road, heading toward and past the abandoned department store. When they were far enough away, she stood and shook free the clinging, wet snow before setting out toward the store once again. She fell into step behind the soldiers, using their worn troughs through the snow to cover her own tracks until she came to the front of the store. Breaking through the snow until she reached the shattered window, she slipped inside, moving nimbly between the display manikins, all of which had been stripped bare of their fashionable clothing.
    The inside of the department store was dank and musty, the smell of accumulated moisture assaulting Keryn’s senses. She moved slowly, struggling to see in the deep darkness of the store and wanting to ensure she didn’t knock anything over that might give away her position. The trio had entered the store only briefly following the occupation, just long enough to hide their weapons among the discarded and forgotten items of the store. She remembered little of the layout, and regretted not making a map of this place as well. After a few minutes, however, she made her way to the back of the store, many of the clothes too far removed from thieving hands and still undisturbed. Locating a skirted manikin, Keryn reached below the long dress and inside the latticework cage that comprised the manikin’s lower half. Smiling, she felt the pistol, flashlight, and grenade belt still fastened to the inside of the cage. As she tore her pistol free from the cage, something rattled behind her. She turned reflexively, bring her pistol to bear. In the darkness of the store, nothing moved.
    She walked slowly around the racks of clothing, checking for places where someone would have hidden, but wasn’t able to find anyone. Though she couldn’t shake the feeling that she was still being watched, she returned to her belongings, latching her ammo and grenade belt around her waist. Stepping cautiously back through the store, glancing in alcoves as she walked by, she made her way back to the front of the store and out the window.
    The trek to the ruins where the trio had been working earlier that day was slow going, as she was forced to hide repeatedly from the roving patrols. Though she was now armed and more confident in her chances of survival, she had no interest in drawing the unnecessary attention that a gunfight would bring. Instead, she remained hidden in the snow each time until the patrol had passed before moving again toward the rubble field. Nearly two hours since leaving House 12, Keryn reached the ruins. Closing her eyes, she produced a mental picture of the area, trying to pinpoint the stone slab in the darkness. Confident that she knew the direction, she opened her eyes again and started moving cautiously through the rubble, always staying as close as possible to fragmented walls and piles on stone.
    Keryn passed halfway through the field, but was still unable to locate the slab. What if the sewer had been discovered, she worried, fear creeping unwontedly into her mind. If it had been discovered, then she was walking into a trap. If it was a trap, she realized, then she was already too far committed to stop. She would have already been spotted and more than likely would have been killed already. The fact that she was still alive showed promise for her mission. Breathing deeply, she took a step but then froze unmoving as a red laser dot ran over the ground in front of her. It moved twenty feet ahead of her before stopping and slowly moving back toward her position. She stared in wonder as the dot moved toward her, now only ten feet away. Still, it rolled toward her position. When it was within five feet, the Voice erupted in her skull
    Run, you idiot, the Voice screamed. It’s the tracker for an automated turret!
    Keryn stood, hypnotized. The automated turrets had motion and heat censors. Even if she ran, there was a very high chance that she’d never make it across the field before she was torn apart by the automatic fire.
    You don’t have to get across the field, the Voice yelled. You only have to find the sewer. Now run!
    Breaking free of her daze, Keryn rushed across the open ruins, darting between low walls and piles of rubble. The laser tracker immediately shifted, following her movements, and flames leapt from the barrel of the automatic rifle as it turned mechanically in the turret. Rounds struck the ground around her as she ran, their detonations sounding like muffled cannon blasts in the thick snow. Stone and ice pelted Keryn. As she ran, the turret decimated the small amounts of cover she used to avoid the deadly barrage. Shifting back and forth, Keryn tried her best to avoid both the hail of gunfire and, covering her face, tried to keep the flying debris from tearing through her soft flesh.
    There, the Voice cried excitedly. There’s the sewer!
    Keryn peered through the darkness as she ran. Directly ahead, the stone slab the trio had pulled to cover the sewer entrance slowly emerged from the gloom like a beacon of salvation. Feeling rejuvenated, Keryn sprinted the rest of the distance, the turret’s continuing fire still close on her heels. Dropping to her knees, she slid underneath the low overhand, never once in her life assuming she’d be so excited to see a sewer. Reaching out, she found the entrance, the hole a deeper black amidst the darkness. Above her, the rounds slammed into the thick stone slab, vibrating the ground beneath her. Taking a deep breath, she slipped into the sewer’s entrance, her feet dangling as she tried to locate the rungs of the ladder. Finally, her feet struck the first metal rung, and she lowered herself into the consuming darkness. After climbing nearly halfway down the ladder, she heard the gunfire above her subside, both the motion and heat sensors losing her signal.
    After climbing for what felt like an eternity, Keryn finally sloshed into the stagnant water in the sewer pipe. Without constant water flow from the surface, the waste had pooled in the pipes. The smell assaulted Keryn’s senses, the air hanging thick with the scent of dust, bile, and human waste. Gagging from the scent, she focused hard on controlling her stomach contractions. If she started vomiting now, it would be a long time until she was able to recover enough to move on, time that she wasn’t sure she had. When she felt under control of her reflexes, Keryn unclipped the flashlight from her belt and turned on the narrow beam. Flashing the beam down both directions, she grew content that nothing waited in ambush within the pipe. The light did, however, dance across objects floating in the water, items she preferred not to analyze too deeply for fear that the urge to vomit would return. Recapturing her mental compass, Keryn turned to the right and set off, sloshing through the knee-deep waste.
    She knew before she set off that the edge of city was no more than three thousand feet away from the rubble they had been clearing during the day. On the surface, that would have been an impossible distance. In the sewers, however, she felt more freedom of movement than she had in the past two weeks of occupation. Covering the distance quickly, eager to be free from the city, Keryn’s heart sank when she entered a round chamber, a stagnant pond filling the center of the room. She had assumed that the tunnel would run straight all the way to the edge of the city with a drainage pipe releasing the waste into the wilderness. Looking around, though, she found two large pipes bisecting the room, one leading off to both her left and right. Directly ahead, the direction she needed to be heading, she saw only a small pipe covered by a grate. She cursed herself for making such a foolish assumption.
    Climbing into the stagnant water, her breath caught in her throat as she sank to her waist, the frigid water quickly soaking through her clothes. Shivering uncontrollably, she moved through the water, feeling the muck under the surface pulling at her legs while she walked. Halfway through the pond, she paused and flashed her light down the two bisecting tunnels. As far as her light would reach, the tunnels continued straight and true, no side passages apparent from where she stood. Following either side passage would lead her further away from where she needed to go and keep her trapped within the city limits. Turning instead toward the grate ahead, she pushed her way through the rest of the water. Her feet and legs ached from the cold as numbness spread through her limbs. She needed to get free of the water soon or she would freeze to death.
    Reaching out, she pulled on the grate, which rattled in her hands but didn’t pull free of the wall. Glancing around its side, her shoulders sagged as she saw the lock holding the grate firmly in place. She shivered in the cold water, trying to find a solution to her problem, but all her thoughts seemed to move through a thick fog, coalescing but hard to grasp.
    You need to get out of water, the Voice said, though its words echoed from far away. You’re slipping into hypothermia. Quit worrying about whether or not they’ll hear you and just shoot the lock.
    Pulling her pistol free with shaking hands, Keryn tried to hold the barrel steady as her breath passed through lips that were fading quickly toward blue. Squeezing the trigger, her hands shook the trajectory off course. The round struck the corner of the lock, but it stayed closed. A soft sob escaped her lips.
    Try again, the Voice came as little more than a distant whisper. Don’t give up.
    Holding the pistol to the lock once again, Keryn allowed the muscles in her chest to constrict, limiting the shaking in her extremities. Pulling the trigger a second time, the bullet slammed into the core of the lock, shattering the brittle metal. Scrambling, she pulled the remains of the lock from the hinge and, throwing the grate open, climbed inside. Though the tunnel was little wider than her shoulders, Keryn was glad to be out of the freezing water. She lay in the tunnel, her face collapsed into the slime-encrusted floor of the pipe, and she panted heavily into the darkness.
    Please keep moving, the Voice pleaded, now so distant that its words rolled over her like emotions rather than sound. You are so close to your freedom.
    Pulling her flashlight free from under her body, Keryn pushed herself ahead through the murky tunnel. The filth of the pipe coated her clothes and collected oily on her hair and skin. Though exhaustion threatened to overwhelm her, she kept pulling herself through the tight tunnel, her breathing labored and lower extremities burning in the cold. Stopping, trying to catch her breath, the flashlight rolled from her limp fingers, its beam coming to rest pointing at the wall. Moaning from the strain, Keryn lifted her head to find the flashlight. To her surprise, she found herself able to see in the cramped tunnel, far beyond the reach of the flashlight. Picking up her light, she pointed it ahead of her and was barely able to suppress a cry of happiness. Her beam reflected off of piled white snow, its drifts beginning no more than ten feet ahead. Scrambling forward, ignoring the scrapes and tears she received in her hurry, Keryn clawed through the accumulated snow and dropped, unceremoniously, from the end of the tunnel and onto the piled snow a few feet below.
    Laughing, Keryn collapsed into the snow and stared up at the inviting distant stars. After nearly four hours of hiding, being shot at, freezing, and climbing through human waste, she was finally free of Miller’s Glen.

CHAPTER 16:

    Yen’s eyes narrowed as he entered the War Room, the dim lights casting heavy shadows on the faces of the Officers assembled. The atmosphere was greatly changed from the strategic conference that had previously been held around the round table. The laughter and camaraderie that had been shared between the Warrants and Officers of the Revolution was replaced by a brooding darkness worn on the faces of all assembled. Captain Hodge looked up from the table as Yen entered, her face hidden behind her folded hands. Worry lines cut creases across her forehead and spread like spider webs beneath her eyes. She looked as though she had aged greatly over the course of the night.
    The muted conversations quickly died as the last of the staff assembled, the door to the War Room sliding silently closed as the last entered and took her seat. All eyes turned toward the Captain, who had placed a ship-wide call requesting the immediate presence of all Officers and Warrants. Though all eyes remained locked on Captain Hodge, she sat wordlessly at the head of the table, her feathery wings quivering slightly in rhythm with her quick breaths. Yen squirmed in his seat, uncomfortable as the anticipation built in the room. Knowing why the meeting had been called did little to alleviate his impatience.
    After long moments of silence had passed, Captain Hodge dropped her hands heavily to the table. “We have a problem,” she stated bluntly, her voice devoid of the airy singing that normally accompanied her words. “This morning, Eminent Merric failed to report to his duties as the ship’s Tactical Officer. All of you are aware that this lapse is highly unlike the Eminent. Though repeatedly called throughout the morning, he failed to respond to any transponder calls. We pulled up the ship’s tracking system, which should have identified his exact location based on his unique transponder signal.”
    The Captain paused, drinking in the sight as the Officers and Warrants around the table leaned closer. “We were unable to find his transponder signal anywhere on board. As I’m sure you are all aware, that can only mean one of two things: either Eminent Merric is no longer on board,” she paused, scanning the gathered faces, “or his transponder has been destroyed. We already checked the records for the airlocks. None were used in the past seventy-two hours, meaning that Merric did not leave the ship.”
    Yen looked at those sitting around him. Their faces all reflected the same expression that he had so carefully crafted: a look of utter surprise and dawning realization of the Captain’s implications.
    Captain Hodge chose her next words carefully, speaking slowly in order to emphasize her points. “If Eminent Merric did not leave the ship, as we are now forced to believe, that only leaves the option that he is still on board. With him failing to arrive to his shift this morning and his transponder being destroyed, we can only assume that something malicious has occurred, something that is keeping the Eminent from responding.
    “I do not wish to make accusations to anyone in this room. I am forced to believe that the Officers and Warrants under my command are above reproach and above the scandalous accusations of which I am forced to make. Unfortunately, I do not have that luxury. Until my Tactic Officer is found, I have to assume that everyone, including those in this room, is suspect.”
    The assembled crowd broke out in insulted outcries, rallying against such accusations. Yen listened to their cries of indignation, nodding slowly as though in approval, though it was unclear as to whether he approved of the Captain’s decision or that of the Officers and Warrants. After a few moments had passed, Yen stood slowly, gesturing for the members in the War Room to settle.
    Though his voice was soft, it carried clearly across the wide room. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he began, his voice barely calling over the outraged defiance of some of the more outspoken members. “Ladies and gentlemen, please be seated.” As the din in the room lessened, even the louder members of the War Room turned to the new speaker and, hesitantly, took their seats.
    “I can clearly understand your frustrations,” Yen proclaimed as all eyes turned to him. “What the Captain is proposing is that someone within this very room, someone who has received the blessing and commission from High Council itself, is guilty of a crime, a crime that could be as horrific as murder.”
    With the mention of murder, the crowd erupted once again into protest. Though she remained silent, Captain Hodge glared at Yen with eyes that pierced him like daggers. Motioning once more, Yen regained control of the crowd.
    “To make these accusations,” he continued, trying to ignore the looks he received from the Captain, “is to accuse the High Council of having poor judgment in its nominations for every one of us assembled. When stated as such, it’s very easy to see why you’re all frustrated and indignant.”
    “However, there is, as there always will be, two sides to this story. If something has happened to Eminent Merric and it was not someone within this very room, than it only leaves us to assume that it was a Crewman who committed a violent act against an Officer aboard the Revolution. I, for one, do not know the last time a Crewman so blatantly committed a crime against an Officer of the Fleet. But that is not what truly bothers me. To make an accusation against a Crewman aboard this ship means that one of us gathered in this room has someone working under their command that’s both treasonous and violently dangerous. Who among us is willing to admit that they have such little control over their Crewman that one could act out in this way and we don’t know the danger they pose to all those around them? I know my Crewmen well enough to know that no one in the Squadron could have committed this crime. Can every one of you say the same?”
    Yen paused, allowing his assault on their pride to spread throughout the room. Though obviously infuriated, no one spoke out against his claims. “My point is this: before we go making objections to the Captain’s accusations, that we realize the precarious position in which she has been placed. Something as of yet unknown has happened to a ranking Officer on this ship. If something violent has happened, then we cannot, in good conscious, rule out a single person as innocent. To do so invites this sort of crime to be committed again and again.”
    He turned toward Captain Hodge, who seemed gratified that Yen had regained control over this meeting. “Captain, I understand you position and support you in whatever you need to do completely. In fact, I volunteer my quarters to be the first to be searched for evidence of a purported crime.”
    Captain Hodge nodded to Yen as he took his seat. Yen had, in one motion, placed every other Officer and Warrant in the room into a difficult decision. They could remain proud and oppose an inspection of their quarters and, subsequently, the common areas of the ship. Should they choose that route, however, they would be proclaiming that their own rank and privilege surpasses that of Yen who, in the absence of Merric, now stood as second-in-command of the Revolution. The only option Yen had really left them was to follow his lead and submit to being searched. The blatant hatred splayed across their faces was evident, but Yen showed little interest in their attitudes.
    “Thank you, Squadron Commander,” Captain Hodge said as she stood. “I appreciate your proposal and, therefore, your quarters will be the first to be searched.”
    Yen smiled softly to himself, happy that the Captain had understood his gambit and followed his lead. He knew, better than anyone, that there would be no evidence found within his quarters. And, should he have overlooked anything, it would be too simple to rewrite the memories of anyone looking through his quarters. By the time the search party left, Squadron Commander Xiao would be completely above any suspicion and would, instead, be leading the searches through the living quarters of everyone else on board.
    The Captain gestured across the table to where a large Oterian sat, his furry arms crossed over his barrel chest. “Prestige Horace, the Security Officer for the Revolution, will be joining me during these initial inspections. Once we have cleared the ranking members of this crew, they will, in turn, take control of the inspections for their respective sections. I expect every inch of this ship to be searched. If something has happened to my Tactical Officer, I will not rest until I find someone who I can jettison through a very small airlock for this crime!”
    She turned to Yen. “Squadron Commander, if you could please stay behind. Everyone else,” she said, raising her voice with clear anger ringing through her musical words, “your rooms’ accesses have all been locked by my command, rendering it impossible for you to enter before you are inspected. I have also declared an alert on board, so all your Crewmen are standing by their battle stations and will not be in their quarters either. Return to your quarters immediately and stand by outside your rooms for your inspection. You are dismissed.”
    As the others filed out, Yen moved beside Captain Hodge. Though her steely eyes never left the departing Officers and Warrants, her words carried clearly to Yen as he, too, stood impassively. “I would like to thank you for your support, Yen,” she said, dropping the formality with which he had grown accustomed. “However, I don’t want you to think that this makes you above suspicion.”
    “Of course not, Captain,” Yen replied.
    As everyone finally left the room, Yen followed the Captain and Security Officer to his quarters. Entering the access code, Horace entered the main room, his large Oterian bulk stooping to fit through the shallow doorways. The search was conducted thoroughly, but quickly. As Yen surmised, nothing incriminating was found within his quarters. In fact, Captain Hodge congratulated him on the immaculate upkeep in his living area. As Horace turned to begin the next search, Captain Hodge paused, placing a cool hand on Yen’s arm.
    “Commander,” she began, pausing as she gathered her thoughts. “I cannot stress to you how important it is that we find whatever happened to Merric. This blatant affront to my command endangers this entire crew, especially in a time of war. Rest assured, I find someone committing so potentially lethal a crime an affront to my command, as this type of insurgency undermines the good order and discipline I have strove to establish aboard the Revolution. While Horace and I conduct the rest of the searches for the Officers, I want you to begin inspections on your own Squadron. When you are done, I need you to search Merric’s sections as well, to include the weapons bays and the bridge itself.” She turned to face Yen, her deceptively shorter stature not hindering her piercing glare. “I want Merric found and I want someone to blame for whatever has happened to him. Find me something!”
    “I will not fail you,” Yen replied, releasing his breath only when the Captain had turned the corner at the end of the hall. Though he had maintained a cool demeanor throughout the search and the conversation afterward with Captain Hodge, Yen’s heart pounded in his chest. Alone in the hall, he slumped against the wall, relieving his body weight from his dangerously shaky legs. He had earned the trust of the Captain, but his work was far from done. The Captain was absolutely right: someone needed to be held responsible for Merric’s death. Yen had a pretty good idea of how to find someone to blame.

    Yen made his way into the hangar and was almost immediately confronted by confused and probing pilots. Pushing her way to the front, Iana led the questioning.
    “What’s going on, Commander?” she asked straight forward, placing her hands impatiently on her hips. “We’re woken up and told to report to battle stations. We all assume that we’ve found a rogue Terran ship. Instead, we’re held in the hangar for hours with no information whatsoever.”
    “Settle down, Warrant Morven,” Yen said, knowing that would only spark her ire.

    “I need to do an inspection of the hangar.”
    “Settle down? Sir, I’ve got dozens of pilots who are now eager to blow something up.”
    “Do me a favor, Iana,” Yen said, leaning toward his irritated second-in-command. “Take me on an inspection of the hangar bay. Afterward, I don’t care if you set up a fighting ring in the middle of the hangar and beat each other senseless. But right now, I’m conducting an investigation.”
    Immediately, Yen cursed himself for his choice of words. Iana’s eyes lit up at the opportunity for gossip.
    “Investigation?” she said loudly, drawing the attention of the other pilots. “What are you investigating? What happened?”
    Yen grabbed her firmly by the arm and pulled her away from the prying eyes of the others. “I can’t tell you anything. If I could, believe me, I would. If you ever want to hear what’s going on, though, you’ll stay quiet now and just help me with the inspection.”
    Iana pouted, her dejected look a practiced and professional appearance. “Fine, but you owe me,” she said coyly.
    Iana led Yen around the bay in a haphazard inspection. Yen wasn’t wholly committed to his search, having known the results ahead of time. He already knew the body wouldn’t be found here, so instead he found himself day dreaming instead of diligently searching the dark corners of the hangar. Though the hangar bay was cavernous, the search took less than an hour.
    He shared his appreciation for the pilots’ cooperation as he finished the search. Though he didn’t turn around, he heard Iana yell after him.
    “Don’t forget, you owe me.”
    The search of the weapons bays, while equally uneventful, did not go nearly as smoothly. Scyant was openly hostile at all turns, cutting him to ribbons with her dagger-like stares and equally sharp retorts to his accusations. Yen had expected little else after she suffered such painful rejections while sharing his bed, but it made his work difficult and uncomfortable. As quickly as possible, Yen finished his mandatory inspection and left, finding solace in the bridge of the Revolution.
    On the bridge, the two crewmembers looked to Yen with inquisitive looks, but kept their questions to themselves. Taking the Captain’s chair behind Vangore and Tylgar, he reveled in the quiet and lost himself in the deep darkness of space as it was projected on the front screen. Soon, he would have to start the second part of his plan, sending suspicion spiraling even further away from him, but for the time, he stared at the screen. They moved at half the speed of light, having slowed to provide ample time for the searches. Though Yen knew that the Fleet moved at exceptional speeds, the distant stars remained far beyond their reach. Yen had found the tranquility within the stars long ago, as a fighter pilot. Soundless in the void of space, with the horizon of stars indefinitely beyond your reach, a pilot can lose himself, finding an inner peace as his vessel drifted between the stars. With the war so far away from their current position in known space, Yen let his eyes slip out of focus, as he stared into the distant nothing. Though time passed as he sunk lower into the Captain’s chair, time froze within his mind. He thought of a place and time light years away, when he had met a brash young Wyndgaart pilot, one who saved his life. His heart still raced at the thought of Keryn and he found himself, not for the first time, wondering what happened to her. She left before the invasion of Earth, before the Terrans unleashed their frozen hell upon Alliance space. He didn’t know if she still survived, but his heart ached at the thought of her lying dead or dying, buried in the darkness and the snow. Reality crept back into Yen’s thoughts. If he hoped to find Keryn, the Alliance would need to win the war. That could only be done if a culprit was accused in the death of Merric.
    As his eyes slowly slid back to the present, Yen opened his hand and a blue filament coalesced in his palm. Someone needed to be blamed, Yen knew, even if they weren’t truly guilty. The psychic serpent in his hand responded to his thoughts, coiling around his fingers and darting in mock strikes into the open air near his arm. Yes, Yen had a plan and he knew it would ruin someone’s life, but it was inevitable if he ever hoped to find Keryn again.
    “Keryn,” Yen whispered into the bridge.
    The serpent leapt from his hand, elongating as it stretched beyond his reach. The blue psychic snake bared its fangs and sunk their power into the base of Vangore’s spine. The Wyndgaart Communications Officer jerked as the serpent’s head disappeared under the skin and reached into his subconscious mind. Vangore flinched as his mind became alight with psychic fire and whispered suggestions. Words flittered through his subconscious mind, filling it with thoughts not his own.
    Merric, the voice whispered. Code. Engine room.
    Vangore convulsed quietly while the mental dams in his mind broke free, flooding his synapses with an overload of information. Images fluttered through his mind, like triggered memories rising to the surface after being long forgotten. Only Yen knew that the memories running through his mind were not his own. The power coursed through Yen, pulsing down the length of the filament that ran between the two.
    Stealing a glance at Tylgar sitting in the navigator’s chair, Yen debated sending a second filament in his direction. Instead, he showed impressive restraint by reeling in another blue filament that began to coalesce in response to his pondering. While Yen feared Tylgar turning around and seeing what he was doing, he was more concerned with the perception of the entire bridge being involved in a conspiracy against Merric. People were quick to accept a single man plotting bodily harm against another. But when it reached a point of multiple people working in an intricate, interwoven conspiracy, skeptics quickly arose in the ranks. One person is a fluke. Multiple people lends itself to a leadership failure and blatant mutiny against the established command. No, he wouldn’t do this to Tylgar unless the Lithid turned around.
    As Yen’s thoughts wandered between Tylgar and Vangore, the Wyndgaart stopped his subtle convulsions. With its work done, the serpent slipped free from Vangore’s mind, coiling once again around Yen’s wrist. It flicked its tongue once toward the Communications Officer before turning and plunging into Yen’s open palm, disappearing from view with a final toss of its transparent blue tail.
    In front of the Captain’s chair, Vangore began typing furiously on his overhead display, alternating between inputting and erasing new data. Sinking into the Captain’s chair once more, Yen let his eyes lose their focus once more as he stared out beyond the stars.

CHAPTER 17:

    Keryn stumbled through the snow, the freezing wind tearing through her wet pants, biting into her skin. The numbing cold had spread from her feet and legs into her fingers and hands. She staggered forward, her hands tucked under her arms as a minimal protection from the stinging wind and her filth-caked hair blowing in chunks of frozen strands. When she had last made the three-mile walk from the Cair Ilmun into Miller’s Glen, she had been fresh faced after a deep space journey. The time had passed quickly for the trio as they walked and joked amongst themselves. This time, however, the journey seemed to last an eternity
    Without the sun as a guide and with all her jungle landmarks now decaying, the world seemed entirely foreign. The cold still clouded her mind and allowed doubt to creep into her thoughts. For all she knew, she had been wandering in circles for the past half hour and would, quite soon, come across her own beaten path through the snow. Still, she trudged on, knowing that movement was all that kept her from collapsing into the snowdrifts, never to rise again.
    She staggered for another ten minutes, certain that she was completely lost in the woods. The walk to Miller’s Glen over two weeks ago had been quick, taking less time to transverse the entire distance than what she’d been walking since her escape, yet she still had seen no sign of the stream in which they had washed a few weeks earlier. She was panicked and disoriented, turning back and forth, her only guide being the straight trail behind her as she broke through the deep snow. Shivering now both from the cold and her own fear, Keryn drove forward hoping and praying to Gods she didn’t believe in that she would find something familiar soon before the threatening cold overtook her.
    Her foot catching on a buried root of a recently deceased jungle tree, Keryn stumbled and dropped to a knee. Tears streamed down her face, cutting clean tracks down her dirty face. Her energy was quickly leaving her; she feared now that she didn’t even have the strength to get back to her feet.
    Get up, Keryn, the Voice called, closer now than it had been in some time. You have to keep moving.
    “What do you care?” she moaned through her chocking tears.
    You may view me as your enemy, it said, soothingly, but I can’t exist without you. If you die, buried out here in the snow, I die with you. And I don’t want to die.
    “Just go away,” Keryn replied with little conviction. “Just leave me alone.”
    I can’t do that either, the Voice said, spouting a familiar rhetoric. We’re stuck together forever, you and I. And if we are both going to die, it won’t be today in a snow covered graveyard where we may never be found again. If we’re going to die, it will be in a blaze of glory. But we can’t do that unless you get back up and keep moving. Now, get up. Just make it a few more steps, and then you can start feeling sorry for yourself again.
    Keryn pushed herself up, using a nearby tree for support. Her knees cried in angry defiance as she tried to straighten her legs again. The cold had settled deeply into her bones during her brief reprieve from walking and now each step sent explosions of pain through her legs. Still, the Voice cried in her head, driving her forward even as her own thoughts sunk into the dark recesses of her mind. The memory of her shared kiss with Adam rose to the forefront of her mind and, with the Voice taking control of her movements, she lost herself in the memory. She remembered the feel of his strong arms around her back, pulling her body toward his. His warm breath had danced across her lips as they leaned into one another, her body melting into his strong embrace. Their lips had met and she had hungrily leaned in for more as explosions of pleasure rippled down her spine. Though she knew she had to leave him soon, she had held tightly to the sides of his face as they kissed, their tongues probing on another’s mouth first playfully, then passionately. She had wanted more, even then, but…
    Wake up and look, the Voice yelled, the strength of its words striking her awake better than any physical blow.
    Keryn felt the memory fade into her subconscious again as the aches of her body slowly reemerged. Looking ahead, her eyes grew wide. After all this time, she had finally found the stream again. Though the freezing winter had killed the jungle and dumped feet of snow over all surfaces, the stream still bubbled happily across her path, unfrozen from the arctic winds. Glancing upstream, she watched the waterfall slowly dump its contents into the pool below. The waterfall no longer roared as water rolled over its edge. Instead, the water fell in swollen droplets, as though the surface of the water itself had congealed in the cold, revealing a small erosion-worn cavern behind the once proud waterfall. Remembering her painful splash into the water, Keryn leaned forward and pushed on the surface of the water. The tension remained buoyant and strong, if not a little more solid than she remembered. The memory of her first encounter with the stream also reminded her of something else: Penchant had found a way to cross just a little ways downstream. Turning to her right, she walked down the stream just a short distance until she found the large rocks jutting from the water’s surface.
    Keryn walked gingerly over the impromptu bridge and climbed up the short cliff face. With a higher vantage point, she was able to watch the waterfall dump its contents slowly into the gathering pool below. Between the waterfall and her location, however, something else caught her eye. Protruding from the snow was a dirty brown object, standing out clearly in the continual twilight against the pristine white snow. She walked down the sloped ground as she approached the object, silently swearing at her stiff joints. Keryn reached the object and bent down, picking up the surprisingly lightweight item in her hand. Holding it up in examination, her face fell. She twisted the large white feather in her hand, looking at the dried brown blood that coated its surface.
    Tossing the feather to the side, Keryn dropped to her knees and started digging through the snow. Though the cold bit at her fingers and burned her skin, she continued digging, exposing first an arm, then a torso. She pushed the snow free in heaps, clearing away the drift on both legs and around the wings. Dreading the inevitable, Keryn cleared away the snow that had collected over the golden hair and face. Stumbling away from the body, Keryn collapsed in the snow and covered her mouth, suppressing the cry of anguish she wanted to let out. Lying uncovered and broken on the rocks near the stream, Cerise’s body rested where it had fallen, undisturbed over the past two weeks.
    One wing lay at an odd angle, the thin bone shattered from the collision with the stone surface. One leg and part of Cerise’s skull had suffered a similar fate. The other wing was missing, severed cleanly near the back. The rest of her torso was peppered with holes of varying size; gunshot wounds that had torn through her body. The dark, dried blood surrounded her body and soaked into the bag on her hip. Keryn’s imagination told her the tale. The Terrans fighters had gone off in search of survivors. Wherever Cerise had been, she was caught unaware of the danger and had flown away, skimming the treetops in an attempt not to be seen. But white against the deeply dark jungle, she had been easy to spot. The fighter had opened fire on her; bullets tearing through her soft flesh and severing her wing. Keryn could see her spiraling out of control, her body ripping through the tree limbs before slamming into the rocks below, her fingertips dipping into the cool waters of the stream. Shot, bleeding, broken. Cerise had struggled, broken on the rocks, trying to gasp for air through lungs that had been pierced by both gunfire and broken ribs. Alone, scared, and in the darkness, Cerise had died on these rocks. Keryn cried uncontrollably as the scene played out in her mind.
    The Voice let the silence build for a while, allowing Keryn to cry herself dry, before speaking. We need to go, it said comfortingly. We can’t stay here.
    In her mind, Keryn could feel the Voice tugging, wanting to say more. “Just say it,” she said, feeling defeated.
    We need her pants and bag, it said, devoid of the emotions that Keryn felt welling inside of her. It was true that she and the Voice were two very different people. Keryn wished she could stare introspectively, letting the Voice see her displeasure.
    Your own pants are still soaked from the trip through the sewers, it said, explaining. Hers are treated, which means that they’re relatively waterproof and a lot warmer than your thin pants. And if she has any food in her bag, you’ll need it to keep up your strength.
    Keryn sat, unhappy with the advice but knowing the truth of the Voice’s words. Still, she couldn’t escape a simple realization: if Cerise was dead, what hope was there that the Cair Ilmun was still intact?
    Reaching forward, she unhooked the bag from Cerise’s hip. She twisted the latch, which was resistant after being frozen for so long. Peering inside, Keryn’s heart leapt in her chest. She pulled free a grain bar and, unwrapping it, reveling in the nutty flavors as she took a bite. The first bit of real food in two weeks protested in her empty stomach, but didn’t stop her from ravenously finishing the food. Shifting aside the remaining grain bars, Keryn discovered the first aid kit that all members of the team traditionally carried. Near the bottom of the bag, Keryn paused as her fingertips brushed against a filmy material, its thick mesh feeling too good to be true. Turning the bag upside down, she dumped out the contents. The food and first aid kit tumbled into the snow, followed by a flowing silver cloth, which floated to the ground. Grabbing it before it could reach the snowy surface, Keryn pulled the deep space blanket to her chest in elation, her concerns and mourning temporarily forgotten as her basic need for survival overrode her worries. Used for deep space travel where temperatures inside cabins would plummet while crews attempted to conserve fuel, the blankets were thin and lithe, easily packet into most any container, but capable of keeping crewmen warm in almost any temperatures. To Keryn, it was her personal savior.
    I think it’s time we went to sleep, the Voice said, echoing her own sentiments.
    Solemnly removing Cerise’s hide pants, Keryn pushed the snow back over her teammate so that she wouldn’t be found by any Terran patrols. Turning toward the waterfall, Keryn skirted around the outside of the pond, cautiously moving across the slippery stones, until she was able to climb into the exposed cavern behind the falls. She stripped free of her pants, donning the warmer hide pair, and collapsed into the warm blanket. With it enveloping her like a glove, Keryn hardly noticed the discomfort of lying on the hard, stone ground before she was sound asleep.

    Keryn awoke more refreshed than what she had in many months, but unsure of how long she slept or whether the darkness around her was day or night. Stretching, she felt the stiffness that had settled over her body from sleeping on the hard rocks. Her neck ached and her shoulders were sore, but she reveled in the pain, knowing how much better her body felt as a whole. Donning the waterproof boots once more, she packed her supplies back into the pack and slung it over her head and shoulder, letting it droop at her waist. Eating a quick breakfast consisting of a grain bar, she stepped out of the overhead cover, feeling more confident than she had since the Terran arrival. Still, she couldn’t shake the inevitable feeling that continuing her quest was a waste of time.
    “Why even keep searching for the ship?” Keryn asked to the empty air, knowing that the Voice was listening. As she took another bite of food, the weight of her mission weighed heavily on her shoulders. “Cerise is dead, which means McLaughlin was left alone. He wouldn’t have survived without treatments. So can I expect the Cair Ilmun to still be intact as well?”
    Would you be able to return to Miller’s Glen without knowing, the Voice asked, sounding as though it were standing beside her. The question struck a chord within Keryn. Your own doubts would tear you apart if you don’t finish here with definitive proof one way or the other.
    Satisfied and refreshed, Keryn set off through the snow, heading toward the answer to her burning question: did they still have a way off this planet? The trek through the snow seemed easier today, her body stronger and warmer, making her strides more powerful. After only a half hour of walking, Keryn started to recognize landmarks. A jutting stone that she had passed upon their arrival protruded from the snow on her left. A twisted tree that was full of leave two weeks ago still drooped over the trail, its now barren fingers reaching toward her hair. Keryn slowed her pace and pulled out her pistol, knowing that the grotto lay not much further ahead. Crouched and moving cautiously, she moved up to the edge of the clearing and peered through the darkness.
    Crestfallen, Keryn looked around at the debris that littered the grotto. Shards of metal lay strewn throughout the area, some having been blown apart with enough force to be lodged into the trees around the grotto. The ground itself was pot marked with small craters, the type that would have been caused by repeated explosions of fuel cells igniting under intense heat. Looking across the clearing, she frowned at what remained of the Cair Ilmun: a skeletal ship and shredded engines melted and fused to one another in an unflattering orgy of metal.
    Keryn leaned against the nearest tree and lowered her pistol as she drank in the sight. Her one hope for escape had been taken from her and her mind whirled at the ordered effects from the ship’s destruction. The trio no longer had a clear plan for escape and would now have to rely on a new plan, one that she struggled even now to formulate. The only ships that remained on the planet were under tight control of the Terrans, who would never relinquish one of their ships without a grueling and deadly fight. The trio just didn’t have the firepower to stand against the Terrans, not without help from the other survivors of Miller’s Glen. But even the survivors were hesitant to help; their spirits had been crushed with the loss of so many friends and family during the bombing and their bodies, after two weeks of hard manual labor, were a reflection of their spirits. Somewhere there was an answer, but Keryn was pretty sure she wouldn’t have it until she had a chance to meet with the others.
    Turning back toward town, Keryn took a hesitant step away from the wreckage when a booming voice erupted from the darkness behind her.
    “There she is,” it roared, the voice’s words were slurred and hard to understand. “I told you they’d come back for their ship!”
    Keryn glanced fervently over her shoulder. Behind her, green eyes flared to life in the darkness; pinpoints of light glowing like savage creatures hunting their startled prey. Stepping into the grotto, Keryn saw the sleek black uniforms and assault rifles of the Terrans, their eyes glowing brightly from behind their masks.
    Night vision goggles, the Voice said, as they both cursed themselves for not realizing the Terran patrols would be so well equipped.
    Stepping up beside the Terrans and dwarfing them with his sheer size, Keryn stood in disbelief at the disfigured Oterian who cried out in fury. “Recognize me, you bitch?” Cardax screamed over the short distance. “Take a good look at what you did to me. Look at me one last time before I kill you, you whore!”
    Most of Cardax’s fur was gone; the tan, leathery skin underneath was warped from blisters that refused to heal. His right arm hung limply at his side, its once impressive size withered, blackened, and shriveled. Keryn’s eyes lingered on two wide scars running across his chest, the blatant marks of the torture he had endured while her prisoner. Most startling, however, was what remained of his face. The skin on the right side of his face looked like running wax, melting down the side of his cheeks and running over the side of his mouth, causing the slurred speech she had heard earlier. His ear on the side of his head was missing and she saw no sign of the ear canal that should have been there in its stead. His horn was also missing on that side of his body, though the other one still glittered venomously in the darkness.
    Keryn was honestly stunned that Cardax managed to survive the bombing of Miller’s Glen. The room in which he had been kept had been decimated in the explosion, the heat from the blast lifting the walls and ceiling from the room and scorching the floor. She could only imagine his anguish as, strapped to the chair, he was unable to escape as the flames rolled over his body. He had every right to be furious, but she couldn’t find a justification for him siding with the Terrans
    “So you sold your soul to the devil for a little retribution,” she spat angrily.
    “I’ve made new friends,” Cardax hissed, spittle flying from his mouth. “And you, you slut, are as good as fucking dead now.” He turned to the Terran standing beside him. “Kill the bitch.”
    The Terran turned toward Cardax, glaring with obvious disdain. After a pause, he turned back toward his soldiers. “Kill her.”
    Keryn was already running before the Terran commander was able to give the order. Rounds slammed into the trees as she ran, weaving along the path that she made on her approach to the grotto. She stopped occasionally to fire behind her, once striking one of the Terrans who chased her. Though he was hit solidly in the chest, he quickly climbed back to his feet.
    “Damn it,” Keryn growled. “Of course they would have body armor.”
    She ran on, firing just often enough to discourage her pursuers. Their automatic weapons, however, continued to punch holes into the snow around her and splinter the trees throughout the jungle. After a short time, Keryn saw the stream rolling past up ahead. Sliding into the clearing, she scrambled for purchase on the icy rocks as she tried to stop her momentum. She turned and ran toward the rock bridge she had crossed before her night’s sleep; rounds ricocheted off the stone outcroppings behind her as she fled. She pointed her weapon behind her and fired a couple more rounds, sneering in frustration when she heard the click of the bolt sliding to the rear. Her magazine was empty. She pressed the magazine release and let it fall into the snow as she pulled her last magazine off her belt. Keryn slammed the new magazine into the well as she bounded gracefully across the stones.
    Landing on the far side of the river, she leapt to the ground as she saw more green eyes emerging from the trees to her left. Their automatic fire tore through the air above her head as she scrambled for cover. The pursuers on the far side of the river, including the infuriated Cardax, ran from the trees on that side just as Keryn, still firing, found a large rock behind which to hide. Rounds now struck the rock from two sides, both from the Terrans on the far side of the river and from those on her side who were approaching from downstream. The bullets gouged chunks of rock from the boulder she was behind and she cursed again.
    “Armor piercing rounds?” she screamed. “You have got to be kidding me! Is there anything you all did not bring with you?”
    In response, the Terrans fired another volley. Sweat that had nothing to do with the exertion from running ran down her face and traced the curve of her back. The heavily armed and armored Terrans were closing in on her position quickly.
    Let me help you, the Voice whispered enticingly in her ear. We can make it out of this situation if you let me help you.
    “No,” she yelled into the darkness. “I won’t let you take over again!”
    As though to prove her point, she spun around the stone and opened fire on the closest Terran. The first couple rounds struck his body armor, driving him to his knees but not killing him. She adjusted her fire and her next round caught him in his exposed neck. Blood sprayed across the white snow as the Terran gurgled and pitched forward. She continued firing, her next round aimed at the unarmored leg of the Terran behind him, striking him between the thigh and knee plates. The round tore through the insulated pants, ripping the soldier’s leg from under him. Off balance, he fell to the snow, bringing his face on level with her aim point. She squeezed the trigger and one of the two green lights vanished on his face plate. The round pierced his eye and exited the back of his skull, stopping only when it struck the heavily armored helmet. The other two Terrans on her side of the stream ducked for cover while the far side opened with another barrage. Keryn dove back for cover behind her boulder.
    She clutched her pistol to her chest as she took a mental inventory. She still had grenades, but only one was a high explosive. The others, smoke and flash grenades, would be useful, but she needed killing power. Beyond her grenades, she had fired enough rounds that she had no more than…
    One, the Voice interrupted, its mental faculties free to do math while Keryn fought. You only have one round left. Are you ready for me to take over yet?
    “I’ll never let you take over again,” she whispered, her frustration stinging her eyes. She paused as she examined her options. The two Terrans who had taken cover before were now advancing on her position. Cardax still screamed at her from across the stream
    “Come out, you coward,” he yelled, tauntingly. “Take the bullet in your brain like a real woman! Or maybe you’d prefer it if I dug my knife into your chest? What’s that? No answer to my question? That’s a shame because now I have no choice but to carve off your flesh, one strip at a time! And don’t you worry one bit,” he continued through his melted mouth, “I’ll be coming after your Pilgrim boyfriend once I get done carving you up, you little bitch!”
    You need my help, the Voice said, its voice flat and calm.
    Keryn knew it was right, but was not willing to sacrifice her personality for its assistance. “If we do this,” she whispered, “we do it my way. I keep my personality and you keep yours, just like we have it now. I stay in control when we’re not in combat and, in return, I’ll let you take control when the fighting gets up close and personal.”
    Silence stretched in her mind, disconcertingly different from the noise erupting all around her. Keryn was beginning to fear that the Voice wouldn’t find her arrangement acceptable when it whispered a single word into her mind.
    Agreed, it said softly.
    Keryn’s body convulsed as the memories of twenty-two generations of warriors flooded her mind. The knowledge saturated her muscles, teaching in milliseconds techniques that had been carefully mastered over hundreds of years. Her body shook, her eyes fluttering, as the Voice downloaded all its knowledge into her body. After only a second, Keryn’s body stopped shaking and she sat perfectly still with her eyes closed. The two Terrans approached cautiously, hearing commotion but unable to see around the rock.
    As they neared, Keryn’s eyes flew open, her violet irises burning with power. Her left hand reached out and clutched a jagged shard of stone which had been torn free of the boulder under the gunfire. In her right, Keryn still held her pistol, its single round chambered. The Terrans stepped to the backside of the rock. The lead soldier’s hands flickered as he shared tactics with the one behind him. Nodding in agreement, they moved around the rock.
    “Now,” the Voice said through Keryn’s lips.
    Her legs tucked underneath her, Keryn launched from the ground. Her pistol swung around and a single shot was fired, shattering the rear soldier’s faceplate. The Terran’s head jerked back violently as he collapsed into the snow. Dropping the pistol, her now free hand flashed out and, closing on the rifle of the lead soldier and yanking the barrel skyward. The rounds flew harmlessly over her shoulder as she pulled the Terran closer, keeping his body in between her and the Terrans on the far shore. Ignoring the fire leaping from the barrel just inches away from her face, Keryn slammed the jagged rock up through the faceplate, smashing through the plastic and lodging the point of the stone into the flesh underneath the Terran’s chin. With the man chocking on his own blood and his arms falling limply to his side, Keryn twisted the impromptu knife, sliding the tip into the man’s brain. She spun the soldier, maintaining her Terran shield, and flipped the soldier’s rifle around in her hand until she clutched it firmly under her arm. Smiling wickedly, she began firing at the far shore.
    Her shots leapt into the air as she jerked the rifle back and forth along the shore. Though the Terrans had taken cover behind boulders of their own, her deadly accurate shots struck exposed limbs and tops of heads, the armor piercing rounds within the rifle tearing easily through their body armor. All along the far shore, cries of pain erupted and bodies fell limply to the ground. Standing in the middle of it all, intentionally unharmed, stood the Oterian screaming in rage.
    “Kill her, you cowards,” he bellowed. He ripped a weapon from a nearby Terran’s hand, pulling the soldier from behind his concealment. Before he had time to leap back for cover, a round caught him in the chest, blasting through the body armor and tumbling through his heart and lungs. He didn’t have time to scream before he collapsed onto the ground, dead. Cardax turned his stolen weapon on Keryn and took aim. Seeing him, she released the Terran body and dove back behind the boulder. Cardax’s fire slammed into the soldier’s chest and exited through his back; the body flailed under the gunfire before falling to the ground. The soldier’s head struck and floated on top of the buoyant river. Watching the body fall and remain suspended on top of the water, Keryn smiled at her own memory and experience with the water’s surface.
    Cardax stood alone on the far shore, the only Terran still alive and uninjured being the commander, who had hidden behind a nearby stone outcropping. “Come out and fight me like a real Wyndgaart,” Cardax taunted. “You’re a disgrace to your species!”
    “Cardax,” Keryn yelled in reply. “Catch!”
    Diving from behind the rock, Keryn pulled free her high explosive grenade and released the safety. She threw the grenade toward the stream, where it struck the tense surface and bounced, skipping like a stone. The river tension having increased in the cold, the grenade never broke the surface as she once had, bouncing all the way across before rolling to a stop at Cardax’s feet. He bellowed in rage moments before the entire far side of the stream was enveloped in a fireball. As the smoke began clearing on the far shore, Keryn stood up calmly from behind the rock, the Voice releasing her body back under her control.
    Smiling appreciatively, Keryn dusted off the snow and slung the Terran rifle over her shoulder. “Good work,” she said to the Voice.
    Thanks, it replied. Now let’s go home.

CHAPTER 18:

    The Captain approached Yen as he stood at the entrance to the lift that would take them all to the bridge. A security team led by Horace flanked her. The security team carried a small arsenal and wore body armor, as though expecting a significant battle. Their stern looks were mirrored in Captain Hodge’s steely face, her own frustrations clearly displayed across her pale Avalon face. The group came to a halt in front of Yen, who snapped to attention in front of the Captain.
    “Squadron Commander,” Captain Hodge demanded, her voice betraying none of the anger reflected in her eyes, “look me in the eyes and tell me you are completely sure of this before we proceed.”
    Yen matched her look, hoping that his own determination and confidence showed in his resolve. He rubbed his sweaty palms on his pants as he spoke. “Captain, I am completely sure of the evidence.” Lowering his voice, he leaned closer to the Captain. “Ma’am, we’re doing the right thing, but we need to move while he suspects nothing.”
    Captain Hodge nodded, but her eyes still showed the maelstrom of indecision. After many seconds passed, she turned toward the security team. “We’re moving now. Remember, we need him taken alive. Fire only in self defense.”
    Horace led the way onto the lift, his massive, furry body taking up the back third of the spacious elevator. Yen and the Captain entered second, leaving the front of the lift open for the other three security members. By them being the last on the lift, they’d be the first off and immediately able to control the room. Entering the access code for the bridge, the lift doors slid shut. The steady scroll of passing floor numbers was the only indication that the lift was moving, though the tension became more palpable as the elevator neared their destination.
    As the indicator for the bridge finally lit, the doors slid open and the security team rushed into the room with weapons drawn. All three members yelled into the room as the Captain and Yen followed, their voices intermingling in contradicting commands meant to confuse their adversary. Confusion was already well established on the bridge as both Vangore and Tylgar were standing at their posts with their hands raised high. Though Tylgar’s Lithid featureless face was unreadable, Vangore clearly showed surprise. As Horace exited the elevator, his voice boomed over the others.
    “Magistrate Vangore,” Horace yelled into the room as the rest of the voices were silenced, “you are accused of conspiracy, murder, and, this being a time of war, high treason against the Alliance for the unlawful slaying of Eminent Merric, a superior officer. You are advised that you are not permitted to speak at this time, though you will be afforded the opportunity during interrogation. At this time, you will surrender to the security forces and be taken immediately to the brig. Anything said will be construed as resisting arrest.”
    “What… wait, you’re making…” Vangore began. As he opened his mouth to speak, however, the three members of the security force grabbed him firmly by his tunic and threw him to the floor. He yelped as his arms were pinned behind him and manacles placed on his wrists.
    “I take it that means you did not understand your rights as I explained them,” Horace remarked as Vangore grunted in pain. The Oterian Security Officer turned to the Captain, awaiting further orders.
    “Take him to the brig,” she said softly, the fire gone from her voice.
    The security team pulled Vangore to his feet and drug him toward the lift. As he was taken away, he continued to protest.
    “Captain, I don’t understand,” he yelled before being struck with a neural stimulator. His body immediately went limp as nerve impulses were disrupted. Without another sound, Vangore was taken to the lift and the entire security team departed, leaving the Captain, Yen, Horace, and a very stunned Tylgar on the bridge.
    Captain Hodge spun on Yen, her passion returned. “Would you now please explain to me exactly why I just had my Communications Officer thrown in the brig?”
    “Ma’am,” Yen began. “After you conducted the inventory of my quarters, you ordered me to search my own areas followed by those once held by Eminent Merric. One of those areas included the bridge. I searched the physical locations thoroughly, but found no evidence of wrongdoing in any area checked.”
    Yen leaned on the Captain’s console, which had already been programmed to display the evidence Yen had found. “Though you hadn’t specified, I took the liberty of assuming that searching the areas once covered by Merric included the computer network maintained on this ship.”
    “And you found something condemning Vangore there?” Horace asked, his voice rumbling in the silent room.
    “Not at first, no,” Yen said. “At first, I found the same information that you had found previously. Merric had not used his access code after leaving the bridge the night previous. However, that explanation didn’t settle well with me. If he didn’t use his access code at all, that means he was murdered within either the halls or a common area, none of which are ever empty enough to pull off a horrific crime. I figured that a lack of access code was fairly damning evidence that someone had tampered with the system. Therefore, I spent some time digging through the lines of code within the computer. That’s when I found this.”
    Yen turned the Captain’s console so that the others could see. Merric’s name was lit in red, underneath which was his access code and a single location listed: Vangore’s personal quarters. “Merric did use his code the night he died,” Yen explained. “He used his code to enter Vangore’s quarters. This evidence was fairly well hidden within the ship’s files, as though someone had tried to erase the evidence. However, I believe that the quick revelation that Merric was missing left Vangore little time to do an efficient job of hiding his crime.”
    “Then how did you know to send Horace and his men to the engine room?” the Captain asked.
    Yen nodded, knowingly. “After I suspected Vangore, who could have easily altered the computer program from his console on the bridge, I followed his access code following Merric’s visit. The only place Vangore’s code was used was in the engine room to disable the fail safes protecting the engine exhausted port and again when he reentered his quarters about fifteen minutes later. Did you find something in the engine room?”
    “Organic residue, unlike any plasma byproducts created by the engine,” Horace answered.
    “And you believe…” Yen asked, leaving the question hanging.
    “It could potentially be organic remains from a body destroyed in the engine exhaust,” Horace finished. “The medical bay is conducting an analysis as we speak.”
    Captain Hodge pushed the console out of her way before collapsing into the helm, her wings folded tightly against her body. She raised her hand and ran it absently through her hair, lost in thought.
    “Vangore killed Merric?” a disembodied voice asked from the other side of the room from where the three stood. All turned to see Tylgar still standing awe-struck behind the navigator console.
    “Sit down and monitor navigations,” Captain Hodge yelled at the Lithid, who immediately disappeared behind his console and busied himself with unimportant work. “I don’t need to remind you that should word of this spread before I make an official announcement to the crew, you’ll be sharing a cell with him. Am I understood, Magistrate?”
    “Ma’am, yes ma’am,” Tylgar replied hastily without turning away from his console.
    Captain Hodge turned her attention back to Yen. “I just don’t understand why he would do this. It just doesn’t make any sense. Everyone has had their disagreements on board, but no one under my command would resort to murder.”
    Yen shrugged. “I can’t hope to speak on Vangore’s behalf, ma’am,” he replied. “Only one man knows why he committed murder, and he is currently being escorted to the brig. However, ma’am, with your leave I would like to accompany Prestige Horace to the brig and be present for the interrogation.”
    Captain Hodge looked up, perplexed. “Why?” she asked. “Why would you want or need to be present for his interrogation?”
    Yen leaned forward until he was mere inches away from the Captain. “Ma’am, believe me when I tell you that I have no morbid fascination in watching someone be… encouraged to tell their secrets. However, we need to face a horrible truth. Eminent Merric is dead, which leaves me as both the Squadron Commander and your Tactical Officer, making me the second in command of the Revolution. Whether we like it or not, it is now both my duty and responsibility to ensure discipline is maintained on board. If we can find out what happened to make Vangore cross the line and commit murder, hopefully we can ensure it never happens again.”
    Looking tired, the Captain nodded in agreement. “Fine, go with Horace and be present for the interrogation.” She turned toward the Oterian. “Use any means necessary to get answers. Do I make myself clear?”
    “Crystal,” Horace rumbled through clenched teeth. As he turned to leave, Yen fell into step behind him. Neither spoke as the entered the lift, waiting instead for the doors to slide shut behind them.
    “That was fairly impressive detective work,” Horace growled condescendingly. “It’s surprising for someone with no forensic background.”
    Yen didn’t bother turning toward the Security Officer, instead maintaining his focus on the floor numbers rolling by as the lift descended. “I don’t know what to tell you, Horace. I guess I got lucky by following my hunch.”
    “Detectives only use hunches in old vids and story reels,” Horace snorted. “Anyone now and days that tells you they just followed a hunch is covering their own shoddy evidence collection. You wouldn’t be trying to hide something, would you Squadron Commander?”
    “Maybe you wouldn’t be so upset if you didn’t have someone else doing your job better,” Yen snarled, the anger flashing through his body. As he turned toward the Oterian, the lift doors opened and Horace stepped off the lift. Yen let the anger subside as he followed.
    “No offense, Commander, but I don’t believe you.”
    “Then let’s just see what the prisoner has to say under interrogation,” Yen replied. “I can guarantee he’ll tell a pretty interesting story when questioned.”

CHAPTER 19:

    Her hopes had been simple: after passing through the small sewer tunnel once and pulling free most of the grime from the pipe walls, let there be nothing left for her second pass. She learned long ago that her hopes very rarely ever came to fruition. Wading through the frigid pool of water, she frowned at the disgusting smell that permeated her body and the filth that, quite literally, fell from her hair and skin. Either she hadn’t knocked free nearly as much from the walls of the tunnel as she would have liked, or the Terrans had devilishly snuck in after she escaped the city and reapplied the fermented bodily wastes. Based on her sour mood, Keryn was prone to believe the latter. Exiting the pool and making her way down the straight tunnel, it wasn’t long until she located the ladder that would return her to the surface, and back into harm’s way.
    Keryn slipped out from the sewer entrance and back under the cover of the stone slab, scanning the rubble field with her stolen Terran rifle. She was far from excited about being back in Miller’s Glen, and was even unhappier about the idea of telling the others of the fate of the Cair Ilmun and the rest of the crew. They had put a lot of faith in her plan of escape, even if it had taken a while to convince them of its merits. Unfortunately, no one had believed in her plan more than she had. It had been a severe emotional blow to find the wreckage, a pain that was only slightly alleviated by killing Cardax for the second time. Now there was no avoiding the simple fact that they would have to find another way out of the city. However, she was getting ahead of herself. Until she made it back across the clearing in one piece and back into the relative safety of the still-standing sections of town, her worries were moot.
    Taking a deep breath, Keryn bolted from the safety of the sewer entrance and sprinted across the open ground, sliding for cover behind a crumbling wall. She waited, her breath labored as nervous energy flooded her body, but she saw no scanning lasers and heard no gunfire. Perplexed, she peeked over the wall. The watchtowers were quiet, their spotlights rolling lazily across the ruins. No Terrans sounded the alarm and no turrets tracked her position. After a while with no threat appearing, she stood and started a slower, if not nervous, march across the rubble field. Much to her surprise, nothing happened.
    The rest of her careful walk through town was as uneventful as her dash through the ruins. She began growing nervous, firmly believing that anyone who said “no news is good news” was an idiot. Keryn expected to be shot at. She expected to be chased through the streets with Terrans in hot pursuit. She expected to escape with the pits of hell opening behind her and consuming the world as she ran. That’s the way it had always been. Quiet made her worried.
    Arriving back at the abandoned department store, she gave a cursory glance through the gloomy night and slipped inside. As of yet, Keryn had no need to rush. While she was confused about the lack of Terran activity in town, she knew she still had a few hours before “daybreak”, a sick joke of a term with all things considered. Still, no one would miss her until then, and she wasn’t even sure they would even if she didn’t appear in her work group. The Terrans knew that there was nowhere to go; the entire world was a frozen wasteland and all the food stores were being held within the city. The survivors could flee, but they would be signing their own death warrant as they trudged through the unforgiving cold.
    Moving past the manikins and into the back of the store, Keryn paused as she considered how to hide the much larger Terran rifle amidst the clothes and assorted odds and ends left in the back of the department store. As she pondered her dilemma, a rack of clothes rattled behind her. Spinning, she aimed the rifle at the metal rack, seeing no one but having trouble believing that two noises on two separate occasions within the department store were sheer coincidence.
    “I know you’re there,” she said into the thick darkness of the store. She wished she had time to pull out her flashlight. “Show yourself.”
    Keryn tensed, ready to fire, as a man emerged from behind the clothes rack. The gloom of the department store left only a silhouette standing, his hands held high in a universal sign of surrender. Keryn didn’t feel in much of a mood to accept his surrender and she kept the barrel of her weapon trained on the stranger.
    “Why don’t you lower your weapon so we can talk,” the man’s voice called out in the darkness. “We only want to talk to you.”
    Keryn only had a second to ponder his use of the word “we” before two more men materialized out of the shadows. Flashlights flared to life underneath their assault rifles, lights that shone into her eyes and blinded her to her surroundings. Squinting against the sudden light, Keryn begrudgingly lowered her own weapon, but kept it resting firmly at her side.
    “Alright,” she said angrily. “You have me at a disadvantage, so I guess we’ll talk. Just get those lights out of my face.”
    Through the bright light, Keryn could make out the silhouette nodding to the two hired guns on either side. On cue, both their flashlights went dark, leaving blue spots dancing in her vision. She blinked furiously to get rid of the blindness, but found the darkness within the store even darker after having been exposed to light. By the time she was able to see clearly again, the silhouetted man was standing at her side. He bent down near her hip and removed something from beneath the display table. Keryn heard a click and suddenly the entire back of the store was bathed in a soft yellow light. The man shifted the small lantern out of the way before standing again.
    Keryn stared at the Uligart who stood before her, the soft light reflecting off the sharp bones that protruded from his cheeks and solid jaw line. The designer clothes he wore layered about his body, and accentuated by a combat vest bustling with weapons, offset his razor sharp bone structure. The Uligart smiled disarmingly as he ran a hand over the short bone ridge at his hairline and through his well groomed dark hair.
    “Please,” he said, gesturing toward a chair that one of the other two bodyguards placed behind her. “Please sit.”
    She quickly examined the bodyguard as he placed the chair behind her and resumed a defensive posture around the Uligart. The bodyguard who had moved the chair was an Avalon, his dark clothes a stark contrast to his pale skin and wings. Though Avalons rarely wore much around their bodies since it limited their ability to fly, the bodyguard wore a combat vest bristling with grenades and extra ammunition for the modified assault rifle hanging across his chest. Keryn nodded appreciatively at the pistol grip, silencer, and recoil suppresser attached to the rifle, noting that all the modifications were military design and very expensive on the open market. Looking over the Uligart’s other shoulder, she observed the Terran bodyguard who stood on the other side, carrying much the same armament. Her nervousness fled her as she looked back into the disarming smile of the Uligart. Whoever these people were, they weren’t working with the Terran Empire.
    Sitting, Keryn took the chance to start the conversation. “You seem eager to talk to me, but haven’t bothered to introduce yourself.”
    The Uligart’s smile broadened, his blue eyes flashing mischievously as he sat in a chair across from her. “My name is Alcent, a simple merchant until I was taken as a prisoner by the Empire’s arrival on Othus.”
    “You are not a good liar,” Keryn stated, her eyebrows arching. The smile didn’t falter on Alcent’s face. “You see, your men are carrying military modified rifles, the asking price on the open market being well beyond anything a ‘simple’ merchant could manage.” She pointed toward the bodyguard over his left shoulder. “Your Avalon is carrying high explosive grenades strapped to his chest, grenades that even on the black market here in Miller’s Glen would be next to impossible to come by.” Her gesture carried past the bodyguard and fell back on Alcent. “But, most importantly, you hardly look like you’re a prisoner.”
    Alcent chuckled appreciatively, leaning forward in his chair. “If you keep my secret, I’ll keep yours.”
    Keryn mirrored his move and leaned forward in her own chair. “And what secret do I have?”
    “You know how to get out of this city,” he whispered into the space between them.
    Keryn leaned back, surprised. Her mind ran through the possibilities that she had been followed during her stealthy departure from the city. During that time, she had only moved from the house to the store, then to the sewer. The Terrans hadn’t seen her at all, so was it possible that someone else, someone like Alcent, had? As she pondered this question, another memory rose in her mind, a memory of retrieving her weapon from the store.
    “You were in the store when I came by yesterday,” she said, suddenly having a new appreciation for the Uligart.
    Alcent shrugged. “Guilty as charged. One of my men saw you moving through the city after curfew and we followed. You can imagine my surprise when I saw you enter this very store and retrieve a fairly impressive array of weapons. I would have introduced myself then, but you seemed a little on edge and I have a great adversity to being shot.”
    Keryn’s brow furrowed as she continued. “Exactly who are you people?”
    “We are the closest thing Miller’s Glen has to a resistance,” Alcent replied, quickly adding, “aside from yourself and anyone else you may have under your command.”
    “And the Terrans don’t know about you?” she asked, eager for more information about the Uligart’s group.
    “No, not yet. But they’re starting to grow suspicious. They’ve had a few equipment malfunctions that can’t simply be explained away by every day wear and tear. A few of their Soldiers have also gone missing, which I think they almost expected after their aggressive invasion. We’ve been content with a little sabotage now and again, but the Terran’s are growing suspicious. Our timetable is being moved up, and we’re caught without a plan.”
    “So you are approaching me now,” she surmised. “It can’t just be because I know how to get out of the city. Getting out of the city doesn’t mean a damn thing unless you have a way to survive out there. Otherwise, you’re just trading one death sentence for another.”
    “If it were simply getting out of the city,” Alcent replied, “then I would have just followed you the rest of the way yesterday and found the way out for myself.” He eyed her clothes and grime-covered skin. “Though I already have a pretty good idea of how you escaped.”
    His remarks drew some light guffaws from the bodyguards. “No, I’m interested in you because you move like a soldier. More importantly, you have the single-minded ambition to escape the city. So far, aside from my own organization, you’re the only other person I’ve seen with a deep-seeded desire to overthrow the Terrans here in Miller’s Glen. I can use your information about what’s going on outside the city, but I would prefer just to have you… you and whatever plan you may have already surmised for getting off this freezing rock.”
    “Flattered,” she replied coyly. She took a moment to think about his offer. “I have others in my group. Not many, but exceptionally well trained. If we join you, what guarantee do we have that this will be anything more than a suicide mission against a much better prepared opponent?”
    Alcent leaned forward again, blood flushing his face red. “I want my revenge! I lost a lot of good men during the invasion, people I cared a lot about. I won’t stop until I see every one of the Empirical filth sent straight to hell!” He closed his eyes, his breathing calming and the blood draining from his face. “If you can figure out a way off this planet and help me get the revenge we all so richly deserve, then I will provide you with enough men, weapons, and explosives to level this city a second time.”
    Keryn smiled and stood. She extended her hand. “Then it sounds like we’ve reached an accord.”
    Alcent rose from his chair and took her hand in his, careful not to harm her with the bony ridges along his knuckles. “I see the start of a beautiful relationship.”
    “If you think this is beautiful,” Keryn said, fidgeting with her crusted hair, “then you should see me when I’m clean.”
    “Then let’s see you clean,” Alcent replied. Looping his arm through hers, he led her toward the back of the building. The bodyguards, close behind, brought the lamp so they could see. Alcent took her through one of the doors labeled “Authorized Personnel Only” and into a back room, a room littered with fallen chairs and long forgotten personal effects. Pointing at a second door, Alcent continued. “You’ll find a bathroom with a shower back there. It’s one of the few that my men have managed to hardwire for use. The water still works and is hooked up to a hidden heater on the back of the building. Go enjoy your hot shower.”
    Keryn slipped into the back room and peeled away the filthy clothes, letting them drop to the ground. Naked, she stepped into the shower and turned the water knobs. Hot water cascaded from the showerhead, coating her body in warmth and steam as it washed away the waste that had covered her body in the sewer. She gasped in delight as chills of pleasure rolled through her body, the heat brushing away the cold that had infused her skin. She reveled in the feeling of the hot water as it coursed through her hair and traced the curves of her body, running over her breasts and following the lines of her stomach. Tension finally fled from her muscles along with the last of the dirt that had covered her skin. After spending only a few minutes enveloped in the steam and warmth, Keryn, with a hint of sadness, reached over and turned off the water.
    She realized awkwardly that she had no way to dry herself, nor did she have any clothes to replace her ruined outfit. A polite cough interrupted her thoughts. Slipping her head around the flimsy curtain, water still dripping from her silver hair, Keryn was not surprised to see Alcent standing only a few feet away, kindly holding a towel in her direction.
    “I have some clothes set aside for you as well,” Alcent explained as she took the towel and started drying. “They’re a bit sturdier than the ones you had been wearing and more fitting for the weather. If we’re going to be partners, I’ll need you to survive long enough to hold up your end of the bargain.”
    Keryn finished drying but stayed behind the curtain, sure that Alcent had not left the room. “If you would be so kind as to close the door as you leave, I’ll see if I like your taste in clothing.”
    She heard a bemused chuckle as the door to the bathroom closed softly. Stepping out of the shower, Keryn found the pile of clothes on the counter and quickly dressed. Alcent had included an insulated jacket as well as more practical clothing for the cold. Appreciative, she dressed quickly before stepping back into the break room, where Alcent and his bodyguards waited. He whistled in admiration. “You’re right, you are impressive when you’re clean.”
    Keryn picked up her Terran rifle as she walked past him and back into the department store. She looked at the ruined front window and paused before turning toward Alcent.
    “I’ll need you to hide this for me,” she said, holding up her rifle.
    He took the weapon politely and nodded. “It will be available whenever you need it. Just let me know if you do.”
    “Speaking of which,” she continued as they made their way toward the front of the store, “how am I supposed to get in touch with you?”
    “You won’t find us if you come looking, if that’s what you’re asking,” he explained. “You’d be surprised at how many people I know here in Miller’s Glen. If you need to get in touch with me, I’ll know almost before you do. But I’ll be in touch. Just don’t be alarmed when you’re approached by strangers.”
    Keryn stepped up into the display case, crouching next to the naked manikins. She turned as she worked on formulating a plan for their escape. “One more question before I leave. Did you disable the turret gun when I came back into the city?”
    Smiling modestly, Alcent nodded. “I have people that can sabotage most anything in the city.”
    “I’m probably going to need you to do that again,” she said finally, before turning and disappearing out the window.
    The rest of the walk back to House 12 went quicker than Keryn had remembered when she was leaving the city. Even while moving with caution, her step was lighter; she was elated to have found someone of a like mind. The Terran patrols were light and she only had to avoid one as she moved through the buildings. Finally reaching the house, she pulled free her lock picks and quietly opened the door. The room beyond was dark, with the labored breathing of dozens of bodies filling the space. Everyone was asleep from the hard labors in the fields and no one awoke as she crept silently across the room, stepping over sprawled figured. Reaching the far side of the room, she finally found Adam; his blond hair jutting from the blanket as he tried to stave off the creeping cold.
    Keryn stood, admiring his sleeping form, before she pulled off her jacket. Wordlessly, she removed her shirt, feeling the cold air rush across her exposed chest. Kicking off her boots, she unbuttoned her pants and let them fall discarded in the corner of the room. Her heart racing and her body shivering from the cold, she climbed, naked, under the covers.
    Adam awoke with a start, startled as someone crawled into bed with him. Keryn placed a hand on his face and smiled. His demeanor turned from surprise to relief at seeing her safe. He threw his arms around her and pulled her close, relieved that she was alive.
    “I was so worried you weren’t coming back,” Adam whispered. “We hadn’t heard anything since you…”
    He paused, suddenly aware as her firm breasts pressed up against his body. She slid a naked leg over his and ran her hand along his back. Adam looked at her bewildered, her face full of color and passion, even in the darkness of the room.
    “Keryn…” he began before she placed a finger on his lips, stopping him in mid sentence.
    “Now is not the time for words,” she whispered and leaned forward, moving her finger only to replace it with her lips.
    Keryn could feel the warmth of his mouth, the saltiness caressing her tongue as she bit, gently, on his bottom lip. His body responded to hers; his thick arms pulling her naked body closer to his as his fingers caressed the curve of her back, tracing the soft skin of her bottom and running along the length of the leg that pulled his hips into hers. She clawed at his shirt, pulling it erratically over his head and tossing it onto the pile of her own clothes even as her fingers fumbled to undo his pants. Their breath grew labored as their bodies pressed tighter together. Elated, Keryn knew she had finally found someone whose passion and energy matched her own.

    Keryn awoke peacefully the next morning, a small smile spreading across her lips from the memory of the night before. As she stared out the window, she appreciated the tangle of limbs as their bodies remained pressed together having fallen asleep in much the same way they had spent the night. Outside the small window, the world remained perpetually dark. Though the clock on the wall said it was early morning, it appeared as though it was the dead of night. A thin layer of frost had settled over the windows and she could see the fog of her escaping breath in front of her face. She snuggled in further against Adam’s arm and pressing her body against his, not eager to leave his warmth even though she knew she needed to get up.
    Grumbling, she gently removed Adam’s arm and slid out from under the blanket. The cold washed over her like a tidal wave; her naked body shivered uncontrollably as she pulled away from his warmth. Keryn paused to admire his muscular upper body before covering him again with the blanket. Reaching over, she pulled on the new pants, shirt and jacket that Alcent had provided before turning back toward their spot on the ground.
    She stopped just long enough to ensure Adam was still sleeping comfortably before walking down the hall and into the house’s kitchen. Pushing the button on the side of a pot sitting on the stove, she moved to the cabinet while the water began boiling. She pulled out a mug and a packet of instant hot drink mix. Breaking the vacuum seal, she poured the powder and boiling water into her mug, mixing the two into a hearty, if not poor tasting beverage. She clutched the mug tightly in her hands as she walked back to the common room, reveling in the warmth from the glass on her cold hands.
    Passing the bed, she heard Adam’s soft snores. She was glad to hear the sound, and she bent over and kissed him softly on the cheek. Once he awoke, she’d fix him a glass of something warm as well before they started the day of manual labor in the city ruins. For now, however, she let him sleep. Moving to the exit door of House 12, she opened the door she had never locked from the night before and stepped outside.
    Where the snow had fallen all night, any trace of her movements had been covered. The scanning spotlights sparkled off the fresh snow, refracting the light into a million shining crystals. To her eyes, Miller’s Glen appeared as a gem encrusted wonderland. Ice sparkled off the awning of their house even in the dark night and crunched underfoot as she stepped away from the door. She stood, her breath rolling past her face in large puffs, and admired the scenery and serenity while steam rose from her drink.
    “It’s a good day to start a revolution,” she whispered into the brisk morning air.

CHAPTER 20:

    Yen stood behind the one-way glass that separated the interrogation room from the viewing area. He had decided not to enter the room with Horace yet. Instead, he allowed the Security Officer to conduct his interrogation and, if need be, his torture without Yen’s interference. There was no doubt in Yen’s mind that Vangore would reveal just enough information to substantiate Yen’s allegation without going into great detail. Vangore would never reveal the specific details of his crime, no matter how intricate and painful Horace’s interrogation. Those memories just didn’t exist; Yen simply hadn’t implanted those memories into Vangore’s subconscious.
    Closing his eyes, Yen searched his own feelings but wasn’t surprised that he didn’t find any remorse or guilt hidden within his heart. He had never held a grudge against Vangore and had, in fact, worked well with the Communications Officer while serving on the bridge. But Yen knew that his sense of self-preservation was significantly stronger than any weak emotional bonds he might have built with the Wyndgaart. Therefore, it was with a clear conscience that Yen watched the Oterian shake the dazed Vangore back to consciousness. The microphones hidden throughout the interrogation room piped Horace’s voice into the chamber where Yen watched.
    “Wake up, traitor,” Horace barked harshly, striking Vangore roughly on the shoulder. Yen knew that the strike was a wasted effort, since the neural stimulator had disrupted Vangore’s sense of feeling, a sense that was only just now returning. Though the Wyndgaart would be in pain later, any punishment he received now would do little toward making him reveal information.
    Vangore’s head rolled from side to side as he slowly awoke. His dazed expression quickly turned to a grimace of pain as feeling rapidly returned to numb limbs, leaving their muscles feeling as though needles were being driven through to the bone. Vangore squirmed against the restraints, trying to relieve the discomfort. Leaning heavily on the table, his dark fur bristling with impatience, Horace watched and waited for Vangore to settle before beginning his interrogation.
    Though the prisoner was still in pain, Horace’s impatience reached its end and he cuffed Vangore against the side of the head, ensuring the Wyndgaart’s full attention was on the Oterian.
    “I want to make something completely clear, Vangore,” Horace began, his voice a low rumble through the electronic speakers near Yen. “The Fleet has no place for murderers. As far as I’m concerned, you’re as guilty as sin. I’d sooner jettison you through an airlock than waste the time I’ll needed to get a confession. But, you see, the problem is that I can’t execute you until I receive a confession.” Horace leaned forward until his warm breath blew across Vangore’s face. “And I will get a confession and you will be sent out of an airlock, even if there are only a few parts of you left to eject into space.”
    Vangore mumbled something as he struggled to keep his head upright. Yen strained to hear what he said, but the microphones weren’t able to pick up his reply. Horace’s response, however, was clearly transferred into the viewing room.
    “I don’t believe you, Vangore,” the Oterian growled. “I’ll tell you why I don’t believe you. There isn’t a single person in jail right now who rightly says they committed a crime. What makes me think a slime like you, who killed a superior officer in a time of war, would admit to being guilty?”
    “I didn’t do it!” Vangore cried through numb lips, sending spittle flying into Horace’s face. The Oterian lashed out, sending both Vangore and the chair to which he was secured tumbling to the floor. Horace wiped the spit from his face and looked down at the moaning Wyndgaart.
    “You did it,” rumbled Horace, “and I will have all the proof I need by the time we’re done.”
    Signaling toward the door to the interrogation room, Horace grabbed the chair and set Vangore upright. The door swung open, allowing a pair of security guards to enter, carrying a small but heavy case between them. Setting the case on the table, the left as wordlessly as they had entered, closing the door behind them. Though Yen felt little sympathy for Vangore, he still inadvertently cringed at the sight of the black box. He had never been on the receiving end of a professional interrogator like Horace, but he knew the hell that was concealed within the slick black polymer case.
    Though Horace leaned close to Vangore before speaking, the prisoner’s wide eyes never acknowledged the Oterian. Vangore’s eyes never left the black box; his expression clearly displayed the fear that coursed through his body.
    “I don’t have to open that case,” Horace whispered. “You can save yourself all the pain and agony of me forcing a confession from you if you just tell me what you did.”
    Vangore shook his head, a reaction mirrored by Yen. Though Vangore shook his head in fear, Yen shook his head because he knew Horace had been wrong. The Oterian had promised that he didn’t have to open the box, but Yen knew otherwise. His psychic suggestion would only be released once Vangore had been exposed to extreme pain. The Wyndgaart wouldn’t even know he had committed a crime until he had been severely tortured, possibly for days. The box would open, regardless of what Vangore said now.
    There had been a time, before the First Great War, when interrogations would go on for months without a prisoner ever admitting his or her guilt. Interrogators had shown a compassion for the well being of the individual being questioned, relying on mental games and deprivation techniques to get answers. Those techniques had been ill conceived and ineffective, often resulting in months of wasted time with no confession and with accused criminals going free based on a lack of evidence. Once the Alliance had been formed, the other species had learned invaluable interrogation practices from the brutal Lithids, who left no leeway in their legal system. To a Lithid, an accusation of a crime was a sign that someone had committed a crime and that it was only a matter of time before they confessed. To that end, the Lithids had shared their techniques with the other races. Sitting within the black box was the culmination of the Lithids’ interrogation programs: the Crown. In his many years of being in the Fleet, Yen had never known someone to last for more than a few days against its agony. If the Crown did not result in a confession, it more often than not resulted in the death of the prisoner.
    Sighing heavily, Horace leaned back against the heavy metal chair. His fingers drummed on the heavy black box. Reaching over, he unclasped the lock on the front before turning back to Vangore.
    “It doesn’t have to be like this, Vangore,” Horace said, the gruff demeanor dropped, as even he seemed hesitant to open the Crown.
    “I didn’t do it,” Vangore whimpered, the numbness finally fleeing from his body.
    “A shame,” the Security Officer muttered as he opened the black case, its hinges creaking as he revealed the contraption within.
    The Crown sat like a metallic halo, a single thick metal band was held together by a leather harness made to fit over the head of all species in the known universe. The shiny metal halo stood as a stark contrast to the archaic series of wires, dials, and electrodes that protruded from its perimeter. More intimidating than the gauges, however, was the set of razor sharp drill bits that faced the interior of the halo, metal drill bits permanently stained dark by the Crown’s use on previous prisoners.
    Horace ignored the Crown and, instead, pulled out an auto-injector full of a viscous yellow fluid. The Oterian tapped the side of the vial within the injector, watching the bubbles rise slowly through the thick serum. Without warning, Horace’s arm shot out, driving the tip of the auto-injector into Vangore’s shoulder. The yellow serum pumped into Vangore’s blood stream before he was able to pull away from the sudden assault.
    Immediately, Vangore’s body convulsed against the metal chair. Rigidity spread across the Wyndgaart’s shoulder, radiating from the injection site. Muscles usually flexible from hand to hand combat grew as stiff as stone as the fluid spread through his body. Vangore’s left arm grew completely stiff, convulsing, as the muscles grew tight, pulling his arm backward in an awkward angle. He stifled a scream as the serum spread, tightening across his chest and into the side of his neck. Unable to move his neck, Vangore watched straight ahead, though his eyes darted nervously as the side of his face grew tight, his facial features growing taunt and pulling his upper lip into a twisted and sadistic smile. Moments later, the serum worked completely through his system, leaving the former Communications Officer sitting statuesque in the uncomfortable metal chair.
    “The unpleasantness that you’re experiencing right now,” Horace explained, “is a paralytic enzyme harvested from a rather unusual swamp creature on a planet that has yet to receive more than a designation number: PR-3409. The enzyme courses through your blood stream almost instantaneously after injection, spreading its toxin to all parts of your musculature system. The result, as you are now well aware, is complete paralysis without any of the sedation usually associated with being paralyzed. The effects are quite permanent, until I give you a relieving dose of the antidote. The problem is that I won’t give you the antidote until I’m sure you are ready to cooperate. And I’m a firm believer that it will be hours, if not days, before you are ready to give a full confession.”
    Horace paused, watching as tears streamed from Vangore’s eyes and sweat beaded on the Wyndgaart’s tanned forehead. Clicking his tongue, the massive Oterian shook his head.
    “You see, Vangore, you’re afraid because you feel helpless right now. More importantly, you have heard so many terrible things about the Crown that you are petrified about what it will do to you.”
    Pulling the Crown from the black box, Vangore’s eyes followed Horace’s movements as he affixed the contraption on the top of the Wyndgaart’s head. The Security Officer adjusted the drill bits until their tips rested solidly against Vangore’s scalp, drawing small beads of blood just from their contact.
    “The real problem, however, is that the things you’ve heard don’t begin to do justice to the true amount of pain you will encounter under the influence of the Crown.”
    Pressing a button on the side of the Crown, the drill bits tore through the soft flesh and hard skull alike as they pierced the tender brain beneath. Vangore’s back arched, a scream erupting from between his clenched teeth. Yen watched in a mixture of horror and awe, amazed that so powerful a scream could be generated past the paralyzed muscles of both the neck and jaw. He waited for the screaming to stop, but it never did. Vangore paused only long enough to breath again before his scream shook the small room once again.
    Through the incredible screaming, Horace’s rumbling voice called out clearly. “The Crown is currently injecting a cocktail of medicine directly into your brain. The first, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, is keeping you from passing out from the pain. An interrogation would be ineffective if you went unconscious every time I put the screws to you… no pun intended. The second is a serum that destroys any mental barrier you may have put in place to resist my line of questions. There is a debate about whether the metaphorical destruction of mental barriers is directly correlated to a very real destruction of brain tissue. But to be perfectly honest, I don’t think you’re going to much care one way or another when all this is done.”
    Horace leaned back, reveling in the screams, and propped his feet up on top of the sterile metal table in the middle of the room. “Believe me, Vangore. I know you’re far from admitting your guilt right now. I just want you to know that I will stay here as long as it takes until you’ve admitted your guilt.”
    Yen watched through the one-way glass window as the screams continued hour after hour. Occasionally, Horace stood and adjusted the fluid flow coursing into Vangore’s brain or wiped away the frothing spittle that spilled from the Wyndgaart’s mouth. For the most part, however, the Oterian sat back and watched for an indication that Vangore was ready to admit guilt. Yen couldn’t even fathom what more the prisoner could do to signal that he was ready to speak. As far as he could tell, Vangore did little other than scream his muffled scream through locked jaws.
    Veins bulged against Vangore’s neck and pulsed in his temple as he continued to strain against the paralytic enzyme within his system. Yen knew that the subliminal trigger he had placed within Vangore’s mind had activated hours before, when the pain threshold was surpassed. Were he given the chance to talk, he would readily admit to killing anyone in known space. But Horace had never given him the chance to talk, instead keeping the Crown working at full power. Yen empathized with his scapegoat, having known the feeling of having his brain alight with fire. However, he had trouble sympathizing with Vangore, knowing that his guilt would keep Yen from future accusations. Still, Yen reached up and wiped away the sweat that beaded on his own brow, the continued screams having made Yen feel a little queasy.
    After nearly four hours of torture, Horace arbitrarily reached up and turned off the Crown. Though still paralyzed, Vangore visible collapsed against the metal chair, moaning as much as his stiff body would allow. The blood from the four holes in his scalp mingled with his tears as they coursed down his face. Ignoring the sobs that erupted from Vangore, Horace pulled a second vial from the black case and loaded it into the auto-injector. Sliding the needle into the prisoner’s arm once more, the purple fluid bubbled as it pumped into his system. Muscles that had been held taunt for four hours relaxed instantaneously. Vangore’s face melted as though he had suffered a stroke. Had he not been affixed to the chair, he would have fallen limply to the floor. Instead, his head lolled from side to side, allowing blood red droplets to pool and fall forgotten from the tip of his nose.
    Horace leaned forward, whispering just loud enough for the microphones to pick up his words. “Now, Vangore, is there something you want to tell me?”
    Yen strained to hear the reply in the other room, eager to put this behind him and allow the Revolution to continue its mission. Vangore strained to pull his head up, his dark hair cascading over eyes that struggled to focus on the brutish, shaggy Oterian who sat before him. Slurping back the drool that ran from his limp lips, Vangore tried to form the words. A soft mumble rolled from his dry throat.
    “I’m sorry, Vangore,” Horace said, shaking his head, “but we just didn’t hear that.”
    Coughing, exhaling a fine mist of blood, Vangore tried again. This time, Yen heard his reply softly through the speakers in the observation room.
    “I did it,” Vangore muttered. “I killed Merric.”
    “I’m glad to hear that,” Horace said condescendingly. “I truly am.”
    Horace stood, turning to look at his own reflection in the one-way glass behind which Yen stood. Though he fidgeted as though examining himself in the mirror, Yen caught the look in his eyes. Horace was not yet done with Vangore. Turning back to the prisoner, Horace proceeded to crush any hope Vangore had of being free from the hell of the Crown.
    “I am glad to hear that you confessed to the crime,” Horace explained, “but I am having trouble believing that you planned so complex a murder by yourself. How did you move his body through the ship without anyone noticing? How did you dispose of the body in the engine room, a place that is never empty, without someone noticing the warning claxons that would have sounded when the active exhaust vent was opened?” Horace paced around the metal table. “No, I don’t think you’re smart enough to plan this yourself. You had an accomplice, and we’re going to stay here until you’re ready to give me every one of their names.”
    Yen’s groan of disappointment was only slightly softer than that of Vangore.

CHAPTER 21:

    Time had passed quickly for the trio, with no word from Alcent. Keryn spent the day after her return from outside Miller’s Glen telling her story to the other two, ending with the dramatic entrance of the Uligart. The others seemed to share her infectious optimism, but clearly felt the loss of both Cerise and McLaughlin. With their numbers dwindled even further and without the ship, they now relied entirely on Alcent.
    Though their situation had barely improved from before her escape from the city, Keryn found her spirits lifted and her focus fell more often toward thoughts of Adam and her making love throughout their night together. She longed for another night like the one they had shared, but time and mission no longer permitted. Instead, Keryn spent most of her time focusing on creating a plan for escape, content with the longing looks they shared as they worked.
    “I really think this has a chance of succeeding,” Keryn remarked one dark morning as the trio shuffled in their work group toward the ruins. She had explained the outlines of her plan to them the night before. “I think this could actually work with Alcent’s help.”
    The other two, Adam in particular, seemed more skeptical about the situation. “Even if he’s legitimate,” Adam replied, “our plan counts as little more than a rough outline right now. He may have the biggest arsenal on the planet’s surface, but until we get a plan that we are sure will work, we still don’t stand a chance against the Terrans. Putting firepower in the hands of a disorganized and leaderless mob is nothing but chaos.”
    “I don’t know Alcent,” Penchant added, supportive of Keryn’s plan, “but he seems capable since he already has his own following. But is he prepared to lead a full revolt against the Terrans? This plan will not only need a strong leader, but one that is willing to accept the catastrophic losses of soldiers that it will entail. I don’t know if this Alcent character is going to be that leader.”
    “Then I’ll be that leader,” Keryn said with intensity. “We’ve already lost so much; many of the survivors care little about their own survival. But I’ll make a fighting force out of them by offering the one thing they’ve been missing since the Terran’s arrived: hope. I’ll give them a way off the rock. I’ll give them the revenge they all so desperately want. But, most importantly, they’ll have a leader who is as intelligent and beautiful as she is deadly.” She turned toward the other two, an uncharacteristic smile spread across her lips. Behind her eyes, the Voice cheered with silent enthusiasm. “Now, let’s refine this plan until it’s absolutely infallible.”
    Over the rest of the day, in between moving rocks and removing now badly decomposing bodies, Keryn sketched out her plan for escape. Smiles broke across the faces of the other two, only to quickly disappear as the Terran guards passed by. They listened intently as she explained the specifics of her plan in graphic detail, tracing each person’s responsibilities. The others added their input, pointing out weaknesses on the flanks of the proposed squadrons and their individual movement, making recommendations about key points of interest which they needed to attack sooner during the plan. By the end of the day, all three were content that their plan could be a complete success; they had created a plan that would get them off the planet and strike against the Terrans with such surprise and force that they would never have a chance to mount a defense of their own.
    It is a good plan, the Voice said as they gathered to leave their work area. We will succeed, assuming Alcent can live up to his end of the bargain.
    On the fourth day, as they worked again in the fields, they were approached by an Oterian as they sat on the ground, enjoying one of the few breaks they received throughout the day.
    “Got anything to eat?” the Oterian asked, his head held low and his voice barely discernable as he mumbled under his breath.
    “Sorry,” Penchant answered, turning his featureless black face toward the newcomer, “but we’re fresh out. You’re welcome to pull up a piece of ground, though.” The Lithid’s attitude had changed greatly since their arrival on the planet. His coarse and often harsh responses to people had been tempered on the frigid planet. As he moved through the rubble fields, he openly sought camaraderie with his fellow survivors, often getting rebuked by the overly downtrodden, but making friends as well.
    “No,” the Oterian said, shaking his head, “I’ve got to keep moving on.” He raised his head and Keryn noticed strength behind his eyes that belied his defeatist demeanor. “But Alcent is ready to see you all. Tonight, after curfew, meet him at the store.” A smile crept across the Oterian’s lips. “He wanted me to let you know that if you have lived up to your end of the bargain, he’s more than prepared to live up to his.”
    The blank and exhausted look returning to his face, the Oterian turned and shuffled away, asking the next few collections of survivors if they had any food to spare. Keryn looked at the other two, her heart beating heavily in her chest. If Alcent was able to do all he had promised, then their plan was guaranteed to be a success. By the end of the week, they’d all be free of Othus.

    That night, Adam and Keryn struck out from House 12, leaving Penchant behind. The bracelet that was firmly attached to his wrist was a tracking mechanism. They couldn’t risk exposing their operation before the plan could even begin, knowing that the Terrans could monitor all Lithid movements within the city from their Fleet destroyer orbiting the planet. The bracelet also housed a significant amount of explosives, explosives that could be remotely detonated from anywhere within the city. Begrudgingly, Penchant had agreed to stay in the house while the other two made the meeting.
    For Keryn, the careful walk to the abandoned department store was a more confident affair this time around. Aside from having done this previously, she now had the comfort of having Adam’s protection as they bisected the residential area and moved into the commercial district of town. With an odd sense of deja vu, Keryn glanced around in the darkness before slipping through the broken glass, followed quickly by Adam’s hulking form.
    The darkness was as oppressive as Keryn remembered within the store. She stood near the naked racks that once held clothing as her eyes adjusted to the dark. The wait was in vain, however, as she heard the familiar voice in the back of the store.
    “Allow me,” Alcent’s voice came from the back, near the break room door. The back of the room was quickly bathed in a soft light as the Uligart, holding the lantern high, appeared from the gloom. Behind him, the two heavily armed bodyguards stood their stoic watch. Adam tensed as he saw the military assault rifles, but Keryn placed a calming hand over his.
    “I was starting to think you wouldn’t call,” she said jokingly, diffusing the tension in the air. “You had me worried.”
    Alcent chuckled to himself, lowering the light until it rested back on the floor. “I wanted to make sure you had time to fulfill your end of our arrangement before calling on you. You have had time to formulate a plan, I hope.” His eyebrows arched as he inquired.
    “Don’t you worry about that,” Adam said defensively. “The question is, can you live up to your end. Do you have the men and weapons to pull this off?”
    Alcent tilted his head to the side, looking condescendingly toward Adam. “Who is this man?” he asked, addressing Keryn. “He speaks to me so informally, having never met me.”
    “His name is Decker,” she replied, already concerned that this conversation was getting off track by overdoses of testosterone. “Adam Decker, but we all just call him Adam. The Lithid with whom I’m sure you’ve been told is part of our group is named Penchant, though he, for obvious reasons, could not join us tonight.”
    Alcent regained his composure, his face once again a mask of civility. “It’s a pleasure to meet you Adam, and I look forward to making the acquaintance of Penchant in the near future as well.” Alcent pulled a chair from behind the nearby table and sat, gesturing for Keryn to do the same. The Avalon bodyguard once again pulled a chair out for her before stepping back to his employer’s side. “Now let’s get down to business. I’ve given you a full three days to relay my request to your fellow patriots and to take the time to formulate a plan that will, beyond a reasonable doubt, succeed on getting rid of the Terran threat. How have you managed?”
    Keryn smiled confidently. “We,” she emphasized the plural words, “have created a plan that you can be proud of.”
    “Show me,” Alcent demanded.
    Keryn pulled the tattered map of the city from beneath her jacket and smoothed its wrinkled edges on the display table between them. The highlights of the Terran occupancy were clearly marked on the hand-drawn map. Adam leaned heavily on the back of her chair as he watched her explain.
    “The warehouses storing the small Terran ships that landed on the planet are located here,” she pointed at a set of boxes drawn on the map around the southern edge of the crater. “I’m sure you’re familiar with the tall warehouses with retractable rooftops that the Terrans installed after their arrival. I mean, they are hard to miss seeing as how their bombs leveled everything else in that part of town. Each building stores either a single soldier transport vessel or a pair of quick Terran fighters. The problem is that the Terran barracks,” she pointed at another set of square representations on the map just north of the crater, “are in dangerous proximity to the hangars. We would no sooner attack the hangars then we’d be overrun with Terran assault teams. And let’s not forget that the only person with the access codes to the hangars is the Terran Commander.”
    “Lucience,” Alcent added. “The Commander’s name is Lucience. But you’re only telling me things that I already know. You’ll have to do a lot better if you expect my services.”
    “I’m just laying the groundwork,” Keryn explained. “Until we are sure that we know all the facts, we can’t start making assumptions. Now I do happen to know one fact that you may not be aware of. I know where Lucience has been living during his time on Othus, and it isn’t in the command barracks near the crater.”
    Alcent leaned forward, intrigued. “So where can we find Commander Lucience?”
    Keryn pointed to the map. Her finger rested on a small box drawn near the edge of the ruined business district. “He’s been staying here, in a building that was made specifically to withstand great amounts of destruction both from within and without. Trust us, we know,” she said, her eyes sparkling.
    “And what is this building?” Alcent asked his voice little more than a whisper.
    “It used to be a bar,” Adam’s gruff voice added. “A bar called the Black Void.”
    Alcent leaned back in his chair, impressed. “Please, do go on. I’d love to hear the rest of your plan.”
    Over the next hour, Keryn and Adam took turns explaining in great detail their plan for escaping Miller’s Glen and defeating the Terran loyalists. Alcent listened intently, occasionally adding input when prompted, but mostly toying with the razor sharp bony protrusions across his jaw line. The map quickly became a jumble of arrows and circles, indicating unit movements and ambush locations. As the explanation came to a close, Alcent laughed heartily and clapped his hands.
    “I love it,” he exclaimed. “I can see the look on their faces now. How I wish I could see Lucience’s face when his personal empire within Miller’s Glen comes crashing down around him!”
    Keryn was glad to see her own excited smile reflected not only on Alcent’s face, but on both the bodyguards as well. She felt Adam place a reassuring hand on her back.
    Her smile quickly dropped as the one hitch appeared in their plan. “There is still one problem, though,” she admitted.
    “What did we miss?” Alcent asked.
    “I can get us to the ships and I can get us off the planet. Being in a Terran ship may even fool everyone for a little while. But it doesn’t change the fact that there is a Terran Destroyer in orbit. The second it figures out our ruse, we’ll be obliterated.”
    “That is where I come in,” Alcent answered, gesturing to the Terran bodyguard behind him. “You see, Siros has been working as a spy for us for the past couple weeks. The interesting thing about the Terran uniforms is that they are incredibly protective against the cold, but they do so by covering every inch of exposed skin. Put any Terran, Pilgrim or Empirical, in the suit, and there’s no way to tell the difference.”
    Adam leaned over Keryn’s shoulder. “And what has your man learned?”
    “Apparently, it takes a large number of soldiers to occupy an entire planet. Enough that you have to leave a Destroyer — the Ballistae, I believe they call it — with little to no crew on board.”
    “They’re running on a skeleton crew?” Adam asked excitedly.
    “They’re barely running the ship at all,” Alcent replied. “It’s in space as a deterrent. If we can not only get the codes for the hangars but also get the codes to dock with the Destroyer, I can get us an even better ship for interstellar transport; a ship that carries quite a more effective arsenal than a personnel carrier or fighter.”
    Keryn’s eyes grew distant as she imagined commanding her own Destroyer. Captain Keryn of the DestroyerBallistae, the Voice added. It’s a good title and does have a nice ring to it.
    “Then it looks like we have all the answers. Does this mean we have a deal?” she asked.
    “Oh, we most certainly have a deal,” he replied excitedly. He coughed and cleared his throat, slicking his dark hair back and reasserting his composed demeanor. “If you both will follow us, we’ll show you our capabilities.”
    Keryn and Adam followed the Alcent as the slipped back out the front window. The two bodyguards, their eyes scanning as they moved, covered the rear of their formation. Alcent cut across the commercial district, weaving through tight alleyways and disappearing into alcoves that seemed to go nowhere, but always dumped the group onto yet another back street. Even in the bewildering snow-covered streets, Alcent moved with a clear purpose through the city. The party moved out of the commercial district and entered an area comprised mostly of squat, one-story stone structures. These structures, which had once been home to the up and coming merchants of Miller’s Glen, were long since deserted. The Terrans had little interest in these buildings and the survivors, herded as they were like cattle from the fields to their sleeping areas and back again, were forbidden from entering this part of town. Once the Terrans had swept this area clean following the invasion, they had little reason to return aside from the sparse patrols.
    Alcent led the group through the haphazard buildings. The roads leading through these stone homes and shops wound chaotically through the city, remaining on a straight path for no more than a few hundred feet before twisting away at right angles. The group approached a non-descript gray building. They walked up to the dull metal door and Alcent leaned forward, knocking out a quick code. His knuckles reverberated on the metal, the echo carrying clearly in the crisp night air. With a groan, the metal door swung inward and the group entered.
    Keryn heard the Voice let out a cry of joy as her own mouth opened in surprise. Within the non-descript gray building, dozens of workers moved between stacks of wooden crates. They stopped intermittently, lifting assault rifles from boxes to check operability or placing grenades in pouches attached to combat vests. Other workers folded Terran uniforms; the black suits and fitted helmets with faceplates strikingly offset by the blue and yellow tiger stripes signifying unit designation. The bustle of activity implied an army marching to war. Which is true, the Voice said in awe, only the Terrans have no idea that it’s happening right underneath their noses.
    “What was it you said you did before the invasion?” Adam asked, his voice sounding breathless as he watched a darkly dressed Uligart lift a rocket launcher from one of the crates.
    “Simple merchant,” Alcent replied with a grin. He turned toward them before continuing. “You lived up to your end of the bargain, now let me live up to my end. These men are now your men. These weapons are now your weapons. How long will it take before you’re ready to strike?”
    “Two days, tops,” Keryn replied, her childish glee barely concealed. “That’ll give us enough time to organize the men into assault groups and brief them on their responsibilities. Then, we’ll strike.”
    “Then I’ll let the men know. Day after tomorrow, we send the Terran’s back to hell,” Alcent said, his own animosity toward the Terrans no longer disguised. “I look forward to it.”
    “Two days,” Adam whispered behind her. “With your plan and his firepower, the Terrans don’t actually stand a chance.”
    Two days, the Voice bemused. I can’t wait!

CHAPTER 22:

    The door to the observation room opened and Horace’s bulking shape slipped through the doorway. Taking his place next to Yen, they both stared through the one-way glass at the dejected and sobbing form of Vangore, whose body shook with pain against the metal chair.
    “Do you truly believe there was more than one person involved?” Yen asked without taking his eyes from Vangore.
    Horace shrugged. “Does it matter? The questions I asked him are real concerns and, as of right now, he doesn’t have the answers for me. Either way, he’s an admitted murderer and will be executed.”
    “But you are still concerned about how he transported the body?”
    “Of course,” Horace replied. “I’m the Security Officer and, somehow, Vangore moved a body of a senior officer through the halls without anyone noticing. You can’t tell me that you aren’t intrigued as to how he pulled that off.”
    Yen nodded. “Granted. I really would like to hear his answer to those questions. I just…” Yen paused, leaving his sentence unfinished.
    Turning, Horace looked down on the smaller Yen. “You just?” he asked.
    “I just wonder if the Crown is really the best way to go,” Yen said. He gestured toward Vangore, who rolled his head limply from side to side. “In four hours, you got the confession you wanted, but at what price to his mind? Can he survive another four hours of the Crown without his mind melting?”
    Turning back toward the prisoner, Horace grunted to himself. He knew that there was at least some truth to what Yen was saying. Lithid research had proven that there were certain parts of the brain that worked as inhibitors, physical membranes that worked as mental blocks, compartmentalizing thoughts into “secrets”. The chemicals used by the Crown deteriorated these membranes until prisoners were willing to answer honestly any question posed by the interrogator. Should the prisoner be exposed to lengthy sessions under the influence of the Crown, however, the chemicals began acting as bile, seeping into the abdominal cavity. Like an acid, the chemicals spread, destroying parts of the brain controlling motor functions, speech patterns, and memories. Leave a prisoner under the influence of the Crown for long enough and they were left in a completely vegetative state.
    “And if we don’t use the Crown,” Horace asked, “how do you propose to get the answers we need?”
    Yen turned to the Oterian, matching his stern gaze. “Let me talk to him. It’s been a long time since anyone has used the psychological methods of interrogation, but I believe he is worn down enough from the Crown that he would be responsive to a more sympathetic face. I can get the answers from him without wasting any more of our time.”
    Horace frowned and crossed his massive arms across his chest. He was clearly not receptive to the more primitive form of interrogation.
    “Let me try,” Yen said. “The worst that can happen is I don’t get an answer and you reapply the Crown.” Reaching out, Yen patted the enormous Oterian arm. “Take an hour’s break; get something to eat and drink. Most importantly, let the Captain know that her former Communications Officer is guilty; she’ll be eager for that information. By the time you get done, we’ll know whether or not my technique was effective.”
    “Maybe I could use a break,” Horace replied. As he pulled away from Yen’s hand, Yen retracted the blue energy that had pierced the Security Officer’s arm. “I’ll be back in an hour,” he said as he walked out the door.
    “More than enough time,” Yen called to him as the psychic walked into the hallway and stopped in front of the interrogation room door. Waiting until the Oterian was around the corner, Yen entered the sterile, metal room. He closed the door behind him, leaning heavily on the thick door. Vangore didn’t raise his head as Yen entered, instead continuing to cry softly, his tears rolling down onto his chest.
    “Hello, Vangore,” Yen said, reaching up and throwing a switch on the room’s video camera. The camera stopped recording as Yen moved toward the table and pulled out the metal chair across from Vangore.
    “Please,” Vangore mumbled through hitched sobs. “Please, no more.”
    “I wish it were that simple,” Yen replied. “I really do.”
    Yen paused as the air around him began to waver. The hairs on Vangore’s neck stood on end, as the room built an electrical charge. Blue sparks arced between the table legs, reaching out probingly toward the metal cuffs on Vangore’s wrist. As the charge built, small puffs of smoke rose throughout the room. The more apparent microphones as well as the concealed recording devices simultaneously shorted out, casting the room into digital silence. There was nothing left to record the next conversation between Yen and the prisoner.
    “I wish I could leave you be,” Yen continued. “You’ve certainly suffered enough. But the guilty story I gave you last time has too many holes in it to be plausible.”
    Blue tendrils began to spread from Yen’s body, wrapping themselves around the chair, the table legs, and reaching toward Vangore. The blue psychic energy continued to spread until the wavering tendrils had filled the room, their tips hovering precariously around Vangore’s head and torso.
    “I can’t be implicated, you have to understand. I’m too important to the success of the Alliance to get in trouble over something as simple as murder.” Yen leaned closer, though he knew no one was listening to their conversation. “Horace wants a conspiracy, and I have every intention of giving him one. And he is going to be stunned when this one is revealed!”
    “I can’t,” Vangore begged, his chocked words thick with emotion. “Please, I can’t take any more.”
    “It’s much too late for that now,” Yen replied as the tendrils crashed down on Vangore, slipping seamlessly through his scalp and skull; they reached out like hungry leeches, yearning to feed on the memories and emotions stored within Vangore’s mind.
    Yen closed his eyes, letting his mind pass through the tendrils. Within his mind’s eye, Yen saw Vangore’s thoughts played out before him. With surgical precision, Yen began trimming away the memories he wished to modify, letting them fall forgotten into Vangore’s void of subconscious. In their place, he began creating fragments of memory: first a face, then a background, then dialogue. Piecing the fragments together like a puzzle, they began to take form. First one scene, then another, the entire time building an intricate conspiracy that would implicate numerous other Officers and Crewmen on board the Revolution. Like a movie, Yen told a story, one with an innocuous enough beginning, but one which snowballed wildly out of control until Vangore became wrapped up in a creation of his own making that he was no longer able to control. Yen was proud of his work, surprising himself with its complexities and far reaching implications should this story ever be told. His work, however, was far from done.
    Next, Yen changed his tendrils from scalpels to the hands of laborers. Around the filmstrip of memories, Yen crafted an intricate puzzle box, the entrance to which was unknown even to Vangore. Layer after layer of walls were built, hiding and obscuring the implanted memories. Yen knew that the chemicals of the Crown would slowly chip away at the box, making all the complexities of its lock unnecessary. But the puzzle box would serve its purpose, resulting in days if not weeks of hard interrogation on Horace’s part before any “evidence” would begin to reveal itself to Vangore’s shattered mind.
    As he began to remove the tendrils, one at a time, Yen was confident that Vangore now remembered nothing beyond the story he had now been told. Though his true memories were buried deep within his own mind, the psychic blades had left them so fractured that they would slip through his mind like sand; images would arise that were unattached to any context that would help him remember. Strange senses of deja vu would permeate Vangore’s mind, always with the real memory just out of reach. Yes, Yen was proud of his work.
    Smiling as the last of the tendrils retracted into his body, Yen leaned back in the chair and Vangore slumped against his restraints. He watched as the prisoner slipped into unconsciousness, the psychic tendrils doing what the chemicals wouldn’t allow. It was a small consolation on Yen’s part; a minor gift after such a brutal intrusion.
    “Good talk,” Yen said as he stood, walking toward the door to the interrogation room. He paused long enough to turn the camera back on, though he knew there was no hope in repairing the microphones.
    Exiting the room, Yen saw Horace lumber down the hall. He raised his hand in a half-hearted salute.
    “Did you get anything?” Horace asked as he neared.
    “No, he didn’t talk at all.”
    “Did you really expect any results from your touchy-feely approach to interrogation?” Horace asked, mockingly.
    Yen frowned. “You’d be surprised how powerful the mind can be. Being able to shape it to your will is an art form that everyone would do well to learn.”
    Horace glowered at the psychic as Yen walked by, turning the corner at the far end, no longer interested in any results from impending interrogation. Though Horace had no proof, he couldn’t help but feel that there was some devious message hidden behind Yen’s last comment.

CHAPTER 23:

    Their preparations passed in a blur and, by the time all was said and done, Keryn and Adam were thoroughly exhausted. During the day, the were forced to keep up the pretense of slaving in the fields, though they were approached more and more often by strangers, probing them for answers about the upcoming revolt. At night, they snuck out of House 12 and gathered with the rest of their forces in the squat stone building which warehoused their munitions. With nearly four dozen heavily armed Terrans, Uligarts, Oterians, Wyndgaarts, Avalons, and other assorted races sitting and leaning on crates, Keryn split their forces into three main groups: the assault team, the ambush team, and the saboteurs, each with clearly defined roles in the upcoming battle. She pulled out the same tattered map that had served them well since the invasion and explained at great length their strategy. They spent hours each night discussing the plan and tactics, getting little sleep before having to return to the fields to work the next day. Though many of the revolutionaries, as they came to think of themselves, were not soldiers originally, they complained little and spent significant amounts of time conducting marksmanship training with the weapons in the soundproofed building. On the second night, when Keryn and Alcent were confident that their forces were ready, she broached a difficult subject that had, thus far, been avoided.
    “What are we going to do about the Lithids?” she asked as the rest of the revolutionaries split into their groups to discuss individual responsibilities.
    “What choices do we really have?” Alcent replied. “They’re tracked everywhere they go. I never thought I’d say this, but right now the Lithids are more of a liability than a help.”
    Keryn lowered her voice to a soft hush. “Is there no way to remove the bracelets? You all can reprogram computer operated turret guns, but you can’t take off a band of explosives from their wrists?”
    Alcent flushed, clearly irritated with his own answer. “No, we cannot. Believe me, we tried, but with terrible results. The bracelets are coded to each individual Lithid’s DNA. It constantly scans for specific DNA patterns via the small metal probes that slice into the Lithid’s skin. If the scan does not find that specific DNA strand during one of its searches, the bracelet is programmed to detonate.” Alcent sighed heavily. “The Terrans are light years ahead of us when it comes to genetic research. I wouldn’t even know where to begin in order to bypass their technology. I’m sorry, but I don’t know what we can do with them.”
    Keryn rubbed her forehead in frustration. “What’s to stop the Terran’s from just blowing all the bracelets remotely once we start the revolution? We could be condemning every Lithid on the planet by doing this.”
    “Keryn, I’m sorry,” Alcent replied, his voice soft and apologetic. “I know your friend is a Lithid, but there’s nothing we can do. Either we stop this revolt because of our personal feelings for our friends, which I won’t allow, or we drive forward and accept their deaths as collateral damage.”
    She grimaced at Alcent’s word choices. “Collateral damage” sounded so incredibly impersonal for someone as close to her as Penchant. She pictured in her mind the hundreds of different faces he had assumed during their time together and couldn’t imagine him being gone from her life.
    “I have to let him know,” she said finally, her own voice full of emotion. “Even if I can’t warn them all, I owe it to him to let him know.”
    Alcent nodded, understanding. “Just be careful. We’re going to be striking in less than five hours. We can’t take the chance of being exposed now.”
    Keryn and Adam collected their gear for the assault, sliding on their combat vests, collecting ammunition, and stowing their modified assault rifles beneath their jackets. Glancing over her shoulder as they approached the exit to the building, Keryn lifted a hand to wave farewell. In one of her many meaningless prayers to Gods she didn’t follow, she prayed that everything would go as planned in the morning.
    The walk back to House 12 was slow. Neither Keryn nor Adam said much, both lost in the thought of condemning their friend to death. They paused outside the door, Keryn’s emotions a turmoil of both jubilation for the assault, remorse for their friend, and fear of failure. Adam slid his hand into hers, his presence giving her strength. Together, they opened the door and slipped into the interior darkness. As he had been for the past two nights, Penchant stood stoic watch near the door, eager to hear the latest news.
    With sorrow filled eyes, Keryn looked at the blank black oval of his face. “Penchant, we need to talk.”
    “No good news has ever come when a woman utters those words,” Penchant joked, his humor masking his own nervousness.
    Keryn swallowed hard, trying to force down the emotion that threatened to spill forth. During their walk to the house, she had practiced over and over again what she would say. But now standing before him, she found it difficult to tell him that he was going to die.
    Penchant nodded, as though reading her mind. “Alcent can’t remove the bracelet, can he?”
    “No,” Adam replied firmly behind her. She was glad to have him there, since she wasn’t sure she could have spoken without betraying her own sadness.
    “Which means that in four hours, no matter how successful your assault, the Terrans are going to remotely detonate all the Lithid’s bracelets and I’m going to die,” Penchant stated matter-of-factly. He slammed his fist into his palm, a rare display of emotion.
    Silence stretched between the trio; Keryn felt unsure of what words she could speak that wouldn’t sound completely hollow in light of Penchant dying.
    “It’s just so senseless,” Penchant finally said, his anger rumbling through his gravelly voice. “After all our training, all our fighting, this is it for me? No blaze of glory? No remarkable last words? Nothing. Tomorrow morning, I wake up and die.”
    “I’m truly sorry,” Keryn whispered.
    “Spare me,” Penchant said angrily, dismissing her with a wave of his hand. “Go to bed. I’m sure you both will need your rest before your big day tomorrow.” Penchant slid down the wall until he was sitting, his knees pulled into his chest. He turned his head away from them, effectively ending the conversation.
    Moving away from the Lithid, Keryn and Adam moved gingerly over the rest of the sleeping forms until they had reached their area. Adam placed his supplies cautiously on the ground, covering them from prying eyes with his long jacket and remaining clothes. He gestured for Keryn to join him underneath the warm blanket, but she shook her head. Instead, she assumed a seated pose similar to Penchant’s, her arms wrapped around her legs and her chin resting on her knees. Though she knew she needed rest, she found that between anticipation of battle and a yearning to console Penchant, sleep just wouldn’t come.
    In the morning, the loudspeakers roared to life, announcing that it was time to report to the work groups. Survivors shuffled from the houses, their eyes bleary and bodies exhausted from daily labor. Keryn tried to catch up to Penchant as he left the house, but she couldn’t break through the sea of people. Shortly thereafter, he disappeared from her view. Both she and Adam kept their heads low as they moved to their designated position near one of the houses with a clear view of the awaiting Terran supervisors.
    Spotlights flooded the street where the survivors gathered, awaiting their segregation into individual work groups and their daily march into the rubble fields. Feeling her own nervousness, Keryn placed a comforting hand on the assault rifle under her long jacket and, closing her eyes, took a deep breath, willing her body to relax.
    Get control of yourself, the Voice growled in her ear. If you’re going to be leading this revolution, you need to have a clear mind.
    From in front of the gathered people, a Terran lifted a microphone to the thick black faceplate. “Gather into your assigned groups and follow your designated supervisor to you work areas,” the Terran said, his muffled voice coming from behind the faceplate boomed over the loudspeakers. The survivors had heard the similar speech every day for the past three weeks. “Any deviation from your assigned group will result in summarized execution. Any disobedience of the orders given by your supervisor will result in summarized execution. Any one not working to their fullest capability while in their work area will result in…”
    His speech was cut short as another booming voice roared through the crowd, interrupting the oft-rehearsed presentation. The crowd turned in search of the new speaker as he began.
    “Listen to me,” came a gravelly yell, the voice carrying clearly through the quiet crowd. “I have lived under the yoke of Terran occupation for three weeks and I have no intention of doing so any longer!”
    The Terran squad commander motioned for his men to move forward, and they began pushing through the crowd in search of the speaker.
    “They killed us when they dropped bombs,” the voice continued. “Those who died in the explosion were lucky, for they died as free men and women. For the rest of us, the Terrans figured they would kill us a little slower. Many succumbed and died in the fields. But I ask you to look around at one another. Look into the faces of the man or woman standing next to you. Their eyes are already dead. Your soul has already died, though your body is not smart enough to follow suit and collapse into the snow. If you’re content to live as a zombie, shuffling and slaving for masters that want nothing more than your spirit eternally crushed, then save them the time and build yourself a casket within these pristine fields of white snow. Dig it deep. Bury yourself beneath the white powder and let the freezing cold finally do what you don’t have the courage to do yourself.”
    “Ignore him,” the Terran squad commander announced over the loudspeaker. “Spreading propaganda will result in summarized execution.”
    The guards angrily shoved through the throngs of people, hunting crazily for the speaker, who remained elusive. The Terrans spread out, hoping to canvas the entire crowd in case the speaker continued. And continue he did.
    “For some of us, however, we don’t have the same chance that you all do. For some of us, we are constantly reminded of our impending death by the bracelet callously strapped to our wrists. Our deaths are not our own, but are controlled at the whim of a Terran.” The voice said the word with venom. “We Lithids are proud, and we will not succumb to your tyranny!”
    A scream erupted from the center of the crowd. The survivors parted in a circle around two figures. One, a Terran guard, slid slowly to the ground, carefully trying to hold entrails that poured from his abdomen. Beside him, a Lithid stood proudly, his hand dripping with the red blood and gore that he ripped from the guard’s stomach.
    “My name is Penchant,” the Lithid cried from the center of the circle, “and I am proud! And if I’m going to die today, I’ll do it by my terms. Join me my brethren. Stand against the Terran occupation and let us not die as slaves, but die in a blaze of glory!”
    Keryn watched in stunned silence, much like the rest of the crowd. Penchant’s skin rippled and wavered as he grew to monstrous proportions. His skin grew metallic spikes as his claws elongated. As his body stretched taller, growing over eight feet, a snout elongated from his face. Snarling, Penchant revealed multiple rows of razor sharp teeth. Howling into the illuminated street, the Lithid stood like a nightmare brought to life, snarling and frothing as it searched for another Terran to kill.
    “Kill… kill that creature,” the Terran squad commander screamed into the microphone, the fear evident in his voice. Reaching to his waist, he fumbled with a device. Finally pulling it free, he held aloft a detonator, the red button on top glowing madly.
    Keryn dropped into a crouch, pulling her rifle free and aiming through her scope toward the Terran holding the detonator. The sights danced as she tried to brace the rifle with hands that shook with both surprise and excitement.
    Please, the Voice cooed, allow me.
    Taking a deep breath, she squeezed the trigger. As the single gunshot echoed through the crowd, everyone turned to locate the shooter. The loudspeakers echoed the Terran’s scream as his hand disappeared in a spray of blood, the detonator falling harmlessly to the ground.
    “Rise up my brothers!” Penchant yelled. “Rise up and bring down the Terran invaders!”
    Throughout the crowd, screams exploded as the Lithids throughout the crowd turned and attacked their oppressors. The cries of pain and gurgling death cries rolled over the throngs of people in waves, spreading their infectious revolutionary attitudes. Within minutes, the thick snow was painted with strands and sprays of red blood and the crowd, fed both from the rise up of the Lithids and the excited yells of the revolutionaries positioned throughout, cheered wildly.
    “Follow me,” Penchant howled as he pushed his way through the crowd. Others quickly joined his towering form, as fellow Lithids transformed into nightmarish beasts and moved to the front of the crowd. Turning, he raised his clawed fists into the air. “Death to the Terrans!”
    The rest of the crowd picked up his war chant as they surged forward, the few smart enough to collect the fallen Terran weapons moving behind the Lithid monstrosities. The whole group stormed toward the fields and the Terran barracks beyond.
    Keryn reached into her vest and removed her radio. “We’re moving; all units take your positions and prepare for battle.”
    Adam placed his hand on her arm as she went to leave. “I wish I could be there with you, fighting on the front lines.”
    She smiled and placed a hand over his. “I know you do. But you have your own mission to complete.” As she moved into position behind the crowd, she glanced over her shoulder. “That whole thing with Penchant is pretty crazy, huh?”
    “I guess he got his blaze of glory and his famous last words after all,” he yelled back as he turned and disappeared onto the side streets.
    The Lithids in the front of the mob made quick work of the few remaining Terran guards. Unprepared for such an assault, they fired only a couple of rounds and only a single Lithid was killed as the crowd pushed through the residential part of town and passed into the business district, with its skeletal towers still looming over the wide streets. Nearly two-dozen of the crowd broke off once they passed into the district and sprinted ahead, cutting onto side streets. From unassuming dumpsters and piles of rubble, the soldiers of the ambush team pulled weapons and explosives and took positions behind any available cover.

    The Terran response to the uprising was both swift and terrifying. A small squadron of armored tanks moved across the rubble field, their inertial dampeners causing them to float effortlessly over the obstructions. The tanks’ turrets scanned the area ahead as they moved into the far side of the business district. Behind the tanks, Terran infantry followed, wearing their black body armor with identifying stripes. Bristling with their own arsenal, they moved, eager to put down the insignificant insurrection.
    Within the Black Void, Terran Commander Lucience sat gloomily, shadows dancing across his face as he observed the display table before him. From his vantage, he watched as blue figures moved through the three-dimensional representation of Miller’s Glen. The blue forces, led by larger blocks that were representative of his small collection of tanks, advanced across the frozen rubble fields and flooded like ants into the business district.
    The inside of the Void, once used as a bar, had been gutted following the invasion. The tables that once sat in the center of the room had all been removed, as had the raised bar that once accentuated the entire far wall. In its stead, Commander Lucience had insisted on placing a tall-backed chair, one salvaged from the raids on the local businesses. Sitting in the chair, Lucience felt almost regal, an approximation of what he hoped to one day attain. If he could maintain control of Othus during the Terran invasion of Interstellar Alliance space, the Terran Premier very possibly would knight him. Sir Lucience had a good ring to it, he thought.
    He turned the image on the table, the only other piece of furniture that furbished the now empty bar. His men had placed rugs and hung artwork on the walls to make it a more befitting throne room for the ruler of Othus, but he preferred the empty space to the clutter he had seen elsewhere in the Empire. Some rulers found it to be a requirement that all nobility flaunt their wealth with statues and ostentatious fountains, which made movement through their homes next to impossible. But practicality wasn’t the desired effect.
    Lucience observed an overhead view of the city, marking with interest the clusters of red dots moving chaotically through the streets of the business district, on a collision course with his own troops. His two bodyguards watched from over his shoulder, their eyes sparkling with anticipation. Though the insurgents outnumbered his own men nearly five to one, Commander Lucience was hardly concerned. His men all wore body armor and carried an arsenal far more impressive than any mundane weapons the slaves could have gathered. There was little doubt in his mind that the uprising would be dealt with swiftly and harshly.
    “Sir,” one of his bodyguards gestured toward the map, “aren’t those yellow dots the Lithids?”
    Lucience arched an eyebrow as he drummed his fingers together. “So they are. I guess we’ll have to deal with them as well.”

    The first two tanks rolled down the snow-covered street, followed by a wave of infantry who used the armor of the tank for cover against any potential attack. The streets were empty around the Terrans, but they could hear the din of distant voices crying out in unison. The survivors were marching to battle and the Terrans marched to meet them, bewildered that such a lightly armed force would dare rise up against the occupation.
    The squadron commander for the Terran force sat within the turret of the left tank, scanning the area with his night vision goggles, searching for signs of the approaching enemies. “Still nothing on our front, sir,” he reported into the microphone projected from his helmet. “We are moving forward to…”
    His words were cut short as the first round tore through his chest, shattering the body armor. Floundering in surprise, the squadron commander shook only once before collapsing across the turret, spilling his blood down the front of the tank. From all directions, gunfire erupted around the combined heavy and light squadron. Infantry ran for cover, only to discover awaiting Uligarts and Oterians firing bursts of fire from the alcoves and storefronts toward which they ran. The armor piercing rounds tore through the Terran defenses, slaughtering the infantry where they stood. Leaping from the shadows, Wyndgaarts wielding molecular blades sliced through armor, severing limbs and cutting heads from shoulders as they danced through the crowd of startled soldiers. Above, the Avalons of the ambush team opened fire from their sniper positions, killing Terrans indiscriminately.
    The tanks reacted quicker than did the infantry. The first tank’s turret spun, the squadron commander’s body twisting with it, and it fired through the front display window of one of the nearby stores. Hiding within, the four revolutionaries had no time to flee before the ionized plasma round struck. Fireworks of blue and purple flared from the ground floor as windows shattered up and down the street. The concussion from the blast lifted Terrans and revolutionaries alike from their feet and threw them limply into the surrounding buildings. Many soldiers from both sides didn’t get up following the blast.
    The second tank took aim at one of the sniper positions; high within the girders of the destroyed high rise buildings. Its blast decimated the upper floors of the building, lighting up the dark sky and raining flaming metal down on top of the exposed soldiers fighting in the streets. Breaking off their attacks, the infantry ran for cover as deadly debris crashed into the ground around them.
    Sitting in one of the buildings nearby, the Avalon who had served as Alcent’s bodyguard shielded his eyes as the plasma engulfed the other sniper position. Snarling, he dropped his rifle and picked up the rocket launcher nearby. Bracing himself against the closest girder, he lifted the bright silver weapon and let the launcher’s harness brace firmly in the crook of his shoulder. Activating the laser sight, a single beam leapt from the front of the weapon, tracking and painting the open turret of the first tank. Pulling the trigger, a cacophony of sound rumbled through the building as fire erupted from the back of the weapon. Though temporarily blinded, the laser sight had already done its job. Even without the Avalon being able to watch the movement of the rocket, the round followed the pre-programmed laser sight, slamming into the body that hung half in and half out of the tank’s turret. The rocket tore through the soft body of the Terran and found the tank’s interior, flooding the crew cabin with deadly plasma. Igniting the rounds and fuel cells stored within, the tank exploded in a fireball that shattered the wall next to it. The shockwave from the explosion lifted the nearby tank. Rolling wildly, the second tank slammed into a building across the street and fell heavily to the ground, its inertial dampeners destroyed.
    The revolutionaries cheered as they attached explosives to the second tank. Detonating it, the incendiary rounds burned straight through the hull, pouring superheated magnesium into the crew cabin. Though most were killed as the flames encompassed the interior of the tank, the poisonous gas created as the explosives burned through the hull quickly overcame the crewmen who miraculously survived the fire. Falling unconscious, the flames rolled over their bodies, killing them in their sleep.
    The Avalon set down the rocket and pulled out his radio. “Ambush Team Alpha successful.” He frowned as he observed the battlefield. Though the ambush team had destroyed the Terran assault on this street, they lost nearly three quarters of their own men.
    “Ambush Team Bravo, successful,” a voice cried exuberantly over the radio.
    “Ambush Team Charlie, successful,” cried another. “Terrans in full retreat.”

    Commander Lucience frowned as he watched the display. His blue forces were disappearing from the display, but he could see no red forces that were causing the destruction. As far as he could tell, the remaining insurgents were still four blocks from where his forces were being destroyed, too far for them to be responsible.
    “Explain,” he demanded, his bodyguards quickly perusing the reports in an attempt to find an answer.
    “Long range weaponry?” the first guard offered.
    “Impossible,” Lucience replied. “They would have no tracking mechanism to deliver so exact a payload. Anyways, we would have observed a ranged attack from the satellite display.” He turned toward the second guard inquisitively. “Is everything copasetic with the satellite array?”
    “Telemetry from the satellite appears to be in working order, sir,” the second bodyguard replied. “There is no explainable reason why we are not receiving feedback on the source of attack against our troops.”
    Commander Lucience snarled. “It doesn’t matter, let them come.” His snarl turned until it became a malicious grin. “I have more surprises for them yet. Send in the fighters and bring me the control panel for the bracelets.”

    The crowd pushed past the destroyed remains of the tanks and Terran infantry, surging now toward the rubble fields. As they approached, the Lithids drew to a stop as they observed the lines of enemy defensive positions hastily created on the edge of the business district. Keryn came to a stop as well, having forced her way through the throngs of people and joined the armed assault team in the front of the formation.
    “Find cover!” Penchant yelled as the Terran forces opened fire. The majority of Lithids and the assault team scrambled behind rubble and buildings, getting themselves out of harm’s way before the gunfire began. The crowd, however, failed to move and covered the street like a sea of immobilized targets. For many in the group, they had marched from the residential district to where they were now, never fully aware of the threat they faced. For others, the march to the rubble fields each day had become a way of life, one that wouldn’t be hindered regardless of who was giving their orders. Whatever their reasons, they stood tall and proud as the rounds tore through their ranks.
    The initial volley left the streets covered with bodies and slick with blood. Spurred into movement, the rest of the crowd scattered, fleeing haphazardly in all directions. Keryn had expected as much and, honestly, had incorporated the chaos into her battle plan. Ducking low beneath the pile of rubble she was using for cover, she turned toward the one thing she hadn’t planned for.
    “Penchant,” she yelled over the din of gunfire, “I need someone to take care of those defensive positions!”
    Penchant roared in anger and leapt from his cover, his massive, powerful legs covering over half the distance in his first bound. The other Lithids quickly followed suit. Knowing that death was inevitable for them, the Lithids fought like the monsters whose form they had taken. Slamming into the hasty Terran positions, they tossed rubble and bodies alike into the air. Their elongated claws tore through the armor of the Terran soldiers as they sank their rows of razor sharp teeth into others, grinding through the soft flesh. Though a number of the Lithids died from gunfire, many more seemed to shrug off the wounds they received and kept on fighting.
    As the Terrans began to retreat from their positions, the Lithids stopped their assault and stood, staring at one another. Taking advantage of the sudden lull in the battle, the Terrans found new cover and watched intently. As quiet settled over the battlefield, Keryn could hear a faint beeping.
    “No,” she whispered into the air. Standing, she walked toward the Lithids and the stunned Terrans.
    “No, not now,” she said a little louder as others of the assault team rose from their positions and began moving forward.
    Penchant turned, his eyes filled with the same fear she felt. He raised his wrist so she could see the red lights flashing around the bracelet, their flashing increasing at a steady pace. Sighing, he let his body transform back to his natural state, his eyes disappearing behind the black slate of his face. Following suit, all the other Lithids did as well.
    “We knew it would happen,” Penchant called back to her. “It was inevitable.”
    He turned and faced the Terrans. Their resolve strengthened from watching the monsters transform into more manageable sizes, the infantry was beginning to take up positions behind cover within the rubble field.
    “At least I got what I want,” Penchant yelled, the beeping on his wrist reaching a deadly crescendo. “I got my blaze of glory!”
    Howling in fury, Penchant and the other Lithids charged into the Terran ranks. They didn’t swing a single claw nor did their spear-like tails strike any of their opponents. Instead, they pinned the Terrans to the ground, often two or more at a time.
    Staring at their scared faces, Penchant roared in rage on last time. “We are Lithids, and we are proud!” Suddenly, the beeping stopped. Fireballs erupted all along the Terran defensive line. The explosives in the bracelets were meant to not only kill the Lithid wearing it, but anyone foolish enough to tamper with it as well. The radius of the explosion, as a result, was large enough to engulf entire bunkers of infantry.
    Keryn covered her mouth as tears streamed down her face. She knew she wasn’t alone in her grief. Many of the assault team shed tears for those they barely knew before the revolution began, but who died with such furor on the battlefield.
    Choking back a sob, Keryn stood, signaling the others forward. “Their ranks are broken,” she cried, tears stinging her eyes. “Let’s drive them back to the hangars!”

CHAPTER 24:

    Yen knocked softly on the door to the War Room, awaiting the call to enter before opening the door. He stepped inside and was surprised at the darkness within. The lights had been dimmed, leaving only a soft glow to outline the Captain’s form sitting at the large table. Lights that were not important for illuminating the center table had been turned off. Even the dark monitors around the room watched the Captain’s brooding like silent sentinels.
    “Please, Yen,” the Captain said softly, her voice a reflection of the darkness of the room, “please come in.”
    Wordlessly, he took a seat across the table, trying to read her facial expressions in the gloom. In all the time of serving under her command, Yen couldn’t remember the last time she had used his first name. Her face seemed slack and lacked the confidence that normally exuded when she entered a room. Shoulders slumped, she looked defeated.
    “Ma’am,” he said quietly, not wanting to shatter the delicate mood held in the room, “are you okay?”
    The Captain reached up and rubbed eyes that Yen now noticed were swollen.
    “I’m fine,” she said, her eyes rising to meet his. “Who am I kidding? I’m not fine.”
    Yen waited, expecting her to continue. When she didn’t, he took the liberty of speaking first. “Would you like to talk about it?”
    Captain Hodge sat up straight and turned in her chair until she was facing the back wall. She wiped her eyes again, trying to regain the composure that had slipped away while she sat alone. Compassion rose unexpectedly in Yen. In all his time aboard the Revolution, he had never seen weakness in Captain Hodge. Yet now, she sat across from him with her soul exposed.
    “I have been in command of this ship for a long time, Yen,” she began, the words tumbling over one another as she hurried to get them all out. “In all that time, I have never been placed in a more dangerous situation, with so much riding on my shoulders. And now, only now, my entire crew is falling apart. We need everyone we can get if we expect to win, but my Tactical Officer is dead and my Communications Officer is in the brig accused of his murder. We’re falling apart and it could cost all of us our lives if I don’t get a handle on the situation.”
    “What am I supposed to do?” she asked, her voice quivering.
    Yen wanted to speak, to console her, but he couldn’t find the words. For a brief moment, the thought of using his powers to help her regain her strength crossed his mind, but he quickly brushed it aside. He understood her turmoil, with so much hanging in the balance. But what scared him the most was that Captain Hodge had always been stoic to the point of being impersonal. To see her as a person, as he did now, worried him more than anything.
    “I’m sorry,” she finally said. “I shouldn’t be complaining to a subordinate like this. It’s unprofessional.”
    “Ma’am, you haven’t called me by my rank since I walked through that door,” he replied. “I didn’t come here because you needed a professional opinion. I came here because you needed a friend. As your friend, I want you to know you can tell me anything.”
    “Friend,” she said, staring off into the distance. “That’s a word I haven’t heard in a while.” Turning to him, she gave him a scrutinizing look. “Do you even know my first name?”
    “Lyrica,” Yen smiled warmly. He was glad he had read through her personnel files after coming aboard the Revolution. “Ma’am, please let me know if I’m overstepping my bounds, but it’s not just the crew morale that’s bothering you, is it?”
    She shook her head. “No, it’s not just the crew. We’re getting ready to engage in a battle that will be remembered for generations to come. Students at the Academy will study our exploits. I should be streaming toward the Terran rear vanguard with all haste and confidence, ready to crush their ships. Instead, I can barely focus on the mission because my crew is in chaos.”
    The Captain took a deep breath. “We need this nasty business behind us, Yen. We need to get focused on the mission ahead.”
    “Horace told you about the confession, I assume?” Yen asked.
    “Yes,” she replied, “but he also told me about his conspiracy theory. Once people get wind of a witch hunt on board, we will never regain the focus we need to defeat the Terrans.”
    “Then don’t tell them.”
    “Excuse me?” she said, raising her eyes to meet his dark gaze.
    “Don’t tell them about the conspiracy,” Yen said again. “The only other people that know about it are Horace and I. If you order us not to talk, neither of us will. The crew can go on believing that the murderer has been captured and punishment pending. They can stop worrying about a killer and get back to taking care of what matters: planning an attack.”
    Yen leaned forward, resting his elbows heavily on the hard table, before he continued. “The point is, ma’am, that we need to get moving. You leave the witch-hunt to Horace. He has the Crown and will get results one way or another. Let me get back to working with the Squadron. And you… you get back to being our Captain.”
    Lyrica nodded, smiling softly. “I could use the distraction of being Captain.”
    “Nothing keeps you more focused on battle than knowing that twenty-some Terran Destroyers are only a few slingshot maneuvers away.”
    Captain Hodge laughed, the sound echoing through the dark room.
    “Thank you,” she said, the strength returning to her voice. “God, I could use a change of scenery right now.”
    “The best I can offer is a long journey ending with a whole lot of plasma bursts in deep space,” Yen said jokingly.
    “I’ll take it,” she replied, her tone subdued again. “Yen, I’m going to be relying on you heavily over the course of the next battle. With Merric gone, you are both my Squadron Commander and the Tactical Officer for the Revolution. Those are both heavy responsibilities, especially with what we’re charging toward.”
    “You need to believe we can do this, that we can take out the entire Terran Fleet, or we’ll never win,” he stated sternly.
    “I know, but we don’t even have a plan other than getting there before they do. After we’re there, what then? We sit and wait for Terran Destroyers, flying in at high velocity, to charge right down our throats?”
    “I’m prone to think that’s a bad plan,” he replied. “However, there are other options. And what better place to discuss them then right here?”
    Yen’s fingers flew over the keyboard located in front of his seat. Slowly, the gloom in the room receded as a sun and number of planets took shape in the space above the table. He continued to type, adding a hashed blue line that entered from the far side of the elliptical orbit of the planets. Finishing, a red-hashed line entered from the opposite side of the galaxy, intersecting the blue line near the second planet.
    “Based upon our entry data and the projected information from the Terran Fleet, these are our entry points into the galaxy,” he began, his voice deepening as he began the formal brief. “This is our starting point for tactical decision making.”
    “All right,” Captain Hodge replied, nodding enthusiastically. “Let’s see how this plays out.”
    She pointed at the seven large planets orbiting the small yellow sun. “We assume that the Terrans would enter the system and immediately take up position on the dark sides of the planets furthest away from the sun, springing the ambush once we were fully committed to entering this system. Can we use their tactics against them?”
    Yen shook his head. He began typing again as he spoke. “I probably didn’t depict this scenario correctly. You’re correct, ma’am, that the Terran Fleet has historically used very similar tactics to what you’re describing when engaging the Alliance. But you’ve overlooked one key point to this scenario.” As he stopped typing, the yellow sun darkened, casting all the planets into shadow.
    “Deplitoxide. There won’t be a dark side to the planet when we get there,” she concluded.
    “Exactly. Every planet will be dark, which means that the element of surprise is lost when trying to hide in the shadows. No, if we want to win, we’ll need something a bit more drastic.”
    They sat in silence, both watching the planets roll lazily around the now blackened sun. The inner planets burned hot on the display, even in the virtual darkness. Their surfaces were seas of molten lava having been in close orbit around the small but intense sun. Even as the planets cooled in the darkness, the lava flows hardened into a rocky, craggy surface that offered no hospitality for landing ships. Yen’s eyes, instead, tracked to the four gas giants framed by the magma planets close to the sun and the icy rock near the exterior. His eyes narrowing, he started typing again, modifying the display. The gaseous outer layers of the planets peeled away; mile after mile of gas clouds disappeared into the ethos as Yen probed their chemical make up. Next to each of the four planets, chemical equations and ratios began to appear in bright red font.
    “Ma’am, could our ships withstand the battering winds underneath the atmosphere of these gas giants?” Yen asked, already feeling his excitement growing.
    “I suppose so, but we’d be flying blind once we entered,” she answered, unclear as to what Yen was proposing. “Those planets are virtually massive thunderstorms, unleashing electronic fury between the cloud layers. That sort of electromagnetic field would disrupt every sensor and communications relay we had. Put us in those clouds and we wouldn’t know the Terran Fleet was there unless they skimmed the surface of the clouds.”
    “Or unless one of our ships was situated in the atmosphere of the gas giant as a lookout,” Yen explained. A small blip appeared above each of the four gas giants. “Our sensors would only be able to reach to the surface of the gas clouds if we flew inside. But that would be far enough for a single manned fighter to sit and observe the Terran’s approach. They could send the attack signal, yet be small enough that the Terran’s would never even know they were there.”
    “And the Terran sensors?” she asked, already knowing the answer.
    “Wouldn’t stand any more chance of penetrating the gas giants than ours would of escaping. There wouldn’t even need to be a reason to let them know we’d arrived ahead of schedule.”
    “Squadron Commander Xiao,” she said, regaining the military composure Yen was used to, “I do believe this plan of yours might just work. Head to the bridge and let them know to begin full acceleration toward the first of the slingshot positions. I will continue to look over your work and make sure we haven’t overlooked anything. In the mean time, you have the helm.”
    “Yes, ma’am,” Yen said as he stood, bracing in a salute. As Captain Hodge returned his salute, he turned to leave.
    “Yen,” the Captain called after his as he reached the door.
    “Ma’am?”
    “Good work, Yen,” she said with a smile. “I mean it.”
    Yen nodded before leaving the room. As the door slid shut behind him, the smile dropped from Captain Hodge’s face and she turned off the holographic display of the planets. Instead, she turned on the small monitor that stood in front of her, typing in her alphanumeric sequence as the computer queried her for the command code. With the code entered, the Captain found herself staring back at her own image.
    “Continue personal correspondence to High Council,” she ordered. In the corner of the screen, a red light began to flash, letting her know that it was, once again, recording her message.
    “He was just here,” she began, speaking into the concealed camera. “As I stated before we were interrupted, I am concerned about all our safety…”

CHAPTER 25:

    Commander Lucience sat silently on his throne within the Black Void. The chair’s high back dwarfed his slouching form as he watched the colored figures scatter across his three-dimensional display. The blue squares that represented his own forces were in full retreat ahead of a sea of red dots, signifying the rebellious natives of Miller’s Glen.
    “What is happening on the ground?” he asked the two Terran bodyguards who stood protectively behind him, his voice little more than a growl. “My troops are in full withdraw from a ragtag collection of insurgents. And I still don’t see my fighters in the air.”
    Both guards scanned rapidly through massive amounts of data that were displayed on their hand-held screens. Numbers flashed quickly across the display, reflecting in their wide eyes; the screen’s light glowing warmly on their skin in the dark room. After minutes of silence aside from the clicking of commands on their console, one of the guards spoke.
    “My Lord,” he began hesitantly, “the fighters are conducting pre-flight checks and will be in the air momentarily. However, it appears that a worm has infected our satellite system. The virus has been devouring lines of data pertaining to visual displays.” He gestured to the map of the city in front of Lucience. “Rebellious elements are simply not being displayed as a result. They are, for our purposes, invisible.”
    “How could this have happened?” Lucience asked, anger creeping into his voice.
    The second guard interceded. “Sir, this planet was formerly used as a layover destination for pirates and smugglers. It is very possible that they had access to computer systems and radar arrays capable of sending signals to our satellites. Were that the case, their computer could have made contact with our satellite and uploaded the worm.”
    “Is it possible to purge the worm from our systems?”
    “I’m not sure, sir,” the second guard replied. “From our location, I cannot verify which systems have already been infected.”
    Lucience slammed his fist down onto the display before him. “So this is spreading?”
    “I believe so, my Lord.”
    Running a hand nervously across his face, the Commander took a deep breath before reaching forward and turning off his city map. “Contact the Ballistae. Inform them that we are evacuating this city and that it is to be destroyed from space once we are clear.”
    Commander Lucience heard one of his guards clear his throat nervously behind him. He clenched his teeth in frustration, knowing he would not be hearing good news.
    “Communications with the Ballistae are currently inoperable,” the guard said, stuttering. “It appears the worm has infected the communication relay systems as well.”
    “What else has this damn worm infected now?” Lucience yelled into the dark room.

    Keryn rushed from the cover of the collapsing wall and fired into the retreating Terran forces. Though her men had routed the defenders along the edge of the business district, due to the sacrifice of the Lithid forces, the Terrans still posed a significant threat. Sliding for cover behind the next closest barricade, she ducked as volleys flew over her head, both from the Terran defenders and her own force’s withering return fire.
    The revolutionaries advanced slowly into the rubble fields, trying hard to avoid the large open areas and crowding dangerously behind the half walls and slabs of stone that littered the field. Nearly a quarter of her forces now carried weapons, salvaged from the dead Terrans they passed. As the battle went on, more would be carrying weapons, not because they kept finding new stockpiles of rifles, but because attrition left her constantly with less and less troops. At the rate she was losing men, she wouldn’t need more than a couple of transport ships to evacuate her full force once they reached to warehouses. The same one hundred weapons that had once accounted for a minor demographic of her revolutionaries now meant she had a fully armed front line of soldiers.
    To emphasize her point, an explosion rocked the short walls of the ruined building nearby, behind which more than a dozen of her soldiers had been hiding. She could hear their screams as they tried to apply pressure to wounds that poured blood onto the soft white snow.
    Glancing around the corner of her building, she observed the small Terran rear defenders who were stalling her forces amongst the ruins, their black uniforms blending into the dark sky but standing out in stark contrast to the white snow. They fired repeatedly into her advancing troops, slaughtering them with impunity. However, she also noticed them scanning the turrets located around the outskirts of the field, the surprise evident even from her location.
    They are waiting for the turret guns to start firing, the Voice said with glee. But they won’t be firing for them today.
    The Voice was right, Keryn knew. Her Saboteurs had done a great job disguising her ambush from the Terran observer satellites, had blocked communications between the ground forces and their air support, and had silenced the deadly turrets.
    Not completely silenced, the Voice whispered mischievously.
    As Keryn mused over the skill of her Saboteurs, she heard the familiar thump of a grenade launcher being fired. The Terran defenders fired explosive rounds rapidly through the rubble, the explosions erupting in waves of heat and overwhelming vibrations in the air. She ducked again as flying debris pelted her and more cries of pain rang through the dark day. Keryn snarled in anger as she allowed the Voice to infuse her body with generations of warrior skill.
    Spinning around the rubble, she fired rapidly, striking Terran riflemen as they crouched behind their protective cover. After a number of the defenders fell, she noticed the grenade launcher turn in her direction, the Terran who held the massive contraption turning slowly with it. Her eyes quickly scanned the area, taking in the remaining rubble and, with surprising efficiency, calculating angles of the standing stone. Her conscious mind hardly noticed the thump of a grenade being fired in her direction, the Voice nearly completely in control of her body. The round glanced off the short wall beside her, wobbling through the air after its ricochet. In a blur, her hand flashed out and snatched the grenade from the air. She smelled her own flesh searing from the heated round, but held firm as, in her vision, mathematical equations began dancing before her eyes. Complex angles and velocities appeared beside hastily sketched lines, showing the impending results of her throw. In milliseconds, Keryn plotted her attack and threw the grenade. The round bounced off a far wall, ricocheting in perfect concert with her equation. Rebounding, it struck an outcropping of stone, flipping wildly into the air. In her mind, Keryn heard the voice complete the countdown before the grenade’s inevitable detonation. On cue, the explosive flipped lazily over the wall behind which the Terran defenders hid, following the path upon which the Voice had decided. It exploded, causing the wall to buckle under the force and decimating the Terran soldiers. Those who didn’t die in the explosion leapt from behind their cover, burning and screaming in pain.
    Keryn stood and motioned for the others to follow. “The way is clear,” she yelled. “Don’t let your momentum stop! Keep moving forward!” She ran forward, leaping over rubble and opening fire on the few Terrans who still remained in their defensive positions.
    Nearly halfway across the field, Keryn’s heart froze as she heard the whine of engines rapidly approaching their location. Glancing into the sky, she could see the red trails of flames behind the Terran fighters that wove through the sky on an intercept of their position. Squinting against the darkness, Keryn could imagine the pilots watching the advancing revolutionaries from behind their night vision displays, pushing aggressively the button, which would launch missiles into her soldiers.
    “Incoming!” she screamed as she dove for cover. “Everybody get down!”
    She had no sooner landed behind her new concealment than the first of the rockets slammed into the rubble field and hell was unleashed all around her. Time froze as flares in shades of red and orange lit up the dark sky. Rubble appeared as falling stars, tracing flaming arcs over her head as entire foundations of building vanished in the heat. The flames ripped the air from her lungs and poured thick black smoke into her eyes. Beneath her, the ground buckled under the assault, lifting her from her prone position and tossing her like a doll through the air. She flew, weightless as her hair cascaded around her and the ground transformed from a frozen wasteland to a blazing inferno. After floating through the air, gravity harshly reasserted itself and slammed her back onto her stomach. Keryn fell hard on a jutting stone and cringed as she felt a rib crack on her landing. Pain lanced through her chest as she clawed for air; the little oxygen that hadn’t burned away in the fire now resisted her call as her broken rib hindered the expansion of her lungs. She coughed, trying to expel both the smoke and the fear that now clutched her as she struggled for breath.
    Relax, the Voice commanded. Relax and let the air come.
    Though still panicked, Keryn obeyed and let her body relax. Slowly and with great trepidation, her lungs filled with oxygen and the colorful stars that had erupted in her vision slowly receded. Alcent rushed to her side, singed but otherwise unharmed. She watched, still stunned, as his lips moved but she heard no noise. Keryn’s brow furrowed as she watched him, his lips calling her name as he rested his hands firmly on her shoulders. As though a dam broke free within her ears, sounds flooded into her mind with a garbled cacophony. She could hear a dull roar of fires burning uncontrollably all around her and soft screams tore through the air. In the distance, she could hear Alcent’s voice approach like a stampede of words.
    “… alright?” he was asking, though comprehension still eluded her. “Keryn, are you alright.”
    Slowly, she nodded, though the movement caused more stars to dance in her vision. She opened her mouth to speak, but only a croak came from her hoarse throat. Keryn swallowed roughly, feeling the little moisture burning down her esophagus. Opening her mouth, she tried again.
    “I’m okay,” she croaked, her own voice sounding like stones clashing together. A coughing fit overcame her, but she quickly recovered. Reaching up, she gently squeezed his hand and gave him a weak smile. Brushing his hands away, she pulled herself up into a seated position, cringing as pain lanced over her broken rib. “I’m fine. How is everyone else?”
    Alcent looked around furtively. Most of his vision was obscured by smoke and fire, but what he could see was not promising. Bodies littered the piles of rubble, their bodies tossed and forgotten like rag dolls. Many still burned freely, though the individuals were far beyond feeling the flames.
    “We’re still alive,” he said promisingly, rubbing soot from his face. “That’s what matters.”
    Keryn pulled herself up until she was standing. Crestfallen, she looked at the damage caused by the volley of rockets. In the back of her mind, she heard the Voice call out in amazement that they were still alive at all. However, Keryn couldn’t shake the feeling that, even knowing that many of the revolutionaries would die during their insurrection, the loss of life seemed too high a price, even for their freedom. In the distance, she heard the whine of engines turning over the buildings and fighters realigning for a second pass.
    “They’re coming back,” Keryn said quickly, her own nervousness showing through her normal mask of composure. She wasn’t sure she could survive a second attack. Looking around, watching silhouettes emerge from the acrid smoke as more of her surviving soldiers approached her position, she tried to call out a warning, but her voice wouldn’t come. Alcent laid a hand comfortingly on her arm and shook his head
    “Trust that our men have done their jobs,” he said soothingly. “If we can’t trust that, then we’re already as good as dead.”
    Standing together, the growing group of revolutionaries watched the dark sky as the burning engines of the Terran fighters quickly approached, their noses aimed threateningly at the survivors. Breathing difficultly, Keryn could hear a few hitched sobs of those behind her; these were people who had already endured so many hardships, only to be faced with their own demise among the same rubble in which they had slaved for three long weeks.
    As the fighters grew closer, many in the group clutched hands, finding strength in each other’s touch. Keryn, however, stood stoically at the front of their cluster of soldiers. She held her head high, knowing that if their plan failed, it would only be seconds before their memory was erased from the universe.
    The Terran fighter pilots switched their arming system to the second set of rockets held underneath their wings, readying their second pass. As they began a quick dive that would bring them closer to the ground for their volley, spats of fire erupted from the towers around the field. The turrets, come to life as their newly programmed targets were acquired, threw molten metal into the advancing squadron, shredding through the armored plating of the fighters and slamming into the pilots inside. The lead craft spun haphazardly as a round shattered the cockpit view screen and vaporized the pilot’s head, a red mist settling over the ship’s controls. The fighters fell from the sky, one after another, as the turrets continued their unrelenting assault. The ships, flaming and out of control, fell far short of the revolutionaries, showering the Terran ground force like improvised bombs.
    Watching the annihilation of the Terran squadron, Keryn held her pistol high above her head and yelled to her gathered group. “No quarter to the Terrans! Kill them all!”
    She turned and, ignoring the lancing pain in her side, charged toward the burning rubble of the once deadly Terran ships. From amongst the flames and smoke, other groups like her own emerged, hollering wildly and chasing down the Terrans who were, once again, in full retreat.

    Commander Lucience checked his magazine before sliding it back into his pistol. His bodyguards were packing the last of the communications equipment into carrying cases in preparation of their evacuation of the planet. He had watched in horror as his fighters vanished from the display, hearing their explosions even from the Black Void. That, if nothing else, had sealed his decision to leave the planet. Even if he had no solid communications with the Ballistae from the ground, he would still be able to give the order to destroy Miller’s Glen once he was onboard the Terran Destroyer.
    “Let them enjoy reclaiming their city,” he muttered to himself as he turned toward his guards, his cape fluttering behind him. “They can enjoy it all the way until I glass the entire place.”
    The guards locked the last of the cases and loaded them on a hovering loader; its flat surface and directional controls able to carry and maneuver even the heavy communications equipment from the Void to the warehouses where they would be loaded onto awaiting ships.
    All three turned with a start as the doors flew open to the front of the former bar. The Commander eased his grip on his pistol, however, as one of his men staggered through the door, closing it behind him. Obviously fresh from the front lines of battle, the soldier’s armor was bloodied and he hadn’t even taken the time to remove his helmet. From across the dark room, Lucience could see the green glowing lights from the facemask.
    “What is the purpose of this intrusion?” Lucience asked venomously. His nerves were shot from this ordeal and he had no time for petty interruptions. He held up a hand and the two guards behind him lowered their weapons as well.
    “A thousand apologies, my Lord,” the soldier said, breathlessly. “I’m here to warn you that the insurgents have nearly reached this location. Your shuttle is ready, but we have to hurry.” The soldier stepped further inside, eager to be away from the sounds of battle that seeped from beneath the front doors.
    Lucience turned to his bodyguards, motioning them forward. “We’re leaving. Get the equipment and hurry.” He stepped from the raised dais that had once held a bar and walked passed the exhausted soldier without so much as a nod of recognition for his warning. His cape trailing behind him, Lucience advanced on the front door, eager to be gone from Othus once and for all.
    Behind him, the Commander heard one of his guards reprimand the weary soldier. “You will remove your helmet when addressing his Eminence.” Lucience didn’t break stride as he approached the front door.
    “Who the hell are you?” his guard asked in surprise before two gunshots rang out from behind him. Stopping in his tracks, he turned quickly toward the back of the bar, pulling his weapon. As he spun, he stared at the shaggy-haired blond Terran who stood, pointing his weapon at Lucience.
    “I’d drop the gun if I were you,” Adam ordered as the two bodyguards slid slowly to the ground, clutching wounds that poured blood onto the already slick wooden floor.
    Lucience growled in angry defiance. “I will kill you, Pilgrim.” Spittle flew from his lips as he spoke, his rage causing his barrel to bounce wildly.
    Behind him, the front door crashed open once more. Lucience spun, ready to fire on the person coming through the door regardless of whether or not he was one of his own soldiers or a revolutionary. As he turned, Lucience raised his weapon toward the new target far too slowly. Adam fired his shot first, the round tearing into the Commander’s exposed abdomen. Lucience staggered backward and tried to bring his own pistol to bear on the Pilgrim, but Adam had already fired again. His second bullet tore into Lucience’s chest. The air knocked from his body and his strength quickly failing him, the Commander slumped against the wall and slid slowly to the ground.
    The Terran who had just walked through the door kicked aside Lucience’s pistol, letting it slide across the smooth floor. The Commander raised his eyes weakly, his breath already failing as his lungs filled with blood, and stared into the face of the second shooter. Raising his gun, Siros, the former bodyguard to the Uligart Alcent, fired round after round into the inert Commander’s body, continuing to fire until the bolt on his pistol locked to the rear and smoke rolled from his barrel. Lowering his pistol, Siros turned to Adam, a sneer painted on his face.
    “I warned him,” Adam said with a shrug.
    As Adam stripped out of the Terran Empire uniform, Siros retrieved one of the hand-held displays and began accessing the files. Nodding in appreciation as he heard Siros’ fingers fly across the keyboard, Adam removed the heavy armor and helmet. By the time he was pulling his own coat from the pack on his back, Siros looked up from the display with a smile.
    “Got them,” he said, the excitement apparent.
    “Both codes?” Adam asked.
    “I can get us into the hangar and send the correct codes to get into the hangar bay on the Ballistae,” Siros explained. “Once we’re there, it’s your show again.”
    The pair of Terrans grabbed the discarded rifles from the bodyguards and ran back out the front door without so much as a glance of disdain of the slain Commander.

    The gunfight continued even as Keryn and Alcent approached the warehouses. The Terran forces had been slaughtered, leaving only pocket resistance. However, many had the same plan that she and her forces did: escape from the planet. Even with their defenses, though, they were quickly overcome as Adam and the rest of the Saboteurs approached from different angles, trapping the Terrans in a crossfire.
    Siros entered the code into the first warehouse and, with a rumble, the large bay doors slid open. As the shafts of light from the revolutionaries’ flashlights danced into the large bay, a stifled cheer erupted from the remaining. Docked within the bay, two large Terran transports sat like solemn metal giants, dwarfing the survivors as they ran inside. Keryn flipped the light switch once the group entered, bathing the ships in warm halogen light. She had waited until everyone was inside not just to ensure the doors were sealed behind them, but to find out how many remained in her force. Her estimates said that there were nearly two thousand Othus survivors when Penchant killed the first Terran earlier that morning. Less than two hundred revolutionaries passed through the large warehouse doors in order to board the Terran transports. Keryn knew that many more remained in the rubble fields, either wounded or unwilling to advance across the ruins out of fear. For those that didn’t make it to the warehouses, they would surely die. Again, she felt the weight of responsibility rest heavily on her shoulders.
    Turning away from the door, Keryn ran toward the nearest ship, whose personnel hatch was now opened. Adam stood by the entrance, smiling broadly. As she approached, he engulfed her in a powerful hug. She let herself melt into his embrace, but pushed away as he squeezed too hard on her broken rib. Sucking in wind, he stared at her, concerned.
    “Don’t worry about it,” she said, waving her hand in dismissal. “Go get the overhead doors open and let’s get off this planet.”
    Adam ran off, finding the controls and engaging the retractable ceiling. As the two halves of the roof retracted, snow cascaded into the lit bay. Keryn watched it fall, magically sparkling in the halogen light. She hoped that once they were off Othus, she never, ever saw snow again.
    As Adam climbed aboard, Keryn gave the thumbs up to Alcent, who piloted the second transport. Feeling the engines rumbling underneath, Keryn settled into the pilot’s chair, feeling at home as her hands slid across the console and control panel. Activating the displays, Keryn watched as Alcent’s ship vanished through the roof. Igniting her own engines, her transport lifted off from the concrete floor, flying gracefully through the retracted ceiling and quickly gaining altitude.
    “Entering the atmosphere,” the radio called as Alcent’s craft passed beyond the gloomy clouds that encircled the planet.
    “Prepare for atmosphere burn,” Keryn called to her own bridge crew, which included Adam and a couple of Avalons she didn’t know.
    The ship shook as the forward displays turned red from friction. The blockish transports caused such heavy gravities as they passed through the atmosphere that even the inhibitors couldn’t compensate. Keryn groaned as she felt the pressure on her chest as the weight pushed downward on her broken rib. Shortly after, however, the transport broke through the atmosphere and the starlit void of space dominated the view screen. Keryn couldn’t hide her smile as she looked upon the view. She had almost forgotten how much she loved the freedom of space travel. Glancing to her right, she saw the same exhilaration mirrored on Adam’s face.
    As Keryn turned the transport and began following Alcent, another view dominated the screen: the Terran Destroyer. The smile quickly faded from Keryn’s face as she saw the countless missile ports and rail guns bristling along the elongated ship.
    “Sending access codes,” the radio said. Almost as an afterthought, Alcent added, “Wish us luck.” He left the communications channel open as he sent the codes, and Siros’ voice rang over the radio. “Ballistae, this is transport vessels AX-04 and AX-05 requesting immediate docking. We’re carrying countless wounded from Miller’s Glen that require immediate medical aid. I am forwarding the access codes for our vessels.”
    The crews of both ships held their combined breath as the seconds ticked by and the Destroyer grew ever closer. She was close enough to see the dark black letters of the word Ballistae on the hull of the ship before they finally got their answer. On the port side of the ship, a hangar bay hatch slid open, inviting both transports.
    As the two ships entered the side of the Terran Destroyer, Keryn turned to Adam. “Let’s go claim our prize.”

CHAPTER 26:

    “Spin number two,” Warrant Iana Morven yelled to the fighter pilot as she stood in front of the craft. The second of the two automatic weapons spun without its ammunition loaded, an audible whir filling the cubicle in which the fighter sat.
    Iana flashed the thumbs up. “Looks good. Go ahead and power her down.”
    Turning, she ran headlong into Yen, who had been standing behind her with his arms folded behind him. Stepping back, she braced in a quick salute, which he returned before a wide grin broke across his face.
    “You really are a jerk,” she said, playfully punching him in the arm. “You could have warned me that you were there.”
    “And miss out on that irritated expression?” he replied. “Not in a million years.”
    The Uligart pilot left the fighter and walked up beside Iana, laughing to himself. Reaching out his hand, he shook Yen’s, nodding in respect to the senior officer.
    “And you could have warned me too, Gregario,” she said, punching him as well.
    “He told me not to,” answered Warrant Pelasi, gesturing toward the Squadron Commander. “You don’t really expect me to disobey a direct order, do you?”
    “Men,” she grumbled to herself as the trio stepped away from the fighter and walked through the cavernous hangar bar.
    “How are the ships looking?” Yen asked as they passed a line of the dart-like Duun fighters.
    “They’re immaculate,” Iana responded, “just as they always are. You wouldn’t have expected any less after ordering me to do another inspection, would you?”
    Yen shook his head as the trio stopped. He watched as one of the lifters loaded crates of ammunition into the back of one of the Cair personnel carriers. Large enough for an assault team, the Cair transports were some of the most instrumental ships in the Squadron. Yen, however, still found pleasure in flying one of the more heavily armed Duun fighters.
    “Do we have enough ammunition and fuel to sustain a multiple-staged assault on the Terran Fleet?” he asked, running through a checklist of questions in his mind.
    “Yes, sir,” Iana said. “Current storehouses of supplies will allow us to conduct three or four prolonged maneuvers in deep space.”
    “Good, good,” Yen replied absently. He had barely heard the response, focusing instead on the complex tactical formations he was planning for their first attack on the Terran vanguard.
    “Sir, if I may,” Gregario interrupted. “You wouldn’t have us conduct such a thorough refit of all the ships unless we were finally ready to engage the enemy. Am I completely off base?”
    “You’re not wrong, Gregario,” he said, turning toward the Uligart.
    “With all do respect, it’s about damn time.”
    Yen smiled and shook his head, disapprovingly. “You’re too enthusiastic for your own good,” he replied, cuffing Warrant Pelasi across the back of the neck. “Don’t let your trigger finger get in the way of your common sense.”
    Gregario leaned closer to Iana. “Does the Squadron Commander really think we forgot about his application of common sense during the Earth invasion? I’m not quite sure where dropping a world landmark on top of an opponent falls into the family of common sense, but I’m guessing it’s somewhere around creepy uncle status.”
    “Or maybe kissing cousin,” Iana helpfully added.
    “Maybe you both would like to discuss genealogy while scrubbing debris from the hull of the ship?” Yen offered. “Seriously, though, I need you both focused. You’re two of my best pilots and we’re going to need all your skill over the next few engagements.”
    “We joke, sir,” Iana replied, “but we’ve been preparing for this ever since we left Earth. We’re ready to kill Terrans.” She put her hand in between the three pilots.
    “Kill Terrans dead,” Gregario said, adding his hand to hers.
    “Deader than shit,” Yen finished, placing his hand on top. He squeezed both their hands before pulling his away and becoming serious once more. “I need you both to make sure we get all the ships inspected, fueled, and loaded with as much ammunition as they can hold. In the Cairs, if the space is not going to be taken by a warm body, I want extra ammunition loaded instead. Believe me when I tell you that we’re going to need everything we’ve got to win the rest of this war.”
    “But we’re going to win, right?” Iana said, her eyebrows arched inquisitively.
    “I made the plan,” he replied, smiling disarmingly. “Of course we’re going to win. Finish up here and get the rest of the pilots together. Can you have everything finished and ready in the next four hours?”
    “Leave it to me, sir,” Gregario said, stepping forward. “I’ll get these pathetic pilot slugs moving. We’ll be ready in four.”
    “Good, then get the pilots together and meet me in the mission analysis room in four hours.”
    Both pilots braced in salute as Yen exited the hangar.

    Nearly a hundred and fifty pilots sat and stood around the spacious analysis room. Their combined conversations echoed throughout the vaulted ceiling, turning their voices into the roar of waves crashing against the rocks; their individual conversations disappeared in the din.
    Iana sat in the front along with Gregario and another group of older pilots, some of whom wore the black blazoned on their grey uniforms signifying them as Duun pilots while others wore the Yellow of the Cair ships. Still others, though few within the room, wore the vibrant green of the resupply vessels and even fewer wore the stark tan of the weapons platforms. Built as simple control bridges surrounded by a dozen plasma missile tubes, the weapons platforms launch massive salvos of missiles, the individual rockets of which could be picked up remotely by the Duun ships and directed through their computers toward the target. The maneuverability of the Duun fighters allowed greater flexibility for the rockets and lessened the chance of them being shot down before reaching the intended enemy ship.
    As Yen entered the room, the roar quieted, all pilots eagerly awaiting the briefing of what was to come. He took his place at the front of the room and remotely dimmed the lights. A spotlight lit the podium and screen behind him.
    “Welcome, Revolution Squadron,” he said as he flipped through the notes on the podium before him. Looking up, he continued. “I originally had a pretty speech prepared that discussed your feelings and the stressors you would experience over the next few days as we accelerated toward the ambush site.”
    The room erupted into a combination of boos, hisses, and laughter.
    “However,” Yen continued, motioning for everyone to quiet down again, “I realized my speech sounded a little too much like one of Captain Hodge’s touchy-feely speeches, so I trashed it and went a different route.”
    Yen pressed a button on the podium and the screen came to life behind him. Depicted in three dimensions was a view of the typical Terran Destroyer, its hull glistening under the spotlight.
    “We’ll be engaging a difficult enemy. We’re expecting approximately twenty-two Terran Destroyers to be entering the system only shortly after we do. The Destroyers possess a dozen forward plasma launchers and twenty forward rail guns. If you do the math, that means our fighters will be flying through a barrage of over two hundred and fifty missiles and nearly five hundred metal slugs. To complicate matters further, they carry nearly the same number of fighters that our ships do. That means that when we get into the thick of battle, there will be literally thousands of fighters weaving and firing into the space between the larger ships.”
    Yen paused, letting the immensity of what they were to face completely sink in with the young pilots. Many of his pilots were new, having replaced those who were killed during the attack on the invading Terran ships nearly a year ago. They didn’t see action on Earth, meaning that their combat experience was entirely simulated during training at the Academy. The fear in their eyes was apparent as he continued.
    “Keep the sheer enormity of our upcoming conflict in the back of your mind while I continue.”
    Pressing a button, the image shifted to the display of the galaxy, very similar to what he and Captain Hodge had used to war game earlier.
    “We will be arriving in the galaxy only shortly before the Terran Fleet. It won’t leave a lot of time for decision making once we begin deceleration, so pay close attention. Once we enter the system, our Cruisers will split into four groups and maneuver toward one of these four gas giants. We are going to enter into the gas giants and use them as the launching point for the ambush. Terran sensors will not be able to penetrate the charged clouds of the gas giant, making the Alliance Fleet virtually invisible.”
    Yen could see a number of hands raised throughout the room, but he ignored them as he continued.
    “Once the Cruisers are in position, the fighters will deploy and take up positions around their vessels. Short distance communications will still be effective, so we’ll be able to maintain contact while inside the atmosphere of the planet. When we get the signal that the Terrans have entered the galaxy, the Cruisers will exit the planet and engage with salvos. The element of surprise will be with us, with the Terrans not even having time to deploy their fighters before the missiles are on their way.
    “At that time, Teams One through Five will form up in spear formations and engage enemy fighters. Team Six and Seven will pick up missiles fired from the weapons platforms and begin maneuvering toward the enemy Destroyers. Cair Teams will be in reserve until the enemy ships have been breached and we’re ready for assault teams.”
    Yen turned off the monitor behind him and looked at the multitude of raised hands. “Listen, nothing I’ve told you about the tactics of our Squadron is unique. These are tactics taught to every one of you in the Academy. The truth is, I thought about trying new strategies, but we just don’t have the time. The success of this mission will rely entirely on each of you being able to think on your feet and how well you can dodge enemy fire. Now, let’s get to questions.”
    Pointing at some of the pilots in the back, Yen answered a series of mundane and routine questions about timetables and rates of fire for the larger salvos. While it was important information in order to time maneuvers so that the Squadron avoided the fire from the Cruisers behind, Yen knew it wasn’t the burning question that had yet to be asked. Knowing that Iana would be the one to ask, he intentionally avoided calling on her as long as possible. Finally, with the other questions exhausted, he pointed toward her.
    “Sir,” she began hesitantly. “You mentioned that the Alliance Fleet would leave the cloud cover once the Terran Fleet enters the galaxy.”
    “That is correct, Warrant Morven.”
    “Sir, if the cloud cover will distort the Terran sensors to the point that they will not be able to detect us in the gas giants, won’t the clouds also wreak havoc on our own sensors?”
    “Yes, they will,” he replied, edging her toward the question she wanted to ask.
    “Then how do you propose we know when the Terran Fleet…” she stopped in mid sentence, the realization striking her. “The only way we’d know is if someone stayed outside the atmosphere and acted as a spotter.”
    “The radio will still transmit between the spotter and the Fleet if they remain in a low orbit around the planet,” Yen explained.
    “But the pilot won’t be protected from Terran sensors,” Gregario added. “The second he’s spotted, the Terrans will open fire and he’ll be destroyed. It’s a suicide mission!”
    “I know that, Warrant Pelosi,” Yen said calmly. “That’s why I’m volunteering for it.”

CHAPTER 27:

    “Security and medical teams to hangar bay alpha,” the intercom called throughout the Ballistae as the two transport ships docked amidst the massive bay. Behind the ships, the large exterior doors closed and sealed and oxygen flooded the chamber. When the vacuum of space had been purged from the bay, the personnel doors leading into the depths of the Destroyer slid open and Terrans rushed into the room. Security forces and medical teams jockeyed for position near the rear doors of each of the transports, ready to receive the wounded soldiers inside. They waited with eager anticipation as the rear hatches of both transports slowly descended, revealing the dark interiors. As the first of the security guards stepped onto the lowered platform of AX-05, a single gunshot rang out and the guard jerked and stood rigid. Slowly, he tumbled backwards and splayed on the cold metal floor of the hangar bay.
    From within the darkened transports, revolutionaries flooded out of the two ships, firing into the surprised Terrans as they advanced. The front lines of security guards crumpled under the hail of gunfire. Medical personnel dropped med kits and stretchers and turned to run, only to be mowed down by automatic fire. The floor quickly grew slick with blood. A smaller group of remaining Terrans ran for the doors, attempting to escape into the maze of passages within the Destroyer. In the lead, one of the medics slapped the sensor to open the metal doors. Painfully slowly, the doors cracked open with a hiss, the oxygenated interior of the ship depressurizing to match that of the bay. As the doors slid open, the medic pulled in vain against the door, trying to pry it open. As he slid his head into the widening gap, a bullet caught him in the base of the neck, tearing through his spine and shattering his jaw before coating the far side of the doors with red gore. Slumping in the doorway, the others tried to climb over his body and escape.
    Keryn stepped over a nearby body and adjusted her aim toward the second Terran fighting his way through the door. With only one path of escape, the security and medical personnel bunched into a tight group, making it easy to execute them one at a time. Beside her, Adam’s large bore rifle roared, catching a security guard in the chest and tossing his body into the side of their transport ship. As the other revolutionaries slaughtered the guards who stood and fought against the ambush, they turned their attention to the escaping Terrans. Their combined fire tore through those bunched at the door. Keryn could see a few escaping into the outer hallway, but she didn’t bother giving chase. She wanted a few to escape; she had no problem with them sending assault teams against her forces. It made it easier to clear the ship if they all came to her instead of her hunting for them.
    As her troops gathered weapons from the dead Terrans, Keryn took a moment to examine the wide bay. The transports had landed unceremoniously in the middle of the bay instead of taking one of the docking alcoves along each wall. Though a number of the alcoves were empty from ships and bombers that had flown to the planet’s surface, more than two dozen fighters towered from their docks, their missile racks and forward rail guns gleaming wickedly in the strong overhead light. Closing her eyes, she breathed deeply the combined smell of the hangar. Scents of oil and sweat assaulted her nostrils, the smells of crew chiefs and mechanics working diligently on ship repairs. Though many found the smells offensive, Keryn had always known that they were an essential part of her ability to fly. To a pilot, the smells of grease and labor were their own brand of pheromone.
    “The bay is clear,” Adam said next to her, nudging a Terran body with the tip of his boot.
    Keryn opened her eyes and smiled. The Voice knew there was much more fighting to be done and was growing excited. She turned to her gathered forces and started separating them into assault teams of twenty soldiers each. The Destroyer was enormous and it would take too long to clear if they stayed as a whole. Keeping Adam with her, she chose her combatants from the crowd. When the teams were identified, she began sending them into the hallway outside the bay, sending some off to the right toward the front of the ship and some off to the left, heading toward the engines and storage chambers. Though it pained her to do, she sent Alcent and his team to clear the bridge. She wanted that honor herself, but knew that motivation for her soldiers would come only if they saw her doing the same legwork that they were. And, if she was right, most of the resistance wouldn’t be at the bridge. Instead, she led her own team through the door and they set off to the left with a wave and wishes of good luck.
    The wide, sterile metal hallways were decorated plainly, with gold and blue colored runners designating the royal colors of the Terran Empire tracing the curves of the walls. Side hallways split off regularly from the maze of passages and Keryn was suddenly aware that she wasn’t sure if she’d be able to find her way back to the hangar after they completed their mission. She couldn’t trace the way they came, but she kept on an undeviating path forward, constantly following the soft hum of the Destroyer’s engines. Occasionally, she paused, straining to decipher the true engine noises from the echoes which reverberated off the metal walls. Often, the ricocheting sound made it seem as though the engines were behind her, but she kept moving forward, not allowing herself or her men to get confused by the disorienting sounds.
    Keryn could hear bursts of gunfire coming from ahead and knew that at least a few of her groups had encountered resistance. After passing a few more side passages, which her team now checked cautiously before advancing past, she began passing bodies lying in the hall. Terrans mixed with revolutionaries sprawled both dead and dying along the passage. Without pausing to treat those who fell, Keryn continued advancing toward the engine room. She knew that with the engines in the hands of the Terrans, she stood no chance of getting out of orbit. Quite the opposite, if the Terrans decided that the ship was lost, they could overload the fuel cells charging the massive engines and destroy the entire ship. Alcent would have the glory of taking the bridge and killing the Captain, but Keryn and Adam would do well with the knowledge that they saved everyone on board from certain death.
    Their team approached the numerous criss-crossing hallways cautiously, always anticipating a Terran ambush. Because of her caution, the approach to the rear of the ship took far longer than she had anticipated. Eventually, her team came across wide stairs leading up to the decks containing crew living quarters and another set leading down, deeper into the bowels of the ship. Hallways fanned away from the stairs in a star pattern, the stairwell being a focal point for movement through the rear section of the ship. Glancing only quickly up the stairs, knowing that one of her teams should have already begun clearing that direction, Keryn led her team down the staircase. Their boots clicked loudly on the metal stairs as they walked five abreast toward the bottom level of the ship.
    The layout of most star ships was deceptive to those who had not spent a lot of time aboard Cruisers and Destroyers. The rear section of the ship had multiple levels above the middle floor, often considered “ground zero”. However, in larger ships, a single floor dominated the space below ground zero. The massive engines that filled the rear of the vessels dominated the void between ground zero and lower floors.
    As Keryn led the way down flight after flight of stairs, she knew they were quickly approaching the engine room as the sound turned from a hum to a rumble, one that could be felt through the vibrations running through all the walls. Before long, they would come across the first doorway as they moved toward the engine room. The first door, she knew, would lead to the catwalks above the enormous engines. Further down the stairs, a second, wider set of doors would grant access to the ground floor of the engine room. Unfortunately for her, Keryn’s twenty-man team would have to cover both entrances, which meant dividing her small force even smaller.
    Ahead, the stairs intersected a landing, the far side of which held a single metal door and an activation panel. Even through the thick metal, she could feel the vibrations from the engines under her feet. Wordlessly, she split her force, directing Adam to lead the second force to the ground floor while her team entered onto the catwalks. It was a risky maneuver, leaving herself exposed on the grated and narrow walkways, but it was the only way to ensure no Terrans were able to gain a defensive position on her team as they cleared the room. As Keryn stepped toward the door, Adam placed a hand on her arm.
    “Be careful in there,” he whispered, his caution unnecessary since his words were mostly drowned out by the rumbling engines. “I want you coming back to me when all this is over.”
    Keryn smiled. She longed to kiss him for luck, but knew she needed to maintain the soldier persona and not let herself appear emotional in front of her troops. “I will. Kill Terrans dead, okay?”
    “Will do,” he replied as he turned and led his men down the wide stairs. Turning back to her own troops, she moved to the door and paused. She wanted to give Adam a couple minutes to reach the bottom floor before she entered to ensure any Terrans inside would have two forces to engage instead of ganging up on hers alone. She knew the ship was running on a skeleton crew, proven time and again by the minimal resistance they encountered on the way here, but she didn’t want to become lackadaisical and cause her soldiers to be slaughtered.
    After doing a mental count, Keryn activated the control panel beside the door and crouched defensively as the doors slid open. She was quickly overwhelmed as the rumbling engines transformed into a deafening roar as the doors opened. Though she had felt the vibrations through the metal doors, they had been holding back the tidal wave of noise emitted by the massive engines. And massive they were, Keryn realized as she moved cautiously through the doorway. Narrow metal catwalks extended like a spider’s web above the twin engines, both of which dominated the already enormous engine room. Standing nearly sixty feet in diameter each, both engines rested in cradles that allowed mechanics to work on all sides of the engine simultaneously, including underneath the gargantuan machines. Heat rolled from front vents on the engines and the entire room reeked of burning fuel. Normally, permanent crews used masks and carried hearing protection in order to survive extended periods of time inside the rooms. Keryn quickly understood why as she started feeling lightheaded as her the sight of the engines, the deafening sound, the stifling heat, and the pungent smell assaulted senses again. Glancing through the grated floor, vertigo threatened to overwhelm her. She felt a hand on her shoulder and turned to see an Avalon watching her, concerned. Though she could see her unease reflected on his face, Keryn took strength from the sight of her troops standing supportively behind her. Sequestering her dizziness, she stood tall and stepped onto the closest catwalk.
    Keryn glanced around the darkened room. Many of the lights seemed to be shut down, letting her know that someone within the room expected her team. She peered into the shadowy catwalks, searching for shooters amongst the juts and twists of the metal floors as the walkways bent around the curves of the large engines. Knowing someone was there made her cautious, but she was still unable to see anything threatening. Looking over the railing, she saw Adam’s team come through the lower doors, spreading out quickly across the open floor. On either side of the engines stood a pair of rear rail guns. Though a battery of plasma missile launchers protected the ship’s flank, the explosives couldn’t be stored in such a volatile room. Instead, the heavy, magnetized metal slugs were used to defend the engines from pursuing enemies. From her vantage point, no Terran soldiers guarded the engines, the weapon positions, or the heavy non-metallic alloy loaders that were used to carry the heavy slugs to the awaiting rails. The engine room looked deserted.
    Giving directions to her team, they spread out along the catwalks, segregating her already small team into two man fire teams in order to blanket the entire upper walkways. Keryn’s fear remained. Even if a Terran fired at her team from within the room, the noisy engines would drown out the weapon’s report. Without hearing the shot, she had no way to know if other members of her team were in danger.
    She and the Avalon moved slowly across the outer catwalk, scanning the dark nooks for movement or glints off metallic rifles. However, after covering nearly half the engine room, they still failed to encounter any resistance.
    They’re here, the Voice whispered. I can sense them in the air. Don’t get complacent. Be ready for anything.
    Knowing that enemies were inside the room did not prepare her when they chose to attack. As she and the Avalon approached the stairwell on the far side of the engine room, the Avalon staggered, his blood pouring from a gunshot wound in his chest. Stumbling backward, his legs struck the railing and he tumbled over. Lacking the strength to spread his wings to break his fall, he plummeted over sixty feet to the ground below. Dropping into a crouch, Keryn scanned the room and watched in horror as Terrans flooded out from their hidden alcoves all around the room. Even with the engines roaring, she could hear the sound of exchanging gunfire.
    A Terran stepped onto the platform near the stairs that led down to the ground floor and opened fire on her position. Already crouched, Keryn sprung from the catwalk as a round grazed her shoulder, landing gracefully on top of the machinery nearby. The Terran paused, not eager to shoot at the massive engine, and Keryn used the opening to fire two shots into his chest, dropping him on the spot. Turning, she sprinted across the engine, weaving between its metallic outcroppings, and fired into the Terran forces spreading across the upper catwalks. Below, she could hear more gunfire and knew that Adam was similarly engaged. Using a metal box on top of the engine as a spring board, Keryn vaulted over a nearby railing, slamming the butt of her pistol into the face of a Terran sniper. She smiled maliciously as she felt the bones shatter under the strike. As the sniper dropped his rifle and lurched backward, horrified and clutching his face, Keryn chose not to waste a bullet and, instead, kicked the Terran squarely in the chest. The Terran tumbled over the railing and slammed into the curve of the second engine. Bouncing, the Terran went limp halfway through his fall as he struck a metal beam.
    Perusing the catwalks, Keryn fired a few more shots into the gathering Terrans. Though the element of surprise had worked in their favor, she quickly realized there was only a small group of Terrans guarding the upper catwalks. Nearly half of her forces lay dead, but the other five had already regrouped and were in the process of killing the last of the snipers hiding throughout the walkways. Knowing that her remaining soldiers could handle the rest of the catwalks, Keryn ran to the stairs and bound, two at a time, toward the ground floor where Adam’s team was still engaged in heavy fighting.
    The stairwell twisted its way through and over the massive machines, leaving her on the far side of the twin engines once she finally reached the room’s bottom level. Scanning her immediate area, she didn’t notice any Terrans. It wasn’t surprising to her, since she knew most would have left this side to engage Adam’s team near the far rail gun. As she turned to make her way in that direction, a shadow detached itself from beneath the engine and launched itself at her.
    The Terran slammed into her, his large body tacking Keryn to the ground, knocking her pistol free from her grip. As she slammed into the floor, her head missing a bucket full of long metal bolts by inches, the Terran shoved his hand into her stomach, forcing the air from her lungs and throwing his weight against her already broken rib. She let out a cry of pain as water filled her eyes. Blinking away the tears, she looked up just in time to move her head out of the way of a descending wrench. The tool struck the metal floor and sent a shower of sparks splashing against Keryn’s face.
    Her hand shot forward as the Terran brought the wrench up for another swing, catching his wrist. Growling in rage, the Terran punched her in her broken rib and Keryn felt her arm buckling from the pain. She tried squirming out from underneath his weight, but he moved his own body to keep her trapped beneath his. Fighting to keep the wrench from crashing down on top of her, Keryn brought her knee up in between their two bodies, keeping the Terran at bay.
    The Terran lifted his weight momentarily before throwing himself forward again, trying to crush Keryn beneath his body. She felt her knee strain from the force and bit back another yelp of pain. Growling as he tried to shake her hand free of his wrist, he lifted his body again. Quickly taking advantage of the situation, Keryn slid her other leg between them, catching the Terran’s mass with both of her feet. Pushing off, she used her legs to shove the Terran from her. Stumbling backward in surprise, the Terran staggered toward the rail gun. Though still over twenty feet away, the magnetic pull from the rails ripped the metal wrench from his hand, sending the Terran spinning before he collapsed onto the ground near the gun mount. The wrench flew through the air as the Terran spun, clanging loudly onto one of the rails. As the Terran began to stand, Keryn quickly looked around. Her pistol lay far out of reach, coming to rest far away from where the two struggled against each other. Looking to her left, searching now for any improvised weapon, she saw the bucket, bolts spilling over its brim. Smiling impishly, she grabbed the bucket and flung it toward the man. As it spun, the heavy metal bolts spilled free of the bucket before being caught in the rail gun’s magnetic field. Standing, the Terran watched in horror as dozens of deadly metallic projectiles flashed toward him. His body being between Keryn and the rail gun, the blunt bolts slammed into him one after another, tearing through his flesh and gouging strips from his arms and legs. When the bolts struck his chest and abdomen, they bored through his soft flesh, pulled unavoidably toward the rail gun by insanely strong magnetic forces. The bolts dug through organs and muscle, leaving tepid waste to fill their holes in their wake. As the last of the bolts finished its gruesome trek through his body, the bucket slammed into his skull. His neck twisting at an unnatural angle, the Terran collapsed to the ground.
    Keryn stood slowly, wincing as she put weight on her injured knee and breathing through hitched breaths as the pain spread through her ribs. Retrieving her pistol, she moved around the engines, using the massive machines for support. By the time she made it to the far side, Adam and his three remaining soldiers stood among the slaughtered Terrans, nursing their own wounds. The tissue on Adam’s right thigh was torn, as though from shrapnel. Her own team slowly descended the stairs to the ground floor. Together, eight of the original twenty troops in Keryn’s team had survived the invasion of the engine room. Limping, everyone wounded, the team made its way to the exit, dreading the painful climb back up the stairs. As they exited the room and the metal doors slid shut behind them, Keryn heard the exhilarated calls over the radio. One by one, teams reported in that their missions were completed. Above all the others, Keryn could hear Alcent calling enthusiastically that the bridge had been taken with no shots fired. The Captain and her crew had surrendered without a fight. As Alcent finished his announcement over their radios, the intercom leapt to life above Keryn’s head.
    “Attention to all Terrans still on board,” Alcent’s voice called out. “The Revolutionaries of Othus,” Keryn could hear the capitalized words in his speech, “have taken control of the Ballistae. The Captain has unconditionally surrendered to our forces and now requests that you do the same to avoid further bloodshed.”
    The speaker went dead momentarily, before coming to life again with a woman’s voice reading a clearly rehearsed script. “This is Captain Wajitri,” the female announced, “Captain…”
    Her words cut short by a growling voice. “Stick to the script,” the voice called from a distance.
    The Captain began again. “…former Captain of the Ballistae. I have surrendered to the Revolutionaries of Othus and request that all those loyal to the Empire lay down their arms and surrender. Those surrendering to the Revolutionaries will be treated humanely under the Interstellar Alliance Code of Ethics. Any found resisting will be killed slowly by patrolling guards.”
    The intercom went dead again and Keryn’s radio crackled on her private channel. “Keryn, this is Alcent,” the Uligart’s voice said quietly into her earpiece.
    Keryn depressed the talk button. “This is Keryn. Congratulations on your bloodless victory. Wish I could say it was that easy down here at the engine room.”
    “It’s at least good to hear that you’re still alive,” Alcent said, continuing his nearly whispering tone. “Adam still with you as well?”
    “Yes,” Keryn replied, wincing again as a sharp pain shot through her side. “Yes, he’s still very much alive.” She couldn’t quite tell if she could hear disappointment in Alcent’s responding sigh.
    “I’ve got reports coming in from around the ship. It sounds like the few remaining Terran loyalists are surrendering in waves. I…” he paused, seemingly embarrassed. “I didn’t really plan this out. We got them to surrender but I’m not really sure what to do with them now.”
    “Take all the captives, gather them together, and jettison them out of the closest airlock,” she said harshly.
    “What about the Code of Ethics?” Alcent asked, surprised.
    “I’ve never read it,” she replied. “Have you?”
    Keryn could virtually see the smile spread across his lips. “No, I can’t say that I have. Not a lot of use for the Code of Ethics in the smuggling business.”
    “Then find the closest airlock and send them on their merry way. I’ll be on my way up to the bridge, but it’s going to take me a while. In the meantime, set a course for the Falitan Galaxy. We’re heading to a planet called Beracus. I’ll join you on the bridge once you’ve finished with our prisoners.”
    She turned to Adam, who already looked crestfallen. Following his gaze, she peered up the tall flights of stairs ahead of them. Her shoulders sagged as she started counting the metal stairs, stopping when the number became too depressing. Feeling the pain in her knee and seeing Adam’s wounded leg, she frowned.
    “This is going to take a while.”

CHAPTER 28:

    The heavy gravities caused during the slingshots around the gas giants took their toll on the crew. Many didn’t sleep well at night and woke in the mornings with muscles aching as though they had spent the entire previous day in the gym. The weight of the increased gravities felt a like a lead foot being pressed against their chests, making their lungs scream for air with every breath. For Yen, especially, the sore muscles and difficulty breathing only added to his sour mood. Aside from answering questions from his pilots about tactics and flight formations, Yen kept to himself during the accelerations.
    He filled his time with thoughts of strategy and flight formations, making assumptions about Terran tactics and how best to exploit their weaknesses. He knew the Terran ships bunched together for better defensive overlap from their rail guns and fighter interceptors. If one of the ships exploded, it usually did collateral damage to the Destroyers nearby. Though they tried against the invading Terran ships a year ago, the Alliance had been unable to slip a large enough explosive to destroy one of their ships outright past their intricately woven defensive grid.
    In the one conflict between the Terran Empire and the Interstellar Alliance, most of the ships that each side lost had been due to destroyed engines and disabled weaponry. The ships had floated listlessly in the combat, the massive bulks acting as flotsam and jetsam around which the smaller fighters had swarmed. Yen surmised that it was possible to cause a massive explosion in one of the Terran ships were a fighter able to sneak some of the plasma missiles past the defenses and strike either the weapon bays with its volatile plasma warheads or drive a rocket into the fuel cells in the rear of the ship. But maneuvering missiles to those locations while dodging machine gun fire, enemy rockets and fighters, and metal slugs from both sides was near impossible.
    The intricate battle planning had given Yen a headache to add to the aching muscles. As a result, he was pleased when Captain Hodge came over the intercom and notified the Fleet that they had arrived and were beginning decelerations. While Yen was ferried by elevator to the bridge, the weight lifted from his chest and he nearly collapsed in surprise at the first lung full of breath he’d had in days. As the door opened, Yen stepped onto the bridge and, for the first time, laid eyes on the galaxy that he had seen so many times in simulation.
    The small sun was dormant, producing no light. The two dark spheres of the closest planets floated like voids in space; two black spots behind which the stars could not be seen. In front of the Revolution, however, the four gas giants spun lazily in their elliptical orbit around the sun. The bodies, bloated and swollen, remained lit from within as arcs of lightning danced between the cloud layers. The violets and blues of the planets’ clouds stood backlit momentarily before the electrical charge scurried toward another pair of clouds in the atmosphere.
    “It will still be another three hours until we’ve reached orbit around the planets,” Captain Hodge said from the helm. “That gives me three hours to build up the nerve to fly this massive kite into that even larger thunderstorm. It doesn’t give me a very warm feeling.”
    “Have no fear, Captain,” Yen replied. “Those are enormous bolts of lightning. If you do get struck, you won’t live long enough to feel it.”
    “You’re not helping,” the Captain said dryly.
    They stood for a while in silence, both watching the majesty of the gas giants and the deadly storms brewing just beneath their surfaces. The planets grew only slightly closer in the time they watched, the distances between the ships and their destinations were deceptive in the enormity of space. After nearly an hour of silence had passed, Captain Hodge activated the Fleet-wide channel.
    “Attention all Captains,” she said, her voice carrying to the bridges of nearly three-dozen Cruisers. “We have reached the separation point. Starburst at this time and take up your positions in your respective planets. This will be the last time we talk before the battle begins. Good luck to all of you and may your aim be true.”
    She switched off the channel and turned to Yen. “It’s time, Squadron Commander. Be safe out there and come back to us.”
    “Don’t worry, ma’am,” Yen answered coolly. “I have no intention of dying out there.”
    With a quick salute, Yen left the bridge, taking the elevator down to the hangar bay. He zipped up the front of his flight suit, and pulled on his insulated gloves before opening the door to the bay. As he made his way across the open floor, he was not surprised to see all the pilots from Teams Six and Seven gathered around his fighter.
    “Separation anxiety?” Yen asked as he approached.
    “Oh, you big jerk,” Iana answered as the spokeswoman for the group. “You know we couldn’t just let you leave without a proper goodbye.”
    They all spoke at once as he got near. Yen was quickly inundated with a hundred different handshakes and wishes for a safe trip. As they finished their goodbyes, the pilots left the group one by one until only Iana and Gregario remained by the ship.
    “So,” Gregario said, breaking the awkward silence.
    “So,” Yen agreed.
    “Make sure you’re…” Iana began before Yen cut her off mid-sentence.
    “Please, please don’t give me another ‘make sure you’re safe’ speech. I expect more originality out of you than that.”
    Iana punched him playfully on the arm and gave her best impersonation of a scowl.
    “Don’t go,” she said.
    “Well, that one is a little more original,” Yen replied. “But you know that just isn’t an option for me.”
    “I know,” she said, handing him his helmet. “But you can’t blame a girl for trying.”
    “She’s completely loaded with ammunition and fuel,” Gregario said, patting the side of the fighter and changing the tense conversation. “She’ll take you… well, as far as you need to go.”
    “You two are acting like I’m never going to see you again,” Yen said, exasperated.
    “You did volunteer for a suicide mission, sir,” Gregario answered. “That does preclude us to believe we’re not going to see you again.”
    “Just who do you think you’re talking to?” Yen asked, surprised. “You don’t honestly think I’d volunteer for a mission that had no chance of survival, do you? You both just be ready to cover my six once the battle begins. I’ll be all alone until you guys get there.”
    “We’ve never let you down before,” Iana said, smiling. “We won’t let you down this time. You stay alive until we get out of the atmosphere of the planet and I guarantee we’ll be there to save your ass.”
    “Then can I get you two off my fighter so I can start the pre-launch checks?” Yen asked, pushing Iana off the wing. He paused as she moved, revealing the improvement they had made to the side of his ship. The pair of pilots were smiling broadly as he turned toward them.
    “Surprise,” Gregario said anti-climactically.
    “We thought it was a fitting tribute,” Iana said, pointing at the newly renamed fighter.
    Where previously the words Duun Nathur had been painted on the side of the black fighter, they were now replaced with bright white letters reading Duun Riddell, Keryn’s last name.
    “I’m speechless,” Yen said, running his fingers along the letters of her name.
    “Quit screwing around and be speechless during your pre-flight checks,” Iana replied as the two walked toward the exit to the hangar. “You’ll be late for your own suicide mission if you don’t.”
    Before they reached the door, they turned around once more. “We left you another present in your computer files to watch when you get bored hanging out there in space all alone,” Gregario yelled, his deep voice carrying across the cavernous room.
    As they left the room, Yen slid his helmet over his head and climbed into the cockpit, automatically closing the hatch behind him. He checked the series of lights on the display in front of him as he started up the ignition process. The smaller engines on the back of the ship pushed the fighter out of its cubicle as it taxied into the middle of the room. Turning the ship, Yen faced toward the enormous bay doors that sealed the far end of the room.
    “Captain, this is Squadcom,” he said into his attached microphone. “I am in position and ready for launch.”
    “Good luck, Commander,” she replied, her voice taking a digital tone through the speakers in his cockpit. “We are depressurizing the hangar now and preparing to open the bay doors. Keep in contact with us during your flight to ensure we have good communication.”
    “Roger that, ma’am. Open the bay doors when ready.”
    The hissing filled the room as they vented the breathable air in the room and matched the pressure of space beyond the bay doors. When the hissing stopped, Yen lifted the safeguard on his main engine ignition switch and watched the end of the runway. Slowly, the bay doors slid apart, the stars twinkling into existence in the gap between. When the doors were open slightly wider than the length of his wingspan, a green light lit up on his display and he threw the switch.
    The ignition of the main rocket threw his head back against the cushioned headrest, which conformed to support his head and neck from injury during the intense acceleration. As he passed through the doors and exited into open space, Yen pulled back on the controls and circled around the Revolution, falling into place just above the rear of the ship.
    “I am clear of the ship and in position,” Yen said, his message being relayed to the bridge.
    “Good to hear, Commander,” the Captain replied. “Stay in contact as we approach the planet.”

CHAPTER 29:

    Keryn spent the next few days bedridden in the infirmary as a cocktail of quick-healing chemicals and enzymes coursed through her system, repairing the broken rib, damaged knee, and internal injuries. Adam had been in the bed next to her on the first day as the superficial wounds on his leg healed, but by day two he was up and moving, though he still spent a significant amount of time at her bedside. He held her hand, caressing it gently and lending support as she went through the more painful stages of her rehabilitation. Though his words were comforting, it was the information he brought that was more valuable.
    “Alcent has established a ruling council for the ship,” Adam explained to her on the second day as she lay in bed. Sweat beaded on her brow as the chemicals coursed through her system, setting fire to her nerves. Her body tense from the pain, she maintained a crushing grip on his hand.
    “And what…” she began through clenched teeth. Her breathing was labored, making speech painful in between gasps of air. “What does he intend to do with this council?”
    Adam shrugged. “The council has yet to meet because they’re waiting for you.”
    “Me?” Keryn asked, surprised. “Why does he want me?”
    “They want both of us,” Adam explained. “We’re seen as beacons of the hard-earned freedom from Miller’s Glen. They don’t just want diplomats on the council; people who will get bogged down in the bureaucratic double speak that everyone is already too familiar with. What they want are people of action, and they can’t think of two people who epitomize action better than you and me.”
    “And I’m assuming Alcent is on the council?”
    Adam nodded, knowing what she was insinuating. “Yes, he’s on the council. Yes, it’s a position of power, which is more than a little self-serving for Alcent. But I think he’s doing the right thing.”
    Keryn glowered at him. “’The right thing’? Alcent doesn’t know the meaning of that phrase.”
    Shrugging, Adam explained. “A lot of people have questions right now, questions that aren’t readily available. They want to know where we’re going and why. People are afraid. Just because we’ve escaped the planet doesn’t mean we’re free yet. We still don’t know how long we’ll be able to fly before we encounter another Terran Destroyer.”
    Keryn squeezed her eyes shut as frustration rolled through her body. “Haven’t we started going through the computer?”
    “We have,” Adam said, sighing. “We have, but what we found isn’t very promising.” He leaned forward and kissed her forehead. “There’s a lot of information and only a few people capable of working the systems. It’ll take time to sort through all the data.”
    Standing, Adam stroked her hair and gave her a warm smile. “I’ll come back and visit you later. Get feeling better.” Keryn smiled as warmly as her body would allow before Adam turned and left the infirmary. Once he was out of sight, the smile faded from her lips. Though her body would heal, she wasn’t sure she would be feeling better about their situation any time soon. Even if she chose to ignore the fact that she was taking a group of emotionally and physically defeated survivors to a planet that guaranteed further violence between them and the Terrans, she still had to worry about the devious loyalties of Alcent. The Uligart had loyalties that extended only as far as his own financial or physical well-being. Alcent had been a good ally of opportunity when she needed help on Othus, but she didn’t think him trustworthy enough to lead a council who would make decisions that would benefit an entire ship worth of survivors. Then again he was a smuggler, a profession that based its existence on deceit and lies. Maybe that made him the most qualified politician out of the entire group.
    Later in the day, Keryn was able to get out of bed and move freely around the ship. She was grateful for her freedom. Though Adam’s presence was soothing, when he wasn’t around she was left only with the company of the Voice, whose lack of patience was only surpassed by her own. Too many days of bed rest resulted in sniping comments both inside her mind and directed at anyone unfortunate enough to walk by her bed. When she left the infirmary, the nursing staff was glad to see her go.
    Adam walked by her side as they made their way toward the bridge. Her rib had healed as had the injured knee, but the increased gravity from the deep space travel still took its toll on her body. They paused often, usually at the base or top of stairwells, which allowed Keryn to view the damage to the ship.
    The Terrans had manned the ship with only a skeleton crew, but they had put up a significant fight as the revolutionaries hunted them throughout the corridors. Holes and scars marred the once pristinely painted walls. Near the base of the closest set of stairs, the tiles were cracked and loose and the walls around were charred and black, signs of exchanged grenades between the two forces. If they intended to remain in the Ballistae, there would need to be a significant amount of work done. First and foremost would be removing the gold and blue runners that were painted along all the hallways of the ship, constant reminders of the Terran Empire.
    As the pair approached the bridge, a man wearing a dirty jacket approached them both.
    “Excuse me,” the man said in a stern, confident voice that belied his worn appearance. “Alcent has gathered the rest of the council in the War Room and requests your presence.”
    Keryn and Adam followed the messenger to the War Room, a blockish room with a U-shaped table dominating the center of the room. At the base of the U, holding a position of power, sat Alcent. As the two entered, he motioned to a pair of empty chairs on his right. No sooner had she collapsed into the chair than Alcent began his rehearsed speech.
    “We are a lost people,” Alcent began. “Our homes destroyed and our land forgotten, we’re wanderers in the void of space. We have no goal, no aim, no sense of direction. The longer we drift the more we lose our sense of self. We need a purpose and a goal. For that, I defer to our saviors. Of all those who fought in the Glen, two were the voice that launched a revolution. Ladies and gentlemen, I give to you Keryn Riddell and Adam Decker, the Heroes of the Revolution!”
    Applause erupted in the small room as a mixture of faces and species cheered the two sitting at the head of the table. Keryn smiled sheepishly, unsure of how to react but sure that this was Alcent’s desired reaction. As the applause slowly died away, Alcent turned to Keryn.
    “Please, Keryn,” he said comfortingly. “You set us free and got us a ship. Adam even gave directions on where we were going, but did not give an explanation of why. Enlighten us.”
    His last statement ended without any of the compassion she had heard moments before. Keryn quickly realized that Alcent was not fond of being kept in the dark. For someone who made his wealth off information, she could understand his position quite well.
    “There’s no sense in being coy,” Keryn said matter-of-factly. “We’re heading to a Terran scientific outpost.”
    She was unsure of whether or not the ruling council heard the words “scientific outpost”. The mere mention of flying from one Terran stronghold straight to another sent the council members into an uproar. They spoke over themselves as they yelled to be heard so that only small amounts of conversation could be heard.
    “…insanity…”
    “…a suicide mission…”
    “…she should be removed immediately.”
    Adam slammed his fist onto the table. In surprise, the room hushed. All faces turned to the angry Pilgrim, whose face was flush red.
    “We just left Miller’s Glen and you’re already squabbling like children!” Adam yelled into the quiet room. Many of the council members flinched away from his berating. “Keryn saved every one of your lives, but do you really believe that the insignificant numbers of lives in Miller’s Glen are the only ones in danger in the entire universe?”
    Keryn placed a hand on Adam’s arm and the anger drained from his face. Looking slightly embarrassed, he took his seat. In his stead, Keryn stood.
    “Adam, while enthusiastic, is also correct,” she began, her voice clearly carrying in the large room. “It’s great to know that everyone that survived Miller’s Glen is now safely aboard the Ballistae. You’re all safe now from a dormant star, which is no longer shining its light down upon your planet. But that’s only one sun. We’re talking about one sun in all of Alliance space. I know there’s still a lot of data to go through in the ship’s computer, but I can guarantee that what happened to us is happening throughout the universe.”
    Keryn moved around the table, allowing the eyes of a dozen different council members follow her. “Every one of you made your money through smuggling and trade. Who will you trade with when everyone else is dead? I know that you all can’t be so self-serving as to believe that escaping Miller’s Glen was the end of all your problems.”
    She continued to walk around the table as she continued. “The bottom line is that the Terrans created this mess and have to be the only ones with the solution to the Deplitoxide that destroyed the sun. We know that the Deplitoxide was farmed from a small swamp planet called Beracus, in the Falitan Galaxy. The Terrans have set up a scientific outpost there, which is where we’ll find the information we need to restart the dying suns throughout the universe.
    Keryn stood at the open end of the tables, her arms crossed and staring at the council. She closed her eyes, letting the Voice creep into her words. “Note that I didn’t, at any time, phrase our destination or our intent in the form of a question. My mission is unchanged, regardless of the crew with whom I serve. If, at any point, you feel that you cannot be a part of this expedition, I can point you to the closest exit to the ship. In fact, I will help you through the airlock.”
    The Voice receded before Keryn spoke again, this time with a soft smile on her lips. “Now, are there any questions?”
    The council members departed one at a time, having no dissent for Keryn’s plan. As the last couple left, Alcent stepped in front of Keryn and Adam, begging them to wait.
    “You may not agree with them,” Alcent said, “but they are influential members of this ship. Many of the soldiers who helped win all of our freedom, yours included, once worked for one of those twelve men.”
    “Then maybe it’s time these soldiers made their own path,” Adam grumbled from behind Keryn.
    “Maybe you’re right,” Alcent conceded. “But some of these men have known nothing else but servitude for decades. You can’t expect them to become their own men overnight. You’d both do well to not make enemies so quickly.”
    “Are you saying you won’t support us?” Keryn asked dangerously.
    Alcent threw up his hands defensively. “You more than convinced me that we’re doing the right thing. I’ll even talk to the others. I’m sure they’ll support you too. I’m just recommending a different tact.”
    “Once you’ve talked them into the plan,” Keryn explained, “get this ship ready for combat. I don’t imagine a Terran outpost is going to be undefended.”

    Keryn grew restless as the ship covered the distance to Beracus. The men on board were not soldiers and hadn’t been trained as such. Many of her recommendations went unheeded and repairs were abysmally slow. She lost her temper frequently and relied on Adam to smooth over the relationships with those onboard.
    When she wasn’t pacing, Keryn spent her time alternating between inspecting the weapons bays — where she found a storehouse of Deplitoxide rockets — and working in the computer room with a brilliant teenager named Wyck. Only sixteen years old, Wyck had been serving in Miller’s Glen in the communications tower of the spaceport. His knack for computers had made him invaluable in fooling hostile passing ships into believing that Miller’s Glen was an uninhabited planet. The same brilliance that earned him a job on the planet garnered him a job on board the Ballistae as well.
    Almost immediately, Wyck had pointed out the shortcomings of the Terran computer system. “The Terrans spend all their time working on genetic and biological experiments but spend so little improving their existing technological advancements,” Wyck explained one day.
    “They did invent the Deplitoxide missiles and blacked out all the suns in the known universe,” Keryn countered.
    “Yes,” Wyck replied slowly, “but every one of those advancements are biological and organic weapons. Take this computer system as an example. Everything in it is encoded, but they’ve applied such a childish cipher that it takes me only minutes to crack and decode any file I want.”
    “So have you found anything I can use?” Keryn asked.
    Wyck shrugged. “Unfortunately, no. It doesn’t take very long to decode their files, but they saved and encoded everything. I mean everything! I’m not entirely sure, but this file looks like the recipe for grandmother’s short bread pudding. It’s these tedious files that are slowing me down.”
    “Keep decoding,” Keryn urged. “Somewhere in there is something important. It’s just a matter of you finding it.”
    “Don’t worry, ma’am. I’m on it.”
    “Please don’t call me…”
    Keryn was interrupted as the intercom sounded throughout the ship. “Keryn and Adam please report to the bridge immediately.”
    “I’ve got to go, cutie,” Keryn said as she stood. She reached down and squeezed his arm. “I know you won’t let me down.”
    She rushed through the halls until she reached the bridge. The guards on either side of the door stepped aside as she rushed in with Adam close on her heels.
    “What is it?” Keryn asked breathlessly. She knew she wouldn’t have been called to the bridge unless it was important.
    “We’re beginning our deceleration into the Falitan Galaxy,” Alcent explained. “We’ll reach the planet in less than fifteen minutes.”
    Keryn moved over to the communications console and entered the code for the ship-wide intercom. Overhead, two tones beeped from the speaker system notifying her that the microphone was now active.
    “Attention in the ship,” she called into the microphone on the console. “All personnel report to the weapons bays. This is not a drill. We expect contact with a Terran Destroyer in less than fifteen minutes.”
    She took a deep breath before she continued. “I know many of you are scared right now. However, I need you to realize that the advantage here is ours. The Terrans still believe this ship is under their side’s control. We should be able to fire the first volley before they can react. If all goes well, they will never have a chance to fire back. All that hinges on you, though. Everyone report to the weapons bays and prepare to fire on my command.”
    Keryn turned off the microphone and took her place next to Adam and Alcent. They watched the forward view as the Ballistae came into the galaxy, skirting behind the nearest planet. This approach seemed surprisingly familiar to Keryn, who had done the same thing when approaching Othus not so long ago. Now, though, she knew it was to block the Terran scanners for as long as possible before commencing the attack. As they neared the edge of the planet, Alcent turned toward the command console.
    “This can’t be right,” he said as his fingers flew over the display.
    “What’s wrong?” Adam asked, stepping over by his side and trying to peer over his shoulder.
    “I’m not reading a Terran ship on the radar,” Alcent said, his concern creeping into his voice.
    “That’s a good thing, isn’t it?” Adam asked.
    “Yes, because we won’t have to fight one. But it doesn’t make sense why there wouldn’t be one guarding such an important outpost.”
    “Guys,” Keryn said, the words catching in her throat as her heart leapt. “I think I know why there isn’t a ship in orbit.”
    They all turned toward the forward window as the Ballistae moved around the planet and got its first view of the galaxy. Directly before them, hanging dead in space, was a large black sun. Keryn clenched her fist so tightly that blood seeped from beneath her fingernails. To the left of the dark sun, Beracus floated in the unnatural darkness. Even from their distance, Keryn could see that the once vibrant swamp planet was covered in feet of white, powdery snow.

    Keryn trudged through the waist deep snow, keeping her sight on the abandoned Terran outpost still half a mile away. Under foot, buried beneath the white powder, the once marshy ground had turned into frozen tundra. Around her, the crew who had accompanied her and Adam to the planet’s surface, broke through the thick drifts in search of any surviving plant life. Unfortunately, their results were all the same. Beracus was a dead world.
    “They’re all withered,” one of the men yelled as Keryn leaned into the biting arctic wind. The man, barely visible through the blowing snow, held up a limp brown plant that he had torn from the ground. “Should I bring it with us?”
    Keryn scowled and continued pushing forward. Tears welled in her eyes as she stared intently at the ghost of a building in the distance. She wanted to believe that the tears were from the driving snow which blew constantly into her face, stinging her skin and turning her cheeks bright red, a stark contract to her blue and purple tattoos. But she knew that a large part of the tears was brought on by the realization that her mission had been for nothing. Good soldiers had died on Pteraxis while she hunted Cardax for nothing more than this planet’s name. Penchant and hundreds more sacrificed their lives so that she could escape Othus with the location of this outpost. To arrive and find nothing but a lifeless husk left an ache in her chest that she wasn’t sure would heal any time soon. Instead of letting the sadness overwhelm her, however, Keryn pressed ever forward, hoping beyond hope that the blockish grey building in the distance would offer redemption for this abysmal failure.
    Struggling to keep up with her feverish pace, Adam and Wyck walked side by side behind Keryn. They had spotted the facility on their initial approach and had been tempted to land closer. Those on board, however, had insisted on taking the opportunity to search for the mythical plant that created Deplitoxide. After stepping off the craft and sinking into the snow, Adam instantly regretted that decision. The mood of the walk, already dour and hostile, did not improve as they moved through the landscape. The densely packed trees had died under the frigid assault. Long icicles drooped from the hanging branches like ominous claws. The light refracting from their flashlights cast stark shadows, which danced in between the trees, and reflected harshly on the white snow.
    After closing the distance to the facility, the grey building loomed before the trio. They scanned its facade with their flashlights, but the narrow beams seemed insignificant as the passed along the outside of the three-story structure. All along the front of the building, windows were smashed, leaving jagged shards of glass protruding from their sockets. To Keryn, it seemed uncertain whether the damage had been done by the Terrans before they left or by a native creature searching refuge from the plummeting temperatures. Turning away from the windows, Keryn located the closest door that, to her surprise, stood partially ajar.
    The trio moved toward it and, with Adam putting his shoulder against it, forced the door open enough for them to enter. The interior was dark, penetrated only by their lights. Just past the door, a snow bank sat piled where it had blown through the cracked doorway. Beyond, among the twisting maze of hallways and laboratories, silence stretched like a blanket over the facility.
    “Why did they do it?” Wyck asked quietly, fearing to intrude on the thick silence.
    “Why’d they do what?” Adam asked, pushing his boot through the refuse that lay buried beneath the snowdrift. He couldn’t be certain whether the pile of trash had been naturally carried on the winds or had been placed as a nest. He hoped for the former.
    “Why destroy their own world?” Wyck explained. “They owned this planet and everything in this entire galaxy. They had the means to produce infinite amounts of Deplitoxide and the laboratories to refine it. But, instead, the planet’s dead and the outpost abandoned. It just doesn’t make any sense.”
    “It makes perfect sense,” Adam said darkly. “They had enough Deplitoxide to cripple the entire Alliance. I’m also willing to bet they found an antidote for it. By destroying Beracus, they made sure we never got our hands on any of it.”
    “And by destroying the lab,” Keryn said as she pushed past them both and proceeded down the hallway, “they ensured that they were the only ones to hold the cure. They had both the instrument of our destruction and the cure at their disposal.” Without slowing, Keryn walked down the hall until all that remained was a slight silhouette and the clicking of her boots on the tiled floor.
    Adam and Wyck exchanged glances and sped off to catch her. The winding passages within the outpost looked to be in little better condition than the exterior. Large panes of glass that once separated the halls from the individual labs had been destroyed. The glass had shattered into the labs, lending itself to Keryn’s theory that the damage to the building happened intentionally as the Terrans were evacuating the planet. The trio stopped at a number of the laboratories, searching through the toppled vials and destroyed centrifuges, but found nothing of value.
    Keryn threw the test tube in her hands, shattering it against the far wall. “Why are we even here!” she yelled into the destroyed laboratory.
    Adam motioned for Wyck to wait outside while he moved over to her side. He placed an arm around her shoulder and held her close, even as she tensed at his touch. Alone with Adam in the lab, the tears she had held back outside now flowed freely.
    “It’s not fair,” she cried into Adam’s shoulder. “We’ve worked so hard. We’ve been through so much. I can’t accept that this is how our mission ends.”
    Adam stroked her hair as she buried her face in his chest. “It’s not over yet,” Adam said, consoling. “We didn’t come this far just to reach a dead end now.”
    “Shut up, Adam,” she said between sobs. “Quit being my savior and just hold me until I get this out of my system.”
    They stood in silence, wrapped in each other’s embrace, until Keryn’s shoulders finally quit shaking. As she pulled away, she wiped the streaks of tears from her face and looked him in the eyes.
    “Tell me we can do this,” she demanded.
    “We can do this,” he said confidently. “If there’s a computer left in this outpost, Wyck will find it. I figured that’s why you brought him along.”
    “That’s exactly why,” she confessed. “I wish he could search the Ballistae computer files from here instead of wasting his time walking around with the two of us.”
    “Tora will do fine on the ship. Wyck is needed here.” Tora was an Avalon who had shown some impressive computer proficiency, but nowhere near the same brilliance that Wyck had demonstrated. Still, they were both sure that Tora would do fine sorting through the multitude of files.
    “Let’s get out of here before I have another episode,” Keryn said, dejected. “My Voice is already calling me names.”
    Adam laughed out loud as he followed her into the hall where Wyck waited, looking surprised at the sudden laughter. Placing his hand on Wyck’s shoulder, Adam pushed him deeper into the labyrinth of the Terran facility.
    The trio lost track of time in the dark, winding passages. Occasionally, they passed a destroyed window, the dark glow from the outside shining only slightly brighter than the inky gloom within the building. Twice, they went up sets of stairs, following Wyck’s guidance. He explained as they walked that the computer system would be closest to the center of the building, which was the direction they moved. However, the humidity and indigenous creatures that would have roamed a marshy planet like Beracus precluded the computer systems from being stored on the first floor. After an eternity of walking, Wyck’s intuition paid off when they found the main control room.
    Keryn’s mood did not improve as they viewed the decimated remains of the room. The large monitor that dominated the far wall was shattered, appearing to have suffered from multiple gunshots before the screen cracked and crumbled. Wyck moved to one of the imbedded computer towers in the room, shaking his head as he stuck his fingers into the holes blasted into the side of its alloy casing.
    “They shot it,” he said, irritated. “It looks like they shot everything in here!”
    “Focus, Wyck,” Keryn said calmly, suppressing the frustration she shared with the young genius. “Search all of them. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that soldiers firmly believe that if you shoot something, it’s no longer an issue. They often fail to understand the intricacies of aiming at a specific part of the computer tower. Find me a computer tower where they didn’t hit the specific part we need.”
    As Wyck went to work examining the computers, Keryn left the room and activated her microphone. “Ballistae, this is Talon,” she said, keeping the call sign she had used with the Cair Ilmun.
    “This is Ballistae,” the static-filled voice replied as the signal broke through the blizzard swirling across the planet.
    “Patch me through to the control room,” Keryn requested, referring to the computer room where Tora was examining computer files.
    “This is Tora,” a bubbly Avalon voice replied over the radio, her voice crackling from the interference.
    “Tora, this is Keryn. We’re in the computer room now, searching for anything useful. What have you found up there?”
    “Nothing so far. I’m sorry, Keryn. There are still quite a few files to go, though, so I’ll let you know the second I find something worthwhile.”
    Keryn frowned, disappointed. She had hoped that one of the two current missions would reveal some good news. She keyed the microphone again. “Don’t worry about it, Tora. Just keep working to find me anything I can use. Keryn, out.”
    She walked back inside, shaking her head in response to Adam’s inquisitive look. She gestured to Wyck, who slid on hands and knees from one tower to another. A steady stream of profanity flew from his lips as he examined yet another shattered tower.
    “That pretty well says it all,” Adam said as she slipped an arm through his. “How are you holding up?”
    “I’m better. Sometimes, I just need to get it all out before I can start recharging again.”
    “Vent any time you need to,” Adam said as he leaned down, his lips meeting hers in a gentle kiss. They both jumped as Wyck yelled excitedly.
    “I’ve found one!” he screamed, jumping to his feet.
    “You found a working tower?” Keryn asked, her own enthusiasm mirroring Wyck’s. For the first time in days, a smile spread across her face.
    “Yes, I did,” he said, dropping back down to the ground and prying open the front of the computer tower. “I mean, they probably wiped the hard drive before they tried to shoot it…”
    The frown disappeared from Keryn’s face. “What do you mean ‘wiped the hard drive’?” The anger crept into her voice. “You said you found a working tower. Now did you or didn’t you?”
    Though his back was to her, Keryn swore she could sense him rolling his eyes. “Remember when we were on the ship and you and I compared the emphasis of research for both the Empire and the Alliance? The Terrans wiped the hard drives on their computers, assuming that the data is lost forever once it’s complete. To be honest, it would be lost to an average genius. But I am not average.” Wyck ended his rant with a flair of arrogance.
    Adam placed his hand on Keryn’s arm as she started to step toward Wyck. “So you’re saying you can retrieve the data?” Adam asked, defusing the hostility in the air.
    “I should be able to get the data, no problem,” Wyck replied. He reached into the depths of the tower, pulling out a handful of color-coded wires. Holding his flashlight in his mouth, he sorted through the mess of colored cables until he found the two he was looking for. Detaching electronic nodes from his own handheld console, Wyck attached the nodes to the wires. As his fingers flew across the screen of the console, data started flooding into his computer from the dormant hard drive.
    “Give me a little time to retrieve all the deleted data and sort through the crap we don’t need,” Wyck requested, “then I’ll be able to give you an answer.”
    Keryn leaned into Adam and whispered in his ear as Wyck began typing again. “I don’t wait very well.”
    Adam chuckled. “If anyone knows that already, don’t you think I realize that fact? Go explore the rest of the floor. Go look out a window. Find something to pass the time or you’re going to drive us both crazy.”
    “And him?” she asked, motioning toward Wyck.
    “I’ll keep him working like a good slave driver,” Adam replied, snapping to the position of attention. “I won’t let him take a coffee break or anything.”
    It was then Keryn’s turn to laugh. “Very funny. Call me as soon as you have anything.”
    Keryn wandered out into the hall, her flashlight barely cutting through the darkness. She thought about exploring, but figured the chance of finding anything left behind by the Terrans was slim. Instead, she decided to take Adam’s other advice and found a window. Standing on top of the shattered glass and piled snow next to the broken window, Keryn closed her eyes and let the cold wind blow over her. On the third floor, the blizzard crashed against the bottom of the building and billowed upward, catching her silvery hair in the updraft. Though cold, the air seemed relaxing as the tension began draining from her body.
    Opening her eyes again, Keryn looked out on the bleak landscape. From her vantage point, she was able to make out the start of the jungle canopy. In the gloom, with only the stars’ ambient light illuminating the land, the ice-coated tree tops glistened like crystals in the darkness. Though she was sure that the planet would have been beautiful when it was lush and living, there was a serene elegance to the frozen world she now observed. Only the howling of the wind disrupted the peaceful solitude.
    “I’ve got something,” Wyck called over the radio, breaking Keryn free from her mental vacation.
    As she stepped away from the window, her radio crackled to life again.
    “I’ve got something, Keryn” Tora sang over the static.
    “Tora, hold fast,” Keryn replied as she activated the radio. “I’ll be with you in a second.” Switching channels, she keyed the microphone again. “Wyck, I’m heading to your position.”
    Though she tried not to get excited, Keryn quickly found herself running through the halls of the outpost until she reached the control room.
    “What have you found?” she asked, the cold air burning her lungs after her exertion.
    “Everything,” Wyck said as he turned, a broad smile splayed across his face. “I told you the Terrans were terrible at technology. I have their chemical equations for curing the Deplitoxide.”
    “That’s great,” Keryn said, unable to contain her excitement.
    But the planet…, the Voice whispered, acting as the voice of reason.
    Keryn stopped just short of hugging Wyck as she quickly understood what the Voice was saying.
    “The planet is dead,” she said, voicing her concerns. “How are we going to experiment toward creating the cure? We don’t have any Deplitoxide to use as a base.”
    “That’s not entirely true,” Adam said as he leaned against one of the exposed support beams. “At my last count, we have nearly a score of Deplitoxide rockets on board the Ballistae in one of the weapons bays.”
    Keryn’s eyes sparkled in the dark. “You’re right. I inventoried them when I was examining the weapon systems on board. Adam, you’re a genius!”
    Wyck coughed politely from his seated position at the computer.
    “Don’t worry, Wyck. You’re not half bad either,” Keryn chided. Reaching to her microphone, Keryn activated it again.
    “You still there, Tora?” she asked.
    “Yes I am.”
    “Do you have some good news for me too?” Keryn said.
    “Not so much,” Tora replied. “We had guessed before that the Terrans were able to coordinate so complex an assault into Alliance space because their computers were all interconnected.”
    Keryn remembered being briefed on something along those lines and said as much to Tora over the radio.
    “I think our ship is still attached to that network,” Tora said flatly.
    Keryn and Adam exchanged worried glances. “Is that a bad thing? Can they track us using the connection?”
    “I’m sure they could, if that was their intent,” Tora explained. “But I think the main reason for this connection is to coordinate attacks. It has quite a few battle plans stored in its buffer.”
    “Tora, can you send all that data down to Wyck’s computer?” Keryn asked as she turned toward the bank of computers. Wyck nodded, entering the code to receive a data stream.
    “Absolutely. I’m sending it your way now.”
    Keryn stood over Wyck’s shoulder as the he downloaded the files. As soon as it was done, she snatched the handheld console from his hand and began perusing the files. She scrolled through a series of battle plans as Adam stood by one shoulder and Wyck assumed his position at the other. In the corner of each tactical overlay, Keryn noticed a date imprinted.
    “These have already happened,” she said, pointing at the dates. “I’m going to see if there’s any battle charts for current or future attacks.”
    Scrolling past the outdated plans, Keryn finally reached one, the date of which told her that what she was watching was happening in real time. She stood, stunned, as she watched the projected strategy play itself out.
    “They’re attacking the Fleet,” Keryn said.
    “When?” Adam asked.
    Keryn looked at the date. “Now, and not far from this galaxy.” She turned to the other two. “Grab everything. We need to get back to the Ballistae.”
    As they ran through the halls back toward the front of the outpost, Keryn keyed her microphone to activate all radios on the planet simultaneously.
    “Everyone on the planet, report immediately back to the transport ship. We are leaving orbit immediately!”

CHAPTER 30:

    The ten ships accompanying the Revolution sped toward the gas giant for over two hours, a time which passed rapidly as Yen made constant adjustments to the life support and weapons systems onboard his fighter. Many of the systems he took offline to ensure his fuel would last longer, since he had no need for targeting systems for his small missiles and machine guns. He found long ago that his psychic powers could complete the complex targeting mathematics in a quarter of the time of his computer. He was a living weapon; there was no reason why his ship would be anything less than an extension of that power.
    After two hours, he pulled away from the Cruisers, allowing them to advance toward the planet at a more rapid pace. His decelerations took him on a path that would skim the surface of the planet while the larger Cruisers descended into the thick clouds. Yen watched as they disappeared like whales beneath the surface of the ocean. Immediately after the Revolution disappeared from view, the speaker within Yen’s fighter crackled to life.
    “This is the Revolution. Radio check, over,” the voice said. Though static permeated the sound quality, Yen was still able to hear the message clearly.
    “I read you loud and clear,” Yen replied into the microphone. “Is everything safe with your descent into the planet?”
    “Roger, Commander. Flying through these clouds is like pushing through syrup, but we’re making good progress to our position. We are deploying the fighters as we speak.”
    “Tell them all good luck for me,” Yen said, feeling sorry that he wasn’t deploying with his men. “Requesting radio silence until Terran arrival, over.”
    “Roger, Commander. Revolution, out.”
    Yen was happier knowing that he wouldn’t be receiving constant radio updates from his Cruiser during the interval until the Terrans arrived. Over the past few days, he had found solace in his time alone and he was hesitant to give that up now. He turned on the forward display and the planets appeared in two dimensions in front of him, overlaid with distance grids. On the map, three other green dots signified the other three pilots who had been volunteered to be spotters. Yen felt sad for them. For those three, this truly was a suicide mission. Only he had a chance of actually surviving.
    For a while, Yen examined the constellations, finding shapes in their fixed patterns in space. After a while, however, he grew bored. Opening the computer files, Yen searched for the one stored by Iana and Gregario, figuring their message would help pass the time. Smiling, he found the file labeled “daft” and opened it. As the forward display switched to an image of Iana and Gregario standing amidst a group of the Squadron members, Yen squinted against the suddenly bright glow of the screen.
    “Are we on?” Gregario asked in a hushed whisper.
    “Is there a red light?” someone replied condescendingly from the back of the room. “Then yes, we are on.”
    Gregario turned to the camera, a broad smile splitting his face. “Hey you daft bugger! We figured we couldn’t send you off to your death without a heartfelt ‘wish you were here’.”
    “We debated doing a mock funeral,” said one of the Warrants beside Pelasi, “since you would never get to truly appreciate your own. But we figured that was morbid.”
    Warrant Yulee, one of the female pilots, pushed her way to the front. “So instead, we decided to throw a party in your honor! Sure, you can’t be here to enjoy your own party, but just think about how much fun we’re having in memory of you.”
    “The point is,” Iana said, taking control of the camera, “only important people get parties to celebrate their life. You’re important to this Squadron and all of our success…”
    “Most of our success,” someone corrected from behind her.
    Iana laughed. “… most of our success would not have been possible without you.” She carried the camera away from the others, who teased her incessantly from a distance as she walked away. “I don’t know what possessed you to volunteer for this mission, but I know better than anyone that there won’t be any way to talk you out of it. So, instead, I only ask that you come back to us. We need you for the fight ahead, so don’t go doing something heroic. After all, some of us actually care enough to want you back.” Iana leaned forward and planted a kiss on the camera screen. With the screen now smeared with lipstick, the others started yelling.
    “That’s enough of that crap,” Yen heard them yell. “Give us back the camera!”
    As someone took the camera from Iana, the image suddenly disappeared. The cockpit lights shifted to red as a warning sounded. The forward display switched to the galaxy map, where Yen saw nearly two-dozen large red blips appear on the map.
    “They’re here!” Yen yelled into his microphone.
    On the display, thin lines streaked from the larger Terran Destroyers. The lines spread toward the four spotters as the Terran Fleet continued its acceleration into the galaxy.
    “They’ve fired on me,” Yen said as he began receiving radio chatter from the Cruisers concealed within the planet.
    Dropping the forward display, Yen could now see the flares from the tails of the missiles with his naked eye. Taking control of his fighter, Yen began evasive maneuvers as he let the psychic charge build in his ship. Opening fire with the forward machine guns, he watched the tracers leap from his ship and blossoms of fire erupt as missiles detonated prematurely. The small tactical screen by his left hand displayed at least three-dozen missiles still flying toward him along with numerous metal slugs.
    Yen twisted the controls, spiraling to the left as metal slugs narrowly missed the wings of his ships. As a dozen missiles approached, he lashed out with the psychic energy, sending the rockets pin wheeling away from his fighter where they detonated harmlessly in space. He watched as the other red lines on the tactical display impacted the three other spotters, their green dots disappearing from the screen.
    Feeling the loss of the other three pilots was only temporary as he focused back on the two-dozen rockets that still bore down on his position. Yen reached out with his mind, wrapping his psychic fingers around the outer rockets. Clenching his hands together, he drove the outer rockets into those toward the center. The resulting detonation erupted in space in brilliant flecks of blue and purple plasma. Yen smiled confidently to himself as the last of the missiles were destroyed.
    “The Terrans are in position,” Yen said breathlessly. “Deploy the Fleet.”
    Yen watched as rockets leapt first from the planets, salvos of hundreds of rockets streaking toward the Terran Fleet as the massive Cruisers broke through the cloud cover. The smaller fighters shot from the planet, trailing the reddish smoke behind them as they entered open space. Thousands of the fighters emerged like insects swarming from a hive. Yen smiled at the sheer might of the fighting force and began accelerating toward the Fleet to reform with his Squadron.
    As he pulled away from his position, however, the warning siren sounded again. Yen looked down at his tactical display and saw another thin red line hurtling toward his position, approaching from above his craft. From the display, he knew he didn’t have much time before it impacted his fighter. Pulling hard on the controls, Yen began a wide turn, hoping to avoid the incoming missile. Unable to see the rocket but knowing it was getting close, Yen lashed out blindly toward the rocket with psychic energy. As the psychic energy impacted the rocket, the missile exploded less than a hundred feet away from the Duun Riddell, jarring Yen in his seat.
    Yen struggled to maintain control as the plasma burst disrupted the computer controls. The warning claxons erupted all around him as key systems were affected by the explosion. The display turned to red as the engine shorted out and, with a weak sputter, shut down completely. The blast had rocked the small ship, damaging one of the wings and starting it spiraling. Without the engines to correct the spin, Yen felt the centrifugal forces building within the ship, threatening to knock him unconscious. The last thing he saw as darkness crept into the corners of his vision was a warning light signifying that he was descending toward the planet’s atmosphere.

CHAPTER 31:

    Yen opened his eyes and watched the blue velvet roll over his body. He floated freely in a sea of mist, unable to discern direction or distance. Though he stood on firm footing, Yen couldn’t find the ground when he reached for it. He was his own island, adrift and alone. Pushing his way forward, Yen tried to find his ship. He remembered the missile chasing him and the explosion rocking his body to its core. If he had landed within the planet, then the wreckage of his ship would have to be nearby. But search as he might, he was unable to find even the smallest piece of debris.
    Reaching toward his microphone, he realized that his helmet was gone, along with his only hope of contacting the Revolution. Yen panicked, fearing being forgotten and being left alone. He cupped his hands to his mouth and yelled for anyone who could hear. Calling out for help, though, Yen’s words disappeared, their noise drowned out by a sudden low rumble in the distance. The rumbling, like distant and continuous thunder, did not stop, instead growing louder the more he yelled. He covered his ears as the sound grew unbearably loud.
    Yen spun where he stood, straining to see through the thick mist. All around him, the folds of the velvety mist belied movement and shapes. He saw faces peering at him in his peripheral vision, only to have them vanish as he turned towards them. Yen could feel the sweat beading on his brow and rolling between the spines on his back, soaking through the flight suit he still wore. His breathing grew shallow and quick as panic crept unwanted into his mind.
    With his hands still over his ears, blocking out the now roaring thunder, Yen ran. The ground on which he ran but could not see remained perfectly flat and infinite. The mist clung to him like hands pulling him ever backward, slowing his flight. He screamed, but the sound was lost once more to the thunder. Crying, Yen stumbled and fell to his knees, his legs still finding purchase on the invisible terrain. As the sobs wracked his body, the thunder stopped, leaving his ears ringing and casting the mist into haunting silence.
    Yen lowered his hands, unfolding from the fetal position in which he found himself. In the distance, just on the edge of his vision, the silhouette of a shapely woman stood, beckoning him to follow. Her voice, though wordless, carried like a siren’s song, luring him forward. Yen stood and stumbled after her, increasing to a run as she remained just on the edge of his sight. Though he couldn’t tell her features through the blue mist, he knew who had come to rescue him.
    “Keryn,” he whispered into the dark. Running harder, he yelled after the retreating silhouette. “Keryn!”
    Lightning flashed, igniting the mist in blinding brilliance. Yen fell backwards, collapsing onto the ground and covering his eyes from the intensity of the light. As his vision cleared, he peered forward in awe as the mist coalesced into a beautiful face. The mist formed the red and purple tattoos running the length of her face and flowed like locks of hair from her head. The kind visage stared down at Yen’s prone form.
    “Keryn,” he said, his heart pounding in his chest.
    Suddenly, the faces features darkened. The eyes narrowed angrily and the lips curled into a startling sneer. It opened its mouth, the words echoing through the fog.
    “Yen…,” it said angrily, the voice sounding nothing like the woman Yen loved.
    “You’re not real,” he said in disbelief, scrambling to escape the widening mouth as the gaping maw advanced toward him.
    “Yen…” it said louder, shaking the ground on which he sat.
    “Get away from me,” he cried into the darkening mist. “Stay away!”
    “Yen!” a different voice sounded, from within his ear. “Answer me!”
    Yen sat upright in his cockpit, his heart racing, sweat soaked completely through his flight suit. Around the ship, blue mist swirled, distant flashes of lightning accentuating the colors. On the display screen of his craft, red lights flashed chaotically as warnings for failing systems.
    “Commander, tell me you’re there,” Iana begged over the radio.
    Groaning, Yen activated the microphone. “I’m alive,” he croaked through a tight throat.
    The cheers from the other end of the radio startled him. “We weren’t sure if you were still alive after you plummeted into the planet’s atmosphere,” Gregario interjected. “Sensors say your engine and computer systems are still offline.”
    “Roger that,” Yen replied, assessing the damage to his ship. “I think I can reboot the system to get everything back online. It seems like the rocket just shorted everything out without doing any permanent damage. Give me five minutes, then I’ll let you know if these heap of crap will fly.”
    “That’s affirmative, sir,” Iana said. “Glad to hear you’re alive. Team Six is standing by, waiting for you.”
    Yen turned off the speaker but couldn’t shake the memory of Keryn’s face angrily staring down at him and screaming her rage. Flipping a series of switches, he heard the engine whine as it tried to restart.
    “Come on, you piece of crap,” Yen said angrily as he flipped the switches again. Again, the engines sputtered, but didn’t start.
    “Start!” Yen yelled, his power rolling over the ship and igniting the fuel in the engines. With the engine running, the computer systems reactivated, giving him data about the ship’s systems. According to the radar, he had sunk nearly halfway through the gas giant’s atmosphere before waking. The thick clouds had slowed his descent and halted his wild spin, effectively saving his life.
    He pulled back on the stick, feeling the engines respond with heavy acceleration. Unsure of how long he’d been unconscious, Yen was eager to find out how much of the battle he had missed and how much damage could be done to make up for his absence. As he neared the edge of the atmosphere, the clouds clung to his ship like blue vines draped lazily over the wings. Accelerating harder, Yen broke free of the planet, trailing blue tendrils from the atmosphere.
    Though Yen was glad to see the stars glowing in the distance of space, he was surprised at the chaos around him as he exited the gas giant. Alliance and Terran fighters danced around one another in a choreographed ballet of rockets and tracer fire from their machine guns. Thousands of the small ships filled the once empty space, punctuated by small bursts of red flame and purple and blue plasma as explosions erupted haphazardly throughout. The larger Cruisers and Destroyers of the two Fleets were hardly immune to the chaos. They tore through the insect-like fighters like angry behemoths, alternating between firing massive volleys of plasma rockets and launching salvo after salvo of metal slugs from their rail guns. Space had become a hell storm of destruction, and Yen had flown straight into the inferno.
    As he strove to gain his bearings, warning sirens erupted in the tight cabin of his Duun ship, warning him of approaching enemy fighters. Yen banked hard to the right, barely avoiding the first stream of tracer fire that threatened to tear through his hull. Spinning into a barrel roll, Yen rotated his fighter barely out of the way as the first of the Terran ships flew by, missing his wing by only a few feet. As the first ship began banking for a second pass, another Terran fighter dove in from Yen’s right. With the side of his ship exposed to the oncoming enemy fire, Yen accelerated hard, driving himself back into his cushioned seat. He didn’t have much hope of outrunning the Terran or his deadly volley, but Yen hoped to get the more fragile glass of his cabin window out of the stream of enemy machine gun fire. As he flew away from the gas giant, however, the second Terran ship exploded, followed immediately by the first ripping apart as tracer fire tore through its right wing.
    Yen craned his neck to see his saviors as his microphone crackled to life.
    “Are you okay, sir?” Iana called over the radio, her voice muted by the wild cheering as Gregario activated his own microphone.
    “I’m not only alive,” Yen said, “I’m damn glad to see you all. Did I ever mention that you guys have great timing?”
    “Sir,” a new voice, that of Warrant Wallace, called dejectedly over the radio. “You didn’t really think that Team Six would leave you out here on your own, did you?”
    “Give us some credit,” Warrant Byron added as the other members of Team Six fell into formation behind Yen.
    Yen watched the four friendly ships appear on his radar, joining him in a spear formation with him at its tip. As they flew into the fray, Yen took a second to assess the battle. Already, five Alliance Cruisers drifted aimlessly through the void of space. Their hulls breached and flames flickering weakly from within as the fire consumed the last of the breathable oxygen. The large ships hung lifeless, becoming little more than obstructions around which the other ships maneuvered. The Terrans didn’t fare much better. As Yen watched, a seventh Destroyer erupted into flames as one of the plasma rockets slipped through the onslaught of protective fire and found its mark.
    “This is insane,” Yen commented over the radio. “We need to regroup with some of the other fighter Teams and start a more organized offensive action.”
    “Roger that, sir,” Gregario replied. “The problem is that the Teams from the Revolution are scattered. In the short time you were in the gas giant, the clear lines of battle got a little blurred. It was a free for all that is just now being sorted out.”
    “Then let’s get to the Revolution and use that as our launching point,” Yen countered. “Start sending a Squadron-wide call informing all ships to regroup around…”
    Before Yen could finish, the Fleet-wide communications channel opened on his console and began relaying an emergency message.
    “This is Captain Hodge of the Revolution,” the message began. “We are swarmed with enemy fighters and have lost the majority of our defensive capabilities. I am requesting immediate support from anyone receiving this message. I say again, I am requesting immediate support for the Revolution.”
    “It looks like our mind is made up for us, sir,” Wallace said as the message began playing again.
    “Team Six, move out and rendezvous with the Revolution,” Yen ordered. “Let’s go save our ship.”
    Dodging a barrage of oncoming fire, Yen’s team worked in concert with one another, driving forward as a deadly team one moment only to split and chase down enemy fighters individually the next. The team fought with deadly efficiency, clearing away the immediate Terran fighters and opening a path between them and the embattled Revolution.
    As they approached, Yen saw Terran fighters crawling across the hull of the Alliance flagship like swarming ants. Their weapons fire ignited small fires along the length of the ship, drawing the attention of the defensive weapons while the boarding parties cut holes in the thick protective steel of the Revolution. Closing the distance, Yen’s radio crackled to life once again on the Fleet-wide channel.
    “The Revolution is being boarded as we speak,” Captain Hodge said. “We are requesting immediate support.”
    Yen activated his own radio in response. “Revolution, this is Team Six. We are closing in on your location and will be assisting shortly.”
    As Yen ended his transmission, numerous others began calling in, lending their support to the swarmed flagship. Most of the Teams from the Revolution were arriving and engaging the Terran fighters.
    “Team Six,” Yen said, changing his channel to the internal net. “Our focus is on the boarding parties. Destroy those and let the other Teams take care of the fighters.”
    They all called back, letting Yen know that they had received the orders. Yen, however, didn’t wait for their reply, instead putting the Duun Riddell into a dive that brought it rapidly toward the flagship. Barely slowing, Yen eased up on the controls until his fighter was skimming the hull of the ship. This close, he was able to examine the damage already done to the ship he called home. Numerous blast marks scorched the hull, exposing the chambers and hallways underneath. Breaches in the hull were automatically sealed off from the rest of the ship to ensure the entire Cruiser wasn’t lost during a depressurization, but it left dozens of Crewmen trapped in a slow, suffocating death.
    Ahead, Yen could see the first of several Terran personnel ships attached to the Revolution. From the bottom of the ships, long, flexible tubes extended until they were firmly affixed around the breaching holes cut by the boarding parties. Yen angled his fighter toward the first of these tubes and opened fire. The machine gun roared to life, spitting tracer rounds through the flimsy fabric. The ship above jerked as its anchor broke free. Byron, flying up behind Yen, destroyed the personnel ship with a well-placed plasma rocket. The bigger effect, however, happened to the members of the boarding party itself. Though they were protected in suits from the sudden lack of oxygen, they could do nothing against the sudden depressurization. Jerked backwards as breathable air vented into space, the boarding party shot out of the breaching hole and drifted helplessly into the void. Yen barely noticed as he turned and engaged the next ship, but he felt his adrenaline surge at the sight of such wanton destruction. He yearned for more. Firing his rocket at the next personnel carrier, he watched as it exploded, destroying the ship and tearing loose the fabric tube. He watched as the venting gases mixed with the clinging, burning plasma. The fire cooked the boarding party alive as they were jettisoned out of the Revolution.
    “We got enemy fighters closing in from behind us,” Iana warned as new red ships’ blips appeared on Yen’s radar. He tried to turn to look over his shoulder, but the Terrans were grazing the hull of the flagship, making it impossible to see them amidst all the chaos.
    “Pull up and loop around to engage,” Yen ordered, bringing up the nose of his fighter in a tight circle that would turn him to face the incoming Terrans.
    “They’re firing!” Wallace yelled into the radio.
    “I’m hit!” Byron screamed. “Oh Gods, I’m…”
    The transmission went dead as Byron’s ship was consumed by enemy machine gun fire. The vessel broke apart, crashing and exploding into the hull of the Revolution.
    Yen finished his turn and charged toward the oncoming Terran fighters. As he wove through the hail of gunfire, Yen returned fire on the closest ship. His rounds tore through the armored cabin of the fighter and slammed into the pilot. As the Terran slumped over the controls, the ship spun out of control until it, too, crashed into the hull beneath. Yen’s powers responded to the excitement with rabid enthusiasm. His psyche reached out and grabbed onto the front of an approaching Terran fighter. Jerking it to the side, Yen slammed the ship into its wingman. Both ships exploded in bright orange flame. With the rest of Team Six joining him, they finished off the Terran fighters, removing most of the remaining threat to the Revolution.
    With his adrenaline now waning, Yen felt a moment of reprieve and switched his communications array to the Fleet channel. The sudden eruption of sound surprised him as a multitude of distress calls rang out over the radio. Fidgeting with the controls, Yen was able to identify a number of the requests.
    “…under heavy fire. Requesting assistance…”
    “…engaged with a Terran Destroyer. Taking heavy damage…”
    One call, however, caught his attention more than the others.
    “This is the Zenith. We are being engaged by the Terran flagship.” The voice paused as explosions and screams were heard in the background. “We are taking severe damage. I’ve sent most of my crew to the escape ships already, but the Zenith is a loss. I say again, we have lost the Zenith!”
    Yen turned in the direction of the hailing ship, making out the bulky shape of the Cruiser amidst the smaller fighter engagements in between. The Zenith was limping through space, its hull battered and engines firing weakly. As it tried to flee, a second ship flew forward until the two ships flew side by side. The Terran ship dwarfed the Alliance Cruiser; its bulbous body resembled a swollen balloon, bristling with heavy weapons. Its gleaming white hull, painted with the blue and gold lines of the Terran Empire, glistened even in the dim light of space.
    The Terran flagship slowed until it had matched speed with the Zenith. The side exposed to the Terrans had been decimated by plasma rockets, leaving the metallic hull sweltering and molten. Weapons platforms that had once been housed on that side of the Cruiser had been destroyed, leaving the Zenith incapable of firing on the deadly enemy. As Yen watched, hundreds of smoke trails leapt from the Terran ship as they fired volley after volley from their twenty launchers on that side of their vessel. The rockets struck the disabled Cruiser in overlapping, blossoming flowers of plasma. The blue and purple plasma engulfed the entire port side of the Zenith, leaving Yen very little view of the explosions. From where Team Six watched, however, they could see the hull of the Zenith buckling from the assault, the starboard side of the Cruiser collapsing inward as the ship quickly imploded from the rapid depressurization. Though the Fleet channel was open, Yen didn’t even hear a scream of protest as the Zenith was obliterated.
    “Did you see that?” Gregario asked, the awe evident in his voice.
    “Yes, I did,” Yen replied, activating his radio, “and now I want to go blow it up.”
    “Commander?” Iana asked, stupefied.
    “I want to blow it up,” Yen repeated more sternly. Already, his psychic power responded to his desire for more violence and destruction. “They just launched over half their entire arsenal just to make a showy display of firepower. That means that they honestly believe we’ll all throw down our weapons and surrender at just an impressive show of force. All it did for me, however, was piss me off. And now I want to go blow it up.”
    Switching channel, Yen called across the ships internal communication network. “I need the position of the closest Revolution weapons platform.”
    A voice quickly answered his call. “This is Warrant Kilkurt of Platform Three, currently located behind the ruins of the Terran Destroyer twenty degrees off the port of the Revolution.”
    Yen turned toward the floating wreckage of the Terran Destroyer. He wasn’t surprised to find one of the platforms hiding amongst the floating debris. The weapons platforms were capable of firing massive amounts of rockets per volley, but very few volleys. An exposed platform would only be able to defend itself for a very short time before running out of rockets and being destroyed.
    “Kilkurt, I need you to maneuver toward the Revolution. Team Six will move to you and prepare to pick up your first volley.”
    “Sir,” Kilkurt replied hesitantly, “I’ll move into position, but my radar is showing only four members of your team remaining. You can’t maintain positive control over the full dozen rocket volley.”
    “If there’s one thing everyone will very quickly learn, Kilkurt,” Yen said as he and his team began flying into the space between the Alliance flagship and the ruined Destroyer, “it’s that I should never be underestimated.”
    The large weapons platform disengaged from the wreckage and drifted into position, its large rocket tubes pointed at the Terran flagship. Yen led his team directly in front of the platform, their ships weaving in front of the launch path of the missiles. Yen threw the switch and activated the communications channel for his Team.
    “When the rockets launch, each of you pick up two missiles. Leave the other six for me.”
    Yen changed his channel back to speak to Kilkurt. “Platform Three, fire on my mark. Three… two… one… mark.”
    Missiles roared out the tubes, billowing smoke in their wake. The automated computers in the fighters automatically started tracking their launch, synching their systems with the rockets’ onboard computers. Within seconds, the fighters had made contact and assumed control of the flight paths of two rockets each. Yen, however, reached out into space, letting the wavering tendrils wrap around the other approaching six rockets, pulling them toward him. As they approached, the six missiles took up position around his ship, floating and rotating like orbital rings around his fighter. The missiles dipped and wove, narrowly avoiding one another, all under Yen’s command. With all the rockets under the control of Team Six, the fighters began accelerating toward the massive Terran flagship.
    The path between Team Six and the Terran flagship was relatively clear. The battle had progressed, leaving hundreds of fighters destroyed. The rest were loosely clustered in intense dogfights, leaving numerous clear paths of space, occupied only by the debris of those that had already been destroyed. Only a couple of rogue Terran fighters engaged them as they approached the flagship. Team Six quickly destroyed each in turn before continuing toward their target. As the Team approached, the Terran flagship grew larger, its white hull gleaming dangerously as its weapon systems turned toward the approaching threat.
    “The ship’s getting ready to launch,” Gregario called over the radio.
    “Prepare for evasive maneuvers,” Yen replied.
    The four ships split from one another, taking different approaches toward the swollen ship, splitting the targeting of the weapon systems four different ways. As they continued diving toward the ship, warning sirens sounded in all their cabins. On the radar, dozens of silent projectiles soared toward them. The black metal slugs of the rail guns were nearly invisible to the naked eye as they raced forward, blanketing the area in a deadly protective screen.
    “Slugs in the air!” Iana yelled as her ship spun as she avoided the first few projectiles.
    “Stay out of their way, but make sure your rockets stay safe,” Yen ordered, his focus now entirely on bringing their destructive force down on the Terran flagship. On his radar, Yen could see the other three ships flying as he was: seemingly haphazardly as they avoided the dozens of metal slugs that continued to launch from the flagship. Suddenly, Wallace’s fighter stopped maneuvering and began a lazy spin in space.
    “Wallace,” Yen called, “what’s your status.”
    “The last one clipped my wing,” he called, the fear evident in his voice. “I’m dead in the water. I need someone to dock with me and pull me out of here.”
    Yen’s vision narrowed as he stared at the Terran flagship, images of the white vessel exploding under their barrage flashed through his thoughts. Being so close to destroying so great an opponent, Yen refused to fail. “Are your rockets still secured?” Yen asked.
    “What?” Wallace asked. “They’re targeting me. I need someone to get me out of here now.”
    Yen wanted to scream to his Team until they understood his vision. He yearned for such grand scale destruction. He refused to stop until his desire was satiated. Anger crept into Yen’s voice as he repeated the question. “Are your rockets still secured?”
    “Yes, for God’s sake, yes!” Wallace cried into the radio. “They’ve got a lock on me. Get over here.”
    “Commander, I’m moving now to…” Iana began before Yen cut her off.
    “No, Iana. You stay where you are. Wallace, listen to me,” Yen said, his voice quivering with anticipation, his bloodlust driving him forward. “I need you to fire your rockets at the flagship. Afterward, we can talk about getting you out of there. Complete your mission first.”
    “You crazy son of a…” Wallace didn’t finish his sentence. Instead, the two rockets under his control launched from his ship and barreled toward the flagship at high speeds.
    “It’s done, Yen,” Iana called over the radio, pleading with him. “I’m moving now to get Wallace out of there.”
    “I can’t allow that,” Yen said, his voice taking a dangerous edge. “You have a mission too, Iana. Everyone completes their mission.”
    “You can’t leave me here!” Wallace yelled, horrified. “You have to…”
    Yen flipped the switch that cut Wallace out of the channel all together. Though Wallace yelled into the radio, no one on the Team was able to hear him.
    “Have you lost your mind?” Gregario asked. “We don’t leave our teammates to die.”
    “We also don’t disobey orders,” Yen snapped back. “Our mission is to destroy the flagship and we will succeed. This conversation is over! Everyone prepare to launch your missiles.” Flipping a second switch, Yen turned off the radio completely, cutting off any potential cries of protest.
    As he prepared his own rockets for launch, Yen watched Wallace’s two rockets dive toward the flagship. In response, the ship launched a salvo of metal slugs, which filled the space between the missiles and the vessel. The onboard computers took control of the rockets’ trajectories and they maneuvered to avoid the hail of defensive fire. As they moved, one of the slugs struck the first of the rockets, which exploded harmlessly above the flagship. From within the blossoming plasma, the second rocket broke through the defensive fire and dropped onto the hull of the Terran vessel. The resulting explosion rippled along the surface of the hull, fusing rail gun ports and tearing a hole into the weapons bay beneath. Though the rocket did damage, it was barely noticeable against the shear mass of the flagship.
    With Yen’s focus entirely on the rocket attack, he didn’t notice as one of the metal slugs soared up into space, locked onto a drifted and helpless fighter. With Wallace severed from the Team’s channel, no one heard him scream as the metal slug drew invariably closer. They didn’t hear as it crashed into the cabin of his fighter, tearing through the alloy and glass, smashing into his body, and barely slowing as it ripped a hole in the bottom of his ship. Carrying only kinetic energy, the metal slug didn’t cause an explosion. Instead, Wallace’s ship, and the small amount of physical remains of his body, simply drifted deeper into space, sent off on a new course by the collision.
    The three remaining members of Team Six had concerns of their own, beyond the worries of another lost pilot. With a number of their rail guns destroyed, the Terran flagship began firing more and more slugs toward the three fighters and their deadly collection of rockets. With their flying reserved now for defense and reactionary maneuvering only, they had no time at all to calculate the trajectories of their missile payload.
    Yen threw the switch, reentering the Team’s channel. “I know it’s not easy right now, but we need to get a fix on the flagship’s weapons and engines. Those are the areas where we stand to do the most damage with our rockets.”
    “I’d love to help you, but we’re a little busy right now,” Gregario replied angrily. “Or are you not worried whether or not we die too?”
    “That’s enough, Gregario,” Iana called, emotions welling in her voice. “Yen, be reasonable. We can’t get through their rail gun fire. It’s suicide to continue. We’ll all wind up dead like Wallace if we try to push forward.”
    “Wallace is dead?” Yen asked, checking his radar for the signal that was no longer there.
    “Where have you been?” Gregario yelled, rage swelling into an ear-splitting volume.
    Yen wanted to reply, but couldn’t find the words. His lust for destruction had overwhelmed his senses as a Commander to the point that he hadn’t even noticed when one of his pilots, one of his friends, was killed. Jerking out of his self-remorse, Yen pulled hard on the controls as he avoided yet another metal slug.
    “You’re right,” Yen conceded. “We need to…”
    “Commander!” Iana cried out.
    Yen checked the radar. His jaw dropped as he saw a Terran Destroyer maneuvering from behind the flagship. Team Six didn’t stand a chance against two large Terran vessels.
    “We need to get out of here now!” Iana yelled.
    “We are so screwed,” Gregario added.

CHAPTER 32:

    “They’re hailing us,” Adam yelled from the communications console on the bridge of the Ballistae. “They’re looking for a friendly identification code from us.”
    “Then find a polite way to tell them to go to hell,” Keryn replied as she continued making calculations on the tactician’s console in front of her.
    The Ballistae had raced through space in an attempt to reach the embattled Alliance Fleet. They had been unprepared, however, for the scope of the battle that awaited their arrival in the galaxy. The debris of hundreds of ships wreaked havoc on the radars, leaving the crew unsure of how many ships on each side still fought. Though rockets were still being fired from a half dozen of the Terran Destroyers, all the ships seemed damaged and were limping weakly from the battle. The Alliance had fared well, but none of their large Cruisers remained undamaged. Keryn grew concerned for their chances against the remainder of the Terran Fleet, who remained undamaged and fully stocked with ammunition.
    The biggest beast of the Terran Battle Fleet loomed before them: the flagship of their rear vanguard. The shining white hull was nicked and smoking in areas, but remained relatively unharmed. Having been placed near the rear of the battle, the flagship had swooped in after the Alliance Fleet was already injured, finishing off the unfortunate Cruisers it passed. If left unchecked, the flagship would cause insurmountable damage to the Alliance, resulting in them being unable to pursue the rest of the Terrans who, even now, flew toward Arcendor.
    “Give me an update, Adam,” Alcent requested from the Captain’s chair. Since taking the ship, Alcent had spent most of his time either on the bridge or meeting with the council.
    “I’m stalling, but I don’t know how much longer they’re going to buy it,” Adam admitted.
    “Keryn?” Alcent asked.
    “I’ve got the best rate of fire plan that I can put together on short notice,” she admitted. “It’s now or never.” Keryn turned toward Adam. “You’ve done all you can for us. Go fly your fighter.”
    Adam stepped away from his console and walked to her side. Leaning forward, he kissed her passionately.
    “Now is not the time,” Alcent said. “We have a battle to win.”
    Keryn smiled. “Be safe and…”
    “…come back to me,” Adam finished. “Someday, you’re going to get tired of saying that to me.”
    As Adam left the bridge, Keryn inputted the last of the data, sending her firing order to the weapons bays throughout the ship. She turned to Alcent and merely nodded, acknowledging that she was ready.
    Alcent pulled down the microphone and activated the intercom. “All hands to battle stations,” he began. “All fighters prepare for launch. Fire the first salvo on my mark.” He released the transmit button and turned to his crew.
    “Everyone ready?” he asked.
    “That almost sounded professional,” Keryn chided. “If I can make you sound like a soldier, we might just pull this off.”
    Alcent activated the microphone again. “Fire first salvo!” he yelled into the radio.
    A dozen plasma missiles and a score of metal slugs leapt from the ship, driving toward the exposed rear of the Terran flagship. Caught unaware, the flagship made no effort to launch countermeasures as the barrage struck its hull. Massive tears appeared along the outside of the flagship as the plasma melted through the hull and the kinetic slugs penetrated deep though floor after floor inside the ship. Gases vented as the engines sputtered and died, their plasma reserves igniting from the rocket attacks. Soon, the entire rear of the ship was engulfed in blue and purple miasma as the explosions caused chain reactions that reached the weapons stores, igniting the plasma rockets. From the gaping maw that had once been the engine storehouse, tons of flaming debris launched into the vacuum of space.
    Launching from the massive hangar bays of the Ballistae, Adam led the fighters in diving attacks against the remaining weapon systems located along the rear half of the flagship, disabling the remaining threats that the ship could have posed to the stolen Destroyer. Meanwhile, Keryn activated all channels, hoping that any Alliance vessel would hear her plea.
    “Any Alliance ship on this net,” she called into the microphone. “This is Magistrate Keryn Riddell, currently operating out of the Terran Destroyer Ballistae. We have fired upon and destroyed the Terran flagship and will continue our assault against the remainder of the Terran Fleet. Do not fire on our ship. I say again, do not fire on our ship.”
    She began the message again as her eyes met Alcent. A fine sheen of sweat covered his bony brow. A look of genuine concern was evident upon the Uligart’s face.
    “Any Alliance ship on this net. This is Magistrate Keryn Riddell…”

    “…currently operating out of the Terran Destroyer Ballistae,” Yen heard, his heart pounding heavily in his chest. After all this time and after all of his worrying, she was alive. More than that, she was here! Yen’s palms grew sweaty as images of her face danced before his vision. To see her again — he hardly believed it would be possible.
    “It’s her,” he said softly into the empty cabin of his fighter.
    “It is,” Iana replied. Yen didn’t realize he had been transmitting his message to the last two ships of his Team. “And she managed to do what we couldn’t, Commander. The Terrans have stopped firing defensive weapons from the flagship. They’re exposed to our own assault.”
    “And not a moment too soon,” Gregario commented. “We have multiple bogeys heading our way. We need to attack now.”
    Yen leaned his head back against the cushioned seat and tried to gain control of the pounding in his chest. He fought through the now constant thoughts of her and tried to focus on the mission at hand. It now seemed like a lifetime ago that he had been so determined to destroy the Terran flagship; it seemed as though his propensity for violence had happened to someone else. A calm settled over him that he had not experienced in quite some time.
    “It’s now or never, sir,” Gregario said, breaking the silence over the radio.
    Yen nodded to himself. “Let’s do this,” he said confidently. With Keryn here, there seemed to be nothing he couldn’t do. “Hit them with everything we’ve got.”
    Launching their smaller ship-mounted plasma rockets, the trio plummeted toward the front of the damaged flagship. Their smaller missiles broke holes in the hull, allowing them to guide their larger rockets — the ones controlled by their onboard computers — into those gaps. As the other two ordered their large missiles to launch, Yen took control of all six of his missiles simultaneously, holding them in a psychic grip. Grouping them close together, he launched them all forward, adding his own powers to their booster rockets for incredible acceleration. The combined plasma and kinetic fury of his rockets drove through the hole in the weapons bay that Wallace had caused before his death. As all six plasma rockets ignited as one inside the volatile bay, the resulting explosion took Yen’s breath away.
    The hull buckled along the length of the ship, bowing as the thick plating attempted to contain the plasma explosions within. Yen’s six rockets engulfed the Terran rockets within the bay in a bath of plasma, eating through their armored exterior and setting fire to their own plasma stores. The flames from the combined explosion raced through the halls, destroying the walls and floors inside the ship until the fire burst from the front view screen of the ship’s bridge. Combined with the four rockets launched from Iana and Gregario, the Terran flagship was quickly engulfed in fire.
    They trio turned away and began the flight back to the Revolution. Between the excitement of destroying so large a ship and knowing that Keryn was here, actually within the same galaxy, Yen wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to catch his breath. A smile etched its way broadly across his face as he thought lovingly of Keryn.
    “Keryn,” he said, reveling in the fact that she had returned to him.
    Warning sirens sounded once more within his fighter. Yen scanned the radar and cursed himself for getting distracted. In all the excitement, he had forgotten about the fighters of which Gregario had warned him. As he watched, smaller markings appeared between Yen and the Terran fighters. They had launched missiles.
    “Separate,” Yen ordered as he veered away from the other two. “They’ve launched missiles!”
    The trio began weaving through the debris as missiles locked onto their engines’ signatures. Artificial intelligence onboard the rockets would keep them on the trio’s trail until an obstacle got in the way or they ran out of fuel. Yen twisted his controls as he shot between two floating strips of metal, the origins of which he couldn’t begin to guess. He allowed himself a brief smile as space behind him lit up with plasma, one of the rockets trailing him having slammed into the debris. Still, his smile was short lived. Two more rockets still followed him.
    Yen wanted to check on the others, to ensure that they were still avoiding their missiles as well, but he found himself too preoccupied with staying alive himself. Skating over the surface of a destroyed Cruiser, Yen accelerated heavily and launched himself upward, using the cloud of jettisoned furniture and equipment that had once been the Cruiser’s innards as cover. He cringed as the heavy objects ricocheted off his ship, but was pleased when another of the rockets exploded in the cloud. Yen allowed himself a bit of relief knowing only one more missile followed him.
    As he began maneuvering through a field of destroyed fragments of fighter ships, his radio crackled to life.
    “I’m clear,” Iana called happily, “and the three Terran fighters have been destroyed.”
    “Almost…” Gregario called, a clear strain in his voice. Over the radio, Gregario let out an audible sigh. “Yes, I’m clear as well.”
    “I’ve still got one on me,” Yen said, slipping his fighter over the remnants of two ships, destroyed and fused from whatever explosion led to their demise. “I can’t seem to shake it.”
    Yen lashed out with his powers, aiming wildly at the rocket that remained on his tail. Unfortunately, unable to see the missile, his tendrils struck the same debris around which he flew instead of his target. Though he continued to try to destroy the rocket, it remained firmly affixed in its pursuit.
    “Sir, it’s closing on you quickly,” Gregario said, worried. “I’m closer than Iana. I’m heading your way to help now.”
    Cursing, Yen felt his mind growing tired. Keeping the tendrils active was physically taxing his body, lowering his reaction times while flying. He withdrew his tendrils as he scraped along a chunk of metal, gouging his right wing.
    “I’m heading right for you, Commander,” Gregario called. “But I can’t get a clear shot on the rocket through all this debris.”
    Yen frowned. He knew he could reactivate the tendrils, but it would drain him further and could do more harm than good. His best bet was Gregario, who was unable to get into position. Still, Yen thought he might find a use for his Teammate yet.
    “I need you to come to my position,” Yen said, opening a communications channel just between him and Gregario, “I have an idea, but I’ll need you as close as possible for this to work.”
    “Roger, sir, I’m on my way.”
    Yen tried to pull himself out of the main field of debris, finding a small gap of open space. For his plan to work, he would need the rocket flying on a straight line. As he broke free of the main wreckage, Yen found himself in relatively open space. To his left, he could see Gregario quickly approaching.
    “Sir!” Gregario yelled. “The missile is almost on you. Whatever you have planned, you better do it now.”
    “I intend to,” Yen said evilly. Reaching out with a powerful reserve of psychic energy, Yen grabbed a hold of Gregario’s plane, pulling it quickly toward him. As his Teammate sped in his direction, pulled forward by Yen’s powers, Yen accelerated out of the way.
    “What are you…” was all Gregario managed to say before his ship was pulled into the path of the oncoming missile, blocking the way between Yen and the rocket. The plasma rocket exploded as it struck Gregario’s ship, vaporizing the cabin and the pilot within. The shockwave sent Yen’s ship spinning, but he managed to regain control before reaching any further debris.
    “What just…” Iana yelled into the radio.
    “Don’t start with me, Iana,” Yen threatened. “Get back to the Revolution.”
    “You killed him,” she said in disbelief.
    “Don’t you dare question my decisions,” he quickly answered. “You don’t have the right to question the decisions I make during combat! No one does!”
    Iana stuttered as words escaped her. Finally, she blurted, “Everyone will know what you did!”
    “That would be a fatal mistake on your part,” Yen said, his voice rumbling over the radio. “Very fatal, indeed.” When he didn’t hear an immediate response, he added, “Get back to the Revolution. Now!”
    As Iana’s fighter sped away, Yen let himself drift in space, recuperating from the intense chase and dangerous ending. Pushing the thought of Gregario and Iana from his mind, Yen let his thoughts fall back to Keryn. Quickly, the rage and homicidal impulses fled from his mind, replaced instantly with affection and tender compassion toward his lost love. After all this time, he would finally see her again. He wanted to call out to Keryn now, but lacked the ability to communicate with a Terran Destroyer. Instead, he let his thoughts wander to their time together and to the times he was sure they would share again.
    His thoughts were interrupted as the Fleet-wide communications channel opened over the radio.
    “All Alliance vessels, this is Captain Hodge of the Revolution. The last of the Terran Destroyers have been incapacitated and the surviving Terran fighters have surrendered. The battle is officially over!” Captain Hodge paused to allow the inevitable cheers to roll through the Fleet. “All fighters, return to your parent ships at once. If your parent ship was destroyed, find safe harbor with one of the other Cruisers and prepare for debriefing. Once we have accountability of all surviving ships to include the Ballistae, the newest addition to the Fleet, I need all Captains to ferry to the Revolution for an immediate tactical debrief. Captain Hodge, out.”
    Yen was surprised at his sudden turn of luck. In just a few hours, he would be back aboard the Revolution, debriefed, and would have the opportunity to see Keryn as she ferried over for the Captain’s meeting. He was safe and the woman he loved was mere hours away. Yen smiled widely as he started his return flight to the Revolution.

CHAPTER 33:

    “You son of a bitch!” Iana yelled as she caught him with a right cross on his jaw. Yen tumbled from the ramp next to his fighter, collapsing onto the ground in a heap. He immediately leapt to his feet, fury burning in his eyes.
    “What are you going to do?” Iana asked, threateningly. “You going to hit me back? Better yet, are you going to kill me like you did Gregario?” She reached forward and tried to push him in the chest, but he caught her wrists before she could reach him. His power surging, Yen lifted her from her feet and threw her across the large room. Iana collapsed with a groan as the wind was knocked from her lungs.
    “I warned you, Iana. I told you what would happen.” Yen took a step toward her, murderous anger clouding his mind once more, but paused as he noticed the stunned pilots gathering to watch the fight. “What are you looking at?” he snarled at them. “Go to the debriefing room!”
    When he turned back around, Iana had disappeared amongst the crowd of departing pilots. He would have to have a stern talk with her about what she should and should not say in public. Pushing through the throng of pilots, Yen caught sight of her as Iana disappeared around the corner and fled up the hallway.
    “Move,” he growled at the closest Uligart as the pilots bottlenecked into the narrow doorway. Though a few moved out of his way, the rest were not as fortunate. Driving his psychic power forward like a wedge, pilots toppled over one another as they were forced out of Yen’s path. Chasing her out of the bay, Yen turned left to follow Iana and stared down the long, empty hallway.
    Moving until he was out of earshot of the rest of the surprised and angry pilots, Yen called down the hall. “You haven’t escaped me yet, Iana,” Yen said as he began probing the hallway with his mind. His power rolled down the hallway in waves, ricocheting and rebounding like sonar, probing and searching for any brainwaves that he could detect. “Why don’t you just come out so we can talk? That’s all I want to do, Iana. I just want to talk to you.”
    He continued down the hall, scanning continually for her. There was a chance that she had made it to one of the lifts already, but Yen didn’t think so. No, he was sure she was still on this floor somewhere, avoiding him.
    “You obviously have some misconceptions about what happened out there,” Yen said, rubbing his still sore jaw. “Why don’t we discuss what you think happened? It would save us both a lot of time. Come out and talk to me. We’re old friends… don’t you still want to be friends?”
    Yen didn’t expect an answer. The talking was just an excuse to keep her in hiding until he could find her. On cue, Yen detected a single life form near the end of the hall. Her emotions radiated from her in a perceivable aura. Yen reached out, searching her thoughts.
    Yen’s snarl shifted to a decrepit smile as he advanced down the hallway toward his hiding prey. He turned off his power, conserving its energy for when he caught Iana. He didn’t need it anymore, anyway. She would be his soon enough. Walking until he was just around the corner from her, Yen paused, letting the destructive power build within. When he was on the brink of being overwhelmed by the magnitude of his psychic energy, the air whipping around him as though he were enveloped in a pillar of flames, Yen began speaking again and stepped around the corner.
    “You’re a dead woman,” he said as he reached out, closing his hands firmly around the neck of a very surprised Crewman. Instantly, Yen released the man’s neck, who coughed roughly as he staggered backward. Not allowing him to escape, Yen grabbed a hold on the Crewman’s shirt.
    “Where is she?” Yen yelled into the man’s face.
    “Who?” the scared Crewman replied, as he squirmed, trying to free himself from Yen’s grip.
    “Warrant Morven,” Yen growled.
    “She…” the Crewman lost his words as Yen shook him roughly. “She ran past me just a second ago, heading for the stairwell. Please, sir, let me go!”
    “Squadron Commander!” a voice yelled angrily from the elevators at the end of the hall. Yen turned as Captain Hodge stepped off the lift, her pale face flushed with anger. “Release that man this instant!”
    Yen kept his grip as he scanned once more for Iana, his power passing through multiple walls and catching sight of her just as she reached the base of the stairwell. Letting go of the Crewman, Yen turned and stormed past the Captain as he pursued the escaping Warrant.
    “Don’t walk away from me,” Captain Hodge ordered as she took up step right behind Yen. “You’re already in enough trouble, Commander.”
    Ignoring her, Yen continued to the stairwell, rushing up the first flight in a hurry, taking two stairs at a time. Captain Hodge kept pace, though Yen could hear her heavy breathing as she rushed. Pausing at the next landing, Yen looked up the lengthy stairwell above him, scanning again for Iana. He sensed her again, a couple flights above. As he got ready to rush up the next set of stairs, Captain Hodge grabbed a hold of his arm, pulling him to her.
    “Commander!” she hollered as he continued trying to chase Iana up the stairs. “I was monitoring your communications channel during the last battle. I heard what you did to Warrant Pelasi. I am accusing you of murdering one of your own pilots. I’ll bring you up on charges for this. I’ll also let them know about Merric.” She paused while Yen continued to stare upward. “Are you even listening to me?”
    Yen stopped trying to pull away and turned toward her, his eyes burning blue as his psychic energy grew unfettered. “Oh, believe me, ma’am,” he replied dangerously. “I heard you.” He stepped toward her as the intercom sounded an alert above them.
    “Warning! Warning!” the intercom roared. “Collision with unidentified debris imminent! Brace for impact!”
    The Revolution shook violently as a piece of metal struck its hull, scraping and puncturing the thick metal plating. Multiple rooms decompressed, launching their inhabitants to a freezing death in space. On the stairwell, the ground shook, nearly knocking Yen’s feet from under him. Dropping to one knee, he braced himself against the motion. Captain Hodge, caught by surprise, staggered backward toward the lip of the stairs. Clutching for the railing, she grabbed hold at the last moment. Though now supported, her body leaned far out over the precipice of the first stair. Leaping forward, Yen grabbed hold of her wrist as her grip weakened from the continued shaking of the ship.
    As the shuttering of the Revolution finally stopped, Captain Hodge let out a sigh of relief. “Thank you, Commander,” she said. “You saved my life.”
    Yen smiled cruelly. “I don’t think so,” he hissed. “No one questions me. No one!”
    Forming his power into a pair of hands, Yen clutched the sides of the Captain’s head. Shifting his grip on her wrist, Yen dug his nails into her soft flesh. Screaming in anguish and surprise, the Captain’s grip faltered on the railing and she tumbled over the lip of the stairs.
    As she fell, her knees buckled. She threw up her hands defensively in order to protect her face, but Yen’s powers drove her head toward the solid stairs. Her head crashed against the first stair, being driven downward by the combination of her body weight and the psychic grip. With a sickening crack, blood sprayed across the matted stairs, trickling onto the stairs below as she continued to tumble. Keeping a grip on her head, Yen slammed her fragile face into each individual stair on the way down. Under the psychic hands, the Captain’s skull grew soft and the skin split on the edged stairwell. One wing shattered as she tried to slow her decent and her nose flattened against the side of her face as the next stair caught her between the eyes. Blood smeared in a thick streak as Captain Hodge finished the fall and her body came to rest at the landing below. Her body crumpled — with one arm twisted awkwardly behind her, a wing shattered and broken, and blood spreading from her crushed skull — Captain Hodge’s body convulsed uncontrollably as the damaged brain send confusing signals throughout her nervous system.
    Standing at the top of the stairs, Yen watched dispassionately at the broken woman below. A frown etched its way onto his face as he realized he had lost track of Iana. He would have to make sure he watched the hangar bay so she couldn’t escape the ship. It was only a matter of time before he caught up with her. Still, having just killed the Captain, Yen had other tasks to accomplish between now and when Keryn arrived if he expected to remain free.
    Activating his transponder, Yen let emotion slip into his voice as he called to the bridge. “This is Commander Xiao.”
    “This is the bridge, Commander,” Tylgar replied, his gravelly voice carrying over the radio.
    “There has been an accident,” Yen said, allowing a tear to fall from his eye. “Captain Hodge fell when the ship was damaged. She’s…”
    A brief silence stretched over the radio. “Sir?” Tylgar asked. “The Captain is what?”
    “She’s dead,” Yen replied, his voice almost a whisper. “She was killed in the fall. I need a medical team down to Level Fourteen immediately to retrieve her body.”
    “Yes…” Tylgar paused, stunned at the news. “Yes, sir, right away.”
    “One more thing, Tylgar,” Yen said into the radio, not wanting the navigator to turn off the channel before Yen was finished. “I need to know the whereabouts of Horace. He’s the security chief and should be apprised of the situation.”
    “I’m not sure, sir,” Tylgar said. “The debris knocked out our internal sensors. His last known location was in the brig, guarding the prisoner.”
    Yen turned off his radio and smiled to himself. “Perfect.”
    The smile remained on his face until he arrived at the door outside the prison. The thought of Captain Hodge lying at the bottom of the stairs was pushed from his thoughts as he traveled through the series of lifts and hallways. Instead, he focused solely on the next inevitable stage of his plan: eliminating any loyalists to the former Captain. Closing his eyes, Yen stood outside the door and let his power build. Blue tendrils spread from his back, sculpting and shaping into a series of scalpels and hooks at the ends of his psychic chains. Snarling, Yen reached out and activated the door.
    As it slid open, Horace turned, seeing Yen standing silhouetted in the doorway. The large Oterian took a step backward as he saw the demented expression on Yen’s face, the sadistic smile accentuated by the blue glow of the whirling hooks and blades and the shifting and shimmering aura surrounding him. Yen stepped forward threateningly as Horace tried to speak.
    “Commander, what are you…” Horace never finished his sentence as the barbs and knives of Yen’s psychic power plunged into his body. Hooks tore through his flesh, pulling his arms and legs wide until Horace was stretched, suspended a few feet above the ground. Yen generated and sent more and more of the hooks into Horace’s body, ignoring the cries of pain as the barbs pierced his cheeks, abdomen, and groin. With his body stretched and blood spilling freely on the ground, Yen sent the scalpels flying at Horace. Ignoring the surgical precision one might expect from his small blades, Yen struck the Oterian’s body over and over with the knives, leaving ragged cuts and torn flesh as the blades pierced his thick hide. The hooks in his cheeks and lips leaving him unable to speak, Horace gurgled as organs ruptured under the assault. Withdrawing all the scalpels at once, Yen formed his hands into claws with his fingers pointed at Horace’s suspended form. As he moved his fingers, the ten dancing blades responded in like. Thrusting his arms forward, all ten scalpels drove forward, piercing straight through the Security Officer’s chest and erupting from his back. Horace stopped struggling and hung limply in the air. Satisfied, Yen dismissed all his psychic power, the hooks and blades dissipating into the air and allowing the Oterian body to collapse to the floor.
    As Yen turned away, he heard a soft whimper from the brig cell. “Vangore, I had almost forgotten all about you,” Yen said without turning toward the Wyndgaart prisoner.
    “I don’t want to die,” Vangore said weakly as he pulled his knees tighter to his chest while huddling in the far corner of his cell. “Please don’t kill me.”
    “Hush, now,” Yen said sharply. “It’s not you, you have to understand. You had a purpose before. You were going to expose a great conspiracy that would have brought down Captain Hodge, Horace, and numerous others. That would have allowed me to take over as Captain of the Revolution.” Yen leaned against the bars separating the two and reached his right hand through the bars. He held his hand palm up as he continued speaking. “But now I decided to take matters into my own hands. You’re just not needed any more.”
    “I won’t tell anyone, I promise,” Vangore pleaded. “Just, Gods, don’t kill me.”
    “Believe me when I tell you that the Gods will be the only one to hear your story,” Yen said as a blue ball of energy started forming in his hand. The psychic energy swirled angrily as the ball grew in size. When it nearly consumed the whole palm of his hand, Yen tossed it across the cell where it affixed to the far wall. Vangore cringed, flattening himself against the floor.
    “Goodbye, Vangore,” Yen said passively as he walked out of the brig, sealing the doorway behind him. As he walked away, a muffled explosion rocked the brig and blue light flared in the window behind Yen. The explosion tore through the wall and the thick hull, exposing the entire brig to the vacuum of space. The violent decompression sucked Vangore into the vacuum only moments before it ripped the metal bars from their sockets before blasting them into space as well. As an afterthought, Horace’s limp body was drug out through the hole as well, to be consumed by the void.
    “Bridge, this is Commander Xiao,” he called into his transponder as he walked casually to the bank of elevators.
    “Sir, this is the bridge,” Tylgar rough voice responded.
    “It appears that the debris punctured the brig as well. Both the Security Officer and the prisoner were jettisoned into space.”
    “Are you sure?” Tylgar responded.
    “I’m always sure,” Yen said condescendingly. “Open a Fleet-wide channel, linked to my transponder.”
    “Yes, sir,” Tylgar replied quickly, sensing the dangerous tone in Yen’s words. “The channel is open, sir.”
    “All ships within the Alliance Fleet, this is Yen Xiao. Due to an unfortunate accident aboard the Revolution, Captain Hodge has been killed. As the second in command of the flagship, I am assuming command of both the Revolution and the Fleet. From this point on, I have been promoted to the rank of Captain. All previous orders are still in effect. Captains, I will still expect your presence for a battle planning conference on board the Revolution, beginning within the hour. Make necessary arrangements. Captain Xiao, out.”
    With the unfortunate business of murder behind him, Yen allowed the stressors of the day to escape his body. He knew that Iana had no way off the ship, which meant that it wouldn’t be long until he caught and disposed of her. More importantly, he had less than an hour to prepare for the arrival of the other Captains. He hoped he had enough time to clean up before Keryn arrived.

CHAPTER 34:

    Keryn fired the last maneuvering rocket then cut the engines as her ship drifted into the hangar bay of the Revolution. Sitting next to her, Alcent looked uncomfortable as they landed. She understood his discomfort. Alcent was used to avoiding both the Terrans and the Alliance as he managed an encompassing smuggling operation. To willingly fly into the flagship of the Alliance Fleet set him on edge.
    When the hangar was once again filled with breathable air, Keryn opened the back hatch and stepped out of the ship, her boots clinking on the hard floor. Being on board, Keryn felt her own nervousness growing. She knew a lot of work needed to be done before engaging the second half of the Terran Fleet, and she wasn’t sure they had enough time. If they lost their next battle, then the research she had gained on the Deplitoxide would be a waste and those stranded on the frozen planets would surely die. Keryn wished Adam was by her side, standing stoically as her pillar of strength. Unfortunately, he had remained on board the Ballistae as the Captain in absentia. Whatever evils she and Alcent would face on the flagship, they would face alone.
    As Alcent took his place at her side, the door to the hangar opened and a welcoming entourage entered. They flooded toward the Terran personnel carrier, which stood starkly out of place amidst the Alliance fighters. The ships flat body and large wingspan, painted in the royal Empire colors, became a beacon around which the welcoming party huddled. Keryn shook hands with numerous dignitaries, the names of which she instantly forgot. Scanning the crowd, she recognized no one, which just deepened her disinterest in the formal greetings.
    Halfway through one of the many introductions, Keryn held up her hand, stopping the unknown woman in mid sentence. “I am really in a hurry,” Keryn said calmly, though her frustration was causing internal turmoil. “I have important information that must be passed on to the other Captains. Can you please lead me to the conference?”
    Though appearing dejected, the woman nodded and gestured for the pair to follow. As they walked, Alcent fell into step beside Keryn.
    “I almost didn’t recognize you there,” he said, jokingly. “I’m used to the woman screaming on the battlefield and shooting people with deadly accuracy. That, in the hangar, was almost diplomatic.”
    “Shut it, Alcent,” Keryn sneered, “or I’ll shoot you in the face.”
    “Ah,” Alcent replied, smiling. “There’s the Keryn I’ve come to know and love.”
    As they were led through a myriad of passages and lifts, they walked in relative silence. Both newcomers spent their walk alternating between being lost in thought and scanning the faces of the Crewmen they passed. For Keryn, she yearned to find a familiar face, but found only strangers staring back. The approach to the War Room was punctuated by raucous laughter and loud voices climbing over one another in an attempt to be heard. They paused at the door as their guide went in ahead to announce them. Alcent stole a glance and reached out, gently squeezing Keryn’s arm.
    “You’re looking awfully pale,” he whispered.
    “That’s because we don’t belong here,” Keryn replied, her voice raspy and dry. “These are high ranking officers who clawed their way up through the ranks. They know politics and how to play the diplomatic games. What are we?”
    “Murderers, smugglers, and thieves,” Alcent replied. “That makes us ten times better people and one hundred times a better crew. They will stab you in the back, but we’ll always have the decency to stab you in your face.”
    “You’re joking, but I’m not,” she said.
    “I never said I was joking,” Alcent responded. “I would rather fly with our crew any day of the year than serve under the stiff-necked, thin-lipped, tight-asses that lead the Alliance.”
    As their guide announced the co-Captains of the Ballistae, Alcent’s words stuck in Keryn’s mind. She had been away from the Alliance for a long time, serving with her special operations crew. Their attitudes had always been relaxed and casual, avoiding any reference to rank. Just identifying herself as Magistrate Riddell had made the words feel thick in her mouth and hard to pronounce. Now, being onboard an Alliance Cruiser, the changes she had experienced were never more apparent. All around her, soldiers walked by in high-necked uniforms, immaculately pressed and glistening with cleanliness. She and Alcent, in contrast, wore the loose fitting clothing they had worn upon their escape from Othus: leather pants with loose fitting shirts and long jackets. Keryn was glad that they had parted ways with the more traditional methods of issuing demerits and extra work hours to those who did not keep either themselves or their work areas clean by the appropriate governing regulations. While she had gladly bought into the idea when she was a pilot in the Alliance, she now found the system antiquated and overly cumbersome.
    With a tug on her sleeve, Alcent stepped into the War Room with Keryn close behind. The dark uniforms of the Captains hung burdened with gleaming metal decorations on their chests. Conversations had died as the unlikely duo entered the room. More than a couple Captains, people under whom Keryn had once served as a pilot, looked disapprovingly over their attire. One person, however, did not share their disdain. From the far end of the table, Yen watched the pair enter.
    His heart beat loudly in his chest as Keryn entered the room. Though Yen always remembered her as the pilot wearing her grey flight uniform, he found her new look exotic and enchanting. Her long hair flowed freely over her shoulders and framed her tan face. Keryn’s violet eyes sparkled with an inner confidence that he didn’t remember from before.
    “Captain Riddell and Captain Alcent,” Yen called from across the room. “We have reserved a pair of seats next to me for the two of you. You are, after all, the heroes who freed Othus and commandeered a Terran Destroyer for your own. Please, come and join me at the head of the table.”
    As the pair came around the table, Yen yearned to make eye contact with Keryn. But, instead, she continued to scan the room, nodding politely to a number of the other Captains. When they reached their seats, they both sat with mumbled words of appreciation.
    Yen let his eyes linger a moment longer on the profile of Keryn’s face before he began speaking. “I called you all together because, with a change of leadership at the top level of this Fleet, I felt it necessary to meet face to face with each of you. I know that, were the decision yours, you would have placed yourselves in charge of the flagship instead of the Revolution’s second in command. Unfortunately for all of you, the decision was made by military protocol, which leaves me in command of the Fleet. I expect your full support as we continue with our mission.
    “I wish I could say that I knew what Captain Hodge had planned for this meeting before her untimely death. Unfortunately, she left nothing behind that could be used as a baseline. So, instead, the heavy weight of preparing you all for what’s to come falls squarely on my shoulders.”
    Yen glanced around at the assortment of races sitting before him. “The fight ahead is not weighed heavily in our favor. Twelve of our ships were completely destroyed during the last battle, making the number of ships on each side nearly even. Unfortunately, aside from the Ballistae,” Yen nodded to Keryn and Alcent, “there isn’t a ship in the Fleet that isn’t damaged in some way. The Terrans have also fired little of their ammunition, whereas all of our ships are already halfway through their stores. What I’m saying is that we need ideas, and we need them fast.
    “Over the next week, we’ll be flying as fast as our physiologies will allow in order to reach Arcendor before the Terrans have a chance to destroy it. We’ll be coming into the battle tired and damaged, but it doesn’t change the fact that we are fighting to preserve the capital of the Alliance. It’s more than a city, it’s a symbol of the strength of the Alliance. If we let Arcendor fall, there will be chaos amongst the races.”
    Yen remained stoic, but applauded quietly to himself. Though he had only been a Captain a few hours, he felt that this meeting was, thus far, sounding very much like one of Captain Hodge’s motivational speeches. He cleared his throat before the other Captains could begin side conversations.
    “I don’t expect an answer from you all now. I wouldn’t expect you all, after such a difficult battle, to be able to make intricate tactical decisions. However, our timeline is short. Within the next couple days, I need each of you to submit tactical courses of action for the defense of Arcendor.”
    Yen let his eyes fall back to Keryn, who still stared into oblivion, hardly seeming to listen to his speech. He felt a touch of annoyance at her blase attitude, but continued to stare in her direction.
    “There is still one bit of information that we need to discuss before we separate.” Yen gestured to Alcent, offering him the floor. “Captain Alcent of the Ballistae has information that will prove invaluable to our future fight. Captain?”
    “Thank you,” Alcent said with a barely discernable nod to Yen. His attention remained focused on the other Captains. Eyes burning passionately, Alcent spoke to each of them with an edge to his words as though daring them to speak out against him. “Our fight to get to this point has been as brutal, if not worse, than your own. For those not aware, Keryn…” Alcent shook his head, struggling with the change. “Captain Riddell was on a mission from High Council to find the source of Deplitoxide and, if possible, a counteragent. I am proud to announce that her mission, and by proxy our mission, was a complete success. We have both the Deplitoxide and the scientific formulas necessary to counter the blackness that has engulfed all of our suns.”
    The room erupted into surprised conversation as the Captains discussed amongst one another the implications. While many of the Captains expressed relief at the discovery, the dominant conversation quickly turned into political jockeying between the different ships.
    “The whole crew of the Defiant thanks you for your contribution,” an Avalon Captain said, standing to be recognized. “I would like to volunteer our ship as a research vessel for your continuing experiments.”
    “The hell you will, Nitella!” a gruff Oterian Captain roared, clambering to his feet. “The Phalanx will be the research ship, if anyone will!”
    Other Captains jumped from their chairs to add their arguments and cite reasons for their selection as the research vessel. The conversation, however, quickly degraded from argument to thinly veiled insults toward one another. Yen felt his irritation rise as the pettiness of the other Captains, and saw his feelings mirrored on the faces of both Keryn and Alcent.
    “Ladies and Gentlemen,” Yen yelled, trying to get their attention. His voice, however, was lost in the dull roar of conversation. Few of the Captains paid him any mind, noticing his attempts only briefly before returning to the arguments at hand.
    Yen was startled, though, when Keryn pulled a pistol from beneath her jacket, loaded a magazine, and slammed the weapon down on the table. Its echo rolled across the room, drawing the attention of nearly half the Captains, who responded with sheer disbelief that one of the newcomers had drawn a loaded weapon. They slowly took their seats, as though moving in a dream, and nudged the Captain next to them. Word was passed down the table and the Captains quieted, until only two remained arguing at the end of the table, oblivious to Keryn’s threat. Reaching down, she turned the barrel of the gun until it was facing the pair, then loudly cleared her throat. Irritated, they both turned. Their faces dropped as they noticed the loaded pistol pointed their direction, and they both quickly sat down. Yen, though awed by her straightforward techniques, frowned at the confident Wyndgaart sitting next to him. This was not the woman he remembered. Something had happened; something had changed her.
    “You’re bickering amongst yourself like children deprived of your parents’ affection,” Keryn growled. “Grow up, every one of you, and get over yourselves! At the end of this war, I don’t care which one of you is promoted to Fleet Commander or Minister of whatever house. What I care about is that the sacrifices that have already been made by so many Alliance citizens are not in vain because we’re too busy arguing between ourselves to focus on the bigger issue.”
    Keryn leaned forward, casting dark shadows around her face. The desired effect was instantaneous as the other Captains leaned away from her. “All we have is a few rockets with Deplitoxide and some scientific data that we still don’t know whether or not will work. I’m not about to entrust so important a task with people who are more interested in personal gain and less interested in the good of the Alliance. The bottom line is that you can argue amongst yourself all you want, but the Deplitoxide and the counteragent data stay with the Ballistae.”
    She raised her hand, stopping any complaints. “Before any of you open your mouths to tell me why you don’t like my idea, realize that I will only harbor questions that are spoken with a significant level of respect. Whether Alcent and I look like Captains or not, we have done more for the Alliance than you will ever comprehend. If anyone has any issues with that…” She left the sentence hanging as she tapped her hand on the pistol that still sat on the table. “Now, let’s discuss why you think you’re better than me.”
    This was not the romantic reunion Yen had imagined for so long. Yen had envisioned the return of the same affectionate lover who had left him months ago. He had imagined stolen glances while discussing tactics, leading to a quiet dinner alone, and passionate love making that night. So far, Keryn hadn’t stolen a single glance his direction. She was distant and cold, completely professional and seemingly unapproachable. Something had happened in the months away, something that changed her drastically. Yen wondered, not for the first time since she arrived on board, if Keryn was thinking about him at all.
    “What do you offer in the way of scientific research?” one of the Captains asked from further down the table. “Why should you be granted all the research to keep.”
    “I’m not asking anything be ‘granted’ to me,” Keryn replied. “I already own the research and the Deplitoxide. However, I also have some of the most talented scientists in the Fleet on board the Ballistae.”
    “I find that hard to believe,” another Captain guffawed.
    “Our crew managed to hack the Terran defensive network on Othus, hardwired a Terran Destroyer, stole the counteragent plans from a dilapidated facility on a forgotten world, and faked the Terran Fleet codes so that we could safely approach and destroy the Terran flagship,” Alcent added to the conversation. “I think that makes us more than capable of handling this little research project.”
    The conversation droned on as both sides made counterarguments, but Yen was hardly paying attention anymore. He yearned to know what Keryn was thinking and if any of her thoughts strayed to their time together. Memories of their shared love haunted Yen; he found it impossible to believe that Keryn had so casually and callously pushed those thoughts aside. Though Yen hated the idea of invading her privacy, he couldn’t resist the temptation of stealing a glance at her thoughts.
    Narrowing his vision, Yen reached out with his mind, trying to not just read her thoughts but also actually see her memories. Slowly, the first vision began to appear in his mind. The room melted to a pure white landscape. Straining to see as far as he could, Yen was unable to differentiate between the end of the white land and the beginning of the white sky. Looking all around, Yen saw that the horizonless landscape stretched on for eternity in all direction. Pushing the vision aside, he searched for the next memory but, instead, found himself back in the white landscape. Releasing himself from the visions, Yen was startled to realize that he had seen nothing. The white land had been an extension of a mental block within Keryn’s mind. Somehow, she had stopped his psychic probe. From her continued conversation, Yen assumed that she was blissfully unaware of his intrusion.
    Now angry at her disinterest, Yen focused harder on penetrating her thoughts. Crowning around her head, a soft white halo appeared in his vision moments before he plummeted back into the white landscape. Startled, Yen leapt to his feet in the white world, searching wildly for something on which to take out his frustration. Feeling irritated at his inability to break into her memory, Yen close his eyes and released his probe. Opening his eyes again, he was stunned to find himself still trapped within the white realm.
    “How?” Yen asked, unable to formulate the questions he really wanted to ask.
    Yen shook with anger. He now knew the answer that had eluded him before. Something had happened while Keryn was gone: some other entity was in Keryn’s mind. It was not unheard of with exploration into the unknown space. Parasites existed that could share a person’s body and subtly alter their moods and interactions with others. Her behavior changes and seemingly distant attitude toward him now made more sense. It was now Yen’s mission to free Keryn of whatever entity had taken possession of her. In order to set her free, however, he needed to get free himself. That meant confronting whatever now shared her mind.
    Manifesting his powers, Yen searched the ground and air for exits from his prison. The white world, however, held against his intrusions. Throwing his hands skyward, Yen yelled into the oblivion. “How are you keeping me here? Who is doing this to me?”
    “I am,” came a familiar feminine voice.
    The white landscape in front of Yen began to ripple as first a tanned leg, then a tanned arm, emerged from the nothing. The rest of her body quickly followed, pulling itself free from the ether. With a final shake, the white landscape reasserted itself. Before Yen, a personification of Keryn stood naked, her silver hair flowing freely over her shoulders. Yen’s eyes drifted over her body, which stood in sharp distinction to the white background. He quickly pulled his eyes away before he fell into the trap of thinking the figure before him was truly his lost love.
    “You’re not Keryn,” he stated, matter-of-factly.
    “Keryn is…,” she replied, pausing as she sought the right words, “unavailable right now.”
    “What are you?” he asked threateningly. “Are you a parasite? An insect?”
    “No, no,” she answered, shaking her head. “I’m very much a part of the whole. Consider me a vizier for Keryn’s decision making process.”
    Yen turned away from her, not wanting the temptation of looking at her. “You’re talking in riddles!” he yelled. “You’re playing with my mind, showing me her body. I don’t even want to look at you.”
    After a pause, she spoke. “Is this better?” she asked coyly. When Yen still refused to turn, she continued. “I promise I’m not naked anymore.”
    Yen turned and, true to her word, she was no longer naked. A white robe clung to her body now, revealing only the plunging neckline, face, and hands. “Why do you keep me prisoner here? Why can’t I leave?”
    “You’re here because you need to know the truth,” she answered. “No, more importantly, you need to accept the truth.”
    “What would a succubus know about the truth?” he sneered.
    “I know what lies in Keryn’s heart,” she said softly, before her voice took a hard edge, “and you’re no longer in it. You’ve been replaced.”
    “I don’t believe you,” Yen said, stepping dangerously toward her. “What do you want from me? Answer me, damn you!”
    “I want you to accept the fact that she has moved on with her life,” she said, not backing away from his threat. “It’s time you moved on with yours.”
    “The only reason she would keep me from her heart is if you told her to forget about me. That’s what parasites do!”
    “You silly, little man,” she said, tilting her head back as she laughed. “I didn’t tell her that she didn’t love you. She told me. And I could no sooner remove myself from her than I could remove her lungs. I’m very much a part of her.”
    Yen lost the words of his sharp retort as the realization dawned on him. “You’re her Voice,” he said, dumbfounded. He had been so very wrong about Keryn. It wasn’t that something had invaded Keryn’s mind; Keryn had invaded her own mind.
    “I don’t know what she ever saw in you, honestly,” the Voice replied. “You’re arrogant and conceited and, as we just witnessed, not very bright.”
    “Don’t threaten me, woman,” Yen growled, feeling his power bristling along his spines. “It would not be a very wise move to upset me.” From his back, dozens of small, sharp tendrils protruded, floating in the air above his head.
    “You don’t threaten me, child!” the Voice yelled. Wind began whipping her hair and robe as she grew angry.
    “I do whatever I want, witch,” Yen replied calmly before sending all his small blades toward her chest. With little effort, the Voice raised her hand, facing her palm toward the oncoming blades. Instantly, they all stopped in mid air, frozen by her powers. Yen strained to drive them forward, but to no avail. The Voice had them under her control.
    “You made a poor decision there, Yen,” she explained. “We’re not in the real world. Your powers are simply a personification of your own mind here. But this is Keryn’s mindscape and, in turn, my realm. My powers are absolute here. And, though this may not be the first time you’ve heard this comment, I’ve left you impotent.”
    Yen howled in rage, feeling helpless against her mental control. “Let go of me at once!”
    “Only after I’m sure that you understand that if you ever return, I’ll destroy your mind once and for all. It’s a point I’d really like to…” she paused as she twisted her wrist, turning the blades away from her and pointing them at Yen, “drive home.”
    Flicking her fingers at him, the blades drove back toward Yen. He threw up his arms defensively, but the blades pierced through his skin. Pain lanced through his body as dozens of blades slipped into his body. He screamed as the white world slowly melted away.
    Lowering his arms, he looked around at the now silent and surprised Captains, all of who watched him curiously from their seats. Tentatively, he touched his chest and was relieved to find that he was not injured.
    “Sorry,” he mumbled to the gathered Captains, “my mind was elsewhere. What were we discussing?”
    Keryn turned toward him, a fire burning behind her violet eyes. “I was just explaining that the Ballistae was going to conduct the research on the Deplitoxide. I just informed the Captains that you would support my decision one hundred percent. Isn’t that true, Captain Xiao?”
    Yen locked eyes with her and knew immediately that he spoke to the Voice once more. A nervous spasm rolled up his back.
    “Yes, I support their decision,” Yen added, struggling with the words. He was not used to being on the defensive. “The Ballistae will conduct the research while we’re in transit to Arcendor.”
    Before any responses could be mustered, Yen quickly added, “If there are no other issues, I would like to bid you all adieu and good luck. This meeting is adjourned.”
    Perplexed, the other Captains were slow to rise as they made their way out of the room. Keryn and Alcent stood and left without a word, which Yen considered a small consolation. When everyone was gone, Yen sat alone in the relative darkness of the War Room and fumed about the turn of events. She no longer loved him. He had trouble accepting the truth, but knew that the Voice wouldn’t blatantly lie to him. The Voice was merely an extension of Keryn’s own mind. Still, she had said something he couldn’t forget:
    You’ve been replaced.

CHAPTER 35:

    Keryn felt her irritation burn through her veins as she and Alcent boarded their ship and prepared to return to the Ballistae. Though they had won every argument they had put forward in the Captains meeting, she wasn’t pleased with using strong-arm tactics in order to get her way. The meeting had not gone at all like she had planned. In her mind, she foolishly believed the other Captains would see reason and let the Ballistae continue its research into the Deplitoxide problem. Instead, she found herself improvising to the point of pulling her pistol on the other gathered Officers. It surprised her then and still did, but the intimidation she should have felt while being in the presence of so many accomplished commanders just wasn’t there. Instead, she had felt only disdain for their haughty attitudes.
    Her biggest issue came from Yen. Though the Voice had handled his intrusion into her mind, she still felt violated. More importantly to her, though, was that she felt disappointed in him. The Yen she had once loved would have never resorted to invading someone else’s mind in order to get answers. He had been understanding and an effective leader because of his interpersonal skills. The man who had sat at the head of the table only physically resembled the man she once knew; his personality had been replaced by something monstrous.
    Alcent had the decency not to speak to Keryn as they ran through the preflight checks. As the engines started and the Terran ship lifted off the hangar bay floor, Keryn activated the radio.
    “Ballistae crew requesting permission to depart the Revolution hangar,” Keryn called flatly to the control room.
    “Roger, Ballistae crew,” came the quick reply. “We are depressurizing the bay now. You are clear to depart.”
    “Keryn,” Alcent said quietly as he drew his sidearm. “I’m detecting an increase in our ship’s mass compared to when we arrived. If I had to guess, I’d say we have a stowaway.”
    Keryn turned sharply, belying Alcent’s caution, and activated the rear compartment’s lights. The sharp halogen lights filled the room with light. In the corner, crouched behind one of the rows of benches, a scared female face peered out. Tears streamed down her face as she shook her head, begging for Keryn’s continued silence.
    “Please,” the woman mouthed.
    “Ballistae crew,” the control room called. “Is there a problem with your departure?”
    Keryn kept her eyes locked with the scared woman’s as she reached over to the microphone. “Negative, Revolution,” she said, still watching their stowaway. “There is no problem. We are exiting the ship now.”
    Reaching over slowly, Keryn turned off the lights to the crew compartment, casting the back room into darkness once more. Turning back to the controls, she maneuvered the ship out of the hangar bay and began the short flight back to her own ship.
    When they were far enough away from the Revolution, Keryn motioned for Alcent to take control of the ship. She turned the lights back on in the crew cabin and walked back to talk to the stowaway. As she left the helm, Keryn quietly closed the door behind her. Whatever was to come from her next conversation, she didn’t want Alcent hearing.
    Keryn sat down on the couch beside which the frightened woman hid. Patting the seat beside her, Keryn invited the woman to join her. Slowly, obviously fearing for her own well being, the woman took the seat, though she kept her tear-filled eyes focused on the ground.
    “Would you like to tell me what you’re doing on my ship, Iana?” Keryn asked as the Warrant shook with sobs.
    Stifling her tears, Iana managed enough composure to reply. “I had to run away. He was going to kill me!”
    “Who was going to kill you?” Keryn asked, suddenly interested in her story.
    Iana met Keryn’s gaze only briefly before dropping her eyes once more and shaking her head. “You wouldn’t believe me, even if I did tell you,” Iana whispered.
    Keryn placed a hand on Iana’s arm. “I think you’ll find that I’m willing to believe just about anything. Now, tell me who is trying to kill you.”
    “Captain Xiao,” Iana mumbled to herself. “Yen is trying to kill me.”
    Her answer hit Keryn like a heavy weight in her chest. Her concerns about Yen’s behavior earlier seemed to pale in comparison with Iana’s accusation. Yen had tried to invade Keryn’s thoughts, but she wondered if he was truly capable of murder, especially murdering one of his close friends. In the end, she shook her head.
    “I can’t believe that Yen would try to kill you, Iana. He actually considers you one of his closest friends.” Keryn leaned back heavily against the couch and thought again about Yen killing Iana. She just couldn’t fathom him committing that act. “You’re trying to convince me that the Commander of the Fleet is trying to kill one of his pilots?”
    “You don’t understand! He already has killed one of his pilots!” Sobs overtook Iana again. Through her tears, Keryn heard her say, “I knew you wouldn’t believe me.”
    Keryn didn’t know how to respond to Iana’s tears. As the Warrant continued her fits of crying, Keryn grew uncomfortable and eventually got up to leave. As she pushed herself away from the chair, Iana’s hand shot out and affixed upon Keryn’s arm in a death grip. Keryn looked down, surprised both at Iana’s strength and the strong look in her eyes.
    “Promise me,” Iana said, her voice still thick with emotion. “Even if you won’t believe me, promise me that you’ll grant me amnesty on board you ship.” As Keryn tried to pull away, Iana tightened her grip until her nails were digging into Keryn’s forearm. “Promise me!”
    “Fine,” Keryn exclaimed as she pulled her arm free. “I will grant you amnesty on board the Ballistae.”
    As she walked away, Keryn kept a watch on her emotionally unstable friend. Entering the helm once again, she closed the door behind her, separating herself from Iana. Alcent noticed her troubled expression as he wove between the other Cruisers of the Fleet.
    “Would you like to tell me about our newest passenger?” Alcent finally asked, unable to handle the silence.
    “She’s an old friend,” Keryn explained while trying to give away as little as possible of her story. Somehow, Keryn didn’t think Alcent was the right man to tell dangerous accusations. “We’re granting her amnesty on our ship.”
    “Any particular reason?”
    “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” she responded, letting the subject drop.
    As soon as they made dock with the Ballistae, they disembarked from their Terran ship and left the hangar bay. Adam met them in the hallway, having obviously rushed from the bridge to reach them before they left the area. He pulled up short, however, when he saw the shaking Pilgrim standing next to Keryn. Keryn shook her head, stopping any probing questions before they could be asked.
    “Adam,” she began, “this is Iana Morven, an old friend of mine from the Academy. I need you to take her to one of the living quarters near ours and let her get some rest.”
    Iana raised her face, looking back and forth between the two lovers as Adam gently led her away. As soon as they were out of earshot, Keryn activated her internal radio and called up to the control room.
    “Wyck, this is Keryn.”
    “Captain, my Captain,” Wyck responded. “It’s good to have you back.”
    Keryn shook her head. She still wasn’t used to the new title. “Cut the crap, Wyck,” she replied. “I hope you have some good news for me about the Deplitoxide research.”
    “It’s…” he paused just long enough that Keryn realized the news would not be good. “It’s coming along. Tora and I have actually made quite a few discoveries during our research together.”
    “How many of those ‘discoveries’ are directly tied to the study of Avalon anatomy?” Keryn asked. She would have never believed that she could hear someone blush over the radio, but Wyck proved her wrong as he began to stammer a response. Keryn was quick to cut him off and end his torturous reply. “Wyck, I don’t care about that. However, I did just tell an entire room full of pompous Captains that we were going to continue the Deplitoxide research because I have some of the most talented scientists in the entire Alliance onboard. Don’t prove me wrong.”
    “No, ma’am,” Wyck stuttered. “Absolutely not.”
    “I believe you,” she replied sweetly. “I just need you to stay focused on our mission right now. Love will always wait for you. If you make a remarkable breakthrough in your research, feel free to wake me up. Otherwise, I’m going to be sleeping off a painful meeting.”
    “Wait!” Wyck yelled into the radio, stopping her before she was able to sign off. “I almost forgot. You have a message from High Council waiting for you on your bedroom console. I forwarded it there, since I didn’t figure you wanted everyone knowing your business.”
    Keryn paused, perplexed. “You did the right thing, Wyck. Any idea what they want?”
    “I’m a hacker, Keryn,” he replied. “But even I know when I need to mind my own damn business.”
    Keryn smiled, proud of her computer genius. “Thanks, Wyck. If it’s important, I promise to tell you all about it.”
    “That’s the other reason I didn’t check it,” he answered. “You haven’t let me down yet.”
    “Now get back to work on your research,” Keryn said. “I’m heading to my room.”
    Keryn tried to make assumptions about what the High Council would have to say to her personally. All she could imagine was that they were sending personal congratulations for her successful mission. Still, it seemed like overkill from an organization as influential as High Council. Without realizing it, Keryn increased her pace, eager to reach her quarters. Entering her access code, Keryn slipped inside the room and activated the lights. Adam hadn’t returned yet, but that didn’t surprise her. Aside from taking care of Iana, Adam was on duty on the bridge right now. For a moment, she pondered waiting for him to return before listening to the message, but curiosity got the better of her.
    Sitting down in front of her console, Keryn saw the small red light blinking, telling her that a video message waited for her. Activating the screen, the symbol of the High Council emerged from the black monitor. Slowly, the screen dissolved into a picture of six wizened faces sitting around a semi-circular table. Sitting at the head of the table, an elderly Wyndgaart man began speaking.
    “Magistrate Riddell,” he began, his voice coarse from age. “We would like to extend our sincerest appreciations for completing your mission and retrieving the Deplitoxide. Your mission was fraught with danger and losses, both personal and professional. For that, we are truly sorry.”
    Keryn paused the video, immediately stunned by the fact that the High Council was already aware of her success so quickly after her reunion with the Fleet. She returned to a question that had been asked many times during her tenure in the Fleet: where was the elusive High Council actually located? Was it possible they were actually traveling incognito amongst the Fleet ships even now? Or did they have access to faster-than-light communications technology that allowed near instantaneous reports to flood in from throughout Alliance space? Pushing such questions aside, Keryn continued the video.
    “I wish that our message for you was only full of congratulatory praise for your mission completion, but that simply isn’t the case. Instead, we have a new urgent mission for you and you alone. Do not include anyone else on your crew or within the ranks of the Fleet for this mission. This mission is being shared with you with the utmost secrecy.”
    The Oterian Councilmember spoke next. “A few weeks ago, we received a direct communication from Captain Hodge, formerly the Commander of the Fleet. Captain Hodge was acting as an agent of the High Council, reporting ship movements and battle tactics to the High Council for our review and recommendations. Such practices are hardly unheard of amongst the Commanders of the Fleet. Though we were not expecting a communication from her when her message arrived, we were even more surprised by its content. Her message was full of fear and concern for not only her own well-being, but that of the entire Fleet. In her own words, there was a madman loose amongst the Officers of the Fleet committing atrocities, going as far as accusing this madman of murder. As you may or may not be aware, a Magistrate on board the Revolution was arrested for murdering a superior officer and confined to the brig. We believed that with this traitor in custody, Captain Hodge’s concerns would be laid to rest. Unfortunately, Captain Hodge was killed in the recent conflict, leaving Captain Xiao to assume the mantle of Commander of the Fleet.”
    Picking up where the Oterian left off, the gravelly voice of the Lithid Councilmember chimed in. “That is where our involvement in this communication began. You see, the last part of the report from Captain Hodge involved her begging for our involvement should something fatal happen to her. She knew that there was a chance she would be killed, murdered by this madman on board her own ship. To assure retribution, Captain Hodge named the man she thought ultimately responsible for the death of Eminent Merric and, should she die, the perpetrator of her own death. The man she named surprised us, especially when we found out that he was now her successor.”
    Keryn’s heart pounded in her chest as she realized what the Oterian meant. The Avalon Councilmember added the final punctuation, the name of which Keryn already guessed. “Captain Hodge named her murderer as none other than Captain Xiao, her second in command. We have attached the video report from Captain Hodge for your review. Once it is complete, we will explain the mission which we want you to undertake.”
    The screen changed, the council room disappearing and being replaced by a pale Avalon face. Keryn recognized Captain Hodge immediately, though her face was more drawn and worried than Keryn remembered. The Captain looked like she had aged decades in the short time they were apart. Her face was shrouded by shadows, the only light in the room being reflected from the screen itself. As the picture finished its transformation, it began automatically playing. A singing Avalon voice filled her room as she watched.
    “This is communication number seventy-two between the Commander of the Fleet and High Council. This communication is being sent at an irregular interval, the contents of which have been heavily coded to ensure that its message is for the Councilmembers’ eyes only.
    “As reported previously, my second in command, Eminent Merric, was murdered. His body was disposed of in the exhaust vent of the plasma engines, leaving little biological evidence that he had been murdered at all. We have arrested Magistrate Vangore, my former Communications Officer, for the murder, based on evidence collected and from his own confession under duress from the Crown.”
    Captain Hodge paused, searching for the words. “There is no other way to state it other than telling the truth: I don’t believe he’s guilty. I believe Magistrate Vangore was framed for the murder. I know that one of your questions will pertain to proof of my assumption. I have none. There is no definitive evidence that Vangore did not commit this atrocious crime. In fact, all the evidence, including now a confession, leads us to believe that he is incredibly guilty of the accused crime.
    “My only evidence on the contrary will never hold up in Alliance court. My sense that he isn’t guilty came from the look in his eyes. I don’t mean Vangore’s eyes. I mean Squadron Commander Xiao’s eyes. I have spoken with Yen Xiao multiple times since the murder was committed. It was his clue that led us to Vangore in the first place. However, I couldn’t ignore the fact that during every one of our conversations following the murder, something gleamed in Yen’s eyes. I think he was enjoying himself. It sounds paltry, placing so much faith in the look of someone’s eyes, but there was a homicidal bliss in his look when he would discuss how he thought Vangore committed the murder. He seemed to me like a puppeteer telling his fairy tale while pulling the strings of his marionette. I can’t help but feel that Vangore was that puppet, having his strings pulled.”
    Captain Hodge leaned back heavily in her chair and let out a sigh. “I can’t prove it. If you’re watching this, you already know that’s true. But I want you to think about what I’m about to tell you. Yen Xiao is a psychic of incredible power. He keeps himself as reserved as possible so that others can’t tell the extent of his abilities. But I’ve read the reports from Earth. I know that he made a Terran guard shoot himself in the face with his own pistol with no more than a psychic suggestion. He dropped the Washington Monument, a massive landmark millennia old, on top of an adversary. He lost control of his powers and destroyed half his own team while trying to stop the Terran scientist. He is powerful, insanely so. Maybe that isn’t the best choice of words… or maybe it’s the perfect choice of words. Power corrupts and having the ability to alter men’s minds with a simple thought could easily lead to thoughts of God-hood. And if he was guilty, if he truly did commit the murder of Merric and framed Vangore for the crime, how do you prove that a psychic made someone confess to a crime they didn’t commit?”
    The Captain rubbed her temples as though suffering from a terrible headache. Keryn was prone to believe that, having suffered under the mantle of command with such events transpiring, Captain Hodge very possible no longer remembered what life was like without a headache.
    “I’m rambling now, but it’s hard to keep your thoughts in order when you’re constantly questioning if they truly are your own thoughts. If he could make a man confess to a crime while under the influence of the Crown, what else has he done? How many other people on board this ship have done things against their will because he was toying with our emotions? I’m suddenly second guessing every crime and accusation made on board, wondering if he had an influence on the outcome of the events. Gods, I even fear for my life. He can read peoples’ minds. If he even began to believe that I thought him guilty, I have no doubt that I would suffer a sudden and severe ‘accident’.”
    Captain Hodge suddenly glanced away from the screen. Glancing down quickly, she added, “I will continue this message momentarily.” She looked up and called, “Please, Yen. Please come in,” as she turned off the recording. Less than a second later, the video restarted.
    “He was just here. As I stated before we were interrupted, I am concerned about all our safety. I think he’s still oblivious, but I have no way to hide my thoughts from him. If anyone on board does anything to rouse his suspicion, I think we’ll be his next victims. Maybe I’m just paranoid, but I don’t believe so. Neither does Horace, my Security Officer.
    “I tell you all this because I don’t think I’ll survive the war with the Terran Fleet. Should something happen to me, I want you to know that it wasn’t an accident. No matter how preposterous that may appear when you hear of how I died, realize that he had a hand in it. More than anything, I want to know that my death wasn’t in vain and that he will be prevented from do the same to other Officers, Warrants, or Crewmen in this Fleet.”
    Captain Hodge took a deep breath and brushed the hair out of her face. “This concludes this correspondence with the High Council. Captain Hodge, signing off.”
    Keryn felt the tears streaming down her cheek. She didn’t want to believe it was true, that Yen could truly be that savage, yet she couldn’t deny Captain Hodge’s words. As Keryn’s emotions continued to storm inside her, the image of the Captain disappeared and the High Council returned. Though it was only a recording, Keryn could feel their intense stares judging her as she cried quietly alone in her room.
    It was the Uligart Councilmember who spoke next. “I believe that, after watching that correspondence with Captain Hodge, the last one we received before her death, that you can imagine our interest in this situation. We have discussed this issue for the past few hours, which is a great length of time for men as old as we are. We have come to the following conclusion: we believe that Captain Hodge’s concerns were valid. It is the only way we can account for the Captain, Horace, and Vangore all dying in a single attack on the Revolution. If Captain Xiao truly did commit the murders of three more Officers of the Fleet in an attempt to cover his first murder, than he is growing careless. A careless man with deadly power is apt to continue using that power for ill gains. We don’t believe that he has stopped committing murders. In fact, he may very well be choosing his next target as we speak.”
    Keryn’s thoughts jumped to Iana, who had hidden onboard her vessel, fearing for her life and claiming Yen was trying to kill her. Her claim no longer seemed so far fetched.
    The Pilgrim Councilmember, her face full of the wrinkles of age, finished for the High Council. “Magistrate Riddell, we are tasking you with a mission most severe and important to the continued success of the Fleet. We are tasking you with killing Captain Xiao for the good of the Alliance.”
    The Councilmembers let the declaration hang in the air as Keryn absorbed their request. Her heart stopped beating at their words, unable to believe that they would choose so drastic an approach to dealing with someone they perceived to be a threat. More importantly, Keryn couldn’t fathom why they would choose someone who once had an emotional attachment to Yen to be his hired assassin. Regardless of whether or not she felt the accusations were true, Keryn wasn’t sure if she was strong enough to follow through with blatant murder. Killing an enemy would always be easier than killing a friend.
    The Pilgrim Councilmember continued. “We have already conceived a plan that will succeed, but we need your support. We understand the depth of the request that we have thrust upon you, which is why we do not expect an answer soon. However, we feel that you must move against Captain Xiao during the next conflict. If his ship is destroyed during the battle, then he will no longer be a threat to the Alliance. Think about our request, but think quickly. We will be expecting an answer soon.”
    The screen faded back to black with the symbol of the High Council emblazoned in the center of the console. Eventually, that too faded, leaving Keryn alone to her thoughts. She shook, feeling cold all over and numbness spreading through her limbs. She wanted to leave her chair, but feared that her legs would not support her.
    “How can they ask me to do this?” she asked the air, knowing only one other entity heard her cry.
    Because if he is allowed to live, the Voice replied, you could be the next to die after Iana. Maybe he’ll kill us because I insulted him during our meeting. Or maybe it will be because you are granting amnesty to his chosen prey. Who knows? Psychopaths rarely make sense to the sane.
    “Why me?” Keryn sobbed.
    You want a justification for killing your former lover? it asked. Maybe you should walk two doors down the hall and talk to the woman he’s already traumatized. He already tried to kill her. Maybe she will have the answers you seek.
    “Iana,” Keryn whispered into the room as she got to her feet. Wiping the tears from her eyes, she left her room and walked down the hall. Stopping in front of Iana’s door, Keryn knocked softly. In her heart, she hoped that Iana wouldn’t answer. The soft padding of feet on the far side of the door told her otherwise.
    The door slid open, revealing a worn and exhausted woman. Iana’s blond hair was disheveled and face swollen from crying. Keryn could see the look in her eyes and knew that she didn’t look much better. They stood in silence in the doorway, sharing an unspoken bond of kinship.
    “I owe you such a huge apology,” Keryn said finally, choking back the tears that threatened to spill down her face. “I’m so sorry. Please forgive me.”
    Her tears started to fall as Iana stepped forward, embracing her tightly. Standing in the doorway of Iana’s quarters, the pair released months of pent up emotion as they sobbed into each others’ shoulders. After minutes had passed, they slowly pulled apart until they were holding hands across the chasm of the doorway.
    Softly, Iana started to laugh. “We look like hell, don’t we?” she asked.
    Keryn laughed with her. “Yeah, I really think we do.” Reaching up, she wiped away the tears once more before continuing. “Iana, I am truly sorry. If you’re up for it, I really need to hear your story.”
    “I’ll pour us something stiff to drink,” Iana replied, suddenly serious.
    Keryn followed her inside and sat at the table as Iana poured them both drinks from a clear bottle of liquor. Sitting across from her, Iana sipped her drink as she began telling her story. Keryn finished three drinks and felt lightheaded by the time Iana was done talking, finally finishing with her flight from Yen in the hallway and eventually hiding on board Keryn’s ship. When she was done, they both sat in silence.
    “What are we going to do?” Iana asked, seemingly relieved to finally be able to tell someone the truth.
    “I don’t know, Iana,” Keryn replied, shaking her head. “I just don’t know.”

CHAPTER 36:

    Keryn awoke in a strange bed in a strange room. Groggy and disoriented, she rolled to her side and was surprised to see the mop of blond hair splayed across the pillow beside her. Keryn remembered her long talk with Iana the night before and, knowing that she probably felt as emotionally drained as Keryn did, slipped out of the bed without waking her. Though she looked disheveled from a night full of heavy emotions, Keryn quickly got dressed and left the room, heading back toward her own room. As the door slid open to her quarters, she noticed Adam sitting at the table.
    He eyed her curiously before he spoke. “You look like hell, love.”
    Keryn nodded. “I’m fine, just still exhausted even after sleeping through the night. Iana and I had a lot of catching up to do and a lot of tears to share.”
    “Is everything alright?” he asked. Keryn could tell that he wanted to pry, but wouldn’t.
    “Everything’s fine now,” she answered as she walked over to pour herself a cup of coffee. “We just had a whole lot to discuss. Girl stuff, mostly, you know how it is.” Noticing his look of skepticism, she quickly changed the subject. “So, I’m surprised to see you still awake after such a long shift on the bridge.”
    As if on cue, Adam yawned loudly. “I’m beat. I was just worried about you after I got home and saw the place untouched. After everything that’s been going on, I have a tendency to fear the worst.”
    “You really are a sweetheart,” she said as she leaned over, kissing him softly on the cheek.
    “It’s why you keep me…” he was interrupted as red fire warning lights illuminated the room and sirens sounded throughout the hall. The screeching siren pierced through their door and drove a spike into Keryn’s tired mind.
    “That noise is Gods awful!” she yelled to be heard over the sound. Activating her radio, she called to the bridge. “Where is there a fire?”
    Alcent’s voice called back. “It’s nothing serious. We’re shutting down the sirens now.” As he finished, the lights and noise ceased.
    “What the hell was that?” Adam asked, activating his own radio.
    “It was a fire, but it was quickly contained,” Alcent answered.
    “What was the location of the fire?” Keryn asked dubiously. She knew how dangerous an uncontrolled fire could be onboard a ship. With only a limited amount of breathable — and flammable — oxygen and all the explosive rounds, fires could be deadly in space.
    “The location was the science wing, laboratory three,” he replied.
    Keryn and Adam turned to one another. “Wyck,” they both said as they leapt to their feet and hurried toward the door.
    They reached the lift quickly and tapped their feet impatiently as the elevator slowly took them upward, toward the science wing. Used mainly for the Terran’s biological research, the science wing was a converted wing of living quarters on board the ship. After its discovery, the new crew had added some modifications, making it the optimum area to conduct their research into the Deplitoxide cure. Wyck and Tora had been working in the lab most of the night, which left Keryn dreadful of any fires that might have broken out.
    As the elevator doors opened on the floor, however, laughter flooded from down the hall. Keryn came around the corner just in front of Adam to find both Wyck and Tora collapsed on the floor, giggling like children to one another. A group, mostly technicians with a mild amount of scientific knowledge, gathered around the pair. On the floor, both the young geniuses were covered in soot, their hair unkempt and singed from an obvious burst of flames. Undaunted, though, they continued to laugh as they shared insights into their obvious failure.
    “Next time,” Tora said as she was overcome with laughter again, “we probably shouldn’t be looking down on the results when we mix the chemicals.”
    “Oh yes,” Wyck added sarcastically, laughing as well. “Mixing the chemicals with our faces a mere foot away was the only mistake we made tonight.”
    “How do you feel about robots?” she asked, trying to sober up from her fits of laughter.
    “They’re not really my type,” Wyck replied, laughing again. Tora punched him hard in the arm and humor fled from his face.
    “I’m being serious here,” she said, feeling little sympathy as he rubbed his bruised limb. “What if we designed a robot that could mix the chemicals remotely? I think we could make it out of one of the loaders, but we’d have to cannibalize it for parts.”
    Wyck still sulked, but his scientific curiosity got the better of him. “Combine that with the blast shield off the front of one of the fighters, and I think we could conduct the experiment again under much more controlled circumstances.”
    Keryn cleared her throat loudly as she and Adam stood above the pair. Looking up in surprise, they both scrambled to their feet. Though they were both still smeared with ash and parts of their clothing had obviously caught fire in the blast, the dominant look on both their faces was embarrassment.
    “So,” Keryn said, drawing out the first word, “what experiment?”
    Their faces brightened as they both tried to explain at the same time. Having only worked together over a short time, the two technological geniuses were now inseparable. Adam held up his hand, stopping them both in mid sentence.
    “One at a time or I can’t understand you,” he said, talking to them both like a patient father. He quickly turned his open hand into an accusing point. “Speaking of understanding, keep all your scientific jargon out of the conversation.”
    “We think we found your answer,” Tora started, elbowing Wyck in the ribs when he started to talk too.
    Keryn looked around the corner at the destroyed laboratory. White circles stood in stark contrast on the blackened table, marking spots where beakers and plates had once stood. Shattered glass lay strewn throughout the room and was noticeable in the areas that the flame-retardant foam hadn’t covered the floor. Both chairs were ruined; their foam backs had obviously caught fire, smoldering long after the rest of the fire was extinguished.
    “That’s my answer?” she asked.
    “Well, not so much now, but it was,” Wyck answered, stepping in front of Tora before she could explain. “What that was just prior to the explosion was a mixture of Deplitoxide and a new chemical formula we devised using the Terran data we recovered as a baseline.”
    “The counteragent for Deplitoxide is an explosive chemical?” Adam asked, arching his eyebrow inquisitively.
    “Well, not exactly,” Tora said embarrassed, reasserting herself in the conversation. “The Terran data was woefully incomplete. If we had followed their guidelines exactly, we wouldn’t have managed a real solution to the problem. So, we made a few modifications to their formula, adding some elements that we thought might make it more effective.”
    Keryn stared into the scorched room as a plan began to formulate in her mind. “Can you do it again?” she asked.
    “Do what again?” Wyck asked.
    “Can you make it explode again?” she clarified.
    The two smiled. “Exploding isn’t a problem. We were worried you wanted us to find a way to make it not explode!”
    “No, I like it just the way it is,” Keryn said. She turned toward the beaming pair. “What do you need from us?”
    Wyck looked around at the gathered workers. “Well, we have enough of a labor pool to get the necessary equipment up here, so that’s not really a necessity.”
    “Um…” Tora added. “Would it be possible to turn of the fire alarm?”
    Keryn smiled. “We’ll get right on that. You two, get back to work and call me as soon as you have it ready to be presented to me, Adam, and Alcent.”
    “Yes, ma’am,” Wyck replied. He turned away and started barking orders to the workers.
    “What are you thinking?” Adam asked as they made their way back to the lift.
    “I’ll explain as we walk,” she replied as they climbed into the elevator.
    As the lift descended through the ship, Keryn explained in brief detail the extent of her plan. Adam laughed at her as she used her hands to demonstrate aerial maneuvers and the necessary strategies for the bulky Alliance Cruisers. By the time the elevator stopped and the doors opened, Keryn had finished describing her plan.
    “And you thought of all of that after listening to Wyck and Tora?” he asked.
    “More or less,” she said distractedly as she continued refining her plan in her head.
    “That’s why I love you,” Adam said, kissing her on her forehead.
    Though she tried to focus on their new plan, her thoughts kept drifting to High Council’s message. She wasn’t supposed to tell anyone of their mission, but she wasn’t sure if she was strong enough to do it alone. Keryn stopped. Adam made it a few more steps before he realized she was no longer following.
    “Keryn?” he said.
    “Adam,” she said, trying to read his body language as she continued. “Please hear me out before you say anything.” More than ever, Keryn worried that Adam and Yen’s friendship would get in the way of her mission.
    “You’ve known me for a while now,” she began. “We’ve become so close, even though you’ve seen me do some horrible things that would scare away most men. But every time I’ve ever done something bad — like killing a man or torture — I’ve always felt it was justified. Most of all, I knew that you thought it was justified. I never worried about you leaving me. What if we ran into a situation where you didn’t think killing someone was justified? Even if it was necessary, could you support me if I suddenly decided to kill someone like Alcent or Wyck or Tora?” Keryn lowered her voice until her tone became almost sheepish. “Would you stay with me, even if you didn’t support me?”
    “Keryn,” Adam said, his brow furrowed in confusion. “I know you well enough to know that you would never harm one of your friends. On Othus, you did everything you could to save Penchant, even being willing to risk your own life to save his. I can’t imagine a situation where I wouldn’t support you. Hell, I don’t know where this is coming from, but I will always support you. I don’t know why you would even think I might leave.”
    Keryn nodded as they began walking toward the bridge again. She stole glances in his direction, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that he wouldn’t have been so quick to agree if he knew the truth.

    It took over a day before Wyck notified everyone that they were now ready for a more effective display of their new counteragent. Alcent joined Keryn and Adam as they entered the newly redesigned laboratory. The scorched interior had been removed and replaced by clear blast shields surrounding a collection of mechanical contraptions. The mechanical arms extended over a table placed in the center of the room, on top of which rested two Petri dishes full of a black substance.
    Wyck and Tora hurried over to their side as they entered. “I really think we have something great here,” Wyck began, skipping the mundane formalities.
    Tora placed a patient hand over his. “First of all, welcome. Secondly, before we begin the demonstration, you really need a little background information.” Tora led them toward the blast shields, through which she pointed toward the two dishes. “We’ve isolated two samples of Deplitoxide in the dishes on the table. As you know, the big D is an organic compound created from plants on Beracus. On a cellular level, the compound absorbs direct and ambient heat from its surroundings, emitting a dark tar.”
    “Basic Deplitoxide 101,” Wyck interjected, smiling at his own humor.
    “What you may not know,” Tora said before Wyck could continue, “is what the Deplitoxide does with all that heat. If I can draw your attention to the screen, I can explain a little clearer.” A monitor to their right flickered to life, showing a microscopic view of a collection of cells. Within each of the cells, a reddish mass swirled just beneath their surfaces. “When the big D absorbs the heat, it converts it to a nucleic mass, trapped within a thick outer membrane. The superheated mass jumpstarts a process within the cell that results in cellular fission. The two new cells, having shared the superheated mass as well, have now cooled and are now capable of absorbing even more increasing amounts of surrounding heat. Using this process, the Deplitoxide is able to organically spread and, as we’ve seen, cover an entire sun.”
    “Fascinating,” Alcent said, “but I’m not quite sure where you’re heading with all this.”
    “That was just the background information,” Wyck retorted. “The real fun begins when we introduce our special sauce. I’ve named our chemical Torazine.”
    Tora blushed as Wyck told everyone the name. Quickly, she tried to change the subject. “If you look back at our setup,” Tora explained, “you’ll see that we have two mechanical arms perched above each of the dishes. At the tips of the arms, small droppers filled our… of Torazine are ready to inject the chemical into the Deplitoxide. I think you’ll be impressed with the results.”
    “If it’s anything like what happened earlier, we may want to back up,” Keryn said as she backed from the blast screen. The others quickly followed suit.
    Wyck retrieved a wireless console from behind him and began pushing a series of buttons. In response, the first arm lowered toward the Petri dish until it hovered a foot above the table.
    “Everyone ready?” he asked. Without waiting, he pushed the release button. The arm depressed the plunger on the back of the dropper, shooting a small amount of an orange fluid into the dish below. The observers all flinched involuntarily as the Torazine struck, expecting an explosion. When nothing happened, they slowly lowered their arms and turned toward the two scientists.
    “Somehow, I was expecting a little more of a world shattering kaboom,” Adam admitted.
    Tora and Wyck exchanged knowing smiles. “We didn’t,” Wyck stated. “The fact is, the first experiment wasn’t meant to explode.”
    “The first dish was full of an inert collection of the Deplitoxide cells,” stated Tora. “Taken straight from one of the rockets, the cells had never been introduced to a heat source. The Deplitoxide, therefore, didn’t react to the Torazine.”
    “Then what, exactly, does your chemical do?” Alcent asked impatiently.
    “Exactly what we promised,” Wyck responded angrily. “Torazine breaks down the outer membrane of the Deplitoxide cells, releasing the pent up superheated mass in an impressive display. No heat source equals no explosion.”
    “Then the second dish?” Keryn asked, prodding the experiment forward before Alcent and Wyck entered a bickering contest.
    “The second dish was introduced to intense flames and has already begun the fission process,” Tora explained. “Yes, it will explode.”
    Wyck passed out shaded goggles to everyone, encouraging the observers to don them before they continued. When everyone was wearing protective eyewear, he entered his next code. The second mechanical arm lowered until it was perched above the dish. Shrinking into his chair, Wyck pushed the second button.
    As soon as the Torazine struck the dish, the room erupted into bright orange flames. The fire, originating from the Petri dish on the table, rose and curled like a solar flare. Blast screens that were made to withstand the rigors of deep space rattled from the force of the explosion. Quickly, the fires died, leaving the whole room filled with a choking black smoke.
    “That was more like it!” Adam exclaimed.
    Alcent lowered his goggles and peered into the smoke-filled laboratory. “This is a cure for the Deplitoxide?”
    “Yes it is,” Wyck said proudly.
    “So we can use this to restart one of our engines should it get struck by a Terran Deplitoxide rocket?” Alcent asked, his gaze never leaving the room.
    “Um…” Wyck paused, scratching his head nervously. “No, not really.”
    Finally, Alcent looked away from the laboratory and stared at the young Uligart. “What do you mean ‘no’?” Alcent demanded. “What’s the point in finding a cure to Deplitoxide if we can’t use it? What would this do if we introduced it into a stalled engine?”
    “The explosion would probably rip the ship in half,” Tora explained, trying to save Wyck from his berating. Noticing Alcent’s reddening face, she quickly added, “But it’s exactly what Keryn asked for!”
    “It’s true,” Keryn said, placing a hand on Alcent’s shoulder. “It is what I asked for and believe me when I tell you that it is perfect just the way it is.” Turning to the two scientists, she continued. “Are you sure you can weaponize this?”
    “We’ve already started some preliminary tests on a couple rockets,” Wyck said. “I’m pretty sure we can have this ready in time.”
    “Don’t be ‘pretty sure’,” Keryn said. “Make sure it’s ready. Adam, take Alcent and please notify the Revolution of our requirements. I’ll meet up with you both shortly.”
    Keryn left the laboratory and took the lift down to the living quarters. Walking the hall in relative quiet, her thoughts drifted back to Yen. After watching the demonstration, she was sure of two things. First, they actually had a chance to pull this off. More importantly, though, she was ready to respond to the High Council.
    Entering her room, Keryn turned on her console and entered the code she had been given for High Council. As the screen changed, a small recording symbol appeared in the top corner of the screen.
    “This is Captain Keryn Riddell of the commandeered Terran Destroyer Ballistae. I am responding to the High Council’s mission request.”
    Keryn took a deep breath before continuing. “I firmly believe that your mission is justified. Yen Xiao has committed atrocities throughout the Fleet. Even now, one of his potential victims is living in hiding on board my ship. I have no reason to doubt that your accusations against Captain Xiao are truthful.
    “I had to wonder, for quite some time, why you would pick me to complete this mission. Of all the ships in the Fleet, I couldn’t help but feel that it wasn’t a coincidence that you would pick me, one of his former lovers, to be the deliverer of his death. It was while pondering the why of this situation that I realized why you picked me. It’s because we were lovers once, and that he would trust me enough to let me get close. Using his trust against him would be the ultimate karmic backlash against all his betrayals. While I may not like the task at hand, I do have to appreciate your methods.
    “However, it is also your methods that I have to refute. We are getting ready to engage in one of the most difficult battles in Alliance history. This is a battle that we very possibly may not win. As such, the Fleet needs every single available ship, pilot, Crewman,” she paused, staring at the screen, “and Captain that we can find. I cannot, in good conscience, destroy the Revolution during such a difficult battle. And, unfortunately, I can’t bring myself to destroy the ship after the battle, either. Knowing that the crew laid so much on the line to save the Alliance, only to be served so dishonorable a death as payment for their sacrifice… well, I can’t be part of that.
    “I want to support you in every way, but I cannot take part in your plan to kill Yen Xiao. I wish you luck in finding a Captain that will. If you decide to change your plan to spare those who are innocent, I would be happy to reassess my position. Until then, Captain Keryn Riddell, out.”
    Keryn turned off the screen and tried to stifle the tears that threatened to overwhelm her. With the High Council’s plan, she knew how many innocent people were condemned to death. By leaving Yen alive, Keryn feared how many more innocent had been condemned by her inability to act.

CHAPTER 37:

    “Sir,” Tylgar reported from the piloting chair, “we have a direct communication from the Ballistae.”
    “Play the message,” Yen replied, knowing that the communication was a recording. Traveling at such high speeds, the relay systems on board the ships were ineffective for extended two-way conversations. Instead, one party sent their message and waited patiently for the other’s reply.
    The speakers on the bridge began to crackle to life as the message played. Yen held little hope of hearing Keryn’s voice and, therefore, wasn’t surprised when a man’s voice spoke instead.
    “Attention Revolution. This is Warrant Adam Decker of the Ballistae. We have completed our research into a counteragent for the Deplitoxide. Our devised chemical is called Torazine and has proven effective in laboratory testing. Captains Riddell and Alcent have also conceptualized a plan to deploy the Torazine in a battle environment, but we require two Cruisers as support in order to complete our mission. Knowing the capabilities of the communication relay, I will await your response before sending further details of our plan. Ballistae, out.”
    Yen was happy to hear Adam’s voice. Since the arrival of the Ballistae, Yen had wondered if his old friend had survived his mission. Still, he yearned to trade places with his former teammate, who shared a ship with his lost love.
    “Send a reply to the Ballistae,” Yen ordered. “Give them whatever they want.”
    “Sir?” Tylgar asked. “Don’t you want to hear their plan?”
    “No, Tylgar,” he answered. “I really don’t.”
    Yen’s heart ached at the thought of Keryn’s name. Until he could find a way to win back her affections, he wanted little to do with the rogue Terran ship. His thoughts drifted back to the Captains’ conference. As he replayed the events of the meeting in his mind, he quickly remembered a pair of bickering Captains who had shown obvious disdain for his new mantle of leadership. A smile spread across Yen’s lips.
    “Please notify the Ballistae that the Phalanx and the Defiant have been reassigned for support during their mission,” Yen commanded, satisfied at his solution.
    With that completed, Yen began focusing on the one thought that had consumed him for the past few days. Somewhere, there was a man who had stolen away Keryn’s heart. Yen was not the type to take so great a theft without putting up a fight. His only mission now was to out who had that much audacity and make this new man bleed for his betrayal.
    Yen sat upright with a start. For the past few months, he had focused entirely on Keryn’s return. He had completely forgotten that Adam had flown with her on her mission. They had shared untold adventures together. Yen chewed on his lower lip as he thought about the two of them spending so much time alone. Countless nights on alien worlds had been shared between Adam and Keryn. Secrets had a tendency to be shared when a soldier is confronted with the possibility of death. If anyone would know who the new man was in Keryn’s heart, it would be Adam. He would have to find a way for them to meet and discuss this further.
    “Until we begin our approach on Arcendor,” Yen told Tylgar as he clambered out of the Captain’s chair, “I’ll be conducting inspections of the ship. Notify me immediately if the situation changes.”
    Somehow, he had to convince Adam to come aboard the Revolution.

    “I’m not kidding, Keryn,” Adam said as he and Alcent briefed Keryn. “He just sent a single reply, notifying us that the Phalanx and the Defiant were now under our command during the battle. It really was that easy.”
    “I was just as stunned as Adam,” Alcent added.
    “So he actually approved of our plan?” Keryn asked, surprised. Yen had seemed hesitant to release control of the Deplitoxide research to her during the Captains’ meeting. She found it hard to believe that he would simply agree to so uncouth a battle tactic.
    “That’s just it,” Adam excitably answered. “He never even asked for our battle plan. We made our request for the Cruisers and he gave us two, no questions asked.”
    Keryn wondered if, somehow, Yen had intercepted her transmission to High Council. Could her refusal of their request really have driven him to be so amiable toward her demands?
    “Our problem now is more with Captains Nitella and Mandox,” Alcent stated. “They are both furious with their reassignment. We’ve already received numerous messages from both demanding to know what we did to Yen to make him into… I believe Captain Nitella’s exact words were, ‘our subservient little lapdog.’ Avalons always had a way with words.”
    “Do we really think they’re going to cause problems?” Keryn asked. If they were not supportive or if they failed at the wrong time, it could cost the Alliance the entire war.
    “No, I don’t,” Adam admitted. “They may be pissed and they may call us every bad name under the suns, but they’re soldiers of the Fleet, first and foremost. No matter how angry they are at what they perceive as a demotion in the Fleet’s pecking order, they will follow orders until the end.”
    “Maybe I should talk to them,” she wondered.
    “No!” they both replied, simultaneously.
    “No,” Adam explained. “Right now, they both want our heads on a stick. Truth is I didn’t even let Alcent talk to them. Alcent is at least a great businessman, something you’re not. Even so, both of you have a tendency to use the shoot-first mentality when dealing with argumentative adversaries. What we needed in this case was tact.”
    “And, surprisingly,” Alcent added, “Adam is full of it when he it matters.”
    Keryn looked at the beaming Adam and shook her head. “Oh, I do believe he’s full of it. But good job, none the less.”
    Sharing a much-needed laugh, they all felt some of the tension of the situation flood from the room.
    “How much of the plan did you tell them?” Keryn asked.
    “Some, but I don’t know how receptive they were at the time,” Adam replied. “I can try again now that they’ve had time to think about the new arrangement.”
    “Please do,” Keryn said. “We need them on the same page when the battle starts. The last thing we need is our support Cruisers getting confused and leaving us defenseless at an inopportune time. Alcent, I’m leaving the bridge entirely in your capable hands. I’ll be controlling the more intricate plans from the control room with Wyck and Tora. Since Adam will be in the hangars, we’ll need you to let us know the second we begin our approach on Arcendor.”
    “Will do,” Alcent said as he turned and left the room.
    Once he was gone, Adam stepped suggestively toward Keryn. “Since we’re both going to be incredibly busy for the next couple days…” he left the statement hanging.
    Keryn stepped close until her body pressed against his. “I think I might be able to do that,” she said coyly as she kissed him deeply. “Do you think you can be quick about it?”
    Adam smiled. “I doubt it.”

    Yen spent the next few days absently perusing his ship. Thoughts of Keryn had begun to wane as the thought of combat filled him with barely contained enthusiasm. After getting away so cleanly with the murders of Merric, Captain Hodge, Horace, and Vangore, Yen yearned to try his hand at murder once more. He knew that if he could kill so high ranking and visible targets with no retribution, it would be nothing to do so again with a random crewmember on board the Revolution.
    Sadly, he had been robbed of the prey he desired most. Somehow, Iana had vanished from the ship. After the Captains’ conference, he had scanned the ship three times trying to locate her transponder, all without luck. Either she had destroyed it and remained on board, simply eluding his detection or, more likely, she had escaped during the departure of all the Captains and their entourages. With that victim taken from him, Yen set out to find another.
    Finding himself wandering aimlessly, Yen was surprised when he approached the hangar bay. Though he was now the Commander of the Fleet, it shouldn’t have been so surprising to him that Yen wandered back to an area in which he had spent so much time as the Squadron Commander. The responsibilities of Commander, as he knew had been passed on to the Team leader for Team Four, a Lithid named Warrant Vicrux. Yen frowned as he stood before the hangar bay doors, which he had yet to open. Feeling conflicted, Yen realized that he would have felt more confident if Iana were in charge of the Squadron instead of a glory-hound like Vicrux. It was a shame that he wanted her dead, since Iana had consistently excelled in tactics and showed a genuine concern for pilots’ well being. Vicrux, by comparison, strove only for self-promotion, always ensuring that his actions were visible to those of higher command, even at the risk of his pilots’ lives. Team Four, under his command, had never truly exceeded Yen’s expectations and it was only by the Lithid’s seniority that he was promoted to Commander at all. Yen arched an eyebrow as he wondered if Vicrux might not be a good choice for his next victim. With Vicrux out of the picture, Command would fall to Warrant Salazar, a sheepish but quality Avalon pilot. While Salazar lacked the confidence to ever get his own command of a Cruiser, he was a solid pilot and malleable enough that Yen could control his actions and, by proxy, those of the Squadron.
    By the same account, though, Yen still eyed Warrant Scyant as a potential victim as well. Her open hostility toward her new Captain continued even after his promotion and led to a drop in morale amongst the Crewmen and Warrants within the weapons bays. With them getting ready to engage the Terrans in a final showdown, that sort of behavior just wouldn’t be acceptable. Maybe it was time for a stern talk with Scyant, much like the stern talk he had intended for Iana.
    “Can I help you with anything, Captain?” a small singing voice asked from behind Yen.
    He spun and noticed a youthful Avalon standing behind him, waiting patiently to enter the hangar bay. Yen wasn’t sure how long she had been standing behind him, but he also realized that he had no idea how long he had stood in the doorway reminiscing about his not-so distant days of reckless abandon. Did Captainship truly take away his opportunity for wanton murder? Would people notice his actions more now than they had a week earlier? Did he have the power to alter the memories of everyone on board the Revolution? Of course he did, Yen realized. He had enough political and psychic power now to do anything he wanted.
    “Sir?” the Avalon said, beginning to show concern.
    Yen flashed a disarming smile. “I’m fine. Please let Squadron Commander Vicrux know that we should be approaching Arcendor soon. Let him know that I need all pilots suited up and in their ships within the hour.”
    “Commander Vicrux is just inside if you’d like to relay the message yourself,” the Avalon offered.
    “No,” Yen answered. Too many people would be inside for him to do what he truly wanted to do to Vicrux. “No, I trust that you can relay my message for me.”
    Yen turned and walked back toward the elevator that would take him to the bridge. If he were lucky, Vicrux would have an accident during the battle and would save Yen the effort of having to kill him personally. If he had the time, maybe Yen would arrange a failsafe to ensure Vicrux did encounter an accident out in space. Maybe that young Avalon would be a good pilot to act as his failsafe.
    He was sitting in the Captain’s chair later, contemplating the myriad of tortures he could inflict on either Vicrux or Scyant, when Tylgar began typing furiously on the navigation console. “Sir, we’re approaching the far side of the galaxy. Arcendor should be in view momentarily, but…”
    “But?” Yen asked when Tylgar didn’t reply.
    “But we didn’t get here first,” the Lithid said, his gravelly voice dropping. He entered the last few lines of commands into his computer and the forward display switched to a three dimensional map of the solar system. Dominating the map, a dark sun hung inert in space. Four planets away, the capital of the Alliance, Arcendor, floated into view, the capital city dominating the largest continent on the mountainous world. Hovering between the sun and Arcendor, however, over twenty red triangles flew in tight patterns between the planets, increasing their speed in preparation for battle.
    “Put the Fleet on full alert!” Yen ordered as he pulled his tactical display toward him.
    Red light filled the bridge as Crewmen scrambled to their battle positions. Yen began reading the relays that were arriving from the other ships around the Fleet while, simultaneously, checked the statuses of his own weapons bays and Squadron. He swore silently to himself, wishing any of his own Team had survived to take over the Squadron instead of Vicrux.
    As the ships reported in, Yen noticed three ships pulling away from the rest of the Fleet. “Tylgar, identify the three ships pulling away from formation.”
    “They are the Ballistae, Defiant, and Phalanx,” the pilot replied. “The three ships placed under Captains Riddell and Alcent.”
    Yen contemplated opening a channel to demand why they were not engaging in the upcoming combat, but thought better. “Whatever you have planned, Keryn,” Yen growled, “it had better be damn important!”
    Instead, Yen ordered the rest of the Fleet into a tight formation as they flew into the system. As they entered, he pulled up a magnified display of Arcendor. His heart hardened as he saw thick smoke filling the atmosphere of the planet, a clear sign that plasma bombs had been dropped on key cities throughout the continent. Not only had the Terrans beat them to the system, they had already destroyed the capital. Yen had no idea how many had died because of the artificial winters imposed throughout Alliance space, but he did know how many millions more would have just lost their life in a bombing of that magnitude.
    Emerging from behind the third planet, the Terran Fleet broke formation and began spreading out in an attack line in front of the planet. Yen turned the Fleet to meet them head on. In retribution for destroying Arcendor, Yen now intended to see every Terran in the known universe die a painful death.
    Within the bridge of the Revolution, energy started to build. Yen let his spines bristle as his anger grew. He had lost so many of his kinsmen when the suns disappeared. Many more of his mentors and teachers had been on Arcendor when it was bombed. Blue sparks ignited on the hull of the Revolution as Yen allowed his anger to spread throughout the ship. Crewman who rushed to their battle positions paused as the smell of ozone permeated the ship. His anger would bring a sweet revenge to all those losses. He couldn’t bring back his dead friends, but he would be the harbinger of the Terran’s devastation.
    As the two Fleets hurtled toward each other, firing their first salvos, Yen yearned to watch the Terrans die.

CHAPTER 38:

    The first barrage of rockets slammed into the Alliance Fleet shortly after it entered the galaxy. Onboard the Revolution, Yen rocked violently in the Captain’s chair as a shockwave reverberated against the hull.
    “The Legacy has been destroyed,” Tylgar reported while simultaneously evading incoming missiles. “The Tyrant and Sycophant are both too badly damaged to continue the engagement and are breaking contact with the Terran Fleet.”
    Yen growled in the chair as he raised his own defenses around the Revolution. Bolts of blue lightning arced from the hull, slamming into incoming rockets and deflecting them harmlessly away from the ship.
    His temples pounding, Yen began barking orders to both his ship and the rest of the Fleet. “Fire at will! Consolidate your fire on the center of their formation! If we can break up their combined firepower, we might just win this war!”
    With rounds exploding all around them, the Alliance Fleet quickly closed the distance between themselves and the Terran Destroyers. With lashes of psychic energy, Yen batted aside the annoying Terran fighters that got too close. The Fleet fired volleys of rockets toward the charging Terran Destroyers. Small explosions erupted sporadically amongst the enemy ships, puncturing the thick hulls. Though a couple of the Terran ships drifted listlessly away from the advancing Alliance Fleet, the others continued their advance. Hornet-like Terran fighters intermixed with the thinner Alliance fighters as they dodged in between the barreling Cruisers and Destroyers. Throughout both Fleets, the fronts of the larger ships began glowing from the heat as they passed through clouds of exploding plasma.
    “Tylgar,” Yen yelled from his command position, “get us as close as possible to the Destroyer straight ahead.”
    “Sir?” Tylgar asked, stealing a glance over his shoulder as the ship rattled from another close explosion. “We’ll be devastated if we get too much closer.”
    Yen knew that his pilot was right. The eruptions of plasma were superheating the hull. A number of his radar antennas had already melted away under the heat, leaving blind spots throughout whole sectors of nearby space. If they continued their advance without further protection, it would only be a matter of time before the blistering plasma coursed through one of the ejection tubes and ignited the rockets within. The resulting explosion would be devastating to the Revolution. Yen, however, already had a plan to protect the ship.
    “Leave that to me,” Yen hissed, his dark eyes sparkling with a faint blue glow. Reaching out, Yen let his hands settle on the cool metallic alloy of the Captain’s chair. He let his consciousness ebb from his body. Slowly, his mind wound its ways through the walls of the ship, becoming one with the wiring, piping, and passageways until, finally, he became one with the Revolution. The front view screen became his eyes while the radar antenna became his ears. Letting his power ripple through the ship as though it were his own skin, blue energy crackled over the hull and expanded until the entire Cruiser was covered in a sheen of psychic shielding.
    Speaking in a hauntingly distant voice, Yen continued calling orders to Tylgar. “Fly forward at maximum speed.”
    Tylgar stole a second glance, but turned around quickly when he saw the Captain. Yen’s body pulsed with an inner light as the psychic power infused him. His eyes, open on his corporeal body on the bridge, flared brightly with an inner energy.
    As the Revolution hurtled through the chaos of battle, rockets reflected harmlessly off the psychic shield. The metal slugs rebounded harmlessly in random directions, whirling aimlessly into space. Undaunted, the Revolution continued forward, driving through the insignificantly amassed Terran fighters. Yen felt exalted as the small fighters ignited and exploded on his shield. He reveled in the massive loss of life and yearned for more.
    Seeing that its weapons were ineffective, the Destroyer’s Captain began ordering the ship to flee from the possessed Alliance Cruiser. Large and sluggish, even in the weightlessness of space, the Destroyer slowly turned away from Yen in an attempt to escape his wrath. Unwilling to lose another prey, Yen pushed the engines on board the Revolution, quickly covering the distance between the two ships. Moving like a wedge driven through the few remaining fighters, Yen launched two full salvos of missiles at the exposed flank of the Destroyer. Unprotected, the Terran ship took the rockets in rapid succession. It began to list as the engine exploded from rocket fire, ripping a hole through the rear hull. Explosions continued as more and more of the missiles detonated along the length of its hull, shredding its armored plating and sending debris launching into space. Wanting to ensure the ship was out of commission, Yen fired another salvo into the dead ship, reveling in the explosions that finally ripped the Destroyer in two.
    Bringing the Revolution back around toward the rest of the battle, Yen released control of the ship and the blue glow slowly receded from his body. His mind felt like molten lava, burning through his faint thoughts and scorching the back of his eyes. Dominating the ship had been a strain, but he knew that much more power remained stored within his body, ready for release.
    His eyes finally focusing again, Yen looked through the forward display at the overlapping fields of plasma explosions and damaged ships. The Terran and Alliance fighters swarmed over one another, accentuated by the bloated Cruisers and Destroyers firing massive barrages of firepower upon the unsuspecting fighter pilots. Knowing the Revolution was now one of the least damaged ships in the Fleet, Yen tried to assess the situation.
    “Where can we do the most damage?” he asked the Crewman manning the tactical display. The Crewman’s reactions were painfully slow, making Yen wish that someone competent were manning that console. Someone like Merric, he thought dreadfully.
    “Sir,” the Uligart Crewman croaked, obviously nervous. “The Alliance Fleet is suffering heavy losses. Six more ships have been severely damaged or destroyed. Two more are limping away from the battle as quickly as their engines will allow. They have minimal weapons still, but another rocket attack will destroy their maneuverability. Sir, we are losing the war of attrition against the Terrans.”
    Yen felt his lips peel back into a snarl at the insolent tactician. “I did not come all this way just to fail,” Yen yelled at the Crewman, his eyes resuming their blue illumination. “I am not a quitter, nor am I a coward! If you can’t see that we’re far from done, than I have no use for you.”
    When the Crewman didn’t move, Yen elaborated. “Leave my bridge, you coward!” The Uligart fled at once, not chancing a backward glance until he was safely on the elevator with the doors closed behind him.
    Yen typed furiously onto his Captain’s console, pulling all the tactical display data onto his own monitor. Turning on the three dimensional display on his console, Yen watched the elaborate dance of red and blue dots flying near and around the six planets of the galaxy. Entering commands into the display, the small dots of both the Terran and Alliance fighters disappeared. If Yen were to make a show that they were still more than capable of winning this war, it would have to be done against one of the Destroyers. Checking the data, Yen found what he was looking for. Directly ahead, a Destroyer noticed the Revolution and turned in his direction.
    “Take us straight ahead,” Yen ordered to Tylgar, the only other member left on the bridge. Then, he muttered to himself, “If they want a show of force, then I will give them a show they will never forget.”
    The power churned within him like waves pounding a rocky shoreline as the Destroyer appeared in the forward view screen. Still far away, both ships hurtled toward one another over the distance. As the distant ship began to grow from a barely visible dot to a more defined Terran ship, Yen let the energy seep from his body. He felt disconnected from his own body as the psychic power filled every fiber of his being, pulsating like veins just below the surface of his yellowed skin. Yen had never allowed so much energy to fill his body before. The energy made him feel like more than a man; it made him feel like a God. And, as a God, Yen was full of wrath!
    Growing closer to one another, the Terrans fired a salvo of missiles. Distractedly, Yen waved his hand, knocking all the rockets aside. When the Terrans fired a second time, Yen held out his hand, slowing the rockets’ approach. As he closed his fingers into a tight fist, all the missiles exploded at once in a dazzling display of pyrotechnics. The smoldering plasma hung in the space between the two ships for a few seconds, allowing Yen to prepare the grand finale of this confrontation.
    Placing his palms together, Yen focused on the front of the Terran ship as it broke through the superheated plasma cloud. He drove his hands forward, feeling satisfaction as his unseen power slipped through the hull of the Destroyer. Slowly, Yen tried to pull his palms apart. The resistance working against him was great and his muscles strained from the effort. Ahead, a single puff of decompressing air appeared at the front of the Terran ship. Letting his power drain more energy from him, Yen tried pulling his hands apart once more. Flares of fire burst in his mind from the strain and the taste of copper filled the back of his throat. His effort, however, was rewarded as two new bursts of breathable air escaped from the front of the enemy ship.
    “You’re mine,” Yen muttered under his breath as a drop of blood trickled from his nose. “I’ll see you dead.”
    Digging his fingers deeper into the hull of the Terran ship, Yen channeled his power into the enemy vessel, reveling in the screams he heard in his mind and the popping bulkheads he felt throughout the Destroyer.
    Smiling wickedly, Yen exalted in the fact that he knew the fight was near the end. Tightening the muscles in his arms in preparation for one more blast of psychic energy, Yen screamed into the bridge of the Revolution.
    “I have seen things you will never comprehend!” Yen yelled into the nearly empty room. Onboard the Terran ship, the crew stood startled as the alien voice roared through all the rooms of their vessel. Within his own ship, his voice was equally amplified; echoing through the halls like a disembodied immortal. “I sailed along the thermal waves of a solar flare, I swam through a nebula, and dove into the heart of a dying star. And, when I was done, I dropped my anchor here, among the simple minds of the Alliance. I saw as though the veil had lifted, revealing the mysteries of the universe. I drifted through the rifts of time and space until I settled beyond self, beyond reason, beyond mortality. And I said unto my friends, my brothers, my mother, and my father: look upon me, for I am a God!”
    As his hands separated, so did the front of the Terran Destroyer. Like a black hole leading to the Abyss, a seam appeared at the nose of the enemy ship. It quickly widened as the Terran ship began to split in half. The blue energy fully encompassed Yen on the bridge, bathing the entire room in bright light. Finally flinging his arms wide, Yen unleashed his full psychic fury. The Destroyer, in response, ripped in half. The thick plating running the length of the ship tore like paper, exposing floor after floor to the vacuum of space. Explosions erupted up and down the hull as key electric systems failed. Yen stood, his arms held out by his side, as the psychic backlash caused by thousands of sudden deaths washed over him. When the two halves of the ship began drifting apart from one another, Yen collapsed into the Captain’s chair, blood dripping freely from his nose and pooling on his lap. The room danced before his eyes as his equilibrium failed. Closing his eyes, Yen hid his face in his hands. Even without seeing the room, it still spun in his weakened mind.
    Through his muddled mind, Yen heard Tylgar speak. “Sir, the Ballistae and her sister ships are entering the battle.”

CHAPTER 39:

    Keryn was relieved when she finally saw her opening. Pulled away from the rest of the battle, two Terran Destroyers nursed their wounds. Air still leaked from holes throughout their hull as they slowed their engines, feeling a safe distance from the Alliance ships.
    Pushing the engines hard, the Ballistae and her two sister ships swooped in on the dormant Destroyers, firing their first volley of missiles before the two ships could respond. The plasma explosions rocked both ships, buckling the bulkheads and rupturing the already damaged hulls. As the second set of missiles struck, the two Destroyers crumpled; the Terran ships drifted apart in pieces.
    Keryn felt a sense of relief in the control room of the Ballistae. Sitting back and watching the battle unfold was a strain on her conscience. She had yearned to fly into combat and save the embattled Cruisers, but she had restrained herself knowing that they would not win the war if her crew failed in their mission.
    The Ballistae skimmed over the top of one of the shattered Destroyers as the trio of ships set a direct course for the dormant sun. The large black sphere sat detached from the rest of the battle and few small Terran fighters blocked their path. A steady stream of rail gun slugs coupled with the combined might of three Squadrons of fighters destroyed what little resistance they offered.
    “Ballistae, this is Squadron Commander Decker,” Adam called in from his fighter. Adam assumed the role of Commander naturally, surprising some of the veteran pilots with his grasp of aerial tactics.
    “Go ahead, Adam,” Alcent replied. Keryn monitored the communications from her position but relied on Alcent on the bridge to maintain the radio transmissions.
    “We have five Destroyers pulling away from the main pack and pursuing,” he stated, his voice flat and emotionless. Still, Keryn was sure that he was feeling the same flood of nervousness that she was.
    With the Alliance Fleet already suffering heavy losses, it didn’t surprise Keryn that so many ships would turn to assault three relatively unscathed Alliances ships. Her only hope was that, having already accelerated into the system, the Ballistae would be able to maintain its lead and reach the sun before being engaged.
    “We’re tracking them now,” Alcent replied. “All ships, focus rail gun fire to the rear to deter our pursuers.”
    From the control room, Wyck pulled up the tactical display. Together, they traced the launching of dozens of thick metal slugs from the rear of their three ships. Seemingly in response, the five Terran Destroyers launched a full volley of rockets. The approaching red dots nearly outnumbered the metal slugs. Still, Keryn had little concern about their first attack. Launched from so far away, the Alliance ships would have plenty of time to launch a defensive attack and destroy all the missiles long before they threatened any of the three vessels. Instead, she turned her attention to the steadily decreasing number on the top left of the display. The number continued to count down the distance between the ships and the darkened sun. If her calculations were correct, Keryn still believed they could reach the sun before the Terrans made contact.
    As Keryn looked back toward the tactical display, she noticed another red triangle emerging from ahead of the Alliance ships. Scrambling, she activated the intercom. “We have a sixth Destroyer coming in from straight ahead,” Keryn yelled into the radio moments before the Ballistae shook from an impact.
    “Believe me,” Alcent yelled back, “I already know!” He left the radio channel on as he called orders to the other ships. “Take evasive maneuvers and return fire on that son of a bitch!”
    Rockets launched from their ports as the three ships separated from one another. Many of the missiles exploded harmlessly in the gap between the three elusive ships and the sixth Destroyer. Still, all three ships rocked from close impacts.
    “Give me defensive fire to the front,” Alcent ordered.
    Keryn continued monitoring the attack. Slugs continued to fly from the three ships, destroying enemy rockets. With every volley, however, the missiles grew a little closer before they were destroyed. Stealing a glance at the distance counter in the top left of the display, Keryn grew alarmed. The numbers were no longer rolling comfortably toward zero. They had slowed drastically.
    “Alcent, why are we slowing down?” Keryn called to the bridge. “We need to keep nearly maximum speed if we expect to reach the sun in time.”
    “And I cannot very well fly at full speed at a heavily armed Terran Destroyer!” Alcent replied angrily.
    “The missiles behind us are closing on our position,” Wyck said, concern creeping into his voice.
    “I thought we had defensive fire covering our rear!” she said, spinning on the young Uligart. Keryn felt sweat roll between her shoulder blades. The plan was falling apart quickly.
    “We still do,” Wyck explained, “but the other two Cruisers have focused all their attention on the new Destroyer.”
    “Stupid!” Keryn exclaimed, slamming her fist down on the console. “We flew right into a trap.” The first five Terran Destroyers hadn’t worried about the distance when they fired their first volley. With so many targets to try to destroy, the Alliance ships didn’t stand a chance of stopping all the rockets.
    “Alcent, we need to get out of…” Her words were cut short as an explosion reverberated throughout the Ballistae. Keryn was tossed from her feet, landing roughly on the hard ground. Above her, the tactical display flickered and threatened to fail. “Alcent, I need a damage report!”
    She climbed back to her feet just as Wyck hurried back to the controls from where he had fallen. “Alcent, what is our status?” Her fingers worked furiously on the tactical display, trying to ensure power didn’t fail to the vital system.
    “Alcent, what is…” She stopped as Wyck placed a hand on her shoulder. Looking crestfallen, he shook his head.
    “The rocket hit the bridge,” Wyck said softly. “Anyone that was up there is dead now.”
    Keryn allowed herself only a moment of sorrow for the loss before her mind started to spin into action. “Can you reroute all the control systems from the bridge to this location?”
    Wyck shrugged. He stared at the console as though seeing it for the first time. Keryn placed hands affectionately on his shoulders. “Wyck, can you reroute the systems?”
    Snapping out his stupor, he shook his head. “Sure, I think I can.” Hurrying back over to the console, Wyck opened the panel underneath its keyboard and began fidgeting with wires.
    “Ballistae, this is Squadron Commander Decker,” Adam called worriedly over the radio.
    “Adam, this is Keryn,” she called as she activated the microphone.
    “Thank Gods!” Adam said with an obvious sigh of relief. “I was worried when I saw the rocket hit.”
    “We’re alive, but we’re still far from safe,” she replied. “Do you think the Squadron can keep some of these rockets off me until I can reroute navigation?”
    “We’re on it,” Adam replied. Switching channels, he called to the other pilots in the Squadron. “Our task force is in trouble and needs help. Do everything you can to keep those rockets off our ships. Remember, if they fail, we all fail.”
    The Alliance fighters dove in formation toward the barrage of rockets hurtling toward the three ships. Opening fire with the front machine guns, Adam felt satisfaction as a line of missiles blossomed into balls of plasma. Diving and twisting into impromptu maneuvers, the fighters intercepted the rockets launched by the front Destroyer with no further damage to the Alliance ships.
    “The rockets are clear in front of you,” Adam called into his radio. “That should buy you some time, Keryn.”
    “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you right now,” she called back.
    “We’re going to try to clear that Destroyer out of your path,” Adam said. “Wish us luck.” Switching back to his Squadron channel, Adam continued. “Let’s make a hole for our ships. Be ready for anything. It’s only a matter of time before the Terrans send out their own fighters.”
    As soon as they had regained formation and begun flying toward the Destroyer, one of his pilots called over the radio. “Here they come.”
    From the front of the Destroyer, small fighters spewed from its underbelly, filling the space with swarming ships. The two throngs of fighters hurtled toward one another, crashing together in the open space. Explosions shook Adam’s ship as he barrel rolled in between enemy machine gun fire. Letting his own guns spin, fire leapt from ends of his barrels as bullets tore through a Terran fighter. Dodging rockets and the glowing tracer rounds, Adam found it difficult to locate a friendly ship, much less ascertain how his Squadron was doing in the battle.
    “Tell me you’re almost done,” Adam yelled into his radio as another fighter exploded nearby.
    “Wyck is almost there,” Keryn called back, concern evident in her tone. “Bear with me a little longer and we’ll be moving again.”
    “How are the Defiant and Phalanx handling the delay?” Adam asked as he looped his fighter, coming in behind an enemy.
    “They’re furious,” she replied, “and a little scared. I think they…”
    “I’ve got it!” Wyck exclaimed over the radio. “I’ve got navigation and weapons linked to the control room.”
    “I’ll make you a hole,” Adam replied. “All fighters, this is the Squadron Commander. Our ships are heading this way and need a hole through this cloud of fighters and the Destroyer behind them. Let’s give them a way out of this hell hole!”
    Dipping his fighter into a dive, Adam watched dozens of other ships emerge from the dogfight and fall into formation. Pulling up on the controls, Adam skimmed along the top of the Destroyer’s hull as he waited for the rest of his fighters to get into position. Finally, with tracer rounds striking all around him, Adam activated his radio.
    “Fire all rockets!” he cried into the radio as he pushed the trigger. The four small plasma rockets under his wings shot from their tubes as Adam pulled away from the doomed Terran ship. As he gained altitude, hundreds of small blue and purple explosions blanketed the Destroyer. Smoke poured from the top of the ship as fires roared through the rooms and halls, leaving the ship dead in space.
    “The Destroyer is gone,” he informed Keryn as he reentered the fray. “We’re going to get rid of the fighters now.”
    “We’re heading toward the sun now,” Keryn replied. From his vantage point, Adam watched the engines flare to life on the Alliance ships and they sped toward the dark orb hanging in the distant space. Behind them, however, the five Destroyers closed the distance and began firing more salvos of missiles. Firing from the closer distance, the rockets were more accurate and they exploded around the three ships as they tried to flee.
    “Those Destroyers are too close, Keryn,” he called. “Get yourself out of there. We’ll buy you the time you need.”
    “Not at the cost of your own life,” she replied. “Make sure you come out of this alive.”
    Adam released the transmit button on his radio. He didn’t feel right making a promise to her that he couldn’t keep. Instead, he focused his attention back on the Terran fighters. With the numbers greatly in their favor, the Alliance managed to keep the Terran fighters occupied as the three ships slipped past the dogfight, blazing toward the sun. The Destroyers, in close pursuit, fired more and more rounds toward the trailing ships. As the Terran vessels drew closer, their hangar bays opened and spilled out their own fighters. Now facing the combined Squadrons of six Destroyers, Adam knew they couldn’t stop them any longer.
    “All Squadron pilots,” he said over the radio, “evacuate the area at once. We’ve done all we can, it’s up to the big ships now.”
    Pulling his own ship away from the chaos, he kept his eye on the three Alliance ships hurtling toward the sun. Nearly three quarters of the distance had already been covered. He knew they wouldn’t have to go much further before they could begin their plan. With the Terrans closing on them, Adam just hoped they made it.
    In angry defiance to the elusive Alliance ships, the Terrans fired another massive volley toward the fleeing trio. The Alliance Cruisers launched countermeasures, which detonated the Terran rockets in between the two groups of ships, obscuring Adam’s view of the Ballistae. Though Adam instantly regretted thinking so, he doubted the trio had destroyed them all. As the plasma cleared, Adam saw the ships still fleeing. Moments later, he watched as an explosion erupted right behind the Ballistae. The engines on the commandeered ship sputtered and died and the damaged Alliance vessel drifted helplessly toward the dark sun. As it floated freely in space, he saw numerous other scars across its hull, evidence of multiple rocket strikes. Luckily, he noted, the other two ships were still flying. They took a path that would slingshot them around the sun, bringing them fully around the dormant star and back in his direction.
    As the two remaining ships disappeared around the sun, with five Destroyers in close pursuit, warning sirens sounded within Adam’s fighter. Unnoticed, a Terran fighter had maneuvered behind him and opened fire with its machine gun. The tracer rounds struck his right wing, shredding its armor and sending his ship spinning uncontrolled. Adam felt the gravitational forces build as his ship continued to spin chaotically, threatening to knock him unconscious. Pulling hard on his controls, Adam felt the ship fight against him as the right wing remained unresponsive. The pressure on his chest, however, began to fade.
    “Any Alliance vessel,” he called weakly into the radio, “this is Squadron Commander Decker. My fighter has been badly damaged and I require immediate docking for repairs.”
    Disoriented from his spin and nauseas from the pressure, Adam barely registered the Terran fighter still chasing his damaged ship. Through muddled thoughts, he tried to find the controls for his weapons, but had trouble as his vision quickly doubled. Fighting the urge to vomit, he slammed his fist against the control panel. In front of him, quickly closing on his position, the Terran brought his machine guns to bear on Adam’s ship. Before he could fire, though, the Terran fighter shattered as though ripped apart from within. Adam stared in wonderment, unsure if he was even responsible for his enemy’s destruction. A click startled him as his radio came to life.
    “Commander Decker,” a familiar voice called over the radio, “this is Captain Xiao of the Revolution. We have eliminated your immediate threat. Sit back and we’ll be there to pick you up shortly.”
    Adam allowed himself a sigh of relief. He had found safe refuge. Everything was going according to plan so far. He only hoped Keryn’s luck continued.

CHAPTER 40:

    With the majority of systems powered down, the control room was bathed in darkness. Keryn, Wyck, Iana, and Tora sat huddled together on the floor, staving off the cold that permeated the walls. With life support systems running only nominally, the internal heating system had been shut down.
    “Did you have to blow up the missile so close?” Wyck asked, his ears still ringing from the explosion.
    “I had to make it believable,” Keryn replied. “If the Terrans didn’t think we were severely damaged, they would have just blown us up on the spot instead of chasing the other two.”
    Above their heads, a faint glow was cast from the tactical display. The five red triangles were slowly disappearing behind the sun, still in pursuit of the two Alliance Cruisers. Until they were out of radar range, Keryn didn’t dare begin recharging the engines. Should they be detected, they’d be defenseless until the systems all came back online.
    Though they sat mostly in silence, faint radio transmissions continued on the Fleet-wide net. As Keryn leaned her head against the large control console, she heard a familiar voice sending a distress signal.
    “Any Alliance vessel,” Adam called faintly over the radio, “this is Squadron Commander Decker. My fighter has been badly damaged and I require immediate docking for repairs.”
    Keryn scrambled to her feet and began altering the tactical signal to search for the signal from Adam’s fighter. In the distance, far from the dark sun and the Ballistae, a small blue dot appeared on the map. Its movements were random, confirming that his ship was damaged and incapable of defensive maneuvers. While watching the map, a second transmission called over the radio, filling Keryn with dread.
    “Commander Decker, this is Captain Xiao of the Revolution. We have eliminated your immediate threat. Sit back and we will be there to pick you up shortly.”
    Keryn spun, locking eyes with Iana. Her own fear was reflected in the Warrant’s eyes. Still, Iana shook her head disapprovingly.
    “I have to let him know,” Keryn begged. “I can’t let him land on the Revolution.”
    “There’s nothing we can do for him now,” Iana stated, emotion thick in her voice. “I’m sorry, Keryn, but if we warn Adam, we risk the lives of everyone on this ship.”
    “And we risk failing in our mission,” Wyck added sternly. “We’ve worked too hard to jeopardize this mission.”
    “Yen is dangerous,” she pleaded. Her throat felt swollen and she found it hard to swallow. “You’ve all fought beside Adam. We can’t just leave him with that monster!”
    Iana walked to her side and placed her arm around Keryn. “If what you told me about him is true,” Iana said, “Adam seems more than capable of taking care of himself. You have to trust that he’ll be fine. Right now, we have other priorities.”
    “They’ve reached the back side of the sun,” Tora said, pointing toward the tactical display. The five red triangles had disappeared from the map. “They can’t detect us anymore.”
    Wyck moved past the two seated women and began reactivating the major systems onboard the ship. The lights above them flickered back to life and a low rumble shook the ground slightly as the massive engines began their ignition process. Once seemingly out of commission, the Ballistae rose from its own ashes, eager to complete its mission.

    Adam’s fighter slammed into the ground of the hangar bay, breaking free the already damage right wing and sending sparks spraying from behind it as it gouged the thick floor. As it finally slid to a halt, Adam threw open the cabin and climbed out, coughing from the thick smoke that poured from around the ruined ship. Wiping the sweat and soot from his face, he watched fire consumed his fighter.
    Turning toward the exit to the hangar bay, Adam coughed once more and rubbed his chest. Between the smoke and the crash landing, his ribs and lungs now ached every time he tried to breath. As he walked slowly toward the doorway, it slid open and a medical team emerged. They rushed to his side as a second team came in, spraying fire retardant chemicals over the wreckage in the middle of the bay.
    “I’m fine,” Adam said as he waved away the medical personnel who tried to check his vital signs. “I need to see Captain Xiao.”
    “Doesn’t that work out well,” Yen called from the doorway. Leaning against the doorframe, Yen reminded Adam of the young soldier whose life he saved years ago. As Adam got closer, however, he saw that the young psychic soldier was long gone. In his place, an older man stood. Yen’s eyes had sunken from stress and overuse of his powers. His already yellowed skin looked waxy and thick creases had appeared around his eyes and on his forehead. Even his fine dark hair had grown matted from sweat and unkempt.
    “You look good, Yen,” Adam lied, embracing his old friend.
    “You’re a piss-poor liar,” Yen replied with a smile that didn’t reach his eyes. “I didn’t even need to be psychic to know that. But it’s a good lie, so I’ll let it slide.”
    Breaking away from his friend, Adam gestured toward his still smoldering fighter. “I’m going to need a new ship. There’s still a lot of fighting to be done.”
    “Later, later,” Yen insisted, dropping the fake smile. “First, join me on the bridge. We can catch up while we walk.”
    “No offense, Yen,” Adam said, “but we can catch up after the war is won.” Something seemed wrong with Yen, but Adam couldn’t place his finger on it. Still, Adam couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong, a feeling only reinforced by the shivers running up his spine.
    “It wasn’t a request, Adam,” Yen replied darkly. “I was irritated before, so I didn’t want to hear the details of your miraculous plan. Now I’m being told that the Ballistae was destroyed. I think it’s about time you shared the rest of your plan with me.”
    Adam begrudgingly stepped into the hallway and followed Yen’s lead. Cautiously, he placed a comforting hand on the pistol at his hip. “This is a pretty poor way to treat an old friend,” Adam chided. “After all, I did save you life once.”
    “Ancient history,” Yen replied. “I just saved yours, so you can stop using that excuse to try to get me to be more cooperative. Let’s quit the small talk and get down to business. Tell me about your plan.”
    Yen walked a few more feet before he realized that Adam was no longer following. He turned and stared into the eyes of the angry Pilgrim. “Is there a problem, Adam?” Yen asked dangerously.
    “You’re not the man I met years ago,” Adam said cautiously. He automatically grew defensive as he stared at the husk of his old friend. “There’s a darkness in you now that didn’t exist there before.”
    “Spare me your childish rhetoric,” Yen sneered. “You’re not the same either. Our experiences shape who we are. While you were joy-riding around the outskirts of known space, the rest of us were putting our lives on the line to bring down Earth. It changes a man!”
    “I can see that,” Adam replied. “It makes you dangerous.”
    “Dangerous?” Yen mocked. “You have no idea about dangerous.”
    “But I’m willing to bet Iana does, doesn’t she?” Adam said.
    Yen froze in mid sentence. Reaching out with his power, Yen scanned Adam’s mind. Images of Iana arriving onboard the Ballistae, scared and crying, jumped to the forefront of Adam’s thoughts. Suddenly, Yen was even more interested in finding out what was happening aboard the Ballistae.
    “I think it’s time for you to tell me your battle plan,” Yen hissed. “Tell me about your plans, about Iana, about Alcent, and about Keryn.”
    At the mention of her name, the images in Adam’s mind shifted from Iana to a snow-filled landscape. Darkness stretched over the buildings in Adam’s memory, casting thick shadows over the streets. Huddled within one of the buildings, sleeping forms sprawled across the thinly matted floors. In the corner of the room, two figures laid together. Adam’s memory focused, showing the two figured writhing together in pleasure. The woman tossed her silvery hair back, revealing tanned skin and a myriad of tattoos tracing the outside of her face.
    Yen stared at Adam, stunned. “It was you,” he managed to mutter. “You took her heart from me. You, of all…”
    He didn’t finish the sentence as Adam caught Yen with a solid punch on his jaw. Yen staggered backward as his power surged within. Psychic wind tossed Yen’s hair wildly as tendrils erupted from his back and hurtled toward the Pilgrim. Before they could strike, a single gunshot rang out through the wide hallway. The tendrils immediately retracted as Yen clutched his side, where dark blood now poured from a wound. Looking up in disbelief, he finally noticed the pistol clenched tightly in Adam’s hand.
    “Not this time, Yen,” Adam warned over the howling wind as he waved the gun dangerously. “I don’t care how strong you’ve become; you’re not going to stop me from leaving.”
    “You greatly underestimate me,” Yen said, regaining his composure. “Few people get to make that mistake twice.”
    Waving his hand, Yen launched a wave of hurricane strength psychic wind toward Adam. The energy struck the Pilgrim, lifting him from his feet and slamming him into the far wall. Adam squeezed the trigger again, but his shot went wide, slamming into the wall behind Yen’s head. Blue energy poured from Yen’s eyes. Rolling down his arms, the blue energy sheathed his hands in a strong glow. Jerking his hands upward, the gun flew from Adam’s hand and skidded across the floor. Adam climbed to his feet as Yen reached him.
    Swinging again, Adam’s fist slammed into a protective field encasing Yen’s head. He felt bones break in his knuckles from the impact and Adam had to clench his jaw to keep from screaming out in pain. Moving in a blur, Yen punched Adam three times in rapid succession. Each blow fell like a hammer, driving Adam’s head backward into the wall behind him. After the last hit, Adam slumped forward, a red smear being left behind him on the white wall. Yen caught him before he could crumple to the floor and kept Adam upright. His side burned from the gunshot wound, feeding his rage.
    “Of all the people to steal her from me,” Yen said, holding Adam with one hand while driving his fist into the side of his head with the other, “I would have never guessed that it would be you to betray me!” A punch landed against Adam’s head. “She would have been mine!” He punched him again. “Now she wants nothing to do with me.” And again. “And it’s all.” And again. “Your.” And again. “Fault!”
    Adam fell limply against the wall, slipping in and out of consciousness. Gripping him in crushing energy, Yen held him upright. Yen’s brushed a loose hair from his face while he listened to Adam’s labored gasps for air. He stared into the face of his betrayer, now barely recognizable as the once handsome Pilgrim. Bones had shattered all along the right side of Adam’s face, leaving the skin disfigured and spongy.
    “You stole her heart,” Yen said calmly. “It’s only fair that I take a suitable replacement.”
    His fist glowing brightly, Yen slammed his fist into Adam’s chest. The ribs shattered under the punch and the skin and muscles ruptured as Yen drove his fist straight into the soft organs beneath. Adam gurgled as Yen punctured his lungs. Opening his hand, Yen closed his fingers over Adam’s weakly beating heart and jerked backwards, pulling the life-giving organ from Adam’s chest. His eyes rolling into his head, Adam collapsed in a heap on the ground.
    Yen stood reveling in the power as Adam’s blood rolled down his arm and pooled on the floor. The rage slowly left Yen’s body, leaving him calm and composed. “No, no,” Yen said as he stared at the heart. “This one just won’t do. It’s hardly a good replacement.”
    Dropping the heart on the floor next to Adam’s body, Yen looked at the mess in the hallway. He’d have to do some work to clean this up.

    The Ballistae made a final turn, in anticipation for the two Cruisers’ return. In preparation, Keryn launched a single rocket from the rear port of the ship. Shortly after it cleared the Ballistae, Keryn ordered the rocket’s engine shut down. Drifting in space, the rocket sat dormant, its kinetic energy causing it to drift slowly toward the sun beyond.
    On the tactical display, a single blue triangle appeared from the back side of the sun. Its path was erratic, as though it had suffered severe damage. Though she waited, the second blue triangle never appeared.
    “…this is Phalanx,” a voice crackled over the radio. The signal was weak, breaking up as the Oterian Captain spoke. “We’ve suffered… Defiant destroyed… will not let you down… heading your way.”
    The five Destroyers appeared from behind the sun, in quick pursuit of the limping Alliance Cruiser. Keryn’s heart fell as she knew that the Phalanx would never be able to escape the Destroyers. Still, they had succeeded in their mission. The Destroyers would never be in a better position.
    “Wyck, fire the engines,” she ordered. “Get us as far away as possible.”
    As Wyck engaged the navigation controls, Keryn inputted the code to reactivate her rocket. Its engines flaring back to life, the rocket hurtled toward the dormant sun. Keryn watched the small dot representing her rocket while, simultaneously, watching the damaged Cruiser.
    “Phalanx, this is Captain Riddell,” she said, activating the Fleet-wide channel. “Your sacrifice will be remembered forever in the annals of Fleet history.” Reaching up, she wiped a tear from her eye. “It has truly been an honor to fight alongside you, Captain Mandox.”
    The blue triangle of the Phalanx slowed and turned, allowing the Destroyers to close the distance. Rockets streamed from the Terran ships and hurtled toward the defenseless Cruiser. Before they were able to reach the ship, however, Keryn’s rocket reached the sun.
    The rocket slammed into the black surface of the sun, exploding in an insignificant flash of light. As the missile broke apart, the internal canister shattered, spilling Torazine onto the blackened surface. The effect was instantaneous and violent. The Torazine broke down the membranes covering the Deplitoxide, releasing the heat of an entire sun in one sudden and deadly wave. The once dark sun ignited with its former glory. Solar flares erupted from its surface, reaching out thousands of miles into space. One of the flares caught the Terran Destroyers, vaporizing them under the intense waves of heat. Though they flew away at great speed, the shockwave from the ignition of the sun rattled the Ballistae, sending angry vibrations through the entirety of the ship. The solar eruptions lasted only a few minutes. When they were done, a brightly glowing sun stood in the center of the galaxy, illuminating the wreckage of both Fleets.
    With the destruction of most of the rest of the Terran Fleet, Keryn received a signal that the remaining ships were surrendering. With an exhaustive sigh, Keryn allowed a smile to spread across her face.

    “I’m sorry, sir, but Squadron Commander Decker was never able to make an emergency landing onboard the Revolution,” the Lithid navigator called over the radio. “Commander Decker’s fighter was destroyed by a Terran rocket moments before he was able to land within our hangar bay. Again, sir, I’m very sorry to inform you of the loss.”
    “He’s lying!” Keryn screamed into the open room, startling Wyck, who still stood at the radio. She stormed over to him, pushing the Uligart out of the way. Pushing the transmit button, she yelled into the radio. “I know you’re lying, you bastard! Do you hear me, Yen? I know you’re lying!”
    A calm voice replied. “Keryn, I feel absolutely terrible about your loss, but as Tylgar already told you…”
    “Don’t give me your political crap!” she interrupted. “I know you killed him and I promise you, if it’s the last thing I do, I’ll make you pay for this!”
    “Such hostility, Keryn,” Yen chided. “It’s painful when someone you love is gone, isn’t it?”
    Keryn slammed her fist down on the microphone, cracking its casing. Tears of both anger and sorrow streamed down her face. “The son of a bitch is lying!”
    “Of course he is,” Iana consoled, placing her arm around Keryn. “The question is: what are we going to do about it?”
    Keryn wiped her eyes on her sleeve. Her eyes burned from the tears, but now a new fire had been ignited within her. “I know exactly what I’m going to do.”
    She pushed away from Iana and stormed out of the control room. As she staggered down the hall, her mind alight with ideas, Keryn pushed past the crew of the Ballistae who cheered wildly at their victory. Though many tried to pull her into their revelry, their joy couldn’t penetrate her enveloping sadness and thoughts of revenge.
    Finally reaching her room, Keryn opened the door and rushed over to the computer console. Typing in a now familiar code, the symbol of High Council appeared on the screen. Knowing she looked terrible, Keryn didn’t care. She waited impatiently for the red recording symbol to appear in the corner of the screen. When it did, she began her brief but important message.
    “I’ve changed my mind,” she stated matter-of-factly. “I’m in. But if we’re going to do this, we’re going to do it my way.”

CHAPTER 41:

    Yen retreated to his quarters as the other remaining ships in the Fleet tended to the surrendered Terran Destroyers. He had wanted to rest, after exerting himself so much during the battle, but an urgent message from High Council took priority. Safely inside his room, he sat down before his console and entered his command code. The screen shifted from black and a red symbol emerged on the monitor. Yen was surprised to note the small annotation at the bottom of the screen. The call from High Council was being fed to his console live. For the first time in his career, Yen would personally speak to High Council.
    The screen slowly faded to reveal six elderly figures sitting around a horseshoe shaped table. From their elevated positions, they seemed to look down upon the seated Yen. Nervously, Yen cleared his throat.
    “Captain Xiao,” an elderly Uligart began. “We would like to begin by congratulating you on an exceptional victory in the name of the Alliance. Thanks to your diligence, the Alliance has won a decisive victory over the Terrans, one that will result in the final destruction of the Terran Empire.”
    “Thank you for your kind words, Councilmember,” Yen replied, humbled by their personal attention.
    “I think it’s safe to tell you,” continued the Oterian Councilmember, “that you are being recommended for some of the highest decorations available to the Alliance. You will truly be forever remembered for the personal accomplishments and sacrifices you made for the Alliance.”
    “My accomplishments aside,” Yen added, “I could not have defeated so great an adversary as the Terran Fleet without the support of a number of valiant ships, many of whom were destroyed in the war.”
    “Yes,” a gravelly voice issued from behind the stoic mask of the Lithid Councilmember, “it was a great loss of life. All those who gave the ultimate sacrifice during the war will be forever immortalized in our records. But your victory is by no means the end of the conflict. As you recover from your combat, billions of lives are at stake on artificially frozen worlds. It is our understanding that your Fleet has procured a counteragent to the Deplitoxide threat. Is this correct?”
    “That is correct, Councilmember,” Yen replied flatly. “We do have a counteragent, one that was used effectively to help us win the war against the Terran Fleet.”
    “We knew as much,” the Lithid said smartly. “We have need of that counteragent throughout the known universe. It must be delivered at once, lest all of our species perish along with the Terrans. Perhaps you could send some of your ships to assist?”
    Yen sat staring at the screen. The Lithid Councilmember had inadvertently given him a way out of two difficult situations.
    “Councilmembers, I believe I have a solution that can work best for all parties involved,” he began, chancing a faint smile. “During the most recent combat, Captain Riddell lost someone who she loved deeply. I fear that this loss has affected her profoundly. In my professional opinion as Commander of the Fleet, I don’t believe the best place for her is in command of a warship.”
    “Would you delegate her to a research vessel, primarily tasked to restarting the suns of Alliance space?” the Pilgrim Councilmember asked. “It’s a damning assignment for a Captain to be demoted to a more menial task of serving as commander of a scientific vessel.”
    “I understand your concern,” Yen stated, “but I know my concerns for her continuing mental and physical well-being. Should she remain amidst the Fleet, I fear that it’s only a matter of time before she becomes a detriment to herself and others. I’m concerned that her outbursts could eventually bring her to harm.”
    The Councilmembers muted their radios and discussed amongst themselves. The elderly figures argued for some time before activating their microphones again.
    “We have agreed to your recommendation,” the Avalon Councilmember finally answered. “Once our conversation is completed with you, we will notify the Ballistae that it’s been reassigned for an indefinite period of time.”
    “I thank you for your consideration and concern for one of my Captains,” Yen said cynically. “I don’t know how I would react should she come to harm.”
    “With that business behind us, Captain,” the Wyndgaart Councilmember stated, “we have another mission which requires immediate attention. Though we have defeated the Empirical government on Earth and destroyed the Fleet, the Terran Premier has still eluded our grasp. If he were to remain alive, he would become a figurehead around which a new underground movement would form. Instead of fighting in open warfare, we would be reduced to fighting guerilla conflicts on backwater planets against fanatical enemies. He cannot be allowed to live.”
    “Have we located his safe house?” Yen asked, feeling the excitement build within him.
    “One of the captured Terran Captains betrayed his location while under the influence of the Crown,” the Wyndgaart stated. “We are compiling a strike force now that will eliminate the last Terran threat to the Alliance.”
    Yen raised his head confidently. “Councilmembers, I would like to volunteer to lead the expedition. I have proven myself time and again both as a ground and aerial tactician. My unique skill set will be invaluable for an assault of this magnitude.”
    Again, the High Council muted their microphones as they went into deep conversation. Yen couldn’t hear their words, nor would his psychic powers help him over a console. Instead, he sat impatiently as he watched the Councilmembers debate his request. Finally, they leaned back in their seats and reactivated their microphones.
    “We have examined the pros and cons of your request, Captain Xiao,” the elderly Wyndgaart stated. “We’ve decided to grant your request. I’m redirecting the assets for this mission to the Revolution. An emissary will arrive soon with specialized equipment for your mission. Once he arrives with the rest of your team, I’ll expect you to depart immediately. The journey to the Premier’s location will take less than a day, but he’ll be aware of the Terran Fleet’s defeat. You’ll have to move quickly to ensure he doesn’t escape.”
    “Councilmembers,” Yen said, gratified, “you won’t be disappointed in your decision.”
    “No, I suppose we won’t be,” the Wyndgaart answered before reaching forward and ending the communication. Yen’s screen turned dark once again.
    Where previously he had wanted to sleep, Yen now found himself too filled with enthusiasm. He would lead the strike force that would kill the Terran Premier, effectively destroying the Empire once and for all. Glancing back at the monitor, Yen smiled at his own personal musings. Yen wondered how many people he’d have to kill in order to become a Councilmember.

    The Terran transport ship docked with the Revolution a few hours after Yen ended his conversation with the High Council. As the wide side door slid open on the ship, Yen walked forward with his entourage to greet the emissary. He was surprised, however, when a group of soldiers exited the craft in full Terran battle gear.
    “What’s the meaning of this?” Yen asked, warily watching the heavily armed men.
    “My apologies, Captain,” a tall Oterian said as he stepped out of the ship, bending low at the waist to accommodate his height. In his hand, he carried what seemed to be a heavy briefcase. “We didn’t mean to startle you.”
    “You are the High Council’s emissary?” Yen asked dubiously.
    The Oterian walked forward, extending his hand. “My name is Maxlar. I was sent to brief you on the technology you’ll be employing during your mission.” Maxlar reached down and patted the side of the large plastic briefcase he carried by his side.
    “Then they are…” Yen left the question hanging as he looked at the soldiers wearing full Terran regalia.
    Maxlar looked behind him at the soldiers still standing at attention. “They are your strike force,” he replied. “The High Council wanted to send the absolute best to ensure the mission was a success.”
    “They doubt my abilities?” Yen asked angrily.
    “They doubt everyone,” Maxlar calmly replied. “That’s why they’re still alive.” He turned back toward Yen, an eyebrow arched in curiosity. “Do you have a room nearby where we can all discuss tactics?”
    Yen nodded, his eyes still on the soldiers. Wordlessly, he turned and led the Oterian and his soldiers to one of the strategy rooms traditionally used by the Squadron. The soldiers marched in behind Maxlar and took their seats. Yen scanned the soldiers, trying to read malicious thoughts. To his surprise, every one of them seemed robotic in their thoughts. Their dominant thought was impatience at having to wait so long to begin the meeting. Soldiers to the end, Yen surmised. Knowing that none harbored a hidden agenda, Yen turned back to Maxlar.
    “Shall we begin?” he prompted.
    Maxlar reached into his jacket and removed a disk that was dwarfed in his giant furred hand. He loaded the disk into the console and a map of a planet’s surface appeared above the table. As the image magnified, Yen was able to make out a large bunker concealed in the midst of a reddish desert planet. Over the building, a blueprint of the inner layout appeared.
    “The world we’ll be landing on has three suns in its atmosphere. Since the galaxy is supposed to be uninhabited, the Terrans didn’t black out any of the suns during their initial assault. The fact that this planet still had sun and was so deep in Alliance space made it the perfect hiding place for a Terran Premier and his rabid pack of nobles.”
    Stepping away from the console, Maxlar picked up a laser pointer and began marking items on the map. Immediately, a small red dot appeared near the bottom of the display.
    “You will be landing here at sunrise,” Maxlar explained, his deep voice rumbling throughout the room. The map magnified more, enlarging the building until it dominated the screen. “In the center of the bunker, there is a central meeting chamber. We believe this to be the War Room from which the Premier has been directing the battle. He and his Generals should all be present in this room. If not, you will have to clear the adjacent rooms until you locate him.”
    “We’re just going march into a heavily fortified Terran bunker and kill the Premier?” Yen asked doubtfully.
    “Yes,” the Oterian replied. “More or less.”
    Reaching behind the table, Maxlar pulled out the heavy plastic case. Opening the locks around its exterior, he revealed a dozen small metallic bracelets, each accentuated by a single red button. Yen gingerly picked on up, flipping it over and examining its relative lack of complexity.
    “And these are?” Yen asked.
    “Based off the Lithid method of transformation, the bracelets allow a single individual to alter their physical appearance,” Maxlar explained. “Both the Terran and Alliance spy networks have used them extensively. In this case, all these bracelets have been modified to make you all appear as Terrans of noble birth.”
    Seeing that Yen was still hesitant, Maxlar took the bracelet back from Yen and placed it in his hand. As soon as he pushed the red button, his skin began to shimmer and bubble. His thick fur disappeared, replaced by soft pink flesh while his body shrunk to a more manageable height. His muscular frame thinned substantially, leaving a Terran soldier standing where the Oterian once had.
    “You won’t get a better presentation than that,” Maxlar said, his deep voice unchanged, as he hit the button again and started the transformation back to the massive Oterian.
    Suspicion ran deep in Yen. Reaching into the case, he chose a bracelet at random.
    “This will turn me into a Terran?” he asked.
    “A perfect disguise for infiltration,” Maxlar confirmed.
    Yen strapped the bracelet to his wrist and pressed the button. He watched in amazement, as he yellow skin lost its amber luster at turned pink. Along his back, he felt, rather than saw, the spines slowly disappear into the fabric of his uniform. Within seconds, he was transformed into a Terran. With Maxlar watching on, he tested the system repeatedly, switching back and forth between Terran and his former self. Finally satisfied, Yen unbuckled the bracelet and handed it back to the Oterian.
    “And that is why your strike force is dressed like Terrans?” Yen asked as he tried to smile disarmingly.
    “A uniform will be provided for you onboard your transport,” Maxlar rumbled.
    “You seem to have thought of everything,” Yen said. “When do we leave?”
    “We don’t,” Maxlar explained. “This is where we go our separate ways. However, if everything I’ve heard about you is correct, then the High Council will have nothing to worry about.”
    Yen stuck out his hand, which Maxlar ignored. Turning, the Oterian left the conference room, leaving Yen and the soldiers alone. Placing his hands on his hips, Yen perused his new soldiers.
    “I’m not big on speeches,” Yen said sternly. “I don’t need to tell you the importance of this mission, especially since every one of you looks ready for combat. Get your things, and I’ll meet you on the ship.”
    Yen left the room ahead of the others and walked to his quarters. Grabbing just enough supplies for the brief time that he would be away, Yen hurried back to the hangar bay. By the time he arrived, the rest of the soldiers were already onboard and seated. Nodding appreciatively, Yen took his seat near the front of the ship.
    Leaning forward, he patted the pilot on the shoulder. “Get us out of here.”
    As the small ship departed the Revolution, Yen noticed the Ballistae leaving the galaxy at a quick speed. He allowed himself a smile, knowing that Keryn was cursing his name even now. At least he knew that it would be a long time before he had to deal with either Keryn or Iana again.

    Maxlar sat in the observation deck of the hangar bay, watching Yen’s ship slide from its berth and prepare for its departure. Reaching into the inside pocket of his uniform, he pulled out a sealed envelope. Pausing only momentarily to observe the High Council emblem emblazoned upon the seal, Maxlar quickly opened the letter.
    The directions within were simple: Activate the blue switch.
    Opening his brief case once more, Maxlar reached to the upper right corner of the case’s interior and moved an unassuming blue button to the “on” position. A red light flickered from a bulb directly above the switch.
    Maxlar shook his head, unsure what any of his actions meant, but confident that he was following the High Council’s orders without fail. Satisfied, the Oterian stood and left the room.

CHAPTER 42:

    The ship skimmed the red surface of the planet, tracing the rises and falls of the shifting sand dunes. The planet was desolate and uninhabitable, save the one bunker located nearly a hundred miles still ahead. Yen hated the jostling of the ship as it flew so close to the ground, but knew it was necessary to avoid the Terran radars. His soldiers, however, took the abuse in silence; most of the men barely seemed to move at all as the ship tilted to avoid another outcropping of sand or rock.
    Yen donned the lightly armored costume that he would wear, one that resembled a Terran General. The outfit clung to his body, feeling awkward and confining against the spines on his back. Once he transformed, he knew the uniform would fit better, but Yen grew nauseas at the thought of wearing a Terran’s skin for any longer than necessary. Instead, he tilted the General’s hat over his yellowed forehead and let his black hair cascade down his back.
    As the team made their initial approach, the ship slowed and set down behind a large dune. The back door cracked, letting waves of stifling dry heat into the interior of the ship. Yen stood and nodded to the rearmost soldier. Unbuckling himself, the soldier reached into the storage area above him and removed his high-powered sniper rifle.
    “I’m not expecting any Terrans to escape alive,” Yen yelled to be heard over the howling wind, “but you’re our failsafe if any do. We don’t need any prisoners, so shoot to kill.”
    “Yes sir,” was all the soldier said before slipping off the back of the ship and trudging through the thick red sand.
    Yen pressed the button and the rear of the ship sealed shut once more. Rocking slightly, the ship lifted off and gained some altitude before approaching the Terran bunker. The flight from the drop off point to the bunker was relatively short. Yen had only just gotten settled into his seat when the intercom crackled to life.
    “We’re being flagged by the Terran bunker,” the pilot called back. “We’re being ordered to set down outside the front entrance. It appears that we are going to have a rather large welcoming party.”
    Yen began flashing hand and arm signals, notifying the soldiers to activate their transformation bracelets. One by one, the different races melted and boiled away, leaving behind strong-jawed Terran soldiers. Content that everything was ready, Yen unwillingly activated his own. Yen’s long hair receded and turned white, stopping when it was a close-cropped military cut. His smooth yellow skin darkened and tanned. Stubble erupted from his cheeks and chin, giving the impression of a long journey to reach this remote outpost. Looking down at his hands, Yen was disgusted by the soft pink flesh and roughly callused palms.
    In front of the ship, the bunker came into view, rising out of the sands like a half-buried giant. The once white stone walls had been weathered and coated with the red sand, making the structure nearly invisible from the sky. At the front of the building, a small overhang jutted from the stone walls. Recessed under the overhang, a large pair of double doors hissed as they slid open and a dozen armed Terrans rushed out.
    Following the directions of an internal communications array, Yen’s ship set down in the red sand in front of the bunker, kicking up clouds of concealing red dust. Yen moved to the middle of his team as the door slid open on the back of the ship. In his uniform, the heat was oppressive and, even at sunrise, the light was blinding. Terran soldiers outside the rear of the craft motioned for Yen’s team to exit the craft. His soldiers filed off and took up positions on each side of the gangplank leading to the red ground. As Yen exited the craft, they all snapped to the position of attention. Terran soldiers, unsure of how to respond, hesitated as they observed the formalities.
    One of the Terrans approached Yen, his head slightly lowered in a sign of respect for the General’s rank. Yen read his epaulettes before addressing the Terran.
    “Lieutenant,” Yen barked at the lower ranking officer, “I have been traveling a long time to get here. Alliance soldiers overran my entire position. The Premier needs to be appraised of the intelligence I carry immediately!”
    “Yes, sir,” the Lieutenant responded nervously, “but I will need to scan your identification before we can proceed.”
    Yen gave him a look that he hoped showed his obvious displeasure and disdain. Angrily, Yen unclipped the identification badge that Maxlar had prepared for him and shoved it into the Lieutenant’s hand. Pulling out a small scanner, the Lieutenant swiped the badge. Lines of code flickered over the screen.
    Yen felt sweat roll down his back. He didn’t entirely believe that it was from the heat. Though he was confident in his ability to kill the dozen guards outside, a premature attack might allow the Premier and his staff time to evacuate the building. He couldn’t allow them to escape and, potentially, drag this war on for years to come.
    To his relief, the Lieutenant handed the badge back to Yen before snapping to attention. The other Terran guards followed suit. “A thousand apologies, General. We had to verify your identify before proceeding. I’m sure you understand our precautions.”
    “Of course,” Yen said with condescension. He found that maintaining a guise of open hostility toward Terrans was easier than he would have guessed.
    The Lieutenant led the General and his entourage into the cool shade of the building. Inside, the halls felt cluttered with collections of Terran equipment salvaged from a number of quickly evacuated worlds. A number of Terran guards, some bandaged from previous war wounds, sat within the small rooms that jutted from the main hall. A couple members of Yen’s guard force dropped back as they moved toward the central conference hall. Yen’s soldiers mingled with the Terrans, asking them questions and, simultaneously, positioning themselves to take out the guards closest to the main door to the building. Smiling, Yen continued to follow the Lieutenant.
    When they reached a second set of heavy double doors, the Lieutenant entered an access code and scanned his thumbprint before the light above the door turned from red to green. Like breaking open a long-forgotten vault, the air hissed as the door slid open. The room beyond seemed dark after being exposed to the intense sunlight outdoors. Guards and technicians lined the walls, working on maps and tactical displays that seemed to track most of the known universe. A large circular table dominated the center of the room. Nearly a dozen Generals sat around the table, many in different stages of standing at the surprising intrusion. Across from Yen stood the Premier, who had already climbed to his feet.
    The Premier was unmistakable to Yen, who had grown up watching propaganda films about the atrocities committed by the Terrans in that man’s name. Though he was still clothed in full military uniform, overburdened with superfluous medals and decorations, and bedecked with a flowing violet cape, the man before Yen looked significantly older than the one that had appeared in the videos. His cheeks seemed fuller, but his skin sagged from the bone. The once dark, wavy hair had become intermixed with grey and looked wild as thought it had not been brushed in quite some time. The Premier, from what Yen could tell, had aged terribly since the start of the war.
    The Lieutenant rushed into the room ahead of Yen in order to announce his presence. “His Royal Premier, may I present to you General Vance, commanding General of Ravalos.”
    The Premier eyed Yen warily. “I don’t have a General Vance in my cabinet,” he said, his voice still strong.
    “No,” Yen said, “you don’t.”
    Yen’s first bullet slammed into the side of the Lieutenant’s head, spraying blood and gore over the General sitting beyond him. Dropping his pistol, Yen felt a rush of energy. As Yen raised his hands, the world around him was encompassed in violent psychic winds as the large table flipped upward. It came crashing down on the left side of the room, crushing three of the Generals who were unfortunate enough to sit on that side. Weapons appeared in the hands of Yen’s soldiers, who opened fire with immaculate accuracy. Terran guards and technicians collapsed in bloody heaps around the room as they tried to run for cover. As Yen advanced confidently into the room, he heard roaring gunfire from the hallway as his soldiers cut down the complacent guards near the bunker’s entrance.
    A few of the remaining Terrans returned quick bursts of gunfire, as they dove for cover. One Yen’s men collapsed as a round caught him in the chest. The soldier’s wrist slammed into the ground as he fell, shattering the casing of his bracelet. In a whirlwind of melting flesh, his body shifted back into that of an Uligart.
    One of the Generals saw the transformation and yelled orders to his men. “They’re not Terrans! Kill them all! Kill them…”
    Tired of hearing his yelling, Yen slashed through the air. Blue light coalesced into a blade at his fingertips, cutting cleanly through the General’s neck. The stunned look still on his face, the Terran’s head bounced across the floor.
    Tossing aside Generals as though they were bothersome insects, Yen continued his advance toward the Premier. Though his Generals cowered behind any cover they could find, the Premier stood defiantly in front of his chair, staring at Yen as he walked casually through the room. Stepping over the body of one of the officers, Yen stopped only a few feet away from the Terran ruler.
    “I can’t believe it’s really you,” Yen said as the din of combat slowly faded in the room. Most of the Terrans lay dead, matched by a handful of Yen’s soldiers sprawled near the doorway.
    The Premier smiled. “Congratulations. You have caught me. So what now? Do I got and stand trial? Do you make a public spectacle of my capture?”
    Yen returned his smile. “You completely misunderstand, Premier. You’re never going to leave this room.”
    The Premier’s face dropped as his voice took on a hard edge. “Kill me if you wish, but realize that killing me won’t put an end to this war. There will always be another Terran willing to lead our people to freedom. The Terran Empire will never bow down to the will of the Alliance.”
    “There’s no one left,” Yen said, shaking his head. “Earth is destroyed. Your Fleet has been defeated. The rest of the Terrans will be led like animals to the slaughter. There is no more Empire left to defend. With your death, so dies the Empire.”
    “Then do your worst,” the Premier spat.
    “Oh, I intend to.”
    Yen lifted the Premier off his feet, dragging him higher until he hovered nearly twenty feet off the floor. The Premier squirmed against Yen’s psychic grasp, but was helpless as he was turned in the air until his body floated parallel to the ground. Yen ensured the Premier faced downward so that he could watch Yen’s preparations. Reaching over, his hand sheathed in blue energy, Yen broke free one of the massive table legs, leaving one end a jagged metal spear. Turning the leg so that its point jutted upward, Yen positioned it directly below the Premier’s floating form.
    “So dies the Empire,” Yen said again before releasing the Premier. The Terran, to Yen’s amazement, didn’t utter a word as he fell. His body slammed into the metal table leg. The spear point tore through his ribs, shredding the organs underneath, until finally severing his spine as it exited through his back. With a gurgle, the Premier’s head dropped forward as blood spilled from his lips. Yen crouched down beside the Terran, savoring the look in the dead man’s eyes.
    A gunshot broke Yen from his revelry. Burning pain shot up his back, searing from his right hip. Reaching back, Yen was stunned to see dark blood on his fingers. Someone had shot him!
    “We have a runner!” one of the guards yelled. Yen turned to see one of the Generals bolting from behind cover and running down the hallway.
    Yen cursed as his hip screamed in protest when he tried to stand. Blue light filled the hole in his lower back, as his energy deadened the pain. Turning, enraged, Yen sprinted into the hall in pursuit in spite of the ache that still cut sharply through his attempts to heal the wound. The guards in the hall were caught by surprise as the Terran General rushed by. They barely had time to raise their weapons before Yen rushed past them as well. Yen lashed out angrily with unrestrained psychic energy, but the elusive General dodged behind the clutter in the halls. Boxes exploded from Yen’s attack, but the Terran still continued his escape.
    The General rushed past the outer doors and into the intense sunlight. Furiously wanting only revenge, Yen chased after him. As Yen broke out of the shadows of the overhang, blood sprayed across his face. He staggered backward, staring at the gaping hole in the General’s chest. The Terran stumbled a couple more steps before collapsing into the red sand. Looking down at the blood that now smeared his uniform, Yen noticed his soft pink hands. He was still in disguise as a Terran General. Not wanting to be shot by mistake, he pushed the red button on his bracelet. Though the button was pushed, Yen didn’t change back to his regular self. The pink hands remained! He slammed his fist repeatedly into the bracelet, but to no avail. He remained Terran. Slowly, he raised his head and looked toward the distant sniper.
    Yen stared into the distance in stunned disbelief moments before a round slammed into his skull. Yen’s vision exploded into a thousand pinpoints of light as consciousness began to ebb away. Slowly, he collapsed to the ground next to the Terran.
    He didn’t know how long he remained unconscious. Vision came and went. Faces of his soldiers appeared above his face one moment, only to be replaced by different faces the next. Eventually, as consciousness began to return, a new face appeared above him. Silver hair framed her face, which glowed under the triple suns. The light filtered through her soft hair, accentuating the red and purple tattoos that ran across her skin.
    Keryn crouched down by Yen’s side and whispered softly to him. “You’re a remarkable man, Yen Xiao. Even now you fight against the inevitable, using your psychic powers to keep yourself from dying.”
    She ran her hand over the still intact side of his face. Keryn shivered slightly as she looked to the far side of his head, where saw the pulsating brain. Except for Yen’s blue psychic bubble, the sensitive organ was exposed to the harsh elements.
    “There was a time I truly did love you, you know?” she said as Yen coughed, bubbles of blood forming on his lips. “But it was young love. It was never meant to last. I came to understand that over time, but you never did.
    “In some ways, I blame myself for never setting you straight. Maybe, if I had, you would have never strayed down such a dark path.” Keryn stopped stroking his hair and her face grew serious. “And you did go down a very dark path, Yen. You killed innocent people to appease your own newfound sense of Godhood. You played with people’s emotions and then proceeded to ruin their lives.”
    Tears formed in the corners of Keryn’s eyes. “You toyed with my emotions, Yen. You ruined my life. You took from me the one man that truly made me happy, all because of some gross misconception about our long-forgotten romance. You became a monster.”
    She used the back of her hand to wipe away the tears. “I won’t give you the satisfaction of seeing me cry, Yen. I’m stronger than that; stronger than you ever realized. I spent years of my life fighting against the monster that was the Terran Empire. They subjugated their people through fear and intimidation and I fought against that mentality every step of the way. And then I return to the Fleet to find that a new monster had arisen. One that controlled his people through fear and intimidation, just like the Terrans. But this monster was also a killer. This monster was a brutal madman being controlled by a child’s mind; a mind that cared only about violent revenge for petty insults. I spent years fighting against the Terran monster. What made you believe I wouldn’t fight against you?”
    Keryn stood and looked out across the desert. “You did incredible work for the Alliance, Yen. Regardless of your methods, you managed to bring peace to a war-torn universe. For that, the Alliance will always remember you as a hero. But I’m here to make sure another description is added to that title: fallen hero. You see, Yen, even if it were possible to save your life from that horrible gunshot wound, I wouldn’t want to. I couldn’t live with myself if I knew that I was the reason that a monster was stalking amongst the citizens of the Alliance.”
    She pulled a pistol free from her holster and looked down at the helpless Yen. “I heard your speech to the Premier, Yen. We were monitoring some of the soldiers’ open radio channels. They were powerful words you spoke, words that deserve to live on in the volumes of history. They were powerful enough words that I feel obliged to reuse them for this situation.”
    Keryn pointed her pistol at Yen. He tried to speak in defense, but could only manage a weak gurgle.
    “On this spot, so died the Empire. And on this spot, so dies Yen Xiao.”
    She squeezed the trigger. Her round struck the undamaged side of Yen’s skull, shattering through the bone and piercing the soft brain beneath. As the slug entered the brain, it broke apart, turning the soft grey matter into a thick pulp. Yen jerked once before the blue light faded from the other side of his skull and his brains spilled onto the sand.
    Keryn took a deep breath and shivered despite the heat. Turning, she walked back to the transport ship onto which the soldiers had already loaded. Keryn nodded toward the cockpit as she walked by. Inside, her relief evident, Iana returned her nod. Climbing aboard, Keryn closed the door as the ship lifted off the planet.
    “Ballistae, this is Captain Riddell,” Keryn said into her throat microphone. “We’re ready to begin bombing the planet.”


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