Read an Excerpt
Yet another joy-filled delay . . . Thank you again for being willing to pause this interview so I could take care of certain shipboard details. We’re getting close to bringing everything up to date, though, so I trust you’ll find this last leg worth the wait. And I thank you for allowing me to address everything chronologically, since I know some of what’s coming up contains some of the biggest questions people have held about me, my plans, and, well, everything. At least this way, you and your viewers will have a reasonably solid understanding of everything that led up to these things.
Now, if I remember correctly, we’d reached the point where I had destroyed my previous ship, the TUPSF Hellfire, to keep it out of enemy hands—which enemy? The Feyori, of course. The undergalaxy isn’t my concern. There’s no way a Salik or a Choya or even a Grey could get onto my ship without my permission, let alone a Human impostor . . . but the Meddlers are another matter. Unfortunately, there was only one way to keep the Hellfire out of their hands and, at the same time, force them into faction with me—and yes, I had the Admiral-General’s permission. Extremely reluctant permission, but it wasn’t as if I could pilot two starships at once, so Hellfire had to make way for Damnation . . . which is ironically apropos, given the hardship that followed.
I can’t go into all the details of that incident, since most of it is still classified, but I can pick up the thread with my arrival on Dabin—if you’ve never been to Dabin and can tolerate the gravity, I can recommend going there for a vacation once the war ends. Gorgeous world, even if it’s still recovering. I can honestly say I would love to go there again, once the war is over . . . Actually, a lot of places are like that.
But that’s a thought for the future, and we’re here to talk about the past, aren’t we?
JUNE 3, 2498 TERRAN STANDARD
OUTSKIRTS OF ELTEGAR CITY
JOINT COLONYWORLD DABIN, DABINAE SYSTEM
Three silvery, interclinging soap bubbles slipped their way down past the ugly, ceristeel-coated Salik vessels in orbit. Descending through the layers of Dabin’s atmosphere, they ignored the heat of reentry because there was no matter for the air to rub against for the necessary friction. A slight course correction brought them down through the night toward a particular scattering of lights; otherwise, their descent was steady.
At the edge of those lights, they swerved again, detouring toward the hydroplant powering the town. Drifting to a stop just in front of the step-down station, the silvery soap bubbles dipped down into the faintly humming cables. The town lights in the distance dimmed slightly, then blinked out for a few seconds.
All three surfaces darkened until one of the bubbles popped. The lights in the distance flicked back on. A new figure dropped toward the ground, falling from the middle position. At nearly twice Terran Standard Gravity, the pull of the planet made the female Human drop fast . . . except she slowed at the last moment. Telekinesis cushioned her landing, burning off the excess energy left over from her transformation.
Ia touched down with a sigh. The gravity was the same one she and her crew had slowly gotten used to over the last two years, though not nearly as strong as the pull of the planet she’d grown up on. Raking her chin-length white locks back from her face, she looked up at the other two bubbles, who were now merely sipping on the energies contained in the power lines overhead.
She still wore the same rumpled clothing from just a few days before: gray shirt and slacks with black stripes down the legs and sleeves; gray underthings and black ship boots; a gray plexi officer’s bracer clasped over her shirtsleeve on her left forearm; and a crystalline bracer tucked under the sleeve of her right arm, its faint glow barely visible at the cuff opening. Her companions still looked like two dark, silvery soap bubbles roughly half the size of hovercars.
(Thank you for the lift,) she sent telepathically. It wasn’t a strong psychic gift—one of her weakest, in fact—but she managed to make herself heard. Not that they couldn’t have read her mind directly, but that wouldn’t be polite . . . and they were now more or less equals. Or rather, she was now a fellow Player in the Feyori’s great Game. (I’m still not very good at that whole interstellar-travel thing, and I won’t get a lot of chances to practice anytime soon.)
(The principle is the exact same as your faster-than-light technology: projecting a field of energy that neutralizes the Higgs Field, a bubble that “greases” you through space, and make one side slippery enough to squirt you past the speed of light,) Belini replied. She was the silvery soap bubble on the left. (You just haven’t learned yet how to regurgitate and reshape your food on demand. It’s all about projectile vomiting,) she giggled mentally.
Ia rolled her eyes. Belini had a strange sense of humor at times. (Like I said, I won’t get a chance to practice much, so thank you for the lift. But it was worth it,) Ia added. (I’m glad so many of you were swayed to my cause.)
(I don’t think you’ve convinced all of ’em, kid,) Kierfando warned her. He was the soap bubble on her right as she looked up at the two aliens. (Not one hundred percent.)
(I know I haven’t. It’ll be an uphill struggle to get enough of your people on my side in time to do the most good,) Ia agreed. (But they’ll see how determined I am to help them when they do faction with me, now that they’re all watching me.)
(I know Miklinn will be furious when he finds out. He will continue to counterfaction you,) Belini warned Ia. (A pity you didn’t pull him in. But you did pull in and receive ten times the quorum you needed for formal recognition, so you’re not the least-ranked among us . . . which is bound to upset a few of the others. Hopefully, they’ll be smart enough to faction with you.) A touch of smugness colored her sending. (As for myself, I’ve just made up all the ground you made me lose, and plenty more. I’m now almost three times higher-ranked than I was before.)
(I told you I’d repay your faith in me,) Ia told the sphere on the left, giving her sponsor a brief, theatrical bow.
She shifted her attention back to the one on her right. To her Human eyes, they looked the same, virtually identical silvery soap bubbles. To her inner senses, they were distinct individuals. To the needs of the future . . . well, their species tried to make the matter-based races their pawns. Ia had to use them the same way. At least her reasons and needs were aimed for the good of all and not some sort of Game-based whim.
(Thank you for your help and support, Kierfando,) she told him, though “he” was only a male by choice in this era. His long-lived species didn’t exactly correspond to Human analogs in their native state. (You’d better get back to V’Dan, though. You have a couple of the younger ones jockeying for power in your absence. Both of you need to get going within two minutes, or you’ll lose momentum back in your home territories.)
(You’ll be fine out here?) he asked her, sounding a bit like a fond uncle fussing over his niece. In the sense that her father was a fellow Feyori, he probably was. (We could move you closer if you like, but all of us needed a good meal, first.)
Ia shook her head. (I’ll be fine. I’m about to call up my Company and let them know I’ve arrived. They’ll make sure I get to where I need to go in time to start doing some good.) Something cold and wet smacked into the tip of her nose. Squinting, Ia looked up, then sighed as another droplet hit her chin and her cheek. A fourth stung her forehead. She wrinkled her nose. (Lovely, it’s starting to rain. Lucky you. Energy beings aren’t affected by things like rain, unlike us matter-based ones. Well, maybe by the thermal chill of the water . . .)
(That’s because you limit yourself to matter-based concerns,) Kier sent, a mild scolding and a dry quip rolled into one. (You have a very compelling reason from a matter-based perspective, but it’s still a limiting one. We’ll see you soon. Pluck our strings in the way I showed you if you wish to talk. But beware that we ourselves are not in faction to the Dabin contingent, on either side of the war. You will be hard-pressed to convince them without another massive squandering of energy.)
(Remember also that plucking our strings for a summoning costs energy as well, and stock up before you call again. You don’t want to drain yourself. Starvation in a Feyori can be deadly if you don’t conserve your reserves carefully,) Belini cautioned her. (At least we could come back to rescue you, this time. Do also take into account that we may be busy with our own concerns since we now have some serious realigning to do following your little shake-up. You’re lucky I’m inclined to think this’ll be fun instead of a stellar-sized headache.) Sucking one last time on the power cables, she swirled and lifted into the sky.
Kier did the same, dipping into the electrical current before following her. (Take care, half-breed. As you fleshies put it, straddling the fence between two worlds may give you a foot in each world, but it also gives you a hell of a wedgie if you’re not careful.)
Caught off guard by his quip, Ia chuckled. She watched for as long as she could detect movement in the sky as he left, following Belini up to where they could feast on the local solar winds for a bit more energy, then sighed. Alone in the late-evening drizzle, she flipped open the lid of her command unit.
The buttons of the interior had no symbols on them, in order to prevent outsiders from accessing their functions; instead, every soldier in the Terran Space Force had to memorize which rounded square did what. Punching in the contact codes for her second-in-command’s unit, Ia started walking toward the town.
It took him twenty seconds to answer. When he did, Meyun Harper’s voice was both startled and relieved. And sleepy-sounding. “—Captain? Ia, is that you? I, uh . . . time, time . . . You’re almost half a day late!”
“And a good evening to you, too,” Ia replied, smiling. “Turns out I didn’t have a knack for mastering the trick of interstellar flight without a ship. I had to get a lift from some friends. Any chance you could send me some matter-based transport? All I have at the moment are my clothes, ship boots, and arm unit.”
She heard a fumbling sound, followed by a loud clatter and a crude epithet. “—Sorry, dropped the arm unit. Uh . . . ground car, we can do. I think. The Army hasn’t been entirely cooperative about our presence here, mostly because of the higher-ups. Captain Roghetti has been fairly good about it. But it’ll take time. Unless you can come up with something better I can commandeer?”
“I am aware of the difficulties of our situation, Commander,” Ia admitted. “Give me a moment to check the timestreams.”
Aside from the pattering of the rain and the crunching of her boots as she walked along the gravel-paved access road leading away from the substation, there was nothing but her voice and his to break the quiet of the night. Off in the far distance, small flashes of orange and reddish light lit up pockets of the horizon, a reminder that this colony world was busy battling a ruthless, hungry enemy. But that was dozens of kilometers away. Turning most of her attention inward, down and around, she flipped her attention onto the timeplains.
Telepathy wasn’t her strongest psychic gift. Precognition was. The local timestreams were just that: a visualization of rivulets and creeks crossing a vast, grassy prairie. Each stream represented a life, and wherever they touched and crossed lay a nexus of interactions rich with possibilities and rife with probabilities.
Dabin—or at least the local corner of this world—was a particularly muddy world, both literally and temporally. There were many things the enemy could do to block them from leaving, and many things they could do to counteract their foe. But there were other enemies, too: arrogance, fear, and apathy among them. Those were doing their own work, clouding the waters, fogging the probabilities. Such factors weakened the overall war effort by eating away at the hearts of the men and women struggling to fight back a strong enemy presence on this heavy-gravitied world.
“. . . Contact Lieutenant Frederich. He has a ground car that can come pick me up. Tell him we’ll swing by the liquor store, my treat, so he can call it an official beer run if his commander asks,” Ia added.
Meyun chuckled. “This from a woman who doesn’t drink.”
“Alcohol ruins my self-control faster than sex,” she quipped back. “But that doesn’t mean I’ll stop others from having fun.”
“Sex and alcohol? Does this mean I get to call it a date when I come pick you up?” he asked, humor still warming his tone.
“He’ll insist on driving the car himself,” Ia warned her second-in-command. “So unless you want the lieutenant to watch . . .? ”
“Shakk that. But I will take a rain check.”
Squinting up at the clouds as the droplets started coming down in greater numbers, Ia sighed. “You would have to mention the ‘R’ word . . . Bring a thermal blanket and some towels so I can dry off on the ride back. I’ll keep my unit active, so you can trace my position. And don’t dawdle, Commander.”
“Aye aye, sir. Harper out.”
Tapping the buttons that would keep a subchannel linked between their units, Ia closed the lid. She kept walking, not having anything better to do. Examining the timestreams as she headed west, Ia peered both upstream into the past as well as downstream into the future. Her stomach rumbled with hunger, threatening to distract her, and the rain only made her thirsty. Electricity from the town’s power grid had fed her in her other form, but it did nothing for her as a matter-based Human.
Ia did her best to ignore those discomforts as there was nothing she could do about them just yet. She had bigger worries than where her next meal was coming from, or when. The Salik had landed here in force, and in person.
Nobody expected a race of flipper-footed aliens from a lightly gravitied planet to want to invade a heavyworld. But Dabin was a mostly warm, M-class planet without too many inimical native life-forms, and none of them sentient beyond the Humans who had claimed it. Dabin was ideal for most oxygen-breathing, carbon-based life-forms to colonize and inhabit once the gravity problem was overcome.
Normally, that took a couple generations of adaptation as people moved from one world to the next, increasing their gravitational endurance generation by generation. The Humans back on her own homeworld, Sanctuary, were still struggling to adapt to its exceptionally high gravity, but Humans had evolved as fairly sturdy creatures. Only the Solaricans and the K’Kattans could match them. The K’Kattans themselves were natural heavyworlders, evolved with a dual endo-exo skeletal system, but even they had to spend a few generations adapting to planets outside their comfort zone.
The Salik had done something similar via the gradually increasing tug of artificial gravity, slowly breeding several generations of their kind in crèches hidden in the black depths of interstitial space. They still couldn’t invade truly heavy-gravitied worlds, but then not every M-class world was as water-rich a prize as Dabin. With low mountains, shallow oceans, and mild winters, the planet was nearly ideal for their amphibious species, very much like their Motherworld, Sallha.
Ia knew through the timestreams of the past that this invasion had been carefully planned for almost 150 Terran years. She also knew through the streams stretching into the future that if the Salik gained the upper hand on this world here, it would take far too long to dislodge them. She needed them pushed off this planet, and pushed off soon, before the worst of the war unfolded.
The colonists did have a few advantages on this planet. Elsewhere, the Salik were using robots to augment their troops in combat. Mostly they were used on various domeworlds, where the vacuum of space or the thin atmospheres outside those self-contained biospheres wouldn’t slow them down for long. But robots, however cleverly programmed, had three weaknesses.
One, they were mechanical, so they were vulnerable to water, weather, and the sucking muds of the wilderness, however well sealed they might be made. Two, destroying them outright or turning them off was far less of an ethical problem for troops than slaying living sentients; colonists rarely hesitated to shoot robots when the two forces were even vaguely close to being equal. And three, they were reprogrammable, either to shut them off en masse, or turn them against their masters.
Humans didn’t use artificially intelligent robots anymore. Not after the mistakes of the AI War . . . and the Salik were beginning to relearn the cost of those mistakes thanks to the Alliance’s counterprogramming efforts. But that was on other worlds. This fight was on Dabin.
For this world, the Salik had bred organic weapons. They liked the thrill of the hunt—needed to hunt, psychologically—and had maintained many of their wilderness areas on their Motherworld with a near-fanatic zeal. The Salik had brought in fast-growing carnivorous vines, hunting beasts that would herd the colonists into easily contained zones . . . even nuisance pests. Those were supposed to inject a narcotic into their victim’s blood to make each colonist and planetary defender sleepy.
They hadn’t worked all that well once the bugs had been released into the field. Apparently, the local leathery-winged avians were thoroughly enjoying them as a special snack, snapping them up faster than they could infect and breed. It was a modest break for the colonists. Ia smiled to herself as she checked a report on that fact in the life-stream of a local xenobiologist. She only skimmed the waters of the man’s life, though, before moving on to the next key checkpoint.
The colonists knew the terrain and were used to dealing with potentially dangerous wildlife. They had various weapons, plenty of ingenuity, and a certain tough, survivalist mind-set on their side. They even had almost four hundred thousand soldiers from the Space Force Army on their side, culled either from Dabin’s own recruits or from colonists from similar heavyworlds. Those troops had been dropped off to protect the planet before the blockade had gone up, preventing the Space Force from bringing in any more.
Unfortunately, four hundred thousand wasn’t nearly enough since those forces were scattered across a colonyworld one and a half times the size of Earth. The Salik had more than twice as many troops, top-quality arms and armaments for all their soldiers, and ships in orbit blockading most sources of outside help. Beyond their systematic pogrom of destroying anything mechanical that took to the skies above a thousand meters, the frogtopus-like aliens had plenty of psychological horror on their side, too. They ate their captives, after all, preferably while still kicking and screaming.
The Humans and handful of other races who had settled on this world for more than a century and a half had the superior numbers, true. Before the war started, Dabin had boasted a population of over 300 million Humans. But this was a Joint Colonyworld, neither fully Terran nor fully V’Dan, one that was still a few decades away from true independence. They were still trying to build up their local military and defense forces, which meant relying upon whatever the Terrans and the V’Dan could spare . . . which wasn’t much, at the moment. The Salik had the superior force multipliers, and were slowly winning the war on this world.
That was why the Damned were here. Something which Ia and her Company would do in the next two months would tip the scales in the Alliance’s favor, but Ia didn’t know what, yet. She had battle plans that would work, but it was something else, something more. Something that required her to personally be here to pull it off. Most days, the timestreams were fairly easy for her to see. Do X, and Y would happen, or do G, and H would follow, depending on which outcome she wanted. Dabin, however, was a nexus. Too many possibilities, with too many tiny little butterfly effects tipping the scales wildly out of balance one way or another. Mainly because there were two Feyori at work here, neither of them yet in faction to—
Ia stopped. Something wasn’t right. She’d turned the correct way when her boots reached the paved road, heading away from the town. She knew she had. Her forces were bivouacked with one of the Companies from the 1st Division 6th Cordon Army, camped halfway to the nearest battle line somewhere several kilometers ahead of her. Salik scouts, if they slipped through the 1st’s lines, would be approaching most likely from ahead. The sense of danger came from behind her.
The road had solar lights embedded in the slightly bouncy plexcrete, forming three parallel, dotted lines that stretched off in either direction. They delineated the driving lanes for ground cars and gave aircars a point of reference for night flying. One of those pale yellow lights a couple hundred meters away winked out for a brief moment. Trailing mental fingers through the waters of her immediate future, Ia bit back a curse. She was being hunted by a not-cat.
That was the best way to describe the beast: not a cat. Not a typical cat by three meters long, with a prehensile, poison-barbed tail, armor-tough scales, long claws, and overly sharp teeth on a jaw that could unhinge itself on a frighteningly wide scale, much like a cobra’s. The only weapons she had with her were her psychic abilities and the crystal bracer encircling her right wrist. The psychic ones were a little underpowered at the moment. It was cold out, she was wet, and she had a long way to go before she could rest, which meant conserving her energy.
Though she had eaten energy in the last couple of days, she hadn’t eaten physically. That made a difference. There were little things she could do. Telepathy, a short spot of telekinesis in a pinch, even a little electrokinetic manipulation. Not much more than that, though. Not until she ate and slept. The attempt at flying through the depths of space Feyori-style had exhausted her, forcing her to call on two of her faction-allies for a lift, which had drained her even more.
She did what she could do, though. Drawing energy from the crysium bracelet, she molded it down out of her sleeve, reshaping it with a couple of practiced thoughts. The biokinetic mineral glowed faintly, forming the slender lines of a swept-hilt schlager. A touch of electrokinesis rehardened the tough mineral, making it radiate a slightly brighter shade of peach-gold. It might have been a few years since she last served in the Marines, but Ia hadn’t neglected her combat training. That included wielding a sword as well as a laser rifle.
That ambient, crystalline glow blurred when she slashed the weapon up, ducking down and to her left at the same moment. She hadn’t seen the not-cat pounce with her eyes, but she wasn’t looking at this battle physically. Her psychic abilities, her battlecognition, had been honed in hand-to-hand combat years ago even if this fight was technically sword-to-claws.
The blade smacked through something, evoking a howling hiss. It was probably expecting a tasty civilian. A soft, frightened colonist. What it got was a Terran Marine who had not stopped her daily weapons drills just because she’d moved on to serve in the Navy as an officer, then into the Special Forces as the captain of her own ship.
It pounced and lashed again. Droplets of rain sprayed outward from the whipping tail. She swirled, swiped, then stabbed, catching it in the shoulder. Her reflexes were dulled a little from exhaustion and hunger. The not-cat’s were slowing from its injuries. Lights appeared in the distance, coming from a trio of ground cars. It wasn’t Harper and Frederich, though; these lights were coming from the direction of the town.
The not-cat attacked again, trying to take advantage of her distraction. Bred for high gravity, it was fast, and slashed at her thigh. Bred for even higher gravity, Ia lopped off its right forepaw. Crysium was not only tough, it was a monocrystal shaped to a monofractally flawless edge. Biological armor wasn’t nearly strong enough to slow the blade down, let alone stop its attack.
Yowl-screeching, the cat hopped back. Its long tail lifted and whipped toward her, barely visible in the night. Ia slashed again, severing the lashing limb based on the probabilities of its incoming position, not on pure sight. The stinger hit her, but not point-first; chopped off, it tumbled, struck her shirt with a splat of warm blood, and fell to the pavement. Torn between the instinct to fight and the sheer instinct for survival as its leg and its now stump of a tail bled, the not-cat hesitated.
The poor thing never had a chance. Ia lunged hard, stabbing it deep in the side, piercing its circulatory organ. Hot breath and angry teeth snapped shut centimeters from her face. Her arm jolted, hilt cracking the creature’s ribs. A touch of overkill, maybe, but she still had to yank the blade out and scramble backwards while it thrashed and snarled and tried to deny it was dead.
Dark blood pooled on the road and coated her blade in a translucent crimson smear. The scaly hide of the shuddering creature glistened in a damp shade of bluish green smeared with deep red when the approaching lead car activated a spotlight, flooding the road with bright white light. Like many of the living creatures found on various worlds, its blood was hemoglobin-based; the floodlight picked out the puddle of it now spreading across the damp road.
Squinting against that bright glow, Ia raised her left arm to protect her eyes from the light and waited. The not-cat slumped, twitched, and lay still. All three cars—trucks—rolled to a stop a few meters from the beast’s body, their engines whisper-quiet. The floodlight cut off, and a voice called out, “. . . Meioa-e, are you alright?”
With her clothes half-plastered to her body from the rain, it wasn’t difficult to guess her gender, hence the feminine suffix on the honorific. Ia nodded, lowering her arm since she didn’t have to protect her eyesight. She couldn’t see the speaker, but she could hear him. “I’m fine, meioa-o. Just one less not-cat for you to have to deal with.”
“What are you doing all the way out here? And who are you, anyway?” the man challenged her, opening the passenger-side door. She could see his silhouette in the light of the other two vehicles as he jumped down. “I don’t recognize you.”
“That’s because I’m not a local. Ship’s Captain Ia, A Company, 9th Cordon Terran Special Forces,” Ia stated, giving the abbreviated introduction. “I just made planetfall, and I’m on my way to connect with my Company. My first officer is trying to scrounge up a ground car to come pick me up, but it’s several klicks to their camp, so I thought I’d start walking. Of course, if you meioas wanted to give me a ride out that way, I’d appreciate it,” she added, gesturing behind her with her free hand.
“You just made planetfall? In shirt and slacks, no kitbag, no sign of a vehicle, or any other means of getting here?” the man asked her skeptically.
He finally moved close enough, she could see his features in the faint glow from the embedded lights in the road: Asiatic like Harper, but with darker brown skin. Like Harper, his ancestors had lived just long enough on Dabin for the generations to breed their way back to a more normal sense of height, leaving his head level with hers. He lifted his chin at her.
“Pull the other leg, meioa. We checked the scanner records,” the colonist added. “Nothing dropped into local airspace but a couple of damned frog ships looking for airborne targets.”
“That’s because I arrived via stealth tech—I’d tell you about it, but I’m under the standard ‘but then I’d have to kill you’ clause, and I’d rather be out killing Salik. Or not-cats, as the case may be.” She started to say more, but her arm unit beeped. “. . . Excuse me, I have to take this.”
Flipping it open, she heard Harper’s voice the moment the link was established. “Captain, we have the vehicle and are on our way, sir. ETA twenty minutes.”
“Acknowledged, Commander. Ia out.”
“What’s a Ship’s Captain doing planet-side?” the colonist asked her next.
“My Company and I specialize in a lot more than just ship-to-ship combat, meioa. We’re here to help break the blockade. With luck, it’ll take a couple weeks. If not, two months tops.” She peered past him at the vehicles. “The energy dip was related to my arrival; I apologize for any inconvenience it may have caused, Meioa Quan. My transport has left the area now, so it won’t happen again.”
He narrowed his eyes, hands going to his hips. “How did you know my name?”
“I’m Special Forces?” she retorted blandly, biting her lower lip subtly to keep from laughing. Civilians would believe just about anything. Saying she was some sort of intelligence guru was easier than explaining she was a precognitive. At least, at this moment in time.
“. . . Right. So, you’re here to beat back the enemy? With you and what army?” he challenged her. “And don’t tell me the Terran Army. They dropped a whole Division on us and haven’t been able to do shova v’shakk against the frogtopods,” he added, spitting on the ground.
“Just myself, and the 160 members of my Special Forces Company. But, then, that’s all I’ll need.” Lifting her sword, she showed him the hemoglobin smeared on the blade. “The V’Dan know me as the Prophet of a Thousand Years. The Terrans call me Bloody Mary. The Salik tried to call me lunch, and I slaughtered them for it single-handedly, in the heart of their own stronghold on Sallha. A little dustup on Dabin with a full Company of the Space Force’s finest versus the Salik isn’t going to be that much harder.
“Now, the faster I meet up with my crew, the faster I’ll get around to getting rid of your little invasion problem. Are you going to give me a lift westward, or not?” she asked.
He snorted, hands going to his hips. “Hardly. Anyone who thinks a mere 160 idiots will be enough to turn the tide of this war is a gods-be-damned fool.”
That was the majority percentile for this encounter, and what Ia expected him to say. Shrugging, she turned back to the west. “Then I guess I’ll have to go for a little walk and prove you wrong in the days to come. Good night, meioas. Drive safely.”
Turning away, she started walking, following the road outlined by the lights of the three vehicles. Someone else called out behind her, “Hey, we just gonna leave ’er here?”
“She’s insane,” their spokesman stated, his words reaching her through the patter of droplets. “Start up the trucks. Let the night and the not-cats have ’er.”
Lights lit up behind her, illuminating the road ahead. Ia turned and squinted, walking backwards in time to see him waiting for the door of the ground truck to slide down out of his way. She could have said more, but Ia decided not to bother. She watched the door rise back up into place, cutting off whatever else he or his companions might have said. Raising her sword in salute as they left, Ia slashed it down, flicking off the not-cat’s blood even as she gave a little bow. The trio of vehicles rolled out and around, pointing back the way they had come. Leaving her in the rain.
Now that those beams weren’t aimed in her direction, her eyes were beginning to readapt to the darkness beyond the trucks’ headlights. Re-forming her sword into a thick bracelet on her right wrist, Ia faced west and picked up into a steady jog, the kind that would eat away at the kilometers between her and Harper’s oncoming car. The kind that would keep her warm, too, as the rain started to fall in earnest now.
At least the local gravity wouldn’t be a problem while she ran; she was used to jogging on a treadmill in her native pull of 3.21Gs, not this modest 1.85.
• • •
The torrent of drops falling from the sky splattered down onto the spark-snapping dome of the camp shield. Ia felt a little sorry for the sentries standing duty beyond the innermost perimeter since just opening the shield long enough to hard-scan their wrist idents had let in more than enough cold, damp air and splatting rain for her tastes. Sentries had ponchos, and the generator kept the rain out of the camp, but it did nothing for the constant, damp chill in the air.
What she wanted was to be warm and dry, preferably clad in clean clothes after a hot shower. What she got was a chilly dash when Harper shooed her out of the car and into the nexus of tents and portable, expandable facility pods that formed the command center for the two joint Companies. The outer two tents they passed through were storage and prep facilities, with gear suited for the mud and the forest around them, but the command center was more electronic than pragmatic at its heart.
That heart was filled with tables, machines, boxes, and bodies. On one side—technically occupying almost three-quarters of the tent—sat the unfamiliar clerks and scanner techs of Captain Luca Roghetti’s Roughriders of the TUPSF Army, clad in russet camouflage colors that were well suited for the local terrain. On the other side, tucked into their allotted little corner, sat a handful of familiar faces from Ia’s bridge-crew rotations.
“Captain on deck!” Harper called out as soon as he wiped the rainwater from his eyes. He grinned at the puzzled looks from Roghetti’s soldiers and chuckled. “Not your captain, meioas. Our captain.”
It wasn’t just the humorous way her first officer announced her presence that warmed Ia down to her bones, it was the widened eyes and broad smiles of relief from the three members of Ia’s Damned as they looked up from their workstations. They didn’t move to greet her since they were technically on duty, but they did flash her smiles and grins. She found herself grinning back as well, an unusual thing for her.
“Sharpe, York, Douglas,” she greeted the trio. “I’m glad to see you made it here alright.”
“I’m glad to see you made it, sir,” Private York offered, relief in his light brown eyes. “We were expecting you hours ago.”
“I had a slight transportation problem,” she dismissed. “Nothing a couple friends couldn’t take care of.”
“The ship, sir?” Private Douglas asked, her gaze flicking to the other side of the room and back.
Equally mindful of the others, Ia touched the fingers of both hands together, then flicked them up and outward, mimicking a silent explosion. Out loud, she said, “Everything went according to plan and on schedule . . . except for my little post-party transportation snafu. But I’m here now, and here in time to do some good. As you were, gentlemeioas. Eyes to your boards, thoughts on your tasks.”
“Aye aye, sir.” Douglas nodded, returning her gaze to her screens. She wasn’t monitoring ship functions since they had no more ship. From the looks of things, she was instead monitoring the battlefront perimeter, located about twenty kilometers to the north and west.
Ia looked back over at the comm tech. “Private York, how soon can you get me Admiral Genibes?”
“Ahh . . . it might take a while. And this comm system is not secure, sir. Not like it was on the ship,” he warned her. “We’re on a portable lightwave relay here at the camp. It links to the main hyperrelay hub in Gonzalah, which is the nearest big city. From there . . . it’s three, four hub jumps before it gets anywhere near Earth. If the Salik take out another of those hubs between here and Earth, or if they find and smash through the local one planet-side, it’ll be five or six links, assuming they can retune the transmitters well enough to get a signal picked up by one of the other relay centers. I’m sorry about that, sir,” he apologized, “but there is no way we can get a direct secured line from here.”
“Understood. We’ll have that fixed soon enough. Raise the Admiral anyway,” she ordered. “Use the gamma-level code from the Company bible so Genibes knows it’s not secure.”
A new figure stepped through the drapes covering one of the doorways into the command hub. Apparently, Roghetti’s crew had summoned their CO, given the twin silver bars gleaming on his collar points and the front of his soft cap. He didn’t waste any time in spotting and approaching her. “You must be Ship’s Captain Ia.”
“That I am, Captain Roghetti,” Ia greeted him, turning away from her crew. He saluted her first, since she technically outranked him even if they weren’t in the same Service Branch. Returning it, Ia dropped her arm, then flicked her fingers at her rumpled clothes. “I just arrived the hard way, so you’ll have to forgive me for my lack of formal Dress Grays.”
“This is a combat command. We don’t ‘do’ formality,” he dismissed, and gestured at her solid gray dress shirt and black-striped gray pants, a plain contrast to his mottled camouflage, dyed in reddish, brownish, and yellowish hues that matched the local foliage. “That outfit’s more formal than things will ever get around here, unless and until we can get the damned frogtopi off-planet.
“Speaking of which,” Roghetti added, glancing at his comm techs briefly, “we heard down the line about an hour ago that the frogs shot up two more ships poking their noses into this system in the last twenty hours Standard, but that was about a thousand klicks from here. Blew them to bits, too, according to the passive lightwave scans. Your lieutenant commander, here, swore you’d make it through,” he added, lifting his chin at the Asiatic man at her side. “He even tried to bet on it. I’ll admit I had my doubts. I’m pleased to see I was wrong.”
Harper smirked. “If you’d taken me up on that bet, you’d owe me a hundred creds since she clearly made it.”
“Good thing I’m not into gambling, then, or I’d be out of Leave money. Or rather, bail money. Brigadier General Mattox doesn’t have a sense of humor when it comes to Fatality Forty-Nine and ‘Fraternizing’ by laying bets,” he quipped darkly. Then muttered, “Or so-called ‘rash’ battle plans, or using vehicles for ‘unauthorized activities’ or other shakk like that.”
“I’m already aware of the general’s . . . viewpoints,” Ia replied dryly. Diplomatically.
“I take it Harper’s been giving you an earful since his arrival?” Roghetti asked, lifting his brows. “I wasn’t aware of any extra calls going out.”
“No, Captain Roghetti, I wasn’t in contact with her,” Harper said, hands clasped behind his back. “As I explained, Ship’s Captain Ia is a high-ranked precognitive, among other things. I’m confident she has already foreseen the many difficulties of our current situation.”
“Such as the fact that the Salik are thoroughly enjoying the heavy rain out there, if not the cold. They’ll be attacking within the hour,” Ia told him. “It’ll be mostly potshots in our direction, but you should pass word down to D and C Companies in your Legion to evacuate their biggest tents and get all their vehicles moved to rearward cover. The more their people scatter, the fewer casualties they’ll take. Suggest moving things around.”
Roghetti narrowed his eyes. He studied her a long moment, then turned his head slightly. “. . . Corporal Sung, send word down the line to D and C to watch for an air raid on all vehicles and large structures.”
“Sir, yes, sir,” the corporal replied, bending to that task.
Lifting his chin at Harper, Roghetti addressed Ia. “Your second-in-command, there, isn’t the only one who’s mentioned your precognitive abilities, Captain. Your Company has been giving mine an earful while they’ve been waiting. I didn’t know what to make of being asked to set up extra barracks tents, stockpile extra weapons, ammunitions, various supplies . . . or the hundred mechsuits your people showed up wearing. Mechsuits don’t work well on this mudball; they sink in with every step. And I don’t know what to make of them claiming you’re some long-foretold V’Dan prophet.”
He shook his head. Ia stayed silent, waiting for him to finish what he had to say. Eyes unfocused as he stared across the command tent, he thought a moment, then spoke.
“But to have 160 soldiers show up and know exactly where everything is in the camp, to hear your officers address my men and women by name when we’ve never met, to advise my scouts where to catch Salik infiltrations and what to look out for when on patrol, and then they simply tell me it’s because you knew all of that in advance and told them what to do? That’s earned a little leeway in my trust . . . but only a little,” he allowed, meeting her gaze. “Don’t abuse it, sir.”
“I’ll try not to, Captain,” Ia said. “I make no promises, other than that I’m here to help you kick the Salik off-world.”
Someone else entered the tent, bringing a gust of cold, damp air. The man approached Captain Roghetti and started discussing some matter concerning the camp with him. Shivering, Ia reviewed the immediate future. She pinched the bridge of her nose and focused through her exhaustion and hunger. Finally, she nodded. “Harper, get me your arm unit.”
He held out his left arm to her. Touching it, she sent it a jolt of electrokinetic programming. He lowered his arm when she was done, giving her a curious look. “I take it these are my orders, sir?”
“Carry ’em out, Commander. I’m going to go have a hot shower, a change of clothes, and a meal before those potshots come our way. Right after I speak with—” Ia broke off as York called out her name. She smiled wryly at Harper. “With my superiors. On an empty stomach and low reserves.”
Harper clasped her shoulder, his hand sharing its warmth through the damp fabric of her dress shirt. He didn’t let it linger, though; he knew all too well why she didn’t like people touching her for long. Squeezing and releasing, he nodded at Private York’s workstation. “Go get ’em, sir.”
Returning to York’s side, she braced her hands on the back of his folding chair and leaned over his shoulder, gazing into the pickups. “Patch me through, Private.”
He nodded at the commscreen on his left as well as the center one. “We’re receiving two pings, sir. The first one’s from Admiral Genibes, but the Admiral-General’s also on the line. Either way, it’s an eight-second delay one way, sixteen seconds round-trip, thanks to all the rerouting. Who do you want first, sir?”
“Patch it for a three-way conference,” Ia ordered.
“. . . Did you just say ‘Admiral-General’?” Roghetti asked, moving closer to the two of them. He straightened abruptly into Attention at the sight of the graying-haired, Asiatic Human on the left side of York’s primary screen, her brown eyes sharp and searching. On the right side, the less-well-known, mostly brown-haired and hazel-eyed face of Admiral John Genibes appeared, his nose long and sharp compared to her flatter one, his skin a few shades lighter, his face more rectangular than hers.
“Admiral-General Myang, Admiral Genibes,” Ia greeted them, speaking right away. “I apologize for my delay in reporting in, but I had some transportation difficulties following the destruction of TUPSF Hellfire. Suffice to say, my—” She cut herself off as the link from Earth caught up with her.
“Captain Ia, I gave you that ship in the understanding that you would use it continually to fight our enemies,” Admiral-General Myang stated. “While I understand the need for you to keep it out of enemy hands, and to—shova v’shakking damned time lags,” Myang muttered, just as Genibes spoke.
“I’m glad to see you made it out alive—Sorry, sir,” he added, shifting his gaze slightly to one side and nodding. “You first, Admiral-General.”
“It’s an eight-second delay,” Ia warned both of them. “I’ll remind you the Salik are determined to take over Dabin as a new colonyworld. I need to kick every last one of them off-planet. They want to establish a foothold, and as I told you, this must not happen.”
Myang frowned. She looked older than when Ia had first met her in person, bartering to gain the Hellfire as her ship. Back then, her hair had been mostly black, with a few streaks of gray. Now it was mostly gray, with a bit of lingering black. The Admiral-General had 2 billion soldiers to keep track of in a nasty war against a well-prepared foe, and it showed.
“I gave you that ship, Captain, in the understanding that you would use it to our best possible advantage,” she stated sternly. “You did warn me it would need to be destroyed when you switched helms, and I agreed that it was too great a danger to let it fall into anyone else’s hands, but I was hoping we could actually mothball it. As it is, the Damnation is still not yet ready for service, and I need you at its helm.
“Or rather, I need you at the helm of the Hellfire right now. You proved that with your adroit management of the Hellfire’s weaponry, and its little ‘overshoot’ problem. You owe me the fighting power you’ve squandered with the premature loss of that ship, Captain,” she told Ia. “I was hoping you’d use it right up to the point where you’d transfer to the upgrade.”
“I am aware of that, sir. The timing demanded otherwise . . . which is why my crew and I are here on Dabin,” Ia replied, dipping her head in acknowledgment. “The war isn’t going well on this battlefront. It’s . . . cloudy . . . but something isn’t going well, and it’s going to get worse. I have less than two months to turn it all around and save these people. The things my crew and I can do will turn the tide for this world and save the majority of these colonists’ lives. You need that a lot more than you need our firepower out there right now. My Prophetic Stamp on that.
“As for the destruction of my ship, I may have lost you the main cannon when it was destroyed,” she acknowledged, “but in the same move, I gained us 1,658 Feyori factioned to my side, which means they’ll be on our side when the Alliance needs them most. I trust you’ll count that as a bonus on that long ledger of all the things I owe you, sir?”
Behind her, Roghetti choked. Ia didn’t even glance at him. He wasn’t a security concern in her eyes, nor were the on-duty members of his surveillance crew. This wasn’t a secured channel—by its very nature, lightwave couldn’t ever be completely secure, however heavily encrypted—but neither was it being monitored by the Salik. At least, not immediately. She knew they’d send ships outsystem to look for lightwave records of her arrival, once the Salik realized she was now on Dabin.
Ia continued lightly, letting her tone speak silent volumes on Roghetti’s trustworthiness in the way she ignored him for the moment. “Of course, I will also need to multiply that number by a factor of fifteen to twenty. Their help will be necessary when it comes time to save the rest of the Alliance from the Salik’s worst attack, which is yet to come. But as much as I want to tell you more about that, sirs, this is not a secure line or location,” Ia stated. “I’ll happily explain in more detail once we’re aboard the Damnation and can lock on with a direct link through hyperspace. Until then, I’ll do my best to win back Dabin for you.”
“And, what, I’m supposed to just sit here for the next two months?” Myang retorted.
“Well, I don’t expect the Admiral-General of the Terran Space Force to just twiddle her thumbs,” Ia returned lightly. “You have all those other battles to plan for. My crew and I will catch up in due time, as I outlined on the last set of data files I sent to you.”
Apparently thinking it would be a good moment to distract both strong-willed women, Genibes lifted his chin. “Captain Ia, who’s that behind you?”
“Admiral-General Christine Myang, Admiral John Genibes, meet Captain Luca Roghetti, 1st Division 6th Cordon Army,” Ia introduced, giving them the short version. “Admiral Genibes knows I arranged to have his Company babysit mine while I was still en route this world.”
Roghetti nodded, still standing At Attention behind her. “Sirs! It is an honor to meet you, sirs.”