Read an Excerpt
hated them, they were beautiful. Even since every trouble, every pain,
had come from the heavens, and though he was floating among them
now because of the life they had spawned, he still felt his heart soften
as he looked at them. As it did, the stars mocked him; they seemed to
be eternal. To his human eye, they seemed unchanging. Something so
pointless as a star, unchanging! While over the past four years since he
had been pulled into the Great War with the Loiju, the war that had
spanned hundreds of thousands of years, he had changed from a
sobbing, whimpering little boy, to a raging freedom fighter, battling
with both blade and gun, with both mind and body, to a pool of sadness,
to a cold, manipulating little calculator of a boy. Finally, in recent
months, he had learned to blend his many faces into one that changed
and shifted as time passed. During battle, the fury arose, but it was
always held in check with his aloof, analyzing brain. Sometimes he
could even become a normal, joking boy, though even when he had
been normal, he was no good at joking.
Adaptation. That�s what it was. And he had finally realized its value.
He felt a deep loyalty to his friends and his world, though the bonds
were beginning to tear. He was fourteen in this universe, and already
an influential military commander. Some said the most powerful human
in the Galaxy. The person most key to human freedom, human survival.
He had also experienced more trauma than most humans felt in a
lifetime, and it was ripping away the thing he treasured most: his mind.
His name, now, four years after the beginning of his own personal
war with the Loiju, was Shaun the Hunter. And he watched the stars.
For the stars were unchanging.
He rubbed his hand across the back of his neck. There would be a battle tomorrow, and it was evening now. He would have to get some sleep.
Cassie�s fingers tapped the keys, and a faint smile crossed her lips
as she sifted through her family�s e-mail. There was a picture of her
sister there. A wave of homesickness washed over the fourteen-year-old
girl. Her sister�s eighth birthday. She was getting big. Cassie hadn�t
seen her except in pictures since the week before her little sister had
The soft smile never leaving her lips, the sadness never leaving her
eyes, Cassie wondered what the girl was like now. Wondered if she
was okay. She didn�t have a big sister to whisper with in the dark, or to
stick up for her. She didn�t have a big sister at all. At least, not as far as
But she was safer now than she ever was with just Cassie around.
Because of the power Shaun�s crew had gained, none of their families
were in any danger of becoming enslaved by the Loiju. No harm would
come to Cassie�s sister; she had seven guardian angels watching from
space and a thousand child soldier-spies watching from the ground.
Cassie stuck the tiny, circular heart monitor to her jugular vein. Its
adhesive skin clung to her, and she clicked a few icons on the
holographic display, linking the e-mail and the heart monitor. If she
was killed tomorrow, the story of the last four years of her life would
be e-mailed to her parents.
Slowly, as she stared at the tabletop, she became lost in her thoughts.
Pain, after all, was her new way of life. And pain invites plenty of time
Sweat glistened off Cory�s body, his broadsword sliced through the
air, and the spaceship called Earthhope sliced through space. He spun,
and he slashed, and he thrust, and he drilled into his body the patterns of death. Like lightening, his leg snapped out in a kick, but he was back in his stance a split second later, as his blade fired out toward an invisible enemy.
He was just over nineteen. So? He could kill. And killing was all that he needed to do.
�I am here,� the voice said simply.
Cory stopped his drills, and chest heaving, he turned towards the
doorway. In it stood a man, nearly seven feet tall. A loose jumpsuit
clothed him, and his right hand clutched a double headed axe, a small
spike on top and two wickedly curved, half-moon blades on either
Cory groaned. �Why do you always wait until I�m tired to show
your face, Secor? You can beat me anyways. You are Aknon, the elite
of the Grukan military, you know.�
Secor shrugged and stepped forward. His figure blurred, and Cory�s
gleaming broadsword met the black composite of Secor�s axe. They
clanged off each other, and the two were whirling, dancing with blades.
Four years ago, Cory might have laughed at that. A teenager and a
twenty-something man trying to hit each other with sharp things. Tyler
still would; he had just read The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R.
Tolkein, and joked nearly constantly about one part where two wizards
fought. He said Tolkein made it sound so dramatic, but if you thought
about it, it was just a couple of old farts hitting each other with sticks.
Four times, Secor�s axe tapped Cory�s body, twice drawing blood,
but the boy just pressed forward. The fifth time, they broke apart, and
their fight was ended.
Cory gasped for air. A small sheen of sweat gleamed on Secor�s
�Without blades, then?� Cory swallowed.
Secor shrugged and set down his axe. Cory followed in suit, and
this time it was he who made the first move.
With the invention of personal shields, mortal combat was all that
was effective any longer. Oh, there was the rare handgun that was
powerful enough to completely obliterate a shielded organism, but� a handgun simply wasn�t effective in close quarters.
And no human had ever held one of those.
Nate struggled, grasping for something he couldn�t quite touch. It
was as though he had all the equipment to see; he just needed to open
his eyes. There was some sense out there, a sixth sense, and he knew
he could touch it in this universe because he could feel it; because he
had touched it once here. He just for the life of him could not figure
He, too, was fourteen years old, and like Shaun, felt something that
he classified as insanity. But unlike Shaun, his feeling was quite sane.
Hyndle piloted, at least for now. At least for these two hours, and
the next. Someone had to fly the sixty-foot tall warship that was longer
than a football field. Especially when that football field led a battalion
of other warships, some almost a mile long, some half the size of
Earthhope, all carrying fighters. And weapons. And killing power.
What could be more important than killing power?
Hyndle was thirty-eight, an Aknon Warrior like Secor. He was only
about half a foot shorter than the other Aknon, but he lacked the litheness
of his friend. Instead, Hyndle was thick and bulky, his muscles, ropelike
rather than corded like Secor�s, completely filling the jumpsuit. Thirty-eight.
Few would believe that. The modifications undertaken by all
Aknon at graduation from Ground School cut the aging process in
half. Physically, Hyndle wasn�t past twenty.
He ran a block-like hand through his short, blonde hair and stood
from where he had been sitting on the floor, scanned the controls, flicked
through the various gauges and such shown on the touch sensitive
multifunction screens that nearly covered the cockpit.
�Ah-HAH, Hyndle, beat you again. You may be a god with a gun,
and an army with your war hammer, and you may be one hell of a fighter pilot, and a million other things about war, but you just cannot play Speed! Three times in a row, that�s how many times you�ve lost. That�s just sad,� said the boy sitting on the floor.
�We�ll play again, then, Tyler,� the Aknon replied.
Tyler grinned. �And I�ll beat you again! You just watch.�
Hyndle dropped to a crouch, then sat cross-legged on the floor as Tyler rebooted the game.
When the screen showed the two lines of cards, the two held their
hands poised over their pile. They flipped them.
A queen and a six.
Tyler tapped his five, then the six, and the six became a five. Five,
six, five, four� he turned to the other pile.
Hyndle had a jack on it.
Queen, king, ace, king.
Tyler laughed. �You just can�t do this, can you?�
Hyndle raised his eyebrows and they flipped the next cards.
This time Tyler got a single card in. Hyndle got six.
�Chance. This is a game of chance, Hyndle, and there�s such a thing
as a fluke.�
Hyndle won that game.
And then a transmission came in.
�Why aren�t you here? They�ve got us. Where are you?! Our locators
pick you up near the Xijin home world. It must be wrong. It has to be.�
we�re on the wrong side of the Galaxy.�
The man sagged. �It�s true, then.�
�I�m going to get you out.�
�Three days. If you can last three days, I�ll save you.�
The man swallowed, face pale. �You can�t get here in three days. And we won�t last two more hours.�
Shaun Hunter clenched his jaw. �Three days!� And he severed the
The six Earthhopes standing just outside the open door to the cockpit
waited silently for commands.