The rival Thelicosan fleet, under the influence of bad intelligence, a forbidden romance, and a communication officer with an eardrum injury, is about to break a two-hundred-year-old nonaggression pact. They have offered a vague, easily misinterpreted message: “We’re invading.” Rogers isn’t sure, but he thinks that’s probably bad.
War is hell, especially when you’ve forgotten how to fight one.
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Alandra Keffoule’s heel whistled through the air before cracking into the side of the wooden training dummy, sending splinters raining to the floor all around her. The sound was satisfying, calming, soothing. With everything going on at that moment, she could have used any small measure of peace, or at least a couple of differential equations to solve. That always put her mind at ease.
It was no use, though. Not this time. Alandra was far too anxious. She’d read the intelligence reports so many times she could see the words floating around in her mind’s eye like pieces of a great puzzle. Even the tiniest recollection of what they contained brought a tingle of excitement with it for more than one reason. The ratio. The ratio.
The training room, empty except for her and a couple of disfigured training dummies, seemed to pulsate with excitement, mirroring the tightly bottled emotions she kept inside. This was one of seven hand-to-hand combat training rooms available on the Thelicosan ship Limiter, but she knew almost all of them were unoccupied. In the Thelicosan heyday, these rooms would have been filled with sweat-drenched Thelicosan warriors, frantically shaving away the dummies with kicks and punches as they rhythmically recited multiplication tables. It wasn’t so much an important part of their training regimen as it was the only way the mess halls got their toothpicks. The Thelicosan Council had some pretty unique restrictions on what it would send to deployed troops.
Now, however, the training rooms were about as empty as she had felt ever since she’d assumed command of the Colliders, the Thelicosan border fleet. But all that was going to change soon.
Crack. Another fresh batch of toothpicks scattered to the floor, courtesy of Alandra’s famous spinning back kick. A tendril of pain worked its way up the hamstring and across the small of her back, and she grimaced. Speaking of heydays, Alandra often felt like she was long past hers. If it hadn’t been for that battle injury, she’d still be in the F Sequence. They’d still call her the Tangential Tornado. She’d still be worth something.
Alandra shook the thoughts away, memories of them sewing the big zero on her uniform shattering like a wooden training dummy turning into toothpicks. Those days were behind her; Grand Marshal Alandra Keffoule was above brooding over the past like a child. Now was the time to focus on the future.
The intelligence reports came to her mind again, the detailed descriptions of the Meridan dilemma playing out like a theatrical experience. You could learn a lot about someone from intelligence reports; she’d spent almost all of her special operations career perusing dossiers chock-full of intelligence in order to get to know a target. But she’d never faced a target like this.
One point six one, she thought. It’s impossible.
So wrapped up in her reverie was she that she barely noticed Secretary Vilia Quinn storming into the room and storming over to her. Quinn’s version of storming was walking slightly more quickly than normal, but Alandra knew the signs that the bureaucrat was upset. Quinn was unlike Alandra in almost every way; her skin pale where Alandra’s was dark, her features hard and angular where Alandra’s were soft, her wits slow where Alandra’s were quick and deadly. And unlike electrostatic physics, in this case opposites did not attract.
“I finally found you,” Quinn said, even her voice measured and expressionless. When Alandra looked at her with her typical flat stare, Quinn narrowed her eyes. “Well? Don’t you have anything to say for yourself?”
Alandra looked at her as calmly as she could manage. Despite her total lack of personality, Secretary Quinn had a knack for making Alandra live on the very edge of self-control.
“Nothing I haven’t said already, Quinn, and I do hate repeating myself. You were in the briefing.”
In truth, Quinn hadn’t been in most of the briefing because Alandra hadn’t invited her. Afterward, Alandra had slipped away before the annoying civilian could ask any questions.
Quinn narrowed her icy blue eyes further, to the point where she actually looked like she might be sleeping. Alandra thought she had probably been pretty in her younger days, if she had ever worn anything other than loose-fitting pantsuits that went out of style back on Mars before the solar system collapsed. The bun she wore her hair in was so perfect, so unchanging, that Alandra had heard many whispers that Quinn was bald and wearing a wig. She’d also heard whispers that Quinn’s bun was some sort of secret weapon, but that just seemed absurd. Quinn couldn’t fight anything other than paperwork.
“I’m talking about flinging billions of credits’ worth of armed Thelicosan government property into Galactic space,” Quinn said, edging closer. “I can’t even begin to quote how many Thelicosan military statutes you’ve violated, not to mention endangering the Two Hundred Years (And Counting) Peace and the lives of everyone in the fleet.”
Alandra let Quinn go on. Quinn might have worked her way through the Thelicosan government over the last fifteen years, but ever since she’d been assigned as Council ambassador to Alandra’s fleet she’d been nothing but a thorn in her side. What Alandra wouldn’t give to treat Quinn to one of her famous spinning back kicks . . . but corporal discipline was only acceptable for military personnel, which Quinn was not.
“Once again,” Alandra said, cutting Quinn off in the middle of her nonsensical and ill-informed rant, “I’ll remind you that while they might have thought you quite the genius in the Schvink local office, you don’t know anything about military tactics. There was a clear and present danger to Thelicosan sovereignty, according to the reports transmitted by the late Mr. McSchmidt.”
Quinn’s eyes opened wide this time. “What in the name of Science are you talking about? Is that what the briefing was about?” The secretary had arrived too late for the initial details. “A clear and present danger? Those reports said their fleet was in total chaos. What threat could the Galactics possibly pose to our sovereignty?”
“Oh please,” Alandra said. “The Pythagorean WarI was centuries ago; call them Meridans, already.”
“Excuse me for adhering to the foreign policy standards of my government,” Quinn said, glaring. “Did you even send a message back to the Central Council? Did they approve this action via a report submitted through the Action Committee and then validated by a two-thirds vote before being routed back to the Military Affairs Committee?”
For a response, Alandra created a few more toothpicks.
Quinn gaped. “They didn’t, did they? You’re acting completely on your own!” She paused for a moment. “I’ll bet you didn’t even complete Section One Point Four in its entirety. It says clearly in box one that you are to—”
“I am not acting alone,” Alandra said. “Commodore Zergan and I talked this over very thoroughly and reviewed the intelligence with our top analysts before making a decision. We felt very strongly that, despite the Council’s admonition, it was clear they didn’t understand the situation at hand. That is why we are conducting a show of force. Intelligence shows that we would easily be able to overwhelm the Meridans, and a simple posturing by our forces would inspire them to negotiate.”
A small measure of confusion passed across Quinn’s face. She looked down at a datapad she’d been holding and shook her head in what might have been disbelief.
“Negotiation? Who said anything about negotiation? You’re declaring war!”
Alandra stopped kicking the dummy and turned fully to Quinn, a tiny bubble of anxiety rising to the surface of her mind. Why would she want to start a war? A war—at least one initiated by her—would achieve the exact opposite of her aims.
“What are you talking about?” she said, trying to keep her tone neutral.
“Are you that dense that you can’t even remember your own orders? Commodore Zergan”—Quinn spat the man’s name like a curse—“just showed me the message you sent after we popped out of Un-Space in the middle of ‘Meridan’ territory.”
Striding forward, Alandra snatched the datapad out of Quinn’s hands. “Let me see that,” she barked.
Underneath a complicated chain of directional commands and routing information, there were only two words on the datapad.
“‘We’re invading’” Alandra said out loud. “‘We’re invading.’ That’s the message they sent?”
Quinn stared for a moment. “That’s not the message you told them to send?”
Without answering, Alandra shoved the datapad back into Quinn’s frail, girlish arms, getting at least the satisfaction of making her stumble even if she couldn’t kick her in the face, and stormed out of the room.
The training room opened into a high-ceilinged, octagonal pod of deep metallic gray, six other doors leading to the other training rooms. To her surprise, some troops were filing into one of them, dressed in their loose-fitting PT uniforms and looking excited. One of them caught sight of her and gave her a two-fingered salute, his fingertips pointed down to make his hand a rough approximation of the symbol for pi.
Alandra nodded, not wanting to show her surprise at anyone actually doing combat training, and returned the salute. Instead of asking the troops what they were doing—to be an effective leader, it was important to always project power and almost never ask any questions—she turned to where her personal assistant waited by her Chariot, a highly advanced hovering platform with the capability to zip through the Limiter’s tube transportation system.
Stepping onto the platform, she hoped her face wasn’t showing any of the mess of excitement and worry that was quickly building up inside.
“Xan,” she said softly. “What are they doing?”
Xan Tiu, her personal assistant and possibly the only man on the ship other than Zergan she truly trusted to be competent, looked expressionlessly over at the soldiers and gave an almost imperceptible shrug. His pale face, stretched long by years of secretary work and the fact that he wore ceremonial Newtonian face-weights attached to his cheeks, slowly swung back to Alandra.
“Preparing for war,” Xan said. “Though I may be misinterpreting. They did all run in screaming ‘We’re going to war, we’re going to war.’”
Alandra clenched her teeth and grabbed on to the handrails of the Chariot. “Bridge. Now.”
“Yes, Grand Marshal.” Xan took the controls of the Chariot and smoothly jumped into the Chariot lane. The personal transportation system was only accessible to commanders and higher-ranking officials on the Limiter; the rest of the personnel had to use a complicated system of elevators and walkways that made moving about the Limiter a bit of a chore. Alandra’s ship was one of the older ones in the Thelicosan fleet, and the transportation system was just one of the ways it showed.
They entered one of the Circus Tubes, thin, opaque passageways meant specifically for Chariots, and Xan hit the accelerator. Soon they were coursing through the veins of the Limiter like a red blood cell. Xan, as usual, remained quiet, which gave Alandra a good opportunity to figure out what she was going to do when she got to the bridge. Whoever had screwed up the message could have just ruined everything.
By the time they arrived at the bridge, Alandra still had no idea what she was going to do. That flustered her more than anything, and being flustered flustered her even more. She wasn’t used to being flustered. She wasn’t used to making mistakes.
You didn’t make a mistake, she thought. Someone else made a mistake. You’re not to blame. You can deal with this.
She was a descendant of the most powerful, rugged, and vicious scientists ever to rove the old solar system. Thelicosan pride demanded that she approach this using the scientific method, and that began with asking a question and making observations. It wouldn’t do to panic before she’d even developed a hypothesis.
Right now, however, she was hypothesizing that she would panic.
But she had no more time to think. The Chariot slowed as it reached the exit point of the Circus Tube, and it was time to face her troops. Xan reached out and punched in the code to get to the bridge, and the circular door spun outward as the Chariot automatically went through its docking procedure.
Still dressed in her sweats, Alandra did her best to make herself look professional and authoritative, which was difficult after a workout. Her muscular, olive-skinned arms poked out of the loose-fitting standard-issue Thelicosan PT uniform, cut too big for her form. She set her shoulders back, making herself look as big and serious as a short woman with insanely curly and sweaty hair could.
The bridge of the Limiter, situated on the top of the ship, was encapsulated in a spherical bulb suspended by a series of metallic structures and elevator shafts that connected the command post to the rest of the ship. An interesting system, but another way the Limiter showed its age. In the wars preceding the Two Hundred Years (And Counting) Peace, a common tactic was to simply ram something into the support structure of the bridge, disconnecting it from the rest of the ship. Newer command ships had abandoned the ridiculous design for something that was a bit more functional and had a lesser propensity to launch the command crew into space.
The view from the old bridge structure, however, couldn’t be beat. It was far enough above the rest of the ship that it gave a clear panorama of the Limiter in all its glory and allowed anyone on the bridge to see some of the other ships in the Colliders as well. It might not be the Thelicosan heyday anymore, but the sight of all that metal in outer space still gave Alandra goose bumps.
This time, however, the thing giving her goose bumps had nothing to do with her own fleet. Inside visual range was the Meridan 331st ATBG. Rogers’ fleet. Captain Rogers’ fleet. Looking at the 331st, however, she couldn’t help but notice that their typical rainbow-like defensive formation had been scattered a bit. The ships looked almost like they were floating aimlessly in space, but that didn’t hinder her ability to ascertain their strength. By count, Alandra’s fleet was exactly 1.61 percent larger than Rogers’. That thought almost made her melt.
When her deputy, Commodore Zergan, saw her enter, he turned and offered a sharp pi-shaped salute.
“As the Grand Marshal approaches!” Commodore Zergan shouted.
“The Limiter is limitless!” answered the rest of the personnel on the bridge.
Alandra’s stomach sank as she heard the ceremonial call and response. She could feel in the air that her worst fears had been realized. The shout had an electric excitement behind it, the kind of giddy tension that only the scent of battle could create. Not a good sign.
“Everyone carry on,” she said as the Chariot automatically docked with the command platform in the center, a high-backed chair rising out of a hatch in the floor. She settled into it like a proton finding an electron.
Commodore Edris Zergan sat on his own small circular platform looking like the cock of the walk. The grin on his square, flat face was almost intolerably arrogant as he looked at her, his smoky brown eyes set below two eyebrows so bushy they belonged on a puppet. Other people might find him awkward-looking, but after working with him for so long, Alandra couldn’t help but find his appearance strangely endearing—not a term she used for just anyone.
Calm, Alandra thought. Easy. You are in control. Do not show fear.
She extended a finger and beckoned Zergan to attend her. His grin widened and he made the short trip over to her command platform.
“Grand Marshal,” he said, “this is a glorious day for Thelicosa. The Tangential Tornado, leading us back into Galactic dominance!” He laughed, then leaned in to speak a bit more quietly. “I’m glad you saw things a little more my way. I thought you’d gone soft.”
By “my way,” Zergan was likely referring to his own overly aggressive plan for countering the Meridan threat. The moment he’d heard there was even an inkling of trouble, Zergan was ready to call the entire Thelicosan Navy down on the 331st and crush them to dust—but Zergan had always been like that. Even when they’d been in the F Sequence together, he’d been the first one to kick down the door or divide by zero.
In secret talks, Alandra and Zergan had reached a consensus on a nonaggressive course of action. In truth, Zergan had persuaded Alandra to act, even though, as Quinn had suggested, the intelligence hadn’t been very firm. Or very coherent. Mr. McSchmidt—may his equation be forever balanced—had been a terrible spy, despite the fact that he’d given Alandra a lovely window through which to view Captain Rogers.
Alandra didn’t respond directly. She looked around the bridge for the young communications officer she’d assigned to send the message when they’d exited Un-Space. He sat at his station, his cheek and temple bruised from the last time he’d disappointed her, and looked back at her nervously.
“You,” she said, pointing at him when she caught his eye. “Leftennant Faraz. Here. Now.”
The leftennant came with enthusiastic alacrity. At least, he did after Alandra shouted his name three more times. What was wrong with him? She’d only kicked him in the head once. He’d only disappointed her once.
“Yes, Grand Marshal?”
“Can you repeat back to me the words I asked you to send to the commander of the Meridan fleet?”
Faraz looked at her sideways for a moment, his bottom lip trembling a little bit. Any small amount of military bearing he was maintaining was belied by the hunch in his back and the way he shuffled his feet. And the fact that he was quietly sobbing.
“Ma’am,” he said, “I don’t understand how you want me to feed the birds some random feet.”
Alandra’s eyes narrowed, her voice growing louder. “I told you to repeat the words I asked you to send to the commander of the Meridan fleet!”
Faraz, in a gesture that Alandra found very disrespectful, turned his face partially away from her, hiding the bruised portion. Maybe he thought it would only remind her of his previous failures. For some reason, he was nodding now.
“Oh, yes, ma’am,” he said, his head moving almost spasmodically. “Absolutely. I can. You told me to tell them ‘we’re invading.’ And that’s what I said, ma’am. I said it exactly like you said. Just like you said to say it. I said it.” He swallowed, then tilted his head, squinting. “What is that ringing? Do you hear ringing? I’ve been picking up my datapad all day, but nobody is on the other end. I think someone is prank-calling me.”
Alandra took a deep breath. She let it out slowly, making a sound like a snake, hissing through her teeth. Her hands trembled as they clutched the armrests of her commander’s chair.
Then she sprang up and started shouting instructions.
“Call back the Strikers,” she barked. “Tell all the Battle Spiders to start an immediate weapons cooldown procedure.”
“But Grand Marshal,” Zergan said, his face confused. “What are you doing? You can’t just tell the Battle Spiders to fire and then pull out at the last second. It ruins the their attack coils.” He grimaced. “I hear it’s also very painful.”
“If they have to discharge, have them discharge into empty space,” Alandra said with a wave of her hand. “Get the fighter screen back into patrol position.”
Leftennant Faraz was slowly slinking away.
“You!” Alandra said, making sure she was loud enough to be heard and understood. “Stay where you are.”
He started sobbing again, which was really starting to annoy her. Communications officers didn’t sob. Thelicosans didn’t sob. They were tough, relentless, resilient descendants of the hardened scientists who had been the first to colonize the rough, unforgiving terrain of old Mars. If you made a mistake, you acknowledged it, internalized it, then took the punishment and moved on. Then you made sure never to make another one or you would get kicked in the face by Alandra.
“I want radio silence immediately!” she shouted. “Set up a wide-frequency jamming net. No communications are authorized unless they go through me.”
“That’s already been done, Grand Marshal,” Zergan said, some of his confusion fading into pride. “I gave the order as soon as we came out of Un-Space. The Strikers took out some of their comm relays, and the jamming equipment will do the rest.”
So shots had already been fired. Alandra was too late. Still, she could salvage this, somehow. Or at least prevent it from getting any worse. Thankfully Meridan comm relays weren’t manned, or she’d have blood on her hands already.
“Good,” she said. “Good. I don’t want the Meridans talking to anyone until we have a chance to clear this up.”
“Clear this up?” Zergan said. His face had been alternating so quickly between utter confusion and triumphant zeal that one of his cheeks was now rapidly moving up and down of its own accord. It made the dark caterpillar of his eyebrows look as though it was doing a mating dance. “I thought you were going to crush these worms. Or at least negotiate a humiliating surrender after they’d had a chance to taste our overwhelming force. What is there to clear up?”
Alandra tapped her fingers on the armrest. How could she fix this?
“Send a message to Captain Rogers,” she said. “I want it to—”
“We can’t send a message to Captain Rogers,” Leftennant Faraz said, his face still turned to the side for some reason. “All their communications are down. Commodore Zergan’s jamming net is very thorough. Even if we sent a message, they wouldn’t get it.”
A few deep breaths later, Alandra finally got control of herself to look at Zergan.
“Don’t you think that was a bit much?” she asked.
“No!” Zergan said, throwing his hands up in the air. “This is war! How is anything too much? Grand Marshal Keffoule, what is going on here? I thought we had a plan.”
“We did,” Alandra said. “And I didn’t alter it.”
Zergan’s eyes widened as he began to understand.
“Leftennant!” Alandra said loudly. “Are you certain that was the message I gave you?”
Faraz looked at her full-on now, his eyebrows turned down in confusion. “Yes, ma’am, I have eaten lunch.”
Alandra blinked, then repeated herself.
“Oh—oh,” Faraz stammered. “Yes, of course. Exactly.”
“It’s not?” Faraz said, his voice cracking slightly.
“No. What I told you to tell the Meridan commander was ‘We’re inviting you to a discussion aboard a neutral trade ship.’”
“Right,” Faraz said, nodding. “‘We’re invading.’ That’s what I told them. Really, does no one else hear the ringing?” He looked around the bridge helplessly, hoping someone else would validate his hearing deficiency. His face sank when he undoubtedly realized that everyone in the bridge had gradually quieted down; the entire crew looked at him with something between horror and sympathy.
Alandra stood up.
“Oh,” Faraz said at a whisper. “Oh, oh no.”
Alandra ignored him. She was too busy looking at the little leftennant who had completely screwed up her plans. Perhaps completely screwed up the galaxy. She cursed herself for relying on someone so incompetent. Such an important message should have been sent by her personally, but she’d wanted Captain Rogers to see her as a woman of power. Women of power didn’t send their own messages.
“You have failed me,” she said simply.
“No,” Faraz said, shrinking into himself but, to his credit, not running away. Of course he knew what was coming. The entire bridge knew what was coming. Even Zergan knew to back up and wait patiently while Alandra corrected imperfections.
And there was only one way to correct imperfections. Pivoting on her left foot, she gave Leftennant Faraz a spinning back kick to the face.
Every person on the bridge recoiled, the resounding crack echoing seemingly forever in the semispherical chamber. Faraz spun fully around, tumbling over the back of a support rail and crashing atop one of the consoles. Whatever he connected with set off an alarm, all the lights on the bridge going a dull amber as sirens blared. Faraz rolled off the console, knocking whoever was working that console to the ground. The two troops tangled in each other for a moment before Faraz, surprising nearly everyone, jumped to his feet, looking a little manic for someone who had just been kicked in the face. Adrenaline could do strange things to people.
“What?” he shouted. “Who? Where am I?” He put a hand on his cheek. “Where is my face?”
“Someone turn off that alarm!” Alandra shouted.
Faraz, who had been staring at her lips intently, raised an eyebrow. “What alarm?” he shouted.
Luckily the troop who had been manning the console before being floored by a flying leftennant managed to get to his feet and press a couple of buttons. The alarm stopped.
“That was a drill,” he said into the public-address system. “All units stand down. Repeat, all units stand down.”
“Who is Stan Brown?” Faraz shouted, spinning around dizzily. The side of his face that was not bruised from his previous failure was already starting to swell, to the point where the young leftennant was rapidly turning into some sort of demented squirrel with a face infection.
“Get him out of here,” Alandra said, sitting back down in her chair. Her stomach felt like it was doing flips, her blood pounding in her ears. What was supposed to be the beginning of her renewed rise to power had instead begun with chaos and face-kicking. “And everyone get back to work!”
As a pair of women dragged the confused, rapidly fading Faraz out of the room, Zergan, seeing that Alandra’s time of disciplining had ended, approached her again. He spoke low enough in her ear that he was able to address her with the familiarity they had become used to over the last fifteen years of their careers together.
“Now do you want to tell me what-the-fundamental-frequency is going on?” he asked. “What is all this about inviting the Meridans to tea and then deciding to invade instead? Have you lost your mind?” He paused. “You didn’t . . . you know . . . again . . . did you?”
“No,” Alandra said, shooting him a cold glare. “I did not.” She paused, thinking. “This is a mess, Edris. We’ll have to improvise.”
Zergan folded his arms, grinning. “I like improvising.”
“I know you do,” Alandra said, though she was sure they had different ideas on how to go about it.
“Well, we’re already here, and we’re already in an aggressive stance. Why not invite them to a meeting, then blow up the ship? Cut the head off the snake.” He leaned in even closer, whispering conspiratorially. “They’d have to reinstate you then, Alandra.”
Alandra sighed. Faithful—if a bit bloodthirsty—Edris Zergan. A distant part of her wanted to reach out and touch his face, but those days had long since passed. All she felt now was guilt and shame.
“We’d never get the Council to buy off on it,” she said. She almost felt like pouting, which was very unlike her. There was, of course, another reason why she didn’t want to just blow up Captain Rogers, but she hadn’t been able to confess it to Zergan quite yet. Those intelligence reports . . . the ratio.
“That didn’t stop you the first time!” A shrill voice came from the entrance to the bridge. Secretary Quinn was walking in, her face showing that same expression of disapproval mixed with anger. She stormed up to the bridge—she was probably the only person in the Colliders who had the guts to storm anywhere near Alandra—and stood, alternating her glares between Alandra and Zergan.
“What’s this about blowing up neutral ships? Now you’re not only violating intergalactic treaties, you’re violating the laws of armed conflict?”
Zergan sneered at her. “Are you afraid our enemies might get a boo-boo, Council dog?”
“I’m afraid of our galaxy imploding because of an itchy trigger finger,” Quinn said. She turned to Alandra, ignoring Zergan completely. “What are you going to do now? Start blowing up trade ships?”
“For once,” Zergan said, “I’m interested in the same thing the Council dog is. What’s next, Grand Marshal?”
Alandra drummed her fingers on the chair. The truth was, she had no idea. They couldn’t communicate with the Meridans; any opening in the net would allow them to get a message back to their headquarters. They couldn’t attack and start boarding ships without escalating things. Miraculously, the Meridans hadn’t yet responded to their strikes on the communications relays, but that didn’t mean they weren’t standing on a very narrow precipice over the cavernous ravine of a messy war.
“For now,” Alandra said, settling back into her chair, “we think. And wait.”
If there was anyone in this galaxy who could figure out what to do in this situation, it was Captain R. Wilson Rogers.
I. Don’t ask.