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By Michael Akhmetov

Adventure / Scifi


War Be Upon You

(Space Interceptors)

by Michael Atov

Book One

Shadows of the Past


Twenty-two years had passed since the Great War. Two civilizations – Earth and Vasuda – had fought tooth and claw for space domination when a new threat forced them to lay aside their enmities and strike up an Alliance – the new Alliance. Together they had to stand against the menace borne in the innermost depths of the Universe, the one no one had yet dared to confront. Named after the ancient god of destruction, their new enemy triumphed – until he was defeated at the moment of his ultimate victory as the allies were retreating: their star systems lost, their casualties in billions.

But the heroes who'd defeated Shiva, the leader of the demons, never returned home. And soon, the very existence of the Alliance came under threat.

Part One

Half a league, half a league,

Half a league onward,

All in the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.

Alfred Tennyson, The Charge of the Light Brigade

Chapter One

13.12 Galactic time, GTD Aquitaine.

Four pilots sat in the third-deck bar of the GTD Aquitaine. All felt slightly on edge. Nyra Synarin – a twenty-two-year-old blonde girl just a week into her ensign epaulettes – bit her lip trying to concentrate on what the others were saying. Not an easy task, considering that her immediate commander Frank Trausty sitting opposite her was particularly tongue-tied that evening.

Equally restless, he traced the silk tablecloth with his finger as he attempted to explain, for the umpteenth time, the purpose of a divergence maneuver involving four GTVA fighters escorting a transport convoy to optimally intercept attacking Neo Terran craft. An important subject indeed: in another couple of galactic hours, their well-trained but yet untested wing had to replace the Vasudan fighters in escorting the convoy to the Vega Deneb jump node.

Of the four, only Trausty and his second-in-command Alex Marchan — who tried to conceal his twenty-three years of age behind a mask of gloomy preoccupation — had a few combat missions under their belts, but only as wingmen. They had no experience in any mission planning, let alone combat practice. Last but not least, Rony Tomalsky was a little less than useless. He had only recently been posted to Trausty to replace Mirena Y-Czon injured in a training sortie. Even though his height and build commanded a healthy respect, Rony was green as a gourd and hadn't had time to fit in with the rest of the group. In the upcoming mission, he could prove more dangerous than the hostile craft.

All this gave the freshly-baked wing leader enough reason to worry. Granted, escorting Vasudan convoys was part of the routine in their sector. Especially considering the fact that the transports also had their own escorts – up to two wings of Serapis, state-of-the-art fighters flown by experienced pilots.

"You, Nai, and you too, Rony. Just stay behind me and Al," Trausty went on with his drill. "No maneuvering without his or my orders. You'll just panic and get a missile up your backside. Or a chain gun round."

Trausty remembered his first combat mission. He'd gotten plenty of both. Even though he hadn't panicked – quite the opposite, he'd attempted to eliminate an entire enemy wing all by himself. But his pilots didn't need to know that.

"I repeat. If the convoy is under attack, hold and follow me and Al. Alternatively," he raised his finger, "on my command you stick with the transport and draw the rebels' fire. Make sure you don't engage in any blue-on-blue. Their transports are equipped with some God-awful anti-fighter turrets. The Vasudans may be our allies as far as they're concerned, but they just might feel provoked. Nye? Are you still with us?"

"Me?" Nyra gave him a bedazzled look. "Yes, sure I am. I was just thinking about my old folks back home. Haven't written to them yet. I don't think I'll have time now before the mission."

"Good job you're not thinking about me," Trausty said. "Lieutenant Synarin!" he knocked his empty glass on the table and went on officially, "now you should focus on completing the task so that you can write to them at a later date. Understood? Actually," he scratched an eyebrow, "you really should drop them a line. We still have some personal time before takeoff."

Nyra's grey eyes welled with tears. "They're worried sick about me," she looked up at Trausty and cut herself short. "Affirmative. Focus on completing the task. I'll do all I can, I promise."

Trausty masked his embarrassment with a cough. "I... I know. You'll do whatever it takes. No one here doubts that. Rony, care to order the last round? I'm we don't finish soon, I'll start crying for my mom, too."

He tried to think of more advice to share with the greenhorns and discovered he was clean out of that commodity. To save face, he promptly changed the subject.

"Anything new in our Third Fleet?" he turned to Marchan, feigning interest. "You've been to the main information room today, haven't you? Any updates?"

His adjutant choked on his straw but immediately pulled himself together. Serious, he readjusted his sparkling new uniform and flicked a non-existent speck of dust from a sleeve. Soon, the last serving of the non-alcoholic frappe bubbled in their glasses.

"Nothing earth-shattering," Alex Marchan knitted his neat eyebrows. "Since the last engagement with the enemy which we here were forced to sit out," his face saddened, "the rebels still hold the three star systems: Regulus, Polaris and Sirius. The NTF Iceni, Admiral Aken Bosch's command frigate, has recently been sighted in the vicinity of Deneb. Apparently, they're busy pouring in troops to penetrate our Vega system via a subspace portal. And as our glorious Third Fleet is the closest to it, we just might get the first whack. True to their obligations, our Vasudan allies are sending us their GVD Psamtik. A bit like our Aquitaine, really, but shorter and wider. These guys are coming from the ass end of space so by the time they get here, their reactors must be pretty low on juice. They'll need shitloads of power units delivered before they can be of any use against Neo Terran destroyers. It can take care of itself, of course — with over a hundred light craft on board, it's nothing to sniff at. More than a Terran destroyer can carry, anyway."

Rony stopped picking his teeth with his straw. "At least our fighters can beat their Serapis hands down! Both in weaponry and in power."

Marchan gave him an indulgent look. A greenhorn fresh from his mother's apron strings. You wouldn't think so looking at this bearded hulk.

"Rony babe, even in our space age the pilot's personal skills are still superior to the fire power and speed of their craft. The Vasudans may call themselves humanoid but they're crazy motherfuckers. Their nobility learn to fly combat craft when they're knee-high to a grasshopper. They're instructed to never leave the battlefield. Even when they're defeated. My dad used to go absolutely mad about it — he used to fight them before the Great War. After ten minutes of contact he'd get airsick and look for an excuse to return to base. But instead, he had to chase Vasudan fighters till the cows come home because they just wouldn't surrender."

Rony dropped the straw under the table and gave him a puzzled look.

"And you, Pilot Tomalsky," Marchan continued, "you've still got a lot to learn about the Myrmidon's fire power that has been entrusted to you. Try to keep in mind that when you fire long bursts of automatic cannon — which accidentally drains your ship's power resources — you'd do well to target not only your leader but also a hostile or two if you get the chance. "

Rony sulked and stared at the ceiling. "I did say I was sorry. I got carried away. It was a training mission, anyway."

"Regrettably, it was. Had it been a combat flight, I might have been promoted to Trausty's post by now," Marchan mused. "Joke, commander. No offense meant. We do appreciate your leadership skills. May I go on?" He paused collecting his thoughts. "Basically, until the Psamtik reloads her main beam batteries, she can only rely on her on-board fighters for protection."

"How about the GVD's bombers, then?" Nyra asked. "There must be at least a few dozen. They can free her up from any enemy warship."

"Some way of defending a destroyer!" Marchan looked stern but in fact he struggled to suppress a laugh. "Good thing you still remember the few facts your basic training taught you. To be more precise, the Psamtik has forty-eight hangars for heavy and medium bombers. That's a force to be reckoned with. The problem is, they'll be scorched at the first strike without cover. And as we already know, the Psamtik's very own hyperpowerful beam cannons are useless due to her flat batteries. So what does one do in this situation, Pilot? Admiral Bosch and his fleet have already forced the jumpgate and are deploying in combat formations in the vicinity of the Vega system!"

"Nothing can be done," Rony donned a gloomy expression, playing along. "But the Psamtik is not necessarily alone. She might have a few cruisers with her."

"Not really," Trausty said. "A cruiser's operational range isn't up to much. They must still be half way here. Besides, Vasudan warships aren't much to write home about. In all those years of the Great War, they still never learned to make them. Even now only their Mentu-class cruisers are any good, but still they're a far cry from our Leviathans. Having said that, they're a far cry even from the standard light Fenris.

Rony eyed his commander with doubt and opened his mouth to speak but reconsidered. Trausty did tend to dramatize. Vasudan cruisers weren't that bad these days. But under the Regs, the commander is always right.

"So what was I saying?" Marchan knocked the table with his knuckles and waited for someone to proffer an answer. No one did, so he went on, visibly annoyed, "I was saying that following the directions of our brilliant general staff represented by Admiral Petrarch, may his name live on forever, " he raised his eyes in mock prayer, "that following his directions, Vasudan supply ships have been busy as hell for the last twenty-four hours bringing power units to the Psamtik's jump point to refuel her and her supporting vessels. This is where we come into the equation, to cover and escort them from A to B. What's interesting is that up until this moment, the rebels haven't once attempted to attack the convoys. Not that they really could," Marchan gave them a murderous grin, "as we happen to control all the jump nodes in this particular star system. They could always slip down a wandering wormhole or other but I don't think they will. So it looks as if our combat mission is going to involve some hanging about over a couple of freighters. Basically, no news is good news."

"Next thing you're gonna tell us it's a training flight," Trausty frowned jealously. As a wing commander newly elevated from the ranks, he felt offended. "A combat mission is a combat mission. And it's our first, too. So make sure you keep your eyes peeled."

"Yes, Sir," his wingmen answered in unison looking at their commander with puppy eyes.

Trausty didn't want to be too hard on them. "Shall we call it a day, then? You have one hour of personal time. The ammo and power units have already been loaded. The route will be uploaded to the on-board transputers twenty minutes before departure. Report in at the hangars before then. We'll test the systems and catch a few Zs in the cockpits until takeoff."

"Commander? Fancy a game of sekhenet while you wait?" Marchan rose and smoothed out his tunic. "Can't wait to get even with you after yesterday," he turned to Nyra, his eyes widening with mock fear, "while I'm still breathing!"

"Why not," Trausty answered, "just wait till I pay for the drinks. And please don't upset your fellow pilots. Everything's gonna be okay."

The next few seconds showed his subordinates their commander was in fact a lousy prophet. Trausty had barely reached the bar and given a friendly nod to the girl behind it when the floor gave way underfoot. With an almighty jerk, the entire Aquitaine shuddered sending him reeling. He grabbed at the bar seeing the girl's scared face, her fingers sliding off the rail.

It lasted but an instant. As if a brief spasm ran over the ship and stopped as quickly as it had started. The lights flickered and went out, then came back on again.

Dumbfounded, the pilot turned around looking for his friends. The people in the bar had frozen in the most unexpected positions. Some were sitting on the floor while others scrambled to their feet wiping their drinks off their clothes. He could hear amazed voices, some swearing under their breath. The large holographic image of the Horsehead Nebula under the ceiling hung lopsided, its lower end touching the floor next to their table. Marchan's ginger head stuck out of the stallion's mane. Apart from that, his friends seemed to be okay.

As if to bring everyone back to their senses, alarms started wailing. Orders from Command echoed across the bar,

"Crew to take up action stations. Red alert! All pilots scramble! All pilots scramble!"

Trausty shuffled into his pilot seat. Ten minutes till takeoff. His craft was concluding its flight testing. One by one, pictograms lit up on the HUD screen. Ordnance: ready. Shield: ready. He switched on the intercom and spoke to his wingmen.

"Everyone present and correct? Al, I hope you had time to clean up your fatigues. That glass of frappe didn't do them any good."

"It didn't, sir. I've changed 'em for clean ones, as custom prescribes. Good job our billeting units were on the way. I'd hate to 've had a last-minute marathon across the Aquitaine just to get to my locker."

"You shouldn't have. That frappe could have given you enough adhesion to stay put in your pilot seat. What's this custom you're rambling on about?"

"I thought you knew, sir. An ancient Terran tradition. Their warriors used to change into clean clothes before going into battle. Some even had a bath."

"A what?"

"A bath. Apparently, some kind of thermal treatment involving soaking in copious amounts of water. If the truth were known, I don't know much about it myself. Too far back in time. Not enough evidence. It's been twenty-two years since we lost contact with Earth, what d'you want?"

"This is no laughing matter," Trausty grew serious. "The Earth is sacred. Nyra, Rony, you okay guys? Are you ready? Nye, report in."

"Yes, sir," the girl answered. "Flight testing complete. Awaiting clearance for takeoff."

"I'll think about it. You won't have to wait long. Rony? Why can't I hear you?"

Rony paused. "I have problems, sir. Unidentified malfunction in the reactor unit. Only eighty-five percent charged for launch. Is it within tolerance, sir? I can't remember."

"Oh great," Trausty cursed under his breath. "Just what I didn't want."

His mood darkened. Launching a malfunctioning spacecraft was about as crazy as it gets. But the command center was too busy controlling the sortie of the entire fleet to worry about one petty fighter's power problems. And if the craft's shield or engines fell fifteen percent short while in action... you get the picture.

"Rony, listen," he finally said, "we'll have to make do with what we've got. If the system says you're mission-ready, that's what you are. Just take it easy. Stay behind me and don't stick your neck out. Most likely, it'll be just some hanging about over a couple of freighters, as I remember hearing someone say before they spilt their drink all over themselves."

"Yes, sir," Tomalsky answered in a voice brimming with foreboding. "If that's how it is, I'm ready for takeoff too."

"So I'd hoped," Marchan protested, "but now I have a funny feeling I might be wrong. I shouldn't lower your guard, Tomalsky my boy."

After a few more minutes of waiting, Trausty's thoughts took a chaotic course. He remembered his last combat mission when he'd managed not to give his leader Captain Nicholeas Dark a single excuse to reproach him. Then he smiled imagining himself as a seasoned space dog, reporting a successful mission completion to the refined Rasco de Trotti, the 53rd Squadron Commander. Having said that, Marchan was probably right about the hanging about-over-a-couple-of-freighters stuff. More than likely, they were in for a dull three-hour convoy flight, escorting a few GTVA ships from A — their RV on their exiting subspace — to B, their destination already encoded within their fighters' onboard transputers.

"Actually," Marchan spoke up again, "Anyone got any idea about whatever happened to the Aquitaine half an hour ago? Have we been struck or what? It felt as if we had taken a Cyclop up the ass. Who should I blame for my ruined dress and disposition?"

"It couldn't have been a Cyclop," Trausty answered. The torpedo, heavy and awkward, took a long time to aim; you had to really close on the target and beat a double quick retreat. "Do you think anyone could bypass two security circles and approach the warship with such a monster in their underbelly? Probably a heat generator brewed up. Techs say they stay overloaded twenty-four-seven."

"What was that combat alert for, then? I personally got out of breath just changing my clothes as I ran. What did the squadron girls think about me?"

The ensigns happily giggled imagining their second-in-command's bare torso within the crowd of young GTVA girl pilots.

"They probably thought it was another Terran custom, trying to conceive new life before embarking on a space journey," Rony offered, grinning.

Trausty frowned. These youngsters didn't get any better. No respect for the memory of Earth whatsoever. The allies could teach them a lot. Their planet Vasuda Prime, scorched by the Lucifer, had become a site of worship and pilgrimage to the billions of lost lives. But at least they knew what had happened to them. No one knew what had happened on Earth. Had the few Ursasthe Alliance's awkward heavy bombers — managed to draw up to the Shivan juggernaut in subspace where it was relatively vulnerable to their assault? Had it been the Lucifer that had caused the subspace tunnel to collapse? Twenty-two years had passed since the destruction of the jump node to the Sol system and if you wanted to see the Sun, you had to look at it through a telescope — a weak G-dwarf yellow star.

Mechanically, Trausty touched his bracelet — a red laurite piece handed down to him from his father Captain Eric Trausty, head of a heavy bombers wing who had at that time led their desperate assault, the most daring of all. Even if he'd survived it having annihilated the Lucifer and had managed to reach Earth before the collapse of the portal, Trausty couldn't reach him across all those light years. His mom had never come to grips with reality. She was still persevering with her research, twenty-two years after the disaster, still hoping to prove the possibility of creating manmade subspace tunnels. With a few supporters, she was hell bent on proving that the few existing nodes had been made by the Ancient Ones who'd in their time laced the entire Galaxy with star portals. The ones used today were but remnants of their heritage.

She'd last contacted Trausty — then still a trainee — four months earlier. He wasn't even surprised to learn that she'd joined yet another star expedition digging for the remains of a civilization already extinct for the last eight thousand years. She had to do it, driven by her love for father and a piece of incredible luck she'd had during the Great War. At that time, Terran scientists had joined forces with the allies to unearth just one of the Ancient Ones' numerous secrets. It had allowed them to defeat an inhuman race personified as Shiva — the ancient god of destruction. He who erases worlds.

A high-pitched confirmation signal brought him back to reality. He looked up to where the large gray gates — the Pearly Gates, in pilots' slang — began to open in front of him. The diffused glow of the enormous nebula flooded the cabin. The docking ramp with the poised fighters started moving forward.

"That's it, guys," Trausty perked up. "Off we go."

The green pictogram on the control panel switched to lift-off signaling chocks away. The turbines kicked in, sending the awkward Myrmidon, the work horse of the human fleet, sliding effortlessly out of her mothership's womb. Built with the help of Vasudan designers, this fighter — swift, agile and well-armed — could become a deadly weapon in capable hands. Its reliable shield gave a decent survival chance to inexperienced pilots like Trausty and the hundreds more equally proud and raw ex-trainees.

On exiting the mothership, Trausty's wing found themselves in a swarm of spacecraft circling their hive. Below him, eight bombers came in to dock, their mission already completed. Four Poseidon transports in front were busy hauling cargo containers, each the size of the ship itself. A couple of miles left abeam, several light craft escorted the vulturine outline of the newest Aeolus-class cruiser: apparently, an inspection visit for some top brass.

All of the above paled into insignificance next to the Aquitaine's enormous bulk. About two route miles of armor and firepower, she was the Third Fleet's flagship and pride, the latest-generation destroyer.

"Control to Alpha wing of the 53rd," the outercom spoke in the sweet voice of a young female controller. "Proceed to transition point. Eighteen, fifty-six, level two. Good luck."

Trausty glanced at his radars. They were crowded with dozens of dots: he could barely tell his own navigation point within the maze of other craft, their azimuths and heading angles, speeds and bearings. He finally located it, switched the autopilot on and started looking around searching for his wingmen. They were all lined up both below and behind his craft in correct flight order.

He let out a sigh of relief and clutched the controls. Their Myrmidons were fast approaching the transition point. He could start deployment of his wing. Assigned the call sign alpha, he was now his group's alpha dog — at least until his fighter was blown to bits by the enemy.

His heart pounded. Anxiety was sending a chill through his body. Yess!

"Attention all. Alpha One speaking. Alpha two, three and four, prepare for the jump."

The hyper engine whined. Space glowed an ethereal silver. Then it was gone. Darkness swallowed them.


"Mom? Is daddy's fighter the fastest of them all?"

"It is, sweetheart. Only it's far away now. Very far. It'll be some time before Daddy's back."

"Is it faster than the Dragon? And the Chorus?"

She frowned, thoughtful. "Wait a sec. I'm pretty sure I've heard about the Chorus. Isn't it a GTVA fighter? What's this Dragon thing, then?"

"Oh Mom. The Dragon is the Shivans' fastest. Henry told me. He's jealous. He said the Dragon could catch Daddy's ship. And I said, Daddy wouldn't play chase with it. He'd just shoot it down, end of story."

She gave him a hug and pressed her cheek to his tousled hair.

"I'm sure he would. And then he'd come home. He always does."

The boy frowned. "Wish he were home soon from his long-range recce. I can't wait to see him."

It had been six years since they'd defeated the Shivan fleets. Six years since Terran colonies had lost contact with the Sol system. The new Alliance warships had long scouted the far corners of their star systems and scorched whatever was left of the Shivan hordes there. With the destruction of the Lucifer, the enemy seemed to have lost their main control center for hundreds of craft. And it had also been six years since Cariola Trausty was trying to recreate artificial subspace tunnels. She had never lost hope of seeing her husband again one day. She had his little boy to take care of.


Trausty shook his head, recovering from the hyper jump. It had never really given him much discomfort. It felt rather like a forced awakening, his head still filled with colorful dreams. The jump could inflict all sorts of dreams, but normally, Trausty would go back to his own childhood.

He glanced at the virtual screen in front of him. Three familiar faces stared back, vacant and eerily salad-green highlighted by the transputer's markers. The yellow marker was reserved for the allies while red served to alert to hostile presence. Looked like the other Alpha pilots were coming round after the subspace jump.

"So," Trausty said to himself, "we've reached the RV point. Only where's this convoy we're supposed to escort?"

He inspected the area, but the vacuum around him was pristine, millions of space miles of it. Only a small navigational beacon flashed its light from a distance, apparently left there in times immemorial. No planets or asteroids, no comets, and definitely no ships — no material objects within his radars' reach.

It didn't look good.

Then again, it could be the holographic film covering the inside of his armored porthole. Experienced pilots said that a close miss from a missile or plasma charge could sometimes cause the film to lose its properties and stop transmitting visuals from the ship scanners to the cockpit porthole, stripping space of ninety-nine percent of its glory.

He checked the radars again. Both the film and his own eyes had been right. The radars showed nothing but his wing of Myrmidons following him in a V-formation.

He turned the intercom on and gave a cautious cough.

"Attention Alpha wing," Trausty tried to mimic a seasoned commander's notes in his voice, "no transport convoy detected at point of exit," he faltered, "so... so what are we gonna do?"

Alpha Two, a.k.a. Alex Marchan, offered helpfully, "Have you checked the exit coordinates? Are you sure we're where we're supposed to be?"

"Who do you think I am," Trausty managed to sound offended while he hurriedly checked the transputer data. "Everything's as it should be. See the beacon over there? The question is, where's the convoy? The assignment was, meet four Satis transports, take'em to their Psamtik RV point and set off for home."

"How about comms with base?" suggested Alpha Four, a.k.a. Rony Tomalsky.

For a few moments, Trausty considered it. Was it a good idea to pester command on one's first unassisted mission while revealing the group's position to the enemy's convenience?

"Not yet," he finally said. "Our assignment is to meet the transports at this point, and that's what we're going to do. Group, set turbines to neutral," he reached for the control panel.

"It's all right, sir," Marchan butted in. "Observing spikes. Look! They're exiting subspace. Running behind schedule, that's all."

The radar now pulsated with the yellow icons of GTVA transports. Trausty surveyed it gratefully. Then he leaned forward, disbelieving, as the transputer started feeding him the first incoming data.

"What the…" he stared at the screen. "What happened to them?"

Two Satis transports were moving slowly a few space miles away from him. Two, not four. Both heavily damaged. His on-board systems were registering broken turrets, penetration holes, damaged nav equipment. He had a clear visual of the upper deck of the ship closest to him, bent by an explosion. Satis transports tended to look like shoeboxes launched into space at the best of times, but now he had the impression that they'd been trampled under some space storm troopers' heavy magnetic boots.

Two Serapis fighters fluttered around the ships they were supposed to have been escorting. Only two of the four-strong wing that both Earth and Vasuda used to employ for such missions.

Trausty's mind sprang to all sorts of conclusions. Could the power units have blown up causing reactors to detonate? Impossible. That could explain two of the fighters having been blown up, had they been unlucky enough to happen nearby. But not two of the Satis! They're C1 protection level, for chrissakes, crashproof light-armored beasts. Wait! Wait! No way it's self-detonation.

His throat dried out. "This is war. They've been assaulted. Which means — which means that Neo Terran raiders have to be somewhere around here in the Vega system. They've been engaged in action!"

He rushed to the control panel,

"Alpha 53rd to convoy. We have arrived at RV point. Put us in the picture. Over."

The few seconds that followed seemed to last forever. Finally, the screens glimmered with the shape of the allied pilot. A helmeted and G-suited lizard. His thin lips moved showing a row of small sharp teeth. His voice resembled the rustle of fallen leaves.

"Epsilon two to Alpha. We have lost two transports and two fighters to a rebel attack. Heavy damages sustained. Multiple subspace spikes detected, " the creature's eyes stared, unblinking, at Trausty. It took him a few seconds to realize that the voice had come from the auto translator. "Danger of secondary assault."

"Roger, Epsilon two. Will adopt security formation," Trausty replied regaining his self-control. A battle? So much the better. He wouldn't tarnish his group's reputation. He'd already flown ten missions and had had three hostile contacts. And if this reptile could keep his cool after having suffered an attack and the loss of his comrades, Trausty could do one better. His wingmen, though, seemed a bit dumbstruck. None of them had yet uttered a word.

"Cheer up guys," he said. "It's better than hanging about over a couple of freighters, isn't it, Alex? Now we'll have a chance to show our worth. Rony, follow me to the head of the convoy. Second pair, form up below and behind. Usual drill."

"Roger," they echoed.

Their nozzles flickering blue, the Terran fighters fell away into new positions. The two remaining Vasudan craft split up abeam. Trausty's wing commenced their combat duty.

Chapter Two

"Make yourself comfortable, Minister," the GTVA Commander-in-Chief Grand Admiral Vito Vittorio, a tall heavy-set man, lowered his graying head and pointed at his chair in the warship's enormous state cabin.

The First Lord of the Star Admiralty and GTVA Defense Minister Reynal shook his hands in protest. Short and balding with a quick observant eye, he was Vittorio's very opposite.

"My dear Grand Admiral, cut out the ceremony. All right, if you insist, but not your chair, please... I'll be feeling out of place in it. Having said that," the Minister eyed dubiously the state cabin's luxurious interior and its enormously long dark wood conference table, "it is indeed comfortable. Still, given the off-the-record nature of our conversation, how sure are you this place is secure from prying ears?"

The Grand Admiral pulled his chin out of the collar of his dress tunic. "With your permission, Minister, there're no saboteurs among my men. And all the ship's quarters are thoroughly scanned."

"Are they?" the Minister gave Vittorio a piercing stare. "How sure are you that your entourage doesn't leak information to the rebels?"

The Grand Admiral turned away, sullen. All the recent traces of courtesy had left his face. He slumped into his chair and grasped its ornate bronze arms without looking back at the other man.

"Minister Reynal, please be seated," he repeated. "As for myself, I'm quite prepared to answer for my actions and those of my subordinates."

What a pig, the Minister thought as he took a chair opposite Vittorio. I've kicked the talks off on the wrong note. Damn their old boys' club always covering each other's asses. It would take three thousand years to change this bunch.

He peered at Vittorio's aquiline profile. The man must be thinking he's some Roman general. Then he remembered the Grand Admiral's file. But of course — his ancestors had come from someplace in Italy, hadn't they?

Reynal suppressed a sarcastic grin. As long as Vittorio didn't get it into his head to become the new Emperor. If he did, we wouldn't have enough troops to suppress the rebellion. Crazy, really. If he did, there wouldn't be much left of ourselves, himself included.

He forced a reconciling smile. "My dear Grand Admiral. I don't for one moment doubt your loyalty. I know you're true to your oath. We trust you and your-" Reynal hesitated and corrected himself, "and our fleet. I assure you. I am totally on your side. The aim of my visit is to take my bearings and decide what else the GTVA government can do in order to suppress the self-proclaimed Neo Terran insurgents. But in order to do so, we need to trust each other, you and I. In that case I might be able to promise you some support. Our objectives are the same, and scheming against my friends is the last thing on my mind," added the Minister remembering a couple of his latest scams the Admiral might have known about. "Not against you, surely. Which is why I wanted to see the situation for myself. Besides, I need to know what additional resources you might need in order to successfully prosecute an advance towards the rebels' positions. Working together can get us very far indeed."

Vittorio gave him a wary glance. "I don't normally conceal the situation in the fleet from the Admiralty. You can check my reports for all the necessary information, Minister. You, of all people, must be well in the know."

"I am. But now I'd like to hear about the latest developments on the front right here and from you, Grand Admiral. Or do I take it you don't commit operative data to memory?"

Vittorio jerked his chin up. "If that's what you choose to believe, Minister. My memory hasn't failed me as yet."

"Call me Kim, please."

"Yes, Sir- Very well, Kim. There is some tension, but the situation is totally under control. Our Deneb advance is progressing according to the Center's instructions," the Admiral stared in front of him, concentrating. "Unfortunately, due to incomplete intelligence, the rebels' disposition in the Deneb system remains unclear. Which was why the first assault by the Third Fleet has resulted in certain losses within the last seventy-two hours. We've lost the heavy cruiser Andromeda and the light cruiser Trafalgar, plus sixteen fighters and bombers.

"However," he continued, "we've succeeded in keeping the base area next to the Vega Deneb jumpgate. Which is crucial. We can now use it to throw the whole Third Fleet into an assault, including the GTD Aquitaine under the command of Admiral Petrarch. We can also use Rear Admiral Khafre of the allied Vasudan forces, his GVD Psamtik and the 13th battle group to support our actions. At the last check, both fleets successfully entered the Deneb star system eight hours ago. I'm expecting Petrarch to send in his first reports shortly. His objective is the complete annihilation of the rebels' main forces and the mopping up of the entire sector. On entering the Deneb system, the Psamtik and its group are to perform an intersystem jump and block off the Sirius Deneb node. This will hinder the enemy's retreat while preventing any attempt to break the blockade by the Neo Terran forces in the Sirius area where Neo Terra may possess considerable strength.

"Very well," the Minister rubbed the bridge of his nose. "Right," he repeated, "but how come we underestimated the rebels' forces in the first place? You tell me, Grand Admiral. Losing two capital ships could considerably hurt the Third Fleet's morale. Which is why I want to ask you: are you sure your estimation of their forces is correct? Might such an advance result in failure? We have too much to lose. You, of all people, should understand that."

The Grand Admiral suppressed a smirk. This civvy asshole was apparently too scared of defeat. First they instigate a civil war, but once things go too far and their government seats get too hot for comfort, only then do they start thinking of the consequences.

He looked the functionary straight in the eye.

"Mister Reynal, sir. This is war. No one is insured against defeat. In the worst-case scenario, if the advance fails we'll have to retire to Vega and create a temporary defense line.

"Giving Bosch his fourth star system on a silver platter!" the Minister blurted out. "The fourth! After Regulus, Sirius and Polaris. And afterwards he can move to Epsilon Pegasi and Alpha Centauri where we have virtually no troops. A catastrophe!"

The more nervous he grew, the calmer the Commander-in-Chief felt. He couldn't tell why it was so.

"I don't tend to be so pessimistic," he said calmly. "Even if he repels our attack here, Aken Bosch wouldn't be able to counterattack straight away. Especially in the direction of all three star systems at once. He doesn't have enough troops. We may well have made a few mistakes, I agree. But already the first offensive recon showed that a rapid and well-coordinated attack by the Vasudan group and our fleet's main forces could quickly break down the rebels' resistance in this sector. Plus, blocking the jump nodes would neither allow them to retreat nor receive reinforcements from Sirius. Personally, I don't doubt for one moment it's going to be a success," Vittorio crossed his fingers surreptitiously. "Only a miracle can save Admiral Aken Bosch," he attempted to reassure the Minister who was now pale and drained by his emotional outbreak.

Reynal pulled himself together. "I for one don't doubt your skills as the Alliance's best commander. This is exactly why you were entrusted to your post," anxiety was gradually leaving his voice. "Besides, you also control a considerable group of Vasudan forces.

The Grand Admiral lowered his head, as if in appreciation of the Alliance's administration. This calmed Reynal down completely and sent him on a several-minute eulogy of the GTVA forces and, quite appropriately, himself.

"Not to mention," he intimated at the end, "that we enjoy a considerable progress in the relationship between our two races. Even the most arrogant of Vasudan admirals submits to Terran command without further question. They have put the fourteen-year war between our home worlds behind them."

He paused and added sarcastically training his eyes on Vittorio, "Wish I could say the same thing about some of our own commanders. They too could try and leave long-gone mutual enmities behind them." The Minister gave the frowning Vittorio a long look. "I don't mean the current generation of our fighter pilots. They only know the Great War and what life was like before it from documentaries. They're young and committed to the Terran-Vasudan Alliance. Which is how it should be. If the Shivan fleet comes back — and we can't rule out this possibility," Reynal paused again waiting for the Grand Admiral's reaction, "then we and the allies need to close ranks in order to confront the enemy and defeat him — throw him out of our Galaxy once and for all. And we need to do so without busting our asses and praying for a miracle like we used to during the Great War."

Vittorio twitched an eyebrow, almost letting slip, why would you bust your ass now, then, trying to convince me? Instead, he agreed,

"I don't have any axe to grind with our allies."

"There!" Reynal shot him a triumphant smile. "I wish everyone could think and act as you do. Unfortunately, a lot of... or rather," he corrected himself, "some officers of our generation, the ones who've been in command of major warships and even fleets for decades by now... no, please don't," the Minister waved off Vittorio's protesting gesture, "I know what I'm talking about. So! Some of these gentlemen still seem to be secretly sympathizing with the rebellious admiral and his attempts to wage a new war on Vasuda. They seem unable to understand that instead of recreating the Galactic Terran Empire, Aken Bosch can only reduce to ruins what we still have. And if, God forbid, it ends in a new Shivan invasion..." the Minister turned to the table and knocked on the dark wood, "that would mean a catastrophe that neither us nor the Vasudans nor even Aken Bosch with his Neo Terra would be able to survive!"

He's a good speaker, this paper pusher, thought Vittorio, fatigued by Reynal's rhetoric. No notes needed. One would think he's practicing for a TeleVid presentation. Now he'll say that the allies would eagerly lay down their lives for us. I'd love to know what he's driving at.

"Moreover," the Minister lit up as if indeed seeing a whole audience before him, "we enjoy complete understanding from the Vasudans, too. The feuds of the past are all but forgotten; we've been electing an allied government for many years now; we carry out all important military projects together. In doing so, we're exchanging our most secret technologies which Bosch somehow manages to steal from us. No idea how he does it. Their pilots die and their ships get destroyed as they fight to protect the Alliance's mutual interests. You could say that the problems the Vasudans developed during the Great War were similar to ours: I mean primarily the Hammer of Light case when they allowed an ultra-religious faction to dissent and create a terrorist group with help from some of the Vasudan top brass."

"How could I ever forget," the Commander murmured, the Minister's words stirring up old wounds. "I had to deal with them personally when I was in command of the GTD Bastion."

"So you see!" Reynal threw his hands in the air. "We helped them in good faith to suppress the mutiny — which, if the truth were known, had no future to begin with. How gullible can you be to believe some crackpot prophet preaching about Vasuda's inevitable destruction and instigating them to help the Shivans against us! Having said that, the Shivans didn't seek help from the Hammer of Light in the first place. And we managed to suppress their uprising under constant pressure from the Shivans and then turn together against our arch enemy. And I can tell you now, my dear Grand Admiral, that the only reason we succeeded was because Vasuda didn't allow any further dissent and wiped out all the Hammer's secret supporters, saboteurs and double agents. Do you know what I mean?" the Minister asked bluntly.

"What are you implying? I swore allegiance to the flag!" deeply offended, Vittorio sat up. "If there are any traitors among my men, then it's up to your Mental Integrity Bureau to identify them. I have no intention of hindering its investigations. It's very easy to blame military failure on the proverbial fifth column. But victories aren't forged in security offices. The government had better start worrying about the steadiness of military supplies. Twenty percent of our light craft are made of obsolete Ulysses fighters. Surely twenty-two years ago they were state-of-the-art technology, but now pilots are scared to engage in combat in that bat crap!"

"Pardon me?"

"Never mind. Just a name pilots coined for them. And our cruisers? To the best of my knowledge, as of this year twenty-four Aeolus, the latest state-of-the-art starships, have been built in Terran yards. Until now, I've only ever seen one – the one that brought you here, Minister! Instead, the Third Fleet has been sent fourteen Fenris light cruisers — more hand-me-downs from the Great War! At least they're equipped with beam cannons! Having said that, one of them we've already lost — the Trafalgar. Scorched in fifteen minutes, and the crew barely made it out safely. Should I go on? You were the one who started this conversation."

Reynal sensed it was time to change the subject. He knew from experience that unless you diverted a military speaker's attention to other things, they could ramble on and on until they blamed you for the shortages of shoe polish to go with their dress uniforms. He pressed one hand to his heart while reaching with the other into his pocket for a classy amazite cigar holder.

"I understand your indignation, Grand Admiral. But you have to agree that the problem of supplies is a never ending story. Actually, it's the reason for my coming here," he added. "In the meantime, I urge you to try these latest presents from my good friend and tobacco grower Senator Areval Lee. You must remember him. He voted his approval to increase funding for the new Zeus bombers."

"He seemed nice enough," Vittorio accepted the cigar, then added sarcastically, "but the bombers leave much to be desired."

"You're the expert," the Minister snapped open a gold laser lighter. He wasn't going to divulge that a considerable part of the funding had ended up in Senator Lee's pocket. And not only his.

"But you're right about the Aeolus cruisers," Reynal went on, "they have indeed been built and you've got the figures right, but unfortunately," he added a note of sympathy to his voice, "only ten of them were equipped with the last-generation beam cannons. The rest are still awaiting their refit. Apparently, the Akheton Corporation responsible for their production proved to be not up to the task, and you can't equip this kind of vessel with lower-class weaponry."

"Talking about the Zeus craft," he added as an afterthought, "my workers back at the ministry are curious why the Zeus are known here as both bombers and torpedo carriers?"

On hearing the Minister's last words, the Grand Admiral nearly choked on his cigar smoke.

"I suppose, you mean torpedo craft," he raised his eyebrow. "But don't your workers have better things to be curious about? Bomber, torpedo craft — same difference, really. You go on a mission with a big fuck-off torpedo, it makes you a torpedo craft. If you've taken lighter stuff to drop, then you're a bomber. That's what we call them all normally, bombers."

"I basically told them the same thing," the Minister concurred. "Nerds! They can't help it."

For a few seconds, they fell silent enjoying the tobacco-growing Senator's work.

"Excellent cigars," the Grand Admiral exhaled through his nostrils. "Much better than his bombers," he repeated.

Reynal cringed. He didn't like rehashed jokes. "The visuals are beyond reproach," he ignored Vittorio's remark watching the cigar smoke curl to form a half-naked female shape beckoning the men. The Grand Admiral chuckled. His own smoke took the shape of a warship and floated out of the state cabin. The smoke girl watched as it gradually disappeared into thin air.

"Quite entertaining," he admitted.

The Minister flicked ash onto the desk into a promptly opened ashtray. They could carry on.

"My dear Vittorio, once again I'm forced to touch on the sensitive subject of the Terran traitors. And, strange as it sounds, the subject of new armament supplies. Listen to me, I beg you, and try not to interrupt or react too strongly," Reynal raised his hands in a conciliatory gesture. "What I'm about to say is very important. We all understand that if a pilot decides to defect while flying a new fighter, it's bad enough. If a cruiser or a destroyer crew does the same, it's much worse but not a complete disaster. But if the newest capital warship treacherously defects, now that will be a catastrophe."

Vittorio looked up at him. "I'm afraid I don't quite follow. Which defection of what ship would be the catastrophe you're talking about? Such a ship would have to be the equivalent of an entire fleet. I don't have this kind of craft."

The Minister sighed. "We do. I'm about to let you in on our best-kept trump card. I'm talking about the Colossus.

The Grand Admiral gave him a surprised look. "The Colossus?"

Vittorio had heard about it, of course. The latest generation Galactic warship, eighty beam cannons, of which twenty have untold capability, thirty thousand crew. Indeed, it alone equaled an entire fleet. But to the best of Vittorio's knowledge, the Colossus was not due to be launched from the Antares yards for another six months. Did the Minister imply they'd finished it earlier?

The Minister shrugged him off. "Sort of finished. Eighty-seven percent completed. Please don't get me wrong: we won't take any chances with it. However, the engineering manager insists that if push comes to shove, the Colossus is already up to any challenge. It's Earth and Vasuda's joint baby: our engines and armor, their weaponry. Making our technologies function together wasn't easy, I tell you, especially considering all the new research invested into the design. Naturally, they had to undergo strict trials. But unfortunately, time is an issue. Fighting the rebels takes longer than we expected and the GTVA budget is scraping the barrel. Any major military setback now will affect society in more than one respect. Which is why the government has decided to bite the bullet and send the Colossus to the theater of operations ahead of schedule. It is our strong belief that its sheer presence within our advance could tip the scales in this war. Already now it can take out any of the rebels' warships. It's much better than waiting another six months while it devours millions of the taxpayers' money on fine-tuning the extras it might never need in combat."

Vittorio shook his head, doubtful. "There's no such thing as an extra in combat. Any glitch can become your peril. What if the fire controls break down? The ship will turn into an armored bakehouse."

"No problem there," Reynal waved off his concern. "We have an experts' report. The Colossus is battle-ready. Give it another six months and it'll be lethal. But we can't wait another six months. In actual fact, Grand Admiral, I'm much more worried about another problem. If somebody's act of treason causes the Colossus to defect to Aken Bosch, now that will deal us a blow much heavier than the loss of a star system. There's one more thing. Its crew is not thirty thousand men, but thirty thousand humanoids. There'll be at least ten thousand Vasudans on board. Such a defection would mean a death sentence to all of them. Bosch has no scruples in regards to Vasuda. And they, in turn, will blame us. I dread to think what consequences it all might have. Now you can see my predicament."

Vittorio stared at his smoldering cigar, thoughtful. "Minister," he began after a pause, "this whole supership idea does sound tempting. Even considering the Colossus' incomplete operational efficiency, its presence in my fleet could most certainly affect the course of action. As long as it gets a move on. But wouldn't its servicing and refueling become a problem? It must be using enough resources for several Hecate warships! In other words, we need to make sure if the Colossus' combat power is worth the headache of its upkeep."

The Minister stood straight. "Whatever you might need, you're going to get it."

"I'll take you at your word," the Grand Admiral said quickly. "But as far as the crew's allegiances are concerned, I tend not to share your apprehension. My men are true to their oaths, their government and myself. Admiral Aken Bosch shouldn't go looking for traitors. His fate will be sealed in open combat. But what does worry me is this undue haste with this super destroyer of yours. We were planning on systematically squeezing the enemy out of the star systems they control. This kind of rush when dealing with a powerful warship like the Colossus could certainly lead to failure. Somehow I doubt that the rebels will panic and surrender the moment they get a glimpse of the super destroyer on the horizon. I'm sure they'll try to test its combat capabilities, and then we'd better pray these capabilities are adequate, hadn't we?"

The Minister fidgeted in his chair but didn't say anything to Vittorio's reasoning.

"So I personally think," the Grand Admiral summarized, "that even if we decide to test it in action, it's probably better we keep it away from the cutting edge. Let the enemy get an eyeful but we shouldn't throw it into the fray unnecessarily."

Reynal let out a sigh. He couldn't be happy with such vague prospects. But he couldn't issue a direct order to the Grand Admiral to send the ship into action. The old boy was known for being stubborn. And, damn it, why should everything be his, Reynal's, responsibility? What if the military did lose the Colossus? Whether in action or through defection, the GTVA didn't have another warship of the same caliber.

So the Minister decided to refrain from arguing.

"My dear Grand Admiral," he continued in an openly diplomatic tone, "I'm more than assured that between your command skills and our fleet's strength — which is about to be increased manifold by our new super destroyer — you will soon be able to achieve a decisive turning point in your operations against the rebels."

A comm beeped on the Grand General's heavy laurite bracelet.

"Excuse me," Vittorio's voice changed unperceivably, "I have a funny feeling this is Petrarch."

An iridescent holographic image of a liaison officer lit up over the massive desk in front of the two.

"Sir, two minutes ago we've received a mail capsule from the Vega Deneb node. A message from Admiral Petrarch, sir."

The Minister jumped up. "Send it up here, now!"

Vittorio shot him a disapproving glance. "Send the message to my personal comm, please. It'll take a few seconds," he added without turning to Reynal.

"I'm sorry for being so inordinate," the Minister put on an embarrassed look. The Grand Admiral didn't answer. He anxiously stroked his bracelet. Finally it emitted an emerald glow reporting the successful message upload using a protected comm channel.

"Let's see it," Vittorio held out his hand just as a new hologram lit up in front of him.

His hand shook ever so lightly. An image of Vice Admiral Petrarch came on before them. A calm face devoid of all emotion stared back at them: the face of a fit and youthful middle-aged officer.

The Minister leaned forward waiting for his report. An inexplicable fear tore at his guts. Vittorio sat back, locked his fingers over his stomach and closed his eyes.

"Urgent! For GTVA Forces Commander in Chief Vito Vittorio," Petrarch reported quick and clear. "Sir! In accordance with the previously approved plan, eight hours twenty five minutes ago the Third Fleet battle group under my command entered the Deneb system and immediately engaged in the support of our troops in control of the bridgehead next to the Deneb Vega subspace portal. The swift surprise attack allowed us to immediately eliminate the NTC Hengst and two wings of escorting Loki fighters which harassed our craft in charge of covering the portal. Seeing as no other rebel troops were detected in close proximity and our special communications equipment appeared to have dampened the Hengst's transmissions, I made the decision to wait it out for a stronger enemy response and dispatched the GVD Psamtik to blockade the Deneb Sirius node. Our strategy paid off at exactly nineteen twelve Galactic time when we detected strong subspace surges. Five minutes later, we sighted the main body of the rebels' forces, including the Orion-class NTD Jacobus and the Deimos-class NTC Belisarius escorted by up to seventy Loki fighters and Hercules assault fighters.

"The enemy lost the opportunity to withdraw and was forced to join battle. Within forty minutes of engagement, the NTD Jacobus lost velocity and commenced a crew evacuation procedure. Ten minutes later, it split along its aft — apparently, due to a reactor breach. Following the elimination of the flagship and having lost half its beam cannons, the NTC Belisarius beat a gradual retreat. Eight of the GTD Aquitaine's heavy bombers closed in and attacked it again but the NTC Belisarius, even though rendered partially disabled, attempted a successful jump toward the Deneb Sirius node. By then, we had destroyed thirty-two fighters and assault craft of the enemy's light troops; a further thirty-six escaped into subspace; one Herc was taken prisoner. Two hours forty minutes ago we received a message from the GVD Psamtik which had intercepted the NTC Belisarius while exiting subspace near the Sirius node. Its captain rejected their offer of surrender. The Vasudans didn't waste time on making him change his mind, and within seven minutes, the damaged cruiser was eliminated by a broadside from the Psamtik. No perceived survivors. In expectation of further potential Neo Terran attacks, I regrouped my forces in defensive order moving the worst damaged ships closer to the Deneb Vega node. Seeing as in the aftermath of the engagement the main body of our battle group remained for the most part undamaged, I made the decision to exploit the success already achieved and eliminate the enemy's remaining forces in the sector. However, scans of the star system didn't reveal any of the enemy's larger units. As of today, we have only discovered one rebel supply base situated in the outer asteroid belt of the Deneb system to which we've dispatched two Myrmidon fighter wings. We have also detected standard defense installations around their inhabited planetary system, including beam and rocket batteries. The order for their neutralization will be issued accordingly pending your decision. In the course of the command brief on board the Aquitaine one hour ago, the decision was made to move the main battle group closer to the Deneb Sirius node with a view to defending it if a more thorough scan and newer detailed intelligence reveal more hostile forces still hiding in the Deneb system. I look forward to your further orders, Sir! Proud to serve the Alliance, Sir!"

The message was over. Petrarch's face faded and disappeared. The Minister rubbed his hands.

"This is brilliant! I assure you, Grand Admiral, of our due appreciation of your efforts. You see? The rebels got yet more proof of our military strength! Deneb is as good as ours. Now we need to advance — immediately."

Vittorio didn't move.

"The success of the op is entirely to Petrarch's credit. The boy has done good. Still a long way to victory, though."

"Aren't you being too conservative, Commander?" Reynal said, not happy with the reaction. "This is what we'll do. I promise you the Colossus if you can guarantee me to attack Sirius as soon as possible. Don't forget it's Aken Bosch's home base. Once he loses Sirius, the war is as good as lost for him. And this Petrarch man of yours keeps blabbering on about defense. We really need to advance now while the rebels are still drained."

The Grand Admiral stared in front of him as if he'd forgotten all about his meddlesome visitor. "Petrarch's right. If the enemy's main body isn't anywhere in the system, it can mean two things. Either they're busy mounting a powerful counter attack from Sirius or... or they're targeting either Epsilon Pegasi or Alpha Centauri. But when and where would such an attack take place? I'll need new intelligence from our recce unit and your staff analysts," Vittorio tapped his comm with his finger. "Minister, if you don't have any further questions, I pray to be excused. I need to call a command staff meeting in regards with what we've just heard."

The Minister gave an offended shrug. "I won't delay you, Grand Admiral. I understand your preoccupation. Just please keep in mind that a lot depends on whether you make the right decision. In fact, everything depends on it. As for me, I'm off. Back to my ship."

He turned and offered his hand to Vittorio. "And still, Vito, do give some thought to what we've been talking about here, okay? I count on your understanding and support. In which event we could repay you in kind."

"I really appreciate your visit, Minister. Hope to see you again soon. My men will show you out."

Grand Admiral lowered his head closing the conversation.

As they exited the state cabin, the Minister's security guards were waiting outside with two of the Commander's adjutants. Vittorio turned to one of them, a tall young officer sporting a flag captain's epaulettes.

"Inform the staff of an urgent meeting in thirty minutes. Send them Admiral Petrarch's report to watch. Tell the press service they will need to prepare a statement for all of our Vega troops."

The adjutant saluted. Once again Vittorio and Reynal exchanged polite goodbyes. Fifteen minutes later, a rocket pod took the Minister back to his personal cruiser.

The flagship turned into a hive of activity. Everyone already knew about the Third Fleet's major Deneb victory — which could prove decisive for all they knew — and couldn't wait to hear the official statement.

Chapter Three

"Alpha Wing of the 53rd to Control. Request clearance to land."

Trausty was all tuckered out. Still, he had reasons to celebrate.

He'd just completed his first sortie as a wing leader. Okay, he may have not been as confident and cool-headed as he could have been, but successful nevertheless. He'd shot down his first enemy — possibly, a rookie like himself. His entire wing was returning unharmed in a serried rank, barring a few minor penetrations. Tomalsky's reactor had given up the ghost but it wasn't battle damage so that didn't count. The others seemed to be quiet. Little wonder. No one forgets their first mission.

Once again the bright streaks of plasma charges flashed before his eyes as he remembered the enormous Vasudan destroyer coloring space with flashes as its heavy cannons sank their beams into the burning Belisarius. Crushed by G-forces while banking into a turn, his turbines boosting to a wail, Trausty had seemed to hear the cruiser's commander's voice, "I will not give up my ship!" The words now grazed his heart and spoiled the euphoria of victory. The crew had deserved better than being scorched in a blazing inferno. Not a single lifeboat had cleared the ship. How much easier it must have been for his father, Eric Trausty! The Shivans he'd fought weren't humanoid so his fellow Terran pilots felt no sympathy smoking their red-and-black ships.

The outercom came to life.

"Control to Alpha. Welcome back safely. Stand by for landing orders at thirty-four, eighty, flight level four. We're experiencing some problems at our end," answered the same girl who'd sent him off six hours ago. Trausty frowned. Since when did space heroes have to wait?

What he saw on the HUD monitor made him move closer to its screen where the Third Fleet's ships glowed green in outer space. He whistled through his teeth. So this was what they called some problems these days?

"Alex," he radioed his partner. "Observe any funny visuals?"

"Well, if you disregard the fact that we took off in the vicinity of Vega and are about to land in the Dene-" Marchan fell speechless.

"Likewise," Trausty said. "Any ideas on what could've happened in our absence?"

A long pause. "I have a feeling, Sir," Marchan finally said, "that we've missed all the cool stuff — again. The visuals suggest we've just engaged in a major battle. Have a look at the Aquitaine, Sir," he chuckled. "You tell me where we're supposed to land."

Trausty zoomed in on her. The ship's heavy bulk grew and began to slowly rotate on the screen.

"Holy cow," he said. "I'm no expert in heavy beam cannons but it looks as if they've beat her to a pulp. Had to be a destroyer. Or even a few."

"The rest seem to've kept their skins," Marchan remarked. "Judging by the visuals, our Mommy took all the thrashing."

"Now this is what I call war," Alpha Three grumbled in Tomalsky's voice. The guy still couldn't forgive his Myrmidon its unfortunate reactor malfunction. Frag damage to her tail didn't lift his spirits, either.

"Leave it. We too have had our share of action," Trausty replied. "To be honest, I'm still recovering from this mission."

"Considering the seven hours we've spent in flight instead of the usual three, my ass is as flat as a pancake."

"Boys," Nyra butted in in an anxious voice. "Sector top right, about seven space miles from you. What's with all the fragmentation?"

The boys looked up at the top right sector.

"Ah, I see," Marchan said after a pause. "This is apparently all that's left of the bad guy. Or bad guys. This is her front section," Trausty saw a charred fragment of what must have been an Orion-class destroyer bow slowly rotating in space. "Here to the left are bits of her midsection and aft deck. Did out Mom do all this to her?"

"Had to be some heavy bombers involved," Rony added his expert opinion.

Trausty didn't answer. The scope of the destruction had finally dawned on him. His eye registered more evidence to the drama. Dead ships don't sink in outer space but are doomed to drift forever until some garbage collector on a busy route pushes their remains further away from prying eyes.

A cloud of thousands of ship fragments tumbled in a mourning dance. Amid them, drones scurried about scavenging whatever was left of value.

"Jesus Christ, boys," Nyra said, confused. "Where did all these frags come from?"

"You see, Nye," Marchan answered, "they've had what seems to be a minor argument. About who had the thicker armor and better cannons. And our Aquitaine Mom seems to have won."

"But the others," Nyra reminded. "Must be lots of casualties on the Aquitaine now."

"Calm down, Ensign!" Trausty had recovered his senses and once again became the confident wing leader. "I know it's all a bit new for you. But this is what war is like. I'm pretty sure the Aquitaine is fine. She doesn't look as if she's suffered any heavy damage. Especially compared to her opponent, whatever's left of her." He pressed the comm button. "Alpha wing to Control. What's happened to you? We've just come back from a sortie and we'd like to know."

"Expect a full debriefing on board the Aquitaine. In the meantime, I can tell you that we engaged in hostile contact with considerable enemy forces. Our fleet won the day. No losses among capital ships. Seven casualties among light craft pilots. The mothership took the hardest blow. Considerable damage to her aft where about seven hundred servicemen and women had been located prior to the strike. Rescue works are under way. The Aquitaine, albeit injured, is happy to greet you back safely, pilots," Trausty heard the smile in the girl's voice. "Welcome home."

She paused.

"One moment. Now... now everything's okay. You can land safely. Use the bow gate for docking. The stern gate is temporarily unavailable. I'm happy to see you back," the girl gave them another warm smile. "Out."

"Proud to serve the Alliance," Marchan completed the message by protocol. "She's nice, isn't she? I think I've met her before."

"She was the one sending us off, you idiot," Rony said.

"What would I do without you?" Trausty imagined Marchan raising his hands to the stars in mock appreciation. "Now just go, you smartass, before your engine dies on you and you have to push your rattletrap all the way back to the docks!"

Tomalski mumbled something under his breath but didn't dare to start a wit-matching contest.

"I mean it, Sir," Marchan went on, apparently unable to stop. "The girl. I know I met her on the ship somewhere. The gym? The treadmill?"

"Al, I really don't give a damn," Trausty waved him off and checked the glide path. "All I care about it getting us safely back and finding out about whatever happened over there. Looks like we aren't the only heroes."

He touched the controls bringing his Myrmidon into the home stretch. Far off, actuators kicked in preparing to open the heavily armed dock doors. The mothership welcomed her children back — alive, as luck would have it... again.


Trausty lay on his bunk in full uniform and stared at the Terran landscape on the cabin's ceiling. His head was spinning. Marchan on the bed opposite fiddled with his personal comm. Once or twice he looked up at his leader with reproach but didn't dare speak up, respectful of his leader's recent combat feats.

It had taken Trausty a good three hours to get to his bed. Right after touch-down, he'd had to report to debriefing and face the squadron leader Rasco de Trotti. Together, they analyzed all of his group's actions from take-off to touch-down. De Trotti was a notorious nitpicker but this time, he'd even commended Trausty as a junior leader. Especially, as the squadron commander pointed out, because his wing had succeeded, through competent defense, in saving the escorted convoy from hostile assault. Besides, Trausty had shot down an enemy fighter and damaged another one enough to prevent it from reaching its base. At least he hoped so. But de Trotti in his sang froid hadn't let Trausty convince him and only noted two kills, counting the one by Marchan. Even that wasn't so bad. The squadron leader had even gone to the trouble of showing him that during the repeat attack, the rebel fighters hadn't expected to fly into Trausty's admittedly untested but eager wing instead of the two scruffy Vasudan craft. Otherwise, it would have taken the six Neo Terran Hercs only seconds of a tactical strike to turn the convoy into mincemeat. "They don't have many aces left these days," de Trotti had added half-heartedly, "so they have to rely on greenhorns. They must have thought two damaged ships easy prey."

After that, Trausty and his group had been stuck in the main information room for a good thirty minutes listening to the details of the main engagement they'd missed. His 53rd Hammerheads crewmates had been lucky that day not to have lost a single pilot and were now busy assuring him how they'd missed his spirited presence when the going got too tough.

But overall, all those battle-tested aces treated him almost as an equal, cheering the addition of a new Hammerhead to their ranks. Whoever doubted it was very welcome to check the screen in the information room which stated, in blue on white, that Alpha wing of the 53rd based on the GTD Aquitaine consisting of four Myrmidon fighters had successfully defended Vasudan transports from superior Neo Terran enemy forces with zero losses, after which it proceeded to destroy the hostile NTC Belisarius preventing its escape into the Sirius system. A spectacular video illustrated the point.

"Wish I was there with you," blurted Ruiz, Trausty's squadron buddy, leaning against his shoulder. "I'd love to have helped you nail that fucking Belisarius!"

"How, may I ask? With two of those shitty small-caliber Subachs?" Marchan said. "Or light missiles? We were cruising around three space miles away from her. Otherwise, I wouldn't be here talking to you."

"They're all just a bunch of cowards!" Ruiz yelled, his face red, and Trausty realized that his friend was as drunk as a skunk. "They'd shot their bolts and fucked off leaving the rest to fend for themselves. They didn't even dare to resist the Psamtik, that slug, of all things! He done right killing them. You didn't have to stay away from the cruiser. They'd never have touched you in a million years."

Perturbed, Marchan didn't know what to say to that.

"Captain Graham Webb has never been a coward," a sharp voice said. Trausty looked around to see the small chiseled frame of his first leader and mentor, pilot Nicholeas Dark. The pilot stepped towards a dumbfounded Ruiz.

"Now you remember this, you whippersnapper. If he retreated it meant he was following orders. If he didn't shoot it meant he didn't have sufficient power after the jump. It's not yours to judge what he did or did not do. You weren't even born when he defended Earth in the Great War."

Everybody froze. But the liquor got the better of Ruiz.

"Does it mean, Sir, that you," he glanced over his captain's epaulettes, "sympathize with the rebels?"

Nicholeas' hand jerked to his hip.

"I wouldn't wish to be in your boots, boy," he spoke through set teeth, his glare sizing Ruiz up as if taking aim.

"Pilot Ruiz! Report to your cabin now! No giving lip to senior officers!" an order boomed as De Trotti arrived on the scene.

Ruiz sobered up on the spot and ran off as ordered. No one in the squadron ever argued with de Trotti.

"And you keep your tongue tied, mate," he said to Nicholeas. "No need to tell you why."

He saluted without saying a word. De Trotti nodded back and studied the young pilots.

"I know he's knocked back a few," he said. "He doesn't make much sense. He had some friends on Deck Five. They all died."

He turned and walked away. In the silence that followed, Trausty looked at Nicholeas. "I meant to look for you. To talk it through," he waved in the direction of the information screen.

Nicholeas gave Trausty a friendly grin.

"It's okay, boy. You've done good in battle. I've nothing to say but congratulate you. You'll make a very good pilot one day."

"Maybe," Trausty doubted. "I don't think I did so well today after all. He kept criticizing me all along," he nodded at de Trotti just out of earshot.

Nicholeas smiled. "He does it, our Rasco, doesn't he. He makes sure his pilots don't get too big-headed. He tends to overdo it sometimes, though. Today is one such case."

Trausty gave his mentor a surprised look. "You can't be serious, surely?"

"Listen, son, if someone charged at me like you did today at those Hercs, I'd think twice before accepting the challenge. Our old hands were having a hard day too, but they noticed you.

Trausty thrust out his chest while checking, out of the corner of an eye, the impression Nicholeas' words had on his three wingmates. They looked sufficiently impressed.

"If the truth were known, your adversaries weren't particularly experienced, either," Nicholeas continued. "The rebels lost the attack before they'd even started it. No idea how the Vasudans had managed to lose both their transports and convoy craft."

Trausty darkened, brooding. He had a funny feeling he'd heard these words before.

"But who knows, it could have been your charge that made them lose their cool. It's not so easy to think straight when you face a wingful of desperate motherfuckers heading for you!"

With these words of reluctant praise, all four desperate motherfuckers beamed with pleasure.

Then Nicholeas changed the subject. "Now tell me, son, did you really see the Belisarius die?"

Trasuty nodded.

"I did. I heard it, too. Their captain refused to surrender her so the Vasudans just scorched it with a few well-aimed strikes. But," he faltered, "aren't they supposed to be our enemies? Even though they're human."

"Every side has its heroes," Nicholeas smiled at Nyra who gazed at him in silent star-worship. "There're not so many humans in our Galaxy. Our ancestors' legacy demands that we maintain our honor in combat and have respect for our enemy's valor. Although we're now destined to join the Vasudans in our confrontation with humans like ourselves, each side has its reasons to believe themselves right. Graham Webb was a fine soldier and I mourn his death deeply. If one day we once again unite against a common enemy, we'll miss his kind."

"That's a funny thing to say," Tomalsky mumbled. "Personally, I'd rather we live in peace with both them and those Vasudan lizards."

"Wars are the engine of humanity's progress. Star wars definitely are. If we hadn't had battle ships twenty-two years ago, the Shivans would have wiped us off the face of the Galaxy. In order to survive in this Universe, we'll always have to fight. We never know what's waiting for us in the next star system we enter. We, the GTVA pilots, will forever stand watch over our frontiers. I'd dearly love to live in peace with the rebels but to achieve it, we'll still have to live through a war. And after that, there'll be new wars, son. There's no way around it, I'm afraid. That's enough, pilots. At ease! I have a feeling," he turned to Trausty, "that this isn't the last time we'll be having this conversation. You're a born pilot, and as for your friend, the one with the beard," he turned to Rony, "about him I'm really not so sure."

He gave them a nod and strode toward the exit. By then, the information room was almost empty.

"A born pilot!" Tomalsky mimicked as he stared at the officer's back. "What else am I supposed to do, then? Grow worm-infested crocuses on Dad's farm? Here I thought I had a chance of getting somewhere. Passed my entry exams with the best of 'em. Who'd have known there'd be another war coming! It's trigger-happy folks like him that cause all the trouble."

"I should watch your tongue, Rony," Marchan said. "Pilots like Nicholeas should be your role model. Otherwise, back to the farm you go to grow your tapeworms."

They fell silent.

"How about we all have a quick bite," Nyra offered timidly. "I ordered a Lumisan cake to celebrate our return."

Trausty stared at her. "A cake? What kind of cake? When did you do that?"

"Just before we left the Aquitaine. Know Saula, my roommate? She made it for us. She's just pinged me to say it's all nice and waiting. She's even written a short poem about my first sortie. Something about a "brave young lass from the Barnard's star," Nyra reddened.

Trausty exchanged glances with Marchan and Rony who was still brooding over his hasty career choice.

"Well, I suppose we could pop in and chat with the girls for a bit," Marchan said vaguely. Tomalsky gave a thoughtful nod.

An enormous bagful of delicious Lumisan treats lay open on the cabin table. Still, much to Saula's annoyance, Trausty didn't even look at her offerings. All five of them sat in the girls' neat cabin in the third deck billeting sector and celebrated their first sortie — their baptism by fire. Absent-minded and vacant, Trausty soon found an excuse to leave. Marchan — who never parted with his friend — felt obliged to follow suit, albeit reluctantly.

Now he sat opposite Trausty fiddling with his comm in their cabin.

"I can't believe it!" Marchan swore under his breath. "We shouldn't have left, should we? This is Saula pinging us again. I think she's got the hots for you," he smiled meaningfully waiting for Trausty's reaction but didn't get any and so went on. "Apparently, Tomalsky took pity on the girls having been left all alone and invited a few friends over. Now the poor females are besieged by a horde of his entertainment-starved buddies. Saula's sending out a Mayday. By the way, I think I know the offenders. They're the Blue Lions trainees."

Trausty turned his head to him, absent-minded.

"The 70th fighter squadron is stationed on the GTD Bastion," he repeated mechanically. "What are they doing here?"

"You sure you're all right, Sir? They're our reinforcements for the offensive. The Bastion is on its way here, too, and our Commander in Chief Grand Admiral Vito Vittorio with it. A funny old guy he is. I saw him once — from a distance," Marchan tossed the comm onto the bed, put his hands behind his head and stared at the ceiling.

"Blue Lions," he said with disgust. "What's that for a name? Do they imply their squadron drink themselves blue? Looks like it. Rony will fill us in."

"In on what?" Trausty asked absent-mindedly.

"You're not all right, are you?" Marchan threw his hands up in dismay. "Is this a bad case of battle fever or something?"

Trausty shrugged.

"In my opinion, we did just fine," Marchan said, a challenge in his voice. "I'm quite happy we've missed the whole scuffle here. We'd have been dwarfed into insignificance, most likely, and gotten a stray missile up our asses for the trouble. And now we're being commended and thrown into everyone's faces. A promotion might also be in the works."

"Not for one mission it won't," Trausty propped himself up with his elbows turning to his friend. "I just keep thinking about the Belisarius and her captain. No idea why."

Marchan gave him a quizzical look. Trausty sighed.

"Nicholeas didn't make much sense today, either. I thought he'd say quite the opposite. Now you tell me, Al, is it all right, having respect for traitors? We took our oaths. We vowed to protect the Alliance. I'd rather have a hand chopped off than be a turncoat for Aken Bosch. They betrayed the memory of the Great War. Even now, instead of joining us and the Vasudans to help us build a defense perimeter along all our frontiers, they'd rather shoot us in the back," he turned on his stomach and stared at the wall.

"I've got to hate them for all that, you understand? And Nicholeas kept going on about respect. And you know the most painful thing about it all? Somehow I do feel sorry for the Belisarius. But why should I feel sorry for her? You tell me."

Marchan looked at him with sympathy.

"Because they were people in there, that's why," he said softly. "Humans like ourselves. I agree it would be a thousand times easier to fight the Shivans rather than draw a bead on a fighter like your own, only that the crest on their wings is different. But that's something you have to live with. It's not as if we commit some sort of atrocity on them. We don't hurt prisoners or civilians. Can't speak for the Vasudans, though. They have their own scores to settle with Bosch. Let them mop each other up if they have to, it's none of our business."

Trausty heaved a sigh. "You know, I'd love to do what my father started when he stopped the Lucifer. Only now I'd have our entire fleet to follow from one star to the next, looking for the wretched Shivans' lair and raze it once and for all. This is our Galaxy, damn it! Instead, we keep shooting each other because of this wretched Aken Bosch and his ambitions to rewrite the history of space conquest!"

"Take it easy, man," Marchan said. "The war on the rebels is bound to be over soon. We're about to enter Sirius which is Bosch's home base. Once we take it, Regulus and Polaris will surrender automatically. And then we can ask for a transfer to the final frontiers. There you'll be more than welcome to kick some red-and-black ass. If you find any, that is. If I'm not mistaken, the Fourth Fleet guys destroyed their last base over there about twenty years ago. No one has seen them there ever since."

"Exactly. A Fourth Fleet group it was. Led by a certain Commander Aken Bosch. I just wonder if the Shivans infected them with something or other before ran out of luck. That could explain them revolting against the Alliance."

Marchan shrugged. The whole conversation started to tire him out. As if Trausty couldn't find a better moment for his soul searching. He'd have to chill out and get a life. You had allies and enemies, and you couldn't have your finger in both pies. He who is not with us is against us, as simple as that. Having said that, a bit of chivalrous glory wouldn't be amiss. No one could argue with that, either. A pilot was supposed to conquer the Galaxy and throw it at his lady's feet. With the kind of equipment the Alliance had now, you could face the entire Shivan fleet and the Lucifer, no problem. The Aquitaine alone could now take on any of the most powerful red-and-black warships. Like the Evethe Eve which had crushed the Galatea and the Pinnacle, Earth and Vasuda's two best destroyers, all those years back during the Great War. It had all happened not far from where they were now, during the great Deneb turf battle that had very nearly brought the entire Alliance to the brink of collapse. Let's hope that today's battle could do the same to the rebels.

He thought of their mission. Who'd have thought that a routine escort flight could turn into a battle for the possession of Deneb? First they struggled to counter the rebels' assault on the convoy; next, the arrival of the enormous Psamtik which hadn't even bothered to retrieve the transports' cargo but ordered their wing to follow it through the Vega Deneb portal.

His comm bleeped. Marchan recollected himself, staring at his right wrist in surprise. An emergency call. Report to the command center immediately.

Marchan looked up at Trausty who stared at his wrist, equally surprised.

"Can't be another mission, surely! We've only been back five minutes! Looks like they can't do without us!" Marchan spat.

But Trausty seemed to have cheered up. He jumped off his cot, smoothed his hair and readjusted his uniform. "Chin up, pilot! The Universe is waiting. No time to wither away!" his voice rang with optimism. "Me, I'd rather go on another mission than sit here brooding. You're right: first things first. Let's be done with Neo Terra and then we'll see. Come on, get going! You'll miss all the fun."

Marchan stared at him. "Never seen anyone with such mood swings," he said. "First you lounge about like a beached whale, zero reaction to the pleas from our damsels in distress assaulted by some inebriated blue lions. Now you're jumping out of your skin like you've got a flare up your backside. If only you could stay like that for longer, the war would be over already."

Trausty gave him a censorious look and tapped his comm screen. "It's an emergency call, Al. To the command center." His voice was quiet but firm.

Marchan shrugged as he scooped all sorts of little items off the table and shoved them into his pockets. "I know, I know. It's not as if I'm suggesting hitting the local bars instead." He rose and smoothed out his tunic. "I'm ready. But what about our young 'uns? You sure they're not under the influence yet? Nyra is a nice quiet girl, no problem there. But I wouldn't trust Rony as far as I could throw him."

"Leave it, Al. You're going too far."

"Just concerned about my wingmates."

"Nothing's gonna happen. If push comes to shove, we'll feed them two Soberitins each," Trausty was already out of the door, tapping his foot impatiently. "That'll teach Tomalsky to drink before his stand-down orders."

Al joined him. They closed the cabin door and headed for the nearest elevator.

Chapter Four

"So you've been invited to dine on board the GTC?" Cariola looked up at the other girl standing by the lab window. Behind it lay the gray rain-washed third planet of Gamma Draconis: the farthest star humanity had ever managed to reach in the three centuries of its space expansion.

"Haven't seen rain for ages," the petite Allena traced the glass pane with her finger. "I thought I'd dry out in this desert before the rainy season started."

"I'll tell them to activate the shield around the station tonight. The water is already seeping through to the lower levels. It may hinder the dig. You didn't answer my question. Are you still away with the fairies after the VIPs' visit?"

Allena stepped away from the window and perched herself on the edge of Cariola's work table. "Please keep the rain going for a bit, will you? I find it soothing, sort of. All this finicky morphological analysis is doing my head in. Wish I hadn't started on the Ancient Ones' language. And I'm not away with the fairies. Just fed up with these three-monthly shifts, eating out of cans and staring at the desert. The cruiser officers are ever so nice. And their chef is excellent."

"So which ones do you like more, the chef or the officers? You should call him a cook, really, as he's part of the space navy," Cariola chuckled. "D'you know I don't grant leave to loafers? I'm the expedition leader, in case you forgot. Care to show me your last week's research results?"

The girl grinned and played along. "Please, Ma'am! I promise I'll work night and day which is a lot considering that's a full hundred galactic hours in this desert. Once the banquet is over, I'll get everything done, I promise! Actually, I'm almost finished. Almost. Besides, the Vigilant's commander said during the last comms session," Allena started unbending her fingers one by one, "first, he regretted you weren't available last time, and second, he begged you on one knee to honor today's dinner with your presence. Soon, they'll have to return to the main base to finish repairs. A Vasudan ship is supposed to replace them but I have a funny feeling they're not going to send us dinner invitations! And even if they did, I don't think we'd be able to sample their cuisine!"

"We could," Cariola rubbed her tired eyes. "But I don't think we would. They like their meat slightly rank. Their connoisseurs praise its smell to high heaven."

"Please don't," Allena made a face, "I'm about to eat soon. I mean you'll let me — us — go, will you? There're four more girls from the cryptography department. If you don't, they'll hate you to death. And preserving a healthy staff morale is part of your job responsibilities."

Cariola waved her away. "They'll have to do without. I'm fed up with all those junior officers hanging around our billets while on leave. Can't see any reasons for such enthusiasm. One-third of the Vigilant's staff are female, anyway. Why would their young men get themselves buried in this desert? They can pretend all they want that they're here to study our research on the Ancient Ones, but they don't fool me."

"Well," Allena rearranged her auburn hair, "Could be that we're pretty. And intelligent. A bunch of scholarly females wasting their youth away on the Ancient Ones' riddles. We already saved humanity once thirty years ago by decrypting the Ancient Ones' writings on Altair."

"That's nice, coming from you — considering you hadn't even been born! Besides, it wasn't thirty but twenty-two years ago. Oh well. I think you can leave a bit earlier today. Go visit the cruiser, seeing as the Vigilant is shipping out soon, anyway. Are they sending a pod for you as normal? Don't even count on ours. It's meant for research, not entertainment."

The girl clasped her hands. "Of course they are! It'll be here in two hours. Did you say you were coming? The commander really, really wants to see you. Our girls are kinda jealous. He's sending you his personal invitation. Wonder if it has anything to do with his relocation?"

"I'm afraid, it has a lot to do with something completely different," Cariola said. "And not too recent."

"Don't tell me he was in love with you? All those years back? And now he suddenly has a chance to reunite?"

"What a complete nonsense! It wasn't like that. And as for me-"

A comms tune interrupted her. Puzzled, Cariola stared at her right wrist.

"This is him," she said. "Otti Veddingen. The Vigilant's commander."

A chain of words ran along the bracelet. I look forward to seeing you on board my ship. I have a piece of information which could be of considerable importance to you. Please hurry.

"The mind boggles," Allena said. "He's texting you from his ship? What's he saying?"

"Sorry. As you've just said, it's a text message, level two confidentiality. So I can't really tell you anything but I do accept your offer. We'll go to the Vigilant together. You can hold a seat for me on board the pod, if you wish. In the meantime, I have things to attend to before we leave."

The other girl pouted her lips, but only for a second. She waltzed to the door. What's so confidential in a meeting between an archaeology prof and a warship commander? They'd probably be discussing a new administrative circular regarding security measures against rebel spies penetrating this God-forsaken fringe of human civilization. Which was rather stupid of the spies, really, as it took news a full three galactic days to reach this hole.

"I'll let you know when the pod's here!" she swept out into the corridor.

Cariola eyed the girl's back with doubt. "Oh well. I suppose I don't have that much time after all," she said sorting through the paperwork. "I'll have to make it."

She dialed Nadar, her first deputy. A moment later, his plump slant-eyed face stared at her from the TeleVid screen with an expression of doglike affection.

"How can I help you? If this is about rigging up some extra walling for level A7, it's already under control. I've just checked the works myself. The robots are already removing the rock from the next layer. They're now feeding all the data into the lab in real time."

"You're lucky you've beat me to it. Next time I'll take it out on you, trust me. Where were you when the feed began? Don't you know that damp soil weighs much more than when it's dry? You didn't seem to notice it's been raining for a week, did you?"

The deputy's cunning eyes filled with dismay. He mumbled ruefully. Cariola eased up on him.

"In a couple of hours, I'm leaving for the Vigilant on some urgent business. I'll try to make it back tonight. In the meantime, you'll run the shop. You've got the work schedule. I'll be available until we leave if you have any questions."

She could read he had lots of them on his broad face. But as usual, he asked the first thing that had apparently come to his mind.

"You mean that cruiser that's been hovering above us for the last two months?"

Cariola gave him a curt nod.

"Enjoy yourself, then. Not that anyone ever thinks about inviting me anywhere." With a sigh, he promised to keep her posted and signed off.

"I'd rather you informed me of solutions, not problems," Cariola told the blank screen. "You're not much of a deputy, are you?"

She dispatched a few more memos to station workers, switched off the transputer and gave the room a final once-over. On the window sill lay some sort of trinket or charm which Allena had left behind. Cariola walked over to the hexagonal window, the gray landscape behind it resembling an encrustation on the rain-streaked window pane. She leaned over the object on the white plastic sill — a miniature model of an Aeolus-class cruiser, the same type as the Vigilant.

She picked it up with a smile. Had to be a memento from one of those young officers. Cariola knew little about the GTVA warships, but she'd definitely read or heard about these newest cruisers about to replace the obsolete Fenris and Leviathans.

She remembered their hunched outlines — the old cruisers that had endured all the austerities of the Great War. So many of them had been destroyed by deadly Shivan fire as they protected civilian convoys fleeing the evacuated star systems. In those days, Earth hadn't had beam cannon technology and had had to rely on plasma turrets that were not in the same class as Shivan weaponry, resulting in Terran and Vasudan cruisers dying by the dozen. And somewhere among them was her husband Eric Trausty on his light Valkyrie. A born ace, one of Earth's best. Wherever his wing of like-minded do-or-dies escorted ships, their captains could breathe a sigh of relief.

He couldn't have known then that his biggest feat was yet to come. He had no idea that one day he'd have to change his fighter, the Alliance's fastest, for a heavy bomber destined to stop his arch enemy, the impregnable Lucifer.

With a sigh, Cariola reached out to replace the fragile toy. The door hissed behind her back. She startled; the model slipped out of her fingers and hit the steel plinth with a smash. Cariola gasped staring at the pieces.

"Hi, Aunt Cari," a child's voice called out. She turned to the boy standing by the door.

"Now look what you've done, Bertie! I broke this thing because of you. And it was a gift meant for somebody else."

He sniffled and looked up at her. "Sorry. I didn't know. I just wanted to ask you something."

"Which was?" Cariola stood on one knee on the floor trying to piece the model together.

"Allena has told me you're gonna go to the cruiser. Will you take me with you, please? I've never been on a warship," he slumped on the floor next to her. "You're doing it wrong. You're using the wrong pieces. I can do it for you."

Bertie fiddled with the fragments trying to reassemble them. "I can glue them together. It'll be like new. Is it yours? Will you take me with you if I fix it?"

"I told you it's not mine. If you really can fix it, you can give it back to Allena. It's hers," she stood up shaking the dust from her knees. "And you're way too young to engage in blackmail. You know very well that the Vigilant is no pleasure cruiser. And I don't give orders there."

"Yeah, right," Bertie shoved his hands into his pockets, offended. "It's only girls that are welcome. They have no business there. They can't tell a beam cannon from an AAA turret."

"And you can, can you?" Cariola smiled. The boy frowned, brooding. She tousled his hair and gave it a thought.

"This is what we'll do," she said. "We'll go ask your mom if she can let you go tonight. If she can, we'll contact the cruiser and tell them we want you to come too. I don't think they'll object."

Bertie lit up and took his leave, wise enough not to push his luck.

Not a bad idea, after all, Cariola thought. I'll dump him onto Allena. That way she won't have much time to gallivant around. And I'll have a chance to talk to Weddingen. Wonder what it is about? Men sure can pique a woman's interest when they want to.

Cariola waited in the station's warm and homely lobby. She snuggled up on a couch next to a large illuminated fish tank housing those creatures from the Capella system — very much like Terran octopuses, only these had nine legs and fluorescent rainbow-colored bodies so bright you could easily read in their light. They were a gift from Dr. Mina Hargrove, a portal physics specialist and Cariola's old friend. They'd been working together since the Great War and seemed to complement each other well. Cariola Trausty was a decryption expert specializing in the Ancient Ones' manuscripts. Her research often served Dr. Hargrove as aids helping her understand the physics behind portal transportation. In her opinion, star portals were nothing other than unexplainable punctures in the space-and-time tissue of our Universe.

She still had twenty minutes until the pod arrived, and Cariola took a rare chance to put her feet up as she watched the latest news. The combat operations bulletins tended to be too vague and unintelligible. At least she found out that the Third Fleet was still holding the Vega system engaging in occasional skirmishes with the rebels. Her son, Frank Trausty, served there. As for the rest, apparently, the main body of GTVA forces were concentrating in Epsilon Pegasi planning a victorious offensive.

How I wish it were over, she thought. That wretched smartass Aken Bosch has been playing with the Alliance like a cat with a mouse for the last eighteen months. Any longer, and Trausty's chances to get in a scrape will grow exponentially. How stupid of me thinking that by the time he'd finished his pilot training, they wouldn't post him to a combat zone. That's the only reason I approved his choice of career. Now he's a staff officer, even if he was trained fast track, and if you believed those in the know, the war is nowhere near from being over! At least this time his fleet isn't part of the offensive.

She remembered the infamous Terran offensive in the Antares system all those years back. The Vasudans were our enemies then. By the end of the second galactic day of the great battle, up to five hundred units had been destroyed on either side, from tiny fighters to enormous warships. She was lucky that Eric, her new husband, had only just left pilot academy. Casualties in their thousands, mourned all over the Terran worlds. And only eight days later, the Shivans' forward forces had first struck in the Ross 128 system, forcing Earth and Vasuda to forget their fourteen years of combat. It had only taken them days to sign their definitive peace treaty and create the Alliance to confront the new deadly threat.

Allena made a noisy entrance with Bertie in tow. They didn't look particularly happy with each other.

"Thanks a lot, Cari. I'm already half-dead with this kid," the girl said.

"You're welcome. Consider it fatigue duty. Besides, you could do with a bit of practice. One day you'll have to handle your own."

"I doubt it," Allena dropped into a chair next to her. "Finding a family type on this ship won't be easy."

Cariola shrugged. "Aren't you enjoying it just a little bit?"

"Enjoying! This little motherf- sorry, this sweet child started questioning my history!" she leaned toward Cariola. "They're reading the newest period, ending with 2335."

Cariola gave it a thought. "That's before the clash with Shiva?"

"What is? Yeah, I suppose so. How do you think I'm supposed to remember? He gave me a big fat zero."

Allena gave Bertie an indignant look. He stood next to the fish tank slapping the glass and waiting to see the Cappelian nonopuses' morphing reaction. The disturbed creatures flashed brilliant colors.

"I knew you weren't an A-grader yourself." Cariola turned to the boy. "Bertie! Leave the poor critters alone and tell me what you learned on your last history lesson. Aunt Allena could use some of it."

The boy forced himself away from the glass and stood next to them, giving Allena a contented look. She covered her eyes.

"She doesn't even know when they invented the subspace engine. She has no idea how it works," he said.

"Please. It has nothing to do with Terran history," Allena groaned. "I'm not a physicist, anyway."

Cariola suppressed a smile looking at the two.

"Very well, Bertie. We have another fifteen minutes till the pod arrives. Come sit next to me and tell me everything you've learned," she seated the boy next to her. "So what happened after they discovered the subspace nodes?"

"The war," the boy reported happily. "On the Vasudans. In 2321.

"The Vasudan Empire and its militarist clique," the boy started as if reporting a lesson, "by definition couldn't live in peace with the Terran parliamentary republic. After the Imperial Prince Mihos died under strange circumstances, Vasudans blamed his demise on the Terran secret services. Following the ineffective talks, Vasudan generals treacherously raided the Sol system," Bertie raised his finger, "only to be crushed by the First Fleet led by a new Orion-class destroyer, the glorious Gaya."

Cariola sighed. The war gave her no happy associations whatsoever. But how could she forget that for several generations of Terrans, stars and wars were one.

"The Terran forces replied with a skillful breakthrough by the Antares Vasuda node which very nearly nipped the war in the bud," Bertie went on. "But," his face saddened, "as the Terran economy had tended to be peace-oriented, we hadn't built enough warships allowing the Vasudan militarists and their enormous fleet to force our small task group back. After that, the enemy's superior forces invaded the Terran Vega system. There, one of the bloodiest battles in history took place in which humans showed feats of mass heroism forcing the enemy to retreat. It was," the boy frowned, "on June twenty-two 2324. In the next two years, all our efforts were put into designing new powerful warships. It was then that Leviathan-class cruisers came on line.

"Which was why during the next big Antares battle in October 2326, the Terran forces chose a tactical withdrawal aiming to entice the enemy into a trap. It was followed by the Vasudans' overwhelming defeat in the Battle of Gulnara, Antares' fourth planet. After that, the Terran forces commenced an offensive targeting the heart of the empire — Vasuda Prime — and forced their government and the Emperor's court to relocate to their Altair capital. Vasuda seemed to be facing the specter of defeat."

The boy stopped catching his breath.

"And what next?" Allena demanded. She seemed to be hearing the story for the first time.

Bertie let out a sigh conveying to his listeners the gravity of the problems the Terrans would face next.

"Not so good," he said. "Enter the evil overlord, Vasudan Prince Imhotep with his new Typhon-class destroyers. In the battle for the disputed Talania star system he treacherously defeated our Sixth Fleet."

"An evil overlord, a militarized clique," Allena mocked. "Where do you get these kinds of words from? You must have a microcrib installed in your eye. Come on, blink if you haven't!"

"This is all in the books," the boy answered. "An evil overlord is easy. It's when someone is evil but he's also very smart. Which Imhotep was, I suppose. And I never use microcribs," he stuck out his tongue and went on,

"This Imhotep was indeed our Nemesis. Gosy says he was a hero and he even showed me his book to prove it, but I can't really read Vasudan, can I?"

"Gosy is a son of some Vasudan expert," Cariola answered Allena's surprised stare. "They deal with the Ancient Ones' language here on the station. I'm sure you've met him. He's a tad older than this... this boy," she turned to Bertie. "Have you found a common language? I mean, do you hang out together a lot?"

"Yeah right! I can only talk to him through the auto translator. Otherwise I wouldn't know what he means when he hisses or rustles like an old paper bag. But we do play together sometimes. He's not easy to play with, though. First he rushes around like a scalded cat and then he gets really tired and can't move at all. No good to play tag with."

"Nothing unusual. The Vasudans' metabolism is similar to that of our reptiles," Cariola tried to explain. "Come on, Bertie, it's really easy. Their muscles are like those of our crocodiles and snakes. They can only attempt a few rapid but very short sprints. Then they need to take a break. When you're big enough to study biology, you'll know all about it."

"That's nothing," the boy said. "They lay eggs! Can you imagine?"

Allena burst into a long cheerful laughter. "What else do you know about them?" she finally said.

With an offended look, Bertie turned to Cariola. She leaned closer. "Don't be angry. Auntie Allena is a bit too young. Just promise me to listen to what she says when we get on board the cruiser."

The boy gave a reluctant nod.

"Sorry, kid," the girl pushed a strand of hair away from her forehead. "Can you tell us what happened next to that Imhotep character? Is it right, his name, Imhotep?"

Another nod. "We lost Deneb, Antares and a few more systems within the next three years because of him. Plus he besieged Betelgeuse for another six months. Finally, in 2333 the Vasudans turned all their new ships on Vega. This was when the Eisenhower was destroyed together with all of the Fourth Fleet.

"The Earth mustered its last strength and managed to force the aggressors away avenging the Fourth Fleet. In the two battles that followed up until 2335, humans managed to regain Deneb and eliminate two Typhon-class destroyers: one based on Vega and the other in the area of Antares. And just as the new 2335 year started, on January 8 the biggest and final battle between Earth and Vasuda unfolded. In it, neither side managed to achieve a decisive victory. But this was when the Shivans put in their first appearance, prompting Vasuda and Earth to make peace once and for all.

"We haven't learned any more yet. But I know it anyway. Want me to tell you?"

"In a moment," Allena stopped him. "I think the pod's coming. Can you hear it?"

Cariola heard the low rumble coming from afar, approaching, making the floor underfoot shake and shudder. The nine-leg Capellan octopuses reacted with fierce flashing before crawling under the rocks on the bottom of the tank.

In a moment, the room was quiet again. The girls and the boy looked at each other.

"Everybody ready? Off we go," Cariola rose. "How many other passengers are there, four?"

Allena checked her list. "Twelve counting us," she averted her eyes. "Please don't get mad with them. Tomorrow is their day off, after all."

Cariola threw her hands up in dismay. "I wish the Vigilant was on its way back soon! I'm fed up with trying to reason with you all."

"Enjoy your trip," a level male voice said behind her back.

Cariola turned. "Hi, Sipptar."

You could tell the Vasudans by the unemotional tone of their auto translate machines which interpreted their hisses and rustles into human speech.

He looked like a giant Komodo Dragon scantily clad in bits of colorful cloth. His unblinking yellow eyes stared at Cariola. A narrow tongue thrashed about incessantly probing the air in his half-open mouth set with tiny sharp teeth.

Standing erect on his unnaturally long legs, the Vasudan offered Cariola his sand colored, birdlike five-digit claw with long articulated fingers. A comm's emerald light blinked on his thin wrist.

"I have received your cruiser's message asking me to come along. I concurred."

Turning to Cariola, Allena raised her eyebrows. "Why do they constantly keep me out of their secrets..." she started.

A group of young girls, all dressed to kill, spilt out of the open doors into the station lobby laughing and shouting. Waving her hands, Allena rushed to stop them, but the girls had already noticed the top brass present. They quieted down and proceeded to the lock exit.

Cariola gave Bertie a light push to follow them. "Go and save a few seats for us, that's a good boy."

Bertie nodded and ran off. Cariola turned to the Vasudan.

"Why would they do it, Sipptar? I mean, why would they ask you to come along? I received a similar message from them, too."

He shrugged his slim shoulders the way a human would.

"I am not surprised. They may have found some kind of artifact during a patrol mission. According to the shared access agreement, such instances call for representatives of both our races to be present. The ship's commander follows the protocol, that's all."

"Probably. It never crossed my mind. Come to think about it, you and I are the only persons in Gamma Draconis with sufficient access level to classified information. They have no one else here."

She gave it a thought. "Wouldn't it be nice if they've found something new? Don't you think it ironic that we've been digging this planet up for three months now with nothing to show for it while all the discoveries seem to be up there in outer space?"

"That may well be," Sipptar said. "But to the best of my knowledge, the latest system scans done by the Erikson research ship fifteen years ago didn't show any abnormalities in the adjacent space."

He stopped by the lock exit letting her in first.

Chapter Five

The enormous bridge of the GTD Aquitaine was almost deserted. Two repair techs were busy replacing the damaged holographic viewers while Admiral Petrarch and three of the watch officers kept out of their way. Tall and sinewed with graying blond hair, Orneo Petrarch sat in the captain's chair in full dress uniform, deep in thought, and tapped the armrest while casting an occasional angry glance in the direction of the techs who were doing their best to suppress their cussing. They could call him a snob if they wanted to, but Petrarch couldn't stand his subordinates' swearing.

Unfortunately, the repair men were technically civilians and therefore didn't receive their orders from the Admiral. He just couldn't threaten to put them up against the wall if they persisted on using profanities around one of the GTVA Fleet's highest-ranking officers.

He understood them, though. The Aquitaine had had a bad thrashing in the course of the battle. She'd got it much worse than other ships in the battle group. The repair scans kept finding new malfunctions in the destroyer's bowels. The worst, of course, was the news of the damage to her generators and primary weapons. The NTD Jacobus, may she rest in peace, employed some first-rate gunners – one of whom was now captive on board the targeted Aquitaine and apparently had to find solace in the irony of it all.

The BFGreen, the Aquitaine's main weapon responsible for sixty percent of her entire battle power expenditure, had finally given up the ghost due to a direct hit from the Jacobus. Good job it had happened in the last minutes of the battle, just before the enemy cruiser split along its aft. Even though the Aquitaine's other beam cannons and AS turrets still functioned, the loss of the Big F*** Cannon left her at a disadvantage against the dated enemy destroyers. Her shield had suffered, too, and the repair drones' cheap and cheerful job on its neo steel armor plates didn't guarantee the same protection levels.

Besides, if the enemy beams pinpointed the Aquitaine's critical locations which were protected by a double layer of armor, the heavy bombers launched their torpedoes every which way.

Petrarch remembered the watch officer's scream, 'Three hostile Medusas one space mile aft!', the red lines of their battle courses crossing that of the flagship on the lateral holographic panel. One of the 44th's pilots responsible for providing air cover to the warship intercepted a bomber. He managed to creep up on his enemy's tail and kept firing until the hostile craft had given up and peeled off right, away from its target. Neither had survived to tell the tale. The escaping Medusa, already damaged, was hit by the Aquitaine's AS turrets causing both its torpedoes to detonate. The GTVA interceptor, too involved in the attack, was affected by the shock wave. Both craft disappeared in an exploding ball of fire.

The second attacking bomber, complete with its just-launched torpedoes, had been shot by the warship at point blank range. But they'd failed to down the third one.

"We're gonna catch one now," the first mate said calmly to Petrarch. "You'd better buckle up, Sir."

Petrarch obediently snapped his seat belt close. The next moment, the warship indeed 'caught one'. Two enemy Cyclops – torpedoes of overwhelming power specifically created to target star warships – exploded on the Aquitaine's hull aft. The entire ship shuddered with the impact. Those still unbuckled were thrown out of their seats. The control panels exploded in a shower of sparks and went out. The Vice Admiral, shell-shocked, slowly turned his head while trying to get his bearings amid the flashes of the emergency lighting.

Finally, backup systems kicked in. The men on the bridge started to come around. Catching the captain's worried glance, Petrarch waved him away.

"Leave it," he shouted. "Continue firing. Concentrate fire on the Jacobus' aft. Send the reserve bombers to attack the Belisarius. We don't yet know how bad the damage is to our ship but we need to seize the initiative while we still can."

Thank God it had all worked out. No critical damage had been done to the Aquitaine: only one of the three main generators was down so the warship could continue the action.

Still, the powerful shock wave had rendered many of the ship instruments inoperative. Part of Deck Five near the point of impact had been destroyed. A hundred and eighty people had met their deaths buried under the debris or being suffocated within the unsealed modules. Now their bodies were waiting for parting volleys followed by the sad ceremony of space burials.

At least his men hadn't died in vain. The op's tactical success was obvious. The Third Fleet's battle group had retained its action readiness while having virtually wiped out the hostile squadron. The GVD Psamtik had come out intact and was now controlling the area of the Sirius Deneb node.

Still, Petrarch couldn't shake off the feeling of doom. The rebels seemed to have too few craft –far too few! – near Deneb which was one of their key systems. That could mean that the whole attack had been but a ruse meant to paralyze the GTVA forces in the region.

We expected a struggle, a series of advances and counterattacks playing off warships against each other at stellar nodes the way warcraft demands, and what did we get? A fierce dogfight that decided the outcome of the battle before it had even started.

Where were the main rebel squadrons and Admiral Bosch himself? Was he going to deliver the final blow somewhere else – near Epsilon Pegasi, perhaps? The briefing had ended thirty minutes ago but hadn't brought clarity to the situation. They'd decided to keep their heads down and refrain from deploying the entire force to the Deneb Sirius node. Having the Psamtik at the ready there was sufficient: she'd easily deal with light rebel craft and raiders and would have plenty of time to retreat in the event of a large squadron's approach from the direction of Sirius.

But in any case, the fleet commanders had to come to some sort of decision within the next eight hours. This was how long the Psamtik could hold with her hyperfield generators on standby. Then she'd have to either shut them down or become an armored bakehouse as the reactors wouldn't be able to support both the subspace generators and the heavy beam cannons at the same time.

I need to speak to Vittorio. The old boy might have some fresh intelligence for me.

Petrarch rubbed his forehead and glanced at his watch. Ninety minutes until the arrival of the Commander's warship. Not enough time to clean the Aquitaine up sufficiently for a top brass' visit.

"You all right, guys?" he asked of the techs still laboring nearby. "I'm starting to doubt your qualifications. I expect it to be fixed in an hour. Do you think the enemy will hang about until you're finished fiddling with it?"

"Sir," an engineer raised his head glistening with sweat. "We're doing everything we can. Too much damage, you can see for yourself."

"Sixty minutes," the Admiral tapped his watch. "You're currently located in a combat zone. No one's going to make any damage allowances. If push comes to shove, you won't even make it out of here safely back to your families, that's for sure."

He rose and started walking towards the exit, PVC fragments crunching underfoot.

"Commander Virt," he called the watch officer closest to him. "Tell the captain he can find me in my cabin. And tell Commander de Trotti of the 53rd to send a couple of fighter wings to check out the NTF depot in the asteroid belt. Just to make sure it's all-clear."

On hearing the order, Commander de Trotti emitted a loud complex expletive but hesitated about questioning his superior's decision.

"They must be mad," he slammed a fist on the table sending the Deneb battle map image quivering in front of him. He turned to his squadron deputy Savitsky. "They think I can get someone to fly a sortie right after an action? Don't they have any more reserves?"

His deputy had been sitting opposite de Trotti throughout the briefing staring inconspicuously at his groomed nails. Now he nodded and reached into his breast pocket for a folded sheet of synthetic paper.

"We've lost two out of sixteen fighters, and four more can go directly for a refit," he checked his notes. "Plus the same number will be serviceable within the next twenty-four hours, or so the techs have promised."

"In other words, six craft ready for action," de Trotti concluded. "They want two wings, which is eight fighters. We'll just have to send two wings of three apiece. With no reserves left! How do they expect us to fight?"

"My point exactly," Savitsky folded the paper and put it back into his pocket. "At least all our men are back safely. Those two shot down were lucky to eject right into our hands. The equipment can always be repaired. They might still send in some new craft. I wouldn't say no to a few Perseus."

"Yeah, right. You'll have a long wait. They're more likely to fit us out with those Hercs dripping with fifteen years' worth of grease. Anyway!" the commander cracked his knuckles, "summon all ensigns for a five-minute briefing in the control room. Let the old hands rest after today's dogfights."

He slammed the desk again. "Why on earth did they need my fighters of all things! They could just as easily have sent a scout group from a recce squadron. My boys are still recovering after the battle."

"The scouts are too busy checking the rest of the star system. The Admiral just can't believe he's run out of hostiles. I think it's because we're the only ones casualty-free today. Not a single pilot wounded, let alone dead," Savitsky knocked the wooden armrest. "The other squadrons weren't so lucky. The 44th has lost three dead and almost half the craft. Naturally, they're jealous," the deputy concluded displaying the pilot list on the screen.

"My pilots are the best. Everybody knows it. So everybody wants a piece of them," de Trotti said with a mixture of pride and anger. "Right. You may summon six pilots. Let's come up with a nice flight assignment for them. I don't think they'd mind taking the depot apart."

"In a moment, Sir," Savitsky typed in an emergency summons. "They're on their way. I bet my life Trausty and his wing will come running first. They can't help being Alpha!"

After eight minutes, the summoned ensigns were already waiting. When the metal door hissed shut behind the last of them and everyone had taken their places around the control room table, their commander rose and walked over to the large holographic viewer nicknamed The Grim Reaper's TV. He turned to face the others, readjusted his tunic and waited for a respectful silence to fill the room. He then opened the briefing with a standard phrase he'd been using for many a year,

"Blessed be the pilot who listens well to his flight leader before takeoff."

Once again he looked over his audience. The pilots stirred, gloom clouding a few faces. They still couldn't believe command's cruelty, sending them on their next combat mission just hours after an exhausting battle. But de Trotti's words made them realize he did have a good reason for summoning them.

"I've gathered you here to inform you of command's great confidence in my best pilots. I know that you are the only people capable of going out again to grab yourself some more glory before even recovering from your last mission."

His best pilots froze in anticipation. Their commander turned to the screen. In a split second, a map of the Deneb system appeared flickering in the air, green pins pointing at the locations of the victorious Third Fleet. Then the picture zoomed in on the system's large asteroid belt glinting with red lights.

De Trotti cleared his throat.

"The battlefield mission is to secure an NTF depot detected in this asteroid belt here. Our scanners report no warships but I'm sure of the presence of a sentry gun or two. You know how to handle them so don't you dare go losing any craft to their fire or you'll be the laughing stock of the entire fleet. You won't encounter anything worse than a few hostile light craft provided they've managed to jump there after today's engagement. They might have made it back to their base to rearm and refuel. If you encounter more than two wings, take evasive action. Just scan the containers nearest to you and get back. It'll give us enough data to decide how much additional strength we'll need to send in order to complete the mission.

"I'm assigning two wings of three fighters apiece to the mission. Frank Trausty will lead the Alphas. Pilot Officer Fram is in charge of Beta wing. You have orders to destroy the entire depot: the rebels' cargo, freighters, their equipment – everything. Leave nothing unturned."

De Trotti paused.

"Pilot Officer Khovanisyan, what's this hangdog expression on your face? You want to know why the GTVA can't just seize the whole lot? You disappoint me, Pilot. Every greenhorn here knows that all such trophies are equipped with friend-foe recognition devices. The moment a gullible pilot like yourself tries to seize the goody bag, a small explosion is set off turning your craft with you in it into a ball of burning plasma. Understood?"

The short and swarthy Pilot Khovanisyan nodded timidly and pinched his pencil moustache. He didn't dare specify whether the rebel freighters were equipped with the same recognition systems.

In the meantime, the six little green shapes of GTVA fighters had moved into the asteroid belt causing the red lights to go out one by one. De Trotti eyed the reenactment with satisfaction.

"The mission isn't too difficult. So no unnecessary risks, please. I repeat, do not engage with superior enemy forces. We've already given them a good whopping today so don't offer them the opportunity to bite us in the ass. We'd rather send a destroyer with a strong escort there if necessary. Takeoff in fifteen minutes. Any questions? Wing leaders, come over to me. The rest stand easy."

The room filled with noise as the pilots headed toward the exit. Trausty and the second wing leader Abert Fram walked over to the squadron commander. De Trotti handed them the chips containing flight charts with their routes already preprogrammed. They allowed the six GTVA fighters to fly there and back automatically without any pilot interference. That is, if they didn't encounter enemy craft.

De Trotti gave them an encouraging nod. "I expect you back within three hours in the state that you now are. I called you the squadron's best, and I meant it. Only the best return in their own ships. Others are brought back by rescue parties. And don't you think that those who now stay behind are going to enjoy it. I'll show them how to fuck up expensive military machinery!"

A mischievous glint appeared in Fram's eye. "They seem to know very well how to do it, anyway," he said in an expressly respectful voice.

De Trotti cast him a suspicious glance. "Pilot Officer Fram! Have you got your orders?"

"Yes, Sir!" he sprang to attention.

"Jump to it then!"

Fram saluted and about-turned, giving Trausty a wink. Trausty pointedly turned back to the squadron leader refusing to play along.

"Permission to leave!" he saluted.

De Trotti's expression softened. He had to admit that Trausty was his favorite even though the 53rd's commander might appear to treat all of his pilots equally.

"You can go, son. Good luck."

The pilots headed for the door. Their wingmates waited just outside.

"Fucking brownnose," Fram said in a soft but clear voice. He walked out into the third deck corridor, long and narrow, flooded with harsh wall lights.

Trausty cast him a disdainful glance. "I'm not supposed to listen to insubordinate criticisms. Especially when both the criticisms and the subordinate are too dumb to begin with."

"Who are you calling a subordinate?" Fram went ballistic. "Since when?"

"As Alpha wing leader, I'm running the show. And being the Beta leader, you're obeying my orders in accordance with your place in the alphabet," Trausty said tracing the smooth steel wall with his finger. Closest to him, Alex and Nyra grinned staring at the white-faced Fram.

"Some op this is," he said through his teeth. "Trashing an empty base! My boys and I could do it with our hands tied behind our backs."

Trausty leaned in closer to Fram and pointed his finger at him. "Excellent. Seeing as you're so full of initiative, I assign you to destroy the sentry guns. Perfect for you. In the meantime, we'll deal with the rebel fighters. Piece of cake, isn't it?"

Fram seemed to be about to clobber Trausty. Marchan took a step toward his friend.

"Just wait and see," Fram restrained himself, hatred in his glare. "You won't always be an Alpha. Come on, guys," he turned to his wingmates behind him.

Trausty watched him leave, thoughtful.

"I can see he'll be more trouble than he's worth. No idea of military discipline whatsoever."

Alex nodded. Trausty looked over his friends.

"So, guys, all aboard? Ten minutes till takeoff. You might still make it if you run hard enough."


The turbines roared back to life. Trausty shook his head after coming around from the subspace jump. Lines of red lettering ran across the armored glass in front of him. His mind registered his craft's speed, coordinates, and the number of objects present.

There! Trausty perked up. Hundreds of space miles of the gas giant's large asteroid belt lay before him. Huge gray rocks glittered under Deneb's rays. They commanded respect. The depot, or the supermarket as the pilots had nicknamed the rebel supply base, was actually quite close, toward the outer edge of the belt: far enough to avoid any stray rocks and gun them down in time, but close enough to show up on GTVA broadband scanners. The map showed a long chain of several dozen armored containers plus two freighters docked next to them.

"Great exit," Trausty muttered. "Couldn't have gotten any closer even if we tried. Alex – begin scanning. Alpha Three will send your report to Control."

"Yes, Sir," answered Marchan, a.k.a. Alpha Two. "Observe eighteen TTC cargo containers and ten armored TAC 1's. Next to them observe two Triton-class freighters and a loading Poseidon. They're guarded by six Alastor sentry guns and three Loki-class fighters. Seven oh six, three-thirty four, flight level seventeen."

The rear view camera glowed silver as the second wing of three Myrmidon fighters exited subspace. Time to launch the op.

The enemy had noticed their advance and leapt into action. One of the transports had stopped loading and began turning on her heels to mount a defense. AS turrets rotated under its belly sniffing out the enemy. The second freighter, a clumsy Triton resembling an oversized clothes peg with its container grips, froze in anticipation: her sole plasma cannon and enormous body lines made her an easy target rendering the ship virtually defenseless. Her crew knew it, of course: they were probably busy hoisting the white flag and taking their seats in escape capsules. The three Loki craft rushed in front of the freighters until one of them, apparently heavily damaged during the day's battle, hurried out of sight behind the Triton's enormous focsle. Only the Alastor-class ASGs, or automated sentry guns, didn't betray any panic in the face of the enemy and commenced deploying toward the potential assault. Their AI controls knew no fear.

Trausty sized up the situation. In order to get to the transports and fighters, he'd have to fly the gauntlet of ASGs. But skirting them would take too long allowing the hostile ships enough time to jump and scatter all over the Deneb system provided their hyperfield generators weren't completely empty. De Trotti wouldn't like it if Trausty let a weak enemy slip away!

In the meantime, the hostile craft were getting closer. Trausty made up his mind. His heart pounded in his chest in anticipation of a skirmish. He grasped the controls and braced himself.

"Attention all. Alpha One to Alpha and Beta wings. Prepare to engage. Alpha wing, we'll take out the ASGs 5 and 6. After which I'll take care of the fighters while Alpha Two and Three target those freighters. Beta wing, you take out the remaining ASGs before they engage Alpha wing. Then mop up whatever craft are left. We'll leave the cargo till last."

"I knew he'd leave me the guns, the pig," Beta One spat.

"Dereliction of duty is punishable by death. So you'd better take care of it. And God forbid we take a hit from an ASG before you get to them," Trausty tried to suppress his anger at being called a pig over the intercom. Despite his excitement, he grinned contemplating de Trotti's possible reaction to Fram's insubordination during the debriefing back on board the Aquitaine.

The Beta wing peeled off reluctantly toward the four closest ASGs in order to cover Trausty's group. They started firing almost simultaneously, filling the starry void with the colored streaks of plasma charges. Even the freighters opened fire at random, virtually harmless at this distance, but which also added color to the melee of the battlefield. Leaving AS turrets, the unstable plasma charges didn't have the range and exploded in clusters of innocuous yellow fireworks.

"Alpha wing, engage afterburners!" Trausty shouted as he drew a bead on the nearest ASG.

4 Gs pinned him to his seat. Dark spots formed at the edges of his field of vision as acceleration forced blood away from the pilot's eyes. But the sooner he reached the line of fire, the better, as stationary Alastors were better at long range than Myrmidons' onboard weapons.

A plasma charge hit his fighter head on, then diffused and was absorbed by the shield, shimmering an ethereal purple around the point of impact. The green square on the shield level display dropped, but Trausty paid little heed to it as he drew a bead on the polyhedron of the ASG pulsating with volleys. His finger lay on the trigger. A long burst cut through the shieldless Alastor. It was immediately hit again by two of his wingmates' rockets. The ASG spun, then exploded shooting plumes of white fire into space.

In barely milliseconds, Trausty's fighter entered the dispersing cloud of debris. He looked to his right where the second ASG was spitting fire trying to break free from Nyra's assault. She was good. Her Myrmidon had failed to take the enemy out on the first pass and disappeared from view, turning round behind the chain of unarmored TTCs. The sentry gun engaged her with an impassionate raking of his own cargo. Before it stopped, Nyra's craft, guns ablaze, reappeared from behind the circle of exploding steel TTC boxes. The second ASG seemed to swell and burst into a bright white blossom.

"Great, guys. We're through. Take out the freighters before they leg it. I'll deal with the fighters," Trausty looped in order to see how the other wing was doing. They were fine. Fram was finishing off the remaining ASGs in a frenzy of wounded pride.

Just look at him! I must be a pretty good CO if I can get the likes of him to work in a team. Trausty felt a pang of self-respect. In the meantime, a couple of light Lokis jumped him trying to distract the Alphas from the freighters. They exchanged a few salvos and split in opposite directions. The missiles traced a fancy pattern in space but none of them reached their target. Marchan and Nyra battled their way toward the freighters as planned. Trausty shot up, banking into a tight turn to get behind his attackers. After a brief hesitation, one of the rebel fighters started out in pursuit of the two GTVA craft which were about to assault the freighters, while the second Loki started a new turn and tried to intercept their leader. This lingering moment cost the enemy dearly as Trausty then sped up to stalk the Neo Terran leader.

He had the hostile in his crosswires. "Alpha wingmen, take your time with the cargo. I'll take care of the pointman."

He fired almost at point blank range. The Loki's shield lasted a few seconds absorbing the plasma charges that showered the craft. Then it collapsed in a bubble of light. The next round penetrated an engine reactor, throwing the enemy fighter to starboard. Not entirely happy with the result, Trausty fired another salvo; the enemy pilot saw the approaching streaks of missiles and promptly ejected.

As Trausty watched the ejected rescue capsule go past, he nearly forgot about the second hostile who was cutting astern. The Alpha leader banked into a turn. On the radars, their two red flight lines came dangerously close to each other. They played cat and mouse for several minutes wasting their last missiles. Trausty broke out in a sweat. This guy was good. The awkward thing was, he couldn't afford to lose control of his group but the enemy kept him busy, apparently eager to avenge his friend's demise.

"All Alphas report in!" Trausty shouted as he banked into another turn trying to get a glimpse of what his wing was up to.

"All clear, Sir. Targeting the Poseidon," answered Marchan's cheerful voice. "We've wiped out all of her turrets and demolished her hull aft. She's not going anywhere now. Nyra, watch out for that wounded Loki behind the Triton over there! Good girl! That'll serve him right. You okay, Sir?"

"Sort of," Trausty croaked as he hung in his seatbelt under negative Gs. Everything around him turned crimson as blood rushed to his head causing a redout. Apparently, the enemy pilot wanted to teach him a lesson. The shield indicator had dropped halfway: very soon, the fighter's hull would start taking flak. Trausty saw his opponent in his rear view camera cutting behind him, drawing closer.

Just then it exploded in a bubble of fire. Before Trausty could take it in, three GTVA Myrmidons rushed past, the 53rd Hammerheads' colors on their fuselages. A familiar voice enquired with a smirk,

"How long am I supposed to wait for you? The cargo's about to leave."

Trausty let out a sigh of relief. Fram, who else.

"The cargo's fine. My wing's busy there. And you should be there watching the show and learning from the pros," he managed, still recovering from the acceleration. "Instead, you're hanging around here messing up my aerobatics practice."

"Am I?" Fram said. "I should've known better than to expect any gratitude from you. I'm off then. Your wing needs help. They're dragging it out too long."

Beta wing sped away, afterburners blazing. Trausty took his bearings. His craft seemed unscathed apart from a jammed starboard Subach and the fact that he'd run out of missiles. He seemed to have come off lightly.

Suddenly a panic-stricken voice broke into their frequency.

"Hold your fire! We surrender! This is the Poseidon's captain! I said, stop firing! My reactors are all fucked up! I repeat, we surrender, request to cease fire."

"That's not fair!" Fram yelled. "We want to shoot, too! Do you think you can leave us a few lousy sentries and a fighter to share between the three of us?"

"What's the rush," Alpha Two butted in. "It's not as if you're dead yet. What have you decided, Sir? Shall we give the poor bastards a break?"

Trausty directed his craft toward the rebel freighters. They were all ablaze, sparks flying from numerous breaches. But the Triton which hadn't shown any intention of resistance to begin with, now looked much happier than the other ship peppered with direct hits. A ten-meter wide hole glowed crimson in place of the Poseidon's AS turrets. The freighter's aft housing the engines was damaged beyond recognition. Marchan and Nyra had done a good job. Now their craft hovered over the freighters, ready to open fire. Beta wing hung around, disappointed.

Trausty tried to remember the procedure. He'd never had to capture enemy ships before. His memory only offered one phrase, 'Under Beta Aquilae Convention, all sides are obliged to respect the human rights of prisoners of war.' He wasn't going to put the freighter's captain against a wall, anyway. But what was he supposed to do with the ships? De Trotti had made it clear they were supposed to destroy everything in their sights. On the other hand, the freighters would make great trophies. Trausty wanted to scratch his head but his gloved hand scraped against his visor. After a few moments' hesitation, he made up his mind,

"This is Alpha One wing leader of the GTVA Fleet. Both crews are to take their places in rescue capsules and advance to a safe distance from your ships. We're about to destroy both freighters. Beta wing, you're to destroy the cargo in the meantime."

"Wait! I did say we surrendered. What's with all the rescue capsules? Do you really think I'll enjoy hanging out in an uncontrollable cockleshell?" annoyance had replaced fear in the enemy captain's voice.

"We'll send the GTT Elysium to pick you up. Also, if it's confirmed that you are civilians acting under constraint, they'll be obliged to let you go," Trausty said firmly.

"This doesn't apply to rebel officers, of course," he added not to give any ideas to the ejected Loki pilots floating nearby. "I repeat. Crews are to abandon your ships immediately. We have our orders which we're about to fulfill in approximately five minutes' time."

Relief came over him as he spoke. Wasn't it nice to obey orders without thinking.

"Roger that," the Poseidon's captain's gloomy voice refrained from further discussion. "Snapkin," he spoke to the second transport, "get the hell out of your bucket. There'll be some free fireworks to watch in a minute."

Marchan contacted Trausty on a closed channel. "Are you sure we should go ahead with this, Sir? Nyra and I were doing our best trying to capture them in one piece. We could've blown them to smithereens but we decided they were worth more as trophies."

"I know, Alex," Trausty sighed. "But I have de Trotti's orders to destroy everything that moves. I obey my orders and suggest you do the same."

"Affirmative, Sir," Marchan answered after a pause. "You're the boss."

Trausty brought his ship round to a precision-firing range from the freighters and trained his sights on the enormous Tritonand to the reactor closest to him as he watched the evacuation procedure. This class of ship could be manned by up to fifty crew, able to fit into just one standard lifeboat equipped with a small fusion engine. He watched it leave from the poop deck – a forty-meter long tin can, two rows of portholes glowing along one side. Almost simultaneously, another lifeboat left the Poseidon albeit a much smaller one. Its blue exhaust pulsating, it moved away in a straight line, hurrying to put as many space miles as possible between itself and the doomed ship.

High above Trausty's fighter, the enemy containers began exploding in a chain of silent yellow bursts. The Beta wing was completing their mission. The exhilaration of the battle had left him, replaced by an empty feeling. Marchan's voice brought him back to reality.

"We might proceed, I suppose. They are signaling evacuation complete."

Trausty perked up. "Target the reactor bulkhead," he suggested pushing the firing button. "It'll take five minutes to detonate. You can throw a few missiles in for a good measure and more fireworks."

He was right. Soon the first ship exploded, torn asunder by internal detonations. The second one followed suit. After a few seconds, the two freighters collapsed, leaving behind a quickly dispersing cloud of fragments and incandescent gas.

Trausty eyed the emerald-glowing radar with content. His second independent mission had been completed quickly and without losses. He leaned closer and squinted at the screen.

"Attention Beta wing. You've got a TTC at eleven o'clock."

"They've left it as a souvenir," Marchan chuckled. "They'll be taking pictures next to it in a minute. Want to keep a memento of their kill."

"Shut the fuck up," Beta One snapped. He didn't sound happy.

"Sorry, kid," the self-appointed clown grinned into his mike. "No offence meant. I'm not going to contest your victorious cargo feat."

Fram mumbled something acerbic as he peppered the last TTC with missiles.

"Beta wing to Alpha One. All cargo neutralized," he said in a few breaths, his voice icy.

"Excellent," Trausty felt great. "Nyra, report to the Aquitaine. Tell them to send an evacuation ship to pick up the freighters' crews. We can go back, I suppose. Attention both wings. One minute alert. Transition point seven oh six, three thirty two, level nineteen."

He oriented his ship, switched the engines to half speed and reached for the control panel in order to start the jump generators. Soon, space around him was going to transform, twisting into the long funnel of a wormway that connected it to the other end of the Deneb system.

"Wait!" Marchan yelled. "Cancel! Cancel the jump!"

With a start, Trausty jerked his hand away from the controls. Marchan was already reporting,

"Observe an unidentified object on the radar. Range twenty space miles. Just past the edge of the asteroid field. I don't understand. The system says it's a small asteroid," he paused and continued dramatically, "only it also says it's a hostile one. I've never seen anything like it! You think the rebels could have manipulated nature to conspire against us?"

"I observe nothing," said a puzzled Alpha Three, a.k.a. Nyra. "You're sure it's not a system malfunction?"

Unlike her, Trausty took the report seriously. Radars and communications equipment was notoriously heavy and demanded enormous power resources, so it had become a habit to split equipment between several craft on small sorties. That way, the second fighter in the wing normally had the radar on board and the third, the two-way comms station. So Trausty wasn't at all surprised that Alpha Two had managed to observe something the others couldn't.

Then he had an idea. "Give the object's coordinates to Beta Two," he hurried. "He has the same radar as you."

If Beta Two had the same visuals, it meant a hostile object was hiding in the asteroid field. Without identifying it first, they had no right to turn back home.

Shortly afterwards, Beta Two confirmed Marchan's discovery. A strange hostile object was indeed sitting twenty space miles away from them, pretending to be a large shapeless rock.

Chapter Six

The Vigilant greeted her guests with music. An escort of honor was already waiting for the visitors as they left the airlock. Two young officers in full dress uniforms struggled to keep up the ceremony in the presence of so many young ladies. Apparently, the cruiser's command viewed this as a white-tie occasion. Suddenly it dawned on Cariola that she'd have to live up to her status as a station director and comport herself accordingly – something she wasn't at all used to. At least her appearance was on a par with the occasion, even though she hadn't made any special effort. She always made sure to dress and look well – and that included her hair: long, slick and blond, it was the object of her younger colleagues' envy.

A long brightly-lit corridor took them into the depths of the ship. Following a guard's polite invitation, Cariola stepped first onto the illuminated carpeting. Bertie clung to her as he stared at the officers' shiny weapons and the GTVA insignia on their dress uniforms. Today he had to be the happiest person in the entire Gamma Draconis system.

In accordance with Vasudan etiquette, Sipphtar was the last to clear the airlock. As their traditions demanded, he first bowed to the cruiser wishing her a long life and her enemies a speedy dispatch, and only then greeted the crew.

The procession moved along the ship's wide hallways, their artificial gravity levels adjusted to those the guests were used to on their own planet.

"I wonder where we are now?" Cariola said as they cleared yet another passage, watching the steel door shut behind them. "We've been walking for at least ten minutes."

Allena next to her waved her hand, jingling her fine platinum bangles.

"The ship has to be huge. About a mile long, I think. Last time I was here, we nearly got lost."

Bertie chuckled. "A mile! More like two hundred seventy-five meters from keel to flag pole. No, sorry, from stem to stern. It has to be about fifty meters high and the same wide. Don't worry, Aunt Cari. I'll make sure you don't get lost. This is Deck Two's central passageway. Soon we'll get to the elevator and go down to Deck Three to the mess hall."

"With you here, who needs escorts?" Cariola smiled. "But our hosts won't let us loose. They have plenty of shiny young officers to guide our every step."

"It wasn't like this last time," Allena said. "I think it's true they're leaving: they must be having a farewell party. On the other hand, it could be to celebrate your visit as the station's most illustrious director. In which case I dread to think what kind of show they're putting on in the mess."

She regarded the boy with respect. "So apparently you know everything here? You'll have to show me a couple of more discreet locations, would you? Just in case."

"Allena! One more word, and you'll be on your way back," Cariola said. "And please don't forget that Bertie is your responsibility. At least while I'm speaking to the captain."

The girl swayed her complex hairdo, disappointed. Although she didn't dare argue with Cariola, she already had a plan concerning the boy. If push came to shove, she could palm him off on Marinna Hoytur, a chubby girl from the collector group. This was the one condition on which Marinna had been asked along.

The enormous elevator took their entire crowd in one go. As Bertie had predicted, the mess hall's high doors were just next to the exit. The command of the GTVA took interior design seriously, sparing no expense on precious hardwood and artwork to fit out their warships. This ancient Terran tradition stemmed from the mahogany gangways and polished bronze fixtures of the seafaring frigates and men-o'-war. The gilded shape of a cruiser complete with the GTVA's colors glittered with precious stones above the mess hall doors: a sight that forced quite a few mouths open besides Bertie's. The girls' giggling died down. Festive music seemed to be coming from everywhere. Humbled by the reception, the guests stepped into the mess hall.

Laid for a good sixty persons, the dining table ran the whole length of the room. Tableware glinted silver against white cloth. High-backed chairs awaited their guests. Although located in the bowels of the ship, the mess hall created the illusion of outer space due to the large holographic panels covering the ceiling and the upper half of the walls. It felt as if you stood on an enormous open balcony lit by the diffused light of Gamma Draconis' third planet.

A group of senior officers greeted the guests. A gaunt dark-haired man sporting captain's stripes walked over to Cariola.

"What a pleasure," he bowed. "We're happy to see you all here tonight, my dear Cariola. Your beautiful colleagues and Mr. Sipphtar are especially welcome. I'm Captain Veddingen, at your service, ma'am."

"I appreciate your hospitality, dear Captain," confused, Cariola searched for the right words. "I really don't think we merit this kind of reception. We're just a group of archeologists, not a VIP delegation."

She really didn't expect such a welcome. The 'beautiful colleagues' in her tow felt slightly out of place. Bertie alone was in his element, staring at the captain's insignia. Sipphtar, being a Vasudan, didn't betray any human emotion.

"I don't think you're right there," Captain Veddingen smiled. "For me, you are the most important guests. Especially you, Cariola, as we all have endless respect for your husband. I didn't have the honor to know Pilot Officer Trausty in person – I was still a little boy then – but he and his comrades were role models for all of us. Besides, we'll soon be leaving for the central systems and feel obliged to set up a traditional farewell dinner."

He bent to the starry-eyed Bertie. "And you, young man, you must be Mrs. Trausty's son?

The boy shook his head. "I'm just accompanying them," he explained, "and this must be the Order of Galatea and GTVA Legion of Honor?" he pointed to the decorations on the captain's chest.

Veddingen raised his eyebrows. "You seem to know your stuff, young man," he said adding a note of respect to his voice.

"This is Bertie Quizigger, son of one of my colleagues," Cariola explained. "He's already shown his worth to all of us. The boy is a walking GTVA encyclopedia. Especially when it comes to ships and equipment."

"Well, Bertie," the captain nodded to the boy, "if your interest doesn't fade with time, I'll be more than happy to have you here as a trainee. Provided my cruiser is still around by then," he added.

"But I digress. I would like to invite you all to the table," he gestured at the chairs. Amid the hum of voices and the sound of moving chairs, everyone got seated.

To her surprise, Cariola realized that many of her young colleagues knew the Vigilant's crew quite well judging by the way they greeted each other. The mess hall was quickly filling with invited officers. The captain placed Cariola next to him, offering the emotionless Vasudan the place between himself and his chief officer.

As she watched everyone take their seats, Cariola remembered the main reason for her visiting the ship. She touched Veddingen's hand. "Would you like to discuss the message you sent me? Not now but, say, after dinner?"

"Absolutely. Sorry I didn't mention it earlier," Veddingen nodded. "When everyone's finished eating, we can leave the young people to enjoy themselves and go upstairs to the bridge. Just the three of us: you, Mr. Sipphtar and myself. I have some information that could be of interest to you two."

He paused. "Okay, just to whet your appetite: we've received some very interesting data from the other side of the system, about three billion miles from here. The distance prevents us from properly analyzing it. You being a person of science, I have a feeling you could direct us and help me decide whether it would be worth the cruiser's while to go there and see for ourselves. You see," the captain glanced over the table and turned back to her, "I have my reasons to refrain from crossing Gamma Draconis if I can avoid it. You'll hear more about it later. Now let's just appreciate our galley master's cuisine," he turned to the cyber trolley rolling past and appropriated glasses of wine and platefuls of starters.

As tradition demanded, they first toasted the sanctity of the Alliance, then the memory of war heroes. The third toast, especially flowery, praised the beautiful guests, by then sufficiently rosy-faced with drink. More toasts punctuated the abundant and indeed artful meal, so that by the time the empty table disappeared under the mess hall's floor, quite a few of Cariola's younger colleagues regretted having had healthy appetites. Which wasn't their fault, really: three months in the field hadn't offered them much chance of a proper meal.

Table talk consisted of two subjects: the possibility of the war on the rebels ending soon and the mass furlough it might produce. The Vigilant's crew hadn't been on leave for nearly a year and a half, and everyone was tense and tired. The last few months had been especially hard for the cruiser, considering the serious damage she'd suffered in the clash with Admiral Koch's rebel Four Fleet – the damage which had resulted in the ship's being posted to Gamma Draconis. While awaiting her docking slot, the cruiser served as a somewhat disabled soldier guarding the GTVA borders. Over seventy percent of her crew had been temporarily posted to other ships so whoever was left didn't have much time to spare during their seemingly idle orbital duty. The remaining crew, with the help of a handful of techs, were busy with whatever repairs they could complete which didn't call for proper docking. In the meantime, they indulged in relatively peaceful daydreaming on the subject of 'where to go on holiday once the war was over'.

"Still, it would be nice if they allowed us a bit of a breather just here and now," said Chief Engineer Darmar Wanger, a podgy middle-aged man with a vaguely porcine face. "See for yourself: in this last year and a half, we've been to eight systems and made in total fourteen interstellar jumps. To go on a pleasure cruise like this in times of peace would cost you a fortune. And here they give it to us for free."

"A complementary funeral included," a diner next to him chuckled. "I'd rather stay at home with my family in our Epsilon Eridani colony instead of sitting here waiting to have a Cyclop land on my lap or be roasted by a turbo laser."

"Don't be so pessimistic, Jabriel," Darmar answered ladling himself a plateful of food. "Our fat lady can take worse things than that. Don't forget that last time we kicked the living daylights out of Admiral Koch's flagship! Having said that, they gave back as good as they got."

A wave of laughter spread around the table.

"I know you!" Jabriel said. "You'd rather be here fending off Koch's warships than be tied to your wife's apron strings. If you could have it your way, you'd be lying now on some Regulus beach chilling with local girls!"

Everyone smiled. The two men were known for their inability to sit next to each other for more than ten minutes without exchanging acidic remarks.

"You're right, you know. If we happen to be on Regulus when the war ends, I might stay and make your vision come true," Darmar answered. "But if you believed my paternal granddad, and he was a diplomat for thirty years or so, Earth used to be the place to go for holiday destinations. Imagine," he went on enthusiastically, "all those tropical seas, sand beaches and coral reefs awash with the Sun's bountiful rays. Where can you find a better place than Earth and the Sun? The Cygnus system – yes, possible, but it's still a sad excuse for the real thing."

"Pardon me," Cariola butted in at the first pause in the conversation, "but could I please ask you not to dwell on the subject too much? It invokes too many bad memories for the older servicemen. The only thing I can say is that sooner or later, we'll all be back. Trust me. There's always hope."

"Wish I could live to see it," the engineer sighed. "But," he perked up, "granddad also said that another great holiday destination used to be Vasuda! He'd visited it on a number of diplomatic occasions."

Cariola gasped inside. One thing after another! Just think of him reminiscing about Vasuda's holiday attractions long after the planet had been wasted by the Lucifer. And in the presence of a native, too! She turned seeking Veddingen's support but he'd disappeared off somewhere. Cariola glanced at Sipphtar's emotionless face, praying Darmar stopped before he really stuffed his foot into his mouth. But the man was never going to shut up.

"It was known for its wonderful climate, hot and dry, perfect for sunbathing. And all those safari parks, hunting local monsters, then barbecuing them!" he chewed his lips as if sampling Vasudan game. "It was all before the war, of course. Later granddad used to tell me, like, if ever you go back there, boy, it'll be inside an assault tank..."

"As a prisoner, more likely," the Vasudan interrupted in his level voice. "You wouldn't have any other choice."

Cariola froze. Exactly what they didn't want. But Darmar had already realized he'd gone too far. He raised his plump hands in a Pope-like gesture.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to offend you. In any case, we can't go back either way."

Sipphtar turned away, indignant. Unable to express their emotions the way humans could, Vasudans did so with their body language. And their actions.

Shamed by the sudden silence, the now-sobered Darmar breathed a sigh of relief when little Bertie who sat next to him tugged at his sleeve.

"Yes, young man," he turned to the boy, "can I offer you something else?"

But Bertie fancied food for thought rather than stomach. His tender age prevented him from digging too deep into the allies' ethical differences. He was too interested in their weaponry. Now he'd seen with relief that Uncle Darmar had finally finished his boring conversation with Sipphtar and other officers. This seemed like a good moment for some proper military talk.

"No, thank you," the boy answered solemnly. "I think I'll wait for the dessert. But tell me, Chief Officer," his voice rang with dignity, "why do our spaceships seem to ignore Newtonian laws?"

"You're growing in rank by the minute!" Jabriel poked Darmar's chest. Everyone smiled, happy to leave the Vasuda blunder behind them.

Darmar dropped his fork and stared into space for a while.

"I appreciate the honor, kid," he finally said, "but the Vigilant's Chief Officer sits a bit further up. I'm only her Chief Engineer."

"All the more reason you're obliged to answer the boy's technical question," Jabriel butted in. "You of all people must know why, in order to reverse her course, our cruiser must sometimes turn round and proceed at full speed while other times it has to weave an arc a mile and a half space miles wide, just like an ocean ship would."

Darmar turned to the boy. "Are you really interested in this sort of stuff?"

"Not only that," Bertie said. "I also wanted to ask you why fighter craft fly like ancient airplanes. They're spaceships, after all. If they're tailed by hostiles, all they need to do is turn round and shoot. And they bank into turns instead, why?"

The Chief Engineer scratched the back of his head. "You're a curious young man," he finally said. "Okay, I'll try to explain. Only I don't really know how to put it so that you'll understand..."

"Try," Jabriel interjected. "The others too might learn a thing or two."

"You see, kid, it's all about gravity," Darmar started, struggling to find the words the boy might understand. "You can see, can't you, that here we have normal gravity so that no one floats under the ceiling? Why, you may ask? It's because we have our gravity transducers on, and this allows our cruiser to rest in a sort of field called the Higgs ocean. Which in turn cancels all usual laws of physics."

Now it was Bertie's turn to scratch his head. "And what if you turn them off, those trans...ducers?"

"Then eventually the ship will revert to normal space," the Chief Engineer agreed, "but then the turbines' power would decide the top and bottom in this room. And our turbines have some pull, believe me! Not many people present here would be able to sustain even 3 Gs for more than an hour. And our transducers decimate it making it possible for us to accelerate to a hundred miles per second in under one minute. Everything has its price, though. That price is the cruiser's maneuverability: all its motions are restricted as if it indeed was floating in a body of water. On the other hand, it's fast and suffers no gravity overload. You understand?"

"No G-overload at all?" the boy asked.

"Well, if our lives are at stake, then we might need to endure some," Darmar nodded.

Jabriel didn't miss the chance to interfere. "Remember that time when we scarpered from Koch's flagship? Everyone was lying flat on the floor praying the turbines would hold. And all you could hear was the sound of explosions coming from left and right," he gestured showing how it had happened.

"I knew our old lady wouldn't let us down," the Chief Engineer said. "I never for one second doubted her. Oh by the way," he turned back to Bertie, "there's another important thing. It's much harder to hit a warship while she bobs up and down on this Higgs ocean. At least laser weapons are pretty useless against it."

"It's caused by the unpredictable curvature of space phenomenon," Jabriel raised his finger. "The true bane of a gunners' existence. You can't just point and pull the trigger. You have to think first."

"Yeah, sort of," Darmar took a swig of his wine. "Did I make it clear enough to you?"

The boy nodded, thoughtful. "Is it the same with fighter craft?"

"It's worse," Jabriel replaced the Chief Engineer who seemed exhausted by the lecture. "Those ships are tiny and they're built to sustain dozens of Gs. You can't do it otherwise. The moment you stick your neck out of Higgs ocean, they'll smoke you on sight. That's why they have to loop and zigzag around even though you'd think, in outer space they wouldn't need to."

The boy sniffled with mental exertion.

"Moreover," Darmar went on, "the field density concentrated in such a limited space causes all the machinery to freewheel and it's only human minds that keep going. Having said that, not anyone can become a pilot. They're born with super reaction times. And they can only serve the first ten or twelve years while they're still young."

"I'm not going to be a fighter pilot. I'll be a cruiser captain," the boy said.

Everybody laughed. Darmar raised his wine glass.

"To the future captain!" he proposed attracting the other diners' attention. "Or shall I say a warship commander?" he paused. "Or even an Admiral? To the new Admiral!"

It's a good job he forgot the fleet commander, Cariola was thinking a few minutes later as she entered the Vigilant's bridge, before the boy thought too much of himself.

She entered the bridge's large vaulted room and stood next to Sipphtar and the captain. Dinner was over, and loud dance music reached them from the mess hall. The captain had dismissed the officers of the watch for the duration of their conversation.

Veddingen motioned them to approach the central virtual screen. Looking around with curiosity, Cariola approached. She had never been in the heart of a warship before. Bertie would've gone mad with excitement, she thought as she took in the surroundings trying to visualize the room during the heat of a major battle.

The captain's voice brought her back to reality.

"Please come closer. You need to see what our scanners have discovered twenty hours ago."

He touched the screen opening a 3D map of the Gamma Draconis system.

"We're here," Veddingen pointed at a small ball of the star's third planet which housed Cariola's station. "On a stationary orbit. As I've just said, about twenty galactic hours ago our main broadband scanner detected some gravitational perturbations. Here," obeying the captain's hand, the image rotated and zoomed in.

"You see," he pointed at a dot far beyond the orbit of the system's seventh and last planet. "It's about three billion miles from here. Nearly seven light hours if you hop there."

He paused staring at the image. "I'm no astrophysicist," he went on, "but even I know that this isn't normal for a normal star system, if you'll excuse the pun. In actual fact, Gamma Draconis isn't a place for this sort of thing. The only source of gravity anomaly here is the subspace node taking us from here to Capella. You know very well that Gamma Draconis is the end of the line. It offers no exits to other star systems."

"Do you want to say that this is a new subspace node? A spontaneous one?" Cariola offered.

The thought frightened her. If indeed it was a new subspace node, then the theory of artificial jumpgates would suffer a massive setback. If they proved to be natural, then humanity's chances to ever see Earth again would vanish into thin air.

"On the contrary," the captain reassured her. "As soon as we checked it against our database, we saw it couldn't be a spontaneous node, as you've just called it. These perturbations don't resemble anything in our transputer. Basically, we've just discovered an extraordinary phenomenon of an undefined nature."

Cariola breathed a sigh of relief.

"A ship?" the Vasudan said after a pause.

"Pardon? No. It can't be. First, I know exactly where the ships are. It's my duty, after all. There's no one here except us, your station and the GTVA supply base. This is the very edge of our territory, and any possible development is still in the pipeline."

He snapped his fingers, remembering. "Having said that. A new ship did arrive earlier. The Trinity, a Fenris-class cruiser. The captain is Arthur Roemig. I spoke to him not so long ago."

"It's getting busy," Cariola raised an eyebrow. "Could it be that the GTVA has finally taken interest in this hole in the wall? We'll have to wrap up our research before globalization sneaks up on us."

"Not a chance," Veddingen said. "According to Captain Roemig, they're here to test their hyperspace generators. The Trinity was under repair in the Capella system. Apparently, it all went fine but their engineer had his doubts. He asked for permission to perform a test jump and seeing as they were the closest to our node, they decided to go to Gamma Draconis and back. They're about to jump back over to Capella quite soon. Roemig said their generators worked like clockwork," he turned back to the image.

"Besides," Veddingen went on, "all our ships — and believe me we've checked them all, whether Terran, Vasudan or even Shivan ones – they all create very distinctive surges, easily recognizable by our equipment. It has to be something else, I tell you. I'll show you now."

Cariola and Sipphtar exchanged glances. In the meantime, the captain zoomed in on the image. The strange dot grew into an equally strange object.

"Just look at this," Veddingen said. "When we couldn't get a clear scan, we decided to get a proper visual of this... thing. Three billion miles hindered our photo sensors' perception, of course, but still we managed to get this picture here."

Cariola squinted at the image. The captain zoomed in a bit more.

"An asteroid ring?" she offered peering at the blurred blown-up picture.

"Less than seven miles in diameter," the captain said. "Too small for an asteroid ring, don't you think? And please note the fact that it's spinning. Gravity can't keep a ring of such small components together. That's pretty obvious."

Cariola shrugged. True, she'd never seen anything like it, whatever little she could see now. She could just make out a ring made of eight pear-shaped objects, some about twice as large as the others. The great distance made it impossible to tell what they were.

"The Ancient Ones?" she gasped. "But the Eriksson, the science ship, was here only fifteen years ago and they found nothing! The only evidence of the Ancient Ones' former colony on Gamma Draconis' third planet we received while decoding their Altair hieroglyphics."

"If the object was in sleep mode, it's possible the Eriksson failed to detect it," the captain pointed out. "I've been toying with the same idea myself because the Ancient Ones seem to be the most logical explanation."

"Explaining off every unknown object as an Ancient Ones' artifact is not scientific," Sipphtar's yellow reptilian eyes stared at the captain. "It stems from the Terrans' old habit of explaining everything by the presence of God."

"I'm not a scientist," Veddingen said. "I'm an officer."

"None of us is a gravitational physicist," the Vasudan concluded, "so we can't interpret the acquired data correctly. And the visual is too blurred. I am afraid, Captain, we are unable to identify this object. The right thing to do would be to inform the experts so they could send here a specialized expedition. We, for our part, could confirm that you acted in compliance with the instructions by providing the Allies a joint access to the artifacts discovered."

Veddingen gave him a long look.

"I've already reported to my group HQ," he said. "But I'm afraid, they have their hands full with other things. They're busy planning high intensity operations against the rebels and I'm sure they'll disregard anything else as irrelevant. I hope you can see the situation for what it is. Under the best of circumstances, an expedition like that would take ages to arrive."

"Exactly," Cariola agreed. "We'll have to be proactive. Why not take the cruiser there and see for ourselves? I could send the data already collected to a physicist friend of mine. Because what if it's really an Ancient Ones artifact? We might miss a unique discovery. In the entire history of the Alliance, we haven't yet found a single functional object we could identify as one of their creations. They've been extinct for eight thousand years, after all!"

"This is exactly what I can't understand," Sipphtar walked over to the screen and peered at the image. "I find it unlikely that a technical device would have remained in sleep mode all this time only to wake again. I'm quite prepared to accept its natural origin."

"What are we waiting for, then?" Cariola asked. "If you want my opinion, Captain, then I believe you need to send if not the cruiser itself there, at least send a pod."

Veddingen gave a thoughtful nod. "I take it, Mr. Sipphtar is against it?"

The Vasudan answered with another emotionless stare. "Not at all. But I am sure that we wouldn't be able to determine the object's nature even if we were within arm's reach of it. As I already said, we need an equipped expedition of experts capable of dealing with it."

"In other words," the captain summed up, "two for and one abstention. I have a suggestion," he looked around. "But let's go sit down first. Over there by the watch officers' post. Just please don't touch anything, okay? We don't want our cruiser to take off to somewhere by accident," he smiled.

The other two gingerly took their places. Cariola sat on her hands just in case, even though she realized that the captain was joking.

"So what was it you were about to suggest?" she asked.

Veddingen rubbed his chin in thought. "We could send our pod there. The Hermes. It's got just enough power left for a one-way jump. The crew will film the object from close distance. If nothing out of ordinary happens, the cruiser will follow, pick up the Hermes and come back. By then, we'll have a more or less clear picture."

"Why complicate it?" Cariola asked, puzzled. "Can't you just send the Vigilant there? With its cannons and armor we'll have nothing to be afraid of."

"Unfortunately," the captain paused, "my ship is still not quite battle-worthy. There's a lot of damage to be fixed. Besides, no armor and cannons will save us if the object explodes or, alternatively, collapses. We don't know what we're dealing with, that's the problem. I can't risk my ship."

Cariola nodded. "I didn't look at it that way," she admitted. "So when can you carry out the mission?"

Veddingen smiled. "The mission," he rolled the word on his tongue in a low conspiratorial tone. "We could carry it out, say, tomorrow night at eighteen thirty Galactic time. Just when they change the watch. You think you could manage it?"


Early next morning the comm rang in the station director's office. Cariola, still a bit groggy from a bad night's sleep, reached for the TeleVid button.

"Is that you, Nadar? What's up? Why are you calling me so early?"

She glanced at the clock. Seven a.m. The gray misty dawn seeped through the white blinds.

Her deputy's plump face puffed up with excitement. His black crew cut stuck up on end; his eyes, small at the best of times, narrowed to a slit. Cariola winced imagining her own state first thing in the morning.

Nadar couldn't hold back the news any longer. "A tunnel! We've found an entrance to a tunnel below level B4!" he shouted forgetting to say hello. "The robots removed the next layer, and there it was! An oval entrance, perfect shape, glazed walls! The subsurface scanners didn't catch it! Can you imagine? The robots stopped straight away and sent us the tape. I nearly freaked when I saw it! Thought I'd give you a call."

Cariola woke up. "You've done the right thing. Call Sipphtar while I'm dressing. Send the emergency crawler to Lock 4. See you there."

She switched the comm off and hurried to get herself ready. An oval tunnel, of all things! She was seized by the excitement every scientist knows. Wherever their expeditions had found the oval tunnels in the past, it had led them to a treasure trove of the Ancient Ones' artifacts. But a find like this was extremely rare, which explained Cariola's anxiety. One such tunnel that they'd discovered on Altair at the very end of the Great War had literally saved humanity. By following it, they had found their last chance to defeat Shiva's invincible monsters.

She quickly packed a bag. There would be lots of work, of course. They were going to spend weeks classifying, sorting and recording their every step in order to take everything they could from this amazing opportunity.

Cariola stopped, remembering the previous night's visit to the Vigilant. First, the dinner; then, the discussion with Captain Veddingen. The strange object situated at the other end of the system. Then she remembered her own urgent message to Mina Hargrove on Capella and the archived images the captain had allowed her to attach to it.

"What a pain," she sank onto her still-unmade bed. "I was supposed to go to hell and back tonight at six-thirty. Any ideas how I could be in two places at the same time?"

She'd have to send Venningen a letter of apology, as simple as that. Cariola closed the door behind herself and took the steps down to the lock two at a time.

The crawler was already waiting by Lock 4, with Nadar restless with excitement next to it. They scrambled over the vehicle's air cushion and took their places inside. The third planet's atmosphere was absolutely unsuitable for human life support which was why Terrans had to use those air-bubble rovers if they had to travel anywhere. By way of consolation, the planet's gravity didn't exceed that of Earth which allowed them to do without artificial gravity machines.

Nadar sat in the pilot's seat with Cariola next to him. He smiled at her and gave her a thumbs-up.

"I had a funny feeling something like that would happen. Didn't sleep a wink last night. And the moment I finally closed my eyes, the transputer started beeping. I jumped out of bed thinking that the strats had collapsed again. When I saw the video I nearly fell under the table. It's oval!" he shrieked in excitement.

"How do you feel about it?" he stopped catching his breath. "You'll be famous now, that's for sure. In every tunnel there's always something."

Cariola tossed her hair back. "News overload. I did tell you yesterday, didn't I, that the cruiser had detected an unidentified object quite far from here. I had to go back to the Vigilant tonight to find out more about it. I've no idea how to make it in time."

Nadar dismissed the idea with a reckless wave of his hand and started the engine. "Why would you want to go anywhere when you have this just under your feet. Personally, I'm scared of flying. Like any Terran should be. Here, look," he pointed at the station, "Mister Lizard's coming. All dressed up and nowhere to go."

Cariola had already noticed the Vasudan stepping out of the lock. He was wearing his usual multi-colored attire. Sipphtar strode to the car, glanced at the occupied front seats and opened the back door.

"Greetings from me, Cariola," he said taking his seat. "How are you being today? I am rather surprised at the amount of news." He pulled his long knotty knees up to his chest. "These vehicles of yours are not comfortable. Shame ours is broken – we could have taken it instead."

Nadar put his foot down. The air-cushioned crawler slid away from the lock heading for a small mountain ridge, barely discernible in the gray morning air a few miles distant from the base. Almost immediately, rain started lashing against the windows blurring the view as they'd exited the shield that protected the station from the low rainclouds and their constant precipitation.

Cariola turned her head to the Vasudan. "I've just been saying the same thing to Nadar. We've been digging away for three months and now we have the tunnel here and that strange ring object in space. When it rains, it pours!"

"Never mind," Nadar said cheerfully. "We'll look into both!"

He paused peering through the windscreen. "I think I'd better go up a meter. Can't see a thing in this wretched mist."

Ten minutes later, they reached the place. Nadar drove the crawler carefully amid sharp cliffs, their tops almost colliding overhead. The white dome of the digs' center appeared in the misty hollow in front of them. A refuse heap of dead rock rose behind it.

Two robots scurried about by the entrance. The crawler landed near them. Air jets hissed creating an air cocoon for the three researchers. Trying not to show their excitement, they walked in.

The digs' center was cool and quiet. Once the robots had discovered the tunnel, they'd stopped all work. Only a weak hum came from below.

Nadar headed for the control station crowded with machinery. A moment later he'd already discovered one minor malfunction and was busy cursing his workers, oblivious to the purpose of their arrival.

"He'll be a while," Cariola looked at the Vasudan. "I suggest we pick up a spare cyber trolley and go see the tunnel. The way down is over there," she pointed at a wide passage that started near the dome's center.

Over two meters high, the tunnel proved also quite long. Industrious robots had already stuck self-powered lamps to its ceiling, their light obediently going on and off reacting to human presence. The tunnel's polished walls resembled phosphorescent marble creating the illusion of a shimmering mist. Nadar had already rejoined the two scientists but the oval shape forced them to go in single file, for fear of stumbling over each other.

"If I'm not mistaken," said Sipphtar who walked last, "there is a turn right here which should lead us to the storage room."

His voice echoed from the walls.

"Until now, this seemed to be the case in all other tunnels," Cariola agreed. "I can't see why it should be any different here." As the expedition leader, she walked first.

"There!" she stopped dead in her tracks. The clumsy Nadar walked straight into her, nearly knocking her off her feet and not bothering to apologize. All three stared at the dark opening, too excited to enter.

"Isn't there some light inside?" Cariola reached for a flashlight.

"I didn't want the robots to be the first to see it," Nadar answered. "Besides, they're too clumsy. They could easily drop or break something. Don't just stand there, Cari! Go on in."

Cariola held her breath and stepped inside. They turned a corner and found themselves in a large dome-like room. Its walls seemed to be made of the same material as the tunnel.

In the center stood a small pedestal with a strange object upon it, barely visible in the walls' shimmer.

"Is that it?" she heard Nadar's disappointed voice. "Nothing else here?"

"Wait," she whispered. "Look. It's turning."

They froze. Cariola pointed the flashlight at the pedestal illuminating the object. It was indeed rotating very slowly.

Her eyes opened wide with amazement.

Chapter Seven

The unhurried gray behemoth of the Bastion was exiting subspace in the Third Fleet's battle group sector. This very ship had sent pilot Trausty Sr. and his four bombers on their last mission some twenty-two years earlier. Blue flashes still danced on her steel hull as the mothership cleared the jump node connecting the systems of Vega and Deneb.

The Aquitaine greeted her matriarch's flag with the honors due to Grand Admiral Vito Vittorio. The Bastion was one of the last functioning ships that still remembered the Great War. She had crossed swords with Vasudan Dragons and with the rebellious warships of the Vasudan Hammer of Light. But she had been lucky enough to avoid deadly Shivan destroyers while her twin sister Galatea had met her death in one last and desperate fight somewhere here in the Deneb system.

It had been a long time ago. The old mothership had undergone a complete overhaul. With her beefed-up engines, neo steel armor and new heavy beam cannons that had replaced the ancient plasma ones, the warship was battle-worthy again – albeit too late. All its old enemies had already met their fate in combat, destroyed by other GTVA ships. Now it was fighting humans.

Resembling one of those ancient Terran skyscrapers tipped on its side, the magnificent ship approached Vice Admiral Petrarch's flagship and froze in space flashing her masthead lights.

Ten minutes later, a pod cleared one of the Bastion's locks. Other small fry maneuvered out of its way as the pod headed for the awaiting Aquitaine.

Two fleet commanders – one young, the other old – sat in silence by the table in the Admiral's private quarters. The room was modest, Spartan even. Both had already gone through the motions of pleasing the media with a welcoming ceremony, exchanging pompous speeches and congratulations on the victorious campaign, on the successes achieved and on their faithful service: everything to remind humanity that its military grafted for its bread. But in their private conversations, they didn't need ten-dollar words.

Vittorio rubbed his heavy chin, a gesture that always pointed to some hard thinking.

"Not enough information? You can say that again," he finally broke the silence. "And the prisoners? You managed to make them speak?"

Petrarch waved the idea away. "Before the evacuation started, they'd all downed amnesin pills by the handful. The Jacobus' first mate, especially. He forgot his own name and that of his ship. Pointless. But I had hoped that you'd at least get some recce intelligence."

"We couldn't. The guys from the foreign intelligence office report that our agent network has been busted. All our men are either under lock and key or lying low. We have no contact with them whatsoever," he slapped his hand on the table. "But we've got a leak here. One hundred percent."

"So do you think that Bosch sacrificed his ships here in order to set up a trap?"

Vittorio raised his bushy gray eyebrows. "Sometimes you can turn a negative around to make a positive. Now I'm more than sure that there're no traitors among the campaign leaders. They are the ones who actually make decisions. All the media knew were the few red herrings I'd fed them about our supposed Epsilon Pegasi offensive. It was pretty obvious Bosch wouldn't buy into that. But the HQ had a different version of the same. They knew of the secret order to concentrate forces for a major offensive in Alpha Centauri. Only you and I and a few other people knew of our Deneb jump. Bosch is an old fox. I was afraid he'd see through my ploy. Especially as we had to play it by ear, having had no information from the rebels."

Petrarch's face cleared. He looked at Vittorio with respect. "I see now. I rushed around looking for enemy forces here. So Bosch must have believed we planned to attack in a different place, and created a powerful block behind the Alpha Centauri Regulus node?"

"Maybe," Vittorio sighed. "We don't know for sure. After what's happened, your suggestion sounds believable. And still Bosch could outplay us. Believe me. I know him well. Trust him to have a couple of unpleasant surprises up his sleeve."

'Do you think that now that he's seen our move, he'll dare abandon his defense in favor of an attack on Alpha Centauri? To do that, he'd have to have already gathered considerable forces capable of repelling our supposed offensive."

The old admiral gave him half a smile. "That's exactly what we've done. A Vasudan battle group under the command of Rear Admiral Khorph is sitting there to make the information sound believable. Bosch won't be able to break through there. He'll get bogged down in our defense. But in order to reinforce that area, we've stripped our Epsilon Pegasi front. This is indeed our weak spot."

Petrarch gave it some thought. "Not so weak, really," he said. "After all, it's only two jumps away. Whatever happens there, we'll be able to come and rescue them if needs be. But then we can forget the Sirius offensive, that's for sure."

"That's the problem," Vittorio admitted. "Which is why I'm so desperate to find out where Bosch intends to strike. Whether he targets Alpha Centauri, Epsilon Pegasi or even Sirius. Until we find that out, I'm not moving one iota. And in the meantime, all the Defense Ministry top brass keep pushing us forward towards Sirius. They seem to think victory is within an arm's reach."

He paused and added, annoyed, "They even suggest using the half-built Colossus. They must be well and truly mad."

"It's not built yet, is it?"

"Not at all," the admiral's chin twitched. "At the moment, it's just an untested and slightly suspect mobile armored battery. And it's thirsty like five of your Aquitaines."

"So what did you two decide?" Petrarch asked warily.

The Grand Admiral waved his suspicions away. "We'll have to look into it later. In all honesty, I haven't even thought about it yet. I was too busy wasting time talking to the new defense minister Reynal. You know him. What's really important is to work out what Bosch is up to. We might need to send a few light cruisers on a recce raid into the enemy systems."

"Don't you think that's a bit risky?" Petrarch said. "The rebels' defenses are strong. It could be the Trafalgar disaster all over again, remember? The rebels' bomber patrol didn't give our offensive half a chance on that occasion. The moment the Trafalgar cleared the Deneb jump node, she got a missile right up her power unit."

"I know it's not safe," Vittorio snapped. "But if we don't get any intelligence soon, I'm afraid, we'll have to. Time is against us, don't you understand? What did I just tell you about the HQ leak? The rebels may be looking into our future plans even as we speak! They might attempt an attack on Epsilon Pegasi, our weakest link. I don't need to tell you what could happen next."

Annoyed, he slapped the table again, making a miniature model of the Aquitaine jump on its polished surface. "And our dear Mental Integrity Bureau keeps looking for traitors everywhere except for where they are really hanging out. I sometimes wonder if they too work for the rebels. Anyway!" he began to calm down. "I'll stay here on Deneb for maybe another day, not more. If nothing changes by then, you'll have to carry out this recce in force we've been talking about. In the meantime, I'll go to Vega to control the other systems and gather the data that would allow me to make further decisions. Just remember one more thing: even though you have a free hand in this, try not to stick your neck out too far. Aken Bosch is too good a captain to disregard his actions, and you know it. You can never tell what he's up to next."

He leaned towards Petrarch and lowered his voice. "Before our agents' cover got blown, they had fed us some data about the rebels' so-called ETAC project. It's highly sensitive information. Only Bosch and a few senior officers from his entourage can access it. I'm pretty sure this was how our agent network got burned, trying to get to the details. It just might be the admiral's trump card."

"You know the project's name — and what else?" Petrarch raised his eyes to the Grand Admiral.

"Not much," Vittorio said. "We suppose that the idea is using wormways for the deployment of capital ships. Imagine if one of them jumps past all our defense lines, complete with a hundred fighters on board. This is the stuff of our Vega government's nightmares, to see rebel bombers over their capital planet. So if it's not a fake, let God help us kick Bosch's ass before he kicks ours."

"Wouldn't do the government any harm."

Vittorio shrugged the idea off. "In your dreams. If they find out what Bosch is capable of, they'll recall all the fleets to Vega and surrender en masse. Alternatively, they'll capitulate first and then surrender the fleet."

Petrarch didn't have time to answer. The comm's emerald light flashed on his wrist. An officer's excited voice rang out,

"Vice Admiral Petrarch, Sir! Please come to the bridge ASAP. Important information received regarding our raider group in the asteroid ring."


"So what are we looking for?" Trausty asked into the mouthpiece. For the last twenty minutes, his wing had been gingerly maneuvering around various-sized rocks on the edge of the asteroid ring. Now they'd finally approached the unidentified object at a distance of four space miles.

"This is some sort of a hostile installation built into a small asteroid," Marchan answered. His powerful radar made him the most respected man in Alpha wing at the moment. "I can see external antennas, turrets and a fighter bay. Guys, we're still in luck. We've just detected a clandestine rebel base. What are they doing here, I wonder?"

"Just shoot the fuck out of them," a trigger-happy Fram grumbled. "I've got tons of missiles still left."

Trausty kept thinking. Their fighters had come to the armed asteroid close enough for him to start getting radar readings, too.

"No need to hurry," he finally said. "This thing seems to be well-armed. Much better than the freighters were. And it's fighters we're flying, not heavy bombers. It's not as if it's going anywhere, anyway. Nyra," he spoke to Alpha Three, "Report the sighting of a hostile installation to the Aquitaine. Let them decide. We'll wait here. Beta wing, kill the engines. Alpha Two and Four, follow me. We'll try to get a good visual from the other side. Whatever you do, don't get within two space miles of it!"

He began tracing an extended arc past the asteroid. Strangely enough, the enemy base showed no reaction to their approach. Their turrets didn't turn; their coded messages didn't crowd the frequences. Not a thing. It felt as if the base had been abandoned here long before the GTVA craft had even arrived. Actually, it could well be so, thought Trausty. No reason why they shouldn't come across an abandoned installation. Why should Trausty pester command with reports? They'd send him a bomber wing only to discover they'd torn apart an empty tin can, its human worms already laughing at them from the safety of the nearest star system?

Undecided, he reached for the control panel in order to launch the attack. Then everything changed.

He couldn't believe his eyes. The enormous rock, silent just a few seconds ago, parted into several pieces like some gigantic stage setting. In the center of this Galactic performance illuminated by the rays of Deneb he saw the slim outline of a warship. The Iceni! Flagship of the rebellious Admiral Bosch himself!

Trausty's head swam. He wasn't supposed to deal with this kind of mess on only his second sortie! He could only watch the abandoned base turn into the most notorious rebel ship that had been built, as rumors had it, to Aken Bosch's personal design. The size of a heavy cruiser but much more streamlined and elegant, it carried weapons only comparable to the GTVA's most powerful destroyers. Its upgraded power unit and lightweight multi-layer neo steel armor gave the Iceni both speed and maneuverability unprecedented for her class. Its powerful turbo laser glinting like an empty eye socket, the ship's prow resembled Thor's Hammer seemingly capable of crushing everything in its path. Two incomplete fighter wings didn't present any serious obstacle in her way. Still the frigate wasn't in a hurry to deal them a deadly blow.

"Attention all wings. Retreat three space miles," Trausty finally collected his thoughts. In actual fact, as long as they didn't come within range of the enemy's anti-spacecraft systems, his men didn't risk much. Surely the Iceni wouldn't chase them around, whatever it was doing here?

As if to answer his silent question, the frigate addressed them on their frequency. Now Trausty could see Admiral Aken Bosch with his taut high-cheekboned face, a sharp goatee and the slanted eyes of a space-age Genghis Khan. Trausty suddenly noticed that despite his threatening appearance, the admiral seemed lost as if things weren't going as planned.

"This is Admiral Bosch of the independent Neo Terran Fleet speaking. In the name of humanity's safety, I demand free passage to the Deneb Sirius node. Please communicate this message to your command ASAP. Any attempt to attack my ship will result in grave consequences for the human race."

"Nyra, have you got him on tape?" Trausty shouted in the mouthpiece.

"Affirmative. I've managed to establish a forward channel with the Aquitaine," the girl's voice rang with excitement. "But the way it drains our power supplies, I don't know if it'll last. Command will come into contact shortly."

Then Trausty heard Admiral Petrarch's voice. But to his surprise, the commander addressed him and not Bosch.

"Control to Alpha leader. This is a decoy. Attack the hostile target. Contain it until the arrival of a bomber squadron. Kill the communication channel. No negotiations with the rebels. Out."

Trausty was dumbfounded. Had he heard it correctly? Were they supposed to attack a fully armed frigate — a tough nut to crack even for a heavy cruiser? That was suicide. He could just as well ram the nearest asteroid.

"Alpha leader to Admiral Petrarch," he began.

"He's out, Frank," Nyra's voice said. "They're out. We're awaiting your orders, commander."

Her voice rang with despair. She too had understood what was going on. Trausty looked up at the Iceni. The enemy frigate moved away, faster and faster, behind the asteroid ring. She paid no attention to the fighters.

"How are we supposed to attack her," Fram asked bitterly. "All our cannons and missiles will be as useful as a chocolate teapot."

"Didn't you say you didn't have enough to do?" Marchan quipped. "Go ahead, apply yourself. If you manage to contain them, a Distinguished Flying Cross is as good as yours. Posthumously."

A chill clenched Trausty's heart. This wasn't prebattle excitement; this was the foreboding of approaching death. They'd be lucky if anyone at all came out of this alive. In any case, it wouldn't be Trausty. They'd smoke his lead fighter first. Oh well. What will be, will be.

He reached for the control column. "Quit blabbing, we've got a job to do," he snapped. "Both wings, engage afterburners. Target hostile engines.

"Cheer up, guys," he added as he wound up his Myrmidon's turbines almost off the clock. "At least we might help end this damn war today."

The acceleration pinned him back in his seat. Eyes dimming, he heard Marchan's voice,

"Never mind us. De Trotti will really be in the shit. He doesn't have a single whole fighter left in his entire squadron." Alpha Two could never resist a good joke. Even if it was the last one he ever told.


The Aquitaine's bridge swarmed with activity. The alerted combat staff had arrived and taken their places preparing for any eventualities. Petrarch switched off his comm and turned to Vittorio.

"We've sent the kids to a sure death, don't you think? The frigate will scorch the poor bastards straight away."

The old Grand Admiral stared into space, deep in thought. "I just can't believe that Bosch has been here the whole time," he finally said paying no attention to Petrarch's words. "Either we've caught him unawares and he's now rushing around the system trying to lie low," Vittorio paused, "or it's some sort of infernal trap. Why on earth would he have been hiding in the asteroid belt all this time?"

"Maybe it wasn't him at all," suggested the Aquitaine captain Tades Crolla, a stocky middle-aged man and one of the GTVA's most experienced officers. "It could be prerecorded."

Vittorio frowned. "Highly unlikely. I don't think he's ever left his ship at all in the last year and a half. And I don't for one moment doubt it's the Iceni we've located."

"Well, in that case," the Grand Admiral rubbed his hands with glee, "we have every chance to end the war today if we eliminate or capture him. I'm more than sure he'll attempt a jump toward the Deneb Sirius node. We must intercept him before he does so and disappears into the Sirius system.

"So! What resources can we employ to do that?" businesslike, he turned to the other two officers.

They exchanged glances. The old Terran naval tradition demanded that the most junior rank spoke first. Here it was Captain Crolla.

After a pause, the Aquitaine's commander looked up at Vittorio.

"Provided there's a miracle," he began, "and those six Myrmidons manage to deal the frigate's turbines enough damage to make her stop, then the first thing we need to do is send there a squadron of heavy bombers. Without fighter cover, the Iceni is unlikely to hold off their attack. In the meantime, we'll wind up the warp generators on one of the heavier ships to finish her off if the bombers fail to do the job. The Iceni is a tough mother. She won't be easy to crack."

Petrarch sighed. "If the kids on the Myrmidons do it, Tades, it will be a miracle indeed. Sorry to remind you, Admiral."

Vittorio gave an annoyed cough. "We must use every opportunity to intercept the frigate. I'd send another dozen fighter wings to sure death if it could save a thousand lives tomorrow. Enough about that!" his hand chopped the air. "If the Myrmidons have one slim chance in a million, they'll have to take it."

The captain glanced at Petrarch with sympathy and went on. "The asteroid ring where the frigate was detected is one light hour away from the jump node. We and our battle group are twice as far from it. Which is why I don't see much point sending heavy ships or bomber squadrons to the Sirius node. They just won't make it in time to intercept the escaping Iceni. We can only count on the Psamtik and her bombers located just next to the node. The Vasudans will love to lay their hands on Bosch. They have their own score to settle with him."

Vittorio gave him a thoughtful nod and turned to Petrarch. "Anything you'd like to add?"

The Vice Admiral shrugged his gold epauletted shoulders. "On this subject, nothing. I agree with Tades' plan. But still I'd like to call your attention to the fact that even then our chances to capture the frigate are quite slim. Here, take a look," he switched on the closest virtual screen.

"This is the jump node," Petrarch pointed at a translucent hemisphere in the center of the screen. "Basically, it's a dot in 3D space which you can approach from any direction, turn on your warp generators, then disappear into another star system. The problem is, no single ship, no matter how big and modern, can block it from all directions. If the Iceni comes from the opposite direction to the Psamtik, the Vasudans won't have the time to intercept her. The absolute maximum they can do is engage in a laser exchange which is something the Psamtik might not like at all, considering Bosch has the same caliber cannons. And as for the Iceni, she'll still have time to escape, despite any damage."

He pointed at the green diamond of the Vasudan warship next to the node.

"In the case of the Belisarius, it was easier. It entered the node during the battle not far from us so we were able to scan her route up until her exit point. So the Psamtik knew exactly where she'd exit. But the little fighters that are trying to bog the Iceni down as we speak, have no scanning equipment! Which considerably lowers the possibility of her exiting subspace within the Psamtik's beam range."

"Tell us something we don't already know," Vittorio frowned. "Okay, we'll instruct the Psamtik to raise all her light craft, all the fighters and bombers they have available and keep patrolling the node with the objective of intercepting the Iceni. That will raise their chances, don't you think? I would move the Psamtik much closer to the node but they might not agree to that. It's not quite as easy as dispatching six little fighters into a fire fight."

The captain nodded. "The Vasudans wouldn't risk their best warship, even at the prospect of getting to Bosch. In the past, they'd lost several of their best destroyers against us by placing them too close to the nodes. All one needs is to send one kamikaze craft from the Sirius side, end of story. The Psamtik wouldn't even know what hit her. I'm pretty sure they wouldn't approach the node closer than five — okay, make it four — space miles even if their lives depended upon it."

"Any more suggestions?" the Admiral looked at Petrarch, then at the captain. "All agreed?"

Petrarch's hand jerked up. "Wait. We've forgotten our occupational forces deployed at Theta Deneb. There's GTC Yakiba and a good half of the 29th bombers in case the orbital installations put up any resistance. That's twelve craft ready to fight plus two full wings of fighter cover. And the beauty of it is, they're stationed just next to the Deneb Sirius node where we can easily route them."

He gave Vittorio a look of triumph. "Here's your solution! Even the Iceni wouldn't be able to withstand our bombers provided they don't miss."

The old admiral looked at Vittorio with unspoken appreciation.

"The 29th don't miss," the captain agreed. "Never have done..."

He cut himself short as if remembering something and strode toward the virtual screen. His fingers fluttered over the control panel. Both admirals turned to him trying to double-guess his actions.

Petrarch got it first and nodded his approval. "You're right! First of all, we need to check the isochronic map."

"Can someone tell me what's going on," Vittorio demanded, his voice stern.

The Aquitaine captain turned to him. "It's okay, Sir. I was trying to calculate our forces' arrival time at the target point. Have a look, Sir. The rebel frigate can reach the node in fifty-five minutes thirty-seven seconds. That's provided our young Hammerheads fail to deter her advance. The jump node is situated above the ecliptic orbit of Theta Deneb. Luckily for us, the planet's position in relation to the node at the moment is only fifty-two light minutes."

Petrarch breathed a sigh of relief. "Hand of God," he murmured.

Vittorio glanced at the map. His face cleared. "Very well," his voice crackled with angst, "I'm going to enter the coordinates and order the 29th to scramble. We've got to hurry. Captain Crolla, please show me to the controller's seat. And order the bombers to raid the asteroid belt.

He paused. "Don't forget to send a rescue Elysium into the area. You never know, some of those fighter pilots might have survived."


In the meantime, the fighter pilots of the 53rd were recovering from their baptism of fire.

"I can't believe I'm still down here and not in astronauts' Valhalla," Trausty heard Marchan's voice. "Or is it my imagination? Nyra, am I right? Are we still alive?"

"I wish I knew," the girl squeaked into the mouthpiece. "I saw Trausty jump them and then I think I went into some sort of trance. I remember fighting but it was like in a dream. Our leader is a legend. I'd never be able to do the same in a thousand years. But I could follow him anywhere anytime!"

The words startled Trausty. He was only coming out of the same trance-like state himself. Once again death had spared them. Despite their desperate attack, the GTVA fighters had failed to even get within shooting range of the departing frigate. The Iceni had switched on her jump generators and before they could react, she'd disappeared into the blue glow of the subspace funnel. All Trausty could do was watch her disappear and abort the attack.

It had taken him a few minutes to remember reporting their failure to the Aquitaine. His wingmen didn't agree on the word. They even dared to curse command under their breaths for sending them on an admittedly idiotic mission. Trausty still wasn't sure whether he had to celebrate his survival or grieve the failed task given by Admiral Petrarch himself. Of course he realized that they couldn't have hindered the frigate in a million years, but still the memory hurt. He remembered his father taking his heavy Ursa wing on the same kind of suicidal attack all those years back. But Eric Trausty had had his one-in-a-million chance. He'd found the Shivan juggernaut in the depths of subspace and dealt it a deadly blow before it could reach Earth. Of course, Bosch's rebel frigate was nothing compared to the threat the Lucifer had posed to human civilization. But to Trausty, the parallels were obvious.

He sighed and turned on the comm.

"Now," he said sternly. "Quit yapping." He waited for silence to fill his earphones and went on, "We've blown the mission. Which is not good. But it wasn't our fault and I suppose it could serve as a consolation. Apparently, the Iceni already had her jump generators primed when we'd approached her. I hope command sees it this way. In any case, as group leader I am responsible for what's happened."

Once again the others started speaking all at once.

"We'll all be behind you, sir," Marchan said. "It's nobody's fault, let alone yours. We are all witnesses to the fact that even with 3 Gs' worth of afterburners we still couldn't catch up with them."

Marchan paused. "Don't get so upset," he added. "Bosch isn't going anywhere. The Psamtik is blocking the Sirius node. Remember what she did to the Belisarius? The Iceni will get the same welcome, you'll see. In the meantime, we'll live some more."

"Modesty isn't your forte, is it, Trausty?" the Beta leader butted in. "Flying too high, are we? Decided to capture Bosch on your second flight, of all people?"

"Why not?" Marchan played along. "What if we'd done it? Young heroes that managed to capture Aken Bosch himself."

"In that case I'd promise to bring flowers to your grave," Fram added sarcastically. "You have any idea of the Iceni's cannons caliber? Quit daydreaming. Are we going back or do you intend to stay here for good?"

"Please don't start that again," Trausty said. "You'd better monitor the situation. No, we're not going back yet. We still have the second part of the order to complete. We've got to wait for the bombers to arrive."

"To do what, show them a picture of the Iceni's departing backside?" Fram quipped and switched off without waiting for Trausty's reaction.

The Alpha leader heaved a sigh. The pilots' reaction was too understandable. It was high time they were heading home. But instead, they'd have to muck around the asteroid belt for another couple of hours.

He tuned into Alpha Three.

"Nye," he asked warily. "Did you get any more messages from the Aquitaine? What was their reaction to the Iceni's jump?"

"No reaction, Sir," there was sympathy in Nyra's voice. "They're probably busy chasing her so they have better things to do than worry about us."

"No medals for this one, then," Trausty muttered. "I think I'm looking at a lot of aggro once we're back."

"Relax, Sir," Nyra attempted to cheer him up. "Firstly, I'm sure they'll capture the frigate. The whole Deneb system is studded with our craft. And secondly, don't forget it was us who sighted the Iceni here to begin with. Had you not cancelled the jump when March saw the dot on his radars, we'd have been back on board the Aquitaine a long time by now. And that would have given Bosch a good chance to sneak past our pickets. And it's not our fault that she jumped. We were too far, we couldn't do anything."

Her logic cheered Trausty up a bit. If you looked at it that way, things weren't so bad. And what if the GTVA ships had managed to trap the Iceni, all thanks to Trausty's quick thinking? Maybe he didn't need to get so upset, after all. Most likely he wasn't even facing a reprimand — just as Nyra had suggested. You never know, command might even commend him.

Reassured, he switched all of his craft's systems to standby, sat back in his pilot's seat and prepared for a long wait. Next to him over the edge of the asteroid belt hung the other five ships of his group. Tiny steel shells, all alone in boundless space.

Minutes turned into hours. He took some stimulants to avoid nodding off. Finally, the equipment came back to life with a chain of flickering lights, registering the first subspace surges. Trausty stretched his stiff back.

"Attention all," he said. "An unidentified group of ships is about to exit subspace. Set turbines to half speed."

Chapter Eight

My dear friend,

It has taken you six months to finally remember me! The little thank-you note you sent me for those Capellan mollins doesn't really count. Well, better late then never, I suppose. I'm very happy to hear you're doing well. As for your little boy, I'm worried about him as well. Don't forget it was me who had to look after him and basically be his foster mother during all your endless expeditions. Yes, I did hear the news about the GTVA's advance on Epsilon Pegasi. Wish it were so! You know yourself that official reports tend to differ quite a bit from the actual state of affairs. I do hope that the Third Fleet — and Trausty as part of it — won't end up on the attacking end.

As for me, well... I'll tell you in a minute. You'll have to wait a bit. You're full of surprises, girl. You manage to make discoveries in areas totally alien to you. I've examined the file. I like how you named the device, Knossos. As a result, I missed dinner and had to smoke a few cigarettes in order to regain my senses. Krainovich said you'd have to pay for the damage the smokes did to me. You probably won't believe it but he and I spent the whole night — no, not doing what you're thinking. We were calculating and hypothesizing. When I get the Kartel prize, I'll send you half the money for forwarding the file to me and not to some other space-time physicist. So! Back to the point. Your mysterious ring (the pictures are awesome, by the way) is no less than a new intergalactic node in the making. This isn't a typo. Intergalactic, not interstellar. Its so-called 'funnel' can stretch at least some tens of thousands of light years. This is something totally unheard of, especially considering the fact that it had apparently formed in under twenty galactic hours. You've discovered an intergalactic node created by the Ancient Ones! Are you sure you haven't pressed any red buttons in those tunnels of theirs on that Gamma Draconis planet? Well, congratulations! Provided it's not some fiendish April Fool spoof of yours. Now the theory of manmade subspace nodes can finally receive the acknowledgment it deserves. And it raises all sorts of hopes. Not least that of our being able to build Knossos-like nodes ourselves in the foreseeable future.

You'll be happy to know that I'm busy now putting together a new expedition to your system before you press any more red buttons. My current status allows me to commandeer any ship I want from the military — a cruiser, if necessary. You should expect to see me in two to three days. And please keep your mouth firmly shut. It's classification level one. Martial law — we can't avoid it. Everyone with me will have authorized access. Krainovich too, seeing as he was lucky enough to hear about it first. I can't very easily court-martial him for that, can I? Actually, we've decided to tie the knot. Our twenty years' age difference doesn't seem to unsettle him. So what? As far as I'm concerned, the younger the better. And he's wise beyond his years. A perfect partner for me.

That's it, dear friend. A thousand kisses. See you in Gamma Graconis.


Mina Hargrove.

PS. I dread to think what the Knossos funnel may open out on once it's fully formed.

The captain of the Vigilant looked up at Cariola. "I'm surprised just as much as Doctor Hargrove claims to be. Which awesome pictures is she talking about? My module reached the device three hours ago. There's no way you could see the images it transmitted. I was going to show them to you personally. Either I missed something or you've already received this information from other sources? And still you insist it's one of the Ancient Ones' installations?

Cariola couldn't help smiling at his amazement. She and Sipphtar had only arrived at the cruiser a few minutes earlier in order to eyewitness an attempt at making a closer contact with the mysterious Knossos ring. But it had turned out that the captain had already sent a pod and ten crew several hours earlier hoping to collect the first data before his guests arrived. Alas, his best efforts were in vain.

"Captain," Cariola started rather formally. "Sir. We've made an enormous discovery. It wouldn't have been possible without your help. Our hypothesis of the ring belonging to the Ancient Ones' culture has proved correct."

"I've already expressed my congratulations to Dr. Trausty and apologized for my previous scepticism," Sipphtar butted in. Apparently, the Vasudan dress code demanded some outrageously colorful clothes for the occasion.

"Exactly," she said. "Yesterday I contacted an old friend of mine through the instant messaging service. She happens to be a space physicist. What you've just read was her reply. Actually, I only read it myself less that forty minutes ago just as I was about to go and see you. This is only one missing link but arguably the most important. At least now we have a better idea of what we're dealing with."

Cariola opened the file she was holding and produced a few pictures.

"These are those awesome images she was harping on about. Great, aren't they, considering they were taken from a one-meter distance? We've filmed this in the Ancient Ones' storage room. We discovered it this morning which is a sensation in its own right. We've spent all day studying it — and only stopped thirty minutes before coming here," she held out the images to the captain.

"God almighty," Veddingen murmured leafing through the pictures. "It rotates just like the real thing three billion miles away. They look identical. Have a look at what we've received from the pod."

He turned on the 3D screen. An image came into focus, this time bright and clear in every detail. Eight blue and purple objects strung together by an unknown force formed a colossal toroid. It rotated clockwise resembling a line of weird animals going round in an enormous circle amid countless stars.

Cariola stared at the image, mesmerized. Until the very last moment she was afraid her theory was wrong. Now she'd shed her last doubts. In front of her was a functioning device by a civilization extinct for the last eight thousand years. She thought she could hear a monotonous hum, somewhat like the swell of surf beating against the shore.

"I can't quite figure out what they remind me of," the captain finally spoke. "And I can't put my finger on it."

"Had we found something similar while digging, I'd have said they looked like some animal figurines," Cariola nodded. "If you look long enough, you can make out their heads, torsos and legs. But I have to admit it's not what you'd call space-age technology."

"Exactly," Veddingen agreed. "It looks as if it's... alive. How weird. I can't believe it's a gate to another Galaxy for us to enter."

"Or for someone to enter ours," the Vasudan said in his auto translator's emotionless voice.

The captain exchanged glances with Cariola.

"He has a point," she finally said. "I have a funny feeling it appeared here for a reason. Mina Hargrove could be right. We could have disturbed something while digging. It's possible that the portal and the artifact in the Ancient Ones' storage are more closely connected than we thought."

"I disagree," the Vasudan announced. "In my opinion, there were other reasons for portal activation. But I can't yet tell you what they are. It's possible that someone over there is trying to cross to the other side. Our side. Which could be potentially dangerous. We must post an exclusion cordon around Gamma Draconis. Even better, we should destroy the portal."

Cariola stared at the Vasudan, amazed. "Destroy the portal? Just like that, without studying it first? Destroy an object which could lead us to new worlds? You're a scientist yourself, Supphtar! How can you even suggest something like that?"

"This is my opinion," the Vasudan repeated staring down at the floor. Cariola glanced at Veddingen. He shrugged.

"We shouldn't disregard this possibility," he said. "Don't forget that the Shivan fleets attacked us out of nowhere, too. We still haven't found out exactly where in our Galaxy they came from. But destroying the portal sounds a bit... extreme."

He suppressed a smile adding, "In any case it's not ours to decide. Or destroy, not with our kind of weaponry."

He switched off the screen and turned to the two researchers. "So. We seem to know what it is now. We still have no idea what caused it to activate or what we can expect from it in the near future. Am I right?"

He paused, thinking, and went on. "Very well. As a GTVA warship commander in this region, I suggest we don't displace the Vigilant from its current location in Gamma Draconis until we receive further instructions from command. We'll keep patrolling the object from a safe distance — say, two light minutes. Before that, I'll have to retrieve my pod. Its crew are only five space miles away from the object. I don't doubt their bravery but I don't want them to end up in some other Galaxy."

He smoothed his dark graying hair and gave Cariola a light bow. "Thank you for helping us solve this mystery. We'll continue studying the object and pass the records over to Dr. Hargrove when she arrives."

"She'll be here shortly," Cariola said. "She's a good friend of mine. And you, Captain — are you going to stay here in the system after..."

"If mail capsules bring no new orders regarding this, we'll leave in a week as planned for the Alliance's central domain for docking and major repairs. I prefer my cruiser to be fully staffed and battle-worthy," Veddingen suppressed a smile.

A watch officer approached.

"The cruiser's ready to jump, sir. What will your orders be?"

The Vasudan perked up. His yellow eyes stared at Cariola. "Is there any point in us going? The trip to the toroid and back will take about fourteen hours, if I'm not mistaken. I don't think we'll see anything new out there. In my opinion, Dr. Trausty and I had better go back to the planet. We have to see to lots of things."

"I'm very sorry," the captain sighed. "I should have thought about it earlier. But I'm afraid, you're our prisoners for the time being. We have no craft to send you back on. One of my pods is over there studying the portal. And the one you arrived here in has gone to collect the mail from the Gamma Draconis Capella node. The third pod, under the Regs, should always be on standby."

He gave them a guilty shrug. Cariola swung round toward Sipphtar. "Personally, I think it's a great opportunity. I'd love to see the portal for myself."

The Vasudan turned away without saying a word. Cariola gave him another look. He's scared witless of something. The Vasudan stared down at the floor, his sand-colored hands shaking slightly, and kept snapping his close-set claws. Cariola had never seen a Vasudan scared before. The discovery didn't please her. She remembered his strange behavior at the digs when they'd found the working model of the Ancient Ones' Donut, as they'd nicknamed it. It had struck her then as being odd but, ecstatic about their discovery, she hadn't heeded her gut feeling.

She looked up at Veddingen. He too seemed slightly taken aback. The watch officer was studying the group surreptitiously as he waited for his orders. Curiosity gleamed in his bright blue eyes. He looked not a day older than twenty-two, his plump lips lending him a childish expression.

"So," the captain concluded, "we could go, I suppose. Time is precious. Tayin," he turned to the young officer, "take our guests to their cabins. Dr. Sipphtar is staying in our Vasudan-friendly guest room. And you Cariola, I thought you could enjoy sharing a room with your colleague," Veddingen wrinkled his forehead remembering the name, "Allena Helf."

On hearing his words, the young officer Tayin flushed. He turned to Sipphtar and, in a halting voice, beckoned the Vasudan to follow him. Sipphtar's robes rustled as he rose. He hadn't said a word since the captain's decision to set off for the portal.

"I can't believe it," Cariola turned to the captain. "How could I ever have forgotten about her? Some administrator I am! How is she? I wonder if it would be worth waiting for your pod to come back and send her back in it?"

Captain dismissed the suggestion. "No need to! She's fine. Our staff doctor said that it was some form of allergy to our cook's culinary exercises. I have to admit he overdid it a bit. Anyway, there's no cause for concern. Three hours after the party she already felt fine. And the doctor was happy beyond belief. He hadn't had a single injury or sore throat in months, and then he suddenly was presented with such a lovely case," the captain's eyes smiled.

Cariola relaxed, then tensed up again. She knew Allena too well to believe the official version. Once we're back at the station, I'll shake the truth out of that mare, she thought remembering the blushing officer.

"So I'm afraid, she'll have to go with us," the captain concluded. "And by the way, did you get the impression that your Vasudan colleague was a bit... preoccupied? I didn't believe my ears when he suggested we destroy the portal!"

Cariola nodded. "He seems to be not quite himself lately," she admitted. "A moment ago I got the feeling that he was scared out of his mind. Did the jump frighten him so much?"

The captain chuckled sceptically. "A scared Vasudan! That I've yet to see. Concerned, yes, maybe. But scared," he shook his head. "Can they experience fear at all, you think?"

Cariola shrugged. "I didn't have a chance to get to know them better. I'd love to learn to tell their emotional state."

"All right. Let's presume it was a figment of our imagination. Or maybe Dr. Sipphtar was out of sorts today," Veddingen started entering commands on a control panel in front of him. He pressed OK and turned on the ship intercom.

"Attention all hands," his voice echoed in every module. "I hereby give notice of thirty minutes' jump readiness. All personnel report to active duty posts. Destination: the other side of Gamma Draconis. Those with insomnia, brace yourselves for a seven-hour journey. To all others, sweet dreams."

He turned to Cariola. "We still have some time," he offered her his hand. "Allow me to escort you to your quarters."


"You've no idea how worried you make me."

"Don't. Nothing will happen."

"I'm worried about all of us. About our future baby. What's going to happen to us?"

"If this world comes to a sticky end, I'll come and get you, Cari. We'll move over to the final frontier, to the Lupus system, and destroy the subspace node behind us."

"Do you really think there's no hope?" anxious, she eyed her young husband.

Eric Trausty frowned. He stared in front of him. They sat side by side, Cariola's hand in his. A short get-together between countless battles. Their world had suffered heavy blows as the red-and-black alien hordes had flooded their and the Vasudans' Universe. Shiva, the ancient god of destruction, had now raised his trident to the Terran systems. These enemies didn't negotiate. Not once had they reacted to any of the Terran or Vasudan attempts to initiate contact. They just kept cleansing the systems from any race other than their own.

Eric squeezed his wife's wrist. Of all the moments to get pregnant. Just when the Galaxy was meeting its doomsday. "I don't know. At the moment, we keep losing system after system. The Shivans just plow through our defenses. Had it not been for that wretched juggernaut of theirs, we could still try. But against the Lucifer, we're powerless. We retreat wherever it goes. And now it's this Hammer of Light, may it burn in hell. It diverts a lot of effort to it."

"Don't you think they might know something we don't?"

"The only thing they know is that the Apocalypse is near. So they want to speed it up a bit. God knows there's no need for it. Three weeks ago, the Shivans burst toward Vasuda Prime. It took them a few months to do what Earth had been trying to do for fourteen years."

He winced with the memory. "I was there when it all happened. We were covering the transports evacuating civilians. Bad idea, even worse execution. It cost both us and the Vasudans five warships. A few hundred thousand Vasudans fled to safety. Billions died. The Shivans had scorched ninety-nine percent of the planet's surface."

Cariola gasped. "My mind refuses to take it all in. Why such cruelty?"

"Lots of people would love to know the answer to that. Ever since those five-armed creatures first made themselves known in the Ross 128 system, the GTVA haven't stopped trying to communicate with them. As if!" he gave a sad chuckle.

"Can't somebody do something?" her voice broke.

Eric's smile was more cheerful this time. "If I could take all the pelts of all the Shivan fighters I'd shot down and lay them out in a line, they would stretch from the Reverie Fjord right up to our house at the Norveld Coast back on Earth. Shivan ships are powerful and their beam cannons new to us. They're much better than our plasma gear. So at the moment, it's light craft like us who are saving the day. Fighters and also both light and heavy bombers: it's us who break Shiva's teeth at the moment."

"You're welcome to break them all," Cariola folded her arms and looked up at her husband, "as long as you're careful."

Eric gave her a wink. "We received new Tsunami missiles the other day," he said confidentially, "and the next sortie, they tore apart an enormous Shivan Dragon-class fighter. That's how I got this beauty," he stroked the pale metal of a Distinguished Flying Cross on his dress tunic.

Cariola eyed him with affection. He'd never grow up. He'd always remain the little daredevil boy who had now laid his hands on a deadly flying machine. She couldn't believe he was one of the GTVA's best fighter pilots she kept hearing about in the news. All the other heroes were stern heavy-chinned men. At twenty-two, Eric still looked a teenager compared to them. But it was he who had led the attack on the Taranis — her armor deformed, her engines knocked out — allowing the Terrans to board an enemy ship for the first time. And it was his group that provided cover for the Thombala station evacuation where the Shivan juggernaut had been first sighted in all its lethal glory.

"Can a Tsunami missile destroy the Lucifer?" she asked hopefully.

He stopped smiling and patted her hand. "I'm afraid we'll need something more powerful than that. But you have a point. Wherever the Lucifer appears, our defense lines collapse like toy building blocks. Good job the Shivans don't have another one! If we could only stop it!" Eric shook his head in doubt. "It alone has the power of an entire fleet. Its guns are capable of reducing an entire planet to ashes. We've seen it on Vasuda Prime. Its shields are virtually impenetrable to our weapons even if you get close enough with all those interceptors circling around it. Sorry, Cari. I just don't know. But if we could ever do it, then maybe we'd have a chance to break the back of this war."

With a sigh, he fell silent.

She stroke his hand again touching the heavy red lazurite bracelet. As if answering her touch, the comm blinked green. An incoming call...

"Attention all crew. Intrajump terminated. Welcome to the outer sphere of the Gamma Draconis planetary system. The distance to the system's central star is three billion miles. All crew to resume their activities."

The pleasant female voice had come from nowhere and had now ceased. Cariola shook her head, coming back to reality. She'd had her fair share of subspace jumps. But she'd never had dreams before. She tried to retrieve their elusive fabric: had she really dreamed of Eric, the way he'd been twenty-two years ago? He couldn't have known then that she would manage to keep the baby. When she'd received news of his death, she'd very nearly miscarried. Then, no one had any doubts that the subspace explosion that had destroyed the Terran node had also killed the few brave men who dared chase the Lucifer away. It had been a long time before Mina Hargrove's time-consuming calculations suggested that Eric's group of heavy Ursas might have exited subspace seconds before the Shivan juggernaut exploded. According to her laborious calculations, this was exactly what had happened to a Lucifer fragment weighing hundreds of thousands of tons — about one-twentieth of the warship's entire mass. Which meant that Eric's fighters had stood a survival chance.

She heard a rustle and turned to look. Allena stared at her, angry.

"Thanks a bunch," the girl grumbled, feeling for the control buttons near her. With a quiet hiss, her bed transformed into a tall seat. Allena slumped into it with a moan.

"Sometimes I can't believe you're twenty-five," Cariola rose and began rearranging her clothes. "Congratulations on your first successful subspace jump."

"Successful my ass!" the girl sat up with her head in her hands and groaned, shifting in her seat. "You slept through it like some sleeping friggin' beauty while I was sitting here staring into sub friggin' space! I wish I could sleep during jumps too."

Cariola shrugged. "You should have taken the pills. Did you forget them or something?"

The girl gave her a mistrustful look through her fingers. "I did. In the surgery. At the doctor's."

"Why doesn't that surprise me?" Cariola sighed. "That's the price you're paying for your romantic adventures. So who was it this time — the doctor or that cute Tayin boy?"

Allena opened her eyes wide. "God forbid! We kissed a few times, that's it. Oh."

Cariola shook her head in disapproval. "You mean the doctor or both?"

"Who do you think I am," the girl tensed. "Yes, Tayin likes me and so does his twin brother Rayin. They're very nice. And the doctor saved my life when I had that deadly allergy. How come you always know everything?"

"It comes with the job," Cariola rose and came to their cabin door. "You stay here for the time being. It's a classified assignment, after all. I'll go to the bridge and ask the captain what we should do with you."

"Great," the girl moaned. "They drag me to the end of the universe without even asking, then they lock me up!"

"You'll live. We might be going back in an hour."

"In an hour?" the girl jumped in fear. She got up and started getting ready. "I'll go get the pills from the surgery. I won't survive seven more hours of this. Where's my hair grip?"

"Just make sure you don't get lost and walk into some classified area," Cariola frowned mockingly, "or they'll make you sign a gag order."

As they left, they almost bumped into a girl from the cruiser staff. She greeted them and turned to Cariola,

"Dr. Trausty. The captain would like to know if you'd come to the bridge, please."


The bridge on the Vigilant lived its own well-organized life. Captain Veddingen offered Cariola the second officer's seat explaining that the latter was away trying to squeeze some spare parts out of GTVA suppliers.

"If we want to stay on schedule with all the repairs, we need to be subtle. If we don't, our more pushy colleagues will beat us to it," the captain suppressed a smile. "Too many battered ships. The maintenance department can't keep up."

Cariola took her place and stole a look around. Holographic panels covered the walls and the ceiling of the dome-like room turning the bridge into an open platform in space. About ten crew members bustled about: an eerie feeling, like seeing a doorway open in the middle of a nebula and some preoccupied officer or other walking through it.

Veddingen pointed at a bright star on the portside.

"This is Gamma Draconis from a distance of three billion miles. An old orange giant, she is," he said. "And this is our destination, what you claim to be an intergalactic node. Do you see that green dot in a green rectangular background underneath? This is our pod we're approaching. We'll reach the RV point in forty minutes. In the meantime, we maintain communications with them."

Curious, Cariola studied the strange constellations. "Back at the station, we don't see any of this," she admitted. "The planet is surrounded by high-altitude cloud cover. I don't think I can remember one day of bright sunshine there."

"Neither can we," Veddingen smiled. "Not in this domain of eternal darkness. We're now in the system's outer layer. Beyond there's only comet cloud and the heliopause. Having said that, there's also the seventh and last planet there somewhere. It's pretty dull, though."

"It'll look even duller next to the new portal," Cariola replied. "It's fascinating," she looked at the blue and black ring slowly rotating dead ahead. "Even from here it looks enormous."

"That's largely due to our optic sensors," the captain said. "This isn't a real visual of Object Delta but just a holographic image. Delta is the name we've listed it under in our transputer database. Have a peek," he motioned the green dot to grow turning into the image of a rocket pod complete with its fusion exhaust. For a second, Cariola thought she could see faces in the little ship's portholes.

She nodded. "It all looks so perfectly normal to a bystander. Oh," she remembered, "where's Dr. Sipphtar? Is he all right?"

"Absolutely," the captain said. "He sent me a message saying that he didn't want to be in the crew's way. Dr. Sipphtar intends to stay in his cabin until we return to the planet. I got the impression that he's not happy losing so much time to our expedition."

Cariola shrugged. "It's not your fault. It was our joint decision to fly and see Knossos. Moreover, as a GTVA representative, he's obliged to be present in accordance with the joint access procedure."

"You could be right," the captain agreed. "What's that name you just called the portal? That word, Knossos, does it mean anything? I've never heard it before but it definitely sounds better than just Object Delta."

"No wonder you haven't. These days, only archeologists seem to remember it. It just feels so good to breathe new life into ancient names, connecting past and the future," she paused. "Knossos was the name of an ancient Mediterranean city thousands of years ago. When Sir Arthur Evans discovered it in the nineteenth century, his research brought an entire civilization back to life. Few know about it these days. But tradition demands the naming of all Gamma Draconis artifacts after the Knossos world. I follow it, that's all."

Veddingen nodded, deep in thought. "We have a similar tradition in our fleet. We call our ships after their Terran predecessors. That wasn't thousands but mere hundreds of years ago and they weren't spaceships, of course. Our Vigilant was baptized after her Great War namesake which in turn got her name from a long-forgotten Terran ship."

"A remarkable name for a ship," Cariola said. "Vigilantes was the old name given to groups of people who took law into their own hands."

The captain chuckled. "Your erudition can be scary."

"I was a linguist in my past life, after all," the woman smiled. "I've studied the processes that made the base of today's universal language."

"Yes, I think I remember now," Veddingen rubbed his forehead. "We studied it at school. It's been thirty years, what do you want..."

"But you still remember," Cariola glanced at his puzzled face.

A sharp buzzing sound interrupted them. Cariola watched, perplexed, as a pulsating crimson circle formed around the Knossos. Veddingen jumped up and hurried to the starboard observation post where two watch officers were already busy processing incoming data.

"Observation post report. Multiple subspace surges detected in the area of Object Delta. The nature of the signals is unclear. They seem to resemble the sounds of a group of ships about to exit the node."

Cariola, still uncomprehending, saw Veddingen's face harden. This wasn't her courteous host any more: this was a battleship commander with a steel glare. He made a decision almost instantly,

"Attention all personnel. Combat alert. Crew to take up action stations. Prepare for hostile contact. Primary turret B, clear for action. All guns and beam cannons, mark your targets. The lookout station is to report the enemy's approximate portal clearance time, location Object Delta. Lookout station? Come in!"

"Sorry, Sir," the lookout officer answered haltingly. "Can't be done, Sir. We can't classify the signals. No idea why. The system gives a margin of ten to thirty minutes. The pod also reports detecting surges. They're asking for further instructions."

Two minutes later, first mate Thormid came running to the bridge, buttoning his tunic with one hand and trying to smooth out his hair with the other. His cheek sported the distinctive print of one of the mess room couch cushions where he must have been nodding off between watches.

"What's all this, Sir? Why the combat alert?"

"Unidentified target right ahead."

An experienced officer, Thormid thought immediately about the pod. "We might not be able to retrieve it, Sir."

The captain nodded. There was no need to remind him. His fingers fluttered over the control panel as he checked the isochronic map.

"Engine room, full ahead!"

The next moment, Cariola sensed a growing rumble. The floor vibrated. The cruiser commenced its acceleration.

"Tell the pod to accelerate head on."

The captain turned to the first mate. "Commence emergency deceleration in ten minutes in order to equalize our speeds and retrieve the pod. Then accelerate again to be able to enter subspace if necessary.

"It'll take at least thirty minutes, Sir," the first mate answered. "That's a lot of risk."

"I'm not leaving my men here," Veddingen snapped. "Besides, we have no idea who it is about to enter the system using the portal. They could be perfectly non-aggressive. But we're not on a pleasure cruise. This is a warship we're flying, and she should be able to defend herself if needed."

Thermid raised a protesting hand. "I didn't at all suggest leaving the pod here, Sir. No way! Even if there were no one on board. The pod's too expensive to dump it just like that. But wait a moment, Sir," his face froze, surprised. "Did you just say portal? What portal? There's no portal here! No nodes in this hole in the wall. What did I miss while sleeping on that couch?"

"Our scientists say it could be an intergalactic portal," Veddingen mumbled, busy with the calculations. "Some other time, okay?"

Perplexed, the first mate turned to the only scientist present. Cariola answered with an equally surprised stare. She couldn't get a handle on the situation, either, or rather the military side of it.

"I didn't see that pink elephant," the first mate murmured as he studied the zoomed-in picture of Knossos and the pulsating crimson circle around it. "An intergalactic portal! We thought it was some horseshit."

He turned to the captain. "So what is it, Sir? Whoever is coming to see us isn't from Gamma Draconis, are they? Fuck knows where they're from, is that it?"

"It's up to our researchers to decide," Veddingen answered. "My priorities are to retrieve my men and prepare the ship for a potential jump back. Now take a seat, please. We're in for a wait."

"Should I go back to my cabin?" Cariola said timidly during a pause.

Veddingen gave her a look of preoccupation. "It might be better if you stay here for a while," he said on reflection. "The emergency deceleration is about to commence. I wouldn't want it to catch up with you on your way downstairs. In this seat at least you're perfectly safe from the G-forces."

Minutes went by. From time to time, the captain and first mate glanced at the clock and exchanged a few anxious remarks. The observation post kept reporting on unidentified gravitational noise. The ship's main transputer worked overtime processing incoming data as it arrived. Assessing potential danger. Predictably, its database didn't — couldn't — contain any information on the structure of intergalactic subspace nodes, and all attempts to extrapolate the existing data on well-studied interstellar portals produced rather questionable or contradictory results. Mina Hargrove could have helped to sort it out, but the famous researcher was dozens of light years away. Basically, no one on board the cruiser could tell when and where the alien ships would appear.

Finally, Veddingen's voice echoed over the ship. "Stop all turbines! Commence vectoring the ship 180°. Kill the gravity transducers for the duration of the maneuver. All crew prepare for emergency deceleration. Do not leave your seats!"

The cruiser's behemoth three-hundred-meter body began an awkward U-turn. Glued to her seat, Cariola watched the Knossos and the tiny pod's outline drift by. Before she could work out why the cruiser was turning its aft towards the pod, its turbines kicked in again pinning Cariola to her seat. Her body grew heavy. She couldn't breathe. The next few seconds lasted for what felt like an eternity. Finally, the gravitational pull ceased as the ship was reducing speed.

"Three minutes till docking. The pod approached at the regulation distance from the aft docking port," the external observation post reported.

The first mate wiped his sweaty forehead with his tunic sleeve. "Our guys in the pod must be having a hard time. It's not meant for this kind of treatment. I wouldn't be surprised if they're all lying there flat on the floor."

"The main thing is, they'll be home soon-" the captain stopped short. Three silver stars flashed and exited next to the Knossos portal. Their intergalactic visitors had arrived at their destination.

Chapter Nine

Vittorio paced the warship's bridge, his hands clenched behind his back. Vice Admiral Petrarch and Captain Crolla stood respectfully on the captain's platform, casting cautious glances at the aging Grand Admiral. Speaking quietly, both approached the cockpit's railing behind which lay the dome-like bridge room lined with holographic panels. Within those panels — or rather, behind them — one could see the entire Third Fleet battle group ready for action. To the right of the flagship hovered the grey hulls of the two new heavy cruisers, the GTCvs Actium and Warspite, only two years into active service. Older but equally lethal, four Leviathan-class cruisers made a separate spearhead group which now maneuvered into a diamond formation in front of the Aquitaine. Their running lights were dimmed in expression of mourning for their sister ship, the five-hundred-meter Andromeda, ambushed and destroyed by Neo Terran forces not far from here during the first Deneb campaign. It happened soon after the demise of the GTC Trafalgar.

Of all the recce forces only one Fenris-class cruiser hunched its vulturine back to the left of the Aquitaine. The other five of the Third Fleet's light cruisers were still prowling the Deneb system in search of the last Neo Terran rebels who were lying low. A Great War veteran, the GTD Bastion stayed in the flagship's wake ready to cover the new-generation ships with her powerful beam fire. Even the Defense Minister Reynal's raptorial-looking GTC Aeolus, still untested by fire, drew closer to the other ships, bristling with gun batteries.

The mousetrap was on full alert. Far from them, the Vasudan Psamtik led by Rear Admiral Khafre had already fanned out her mosquito fleet. Six Bakha-class bomber wings — almost half its active force — were patrolling the Deneb Sirius node covered by an entire fighter squadron. The 29th squadron of Terran heavy bombers was heading for the portal too, having left the GTCv Yakiba to face the G-fighting orbital batteries near Theta Deneb alone. Still, it was worth all the trouble. Capturing or otherwise neutralizing Aken Bosch — the instigator of the separatist sentiments — could save the GTVA government's day. The war on the rebels had long been unpopular and had to be ended as soon as possible. In less than ten minutes, Bosch's flagship was about to appear within the sights of dozens of guns.

All that then changed.

"Urgent message from the GVD Psamtik. Directly from Admiral Khafre," the duty officer reported from the external comm station. "Three minutes ago, two of the rebels' light cruisers entered the sector from the direction of Sirius: the NTCs Impervious and Glorious, escorted by sixteen Loki-class fighters."

All hell broke loose on the Aquitaine's bridge. The admirals rushed to the virtual screens closest to the captain's seat. The system was already feeding them the first data on the unfolding battle. The Psamtik's green shape was still far away from the node. Khafre hadn't dared to lose his best ship and had drawn her closer to the Sirius portal, which rendered his powerful beam cannons capable of scorching both rebellious cruisers utterly useless. In the meantime, the enemy stood to gain. It took the sixteen Loki fighters, backed by the firepower of the Impervious and Glorious, three minutes to disperse the Vasudan heavy bombers attempting to patrol the node area. A squadron of Serapis fighters was desperately trying to cover the Vasudans but lost half its craft in a matter of minutes.

Vittorio cursed under his breath. He couldn't but appreciate the enemy's choreographed actions which had already neutralized nearly all of the warship's mosquito fleet. It wasn't for nothing that the rebels risked their light cruisers against a capital ship with her dozens of fighters. Bosch could just be around somewhere. The first part of their plan to capture the Iceni was failing even as they watched. There was no way Khafre's squadrons could stop Bosch's flagship if it arrived in the theater of action.

Vittorio glanced at the clock. The rebels' flagship would exit subspace in just a few minutes.

"Regrettably, we haven't made allowance for this scenario," he glared at his Vice Admiral as if blaming him for the ad hoc rebel raid. "I can't see how Khafre can defer the Iceni's advance now. Not that I counted on its assistance earlier on. Oh well. Now it's up to the 29th. They're all experienced pilots. They wouldn't lose Bosch."

Petrarch nodded as he watched the Vasudan light fleet being massacred. In a desperate attempt to help, the Psamtik was sending the reserve fighter squadron. The clumsy Bakha bombers were trying to get out of the cruisers' field of fire while the rebels' guns were shooting them like fish in a barrel. Neo Terran fighters swarmed like wrathful wasps not letting the GTVA bombers loose off their torpedoes at the enemy ships. Whatever was left of the Serapis squadron, they couldn't help their ships tied up with fighting the remaining Lokis.

"The Vasudans were never big on tactics," the Vice Admiral murmured watching the dots of the GTVA fighters disappear off the radars one after another. "They're very brave, you have to give them that. If only they had the skill to go with it!"

"They always won by weight of numbers," Crolla agreed. "Although Imhotep had some decent skills as a commander. Luckily for us, he was scorched on board his Typhon flagship near Antares, otherwise we'd have had a whole nother set of problems in that war. But the current Rear Admiral isn't in the same league."

A few minutes later, the battlers struck a shaky balance. Both Neo Terran ships were holding a small salient near the Deneb Sirius node. The battered Vasudan forces dropped back out of the cruisers' range and attempted to regroup. Of a complete battle squadron, only five craft were left, all in various degrees of damage. The surviving Serapis fighters were slightly more numerous. The rebels' losses were small in comparison: only two craft shot down, their pilots already recovered by the Impervious. The Vasudans whose dignity didn't let them abandon ship (they didn't even have rescue pods) had died with their downed craft. The light Lokis had driven their enemy away and returned to the safety of their motherships. Vittorio and Petrarch could now see clearly that the two cruisers' jump to Deneb had been no accident nor a case of fighting recon. It was a well-prepared op aiming to retrieve Aken Bosch.

"Should we order the remaining Vasudan bombers to attack the rebel cruisers? The Psamtik's second fighter squadron could cover them. They're already on their way," Petrarch suggested.

"Can't see much point at the moment," Vittorio shook his gray head of hair. "The Iceni is our main target. Even if the rebels lose two Fenris, it won't end the war. And I'd hate to strip the Psamtik of her last defenses. They don't happen to have a spare squadron to cover the ship herself."

"The bombers will never make it to the ships," the captain argued. "There're only five of them left, whatever's left of them. They need maintenance, not battle experience."

Vittorio looked up at the onboard clock and exchanged glances with Petrarch. Less than a minute until the 29th arrived.

"I don't believe it!" the captain exclaimed. "Come, have a look! The Psamtik is moving toward the node! You think that Khafre decided to take the risk?"

Indeed, the enormous Vasudan warship was now moving toward the rebel cruisers. Apparently enraged by the losses sustained, the allied admiral must have decided to crush the enemy with his ship's primary weapons, just as he'd done so to the Belisarius. Still, Vittorio waved the magnificent picture away.

"He won't make it," he said. "That tub will need a good half-hour just to accelerate. Too little too late. Bosch's frigate will be here any minute."

He was right. In less than a minute, the star protagonist in the unfolding drama finally entered the stage. The graceful Iceni slid out of subspace well out of the Psamtik's reach and headed for the portal. One space mile, then she'd be safely out. Two Loki wings rushed ahead to defend it from a possible Vasudan bombers' attack. The tensest of moments began.

The old Grand Admiral clenched his fists, impatient. "Where are my ships? Crolla? What's going on? They're supposed to be here before the Iceni?"

The Aquitaine's commander stared at the main virtual screen, reflective. "Give or take fifteen seconds. I still find it weird that they take so long!" he murmured watching the escaping frigate. "Ah, there they are."

Then he stepped closer to the screen, round-eyed and unbelievable. "What the hell?" He turned to Vittorio. "That's not the right location! They've exited subspace in the wrong place!"

The main virtual screen now glittered with a dozen new green lights signifying the 29th squadron closing in on their target. But for some strange reason, the group turned out even further from the node than the Vasudan warship, separated from Aken Bosch by a good three space miles of vacuum.

"It can't be," Petrarch managed. "We've double-checked the exit point. It has to be an error."

"Or sabotage," Vittorio answered in a low voice. He eased his body into the seat and clutched his hands staring at the screen.

Petrarch and the captain exchanged glances. The blow seemed too harsh and unexpected for the old admiral. Losing Bosch just as he was about to fall right into the Allies' hands!

One of the light craft flashed green. The intercepting group's commander was contacting the Aquitaine.

After a moment's hesitation, Petrarch switched to the receiving frequency.

"Urgent! This is wing commander Lowkis of the 29th. Command, we're five clicks from that corvette. Those coordinates you gave us were bogus! We don't stand a chance of catching that ship!" the pilot's nonplussed voice reached the Aquitaine from across the Deneb system.

Petrarch looked at the Grand Admiral. Vittorio waved him away. He didn't seem to be interested any more.

"Aquitaine to the 29th. Engage full burners and do whatever you can to intercept the Iceni," Petrarch ordered.

Over the growing hum of the turbines, another pilot's angry voice echoed, "What's going on? Command, where's the blockade? Why isn't the Alliance guarding this node?! Can you tell us what we're doing here together with the Psamtik?"

"Our line of defense has been reprioritized for engagements elsewhere in the system," Petrarch cleared his throat. "Just follow your orders and stop talking back to command!"

He kept a watchful eye on the unfolding events. Twelve new Artemis-class bombers, sleek and deadly like the Greek hunting goddess herself, wound up their turbines chasing the escaping frigate. The eight Myrmidon fighters that were covering them drew their beads on the Lokis which were tracing across space to block their way. A dogfight could begin any moment. But Petrarch, experienced commander that he was, knew that this desperate charge was a little less than useless. Despite their four heavy torpedoes each, the Artemis craft had no chance of catching up with the Iceni, already winding up her jump generators. The rebel flagship's power-to-weight ratio was legendary. It would take a miracle for it to slow down.

A moment later, Admiral Bosch himself dashed Petrarch's last hope.

"I regret your efforts to intercept us have failed, pilots," the air filled with Aken Bosch's familiar husky voice. "You would be well advised to question the wisdom of your leaders. Courage is pointless if you can't even reach your target."

He paused. "I hope you'll excuse me. We need to hurry. Helm, engage subspace drive."

A few seconds later, a bomber pilot's agitated voice filled the room. "The Iceni has jumped! I repeat, the Iceni has jumped!"

"Acknowledged, pilot," Petrarch managed.

The red dot of the rebel flagship had disappeared from the radars. Petrarch turned to Vittorio. The old commander was still motionless in his seat, cradling his head on his interlaced fingers. He didn't seem to have heard the message which ended that day's unfortunate campaign. Only his white knuckles betrayed his emotions. Exasperated, Petrarch turned to the virtual screens to evaluate the battlefield area.

"Petrarch to the squadron leader of the 29th. Attack the remaining rebel cruisers," he commanded. "Spare no ammo, guys."

The bomber pilots, infuriated by their blunder, didn't need to be asked twice. Like an uncurling spring, the twelve Artemis bore down on the enemy. The Glorious and Impervious quickly put two and two together and also began building up speed for a jump, turning toward the portal which had swallowed Bosch's flagship. The Lokis which provided their cover were already engaged in a dogfight with the GTVA fighters. Light Vasudan forces hadn't joined in yet, waiting for the looming Psamtik to approach.

As long as they distract half the enemy fighters, it's already a good thing, Petrarch thought.

In less than five minutes, the twelve GTVA fighters had battled through the cruisers' defensive fire and pounced upon the trailing Glorious. It took them but a few seconds and a good dozen Cyclop torpedoes to tear the rebel cruiser apart. The ship disappeared, swallowed up by several blinding explosions. The bombers lost one craft and moved astern for a new strike, maneuvering to avoid the blasts of the Impervious' rapid fire.

The Aquitaine's captain at Petrarch's side heaved a sigh. "You can't just stop the 29th," he said with respect. "Those guys know how to fight. I know them all well. When I was second mate on the Orpheus in the year thirty-six, we very nearly got engaged in a blue-on-blue. They had blasted a Shivan Dragon and the remaining torpedoes were headed for us. Boy, did we see stars when they began to self-destruct! Luckily, it all ended up with just a dozen minor punctures."

"The Glorious isn't the Iceni, of course, but it's better than nothing," the captain added warily, casting a glance at Vittorio. "You never know, they might still kick the Impervious' ass if we're lucky."

The short fierce battle by the Deneb Sirius node was nearing its end. Having completed their task of saving the Neo Terran leader, the surviving rebels — a battered Impervious and the remaining nine light fighters — were about to enter the portal and escape to safety. Impressed by the Glorious' prompt demise, the Impervious pulled together whatever Lokis she could muster and successfully deterred the 29th's new attack. A few seconds later, she'd entered the portal and engaged her jump generators. Disregarding the hammering fire, the rebel fighters fell in alongside their cruiser in order to complete the jump in her powerful hyperfield. Those fallen back would have faced the Vasudan destroyer's wrath.

The eleven Terran bombers fell aside to avoid being sucked in into the subspace vortex that was swallowing their escaping prey.

The rebel cruiser jumped. The battle was over. It was now time for the GTVA ships to count their losses and look for security leaks.


Trausty breathed a sigh of relief and relaxed in his pilot seat. The light craft entering the sector winked green on the radars. The onboard transputer immediately offered their particulars: GTVA's 7th bomber squadron of eight Medusa-class bombers each carrying two Cyclops, under the command of Captain Blancard. It was pretty clear to Trausty that they weren't going to need the torpedoes in the foreseeable future. He turned on the outercom.

"Group leader Frank Trausty of the 53rd. Great to see you, guys," he said in a purposefully cheerful voice and took his fingers off the triggers.

Captain Blancard's wide bearded face filled the screen. "Hi guys. Where's the pie, then? Don't tell me you've finished it off all by yourselves," he gave Trausty a good-natured grin. "For your information, I've already pricked a hole through my tunic for a new medal. We're constantly passed over for decorations. The good old me isn't happy about it."

"I'm terribly sorry," Trausty said dispiritedly. "The Iceni has jumped. We failed to stop her." He felt terrible about letting the 7th down. "We did try," he added.

"Oh well," Blancard managed after a pause. "Tough luck again. Shame to retire with just two medals, isn't it?" There was disappointment and reproach in his voice. "You guys don't play ball. What about all that battlefield brotherhood stuff? One for all and all against one?"

"Listen, battlefield bro, we've really done our best," Alpha Two butted in. "If you must know, we almost talked the Iceni into staying, but the thing was," he suppressed a giggle, "the moment Bosch heard about Captain Blancard coming with his boys, he sort of chickened out and left without as much as an apology."

"Shut up, Marchan!" Trausty hissed into the intercom. "It's Blancard you're talking to!"

But the old captain burst into good-natured laughter. "He's funny, that kid of yours," he finally said. "If the truth were known, the good old me is happy to see you all in one piece! Who was that idiot who sent your cockleshells against Bosch's flagship? It's not as if you're bristling with torpedoes. Honestly, we didn't even hope to see you alive."

"Admiral Petrarch's personal orders, Sir," Trausty admitted.

"Which orders? By whom? By Petrarch himself?" Blancard fell silent. "Well, if it was Petrarch himself," he shook his head, "then that changes things."

"Which is exactly why we're being passed over, Sir," a bomber pilot's angry voice echoed in the speakers.

"Is that you, Tesserin? What do you mean, why?" Blancard said with faked surprise.

"You know very well what I mean, Sir," the invisible Tesserin insisted.

"Which is?"

"You need to ask?"

An animated discourse in New French followed — a language Trausty regretted he didn't understand. All this time, Marchan kept giggling, obviously enjoying the one bit of entertainment he'd so brilliantly provided for his fellow pilots while suspended in the middle of a vacuum. Trausty suddenly remembered that his very own wingman Alpha Two, a.k.a. Alex Marchan, had to know the language — his ancestors' mother tongue — and had to be having a great time listening in on the Medusa pilots' squabble.

The memory took Trausty back two years, to the flight college where Marchan had met some young Terran cadettes from the Procyon colonies. Being the friend that he was, he'd dragged Trausty out to their first date. It had been a lovely summer evening. Trausty could barely move his neck in his new dress tunic and had spent all night brooding on a café terrace not far from the Academy. He had really liked both girls, slim and pretty with their white smiles, infectious laughter and relaxed attitude. But he had given his word to his college sweetheart and saved her every letter on his comm, so he just couldn't take Marchan up on his offer of 'having some quality fun'. Especially as his auto translator didn't seem to be working well while the girls kept chirruping on in their New French dialect which only Marchan understood.

That night, Trausty had been fidgeting with an empty cocktail glass casting glances at the pretty cadette opposite him who was laughing herself into fits over Marchan's jokes. The latter was in good form and took his chance to practice the language, enunciating every word for the girls' sake. The setting Vega shone against his shock of ginger hair turning his head into some new type of star. A carrot dwarf, Trausty had thought and burst out laughing for the first time that evening. The girls stared at him in amusement while Marchan didn't fail to comment on Trausty's not quite running on all thrusters.

An outercom call brought Trausty back to reality. The bomber pilots were apparently done with their quibbling as Blancard's face filled the screen once again. He gave Trausty a baffled look, glanced aside and shook his Techlite-gloved fist at someone off camera.

"What are your orders, Sir?" Trausty asked. "Will you need our escort?"

Having crushed a rebellion in his quarters, Blancard once again was accessible and good-natured. "Ah, it's you, kid. No orders, really. Our quarry's done a runner. The hunt is over, time to go back to my castle," he shook his head, disappointed. "I hope you'll bring me more luck next time.

"Oh," he suddenly remembered, "talking about orders. We expect a rescue Elysium to jump out here any moment. Wait for her, will ya, then return to the Aquitaine together."

"Did they send her to collect the captives from the destroyed base?" Trausty tried to second-guess the rescue ship's purpose. "Both freighters' crew and the shot-down Neo Terran pilots are still hanging about in their rescue capsules," he explained.

Blancard gave him a suddenly sober look. "I don't think so," he said weightily. "Not that she can't do it — she will, of course. But she was sent here to collect whatever survivors were left of your group after the Iceni's attack. Command never leaves its men in trouble."

He waved his hand. "Till next time, guys. Out."

A few minutes later, the 7th's bombers left in their heavy Medusas, their torpedoes still undisturbed in their cradles, and entered subspace, heading for home.

"So it wasn't a joke, then?" Marchan's voice asked. "Were they sending a burial party to fetch us?"

"What did you expect? This is war," Trausty reasoned. "We should have stopped the Iceni."

"I just love it," the Beta leader butted in. "Command is making fighters attack destroyers," he chuckled. "Next thing, they'll have bombers attack fighters."

"The Iceni isn't a destroyer," Marchan pointed out. "That's where you're wrong. It's a tiny frigate. Totally harmless."

"Ours not to reason why," Trausty added. "Ours but to follow their orders. If our fleet does run the Iceni down today, you can count on a citation, if not a promotion. This sort of thing — I mean catching the ship, not getting promoted — is worth the risk."

"Yeah right," Fram added sarcastically. "A little more, and we could all count on a hero's welcome... posthumously. You weren't so optimistic twenty minutes ago when you kept crying over the failed mission."

Trausty sighed. Pointless talking to him. "Group leader to Beta wing," he said ignoring Fram's last words. "Return to base. Nothing here for six fighters to do. Thank you for your almost exemplary service to the Alliance."

Overjoyed by the prospect of their return to base, Beta wing did a couple of rolls.

"Three of us are plenty to cover that freighter they promised to send. What am I saying, two are enough," Trausty added. "Nye, you can go too. Report to de Trotti while Marchan and I will float around the asteroid belt for a while.

"Please do," Marchan said. "And while you're at it, hold us a table in the mess room, will you? My stomach thinks my throat's been cut."

"Yes sir," Alpha Three replied, known for her obedience and organization skills. "On my way."

Trausty watched the departing fighters. His gaze shifted to the far-off wreckage of the rebel craft: two rescue pods from the freighters and three capsules carrying ejected Loki pilots.

"Alex," he spoke to Marchan, "let's round them up. You from the left and I from the right. It'll take our Elysium two more hours to wind them in and load them up."

"Excellent idea, Sir," Alpha Two answered as he set to work. "Me too, I can't wait to get home."

Chapter Ten

An ominous silence hung over the Vigilant's bridge while the cruiser's transputer scanned the new arrivals and processed the information. Everyone froze in anticipation. Finally, lines of threatening crimson lettering started running on the screen next to each of the three ships that had appeared from the portal. Cariola almost sensed a gust of freezing wind rush through the room. Her ears rang with the words 'class A threat' and 'Shivan configuration' that now glowed on the screens. The room swam, and the woman sank into her seat. Her mind refused to accept the reality of what was happening.

"It can't be," she whispered, as if the words could release her from the daymare.

Feeling helpless, she glanced at the captain. Was it all starting over again? Would people die again, just like twenty-two years ago, both humans and their allies, would ships burn, civilian and military, filling subspace portals with millions of refugees fleeing their wiped-out worlds?

Veddingen squinted at the enemy ships, studying them as he listened to the observation post's report. His face betrayed neither fear nor anxiety. He looked as if he was contemplating some complex but unthreatening task. The first mate next to him hunched over the control panel. Biting his lip, he was double-checking the data looking much more concerned than his captain.

"Three light prowlers detected at one point seven space miles. Identified as Shivan by the central transputer. Presumably fighters of yet unknown class. Maintain interception course with the cruiser," he added in a worried voice.

"So these are our visitors, then," Veddingen said softly. "Very well. We can offer them a warm welcome."

He looked up at Cariola. "I'm sorry to say that we seem to have hit the worst-case scenario. This isn't just any subspace portal. These are the gates of hell. We've just opened the demons' lair."

"You think we can drive them back?" Cariola didn't hear her own voice.

Veddingen shrugged. "We'll do what we can," he said.

The cruiser jolted.

"The pod has docked," the first mate reported. "Sir? What have you decided?"

"Three light prowlers can't do any serious damage to our ship," the captain said slowly as if thinking aloud. "Even if they do assault us, they can't do any real harm. That's not the problem. You see, light prowlers are just like our fighters. They don't have their own jump generators. They can only enter subspace in the hyper field of a larger ship. And I have a funny feeling it's not going to be a poorly armed transport. It has to be a warship. A Dragon. Or even a juggernaut," Veddingen glanced at the first mate.

"Or a whole bunch of them," the first mate said.

The captain nodded, studying the prowlers. The hostile craft were approaching the Vigilant unhurriedly, like on parade.

"Do they think we're a civilian craft? Turn the port side to the enemy. Prepare the batteries to open fire at one and a half space mile," he commanded quickly. "Engine room, full speed ahead. Set the generators to pre-jump standby."

"That's right, Sir," the first mate added. "In our position, the ability to make a quick jump may come in handy. Especially when all we have on board is one third of the personnel and an inoperative primary turret... Look!" he jerked an arm up, pointing. "That's the real enemy coming!"

Behind the three Shivan prowlers, the blue whirl of a subspace vortex came back to life. Cariola saw the elongated shape of a large ship exiting the portal. It looked like an uprooted tree trunk, its shape totally alien and incomparable to the GTVA ships.

Thormid raised his eyebrows studying the intruder. "Today is full of surprises. First the mysterious prowlers out of nowhere, and now this thing sprawls out in front of us. I've never seen anything like it in my life! It doesn't look like any Shivan ship I know."

"Apparently, we weren't the only ones designing and building new ships these last twenty-two years," Veddingen said. "What does the central transputer think about it?"

"Wait a second. Let's have a look. Aha! The transputer seems to be at a loss. It says, ship's class: unidentified. As if we couldn't guess. Presumed Dragon, treble median beam cells. Shit. That's serious. Looks impressive," Thormid summarized, "what it doesn't say, is whether its shield is any good."

"We'll soon find out," the captain answered. "If they draw any closer."

"What if they come in peace?" the first mate suggested.

"I signed no peace treaty with that lot," Veddingen snapped. "And I'll turn to dust any Shivan ship that crosses my path for all the atrocities they committed during the Great War."

"I just hope you won't do it today. Have you already forgotten we have just one inoperative primary turret and less than a third of the crew on board?" Thormid repeated. "The system registers more subspace surges. It's very possible this Dragon is not alone. Could be a whole squadron of them for all we know."

"You can't imagine how I'd like to smoke it with one good volley," Veddingen muttered through clenched teeth. "But you're right, unfortunately. We can only watch, shake our fists and count the minutes down till the jump. I retreat against my will. I have to."

Cariola pictured the hostile craft and some non-human eyes staring at their own cruiser in surprise, equally trying to define its class and purpose. As the portal closed, its gravitational lenses didn't distort the outline of the Shivan ship any more and what had looked like a surrealist's shapeless nightmare started to take on its true form.

"Looks sinister, that's for sure," Thormid commented. "A bit like an overgrown red-and-black squid. Shit!" he suddenly explained. "They're closing in. Some turbines! Just look at that acceleration! I take my words back about their coming in peace. Haven't they learned the Great War's lessons?"

It was obvious the Shivan Dragon had decided to attack their unexpected enemy. The screen flashed lines of numbers next to the ship's outline, reporting her speed and distance. The three prowlers too fanned out above it, heading for the Vigilant and leaving their own mothership far behind. For the first time in decades, Shivan and Terran ships met again in battle.

Nervous silence filled the Vigilant's bridge. Veddingen exchanged glances with the first mate and turned on the comm. Thormid nodded his head, approving.

"Captain to all crew," the captain's calm and confident voice filled every room. "Urgent. Today, for the first time in years, we have encountered hostile Shivan ships. Unfortunately, just like before, they appeared when least expected. The enemy has caught us unprepared. We are about to retreat now as the Vigilant is not yet in fighting trim. But I promise you we'll return and force the Shivans out and back to their Galaxy where they belong. Crew, take up action stations. You know the drill."

The Shivan prowlers had by then outrun the Dragon by a long chalk and were now catching up with the retreating cruiser.

"Are they crazy?" Thormid murmured when all three light craft fearlessly entered the Vigilant's range of fire. "Not after the long-haul flight they've just had! They're just begging for our lads to polish their asses!"

As if agreeing with him, the cruiser's powerful beams sent one of the prowlers tumbling off its course. The others immediately changed their flight paths and exited the dangerous zone while more missiles rushed from the Vigilant toward the already damaged craft.

"That'll teach them!" the first mate watched the Shivan prowler explode in a ball of shrapnel while the other two scurried away. "I still think they're being a bit funny. What d'you think, Sir?"

The captain didn't answer watching a more dangerous enemy. The powerful Shivan Dragon was gradually catching up with the Terran cruiser. Still a long way away, the enemy struck first. The red blade of a fore beam came crashing into the Vigilant. The cruiser shuddered. Cariola heard a high-pitched sound screeching through her ears and throbbing in her temples. It rose to an unbearably high note and then stopped. She didn't realize that this was the beam charge resonating with the Vigilant's bulkheads.

"Wow," Thormid said in amazement, pressing both hands to his ears. "They shot at us from more than a space mile. Not bad for a start," he hunched over the virtual screen. "Just a glancing blow to the center section. The armor melted to a meter and a half," he turned to look at Veddington. "Some cannon they've got."

"Return fire. Target the aft section of the enemy's hull," commanded the captain. "Let's try and immobilize her."

For a second, the ship's lights dimmed as all of the cruiser's power concentrated into one piercing beam of brightest green, cutting through the enemy's broadside.

"Shitty armor," the first mate explained. "Has to be a light Dragon, just as I thought..."

At that moment, the Shivan ship's remaining two beam cells landed a pair of blows on the Vigilant.

"...with some heavy weapons on board," Thormid added grimly studying the cruiser's fresh wounds on the virtual screen. "Attention all hands. Second deck, pressure hull melting. Damage control party to seal off the damaged area ASAP!"

But the problems had only just started. The deceptively empty vacuum exploded in a sequence of silver flashes disgorging more enemies.

"Three more light craft at two space miles abeam," the observation post reported. "Identified as a new class of Shivan bomber."

The first mate pounded the control panel. "Just what we didn't need. I don't think we can shake them off, Sir. They're going to intercept our retreat."

"Then we'll have to break off," Veddingen answered calmly. "All turrets and medium guns to redirect fire toward the incoming hostile bombers. Turret B, fire at the Dragon's aft. We have to hold out for a bit."

The enemy drew closer. The Shivan ship now followed the Vigilant, almost parallel to it. Every few minutes its beams accumulated enough power to pelt the cruiser's hull. Their impact left long deep ruts of boiling metal on the armor plates that protected the ship's vital areas. Several meters thick, the neo steel armor still held. The small vectoring engines did their best to zigzag the ship, not letting the enemy target any particular area. No armor plate could withstand repeated direct hits.

The Vigilant still held. She resembled a wounded fencer, her green blade desperately parrying the three blood-red sabers of the multi-armed Shiva. Her blows hurt the Shivan monster's vulnerable hull which its designers had sacrificed to the ship's speed and weaponry. Blisters rose and burst on the alien armor leaving ugly scars at the points of impact.

In the meantime, the bombers settled on their battle course. Immediately, the Vigilant's cannons created a wall of fire in front of them.

Trembling, Cariola watched the red tracer lines of the enemy's courses intercept the cruiser. She sensed instinctively that those three craft which were closing fast, so tiny as to be nearly harmless, bore a much bigger threat than the approaching behemoth of the Shivan Dragon. Pierced with the green needles of the cruiser's beams, one of the three careened aside, tumbling out of control, spreading a long plume of plasma behind it.

"If only God sent here a few guys from the 216th fighter cover!" Thormid said wistfully as he tensed up for a new attack. "They'd make a quick work of these goblins."

Two enemy bombers still made it through the withering fire towards the cruiser. They launched two torpedoes each at midrange and banked to make another pass, strafing the ship with their onboard weapons.

The turrets abandoned their prey and turned against the approaching menace, aiming for the warheads in order to detonate them in midflight. The two remaining Shivan prowlers used the opportunity to slide in close to the Vigilant and fire at its unprotected bulkheads. The cruiser's commanders had more urgent things to do than chase the vulturine craft. They blew up the fourth and last torpedo at a dangerously close range, the explosion sweeping over the hull destroying half the starboard turrets. The cruiser shuddered, sending those on the bridge flying from their seats.

At the moment of impact, Cariola fainted hitting her left forearm on the armrest of her seat. Rubbing the tender spot, she looked around her in angst expecting to see complete desolation, believing that the ship must have split into several parts. But nothing had changed. Veddingen and Thormid had both kept their feet but the first mate's face looked worried. He was hurriedly tapping data into the control panel.

"Dammit! Problems, Sir. The second reactor's cooling system is playing up. Must have been a close hit. It was on its last legs, anyway. Now we'll have to kill it. Otherwise it'll kill us all without Shivan assistance."

Veddingen gritted his teeth, his usually calm face turning into a mask of anger.

"Too bad," he said, breathing heavily in order to compose himself. "Way too bad. We won't last long on one reactor. I'm afraid, we'll have to increase the B turret battery recharge time and reduce turbine capacity."

"The Shivan Dragon has also lowered its fire intensity," Thormid glanced at the virtual screen dominated by the enemy ship. The Dragon resembled a badly opened tin can. "As long as we keep the bombers at bay, we might last long enough to jump..." he coughed. "Possibly."

The captain hesitated. "Kill the reactor," he finally ordered. Then he turned to Cariola, as if remembering something.

"Dr. Trausty," he said, "I'm afraid, the situation is getting more dangerous. I advise you and your colleagues to take your places in the rescue pod. Please don't object. This is an order."

He suddenly gave her his familiar sad smile and turned back to Thormid giving more battle orders.

The fight grew more violent. The two warships had already moved in close enough to engage all their weapons. Plasma charges stung their armored hulls shaving off radar dishes, blinding the optic sensors and piercing light bulkheads. Clusters of missiles and antimissiles clashed creating a colorful firework display. Both warships had already sustained multiple damage but kept fighting regardless of their wounds. The Vigilant needed to attain jump speed in order to enter the Gamma Draconis Capella subspace portal. The Shivan Dragon used the advantage of her speed and weaponry to stalk the Terran cruiser, determined to stop her whatever it took.

The ship alarms wailed as Cariola walked toward the aft pod hangar, followed by a frightened Allena and the grim silent Vasudan. They were led by Subaltern Grann, a young female officer Cariola had already met and even spoken to some forty minutes ago. At the time, both had been heading for the cruiser's bridge not having yet any idea of the looming threat. Now the young officer led the way, reserved and concentrated. She kept turning back, frowning, as if worried that one of her charges might stray off in the commotion, especially when the ship shuddered with another direct hit. Twice in the central corridor they met groups of crew who paid no attention to them — damage control parties on their way to yet another job. In those moments Grann turned to them and yelled to outshout the alarms' wailing, "Everyone stop and keep your backs pressed to the wall!"

Allena walked, petrified and disoriented, clutching Cariola's hand like a little child: her hair disheveled, her face distorted by fear. When Cariola had collected the girl from her cabin, she had no time to explain anything, and now the corridors were too busy and loud to do so. Allena looked around her like a sleepwalker, apparently not even realizing where she was going. The Vasudan walked last with his head lowered. Deep in thought, he stared at his feet, oblivious to his surroundings. Concerned as Cariola was, she couldn't help noting the change in his mood. He was calm now, but this absent-mindedness alarmed her even more than his anxiety.

Finally they stopped in front of a wide half-round gate with a sign reading Aft Hangar. Subaltern Grann laid her hand onto the lock's sensor panel.

The brightly-lit crowded hangar smelled of hot metal. Two Hermes-type rocket pods — thirty meters long rectangular blocks of metal — stood next to each other. The left one glittered with molten ice, its still-hot fusion engine defusing warmth. This was the one that had caused the Vigilant's current predicament by going to fetch the pod's crew.

Grann led them to the other Hermes, already prepared for immediate launch.

They quickly took their places in the four-man cockpit. Cariola buckled in the apathetic Allena and walked over to Grann who was focused on the control panel by her pilot's seat. Cariola touched the young woman's hand.

"I have no doubt you know the situation much better than I do," she started anxiously. "But could you please tell me why the captain decided to move us here? Why does he think it's better for us to be here?"

The officer finished inputting data, sat up and looked at Cariola. "The cruiser may be destroyed. In which case, the pod will eject automatically and jump back to the Draco Trio," she answered calmly looking Cariola straight in the eye. "These are captain's orders. He did it so you could deliver the Vigilant's black boxes and invasion report to Capella. If we make it to the subspace portal and jump, then..." she hesitated, "then we jump."

"Why can't he do it now?" the recovering Allena raised her voice.

Grann looked up at her. "Because the cruiser's mass is thousands of times the pod's mass. The ship will need to accumulate much more power and reach a much higher speed."

Cariola sank into her seat.

"You think the ship may... things are so bad?" she asked looking at the officer. Grann shrugged.

"Everything will now depend on both the actions of the crew and on our luck. I personally have great faith in the ship and our captain. All of us have been through quite some skirmishes. Shame it happened now when the Vigilant is not quite battle-worthy." She rose. "If you'll excuse me, I need to return to my post."

"Why? Aren't you staying here with us?" Cariola exclaimed, anxious. "You can't go back now, it's too dangerous!"

The woman gave her a reserved smile. "I must. My place now is next to my comrades. Don't worry about me."

Cariola tried to speak but her voice broke.

"Now, your module," Grann became businesslike as if the cruiser wasn't fighting for their lives. "Your Hermes is voice controlled. If required, it will be ejected either automatically or by signal from the bridge. See you then," she waved, turned round and strode toward the lock exit.

They could hear her heels clang on the metal gangway outside. The entrance hatch hissed close. With a heavy heart Cariola looked at the control panel. The screen next to her seat flashed amber, Pre-launch standby.

"My head's going round," Allena complained. "What's going on? Is it war? How did we get here?"

"Later, darling. All later," Cariola waved her questions away. "You're alive and well, that's what counts. Just wait a bit. I too need to concentrate and decide what to do once we're out of here."

She looked down at her shaking hands and clenched them. It would be so unlike her to sit and despair. If they'd opened this can of worms, they had to at least try to retrace the entire chain of events from the expedition's arrival until today. Cariola's stomach churned with the thought that their digging could have somehow activated Knossos, attracting the Shivan ships' attention. It meant that she alone was responsible not only for the deaths of a hundred people in today's battle, but also for bringing about a new Great War.

Cariola heaved a sigh refusing to see herself as a new Pandora. She glanced at the still silent Sipphtar. Suddenly her thoughts changed direction.

"Dr. Sipphtar," she called. "Mind if I ask you a few questions?"

Still silent, the Vasudan raised his emotionless gaze to Cariola. Then he slowly nodded.

"You knew it was going to happen, didn't you?" she asked him point blank.

"What do you mean?" he countered.

"Today I had a funny feeling you knew more than you admitted to. That explains your unwillingness to fly to Knossos, your suggestion to explode the portal and-" Cariola didn't finish.

The cruiser jolted as if pounded by a gigantic sledge hammer. The magnetic chocks opened with the impact sending both Hermes pods across the hangar toward the armored lock gates. Still unbuckled, Cariola flew out of her seat hitting her head against the control column. Unconscious, she didn't hear the heavy groan of breaking bulkheads as the series of internal explosions ravaged through the ship.

The Shivan's second attack sealed the battle's outcome. Two heavy bombers had approached the Vigilant from starboard where they would only face the sporadic fire of a few remaining turrets. Even though one craft never made it back, two out of four torpedoes hit their targets. The enormous explosions ripped through the four-meter thick armor plate gutting the ship near its last functioning reactor. The cruiser's turbines stopped. Stripped of power, the ship was thrown out of its gravitational field as the remaining vectoring engines slewed it around. The Vigilant was now defenseless. Even worse, she'd lost her chance to build up jump speed. The primary turret spat out one last beam at the Shivan Dragon and choked.

When Cariola came to, the rescue pod was already far away from the dying Vigilant, accelerating for an intrajump. She was in her seat, carefully buckled up. Her head rang like a bell. She gingerly touched a large bump on the back of her head. Allena sobbed next to her. The Vasudan sat with his back to them, awkwardly hunched up in the human-shaped seat.

"What happened?" Cariola managed. "Where are we now?"

"Oh, Cari, you're back," the other girl raised her tearful face to Cariola.

"The cruiser has sustained critical damage," Sipphtar informed them without turning. "The captain made a decision to let the Hermes jump alone. Veddingen bid us farewell and said he'd cover our retreat with whatever cannons he had left."

The module was still accelerating for the jump. Overcoming the G-forces, Cariola rose and walked toward Sipphtar who was following the battle on a virtual screen. She slumped into the seat next to him.

"When we ejected, the Shivan prowlers made a pass for us but the Vigilant managed to keep them away with missiles and the remaining turbo lasers. We've gained a bit of time, enough to shake them off. Only thirty seconds till the jump. Even dying, the cruiser is protecting us. They do have Vasudan spirit."

Cariola thought she detected sympathetic notes in Sipphtar's emotionless voice.

Allena was crying in the back. "Poor Tayin, poor Rayin! My boys will die. Why is life so unfair? Why?"

Tayin and his brother; Subaltern Grann; Chief engineer Darmar Wanger and his friend Jabriel; first mate Thormid and the captain Otto Veddingen himself; plus a hundred more crew — they'll stay here forever, on the very edge of the Gamma Draconis system. Tears ran down Cariola's face as she remembered Veddingen's last smile addressed to her when the cruiser had already been fighting for her life. She suddenly remembered the broken souvenir, a miniature model of the Vigilant that Bertie had never had a chance to glue back together. What an ominous sign!

"Attention all," Sipphtar's voice resounded in the speakers. "Prepare to jump."

The pod entered the silver-blue glow of the opening subspace vortex. Far away and behind, the Vigilant kept fighting her already hopeless battle. Her primary weapons were silent; only a few plasma cannons and anti-spacecraft turbo lasers kept firing at the hostiles. The surviving light Shivan craft moved out of harm's way allowing their mothership to finish the GTVA ship off at her leisure. The Shivan Dragon — herself barely alive with only two beam cells left intact — kept slicing through the Vigilant in her pent-up fury, digging her blood-red beams into the cruiser's hull, burning through the antiquated armor and on further through the ship all the way to the opposite side. Inside their sealed modules, people choked, burning alive, as the air escaped through the ragged gaps in the armor plates.

The final act of the drama played out as the cruiser's last functioning reactor spat all its power out through the damaged shield. A funeral pyre started in the Vigilant's aft. A few seconds later, the GTVA warship was engulfed in an enormous ball of fire. That was the end. Once again Shiva had won its opening gambit against humans, just like it'd done all those years back in the Ross 128 system.

Following a new prey, the two Shivan prowlers buzzed over the fading fire and debris to where the Hermes pod had just disappeared into subspace.


Seven hours later, the surviving pod exited subspace fifteen thousand miles away from Gamma Draconis' third planet. Cariola lay in the second pilot's seat, exhausted and nauseated after her fall. Her head was pounding. Allena was fussing around her with a first-aid kit she'd unearthed among the pod's emergency supplies. After a few injections, Cariola felt good enough to sit up and have a look around. Considering everything she'd just witnessed, the pod's peaceful interior felt like awaking from a nightmare. The Hermes floated over the planet which at this distance resembled a large gray sphere enveloped in a cloudy haze. Closer to the equator, the clouds parted to reveal the blue edge of the planet's only ocean. A chain of automatic buoys blinked on the screens, stretching from the supply base all the way to the GTVA mail station. You wouldn't think that the system's opposite side had just been involved in a violent battle. Even more inconceivable was the fact that here, at the Alliance's farthest frontier, loomed the threat of a new Great War — the prospect of imminent death once again confronting both Terrans and Vasudans.

Cariola tried to pull herself together. She had to think and act quickly before the enemy caught up with them. She turned to the Vasudan.

"Dr. Sipphtar, I'd love to continue our discussion but unfortunately, this isn't the right time. We need to send a mail capsule to Capella reporting the Shivan invasion. I need you to help me write the message."

"I'll do all I can," The Vasudan nodded ignoring her opening phrase. "We should also attach the datareceived from the Vigilant. They kept streaming it right until the moment we jumped."

His words made Cariola's heart sink. She nodded.

"But how about us?" Allena asked. "What's gonna happen to us? Are we going back to the station?"

Cariola thought about it. "I don't think we can stay in space for much longer," she finally said. "The jump took too much energy. The pod's power units are running on vapors. We need to land and stay put until a rescue pod arrives. We might hide the workers in the caves away from the station."

She envisaged the whole Gamma Draconis system teeming with Shivan craft. Would a hundred people be able to survive in caves unfit for human settlement until the GTVA forced the enemy back out of the system? It suddenly dawned on her that their escape only prolonged the agony. Without a ship capable of performing interstellar jumps, they were trapped.

"They will rescue us," she said in a firm voice looking at Allena. "Our priority now is to evacuate everyone as far from the station as we can as it could attract the enemy's attention. Then we need to send a message about the invasion so that the GTVA can get their act together."

It took them a few minutes to prepare the message. Sipphtar sent it to the mail station which in its turn would automatically forward it on to a drone module next to the Gamma Draconis Capella node. The drone would send the mail capsule by interstellar communication line. In six Galactic hours, the GTVA HQ in the Capella system would know about the Shivan sighting in the area. After that, Cariola and her friends would just have to pray that the GTVA warships reached Gamma Draconis as fast as they could.

Cariola sighed. She didn't see much chance of them surviving. At least, she told herself, the Shivans wouldn't catch the GTVA command unawares. Which, to a degree, would avenge the death of the Vigilant and her expedition...

She glanced up at Allena. The girl had already calmed down and was using a spare moment to smooth her ruffled feathers. She proved a capable nurse as Cariola too was feeling better.

Cariola was about to suggest steering the pod toward the station landing site when Sipphtar stirred in the pilot's seat.

"The system registers subspace surges," he said. "I'm afraid we might not make it to the station in time. The trip would take two hours even if we travel at full speed. If these are the prowlers, they'll catch up with us easily."

Allena cried out. "What do we do?" her scared gaze shifted between Cariola and the Vasudan. "And I thought the worst was over?"

Unlike her, Cariola felt calm. Her fate was now sealed which gave her a sudden purpose. She walked over to Allena and hugged the girl feeling her scared heartbeat.

"I'm sorry I've dragged you here. Very sorry. I'm afraid, this is the end." She helped the girl into her seat. "I don't think we'll survive. Sipphtar," she turned to the Vasudan, "take the pod away from the planet. It might give our workers at the station a chance."

She looked at Allena shrinking in her seat. Her heart went out to her. And still Cariola knew that they were only the first victims in this new war. Terran and Vasudan losses would once again be innumerable. Even the death of every human in Gamma Draconis was only a minor clash in the unfolding conflict.

She took the second pilot's seat and contacted the station. Her deputy Nadar replied almost at once.

"Cariola darling," he shouted cheerfully, still unaware of the trouble ahead. "You back already? Have we got news for you! This thing in the Ancient Ones' storage, you know, it turned out to be an intergalactic portal model! The Ancient Ones could use it to travel across worlds! And the portal has to be located somewhere here in the system. We've only just started with the decoding but it's awesome, don't you think?"

Cariola gestured him to stop. "I know all this. We've just been there at the portal. We saw Shivan warships use it to enter the system. They destroyed the Vigilant. We are the only survivors: Allena, Sipphtar and I."

Nadar choked. "Which ships? They destroyed what?"

"Nadar, we don't have much time. Listen to what I'm saying. Some Shivan ships have entered the Gamma Draconis system using the intergalactic portal. The Vigilant was outnumbered and destroyed. We escaped in a rescue pod. I've already transmitted the information to Capella. Commence immediate evacuation. The station might be visible from space. The Shivans will attempt to destroy it. Put everyone in the crawlers and send them to whatever shelters you can find: to the nearby caves or the dig center. You have very little time. A few hours at most."

"And you?" Nadar froze, open-mouthed.

Cariola frowned. "We can't make it to join you. We'll take the pod out into open space to distract the Shivans from the station."

"I can't believe it," Nadar looked completely lost.

"Just do as I say," Cariola said sharply. "From now on, you're the expedition leader. Make sure you let everyone know that help is on the way. It might take two or three days or more."

Two red dots appeared on the virtual screen. Cariola by now knew enough to recognize them. "Shivan prowlers," she glanced at Sipphtar.

"Five space miles away," he nodded. Their exit point wasn't very accurate but it won't help us much, I'm afraid. They'll catch up with us within ten minutes."

Cariola turned to the comm screen where her deputy was still staring at her, uncomprehending.

"You'd better get moving," she said. "Shivan ships are already approaching the planet. Try to save your people. God bless you."

She switched the comm off. "Sipphtar, I want you to take the pod away from the planet. We'll try and draw their attention to ourselves."

The Vasudan obeyed and switched the engines to full throttle. The pod shook, accelerating. It could only give them a small advantage against the much faster Shivan craft, but this was the only thing they could do to deter the enemy. Their little ship didn't even have any on-board weapons.

"Maybe they won't kill us," Allena said in the back, her voice strained. "They might take us prisoner. Isn't it what they do in wartime?"

Cariola sighed. "I really don't want to discourage you, but in all the annals of our Shivan conflicts, they not once took prisoners. Nor did we. Allena, they kill everyone. They don't care if it's a warship or a civilian craft."

"So we'll die?" the girl gasped.

Cariola didn't answer. Now that she'd sent a word to Capella and warned the expedition, she couldn't explain how she felt, unable to do anything else for her own or anybody else's rescue. Since the end of the Great War, she had no illusions about the non-existent Shivan mercy. Her road had to end here; but somehow she wasn't afraid of dying any more. It was as if she wasn't in the doomed pod any longer. The fleeting visions of her past life flashed before her eyes. Her youth, her meeting Eric, their happy wedding; their many friends, their life at the small Norveld waterfalls where the air itself seemed to be filled with joy. Then the price she had to pay for her happiness — Shiva, the destroyer of worlds and slayer of people, who had taken her loved one away from her.

Cariola suppressed an angry grin. Good job those five-armed creatures in their approaching prowlers had no idea who they were about to kill. Had they known that among those on board the pod was the wife of the Terran hero who'd brought death to the Great War's supreme Shivan monster! They would have loved it. If only Eric was with her now in his battleship! Even two to one, their pursuers wouldn't have lasted long.

She started, returned to reality by Sipphtar's exclamation of surprise. He sat up over the control panel.

"I find it hard to believe, but instrument readings indicate the presence of a large ship about to exit subspace," he said. "Look, there it is!"

Cariola gasped. "It can't be right! Allena, look, a Terran cruiser! We won't die!"

Less than two space miles from the pod, the silvery subspace vortex appeared to be spewing out a large warship. A GTVA cruiser! Seeing its familiar outline, Cariola breathed a sigh of relief. Talk about being saved by the bell. It looked like one of the old Fenris-class cruisers — dated but quite capable of driving the prowlers away.

"Your fellow Terrans have arrived just in the nick of time," Sipphtar began turning the pod toward the cruiser. "The enemy has almost caught up with us. A few more minutes, and the cruiser would have no one left to rescue."

Cariola glanced up at the virtual screen. The enemy prowlers had slowed down and changed their course, disappointed. They didn't seem to be in a hurry to get within the warship's range.

"We must get a move on," Cariola sat up. "We don't know how many Shivan ships are about to enter our world by way of Knossos. I don't want this ship to share the Vigilant's fate. Please, Dr. Sipphtar, place an urgent call through the common frequency."

The Vasudan nodded readily as he reached for the comm controls. In the meantime, Cariola tried to work out how much time it would take to evacuate all of her workers from the base. The expedition pod on the station's tiny launch site could take fifty people max. It meant they would need two trips and at least seven hours. Too long. It could give the enemy fighters plenty of time to bring Shivan bombers or warships to the GTVA cruiser.

Then she had a bright idea. They could ask the cruiser to send their own Hermes pods. That would save them two and a half hours. Provided they were flown by experienced pilots, the whole evacuation could take even less. The thought cheered her up a little.

Soon the cruiser replied. The projection of an officer came up on the TeleVid screen: one of the ship's command, judging by his epaulettes. Cariola saw the cranky face of a man about thirty-five and the thin line of a dark groomed mustache. Pouting his lower lip, he too was peering at her with an air of haughty annoyance. But at the moment, Cariola couldn't care less about how anyone looked.

"We are the archeological expedition from Gamma Draconis' third planet," she began, swallowing words in a hurry. "My name's Cariola Trausty, I am the expedition's leader. I have two of my colleagues here with me. We have an urgent message for your captain. This is very important. Shivan warships have reappeared in this sector. I repeat, Shivan. They have just destroyed the GTC Vigilant. We have reported the sighting to Capella. But I have a hundred expedition staff left on the planet. They need to be evacuated ASAP. You observed the Shivan prowlers chasing us. We are overjoyed to see you here but you must hurry, otherwise you may share the Vigilant's fate. You need to send rescue pods to the planet to evacuate my workers."

The officer raised his eyebrows in surprise. "The Vigilant's dead?" There was no sorrow in his voice, only curiosity. "That's funny. How come you're flying its rescue pod?"

"What difference does it make?" Cariola exclaimed, impatient. "We'll tell you all the details later when you take my people on board. We need to hurry, don't you understand? Please put me in touch with your captain."

"Actually, I'm our captain," the officer produced a captain's hat and put it on unhurriedly. It made his face look even haughtier. "Arthur Roemig, commander of the NTC Trinity. We are here on a secret mission and can't compromise it for the sake of saving a few civilians."

Cariola couldn't believe her ears. She turned back as if seeking Allena's support. The girl's helpless stare met hers. Suddenly, Cariola boiled.

"Do you realize your stance brings shame on your uniform?" she fumed. "The Vigilant saved us even as they died. And you... you..." she choked with indignation, "never mind. When we get out of here, I'll make sure you get court-martialed. The name of Cariola Trausty still means something to the GTVA command!"

Her words didn't produce much effect on Roemig but the sound of her name did.

"Trausty. Trausty. I thought I'd heard that name before. If you'll excuse me," he lowered his eyes checking some database. "There! Cariola Trausty. That's lucky. I," he looked at her with a strangely interested expression, "I apologize. We'll evacuate your expedition ASAP. I'll give orders as soon as we finish this exchange. I'll ask your pilot to proceed to our bow doors for the docking. Don't worry about the Shivans. We'll keep them in our sights," Roemig emitted a short laugh. "Who else did you have on board, you said?"

"Dr. Sipphtar for the Vasudans and my aide Allena Helf," Cariola answered dryly. The change in Roemig had put her on her guard. Still, if she wanted to save her workers, she had no other option.

"A Vasudan representative and your personal aide," the Trinity captain beamed. "Excellent. I'll be expecting you. The evacuation pods will be ready in ten minutes. They need some extra prep time. See you soon."

He switched off.

"We don't have extra time!" Cariola shouted but Arthur Roemig's face had already faded away.

"I didn't like him," Allena said.

"I didn't, either," Cariola answered. "But I'm afraid we have no choice. Dr. Sipphtar, commence docking procedure. I'll contact Nadar and tell him to go with the first group in the station pod."

In less than ten minutes, the Vasudan masterfully steered the pod to the Trinity's docking module. The cruiser filled the screens, enormous compared to their little craft. Cariola fidgeted in her seat. As yet, no rescue pod had left the ship for the station staff. The only thing that made her feel better was the fact that the two Shivan prowlers had apparently decided against assaulting a well-armed ship and retreated to a considerable distance. Fifteen thousand miles away, Nadar must be busy at the station camp controlling the first group boarding the rescue pod. Thank God they'd had plenty of emergency drills, as their military curators demanded even in the deep hinterland of the Alliance.

The pod swayed. She heard the short metallic clang of the clasps locking their craft. Cariola unbuckled and rose, impatient for the lock chamber to fill with air allowing them to enter the Trinity.

"Sipphtar, what do you see?" she asked. "Has Roemig sent his pods to the station?"

"Nothing on the radars," he answered.

"I'm going to give him what for," Cariola lost it. "Is he a complete idiot or something? Can't he understand the danger we're all in?"

On the virtual screen, the lock chamber flashed stand-by green. Cariola stopped in the middle of the Hermes cockpit looking around the tiny craft that had saved their lives. Her heart clenched within her. This was all that was left from the mighty Vigilant. Soon the Trinity would discard it, sending the pod on a never ending orbit around Gamma Draconis. Thousands of years later, it would still be circling the system flashing the gold lettering on its side, Vigilant Craft #2.

The lock chamber doors hissed open. Behind them lay a narrow dimly lit corridor.

"It's all so different here," Allena remarked stepping into the passage behind her. The Vasudan habitually followed at the rear.

"Normal," he explained bending his neck so as not to hit the ceiling, too low for a Vasudan. "Back on the Vigilant, the pod was parked in its hangar. Here we've entered the ship through its docking module. Once we're safely on board, the crew will eject it. I don't think there's place for it in their hangar."

"Poor little ship," Allena addressed the pod she was now leaving. "I'm so sorry for you." She swung around, hurried back into the pod's cockpit and gave a hearty smacker to the control panel.

"Farewell, little ship!" she shouted returning to the lock chamber. "I'll never forget how you saved us."

Cariola gave her hand an angry pull. "We've very little time."

The doors slid open before them, leading them into the depths of the Trinity, to bright lights and sounds of voices. Cariola squinted against the illumination, almost unbearable after the pod's dimmed lighting, and started cautiously descending some steel steps. The other two followed.

A group of people waited for them in a large rectangular room devoid of machines or furniture. A short man in a captain's hat stood in the center clutching his hands behind his back. On seeing Cariola, he smiled and waved his left hand without exposing his right one. Cariola recognized Arthur Roemig. Surprisingly, he was half a foot shorter than herself. The officers met the entrance of the Vasudan — the last in the group — with inexplicable cheer. Unmoved, he descended the steps and stood on Cariola's left. Smiling, Roemig stepped forward and stopped facing his guests.

"Welcome on board," he said without losing his smile. "Please make yourself at home."

Cariola didn't move. "Have you dispatched the rescue pods to the planet as promised?" she asked bluntly.

Roemig shrugged. "Which modules are you talking about? All I wanted was to get you on board. That's all that matters," he grinned.

Cariola stared at him, uncomprehending. "I hope you realize that you might answer to the GTVA tribunal for the potential death of over a hundred people?" she demanded trying to stay calm.

Roemig opened his eyes wide in mock amazement. "GTVA," he turned to his men, laughing. "Anyone here in the GTVA service, guys?"

The grinning officers surrounded their captain. He turned back to Cariola.

"I'm sorry to disappoint you, but we don't answer to lizards or their hangers-on. Our cruiser serves the free state of Neo Terra." His smile disappeared. He pulled his right hand from behind his back. The gun glistened. "And I'm afraid, you're my prisoners."

Cariola froze, afraid to move. She stared at Roemig. What an irony. To escape the Shivans only to be captured by the rebels. But how on Earth had a Neo Terran ship ended up in this backwater? She remembered Veddingen mention the Trinity and her captain. But he'd said she was a GTVA ship! Her head spun. Her mind refused to accept and explain the entangled new facts.

She sensed a swift movement to her left where the Vasudan stood. A shot rang out. Allena shrieked. Cariola stared at Roemig's triumphant face.

"You need to keep your eyes peeled with those lizards," he said reholstering his gun. "Did you see how he bolted?"

He turned to the officer closest to him. "And you asked me why I was taking Stimpack. Those critters have snake reflexes. Trust me, I know what I'm talking about."

Unbelieving, Cariola stared at Sipphtar. The shot sent him reeling onto the floor by the lock chamber steps. His robes had slid up in an awkward heap exposing his sand-colored body. A red blot was growing on the floor around him. The officer poked the body with his boot.

"Good work, Arthur," he approved. "Shot him good and dead, you. One croc less."

Roemig laughed, pleased. "That's only the beginning, Laviz. Very soon we'll be done with all of them. Them and their toadies," he gave Cariola a stern look.

"Are you going to kill us, too?" Allena asked, fear in her voice.

"We don't shoot civilians," the captain answered. "But we don't rescue them, either. I personally don't give a shit how your expedition's gonna save their asses. Very soon the system will be chock full of Shivans."

"Why would you need us, then?" Cariola asked in a flat voice without taking her eyes off the dead Sipphtar. If only they'd had time to listen to what he'd had to tell them... "You can set us adrift in the rescue pod."

"That's not your job, telling me what I can and cannot do!" Roemig snapped stroking his mustache. "I have personal orders concerning you from Admiral Bosch himself, commanding me to try and take you on board the Trinity. I'm happy I didn't have to land on the planet to look for you! I didn't expect the Shivans to appear so early."

No matter how crushed Cariola was with everything that had happened, the captain's last words shocked her more.

"Do you mean you knew that Shivan ships would show up in this sector?" She stared at Roemig with amazement.

He countered her stare with one full of self-assurance. "Our Admiral knows much more than your dumb command ever will. He knows when and where to send his ships. And you'll keep company with the Vasudans until the day they stab you in the back," Roemig shrugged. "Laviz," he called. "'nuff staring at dead lizards. Take the chicks to an empty cabin or whatever."

He clapped his hands to attract his staff's attention. "That's it, guys. The show's over. Back to your posts, you. We still have lots to do both here and in the nebula."

An officer next to him had been deep in thought for a while. Now he turned to the captain and exchanged a few quiet words. Roemig's face froze. He slapped his forehead.

"Why did no one think of that before?" he shouted. "Can anyone tell me how the Vigilant ended up there before us? Prepare the ship for an intrajump and pray that everything goes as planned!"

His men hurried to do as they'd been ordered. Roemig glared at Cariola.

"Take these two slappers to the bridge," he said. "I need to know what happened there!"

The officers dragged the scared and disoriented girls deeper into the ship. A few minutes later, the treacherous Trinity ejected the Vigilant's rescue pod like a discarded can before disappearing into Gamma Draconis subspace. Strangely enough, the Shivan prowlers thought against chasing the ship that had betrayed the GTVA. Instead, they turned to the planet just as the expedition's rescue pod, crowded with evacuees, set off into open space.

Chapter Eleven

The Terran Third Fleet was looking for those responsible for the slap in the face it had received from the rebel Admiral Bosch.

All sorts of rumors began to percolate on the GTVA ships. Their brilliant victory over the Neo Terran Deneb forces and all the destroyed ships — NTC Hengst, NTD Jacobus, NTCv Belisarius and, last but not least, NTC Glorious, not even to mention dozens of downed enemy fighters — all that had been clouded by the inexplicable escape of the rebel flagship with the separatists' leader on board. Rumors had it that the cornered Iceni had been all but escorted out by sympathetic GTVA pilots; that Terran bombers had refused to attack the frigate; that the GVD Psamtik had been purposefully sent on a wrong course and its best pilots had been abandoned under fire near the Deneb Sirius node. Finally, wagging tongues suggested that Bosch may have received directions for a safe escape from the GTVA command, no less.

Petrarch, tired and angry, was having dinner with the Aquitaine's Captain Crolla in his cabin. Or rather, Captain Crolla was having dinner because no amount of angst could ever affect his appetite. Vice Admiral Petrarch, however, couldn't even look at food after having to face the antagonistic Rear Admiral Khafre and especially after being grilled for two hours by the Integrity Bureau Special Department explaining to them the causes for the 29th's failed offensive. Now he sat tapping his fork on the edge of his plate replaying the Vasudan commander's polite sarcasms. Khafre had lost twelve bombers and eleven fighters in the dogfight — almost a quarter of his light craft — the losses comparable only to those of a major space battle. And still they'd failed to inflict any substantial damage on the enemy, climaxing in the rebel frigate's escape replete with Aken Bosch himself. In which case I'd appreciate if Admiral Petrarch could dispatch two Terran squadrons to the Psamtik seeing as today's battle has resulted in plenty of vacant hangars. Then next time your pilots might find themselves closer to the theater of action than they were today. Petrarch had been forced to politely accept the request and even mention, for protocol's sake, the importance of shared combat experience. Petrarch all but spat, disgusted by the exchange. Had Khafre kept his spiky head and not rushed after the Iceni leaving the portal unprotected, he wouldn't have needed the reinforcements. More importantly, in that case scenario, Bosch would now have been handcuffed and locked up on board the Aquitaine, or even more likely, be floating near the node as a low-density gas cloud.

Now they could forget it. Instead, he had to look into the reasons for the 29th's exit point being five space miles off course. Christ almighty, he'd seen those flamin' coordinates with his own eyes, entered by Vittorio personally, and they'd been the correct ones! Now three crew had been arrested, and Integrity rats were prowling all over the Aquitaine after questioning him of all people, their squadron commander! Wretched vultures.

He remembered the disgustingly smooth face of Danes Martanov, chief of the Third Fleet emergency office, and cringed. Who did he think he was to speak to a Vice Admiral in that tone of voice? Like a headmaster to a preteen prankster. Instead of celebrating, depression was now setting in on the Aquitaine. May Bosch burn in hell! Couldn't he just sit quietly behind his asteroids and keep himself to himself?

Petrarch winced and gulped down a glass of strong frappine.

Captain Crolla shook his head with reproach and blotted his lips with a napkin. "Sit down and eat something before you worry yourself to death. First, you can't change anything. Bosch must be in Sirius by now. Secondly, we outdid them anyway. He can sit it out there to his heart's content. Until our next advance."

Doubtful, Petrarch looked up at the captain. They'd known each other for ages. He had always dragged Crolla with himself up the career ladder. When he'd been appointed commander of the GTVA Third Fleet, he'd had Crolla assigned commander of its flagship Aquitaine — then the latest-generation destroyer. Command had their own candidate for the post, some First Lord's protégé or other. With Vittorio's support, Petrarch managed to win through. At the time, Bosch had only just raised his separatist forces, joined by the systems of Regulus, Polaris and Sirius. Some hotheads in the Terran government, namely Reynal, at that time the defense minister's first aide, suggested entrusting Terra's best destroyer to some Vasudan captain, to improve the allied sentiment. Luckily, reason had triumphed over politics, which was probably why the Aquitaine and all of the Third Fleet had enjoyed a successful service. Petrarch had a deep respect for Vasudan bravery but doubted their leaders' strategic ability. Even before the Shivan invasion, in all their years of fighting Terrans in the Great War, the Vasudan fleets had failed to turn the war around and kept losing squadrons wholesale despite even their almost threefold numerical superiority. Even today all that Khafre had managed to prove was the ability of his pilots to die for the Alliance. Not enough to successfully defeat the rebels, I'm afraid.

He helped himself to some more frappine. "You're probably right," he said raising his glass up to the light, "I need to stop thinking about it. I just feel sorry for the old boy. Dispatching the combat details to the 29th personally, that was a bit of bad luck. Now he'll have to prove he's got nothing to do with it."

"You don't think, do you, that the wrong coordinates would have somehow turned right had they been transmitted by somebody else?" Crolla sat back and pushed aside his dessert.

"No, I don't," Petrarch said sarcastically. "I don't for one second doubt that this is some out-and-out sabotage. Shame that Vito got involved in this mess, that's it. Just listen to what our pilots think about it."

He removed his massive laurite comm bracelet and laid it on the table next to his untouched roast. "These are communications between the 29th pilots after the jump but before they trashed the Glorious.

He pressed the tiny button. The recording was low and Crolla had to lean forward to make out the words.

"Damn it! Command let Bosch escape! — What? — What are you talking about? — They pulled the blockade. They gave us the wrong coordinates. — Well, how else can you explain it? — But why? — Why would they let him go? — You tell me, pilot. I'm informed on a need-to-know basis. — Stand down. We're on your side here. — Why did we attack the Iceni? I can live with being a pawn if the game makes sense! — Shut up, all of you. We're coming into their range. Ricki, do me a favor and don't stray away. Attention all! Four Lokis overhead!"

The recording stopped. Captain Crolla shrugged. "Who shall escape calumny?" he quoted ironically. "I'd think the same if I were them. Luckily," he raised a meaningful finger, "we still have discipline. This is one of the few pages we should take out of the Vasudans' book. Their discipline is beyond reproach. Give it a rest. The next successful advance will put everything in prospective. Then our pilots will praise their command's eternal wisdom."

Petrarch waved his advice away. "It would have been funny were it not so pathetic," he said, joyless. "In any case, this is sabotage and the security office is running loose on the ship. I just hope it won't end up in a new witch hunt."

Crolla looked up at him, surprised. "Surely we need to pinpoint the traitor," he said with conviction. "What's there even to discuss?"

"But that's the bitch," Petrarch winced. "That's civil wars for you. It's not like fighting the Shivans or Vasudans. Can you remember any cases of treason during the past war?"

The captain gave it a thought, sipping the tepid coffee out of a potbellied cup and glancing at his dessert.

"I can only remember the McCarty case. The pilot who leaked the fighter shield technology research to the Hammer of Light," he finally said. "What are you driving at?"

Petrarch reached for a cigarette. Without answering, he snapped his laser lighter and blew smoke at the ceiling.

"Should we order some more coffee?" he said pensively. "Or maybe just drink ourselves stupid. Right. I think I've had enough for today."

The captain gave a furtive sigh of relief.

"I want you to understand," Petrarch continued staring him out. "We've been in this together for a long time. We've known each other for ages. You're the only person I can be totally frank with. The whole problem with the kind of war we're having now with Neo Terra is that sometimes it can be hard to pinpoint a person's loyalties."

He paused. "There'll always be people whose beliefs are incompatible. But you need to understand that the bulk of our men don't have any hard feelings against the separatists. They either keep their allegiances to the flag and their messmates, or they're simply afraid of jumping sides simply for fear of being court-martialed. And trust me that if there's a purge of any sort in the Third Fleet, then all who come out clean might fit on a single cruiser."

"What are you implying? You really think we should leave it as it is? And write it off as some system malfunction?" the captain answered as he watched, absent-mindedly, as Petrarch's cigarette smoke formed tiny shapes of riders on horses, complete with swords and spears. Shaking their weapons, they headed one by one toward the ceiling and disappeared inside the air conditioning grill.

"I didn't say that," Petrarch became restless again. "We must, and will, find and penalize those responsible for the sabotage. But we have to show some tact. We shouldn't let it develop into a full-blown hysteria where everyone's afraid of their own shadow. What we should really say is, 'Yes, gents, we realize that some of you may have mixed feelings about fighting Neo Terrans. But Bosch is as good as lost. His star systems are blockaded. Any act of sabotage may drag the war out but it can't change its outcome. All we want is to bring the rebel leaders to justice. We will not spread terror among members of the military and public.' "

"Yeah, I suppose you're right," Crolla scratched his head. "But still-"

"Don't you understand," Petrarch interrupted him, "if we try to string everybody up with the same rope, we might achieve something short term. But man can't fight out of fear alone. This isn't the way to win the war. On the contrary. Trust me."

"All I wanted to say," the captain went on, unabashed, "was that you really shouldn't be so outspoken about this sort of thing. You're not First Lord Reynal... yet."

Petrarch nodded. His friend's argument made sense. "I know, I know. I also know that the Integrity men are not interested in playing mind games. Not yet, anyway. Until now, I managed to keep them at arm's length, but Bosch's successful escape is way too serious. It might give them a confidence boost. Already has done. You should have seen this Martanov person talk with me today. One might think he's the one in charge of the Third Fleet, not me. You know what he asked me?" Petrarch grinned unhappily. "He asked how come I hadn't noticed Vittorio enter the wrong data. Like, we were in it together!"

"Is he nuts? The old boy just happened to stand next to the operator when he entered the codes. Next thing they'll say is that Vittorio's a Neo Terran mole."

Petrarch didn't have time to answer. The smoke riders changed the direction of their journey.

"At least this is the theory we're looking into now," a soft soapy voice said behind their backs. Unbelieving, Petrarch turned his head. In the doorway stood Danes Martanov himself, the Third Fleet's Integrity Bureau chief. Behind his back loomed the figures of the space police.

"Good evening, gentlemen," Martanov said softly. "Mind if I join you?"

Not waiting for them to answer, he walked into the captain's cabin, smoothed his short black hair and took a vacant chair by the table. His signature gray portfolio he placed onto the table in front of him. His entourage stayed outside. The secret agent fixed his pale blue stare on the captain.

"So this is the gratitude we're getting for working twenty-four-seven. Nothing but insults," he said with gentle reproach. Crolla lowered his eyes in embarrassment.

"What do you want?" Petrarch finally found his voice. "I thought I'd already had the pleasure," he added sarcastically.

The Integrity Bureau chief laid his elbows onto the table and switched his gaze to the Admiral. "What I want," he repeated. "Well, if you wouldn't mind, I'd like to hear out your further arguments for treating traitors humanely."

For a brief moment, Petrarch stared at him, uncomprehending. Then he swore under his breath and began inspecting the front of his tunic.

"Don't bother, Admiral," Martanov said with a grin. "It's not there. The bug's on your back. It was worth doing. Amazing how much one can learn in a just a few hours."

Petrarch clenched his jaw. "Don't you think you've gone a bit too far," he had trouble containing himself. "You really think that if you're not my direct subordinate, you can play games with me? Well, I'm sorry. I will inform Grand Admiral Vittorio about your dirty games ASAP."

"You will be sorry, Admiral Petrarch," Martanov said nonchalantly. "Your Grand Admiral has just been arrested on charges of treason."

Petrarch felt as if he'd hit a brick wall. He looked at the agent, at the pale Captain Crolla and at the soldiers shifting their feet impatiently behind the doors.

"It can't be," he whispered under his breath, his lips dry and sore. "It just can't. Vittorio can't be a traitor. He'd never betray the Alliance. It has to be a mistake."

Martanov heard every word. "Why would I lie to you?" he shrugged. "I've nothing to gain."

He turned to the captain, as if seeking his approval. Crolla hurriedly nodded and put his coffee cup back on the table. The spoon left in it clanged like a death knell. Crolla hid his shaking hands under the table. The Integrity Bureau chief gave him a look of fatherly reproach and turned back to Petrarch.

"Vittorio's arrest was sanctioned by the Chief GTVA Prosecutor after he studied the evidence we'd collected. There's still plenty of work in front of us. Now we need to bring his criminal connections to light, as well as those of his associates'. Of whom there must be a few," his voice rang, "and we're bound to find them. Depend upon it! Unfortunately, the damage's already done. The GTVA forces are spread thin over three fronts and the upcoming advance has been criminally delayed. The conspiracy with Bosch is so obvious it's insane we didn't see it when his only ship managed to slip away bypassing all our cordons!"

Confused, Petrarch and Crolla listened to the Integrity chief's nonsensical soliloquy. "It's a good job we've stopped their treacherous activities in time!" Martanov leaned back with an air of a man exhausted from doing a hard and thankless job.

Petrarch stared at the floor. All that bullshit wasn't worth the air it had taken to say it. Accusing Vittorio of pro-Bosch sentiment! But if the agent didn't lie (why would he?) and the old boy had indeed been arrested, it meant the end of the line both for him and for Petrarch. If so, who could be behind it all? His mind started racing. He looked up at Martanov and pulled himself together.

"In my opinion, accusing Vittorio of treason is a huge mistake," he said. "This will cripple our meticulously planned campaign."

"If he's not guilty, nothing will happen to him," Martanov answered curtly, rubbing his eyes. "I'm not a staff analyst, but it's clear even to me that the Grand Admiral purposefully delayed the suppression of the Neo Terran insurgency. Now why would he do that, we're about to find out."

"You're playing into the rebels' hands, don't you understand!" Petrarch pounded his fist on the table sending the plates flying into the air. "This will give the rebels the timeout they need!"

"I understand everything!" the agent yelled, shedding his manners. "Your admiral was the one who offered them a timeout! And I'm pretty sure that you, Petrarch, you helped him! In any case," he calmed down, "no one's irreplaceable. The GTVA has many talented admirals not afraid of coming under fire. Unlike you."

"Are you going to arrest me for the criminal victory I've just had here?" Petrarch asked sarcastically.

"If I were, we wouldn't be talking now," Martanov copied his tone. "You're not under arrest... yet," he stressed. "But you're placed under surveillance. Here's your suspension," he opened his portfolio. "Be so kind to surrender your comm."

Bewildered, Petrarch turned to look at the captain. Crolla averted his eyes. The lazurite bracelet hit the table with a thud. Petrarch struggled to his feet.

"Who is nominated to take up my post?" he asked without looking at anyone.

Martanov slammed his portfolio shut and rose too. "I can't tell you that," he said in a stern voice. "This is beyond my competence." He turned to the soldiers at the doors. "Take Mr. Petrarch to his lodgings."

Petrarch pounded toward the door. The guards stared at him, unmoving.

"What orders are there for me?" he heard Crolla's limp voice behind him. Petrarch lingered.

"You can proceed with your responsibilities, captain," Martanov said. "But please remember that it will take all of your commitment to clear your ship's name from the stigma of treason. Complacency will not be tolerated! Every crew member is to report to us any suspicions he or she may have. Your head is at stake. It's about time we stop," he cringed, spitting the last words, "all this liberalism."

The ex Third Fleet commander Vice Admiral Petrarch stepped out of the cabin without looking back.


The Aquitaine's bulk filled the direct view screens. Trausty slumped back in his cockpit and let the fighter's auto controls fly the last few meters to the docking module. The cold gaping barrel of a heavy beam cannon floated past on the screens. God forbid that you're caught in a volley of that caliber, Trausty thought remembering old pilots' stories of the unlucky fighters that had found themselves in a turbo laser's way. It leaves not a single gram of matter! A ship just fritters away. How he wished he had a cannon like that on his fighter! Trausty imagined ripping the hostile ships to bits and shook his head, unbelieving.

Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed a movement on the screen. Trausty sat up, about to step on it and launch a countermeasure. His career might still be in its yearly days, but the reflexes of a fighter pilot had already entered his bloodstream.

Then he laughed with relief. The mysterious flash on the screen turned out to be an Amazon-class repair drone busy fixing something or other. Was he really expecting to come across a sneaky hostile craft out here, in the heart of the Third Fleet battle group?

He sat back watching as the little robot fidgeted around welding a damaged section of the ship's hull. All of a sudden it sent up a hundred-meter high splash of white and yellow sparks, melting the neo steel in an annihilation furnace.

"We've got free fireworks!" Alpha Two spoke in the intercom. "You'd better check your bearings, Sir, or it might graze you. De Trotti won't be happy. He'll say, 'May I ask you, Pilot Trausty, how you got this smoky patch up your craft's ass?' "

Trausty laughed. "Listen, I've no shortage of smoky patches after today's scramble. One particular Loki painted my whole backside black while I was busy covering you and Nyra."

"Sure you made short work of it, no?"

"You won't believe it but Fram and his other two helped me out with it," Trausty turned his head away from the colorful display of sparks. "He picked the hostile off from behind while it was busy chasing me."

Both fighters had already passed the two-mile-long Aquitaine's mid-span and were approaching the left stern gate.

"I'm surprised Fran didn't gun you down first," Marchan said. "Wonder if he missed?"

"What a lot of bull," Trausty shook his head, unbelieving. "I didn't even think about it. I want you to remember: we leave our disagreements behind us every time we go on a mission. Then, if the situation demands, you'll cover him just as you would Nyra or myself. Same applies to him. Understood?"

Marchan paused. "Affirmative, Sir."

The two fighters had nearly reached the end of their journey. They passed the last checkpoint, locked their speed into that of the Aquitaine, then stopped in front of a gigantic gray armored gate and waited for clearance to land. After a minute, the gate wings began sliding apart in fits and starts as if some monstrous wrench kept catching in the works.

Trausty remembered that the stern gate had only just been repaired after direct hits from two heavy Cyclops which had busted Deck Five. It was because of that that his wing had had to leave that morning off the crowded bow docking ramp. He was waiting impatiently for the gates to open but apparently, something had malfunctioned again. With a shudder, the right gate wing froze.

"Poor Mom," Alpha One sighed. "She's had it hard today."

"Beggars can't be choosers," Alpha Two replied, "We're so slim we can slide in anyways. A bomber wouldn't squeeze in. We can."

"Affirmative," Trausty switched his craft back to manual. "We'll be stuck here until next morning if we wait for them. After you, Sir."

"I thank you, Sir White Knight," Marchan answered ceremoniously.

The two fighters gingerly followed each other inside the ship's belly. Their mission completed.


Trausty stood next to his Myrmidon watching as two flight service techs walked around his craft with testers in their hands, their eyes glinting with concern. He knew one of them well. Engineer Nides Hatacker yanked the barrel of a lifeless starboard Subach and looked at the pilot unhappily, shaking his head.

Trausty shrugged as if to say, Not my fault, is it? He started whistling a tune, averting his gaze from Hatacker. He'd done his job, anyway. Now it was their turn, and they had to be happy he'd brought his craft back more or less in one piece — literally. He remembered a pilot two months earlier who'd come back flying only half his fighter. You should be glad you don't have to deal with one of those.

Seeing no remorse in Trausty's glare, Hatacker bent down and crawled under the Myrmidon holding the AVI probe in front of himself like a dagger.

The hot and dry hangar air brought a whiff of tobacco smoke. Trausty winced, fanning it away.

"Oh please. Don't be such a snob," Marchan's voice said next to him. "I need to chill out after a sortie, too."

Trausty turned to him. "What's up, wingman? Why are you still around? Too tired to unbuckle and get out of the craft, are we?"

His friend smoothed his ginger mane. "Sorry, Sir. I was speaking to the controller. Lost track of time, sort of."

Trausty squinted at him, understanding. "Well, well, well. A girl?"

"What do you think?" Marchan answered, offended.

"Friggin' Lothario, you. Got a date?"

"Sure. After the debriefing but not before I get my night leave, Your Honor," Alpha Two froze in a mock salute.

Trausty couldn't help laughing. "Come along, then. We need to report to de Trotti and hear all the latest news. I'd love to know whether they've got the Iceni," a chill came over him as he pronounced the word.

Marchan nodded and put out his cigarette on the sole of his boot. With a well-practiced motion, he dropped the butt into a crack in the steel flooring.

"So would I," he said. "Quite a few things could change depending on whether they've caught her or not. Our promotions, for one. But as we don't seem to merit a red-carpet welcome, things might not be as rosy as-"

An enormous wail drowned out his words. Twenty meters away, four recon Ulysses were warming up their engines on the ramp next to theirs. The ship's military life followed its course. Trausty motioned Marchan to get moving. They walked toward the exit, slowly at first, then faster and faster, trying to run away from the rising hiss boring through their ears.

Trausty didn't stop until they exited the elevator, two levels away from the hangars. But even there, the turbines warming up made a God-awful noise.

They hurried inside another elevator and up to the hangar's third level. As Trausty reached the exit, he turned one last time to check on his craft. His Myrmidon, quiet and humble in its parking place by the wall next to the other wing's craft, looked small from that distance. A loader approached it carrying charged power units. Military law demanded all combat vehicles to be refueled first thing upon their return.

"I think I understand why Hatacker has to have everything repeated twice," Marchan said as they approached the bio decontamination block on Deck Three.

"Is it because he's such a pain in the neck?" Trausty pressed the call button.

"No. I think he's deaf as a doornail," Marchan answered. They laughed.

"You're probably right," Trausty stopped laughing. "Their life isn't a bowl of cherries, that's for sure."

An alarm rang out, drowning the far-off wail of the Ulysses' gunning turbines. The two pilots entered the decontamination block. For two minutes they waited, shifting from one foot to the other, as sensors tried to detect potential alien bacteria. Trausty was used to these kinds of checks, even though he couldn't now wait to get to de Trotti and find out what he thought about their actions during the sortie. Besides, he was dying to know what had happened to the rebel frigate. So he rushed out of the door the moment the green dismissal light came up, without even saying hello to the middle-aged medical officer behind her work station. Marchan walked in after him, rectifying Trausty's blunder by saluting the stern-looking female second lieutenant — at apparently the ultimate height of her career.

Another door hissed open before them. The two pilots walked through entering the familiar hustle and bustle of the flagship's busy passageways. Soon, they blended into the crowd, indistinguishable from some ten thousand of their crewmates.

As they hurried to the command center, they failed to notice two inconspicuous officers that had been following them for a while — two Integrity Bureau agents.


"Great job, Danes," the Minister turned to Martanov not even trying to conceal how pleased he was. "I always knew I could count on you."

The Third Fleet Integrity Bureau chief acknowledged the praise with a respectful bow. Reynal shut the gray portfolio close and flung it onto a low side table. The two conquerors of their own fleet made themselves comfortable in the Minister's luxurious cabin on board Reynal's personal cruiser which was about to leave. Soft ceiling lamps cast a diffused light onto the Minister's bald patch, making it glow like the surface of an ice asteroid.

"It's my duty to warn you that the affair is far from being over," Martanov gave his superior a hangdog look. "At least another five hundred Aquitaine crew are still under suspicion of being sympathetic to the rebels."

Reynal raised a warning hand. "Save your strength, officer," he grumbled. "Now isn't the right moment for purges of this magnitude. Who would we have left then to fight Neo Terra?"

"But the traitors..." Martanov began.

The Minister cut him short. "So far, they're sympathizers, not traitors. One show trial should be enough to put them straight. For the time being, ten arrestees are plenty."

Martanov nodded his agreement, burying the disappointment deep within his eyes.

He doesn't know when to stop, does he, Reynal thought. He'd arrest everyone if he only could, and that includes half his own department.

On one side, the Minister was pleased. The GTVA government had long considered Vittorio unfit for his post. But his distinguished record, especially his termination of Bosch's blitzkrieg when the rebels had already wrested away five of the GTVA star systems, meant that no one had dared to replace him with a more suitable candidate.

In the meantime, Vittorio, after his first impressive successes, kept going round in circles wasting the GTVA's military budget. It had come to point when they were forced to launch the unfinished Colossus. Thankfully, now it was over. A new admiral had to fill the GTVA commander's seat — someone from the Minister's own entourage.

Reynal lit up a cigarette. Lost in thought, he barely noticed Martanov who, even seated in an easy chair, managed to look as if he was standing to attention.

After all, the worst thing Vittorio's looking at is a forced resignation. They're bound to discover in court that the case against him doesn't hold water. The Chief Prosecutor knows that, and the old boy will just have to swallow it, as simple as that. In any case, it's his own fault he chose to ignore my offers. The whole Bosch's escape business and the 29th's role in it was just a convenient excuse to finally put a more determined person at the head of the military machine. Cammil Acasta is just that kind of man. He hates Bosch's guts ever since he served under him.

The minister carefully drew on his cigarette trying to suppress a cough. His asthma had lately been back with a vengeance and no amount of medication could curb new attacks. He exhaled the smoke toward the ceiling.

The fleet could do with a bit of a shakeup. Martanov may be an armchair conspiracy theorist but what he says makes sense. Plenty of Neo Terran sympathizers around. No wonder, really. Every tub must stand on its own bottom and we must leave the reptiles well alone, not forgetting the fact that they used to be our enemy for a good fourteen years. A high-profile case like this one will do everyone a wealth of good. After all, some scumbag did reprogram the Aquitaine's transputer. The bastard didn't know that even if we tried, we only had a sixty-percent probability of intercepting the Iceni.

"Any further instructions, Sir?" he heard the Integrity chief's deferential voice.

Reynal turned to him. Martanov shifted in his seat and fidgeted with his comm. Its incoming light was flashing red. Apparently, he didn't dare answer the call without his boss' permission.

The tired minister rubbed his forehead. The new Sirius advance could start any day now. Acasta is a hyperactive bastard. In just a few days, he's stripped the GTVA bare of all the available warships in order to equip his upcoming mission. And not just warships: he made all the delivery services work overtime sending transport convoys there and back again. We've got traffic jams at some subspace nodes thanks to his activity!

He suppressed a grin. Oh well, it wasn't his fault if the GTVA had given its new Commander in Chief a carte blanche to do as he pleased as long as he met the deadline. Now Acasta would work his ass off to show them he didn't need months to make up his mind Vittorio-style.

About time we ended this war before it ends us. At the time, we had no other choice. Now our analysts predict the GTVA to last another four or five months at most. We can't risk it. Acasta promised to put an end to Neo Terra in four weeks. Two of which are already gone.

"Send your best men to Cammil Acasta. But," the minister raised a warning finger, "they should stay nice and quiet. Surveillance only. Try to spread positivity in the fleet. They must know that the new advance will be decisive and victorious, as well as rewarding — literally — for those who surrender their doubts and do their best to," his fingers moved meaningfully, "to, er, prove their loyalty under fire. No need for extreme measures yet."

Martanov gave a hesitant nod. "Understood, Sir. Only," he faltered, "I am currently the Third Fleet Integrity Bureau chief, that's all. How do you expect me to control other fleets? I'd have to do so over the head of Chief Director Breva, wouldn't I?"

The Minister chuckled. "No, you wouldn't. You're to succeed Breva at his post, effective from tomorrow," he studied the other man's face as it widened in a confused grin.

"Who, me?" Martanov faltered. Then he pulled himself together and jumped to attention. "Proud to serve the GTVA Integrity, Sir!"

Reynal rubbed his hands. Check. Another man in his team in place of the stubborn old Breva. "You see," he said softly. "Loyalty and hard work do pay off in the end."

Martanov's face shone with a gratitude too deep for words. The Minister hid a smile.

His comm rang. Reynal glanced at his right wrist. Urgent, security level ten. His eyebrows rose.

"Very well, I'd better not delay you," he turned to Martanov, impatient to get rid of him now that the man had told Reynal everything he needed to know. "You've got plenty of work to do now. You've got my urgent messaging code, so don't hesitate to use it." He rose and offered his hand to the agent. Martanov accepted it with reverence.

As soon as the door closed, Reynal hurried to download the secret message and scrolled through it, his heart pounding.

It felt as if he'd jumped into a frozen lake. The news knocked the wind out of him. The few brief lines of the message had smashed everything he'd been working for — all his achievements and all his plans for the future.

"To Lord Reynal. Urgent. Your presence needed at the GTVA Council. Gamma Draconis report hostile contact with a Shivan squadron. The GTC Vigilant destroyed while patrolling the sector. The GTVA President has called a special meeting of the Council."

End of Book One

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