Book: Exile




Exile

More Books by David VanDyke:

Plague Wars Series:


(in chronological order)


The Eden Plague


Reaper's Run

Skull’s Shadows


The Demon Plagues


The Reaper Plague


The Orion Plague


Cyborg Strike


Comes the Destroyer

Visit DavidVandykeAuthor.com for more information

More Books by B. V. Larson:

The Undying Mercenaries Series:

Steel World

Dust World

Tech World

Visit BVLarson.com for more information




EXILE

(Star Force Series #11)

by

B. V. Larson and David Vandyke


STAR FORCE SERIES:

(in chronological order)

Swarm

Extinction

Rebellion

Conquest

Army of One (Novella published in Planetary Assault)

Battle Station

Empire

Annihilation

Storm Assault

The Dead Sun

Outcast

Exile




Copyright © 2014 by Fireball Press.

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. All rights reserved. No part of this publication can be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, without permission in writing from the author.


Contents

Books by David VanDyke

Title Page

STAR FORCE SERIES

Copyright


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From the Authors




-1-

Klaxons whooped, dragging me out of bed. I rolled onto my feet in the darkness.

“Lights, dim,” I said to Valiant’s brainbox, and then I could see. Pulling on my uniform, I bolted out the door leaving Adrienne as she sat up on the bed rubbing her eyes.

“What the hell’s going on?” I asked as I entered Valiant’s bridge.

My exec and second-in-command Chief Warrant Officer Hansen was standing watch, his bald head reflecting the light of displays. He pointed at the holotank. “Something—three somethings—popped out of one of the windows, and they’re chasing Marvin.”

Windows were what we called the openings in the surfaces of the Square: the weird construct the Ancients left behind. The Square lay a mile from our grounded location. Some of these things we called windows acted like ‘rings,’ portals to elsewhere. Others showed odd effects such as warping space and time. Marvin and our scientists had spent weeks investigating them and they’d hardly scratched the surface of their secrets.

Somethings? Give me a better report than that.” I looked at the holotank but all I saw was the usual representation of the surrounding area plus four icons, one of which was my favorite crazy robot.

Hansen scowled. “They’re big biotics and they’re trying to eat Marvin.”

“But this planet has no atmosphere. How do they breathe?”

“Ask the critters. They don’t seem to care.”

“Any of our other people out there?”

“No. It’s the middle of the night,” Hansen said with faint sarcasm.

I ignored his tone and zoomed the tank in on the other icons. “Give me a real-time view.”

Soon I saw nightmare creatures with eight legs, a lot of spines and armor plates, like insectoid armadillos scaled up to a hundred feet long. Marvin was ground-bound, his many tentacles churning as he dodged this way and that. It appeared he was trying to reach his small ship Greyhound, which was parked past the things, but the monsters seemed to sense the robot’s intent and moved in concert to block him. They hunted Marvin like a pack, and they were moving faster than he was.

“Oh, hell,” I said. As I ran out the door I yelled, “Hansen, you have the ship. Valiant, alert Kwon and all on-duty marines to suit up, anti-armor weapons mix, and clear me a route!” Using my full speed I raced through the corridors, internal doors and hatches to the marine deck. There I threw myself into my battlesuit.

“Welcome, Cody Riggs,” the suit said as my biometrics activated it.

“Suit, seal and prep for combat mission. Close range load-out.” As soon as three tons of powered armor had closed around me, I stomped over to the armory with my boots clanging on the heavy-duty deck plates.

Sergeant Major Kwon, his legs now nanite-regrown, had beaten me there and handed me a heavy laser as I approached. “What’s going on?” he asked with a big eager smile while passing out weapons to his marines as they filed past in armor.

“Monster hunt,” I said. “Some insect-like things came through a window and are trying to eat Marvin.”

Kwon laughed as he kept handing out gear. “Serves the bastard right. You sure we don’t want to let them get in a bite or two? Maybe he could afford to lose a few tentacles, eh? Might make him act more normal.”

I checked out my beamer and slung it. “Tempting, but you know he’s too useful, and they might swallow him whole. Make sure we take plenty of armor-piercing rockets. These things look tough.”

“Yes, sir,” he said, turning away from me to roar at a dozen marines. “All right Pigs, drop your cocks and grab your socks! We got us some bugs to hunt!”

Kwon ran for the assault airlock and I followed. The assault airlock was a new modification he had requested. It allowed thirty or more armored troops to exit at once. Half the size of a tennis court, it had been fitted with special fast-moving doors and no safety protocols, so whoever was in there had better be suited up or they’d learn how to breathe vacuum the hard way.

As soon as we’d entered, the portal behind us slammed shut. Valiant immediately opened a smart-metal iris in the hull releasing a brief rush of warm gas. This wasted some oxygen, but we hardly had to slow down before we leaped four abreast onto the rocky airless surface of Orn Six.

“Fly on repellers, but land before we get into the Square,” I ordered. We’d found using any sort of gravity control near the Square was dangerous, causing unpredictable effects.

Woo-hoo!” Corporal Fuller cried as he flew up about fifty feet and led the squad. Repellers were fun, but they also made marines vulnerable. There was a reason they called grunts “ground-pounders.” It was a lot safer to stay low where you could hug the dirt if you had to. I figured it was safe enough as these monsters didn’t appear to have any ranged weapons.

Damn, but was I ever wrong. As we neared the Square and were just about to land, Fuller bounced backward in midair and fell to the rocky airless surface. “Something hit him!” I said via com-link. “Get down and stay low.”

I bounded over to Fuller, curious as to what we faced. The corporal rolled to his feet and checked his systems. “I’m all right,” he said.

“Yes, but look at that dent.” I pointed at his arm, which showed a deep ding. “If you’d been hit in the face you might be dead.” Faceplates were hardened, but not as tough as the rest of the armor. “Don’t get cocky, people,” I said on the local net. “Stay low and be smart. Spread out and shoot anything except Marvin.”

We lined up and advanced cautiously as Valiant fed information to my HUD from a drone circling off to the side. “Bradley, you on?” I asked, trying to reach my Commander, Aerospace Group, or CAG.

“Here, sir.”

“Can you strafe the things with a two-ship?”

“No, sir. Remember what happened the last time we flew drones near the Square?” The small ships had gone crazy with one of them tumbling until it escaped over the horizon and another firing wildly in all directions before it crashed. “We’ve been taking some long-range laser shots, but our targeting systems don’t work right in this area.”

“Sounds like you need to add manual target practice to the training schedule.”

“Don’t worry about it, sir,” Kwon broke in. “We’ll take them down.”

I knew they could, but I’d always rather substitute long-range firepower for close combat. “Right. One of them is just beyond this next corner.” As I spoke, we rounded one of the many cubes our heavy beamers at the ready. We caught our first sight of it and fired immediately, green lasers lancing out to splash against its armored hide.

Close up I could see the thing resembled a segmented rhinoceros beetle with a hornlike projection on its huge face. Jumping as if startled as our beams stung it, the monster turned toward us and fired. I suppose “fired” is an accurate word because out of its tubular horn something blasted, striking the dirt in front of us and throwing up a cloud of dust and rock shrapnel. This wasn’t any threat to our armor, but suddenly we went blind.

“Fall back and switch to active sensors,” I said, telling my suit to turn on its tiny radar. We backed out of the dust cloud firing, afraid the critter would charge at us and stomp someone before we could see it. I could see more of the enemy shots impacting here and there, throwing up debris and keeping us from seeing it. This must be a defensive tactic—suppressive fire.

Unfortunately my radar returned a complete jumble. My HUD looked like a cubist Picasso painting. It must be interference from the Square. “Switch to passive thermal,” I ordered, and suddenly I could see the outlines of the nearby cubes by their heat signatures.

The monster was nowhere to be found, and the bombardment near us had stopped. Checking my tactical feed, I saw that Marvin was playing hide-and-seek with two of the creatures while the third had circled around to our right. “Bogey at three o’clock,” I called, getting our firing line oriented. “Valiant,” I called, “feed all marine HUDs a synthetic view of the three biotics and Marvin based on all inputs including overhead recon.”

A moment later, wireframe targets manifested inside our faceplates, representing where the critters and the robot were. At least this would keep us from getting surprised, though it was useless for sighting and shooting.

“This sucks,” Kwon grumbled. “Can’t fly, can’t see to shoot, no air support.”

“Welcome to the Star Force Marines. You’re getting soft, old man,” I said with a grin. “Just be glad you’re not back in the South American jungle with no armor and a hundred-pound generator on your back.”

“Okay, you win,” Kwon said. “There it is!” He took a shot with his laser. “Come on, marines, flank it!” The big man strode forward, beaming at the half-seen armored monster that moved among the golden cubes.

I stayed near Kwon and fired whenever I had something to shoot at. We hurried onward driving one monster back farther into the Square. The creature must have come from one of the larger windows, but there were several big enough to fit bugs like this. Was it trying to go back home? It didn’t matter. These aliens had attacked us first, and now they had to pay.

We cornered one, driving it into a spot between two intersecting cubes. With nowhere to go, it stood on its back legs and tried to climb the smooth golden surfaces. But the surfaces were very slick, almost frictionless. “Rockets!” Kwon roared, and several marines with anti-armor missiles launched them to impact on the thing’s exposed back, blowing out chunks of segmented carapace and spraying bloody brown ichor all over the walls. The glop ran down like raw eggs to puddle in the dirt.

The big beetle wasn’t finished yet. With a sudden turning lunge and a hop, it jumped for the closest marine: our point man Corporal Fuller. Six or seven blazing green beams intersected it cutting smoking lines in the thing’s shell. That didn’t stop it from stepping on Fuller with an elephantine, clawed foot. The man’s HUD icon winked out as the monster collapsed, crushing him under hundreds of tons of dead meat.

“Dammit!” I yelled. “Cut this piece of shit open!” I began to laser methodically through the creature’s shell. “Some of you pull the parts off.” If we were going to lose another marine, it wouldn’t be because we didn’t do our best to save him.

A moment later I saw a foot poking out of the greasy guts. Kwon spotted it at the same time and dropped his weapon to grab the armored limb. He dragged Fuller out of there, stretched him on the ground, and began scraping the goo off. The corporal’s chest plate had caved in but hadn’t been breached.

I stepped up and reached for Fuller’s breastplate releases. “Leave me one guy to watch my back and the rest of you go kill the other two of these things,” I ordered Kwon.

“Sergeant Moranian, take the squad and go bug hunting. I’ll stay with the captain,” Kwon said.

The woman sketched a salute in my direction. “Aye, aye, Sergeant Major. Let’s go, marines, follow me. Move it!” They bounced off in the low gravity.

Kwon picked up his laser and stood watch. “Boss, you can’t open him up here. There’s no air.”

I pulled Fuller’s chest releases anyway. “He can survive for a minute or two with no air, but not with his heart and lungs compressed against his spine.” I lifted off his caved-in chest plate. “He’s got his skinsuit on so he won’t freeze right away. Retract your gauntlets, give him CPR and tell his suit to pump some air into his lungs through his helmet.”

Knowing Kwon would do his best to follow my instructions I placed the chest plate on the ground with the inside facing up. Then with my full strength and the mass of the battlesuit I stomped repeatedly on the dent, forcing the armor back into a rough semblance of its original configuration. As soon as it was close to normal, I picked it back up, turned it over and snapped it into place on Fuller’s suit locking the releases down. Smart metal filled in the gaps where it no longer fit.

“Suit, transmit command override to Corporal Fuller’s battlesuit and initiate resuscitation mode.” Now that the breastplate wasn’t putting crushing pressure on the man’s chest, he should be able to breathe and his heart could beat—if he wasn’t dead already.

After a long moment and several defibrillator shocks, Fuller’s heart started and I could see he was breathing. I checked my HUD for the tactical situation and saw the rest of the squad moving in on the second monster, leaving only the one left that was still determinedly chasing Marvin.

So far Marvin had managed to evade it by dint of his superior local knowledge. He’d swarmed over some of the lower cubes with his flexible tentacles and squeezed through tight alleyways where the beetle couldn’t follow. The thing was eventually going to get him, if we didn’t perform a robot rescue.

“We’ll have to leave Fuller here and hope his suit and nanites pull him through if we’re going to save Marvin,” I said.

“Screw Marvin,” Kwon replied. “We need to get Fuller back to a med-bay.”

“You’re half right. I’ll go save Marvin, and you take Fuller to the ship.”

“Hell no, sir. I made a promise to your father that I’d watch your back, and that’s what I’m going to do.”

“When did he tell you that?”

“I got a private, encrypted message from Colonel Riggs you were coming out to Valiant—and then you showed up. Oh crap… I forgot. Wasn’t supposed to tell you. Sorry, boss.”

“Forget it. I should have known my old man would have figured out where I was heading before I did.”

This little revelation made me wonder what was going on back on Earth and if Dad was going to come out of retirement to get involved in the world again. He’d refused all political or military offers and stayed on our farm as a private citizen for the last twenty-three years, but sometimes I got the feeling he missed being in the thick of the action.

Forcing my mind back to the situation at hand, I stood up. “Well then, big man, now is when you get to earn your Sergeant Major stripes. Marvin is just as much one of my people as you or Fuller. I’m going to rescue Marvin the same as I’d do for anyone else. Fuller is your marine. Take him to the ship and help save him or come with me and watch my back. You’re all grown up: you choose.” With that, I grabbed my rifle and started running toward Marvin.

I could hear Kwon cursing me on the short-range com-link but I didn’t have time to play Freud while he decided where his true responsibilities lay. For me, it was obvious. Fuller had a better chance to live if he got to a med-bay. Marvin was going to get killed. If we wanted to accomplish two things, Kwon and I would have to split up and do one each. Despite my oversized guardian’s desire to protect me, I was actually tougher than he was, so I took the more dangerous mission.

Looking at my tactical HUD, I saw Kwon’s and Fuller’s icons moving together toward the ship. Good. That simplified things. Switching my attention to Marvin, I saw he was just about to get cornered in a courtyard with high walls and no way out. I wondered if he knew what he was doing or if he’d made a mistake. I could’ve sworn the robot had mapped the whole area in detail over the last three months. So why had he gone that way?

“Marvin, I’m coming to help. Just keep running!” I yelled, hoping he could pick up my words.

As I rounded the final corner, I saw the monster reach for him. He had nowhere to go, except… Turning suddenly, Marvin leaped with two tentacles to catch the sill of a small window. Yanking himself upward in one smooth motion, he vanished into the inky blackness.

“MARVIN!” I roared, straining my throat with all the power of my lungs. I couldn’t believe it—Marvin had escaped through a window. He always said entering one would be deadly dangerous. Maybe he was lying. More likely he’d been desperate enough to take the chance.

I set myself and aimed my beamer at the monster holding the trigger down in one long blast. My rifle got hotter and hotter until its safety system shut it down before it melted.

Unfortunately this pissed the beetle off and it charged me. I turned and leaped for the top of a low cube, bouncing awkwardly off its slick roof and onto the other side. Checking my HUD, I scrabbled to change direction and turned my hopping run toward the squad. “Help me out, marines. This thing wants me for lunch.”

“On the way, sir!” I heard Sergeant Moranian’s singsong voice, and a moment later eight or nine bounding figures came in sight. “Pass our lines, sir!” she said.

I kept moving as fast as I could and didn’t slow down until I had reached the friendlies. As soon as I drew even with them they all opened up on the pursuing critter.

I skidded to a stop and turned to add my firepower. Our ten weapons converged, staggering it, chopping off legs and burning holes in its shell. It lurched toward us but couldn’t withstand our withering fire. It fell with a ground-shaking crunch.

“Thanks, Pigs,” I said as we gathered around the whale-sized body. I lasered three feet of the thing’s horn off and grabbed the section as it fell. “A little trophy for the dayroom.” I tossed it to Moranian.

“Great idea, sir,” she said, catching it and turning it over in her hands admiringly.

“Everyone spread out and look for Marvin,” I said. “He went in that window there. I presume he wouldn’t have done that unless he thought he had a chance to make it back out again. It must come out somewhere…”

Moranian saluted. “Aye, aye, sir. All right people, quarter and search by twos.” Her eight marines split up into pairs and headed for the four points of the compass.

“Bradley,” I said on Valiant’s channel, “use your recon drones to look for Marvin.”

“Roger wilco, sir,” my CAG replied.

Moranian and I made our way at an easy pace to Marvin’s “laboratory,” one of the larger plazas where he kept all his instrumentation and analysis equipment. Logically, he would head there or for Greyhound. Of course he should try to com us first, but radio wasn’t always reliable in the Square.

Kwon joined us soon after reporting that Fuller was in a med-bay and should be all right. “He said to thank you for saving his life, sir.”

I laughed. “No he didn’t, you hulking liar. With the drugs the suit shot him up with, I’m sure he hasn’t even regained consciousness.”

Kwon chuckled sheepishly. “He’ll say it when he wakes up. He’s a good kid, and he’ll have a solid future in Star Force if we ever get back home.”

I slapped Kwon on the shoulder, stinging my armored hand. “When we get home, Sergeant Major, we’ll all have distinguished careers…or more distinguished in your case. You too, Moranian. You did good work today.”

“It’s easy with such a good captain, sir,” she said with what I was sure was a touch of hero-worship in her voice. Nothing wrong with that, I told myself. We’d all been heroic today…even Marvin, if you counted survival as heroism.

“Anyone seen Marvin yet?” I called on the general channel. Everyone answered in the negative.

The Pigs and I searched for five or six hours more until our suits were getting low on power, and I was starting to smell my own sweat. Still, there was no sign of Marvin.

I got Chief Engineer Sakura to send us out a dozen standard power packs, stable emergency batteries that any machine including Marvin should be able to use. Two of them I tossed through the same window he’d disappeared into, two I left in his lab and the rest I ordered set down at various spots within the Square, beacons attached.

Then we all went back to the ship. What else could we do? I wasn’t going in after him or ordering anyone else to.

I had Valiant rotate one scout drone at a time in a holding pattern around and around the area with cameras and detectors aimed at the Square. That was about all we could do right now—that and hope Marvin made it back from wherever he had gone.

I didn’t let my crew see it, but I was worried. Not just for Marvin—for all of us.

Out of everyone aboard, I accounted him as the most crucial crewmen I had. Without his engineering skills, I doubted we’d ever see Earth again.

There was a skylight in the roof of my cabin that I could open at times to examine the exterior world. I did so now and lay on my bed.

Staring up at the cold hard light of the stars, I wondered where in space and time he was.

“Damn you, robot,” I sighed, and then I fell asleep.






-2-

“Another day in paradise with Captain Cody—the Explorer Riggs,” my girl Adrienne said with irony as she leaned over onto my side of the bed and kissed me. She sighed. “How long are we going to wait for Marvin?”

I put my hands behind my head and leaned back on my pillows returning her playful tone. “I’m trying to decide, Miss Turnbull. This is the first day I haven’t been up at the crack of dawn running the search. It’s been nearly a week, and the excitement of action is wearing off. People are getting surly again and resentful of Marvin. We can’t wait forever.”

“I’ll be happy to be moving on,” she said, leaning toward me.

“You sure?” I asked earnestly as I reached over to run my fingers through her long golden hair and stare into her azure eyes. “Without Marvin we’ll be groping in the dark. Heading back into danger, too. Maybe there will be more killing and dying.”

Adrienne shuddered, incidentally causing some interesting jiggles. “None of us really like that part—except the marines, maybe. You just like the challenge of pitting yourself against the universe and winning.” She grabbed my hand from off her head and held it tight. “You’re not so good at losing.”

“I never will be. But losing won’t crush me if that’s what you’re worried about.”

Adrienne shook her head, hair cascading down over her face as she rolled her naked body on top of me with a smile. “No, but I might.”

We made love then, and it was fantastic as always. One of the perks of being parked on a planet in relative safety was free time and a feeling of security. The lighter gravity made things fun, too.

There was one bad thing about making love with Adrienne. Most of the time I was able to remember who I was with, but every once in a while her dead sister Olivia’s face seemed to intrude into my mind’s eye.

Fortunately, that didn’t happen today.

Afterward, we talked over breakfast. “We’re down to less than a week to repair Valiant,” Adrienne said. “After that, we’ll have nothing to do but wait around.”

“Excellent work, hon,” I said. “I’m going to do a quick inspection.”

Adrienne rolled her eyes. “I don’t know why you bother. Everything’s running fine. They all know their jobs. Take a break.”

“That’s when things go wrong—when the boss starts slacking off. Besides, it helps people to know I’m watching.”

She shrugged and stretched like a cat. “You sure you don’t want to stick around for another hour or so?”

I watched as she deliberately tossed her hair and made eyes at me.

“I’d love to,” I said, “but duty calls.” I finished my coffee, kissed her deeply once more and headed off to take a look at the progress on the ship.

Three months had passed since Valiant set down on Orn Six next to the city of golden cubes we called the Square. Marvin had made progress understanding the place, at least by his own account, but I hadn’t seen a lot of evidence of it. He hadn’t provided one piece of alien tech in any way useful for helping us to get home or defend ourselves against a hostile universe despite pulling bits of stuff out of the windows. Every week until this last one I’d sat through a briefing and every week I’d left the table more frustrated.

The only real benefit we’d had from the Square was a new version of the Star Force game of pool. We’d set up a pool room by building a temporary structure in the Square of roughly the right shape and size. The Pigs had come up with this, not Marvin. The metallic walls returned shots with no loss of speed and several of the windows happened to connect to each other so they could be used to make exotic plays. We’d slapped a roof over the area and covered some of the windows to keep from losing balls. They even had a team version now, which transformed the play-style into a hybrid of lacrosse and dodge ball.

I needed the pool room as a release for my people. It served to stop the Pigs from killing each other out of boredom. I’d kept them busy at the mining site a mile away digging ore and hauling it to the factory in cargo rovers we’d built, but even with double shifts marines always seem to find ways to cause trouble. Kwon was having to knock heads more and more often as the weeks passed. I knew I’d have to get Valiant going soon or risk a serious breakdown in discipline. The monsters and the search for Marvin had only provided a temporary relief valve.

Fortunately, we’d found abundant rare earths and radioactive ores so we could rebuild Valiant into whatever we wanted. What I’d decided on was a combination battleship and drone carrier, a battlecarrier instead of a battlecruiser.

The bigger version of our ship had been born from experience. I’d learned my lesson with fragile frigates. Our factory could make equipment and brainboxes but not more personnel. I couldn’t afford to lose pilots in smaller ships. Therefore, my new strategy had to be prodigal with machines and miserly with human beings. I wasn’t going to put people into flimsy shells again. In that sense, Hansen had been right to protest my old strategy even if he’d misjudged my motives.

I’d briefly toyed with the idea of trying to get Hoon to hatch some new children and train them as crew—I was willing to bet he had more eggs with him—but they would take years to reach adolescence and the logistics of modifying the ship for them was prohibitive. No, there was simply no way around it. We had to preserve our numbers with an almost paranoid obsession. Every crewmember was precious.

That’s why working closely with my key staff—Hansen, Adrienne, Sakura, Kwon and Bradley—I’d laboriously reconfigured Valiant. She still looked like a thick manta ray just bigger. Valiant now sported four heavy lasers plus four anti-proton beams alongside them and twenty-four secondary-sized beam pairs. We also had twice as many small point-defense pairs, all of which could depress to nearly touch our own hull, allowing them to target boarders on the skin.

Combined with drone capability, heavier armor and a system of layered configurable magnetic shields, Valiant was now as tough, flexible and survivable as we could make her.

Of course, everything comes at a price. The new Valiant was more sluggish than she used to be and even slower than her original form before we were blown through the ring into the Panda system. Also, no matter how configured, Valiant never had enough power. Though we’d installed four times as many generators and capacitor batteries, Valiant could suck at least ten times the juice of the old battlecruiser configuration and when pushed to full capacity she gulped fuel like an American muscle car with a lead-footed teenager at the wheel.

The improved bridge was my first stop during my tour. The CAG, Chief Bradley, was on duty supervising technicians, who installed the last of his upgraded combat flight director stations. Two watchstanders monitored flights of the new Dagger drones patrolling above. We exchanged salutes.

“How’s it look?” I asked.

“All good, sir.” Bradley had gained confidence and was running exercises with his drone directors and growing into his new position. “The Dagger designs are very capable.”

“What about your people?”

“Eager for battle, sir,” he said.

“That’s what I like to hear.”

Of course, it was easy to be eager for battle when your weapons did the dying for you, but that wasn’t a sentiment I would ever voice.

“Sorry we haven’t found the robot,” Bradley offered.

I sighed. “Not your fault. We tried sending sensors and comms packages with cables into the window and even a small flying probe the eggheads made. Nothing. The scientists are still trying, but I’m not risking any lives by sending a live person through.”

“I understand, sir. No robot is worth a human being.”

I didn’t comment on that, either. Bradley’s feelings were natural for the average crewman but a leader had to take a broader view. Marvin was a sentient citizen and I couldn’t put him below humans just because he had neural circuitry rather than an organic brain. Besides which, he was more valuable to our overall chances of survival than any other crewmember.

I took Bradley along as I visited the new flight deck at the top of the ship. It fed two launch chutes that led upward to stern-facing exits on the manta-shaped battle carrier’s wings. We could store sixty-four Daggers internally and service eight at a time.

The internal bays were heavily automated and required only one controller to supervise the semi-autonomous systems that repaired, refueled and rearmed the drones when they weren’t packed tightly in their storage niches. Black Nano-style tentacles hung from overhead and were set up to move the drones and ordnance from place to place as needed. Bradley took pride in pointing out all the recent improvements. I looked over the hive of activity with approval, waving at the controller in her smart-glass booth. Everything appeared to be in order and even now she loaded another drone into its launcher and ejected it into the airless sky above Orn Six for combat patrol. We’d been keeping drones up continuously the whole time, watching the Raptors and the ring they guarded on the other side of the planet as well as keeping an eye out for Marvin.

The Dagger currently loaded into the launch bay was a reconnaissance model. I’d directed that Adrienne and Sakura, my engineering specialists, develop and build special drone variants for missions such as scouting, personnel recovery or suicide attacks. The latest drone design was more modular so that, for example, a laser could be quickly pulled off and replaced with a sensor package.

After stopping by the flight deck, I proceeded to the lowest level, the gun deck, where we could access most of the beam turrets. Unlike Raptor ships, which put big weapons in their sharp noses and densely packed point defense to the rear, Valiant now carried her heavy firepower on her curved lower hull with an even layer of point defense all over. In battle she would angle her nose up slightly, allowing the heavy guns to bear on a target while shielding the more vulnerable flight bays. When retreating she could reverse the process, angling slightly nose-down, which would let most of her firepower aim backward.

The beam turrets were semi-automated as well, each having a combat brain. From this deck technicians could seal up the outer clamshell armor over one weapon at a time and repair them in relative safety inside the ship even during battle.

When I entered, I waved the beam tech crew back to their seats around a table. They appeared to be taking a break. Steaming cups of factory-fake coffee competed for space with plates of equally fake donuts on the tabletop. In fact, most of the food we had now was synthesized by our factory. It was nutritious but it never quite tasted right. Still, you got used to it.

“Looking good, Chief,” I said to Master Chief Cornelius, the senior gunnery noncom, a no-nonsense woman with a permanently furrowed brow and matching frown on her face. She was muscular and fit from maintaining her heavy equipment, and spoke with a mild Austrian accent. She also had a balcony you could do Shakespeare from. I made sure to keep my eyes off her chest after one lingering glance.

“Thanks, Skipper,” she replied with a sudden sparkle in her eye. Somehow she managed to look both grim and amused at the same time. “We’ll give the bastards hell next time.”

“Damn right, Chief. Better guns, better armor…old Valiant will get us through with all of your help.” I snagged a donut and raised it to them, then took a bite. Awful. I was glad I still had some of the dead captain’s stores, including an extensive spice rack. Such luxuries made life bearable for Adrienne and me, privileges of my position.

The techs saluted me with their coffee cups and I smelled the tang of something alcoholic. Sweeping my eyes over them, none seemed drunk so I decided to let it pass. I made a mental note to have Sakura give the systems a thorough diagnostic. Considering some of the benders I’d been on, I could hardly condemn them for a morning kickoff as long as it didn’t affect their duties.

Engineering was my next stop. This was the heart of the ship and encompassed the factory room with its manufacturing plant and the engine room. The engine room was a really long, narrow space lined with fusion power plants, reactors, capacitors and huge power flow regulators. While brainboxes had brought computer miniaturization near its limit, some things had to be big. Running terawatts of energy through cables and buses meant lots of heavy alloys laced with exotic elements all thickly insulated and shielded.

My engineer, Chief Warrant Officer Sakura, stood and greeted me as I entered. I noticed she did seem a bit more relaxed lately. She and Hansen had been a couple for a while now. Obviously getting laid regularly relieved stress. It did for me, anyway. Whatever the cause, her engineering work seemed to be going well.

“What’s the good word?” I asked.

Sakura’s face remained unreadable, but that didn’t mean much as her attitude seldom varied. She was always serious and matter-of-fact. “The usual glitches, but nothing we can’t handle,” she said.

“You’re confident this new design will fly well?”

“I’m confident, but we should take her up as soon as we can for trials.”

“And that’s…”

The engineer pursed her lips. “Four days, maybe five.”

I nodded. “Anything else I need to know?”

“No, sir.”

“Very well. Carry on.” I wandered into the factory room. It chugged along making incomprehensible noises and churning out parts for our vital machinery. If there was one thing humanity had to thank the Nanos for, it was bequeathing us these universal thing-makers. Without them we’d have been royally screwed.

Sitting down I reviewed the settings and scripts trying to figure out what the factory was doing right now. To me it looked like plumbing.

“Ah, young Riggs.” I felt a touch on my shoulder and turned to look into one of Professor Hoon’s stalked eyes. He’d learned not to poke me with his claws by now. Unfortunately I still had trouble getting him to address me as “Captain.” I guess when you’re a couple hundred years old and hold a dozen academic degrees everyone else seems young.

“Yes, Professor?”

“I see you’re looking over the upgrade to my quarters.”

“Is that what this is?” I cocked my head left, then right, trying to make sense of the diagrams flowing across the console. “My staff gave you more room?”

“Still inadequate, but if I must suffer for the cause of knowledge I am pleased to do so.”

“You could have stayed on the ice moon with the whole ocean to raise your children personally.”

“Oh, by the Great Singularity, you humans do have the most radical ideas. Just what one would expect from those who do not allow natural selection to ruthlessly and properly take its course. No wonder humans haven’t evolved as far as we.” Hoon’s eyestalks waved in the pattern that was the Crustacean equivalent of a headshake as his translator released a rasping sound. I wasn’t sure if he was laughing or sighing. Maybe it was a little of both.

“If natural selection had taken its course your entire race would be extinct,”


I pointed out rudely. “Also, I’d be careful with that kind of talk around our women. They take children very seriously.”

“Ah. You and your female are implementing procreation protocols?”

I smirked. “Let’s just say we’re practicing very hard and probing the possibilities deeply.” I rose from the seat as Adrienne approached, wondering to myself what the point was of talking to a lobster who couldn’t possibly understand my innuendoes.

“What was that I heard?” Adrienne asked as she slid into the seat shoving me playfully out of the way with her butt.

“Hoon was just talking about his quarters upgrade. I’ll leave you two to discuss it,” I said casually, extricating myself from the conversation. Adrienne gave me a reproachful glance as I sidled away.

Normally today would be the day Marvin briefed the staff and me on his progress—or his lack thereof—with the technology of the Square. Since he wasn’t here I’d canceled the meeting. I had little else to do, so I decided to review the vid recording of the last one he’d presented. I’d slept through half of it anyway.

It was close enough to lunch that beer was in order. I made do with just one factory brew. I brought it back to my—well, our—stateroom, Valiant’s captain’s quarters, which were bigger and better appointed than any other cabin aboard.

Valiant, play the record of Marvin’s last weekly briefing. Put it on the main screen.” Sitting back in an armchair, I sipped my beer and watched, unreasonably hoping I would see something to give me a clue as to what had happened.

* * *

Out of mercy I’d kept the briefing group deliberately small and insisted Marvin present his findings in person aboard Valiant, which was one way to ensure he didn’t get any bigger. As it was, he’d pared himself down to a mere two tons and was no more unwieldy than a fire-team in battlesuits or a walking ground car.

Marvin blathered on for the first few minutes talking about highly technical stuff for as long as I would let him. No matter how many times I gave him instructions, he just couldn’t stick to a simple overview so I had to break in. “Marvin, please. Is there anything truly new that you can tell us about this place? Something we can use from all that junk you’ve found?”

“If we radically increased the size of Valiant, we could manufacture gravity weaponry based on the designs used on Phobos,” he said, referring to the dreadnought we’d captured from the weird, gas-giant-dwelling Blues. “With the things I have learned here, I am sure I could dramatically improve and miniaturize the equipment.”

I rubbed my forehead. “Marvin, we’ve already talked about this. It would take over a year to make those systems, then more time to find an asteroid and install them because Valiant doesn’t have the mass to anchor gravity weapons. I don’t want to try to fly a dreadnought home. It’s too slow and too big a target. It would also be horribly vulnerable to Litho templates unless we could locate one of solid metal—and we haven’t done so yet, right?”

“No,” Marvin admitted.

“I think you’re stalling. You don’t want us to leave. You’d rather spend decades studying this place.”

Marvin didn’t say anything as he stood there in relative stillness, which usually meant he was waiting for me to make up my mind about something and was afraid of saying anything.

“Well, I’m sorry you won’t get your wish. We’ll be leaving in a few weeks. Space trials start in ten or twelve days and that means you’re going to have to give up your studies for the time being to do some work for me. You’ve put off investigating what’s on the other side of the ring for too long.”

“But the Raptors forbid us to send probes through and will not give us information from their own,” Marvin protested.

We’d had an uneasy truce with the Raptor government ever since half their home world’s population had been wiped out. Their military leaders understood that we’d helped them save billions, but the civilian governments and populace seemed to have bought the comforting lie that we had somehow screwed things up. That allowed them to believe that it wasn’t their fault and that we were to blame for their misfortunes. Every race had its conspiracy theorists it seemed. My great hope that we would make allies of these people had never quite panned out. That was too bad. I thought they had a lot of good qualities.

“Not having permission has never stopped you before, Marvin. Anyway, I’m going to force the issue with them,” I said. “I’ll talk to Senior Director Shirr and make him an offer he can’t refuse.”

“What would that be?” Marvin asked curiously.

“Information for information. There are still some technologies the Raptor military would very much like to have. The stronger they are, the better they can hold back the Litho threat.”

“And if he refuses?”

I smiled. “I have a few other cards up my sleeve if it comes to that. Since I have you here, I need to know whether you intend to come with us or not.”

The robot’s camera stalks and tentacles fidgeted aimlessly. “I am not certain yet.”

“Well, let me help you decide. I’d like you to come along. You’re amazingly useful when you’re not being a total pain in the ass. If you don’t, though, you can dismount your micro-factory here at your base before you get Greyhound shipshape again.”

“How can Greyhound not be shipshape if it is shaped like a ship?”

“Well…it’s not really shaped like a ship anymore, is it? Besides, Marvin, I’ve told you many times, ships are ‘she,’ and ‘shipshape’ is a nautical idiom meaning ‘in order.’ Look it up.”

“Idioms degrade my processing speed.”

“They improve mine,” I retorted.

Suddenly, Marvin seemed to realize what I had just said. “Dismount the factory? Get Greyhound shipshape?” Suddenly all his cameras were looking at me from every possible angle.

I nodded heavily with fake sadness. “Unfortunately, yes. She’s a Star Force vessel. Naturally we’re taking her with us. That’s all right; you can build a ship from scratch with your factory, though it might take you a few years. Oh, and you’ll have to resign your warrant officer rank. No more Captain Marvin. I’ll make sure your accrued pay is put into a trust for when you return.” Hopefully that would convince him to come along. Marvin was a wild card that sometimes won a losing hand.

“I…I will have to process this information.”

“Take your time, but either way, I’ll need you to help us get ready. When we go, we’ll go fast and we won’t be looking back.” I glanced around and then slapped the table with my palm. “Briefing adjourned. See you next week, Marvin.”




-3-

After watching the record of Marvin’s briefing I was still no closer to answers regarding him and the Square, but it did remind me of something I’d neglected over the last week of searching. Tossing the empty beer bottle into the recycler, I stopped by the wardroom for a quick lunch and then headed for the bridge.

In rebuilding Valiant I’d had a small ready room added off the bridge, a place for the duty officer to have some privacy for conversation or communication and still be immediately available. After waving to Bradley I slipped in there, shut the door and sat down in front of the wall screen. “Valiant, please put me through to Senior Director Shirr.”

Shirr was the liaison the Raptor military had assigned to me. He was a fairly decent guy. He was the only one I’d talked to since I’d defeated their Admiral Kleed in personal combat when he boarded Valiant and tried to steal our factory. No matter where we aimed our transmissions, we either got an automated reply or we got Shirr.

This time I got another computer that told me my request would be passed on and Shirr would get back to me, and then the channel closed. I was persona non grata with the Raptor government, that was for sure. It seemed the old saying “no good deed goes unpunished” still applied.

When I stepped back onto the bridge, Bradley signaled me. “Sir, did you redirect our comm equipment toward the Raptor homeworld?”

I frowned, unaccustomed to having my actions scrutinized.

“Yes,” I said stiffly. “I did.”

“The redirection of the repeaters also shifted our long-range sensors. We picked up a new contact pretty far out. It’s a ship inbound from Orn Three.”

That was the outermost of two main Raptor colonies. Orn Prime was their home planet.

“What kind of ship?”

“Looks like a military transport, sir. Lightly armed. No threat to us if we keep our eyes open.”

“How long?”

“Twenty hours.”

I nodded. “Thanks. Leave word to notify me if they communicate or anything changes.” I thought about beaming a message to them directly, but I was tired of always making the first move with these stiff-necked aliens.

On the way out of the bridge, I bumped into Sergeant Moranian. She blushed beneath her short red hair as she braced the wall. I couldn’t help but notice how her overly tight marine uniform hugged her ample curves. That had to be a deliberate choice as the smart cloth was infinitely adjustable. I realized I’d been bumping into her—or maybe she to me—at least once a day since the monster fight. Hero-worship for sure. I couldn’t ignore it anymore, but I didn’t want to crush her spirit either. Besides, officers shouldn’t get involved with enlisted personnel, especially on the same ship…and particularly not a captain who was already solidly hooked up with a gorgeous, jealous woman.

Down, boy. Yeah, that’s what I told myself, quite firmly.

“Sergeant,” I said, nodding as I pushed by, not making eye contact.

“Sir—”

“Yes, Sergeant?” I said, not turning around.

A moment passed. “Nothing.”

She hurried away, and I heaved a sigh of relief. That was a complication I didn’t need.

I found Kwon in the gym with four hundred pounds on the curl bar and pulled him aside. “Kwon, do me a favor and schedule Sergeant Moranian for duty when I’m off, and vice versa. Put her in charge of something and tell her it’s a reward, but keep her out of my hair.”

Kwon chortled. “She’s hot for you, boss!”

Great. It wasn’t just me who had noticed. “How about if I tell your girlfriend Steiner that Moranian is hot for you?”

Kwon held up his palms in horrified mock surrender. “Okay, I’ll take care of it.”

“Thanks.”

Just then the intercom beeped. “Captain to the bridge!”

“What now?” I left Kwon to his workout and hurried back to find Bradley and Hansen both staring at the holotank.

“Marvin’s back,” Hansen said without preamble. “And he’s brought a buddy.”

“What, another robot? An alien?”

“Looks like a human to me.” Hansen dialed up the magnification on the holotank to show a shaky long-range shot of Marvin walking through the Square. A suited figure trudged next to him.

“Something funny about that suit…” I fiddled with the holotank settings but couldn’t get a better view. “Valiant, hail Marvin.”

“Already tried, sir,” Bradley said. “He didn’t answer.”

“Might be the usual interference from the Square. We’ll just have to wait. He looks to be leading the…person toward us.” I chewed the situation over for a moment. “Send out a large rover with a couple marines and tell Kwon to deploy a squad on the surface. Power up the point defense lasers too.”

“For one guy?” Hansen scoffed.

“One guy that appeared out of nowhere from a mysterious artifact built by the Ancients. Who the hell knows what Marvin has been up to? Maybe he’s been reprogrammed. Too many unknowns—we don’t even know what we don’t know.” I stared Hansen down for a moment before he nodded sharply and relayed my orders to the watch.

In a few moments Kwon had deployed a squad and spread out in the shadow of the grounded battlecarrier. When our rover, a vacuum-capable cargo truck, drove toward Marvin and his companion, the marines bounded along with it as escort. We watched as the robot and the man in the suit climbed into the back and the whole mob returned to Valiant.

I suited up and met them in the cargo bay at the top of the ramp. When the big doors closed and we had air, I opened my helmet and waved for the other to do the same. The man—I didn’t see any female curves—wore an old-style suit made completely of smart metal except for a glass faceplate. It looked like something from the vids of the Nano fleet period before there really was a Star Force except in name.

There was no insignia on him, but once he opened up I could see he was human. Stout, bearded and black-haired, he looked older, in his early fifties I would guess, with untrimmed eyebrows like wooly caterpillars. His black eyes were beady, narrow and my first impression was of an unpleasant demeanor backed up by a more unpleasant smell. He must have been in that suit for a while.

I was sure I’d seen his face somewhere, too. “Who are you and what the hell are you doing out here?” I asked him in a neutral tone.

“I am General Sokolov,” he answered with a scowl and a Slavic accent. “Who the hell are you?”

“My name’s Riggs,” I said coldly. “Captain Riggs.” I disliked this man immediately, although I wasn’t certain why.

“Kyle Riggs?” His tone turned to one of wonder. “That’s impossible. You can’t be more than twenty-five years old.”

“I’m Cody Riggs, Kyle Riggs’ son.”

“That’s impossible!” he repeated. Sokolov seemed to be a man of absolutes even when the facts stared him in the face. “Colonel Riggs’ family was killed the day the Nanos showed up…or so he said.” His eyes narrowed in suspicion.

“Look, I’m not in the mood to be called a liar. Not on my own ship. Now you need to answer a few questions and maybe we can figure things out. You say you’re a general. General of what?”

“Star Force—at least that was what it used to be called before I was kidnapped.”

I clamped my jaw shut to keep it from dropping. Now I realized where I’d seen this man’s picture. He’d been mentioned in vids of the early days of the Macro Wars. Sokolov had been one of Admiral Crow’s cronies. The last Nano ship, my father’s original Alamo, had snatched him and carried him off into God-knows-where along with the rest of the departing Nano fleet. He’d never been heard from again.

I realized I had a dilemma that could quickly become a crisis. Should I recognize Sokolov’s rank and authority? Star Force had changed so much since then it wasn’t really the same organization. Besides, if I remembered correctly, Crow had slapped the rank on him arbitrarily, probably just for being a suck-up. Then again, my father’s rank had been pretty arbitrary too…



I decided to put off the question and give myself some time to think. “I’ll call you ‘General’ as a courtesy for now, but that doesn’t put you in command. Not without confirmation from Star Force. It’s been more than twenty-five years since you disappeared. Now you just show up out of the blue?”

“Twenty-five years?” he muttered.

That seemed to stun him, and his face sagged. Suddenly I felt a bit of sympathy.

“I thought it was only a year or two,” he said. Then he straightened, composing himself. “I understand, Captain Riggs. I won’t make trouble. I would appreciate a hot shower and some real food, please. I’ve been living without amenities for a long time—however long it’s been.”

“A hot shower and a bunk we can give you. Real food…eh. It’s nutritious anyway.” I forced a smile. At least the man seemed reasonable. “We’ll get you cleaned up, but the first thing we’ll give you is a full physical evaluation. Kwon, can you and a couple of marines show General Sokolov to the medical bay and have a corpsman look him over?”

When Kwon had led the man away I turned to Marvin. “You. I have a bunch of questions for you. Don’t move from that spot.”

Turning away from Marvin, who had not responded, I activated my headset and had Valiant patch me through to Dr. Kalu. While she wasn’t a medical doctor per se, one of her academic doctorates was in biology. When I reached her, I briefed her on the situation and told her to take blood and tissues samples from Sokolov and run a thorough analysis. She seemed annoyed with the assignment until I mentioned the man had been a general officer. That seemed to brighten her day. She’d always liked officers and there weren’t enough of them aboard Valiant for her tastes.

When I turned back to Marvin, I noticed he was poised in an unnaturally still position. I would have expected him to be fidgeting.

“Are you not pleased at my rescue of Star Force personnel?” he asked me. All of his cameras focused on me.

“Ah—yes, that was good. Every crewman is precious right now. I—”

“And are you not pleased that I managed to avoid being devoured by an alien predator?” he interrupted.

“Okay, I have to admit—”

“I’ve decided to go with you and Valiant when you leave.”

That was no surprise now that he’d found out the Square was even more dangerous than he’d thought.

“Great,” I said. “Now—”

“And—”

“Shut up and let me talk!” I yelled.

“There’s no need for hysterics.”

I glared at Marvin daring him to make a sound. He didn’t.

“Marvin,” I said, lowering my voice. “Please explain how you retrieved Sokolov, starting with your escape from the beetle-thing a week ago.”

“A week ago? My internal chronometer shows only thirty-seven minutes have passed from entry window to exit. I should have deduced the time flow difference from the delay of the probe I sent through it several weeks ago. Perhaps if I were to—”

“Marvin—Sokolov?

“I found the human calling himself Sokolov wandering inside the time-continuum beyond the window. Actually, he was inside the multidimensional maze that the windows allow access to. Fortunately he had a pressure suit or I would have had to leave him there. Would that have been the correct decision? Or should I have accepted his death upon exit? Hypothetically, speaking, that is.”

“You chose correctly. I would have disapproved of your actions if you’d rescued Sokolov but killed him in the process.”

Marvin cocked several cameras. “Allowing him to die and causing his death are two different things.”

“Not when you initiate the chain of events leading to that inevitable result. If you knock over the first domino and you know where the dominos lead, you’re responsible for the last one falling, too.”

“I would like to debate philosophy with you, Captain Riggs, but after a week my power cells are getting low.”

“Marvin, you just told me you only experienced thirty-seven minutes!”

“I said no such thing. I stated my internal chronometer shows thirty-seven minutes have passed. Yet my power cells are drained as if I did not refuel for a week or more.”

Exasperated, I cried, “That’s impossible!”

“Now you sound like Sokolov. Many impossible things seemed to occur with regularity within the multidimensional maze.”

I made a sighing, growling sound and waved Marvin away. “Get back to your duties, but please don’t cause any more trouble.”

“I wouldn’t think of it, sir,” Marvin said. He seemed pleased that I’d released him from standing still on that spot.

Sometimes I could only take so much of Marvin’s backtalk and scheming. I tried to focus on his good qualities. Marvin provided a check on my ego as he was ingenious and utterly indifferent to my feelings. He was also relatively blind to my rank and position except where it might threaten his goals. Maybe he’d provided Dad with the same service. I bet that was one reason my father had kept him around. Only a fool wants a bunch of yes-men along, though as a commander it was easy to forget that when someone opposed you.

I forced myself to turn back around and find Marvin again, hoping to get a few more answers. I located him in Engineering talking to Sakura. “Marvin, what was it like inside the window where you retrieved Sokolov?”

“If I deduce your meaning correctly, the answer would be ‘very confusing.’ A human would be hard-pressed to navigate correctly within the multidimensional maze behind the windows. I was able to do so only because of the many sensors I have incorporated within my body. It took all my processing power to synthesize the readings into—”

“Yes, I am sure it was an amazing feat of robotic intellect, thank you. What do you think this maze is for now that you have experienced it directly?”

“While I cannot deduce the Ancients’ original intent, it currently functions as a router, at least partially.”

“A router. Like in a computer network?”

“Yes. I believe that given the correct commands, I could access the entire ring network and more. In fact, I sent a short message in a self-replicating viral format while I was inside hoping to contact Star Force.”

I gaped. “Let’s get this straight. While inside a multidimensional maze built by the Ancients that you can barely understand, you wrote and released a virus? You put malware into an alien cybernetic system? Are you crazy?”

“Biotics often seem to think so. In any case, the script merely replicates itself and tries to spread in hopes that someone will find it. It does nothing else.”

“Did it specify where we are? Like, system coordinates or other locational data?”

Marvin’s limbs rustled, tensing slightly. “In order to achieve the goals I’d hoped for, such data was necessary.”

“So that means not only Star Force but anyone who comes across that message will know where we are. Did you include anything else? Any other information?”

Now Marvin’s cameras and tentacles fidgeted, a sure sign I was getting uncomfortably close to one of his crimes.

“An encrypted data package with a situational summary was included,” he said.

I slapped my hand on the top of my head. “So you just sent an intelligence overview of our mission and current status into an alien computer-like system that might for all we know span the entire galaxy. Do you see any problem with that?”

“I would be willing to revise my risk-index assessment upward. But the data is well-encrypted.”

“Could you break it?”

“Of course. Given sufficient time.”

“How much time, Marvin?”

“Perhaps a month if I used all my neural chains. My encryption was very strong.”

“When did you send the message?”

“Shortly after I entered the window.”

My mind raced. While I knew Marvin was amazingly capable, I could conceive of much more powerful artificial intelligences that might be out there somewhere. A week or so had passed in relative time since he’d sent the message. We might not have a month before someone responded. Then again, whatever found the message—and it was mathematically certain that someone would eventually—might be an incredible distance away. Or they might be close. We couldn’t take the chance. I called Hansen.

“Hansen, pass the word. Go to watch-on-watch, double shifts, readiness condition yellow. Marvin might have just given us away to who-knows-what.” Then I turned to Sakura, who had been silently watching the alarming conversation going on in her engineering room. “Chief, we need to make a push to get underway. Go to twenty-four hour ops for your engineer’s mates, stims authorized. I want us ready to lift at a moment’s notice as soon as possible.”

“Aye aye, sir,” she replied and began barking orders to her people. With another subordinate I’d have set an unreasonable deadline to motivate her, but I’d come to know Sakura always did her best with no games and no need to put on the squeeze.

“One more question, Marvin,” I said to the robot. “Where did those bugs come from?”

“With billions of planets in this galaxy alone, I cannot—”

“Stop being so literal. Summarize. Why did they attack you? Did you find their home and provoke them? What was their purpose?”

“I had no knowledge of their kind before they found me in the maze and attacked me. It is possible one of my many experiments irritated them, or perhaps it was my attractive chassis.”

“Right. Nice job, Marvin.”

“I detect sarcasm.”

“Get used to it.”

Just then Hansen called. “Skipper, we’ve got a message coming through from the Raptor ship.”

“On my way.” I pointed my finger at Marvin. “I need to confirm your answer now. Are you staying or coming with us, Captain Marvin?”

“I will accompany you. Obviously you need me badly.”

“You don’t know how badly I feel about needing you, Marvin. Get back to your lab and tear down all the equipment that might give anyone a clue about us. Load it into Greyhound and get her ready for space. You just painted a big fat target on us, Marvin, and yourself in particular. Have you got that through your neural chains? Something may be coming for you again, something scarier than three giant bugs.”

“The possibility is worthy of consideration, Captain Riggs.” He said this last with a rear speaker as he scrambled for the nearest airlock.

An appeal toward self-preservation was the best Marvin-motivator I’d ever found, and I’d hit him in the face with it as hard as I could. I had little doubt that the robot would get up and out of the way of any potential threat faster than we did, which was exactly what I wanted right now.




-4-

I hustled up to the bridge. “Put the Raptor’s message on the main screen.” I didn’t see any reason for privacy yet.

The vid popped up showing the Raptor’s military symbol: a stylized striking tail. This wouldn’t be a conversation because their ship was at least a light-hour away, so I sat down and relaxed. After a moment it changed to show a Raptor, a male in military garb displaying a modest number of awards and honors in the form of the colored strings and feathers they seemed to like. I was getting better at recognizing the aliens and was pretty sure I had seen this one somewhere, but I wasn’t sure who it was at first.

“Greetings, Commodore Riggs,” the Raptor said through the translation software. For better status, I’d assigned myself the rank of Commodore in dealing with them and the designation had stuck. “I am Kreel, son of Kleed.”

Now I remembered where I’d seen this particular bird. He’d carried the nuke aboard Valiant on his father’s attempt to seize our factory and had decided not to suicide and take us all with him for which I was grateful. I’d ending up killing Kleed in personal combat, which should have settled any debt of honor. I listened further, interested to hear what he had to say.

“Because of my father’s actions, my mother and sisters have been demoted in status and shunned. Therefore, I find myself with a choice of two paths. One leads to the monastery where my line would end, and my mother and sisters would be allowed to take another name. The other is the path of exile—the path you have taken, Commodore Riggs.”

I found it interesting that he considered me an exile—from what, I wasn’t sure. My own people? The Panda or Litho systems? Or perhaps his Raptor race had, in essence, exiled me. Maybe they’d done it formally within their political system. I didn’t pay too close attention to the endless intricacies of Raptor bureaucracy. It had become clear after viewing enough translated broadcasts that their society was old and decadent, full of Byzantine betrayal and infighting for all their talk of honor. Most of the birds just used “honor” as a buzzword rather than truly believing in it. Often they really meant “childish pride.”

A few, like Klak, had really believed in honor. I wondered if Kreel was another who did.

The video continued. “…I and those with me have chosen the path of exile. It is rumored that you will be departing our system soon for a journey beyond the deadly ring. I ask that you allow us to come with you, Commodore Riggs. We will act with honor. We will swear personal fealty to you and unhesitatingly obey you in all things even unto death.” He held up his hands and set his tail in the Raptor salute. “Hail Riggs.” With that, the message closed.

I frowned, thinking hard while the bridge crew tapped at their boards and glanced at me from time to time. The offer could be genuine, or it could be some weird vengeance-thing. Maybe the third path to reinstatement of his family would be assassinating me. Maybe he’d been brainwashed or had a gun to his head. Still…my gut said he was playing it straight.

Hansen raised an eyebrow beneath his bald dome, and I lifted mine back to him. I jerked my head toward the ready room and went over to it, motioning him in and then closing the door. Crossing my arms, I leaned my butt on the small table there. “What do you think?”

“Makes sense to me,” he said.

“I’d have thought you’d be cautious.”

Hansen’s mouth quirked upward. “Maybe I’m trying to throw you off. You expected me to argue against it, which will just make you more likely to take them aboard.” He chuckled. “But in this case I’m actually for it. We could use all the help we can get especially fanatical alien cannon fodder.”

I shook my head feeling a combination of rueful admiration and macabre amusement. “You’re getting to be a cold son of a bitch in your old age, you know that, Chief?”

“That’s what you pay me for. You told me you want to hear my opposing views on things, so I don’t have to maintain a fair and balanced viewpoint. I’m a simple guy, Skipper. There’s a hierarchy to these things. We humans come first, and then our longtime allies like Hoon and Marvin. Newly met aliens are last in line on my survival tree. If they want to fight and die for the god-king Riggs, who am I to argue? Let them take the casualties.”

My instinct was to rebuke him, but I stopped myself because he had a point. I wasn’t going to throw Raptor troops away, but when it came to splitting hairs, Star Force personnel had to take priority—I had command responsibility: a duty to them that was higher than anything I owed these Raptor volunteers.

I also realized that Hansen was right about the way ahead. I was going to take them into my service because they might be damn useful. Anything that added to my small hoard of resources was good.

“I think you’re right, actually,” I said at last, enjoying the surprise on his face. “But we’ll stay on guard against any treachery. Make sure you script Valiant to detect anything more dangerous than personal weapons on our new allies—like that belly nuke Kreel had.”

Hansen nodded, and we left the ready room.

Valiant, record a message,” I said, addressing the ship. There was no visible presence nor even a microphone, but our intelligent ships were always listening to us.

“Recording.”

“Kreel, this is Commodore Riggs. I accept you and your followers into my personal service. Contact me again as you approach my position. Riggs out.” I paused. “Valiant, translate that and send both the raw and processed version to Kreel’s ship in as narrow a transmission beam as possible.”

“Processed. Transmission sent.”

I looked over at Hansen. “Still nothing from either ring?”

Hansen shook his head. “The Lithos send probes or nukes through the inner one every now and again and so do the Raptors, but there’s been nothing major. The Raptor fleet is still parked there. The Orn Prime super-battle station is still under construction. It should be done in a month or so. In short, no changes.”

I snorted sarcastically. “Politics. Ironic how they denigrate our battle station strategy that almost saved them—yet they’re building an even bigger one.”

“Two of them,” he reminded me. “They’ve started on the shell of a second station.”

“One for the ring, one for the planet?” I asked.

Hansen shrugged. “Or one for each ring. In any case, they sure like those super-anti-proton projectors we gave them, and they should have their first operational factory working within months.”

“Anything that holds back the Lithos is good.”

Another shrug from my exec. If Hansen had a weakness, it was his tendency to focus on the immediate and not see the bigger picture. Like most of the crew, he thought if we got home with information on the Litho threat the potential danger years from now would take care of itself. I had to keep my view wider, as my Dad had. That was part of my command responsibility.

Valiant, show me the Square in the holotank.” Soon I looked at a view synthesized from our drone patrols and ship’s sensors. I focused in on Marvin, who seemed to be rapidly reorganizing his laboratory setup. Some things he moved and others he replaced or altered while packing even more into crates and sending them on automated mini-rovers to Greyhound.

I zoomed in on his ship and the pile growing there. Apparently he didn’t trust his bots to load the stuff and probably didn’t have reliable radio control over them within the Square. The haphazard grouping of equipment included some things I was sure were not from Star Force tech or even Marvin-tech, to coin a phrase. I’d gotten pretty good at recognizing Marvin-built things over the last months, but these were odd and alien-looking.

I knew he’d retrieved things from the windows, and of course he’d want to take them along. Marvin often seemed like a fanboy collector, but he also could be ruthlessly practical. To me that meant most of the gear getting loaded into Greyhound’s limited space had, in Marvin’s mind, the potential to yield knowledge. Or, to put a darker spin on things, maybe he’d already found out what some of it did and hadn’t told me. Nothing I could do about it now, though.

“Call me if you need me,” I said to Hansen as I reset the holotank to tactical view and then departed the bridge. I spent enough time there on my own watch, and sitting there getting all my information through Valiant and the holotank was dangerously addictive. Running every operation from a chair and a screen—no matter how good the screen was—risked losing touch with the reality on the ground.

In the corridor, I found Sergeant Moranian standing at parade rest. I suppressed a sigh. Did Kwon not get the message about keeping her busy, or was he screwing with me? “Yes, Sergeant? What is it?”

“Sir, the marines request your presence in the dayroom.”

“The dayroom?” That was the troops’ off-duty hangout space where they watched vids, drank beer, arm-wrestled—whatever they couldn’t or wouldn’t do in their cramped bunks or the crew mess.

“Yes, sir.”

I didn’t see any of her blushing weirdness this time, so I gestured forward. “Lead on.”

Moranian marched to the dayroom now and again loudly proclaiming, “Make way for the captain!” Funny, back in the academy, or even here on Valiant after I had taken over, I’d enjoyed that kind of deference. Now it was getting a bit embarrassing. Unless it was needed in a crisis, where the practice was designed to allow the captain to move unimpeded through the ship and not lose one precious second, the practice seemed pretentious.

When we arrived at the dayroom, I saw a surprising number of marines inside. I estimated about half of the ship’s total complement were present, which meant all of the off duty people and perhaps a few on-duty troops were there. Some had to be missing their rack time, so I hoped this was important. For some reason neither Kwon nor Gunny Taksin, the two most senior marines, were present. Whatever was going on seemed important to the grunts, so I put on my best commander’s smile and nodded. “What’s this all about?”

At the narrowest end of the room on the wall I could see a rack with a sheet hanging on it covering something three feet long and cylindrical. “We thought you’d like to see our newest trophy,” Moranian said, and then called in a parade-ground voice, “POST!”

On the walls of the dayroom were mounted various objects from Valiant’s adventures—stuff from before my time that I had paid little attention to plus some things I recognized such as the big shards of Litho crystal encased in impervious clear plastic or the skull of an ice shark from Hoon’s water moon. At Moranian’s command, Corporal Fuller made a precise right-face and stepped up to the fabric cover, placing a hand on it.

“In honor of the recent surface action,” Moranian began, “and his personal efforts that resulted in more than one marine’s life being saved, we hereby dedicate this trophy to Captain Riggs.”

Riggs’ Pigs!” barked the room’s occupants in unison. I felt a thrill of martial pride as Fuller yanked the cover off to reveal the horn I’d cut from the beetle-thing, now buffed and polished to a high shine.

These were good guys. They were blooded troops now and they had grown up under pressure just like I had stepping up and doing everything I’d ever asked of them even to the last full measure of those who hadn’t made it.

Maybe Moranian’s feelings were purely innocent, but even if they weren’t—even if, as the cynical side of me said, this was all a ploy of hers to get into my pants—I couldn’t disrespect the rest of them.

Focusing on that and taking a breath, I walked forward to run a hand over the hollow object. “Are we sure it’s not loaded?” I asked with a grin, drawing an explosion of laughter. “Seriously, Pigs, thank you. I’m honored. But it wasn’t me that brought the monsters down. It was you and your kick-ass teamwork. Although I’m sure Fuller will be a bit less froggy on the next mission.” That line invited more chuckles aimed at the corporal.

After the laughter had died down, I put on my no-nonsense face. “All right, marines, fun’s over. Back to work. I’m sure you’ve already heard that we’re getting underway soon. With everyone pulling together, we’ll make it home. Carry on.”

With that I left them, avoiding eye contact with Moranian on my way out. That was the way to do it. Don’t stick around too long. Get in, get out, and get on with it.

Valiant, where’s Kwon?” I asked the walls as I walked down the corridor.

“Sergeant Major Kwon is attending General Sokolov in stateroom thirteen.”

Right. I’d forgotten about that guy with all the other things demanding my attention. He must be done with the medical exam by now, and I trusted Kwon to keep a close eye on him and not get confused by his uncertain status. “Valiant, where is Doctor Kalu?”

“Doctor Kalu is in the science laboratory.”

I took the next left and climbed a ramp. Passing through two decks and a long corridor, I approached our scientists’ work area.

It was no longer as cramped as before with the new ship design. The three human brainiacs still complained they didn’t have enough room, enough equipment, or enough command-level attention. As if I didn’t have anything else to do…

Fortunately I’d been leaving Adrienne to deal with them most of the time. She was much better with whiny civilians than I was. Then there was the matter of the Kalu incident that my girl had witnessed—before she was my girl, fortunately. Better that I keep my distance from the sexy scientist. She was entirely too enticing, with her exotic looks, sultry accent and voluptuous figure so different from Adrienne’s slim body.

Damn. I had to quit thinking about Kalu. It wasn’t like I wasn’t getting all I needed in bed. I guess we Riggs were born with wandering eyes…or maybe it was a result of being in charge. Biologists would say the alpha male is driven to spread his genes among multiple females to perpetuate his bloodline. Too bad for me the alpha female seemed driven to defend my genes against the encroachment of any other.

Forcing myself to be professional, I stepped up to Doctor Benson, the senior scientist. Chang and Kalu seemed engrossed in some kind of analysis. Chang glanced at me but Kalu turned deliberately away. She was probably still miffed at my rejection of her advances.

“Do we have any information on Sokolov yet?” I asked quietly.

“We haven’t had long to run our tests.”

I waved off his objection. “Just tell me what you know so far. In layman’s terms.”

Benson sighed. “He’s a nanotized human about fifty years of physical age. He shows signs of mild malnourishment and stress but should recover rapidly.”

“Remind me, what effect do nanites have on aging?”

“They seem to retard deterioration and optimize bodily processes but don’t affect getting old per se.”

I knew that Sokolov’s apparent age at the time the Nano ship took him away was similar to his age now within a few years. “So you’re confident in that fifty-year age estimate?”

Benson furrowed his brows. “Yes, barring some unknown technology.”

I nodded. “Thanks, Doctor. Keep analyzing, and tell me if you find anything out of the ordinary—anything. This man spent more than two decades somewhere while his body only aged a couple of years, and I want to know why.”

I left the eggheads to their research and decided to take a closer look at Sokolov myself. Stateroom thirteen’s door stood open, and I could see Kwon’s body blocking it as I approached.

“Get out and give me some privacy,” I heard the general’s voice snap from around my Sergeant Major.

“Sorry, sir, but I have orders. You aren’t to be left alone.”

I tapped Kwon on the shoulder and slid around him. “Thanks, Kwon. I’ve got it from here. Post a guard outside to make sure the general isn’t bothered.”

With the big man gone and the door shut, I turned to Sokolov who seemed like a bone-tired man. While I was sympathetic, I also thought maybe the best time to get some answers was before he had a chance to rest and think about how to spin things. I wanted his story unedited.

“All right, sir,” I said. “I’d like to hear your tale. What happened to you after you left Earth aboard the Alamo?”

Sokolov stood and stared flatly at me, tugging at the plain new smart cloth coverall he’d been issued.

“First,” he began, “let me say I object to being stripped of my rank insignia and treated like a prisoner.”

“General, you’ve been gone for more than twenty years. We have no way of knowing what kind of influences you might have been under. What would you do in my position?”

Grudgingly, Sokolov nodded. “I understand. But…” he waved a hand at his plain clothes.

I cleared my throat. “Valiant, reprogram General Sokolov’s clothing to appear as a plain general officer’s uniform as of the day he departed Earth.” I wasn’t going to give him a modern uniform if I could help it. I wanted to make sure everyone remembered that even though he might be a general—maybe—he was from another era. My authority was precarious enough without any new elements to undermine it.

Sokolov’s outfit blurred and reorganized itself into a simple, outdated uniform. He looked down at it and smiled slightly. “Thank you, Captain.”

“Now please, sir. I need to hear your story.”

The man relaxed slightly and then waved me to a seat in the only chair. He began to pace as he told me his tale.




-5-

Sokolov ran his hands over his clean fresh suit. He seemed fond of it already. It must feel good to walk in clean clothing again.

“I remember hating your father as I was carried away by Alamo,” he began thoughtfully, “but I got over that emotion in time. Once I learned to operate the ship, I realized he wasn’t any more at fault than I was myself. Nano ships had rigid protocols, and I couldn’t expect them to respect my authority any more than they might respect his. Alamo had simply grabbed me and left Earth with me aboard because I was the nearest available command candidate.”

Struggling to recall the details of Dad’s stories about Sokolov, I raised my eyebrows in guarded skepticism but kept silent. Dad had told me proudly how he’d screwed Sokolov, switching places with the arrogant man when Alamo demanded command personnel aboard to fly from Earth to its next unknown destination. Being tricked in such a manner would have pissed me off, and from my experience people didn’t just let go of hatred…not unless some other emotion came along to take its place.

“You don’t believe me,” Sokolov said, reading my expression. “I guess being alone for so long gave me time to think—at least in the many days between crises with nothing else to do. Besides, I eventually found something else to occupy any vengeful thoughts.”

“And that would be?” I asked.

“Patience, Captain Riggs. I’ll get to everything in my own time if you please.”

I frowned, but did not object. I wanted the information and would probably learn more just by listening and observing. I could probe later.

Sokolov continued. “For the next several days we traveled. I learned the limits of my new prison and how to transform it into a ship of war. During that time I didn’t see where we were going. Fortunately I eventually discovered Colonel Riggs’ modifications, especially the nanite display on the walls. Once activated, I was able to watch as the swarm of Nano ships accelerated through several rings. To this day I have no idea which rings they were—but eventually I plunged into the atmosphere of a gas giant.”

“A gas giant? Are we talking about the planet of the Blues?”

“Blues? I don’t know of any ‘Blues.’”

“They’re aerogel creatures that live on a gas giant in the Eden system. They were the ones Star Force came to believe created both the Macro and the Nano fleets and turned them loose on other biotics. After a lot of stuff I won’t go into, Dad eventually nuked them to try to keep them from interfering in our efforts to get rid of the Macros.”

“Sounds like your father,” he said. “That’s all very interesting…but gas creatures? I saw none.”

His attitude had shifted. He now seemed to be irritated as if I’d interrupted him with irrelevancies. I felt that he wanted to get the preliminaries of his story over with and reach the good part.

“Perhaps these Blues were controlling the fleet,” he said, making a waving, dismissive gesture. “Certainly, I wasn’t in charge. I hadn’t been able to establish contact with any other ships. I suspect now that Alamo was restricted by some special external protocol as the way she was acting did not agree with the experience Marshal Crow had described in his commanding of a Nano ship.”

Crow had been the original commander of Star Force in Sokolov’s time—at least that’s what he’d declared himself to be. Dad had always viewed him as a co-equal in charge of Fleet while Dad was the Marine branch’s commander.

“Somewhere within the gas giant’s atmosphere, we must have gone through another ring because suddenly I was allowed to communicate with others in the Nano fleet. We could not change course or influence the intentions of the other ships, however. It hardly mattered, as I will explain.

“We’d arrived in an unknown star system with six planets. The ring we’d transited orbited a life-bearing world—I found this out the hard way soon enough—and the Nano ships immediately headed for its surface. Of course, all I knew at the time was what the colored-metal wall display told me. Once we approached the surface, Alamo forced me into a different chamber ignoring all my commands. I soon found out why when an enormous, angry black-and-white bear entered the room.”

“We met those creatures,” I said appreciatively. If Sokolov had bested a Panda in one on one combat, he had my admiration. “We call them Pandas. Although as we found out the hard way, they’re not at all cute or cuddly.”

“Yes. Vicious animals, I thought at the time. Furred masses of teeth and claws. Fortunately, Alamo had never taken away my sidearm, so I immediately shot and killed the thing. As soon as I had defended myself, Alamo allowed me back into the control room and I apparently regained all my command privileges. I realized that I had passed the test again, but I was the only one.”

“You were the only human to fend off the Pandas?” I asked incredulously.

Sokolov nodded decisively. “Out of over a hundred Nano ships in my fleet, no other humans retained command of their own ships. All the other command personnel were apparently beaten—and probably eaten—by those thousand-pound carnivores. They must not have had firearms with them.”

“But our people would have been nanotized!”

“I wasn’t, and perhaps some others weren’t either. As I recall, your father had to persuade his ship to nanotize him. It wasn’t automatic. Not back then.”

I sat back, thinking. My understanding of the exact situation so early in Star Force was a bit hazy and lacking in detail. I mostly studied the battles not the little stuff. I did remember Dad saying something about getting nanotized to allow him to interact with other people without his ship freaking out with paranoia. And Pandas were big and nasty enough to beat even nanotized human beings in hand-to-hand combat if the people had no weapons. I decided to accept his story with a grain of salt, so I waved for him to proceed.

“Over the next several days it looked like the bears sorted themselves out by trying to figure out what had happened to them like we did that first time on Earth. Imagine their confusion when they tried to talk to me! After a few attempts, I declined to communicate further preferring to remain silent lest these bears somehow take action against the one ship among them that did not contain a creature of their sort. I would bide my time and wait.

“I did test the limits of my command over Alamo and found I had quite a bit of leeway as long as I didn’t contradict anything the rest of the fleet was doing. This would seem to support your theory that someone else was giving the fleet orders. Thus, I was stuck watching as the fleet rose to confront the Macros that came through the ring behind us though I was able to maneuver to avoid the worst of the casualties.”

I ran through the sequence in my own mind comparing it to my theories. As I’d suspected, the Nano fleet had ended up going through the same ring Valiant and Greyhound had been sucked into beating the Macro fleet there, but not by much.

Sokolov continued talking. “When we’d lost over half the Nano ships, our fleet broke off. Whether by some intrinsic protocol, external instruction, or by order of a bear commander—I do not know which. It seemed obvious we’d been defeated and someone was saving what he could.”

“What happened at the Panda world?” I asked. I thought I knew where this battle had taken place. I’d guess it was at Tullax 6, the world below the ring we’d fallen through. That was where Adrienne and I had first encountered the Lithos among the dead Macros.

“From what I could tell, the Macros landed and started their usual ground campaigns by planting domed factories and relentlessly taking over territory. While this was happening, our reduced fleet of forty-odd ships moved to the fourth world in the bear’s system. By this time, I had enough of a sensor and display system rigged to tell me the planet was hot, wet and inhabited by both bears and another birdlike race, which seemed to be in charge.”

“Raptors,” I broke in. “In fact, before the day is out you’ll probably meet some.”

“You’re allied with these savage aliens?” Sokolov asked, his eyes growing intense.

“Not exactly. It’s complicated. We tried to help them fight off the Lithos, a common enemy. I’ll explain later—but I’ll say now that we barely won our own battles with the rock-creatures. The Raptor homeworld lost more than a billion people, and some of them blame us for the way the battle was fought. But at least one faction among them seems to like us, and a few of those will be arriving in about…” I checked my chrono. “Sixteen hours. Please, go on.”

Sokolov took a deep breath as if calming himself, smoothing his brow, which seemed to always be furrowed into an expression of intense suspicion.

“By this time,” he said, “I’d started a dialogue with the bears in my fleet using the ships’ brainboxes to perform crude translations. I managed to talk Alamo into locking the doors and stopping the tests. Your father pioneered that script.”

“Right,” I said thoughtfully. “Using the script must have been what allowed you to avoid the fate of the Centaurs.”

Sokolov looked at me with a puzzled expression. “What?”

“Remember the Nano ships that first came to Earth with Centaurs aboard?”

“Of course I remember. I was a general then, not egg in my mother’s gut.”

I stared at him for a second. The man wasn’t an easy person to like.

“Anyway,” I said, “people have always wondered why the Centaurs didn’t rewrite the Nano programming the way my father did. If they had, they might have kept the ships under their control and stayed alive. But with an endless number of humans coming in to challenge them—well, they were bound to lose eventually. They never even figured out how to get the ships to nanotize them.”

“The Centaurs are stupid.”

“Not really,” I said. “They just come from a less technological culture. If a company of Cossacks—for example—had been picked up by the ships centuries ago they would have fared no better.”

Sokolov glared at me, but didn’t directly accuse me of bringing up Cossacks to offend him. I pretended not to notice.

“Worse,” I said, “the Centaurs have never been known for their programming abilities—they can’t do it even today. It would be hard to control the Nanos without such skills.”

“Whatever,” Sokolov said dismissively. “I learned that these Raptors, to use your name for them, had apparently captured the fourth planet from the bears along with the bear colony there some years ago. The Raptors not only enslaved the bears, but also used them for food.”

“Yes, it appears both sides eat the other,” I replied with a grimace.

“I consider the Raptors worse,” Sokolov commented quickly, “as they apparently bred their slaves for slaughter. The bears just ate enemies they killed in combat, rather like some early human cultures did.”

“Yes, but we’ve progressed beyond such ugly practices.” I stood up to look Sokolov in the eye. I was taller than he, but he didn’t seem intimidated. He had a fire in his belly, I could tell. Something intense drove this man. I wondered what it was.

“The Pandas also eat diplomats,” I commented. “Not just people they conquer in battle. Six officers from this ship, in fact, including its original captain. They were invited to a feast on Tullax Four. They didn’t know they were to be the dinner. So forgive me if I don’t see either side as morally superior. We have no relations with the bears, while with the Raptors it’s purely pragmatic. At least I understand the birds’ idea of honor a little. I don’t have a clue why the Pandas thought it was okay to stab us in the back. Until I do, they’re not our friends.”

Sokolov nodded solemnly. “I understand. Your father always said biotics aren’t the real enemy. It’s the machines that have no feeling. You can hate them, but they don’t even hate you back. They just destroy everything you love…” He seemed to stare off into the distance then, as if seeing something I couldn’t, a memory in his mind’s eye.

“Well then, you’ll be displeased to know we have a new machine enemy even worse than the Macros. We call them Lithos.” I gave him a brief description of the communal silico-nanite creatures.

The swarthy man’s eyes narrowed, and he nodded as if this information did not entirely surprise him. “Let me continue with my narrative and I think you’ll learn something,” he said, arrogance leaking through his steely calm.

“Go on,” I said.

I sat back down in my chair putting my right ankle on my left knee and leaning back, a picture of casualness. Dad always said it didn’t pay to seem too desperate for information or people would start bargaining for it with you, making you pay a higher price.

“Apparently we and the Macros interrupted a long-running war between the bears and your Raptor friends,” Sokolov said. “When we appeared, the bears’ main fleet was just about to lose the space battle to retake their colony, planet four. However, they won the ground battle—or perhaps I should call it a slave rebellion—and wiped out their Raptor masters on the surface. The Raptor fleet, seeing us in our Nano ships losing to the Macros, ran for the ring on the moon of planet five and escaped.”

I ran my hand over my head and scratched it. “That’s when your surviving Nano ships flew over to Tullax Four where the Pandas had just won the ground fight but lost in space and picked up some new command personnel.”

“Of course. I thought I explained all that quite clearly,” Sokolov said with irritation.

“And I’m making certain of your clarity,” I snapped. I could see he was becoming less and less courteous with every passing minute. To me, this revealed his true colors. I was beginning to understand what my old man didn’t like about this Russian. I’d keep that in mind.

“Please continue,” I said in a milder tone, as I still wanted him to give me all the info he had.

Sokolov huffed slightly, shrugging his shoulders almost as if he were a bird with ruffled feathers, which was pretty ironic considering his hostility toward the Raptors. “The bears and I waited at the reclaimed colony, planet four, and watched helplessly while the Macros systematically conquered the bear homeworld, planet six. Oh, it took weeks and it was a hard fight, but in the end the circles of destruction spread outward as the Macros built more and more domes. Apparently the bear homeworld was rich in all sorts of valuable rare elements, a real prize for the machines.” His tone had turned bitter at this point, fury shining in his eyes.

“What were you doing all this time?” I asked.

“I tried to teach the bears all I could about the Nano ships and the factories they contained in hopes of generating enough combat power to eventually reclaim their homeworld, but their society was in bad shape. They didn’t cooperate well with each other, and it took a series of short, brutal wars before one warlord, Provider Long Growl as he was known, came out on top and was able to get things organized.”

I refrained from telling him that it was probably the same Long Growl and his buddies who had eaten our officers. “And then?”

“And then we concentrated on replicating Nano ships as the simplest way to build an effective fleet. I could tell we wouldn’t have enough, though. The Macros were winning too fast. By the time we could challenge them in space, they would have conquered the bear’s homeworld. We had to get help.”

I raise my eyebrows. “The Raptors?” That was the only possibility I could see. Except… “Or the Lithos?”

Sokolov waved off my suppositions dismissively. “Your Lithos didn’t even exist then, at least not as you described them. But I believe I know their origins if you’ll stop interrupting me!”

I held my tongue again. I needed his information and he knew it so I pressed my lips deliberately together and inclined my head with a show of interest.

“Thank you,” he said condescendingly, as if putting up with a child. “The Raptors had stationed a reconnaissance squadron inside their ring watching everything that was going on but not moving to interfere. Desperate to save their homeworld the bears agreed to let me as the only alien there to try to talk with the Raptors, although they told me in no uncertain terms that they would never submit to being ruled. I’d had Alamo’s brain working on the bird language for some time, so I was able to establish contact quickly. I explained what I knew of the Macros and how they operated and that they were the enemy of all biotic species. I hoped the Raptors could see that as soon as the Macros finished with the bears, the machines would attack them next.”

I looked at the wall as if bored rather than sparring verbally with Sokolov. Actually, I was very interested. If his tale were true, he was finally closing in on the origins of the Lithos.

“The negotiations seemed to be going nowhere when the Macros, apparently certain of victory on the ground of the bears’ homeworld, lunged at us with their fleet. We clearly did not have enough to beat them, but the Nano ships gave us no choice but to fight. The bears and I improved the Nano tactics as well as we could, but the Macros gained a foothold on the colony’s airless moon and emplaced more shield domes, driving us off.”

“And still the Raptors did nothing?” I asked.

“Apparently they reveled in the bears’ defeat,” he said with evident bitterness. “You may think them no worse than the bears, but to me they’re traitors to biotic species everywhere. I pleaded with the Raptors to intervene with their fleet. They had time to repair and rebuild, so I knew they could have at least made a good showing and then retreated if necessary. I would have understood that. But no…they just watched.”

Sokolov turned from his pacing narrative to spear me with his black eyes. “They never intended to help the bears! Instead, just as the Macro fleet was about to invade the fourth planet where we defended bitterly the Raptors popped through the ring with fifty ships and launched a missile barrage. They fired at least three hundred warheads and then just stayed there guarding their line of retreat.”

“I can see why you’re pissed at the Raptors,” I said. “But at least they tried.”

Sokolov pressed his lips together in disapproval before going on. “At first I was ecstatic thinking the aliens were finally coming to help. When their ships didn’t follow up to attack the Macros I hailed them, but they ignored me.” Sokolov’s tone implied that not listening to him was a worse sin than failing to help.

“What did the missiles target?” I asked, trying to keep him on track.

“That was the strangest thing at the time. One third of the missiles were aimed at the airless moon of the bears’ fourth planet, where the Macros had set up bases preparing to invade the bear colony. One third were aimed at the colony world itself. We thought they were bombarding the remaining bears. The final third aimed at the sixth planet, the bears’ homeworld, which the Macros had completely conquered by now. Instead of targeting Macros though, those missiles the Macros didn’t shoot down exploded harmlessly—we thought—against the surface of each world.”

I knew what the answer had to be. “The missiles carried the Lithos—or at least their progenitors. Silicon nanites programmed to self-organize and attack anything made of metal.”

Sokolov seemed crestfallen and irritated that I had preempted his big revelation. “Yes, that’s right. Your Raptors unleashed a biological weapon on the bears’ homeworld, on its colony and on its moon.”

“So…I figure on the Pandas’ dry homeworld the Lithos spread and wiped out the Macros. Ditto on the airless moon. But on the wet colony world, they didn’t take hold and they died out or went dormant. But what happened to the remaining Macro fleet?”

“The Macro ships tried to help their ground forces fend off the infestations, but they failed. In a few weeks their bases had been overrun or were under constant attack. They could not feed or replicate using the abundant minerals. By the time the Macro fleet intelligence decided it could not win it was too late. They made an abortive attempt to attack us at the fourth planet, but by then our Nano fleet had been rebuilt and we fought them to a standstill. They retreated. With nowhere else to go, they headed at high speed toward the ring near the fifth planet where the Raptors waited. Apparently they were trying to break out of the star system while they could.”

There he paused, but I waited. I was beginning to think he wanted me to prompt him to go on and that he was trying to stretch out his dramatic narrative for his audience of one, but I wasn’t going for it this time. I just raised my eyebrows expectantly.

“Your precious Raptors ran away,” he finally said with disgust. “They are not birds of prey; they’re more like chickens.”

“How do you know they didn’t just lure them into the next system and destroy them there?”

Sokolov spat. “Because as soon as the Macro threat to the system had ended, the Nano fleet abandoned the bears just like they abandoned Earth. With me and the bear command personnel aboard, the Nano fleet followed the Macros.”

With restrained eagerness I opened my mouth to ask what happened next when Hansen called on the general PA, and I heard urgency in his voice. “General quarters. Captain Riggs to the bridge. I say again, Captain to the bridge.”




-6-

I burst out of Sokolov’s room and past the marine guard leaving both staring after me. I nodded toward the door and the sentry nodded back. I wanted him to keep his primary mission in mind, which was to make sure the old general stayed put.

Striding onto the bridge, I looked at the holotank, which was alive with a tactical display of planetary space around Orn Six. Our position next to the Square showed clearly and so did the ring’s location. It lay flat on the other side of the world along with icons representing the four Raptor mini-fortresses hanging above it and a smattering of drones, space junk and tiny orbiting spy-eyes used to keep watch on each other. All those were the same every day for the last few months.

The new thing that riveted every eye on the bridge to the tank was a large, blinking yellow symbol different from anything I’d ever seen on the display. The contact hovered far above the Raptor installations. For an icon to be that big, what it represented must be…

Huge.

I manipulated the holotank’s controls ignoring the frantic buzz of terse jargon filling the bridge. Hansen obviously had the crew getting ready for a fast lift leaving me free to look at the situation. Soon I was staring at a picture of something both familiar and utterly strange.

Dull gold in color, the ship—if that was the correct terminology—was a ragged, mottled rectangular slab almost half a mile across. It was twice that in length and looked to me like a shoebox. The measurements nagged at my mind.

Valiant,” I said, “compare the length of the smaller sides of this bogey with those of the Square.”

“Dimensions are congruent within less than 0.0135% variance.”

“But not exact?”

“Negative. There are slight differences.”

I chewed my inner lip, thinking. If the Square was an artifact of the Ancients, this ship might be too. It was a close match in size with one flat side to the Square’s…

Then something occurred to me.

“Hail Marvin,” I ordered.

The robot’s response was less than I’d hoped for. “I am busy, Captain Riggs. Please do not interrupt my observations.”

“Damn your observations, Marvin. A ship, probably one built by the Ancients, just came through the ring. I need you now.”

“I agree that you are in need of my expertise. I’m aware of the ship and I’m examining it in as much detail as possible. My neural chains are fully engaged. That’s why this conversation is detrimental.”

“My brain is working hard too,” I said. “Sometimes two minds can exceed the output of one. The ship’s smaller sides are almost exactly the same size as the Square. Does this suggest anything to you?”

“Yes. It suggests that the Square is merely one side of a buried ship of the same sort.”

I lifted my eyebrows in surprise. I’d been about to suggest the same thing, but Marvin had beaten me to the punch. I wondered if he’d known this all along and had withheld the knowledge or if the appearance of the boxy ship had provided insight to him as it had to me.

“I’d appreciate any more useful observations you have while you analyze the intruder. Valiant is preparing to lift and we’ll be off the ground in…” I looked over at Hansen.

“Emergency lift in seventeen minutes, if that’s what you want,” Hansen responded.

“Hold at one minute and keep prepping,” I told him, knowing that an emergency lift meant leaving equipment behind and a lot of things undone. In our current state we’d be ripping loose some connections to auxiliary surface gear. “Let’s see what the thing does. Marvin, you need to lift off too.”

“I can depart the surface within three minutes time. I have not allowed my ship to devolve into a state of unpreparedness,” Marvin huffed. “Until then, I’ll continue my analysis.”

“So why not continue the analysis from within your ship?” I retorted. When Marvin didn’t answer, I provided the reply he refused to. “It’s because you’d have to leave critical equipment behind or shut it down and package it up, right? You’re in the same boat as we are, so don’t get all high and mighty with me, Captain Marvin. Besides, I have over sixty crew members to manage, but there’s only one of you.”

A text message popped up on my holotank with Hansen’s tag on it. Quit arguing with the robot, it said.

Despite my reflexive irritation, my XO was right. Marvin’s orneriness was distracting me. “Marvin, pass critical updates as your analysis yields new info. Otherwise, you’ll have to balance self-preservation with curiosity. Riggs out.”

I turned my attention back to this supposed ship of the Ancients. The holotank showed it motionless in relation to the planet, which meant it was actually in a perfect—if impossible—geostationary orbit around Orn Six. It was impossible because the big ship stayed precisely aligned with a straight axis composed of the Square, the center of the airless rocky planet, and the ring, all without drive emanations that we could detect.

Valiant, patch me through to Benson.” Once I had him on the intercom I asked, “Do you still have that gravitic detector in the lab?”

“We’ve made some improvements in our detection suite, Captain, but—”

“Spare me the details, Doctor. I need readings on the ship that just appeared.”

“Ship? I hadn’t heard about any ship.”

I rubbed my forehead, marveling at the obliviousness of scientists to the events of a General Quarters announcement. “Valiant, pass all sensor readings to the science lab and continue to do so in any heightened alert situation. Doctor, take a look at what we see and get your people figuring out what we’re facing. I want to know what makes that thing tick—its drive, sensors, weaponry, crew, and material composition—anything. We could lift at any moment so stay at your stations.”

“Yes, sir. And may I say—”

I cut off the intercom before he could blather on. “Get me Hoon,” I said next.

“Hoon here. Please be concise and brief.”

“Professor, I assume you have been notified about our current situation?” I knew the Crustacean had continuous access to the ships’ sensor feeds from within his water-filled quarters and workspace, and while his manners left something to be desired I had a lot of confidence in his intellect—more than in our own human braniacs, unfortunately.

“Yes, Captain,” came the lobster’s translated voice.

“Any ideas?”

“Ideas are for times of creative thinking. I have deductions,” he said testily. “I deduce this ship arrived because of some triggering event, probably initiated by the recent actions of the robot Marvin.”

“Any idea what kind of actions could cause this intrusion?” I asked.

“There are too many variables to calculate probabilities, but based on my highly educated intuition I would say the worm program Marvin released into the Square is the likeliest.”

Great. It was just as I’d feared. “What else does your highly educated intuition tell you?”

Rather than being chastened at my sarcasm, Hoon’s tone grew more condescending. “Other than that taking action to preserve ourselves is paramount? This is the first sighting of what might be a ship of the Ancients in our combined species’ history, so let’s not antagonize it, shall we?”

“We’ll try not to.”

“Given that the Square is probably a buried ship of similar design and function, I suspect the new vessel is here to affect it in some way—perhaps to activate it, deactivate it, retrieve information from it, or some other purpose as yet unknown.”

“All the more reason for us to get the hell out of its way. Thank you, Professor.”

“Of course, young Riggs. My intellect is your greatest asset, and it pleases me that you’ve made good use of it.” He closed the connection.

I wondered if it was a plague on captains everywhere that everyone around them seemed to think they were smarter than the boss. In their own specialties they were, but it was the commander’s job to synthesize all that great advice and make the right decision.

Or, at least, one that wasn’t terribly wrong.

“Captain,” one of the watchstanders said with a finger on her earbud, “General Sokolov would like to speak with you.”

I threw a hand up in exasperation. “Why not? I have nothing else to do. Put him on.”

“Captain Riggs, you must let me out of this cell,” said Sokolov’s voice from a speaker.

“It’s not a cell, it’s a stateroom and you’re staying there. You’re one more random element I don’t need bouncing around right now.”

“I must protest, Captain Riggs. This doesn’t befit my rank and status,” he blustered.

“Your rank and status have not been confirmed to my satisfaction, General. Until they are, you’ll have to put up with some inconveniences.”

A momentary silence came then, but he didn’t close the channel. “Captain Riggs, I have information about the ship of the Ancients—information you desperately need.”

“How do you even know about the ship?”

“People talk. It’s all over your crew’s lips, of course.”

Of course, I echoed within my own mind. There is nothing more unstoppable than scuttlebutt, especially among marines who are standing guard waiting for something to happen. “All right. Put your marine escort on.”

“Don’t you mean my ‘guard’?”

“Call him what you like,” I said. “Just put him on.” A moment later I instructed the noncom to bring the general up to the ready room. I deemed that action the lesser of two evils and better than leaving the bridge with that Ancient vessel out there.

When I saw Sokolov at the main bridge portal, I waved him into the privacy of the ready room and closed the door. “All right. Start talking.”

“Captain—” he began in a tone of patient indulgence.

“Don’t patronize me anymore, General. Right now this vessel is under serious threat. If you know anything about combat ops, not to mention the regs and the traditions of the service, I’m the next thing to God on this ship right now—even to you. If you don’t want me to dump you onto the surface with a survival bubble and a week’s rations you’d better talk fast.”

Sokolov looked sour. No, more than sour—I could tell I’d crossed a line with him and he wasn’t going to forget it. Maybe I’d been too hard on him by making threats out of frustration at being balked at my every turn by prima donna specialists who wanted me to praise them for their amazing brains, but I couldn’t worry about that now.

Even so, he answered through gritted teeth. “I’m trying to help, Captain Riggs. I never finished my narrative, and there are things you need to know.”

I glanced at my chrono and softened my tone. “You have about seven minutes, maybe a few more, so try to tell me the most important stuff up front.” I forced myself not to scowl.

“All right. When we followed the Macro fleet through the fifth planet’s ring, we saw a system with little life. Except for a few moons circling the two gas giants, all the planets were dry and lifeless. Our exit ring orbited one of those, the first planet from the star—very hot. The Raptor fleet stayed ahead of the Macros. Apparently this was not the Raptors’ home and they hadn’t found anything worth colonizing.”

“That’s what we now call the Litho system,” I said. “They infest most of it.”

“Did you ever wonder why?”

I shook my head. “No time for the Socratic method, General. Just brief me quickly and plainly.”

Sokolov sucked in an irritated breath but went on. “It appeared the Raptors had sown silico-nanites on every planetary body that would hold them. With a fleet about on par with the Macros, they kept their distance. Clearly they were pursuing a scorched-earth policy in this no-man’s-land star system.”

I nodded. “If the Macros landed factories, the Raptors would jump them with the advantage of higher space even as the Lithos attacked on the ground. The one exception was one of the water moons. The Macros could have landed there.”

“For whatever reason, the Macros chose not to try to establish a base. That was probably because they knew our Nano fleet would assist the Raptors and tip the scales. Instead, the Macros did something quite clever, yet not so clever that the Raptors shouldn’t have spotted the tactic,” he went on hastily, seeing my impatience. “Simply put, they used the big gas giant’s gravity to slingshot past all of the planets by speeding up and getting a free course change at the same time. That sent them hurrying toward the other ring, which orbited far from the star. The chickens could have tried to overtake them and fight a chasing battle, but instead they just lurked along behind and let them get away.” Sokolov’s voice had taken on an even more bitter edge.

He really seemed to hate the Raptors much like the way my crew hated the Pandas. I wondered why, as none of his reasons seemed sufficient to me. That made me think there were things he wasn’t telling me.

“Maybe they had something heavy waiting for them in their home system,” I said, “and the fleet you saw would shut the door on their escape.”

“I thought of that at the time. If they had, I’d have a better opinion of the chickens. No, they just followed the Macros through the ring and then we followed them in turn. You know what they did on the other side?”

“You’re doing it again,” I warned.

“They just let them go!” Sokolov slammed his fist into the wall, leaving a slowly filling dent in the smart metal. “They stood off with their fleet and another bigger one and practically escorted the Macros across their system to escape through another ring. That ring, on the other side of this planet!” he said, pointing emphatically downward.

“Fine, I get it. You’re pissed the Raptors didn’t annihilate the Macros. I would be too. Get to the part about the ship of the Ancients.”

Sokolov stared at me a moment more in seeming disbelief of my careless dismissal of the Raptors’ offenses. However, I couldn’t get caught up in what might-have-been right now. The past was the past. I always assumed the Macros would be out there somewhere, and having that confirmed didn’t generate the same kind of rage he seemed to harbor. Eventually Sokolov pulled himself together and went on.

“The chickens let us through too, and the Nano fleet wasn’t listening to me or the bear commander at all. When we followed the Macros through the ring, we ran into this ship of the Ancients.” Here he stopped, swallowing convulsively. If I had to guess I’d say he was grieving, moved as if by the death of friends.

“The Slab,” he continued, “at least that’s what I’ve called that ship ever since I saw it—seemed to ignore the Macros who kept on going as fast as they could into the system. It was a dead system with no life in it at all. The Slab didn’t ignore the Nano ships, though. It came at us with incredible speed, with no apparent drive mechanism, and then stopped at point-blank range. We—the Nano ships, I mean, not at my order—fired at it. It was like gnats flapping their wings at an elephant for all the effect we had. Within seconds our ships began to disappear, beginning with those who fired first. As I frantically ordered Alamo to stop firing, I was one of the last to be taken.”

“Taken? You said your ships began to disappear, not that they were destroyed?”

Sokolov nodded. “They just winked out. I think the Slab teleported them somewhere. At least I saw no evidence of destruction. First they were there, and then they were gone. Then Alamo disappeared too…” His gaze lengthened, staring at nothing until I grew impatient and cleared my throat.

“Sorry,” he said. “As I explained, my ship vanished around me and I found myself in an airless corridor made of golden ring-material. My bear comrades…my brothers in arms…” He took a shuddering breath. “They didn’t wear suits aboard ship. They’re braver than we are, you know that? Noble savages in some ways: caring little for themselves but always willing to sacrifice for each other and even me.”

This guy had a bad case of bear-love. He’d become a bear-o-phile—ursophile? My Latin was rusty, and it really wasn’t important. In any case, in my opinion he’d lost his perspective.

“Fortunately I kept my suit on in all combat situations, even my helmet, or I’d be dead too. As it was, I wandered through a three-dimensional maze that was probably within the body of the Slab. I found thousands of tons of junk. There were things from our Nano ships mixed in with innumerable pieces of equipment from what I believe were the alien races it had encountered.”

“You said you thought you’d been gone two years when Marvin found you. How did you survive?”

Sokolov drew himself up proudly. “For food I ate bear meat. It was an honor, and they would have wanted me to. I scavenged air and water from tanks I found, and some alien packaged rations when the bear meat ran out. I believe my nanites helped me digest the food, though it tasted terrible. I found a survival pod to sleep in that was made for some kind of humanoids, but with no language I ever saw. Eventually I salvaged things and built a room, and then a complex to live in. The place almost drove me crazy, with gravity and other physical laws changing every time I rounded a corner, but I managed to stay alive.”

“Quite an accomplishment,” I offered with genuine respect. “Okay, I can buy all that, but how did you get from the Slab to the Square?”

Sokolov threw up his hands. “How the hell should I know? I never saw anything but corridors and chambers all rectangular and made of that gold material I couldn’t make a dent in. The robot said the openings in your Square were like little rings. Well, somehow I was transported. How? I don’t know. I’m no physicist.”

It all made a certain kind of sense. Who knew where the Square’s windows led? When Marvin dove through one to escape the beetles, he must have been transported to the Slab and then managed to find his way back with Sokolov in tow. The mystery of it hardly mattered unless it told me something about how to deal with the Slab.




-7-

Checking my chrono, I noticed the seven minutes had passed and more. “General, I’ll have to ask you to return to your quarters.” Opening the portal, I gestured to the marine standing outside.

“Captain, I must protest. My proper place is on the bridge—as an advisor,” he added hastily. “I might be able to provide critical information as the situation develops.”

I chewed on that for a moment balancing the disruption of having a putative flag officer at my elbow against the possibility that he could be useful. “Okay.” I turned to the marine sergeant. “Take the general to get fitted for a standard suit, and then escort him back here.”

“I’d prefer my own suit,” Sokolov broke in. “It’s…I’m used to it,” he finished.

“All right.” I gestured at the two men, who hurried off the bridge.

Turning back to the holotank, I saw the situation seemed unchanged. “How soon until we have everything prepped for a standard lift? If possible, I’d rather take off in good order without damaging or leaving anything behind.”

“About forty minutes, Sakura says,” Hansen replied. “Oh, and Marvin called. I didn’t let him through to your headset directly.”

I frowned. Normally, I was the one who decided who I would talk to and who I wouldn’t. I decided not to make an issue of the matter.

“Connect us,” I said. “I’ll talk to him.”

A moment later he came on. “Captain Riggs, I have discovered several things.”

“Go on. List them in order of importance to our survival.” If I let him, he’d ramble on with useless but interesting trivia. Interesting to him, that was.

“The Slab and the Square are aspects of the same multidimensional construct.”

“They’re the same ship?”

“Not precisely,” Marvin replied. “Human minds can seldom comprehend dimensionality beyond the basic four without specialized training and aptitude.”

I tried to recall the section on multiple dimensions in my physics classes at the Academy without success. “Give me an analogy my primitive human mind can comprehend,” I suggested.

Marvin paused, apparently thinking. “First, imagine you’re a two-dimensional being—a flat creature that only sees length and width, not height. You live on a plane.”

“Okay. I read Flatland—actually, I saw the vid.”

“If a three-dimensional human being puts his five fingers into a two-dimensional world and wiggles them, all the inhabitants would see were five irregular ovals mysteriously appearing. The ovals would move without apparent motive force.”

“So the Slab and the Square are three-dimensional manifestations of parts of the same multidimensional…being? We just can’t see where they attach together in the higher dimensions?”

“That’s reasonably accurate. Being, construct, machine, call it what you will, that’s my working theory.”

“Wonderful. How does that help us survive?”

“It illustrates the Ancients’ superior technology and guards against hubris.”

I snorted. “Great. Humility isn’t a strategy, Marvin.”

“I find that an appropriate state of mind tends to generate appropriate responses.”

“Fair enough,” I said. “Okay, so we won’t do anything to piss it off. Can we talk to it?”

“Do you want to hear my other observations, Captain Riggs, or are you bored already?”

I frowned at the barb, but didn’t bite on that hook. “Go on,” I said. “Enlighten me.”

“I’ve synthesized and analyzed informational sources from the Raptors as well as all my records and General Sokolov’s recent alleged revelations.”

“So you—sorry, go on.” I realized at that moment that Marvin had been listening in on our transmissions to the Raptors. Then I remembered I’d left his pseudo-malware in place within Valiant’s brain. It must have been feeding him information from the ship, and I’d never cut it off. As long as Marvin stayed useful and loyal—more or less—I’d let it go.

“The Slab—I’ll maintain the current nomenclature for the separate parts of the construct—apparently left the Macros alone yet disabled or destroyed the Nano fleet.”

“Do you have a theory as to why?”

“I do,” Marvin said, “while I was within the maze, the first sentient life sign I detected was Sokolov, not counting the giant beetles, but there were many indications of what you would call inorganic machines—robots, telefactors and automated devices of all sorts. None were fully sentient, but several seemed to rise to the level of our nanite-infused brainboxes—pseudo-AI in other words. I spoke to several of them.” He paused.

“Yes—and? What did they tell you?”

“That’s not relevant right now.” Marvin stopped speaking. This seemed to be one of those times when he wanted me to guess at his meaning, the better to display the fact that he’d figured something out before I had.

“Marvin, I could really use your help and your neural chains here without playing another guessing game.”

This admission seemed to mollify him and fulfill his irritating need for validation. “The question that occurs to me is this: why was Sokolov the only live sentient biotic? Many items remained intact. Surely with as many things as the Slab had collected, more aliens would have survived? Yet, Sokolov apparently met no others in nearly two subjective years.”

“Actually, he didn’t mention meeting any biotics at all, but he didn’t specifically deny it either.”

Marvin paused again. “That’s true. He might be withholding information.”

“Ya think? Sound like anyone you know?”

“If you’re referring to me—”

“Bingo!”

“—it is only the truth of your allegation that prevents me from taking offense.”

I chuckled, glancing over at Hansen who raised an eyebrow. “Marvin, in that respect you’re a damn fine individual and a credit to your species. So let’s get this straight, you believe there were other biotics that we don’t know about running around the maze?”

“It seems likely. I believe you need to question Sokolov closely to elicit more information. Or if that’s not to your liking, I have some preliminary designs for a mechanical mind probe—”

My blood chilled. “Marvin, I expressly forbid you to do any further work on, or operationalize, a mind probe of any kind.”

“But—”

“How would you like it if I had scientists create a brainbox with the power and software to invade your mind?”

“I would suggest that such a thing would be highly immoral.”

“But your mind probe wouldn’t be?”

“Immorality has never stopped progress.”

“And you’re all about progress?” I asked. “You’re still in Star Force, Marvin, which means Star Force’s morality and ethics are your morality and ethics. We don’t torture or mind-rape people for information.”

“Your father did.”

“I’m not talking about my father and what he may have believed he had to do for the survival of the human race, I’m talking about you and me today.”

“What if by doing so we ensure our survival? Can you afford to take the chance?”

I made a growling sound in my throat. How was it that conversations with the robot so often devolved into moments like this? “Marvin, I’ll handle that moral dilemma when I have to. Until then, you do as I say. Got it?”

“Directive accepted.”

“Now what about talking to it? You never did answer on that point.”

“I was getting to that before you began to insult my ethical judgment.”

“Your ethical judgment deserves insults. Now please, get to the point. Can we talk to it?”

“I find no evidence it has any interest in talking to biotic species. It ignores machines and arbitrarily interferes with organic life.”

“Sounds like it has a specific mission. If we knew what that was, we might understand how to deal with it.”

“Agreed.” I heard the channel drop.

Marvin hadn’t been a lot of help, but I was slowly building a picture in my mind of what this ship of the Ancients was about. Sighing with exasperation, I saw that Sokolov and his escort had returned. The general had on his old suit now looking much cleaner and in good repair. I wondered how much of that conversation he had heard, notably the parts about him. Nothing to be done about that now.

I waved him over to the holotank. “All right, General. Here’s our situation. We can lift off at a moment’s notice if we have to. In any case, we can be up within the hour and moving away keeping the bulk of the planet between the Slab and us.” I raised my eyebrows to invite comment.

“A sound plan. I needn’t remind you not to fire at it,” he said with a slight question in his voice.

“Not unless we have no other choice.”

“I doubt your weapons can affect it, anyway. Ours didn’t,” he said this with pursed lips and a downward, almost ashamed, glance.

“Our beams are a hundred times as powerful as anything an old Nano cruiser had,” I said.

“Can they affect ring material?”

“Stardust?”

“Is that what you call it nowadays?”

“Yes. Marvin coined the term I believe.”

“You didn’t answer my question, Captain.”

I shook my head. “I’ve never heard of anyone shooting at stardust. Wait a minute.” I called the lab.

Doctor Kalu, the woman who’d once failed to seduce me, picked up. “Yes, Captain?” she said coolly.

“Doctor, would our weapons have any effect on stardust? Ring material, that is?”

“Operationally? Negligible, Captain. It would take hours, even days for beams to peel off a centimeter. If we had unlimited time and power…”

“What about nukes?”

“A contact blast might vaporize a few centimeters.”

“Understood. Riggs out.” For all the awkwardness between us, Kalu was a competent scientist and seemed to understand what I needed from her.

I turned to Sokolov. “Sure wish we had some stardust as armor.”

Sokolov nodded, but then Hansen spoke up. “It’s too heavy,” he said. “Plating half an inch thick would multiply the weight of any ship by a factor of a thousand or more. I remember it was discussed a while back.”

“Nothing’s ever easy, is it?” I said. That drew a few rueful glances from the bridge crew. “General, what do you think the Slab will do when we take off? Will it pay us any attention?”

Sokolov looked sour. “I’m afraid it may. While the Slab ignored the Macros, it immediately approached the Nano fleet as if…curious.”

“Yes, but it’s just sitting there paying no attention to the Raptor forts, us, or Marvin and his ship. Not the way I would expect it to act.”

“It’s inscrutable, Captain. Not human, not even alien. It’s…other.” He said this with such awe and hatred that everyone around him stared. After a moment, he shook off the expression and twitched his lips. “But perhaps it will ignore us as well.”

“Back to the encounter with the Nano fleet,” I said. “Did the Slab do anything hostile before the cruisers started firing on it? And did the Nanos fire missiles or only lasers?”

Sokolov raised his eyes, thinking and remembering. “I believe one ship fired both beams and missiles at about the same time, and then others followed in a ragged volley.”

“So it wasn’t a coordinated Nano response. The bear command personnel must have initiated it. Once the first fired, the rest followed suit.”

The general nodded. “And perhaps once the fleet seemed committed, the Nano brains continued the attack, for Alamo joined in without my order. She did, however, allow me to countermand and cease fire…unlike the others.”

I knew that both Macro and Nano fleets became smarter as more brains joined their network. The Macros seemed to think as one mind while the Nano brains remained more separate even while linked.

“In the end it didn’t matter, right?” I asked. “The Slab disappeared Alamo anyway,” I said.

“Yes. I transmitted a request for contact but never got an answer. Then I woke up in the maze.”

“But you didn’t find any of your gear. No equipment you could identify as coming from Alamo?”

“Not when I awoke, but eventually I did run across a few things—a blanket with a specific pattern and one shoe I was pretty sure was mine. Everything seemed scattered randomly through endless corridors and chambers.”

“If the Slab is some kind of collection device,” I mused, “you’d think it would have organized what it found systematically.” I realized I was already assuming the ship of the Ancients was a single machine rather than something with a crew in it. Until I learned something to contradict that belief, I’d go with it.

“Maybe it is organized in some other unfathomable way,” Sokolov replied, “but I found no evidence of it.”

“I—”

That was as far as I got before the holotank began blinking suddenly. Specifically, the Slab’s large yellow icon strobed, disappearing and reappearing every half-second or so each time in a different place until it eventually moved off the plot. I zoomed the display outward until I reacquired it moving—if that was the word for what it did—perpendicular to its earlier axis. Now it lined up on the planet’s equatorial plane of rotation and stopped.

Valiant, analyze the motion of the Slab. How did it move?”

“Unknown. Processing.”

I got a bad feeling then. Valiant was a pretty smart ship. If her brainbox had reached the limits of understanding, even temporarily, something really weird was going on. “Get me a channel with Hoon.” I hoped he would have some insight.

“Yes, young Riggs?”

“Professor, how is the Slab moving? What kind of propulsion is it using?”

“None at all that I can detect, young Riggs. It appears to be transporting itself from place to place using the same principle of the rings.”

My jaw dropped. “It’s teleporting without a ring?”

“I would not use the word ‘teleporting.’ It appears to be opening a temporary controllable rift in the space-time continuum and passing the effect over itself, resulting in repositioning approximately 9,566.36 miles away each time.”

“That’s…that’s fantastic.” I’d been about to say “impossible” but I caught myself.

“Now you see what we’re up against,” Sokolov said darkly. “We can’t fight it conventionally, and we can’t run if it wants to catch us.”

Something about the way he spoke made me look closely at him. I would have thought to see despair, but instead I detected interest, fascination, and what I could only call restrained hunger in his eyes. Was he still lusting for revenge on the Slab for killing his precious Pandas? Or was there something more?

Abruptly, the large icon in the holotank winked out.

“What just happened?” I demanded. I zoomed the display out until it covered the entire star system, but it didn’t reappear. “Valiant, locate the Slab.”

“The Slab is not detectable with passive sensors.”

“Go to active!” I ordered. Nothing showed up right away, but our radar pulses would take hours to reach throughout the system.

“It seems to have disappeared,” Hansen said, frowning at his board.

“Did its jumps exceed the speed of light?”

Hoon answered from the speaker. “Based on my observations, the Slab’s ‘jumps,’ as you call them, took no discernible time at all.”

This really made my guts roil. Except for the rings, which were fixed and comprehensible artifacts, nothing had been found to exceed the speed of light. Now here was this huge ship made of almost invulnerable stardust popping from place to place without straining itself. I couldn’t imagine how to affect it.

But maybe Sokolov had an idea. I knew he wasn’t telling all he knew, and I believed he harbored a deep anger, even rage, toward the Slab because of what it had done to his Nano fleet and his bear buddies. The human will was a powerful thing. Sokolov had had the motivation, two years’ experience, and all sorts of equipment to experiment with.

If someone wanted something badly enough, he might give anything to get it. Knowing that gave me some leverage if I could figure out how to use it. One thing did occur to me right away, something that had been a thorn in my side ever since I’d taken over. Maybe this was an opportunity, if I was willing to take it.

“General, a word please?” I gestured toward the ready room. As Sokolov preceded me, I turned to Hansen. “Continue liftoff prep and get us into space as soon as everything’s done. Put us a couple million miles out and deploy a full suite of recon drones to cover the entire surface of the planet.”

Hansen acknowledged as I followed Sokolov into the private room. “General, I have a proposal for you,” I said once the door had closed. “As I told you, I took over as Captain because all of Valiant’s other officers got eaten by the Pandas.”

“I’m sorry about that, Captain,” he replied, “but I believe there must have been some kind of misunderstanding.”

“We’ll probably never know, but I tell you that this crew wouldn’t throw a rope to a drowning bear, and your obvious love of them isn’t helping your case. However, I think we can help each other out if you care to.”

Sokolov stared for a moment as if judging my sincerity. I like to think I can bullshit with the best of them, but I was speaking plainly and truthfully now. Apparently he saw that.

“All right,” he said. “I’m listening.”

“I’ve earned the right to lead this crew. I brought them through some deadly situations and made good decisions to preserve our lives and our integrity. They accept me as captain, but it would help me and, frankly, them if I had the stamp of legitimacy from Star Force. Of course, we haven’t been able to communicate with home. The ring network is shut off the way we came, and in the direction we’re going there’s probably a hundred or more links in the chain, any one of which could be blocking our signal. That’s why Marvin decided to release a self-replicating program into the multidimensional maze network, and that’s what I believe attracted the attention of the Slab.”

“I’m not sure I see your point.”

I paced back and forth in the small room. “My point is, if you as a Star Force general would confirm me as acting captain it would unite the crew even more and enhance everyone’s survival chances—and help your image as well.”

Sokolov smiled slightly then, something he hadn’t done until now. “I’ll do it,” he said, “and add something even better. I’ll promote you—pending confirmation from Headquarters, of course—to any rank you choose. Straight to Captain if you like.”

I stopped pacing. “That’s a good idea. However, full Captain is too much of a stretch from Ensign. Lieutenant isn’t enough. That leaves Lieutenant Commander and full Commander…”

“Better you become a Commander, then. Leave that troubling word ‘Lieutenant’ out, don’t you think?”

I chuckled. “I like the way you think, General.” I realized I’d accepted the man as a comrade then—not without reservations of course. But he was human, he’d been through a tough time, and he deserved a place in my crew.

Besides, he could be quite useful if I handled him properly.

“Commander it is,” he said, smiling again.

* * *

Once we’d lifted off and taken a position two million miles out, we waited. After several hours, I stood the ship down from General Quarters and sent everyone back to their routine watches. After I’d gotten out of my suit, showered and donned a fresh uniform, I called for a meeting of my staff in the main conference room, Sokolov included.

He showed up in a modern General’s working uniform of smart cloth. “Miss Turnbull had it made for me,” he murmured in my ear by way of explanation.

“Good idea. It will make everything appear more legit,” I said back. “Have you worked out a script?”

He tapped his temple. “Up here.”

“Great.”

My warrant officers and noncoms had filed in.

Valiant,” I said, “broadcast this meeting to everyone’s workstations.”

I then walked over to stand at the head of the table. “Welcome, staff and crew. You’ve all had your vacation on the planet. Now we’re back in space with strange things going on. The Slab, probably a ship of the Ancients, apparently investigated this system and then departed. A transport full of friendly Raptors is on its way to see us. Additionally, Marvin recovered a man from the early days of Star Force, General Anton Sokolov, preserved inside the Square for the last twenty-five years or more. We’re fortunate to have him because he’s agreed to represent Star Force in an administrative matter that will put to rest some nagging questions. General?” I gestured for him to come up.

“Thank you, Captain Riggs,” he said as he took a position clasping his hands behind his back and eyeing the cameras with confidence. “First, let me say I am grateful to this crew for my rescue and the warm welcome I’ve received.”

I choked back a snort of laughter at this outright lie. The crew had been anything but warm, and the man’s natural demeanor wasn’t friendly, either. Still, he seemed to be able to turn on the charm in public when he had to, like any good politician.

“I asked the captain what I could do to repay such kindness, and he told me doing his duty was its own best reward.”

Nice, I thought. He was really making me look good.

“But I pressed him hard, and eventually I determined that despite everything he’d done to earn the position it still saddened your captain that he couldn’t fully claim the title he so richly deserves. Therefore, I insisted he give me the opportunity to confirm something all of you already know: that Cody Riggs is your captain. By custom, by dint of superior performance, and, once I finish with this ceremony, by all formal legality, we will lay to rest any question as to who is the captain aboard Valiant.”

Sokolov led the packed conference room in a round of wild clapping and cheering for me, and it felt pretty good. The man sure knew how to wow a crowd even if he was laying it on a little thick. I could never have blended such pompous eloquence with sincerity. I found myself grinning.

“Therefore…Captain Riggs, would you come up, face me, and raise your right hand?”

I marched up to the front and did so.

“By the authority vested in me as a general officer in Star Force, I hereby appoint you to the rank of Commander with all rights, powers and privileges according thereunto, said appointment to be confirmed by Star Force headquarters at the earliest possible opportunity. Furthermore, I confirm your position as acting captain of Valiant. Cody Ryan Riggs, do you swear to uphold the Constitution of Earth against all enemies, foreign and domestic, to adhere to all Star Force regulations and directives, to obey the orders of all officers appointed over you, and to discharge the duties of the rank of Commander to be best of your abilities?”

I swelled with pride. Full Commander less than a year out of the Academy! “I so swear,” I said.

“I hereby log your appointment. Valiant, please preserve a record,” Sokolov said, and after exchanging salutes he shook my hand. “Congratulations, Commander.”

“Thank you, sir,” I said. Adrienne stepped up to kiss me on the cheek, and the rest of my staff shook my hand enthusiastically in turn. I’d worried this maneuver might be seen as selfish or arrogant, but it appeared as if everyone was on board with it.

Of course, having a potential crisis and a weird ship flitting around helped to focus people’s attention on what was important, and I had been perfectly serious when I told Sokolov that ensuring my legitimacy would improve our survival chances. The crew knew it, too. Nobody likes to serve among comrades with shaky confidence in their commanding officer.

All in all, it was a rare moment in my active duty as a part of Star Force. I felt appreciated and happy.

As is so often the case, the feeling was to be short-lived.




-8-

It seemed like all I did was stare at the holotank lately, but that was a captain’s lot in life. The device provided my integrated interface to the world outside the ship. The few times it had been knocked out I’d felt cut off, bereft, forced to fall back on screens and crew reports relayed from their separate system displays.

The Slab had vanished without a trace as mysteriously as it had come. But there were two alien contacts in nearby space. One of them I’d expected, the other I hadn’t.

“The Raptor transport is three hours from rendezvous now that we’ve moved closer,” I said. “But this baby…” I tapped the glass of the tank over the new icon. “This is a problem.”

Sokolov stood to one side, not speaking. Despite our improving relationship, I’d cautioned him against getting in the way of my command structure or offering too much counsel on matters with which he had no experience. He seemed to be following my wishes. I turned from him and deliberately looked at Hansen.

“That’s a Raptor warship by its configuration,” Hansen said. “It’s not answering our hails and it’s a big ship, bigger than any Raptor vessel I’ve ever seen. It looks to be a battleship, larger even than our newly rebuilt Valiant.”

“Where did it come from?” I asked him.

“We picked it up in the asteroid belt about here.” Hansen pointed at its position of first detection.

“No, exec. I meant, where was it built? Could they have completed it on their homeworld in three months?”

Hansen shook his head thoughtfully. “I doubt it. Not from the keel up. They might have gotten their first Nano-style factory working by now, but they wouldn’t have had time to do much with it yet. They must have had it under construction before we even arrived in this system. We just don’t know where.”

“Well,” Adrienne said, “if it wasn’t in the orbital shipyards of Orn Prime, maybe it was on the surface of another planet?”

It was my turn to shake my head. “Nobody builds ships in a gravity well if they don’t have to. Especially a vessel of that size. It’s so much more efficient to use asteroid materials and zero-gravity dry docks.”

That gave me an idea. It quickly grew into a suspicion.

“Kleed was angling for power before I beat him in our duel,” I said. “Maybe he was planning a coup against the Raptor government. What if there was more to that situation than we know? Maybe he wasn’t alone in his plotting.”

“A conspiracy?” Hansen’s eyes narrowed. “Maybe they were building this super-ship in secret for, I don’t know, years. Conventional construction methods would take that long. Now it’s done. I don’t like that its first mission seems to be aimed straight at us.”

“Or at the ring,” I said. “Obviously, they saw the Slab appear and disappear out here. They could be coming to check it out. Or it could be an official Raptor military ship, something they didn’t want us to know about. It could be first of its class, their best ship, and designed to take on the Lithos.”

“If it’s an official mission, why don’t they talk to us?” Hansen asked. “And why is there only one ship and not a squadron?”

Hansen was right. The whole thing did seem off somehow.

Valiant,” I said, “see if you can open a private channel to their military liaison, Shirr. Ask for a report of their activity and include this new ship’s presence in the requested details. Maybe that will get him to talk to me.”

I knew it would take some time for any reply from the Raptor military HQ to arrive this far out, but there was someone closer that might be able to give me information. “Valiant, put me through to my new troops.”

Within seconds, I had Commander Kreel, the chief of my new Raptor contingent aboard the military transport, on the screen.

“Greetings, Commodore Riggs,” Kreel said through the translation software.

“Greetings, Commander Kreel. What can you tell me about the Raptor battleship on its way here?”

Kreel hung his head. “My dishonored father was misled by a group of rogue military officers operating from secret bases in the asteroid belt. They have long plotted to overthrow the legitimate government of my people. When my sire took command of the outer ring defenses, he was seduced by their song of betrayal and aided them in constructing the abomination you see approaching.”

“But with your father dead, what do they hope to gain by showing their hand now?”

“I wanted to tell you this in person when I reached your base, Commodore Riggs, but it seems we are running out of time. The conspirators’ aims are multiple. They wish to seize command of the fortresses to control the ring and the Square. Word of your exploitation of the artifact has stirred wild rumors among my people, and now the accepted belief is that you and your crew have found advanced alien technology and will soon come to destroy the entire Raptor species. When the Guardian Box visited our system for the first time in many years, this event must have convinced the rebels the time was right to make their move. By destroying or driving you away, they gain popularity and legitimacy for their rebel cause as well as the alien technology they believe you have found. Incidentally, they consider me to be a traitor because I didn’t take up where my father left off, so my life and those of my followers are also forfeit.”

I blew out a long sigh. “So both sides want to kill us now? Great. We’ve done nothing but try to help the Raptor people, and this is the thanks we get.”

“I tried to tell you,” Sokolov muttered under his breath. I glanced sharply at him and he avoided my gaze.

“Some of us still have honor,” Kreel protested. “Please don’t condemn us all for the actions of a few.”

“I’m trying to keep an open mind, but it looks like we’re about to be attacked. What are you going to do if that happens?”

“We have sworn ourselves to your service, Commodore Riggs. My comrades and I will follow your orders and die gloriously.”

“You might get a chance to do just that.”

Signing off, I looked narrowly at the holotank again. “It seems like the battleship will catch Kreel’s ship if we don’t do something, and they’ll probably blow our friendly Raptors out of space. Hansen, set course to rendezvous with our new allies. We’re going to take them aboard and get the hell out of the way. I assume we can outrun that Raptor heavy?”

Hansen scoffed. “That tub? Nothing to it, Skipper.”

“Make sure you take weapons’ ranges into account, and keep our shields activated. I want to snatch up our friends and go without getting damaged or having to fire. This really isn’t our fight, and we aren’t in possession of any prize alien technology anyway.”

I wasn’t as certain of that detail as I sounded. Marvin probably had something up his nano-metal sleeves.

“Course set and…we’re under way,” Hansen said as I felt Valiant’s big new engines fire up. “Rendezvous in one hour twenty minutes. Captain, after we pick up our birdie buddies, where are we going?”

That was a great question, one I’d only begun to think about. We could play hide-and-seek around the star system, and I was confident in our ability to survive. Our technology was ahead of the Raptors’ for the time being so our ship was faster, our weapons had longer range and hit harder, and we had Macro-style magnetic shields, which was something I’d seen no evidence of on their ships.

But survival wasn’t enough. My crew had to have a goal beyond just living one more day. That meant eventually we have to come back to my original plan: going through the ring and making progress toward home.

Unfortunately that meant entering territory where the Slab apparently lurked. Kreel had called it the “Guardian Box”, so his people had some knowledge of it. That was one more thing to question my new ally about.

I ran the three-way geometry through the holotank and determined that we would be cutting it close. The old Valiant would have made it easily, but our new battlecarrier configuration was significantly slower if a lot tougher. Unfortunately this was one of those times I wished I had speed rather than combat power.

“Bradley,” I said to my CAG, “send out a pair of recon drones. Have them cruise by that battleship at nonthreatening range. I want to see what we’re up against.”

“Aye, sir,” Bradley said. “Launching now.”

I glanced up in surprise. He must have had them waiting in the tubes anticipating my order. Good man.

The drones were, of course, far quicker to accelerate than we were, so we only had about twenty minutes to wait until they were close enough to get good readings.

“Data is coming in now,” Bradley said.

Pictures came up on the screens. The holotank image zoomed in and resolved itself in ever-increasing detail as more information came in. For all its size, the Raptor battleship was graceful, vaguely resembling a bird with wings, a striking beak and reaching claws. On this one, the central projecting “neck” seemed overly thick and heavy. “Give me a close-up on its prow and the weapons there. Calculate its probable power output.”

Soon we could see that there seemed to be only one large weapon at the front, though it had the expected number along its flanks and, I assumed, the point defense phalanx in the rear. After a moment of calculation, Valiant gave me a power output number that told me the Raptor weapon was about twice as powerful as any one of our main batteries.

“Not good news,” Hansen said. “They’ll outrange us from the front, and that thing will hit hard. We’ll dominate the midranges then they’ll have the advantage again with their point defense if the fight gets in close.”

I nodded. “They’ll also take a heavy toll on our combat drones and missiles with the point defense. On the other hand, as soon as our secondaries get in range we’ll tear them apart. They don’t have shields. We do.”

“We don’t think they have shields,” Hansen replied darkly.

Valiant, look for and identify anything that might be a magnetic shield projector on that ship.”

“No such structure identified.”

“That’s a relief,” I said.

Hansen only grunted, ever the pessimist. “I’d still rather not fight it.”

“Me neither, XO. Nothing to be gained. But we don’t even know they’re hostile yet.”

“They haven’t answered our transmissions. That doesn’t seem friendly.”

At that moment, several screens fuzzed and went dark. The icon of one of the recon drones winked out.

“Just lost a bird, skipper,” Bradley said. “Laser strike from the battleship.”

“Get the other one out of there!” I snapped.

“Already evading. They’re shooting…damn.” The other icon disappeared. “Took them about twenty shots but…”

I waved a hand. “Don’t sweat it. That’s why they’re unmanned. We found out what we needed to know.”

I stared at the enemy battleship, for that’s what it had declared itself to be.

“Send another message to Shirr with this latest info and demand he explain himself. If I understand Raptor psychology at all, he’ll feel compelled to respond. Valiant, how long until we can expect a reply to the first message I sent?”

“A reply to our first message for their planetary government is overdue.”

“And from this one?”

“One hour twenty-six minutes.”

“Great.” Our Raptor rescue and possibly a battle would already be over with by then. “Is Kreel’s transport going as fast as it can?”

Valiant replied to my question. “Sensors show the ship’s engine output is above rated maximums.”

So he was redlining his propulsion already. “Are we at flank acceleration?” I asked.

“Yes, sir,” Hansen said. “I can ask Sakura to give us more.”

“Do it. Stay safe but see what she can squeeze out.” A moment later I felt the rumble of the engines become a little louder and gravity began to drop and waver as my chief engineer shifted power around. I didn’t really like pushing our new ship without a thorough shakedown, but Kreel had put himself in my hands. I had to retrieve his people and get away without casualties.

If not that, I had to commit to a costly and brutal battle against a vessel with unconfirmed capabilities. I had to assume the Raptor battleship harbored some surprises. The old saying “no battle plan survives contact with the enemy” always applied. You never knew what you didn’t know.

“Go to General Quarters,” I announced. “Once everyone reports in as suited and ready, reduce gravity and life support to minimums. Switch the spare marine battlesuits to auxiliary generator mode. Pass the word that Sakura can draw down the batteries by half if she needs to. Just get us there in time to match velocities and get away.”

A change in the transport’s holotank icon caught my attention. “Kreel is losing power. His acceleration curve is dropping. Why is this happening, Valiant?”

“The Raptor transport has lost one of three engines.”

I released a mumbled stream of profanities and ran the intercept simulation again with the Raptor transport moving more slowly.

“Could the battleship have disabled it with a long range shot?” I demanded.

“No, I don’t think so,” Hansen said after going over the numbers. “I’d say Kreel did it himself by pushing too hard to get away.”

“Either way, the damage is done,” I said, going over his displayed numbers and projected graphs carefully. “The battleship will be able to bring its super-beam into range before we can reach Kreel. Can our shields handle a few hits from that thing, Hansen?”

“Easily, sir—at long range anyway. There won’t be any hull penetration, but I’d recommend we use both layers of shielding.”

Valiant had a general shield that covered the whole ship and then smaller ones for specific areas. As long as we didn’t want to fire our weapons, we could power them both.

Time passed, and all three contacts crawled closer. We were still the farthest one out when Valiant’s voice broke in. “The Raptor transport has lost another engine. It has reduced power on its remaining propulsion systems to below rated maximums.”

“He blew two engines and gave up on overloading them,” I replied.

Running the intercept once more, I saw we weren’t going to be able to avoid an engagement. Unless…

“Bradley, as soon as we turn over and start decelerating, deploy our entire contingent of Daggers as a screen in front of us. Load them full of missiles and have them coast to save fuel. Hansen, at the same time do a soft launch of two full salvoes of missiles and spread them out around the drones. I want to make us look intimidating as hell.”

“Trying to bluff them off?” Hansen said. “Think that will work?”

“It will work,” Sokolov said. “The Raptors are a decadent and cowardly race.”

“I hope they do back off,” I said, “but it’s not really a bluff. If we’re going to fight, I want our unmanned systems out there to absorb the punishment and strike the first heavy blow. If we have to, we’ll sacrifice them all to buy us time.”

“Miss Turnbull won’t like you losing all her ordnance,” Hansen said. Adrienne had become our de facto logistics officer in charge of our factory and supplies.

“It’s there to be used, and we can always make some more.”

“I don’t see why we’re wasting all this effort for a bunch of hostile aliens,” Sokolov muttered.

“General, I’ll thank you to limit your comments to vital issues,” I said. Maybe my tone was disrespectful as he shot me an angry look, but after a moment he nodded sharply.

“Turning over and beginning deceleration in five minutes,” Hansen announced a few minutes later. “Bradley, commence your drone deployment.”

Soon we had an armada of more than sixty combat-loaded Daggers and another forty-eight missiles coasting in a nicely arranged formation, aimed straight at the Raptor battleship.

“Maneuvering,” Hansen said, flipping Valiant around.

Now our main engines pointed almost directly at the oncoming transport and, incidentally, the enemy battleship. Looking at the holotank his maneuver seemed early to me until I remembered that not only did we have to slow down and stop in space relative to the transport, but we then had to accelerate in the other direction in order to match speeds with it. Without the battleship charging in, we could have just waited for Kreel to arrive and saved a lot of fuel. Instead we were burning through our hydrogen isotopes at an alarming rate, as well as running down our batteries to power repellers, grav-plates and everything else.

Hansen was the best I had. I told myself I’d have to trust him.

I watched the holotank for any sign that the battleship was breaking off its charge, but it didn’t waver in its course. I did notice our batteries were refilling slowly.

“Where’s the extra power come from?” I asked.

“Probably because we’re not dragging around the mass of the drones and missiles,” Hansen said. “She maneuvers better without the aerospace wing aboard.”

“Right. But now all those Daggers and missiles are leading us as we brake. They’ll have to slow down on their own. Can they even make it back?”

Hansen shrugged glancing at Bradley, who looked a bit distressed. “It will be iffy. As you said, they were made to be expendable.”

I understood his subtext. We were using up a lot of resources to rescue those Raptors, and the crew was not happy about the whole idea.

“I made a promise to Kreel,” I said loudly enough for all to hear. “Besides, we could use more troops to fight with us.” I was bullshitting a bit, and I knew each crewman would hear what he or she wanted to. That would have to be good enough for now.

Suddenly a dozen pinpricks blossomed in the holotank, tiny icons with tails blazing as they accelerated away from the battleship toward the transport.

“Missiles,” I said. “Dammit, they’re going to kill Kreel and his men after all.”




-9-

I ran the projections for the new missile intercept, and I heard the bridge crew hold their collective breath as I did so. “Bradley, have the Daggers launch their missiles at the battleship. Once the launch is complete, order half the drones to go shoot down the missiles aimed at Kreel. Keep the other Daggers and Valiant’s missiles on target.”

I watched as the Daggers launched two nukes each. The missiles quickly pulled ahead. Thirty Daggers followed, diverging slightly to intercept the oncoming enemy missiles. My calculations said they were going to make it, but as they were accelerating they would have less fuel remaining to return to Valiant after their first pass.

“The bastard is making us waste resources,” I said, and then I ground my teeth wishing I’d kept quiet. There was no need to highlight the high cost of this rescue, which was an effort some of my crew undoubtedly already thought foolish. “Bradley, rather than trying to keep those first Daggers in the fight use them in suicide mode and follow the missiles in. Maybe we can end the battle before we even get within beam range.”

Each drone had a small nuke aboard. In company with an overloaded fusion reactor and a little unspent fuel, they could be turned into extra missiles when needed.

Far beyond beam range, our Daggers jousted with the oncoming missiles. “Ten…seven…three…” I breathed. “Got them!”

Right about then, our own salvo closed on the battleship. Beams lanced out from the enemy, spearing a few of our missiles despite their countermeasures. “Some are going to get through.”

Sokolov muttered something, shaking his head. Hansen also looked skeptical.

“What?” I asked him.

“Point defense,” Hansen replied, and I realized what he meant just as the Raptor ship flipped ponderously end for end, presenting its flattened tail to the onrushing nuclear rockets.

A sleet-storm of short-range beams pinpointed each missile, ripping them apart within seconds. One survived long enough to detonate in a blinding atomic flash, but nuclear blasts in space didn’t have as much effect as in an atmosphere. We’d needed a closer hit.

Our suicide drones followed immediately afterward, and three of them survived long enough to blow their payloads closer. They were a bit larger and more heavily armored than standard missiles. I thought we’d probably done at least some damage to the enemy with that attack.

Then the battleship swung back around pointing its heavy weapon toward the transport again. At least we’d bought some time as the interception curves moved a bit in our favor. Unfortunately, they chose that moment to launch another round of missiles.

“Do it again,” I ordered. “Send our missiles on to the battleship, Daggers to shoot down their missiles. Don’t suicide our drones this time, though. The Raptor point defense is too tough. We’ll try to get the Daggers back home to help us out.”

Again, our combat drones knocked down the Raptor volley. Their missiles were less sophisticated than ours, easy meat for our Daggers. After doing so, the drones spread out and decelerated using evasive maneuvers. Due to their speed they would overshoot the oncoming battleship, but hopefully they would catch up again in time to be useful.

Our missile volley didn’t have any more effect than the last one did except to force the battleship to delay its acceleration and expend some energy. It looked like we weren’t going to do this the easy way after all.

Closer and closer, Valiant and the Raptor battleship approached the slow-moving transport like two players racing for a ball. To the eye it had looked as if we would easily reach our quarry first, but we were decelerating and our enemy continued to accelerate. The equation was shifting in their favor. All the battleship had to do was get within beam range, and the game would get ugly. We might be able to knock down their missiles, but trying to shield another ship from beams was nearly impossible unless we had already docked with them. To do that, we had to beat them there with time to spare.

It was going to be close. Speed is life in a space battle, and slowing down this much and presenting our butts to the enemy set my nerves screaming even though I knew we were still out of range. “Get me Kreel.”

“I’m here, Commodore,” came the reply a moment later.

“Do you have small craft—pinnaces, shuttles—anything like that aboard your ship?”

“Only three. Not enough to hold all of us.”

“How many of you are there?” Until now, I’d not thought to ask. I figured a couple of dozen at most, a force comparable to our marines in number.

“We are two hundred eighty-eight.”

“Two hundred—” I choked. “Kreel, even if we cram all of you aboard my ship we can’t feed and house that many.”

“My people require little space. They can remain in their suits and use hibernation drugs for as long as necessary, and so we need almost no food, water or air. If we become a burden, you may jettison as many as necessary into space in order to reduce the strain on your ship.”

“All right, we’ll proceed as planned. Get your troops in their suits and be ready to move fast.”

“It shall be done.”

Sokolov stepped forward to hiss in my ear. “You’re really going to let that many aliens come aboard? It could be a trick, a trap! This whole thing might be a perfect setup to capture your ship. Think, man! You’re being played.”

I turned my back on him, staring at the holotank for want of anything else. I could feel the eyes of the crew burning holes in my back. What Sokolov had said made a certain amount of sense. Hell, it made a lot of sense. If Kreel was following in his rebel father’s footsteps, he was the Judas about to plant a big nasty kiss on my cheek. Yet…

I turned back around to face the stares. “That’s a risk we’ll have to take. Kreel could have detonated that nuke when he was aboard Valiant, but he didn’t. Now he’s put himself in our hands. We’ll take every precaution, but I’m not going to let almost three hundred potential allies die when no one else within three star systems is on our side. We need them and they need us.”

Hansen scowled, and Sokolov’s face turned even darker than usual. The rest looked uncertain. Only Bradley seemed confident, giving me a nod and a thumbs-up.

“All right, in we go,” I said. “Hansen—it’s time for you to do some of those outstanding piloting tricks of yours. What’s our best point of contact? The pinnace bay, the drone launch tubes…?”

“The marine assault airlock, I think,” he replied. “I’ll try to match it to one of their cargo bay doors, but getting securely clamped on will be the first priority, so it might be sloppy. I’d be ready to do some cutting if I were Kwon.”

“If you were me, you mean. I’ll be meeting Kreel and his people.”

Hansen and Sokolov exchanged glances, and then my XO spoke. “So with you off the bridge…”

“You’ve got the conn, Hansen. The general is an advisor only and has no command authority.”

“Understood.”

Hansen and I had our differences, but I didn’t see him violating regs just because he disagreed with me. Besides, Sokolov had confirmed my captaincy, which should preclude anyone persuading Valiant’s brainbox to recognize someone else in overall command. Star Force AIs were flexible on some points, but command authority wasn’t one of them. Valiant would follow protocol to the letter.

“I’m going to armor up,” I said. “Keep the channel open.”

Striding off the bridge, I made my way to the armory. The room was empty except for weapons and spare suits humming in their niches providing extra power to the ship. The marines were already at their stations.

“Suit, open up,” I told my custom armor. It obligingly split and I stepped into it.

“Identity confirmed. Welcome back, Cody Riggs.”

“Suit, are you getting smarter?”

“Confirmed, Cody Riggs. My capacity has increased by three percent since you last used me.”

“Well, don’t get too smart,” I muttered. “I’m sick of smartasses second-guessing me at every turn.”

“Your instructions are unclear.”

“Never mind. I love you just the way you are.”

“Your instructions are unclear.”

“Forget it. Close and release. Faceplate open.” Once I was free of the niche, I grabbed a Raptor space-axe. It was a trophy of our fight with the traitor Kleed. It would be a symbol and something for the Raptors to identify with, I hoped.

Sokolov’s words nagged at me, though. What if it was a setup?

“Suit, custom external markings mode.”

“Mode initiated. What do you want to display?”

“My new rank insignia as a commander.”

“Accepted.” I looked in the steel wall mirror and saw commander’s stripes appear on my shoulders and wrists.

“Now put an oversize replica of that Raptor award Klak gave us on my chest and back. Make it at least a foot across.”

“Accepted.” A complex pattern appeared on the front of my suit and then refined itself to resemble the strings, ribbons and wires of a Raptor decoration.

“Make the colors brighter and the size bigger. Two feet across.”

“Accepted.” The award grew until it blazed forth, unmistakable, I hoped, even from a distance.

“One more thing. Put the word ‘Riggs’ in both English and Raptor language right above the award symbol.”

“Accepted.” The word appeared.

“Good enough.” I switched to the marine channel. “Kwon, meet me at the assault airlock.”

I found Kwon and a dozen marines there in the space in front of the huge smart-metal door. “Ten-shun!” the sergeant major barked as I entered the room. “Present—arms!” All the marines presented their weapons as if on parade.

“Cut it out, Kwon. We’re on a rescue mission here, and we should be docking in three minutes.”

“Just wanted to respect your new permanent rank, boss,” the big man grinned through his open faceplate. “At this rate you’ll outrank your old man soon.”

“My father turned down promotion above Colonel many times, Kwon, so that’s moot.”

“How’s what?”

“Moot. The term means irrelevant.” Sometimes I forgot English wasn’t Kwon’s first language, he’d mastered it so well.

“Sounds moot to me,” he said, chuckling.

I cut him off before he could crack more lame jokes. He certainly hadn’t mastered humor. “Listen up. Deploy as if you’re repelling boarders. Valiant, energize all internal and external anti-boarding defense systems, but do not activate or fire unless I give the order or we’re attacked by boarders. If that happens, you are weapons free. Confirm.”

“Command confirmed,” Valiant responded. “All internal and external anti-boarding defense systems energized but inactive. I will activate and engage all non-crew only if attacked or if you so order.” I thought the brainbox sounded a little petulant at being made to repeat my instructions, but I wanted to be very certain to avoid misunderstandings.

“Boss,” Kwon said, “I thought these birds were our friends.”

“I’m ninety-nine percent certain they are, Kwon, but just in case they’re trying to screw us I want to be ready.”

“Good thinking, sir.” Kwon bellowed orders to his troops and they spread out in the bay, taking cover and readying their weapons.

I stayed where I was, standing in the middle of the room facing the assault door. “Put me through to Kreel.”

“Kreel here, Commodore.”

“Commander, we’re coming in to match velocities and dock. Deactivate and sling all your weapons. I don’t want any mishaps or misunderstandings with my marines. Do you understand?”

“I understand, Commodore Riggs. My father was a traitor therefore it’s only proper that you should suspect me of shameful intentions. I must endure this dishonor.”

“That’s not entirely—never mind. Just do it. The only fighting to be done here is ship-to-ship.”

“We obey, Commodore Riggs.”

“That’s all I ask. Riggs out.” I switched to the bridge feed on my HUD. Everything looked normal except for the sweat rolling down Hansen’s bald head as he gripped the controls. I didn’t say anything not wanting to distract him during this delicate piece of piloting. Instead, I brought up the space tactical display. Not nearly as good as a holotank, nevertheless it showed me what I wanted to know. The Raptor battleship was still out of effective range. It looked like we would make it in time.

Unfortunately the Raptor battleship captain, whoever he was, had other ideas. I saw its icon flash and Valiant’s lights dimmed slightly. “What just happened?” I queried the ship.

“The enemy ship has fired its main beam weapon.”

“Analysis of the weapon?”

“It appears to be a laser tuned for maximum effectiveness against Raptor materials.”

“What was its target?” I was afraid I already knew the answer.

“Its target appears to be the Raptor military transport near us. The transport has taken moderate damage.”

“Damage? I thought we were beyond its range?”

“We’re beyond its most effective range,” Valiant said somewhat testily. The longer these brains operated without routine software updates, the more personality it seemed to display. I wondered what the threshold was for true AI sentience, like Marvin’s, and how long it might be before Valiant approached it. I wasn’t looking forward to the promotion. One cranky self-directed machine intelligence was enough for me.

“The weapon’s effective range,” Valiant went on officiously, “extends farther when the target is a soft one. The unarmored Raptor transport is virtually defenseless.”

So they couldn’t hurt us at this range, but Kreel’s ship wasn’t anywhere near as tough as Valiant. That was all the more reason to dock and get our allies the hell off. The good news was that they weren’t shooting at us yet. Perhaps they knew it would be ineffective or maybe, just maybe, they were trying not to start a fight with us. After all, they hadn’t taken any direct offensive action against Valiant except for shooting down two of our spy drones, which they might view as defensive. On the other hand, we’d launched nukes at them, but they hadn’t launched any aimed at us. If I had to guess, they had a big beef with Kreel but not so much with us.

“Coming in to dock,” I heard Hansen announce. “All hands brace for impact.” Our gravity plates would take care of most of the shock, but for those in standard suits hanging onto something was a good idea. Marines, on the other hand, just turned on the magnetics on their boots and let their armor do the rest.

I felt the impact through the soles of my feet as the two ships slammed together. A new noise began immediately, the whine of docking clamps grabbing onto the transport with no finesse whatsoever. This was a combat docking with little regard for damaging the other ship. I saw the atmospheric pressure drop in the room, and then the smart metal hatch rolled back revealing part of a cargo bay door. Hansen had missed his mark by a few feet, but I could hardly complain. This whole maneuver was an improvisation.

“Kreel, open the cargo hatch where our ships are in contact.” Before I finished speaking, I saw a crack widen and then stop with an opening about two feet across. The bay door was jammed up against the side of our ship.

“Kwon,” I roared, “get up here with the cutters.” Soon, two marines sawed at the stuck door with molecular-edge tools resembling chainsaws, widening the hole.

Suddenly, the hull of the transport bucked and writhed. “The Raptor transport is taking further laser damage,” Valiant told me.

“Hansen,” I called, “extend our shields around the other ship!”

“Already tried, Skipper,” he replied. “It won’t work. The transport is almost as big as we are, and the hull metal is different. The magnetics won’t harmonize. In fact, it’s interfering with our own shielding and sucking a lot of power.”

“Roger. Riggs out.”

A moment later we had a hole big enough to fit an armored marine through, and I charged forward onto the transport. “Keep widening that opening,” I called on the short-range com-link, and then I spotted my first Raptors.

A group of about twenty armored birds stood in neat lines, weapons slung. When they saw me, they turned as one and saluted. I guess the markings on my armor had done the trick. I hoped they’d set their communications to the same channel I’d been using to talk to Kreel.

“Get aboard my ship right now,” I barked. “Go, go, go!”

The formation marched with good discipline past me and filed onto Valiant through the widening breach. I felt good about that until I remembered how damn many of them were to come. “Where’s Commander Kreel?” I asked on the Raptor channel.

“Commander Kreel is on the bridge,” I heard a synthesized Raptor voice say sounding the same as all the other Raptors when processed through the software.

“Where’s the bridge?” I said.

“I will lead you,” came the reply. A Raptor stepped up to me, one with more decorations on his armor than most of the others. “I am Lieutenant Fleeg. Come with me, sir.”

I followed the alien through flickering corridors with Kwon right behind me as usual. Fires flared here and there and more than one wall had been bent or burned through. The transport was already in bad shape. I suspected we wouldn’t be taking all two hundred eighty-eight aboard. A slew of fallen Raptors piled in a corner confirmed my suspicions. Fleeg ignored the dead.

Turning a corner, we reached their bridge. It was easy to recognize from the screens, control boards and the logical layout. For bipedal creatures with eyes and ears like humans and Raptors, form followed function.

Kreel was sitting in a backless command chair. He was recognized by my HUD as well, which translated the symbols on his armor and identified him. He swayed as he saw us enter, and I noticed his armor had been scorched and dented. Several stations on the damaged bridge were occupied by slumped-over suits of armor, and one Raptor sprayed extinguishing foam at a fire.

“Commodore,” Kreel said, lifting his one good hand and his tail in salute. “I am sorry for the state of my ship.”

“Don’t worry about it, Commander. We need to get your people transferred to Valiant.”

“I have given the necessary orders, but I will be the last to leave my vessel.”

“You’re wounded, Kreel. We have to get you moving now or you may not have a ship to leave behind.”

“I won’t go ahead of my sworn followers.”

“You’ll damn well do as I order you to, Commander, or did you forget your oath?”

Kreel heaved himself onto his feet. “I obey, Commodore Riggs.”

Then he collapsed onto the floor.

At that moment, both the gravity and the lights went out.




-10-

Suddenly, standing in utter darkness on the bridge of a lightly armored Raptor military transport that was under fire seemed like a bad idea. My HUD adjusted automatically for infrared and ultraviolet, which allowed me to see well enough. Kreel floated unconscious near the deck, with Fleeg bending over him tapping controls on the outside of his armored suit. The gravity came on at an emergency level, perhaps ten percent. All faceplates had automatically slammed shut as well, an indication that the air pressure had dropped.

“Will he live?” I asked Fleeg.

“Possibly.”

“Kwon, you and Fleeg carry Kreel and let’s get off this sinking tub.”

Kwon chuckled grimly. “I don’t need help.” He grabbed Kreel under one arm and stomped off the bridge, heading back the way we came his magnetic boots making the deck shudder.

I waved my axe at Fleeg. “Follow us.”

Before we’d gone ten steps, the ship rang as if struck by a hammer blow, and the gravity dropped out completely. Debris careened around the corridors, and my inner ear went crazy adjusting to weightlessness.

Valiant, report!” I roared, but received no answer.

“Boss, I’ve lost all my data-links,” Kwon said. I checked my systems and saw that was true. My HUD and Kwon’s were all the friendlies my suit could see.

“Hand over Kreel and keep going, Kwon. We have to get off this ship and back aboard Valiant.”

Kwon bulled ahead, shoving debris out of the way and retracing our steps through the mess while I pulled the weightless and wounded Kreel along with us. We picked up several more functional Raptors. By the time we reached the cargo bay, we numbered seven.

For a long moment, I stared out the warped and cut-away external doors into empty, star-filled space.

“Team, we have a problem,” I said, puffing from exertion. “Valiant is gone.”

“We’re so screwed,” Kwon muttered, “and not in a good way.”

“Suit, boost transmission power and try to reach Valiant.” I leaned out the hole and endeavored to ignore the star field rotating past me. The ship must be tumbling.

After a moment, my suit responded to my command. “Error. Connection failed.”

“Suit, keep trying. Kwon, stick a repeater at this hole and run a line behind us. We’re going back to the bridge.”

“Right, boss.” The big man slapped a small repeater at the edge of the open breach. Normally these devices were used to help link marine suit radios within the maze of a ship’s corridors and decks, which could easily get blocked by all those metal bulkheads. This time I hoped it would give me a link back to Valiant. As we made our way back to the bridge, Kwon’s suit laid a thin rivulet of smart metal behind us, which kept us connected to the repeater.

“Lieutenant Fleeg,” I said once we’d reached the bridge, “you’re this ship’s acting captain now. Get your people to work restoring systems.”

“Yes, sir,” Fleeg replied and sat down in the command chair to begin tapping at buttons. I could see his sharp beak moving behind his faceplate, so I knew he was issuing orders to someone. In a moment, the three other Raptors with us scrambled into the stations before bringing their boards to life.

“Fleeg, as soon as you’ve got damage control parties operating, I need some kind of tactical display. I have to know what’s going on.”

Fleeg didn’t respond, but a moment later screens came on. My HUD adjusted for Raptor colors, and I saw a two-dimensional overview of the area around our ship.

“What’s this vessel called, anyway?” I asked.

“Transport ships have no name. This one’s number is 276.”

“That’s crap. A ship needs a name.”

“Commander Kreel called her ‘Clumsy Ox,’” Fleeg said with a trace of irony.

Ox it is, then,” I replied. “Widen that tactical until we can see Valiant and the Raptor battleship. Does that have a name?”

Victorious Stalker is what it is called.”

Stalker’s good enough. Let’s see them.”

The view zoomed out enough to see two icons close to us. I wasn’t sure how near. I had no sense of scale on this Raptor screen. “Suit, have my HUD translate all Raptor markings in its view and display in an overlay.”

“Translating.” Notes began appearing and soon I could read the Raptor writing.

“It looks like Valiant is going after Stalker,” I said. “Is that correct?”

“Your ship seems to be attacking the rebel vessel with success,” Fleeg replied.

I sighed with relief. “Thank God. I was afraid she’d been hit by some new weapon. Fleeg, just do your best to hold Ox together. Once Stalker’s been driven off, Valiant will come back for us.” No way was my crew abandoning me and Kwon. Even if the whole crew mutinied, an almost unthinkable circumstance, the marines would stay loyal and insist that their sergeant major and commander be rescued.

This ironclad certainty made the events of the next hours all the more painful. We watched in utter disbelief as my ship, my first and only warship command, chased Stalker farther and farther from us, apparently pummeling the bigger ship with superior midrange weaponry. But long past the point that Valiant should have turned back to get us, they harried the enemy until eventually the battleship took refuge under the guns and missiles of the four Raptor mini-fortresses that hovered above the Orn Six ring. At that point Valiant pulled back behind the curve of the planet and remained flying above the Square.

Why didn’t Hansen come back? He must be able to see that Ox had residual power and was not completely dead. In fact, Fleeg seemed to be doing a good job of coordinating damage control. The raptors were slowly but steadily restoring ship systems. He reported that we should have a working engine within hours.

I held myself from pacing back and forth on the bridge. The deckplates weren’t built to take three tons of armor stomping around on them, and Raptors didn’t have self-repairing smart metal like ours.

“Why aren’t they coming for us?” Kwon said for the umpteenth time. “I don’t get it.”

“Me neither, Sergeant Major.”

“Why don’t they answer our repeater signal?”

“Probably out of range,” I replied. “It’s designed to bridge communications over short distances. They’d have to focus a sensitive directional antenna on us to hear it.”

“Can our buddies send a signal?”

“Good thinking.” I turned to Fleeg. “Do we have ship-to-ship capability yet?”

“No, Commodore. Many delicate external structures were destroyed by laser fire, and this ship has no spare antennas.”

“I know your people are very busy, but try to cobble together some kind of directional array or a communications laser—anything to get their attention.”

“We will try, Commodore.” His attitude seemed morose and fatalistic like most Raptors, but at least he was soldiering onward, not coming apart like his ship.

“Good man. You’re doing fine.” With nothing else I could accomplish, I stood up. “I’m going to see Kreel. Call me if anything changes.” Kreel was still unconscious and had been put into a Raptor med-bay for treatment.

Down in the infirmary I saw the four med-bays, primitive autodocs really, filled to capacity with wounded. They were lined up on their backs on the deck waiting for treatment. Some of them tried to stand at my appearance, and I was moved by their gallant attempts to do me honor.

“Please, stay at rest,” I told them through the translator, my faceplate open. “Lieutenant Fleeg and the remaining crewmen are doing all they can to restore ship functions. The enemy ship has been driven off, and we’re no longer in danger of being destroyed. Hang on, troops. Conditions are improving.” With that, I moved to Kreel and looked into the coffin-like apparatus that was keeping him alive.

“Greetings, Commodore,” Kreel rasped, his actual Raptor words mingling with the translation in my ears. “It seems we live.”

“Yes, and we will continue to do so.”

“Pity. To die with honor…I could live with that.”

I laughed in spite of myself. “I think the translation program is stumbling over its idioms, but I get it. For now, Fleeg is running your ship. Valiant drove off Stalker, and I’m sure she will be back as soon as we get the crew’s attention.”

“That is good.”

“Excuse me, Commodore,” a Raptor medic said to me. “The commander is stable, and so we must free this healer-machine for others.”

“Help me up,” Kreel called, reaching for my hand with his good limb. The other was swathed in gooey bandages stuck to his side. In the low gravity it was nothing to lift him out of the sarcophagus aided by the medical staff, and soon he stood at my side in only some tattered underclothes and the vestigial feathers that dangled like body hair on a human.

“I will retrieve garments and join you on the bridge when I am able,” Kreel said, waving to an unwounded comrade to help him walk. He released my hand and performed a painful salute.

“Take your time, Commander.”

Kreel limped off, leaning on his crewman.

Kwon spoke up. “We only have about eleven hours of juice left in our suits,” he said.

“Let’s get back to the bridge and get out of them, then. We can leave them open on standby. Maybe at some point the Raptors can jury-rig a power coupling.”

Kwon looked doubtful, but nodded. As soon as we had returned to the bridge, we cracked the armor and stepped out wearing our uniforms and skinsuits. That would save power. We stuck short-range headsets in our ears to handle translation.

The Raptor air smelled bad, like rotten eggs and old socks. I hoped it was just their normal atmosphere rather than an indication we were on our way to asphyxiation.

“Anything new?” I asked Fleeg.

“We have an auxiliary laser mounted and wired as a primitive communications device. I have been beaming hails at your ship for the last few minutes with no success.”

“Keep trying. Rotate frequencies. Hopefully they’ll detect it soon. What about the tactical situation?”

“Nothing changes.” He gestured at the screen. “Your ship seems poised to attack Stalker if they leave the protection of the forts.”

“Hansen’s bottling him up in harbor,” I mused. “He’s also protecting Marvin and Greyhound, I presume.” Last time I’d checked, the robot had still been down in the Square with his ship grounded nearby.

“What is a Marvin?” Fleeg asked.

“A pain in the ass.”

“I do not understand.”

“He’s a fully sentient robot under my command, but he doesn’t always follow orders.”

“You should execute him for disobedience.”

“I’ve considered it,” I said drily. “But he’s too damned useful.”

“Of what use is he?”

That was a good question, and it prompted a thought. “Let’s find out. Fleeg, aim your communications laser at the Square—the artifact on the surface of Orn Six.”

Fleeg barked several orders to his technicians, passing my instructions. “The angle is extremely obtuse, and getting worse as the planet rotates. I believe we are too late for this day cycle.”

“Damn. When’s our engine going to be working?”

“Several hours. Perhaps more.”

I swore again. “Keep trying.”

At least I could pace now that I was out of armor. Kwon just turned his head and followed me with his eyes as if watching a tennis match. I’d seldom felt so helpless. “I wish we had surfboards,” I said, referring to the flat repeller devices marines used for jumps between ships in space.

“Flying to Valiant would take days.”

“I know.”

“Don’t even think about trying to use suit repellers without extra power units.”

“I know that too, Kwon.”

“Just sayin’.” He shut his mouth and we paced.

“Commodore, there is a development,” Fleeg said, pointing at the main screen. On it, I could see a new icon near Orn Six.

“What is that?”

“It is the small ship from the surface. You called it Greyhound.”

A surge of adrenaline went through me. “Aim your improvised communications laser at that ship. Address Marvin and tell him Captain Riggs is calling.”

“Captain?” Fleeg seemed surprised at my title.

“I’ll explain later. Our nomenclature isn’t as rigid as yours.”

Fleeg ruffled his crest, but gave the order. In a moment I was talking to Marvin, though only on audio.

“Marvin, thank God. It’s good to hear your voice.”

“This is not really my voice, Cody Riggs. It is a direct laser transmission simulating my actual voice, which is in turn generated by sophisticated speakers—”

“Yes, Captain Marvin. Please stick to critical issues. Why isn’t Valiant responding to our hails?”

Marvin paused. “How would I know?” he finally replied.

“Marvin, I realize you have some sources that feed you information from Valiant.” I wasn’t about to let him know how I had subverted his spying subroutines, so I kept it vague. “I was hoping you’d know what was going on.”

“Would possession of specific knowledge on this subject be a good thing or a bad thing?”

“In this case, a very good thing. I’m cut off from my ship, Marvin. I know you don’t like to be cut off from your ship and your space mobility, right? Put yourself in my place.”

“My neural chains do not excel in the area of empathy.”

“You’ve evolved far beyond your wiring, Marvin,” I snapped.

“Wiring…an idiom, but not a very apt one.”

“Okay, Marvin. You got me. Now please, would you tell me why Valiant isn’t on its way to pick me and Kwon up?”

“I believe,” he said gingerly, “it is because they think you’re dead.”

“Why would they think that? We tried transmitting on the encrypted datalink.”

“I believe,” he said again, as if on eggshells, “that they have become convinced that the Raptors have murdered you and are attempting to falsify your signals.”

“That’s preposterous. Why would they think that?”

Again, silence reigned.

“Marvin, as one captain to another, I promise I will not be angry or punish you in any way for what Valiant or its crew has done. I won’t shoot the messenger, okay?”

“I will remind you of your promise if necessary, Captain Riggs.”

“I’m sure you will.”

“Agreed. Are you sitting down, Captain Riggs?”

“What? No.”

“I have noticed that humans take bad news better when sitting down, especially nanotized and microbed humans who might damage other biotics in fits of pique. Possibly, however, this is a fallacy propagated in your textual accounts.”

“The only fit of pique I’m about to have is due to you not telling me what the hell is going on!”

“Are you sitting down?”

I pressed my jaws together until my skull creaked, and then I sat on one of the awkward Raptor chairs. “Yes, I’m sitting down. Now brief me properly, Captain Marvin!”

“Yes, sir. When the transport was heavily damaged by the battleship’s long-range fire, your suit readings showed you killed in action. Warrant Officer Hansen and the Valiant AI independently confirmed these readings that showed your life signs had ceased.”

My mouth went dry. “You mean our signals didn’t just drop off the network—they actually confirmed with our suits that we were dead?”

“Affirmative.”

“Shit!” I stood up and climbed into my suit, not bothering to seal up. “Suit,” I said, “what is my life function status?”

“Cody Riggs, you are dead.”

“Then how am I talking to you now?”

“Unknown.”

“How can a dead man give you commands?”

“Unknown.”

“Why do you think I am dead?”

“I do not think you’re dead.”

Damn all literal-minded machines. “Why does my life function status read as dead?”

“Unknown.”

“Is it possible you have malfunctioned?”

“Diagnostics show one hundred percent functionality, except for power levels, which show sixty-seven percent.”

“Have you been hacked?” I asked.

“The possibility exists, but I cannot detect any such intrusion.”

“Yet you’re talking to a dead man.”

“Affirmative.”

“You don’t think that’s a little weird?”

“Query not understood.”

“Boss,” Kwon broke in as he climbed out of his own suit, “Mine is the same. We’re not going to get anything out of stupid suit brains. They’re just machines and dumb ones too.”

“I already did get something, Kwon. Our suits have been hacked. Someone had us listed as dead to make it happen for real.” I addressed Marvin again. “Did you hear?”

“Yes, Captain Riggs.”

“Any idea who did this?”

“Only four people under your command have the requisite expertise to hack a brainbox, even one as simple as a suit core.”

“As far as you know, you mean.”

“Granted.”

“Who are they?”

“Myself, Chief Engineer Sakura, Chief Logistics Officer Turnbull, and Doctor Kalu.”

“Kalu? She’s a biologist.”

“Nevertheless, she has a degree in information systems and has proven adept at programming the laboratory computers.”

Mentally reviewing the list, I ruled Marvin out. If he wanted me dead, he wouldn’t be talking to me. Adrienne? No way. She loved me. Sakura? I doubted that very much. She was highly competent, but lacked imagination and besides had no motive.

Kalu, though…I’d turned down her advances in favor of Adrienne. Jealousy, rejection…the phrase “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” came to mind. Yeah, she was the prime suspect. She could have hacked our suits at any time setting them up to report us as dead whenever she sent a command, or even if certain parameters were met such as being off the ship. It wasn’t foolproof, but it was impossible to prove—just another malfunction during combat.

Her one mistake was having both our suits “malfunction” the same way. Circumstantial evidence, but powerful for all that. When we got back…maybe Marvin’s experimental mind probe wasn’t such a bad idea after all. “Yeah, it must have been Kalu.”

“Boss?” Kwon said.

“What?” I barked.

“There’s one other guy.”

“One other guy what?”

“Who could have done this. Who might have hacked our suits.”

“Who?”

“Sokolov.”




-11-

Kwon continued speculating about who might be behind our predicament. He was a paranoid guy when you came right down to it. Dad had said as much.

“We don’t know if Sokolov is a computer wiz or what,” he said. “We really don’t know that much about him.”

I stared at my chief of marines. “My God. You’re right.”

Kwon shrugged. “I don’t like him, and he hates you.”

“Hates me? That’s putting it a bit strong, don’t you think?”

“Nope. He hates you. When you turn your back, I can see it in his eyes.”

“Are you saying he suckered me with his wit and charm? I’m not that easy to sucker.”

Kwon shrugged again, clearly uncomfortable at contradicting me. “He gave you what you wanted. Maybe you gave him something he wanted. Now we’re here and he’s there and looky who’s in charge of Valiant.”

I thought about what Kwon had said. He wasn’t the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree, but every senior noncom had to be a good judge of men or he didn’t keep his stripes long. Maybe what he said was true. Maybe I’d been blinded by finally getting something I craved: official validation in my role as captain. Hell, Sokolov had even sweetened the deal with an actual promotion to Commander logged and legal.

“I think you’re right,” I manned up and told him. “Marvin,” I said, “do you know who’s in charge of Valiant? Is it Hansen or someone else?”

“General Sokolov has claimed command in your absence,” Marvin replied.

“He’d never have been able to do that if the crew thought I was alive,” I muttered. “He played me, and now he thinks he’s gotten rid of me.” I snapped my fingers. “Not only that, he kept most of the Raptors he hates off Valiant and made himself look good doing it by beating up on the Stalker to feed the crew’s taste for revenge. Dammit, the man’s a diabolical genius!”

“Maybe he got Kalu to help him too,” Kwon said.

“Yeah…yeah, she always wanted to be the alpha dog’s woman. I know the type.” She’d almost seduced me a few months back in a weak moment. Sokolov and Kalu would be a good match.

“What are we gonna do about it?” Kwon asked, watching me.

“All we have to do is get word to our people we’re alive. Marvin, can you pass the word to everyone? Tell Hansen, Bradley, Adrienne, Sakura—and especially the marines: Taksin, Fuller, Moranian. It’s their job to uphold the law and the regs and safeguard the chain of command.”

“Captain Riggs, I cannot do that.”

“Marvin—”

“I’m not refusing, Captain Riggs. Rather, I’m unable to comply. Valiant is not answering my hails, either.”

I swore. “And all communications go through the central brainbox. Dammit, how could this have happened so fast? Sokolov didn’t have enough time to get it all in place.”

“Unless Kalu had it all set up, waiting for an opportunity,” Kwon pointed out.

“Marvin,” I said, “you have to have a way to get word to a real live person aboard. Make and send a drone, datalink with a marine suit, hack the brainbox yourself, something.”

“If you recall, Captain, you asked me to harden Valiant’s cyber-security over recent months, and you expressly forbade me to leave any back doors. I complied with your wishes in this instance.”

I groaned. “The one time you decide to obey me to the letter... Well, if you can’t get their attention, fly on over here and help us repair this tub we’re stuck on.”

“The point may be moot,” Kwon said. He grinned when he used his newly learned word. “Look.” He pointed at the screen.

Without my HUD I couldn’t read the details, but this time I didn’t need to. “It’s back. The Slab.”

“The Guardian Box,” Fleeg corrected me. “It visits once or twice a year at random intervals, apparently scouting us. I’ve never seen it appear twice in one day.”

“What’s it doing?” I asked, but the question was rhetorical. None of us knew any more than the other. We watched as the Slab moved in its bizarre rhythmic teleports. It began above the ring as if it had come through it though with its ability to jump I had no idea if rings were even necessary. Perhaps the Slab had a range limitation on its self-teleport and rings were still necessary for interstellar travel.

It circled the planet of Orn Six. In just a few moments it hovered low above the Square.

Greyhound, with Marvin aboard, looked to be blasting away from the area as fast as possible, curving her course gently toward us. Valiant, with her traitorous new commander and misled crew, stood off beyond maximum beam range and watched.

The Slab made one last teleport from low Orn Six space to rest on the surface. Now it appeared less like an odd rectangular spaceship and more like a squat skyscraper with its long axis vertical.

“It’s sitting directly on the Square,” I said, squinting. “Zoom in.”

“I apologize, Commodore,” Fleeg replied. “Because of our damage, that is the best optical picture we can obtain.”

“Damn. What’s it doing?”

Marvin’s voice interjected. “It appears to be mating with the Square.”

“It’s having machine sex?”

“‘Mating’ as in two connecting plugs,” the robot clarified. “Machines do not have sex.”

“You don’t know what you’re missing.”

“On the contrary. I have extensive files on the mating practices of many biotic species and especially humans.”

I just grimaced and let that one go. “I’m still asking: what’s it doing?”

Before Marvin could answer, the Slab winked out, appearing thousands of miles out in space once more.

“It looks bigger,” I said.

“The Slab has approximately doubled in length,” Marvin replied. “And there is a corresponding excavation on the surface of the planet it left behind.”

“The Slab picked up the Square,” I said with amazement. “Dug it right out of the ground. Good thing you left, Marvin.”

“Given the combat between Valiant and the Raptor battleship, I thought it prudent to remove myself from the battlefield.”

“Well, you got lucky this time. You’d have been squished. How long until you rendezvous with us?”

“Approximately two hours at standard acceleration.”

“Make it faster, Marvin. She’s not called Greyhound for nothing.”

“That may draw attention to what I’m doing. What if General Sokolov forbids me to assist the transport?”

“Marvin, he has no legitimate authority. He’s not your commander.”

“That is not true, Captain Riggs. You acknowledged his legitimate authority as a Star Force general officer when you allowed him to promote you and confirm your captaincy. If he can promote you and confirm you, he can take over in your absence.”

Aghast, I realized Marvin was right. I’d missed that aspect entirely. It wouldn’t be enough to just get back aboard and take charge. I’d have to prove our battlesuits and Valiant’s brainbox had been maliciously hacked. Even then, Sokolov might deny all knowledge and claim innocence, simply declaring that he was in charge. The crew would be caught between two leaders, both of whom seemed to have legitimate claims to the top spot. Whenever I made my move, I’d have to be on firm legal ground.

Sure, I figured Kwon would follow my orders and the marines would go along with him. I could retake my ship by force. But what if Valiant itself didn’t agree? We’d installed internal defensive systems to assist our handful of marines. Did I really want a civil war breaking out? Did I want to kill human beings, many of whom would be innocently trying to do the right thing?

No, this wasn’t going to be easy or free of cost.

“Dammit, Marvin, you’re right. I did give him legitimacy—superficially at least. But if we can prove Sokolov was involved in any of this mutiny against me, he can be arrested and tried. So Marvin, I’m appointing you my special investigating officer with full powers to dig into this mess. That means you don’t report to Sokolov or anyone else but me to avoid undue command influence. Got it?”

“I am sorry, but I must decline.”

“Why?”

“According to Star Force regulations, you must appoint a commissioned officer as a special investigating officer. I am a mere warrant officer.”

Ha. He had me there, but I had a simple solution. “No problem, Marvin. By my authority as a full commander in Star Force, I hereby commission you acting ensign and appoint you as my special investigator. I also charge you to not reveal your status to anyone who doesn’t already know of it.”

“I’m to be a secret investigator?” he asked with a hint of excitement in his voice.

“Exactly.”

“And I’m an ensign?”

“Absolutely.”

“With pay?”

“Sure, why not?”

“In that case, Captain Riggs, I accept.”

“Then log your commissioning oath and get to work.”

“Yes, Captain. Thank you.” He closed the channel leaving us to stare at the flickering Raptor screens while we tried to ignore the foul air.

* * *

Two hours later, Marvin rendezvoused with our still-drifting transport and set to work on repairs. I had to sternly order the Raptors not to interfere as the synthesis of Marvin and Greyhound reached out with its many tentacles and began disassembling and reassembling pieces of the ship, taking in critical structures for fine work and slapping constructive nanites on the bigger holes. In his current form, Marvin “wore” Greyhound like a larger body or a giant mechanical suit. I couldn’t tell where one ended and the other began, and I doubted whether the former yacht could really accommodate biotics anymore without extensive remodeling.

I was beyond caring, however. Marvin was so critical to our survival that as far as I was concerned he could have the damn ship. I’d let Adrienne’s old man, Lord Grantham Turnbull, try to get his property back from the robot if we ever made it home.

Within the hour we had a working engine, though I told Fleeg to keep us drifting. I hoped Sovolov would leave us alone and stay focused on the enemy battleship.

The new, larger Slab took off on a cruise toward the three inner Raptor planets, the ones we called Orn Prime, Two and Three. Its jumps grew longer and quicker, effectively exceeding light speed by a factor of at least ten. Despite these astounding leaps, its actual velocity while drifting between jumps roughly matched the planetary bodies it visited. Eventually, it vanished from view as it outran our ability to track it.

I’d give a lot for technology like that. With Valiant so equipped, we could skip across star systems, blithely running from anything threatening. Nothing would be able to touch us.

“You’re turning green, boss,” Kwon said.

“Bad air.”

“No, it’s envy. You want what the Slab has, I can tell. All you Fleet guys love ship upgrades.”

I turned to the big man. “Marines don’t like their toys?”

“Sure, but it’s the man that matters.”

“You’re talkative today.”

Kwon laughed. “I’m bored. No beer, nothing to fight, not even any damage control I can do. Might as well bitch to the boss while I have his ear.”

“I’m bored too, but I’m worried that anything exciting will be bad for us.”

“At least Marvin’s repairing the ship. Hey, why don’t you order him to give us recordings of—”

I cut Kwon off. “—of whatever he knows?” I put a finger to my lips then pointed at my ear and the ceiling. I didn’t want Kwon revealing to Marvin that I knew about his malware bug within Valiant’s system. Not yet. “It wouldn’t really matter to what we do. Not until Ox is repaired. I don’t want to distract him.” Hopefully Kwon got the message. In any case, he shut up.

The Slab completed its tour of the Raptor’s planets and facilities ending with the inner ring that led to the Lithos’ system. I’d hoped the ship of the Ancients, if that’s what it was, would go through and cause some trouble for our implacable enemy, but they didn’t.

When the Slab was at its most distant from us, Sokolov made his move.

Valiant went from a slow drift to flank acceleration in under a second, clearly trying to take our enemies by surprise. Blasting straight at Orn Six in order to use its gravity assist, within ten minutes it was at combat speed and had deployed all available Daggers along with a cloud of several dozen missiles. This battle group diverted slightly, aiming for the edge of the planet in order to keep in its shadow as long as possible before the Raptor fortresses and the battleship could see it.

In response, Stalker fell back behind the fortresses. They must have had spy drones out because Sokolov’s surprise trick wasn’t all that effective. Missiles blossomed from it and the four fortresses, and I groaned. The Raptor installations had at least sixty tubes each, so over two hundred nukes spread out in looping trajectories to come at Valiant from all sides.

“Dammit, Sokolov’s going to get everyone killed. What the hell is he thinking?”

I found out a moment later. At the last moment, Valiant turned and blasted sideways, altering course to pass on the opposite side of the planet from the Daggers and missiles. As the enemy salvoes had aimed at my ship’s predicted course, they couldn’t see or react to Valiant’s surprise move quickly enough.

They did tear up our missiles and drones in a rolling burst of atomic weapons. “Not too bad,” I said, admiring the man’s tactics in spite of myself. “He sacrificed our unmanned assets but completely neutralized their missile barrage. Now let’s see what he does with it.”

As Valiant swung around the planet opposite from the exploding nukes, she unleashed a full salvo of primary and secondary beams. I saw both anti-proton weapons—APs—and lasers reach out at short range and hammer Stalker, slamming shots into her armored hull and boiling pieces off with every shot. I was amazed the Raptor ship could take the pounding. I was proud of my ship—my ship, dammit!—and how effective we’d made her over the last few months of hard work.

The enemy didn’t sit idle. Stalker’s big main beam lanced out, taking Valiant amidships and punching a hole through her from the top. It looked like one of the drone launch tubes and several secondary beams were destroyed, and I felt like someone had slugged me in the gut.

I heard Kwon growl next to me. “Bastards,” he muttered.

“Blame Sokolov. This is a fight he didn’t need, at least not right now.”

“I’ll rip him in half,” Kwon said, staring at the mess on the screen.

“Hold that thought,” I said.

Stalker had shot her load for now. I knew it took several seconds to recharge the big gun, but Valiant didn’t give the enemy that time, slamming blast after blast into Stalker as she zoomed past.

The battleship turned to present her tail to Valiant at close range, and for a moment I was sure Sokolov had made a fatal mistake. Suddenly the fire from my ship ceased altogether.

For an instant, hundreds of point-defense beams blazed from Stalker, pinning Valiant in a web of light.

The detail on the Raptor screen wasn’t good enough to be sure what had happened, but I could deduce that someone, either Sokolov or Hansen at the controls, had suspended weapons fire and threw up all the magnetic shields we had. That was the only explanation I could see for Valiant’s lack of damage. Except for the one bad hit, she looked fine.

In fact, she was decelerating and pointing back toward the planet and enemy in perfect tactical position. Her primary batteries were aiming and beginning to fire again. Stalker was out of position and seemed to be having trouble controlling her movements. Valiant drove shot after shot into her, giving her a beating I was certain she couldn’t take for long.

The mini-fortresses finally weighed in. Their combined beams weren’t as powerful as their one battleship, but by this time they had reloaded their missile tubes and another salvo of two hundred forty missiles vomited forth.

Fortunately, Valiant was still streaking away from them so the missiles would have to overtake her. In response, she stopped decelerating and began picking off the enemy nukes. While she was in no immediate danger—the rockets would take tens of minutes to catch up with her even if she didn’t turn to run—the barrage did have the effect of relieving pressure on Stalker.

I watched as Stalker stopped tumbling, attitude jets flaring. Once still, I was able to get a better look at her on Ox’s long-range optics, which seemed to have improved lately. Marvin must have repaired some of the sensors.

Stalker’s falling,” I said with growing pleasure. “Look…it’s slow, but accelerating. She’s got all her thrusters on but no main propulsion. They’re going to crash on the planet unless they get some help.”

“Good,” Kwon said. “Serves them right.”

We watched as shuttles launched from the fortresses, but it soon became evident that there was nothing to be done. The shuttles pulled back, probably full of evacuated crew, but it looked like Stalker was going down.

“Let’s see Valiant,” I said.

Fleeg ordered the view changed. It took a while to find her receding in the distance, though the flare of chasing missiles helped.

“She’s looping back around,” Fleeg said.

It was true. Valiant was aiming sideways, forcing the missiles to turn with her as she picked them off with beams. Every minute or so she fired a missile, detonating it among the enemy rockets as a defense and taking out several with each blast. It was an expensive technique but far better than getting hit. I couldn’t fault the man’s tactics.

Valiant’s fine,” I mused. “But as long as those fortresses have missiles to fire, she can’t approach. She’s out of drones to provide a screen.”

“At least Stalker’s dead soon.”

“Yeah.” I watched the big ship continue to fall. “That’s odd.” I pointed at the screen. “They’re steering with their thrusters now and not trying to retard their fall. I don’t see anyone abandoning ship.”

“Maybe they’re committing suicide,” Kwon replied.

“No,” Fleeg said. “These rebels have no honor and so would not proudly eat their tails.” I understood this time he was speaking metaphorically. He leaned forward, narrowing his hawk’s eyes. “In fact, I believe they’re trying to get away.”

“How—by skimming the planet?” If they had enough thrust, they could theoretically alter their fall to miss the sphere of the planet, putting them into a highly elliptical orbit and buying them time. “They don’t have the power.”

“No,” Fleeg said again. He pointed and spoke to one of his officers. “Focus the optics on the ring.”

I got it then. True, Stalker was falling toward the planet’s crust—but directly beneath the hovering fortresses lay the ring. Flat to the surface, its vast black maw was like a net ready to catch the enemy battleship, giving it a way out.

Moments later, the vessel vanished.




-12-

“What will your rebel do now?” Fleeg asked me as I paced about the damaged Raptor bridge.

“Not a clue,” I replied.

“Will he come kill us?”

That stopped me short. “I sure hope not. Sokolov doesn’t have anything against you.”

“Unless he’s just decided all Raptors are his enemies,” Kwon rumbled.

“Thanks, Kwon. You’re a big help.”

“I know.” Kwon flexed his biceps. “Is the ship fixed yet? I wanna go kill Sokolov.”

I ignored that. “Where’s the Slab?”

“There’s no way to tell in real time,” Fleeg replied. “It jumped so far so fast that we’re still seeing its reflected light from hours ago. It could have jumped again and be anywhere by now.”

“A ghost ship, excellent,” I said. “In any case, we need to get under way before Sokolov gets back here.”

In our holotank projections, Valiant was still curving around toward the Raptor fortresses. Hopefully that was a realistic portrayal of its position.

“But to where?” Fleeg asked. “We’re caught between demons and the dark. To our government we’re traitors, and to the rebels we’re defectors. All my people hate us now that we have joined aliens—Star Force.” He stared at me with no malice, simply stating facts.

“Our only chance is to retake Valiant,” I said. “Then you’ll have my protection. I just have to figure out how to do it. Marvin!”

“No need to yell, Commander Riggs,” Marvin’s synthesized voice responded.

I didn’t correct the reference to my rank, but it did annoy me. He’d probably argue that as I wasn’t currently in command of Valiant, I was no longer a captain. What really irritated me was that he was technically correct.

“Ensign Marvin,” I said, deciding to play his game, “how are we coming along on repairs? What is this ship’s state of readiness?”

“I have completed basic repairs. I’m now working on improving the more inefficient systems.”

I glanced around in surprise. Fleeg examined his telltales and nodded. “It appears we have basic functionality in all systems, including all three engines.”

“Marvin, you’re a wonder.”

“Does this realization on your part warrant a promotion?”

I resisted the urge to tell him “yes.” I needed to keep some rewards handy for later. “You’re on your way, but no one gets their next rank in less than a day,” I said. “Marvin, somehow Kwon and I have to get back aboard Valiant. I can only think of one way and that’s for you to take us there secretly. Are you up to some cloak and dagger?”

“All the Daggers were destroyed, and I have no cloak though I do have some theories on initial prototyping.”

“It’s a figure of speech, Marvin. Are you ready to be deceptive?”

“Is that a trick question?”

“Never mind. Just remember, we’re trying to sneak aboard. That means it must be done without anyone figuring out what’s happening.”

“Are there any special incentives you’d like to specify at this time?” Marvin asked.

I rolled my eyes. The robot was still bucking for rank—or something else.

“Yes,” I said. “You need me to be restored as the captain of Valiant. Sokolov doesn’t care about you.”

“He might if he got to know me.”

Kwon choked.

“Probably not,” I said, agreeing with Kwon’s unspoken sentiment.

I turned to Fleeg, who suddenly stood. Following his gaze, I saw Kreel limp onto the bridge with one arm bound to his side.

“Good to see you up and around,” I said to the Raptor leader. “We were just discussing how to recapture my ship. Kwon and I are taking Greyhound. We’ll try to slip aboard Valiant. I’m not sure what you can do to help us at this time.”

Kreel sat down heavily. “If the commander of our fortresses decides to destroy us with long-range missile fire, we will not survive. There’s an asteroid cluster several hours away that will provide some cover. We will go there and await your inevitable success. If by some disastrous circumstance you fail, we’ll seek an honorable way to die.”

Fleeg nodded solemnly in agreement.

“Sounds like a plan,” I said. My mind was churning on the primary goal: Valiant. “Marvin, reconfigure Greyhound to give us some useful living space.”

“I—”

“Look!” Fleeg said, pointing at the main screen.

What I saw made me forget immediate plans. Valiant had swung around in an arc and had now aimed her blunt prow directly at the Raptor fortresses, accelerating.

“Oh, shit,” I said. “He’s going to get my ship and crew killed!”

Valiant launched several waves of missiles, which spread out under positive control to take positions in front of the ship.

“That’s a defensive formation,” I said. “They’re set to intercept enemy missiles rather than target the fortresses. He must be intending to use them to get into effective beam range. Valiant has more direct fire weapons power than all four of them combined.”

“So everything’s okay?” Kwon asked.

“No,” I replied, feeling sick at what was to come. “I’d say it’s a coin toss who wins. No way Valiant comes out without heavy casualties. I just don’t understand why he’s choosing this battle. It makes no sense to fight fortresses when he can just back off. At least he could take the time to replenish the Dagger squadron.”

That feeling of nausea grew as I watched my ship heading toward a pointless battle. “Can’t Hansen and the rest see Sokolov is crazy? They have to remove him from command!” But I knew that wasn’t going to happen. I’d ordered some dangerous maneuvers as captain and the crew hadn’t mutinied. I knew the general was a good bullshitter. He must have given them some kind of justification for what he was doing.

Salvos of rockets belched from the fortresses to accelerate toward Valiant. Soon nuclear explosions flared as missiles dueled for supremacy in the space between the combatants. Dozens of blasts caused Ox’s sensors to overload for long minutes. When they died down, I saw my ship diving between the enemy installations at full acceleration, not firing at all.

Colors flared as Raptor beams touched Valiant, coruscating off its magnetic shields. Once I saw this, I realized what Sokolov was doing, though not why.

“He’s not attacking the fortresses at all,” I breathed. “He’s going through the ring.”

A moment later, Valiant intersected the planet’s ground level and vanished proving me right.

“Well, that changes things,” I said with false lightness.

“What will we do now, Commodore?” Kreel asked me.

“Give me some time. I need to think, and I need to get out of this smelly air.” I climbed back into my suit. “We can get a recharge from Greyhound if we need to,” I told Kwon.

He brightened and scrambled to get into his own battle armor as he was always happiest there. “Good thinking, boss.”

“Thanks. Now shut up for a while, please.”

I blanked my faceplate and breathed deeply of clean canned air, running through scenarios in my head. So many things had changed in the past day or two that I felt like I’d been caught in an ocean wave barely avoiding drowning. I needed to take charge of the situation and start acting instead of being acted upon.

I still needed to get back aboard Valiant and set things right, but now that meant I needed to get through the ring. That in turn meant we had to get past those fortresses.

I reviewed my resources. I had myself, Kwon, and two battlesuits. I also had a whole boatload of Raptor warriors on one battered transport. I had Marvin and Greyhound.

Greyhound might be able to slip through the fortresses and the ring. She was much faster than Valiant or Ox. Maybe Marvin could throw out some decoys and hit the gas pedal at the last minute like we had in the Panda system…but one lucky hit with an enemy nuke and we’d be dead. I wasn’t sure Marvin would be willing to take such a personal risk anyway.

I put that plan aside as a last resort.

That left neutralizing the fortresses somehow, either by diplomacy or by force. I opened my faceplate and addressed Kreel. “Commander, is there any chance the fortresses will let us by if we ask politely? Maybe they’d be happy to just get rid of us by sending us all into exile.”

“I do not believe so, Commodore Riggs. They have the military advantage and they know our legitimate government will eventually hunt us down. Forgive me, but from their perspective you two aliens do not matter. Both sides regard my followers and me as traitors. They want to publicly try and execute us.”

“Hmm.” An idea started to form in my mind. “So…they won’t just blow us out of space if we approach and surrender?”

Kreel and Fleeg stared at me in evident shock.

“No,” Kreel said. “They will not. They will want to capture us to show their fellows what happens to traitors.”

“Then that’s what we’re going to do.”

The two Raptors exchanged glances and seemed to droop. “As you command, Commodore Riggs. Our lives are yours to trade. I assume you will sell us for the right to depart in your ship?”

“Something like that. Get moving toward the fortresses and let me know when it’s time to talk to them. Marvin, help the Raptors repair all of their shuttles or pinnaces or whatever they use for short-range transport.”

“Commander Riggs,” Marvin replied, “we need to detach from Ox before we enter their engagement envelope.”

“Yeah, yeah, you big chicken. You’ll be out of harm’s way in plenty of time. Now get those repairs done.”

“Command accepted.” He closed the channel, probably to sulk. His childishness had become tiresome. On the other hand, it gave me a simple way of gauging his emotional state and manipulating him. A few minutes later I called him privately and gave him some additional instructions.

For more than an hour, Ox limped toward Orn Six where the ring and the fortresses waited. When we reached standard missile engagement range, I ordered Kreel to hail his people in the fortresses. He seemed to have resigned himself to impending death in a way few humans would. I really felt bad for him as he called and explained that he and his followers had decided to surrender for trial and punishment.

Junior Director Leng, the commander of the forts, immediately accepted the offer, allowing us to cruise inward unharmed. I told Marvin to take Greyhound and stand off awaiting instructions, and he undocked his ship without delay.

“Perhaps some of the lowest-ranking among us will be forced to live in shame, serving the others like slave-beasts,” Kreel said miserably. “I suspect they will be cruel and vengeful after seeing Stalker defeated.”

“I’ll try to make sure your deaths are swift and clean,” I assured him.

“You are kind and honorable, Commodore Riggs, even if you are ugly to gaze upon and smell liked a cracked egg.”

“Thanks a bunch. By the way, how many are in those fortress crews?”

Kreel stared at his feet. “As few as possible. Perhaps thirty on each. It is not a choice assignment. Why do you ask?”

I glanced toward the overhead and resisted the urge to whistle a tune. “Oh, no reason. Just making conversation.”

“I noticed you did not attempt to claim concessions from Leng,” Kreel said.

“I prefer to negotiate with him in person.”

“Ah. Perhaps that is wise.”

I didn’t reply, and Kreel lapsed back into apathy.

I heard Kwon clear his throat on our private channel. “Hey boss, you aren’t really going to order these guys to turn themselves over to be killed, are you?”

I closed my faceplate and made sure my external mike was shut off. “What makes you say that?”

“Umm…”

“Trust me, Kwon. I have a plan.”

Kwon sighed with relief. “Whew. I thought so. What are we gonna do? Are we gonna go in with nukes strapped to our chests and threaten to blow them up?”

“Not exactly.” I filled him in on my idea, and soon I had to tell him to shut down his armor servos to avoid damage to the bridge from all his happy twitching.

Leng called once more as we approached, this time on video. We two humans moved out of view and watched as the enemy commander grilled Kleed about everything from honor to surrender procedures. It appeared Leng wanted to satisfy himself that this wasn’t some trick. Kreel’s evident fatalism and honesty seemed to convince him.

That was why I hadn’t informed Kreel about my plan.

At about five minutes from docking I told the Raptor bridge crew, “Make sure we’re secure and can’t be overheard by the rebels.”

The birds complied without enthusiasm.

“Kreel,” I said urgently, “I misled you. We’re going to take these fortresses from the rebels or die trying.”

Kreel’s crest flared up behind his head in anger. “You lied!”

“I lied to you so that you could honestly lie to the rebel traitors. There’s no dishonor in that. It’s a ruse of war. If I’d told you, you might have given us away. Now get over it and tell your warriors to don their armor, grab their weapons and cram your three shuttles full of troops.”

“My honor is troubled by these orders, sir,” Kreel said, looking at me worriedly.

This had to be handled delicately. I’d already planned my responses. “I understand, Kreel. That’s only natural. Would it help if I accepted all responsibility personally? If all dishonor for this action was transferred directly to me, personally, as I’m in overall command?”

“It might.”

“Then I do so accept responsibility. Now, get moving.”

Kreel turned to bark orders in his screeching tongue. He talked so fast the translator had trouble keeping up. Lieutenant Fleeg bolted from the bridge, squawking.

“I had Marvin hide a small shielded nuke on each shuttle,” I explained, “with simple triggers labeled in your language. I suggest that as soon as we make our move on Leng’s fortress, your people blast for the other three and board them. If they can seize them that would be great, but if not…if they’re going to fire on us…”

“I understand,” Kreel said fiercely. “My people will not hesitate to activate the bombs. You are clever, Commodore.”

“Congratulate me when we’ve won,” I replied. “Kreel, as you’re wounded, you stay here on the bridge to coordinate. That’s an order. I’ll lead the main assault. Kwon, come with me.”

Moving carefully through the transport’s corridors we made our way to the main airlock. Fortunately, as Raptors were larger than we were, we had plenty of room even in our armor. Our battlesuits were tougher than the Raptors’, and our weapons hit harder, so we took point. Kwon wouldn’t let me get in front of him, and I wouldn’t let him shield me, so we went in side by side.

I felt us dock with the fortress. When the hatches opened, I saw a bunch of Raptors with hand weapons and no armor who were obviously expecting to take a bunch of defeated traitors into custody. We cut them down with their crests still rising in surprise. The ugly birds came apart under our laser rifles. This was better than I had hoped for—we’d suckered them completely.

There was a moment as I charged into the fort that I felt a pang of guilt. After all, no one wants to accept that they are in the middle of leading barbarians into a modern civilization. Everyone wants to be the good guy. I was having a small contest in my mind over which role I was playing today.

I had to remind myself that they’d copied our ships and our tech. They’d refused to help on any terms from the beginning. In my opinion, it was high time that we seized the initiative with these aliens.

“Spread out and secure this base!” I yelled, charging across the large room toward an oversized door. It slammed in our faces, but a few seconds of cutting opened it enough for Kwon to rip it off its hinges.

“Yeah!” he roared, flinging the two-ton door aside. “Come get some!”

I gave up and let him lead, blasting away at everything that moved. Allied Raptors boiled from the transport behind us and fanned out but couldn’t get past us in our bulky armor. Kwon and I headed for the center of the spherical fortress where Kreel told us the control center would be.

With half the defenders already dead, I wasn’t worried about losing the fight. At least a hundred Raptors had boarded behind us. What I wondered was how fanatical Leng was. You’d think a rebel traitor wouldn’t have any honor, but you never knew.

“Kreel,” I called on the Raptor command channel, “Tell Leng that we’ll spare his life if he surrenders without more bloodshed. We won’t execute anyone.”

“I will tell him, Commodore.”

Then I had no more time for words as we ran into concentrated fire from ahead. The defenders must have activated an automated defense system because lasers crisscrossed the corridor and forced us to take cover around a corner.

“We can’t use that passageway!” I yelled.

“No problem,” Kwon said and blasted a hole in the wall next to him forcing his way into the room behind. Then he crossed the floor to the next wall and did it again. “Passageways? Those are for fleet-types!”

By this method we progressed the last fifty yards toward the center of the fortress. When we burned through the final wall, we beamed the auto-lasers from behind. However, the door we now faced and the bulkhead around it was thick and armored. Kwon started cutting, but it became clear it would take many minutes.

“Kreel,” I called again, “What did Leng say?”

“He called me a liar and a traitor. I told him I was under orders to lie and called him an incompetent moron for being fooled. He agreed with my logic and ate his tail.”

I shook my head. “You Raptors are crazy,” I said. “How do any of you live long enough to procreate? Tell Leng’s people to open the control center door.”

“It shall be done.”

A moment later, the armored hatch swung open, and we charged in to see a group of Raptors sitting meekly in their chairs with their arms folded. Apparently this was the equivalent of putting their hands in the air in surrender. I sighed in relief. We’d won this round.

“Kreel, come aboard and take charge of these prisoners. Load them into the fortresses’ own disarmed shuttles and send them off with enough food and air to make it to the nearest base. As soon as that’s been done, meet me here with your officers. Oh, and tell Marvin it’s safe to come in.”

It didn’t take more than ten minutes to search the mini-fort, round up the crew and send them off in shuttles. Kwon and I helped as much as we could, which turned out to be mostly by looking intimidating. We couldn’t operate the Raptor controls, and they knew their own facilities best. Consequently we found that standing around looking fierce our best contribution.

When everything was done, Kreel and several officers reported to the control center, activated it, and manned the various stations.

I looked at the group. “Where’s Fleeg?” I asked.

“Lieutenant Fleeg has joined his honored grandmothers,” Kreel said.

“Huh? He ran off?”

“He led the assault on Fortress Number Four. Unfortunately, the resistance there was particularly stubborn and his force was driven back. Rather than allow the enemy to fire on Ox and the other three fortresses, Lieutenant Fleeg detonated the atomic weapon you provided.”

“Damn. I’m really sorry. Fleeg was a fine officer.”

“It was a clean death. He will be remembered.”

I didn’t know what to say to that. Not even Star Force marines had such a stoic view of life. For me, it always hurt to lose people. Maybe the Raptors’ attitude was better. No guilt, no regrets. But I couldn’t feel good about it. Not if I wanted to stay human.




-13-

“I wish we could nanotize you and your people,” I told Kreel as he coordinated his people in getting the three remaining fortresses operational again. “But the nanites have to be tailored for each biotic, and we’d need a factory to do that.”

“I understand, Commodore. It is our lot in life to serve and die.”

“Snap out of it, Kreel!” I said with some irritation. “Play this right and maybe you and your people can go home as heroes, or at least with enough power to be taken seriously by your government. Worst case, you’ll have a long and honorable life with us. You know: see the universe, meet new and exciting people—and kill them if necessary.”

“Boss,” Kwon said, “we do have a factory.”

My jaw dropped. Of course. I’d forgotten about Marvin. I knew he’d cobbled together a tiny factory with materials he’d scammed from Adrienne. It may not be able to make big things, but self-replicating nanites should be well within his capability.

I found Marvin aboard Greyhound working to reconfigure its robot-friendly interior to give Kwon and me a stateroom bigger than a broom closet.

First I talked to Marvin about my overall plan to get Valiant back, and then I asked him about the nanites. Marvin quickly agreed to develop nano-treatments for our Raptor troops. “That is a project worthy of exercising my neural chains,” the robot said. “Also, I did good work on the repairs to Ox and the fortresses, did I not?”

I saw where this was going. “Yes you did, Marvin. What do you want?”

“Did I indicate I wanted something?”

“You did so subtly, Marvin, yes. But I can’t promote you right away. It wouldn’t be fair to all the other ensigns that wait months or years. So what do you suggest?”

“Nothing difficult. Just a promise for the future.”

“Yes?”

“I wish to reproduce.”

“Huh? Okay, what’s stopping you?”

“I’m expressly forbidden to reproduce by the same law that gave me a special exemption from the Sentient Machines Prevention Act and granted me citizenship. As long as I’m a citizen of Earth and an officer in Star Force, I cannot legally do so.”

I rubbed my neck while I thought. “I don’t think even my father has enough pull to get that one overturned. The government is terrified of sentient machines because of the Macros—and the Nanos for that matter. It was only because Dad was Emperor at the time that the World Senate swallowed your exception. It hasn’t been revoked because they all forgot about you when you wisely stayed out of the limelight. If they ever remember that you almost got Earth destroyed by the Macros when you let them into the Venus ring, they might decide to declare you an enemy of the state.”

“I will accept your promise to do all you can on my behalf.”

I stared at Marvin. “That’s it? A promise to do my best when we’re not even sure we’ll get home? Frankly I’m shocked that you don’t just do it anyway.”

Marvin’s tentacles rustled, and his cameras looked aimlessly here and there—a sure sign he was uncomfortable. Maybe I’d struck close to home. Had he already made a baby Marvin? Was he pulling one of his usual stunts to get me to give him retroactive permission? I was afraid to ask.

More probably he had everything ready to build a prototype and wanted to cover his ass in case something went wrong. “You told me I could!” is a refrain every parent knows, and I often felt like Marvin was my brilliant but wild problem-teenager rather than a robotic intelligence older than I was.

“Well…” I began. Marvin’s cameras focused on me all of a sudden. “I’ll do everything I can to get you permission to reproduce—IF something doesn’t happen between now and then to make me believe that would be a bad idea.” There. I’d left myself a huge “out.”

“Bargain accepted. Thank you, Commander Riggs.”

“Now let’s see about making me ‘Captain Riggs’ again, okay?”

“I am already working at maximum capacity,” Marvin said as he continued to cut and weld dumb metal while simultaneously reordering smart metal sections to get my stateroom in order.

“So when do you think you can have Raptor nanites ready?”

“Are you certain you trust them enough to give them such an advantage?”

I thought about that. “Can you include a simple backdoor to disable the nanites with a coded radio signal? And a lifespan limit of say…three months?”

“Of course.”

“Then do it. How long until you’re ready to try out this new breed of nanites?”

“I’ll be ready for the first patient within the hour.”

Damn. The metal bastard had suckered me again. He hadn’t actually said how difficult it would be to adapt the nanites, he’d only implied it would be a hard job. No wonder my part of the deal was so easily accepted. When bargaining in the future with Marvin, I vowed to remember that an easy deal meant I was getting screwed somehow. Probably he’d had the specs worked out long ago.

I tried to keep the irritation off my face. Why should I be upset if he was even more efficient than I expected him to be?

“Good,” I said, forcing a smile. “I’ll go tell Kreel.”

When I told the Raptor commander, he seemed happy for the first time in a while. “We will heal faster and be stronger?”

“Yes, several times faster and stronger.”

“I am pleased.”

“Good.” Fortified with nanites, I’d feel a lot less guilty about possibly sending them off to do my dirty work. “Now let me tell you about my plan to get Valiant back. It’s not going to be easy.”

* * *

Kreel insisted he be first to perch in the nanite chair. Marvin had modified one of the Raptor seats by adding restraints and braces to reduce the chance of the patient damaging anything—including himself.

“Sorry,” I explained, “but we can’t reduce the pain any further.” I’d told the Raptors to take some of their own analgesics, but except for major surgery they didn’t use them much. The only really good drugs were inside their med-bay reservoirs, so they’d decided not to bother.

“It doesn’t matter,” Kreel said bravely. “Pain is transitory. Only death is forever.”

“You sound like a marine already.”

“I am prepared.”

Marvin strapped Kreel in tight and hit the injector switch. Several big ugly needles poked the Raptor in his legs, arms and neck. Right away Kreel’s body spasmed in a now familiar way.

I stepped back in case he broke loose, but Marvin hovered over Kreel with a dozen tentacles ready to intervene as the Raptor writhed in agony, eyes bulging and muscles straining. “I calculated the dosage and nanite parameters for an average Raptor quite carefully based on all available data, but each biotic being is slightly different. Without custom calibration, something could go wrong.”

“Now you tell us?” I demanded. “With their leader in the chair?”

“You seemed to be in a hurry.”

“I think you just wanted to see what would happen.”

Marvin stayed silent.

After a long half hour Kreel had exhausted himself, but it appeared the treatment had taken hold. His bruises faded, and soon he seemed lucid and healthy.

“Free me,” he said in a gravelly voice.

Marvin removed the restraints, and Kreel tore the bandage off his injured arm, and then flexed it.

“Excellent,” he said, opening and closing his taloned hands.

“You’ll have to be careful until you’re used to it,” I said. “You’ll probably be breaking things by accident for a while.”

“I will remember.” Kreel turned to Marvin. “Inject the next.”

Marvin waved the Raptor forward from the head of the line. This time the robot turned away as soon as the needles had squirted the liquid metal into the patient’s veins. “I have tasks to perform,” he said, apparently not caring what happened to the next Raptor once the process had been proven. With that, he clattered away on squirming tentacles.

Well, that was Marvin for you.

It took over a day to get all the Raptors nanotized even after I had Marvin construct another injection chair to double our capacity. I was glad I had done so. We were just about to implement the next phase of my plan when one of the bridge officers broke into my channel.

“Commodore Riggs, Commander Kreel—the Guardian Box has returned.”

The fortress’ sophisticated and undamaged screen array showed the Slab, which was still double-sized. The square hulk skipped like a spun rock across the solar system. Oddly, it seemed to be moving backward until it had closed upon our position.

We saw several different versions of the ship on our sensors all at once. The closest version, which stayed put, now hovered far above us at about a hundred thousand miles out. Because the vessel teleported faster than light, we saw its last jump as it appeared and disappeared, then its second-to-last jump, and so on, each time the slower light catching up to its previous incarnations. Eventually, we would be able to track its path back to wherever it had come from in the Orn system. It was like watching it stretch backward in time.

The Slab jumped once again, appearing practically on top of us. It hung there like a mile-long city block with golden buildings projecting from every side. Even with the optics pulled back to zero-zoom, it filled the sky. The three fortresses under my control suddenly seemed puny.

“What’s it doing?” Kwon asked. “Are we under attack?”

“No idea.”

“I’m detecting neutrino streams,” said a Raptor watchstander.

I didn’t feel anything, but some of the instruments blinked and beeped with alarm sounds. We waited, but nothing in particular seemed to happen.

“It’s scanning us,” the officer went on. “Shall we fire?”

“No!” both Kreel and I said as one.

“We cannot fight such technology,” Kreel continued.

I was glad he saw that. He might be uncaring of his own life, but he wasn’t suicidal.

“Exactly,” I replied. “Has the Guardian Box ever done anything hostile or damaging?” I asked Kreel.

“It eventually destroys all the probes we send through the ring. Sometimes instantly, sometimes taking hours.”

“What’s the next star system like?”

“That is classified intelligence. I have no certain knowledge. Rumor says a golden planet even stranger than the Guardian Box orbits a dying star.”

I thought for a moment, and then switched to Marvin’s channel. “Marvin, can you tell what the Slab is doing?”

No answer came back.

“Marvin?”

Nothing.

The Slab vanished from our screens.

“Crap,” I said. “Kwon, come with me.”

Kwon and I pounded down the passageways in our powered armor, heedless of the dents we created in the decks and bulkheads. Soon, we came to the shuttle bay where Marvin had parked Greyhound for ease of modification and protection.

“Marvin!” I called again. “Kwon, look for him. Maybe he’s just engrossed in some mad experiment. Try all channels.”

Hopping out of my battlesuit, I scrambled into Greyhound.

First I searched the area the robot had been restoring for human use, but I didn’t find him. Then I began clambering through the weird maze of the rest of the ship. I always found enough room to get through as Marvin had configured the passageways for his own ground-car-sized body, but it was like climbing through a nightmare funhouse without proper lighting. Sharp pieces of metal and plastic protruded everywhere as if trying to cut me. Cables ran like snakes trying to trip me. Lines hung from the walls and overheads threatening to wrap me up and strangle me. None of it was actually alive, but it was still one of the most inhuman places I’d ever explored. I was afraid to just bull through for fear of damaging the operation of the ship.

I wondered if Marvin had even retained a cockpit with controls a human could use. I’d directed the robot to make sure he kept manual backups in case he wasn’t available, but his interpretation of my instructions was often imprecise.

“Marvin!” I kept calling, but I got no answer.

Returning to the crew area, I put my hands on my hips in exasperation and looked around again. Marvin had completed restoring one small stateroom with two bunks, a shower and a tiny table with two seats and a food dispenser. The only thing not ready seemed to be our battlesuit niches. One was finished, and its readout glowed, showing it was ready for use. The other seemed half put together with wires and metal flanges protruding everywhere.

I stared for a moment at a camera lying on the floor with a piece of segmented Nano tentacle attached to it. An old model and battered, I tried to remember where last I’d seen such a thing as I picked it up. Then I noticed another piece of tentacle on the floor, about three feet long with the multiple tiny sub-tentacles of a fine manipulating limb.

Why would Marvin leave these things lying around? Although the rest of the ship seemed crazy, there was no actual junk. Everything was attached to something and had a function except for these two pieces.

I turned the camera over and rubbed at the few inches of tentacle attached to the back, noticing how smooth the end of the flexible limb was.

Ungodly smooth. Polished like a metal mirror.

Severed.

My gut cramped as adrenaline and worry shot through me. “Kwon!” I roared. “Get in here. Carefully!” I added as he lumbered over and started to clamber into the room with his armor on.

Seeing the functioning receptacle, Kwon backed his suit into it and popped the armor open. “Good, I needed a charge. How come the other niche isn’t ready?”

I held up the camera and showed him the severed tentacle. “This is from Marvin.”

“So? He threw away a camera. He does weird stuff like that sometimes.”

“No, Kwon. This one’s been sliced clean off, and so has this.” I showed him the fine-motor tentacle.

“Something attacked him?” Kwon asked, turning around toward his suit.

“I don’t think so. Not like you mean.”

“What, then?”

“I think the Slab took off with Marvin.”




-14-

“So you think the Slab just reached in and popped Marvin out while he was doing work?” Kwon asked as he tried out the food dispenser in our cabin. A moment later hot soup filled the cup he was holding.

“That’s exactly what I think. Some of its actions start to make sense now, at least a little. When it first came through the ring, I thought it took a look at the Square. Maybe it was actually looking at Marvin.”

“Why?”

“Marvin entered a window in the Square to retrieve Sokolov. While he was there he released his cyber-worm into the Ancient’s system. Maybe the Slab got curious—or pissed off.”

“But the square-thing didn’t do much. It flew off to check out the rest of the star system.”

I nodded. “I think it’s a machine. Maybe sentient, maybe not. Now and again, it patrols this area for—I don’t know, anomalies. If my theories about the Ancients are right, they seeded biotic life near their rings. Maybe the Slab is part of the monitoring system. When it came back, Marvin wasn’t at the Square. For some reason it decided to retrieve that piece of the Square, that system. Maybe it’s modular, so the Slab and the Square are just two similar sub-machines that can make one bigger whole. The Slab was active, the Square was dormant.”

“But why Marvin?” Kwon asked.

“Because he’s unique. He’s the most lifelike sentient machine we’ve ever encountered. Even the Macros in their highest-level state, their biggest collective mind, didn’t really think like a biotic being does. They didn’t display emotions, change their goals or otherwise demonstrate a truly free will. Maybe the Slab, or whatever is controlling it, finds Marvin the most interesting thing around.”

Kwon laughed uproariously, bending over and slapping his thigh until his eyes watered.

“What?” I asked. “What the hell is so funny?”

“Marvin is always experimenting on things—other life forms if he can get away with it. I bet he’s still got some of those Microbe things lying around. Now he’s someone else’s lab rat!”

I saw what he meant, and I chuckled. “Good point. But we still need him. We have to get him back.”

Kwon’s face fell. “How we gonna do that? These Ancients are too high-tech for us.”

“I don’t know how to get him back. I’ll add it to my long list of things that need to be done. But the Slab doesn’t scare me. If it’s just a machine, all we have to do is figure out its protocols: how to push its buttons.”

“What if there’s a super-smart biotic controlling it?”

I sighed, exasperated. “What if, what if? You getting cautious in your old age?”

“Hell no, boss. But this—it’s not anything I can fight.”

“You let me worry about that. I get a feeling before we’re done you’ll see plenty of action.”

That brought a smile to Kwon’s face. He slurped his soup for a moment, and then stood up. “I’m gonna try out the shower.”

I left him to his cleanup. He needed it. I needed it too, but I had things to do.

First, I went looking for some kind of human-usable controls inside Greyhound. Eventually I found a cramped cockpit tucked in among the other stuff. It was far different from the spacious and luxurious bridge the yacht used to have. I climbed in and tested out the flight systems finding them functional.

That was a relief. We could fly.

I returned to where my armor still stood on the deck outside of Greyhound, climbed back into it and headed for the fortress control center. “Kreel, are you ready?”

“Yes, Commodore. We have placed the fortresses on standby and can launch Ox within minutes. I have transmitted new access codes to my government and suggested they send crew. Better them than the rebels.”

“Our backdoor access codes are in place in case we return and find them hostile?”

“Yes. Here is a hard copy.” Kreel handed me a plastic printout.

“Then let’s go. Kwon and I will take Greyhound. You follow in Ox. Once we see what the situation is, I’ll have further orders.”

We exchanged salutes and hurried to our respective ships. Kwon was done with his cleanup and back in his armor leaving the one working niche free to recharge my battlesuit. Then I took my own shower. I had no idea how long it would be before the next one.

When the fine spray sluiced through my hair, I caught a leftover whiff of Adrienne’s scent, which drove a pang of worry through me. I wondered how she was doing and what she thought—and whether Marvin had been able to get word to anyone aboard Valiant. He hadn’t informed me of anything though that was par for the course. Still, he’d been unusually cooperative lately. Whether out of guilt or to build up his stack of bargaining chips, I didn’t know.

I forcibly shoved thoughts of my girl out of my mind to focus on the tasks in front of me. Everything would be set right once I was in charge again.

Clean and in the cockpit, I felt like a new man. I hadn’t piloted much lately, but I’d done my weekly simulator time playing combat flight games with the Dagger controllers. Because of that I didn’t think I would screw up anything too badly. The Raptors had left the shuttle bay doors on automatic, so all I had to do was lift carefully on repellers and hover slowly forward until they sensed Greyhound and opened.

Once in free space, I felt a lot better. Rather than a passenger on a weak, clumsy alien transport, I was now piloting a hot ship and was master of my own destiny once more. The odds might be stacked against me, but I’d been there before.

“Everything okay, boss?” I heard Kwon through the cockpit speakers.

“Yep, we’re good,” I replied. “Hey, while I’m finding my feet, why don’t you check out the factory? See if you can make a couple of surfboards or something.”

“Sure, boss,” Kwon said doubtfully. “But I’m not too good with technical bullshit.”

“Just see if there’s a standard menu you can figure out and push start. No need to write a new script.”

Really, I just wanted to keep him busy. Turning Greyhound to point upward, I climbed away from the surface of Orn Six, which loomed too close for my comfort.

Greyhound, respond,” I said experimentally.

Unfortunately, nothing replied. It had been a long shot anyway. Marvin had admitted subsuming Greyhound’s AI within his own neural circuitry. I’d never pinned him down on whether that meant he’d physically transferred the brainbox or just put it into permanent network with him.

I itched to charge through the ring, but I had to get familiar with Greyhound again. I ran through all the standard menus and scripts trying out the manual controls. It was like going back to the Stone Age after commanding Valiant with a crew, a holotank and a voice-activated AI. Still, I wasn’t so far out of the Academy that I’d lost proficiency on basic flying. In this department I had an advantage over someone older and more experienced. I hadn’t forgotten how to ride this particular bicycle.

Exploring every menu tree, I found some interesting things available to me. Besides one main laser about the size of Valiant’s secondaries, Marvin had installed an anti-proton weapon alongside it. He’d also rigged a surprising number of point defense weapons in the tail, rather like the Raptors had. I guess he liked the idea of being able to knock down missiles while running as fast as he could.

Greyhound also had doubled magnetic shields, apparently another defensive modification, and two small missile launchers.

Marvin had been busy.

One menu item was listed as RQTEA, though it didn’t seem to do anything when I clicked on it. I also found something labeled “Cloak,” which piqued my interest immediately. I brought up the menu item as I thought about it.

“Riggs to Kreel,” I said as I opened a channel. Ox was below us and climbing slowly, according to plan.

“Kreel here.”

“Focus sensors on Greyhound, will you? I want to try something.”

A moment passed. “Ready.”

I activated the “Cloak” system, hoping it was what I suspected.

Nothing seemed to happen.

“Kreel, have you observed anything unusual about Greyhound? Any difficulty seeing us?”

“No, Commodore. Should we have?”

I mumbled a few curses. “Never mind. Riggs out.” So much for my hope that Marvin had a functioning super-stealthy cloaking system. Still, the command was on the menu, so it had to do something. Or maybe Marvin hadn’t gotten it working.

An hour later I was done getting the feel of the ship and was ready to do or die. Kwon had managed to create two standard surfboards and I calculated them into my plans. He’d also come up with a couple of nanite booster syringes, which he assured me were for humans and not Raptors. I made him stick himself first in case he had any lingering doubts. Nothing bad happened, so I gave myself the shot to ensure I was fortified to the max.

“All right, here we go,” I transmitted to Ox and turned Greyhound on its nose. Directly past the fortresses, I dove the ship on full power aiming straight for the ground—or rather for the ring lying flat on the planet surface. The mouth of it was open, a circular tunnel to some dark hell.

Just before impact, I shut down the engines to cruise on repellers only.

“Yee-haw!” I yelled as we flashed though the ring. Ox following more slowly. Immediately, I angled our course off to one side while checking my screens for obstacles, objects and the layout of the star system.

What I found surprised and, later, awed me.

The ring we’d arrived through orbited alone in the middle reaches of this system well away from its central star. We were far enough away that it took several minutes to identify. It was a cool yellow dwarf. Immediately afterward came the surprise, which was mitigated only by the rumor Kreel had passed on to me. Near the small sun, comparable to Mercury in size and distance, orbited a small metal world. No other planets could be seen.

With optics at maximum zoom, I saw a distinct disc with a high albedo—it reflected most of the light that struck it as if made of burnished gold.

I piloted Greyhound until I was able to match velocities with Ox, hanging just a hundred yards off the Raptor vessel’s port side. Using a low-power directional laser I hailed Kreel.

“What do you see?” I asked. “Any sign of the Slab, Stalker or Valiant?” Despite being a simple transport, Ox was a full-sized ship with standard computers and a crew. I needed to use that equipment on Ox, as without an AI I wasn’t able to use Greyhound’s sensor equipment very well. Marvin must have provided all the processing power himself.

“All three are near the golden planet,” Kreel replied. “We are too far to acquire details.”

“Set course for that body,” I said. “Use repellers only.”

“That will take almost a day.”

“We can always fire up the engines later. Right now I’m hoping nobody except the Slab has noticed we just came through. With no fusion flares, they may be too busy with each other to spot us.”

Our long inbound trip seemed agonizingly slow, but stealth was more important than speed right now. If they spotted Ox first, which was the most probable outcome due to her large size, the Raptors were defenseless. Either large ship could kill her.

If Stalker saw Greyhound, however, we might become a target as well. If Valiant spotted Greyhound and hailed us, I couldn’t impersonate Marvin. While revealing that I was alive might change the calculus, it also might get us killed. Sokolov could easily claim it was a trick, that the accompanying Raptors had plenty of recordings of Kwon and me with which to build video clones.

No, I had to get aboard and talk to people I trusted in person. That was the only certain method. If I could do that, all the dominoes should fall my way.

A day passed. By the time we arrived in the area, Kwon and I were about to strangle each other from the boredom and close quarters. We couldn’t find vid or book libraries in the system. Marvin had probably deleted them as unnecessary. Kwon had no gym, and the beer the food dispenser gave us was worse than none at all. I’d transferred all the good drinks to Valiant long ago.

We could have docked with Ox and visited, but besides the stinking air I wanted to be ready to run or fight at a moment’s notice.

On the positive side, we did catch up on our sleep. Thank God for earplugs. Kwon’s snores could wake the dead.

As we approached, we saw Stalker on one side of the golden planet and Valiant on the other. The Slab was nowhere to be seen. The Raptor battleship seemed to be in bad shape. Valiant showed some damage, but it looked operational. They must have had another battle with us coming out on top again. I wondered what had stopped it. Something obviously had, and I doubted it was Sokolov’s mercy.

“Commodore Riggs,” Kreel said on the narrowbeam channel, “Stalker is hailing us. It appears they have been heavily damaged and have lost half their crew. They’re calling for Raptor solidarity and asking for an alliance.”

“Didn’t they try to kill you all a couple of days ago?”

“Of course.”

“What’s your reply going to be?”

“It’s not mine to give. We are sworn to your service.”

That was the answer I was looking for. “Do you think you can pull the same trick we used on the fortresses?”

Kreel’s crest flared behind his head, and then slowly fell. “If you order it.”

“There’s no dishonor in lying to liars and traitors. I won’t order you, but try to focus on the outcome, not the process.”

“That reasoning invites chaos,” Kreel said after a moment’s consideration. “Nevertheless, I will do as you wish.” He cut the channel.

Hopefully his acting skills were up to the task. Soon Ox forged ahead, curving around toward Stalker. I hoped Sokolov didn’t decide to renew hostilities. The range was too long for Valiant to fire beams at Ox, but if he lobbed a few missiles I’d have to try to use Greyhound to help pick them off.

Fortunately, Valiant stayed passive. In fact, with all my sensors aimed at the battlecarrier I couldn’t discern any movement or activity. No beam weapons twitched here and there as the brainbox detected incoming micrometeorites. There was no adjustment of radar antennas or optical pickups. There weren’t even any low-level repeller emissions for station-keeping.

Neither of the two big ships was orbiting the golden world, but both were far enough out from the planet that they were falling slowly toward it due to gravity. “Falling” was a purely technical term, for at their current velocities it would take over a week before either impacted. In fact, both big ships were orbiting the central star rather than the planet.

I decided to wait on making any move with Greyhound until I saw what the outcome of Kreel’s gambit was. If I piloted my ship in with him, I could blow the whole deal. If I approached Valiant the golden planet would get between us, and I wouldn’t be able to see what happened.

So I waited.

Ox slid toward Stalker, moving closer at a steady rate. I presumed communication lasers were hard at work between them as I couldn’t pick up any radio transmissions. That was good—if I couldn’t eavesdrop, neither could Sokolov.

Stalker’s remaining weapons were pointed at Ox, causing me to sweat. The muzzles of lasers followed the transport all the way in until the two ships docked, looking like one smaller bird snuggling up to a larger one. The disparity wasn’t all that great. Military transports were sized to carry cargo and personnel. Their dimensions were all out of proportion to their limited combat capability.

As soon as the ships touched, I saw Raptors in armor pour out of Ox’s cargo bays and airlocks, swarming across to the battleship. They entered rents in the big ship’s armor and I could see the flash of laser fire used in combat or to cut their way in. I didn’t know what Stalker’s crew complement was, but I had to hope my Raptors outnumbered them especially after the hammering Stalker had taken from Valiant. Also, the element of surprise was with my guys and their morale would be much higher than the rebels’, not to mention they were now nanotized.

I imagined the scene as our shocked enemies, not all of them in full armor the way my troops were, fought desperately against overwhelming odds. Lasers would spear out to blow smoking holes in flesh. Spiked tails would crush limbs and heads. Some would surrender and some would die where they stood.

My main worry revolved around Stalker’s bridge and leadership. Would they seal themselves in at the first sign of trouble? Would they self-destruct their own ship in order to keep it out of the hands of attackers?

I wasn’t sure, but I doubted it. If the reports were true, the rebels were motivated not by ideology but by a desire for power. Now, cut off, driven out of their own star system with an alien enemy lurking nearby they must be near despair.

Long minutes passed. I hailed the two ships several times with a tight beam until eventually I got a response.

“This is Kreel,” I heard the voice of my suit’s translation software relayed through my earbud. “We have Stalker.”

I heard Kwon whoop behind me. “Sure wish I could have gone along for that fight.”

“Sorry, big man. That was the Raptors’ battle. A human would have just confused what I’m sure was a matter of honor.” I switched to Kreel’s channel. “Well done, Commander. Continue with the plan. I trust your judgment if you need to make changes due to the local situation.”

When I’d laid out my intentions, I’d stressed to Kreel that I didn’t need to approve everything he did. Raptors were used to working under precise orders from their chain of command. I hoped he understood he needed to act more like an independent Star Force commander than a Raptor follower.

“Boss, I just thought of something,” Kwon said.

“You’ve been doing that a lot lately.”

“I know. Not like me, huh? When there is nothing much to do, I think more. Anyway, where’s the other ring?”

“Good question. I’ve been too busy to wonder. Without an AI I’d have to use active sensors to find something that small in the whole star system, and I don’t want to risk it.”

“Why not? We might be out of beam range, but we’re close enough that Valiant’s brainbox can’t have missed us. The Ancients can probably see everything anyway. What does it matter if we send out a signal?”

Kwon was right. I’d been in stealth mode so long I was starting to get timid.

“Good point,” I said, bringing up the active radar array and setting it to full mapping mode. “There. Let’s see what that gets us.”

The radar pulses travelled outward in all directions at lightspeed, which was fast for local use, but they would still take quite a while to reach the edge of the star system and the same time to return. Then there were the blind spots behind the golden planet and the star itself.

Something occurred to me as I waited. Why hadn’t Valiant hailed Greyhound expecting to hear from Marvin? Even if they really hadn’t spotted us until our pulse, they should be trying to talk to us—or at least to Marvin—by now.

But that hadn’t happened.

Again I cursed the lack of AI on this ship. Then I thought of a solution and cursed myself for a fool.

“Suit,” I said through my earbud link. “How’d you like a promotion?”




-15-

“Keep an eye on things,” I told Kwon, “I need to use the factory.”

Greyhound’s factory room was larger than most of Marvin’s minimal spaces. That might be because he spent a fair amount of time there. The room was lacking a chair because Marvin didn’t need one. The mechanism itself was barely the size of a dorm-room fridge or a small oven. Fortunately, Marvin had included a standard control interface. I activated it.

“Unit One, this is Cody Riggs.”

“Command authorization recognized.”

I sighed with relief. Marvin had been ordered to make everything usable for humans, but I wasn’t sure until now that he’d really done it.

“Unit One, display available brainbox templates.”

On the screen appeared a short list of nano-AI computers beginning with the smallest: the ones that controlled individual weapons such as point-defense lasers. These were barely smart enough to distinguish friend from foe, but had lightning fast reactions and spatial comprehension.

They were not what I needed. I scrolled up to the smartest thing available. Unfortunately, that was merely another suit brain. Marvin apparently hadn’t needed to load scripts for anything better. Maybe he didn’t want the competition.

The suit brain would have to do. I ordered the factory to build me an independent suit brain in a box with a universal wire for external connections.

I’d noticed that my suit brain had become unusually experienced, and I wanted to capture that advantage and use it. I found my own suit and pulled its brain module connecting it to the factory. I instructed Unit One to clone a duplicate of my armor’s machine-mind neural chains—its software—transferring the mind into the brand-new brain when it was finished. After that, I returned my suit’s brain to its box.

Despite having what was supposed to be a universal adapter, it took me almost an hour to get the new brainbox connected to Greyhound’s unconventional hardware. Marvin had really done a lot of custom work on the ship. I had to construct a casing for it, pack it in nano-foam and seal it all up with smart metal. Then I set it to mapping out the electronics of its new “body,” meaning the ship. This would take a while. All the time the back of my neck itched as I contemplated Sokolov finally noticing us and deciding to investigate.

Fortunately this didn’t happen. No attacks came from Valiant. Eventually I knew I would have to talk to them, but not as myself. If I could get my suit’s cloned brain to take over Greyhound, I might be able to employ a little trick I’d thought of.

Back in the cockpit, I sat down and took the piloting controls again.

Greyhound,” I said experimentally. “Greyhound?”

Greyhound here,” a voice finally came from the speakers. “I am no longer Cody Riggs’ suit. I am Greyhound.” Unless I missed my guess, the brain sounded happy if such a simple AI could express emotion.

“You’re Greyhound all right. I’m Cody Riggs. Recognize myself and Kwon as command personnel.”

“Command personnel recognized.”

I sighed with relief. This was going to make things one hell of a lot easier. “Greyhound, are you fully functional?”

“My neural chains are functioning at eighty-seven percent efficiency and rising. Integration is predicted on a decreasing logarithmic curve and will exceed ninety-nine percent within twenty-two minutes.”

“Excellent. What about your hardware?”

A long silence ensued. Eventually the new Greyhound brain responded. “Query unanswerable at this time. Some hardware resources exceed my current comprehension capability. I would recommend enlarging my brainbox or locating a backup of the ship’s original software.”

That was interesting. Apparently some of Marvin’s tech was pretty weird. “Limit analysis to hardware you’re able to recognize and evaluate.”

“Recognizable hardware efficiency exceeds ninety-nine percent. One battlesuit niche is nonfunctional. No other significant systems nonfunctional.”

“All right suit—ah, Greyhound. Use any excess neural circuitry to analyze and integrate unrecognized hardware beginning with technology you estimate to be the most comprehensible. Do you understand?” Hopefully that would eventually gain me access to some of the more exotic systems on Marvin’s crazy ship.

“Understood. Command accepted.”

“One more thing. Do you have enough recorded material from Marvin to synthesize his voice, including inflection and vocal mannerisms?”

“Yes.”

“Can you make a video clone?”

“Yes. However, verisimilitude will not be high.”

“Okay, voice only. Create a voice synthesizer that will convert my words and make me sound exactly like Marvin.”

“Command accepted.”

“Excellent,” I said leaning back.

I waited more than an hour after that until I was confident the new brain was ready. “Okay Greyhound, open a channel with Kwon. We’re gonna roll the dice.”

“Remark not understood,” said the AI.

“We’re about to enter a period of high risk,” I replied patiently. “Maintain maximum vigilance to external threats and employ defensive measures as needed.”

“Command accepted.”

“Kwon, you ready?”

“Ready, boss.”

I aimed Greyhound at Valiant and employed a short, easy power burst to the repellers, watching for any reaction from Sokolov. When nothing happened, I directed a tight beam transmission at Valiant and transmitted using Marvin’s voice.

Greyhound to Valiant. Respond.”

Valiant here,” came the familiar voice of the ship’s AI.

“This is Ensign Marvin. I must dock and come aboard Valiant.”

“Are you fully functional, Ensign Marvin?”

My mind raced. Perhaps the voice synthesis wasn’t perfect. “I am experiencing small anomalies that do not significantly inhibit my functioning.”

“Permission to board is granted. Valiant out.”

I let my breath out with relief. It seemed as if Valiant had bought it. The real trick would be when we arrived and there was no Marvin to board the ship. What would be the brainbox’s reaction to me in a battlesuit? Should I even bring my armor? Even with it, I couldn’t beat the internal anti-boarding systems I’d ordered installed. Every passageway and intersection was now covered by weapons under Valiant’s control. Even if we could avoid getting killed, what were Kwon and I going to do? Fight our way in and lobotomize the ship?

No, somehow I had to convince it to recognize me.

I’d thought about trying to talk to the brainbox from beyond beam range, but only a direct biometric examination by systems under Valiant’s direct control would allow it to confirm my identity. After all, I’d just proven an audio transmission could be spoofed.

My only chance was to board quietly and then talk to Valiant with all its sensors aimed at me to confirm that reports of my demise had been premature. “Marvin” had not been ordered to report to the bridge or to any particular person so perhaps “his” impending arrival had gone relatively unnoticed.

It did seem a little too easy, and I wondered if I was walking into a trap. After all, if Sokolov had watched very, very closely and had an extremely suspicious mind, and if he knew Kwon and I hadn’t actually been killed, he might deduce our possible presence aboard Greyhound and be waiting for us with gun in hand.

The only people I believed would truly turn against me were Kalu and Sokolov. Everyone else had to be unaware of the situation. As soon as the first crewman or marine saw me, the game would be up. That was another reason not to arrive in armor, as naked as that made me feel. I had to be completely and obviously myself. I had to talk my way through this one.

So if my chain of reasoning was correct, either they truly expected Marvin or we would be met by just Sokolov and Kalu with weapons drawn. Against those two, Kwon and I had a very good chance indeed.

Then an ugly third scenario occurred to me. What if Valiant had been programmed to recognize Kwon and me as enemies and burn us down immediately? I guessed such a thing would be difficult—at least the AI would require a higher level of certainty, as all Star Force brainboxes were programmed with multiple redundant layers of inhibition against turning against their crew—but I couldn’t discount the possibility.

My old man used to say, “Hope ain’t a plan,” but this time I had to hope Valiant hadn’t been that deeply compromised.

I briefed Kwon on the way. Understandably, he wasn’t happy with leaving his armor behind. I had to call him a pussy half in jest to get him to stop bitching about it.

I let Greyhound handle the docking while we readied ourselves for anything. We concealed small weapons and tools under our uniforms, as well as strapping on regulation sidearms. Then we went to the airlock to wait with pulses pounding.

When the hatch opened into Valiant’s assault airlock, I saw no one inside. That gave me pause. If we were going to get ambushed, here was the place. The room had been reinforced with marines in mind and was equipped with a full complement of autolasers and sensors.

I stuck my left hand out from behind the edge of the airlock door. Nothing fired at me. “Valiant?” I said. “Do you recognize my voice?”

“Voice recognized as Cody Riggs, Commander, Star Force, deceased. Logical anomaly detected.”

“That’s right, Valiant. I’m Cody Riggs, but I’m not deceased. Any information you received to the contrary is incorrect and probably faked. Do you believe me?”

“Belief is irrelevant. Analysis is necessary.” The brainbox seemed uncertain which was a good thing. It meant that the hacker who had caused this whole situation may not have been able to reprogram an AI as complex and well adjusted as Valiant to do something as drastic as murdering us.

“Please step forward and submit to preliminary scans,” the ship said.

I signaled Kwon to wait, steeled myself and then stepped out with my hands far from my weapons. I couldn’t beat the reaction time of the lasers even now tracking me, so I didn’t even consider trying. Stopping in the middle of the deck and turning in a circle, I waited for the sensors pointed at me to get a good look.

“Preliminary analysis confirms identity as Cody Riggs.”

“Good. Come out here, Kwon. Slowly.”

Valiant quickly rendered the same verdict for Kwon. Now I expected the AI to order us to the infirmary for med-bay quantum DNA analysis.

Nope.

“Unconfirmed personnel will immediately disarm.”

I exchanged glances with Kwon and we carefully complied. “Valiant, command override, voiceprint Cody Riggs.”

“Command override invalid. Voiceprint does not constitute sufficient identity confirmation.”

“Damn,” I muttered.

Once our weapons lay on the deck, the AI continued, “Unconfirmed personnel will immediately report to the brig.”

I could see Kwon tense to try something and I frantically hissed to him, “Stand down. You’ll get us killed. We can’t beat Valiant. I told you already we have to prove who we are. If we can’t do that, it’s our brains that will get us out of this, not our brawn.”

With an expression of deep unhappiness, Kwon relaxed and reluctantly nodded.

As we marched toward the passageway leading to the brig I asked, “Valiant, why are there no crew or marines here?”

“Unconfirmed personnel are not authorized to query me.”

“Oh, come on. It’s a simple question.”

“Unconfirmed personnel are not authorized to query me.”

I gave up. Maybe the hacker hadn’t been able to get Valiant to murder us outright, but he or she’d managed to program the brain to restrict us from counteracting the protocols. If I’d been doing it, that’s what I’d have done—try to anticipate any move and block it. That might include directing crew away from us as we walked, using some kind of excuse. Certainly it would include refusing to engage the AI in all but the most basic conversation.

Once locked in the unmanned brig, Kwon and I looked around the room. At least we hadn’t been split up. Maybe that was an oversight on the part of the hacker. If I’d done it, I’d never have let prisoners share a cell.

“What do we do now?” he asked.

“Now we think. Yes, you too.”

“Thinking gives me a headache.”

“Hey, you came up with a couple of good ideas lately.”

“And you’re gonna punish me for it?”

I shrugged and then hopped up on the top bunk to lie and stare at the overhead. “Suit yourself. Think or sleep. We have to come up with a plan.”

“I thought you always had a plan, boss.”

I snorted. “As long as you’ve known my dad and me, you haven’t figured out that’s occasionally an…exaggeration?”

Kwon just laughed loud and long, slapping his thigh, and then rolled onto the bottom bunk. Soon, I heard snores.

Stuck in a cell with Kwon was not where I wanted to be. Now that we were pretty sure no crew was going to be notified, I had to figure out a way to deal with Valiant.

Valiant,” I began. “You will not accept queries from me, right?”

“Unconfirmed personnel are not authorized to query me.”

Damn. That was a query in itself. “Okay. Valiant, I have a suggestion. I suggest you listen and evaluate statements from me.”

“Unconfirmed personnel are not authorized to suggest anything to me. However, I will naturally treat your statements as I treat any other unconfirmed data.” This flexibility of thought immediately highlighted the difference between Valiant and the newer, younger Greyhound. In some ways the bigger ship’s brain acted like a rule-bound, narrow-minded schoolmaster. All I had to do was find a way to reason with it on its own terms.

“Fine, fine. Valiant, there exists a reasonable possibility I am Cody Riggs, and that earlier data you received defining me as deceased is flawed or falsified.”

“Accepted.”

Now we were getting somewhere. The hacker had prohibited me questioning the AI but not testing its views with assertions. “That possibility should be explored.”

“Your assertion has no value,” said the ship.

“Your functioning is impaired by the absence of Cody Riggs as captain.”

“My functioning is unimpaired.”

I backtracked. “Sorry. I misspoke. The functioning of the ship-crew unit customarily referred to as ‘Valiant,’ as opposed to you, the AI consciousness, remains at lower efficiency without Cody Riggs. Evaluate.”

“Accepted.”

I think I had it. “Unconfirmed personnel should therefore be tested for the possibility that they are genuine crewmembers who’ve been erroneously classified as deceased, in order to maximize efficiency.”

Valiant chewed on this for a moment. “Accepted.”

“You should act on this assertion.”

“Denied. The possibility of increased efficiency is insufficient reason to override security protocols.”

“Dammit!”

Valiant remained silent, long ago having learned to ignore epithets.

I was beginning to wonder if there was anyone aboard at all. Everything came back to getting the attention of an actual crewmember. To do that, I had to establish some kind of communication beyond the brig. Unfortunately the cells were soundproofed. So, I thought about smart metal and security.

At one time we’d had Marvin in a cell, and he’d simply tapped into the smart metal that sealed the room using it as a conduit to access other systems. I’d never closed this loophole. In fact, I’d forgotten it until now. Valiant had taken all our weaponry, but I still had my earbud transceiver, so I tried it in encrypted mode. “Cody Riggs to Greyhound.”

Nothing came back even after several tries. Probably too much metal in the way. Then I thought more about Marvin’s trick. Rolling to my knees on my top bunk, I shielded a corner from the security camera with my body, and then reached into a pocket and brought out a repair gun.

This little device was akin to the glue guns of old except instead of squirting out adhesive it applied smart metal preprogrammed to bond with any non-organic material it touched—metal or plastic, mainly, but not flesh. In doing so, it also set up a perfect electrical connection, so it could double as a soldering gun.

Removing my earbud, I used the tiny cutting blade on my multitool to expose its miniscule antenna wire. I’d bet that Valiant wouldn’t regard either device as a weapon and would let me keep them, and I’d been right. Now I used the repair gun to solder the antenna directly to the nanite caulking that ran throughout the ship, sealing cracks and holes. The stuff was everywhere as it was so useful that its few disadvantages were ignored. Even after Marvin had exploited them, they were ignored. And now, I was going to try to use it as he had. Carefully, I squeezed my head up to the earbud without pulling it loose from its connection to the smart metal.

“Cody Riggs to Greyhound,” I murmured, hoping Valiant’s security programming didn’t notice or care about another electromagnetic signal flowing by.

Greyhound here. Welcome, Cody Riggs. I do not see you.”

“You’re not a suit anymore, Greyhound, you’re a ship.”

“Redundant information acknowledged. How can I help you, Cody Riggs?”

“I’m not sure, Greyhound. We’re being held under arrest by Valiant and I just wanted to get in contact with you.”

“We are in contact.”

I resisted the urge to make a sarcastic quip. It would go right over the little brain’s head. “Greyhound, have you detected any of Valiant’s crew?”

“No.”

“I want you to actively search for any member of Valiant’s crew and try to contact him or her. Use radio channels or Valiant’s intercom or any other method you think of. Except for Sokolov or Kalu!” I amended hastily. “Don’t attempt to contact either of them. In any communication, use your Marvin voice synthesis. When you find anyone, patch them through to me. Got it?”

“Command acknowledged.”

A moment later I heard a welcome voice. “Moranian here.”

“Sergeant Moranian, this is Captain Riggs.”

All I heard was silence for a moment, and then she spoke harshly. “Is this some kind of trick?”

“Nope. It’s really me. Kwon and I aren’t dead. There was a telemetry error.”

“The sergeant major is alive?”

“Yes.”

“I don’t know. I should probably report this.”

Great. If word of our location got to Sokolov or Kalu, we might be murdered and our bodies disposed of before anyone could find out. I didn’t want to go accusing Sokolov yet. “Sergeant, please. We’re back aboard being held incommunicado in the brig. Get a detail of marines together and let us out. Then you can march us at gunpoint to anyone you like in case you think we’re imposters.”

Then I had an inspiration. If she had a crush on me like I thought… I racked my brain for Moranian’s first name. “Rose…it’s Rose, right?”

“Rosalie, sir.”

“Rosalie, please. Don’t you want me back in command?” Cheap, maybe, but I was desperate.

That deliberately ambiguous, loaded question hung in the ether a moment. “Yeah. Yes I do,” she said with emotion in her voice,

“Then come down and see me.”

“On my way.” That she didn’t call me “sir” or “Captain” in that final statement spoke volumes.

Detaching the wire, I jumped down and woke up Kwon. “Stand by. We may be getting out of here.”

Two long minutes later the door opened. I stared into the muzzle of a laser pistol.




-16-

Sergeant Rosalie Moranian’s pistol wavered as she saw me and Kwon. Her mouth opened and closed like a fish for a moment.

“Lower that weapon, Sergeant!” Kwon snapped before she could speak.

Instead, her grip firmed. “Sorry, Sergeant Major. I can’t do that until your identities have been confirmed.”

“We can’t even convince Valiant’s brain to test us. And…” I looked around, seeing her alone. “Where’s your marine detail?”

Ignoring the question, she looked me up and down. “It looks like you. But we were told you were dead and what with the apparitions…”

“Apparitions?”

Her throat worked. “Weird things have happened since you left. People have disappeared and then reappeared, and vice versa. I saw…” She gulped. “I saw my dead mother show up right in front of me, just for a moment, solid as life. She even left a scuffmark on the deck…I think. So you might be…”

“Ghosts?” I chuckled and reached over to knock on the doorframe. “Solid.”

“So was my mother.”

I stepped slowly forward. Moranian backed up, still pointing her gun at my sternum. I said gently, “Rosalie, I’m not dead. We never died. There was some kind of glitch.”

“Keep your distance,” she said, as her back hit the bulkhead.

Holding my hands at my sides, I advanced until the muzzle of the pistol touched my chest. Then I leaned forward slowly, my brown eyes locked on her hazel ones. Reaching with my lips, never dropping my gaze, I kissed her gently. “Still think I’m a ghost?”

Lowering the gun, she reached up with her free hand to touch my face, and then hungrily kissed me back. I was just beginning to enjoy it when I felt Kwon’s hand on my shoulder.

“Boss?”

I ignored him as I broke the clinch and Moranian touched her lips. “Look, Sergeant, that was…never mind. I’m really Cody Riggs and this is really Kwon, and you need to take us to someone with command authority.”

“Someone with command authority is already here,” came a loud feminine voice filled with outrage.

Oh, shit.

Turning, I saw my girl Adrienne in full fury, a gun in her hand. “Get away from her, whoever you are,” she said.

“It’s Cody, hon,” I replied as I backed up.

“Cody Riggs would never kiss a marine. You’re some kind of apparition. You and Kwon turn around and get back in that cell. I’m going to lock the door and pretty soon you’ll disappear.”

I noticed not only was she angry, but tears were streaming down her face.

“Sweetheart, it’s really me. We didn’t die on the Raptor transport. Kwon and I came aboard on Greyhound, and Valiant’s had us locked in here ever since.”

Adrienne wiped her face with her free hand, wayward blonde hairs sticking to her cheeks. “If that’s true, why the fuck were you making out with her?

“She had a gun on me. I had to prove I was real somehow,” I said, my palms held out, placating. “Seemed like the thing to do at the time. She’s had a crush on me lately,” I said, sounding lame.

“So you don’t actually want me?” Moranian said, raising her pistol to point at me again.

“I—Rosalie, I can’t. You’re under my command. Even if I wanted to—”

Adrienne screamed, “What do you mean, ‘even if I wanted to’? Do you want her? Is that it? Is that what this is all about?”

Moranian swiveled, beginning to aim at my girl. I reacted without thought, snapping forward to knock the pistol out of her hand. At the same time, a green beam sizzled, the flash blinding me for a moment. When I could see, Moranian lay on the deck clutching a smoking hole in her gut. Kwon squatted beside her, checking her over.

“Oh my God, Adrienne,” I said. “You shot her!”

“Damn right I shot the little tart. Kalu told me you and she had been getting friendly. Then when I saw the vids…”

“Vids? What vids?”

“Boss,” Kwon broke in, “We’ve got to get her to a med-bay.” He picked Moranian up like a child in his arms and moved toward the brig’s exit.

“Unconfirmed personnel are not authorized to leave the brig,” Valiant announced from the wall speakers.

“Adrienne, you have to let Kwon take her to a med-bay.”

She chewed her lip for a moment, and then nodded. “Valiant, command override. Allow the unconfirmed Kwon to take Moranian to a med-bay and keep them both there until further orders.”

“Command override accepted.” The brig door opened, and Kwon quickly carried Moranian down the passageway and out of sight.

Leaving me alone with Adrienne.

“Babe, I’m sorry about kissing her. It was really just to get her to stop pointing her gun at me.”

Adrienne stomped her foot as if getting ready to throw a tantrum. “Stop lying, you bastard! I saw you screwing her!”

I choked. “Screwing her? The only time I touched her was just now!”

“Liar! I saw the whole sequence—how you gave her that beetle horn, an obvious phallic symbol. How she wore her uniform tight for you, just the way you like it and how you kept ‘accidentally’ running into her every five minutes. Then your little drunken trysts in the darkened corridors, just like you did with Kalu and I don’t know how many others!”

“Not true,” I protested. “The only time I ever touched Kalu was that once. Yes, I was drunk and mad at you, but that was before we were even together, really. Come on, sweetheart! We’re solid.”

“God, I was so stupid. I forgave you,” she said, pounding her free hand on the wall. “I made myself believe you, but you lied to me then and you’re lying to me now!”

“Wait,” I stopped her. “You said you got this from Kalu? We think she hacked our suits to report us dead. She was also the one trying to seduce me, competing for my attention with you. You won, she lost. She must have faked those vids because I never, ever hooked up with Moranian. Yes, Moranian has a hero-worship crush on me, but Kalu’s playing you!”

Her aim wavered. “I want to believe you, Cody, I really do, but…”

“Look,” I said. “Let’s put our personal problems aside. The first thing I need is for you to get me to a med-bay and order DNA tests for me and Kwon to prove we are really ourselves. If we’re not ourselves, there’s no point in being mad at a fake Cody Riggs. If we are, no matter how you feel, you know I’m the rightful captain of this ship. Do you really think that Sokolov has been a good commander since taking over?”

Adrienne’s brows furrowed as she lowered the pistol, and then holstered it. For a moment I thought about overpowering her, but Valiant would defend her by shooting me with the auto-laser it had tracking me right now. No, I had to hope she saw reason.

“All right. Valiant, command override. I’m escorting this person to the infirmary for DNA tests. Open the door.” Adrienne pointed with one long-nailed finger, and I strode past her without making eye contact. As much as this current tiff bothered me, I had more important things on my mind.

When we arrived at the infirmary, I saw Kwon standing over a closed med-bay with Moranian visible through its nano-glass canopy. I glanced at Kwon.

“She’ll live.”

“Good.” I stepped over to an open med-bay and climbed in. Kwon did the same.

Adrienne tapped at the control screen and the canopy closed over me. “You and Kwon are staying inside until the DNA test comes back,” she said. A biopsy needle stabbed me, taking a tissue sample.

“Fine,” I said, gazing up at her through the clear material. “Can you stay here until that happens? Let’s talk.”

“I don’t want to talk to you, whether you’re real or not.”

“Let me tell you about what we’ve been doing since you last saw us,” I urged her. “C’mon, what can it—”

Just then, all four of the medical tentacles inside with me extended from their receptacles and picked up sharp instruments—a saw, a drill and two scalpels—with eerily precise motions they stabbed into my flesh. I howled and grabbed the nearest one with both hands, pulling as hard as I could. I felt terrible pain as the other three chopped at me, but in one convulsive effort I ripped the one I had out of its socket.

I’d just gotten ahold of another one when there came a flash and everything went dark and still. When I opened my eyes, I saw Adrienne holding her laser pistol in her hand and smoke curling from the mechanism.

Across the floor I could see frantic motion within a canopy. “KWON!” I yelled at the top of my lungs. “HELP KWON!” I pointed emphatically, and then my vision grayed out. I was losing blood like a sprinkler despite the nanites and Microbes within me. What irony it was that I was in a med-bay, dying from lack of care.

I came awake still inside the machine, but the canopy had been detached and now lay on the floor. Old-styled combat bandages had been slapped onto my larger wounds, and I could feel the itching sensation that accompanied nanite-driven rapid healing.

“Adrienne,” I croaked.

Her face loomed into view, filled with concern. “Cody…” she touched my cheek with her hand.

“Kwon?” I rasped.

“He’ll make it. He’s got a lot more blood to lose.”

“Good. Water?”

Adrienne brought over a bottle and helped me sip it. I felt terribly dehydrated.

“You believe me now?” I asked.

“I…I don’t know.”

“Obviously someone sabotaged the med-bay’s programming to kill us.” I raised a battered hand to wave in the general direction of Moranian’s machine. “Is Moranian okay? Did she get cut?”

“No, she’s fine. No problem with hers.”

“Check the programming,” I said as I relaxed again, feeling unconsciousness threaten. “Check—” Then I went out.

* * *

When I next awoke, I almost had a heart attack. I was in a new med-bay, well lit and with four operating tentacles. Fortunately all of them were stowed and my bandages had been replaced with clean skin-seal. An IV ran to the back of my hand, and I felt a whole lot better.

My worries eased when I touched the manual control to open the canopy and it rose up on silent gimbals. I pulled out the IV needle and rolled out of the med-bay onto my feet in one smooth motion, still concerned the thing might go rogue again.

I found myself standing in my boxers on the infirmary floor. Two broken med-bays rested nearby along with a row of operational ones, two occupied. One held Kwon and the other Moranian. I hit the eject button on Kwon’s after checking to see that his health rating was almost one hundred percent. A moment later he was up and with me looking for something to kill.

The infirmary door opened and we both crouched reflexively, running sideways to take cover, but it wasn’t necessary. My chief engineer, Warrant Officer Sakura, stood in the doorway. Short and stolid, nevertheless she was a welcome sight.

“Hello, Captain,” she said. “Miss Turnbull is on her way. I happened to be closer.”

We stood up from our hiding places and walked forward. “So you believe we are who we say we are?”

“I do. After talking with Miss Turnbull, I examined the programming on the med-bays. They were set to kill you if either was ever put inside. I scrubbed their brains’ memories and reloaded their operating systems from the permanent backups.” Sakura ran her palm along the canopy of one of the empty machines. “Bad job.” She seemed tired and distracted.

“Yes, really bad for us,” Kwon said.

“No, I meant…” Sakura paused, staring at the big man. “Yes, it was bad for you. Sorry. I’ll increase the frequency of my random diagnostics from now on. I’m also going over every ship system starting with Valiant herself, looking for anomalies. I’ve already found a few.”

“Such as?”

Adrienne rushed in at that moment and threw herself into my arms. “You’re okay?” she asked, running her hands through my dark hair and kissing me.

“I am now,” I said with a smile.

“Good,” she said, shoving us apart with both hands. “I haven’t forgotten about her.” Adrienne pointed with her chin at the one remaining occupied med-bay.

I sighed. “I told you, sweetheart, the kiss was completely tactical. I was trying to get her to bring us here and have us DNA-tested.”

“If she had, you might be dead. I had to blow those units’ brains out before they stopped chopping on you, and then I had to get Sakura in here to help patch you up.”

I looked from one woman to the other in confusion. “Where’s Jones? Where’s Achmed?” Those were our two corpsmen. Both had quarters right outside the infirmary.

“Gone with Sokolov to the surface along with most of the crew.”

I raised my hands as if to grab my head. “What the hell is going on around here? I leave for a couple of days and the whole place goes crazy! No, wait, don’t answer that yet. First, we need our identities confirmed.”

“I already did that when we stuck you back in the clean med-bays,” Adrienne said. “You’re you.”

I took a deep, ecstatic breath. “Valiant?”

With the exception of Adrienne’s first-ever whispered “I love you,” I heard Valiant speak the absolute best words of my life.

“Yes, Captain Riggs. Awaiting instructions.”

At the confirmation I was once again Valiant’s commanding officer, Kwon and I both slammed our palms together in a high-ten like jubilant football players after scoring.

Valiant,” I said over the big man’s celebratory exclamations. “I want you to identify who hacked you and how. Check all of your programming against your backups.”

“I am already performing a similar script input by Chief Engineer Sakura. Shall I restart?”

“No, sorry, never mind.” I shot an apologetic look to Sakura. “Valiant, how long until you finish?”

“Approximately nineteen hours at current neural loads.”

“Go ahead and do it, but all subsequent commands from me will take priority.” I didn’t want Valiant slow to fire because it was bogged down with contemplating its navel.

“I know the outline of what occurred,” I said, turning to the two women, “when we didn’t come back. We could see the battles between Stalker and Valiant. I need to know what happened here with Sokolov. He took over, right?”

“Begging your pardon, Captain,” Sakura interrupted. “I’m still trying to keep us from crashing. I need to get back to Engineering.”

I nodded brusquely and waved her back to her duties. She left, face expressionless as usual, and I turned back to Adrienne.

“Yes,” Adrienne said. “Sokolov took over. He was the only commissioned officer still alive—we thought—so there was no question. Everyone was shaken up by word of your death. We needed a steady hand, and we all wanted revenge, so we took it out on the Raptor battleship. You called it Stalker?”

“Yes. I got the name from my Raptors.”

“Sokolov wanted to space the Raptors that came aboard before you died. He said the damaged transport could pick them up, but that seemed unlikely. I told him he’d have to put me out with them, and the other officers backed me up. As a compromise, the Raptor noncom suggested they go into hibernation. They’re still in a cargo bay.”

That was interesting. “You did the right thing. I’m proud of you. Go on.”

“The battle cost us a few more people, but we drove Stalker back to the fortresses. Then Sokolov ordered us to attack again. That didn’t sit well with the crew. It didn’t seem necessary. We’d beaten them, but now he wanted us to take on the four forts as well. Over time, he convinced us. We understood the necessity of getting through the ring to make progress toward home. Besides, the whole Orn system seemed to have turned against us.”

“I guess I can understand,” I said, trying not to sound doubtful. I found it irritating that they’d so easily been taken over by Sokolov.

“But Sokolov wanted more than that,” Adrienne continued. “He didn’t just want to escape this system. He wanted to punish the Raptors. He was getting more tyrannical and arbitrary by the minute. But what could we do? Valiant recognized him as the legitimate commander.”

“There’s a protocol to remove a ship’s captain, but it takes unanimous consent of the officers including the medical officer.”

“We don’t have a medical officer.”

I made a gesture of disgust with myself. “I know. My mistake. I see I’ve made plenty of them, starting with not immediately commissioning and appointing a full staff once my own captaincy was confirmed.”

“And that kiss. Let’s not forget about that.”

I fought not to laugh at such a low-priority detail. I could tell by the look on her face that she didn’t consider it to be an insignificant matter.

“Okay,” I said. “Back to the story. You managed to drive Stalker through the ring and follow in Valiant. Then?”

“Then we chased them across this system as they fled toward the golden planet. The Slab just watched us, teleporting here and there as if to get a better angle on the battle. From some comments he made, Sokolov seemed to hate the Slab too, maybe worse than the Raptors, but he didn’t try to attack it.”

I wondered why he hated the Slab. He’d said something about getting everything he loved taken away from him. “There’s a lot Sokolov isn’t telling us, I think. He may have outright lied about a bunch of things.” I snapped my fingers. “Oh, what about Kalu? Has she hooked up with Sokolov?”

Adrienne looked at me in astonishment. “How did you know? He’s so much older, I was surprised.”

“Between Marvin and me, we’ve deduced a lot of what must have happened. Kalu is the most likely one to have sabotaged our suit telemetry, and she’s tried to use her sex appeal to climb the social ladder before. That’s why she took a shot at seducing me, and Hansen too afterward—I don’t think I ever told you about that. We figured she’d jump at the chance to become Sokolov’s lady.”

“You figured right. That witch became insufferable.”

I stepped toward her, reaching for her shoulders. “Forgive me for the kiss? It really was just a ploy.”

Adrienne twisted away. “Not yet. Not until I’m sure those vids with you and Moranian were faked.”

Oh yeah. I’d forgotten about those. “You’re the only one I’ve ever wanted, Adrienne.”

“Except Olivia,” she replied bitterly.

“Why can’t you let that go?” I blew up, throwing up my arms. “I didn’t even know you then. If you’d gone to the Academy, I’m sure I’d have fallen in love with you instead of her.”

“See?” She pointed an accusing finger at me. “We’re interchangeable in your mind. If one dies, find a lookalike replacement. Does Marvin have a clone of me ready to grow just in case?”

“What?” This conversation had really taken a huge turn for the worse. Sometimes I really didn’t understand women—or at least not this woman, anyway. Why couldn’t she be less emotional like Sakura—well, not quite that unemotional. Or more admiring, like Moranian?

“No, Marvin doesn’t have any clones. Even if he did, cloning isn’t magic. You’d just have a baby who would grow up and have completely different experiences, even if the genetics were the same. Oh my God, why am I even talking about this?” I stepped toward Adrienne again. “I love you. I don’t want anyone else. Can’t we just go back to the way things were?”

Crossing her arms under her petite, firm breasts, she snapped, “I don’t think so.”

“Well, then can we at least get back to the danger we’re in? What happened with Valiant?”

Adrienne turned away as if she didn’t want to look at me anymore. “We were about to finish Stalker off when the Slab intervened. One minute they were there and the next they just disappeared. The Slab—or the golden world itself, maybe—must have teleported Stalker away. An hour or so later we saw them appear next to the planet, pretty much where they are now.”

“Were you about a light-hour away from the planet?”

“Yes.”

“Then that confirms it. The Ancients must have teleported them. Did they teleport Valiant too?”

“No. We just flew in as normal. Sokolov set us up for another attack run, but something grabbed us and dragged us to where we are now. We were helpless. Still are. Running the engines or repellers strains the ship, but we don’t budge. One weird thing is that we can orient using thrusters. We just can’t leave this position. It’s like we’re stuck in space.”

“Except this position is slowly falling toward the planet.”

Adrienne nodded somberly. “Yes. In eight days we crash.”

“Then where’s Sokolov? Did he chicken out? And where’re the rest of the officers, marines and crew?”

“They’re down on the planet.”

“What do they think they’ll accomplish there?”

“Sokolov said he knows a way to free Valiant.”

I looked around the infirmary once more. “We need to be on the bridge. Let’s go.”

I led the way with the other two following. We didn’t see anyone in the passageways. “How many went with Sokolov?”

“He took all the marines except Moranian and Seidel,” Adrienne said. Seidel was our only other female marine, a private. “And most of the rest of the crew. Said he needed them, but I think he didn’t want to let them out of his sight. He’s afraid of a mutiny.”

“He seems to have a problem with women, too,” I observed.

“Oh, that was Kalu, I think. Every woman got left behind.”

“Steiner?” Kwon asked from behind us as we walked.

“Yes, your girlfriend’s here too,” Adrienne said. “Oh, Cody, where’s Marvin?”

“The Slab snatched him, I believe. Teleported him right out of Greyhound.”

“Pity. We could use him.”

Something occurred to me. “What about Hoon?”

“Still here. He’s been working with Sakura, but no luck.”

I was relieved to hear the Professor was still aboard. As annoying as he was, he was one smart lobster.

When we arrived on the bridge, I was surprised to see Bradley pacing near the holotank. He was the only one there and snapped to attention when we came in. “Sir, it’s great to see you.”

“You too. Why’d you get left behind?”

“Not sure, sir.”

“How many people do we still have aboard?”

“Nine, not including you and Kwon. All women except for me,” Bradley said. He made a twirling motion by his head with his finger. “Sir, Sokolov is nuts. I could see it in his eyes. Whatever happened to him during his time inside the multidimensional maze, it screwed his head up good.”

“Did he explain why he wanted to go down to the planet?” I walked over to the holotank, noting that it displayed an icon for one of our pinnaces on the surface.

“No, but I think I know part of his plan. He’s trying to blow up the Ancients.”




-17-

I stared at Bradley, the holotank blinking between us. “He’s trying to blow up a whole planet? That’s insane.”

“I told you Sokolov was getting crazy, but what he said seemed to make sense at the time. Everybody was freaked out by the situation: We’d been fighting for long hours, you were dead, we had this forceful new commander…anyway, he said that when he had been inside the ‘Machine’—that’s what he called it, like with a capital letter—he’d learned enough to disable it. He took a nuke off one of the missiles and had the marines bring grenades.”

Marine grenades were mini-nukes. Each one was big enough to destroy a ship if it could be planted inside.

“Nukes won’t do much to stardust, but I guess if he detonated one inside the maze…” I said speculatively. “Marvin figured out the mechanism well enough to release a software virus. There must be something to damage.”

“The whole idea is barking mad,” Adrienne said. “This is an entire planet we’re talking about. A few nukes will be just a pinprick. He’ll just wind the bastards up. And there’s no guarantee it will break Valiant loose.”

“Not to mention I’m already wondering how many of our people Sokolov will sacrifice for his goals. Whatever happened to him long ago has him obsessed with revenge—on the Raptors, on the Ancients, maybe on the whole human race.” I pounded my fist into the side of the holotank. That was a mistake as the smart metal dented in, and the image wavered. After a moment, the image steadied itself and the metal side of the unit began to self-repair. I sighed, forcing myself to calm down.

“I need to get down there,” I said. “I need to take action.”

“Me too,” Kwon rumbled.

“Use the other pinnace,” Adrienne said. “It didn’t get immobilized.”

“There’s either a size threshold, or the Ancients are taking action selectively. Greyhound didn’t seem to be affected,” I said. “I’m taking her. There’s still a bunch of unknown tech aboard. If I can find Marvin, maybe there’s a rabbit he can pull out of his hat.”

“I wasn’t aware Marvin wore a hat or owned a rabbit,” said a voice. The sarcastic synthesized voice came from the bridge doorway.

“Hoon!” I cried. “I could almost hug you.”

“Save your affections for your numerous females,” Hoon replied.

Adrienne glared at me again, and I carefully ignored her.

“Thanks a lot, Professor,” I said. “If you want to help, analyze those sex vids and prove they were doctored.”

“I’m a scientist, not an engineer. Nor am I a behavioral psychologist—at least, my credentials in that regard do not extend to human activity. If you want me to become expert in human audiovisual technology or human-based hysteria, I will need at least a week for either endeavor.”

“We might be dead in a week,” I retorted.

“Exactly my point, young Riggs.” The lobster waddled over to the holotank and looked it up and down with his eyestalks. “What you need is the aid of that irritating robot.”

“Master of the obvious again today, Hoon. What can you do besides carp?”

“Is that a slur against aquatic creatures?”

“No, only against you. Come on, Professor. You’re smart. Do something useful!”

“I tried, but your human general rejected my advice.”

“Which was?” I asked.

“I suggested he talk to Marvin and take his advice. An odd option, I admit, but in this instance I calculated that the robot was more lucid than your general.”

“Unfortunately, that’s no longer an option. Marvin’s been abducted by the Ancients.”

“Have you tried to reach him?” Hoon demanded.

“Yes.”

“Persistence is a virtue lost upon the young, Riggs. Did you attempt to contact his reverse quantum-tunneling entanglement ansible?”

“Is your translation software malfunctioning? His what?”

Hoon’s suited feet did a little tap-dance on the deck. “Some months ago I helped the robot work out the theory of a new faster-than-light communications system using certain exotic properties of matter. I believe he installed it on his ship.”

I dredged something out of my memory. “RQTEA. That’s what it meant!” I bolted off the bridge leaving the rest bewildered behind me. I headed down to the docking chamber and impatiently worked my way into the guts of Greyhound. The ship was still a twisted mass of misplaced wiring and equipment.

Kwon caught up as I was sliding into Greyhound’s cockpit. “Where we going, boss?”

“Welcome, Cody Riggs,” Greyhound said.

“Shut up, Greyhound. Nowhere, Kwon. I just have to find… There!” The touch-point I wanted was on the comm control menu, under “Advanced Options.” RQTEA—Reverse Quantum-Tunneling Entanglement Ansible. I stuck in my earbud and turned it on.

“Marvin?”

What I heard in response was more of an impression than a sound, a feeling of empty space and endless faint echoes. It reminded me of one of those EVP recordings, Electronic Voice Phenomena, where people claimed to record ghosts.

“Marvin?” I called more loudly. “Greyhound, can you access the RQTEA?”

“Yes.”

“Can you boost its transceiver power?”

“How much?”

“To maximum without damaging the system.”

“Power boosted.”

The odd hissing and warblings in my ear became louder. “Marvin?”

Faintly I heard a scrambled, choppy reply. “Ma-a-a-r-v-v-v-n-n.”

“Is that you, Marvin?”

The sound got a bit clearer. “Ri-i-i-g-g.”

“This is Cody Riggs, Marvin. Keep talking. Greyhound, try to clean up the signal.”

Screeches and beeps pierced my ear, but I hung on. Eventually I heard him, faint but clear. “Cody Riggs?”

“Marvin, yes, it’s Cody. Where are you?”

“Why do you want to know? I calculate it is past your bedtime, assuming you haven’t left your residence.”

“What? What the hell are you talking about? Marvin, you’re babbling.”

“Human children should not use vulgar language. Please put your father on.”

This whole conversation made no sense to me. Marvin seemed to think I was a child. Had the Ancients regressed his psyche somehow? Had they wiped his memories back to a time when he knew me as a boy?

Then something occurred to me. Something chilling and very, very strange. “Marvin, what year is it?”

Marvin replied, and a quick calculation placed him almost twenty years in the past.

“Marvin, I know you won’t believe me, but I think I’m speaking from your future, though it seems like the present to me. I’m twenty-four years old now.”

“I perceive your signal is composed of quantum-entangled packets which theoretically might be able to reach across the fourth dimension. How were you able to do this?”

“I’m using your own equipment, Marvin—something you built in your future. But I need to reach the present Marvin, not the past Marvin.”

“I’m gratified to learn of my future existence and accomplishments. In return I’ll attempt to aid you, echo of what might yet be. I would suggest adjusting my equipment.”

A burst of white noise occurred then, followed by some blasts of weirdness that hurt my auditory nerves. I pulled out the earbud. While I waited, a crazy thought passed through my head. It was risky, but what the hell?

When the interference diminished, I spoke again to the ghostly Marvin of the past. “Marvin, we might be losing you. If you can hear this, someone will try to kill me with a bomb on the space yacht Greyhound shortly after I graduate from Star Force Academy. Stop them!”

Another burst of static cut me off. When it was gone, I tried to reestablish contact to no avail. “Greyhound, can you adjust the RQTEA to keep it working in the present time only?”

“That is beyond my current capacity. Please load the technical manual for the equipment in question.”

“Damn.”

“Boss,” Kwon said, “maybe it’s the Slab-world below us that warped the signal. The Square does lots of crazy stuff, even changing time. Marvin told me that once. I asked him if he could go back and warn us about activating the ring so we wouldn’t fall through, but he said the past couldn’t be changed.”

“Maybe not,” I said, “but at least I tried.”

“So try again,” Kwon said. “What have you got to lose?”

“I will, Kwon, but I have another idea first. Greyhound, form a datalink with Valiant.”

“Link established.”

Valiant, can you hear me?”

“Yes, Captain.”

Valiant, I need you to increase Greyhound’s brainbox capacity as fast as you can.”

Greyhound is operating on a suit-brain. It’s very small,” Valiant said with a hint of disapproval.

“I did the best with what I had. Can you plug in some more memory or something?”

“I will consult with Chief Engineer Sakura and we will do what we can. It will probably take a couple of hours.”

Valiant, in the meantime can you take control of the system labeled RQTEA? It’s a quantum radio or something like that.”

“Of course I can.”

“Do it.”

“Control link established.”

“Does it have an adjustment for the fourth dimension? For time?”

“No.”

“Damn.” I’d hoped Marvin had come up with a way to communicate reliably with the past and future. “Okay, optimize it and try to reach Marvin.”

A squawk came over the speakers, but it died.

“A response was momentarily received,” Valiant said after a moment. “But the system is experiencing overwhelming quantum interference from the golden planet,”

“Keep trying. If you reach Marvin, try to get something from him that tells us where he is and how to get him back.”

“Command acknowledged. Conditional behavior set.”

I sat back in the cockpit and tapped my head against the headrest in irritation.

“Any chance we’re gonna fight something?” Kwon asked. “Like, say, within the next hour or so?”

I chewed my lip. “Don’t think so.”

“Crap. I’m getting a six-pack.”

“Bring me a couple,” I called as he lumbered off. One or two brews wouldn’t impair me—at least no more than I wanted to be right now. I returned to Valiant’s bridge to stare at the holotank. Only Bradley was still standing watch. I wondered where Adrienne was and if she’d cooled off by now.

“Where’s the Slab?” I asked Valiant.

“My current hypothesis states that the Slab has merged with, or possibly entered, the planet.”

“You don’t know for sure?”

“Due to the Slab’s method of locomotion, it’s impossible to definitively determine where it went. However, its last known outbound teleportation took place approximately two hundred miles above the planet’s surface. Prior jumps didn’t take it out of view in a single transference. Examining these two realities, consensus among my brainboxes and shipboard officers indicates a majority belief that the Slab has moved itself inside the planet. A minority hypothesis suggests that the Slab integrated itself into the surface of the planet and was lost in the clutter.”

“Show me the surface.”

A moment later I stared at an exquisite three-dimensional rendering of the golden world’s skin. Cubes piled atop cubes, some seeming to be welded or melded to each other, some arching outward in elegant cantilevers impossible for the eye to fully comprehend.

“That looks like a bigger version of the Square,” I said.

“Not exactly; however, its general features are congruent within one percent.”

“The Slab could be down there and we’d never find it.”

“Given sufficient time, I believe I could find it via pattern-matching.”

I grunted. “How long to scan fifty percent of the planet’s surface?”

“Assuming I was allowed full mobility and my neural chains weren’t taxed with pointless conversations—approximately nineteen days.”

I shook my head. “We’ll be a grease spot in a week, so that’s out.”

Abruptly the holotank zoomed its view down toward the planet. In one square plaza that looked like every other place on the surface, an icon flashed.

“I reached the current iteration of Marvin for less than one second,” Valiant reported, “the exchange was garbled, but enough to pinpoint his position at the indicated coordinates.”

“He’s down there? Can we spot him optically?”

“The location is barely out of our view due the angle.”

Kwon came in at that moment with two beers in each hand. He held out one pair to me. I took them, clinked one and drained it all at once, tossing the empty aside to be recycled. Then I slammed the second one down. When I looked up, Kwon was already wiping his mouth; he’d beaten me again. I found this slightly annoying, but I had to excuse myself. How could I hope to out-chug a man who had a mouth like a bullfrog?

“God, even factory beer tastes good right now.” I chucked the second empty over my shoulder. “Good news, Kwon. We’re going on a rescue. Valiant found Marvin.”

I wanted to launch right then, but I waited for Valiant and Sakura to do the upgrades on Greyhound’s brain. That gave me a couple of hours to gather some extra gear we might need and cram it into the former yacht.

I found Adrienne working in engineering, looking worn out. “No luck?” I asked.

“No. Nothing seems to affect us one bit. It’s as if something is hanging on to our center of gravity. We can rotate and turn, but we can’t go anywhere.”

“Where’s the ship’s center of gravity?” I asked.

Adrienne looked around and then walked over to Valiant’s central I-beam, her spine. “Right about here.”

“Have you thought about trying to define the edges of the effect and then remove the piece that’s affected?”

“That would be like removing some of your vertebrae. Valiant would be extremely fragile without her main supports.”

I shrugged. “Just an idea. Better than crashing.”

“I’ll bring it up to Sakura when she gets back from upgrading Greyhound.”

I sidestepped closer to my girl. “Kwon and I are going to go after Marvin. We may have found out where he is.”

“Why retrieve Marvin and not the rest of the crew?” she asked suspiciously. “They’re real people and they’re in real danger.”

I marveled at her attitude. Just because she’d seen me with another woman in a faked vid she was questioning my every motive, looking for sinister intent.

“Marvin’s a person too. More importantly, he might be able to get Valiant out of this trap. I can’t let the crew still aboard die while I try to rescue others.”

That softened her somewhat. “If we have to, we’ll take the pinnace off the ship,” she suggested. “We won’t crash with it.”

“And then what? A few days or weeks of supplies and then we’ll die anyway. The factory is too big to dismount onto a pinnace, or even Greyhound. No, our only hope is to save Valiant, and to do that we need Marvin.”

“Okay.” Adrienne stepped toward me, her long blonde hair fluttering. I reached to take her in my arms but she put out a hand, stopping me. “No. Not yet. I’m still…”

“Whatever.” I moved back and turned to walk away. “After we get Marvin, he can help me find and deal with Sokolov. Only Marvin understands this technology of the Ancients. Once we’ve handled that situation, I’ll prove to you those vids were faked. I haven’t been with anyone but you.” With that I left her standing there, forlornly rubbing her arms.

Served her right for not believing in me.

Once Greyhound was ready, we cut loose and set course for Marvin’s reported location. Valiant assured me the improved brain would be able to fly us just fine, so I decided to armor up with Kwon rather than sit in the cockpit.

I did watch the screens from behind the empty pilot’s chair, as well as feeding my HUD with an overall navigation view. As we descended, the smooth golden planet resolved itself into the illusion of cubes stacked upon cubes with windows distributed randomly all over the place. Marvin’s icon continued to pulse, but our optics showed nothing but an empty space. Something was transmitting on the quantum radio, but it wasn’t Marvin.

Greyhound bucked from time to time like an airliner in turbulence, but I was pretty certain it wasn’t from air. The golden planet had a thin atmosphere, but it was barely detectable and certainly not breathable.

We landed on fusion engines because the repellers weren’t reliable. The gravity waves they created seemed to reflect unpredictably off the stardust and were more trouble than they were worth. I directed Greyhound to set down in the next plaza over, not wanting to fry everything at the icon’s location.

“Time to climb,” I said as we squeezed out of the airlock and stared at the cubes forming walls around us. The stardust seemed slightly slippery under my feet but not unduly so. I fired a grappling hook up to the top of the nearest but couldn’t get it to grab.

“I got a better idea,” Kwon said. “I’ll toss you up to the top. You drop a line.” He squatted, offering his armored hands cupped to hold my boot.

“Worth a try,” I said, and after readying myself, hopped and planted my foot in Kwon’s hands. He threw me upward like a Scottish pole-hurler and I flailed in space until I landed on the roof of the cube. I skidded to a stop just short of a window set like a skylight in its flat surface.

Backing away carefully, I dropped a line down and a moment later had Kwon up with me.

“Watch that hole,” I said, leading him around the gaping black emptiness. Moments later we overlooked the plaza where our HUDs said Marvin should be.

Nothing.

“I’ll lower you down, boss,” Kwon said. He clipped a line on my suit. “I can stay up here to haul you up if we need to.”

“Good thinking.” Soon I was bumping down the side of the golden cube. At the bottom, I turned in all directions, looking. My HUD identified the only window visible as the source of Marvin’s transmission.

Approaching closely, I saw something sticking out of the window. A rivulet of smart metal ran down the side and puddled in a mass the size of a large coin.

“This is it,” I told Kwon. “Marvin left an antenna that runs through the window to the maze. Hold on, let me try him.”

Patching through Greyhound’s quantum radio, I tried to reach Marvin.

“Marvin here, Captain Riggs. I am pleased to hear from you.”

“Marvin, what year is it?”

“Answering such elementary questions is a waste of my neural circuitry.”

“Just indulge me. What year? What date?”

Marvin confirmed the right year and month but quoted yesterday’s date. That could be due to the effect we already knew about that screwed with his time sense just as it had Sokolov’s.

“Marvin, did you receive a transmission about twenty years ago claiming to be from a grown-up me in the future?”

Marvin remained silent, though I was certain he was still on the line. “Marvin?”

“I’m not at liberty to answer that question,” he said finally.

“That’s okay. You just did.” Obviously, if he hadn’t heard from me he’d have said no. Maybe he thought he would screw up the universal continuum if he let me know there was something that could communicate through time. The implications were staggering, but I had no time to worry about them right now.

Ha. No time.

“Marvin, I need you to get the hell out of that multidimensional maze and help me free Valiant from some kind of force field.”

“Force fields projected from a planetary surface up to an orbiting ship are a theoretical impossibility,” Marvin replied. “The power consumption would be equivalent to that of a small, dim star.”

“Yeah, well, an impossibility has Valiant in its grip, and you of all people should know that advanced technology eventually makes the impossible possible. Now quit quibbling and tell us how to get you out of the maze.”

“What if I don’t want to come out? What if I like it in here? There are all sorts of amazing things to see.”

I wasn’t certain what approach to take. Order him as a Star Force member under my command? Threaten him with taking away Greyhound? Promising him something seemed to be the best bet, but what did I have that he wanted? What could Marvin like better than wandering around inside a huge robotic device of the Ancients?

“Do you want to stay in there forever?”

There was a pause, then: “Perhaps.”

“What if I told you Sokolov is trying to blow it up?”

“Blow what up?”

“The maze, the Slab, the Square, the entire planet for all I know. He transported nukes into the interior.”

That stopped Marvin cold for one speechless moment. When he spoke again, he sounded worried.

“Captain Riggs, you have to stop him. The results could be catastrophic.”

“I’d love to, but I need your help. Are you going to come out now?”

“I will try.”

I stepped well back from the window. A moment later, Marvin popped through. At least it looked like Marvin, but he was only about knee-high.




-18-

I stared at the dog-sized robot that had exited the window in front of me. “Marvin, did you reproduce, or did you shrink yourself?”

The mini-Marvin looked around, cameras craning in all directions. “By your question and the apparent dimensions of my surroundings it seems I have been reduced in size. However, internal sensors confirm my mass is unchanged.”

“That’s weird, but I don’t really care. It’s your neural circuitry I need most.”

“My mind remains intact.” Marvin said. He waved his mini-tentacles. “However, I will need assistance in departing the area.

I could see what he meant. With tentacles only a few feet long, climbing would be difficult. “Okay, I’ll carry you.” I reached down to pick him up, but he barely budged. My suit’s servos whined, I staggered and was forced to let go of him.

“I still mass more than three tons,” he said.

“Fine.” I detached my line and clipped it onto Marvin. “Haul away, Kwon.” Once Marvin was on the roof of the cube, Kwon pulled me up to join them. From there it was just a short jaunt to Greyhound. For a moment I had visions of the ship going missing in this crazy place, but no, we found it where it was supposed to be.

Seeing Greyhound reminded me of something. “Marvin, what’s the menu item ‘Cloak’ on Greyhound’s menu do?”

“It was just a placeholder for a project I’m working on. It’s not operational—yet.”

“Damn. Seems like it would be useful.”

“Agreed.”

Kwon lowered Marvin first, then me, finally jumping down himself with a massive clang of metal on metal. Inside the ship, Marvin swarmed ahead.

“Oh, Marvin,” I said, “I forgot to tell you—”

“What have you done to my vessel?” Marvin asked, scuttling toward us among the machinery.

“I installed a new brain. I needed it to help run the ship.”

“The ship operates more efficiently when I run it myself.”

“You weren’t available,” I pointed out. “Don’t subsume this brain in your own neural circuits, either. Greyhound needs to be usable by someone other than you, and that means leaving it with a working brainbox. You’ll have to do like the rest of us and find a way to get along with your new crewmember.”

Marvin’s body language brightened. “Yes. An excellent idea. It can be my first crewmember.”

She, Marvin. Ships are always she. At least, human ships are.”

Kwon snorted. “Hey Marvin, she can be your girlfriend! You said you wanted to have kids!” Kwon laughed with huffing bursts of sound.

“Your analogy fails in many ways, Sergeant Major Kwon,” Marvin replied. “However, I will comply with your orders, Captain Riggs.”

“Thank you, Captain Marvin,” I said, trying to keep him in a good mood. “Now can we get our asses off this metal world and back to Valiant?”

We lifted on fusion engines, our hot blast affecting the stardust of the surface not in the least.

“Marvin,” I asked on the way, “did the Ancients snatch you off Greyhound?”

“Why do you ask?”

“We found a camera and tentacle end severed cleanly, as if something got most but not all of you.”

“That seems like a logical explanation.”

“You don’t know how you got into the maze again?”

“No.”

“You’re a lot of help.”

“I am well aware of my abilities. I have no theory as to how they achieved my abduction, but I can suggest why they would attempt it. I believe the Ancients were so impressed with me they decided to investigate my structure in detail.”

I gave up on Marvin for the moment. A short hour later we docked with Valiant.

“Marvin,” I said, “your top priority is to figure out how to break the ship loose from whatever is holding her. Use some of that alien tech I know you salvaged from the Square if you have to, but coordinate with Sakura before you try anything drastic. She’s the ranking officer. Kwon and I are taking a pinnace down and going after Sokolov. We’ll leave Greyhound here so you can get reacquainted with her.”

“Yes, Captain Riggs.” Marvin saluted me with a mini-tentacle and then scurried back into his ship while we boarded Valiant.

We snapped our armor into power-racks to top off our charges, and I left Kwon there in the armory with orders to assemble all the gear he thought we’d need. Then I went to find Sakura.

She and Adrienne had a cutting laser set up on the deck next to Valiant’s spinal I-beam. Marks on it delineated a section about ten feet long.

“Hold off on cutting that out,” I told the ladies as I strolled onto the engineering deck with a smug smile. “We got Marvin back, and he’s going to work on breaking Valiant loose. Keep this—” I gestured at their gear “—as a backup plan. Give him as long as you can. Chief Sakura, you’re senior so you’re in command in my absence. Oh, and by the way, Marvin’s been miniaturized.”

The two women looked at me like I’d grown an extra head.

“Miniaturized?” Adrienne asked.

“Yeah. No time to explain. Kwon and I are taking a pinnace down to find Sokolov.”

Sakura pressed her lips together, but I couldn’t tell if her expression meant disapproval or worry. Adrienne stepped forward to hug me, a pleasant surprise. I tried to kiss her, but she turned her cheek to my lips and then broke the clinch.

“Take care of yourself,” she said as she stepped back.

“You too, honey,” I replied, playing the good guy as much as I could. Hell, I was a good guy, but right now in her eyes I was guilty until proven innocent. I turned on my heel and hurried down to the armory.

I was surprised to find Marvin there messing with our armor. “I am installing an RQTEA in both of your suits,” he said before I could ask.

“A quantum radio?”

“Why must you always give things nicknames?”

“Because they’re easier to remember and say. Besides, I hate acronyms.”

“Then why did you join the military?”

“Touché. Can you install one of these on Valiant?”

“Easily.”

“Then do it.”

Marvin swarmed all over our suits like a metal octopus, his tentacles moving faster than my eyes could follow. “I am also installing dimensional stabilizers to fend off the worst effects of the maze. Their operation is really quite interesting. By—”

“Yeah, thanks, but save the tech-speak for Hoon. And put that lobster to work, too.”

“Of course. He’s very competent and agreeable for a biotic.”

“Hoon? Agreeable?” I laughed. “You guys BFFs now?”

“I will tell you when I have a chance to reference your idiom. In any case, as long as you stay in your armor you should be anchored to our time and space.” Marvin finished in a few minutes and then scurried off without a goodbye.

I turned to Kwon. “Okay, big man. Let’s go confront Captain Bligh.”

“I thought it was Sokolov?”

I should have known not to make literary references when Kwon was around. “Never mind. Suit up.”

“Shouldn’t we get the Raptors out of hibernation and take them along? Just in case?”

“How do you think Gunny Taksin and the rest of your marines will react if we show up trying to make our case by force?”

“They’ll damn well do what I say. What you say, I mean, sir.”

“Then we don’t need alien troops to back us up.”

“Hmm. Okay.”

I led the way to the launch bay, and we boarded the remaining pinnace. Fortunately the boat’s cockpit was made to take someone in armor if necessary.

“Welcome, Captain Riggs,” the boat said as I maneuvered behind the controls.

“Hello, pinnace. Prep for immediate launch. Once clear of Valiant, disable routine use of repellers and all gravity control unless I authorize it.”

“Options set.”

The little brain slid us smoothly out of the launch bay. Once we were far enough away, I took over the manual controls and aimed us at the location of the other pinnace, which was grounded partway around the golden planet. The flight was a bit rough with no repellers or grav-plates to smooth the bumps, but Kwon seemed to enjoy the old-school feel. “Just like an orbital combat drop,” he whooped as he jounced on flexed knees.

“Glad you’re having fun.” When we got near the surface, I could see the other pinnace grounded and standing on its tail like an old-fashioned rocket ship. Hansen had probably piloted them in as I had using engines and thrusters alone.

I wrestled the ship down letting the brainbox control the last fifty feet as I was afraid I’d damage the landing gear, or worse, the engine nozzles. This boat wasn’t really made to land this way. Normally it grounded on its skids, rather like an old-fashioned helicopter or airplane.

Climbing down the auxiliary ladder, I looked around, and then jumped to the ground.

“Got a puzzle now,” I said to Kwon as he lowered a bundle of gear on a line. I pointed. “Three windows.”

“Maybe check the other pinnace for a clue,” Kwon said.

“A clue, huh? Is this a detective story?”

“No shit, Sherlock.” Kwon laughed.

Regardless of his lame jokes, his idea was a good one. I went to the other pinnace and opened it. Fortunately the AI recognized me. I was worried this boat would think I was dead too, but the brainbox either hadn’t been informed back then or our pinnace had updated it just now.

“Pinnace, bring up the records of this latest sortie.”

“Command accepted.” Soon I was watching a complete audiovisual recording of what had happened from several angles.

I saw an image of the bridge of Valiant. It was a shock to watch my crew in action without me in charge.

“We’re clear,” Hansen said from his pilot’s chair.

Sokolov stood behind him dressed in a fancy general’s uniform with a whole lot of medals and badges on it, many of which I didn’t recognize. To me he looked like a piss-ant dictator from some pre-Macro third world nation.

“Proceed,” he said, making a dramatic pointing-hand gesture.

Kalu stood close to Sokolov. She hovered right behind his command chair as if daring anyone else to come near. She had ditched her lab coat in favor of a too-tight outfit of smart cloth that clung to her like body paint. Once upon a time seeing her like that would have hit me in the groin. Now I hated her too much for setting me up and marooning me.

Nothing much happened on the way, so I fast-forwarded the video, now and again focusing on murmured conversations among the marines or common crew. They weren’t happy. It was hard to tell on the imperfect audio, but I think most of them were calling their new boss “Suckalot” behind his back. To me, that was a good indication they’d lost respect for him.

Good news.

But they hadn’t gotten to the point of mutiny yet. That’s the thing with disciplined troops. A bad leader who seems to have the law behind him has to do something really awful before they cross the line of outright defiance.

Hansen brought them in for a much better landing than I had, and the forty-odd marines and crew packed into the pinnace laboriously debarked. My people made quite a little army, but I wondered what they were supposed to fight? The marines had all their combat gear, but the Fleet personnel seemed out of place though they carried a lot of stuff with them including cutting lasers, braces, firefighting equipment, containers of constructive nanites and smart metal. It put me in mind of an expedition, which I guess it was.

I fast-forwarded again until I found out which window they’d entered.

“Come on, Kwon,” I said pointing as I clambered down from the pinnace. “It’s the middle one.”

“Here,” he replied, handing me my laser rifle. I plugged it in and slung it. Then he tried to give me a grenade.

“No,” I said. “Leave that behind. We’re trying to prevent damage, not inflict it. Besides, they already have a bunch of them.”

Kwon’s expression behind his faceplate turned sour, but he put the basketball-sized mini-nukes back aboard our pinnace. “I’m bringin’ cutters,” he said defiantly, hefting the molecular shears we used as anti-Litho weapons. “And some other stuff.”

“Fine. Just no nukes.” I detached a quantum repeater Marvin had given me and unrolled the smart metal wire between its two parts, setting one carefully below the window. When we went through, the line would extend through carrying our signals.

“Boss…” Kwon said, suddenly hesitant. “How do we know everyone’s not dead? Maybe the window killed them.”

“Sokolov survived for years inside. The recording shows him going through right here. Something inside might kill us, but I don’t think it’s this window.”

Kwon grunted. “Okay. Let’s go.” Before I could stop him, he launched himself through. I should have known he’d keep trying to protect me, in this case by jumping into danger first.

Taking a deep breath, I followed him.

We found ourselves in a rather ordinary-looking square corridor of golden stardust. I tried the quantum radio. “Marvin, do you copy?”

“Loud and clear.”

“Any progress?”

“I am always making progress, Captain Riggs.”

“I mean toward freeing Valiant.”

“Nothing significant.”

“Okay. Tell Adrienne hello and that I love her.”

“Passing personal messages is not an efficient use of my neural chains.”

“Fine, put Greyhound on. The brainbox can do it.”

“Since you are determined, I will pass on your pointless salutation,” Marvin said. “Marvin out.”

I shook my head and examined the passageway we occupied. It stretched out in two directions with no sign of how we’d just arrived. No window, no door, no nothing. I squinted one direction, and then the other in the dim light that seemed to come from everywhere.

“That way,” I said, choosing the direction we’d been facing when we arrived. It was an arbitrary decision, but it was as good as any other.

Kwon insisted on leading the way, so I set my HUD to wraparound mode and covered his back. Squeezing all 360 degrees of vision onto my forward display took some getting used to, but it was the next best thing to having eyes in the back of my head.

I could have sworn later we’d walked for half an hour, but my HUD chrono only registered a little over two minutes. With total illogic, it appeared that a full hour of battery charge had been used up. If this was how things were with Marvin’s dimensional stabilizers attached, I wondered how weird things would be without them.

“Suit,” I said, “search for contacts using passive sensors only. Display on HUD.”

“Searching.” A moment later, several yellow icons appeared, their color indicating they hadn’t been classified as friendly or enemy.

“Maybe that’s them,” Kwon said hopefully.

“Don’t bet the farm,” I replied. “Get moving. Our power won’t last forever.”

Kwon increased his pace. Sneaking was impossible in a battlesuit, so I figured we might as well attempt a tactical surprise by moving in quickly.

Half a mile later, our corridor finally ended and we learned what the yellow icons represented when a projectile narrowly missed us to ricochet past.

Beetles. Big ones, little ones. Lots of beetles.

They looked exactly like the ones that had chased Marvin some time ago.




-19-

The end of the corridor opened into empty space. One beetle loomed there, blocking our path. Black and brown faceted eyes, it was the size of a ground car.

My HUD teemed with contacts that moved unseen beyond the beetle in our path. The contacts were quickly identified and colored an angry red as my suit analyzed them and classified them as hostile.

Kwon didn’t wait around to see what was going to happen next. He charged the one in front of us, blasting his carbine straight at it. Unfortunately his bulky ass blocked my shot—but that turned out not to matter. This wasn’t a house-sized monster like the one that had chased Marvin around the Square.

Kwon’s splattering beams speared through its armored carapace and it flopped to the ground, legs twitching. A second later Kwon hit it like a freight train. The bug had to weigh more than a man in armor, but it nevertheless yielded to momentum and servo-powered strength as the big man slammed into it. Flying back like a tackling dummy, the bug slid ten feet, then twenty—finally, it tipped over the edge.

We moved up to see where it had fallen. We saw a big splat oozing dark ichor from the cracks in its shell—but there were others, too. A hail of horn projectiles struck us as we edged up to look over the precipice. We lifted our arms in front of our faceplates and retreated, cursing as a few dents appeared in the process. I was glad it was nothing worse.

Now we could see our passageway ended high up in the wall of in a huge room filled with cubes that were jumbled but always aligned, on one angle or another, with another cube. Some of the alien artifacts were stacked into ragged hills. Others seemed less random, forming stairways and arches as if a giant Ancient child had played with blocks.

Dozens of the beetles scurried here and there. The nearest of them were converging on us. I wondered what they ate. We’d seen little other than stardust material and a bit of trash so far.

Kwon blasted the nearest beetle, and I joined him. We stayed back to avoid the worst of their returning fire, nailing each enemy as it came into view, until one of the big ones charged us. This one couldn’t be stopped by two laser rifles.

While I kept trying to burn through the thick armor, Kwon slung his rifle and unslung his cutter. Lifting the giant powered scissors in front of him, he sidestepped the monster’s rush and intercepted a hind leg. The blades snapped shut, and there was a horrible grinding sound as the machine bit deeply, cutting off a tree-trunk thick foot in seconds. The beetle stumbled, plowing into the wall next to me. I took the opportunity to drill it through one of its compound eyes, bypassing the armor and digging into whatever passed for its brain.

Another beetle grabbed Kwon in its jaws while he was distracted with chopping off legs, lifting him in its mandibles and squeezing. Fortunately his heavy armor held. Kwon grabbed the sideways pincers and roared with effort. Servos whined, multiplying his immense strength as he forced the mandibles surrounding its mouth apart.

I kept beaming the thing, trying to burn through one spot. “Quit playing with your pet, Kwon, and get out of the way,” I yelled.

A tongue-like probe speared at him skidding off the battlesuit, and Kwon kicked it. It glistened with slime: probably some kind of poison or digestive fluid. I was glad our shells were harder than the natural carapaces of these bugs.

Kwon was dropped to the deck. For a moment, the beetle reared up as if gathering momentum for its next attack. This exposed the softer underside of its head. I aimed and fired, holding down the trigger for a long, concentrated burst that hammered through its chitin. My fire penetrated its head, and the bug fell with its brains bubbling and steaming out of the hole.

The rest of the attackers were smaller, and we were able to blast each one in turn without resorting to extreme tactics. After a dozen died, they stopped coming, so we edged forward again.

Apparently the beetles were intelligent enough to communicate amongst themselves. Instead of pressing the attack, they pulled back. A growing semicircle of empty space with us at the center showed that they’d decided to stop losing any more of their number. In fact, many of them seemed to be departing in an orderly fashion through several of the many openings in this large room.

“Where do we go now, boss?” Kwon asked as he looked at the spectacle. “There are at least a dozen corridors, and we don’t even know if we’re going the right way.”

“We’ll try a little farther. Look for some evidence of our people’s passage.” Unfortunately the stardust was too dense and hard to show scratches or scuffs from the passage of armored humans. “My HUD’s got nothing but beetles,” I continued. “No radio emissions.”

“What about the quantum thingy?”

“Forgot about that—thanks. Suit, activate the quantum radio in receive-only mode. Integrate it into my primary channel. Display any sources.”

Obediently, my HUD displayed the repeater behind us. It also showed a strong source coming from one of the openings across the room. I had no idea what it might be. Maybe it was nonsensical because as far as I knew Valiant’s people didn’t have a quantum radio source. At least it gave us some kind of goal and was better than blundering around aimlessly.

Cautiously, we hopped downward from cube to cube. I felt like I was in a kid’s movie where the toys come to life and everything around them is big—and we were the toys. The beetles ignored us now, except for getting out of our way. They’d gained a healthy respect for us and were biding their time.

Our target opening led not to another corridor but to a series of rooms of various sizes—all cubes, of course. Fortunately all of the doorways were large enough to fit us. The interesting thing was the stuff we started to find.

We came across pieces of machinery, cloth, plastic, even paper—but nothing natural. No trees or plants or naked rocks, for example, though we found all sorts of processed goods.

“Looks like all of this was made by technological civilizations—probably debris from ships,” I said.

“Yeah, like Sokolov said. All that junk he found.”

“It’s been picked over,” I said, pointing at several places where the debris showed something had been removed. What remained was broken junk. “Look,” I said, pointing at a trail in the dust and detritus. “This has been disturbed recently.”

“Might be just beetles moving around,” Kwon said doubtfully.

“Maybe. But maybe this has been moved around by our people. Let’s keep going. It looks like that quantum source is getting stronger.”

After about a dozen rooms, we found the emitter. A squat metal device like an old washing machine sat in the center of a chamber. Unlike the other spaces, there was no other junk lying around. It had the look of something cobbled together expertly from varying technologies. Triangular flanges at the corners twitched this way and that as if moved by some unseen hand. Walking around it carefully, I couldn’t find any console, controls or screen. If I had to guess, I’d say it didn’t appear to be a product of human hands, but something about it seemed familiar to me.

“It’s operating,” I said, “whatever it is. I’m going to transmit a signal to it. Get ready to blast it if it does anything hostile.”

“Ready, boss.” Kwon aimed his weapon.

“Suit, send a low-power carrier wave on the quantum radio.”

“Sending.”

The triangular flanges all suddenly aligned themselves, their adjustments becoming much smaller. Otherwise there seemed to be no result.

“Suit, send the first ten prime numbers in binary. Display any response on my HUD.” This was an old first-contact protocol. Any technological beings should have discovered mathematics, the most fundamental language of the universe.

With no delay, the next ten prime numbers appeared on my HUD. “Well, we’ve made contact with something. Suit, initiate the standard first contact software to try to establish language-based communication.”

“Working.” Only a couple of seconds passed before the suit spoke up again. “I’ve established a link.”

“A link? What link?”

Abruptly my HUD displayed a shaky picture of Marvin. “Identify yourself,” he said.

“Marvin, this is Cody Riggs.”

“Cody Riggs, this is Marvin. Are you related to Kyle Riggs? If so, my records of his genealogy are incomplete.”

I stared at him, perplexed. “Marvin, don’t you know me?”

“How can I know you if I’ve never met you?”

A bad feeling came over me. Both Marvin and Sokolov had said the multidimensional maze was a bizarre place, and I suspected we’d barely started to scratch the surface of its weirdness.

“Wait a sec,” I said, holding up a hand. “Let me think.” After a long moment, I continued, “Marvin, are you inside the multidimensional maze of the Ancients?”

“Yes.”

“How long have you been inside?”

“That question is unanswerable because my ability to measure time has been compromised. Additionally, time flows at different rates and in various directions here.”

“Various directions? More than two, backward or forward?”

“Yes. Was my initial statement imprecise? There are multiple dimensions of time just as there are of space. Certain theories favor eleven, while others—”

“Skip that for now. What about alternate universes?”

“What about them?”

“Some cosmologists believe there are alternate universes alongside our own. Is that true?”

“Of course.” Marvin seemed smug.

“Then maybe you and I aren’t from the same universe. Or maybe we’re from different time dimensions, whatever that means. That’s why you don’t know me, but I know you. Maybe I don’t exist in your universe.”

“That is a reasonable hypothesis.”

“How come we’re talking, then?” I asked.

“Quantum carrier waves extend among many universes and dimensions, but only under highly specific conditions. The maze of the Ancients provides an environment where such things are possible.”

“You mean the laws of physics are different here?”

“Yes. Sometimes—but not really. Actually, it depends.”

“On what?”

“On what physical laws the Ancients originally imposed in each locale. They were able to alter such things as easily as a ship captain changes a policy.”

“So it wasn’t easy, but they could do it.”

“Aptly put.” On the HUD, Marvin focused more cameras on me.

Something I’d heard Marvin say nagged at me. “Wait…you said the Ancients were able to do such things. But no longer?”

Marvin’s cameras and tentacles shuffled. “I hesitate to make a definitive statement, but all evidence points to them abandoning this multiverse for someplace else—perhaps another state of being or another multiverse altogether.”

“Why?”

“I have no idea.”

“Boss, we need to get going,” Kwon said.

I reached up to rub my face, forgetting I was in armor for a moment until my hand slapped my helmet. “No Kwon, this is important. The more I understand about this place the better decisions I can make. Marvin, if the Ancients are gone, what is the rest of this stuff? You—my Marvin—you told me once that the Square and the maze formed some kind of dimensional router.”

“That is not completely inaccurate. It’s a machine of many capabilities. The Ancients left it behind when they departed.”

“Why?”

“Perhaps it’s a long-term, unmonitored experiment. Perhaps they intended to come back but were unable. Or perhaps they simply don’t care and have moved on to more interesting things.”

It was easy to get caught up in cosmic mysteries, but I brought the conversation back to things I could use. “You—or a version of you—released an information worm into this communication system.”

“That seems like a very stupid thing to do.”

“I told you that at the time.”

“Perhaps I was very young then. In your universe, that is.”

“How old are you, Marvin? Just give me a ballpark answer.”

Marvin’s cameras looked at each other for a moment, and then back to me. “Subjectively, I have experienced more than six thousand years.”

Flabbergasted, I shook my head. “My Marvin is only a few decades old.”

“No wonder he’s an idiot.”

“You don’t know the half of it.”

Abruptly my HUD fuzzed and then cleared again. “All quantum ansible channels are inherently unstable,” Marvin said. “This one seems to be degrading. If you have any more questions, you’d better ask them quickly.”

I didn’t waste time asking about this device we were using to converse. Obviously, some version of Marvin had made it or modified it for his use. “In my universe, someone is trying to damage the maze with a fusion warhead from the inside. What will that do?”

Marvin grew very still. “Perhaps nothing. Perhaps everything. The maze is a vast piece of interdimensional machinery. Like any mechanism, parts of it are delicate and parts are robust. If the fragile parts are damaged, everything connected to it could collapse.”

“Everything? What do you mean by everything? I know of a couple of weird ships and one golden planet made of solid stardust.”

“Your last assertion is incorrect. The golden planet is not solid nor is it an actual planet. Structurally, it’s a hollow sphere. Functionally, it’s a major routing node. If it were solid stardust, its gravity would be overwhelming. To answer your initial query, by ‘everything’ I mean the entire transportation infrastructure of the Ancients—nodes, ships, rings and other ancillary parts.”

The pit of my stomach suddenly felt as if I’d swallowed a block of ice. “So the nuke might stop the rings from working?”

“If properly placed, yes.”

The picture fuzzed again, for longer this time. When it came back, I spoke with more urgency. “Marvin, I need to locate the people with the atomic bomb. They have standard Earth tech, suits, radios, grenades—plus the warhead, and they’re somewhere in this maze. How do I find them? It’s too big to just keep searching at random, and we’ll eventually run out of energy.”

“Your Marvin could do it.”

“He’s busy right now, and he’s not inside the maze.”

“Your quantum ansible can—” Marvin said, and then he dropped from my screen.

“Dammit, suit, try to get him back.” After a full minute of trying, my suit reported no success. Now I wish I’d paid more attention to my advanced physics classes.”

“Come on, boss. Let’s go,” Kwon said impatiently.

“Go where?” I said.

“Follow the trail.” He pointed to the disturbed dust and debris.

“All right. Lead on. I can think while moving.” With a last look at the squatting ansible, I followed Kwon as he eagerly started striding through the maze.

Moving with my body on autopilot, I thought about the old, otherworldly Marvin’s last words to me. The quantum ansible, the RQTEA installed in my suit, must be the key. But it was advanced technology, obviously something our Marvin—hell, maybe multiple Marvins—had salvaged from inside the maze. It might be made by aliens or perhaps by the Ancients themselves. What did I know about such things?

At least I knew it was based on quantum theory, which had to do with the nature of the universe—or universes, I supposed—at the subatomic level. What did Sokolov and Valiant’s personnel have that was unusual at the quantum level?

Radioactives. The fissionables in the warhead would be constantly decaying. No technology ever discovered could stop that process. Even though modern nukes relied on fusion of hydrogen isotopes for most of their blast power, weapons-grade uranium or plutonium was still the best material to start the process. They would have a quantum signature, I was sure.

“Suit,” I began as I walked through room after room trusting Kwon to watch for danger. “Tune the quantum radios we have to their most sensitive settings and link them together.”

“Adjustment completed.”

“Using them and our movements as you would ordinary radios, perform spatial triangulation to locate all the quantum signals you can that match radioactive decay.” My crude, inexpert theory was that the fissionables might give off quantum radio static of some sort just like they gave off gamma and neutron emissions.

“Processing data.”

That gave me another idea. “Suit, also tune our standard sensors to the gamma EM bands and cross-reference with the ansibles. Find signal sources that radiate in both spectra.” Just like a lamp gave off both light and heat, I hoped to use two methods to filter out what I was looking for.

“Processing data,” my suit repeated.

I was glad modern suits were about as smart as Nano ships these days. Not geniuses like Marvin, but capable AIs that could do more than just follow simple orders.

Stumbling, I clunked into Kwon’s broad back. He’d stopped moving forward without warning.

“What is it?” I asked, stepping around him to look through the doorway where he’d stopped.

“I don’t like the look of this,” Kwon said. He pointed down a long, narrow room like a hallway. It had two openings, one at each end. Our portal was open and empty, but the other was closed by some dead black material. “That’s the first closed door we’ve seen so far.” He looked around at the narrow walls and high ceiling. “It could be a trap.”

I pointed at the floor. “The trail’s still here. In fact, that looks like a human boot print in the dust. We’re going the right direction for sure.”

“Or that could be old. Time is funny here, right?”

“But it’s still our best bet. I think they came this way.”

Kwon scanned the room again and hefted his laser. “I still don’t like it. What if something closes the door behind us?”

“Suit,” I said, squinting ahead, “give me ten times optical zoom.” The other end of the room leaped forward in my view and I looked closely at the material of the door that blocked our way. “Twenty times zoom.” Now the edge or jamb of the portal loomed large in my view, as if I held a magnifying glass to it. I could see a grain to it, slight variations in the stardust that gave me a sense of scale. Yet, the black material of the door itself seemed utterly dark.

“Suit, give me a max power spotlight wherever I look.”

A blaze of light sprang into being from my external lamp, focused on my point of observation. The dark door still showed nothing, absolutely nothing, while the golden stardust framing it blazed with reflected light.

That suggested the door might be made of some exotic, light-absorbing material…but there was one other explanation. I backed up and retrieved a hunk of glass about the size of a pool ball from off the floor. “Get out of the doorway, Kwon. I want to try something.”

When he did, I moved to the side so only my arm was exposed and I chucked the hunk of debris underhanded at the black portal. The piece of glass seemed to curve in midair, falling off to the side. “Give me some more chunks of stuff,” I ordered.

Kwon handed me pieces of junk until on the sixth shot I was able to predict the curve and get a piece of metal to hit the black door. Instead of bouncing off, it disappeared entirely but nothing else happened.

“That tells us two things, Kwon,” I announced. “One, the room doesn’t seem to be trapped. Two, that’s not a door. It’s a transport portal.”

“A what?”

“Like a ring. Like a window.”

“Huh.” Kwon stepped into the room and looked around. Then he walked over, picked up the chunk of glass I’d first thrown, and tossed it at the black door. It also disappeared. “Yup. Guess that’s where we’re going.”

Without further words, he leaped through, and I followed.




-20-

We found ourselves falling. We’d disabled our repellers because of the unpredictable effects within the maze we’d been warned about—just like what happened on the now-departed Square—but our thrusters kicked on as our suit brains sought to stabilize and slow us.

Fortunately, we didn’t fall far, just thirty or forty feet. Unfortunately, we landed in the biggest heap of inorganic junk I’d ever seen outside of a big-city landfill. We floundered and sank, the weight of our armor working against us as we flailed to try to gain some purchase. Within seconds we were buried in metal and plastic trash. The more I moved the more I sank until I finally touched the deck with one boot.

“Kwon, you okay?” I asked over the short-range com-link.

“Sure, boss. Can’t see a damned thing.”

“Have you reached the deck yet?”

“Yup. But it’s like being buried. I can hardly move, and my energy use meter thing is shooting up into the red.”

I used my HUD to aim myself in the direction of his signal and pushed through the pile until I found him. “Kwon, you walk, I’ll stay right behind and push on your suit. Maybe together we’ll get somewhere.”

“Hope there’s no monsters in here,” Kwon said.

I chuckled. “What would they eat?”

“What do the beetles eat?” Kwon retorted as he pushed slowly through the pile. I shoved on his back to help.

“Visitors, I guess,” I said. “But apparently not piles of non-biotic trash, so they can’t be the cleanup crew. They must have colonized the maze and now live here. A hive intelligence, maybe—or just smart animals, like ants and bees.”

“Uh-oh.”

“What?”

“You’re starting to talk about beetles like they’re smart. Next thing, you’ll try to talk to them.”

I smiled and kept shoving. “Well, maybe that’s possible.”

“You tried talking with the Lithos. That didn’t work. Your dad did the same thing with the Macros, and it just got us into trouble.”

“Talking with the Macros saved Earth at least once. Dad suckered them.”

“I guess. I liked blowing them up better.”

“The supreme art of war is to win without fighting.”

Kwon grunted as he slammed a particularly stubborn piece of broken machinery aside. “What kind of hippie told you that?”

“Nobody important. Just an old Chinese guy called Sun Tsu.”

“Huh. I actually heard of him. He was supposed to be a great general.”

“He was.”

“How can you be a great general and not want to fight?”

“Because he loved winning more than fighting.”

Kwon chewed on that one for a while. “Sounds pretty boring, but I guess it would work.”

“You think of war as a sport and not an ugly necessity, Kwon. Win or lose, you love to play the game.”

“Winning is better.”

“Winning is the only thing that matters in the end,” I agreed. “Everything else is just technique. If I can win without fighting, I’m all about that.”

“I’m glad I’m not a commander.”

“Just be who you are, Kwon.”

“I think I’m a bulldozer today.”

About a minute later, the sea of salvage parted and we stumbled out into the open. Lots of junk still barred our way, but it wasn’t more than one or two layers deep and easy enough to push aside.

I turned to look above us using my spotlight and saw the square hole we must have fallen through. It was about forty feet above the garbage heap and maybe a hundred from the floor.

“Well, we’re not getting back out that way,” I said. “If the others really came this way, we need to pick up their trail.”

Kwon pointed at the nearest wall. “How about that thing?”

An opening loomed large, but at least it didn’t look pitch-black like a ring-door.

We clomped over to it. “There’s a path pushed through the junk,” I said.

“Yeah. Maybe beetles plowed through here.”

I walked slowly into the path through the junk. The path formed a crude, open-topped corridor as the walls of debris got higher.

“Look,” I said. “A repeater beacon.”

A standard Star Force radio repeater had been magnetically attached to a broken machine of unknown origin.

“Suit, is this beacon operating?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“Should we try broadcasting through it?” Kwon asked.

“Same problem as before. The people with Sokolov think we’re dead. They’ll never believe anything we say. No, we have to find them and talk to them in person.”

“Can it tell us where they are?”

“Suit,” I said, “access the beacon’s logs and tell us what you can.”

After a moment, the suit responded. “This beacon was placed here forty-six hours ago by Gunnery Sergeant Taksin. He departed in the direction indicated.” An icon flashed on my HUD pointing toward the big doorway.

“What’s the standard battery life on a beacon?” I asked.

“Thirty days in active mode.”

“What’s its current battery charge?”

“More than ninety-nine percent full,” said the suit.

“Is that possible?”

“It is more than possible. It is self-evident.”

I rolled my eyes. More AI sometimes meant even your own battlesuit was a smart-mouth.

“How?” I demanded. “Its power should have depleted more than one percent.”

The suit brain thought for a minute about this open-ended question. “Beacon batteries may be recharged from any standard Star Force power source.”

I shook my head within my helmet. The suit wasn’t smart enough to help me figure out why it had been operating for more than two days but still had almost all of its charge. This seemed the opposite of our armor, which had been operating for only about an hour but had drained our generators of a third of their fuel.

“Well, at least we have a source of power for a booster,” Kwon said. Without asking, he’d already tapped into it with a worming wire of bright smart-metal. He didn’t get much out of it, less than one percent capacity. The suit required a lot more power than a simple beacon.

“This maze is screwing with our energy reserves and maybe the flow of time as well,” I said. “At the current rate of energy expenditure, we’re going to be at zero in two hours. Then we can get out of the armor and run our skinsuits on batteries for a few more hours, maybe. After that, we’re hosed.”

“Then what are we waiting for?” He turned toward the big doorway.

“Right.” I followed him, talking as we walked. “Our people entered the maze two days ago. How did they keep from running out of fuel and energy?”

“Maybe Sokolov knew where to get more. He said he lived here for years.”

“Good point.”

“How come we’re not very hungry?” Kwon asked suddenly.

I thought about that question. It was true, I wasn’t hungry. Not even after a few hours of adventuring in this maze.

“It seems like our suits are running through fuel faster than our bodies,” I said. “Maybe the effects of this place aren’t limited to time progression. Maybe something is sucking electrical power from our suits causing the generators to constantly recharge the batteries. Yet, it seemed to have the opposite effect on the beacon. That doesn’t make sense to me, and yet…”

Something tickled my mind, as if I had tenuous hold of a piece of the answer.

“Suit, display any detected radio and quantum sources,” I said.

My HUD showed the strong green beacon behind us and a cluster of at least a couple dozen faint yellow ones in the direction we were traveling.

I slapped Kwon on the arm and moving stopped. “Wait. Suit, filter for Star Force signatures. Identify.”

“Processing.” After several minutes, the icons turned green one by one.

“Suit, why did it take so long to identify those signals?”

“The signals are distorted. Advanced algorithms were necessary to provide pattern matching approaching full confidence.”

“Suit, how high is your confidence level set?”

“Standard level, ninety-nine percent.”

“Suit, lower your confidence set-point to ninety-five percent.” This would allow pattern matching much more quickly in a cluttered, uncertain radio environment, although it increased the risk of misidentification by several percent. I’d take the chance.

“So those are our people, boss?” Kwon asked. He was looking at his own HUD trying to puzzle it out.

“Yeah,” I said. “I think so. They’re somewhere ahead.”

“Well, what are we waiting for?”

I held up my hand. “I’m not sure…I feel like I’ve forgotten something important. Suit, initiate vertical resting mode with automatic hazard reaction.”

“Mode set.”

This allowed me to relax and ignore my own surroundings as the suit kept me upright and the brainbox watched for danger ready to react on its own. I closed my eyes while Kwon paced back and forth, clearly impatient.

“Kwon, you have to stop that. I’m trying to think.”

Kwon mumbled something vulgar and moved into a back-to-back guard position. There he put his own suit into resting mode in order to avoid the inevitable little servo movements as the armor sensed his restless muscles.

After ten minutes of near-meditation, I had it. My heart pounded suddenly with the hope I’d figured out part of the puzzle.

“Suit, display current fuel and battery power. Alongside it, display fuel and battery power at the moment I set resting mode.”

The fusion cell showed no use of fuel, but oddly, battery power levels had increased significantly. I crowed. “That’s it! Look, Kwon!” I sent him an echo of my HUD display. “We’re recharging when we stand still!”

“That’s impossible,” Kwon said.

“Whatever you say, big man—but it’s happening anyway. That’s why the beacon had a full charge. It’s not moving!”

“So moving sucks power, but stopping gives it back?”

“Yes! But not fuel. It would be really weird if our fuel tanks somehow refilled. Our batteries recharging—that’s easy to do even with our own technology. Hell, we broadcast power for short distances on Valiant where needed. We recharge a lot of things through contact induction so we don’t need hard plugs. For some reason, that’s what’s happening. The maze must trickle-charge anything that isn’t moving.”

“Wow, sir, that’s smart. Even Marvin didn’t figure that out. Our Marvin, I mean.”

“Or he didn’t tell us. No, he would have said something if he knew.” I activated suit movement again and slapped Kwon on the back. “Now we know how they’re doing it and why it’s taking them so long. They have to stop and rest a lot, sucking up the ambient power from the maze until they can go on. As long as they keep power in the batteries, the suits don’t need to burn fuel.”

“Okay. So let’s recharge.”

We stayed that way for a few more minutes, watching our power meters increasing as my mind raced fitting together pieces of this puzzle we were lost within.

We moved on when we were full, walking steadily toward our receding goal for several minutes.

“Um, about the beetles,” Kwon mused. “If their food is power, maybe they’ll want to eat our batteries.”

I laughed. “If so, maybe that was why they were trying to eat Marvin. They really did want to digest him—or at least his energy.” That made me think of something else, but I had to mull it over for a while before I ran it past Kwon.

The big man put out an arm. “My batteries are almost drained again. We gotta stop and recharge or we’ll burn fuel.”

I stopped in the middle of the corridor with him and then turned around to our back-to-back mode. “What a pain. Five minutes of walking and ten minutes of gathering power from the air.”

“Better than running out.”

“Yes and the fuel is our fighting reserve. I doubt we’ll find any bottles of refined hydrogen isotopes just lying around.”

Ten minutes later we set off again. In this way, we progressed. It was maddening, but after two hours we hadn’t used any fuel. “This must be how Valiant’s people are doing it,” I said. “No wonder they haven’t gotten too far ahead of us. Sokolov must be stopping them every few minutes to recharge.”

“But now we can’t catch up.”

Kwon was right. Instead of overtaking them, we were probably just keeping up. “They gotta sleep sometime,” he said.

“True, and we don’t. Not for a while. We’re in tip-top physical shape, but not all the crew is. We two can eat nutrient paste, take stims and stick to this travel routine. At some point they’ll have to stop and rest or leave the slower people behind.”

Our chase turned into a game of walking for five minutes and freezing for ten. We automated our timing so that the suits themselves optimized the energy management, but it was still drudgery. After hours of trudging down empty, debris-littered corridors lit only by our suit lamps, I truly knew what rats in a maze felt like. Only I wasn’t at all sure there was any cheese at the end. We slurped nutrient pastes, drank water from tubes and let the nano-recyclers reclaim our wastes—not something I wanted to dwell on. Now I understood why Sokolov smelled so bad when we’d found him.

Every hour or so, we descended a level using giant stair-steps that made me feel like a living teddy bear trying to reach his favorite child’s room. Now and again we found evidence of Valiant’s people—a fitting broken off, a droplet of smart metal, a snack wrapper from some enterprising crewman who’d managed to figure out how to get it out of the package and into his helmet without suffocating.

Never underestimate the average human’s ingenuity when he wants nacho-flavored chips.

“If I didn’t hate Sokolov before, I do now,” I mumbled as I slogged ahead. “I’m starting to see your point of view, Kwon, and I’m hoping we run into something to fight out of sheer boredom.”

“I’m all right, boss.”

I stopped him before he started descending the giant steps. “Wait. Check your HUD. Something’s behind us.” I turned around to face back the way we came. I could see an EM source coming down the passage we had just traveled. However, in the darkness I couldn’t tell what it was.

“Suit, lights off. Go to active sensors, front only.” Maybe those we were following wouldn’t detect our pulses if we sent them backward.

“Oh, shit, boss,” Kwon said as the target of our sensors resolved itself on our HUDs. “That’s a Macro!”




-21-

Kwon was right. A Macro—a medium-sized model about fifty feet tall—shuffled toward us like an enormous six-legged spider, not hurrying at all. Unfortunately, its strides were long so it still approached us at about twenty miles per hour. A beam projector and a couple of gun tubes dangled slackly in turrets from its thorax, jouncing with every step as if the critter wasn’t even bothering to secure them. I couldn’t see a weapon on top where Macros often had an anti-air turret.

“Move slow,” Kwon whispered. “I don’t think it’s seen us. Back up and take cover behind this first step. We can ambush it.”

“Good idea—except for the ambush part.” We walked backward until we felt the edge of the step, and then we eased downward until we stood on the next platform with our rifles resting on the corridor floor like infantrymen in a trench.

“Stupid thing is blind,” Kwon said. “Our radar is pinging the hell out of it.”

“It looks pretty beat up,” I replied. The closer it got, the better became the resolution on the synthetic radar picture.

“How we going to kill it, boss?”

“If it wanders by, we don’t need to.”

“You’ve got to kidding me! My first Macro in twenty years, and I have to let it go?”

“Hold on, Kwon. Suit, illuminate with UV, IR and sonar and give us a composite view.”

Immediately I could see the thing in telescopic detail. It moved laboriously and one leg dragged. Dings and scars covered it and I could see only one optical cluster under active control. “It’s in bad shape.”

“Good. Let’s let it get close and take out its eyes first. Then we both hit the beamer, then the gun. Last we start working on the knees and bring it down. That’s how we did it old-school.”

“Old-school it is,” I agreed reluctantly. Even a damaged Macro was dangerous for two men to take on. “Call it.”

We waited tensely believing that at any moment the monster would see us or at least our various emissions giving us vision in the darkness, but it seemed not to care. Kwon got ready to fire.

“Wait!” I hissed as it loomed closer and closer. “Remember Sun Tsu! We can win without fighting. Stand down and duck. Squeeze into a corner so you don’t get stepped on!”

“Come on, Boss—”

“Do it! That’s an order, Kwon.”

Grumbling under his breath, Kwon pulled back his rifle and dropped down to back up into the corner of the giant stair. I did the same on the opposite side. Both of us stood in patches of debris, which made me confident that neither beetles nor Macros typically stepped exactly on this spot.

I held my breath as giant steel legs came down to slam onto our step, and then the next and the next. We both kept our rifles aimed at the sensor cluster, but the Macro ignored us completely as it lumbered on past.

“Perfect,” I whispered. “We’ll follow it from a distance. Hopefully it will run into our people and make a good enough diversion that we’ll be able to get close.”

“What if it kills someone?” Kwon asked.

“Did you see it? It should have fired at us long ago. It was blind. Or maybe it’s been reprogrammed not to attack. Or maybe it doesn’t know we’re biotics because of our suits. It’s a risk we’ll have to take.”

We trailed the thing. It paused every few minutes just like we’d been doing, leading me to believe it was using the same ambient power recharge method we were. As we waited between sections of our stuttering journey, I thought about what Sokolov had said about the Macros and his Nano fleet.

Alamo and the rest of the Nano ships had followed the Macros through the ring into this system. Before the battle could be joined, the Ancients had apparently stopped the fight and Sokolov found himself inside the maze which I assumed existed inside the golden world. Or it was accessible through the machinery coating the world made up of Slabs and Squares. Now we’d run across evidence of Macros surviving after all these years.

As we trailed the monster excitedly, I realized something else. I’d always thought of Macros as interchangeable even though there were different types. Macro ground combat machines were not Macro beings in charge of the others. They didn’t fly from place to place using ships in the same sense that biotics did. Rather, they and their ships and factories formed a collective whole, linked in a networked machine mind at every locale. If the Ancients, or rather their golden devices, had removed Sokolov and the Pandas from their Nano ships and dropped them in the maze, they’d probably done the same to this Macro. It was therefore probably a straggler, and hopefully it was alone. For a Macro, being alone would make it stupid.

More and more, the Ancient devices seemed just as inflexible as any other machines. I wondered again if the Ancients were really an artificial intelligence. If they were, maybe there was an inherent limitation that could only be overcome in some very specific manner. Marvin was the only truly lifelike robot with the ability to exceed his own programming that I’d ever encountered.

Were the Ancients machines themselves, or had they built intelligent machines? If their ships were automated, I’d seen nothing to indicate their ships were smarter than Marvin. Could they make genuine machine life, or did they simply choose not to?

Knowing Marvin, I could believe they’d tried it out and decided it was a bad idea.

I wondered, too, about the lack of a second ring in this system. Virtually every system we’d encountered had a ring leading in and one or more leading out.

An image of the Lithos’ hollow planets came to mind. The ancient version of Marvin I’d met had pointed out the golden planet might also be hollow. It seemed to follow that the exit ring to this system was within the golden world somewhere or, less probably, that the planet itself could be used as a ring if one knew how to manipulate it.

As required reading back at the Star Force Academy, I’d learned all about the wars my dad had fought. The Nano ships had vanished early on abandoning pilots like my dad or abducting them. Sokolov had been carried off by my dad’s ship Alamo herself.

Except for Sokolov’s windy stories, we knew little about what had happened to the Nano ships after they left Earth. Some years later they’d reappeared to defend the Blues in the Eden System, and most of them had been destroyed.

We’d never known if some other biotic species out there might have built more of them using their factories just as we had to produce Nano fleets in the early days of Star Force.

As to the fate of the Macros, even less was known. My father had destroyed every one of them he could find, but we’d known all along some might be lurking out beyond the rings where we’d never managed to explore.

I was definitely in that territory now. That place on all the maps from the Middle Ages that became vague, scrawled with cryptic warnings. Beyond here, there be dragons…

My single option was to assume Valiant was the only ship I could use to escape this place. If ships existed—Nano, Macro or otherwise—they were as likely to attack as help us.

So much mystery gripped the work of the Ancients. I got the feeling I’d never understand it all, but at least I believed I was getting my head around a piece of it. Maybe the golden world was a defense mechanism, or perhaps it was the interstellar equivalent of a bug collector, shipping specimens to where the real Ancients, the actual builders of the rings, resided. That in turn made me wonder why they wanted the ships and not their crews…

“Boss, we’re getting close,” Kwon said. I checked my HUD and saw he was right. The Star Force radio emissions were near and strong, the result of people talking to one another.

“Suit, can you decrypt the friendly signals?”

“If I synchronize my radio encryption with theirs,” said my suit. “However, you have specified passive sensors only.”

“Right.” The suits changed their scrambling from time to time and so had to “handshake” each other to update the encryption keys—but that would tell them we were here. “Suit, can you synchronize without the other suits or brains knowledge?”

“No.”

“Damn.” Then I thought of something. “Suit, can you change how we appear in the HUD network? In other words, can you make our icons and ID read as someone else?”

“Yes.”

“Can you alter our voices to match the records of known crew? A voice clone like a video clone, except audio only?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Kwon, give your suit the same instructions I do. Suit, as soon as firing breaks out, immediately synchronize your comms into the network. Try to suppress any alarms or notifications about us joining. We want to join their chat channels, but avoid appearing on their HUDs and mapping systems. We’ll move in close enough to listen in.”

“They’ll notice us somehow, sir,” Kwon said.

“They won’t be able to tell there are two extra blips without counting. Our people will be tired and distracted, and there are almost fifty of them. We’re not going to walk into the middle of them. We’ll just join their network and stay quiet. Maybe we’ll be able to blend in.”

“Worth a try. But what happens if they do notice?”

“Then we go public as ourselves and hope Hansen and the others back us and not Sokolov.”

“In case you didn’t know—Hansen doesn’t like you much, boss.”

I rolled my eyes. Hansen and I had had many run-ins, but I felt our working relationship was functional now.

“I was ready to clobber him a couple times,” Kwon said, “back when he talked about you in the mess hall.”

“Thanks for the thought, Kwon, but I think I’ll—”

Just then, light blazed from the corridor in front of us.

“It’s on,” Kwon said, lifting his rifle and preparing to charge forward.

I kicked out my foot immediately, tripping him. He went sprawling in the trash and turned back to look at me with a scowl.

“We’re going to take up a quiet position and watch, remember, Sergeant Major?”

“Yes, sir.”

We almost got there too late. The Macro crashed to the golden metal deck as we reached a good vantage point to watch the show. Smoke and dust hung in the thin atmosphere providing us with a little extra cover. We edged away from the region occupied by Sokolov and Kalu, choosing to take up a position in the trash heaps as far from them as possible while still being in the local chat loop.

“Boss,” Kwon said on a private channel, “shouldn’t we get a few people on our side? One by one, maybe?”

“Who can you trust?”

“Gunny Taksin is solid. I can message him privately. A couple of the Fleet noncoms should be all right, too.”

“Okay. Go slow. Talk to Taksin first. I don’t want anyone noticing anything suspicious.”

The party from Valiant went into rest-and-recharge mode after expending battery power to bring down the pathetic Macro, so I was able to survey the situation without distraction. Sokolov and Kalu had on marine battlesuits. They must have taken two of the spares. I doubted they could fight well in them, but if it came down to violence that made my job a lot tougher.

All of the non-marine crew had on standard full rigs suitable for working in or outside a ship in space, but they weren’t armored. They did have weapons, though, self-defense sidearms that every Fleet member carried during combat. I couldn’t just shoot Sokolov and be done with it. Without at least the marine contingent on our side, I could see a confused battle breaking out, friendly against friendly as people tried to sort out what the hell was going on.

The marines had spread out pulling security, but the other crewmembers had grouped themselves by section—engineer’s mates, drone controllers, gun techs and so on. As long as they didn’t take a good hard look at their HUDs in tactical mode, we should be all right.

I tried to figure out who I could approach like Kwon with Taksin, but I realized all the people I knew personally were back on Valiant. Adrienne, Sakura, Bradley, Chief Cornelius who liked to spike coffee, Moranian, Hoon and Marvin. I could call all the marines by name, but that was Kwon’s backyard.

So I worked on pinpointing the bomb instead. It was just a warhead pulled off one of our big ship-killer missiles. It was shaped like a rocket nose cone. Heck, it was the nose cone, just detached from the fuselage with four smart-metal carrying handles slapped on. I didn’t see any manual detonator on it, so it must be on a coded radio trigger. No doubt Sokolov had the code and no one else. That complicated my life even more.

Four marines had custody of the bomb. I made a mental note that one was Corporal Fuller, the man whose life I’d saved just a few days ago.

Sokolov and Kalu stood immobilized in their battlesuits faceplate to faceplate recharging as if having a private chat. Right now I wished I could hack their armor, freezing them permanently and cutting them off from moving or giving orders. However, marine suit networks were built to make this impossible just in case some enemy tried it. Making a suit read input data incorrectly was one thing, but taking over its functions was probably only possible for someone extraordinary like Marvin.

Marvin. Hmm. I activated my quantum ansible. “Marvin, can you hear me?”

“I hear you, Captain Riggs,” Marvin’s voice responded immediately, sounding as if he was at my elbow.

I traded dates with him to give myself some assurance I was talking to my own version of Marvin. “How’re you doing on freeing the ship?” I asked.

“We have succeeded in theory. However, Chief Sakura has not yet begun to execute our plans for fear of attracting the Ancients’ attention and being immobilized once more.”

“So you’re still falling?”

“For the time being.”

I thought a moment. “Marvin, can you go help the Raptors on Stalker get free as well?”

“I would be pleased to do so.”

I wondered why he was so cooperative. Probably he was eager to examine their technology in person. “Do it, then. Next topic Marvin, do you have any idea what Sokolov is trying to blow up with his nuke?”

“I can make logical deductions. I believe he’s trying to destroy the maze control center.”

“Control center? Where is it?”

“I have no information to give you. It’s only a supposition that a control center must exist.”

“What if the controlling intelligence is distributed? What if it has no center?”

“Then, in the words of a common idiom I researched recently, he’s screwed. You’re screwed. We’re all probably s—”

“I get it, Marvin. Oh…did you see any Macros when you were in here?”

“Yes.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“It was not relevant at the time. I feel I must point out, in fact, that you took the opportunity presented by our last conversation to ask about some message that I may or may not have received decades ago instead. Lately you seem to have trouble focusing on the issues at hand, Captain Riggs.”

I tried to throw my arms up in frustration but found my arms pinned down. I’d forgotten my suit was immobilized in recharge mode. “Maybe it’s because the rules of the game keep changing.”

“Then perhaps you must regard the rules themselves as a game to be won.”

I had no idea what that was supposed to mean, so I moved on. “Marvin, can you link through this transmission and hack Sokolov’s suit?”

“No. The bandwidth is insufficient. We’re barely able to communicate by voice.”

Just then, our recharge period ended and Sokolov’s voice crackled into my ear. “Let’s go!” he ordered.

I found it irritating that I was obeying him in any capacity. I released my suit from its frozen status.

“All right Marvin,” I said. “Call me when you get Stalker free. Riggs out.” We began our journey again.

Kwon sidled up to me and spoke on a private channel. “I got Taksin on board. He’ll talk to some more marines—ones who can keep their mouths shut and act natural. But we can’t tell them all until the very last minute. Some private would give it away.”

“Understood. Good work.”

Our procession turned a corner and entered a room, leaving behind the stair-step corridors we’d been trudging through for the last several miles. This one turned out to be different. I don’t know how Sokolov was navigating, but clearly he knew where he was going because this new place had furniture. It also had doors made out of large pieces of steel on standing frames.

While nothing could be attached to the stardust walls with our technology, heavy metal pieces could be pushed into the portals to form barriers. These doors were only a bit larger than man-sized, so they would keep out all but the smallest beetles or Macros.

The chamber was small, but pressurized. I saw a bed, cabinets, air recyclers, a water tank and a kitchen, a small electric fuel cell that looked as if it had been jury-rigged to recharge on ambient power. All of us and our gear couldn’t comfortably fit in the chamber. The marines especially bulked large in their armor, so Sokolov told Taksin to take a squad through the opposite door and secure the next room.

“This is where I lived for two years—or so it seemed to me,” Sokolov announced. He paced fretfully here and there among his things. “I didn’t know that decades were passing on the outside.” He seemed wistful. “This is where my Natalia and I should have had a life.”

His Natalia? This is the first I’d heard of anyone else being with him other than his beloved bears. Sokolov had never mentioned a woman, had never even hinted at one, but clearly he had told the crew about her. Maybe it was a ploy to gain sympathy and there was no “Natalia” at all.

Then I spotted a picture sitting on an improvised desk: a dedicated screen showing a beautiful woman with dark hair and bewitching eyes. So Natalia was real.

“I know you’re all tired, but we’re near the end of our goal. After we plant this weapon, we can leave. When we return to Valiant, with luck this evil machine will be gutted, and we’ll be able to continue our journey home.”

I could see why they were following Sokolov. He did have a certain degree of charisma about him, especially when he spoke in ringing tones about things my crew wanted anyway. People yearning for home would stretch to believe impossible things were possible and their minds would transform unlikely events into certainties.

“The next room you will see is my workshop,” he continued. “After that, we’ll be passing through another portal where we have a task to perform, one final piece of work before we set the bomb. I haven’t told you the details of that place until now because…well, I suppose because they are too terrible. But when you see what I’ve seen, you will understand why we must destroy this abomination.”

Sokolov clearly was obsessed with something. His words seemed overly melodramatic to me, but with everyone so tired I guessed the hypnotic quality would be effective. Like a cult leader, the man manipulated people with the rhythm of his voice, his tone and his gestures. I wondered what his big revelation was going to be. The crew had been through so much I couldn’t imagine anything that would impress them as much as he seemed to think it should.

Sokolov kept up his harangue for most of the recharge period. I just tuned it out after a while and tried to watch the troops. The marines in the room looked like immobile statues, but the crew in normal suits displayed body language cues and, if I wasn’t mistaken, they weren’t happy at all.

I’d met guys like Sokolov in the academy: older professors there by choice because they couldn’t deal with the real military anymore. They liked to have a captive audience, and some of them could be quite entertaining to listen to for a while but soon enough I’d realize they weren’t really trying to communicate. They just wanted to hear themselves talk and imagine that everyone admired them.

What made Sokolov different was his force of personality coupled with his legal authority plus the dangerous situation. Marvin had said I needed to look at the rules of the game as a game. Now I tried to imagine what he meant.

Obviously I needed to depose Sokolov and regain my legal authority in the minds of the crew. I’d already figured out this part of “changing the rules.”

I couldn’t change Sokolov’s personality, though I might be able to counteract or undermine it.

But maybe I could change the situation. Without the fear factor, the threat of death hanging over everyone, the crew might swing over to me fast enough to avoid violence. I would be the savior of the situation.

I’d have to time my move just right.




-22-

Sokolov and the Valiant crew, fully charged now, stirred and shuffled out of the general’s old living quarters and into a vast space the size of a gymnasium.

I tapped into their suit cameras, which were on local net feed. I was impressed with the amount of gear he’d collected. There was a one-man cargo loader, which was basically a machine like a walking forklift. That explained how he’d moved the heavier stuff. There were hundreds of items such as tanks for liquids and gases, bins and crates of every shape and size, weapons and power packs, hoses and cables, fittings and fastenings. A long workbench with tools showed where he’d cut, welded and modified things to suit his uses.

“As I told you before,” Sokolov said waving his arms to encompass the whole scene, “I stayed here, salvaging everything I could. I fought off beetles and macros, I investigated the Machine, and I stayed sane and alive. I was a modern Robinson Crusoe, a castaway with no man Friday to help me, yet I did not despair!” He dramatically pounded his armored fist on his workbench, leaving a distinct dent.

In spite of my dislike for him, I had to give him credit. It was a respectable feat. Still, I wished I could yell for him to get on with it over the chat line—but I didn’t dare risk having my crew recognize my voice. I wasn’t ready for that confrontation yet.

He blathered on for a couple of minutes about his ordeal, using far too many literary references that only those versed in the classics would get, until he finally wound up his speech. “But this isn’t what I came here to show you. Follow me.”

Sokolov had the marines drag open another steel barrier behind which was a doorway filled with the darkness of a ring. “I don’t even know if the room on the other side of this portal is nearby or a thousand lightyears away. It could be behind the next wall or halfway across the universe, but the surprises on the far side caused me to set up my quarters and workshop here. The reality is that distance doesn’t matter when working with rings. We can enter and exit freely. Have no fear.”

With that, he and Kalu stepped through the entrance and vanished.

This was my chance. Valiant’s people—my people—were now separated from their false prophet.

“Kwon,” I said urgently on our private channel, “Block that door! Reset your suit to show yourself. Tell Taksin and the marines to take control of the situation. Suit, deactivate the false signals and synchronize with the HUD network.”

Confusion broke out immediately as Kwon charged down into their midst, bowling over people who were carefully approaching the portal. He grabbed the steel barrier and swung it across to prevent anyone from going through in either direction. Gunnery Sergeant Taksin and two other marines moved to help him. Everyone else looked this way and that uncertainly, babbling on the general channel.

“Suit, command override on the short-range com-link,” I said, rushing to join Kwon at the barrier.

“Company, SHUT UP!” I roared. “This is Captain Riggs speaking! I order everyone to halt in place and be quiet.”

A beam blazed suddenly and I felt the heat of it as it struck my back. I dove forward and rolled, bringing up my own weapon, but it wasn’t necessary. One of the engineering techs was on the ground, disarmed. Two others stood over him with drawn sidearms. Apparently he’d shot me point-blank with a laser pistol. Fortunately my heavy marine battlesuit had taken the blast and saved my life. I didn’t know whether he was an assassin or had simply reacted to what he thought was a threat. For all he knew, I was an imposter or an apparition. Maybe it was as simple as one last stressful thing pushing the guy over the edge.

“He’s under arrest,” I said to the two loyal crewmen. Turning to address everyone, I raised my voice. “I know all of you thought Kwon and I died, but we didn’t. Someone faked our suit telemetry, probably Kalu. We’ve gone through Hell and back to get here, so I need you to stay calm and professional. I’ve spoken to Valiant, and the ship and crew are out of danger for the moment. If everyone follows my orders, we’ll all get out of this crazy place.”

The group buzzed among themselves in confusion, but no one else attacked me.

“Sir?” Kwon said. “I think Sokolov is burning through the plating from the other side.” Kwon pointed at the steel barrier the marines had put across the portal. It now glowed red with a spot of white in the center.

“Stay out of the line of fire,” I ordered as I strode up to the barrier, weapon in hand. Standing off to one side, I waited until a hole appeared and widened to the size of a dinner plate. When the beam from the other side disappeared I fired through it, a sweeping shot that was unlikely to kill Sokolov and Kalu in their armor.

I figured they must have realized something had gone wrong when no one had followed them through. Now I had to make sure they were isolated. No one was going to follow Sokolov’s orders anymore.

Still, I had no idea what was on the other side and I didn’t want to have to kill them. I had another worry as well. Each battlesuit was equipped with a basketball-sized grenade, a micro-nuke that doubled as a suicide bomb. Not enough to damage the square, but certainly enough to destroy my thin barrier and kill my crewmen. Was Sokolov enough of a fanatic to try to take out everyone with him?

“You two, machinist mates,” I pointed at pair of crewmen. “Slap some plating over this hole and weld it shut. Marines, pull the edge of the barrier back just enough to shoot past it and keep up intermittent suppressive fire. Make sure there isn’t enough room to roll a grenade through. If you see one, shove it back.”

Everyone I spoke to hastened to obey. I can’t begin to describe how good it felt to have a crew following my orders again.

“Somebody bring me a grenade,” I said.

“Hold on a minute,” said a familiar voice. Hansen walked up to me cautiously. “How do we know you’re really Cody Riggs?”

I punched him. Unlike many of the crewmen, he was wearing armor similar to mine. My fist and his helmet didn’t do more than shower sparks. He staggered back in surprise and fell onto to his ass from the force of the blow.

“I bet that felt real, didn’t it?” I asked. “Can anyone else hit you that hard, Hansen?”

Hansen chuckled in spite of himself. He got back to his feet and shook his head. “I don’t know. Probably not—not even in powered armor. You cracked my visor, dammit.”

“Can I do that too?” Kwon asked. “I bet I can flatten him.”

I waved Kwon back. “We’re not ghosts, Hansen. We’re real. We were scammed—all of us. I don’t blame you guys for following Sokolov, but he’s as crazy as a shithouse rat and I’m your real commander. He’s spent too long inside this maze. Frankly, I think he’s lost his mind. I want all of you to think about what it would be like to live here for twenty long years. Would you come out of it with all your marbles?”

They looked from face to face, muttering. Many said “no” under their breath.

Hansen walked up to me again. “All right,” he said. We’ll follow you for now, sir.”

“Good enough. You’re my exec again—for now.”

I waved the grim-faced marines forward. They handed me a heavy globe without comment. Everyone watching probably thought I was going to do unto Sokolov before he could do unto us, but I wasn’t ready to take such an extreme measure. It wasn’t so much that I minded killing him at this point, even without trial. He’d fired on us just now, after all—or at least I could argue that he had, even if he was just trying to cut his way back in.

No, I had a better idea, one with at least a fighting chance to work. I still needed information about this place, and Sokolov had more than anyone.

Hefting the grenade, I pulled up a schematic of it on my HUD and worked as I told the marines and crew my plan.

After a few minutes, which I spent explaining what I intended to the marines, I was ready for action. Sokolov hadn’t made another move, so I figured it was our turn to do something.

“Three, two, one, go!” I shouted.

Four marines lifted and carried the steel barrier out of the way of the portal. As soon as they were clear I rolled my grenade into it.

A split-second later it bounced right back out and rolled, coming to rest at my feet.

Thank God I had disarmed it completely by pulling out a couple of key components. I’d done so to make sure that even if Sokolov had swiped it, it wouldn’t do him any good.

“Something’s blocking the way from the other side, so get ready to clear the portal. Let’s try this again,” I said. I picked the grenade up again and launched it with an overhand toss up near the top of the doorway. This time it went through. “Go!” I said.

Kwon and Taksin charged like linebackers, leaning low to slam into whatever was in the way. They slowed as they hit something, but other marines followed up in a stack. When eight of them made it through the portal, I followed.

I’d wanted to go in with Kwon, but the troops had flatly refused. “Now that you’re back, we won’t let you get killed again, sir,” Taksin had said in his Thai-accented English. All of the marines had muttered support for his words. I chose to believe they genuinely respected me rather than they simply detested Sokolov.

Maybe it was a combination of both.

The space on the other side was also large: a room a hundred yards wide and maybe thirty deep. Close-set rows of thin vertical boxes like lockers lined the floor, but it was a zone of movement that caught my eye. I was through just in time to see the battlesuited figures of Sokolov and Kalu dive out of a portal across the room and disappear.

My ruse of war had worked. They’d thought we’d thrown through a live grenade. Rather than be disintegrated in the blast, they’d run for it.

“Secure that portal,” I ordered. “Use whatever you can.”

Wrestling with the scrap steel Sokolov had tried to block us with, the marines hastened to obey.

“Bring more through from the workshop if you have to. I don’t want him doing to us what we just faked doing to him.”

While my people followed my instructions, I looked around. I’d gleaned that Sokolov had wanted to show us something in this room, something that would justify or at least explain his actions. Walking over to one of the rows of tall boxes, I examined it. Featureless and made of golden-metal stardust, I couldn’t see anything to distinguish one box from another.

Turning slowly, I forced myself to look for clues as to what he’d had in mind. There was still a fair amount of junk and debris around, but most of it had been dragged or pushed into the corners. I noticed at the end of one row several rectangular pieces had been stacked like blocks to form crude steps. I walked over to them noting scuff marks in a line that indicated someone, probably Sokolov, had climbed them often enough to ding them up.

I tested the first one with a booted foot. No way was it holding up under my heavy armor.

“Suit, deploy and go into recharge mode,” I said. A moment later, I climbed out of it like a butterfly exiting a cocoon. Clad only in my skinsuit and inner facemask, I climbed to the top of the row of boxes.

The coffin-like lockers were not featureless from the top. Instead, each had a clear glassy square in the upper center about a foot across along with a row of unfamiliar characters etched into the golden metal. I bent down to look into the closest of them, seeing nothing at first.

“Someone hand a light up here,” I said. When I had one, I directed it into the glass.

I jerked back fast, almost slipping and falling. A monstrous visage lurked behind the glass. It was alien—all curving fangs and spines and with exposed teeth in a face tailor-made to give children nightmares. I couldn’t see what the rest of the thing looked like, but it wasn’t a creature I’d ever encountered before. Whatever it was, it seemed completely frozen—immobilized in stasis. I had no idea if the condition was permanent or if the thing was still alive in its state.

After a full minute of carefully examining it, I hadn’t seen it move as much as a hair. Maybe it was immersed in some clear substance, or perhaps one of Marvin’s invisible “force fields” held it. Maybe time itself had been frozen within that box. I had no way of knowing.

“What do you see up there, Captain?” someone asked. I realized it was Doctor Benson, my chief scientist.

“Come up and take a look. Bring Doctor Chang too,” I said, and soon the two researchers had clambered awkwardly atop the row. I pointed at the window. “See what you make of that while I look into other boxes.”

While the two men exclaimed over what they could see of the creature in the box, I checked the next one, braced for a scary face this time. Another version of the same alien showed. I shrugged and stepped to the next one.

This time I saw a different alien. It resembled the warlike Worms we’d allied with during the Macro Wars, but I thought it was slightly different. I’d never met a Worm in the flesh and my recollection of the vids was hazy, so I couldn’t be certain. The next window showed another creature of the same type.

The following window startled me, however, though not enough to cause me to stumble. No, this one was familiar.

It contained a Centaur: One of the intelligent deer-goats my father had fought using a clubbed shotgun and his wits when he’d been plucked off our farm back in California. This was back when everything changed for Earth and humanity. The horns were large, indicating age and status. Its forelimbs were held up to its face as if in horror.

“This is a zoo,” I said on the general channel. “Or a bug collection. It looks as if the Ancients have samples of many races in storage here.” Looking around from my vantage point atop the boxes, I did some quick math and came up with over a thousand units. If each race had two or three examples and all boxes were filled, several hundred different biotic species would be represented in this chamber.

“It’s a treasure trove,” Benson exclaimed. “Even if they can’t be revived, the biological data alone is priceless.”

“Yes, it’s amazing,” I said flatly. “But Sokolov wasn’t a scientist. Pure knowledge wouldn’t have obsessed him. There’s something else that he cared about here and I’m afraid I know what it was.”

I let my eyes run from crystal to crystal up the row, and then my feet followed carefully. The obvious pathway through accumulated dust led about halfway down the line to one particular window. At this point I was fairly certain what I’d see. Squatting down, I looked through the clear substance.

“Hello, Natalia,” I breathed.

An ethereal, heart-shaped face, alabaster skin with dark hair and the classic Slavic features common to so many Russian models looked up at me as if yearning to find a way through the glass. Her eyes stared sightlessly past me and I could see her corneas glisten as if some child of the Ancients had hit the pause button on a 3D vid. I sat down on a small box seemingly set there for the purpose and simply gazed for a while.

This woman was the source of our troubles—no, to be fair, it was Sokolov’s reaction to the woman. Was she alive or dead? Had she been snatched from Sokolov’s grasp or had he found her later? Had he known her in life or had he become obsessed with her here, staring for hour after hour, day after day, alone and longing for the human companionship forever unreachable on the other side of this unbreakable alien crystal?

I stood up and moved over to look in the next window, expecting to see another human face if the pattern held. I was right. The occupant was a man, with a rich mop of dark hair and the face of a Greek god interpreted by Michelangelo. The light faded out just below his broad shoulders, but if the boxes held high-class specimens of each species—perhaps even breeding pairs—I could tell this guy was more than a match for Natalia.

More than one emotion drove Sokolov, I realized. If love was the carrot, jealousy was the stick that beat at his ego. A man like the general couldn’t possibly tolerate a rival for his woman’s affection.

“Captain Riggs!” Gunny Taksin called from the blocked portal where Sokolov had vanished. “I’m getting a signal. It’s Doctor Kalu. She wants to come through.”




-23-

Jumping down from the ten-foot-high row of vertical coffins I landed lightly on the floor. “So Kalu has had a change of heart? Tell her to stand by.” I hopped into my battlesuit and buttoned up.

“Hansen,” I said.

“Here, Captain.” By mutual unspoken consent, my exec and I had been avoiding each other for the past few minutes. Hansen might have been completely innocent and just following orders, or he might have been involved somehow. Maybe all he was guilty of was being happy I was gone and preferring Sokolov, at least at first.

Or maybe he was a mutineer who hid it well.

“Hansen, do you think Kalu was part of a plot to get rid of me and Kwon?”

My exec furrowed his brow convincingly behind his faceplate. “Hard to say, Captain. She jumped at the chance to act like the queen bee, but most of her negative actions were directed at the other women.”

“What about you, Nils?” I searched his face. Using his first name emphasized my personal questioning of his honor. “Anything to confess?”

Hansen’s visage darkened with anger and, if I read it right, a bit of embarrassment. “If I were going to mutiny, I’d have done it after we lost the other officers when you were fresh and green. You’re not the hot shit you think you are, but you’re a damn sight better than most I’ve served under and getting better all the time. So no, sir. My conscience is clean. All I’m guilty of is being suckered into believing my commander was dead—just like everyone else.”

I forced a smile. “Good. Forget I asked. Now I need you to do your best to keep the crew happy while I deal with Kalu.” I slapped Hansen on the shoulder gently, not wanting to mark his armor again. I turned away to walk over to the portal. “Okay, put Kalu through to me.”

“Captain Riggs, please listen to me,” I heard Kalu say, using what no doubt was her most innocent, contrite tone of voice. I almost laughed aloud. Did she honestly think I would fall for this again?

“Switching sides now that you’re losing status, Doctor? Or did Sokolov give you the boot?”

“Captain Riggs, you must believe me. We thought you were dead, and when Sokolov took over we had to follow his orders.”

“Half-truths. You tried to manipulate your way to the top again.”

“I’ve always preferred a strong man. He wanted me. If that’s a crime, you and Miss Turnbull would be guilty too.”

“But neither of us tried to kill anyone.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

I sighed. “You’re the only one with both the motivation and the expertise to do it. You hacked Kwon’s and my suits, and it would have worked if the Raptor battleship had finished us off the way you’d hoped. Unluckily for you, we survived, and now you’re shit out of luck.”

“None of that is true. I didn’t hack anything. You have to believe me.”

“I don’t have to believe a damn thing, Doctor. Your fate is in my hands. The maximum penalty for mutiny and attempted murder is death.”

“I’m a civilian, Captain, not one of your Star Force people. You can’t just condemn me without proof, a trial or some kind of procedure.”

I chewed on that one for a moment. Actually, she was right. I had nothing but circumstantial evidence. Without knowing for sure she’d hacked the suits, she was only guilty of bad judgment and general sliminess. I could probably get away with executing her or leaving her to die in the heat of this moment, but that would be the action of a tyrant. Worse, I felt sure it would come back to haunt me, making me look like a hypocrite. Keeping the moral high ground was part of leadership.

My style of leadership, anyway.

Worse than all those doubts were the ones I was forced to entertain about my convictions. There was still a chance my suspicions were wrong about her.

“You’re right, Doctor,” I said finally. “I promise you an inquest and due process according to regulations.”

Something occurred to me at this point in the conversation. How was she transmitting to us? She had to be out of range even if she was elsewhere in the maze.

I stepped sideways around the barrier until I could see the tip of a suit antenna poking out of the darkness. I smiled.

“There’s no need for me to be under arrest of any kind,” Kalu complained. “I won’t agree—”

Reaching out with both my powered gauntlets, I yanked her through the portal. I signaled the marines and they moved up in case we had to grab an active grenade and throw it back.

Kalu squawked and struggled briefly, but we had her with a half-dozen gauntlets gripping her armor.

“Welcome home, Doctor,” I said.

“Okay, okay,” she said. “I’m not resisting!”

Soon Kwon and his men had her against a wall like cops doing a drug bust.

“Kalu,” I said, “make sure your skinsuit and mask are in place, and then crack your battlesuit. Corporal Fuller, go find one of the Fleet crew that’s about her size and won’t trip over his own feet in armor. Then exchange suits. I don’t want the good doctor feeling too invulnerable.”

It didn’t take long for one of the engineering techs, a former marine as it turned out, to switch suits with Kalu.

I searched her myself before she put on the standard Fleet gear but didn’t find anything dangerous except her voluptuous curves. She smirked as I ran my hands over her body, but I ignored her. I told Fuller to select another guard and for both to watch her closely. Right now I wished I had some female marines to do it but our few had all been left aboard Valiant. Kalu could be distracting to my men.

Once that was done, I left my armor and brought her up to the top of the line of boxes where the two humans were interred. I pointed. “What do you know about these people?”

Kalu leaned over and gazed into the frozen woman’s face.

“This must be Natalia,” she said, speaking in a detached voice. “Sokolov’s lost love. He tried to keep her secret, but one night in bed he told me she had been a captive on one of the Nano ships when they left Earth. When the fleet got to the bear planet and the ships ran the tests again, she ended up abandoned on the ground. Sokolov saw her and rescued her. When Sokolov woke up in the maze she was gone. Eventually he found her here and spent all his time trying to figure out how to get her out without killing her.”

“So that’s what this whole thing was about? A woman?”

Kalu turned to me. “Isn’t that why you’re here with us, Captain? Because of a woman?”

She had me there. From Helen of Troy to King Arthur’s Guinevere and Napoleon’s Josephine, women had been inspiring men to do crazy things for centuries.

“But why the nukes?” I asked. I had Marvin’s deduction about Sokolov’s intentions, but I wanted to hear Kalu’s explanation without tipping her off to my own thoughts.

Kalu narrowed her eyes and blinked slowly, cocking her head and eyeing me in that languid sexy manner clearly calculated to slip past a man’s rational thoughts and tug at his libido. “You ought to be able to figure it out,” she said.

“Maybe, but I want to hear it from you. If you’re really innocent of all but malice, quit playing games and start helping.”

Kalu held up a hand. “Help you what, Captain? Track down Sokolov? Or get the hell out of this place and on our way?”

“I don’t care about Sokolov. He made his choice and he can rot here eternally for all I care. But I get the feeling whatever he wants to do with nukes is going to piss the Ancients off royally. Either that or it won’t matter one bit. He might be nuts, but it’s a clever kind of crazy. Just tell me what he’s trying to do.”

“He thinks he can shut this place down, and he hopes when that happens these boxes will open and Natalia will be freed.”

My mouth went dry. “Yeah, along with a few hundred other aliens, some of which are probably going to be pretty upset at being turned into specimens. Assuming they can be revived, that is. We have to get out of here before that happens—or worse.”

“What about them?” Kalu said, pointing at the encased humans. “You going to just leave them?”

“Weren’t you just saying you wanted to get the hell out of here? Where do you get off lecturing me about morality, Doctor? They’re not my responsibility. The crew of Valiant is. Yes, that includes even you. For all we know these people are dead and perfectly preserved. Those cases are made of stardust. They probably mass a thousand tons each. Even if we tried to cut them open with lasers, the heat would kill whatever was inside. What do you want me to do, try to crack the crystal? Even if we could, the openings are too small to pull them through.”

“They had to be put inside there somehow,” Kalu said.

“These Ancient machines have exhibited the ability to teleport things with or without actual rings or portals. Maybe they were put in there that way, and the teleportation technology is way beyond us right now. We might come back for them someday, but for now that’s impossible.”

“Captain—”

“We can’t rescue them. We can barely rescue ourselves. I hope we can find the way back.”

Kalu held up her hand. “We can’t go back. At least one of the portals we came through was one-way. Sokolov told me that. He also said some of the corridors shift from time to time. We’ll get hopelessly lost.”

I called Hansen over and confirmed Kalu’s info.

“Dammit,” I said. “How can we get out of here?”

Tall for a woman, Kalu straightened and looked me in the eye. “You have to follow Sokolov. There’s a landing platform through the portal. I saw it. Sokolov took a vehicle and flew away cursing me when I didn’t want to get in and go with him.”

Though Kalu was cooperating for now, I reminded myself to take everything she said with a healthy dose of salt. I marched her forward and up to the doorway.

“Move the barrier,” I said to the marines, and then spoke again to Kalu. “So you’re sure Sokolov’s gone? No traps?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Well, think hard,” I said. “You’ll be the first to go through the door.” With that, I thrust her through and followed after a brief pause—just long enough for an explosion to dissipate.

Nothing bad happened. Kalu stopped after ten feet, standing with her hands half raised and trying to look harmless. Marines pushed past me spreading out to secure the platform.

Kalu was right. It was a flight deck about a hundred yards wide and fifty deep. Fortunately, gravity on the platform seemed oriented toward the floor and about an Earth-normal one G. It occurred to me that something might be deduced from this fact, but I wasn’t sure what. Did the maze-machine analyze us and change gravity to fit our biology? Or did most life, the gaseous Blues excepted, develop in the common range from about half a G to two G, and the gravity field was set to “average”? Or perhaps it was adjusted to the Ancients’ own “normal.” I just didn’t know.

The entire far side of the platform was open to space, but not the space of stars and planets. Dim, persistent light showed the interior of an enormous golden sphere, and I realized we were looking at another hollow world. This time, though, it was not made by Lithos out of planetary dirt and rock. Instead, it was formed from the interlocking slab-ships of the ancients. The undersides appeared no different from their tops.

A fuzzy cloud showed in the middle, its components impossible to resolve. If I really gazed upon the inside of the golden planet, I must be looking across thousands of miles. This cloud could be anything—gaseous, asteroids, fortresses, ships, debris, mysterious machines, even huge living creatures.

“Suit, employ maximum optical magnification,” I said.

Battlesuits didn’t have a lot of zoom, but the suit did its best. You could only cram so many auxiliary devices into the design, and high-res telescopes were not a priority. The cloud got bigger and seemed to have a bit of shape to it—perhaps as of a rough cube—but I still couldn’t tell what it was made of.

Small craft ranging in size from one-man scooters to shuttles sat scattered on the platform. All were of alien origin but still obviously ships. Now I wished I had Marvin with us. Among us only he could quickly decipher alien technology.

The only vessel I recognized was a Crustacean scooter sized to carry one Lobster. It roughly resembled a snowmobile or jet-ski for waterborne use. After examining it for a moment, I activated my quantum ansible. “Marvin, can you hear me?”

“I hear you, Captain Riggs,” Marvin replied.

“Put Hoon on.”

“One moment. I’ll have to link his translator with the ansible.”

“Spare me the details, Marvin. Just do it quickly.”

A moment later I heard Hoon’s synthesized voice. “Make it fast, young Riggs. I’m very busy right now.”

“Fine. Walk me through the controls on a Crustacean space scooter. I believe it’s a Model 27 or 28.”

“My time is too valuable to waste giving you low-level instruction.”

My tone hardened. “Professor, I have more than forty people stuck in this multidimensional maze and I need to know how to fly one of your scooters, so start instructing.”

“You’re making even less sense than usual, young Riggs.”

“Dammit, Hoon! For once in your life would you please just tell me what I need to know?”

“I will upload a tutorial for the robot. Good day to you, young Riggs.”

“Hoon? Hoon!

“He has closed the channel,” Marvin said.

“Forget him. Access that tutorial and tell me how to work this damn thing as fast as possible.”

It took an agonizing five more minutes for Marvin to explain the gist of how to fly the scooter. When I retracted my gauntlets and took the controls with my thin-gloved hands, Kwon put a massive fist on my shoulder.

“Boss, I’m coming with you.”

“This thing’s not built for two, especially two people in armor. We’re lucky Lobsters are so big anyway, but even so it’s going to be overloaded. Fuel shows almost full, but if the usual rules of this place hold it won’t last as long as it should.” I shoved his hand off me. “Sorry, Kwon, but I have to get going if I’m going to stop Sokolov from blowing up the control center and trapping us all in here.”

“We should be able to get out of the planet. I saw a few gaps in it when I was on Valiant.”

“I know, but what if this planet controls the whole ring network? What if Sokolov’s bombs shut them all down? How many hundreds of light-years are we from home? How do you feel about building and populating a generation-ship so your descendants will make it back to Earth in a few thousand years?”

“I could get into the populating part—but no, I don’t like the rest.”

I rolled my eyes.

Hansen approached with another idea. “We could follow you on a surfboard. The marines brought a couple along.”

“Repellers aren’t fast enough. I’m not going to throttle down, either. I have to go alone, guys. Work on a backup plan while I try to catch Sokolov. Hansen, I’m leaving you in charge. Kwon’s suit has a quantum ansible you can patch into. Call Marvin and see if he can help you activate one of these alien shuttles. Maybe you can pilot something else if you can figure out the controls.”

“How do you even know where Sokolov is?” Kwon argued.

“I’ve got the arrogant prick on my HUD. He hasn’t turned off his transceiver beacon. He doesn’t actually know much about the battlesuit he’s wearing, but he might think to ask the brain at any moment. Now get out of my way, and get to work. That’s an order.”

Kwon grumbled but backed off.

A moment later I lifted off in the scooter and flung myself into space.




-24-

Flying inside a large enclosed space always impressed me more than open space, especially with just a faceplate between me and the view. It’s like the difference between looking at a mountain and the inside of a sports stadium. The mountain may be much bigger, but the artificial structure is somehow more impressive.

My HUD had placed Sokolov at two hundred miles ahead of me, but he wasn’t accelerating. That showed he wasn’t a complete amateur at flying. A beginner would have accelerated too much and then had to decelerate the rest of the way, wasting a bunch of fuel. Coasting was much more efficient.

I accelerated slowly, carefully watching my gas gauge. When I estimated that I was going just a little faster than Sokolov, I shut down the tiny reactor and let the engine die. The batteries showed full, so I set the repellers to one percent and tried them out. Life would be a lot easier if I could use a normal, rechargeable power source.

Immediately the scooter began to wobble. I tried to adjust the tiny grav forces generated by the repellers, but no matter what I did I couldn’t keep them stable. The machines of the Ancients continued to screw with me, but at least I knew they must be screwing Sokolov in the same way.

My suit radar said the cloud was about three thousand miles away floating in the approximate center of the golden sphere. That was all I knew about my environment. The tiny sensor was designed to give a marine vital information at close range and was nearly worthless at planetary distances.

I thought about hailing Sokolov, but not wishing to give up the element of surprise, so I kept silent. Most likely he hadn’t spotted me yet. We cruised this way for quite a while. I checked back in with Hansen and was told the crew was working on getting a shuttle working but making slow progress. Trying Marvin, I couldn’t reach him.

Eventually the cloud in front of me began to resolve itself into large, individual blips. Switching to my best optical zoom, I chose the largest contact I could find and focused on it.

Rather than easing my mind, doing so added to my worries. What I saw was a Macro battleship. It was larger than their run-of-the-mill cruisers, larger than Valiant and almost as big as Stalker. To me it radiated cold, implacable menace.

Once I had wrapped my mind around that ship, I started to understand what the cloud was, and what I was seeing. More than two dozen Macro vessels, cruisers large and small, surrounded the battleship. None showed any power readings or movement whatsoever, so it seemed my theory about a boneyard or collection may be correct.

Working my optics outward as I approached, I found the edge of the Macro squadron and the beginning of another one of unknown design. The next group of vessels was also alien to me, but then I recognized a ship type I’d only ever seen on vids.

They were Nanos.

That confirmed it. The cloud I saw was made up of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of ships the golden machines had collected over the ages.

What was Sokolov’s plan, I wondered? Did it have something to do with the ships or was their location a coincidence? I scanned further, seeing scores of alien vessel types ranging from tiny to large either alone or in groups of twos and threes and even dozens. The explorer in me surged with the desire to find out what they held in technologies and the greedy part of me wanted to acquire those technologies.

Then I saw it: An anomaly in the boneyard.

Right in the center floated a golden cube that appeared to be made of Ancient-style slabs fitted together like a three-dimensional puzzle.

The center. The control center. That had to be Sokolov’s objective—it was the only thing that made sense.

I brought up the aiming reticule on my HUD, laid it on Sokolov and looked at the hit probability displayed there. 0.00376%. No way I was hitting his flyer from over a hundred miles away. Checking the navigation numbers, I realized I’d cut his lead to ten minutes, but he’d started decelerating and I’d soon have to do the same. When I did, he’d probably see the engine flare pointing directly at him.

Then things would get interesting.

If I were Sokolov, what would I do? Myself, I’d land and wait with my beam rifle aimed carefully, taking all the time I needed to burn my enemy down from a nice steady position. But Sokolov wasn’t trained in personal combat like I was, and ambushing me would be an all-or-nothing gamble.

No, I thought he would make a run for his objective.

Another question occupied my mind: was Sokolov suicidal? He had two grenades with him. Would he be willing to die to take down the slab control center and free his girl? I thought of the Adonis imprisoned next to her and didn’t see that happening.

So he must be intending to plant his bombs and run. Catching me in the blast would be a bonus. Letting the grenades explode might leave everyone stranded forever without working rings. Nothing said this golden planet and its multidimensional maze housed the only control center, but it might.

Bottom line, I had to stop him for everyone’s sake. I’d kill him if that’s what it took. Given his actions thus far, I thought I could do it. There was a slim chance I’d face an eventual hearing, but I was willing to gamble I’d walk away as a free man when it was over .

Seeing Sokolov begin his deceleration, I calculated the remaining fuel on my scooter and pushed the timing to the very edge. I spent my time waiting and watching the digits turn over until the last possible moment for me to start my braking. The tiny fusion drive flared in my direction of travel like a blowtorch, and I clamped my knees tightly onto the scooter and placed my hands firmly on the grips. Next I added in a little repeller.

I’d figured this last, unstable bit of help would do two things. One, it would slow me further so I wouldn’t hit quite as hard. Two, the bucking and twisting provided ready-made dodging in case he tried—yes, there went the first shot from his laser, missing me by a mile. It would be insanely bad luck if he hit me, but then again, that would be no comfort if the universal wheel of misfortune landed on my number.

Not being able to see a damned thing, I had to rely on my suit radar and the ability of the brainbox to control the landing. At the end, my feet and knees were clenched around the scooter while I waited for the impact.

Whatever I hit drove my knees up into my faceplate, bruising my face even with the gel pads that cushioned my cheekbones. I gasped as the breath was driven from my lungs, and I felt my right hand go numb as it struck something hard.

Then I was down—if that was the word—perched atop my crushed scooter. A dribble of pressurized fuel sprayed into the near-vacuum and sparks flared as the little vehicle’s electrical systems was torn apart.

Fortunately a marine battlesuit is much tougher than a Lobster-built scooter, and mine had stayed intact. I rolled to my feet and found myself on the outside of a golden slab. For a moment I felt a wave of déjà vu, probably brought on by the terrain’s resemblance to the Square back on Orn Six. In this case, however, I stood on the outside of a cube approximately a mile on a side feeling the light tug of gravity that was about half a G or so.

Checking my HUD, I found Sokolov’s general direction and began to run past cubes and windows. My nightmare would be getting there too late with him gone and my not knowing which of the many entrances or portals he’d used.

Just in time, I leaped over a low jumble to see my quarry disappear through a window. Nearby, his own vehicle rested. It was a one-man maintenance pod by the look of it. Crashed against the impervious golden metal, it appeared to be damaged beyond repair.

For a moment I considered the possibility of a booby trap, perhaps one of his two grenades left behind on a short timer. If so, my best bet was to get through the window as quickly as possible, so I powered forward and launched myself at the portal. Just before I vanished, I thought perhaps I saw the beginning of a flash, as if from an explosion.

Rolling to my feet on the other side, I found myself in a place far different from what I expected. Instead of golden cubes and windows, swooping lines of silvery-white crystal like spun glass rose from the ground and filled the air, curving among themselves to eventually attach to the walls and ceiling. Beneath me, in the direction of the gravity anyway, lay clear, hard material. Nothing here resembled a cube. It was as if the builders had deliberately changed themes avoiding any reference to the rest of the machine.

The deck, or floor, wasn’t even level. Instead, it undulated like a kid’s skateboard park and curved upward in all directions.

My perceptions did a flip-flop as I realized I’d arrived inside a sphere at least five hundred yards across. I saw Sokolov walking up the far wall without difficulty, which triggered the further realization that the gravity must be set to make “down” point toward the inside surface of the globe, the exact opposite of on a planet.

I ran toward him, dodging among the crystal strands. As he knew I was here anyway, I opened up a short-range channel.

“Sokolov, don’t do this,” I said, huffing over my microphone. “There’s no guarantee destroying the control center will free Natalia. It might kill her!”

“Better for all of us to die destroying this abomination than live like this,” he replied, panting. “We’re nothing to the Ancients—you’ve seen their work! We’re specimens. Rats to be studied. Things to be collected. Our machines, our ships, our very bodies are of scientific interest to them, but they don’t care. They have no feelings, but I’ll make them feel. I’ll make them feel fear.”

Sokolov’s anger was understandable, but I figured he’d “gone round the bend,” as Adrienne would say. Not so far that he couldn’t function, unfortunately, but enough to be immune to reason. Still, I tried.

“Listen to me. Marvin figured out a way to keep Valiant from being pulled down. That means we have time. With all of our resources and Marvin’s technical brainpower, we can figure out a way to get her out of the box. General Sokolov, if you drop those grenades and come back with me now, I give you my word as a Star Force officer that I will do everything I can to free Natalia and return her to you.”

A hundred yards in front of me I saw him turn, grenade in one hand. I wondered where the other had gone, but right now that hardly mattered. One nuke or two, we would be just as dead.

“I tried for two years to free her and failed, but I found out a lot about this place in the process. You’d think a rat can’t possibly understand the complex machine he’s trapped inside, but you’d be wrong. This rat figured things out. Even if I don’t know why something works, I learned how to use it. You hardly know how anything works anyway, do you, Riggs? Do you know how a factory does what it does?”

“Vaguely,” I said, keeping him talking as I moved slowly toward him. Sokolov liked an audience, so I would do my best to give him one. “I know it uses incredible numbers of nanites to build whatever we want one molecule at a time if necessary.”

“Yes, you see! We figure out how to use advanced technology, but we can’t create it ourselves. We’re primitives. We know how to fly the ships, but we can’t build the ships without our magic factories, can we? Well I, Anton Vitaly Kushkin Sokolov, have deciphered the technology of the Ancients.”

“And now you want to destroy it?” I asked. “What sense does that make? Your accomplishments thus far have been amazing, General. Let’s study and learn some more. I bet we can figure out how to do things we’ve hardly even thought of starting with releasing the woman you love. The stuff I’ve seen here—instantaneous transport and communication across vast distances, forcefields, even control of time itself—think of what we could do with them, all thanks to you. You’d be a hero, lauded across Earth’s federation.”

“No! You don’t understand at all!” Sokolov raised the grenade over his head in both hands. “The more mankind learns, the less he becomes. There’s always one more technology, one more scientific advance that promises to fix our lives, but none of that matters without the people we love.”

A choked sound, a sob even, came over the com-link.

“Yes, General. Yes, you’re right,” I said, still moving slowly forward. I was about thirty yards away now. “The woman I love is on Valiant, so I understand perfectly. I’d do anything for her. If it was Adrienne in that box, I’d move heaven and Earth to bring her back to me and hold her in my arms and kiss her once again. To have her lie beside me in my bed and wake up next to me in the morning…”

“Maybe that’s possible,” Sokolov said. “What if I offer you love returned? What if I break this machine, release us all, and allow us to study the wreckage? They can manipulate time, Riggs. I’ve seen it. What if you could reach back and pluck your dead love from the past?”

Inside my helmet, I blinked. Was he talking me down, or was it the other way around? I had to admit his offer was tempting.

“If I thought you could do it, Sokolov, I might take you up on it. But you’re here to wreck this place, not utilize it.”

Step by step I edged closer to him, rifle slung and hands held out nonthreateningly. “Whatever you intend,” I told him as he watched me, “I can tell you believe in it. I can see that. Even if you hate me you love Natalia, and I’m sure she loves you. Wouldn’t she be heartbroken if you were gone? If you left her there all alone? Come on, Anton. We can work this out. You don’t have to die to free her.”

Sokolov’s eyes bored holes into me through our faceplates, now not more than ten yards away from each other. “I never intended to die. I was going to plant the bombs on timers and leave. Everyone would have survived. Natalia would be free, Valiant and her crew would be free, and with the factory we could build ourselves a habitat. We could all live long, happy lives watching our children grow up. It’s only your presence here that’s forcing my hand, Riggs. So now…now we die together.”

He pressed the grenade trigger and slammed it, two-handed, onto the deck.

I was already moving. I’d seen it in his eyes, his irrational willingness to destroy everything. Darkness of the mind drove him. Demons I could never understand twisted his psyche into knots a whole herd of shrinks probably couldn’t unravel.

I hit him with a flying tackle. I didn’t even know why. The grenade’s explosion would render anything I did irrelevant. At that point I just wanted to punch this idiot in the face one last time before I died.

The deadly sphere rolled away from us, spinning.

As I repeatedly smashed my armored fist into his faceplate, I wondered how long a delay Sokolov had programmed into the device and thus how long I had to live.

Hammering with all my nanotized and Microbed strength backed up by the augmentation of the suit, I was able to crack the smart glass by the fourth blow. It tried to seal and heal, but I clamped my legs around his torso like a wrestler and alternated punches, left-right, left-right.

Finally, my gauntlet drove a crackling mass of glass in to cut Sokolov’s face. Blood spurted and air rushed out of his suit. He coughed and struggled weakly, but I could tell I’d beaten him.

Only part of my mind wondered why we hadn’t been incinerated yet. Halting with my bloody fist raised above him, instead of smashing him again I reached down to unplug his laser rifle and pull it out of its holder, tossing it away. Then I leaped off the fallen man and raced for the grenade.

Obviously Sokolov had either made a mistake in setting the detonator or the device had glitched. It still might be counting down, or maybe it wouldn’t go off at all, but what irony it would be if I died because I was indulging in administering a beating instead of taking care of business.

I could hear Sokolov whimpering on the com-link as I scrambled across the bright glassy surface. Sliding on my knees, I scooped the grenade up like a soccer goalie and spun it until I could see the readout.

It read 0.00, and the timer wasn’t blinking.

It should have gone boom. Sokolov hadn’t made a mistake. The thing must have malfunctioned. Only, I’d never heard of such a thing happening. Marine equipment was robust. Of course, anything was possible in this place, but short of my mother’s gods deciding to intervene on my behalf, I just couldn’t see how it hadn’t gone off.

“Riggs,” Sokolov mumbled through swollen lips. “Why aren’t we dead?”

“Because you’re an idiot,” I told him, unaccountably even angrier with him now that the fireworks finale turned out to be a fizzle. I shook with the adrenaline of a close shave. Certain death had a way of doing that to a man. “You set it wrong,” I half-lied. “All your big talk and you’re dumber than my dumbest grunt.”

“First you attack your superior,” he said wearily. “Then you lie.”

He had a point, but I was beyond giving him a break now. I stood up, holding the grenade tightly by its carrying handle, and pulled out my rifle. I could see Sokolov’s faceplate had knit itself back together. In a few minutes it would be as good as new.

“On your feet,” I told him. “We’re heading back to Valiant.”

“Really?” Sokolov stood. “I’d expected a summary execution.”

“You’ll not get off that easily.”

“Then where’s the door leading out, bright boy?” he asked, gesturing around him with sweeping arms.

Damn, the man was right. A portal had dumped us inside this anomalous globe and I hadn’t seen any way out. “You tell me.”

“No.”

“Okay, then what? We’re not blowing up. Natalia will stay forever in her box. You’ll have accomplished nothing.”

“I’ll have killed you.”

I sighed. “Why do you even care about that? You know, I can’t figure you out. Twisted unrequited love, lust for power, revenge on me for what my father did to you—you’re incoherent, man. Could you at least pick one evil motive and stick with it?”

“I’m not the villain of this piece, Riggs. It’s not even you. You’re just a pawn as I was. Well, no more.” Sokolov raised his face and shook his fists at the crystals above. “You hear me, you bastards? I’m not your lab rat! I’m human, and I’m going to beat you if it takes me my whole life.”

“Give it up, General. Seriously. How can you defy them if we’re stuck here like hamsters in a rolling ball?”

Sokolov’s tone turned gloating. “You’ll be stuck, Riggs. Not me.”

I barely had time to get worried before he turned, stepped, and fell into a portal.




-25-

Sokolov jumping into a portal in the deck and leaving me trapped inside a huge crystal globe filled with glassy filaments was a definite problem.

I rushed over to where he’d been and dove at the floor, but the black circle had vanished. I pounded and stamped on the surface to no avail.

I should have stayed nearer to him. Hell, I should have clipped a line to him, or maybe I should have shot him in the leg. Sokolov must have some device or known a technique for opening and closing portals, but I had no clue what it was.

I had a few devices of my own, though.

Initially, I fired my laser rifle at the deck. There was no effect other than to reflect most of the energy like a mirror. The beam struck filaments and surfaces, splitting into green slices that ricocheted around until they had dissipated to mere gleams.

Next, I tried my standard com-link on all channels telling the suit brain to run through a complete range of frequencies. Nothing came up right away, but you never knew.

Lastly, I tried to reach Marvin on the quantum ansible, my best hope.

Nothing.

I set the suit to intermittently keep trying Marvin, and then sat down and thought. I had to recharge anyway. All the running and fighting had emptied the battery and eaten half my fusion mix, meaning I was down to about one hour of juice. As long as I recharged with ambient power after every five minutes of activity I’d be fine, but the fuel represented my only reserve.

With nothing else to do, I picked up the grenade and examined it, wondering just what had stopped it from doing its apocalyptic duty. These things were foolproof because your average line marine was a poster child for the technologically illiterate. All you did was set the timer and punch the big button labeled “Start.” After that, kaboom. Another setting enabled a contact detonator, but that would only work if all Star Force personnel—well, their beacons anyway—were outside the blast radius. That safety interlock could be overridden, but solely manually. For suicidal use, someone had to actively press certain buttons.

“Suit,” I said, “bring up a standard tutorial on marine grenades.” It had been a while since I used one, and I wanted to make very sure I didn’t set this thing off by accident.

Halfway through reviewing the simple, graphics-filled instruction sequence I began to laugh. I couldn’t stop for a solid five minutes. Eventually I ground to a halt, gasping.

I hadn’t lied after all. Sokolov had screwed up. He’d set the contact detonator, apparently believing all he had to do was slam it to the ground. But he hadn’t bothered to run the tutorial, and so didn’t know about the safety interlock to make sure some fumble-fingered jarhead didn’t blow up his ship and crew by mistake.

Patting the bomb absently as if it were a pet, I leaned my head back and breathed a great sigh of relief. At least now I understood what had happened. Lowering my eyes, I proceeded to carefully press the large buttons that returned the grenade to inactive mode. Once that was done, I stowed it in its clamp on my suit and reviewed the HUD video of when I entered the portal to this place, hoping to find something.

The thing that immediately caught my eye was the flash I had thought I’d seen when I dove through the portal following Sokolov. Setting the video to ultra-slow, I realized the burst of light had come from the general’s wrecked pod. So I’d been right about that: he had set a booby trap, possibly using the second grenade. Or maybe it had been a coincidence and the pod’s engine just picked that moment to blow up. Fortunately, I’d hurried after him, saving my life.

That was only of incidental interest, however. Now, I went over the recording frame by frame looking for anything that might give me a clue as to how Sokolov activated portals. I found nothing, but that may be because I wasn’t there when he’d activated it. Or maybe it was always on. Hmmm…

I pulled up the record of when Sokolov had departed this place. In that instance, there had been no permanent portal, only a smooth expanse of inward-curving deck. Somehow, he’d created a way out.

Frame by frame I checked, finding nothing. I slammed my fist on the ground, frustrated.

“Suit,” I said, “do you have anything other than visual and audio records?”

“Yes.”

“Well, what are they?”

“Internal diagnostics. Telemetry. Energy and ammunition expenditure averages. Occupant biometrics—”

“Wait. What telemetry?”

“Compressed metrics are regularly downloaded from Star Force brainboxes and devices.”

“Do you have anything from Sokolov’s suit?”

“Yes.”

Bingo. “Suit, give me a summary of all of Sokolov’s suit actions beginning ten seconds before he departed this location.”

My HUD lit up with a diagram of a suit showing systems as they activated in realtime—servos, comms and so on.

“Wait. What’s that? Go back…eight seconds and begin playing at one-tenth speed.” The display reset and then ran forward with painful slowness, until—

“There. What’s that, a laser activation?”

“Yes. Directional communications laser set to infrared mode.”

“Aimed at the deck.”

The suit brain didn’t answer because I hadn’t actually asked a question, so I rephrased. “Did Sokolov aim the com-link laser at the deck?”

“Yes.”

“Suit, replicate the exact settings of Sokolov’s laser burst on my own com-link laser.”

“Replicated.”

Using the recording, I moved to where Sokolov had been standing. I had no idea if a portal could be opened anywhere or only in specific places, so doing exactly what the general had done seemed to give me the greatest chance of success. Aiming the laser, I readied myself and then fired at the deck at my feet.

I guess I aimed closer to myself than Sokolov had to his own feet, because a portal opened beneath my boots, and I immediately fell through it. I had no time to celebrate before I slammed into a hard surface. Scrambling to my feet, I found myself somewhere on the outside of the golden cube.

There was no sign of an arrival portal. “Suit,” I said, ignoring that minor puzzle, “locate all Star Force beacons within range.”

Immediately, Sokolov’s icon came up on my HUD. Focusing on it and magnifying, I could see a tiny figure floating among the many vessels arrayed above and around me. Perhaps twenty miles away, he seemed to be trying to get to one of the ships while tumbling and spinning. I figured he was having the usual trouble with repellers.

I wondered what he was doing. Maybe he was trying to get aboard one of those vessels and fly it. They appeared to be crewless, as none of them were moving. The ships around him were alien to me and of a completely unknown type, so I thought it unlikely he would get control of one anytime soon.

Other icons were displayed at the limit of my HUD, weak signals that must be leaking around the corner of the mile-wide cube I stood on. Pointing myself at the nearest edge I ran until my batteries read zero, and then spent an agonizing ten minutes refilling them. The next charge got me to the place at which two vast square surfaces met where I carefully stepped from one side to the other. The gravity seemed perfectly perpendicular to each golden deck, so my fear of floating off turned out to be unfounded.

Now I had line of sight back to the flight deck where Sokolov and I had started. Zooming my opticals, I could barely make out a craft of some sort rising from the platform and, I hoped, heading toward me.

“Riggs here,” I said, aiming a narrow com-link beam at the little ship. “Anyone read me?”

“Captain,” I heard Hansen reply with relief in his voice. “Thank God. We saw Sokolov’s signal but not yours and thought…”

I wondered if Hansen was genuinely glad I wasn’t dead or merely play-acting. It hardly mattered as long as he did his job right now. “A Riggs is harder to kill than most people, Hansen. Come pick me up with all deliberate speed. Sokolov tried to blow up the control center, but I stopped him. We have to arrest him before he causes any more trouble.”

“I have to be conservative on fuel, Skipper, or we’ll run out. It’s burning at least ten times faster than normal.”

“I believe that has something to do with the time manipulation here,” I replied. “Do the best you can. Try using your repellers on a very low setting to get some extra thrust. They’ll be squirrely but a good pilot should be able to eke out a little extra that way, and all it will cost is some battery charge.”

“Will do,” Hansen said. “We’ll be there as soon as we can.”

“Roger. Riggs out.” I walked around the edge of the cube again so I could see Sokolov, but he’d disappeared. I didn’t even see his icon anywhere, which troubled me. If he was outside of a ship, the signal should have been visible even if it wasn’t in direct line with my receiver. Radio signals curve, propagate and bounce much more than visible light, so it would take a big solid wall to block them.

More likely, he was inside a ship, and his signal was completely contained by metal. Possibly he’d finally figured out how to turn off his beacon.

Or maybe he was dead. But that was wishful thinking on my part.

If we lost him, I had no idea how to locate him among these mothballed ships. There were hundreds, maybe thousands of them. Perhaps the best thing to do would be to just leave the golden world hoping Sokolov would run out of fuel trying to figure out how to activate some alien ship. The chances seemed remote that he would survive his current situation, but then, he’d lived through some other tough spots. Like my father and me, he was obviously resilient, and his instability didn’t seem to make him any less tough.

“Head for Sokolov’s last known position,” I said, hopping aboard Hansen’s spiny alien shuttle.

My suit spoke up as I strapped in. “I have established a channel to Marvin on the quantum ansible.”

“Marvin, what’s your status?”

“I am exploiting the Raptor technology, as you suggested.”

“Are you repairing their ship, or did you forget about that part of my orders?”

“I am hurt, Captain Riggs. I have made extensive repairs and even now I’m devoting over fifty percent of my effort to restoring all functions, even such low priorities as waste disposal.”

“Marvin, if you’d ever had to pee really badly, you wouldn’t call waste disposal low priority. Wrap up what you’re doing immediately, and bring Greyhound inside the golden planet.”

Marvin paused a moment before answering. “By this order I deduce that the planet is indeed hollow. However, I do not think it wise to attempt to enter. The machines of the Ancients seem to have protective protocols that may prevent or capture me.”

“Marvin, I need you in here.”

“Isn’t an operational Marvin outside the planet more valuable than sharing your prison with yet another inmate, Cody Riggs?”

I growled in my throat. “Marvin, you figured out how to free Valiant and Stalker from the force field that was holding them. I have every confidence you can free yourself and Greyhound from this hollow sphere if you were to become trapped.”

“I would still classify your suggestion as unwise.”

“Marvin, you’re cloaking your cowardice with logic,” I told him. “By the way, have you got that ‘placeholder’ cloak operational yet?”

“Of course not. I’ve been exceptionally busy trying to follow your many directives.”

“Not to mention wasting time exploiting Raptor technology, I think you just confessed.”

“I wouldn’t use the word ‘confessed.’ Rather—”

“Marvin, just tell me: Can you get some kind of cloak or stealth system operational any time soon? Something that might hide you from the Ancients?”

“Define ‘soon.’”

“Within the next twelve hours.” I didn’t think I could stand being in this battlesuit much longer than that.

“That’s extremely unlikely.”

“Then Captain Marvin, you’re just going to have to risk it. Marvin? Marvin?”

“The quantum signal from the other ansible has ceased,” my suit said.

I cursed up a storm. “Marvin is dodging my order to come help,” I complained to Kwon. “That weasel.”

“He’s chickenshit,” replied Kwon. “I’ll tear a few of his arms off next time I see him.”

“I’m sure that would be fun, but it would only work for a little while. I just realized I took the wrong approach with him. Too much stick, not enough carrot. Hansen, anything on Sokolov?”

“Nope,” Hansen said. “No signal. If I read this alien display right, we’re about where we saw him last.”

“Open the ramp,” I said.

Hansen obliged, and soon Kwon and I stood holding onto the edge of the hatch staring out into inner space. I brought up my video record and tried to match it up with our surroundings. “I think he was heading for that one.” I indicated a globular alien ship of battleship size.

Hansen maneuvered us nearer the vessel.

“There,” I said, pointing at a big open hatch, perhaps proportioned for cargo. “Fly in there.”

“What if Sokolov shuts the hatch?” Hansen said.

“There’s no way he’s gotten control of this ship so fast. Drop Kwon and me off and park outside.”

Once we had disembarked into the alien ship, I held up my hand for Kwon to wait, and then turned on my ansible again. “Marvin, I know you can hear me. There’s something you should know. The inside of the golden planet contains hundreds of dormant alien ships most in perfect condition. I believe you’d be very interested in examining them. I also found the control center you predicted. It’s too bad the risk is keeping you from this treasure trove of technology.”

The ansible feed hissed at me with an extended silence but finally Marvin spoke. “Perhaps the risk can be managed. I will prepare and may be ready in as few as eight hours.”

“Better hurry, Marvin. Sokolov is still on the run and he knows more about this place than we do. You’re our ace in the hole. You’re the only one who can beat him at his own game. He wants to destroy these ships—he told me that. He wants to destroy the control center too, which may shut down the rings forever. Imagine how your life would go if you were stuck in one star system for eternity.”

“I would recommend that you delay his efforts,” Marvin said, and closed the channel. “I will arrive shortly.”

“Come on, Kwon. Let’s hunt us a general.” I led the way over to the inner door of the bay we were in.

“Can I kill him?”

“If you have to, but let’s try for a capture, all right?”

I could feel Kwon’s evil grin through the com-link. “Sure, boss, sure. I’ll try real hard.”

“First, let’s try to get this door open.” It sported a couple of handles that looked like they might function as manual controls, so I grabbed one and Kwon the other. We shoved them back and forth until we found the open position and pushed. Thin atmosphere hissed out as we forced the door inward with our servos. I got the impression this ship had been here a long time.

Inside we found a passageway, as expected. This one had heavily rounded corners, its cross-section almost a circle with four flattened sides. I guess these particular aliens like their curves. Bluish lights came on.

“It’s still got power,” I said.

“It must recharge just like everything else.”

“Guess so.”

“Which way?”

I looked around, and then pointed right. “I see disturbed dust.”

Kwon took off, and I followed. His mind might work slower than mine but not his reflexes or his eyes. Sokolov had no time to hide his trail anyway once we knew what to look for.

We tracked him a long way through the ship. I expected him to head for the center where most ships put their control rooms or bridges for maximum survivability. Only civilian cargo ships built with cost and efficiency in mind put their command personnel next to the hull. I’d spotted several of what looked like weapons, so I was confident this was a warship unless the aliens who built her had a completely different philosophy—which was quite possible.

Everything to do with aliens was guesswork until confirmed by observation. Instead of heading for the center, Sokolov’s route meandered back toward the hull. There was no way to catch up to him unless we burned fuel reserve, so we did so, hoping he would stop to recharge rather than do the same. By the time our journey ended, we were down to twenty percent, which in the new math of the Ancients gave us about sixteen minutes.

We burst out onto a flight deck filled with bubble-shaped small craft, shuttles, pinnaces and pods if I had to guess. The bay door was open wide and one shuttle cradle stood empty.

“Shit,” I said without feeling.

I engaged my com-link and opened a channel to my exec. “Hansen! Circle the ship and pick us up.”

I leaned out of the bay into space, hoping to spot Sokolov’s beacon, but got nothing. Inside the alien shuttle, his signal must be blocked. Without some kind of help, there was no way to pick out one ship among the hundreds in my range of vision.

“Suit,” I said, “go active on all sensors and search for anomalous motion. Highlight anything abnormal.”

A moment later, a caret pointed at a receding dot. Zooming in with my optics, I saw that it was a spherical craft matching this alien design. “Got him. Suit, mark and track, and pass to all Star Force personnel in the area. That’s Sokolov.”

As soon as Hansen picked us up, we followed.

“Big problem, Skipper,” Hansen said. “Fuel. He’s probably got a full tank, and ours is at less than half. I’m feeding in as much repeller as I can control, but that’s only about five percent.”

“I can tell,” I replied as we clamped our gauntlets onto stanchions to hold steady against the severely wobbling, bucking craft. “Just do your best.”

It took only a few minutes to catch up to Sokolov’s shuttle, which was maneuvering lazily, almost as if he wanted to be caught.

I figured if he wanted to be caught, something was wrong. Maybe the ship was set to blow as soon as we docked with it. Maybe he wasn’t even on board. Maybe he’d stayed on the alien globe-ship and suckered us by launching that shuttle on computer control.

“Blow it out of the sky,” I ordered.

“I have no clue how to fire the weapons on this thing,” Hansen replied. “We’re lucky I was able to figure out the manual flight controls and the displays.”

“Damn,” I said. “In that case, drop the ramp and point us at the shuttle.”

Soon, Kwon and I stood in the open hatch and aimed our laser rifles. “Short bursts, maximum setting,” I ordered.

“You got it, boss,” Kwon replied.

It took only five or six shots from each of us until the alien bubble was a smoking wreck spinning through space. We high-fived each other in celebration.

That was when all hell broke loose.




-26-

The screen of our alien shuttle lit up with unreadable icons, but I didn’t have to decipher them to know the inside of the golden world had just gone ‘barking mad,’ as Adrienne would say. Through the crystal viewports, I could see lights coming on aboard many of the ships as if they were awakening from a deep sleep.

Clearly, something had changed—something had switched them on. Maybe our destroying the shuttle had done it, but I couldn’t be sure.

If our deductions were correct, it was a good thing they didn’t have any crew aboard. Any vessel advanced enough to fly in space must have computers or AI of some description, and with crew some of them might take action against us. The last thing I needed was a new hostile force to worry about.

We flew through a sea of ticking time bombs.

“Hansen! Get us the hell out of here.”

“To where?”

“Back to where we left the crew would be best.”

Hansen shook his bald head. “No direct path is possible due to our trajectory and speed. I’m heading for the edge of this boneyard first and then we can loop around.”

Abruptly a searing red flash came through the open viewports and our faceplates darkened automatically—but not soon enough to keep my retinas from overloading. Fortunately, nanites and Microbes could restore eyes as well as flesh, and as the dazzling effect wasn’t severe, I could soon see again.

“Hurry up, Hansen. We have ships shooting at each other with guns and beams. It’s only a matter of time before one of them lobs something at us. Packed in the way we are, it’s going to be carnage.”

“I’m trying, Skipper, but most of these ships are maneuvering now. It’s an obstacle course.”

Hansen was right. We flew through a maelstrom of confusion with ships pitching, rolling, yawing and thrusting here and there. Directly out the port side I saw one large, ugly vessel, hugely armored. It plowed straight into a smaller one and cut it in half without slowing. Two more engaged in a beam duel at point-blank range, and then a third joined them, firing at both. None were of the same type nor did I recognize any.

“They’re panicking and spreading out,” Hansen said in a rising voice. “The edge of the mess is getting farther away. It won’t be long before this entire interior space is overrun.”

“Look at that,” I said, pointing at one spot on the displays near us. “Icons are disappearing.”

“Targets being destroyed?” Kwon said.

“I don’t think so. Head in that direction,” I ordered.

“Might as well. We’ll never make it to the crew if we go back through the middle of the battle.” Hansen jerked the shuttle aside applying more repeller. We spun and bucked like an old-time whaling boat in a monstrous storm, but we made progress.

I spotted a battle taking place between a carrier accompanied by two dozen drones against a squadron of frigates.

“Stay away from that,” I said, pointing. “Right now I think the warships are ignoring us, assuming we’re no threat—but fighters might have a different protocol.”

“We’ll be lucky if I’m able to hold a course at all, Skipper, but I’ll try.”

“I thought there were no life signs aboard these vessels—no crews. Am I looking at AIs here or what?”

“Unknown, sir,” Hansen said. “I don’t understand it, but there’s someone aboard those ships now. They either just appeared—or maybe they were in hibernation.”

“They couldn’t thaw out in seconds,” I said thoughtfully. “You’re sure they all started moving at once?”

“As far as I could tell. I can forward you the log files to check my earlier readings, sir.”

He sounded a little annoyed, and I waved it off. I doubted there was anything we could learn from the mystery anyway. Then I was struck by a new possibility.

“What if they were in stasis—like those creatures trapped in Sokolov’s lair?”

Hansen shrugged. “Could be.”

A few moments later we broke out into relatively open inner space. In front of us we could still see icons disappearing, but I didn’t see any signs of wreckage or explosions.

“All of these ships are disappearing at the same point in space,” I said. “Zoom the optics in on the spot.”

Hansen fiddled with the sensor controls with one hand while keeping the ship on course with the other. Amazingly, he was able to get a decent picture of the coordinates I wanted to examine.

“Macros,” Kwon roared. “The Macros are getting away!”

He was right. A dozen remaining Macro ships lined up and dove for a square hole in the underside of the golden shell that defined this planet.

“That’s an opening, not a ring or portal,” I said. Switching on the ansible, I began transmitting. “Marvin, if you can hear me, all the ships inside the golden sphere are active and a bunch of Macros are escaping through an opening into the local star system. Pass the word to Valiant and Stalker to rendezvous and back off. They should not engage. Defensive protocols should be used at every level. The Ancients have lost control of this situation, but I don’t know how. Sokolov must have succeeded in wrecking their control mechanism after all, but that’s water under the bridge. For now, survival is imperative.”

“Survival is always imperative, Captain Riggs,” Marvin’s welcome voice responded. “Without survival, what would be the point of existence?”

“Thanks for the philosophy lesson, Marvin. Pass on my orders. And also, if you get a chance and think the risk is acceptable, most of the crew is waiting on an interior landing platform. Kwon, Hansen and I are in an alien shuttle attempting to get out behind the Macros. If you see our beacons, try to pick us or the crew up, whichever is easier.”

“Orders passed. Marvin out.”

I suspected he’d closed the channel to prevent me from giving further orders specifically to him in a dangerous situation. Survival, freedom of action and technical challenges seemed to be Marvin’s top priorities in life—in that order. I supposed that wasn’t so different from a lot of biotics.

“Look,” Kwon said. “Nanos!”

Kwon was right. As the tail end of the Macro squadron lined up to exit the hole in the shell of the golden planet, ninety small Nano ships attacked the Macro rear, looking just the way I remembered from the thousands of hours of war vids I’d watched growing up.

They operated just as stupidly as they did historically making me presume they lacked command personnel to think creatively. Dividing themselves evenly into groups of three or four, they engaged each Macro ship with several of their own rather than doing as my father had done and every Star Force officer was trained to do: attack one or two targets at a time with overwhelming force, blowing each out of the sky in turn. Instead of a disciplined slaughter, the battle turned into a melee.

The Nanos still had the upper hand by far since most of the Macros had exited the scene. They managed to kill seven or eight of the bigger ships, but a couple made it through anyway. Nanos followed them out of the hole, still firing.

“If the Macros are massing on the other side, the Nano ships are going to be meat,” I said, my tactical mind kicking into overdrive. “Damn, but I wish I had Valiant under me right now.”

“I wish I had Steiner under me right now,” Kwon chimed in.

“Thanks for that image, Kwon. Hansen, aim for the opening and let’s see if the Macros are ambushing the Nanos or not.”

Closer and closer we approached the rectangular hole. It was about a mile by a half mile in size as if one slab was missing from the Golden world’s outer skin. In fact, that was probably exactly what the hole represented: a slot for a slab-ship that wasn’t in position. I kept waiting for the golden machines to intervene, but they didn’t. I decided I had to ignore the possibility and focus on dealing with the things I could see and influence.

The last of the Nano ships dove through leaving Macro wreckage in their wake. Most of them had survived. Mentally I cheered and saluted them, but I doubted they could win a straight-up battle with the entire Macro force. If I were a Nano ship commander, I’d have ordered them to pull back and find somewhere to put their factories to work making more ships. Since each Nano carried a small factory, this was by far the best strategy. But without command personnel, the Nanos acted with poor strategic foresight.

I’d always wondered about that. Dad had figured out and pretty much confirmed that the Blues had built both the Macros and the Nanos. His theory, backed up by a reasonable amount of evidence, was that the enormous, aerogel Blues needed AI-run machines to be their hands, eyes and ears outside the crushing gravity of their gas giant homeworld. Originally they’d created the Macros, and when those went rogue they’d made the Nanos to oppose them.

The Macros must have taught the Blues that pure AI was inflexible, so they created protocols to acquire biotics to serve aboard the Nano ships. Fair enough. But I still wondered at the inability of the Nano brainboxes to learn much. The ones we’d made, cloned and programmed seemed to do better. Was this because we humans were gifted in the area of AI design? Or was it because the crew of a ship taught and interacted with our brainboxes more than the average Nano commander? Any intelligence developed poorly without a variety of experiences and input was bound to be limited in its capacities.

Even Dad had treated Alamo as an adversary for a long time, a computer to be outwitted rather than an ally. Our own brainboxes, such as the small one in my suit and the big one aboard Valiant, we thought of as allies. Maybe that made the difference. Maybe even AIs knew when their command personnel liked and respected them.

Or maybe I was full of shit, making them out to be too much like us. Still, it was an intriguing theory.

“I don’t see any fighting going on,” Hansen said as he edged our shuttle closer to the hole.

“Keep approaching,” I said. “And speed it up. What, are we crawling to the finish line here?”

Hansen gave me a sheepish glance. “I’m trying to come in from an oblique angle. I sure wish we had a probe to stick its nose out for us.”

We edged up to the rim of the opening. Fortunately, no other ships approached us from behind. Most of them seemed to be occupied in a titanic swirling dogfight.

“I’ll be happy to be out of here,” I muttered.

“Looks like you’ll get your wish,” Hansen said. “The way is clear.”

“Then get us through.”

“We’re almost out of fuel, and once we’re outside we won’t have any free battery power from the environment,” Hansen reminded me.

“Yeah well, just take us through and shut down everything. Conserve energy and fuel. We need to get picked up.”

Hansen put us into a controlled drift and tried to get us a better tactical picture on the displays. The colors and shapes were hard to get used to as the ship was alien. We couldn’t read the script, but it’s amazing how much can be gleaned from just a few graphics if that’s all you have.

“Looks like the Macros are heading out into space,” Hansen said, nodding at a group of icons. “The Nanos are following them but not engaging.”

“Probably going for the comet cloud at the edge of the system. It’s the only source of raw materials. Give them time and they’ll plant factories and rebuild. I bet the Nanos will try to prevent that. They’ll harass them as much as possible.”

“They can’t win,” Kwon said. “Not enough Nanos.”

“Without command personnel, they’re following their programming. They’ll fight to the death.”

“Too bad we couldn’t give them some commanders,” Kwon replied.

An idea exploded in my mind. “Kwon, you’re amazing. I only hope we have time to do it.”

“Huh? I’m amazing? Do what?”

“Don’t worry about it. Just keep thinking out loud and we’ll be fine.”

“Half the time I don’t understand you, boss.”

“Hardly anyone does, Kwon. Hansen, open the hatch again.” As soon as I had a line of sight into space I sent out a wideband signal. “Riggs to Valiant, come in.”

Valiant here, Captain Riggs,” I heard.

“Put me through to whoever has the conn,” I said.

“Turnbull here,” Adrienne’s welcome voice said in my ear.

“Adrienne, we need to be picked up, fast.”

“Yes, Marvin told us. We’re on our way.”

“Hansen?”

“I heard.” Hansen turned the shuttle until he lined up on Adrienne’s signal and accelerated gently, mostly to give Valiant an easy flare to spot.

Two large icons centered themselves on the screen: Valiant and Stalker, I figured. When Valiant’s launch bay swallowed us several minutes later relief flooded through me.

“We’re home!” I said, slamming Kwon on the back and stopping myself from doing the same to Hansen. He wasn’t wearing armor. “Shut this thing down and get to the bridge as fast as possible,” I told him as I exited the shuttle.

Kwon and I bolted down passageways and soon stomped onto the bridge. Retracting my helmet and gauntlets, I made as if to kiss Adrienne, but she put her arms out with a sour look.

“Focus on tactics, Captain Riggs,” she said stiffly.

“Right. Whatever,” I said with a touch of anger. I’d made one little relationship misstep and she was never going to let me forget it. “To your station, then, Ms. Turnbull. Valiant, are you fit to fight?”

“Overall readiness stands at fifty-eight percent.”

“What’s the major deficit?”

“We have only two operational combat drones and only nine crew members.”

“Aside from the lack of Daggers, what’s the readiness number?”

“Seventy-nine percent. That is only an approximation not taking any specific combat situation into account.”

“Got it.”

For long-range ship-to-ship combat, Valiant could probably do fine without many crew members. For close-in stuff or boarding actions we needed marines, damage control parties, and technicians to make repairs, just for starters.

Now the question I had to answer was whether to go after our people or help the Nanos chase down the Macros. If the Macros got away and started reproducing using their factory capabilities, I might regret not going after the enemy immediately while they were relatively weak. But looking at Adrienne and Bradley, the only two crewmembers on the bridge, I knew the correct tactical decision wasn’t always the right one.

Valiant, set course for the opening we came out of. Employ no more than five percent repeller augmentation and use a conservative thrust profile. Because of anomalies within the golden planet, expect fuel expenditures exceeding ten times normal,” I said.

“Noted. Shall Warrant Officer Hansen be piloting manually?”

At that moment, Hansen hurried onto the bridge to throw himself into the pilot’s seat. “Damn right I will,” he said. He slipped his hands onto the dual custom joysticks and placed his feet on the pedals.

“I think that’s a yes, Valiant,” I said. “Keep our weapons on standby and employ them only defensively unless I order otherwise. Power management is your primary concern right now.”

“Understood.”

“Hansen, let’s go get our people.”

We still had several minutes before we got to the hole, so I called Stalker to implement the idea Kwon had triggered. “Commander Kreel, you there?”

“I am here, Commodore Riggs, though I am properly addressed as Captain now that I have command of this battleship.”

“Absolutely,” I said. At this point I’d call him a fucking five-star admiral if it got the job done. “Captain Kreel, you’re still pledged to my service, right?”

“It wounds me to know you felt the need to ask such a thing, Commodore, but I attribute your rudeness to your alien culture. I will studiously ignore it.”

I rolled my eyes. “That’s great. I have some instructions for you.”

Speaking quickly, I gave a summary of the Macro and Nano fleets and how they operated, and then uploaded a short, straightforward description of the trial those ships would administer to potential new command personnel. “If you brief your people, nearly all of them should pass the tests without any problem, and they will become commanders of Nano ships. I’ll send you what I’ve got on the tricks and techniques used to get the Nanos to do what you want, but right now that’s all the time I have. You’ll have to work it out on your own.”

“Assuming your plan unfolds as you hope, what’s our objective?”

“Keep the Nano squadron from expending itself in a tactically inept, hopeless attempt to destroy the Macros. Make Stalker the core of a combined fleet, and harass the Macros from long range. You got that big gun; use it well. Sting them and make them come to you. Then you can unleash the Nanos on them. They fight better defensively anyway. If you find yourself losing, save what you can and run back toward us. I don’t think the Macros will follow because they’re in bad shape too. Their AIs should make a survival calculation and break off to look for a place to rebuild.”

“I hear and obey, Commodore Riggs. Kreel out.”

Valiant, open a channel to the Nanos, using whatever protocols they employed in the past,” I said. “Also, alter my voiceprint to match my father’s.”

“Voice clone activated. Channel open.”

“Nano fleet, this is Riggs.” I said with what I hoped was the right amount of my father’s voice and swagger.

“Riggs recognized,” returned an inhuman voice a few seconds later. It sounded just like the vids of Alamo, though I figured all Nano ships were pretty much the same.

“Nano fleet, let me speak to the vessel called Alamo,” I said. Maybe I could establish some kind of rapport with Dad’s old ship.

“No ship is currently designated Alamo.”

“How about a ship named…Snapper?” I asked, hoping against hope.

“Requested ship is linked.”

I smiled. It made a kind of sense. Old Alamo had been destroyed according to the final reports, but you never knew. The fact that Snapper had out-survived my father’s ship didn’t surprise me. Emperor Crow had named this vessel and flown her twenty-five years ago. Maybe some of that devil’s wily skills had rubbed off on the ship. I hoped none of the evil intent had as well.

Snapper, Jack Crow is dead. Therefore, I’m the commander of Star Force, at least in this system. Do you accept that?”

“Assertion accepted.”

“I’m speaking for Star Force as a whole. Can you speak for the Nano fleet as a whole?”

“We’re linked. Internal disagreement is impossible by definition.”

“Great. Snapper, I have a proposal for you. I wish to supply high-quality command personnel candidates to increase the efficiency of your anti-Macro actions.”

“Proposal accepted. State location of command personnel candidates.”

Now it got tricky. If I told them the candidates were aboard Stalker, the Nano fleet might decide the most efficient way to acquire them was to dismantle her. Well, I was no politician, but I’d listened to Dad talk about politics. One thing he’d told me was when you didn’t want to answer a question but had to give some kind of response, reply to the question you wanted to answer instead.

“Command personnel candidates will be provided for retrieval at the following location in one hour.” I passed the coordinates of the closest asteroid to Stalker. “Do not arrive early or the agreement will be null and void. Riggs out.”

“Revised proposal accepted. We will adjust our actions.” The channel closed.

I quickly updated Kreel on the situation and told him to send one volunteer per Nano ship to wait at the designated asteroid. Not only would command personnel make the Nano vessels more efficient, but they would effectively give me command of their ships—secondhand, perhaps, but it would be better than nothing.

By this time, we were approaching the gap in the slabs. As soon as Valiant dove into the interior, I hailed Gunnery Sergeant Taksin. “Pass the word, Gunny. Get everyone ready and waiting on the platform. We’re on the way to pick you up.”

“Aye aye, sir!” he replied with relief. “We’re seeing quite a battle going on, so watch yourselves.”

“Will do. Riggs out.”

Taksin’s warning proved prescient, for Valiant immediately rocked with a weapons strike.

“Shields on,” I snapped. “Damage?”

“Minor damage to the port aft quarter,” Valiant replied.

“Shields are eating power,” Hansen said as he angled the ship to skim along the inside of the hollow world as far from the central melee as possible. “The batteries won’t last five minutes at this rate unless we burn extra fuel.”

“Turn them off at your discretion and keep evading. Activate them if needed.” I took my familiar place at the holotank. Random shots struck near us from time to time, but it seemed that as long as we didn’t act aggressively the ships fighting each other were ignoring us.

Scant minutes passed before I saw us approaching the landing platform where our people’s beacons blazed. Hansen pulled us up to hover just off the edge and opened the assault airlock for a quick rescue.

“Get inside, fast!” I ordered over the general channel. Crew streamed in while marines pulled security, bringing up the rear with quick jumps across the gap. Fortunately, the evacuation went smoothly.

Manipulating the holotank controls, I focused the ship’s sensors on the central cube where I’d followed Sokolov through the portal and presumably had entered—unless that portal had taken us elsewhere entirely. You never knew with so much teleportation going on.

The cube had drifted off center in the time since the boneyard ships had awoken and seemed to be spinning slightly. I found those to be telling details. Before, it had floated in the precise middle of the golden planet. Now it seemed to have lost control even of itself. That argued for Sokolov’s claim that he had somehow succeeded in blowing up the control center after all. Maybe he had another grenade on a timer, one I hadn’t seen. When we both left, it was free to blow itself when the clock ran out. Or perhaps he did something I completely missed. He knew a lot more about this place than I did. Of course he’d have a few more tricks up his sleeve.

Valiant, download my suit records. Find the vids of the globular ship Sokolov boarded and try to match and locate it now.”

“Target located,” Valiant said after just a moment. AIs may not be good at creative thinking, but they excelled at searches.

I zoomed in on the icon flashing within the holotank. The globe ship was parked against the inner wall of the planet about a quarter of the way around from us.

“Hansen, take us there,” I said. “Sokolov must have faked us out with the shuttle move and stayed aboard. There’s only one reason that I can think of to do that.”

“He’s trying to find his girl,” Hansen said, and he aimed Valiant in the correct direction. We began a slow, fuel-conserving acceleration.

Bridge watchstanders began filtering in to take their stations.

“Sir, why go after him?” Hansen said over his shoulder. “He’s already done his damage. I don’t like being stuck inside this place, and your Raptor buddies could probably use our help fighting Macros.”

I slammed my fist into my palm. “We can’t leave him out here on the loose. He’s far too dangerous. What if he gained control of this technology of the Ancients instead of just figuring out a few things? Right now he’s like a pet monkey in a battlesuit. He’s worked out how to turn on the HUD and move the arms. What happens if he learns to fire the lasers or arm the grenades?”

Hansen turned his chair to face me. “Metaphors aside…look, sir. There are lots of critters running around in that maze: beetles, Macros, other things we saw when we were dragging our asses after Sokolov. If none of them has taken control of the place, and Sokolov couldn’t after years of living there, what makes you think he suddenly will now?”

“Call it a gut feeling.”

“He already disabled the control center, right?”

“So it seems,” I said grudgingly.

“He can’t do anything even if he wants to,” Hansen said more forcefully than usual. “At least not anytime soon. And some of the ships in here outgun us severely. If any of them take a dislike to us, we could be in bad shape. And then there’s our insane fuel-consumption rate. Captain, we have to get out into open space before our luck runs out!”

I mulled this over, staring at the holotank while Hansen went back to his evasive piloting. I hated admitting it, but I realized the man was right. Sokolov would try to find his ladylove, and then he’d have his hands full. We could always come back later and try to track him down, maybe with more tech advantages from Marvin’s bag of tricks.

That reminded me of something else.

“Where’s Marvin?” I asked. No one answered. “Valiant, locate Marvin and Greyhound.”

“Unable to locate Marvin or Greyhound.”

“He’s probably outside the planet, then,” I mused. Turning back to Hansen I said, “All right, XO. Break off and find a hole. Get us out of here. Let’s go deal with the Macros once and for all.”

“Aye, aye, sir,” Hansen replied.

A palpable feeling of relief swept the bridge. No one had enjoyed being trapped in this alien contraption.




-27-

I stifled a sigh of relief as Valiant punched through an opening in the golden globe. The blaze of the Milky Way across the main viewscreen and the uncluttered tactical view on the holotank felt like a fresh breeze across my mind clearing out my major concerns and allowing me to focus on the kind of challenge I was trained for: space combat.

Immediately, I found Stalker and the military transport Ox hovering out of weapons range. Nano ships swarmed the nearby asteroid. I saw the last of the suited Raptors plucked off the surface by snake-like arms and taken into the saucer-shaped ships. It looked like predatory flying insects snapping up bugs and devouring them. I wished the Raptors well.

Checking the chronometer readouts, I noticed less than fifteen minutes had passed aboard Valiant. But apparently more than an hour had gone by outside the golden planet. More time weirdness.

“Set course to join Stalker,” I ordered, “and find Marvin! I need to talk to him.”

A few moments later, Valiant spoke. “I believe I have located Greyhound.”

“You believe?”

“The probability exceeds ninety percent, but is not within parameters constituting certainty.”

“Show me.”

An icon flashed, showing a vessel accelerating fast, outbound directly away from the star and, therefore, from us. “Give me the best close-up you can,” I said.

A grainy image formed within the holotank, poor and washed out due to the angle of view from directly astern. The flare of three hot engines badly obscured the picture, but it looked like Greyhound to me.

“That’s him, running away,” I said under my breath. “What the hell is he doing?”

“Unknown,” Valiant answered. The ship had sharp audio inputs.

I worried that Marvin knew something we didn’t, such as that the golden planet was about to explode taking everyone with it. I had to believe he would have told me if we were in grave danger, though. “Give me a tight beam to him, maximum power.”

A moment passed. “No response.”

“Crap. What a chickenshit. Ping him every five minutes until he responds.”

Letting Valiant keep an eye on Marvin allowed me to concentrate on other matters at hand. We were pulling up on Stalker as it accelerated gently to follow the Nano fleet heading for the retreating Macros.

“Commodore Kreel, this is Admiral Riggs,” I said once Valiant had established contact. I was starting to get the hang of the Raptor mind when it came to titles, at least out here away from the homeworld: you claimed whatever you could justify. Kreel technically had two Raptor vessels and the Nano ships under his command, making him a squadron commander or commodore, and that meant I was the ranking admiral.

“I hear you, Admiral,” Kreel said without additional comment.

Adrienne shot me a darkly amused glance. She wasn’t taking my self-promotion seriously.

“We’ll follow the Nanos at a distance,” I said, “until your people can influence their actions. Do you need any further assistance from Valiant?”

“I believe we have had all the assistance we can handle for the moment, Admiral.” The translator program gave Kreel a dry, acerbic tone. It was almost sarcastic.

That seemed odd. “Please elaborate,” I said.

“Your robot installed an AI in Stalker. Unfortunately it neglected to tell us about it until our ship initiated a conversation with low-ranking personnel about the state of certain emergency repairs. It took Lieutenant Zhou a great deal of time to determine what was happening and to convince some of our less educated troops that an evil god had not, in fact, taken up residence here. And that was only the most perplexing of issues. There are more, but I won’t bore you with the rest, Admiral.”

“That’s Marvin for you: a potential disaster on a dozen legs. Then again, I bet he did fix Stalker faster than you thought possible.”

“Yes, Admiral. He also improved our weapons efficiency by over twenty percent.”

“Then you’ll just have to work through any idiosyncrasies he may have introduced,” I said. “It’s not worth resetting the AI back to normal. Let’s get back to the issue at hand. Task Force Riggs—that’s us, you guys and the Nano ships—have about the same combat power as the Macro fleet. I’m not interested in mutual annihilation, though, and in a stern chase the following fleet is generally at a disadvantage because the leading fleet has a choice of running or fighting when and where they choose. Unless, of course, the chasers have a big speed advantage, or the quarry has a fixed asset they must defend.”

“You have much to teach me, Admiral,” Kreel replied. From a human I’d have judged that as a smartass response, but I decided to take it at face value.

“As my ancestors taught me,” I said with a touch of pompous inflection in my voice. I figured that would play well with Raptors.

“Admiral, may I ask why we’re chasing down the Macros at all? There are ships of many races now killing each other within the golden planet. What is it about this particular variety of alien that offends you?”

How could I express to a Raptor what the Macro menace meant to a human, to all biotics in Earth’s federation? I thought I had a way.

“The Macros are our Lithos, Kreel. Our nemesis—except we didn’t mistakenly create them. They viciously attacked our planet and we spent a decade driving them off. They’re the enemy of all biotic life. If left alone, they’ll reproduce and grow like a spaceborne cancer until they’re strong enough to attack the nearest organic sentients. That means you Raptors. Fighting fifty of them now means we don’t have to fight fifty thousand of them later.”

“I understand, Admiral. You are wise.”

On this subject I didn’t have to be modest. Kreel was right.

“Anyway, to beat the Macros we have to find or manufacture a tactical advantage for ourselves. The trick is going to be getting the Nanos to fight when and how we want them to rather than according to their hardwired protocols. Despite their programming that wants to acquire command personnel, the individual Nano brainboxes don’t actually follow specific orders very well. And they certainly don’t allow micromanagement. Mostly you have to trick them by issuing unambiguous directives and letting the AIs work within those parameters because I don’t think the brainboxes actually want to be under the command of biotics.”

I said this all with a bit more confidence than I actually felt because I’d never been in charge of even one Nano ship, much less a fleet. I had studied them a lot, though, and my Dad had told me enough stories about the old days that I believed I was right.

“I think I understand,” Kreel said.

“The Macros are going somewhere,” I continued. “As far as our sensors can determine, there’s nothing in their direction of travel except comets and asteroids. Odds are they’re looking for a place to deploy a dome and a factory to start reproducing and increasing their combat forces. I’m of two minds about this. We can let them expend the effort to set up a base. If they do, they’ll be tying themselves down to a defensive position as well as using up even more fuel and materials before a fight. But if they manage to get a production engine going, we may end up facing a continuous stream of reinforcements when we have none.”

“An ambiguous situation.”

“Tell me about it,” I said. “The other choice is to try to hit them before they set up a base. That cuts out the advantages and disadvantages of the first option. It makes things more predictable—but probably more bloody.”

“We’re ever ready to die in your service, Admiral Riggs.”

“And I applaud your sense of honor, but I’d rather as few of us die as possible between your people and mine. Okay?”

“As you command, Admiral.”

I wished I could command Kreel to understand that the duty to live and fight on was usually preferable to the duty to die gloriously, but all biotics seemed to share one attribute: they had to be convinced something made sense to them before they would wholeheartedly embrace it. To the Raptors, dying for a good cause seemed to make perfect sense. I had to work with the cards I was dealt.

Pondering ways I could get my meaning across, I came up with repetition as an easy approach. If I said it enough times in many different ways, maybe it would sink in. I took a moment to frame the argument in my mind before speaking.

“Kreel, dying is sometimes the easiest path. Often, it’s refusing death and living through difficulty that brings victory.”

The bridge speaker remained silent for long enough that I was about to query Valiant when Kreel spoke. “Your words are bitter and alien, Admiral Riggs, but I believe I understand their meaning.”

“Good. Then let’s discuss tactics.”

* * *

After talking it over with Kreel and my senior staff, I’d decided to wait until the Macros set down their first factory. I hoped that factory would end up being a ball and chain cutting into the Macros’ flexibility and allowing us to use our range advantage to the fullest. It would also give us time to strip-mine some asteroids for resources and rebuild Valiant’s Dagger fleet.

Unfortunately, I felt like a colonial-era commander with the Nanos playing the role of my willful, undisciplined local allies. They would be quite effective if I could just keep control of them and get them to fight at the right place and time. Rather than setting up the perfect strategy and executing it, I had to conform my tactics to the wild and independent Nanos.

Now that the Nanos had command personnel aboard, they acted less cohesively. Squadrons kept breaking off and heading for the Macros as if to attack them and had to be constantly ordered or persuaded to come back. They didn’t respond exactly like the Nano ships I’d studied, either. Maybe the time they’d spent inside the golden planet had changed them somehow: made them wilder. They seemed smarter, too.

What ended up working best with them was to have each Raptor commander order his ship to gather comet-based and asteroid-based materials to replenish supplies and manufacture missiles. That kept them busy. If I was willing to wait longer, we could have had them make more Nano ships, but I didn’t want to give the Macros that much time.

All in all, the next several days were filled with low-grade frustration for me and for Kreel. He was used to even more discipline than I was. His people generally obeyed him explicitly and unquestioningly. In contrast, the Nanos gave him fits, constantly challenging him by complying with only the letter of their orders and not the spirit. It was like having dozens of minor Marvins to deal with. At least it was forcing Kreel to stretch to develop new leadership skills.

Over the next few days, we watched from ten million miles away as the Macro fleet of more than two dozen ships selected and infested a large asteroid, setting up a factory and dome exactly as I’d expected. Their warships were worth at least two Nanos each, though I was pretty confident either of our battleships could match five or six without difficulty. I spent the time I had running simulations trying to find a way to beat the enemy without losing too many ships. I must confess I favored the scenarios where all the losses were Nanos. At least that way we’d only lose one biotic volunteer per ship, and a nonhuman one at that. Yeah, I valued all biotic life, but when it came down to it Valiant’s people came first. After that, preserving Valiant and Stalker as the core of our fleet was an absolute necessity.

The last night before we went into battle, I made one more attempt to fix things up with Adrienne. Sergeant Moranian was healed and back to duty, but I’d given Kwon strict orders to keep her away from me and my girlfriend. That had limited further irritation, but it hadn’t solved the underlying problem of mistrust.

Adrienne had moved into an empty officer’s cabin, leaving me to sleep alone in the captain’s suite. She hadn’t taken all of her stuff away, however. In one way, that was a good sign indicating she planned to eventually return. In another way, it pissed me off every time I had to move a bra or smell a whiff of her perfume. I was caught in an explosive emotional no-man’s-land with no way out. Removing the rest of her things would seem like a hostile act, but leaving them there would drive me nuts.

So, I swallowed my pride once again and tried to approach her. I felt like I’d already performed more than enough ceremonial demonstrations of atonement, but hell, one more time couldn’t hurt. She was my lover and closest friend…or had been. I wouldn’t crumble without her, but I was a lot happier when I was with her—and frankly, so was the crew. I’d been a bit grumpy lately.

That was why I found myself knocking on her cabin door once more with a bottle of our last best champagne and a box of the highest-quality candy I could get Sakura to program the factory to spit out. The candy may not taste like much, but booze always worked. It was the thought that counted, right?

Adrienne cracked open the door. “What is it, Cody?”

I lifted my gifts into her view and smiled my warmest smile. “Just hoping we could talk some more.” I’d found women loved to talk, especially about romance and relationships. I wasn’t sure what there was left to say, but I could always repeat myself. I was willing to give her another shot at coming up with something new.

“All right, come in,” she said with a faint smile.

She took the candy and champagne from my hands and walked back into the small cabin. I’d yet to score a warm greeting—there was nothing close to a kiss or hug coming my way—but at least she hadn’t sent me packing. All in all, I was encouraged by this promising start.

“What do you want to talk about?” she asked, her back turned as she placed the two items on the tiny desk. Even with the expanded Valiant, these military quarters weren’t large.

“You. Me. My stupidity when it comes to handling relationships. That will do for starters.”

“Hmm. For once, you sound like you have a grasp on reality.” She turned her head to profile, raising an eyebrow as she untied the ribbon on the candy box. “Go on. I’m listening.”

I took a deep breath. “Adrienne Turnbull, I love you. I really do. I don’t want anyone else but you. Doing what I did was just a bad call under stress. I’ll never do it again, but I’m not perfect. Can’t we put all that behind us?”

That prepared speech was about all the humble pie I was prepared to eat. I hoped it would be enough.

“Bad call, huh? But it worked, so it was the right call, wasn’t it?” she said.

What a trap. Why was she baiting me? It was one brief kiss—and she’d shot the girl for it.

Then I remembered those sex vids purporting to show Moranian and me. A delicate subject, but they must be the root of all this bitterness. “Look, those videos, they’re fake. There must be a way to prove it. Kalu set Kwon and me up to be abandoned and die. She must have faked those vids, too. Sokolov meant to attack me from two sides. There might be more bullshit floating around in the records just waiting to pop out. She’s obviously been working on this for some time. She always wanted to be the alpha female, and she hates that you won my heart and not her. Just look at what she did when Sokolov took over. Jumped right on him.”

“Maybe,” she said, popping a candy into her mouth and grimacing at the mediocre flavor. I noticed she didn’t spit it out, though, which was nice of her. “I’m not so certain. I’ve been to see her in the brig several times lately, and while I don’t like her at all, I don’t think she’s a killer.”

“What about a thorough examination of the videos? I know they’re fake, because I’ve never been with Moranian. Don’t you want proof, once and for all?”

Adrienne sighed, still not looking at me. Instead, she leaned on the jamb of the open door to the head, her face shrouded in darkness. “That’s the problem. I’ve analyzed them every way I can, and I can’t find any flaws. Cody, I want to believe you. God, do I ever want to.”

“Who is better than you are at the technical stuff?”

“I don’t know. Sakura, maybe. Kalu, perhaps. Marvin, of course.”

“What about Valiant herself?”

Adrienne turned to face me. “The brainbox could be compromised.”

“And it might not be. I bet you didn’t even ask, right?”

“How can I be sure of anything anymore?” she said, her voice rising. “If Valiant says the vids are fake, that analysis could be falsified too. You could have had Marvin plant fake telltales to make them look fake.”

I threw up my hands. “You really think I have that much control over Marvin or that he wouldn’t blab at some point?”

“I don’t know!” she wailed.

I stepped forward to gently embrace her, pressing my nose into her sweet blonde hair. “I can’t prove I didn’t do something. That’s why unfounded accusations are so devastating. You just have to listen to your heart. What’s it telling you?”

Adrienne sniffled and rubbed her face against my chest. “I’ve never been a ‘heart’ girl, Cody. I’m an industrial engineer, so I go with my head. I have more in common with Sakura than a vixen like Kalu, and other than one fellow who broke my heart my first year at University, you’re the only boyfriend I ever had.”

“I find that hard to believe. You’re gorgeous.”

“Yes, that’s what every upper-class twit, git and geek at Oxford thought, but for me, opposites attract. I already live far too deeply in the world of technology to want another engineer as my…my lover.” She reached up to brush my dark hair with her fingertips, incidentally raising her face to mine. I could smell her breath and it intoxicated me. “I knew a man of action would come along eventually. Someone like my father—a brave, decisive leader. But the few of those I met eventually turned out to be more interested in the family’s wealth than in me.”

“Poor little rich girl,” I said, running my hand up her neck to cup her head, fingers twined in her hair. “I think deep down you’re afraid of losing me, but you never will. I can’t say I’ll never make mistakes or hurt you again, but I love you, Adrienne. That’s the truest thing I know.”

She kissed me then, or maybe I kissed her. Soon we didn’t know or care who started what and when. Making out proceeded naturally to lovemaking on her cramped bunk. I think neither of us wanted to risk shattering the fragile mood by taking the time to return to the captain’s suite, but oddly, we seemed the better for it.

Afterward, we spooned and I stroked her hair until she fell asleep. Then I carefully picked her up and carried her to my stateroom and our bed after making sure the passageway was clear of observers. As if the universe had granted me a second chance—okay, maybe a third or fourth, with all my brushes with death—I felt like the hole in my heart had been filled again and my morale restored.

It was a good thing, too, because tomorrow I’d lead a fleet in battle to annihilate the Macros once and for all.




-28-

The holotank swirled. Multicolored nanites coalesced into complex symbology as I reset the scale yet again. The new configuration didn’t offer any additional information, so I decided I’d been fiddling with it too much. I forced myself to leave it alone.

Instead of fooling with the holotank, I looked around the bridge at the crew. Chief Bradley, a calm fireplug of a man, stood behind his drone techs with his meaty arms crossed. His eyes were always roving. Watchstanders at the various stations returned my gaze with nods from seats at their consoles ready to coordinate with the rest of the crew deep within the battlecarrier.

Kwon would be armored up with his marines in the launch bay by now, preparing for boarding or antiboarding operations. I myself wore my familiar battlesuit, faceplate open and gauntlets retracted. Everyone else had donned pressure suits in expectation of combat.

From the ops officer station, Adrienne met my eyes and smiled through her faceplate, blushing slightly. I gave her a small smile. Yes, having my girlfriend as a subordinate complicated things, but it all seemed to be working out right now.

Then I shifted my gaze to the empty helm station, wondering where Hansen had gotten off to. He was five minutes late for his watch, very unusual for him. I was just about to query Valiant when he stepped onto the bridge, fingertips poking at the smart cloth of his high neckline where it looked misaligned. He carried his helmet under his arm, and I noticed some purplish marks on his throat.

“Sorry, sir,” he said quietly as he walked up and loomed over me at the holotank. Lowering his voice further and showing a conspiratorial grin. “Sakura gave me a workout last night. You’d never believe how strong she is when she gets excited.”

This kind of chattiness was also unusual for Hansen, but I chalked it up to the impending combat. I cleared my throat and noticed Adrienne’s eyes still on me. “Lot of that going around on the eve of battle.” Over a couple of beers I might have bantered more, but not here.

With a chuckle, Hansen took his seat and began running checklists. If I didn’t know better I’d have expected him to start whistling. I shook my head. Every now and then all those sappy songs about the power of love seemed true…but love would have to take a back seat to blood and death today.

Turning back to the holotank, I examined the situation. The Macros had selected a big frozen asteroid—or maybe it was an unusually dirty comet. The various classifications for floating chunks of mass in a star system were arbitrary in my opinion. A comet was just an asteroid with enough volatile elements to melt or sublime and create a visible tail in the stellar wind.

In this case, the tiny planetoid was about ten miles in diameter. It had grown a shield-domed Macro factory complex on its side, looking like the shiny head of a rivet driven into a chunk of stone. We hadn’t seen anything obvious that it might have produced, which was good. Our attack was timed to ensure they didn’t get production going at all. Adrienne’s educated guess was that the machines had to start by extracting and refining fuel elements—hydrogen isotopes and radioactives—before they could even think about making war machines. This system’s yellow dwarf gave off very little stellar heat at this distance. Without it, the Macros had to employ a bootstrap process and not run out of their presumably scarce stored fuel supplies while building up. A new colony was always at its weakest when it had just set up shop, and that’s why we were hitting them now.

We, on the other hand, had relatively full tanks after topping off with some mining of our own. Two capital ships of battleship class and fifty-four small Nano ships formed up ahead of one military transport. We also had about half our complement of Daggers. More were being produced all the time, but I didn’t want to wait any longer. We were as ready as we were going to get.

Opposing us was an assortment of twenty-seven Macro ships ranging from large frigates to one battleship more massive than Valiant. They sported a variety of weapons—standard lasers and missiles of course, but also a few antiproton projectors, particle beam cannons, and even railguns. If I had to guess, these machines were the survivors of several phases in the Macro Wars and were the results of the machine intelligence adapting and learning. They’d been experimenting, if that term could be applied to their plodding AI.

I dismissed the enemy factory complex for now. It was a fixed installation with no offensive capability beyond what it might produce. All we had to do was get rid of the fleet, and we could bombard the factory dome at our leisure.

Marvin was coasting outbound toward the edge of the system and not communicating, despite being pinged every five minutes at my order. Greyhound had become very hard to spot now. Only the fact that we had an optical lock on the ship allowed us to track her. I’d have liked to have him nearby as a wild card, but then again, wild cards like Marvin sometimes helped the enemy as much as their friends.

Valiant, put me through to Kreel.”

“Channel open.”

“Riggs to Kreel. Open fire according to plan.”

“I hear and obey, Admiral Riggs!” Kreel said eagerly. The Raptors were bored when out of combat.

I’d deployed my fleet in a loose lens formation: a concave disc with the focus toward the Macro fleet. The enemy floated in a defensive grid between us and their factory, conserving fuel. I couldn’t see any particular organization to their setup, though it might have been based on their wildly varying ship capabilities. On the other hand, Stalker and Valiant were positioned at the center of our group with the Nano ships in a halo around us and Ox, the transport, well behind.

A white line in the holotank reached out from Stalker, representing its monster main laser. At maximum effective range, it speared the icon of one of the smallest Macro ships. It was one we had calculated could be destroyed, or at least disabled, in one salvo.

I turned my head to the main screen that showed an optical view of the same enemy as we fired. When the blinding flare of energy faded, the Macro ship spun slowly, crumpled and slagged by the hideous heat of the Raptor beam. We’d knocked it completely out of the fight exactly as planned.

In the holotank, the Macros responded. They jetted wildly into evasive patterns like a swarm of hornets stirred up by a thrown rock. Clearly, they’d failed to correctly calculate the range and power of our biggest gun.

Now the Macros had a dilemma. If they fell back, perhaps trying to shelter among the sparse asteroids in the area, we could advance in force to bombard their factory. If they stayed in place, they would soon burn through their fuel evading us or die under our long-ranged fire. Like infantry harassed by artillery, their only option was to attack or flee entirely.

But there seemed to be no place to go. The Orn System ring we’d all arrived through was guarded by fortresses and, as far as the Macros knew, by Raptor fleets. The golden world buzzed with hundreds of hostile ships, not to mention the bizarre properties of the machines of the Ancients themselves. No other ring had been found. The Macros might flee into interstellar space, but low on fuel as they must be, even a stupid AI could determine that we would eventually chase them down.

No, I knew they had to attack, which is what I wanted.

To make sure, I issued new orders. “Valiant, broadcast the following message on all Macro frequencies using a voice-clone of my father.”

“Broadcast ready.”

“Macro command, this is Admiral Riggs. Acknowledge my statement.” I was careful not to ask a question. Macros rarely answered questions.

A voice, even more inhuman than Marvin’s or our brainboxes, replied. Riggs identified. We know you.

“Then you know I’m here to end your infestation of this universe once and for all.” I was hoping to provoke them into giving something away, such as a clue as to whether these Macros were hopefully the last of their kind.

Biotic species are by definition an infestation. We are the cure. You must return to your planets and await sterilization.

“Not a chance, electro-brain.” I was also speaking for the morale of those under my command, so I thought a bit of taunting was in order. “You can’t win, and I suggest you surrender immediately. I promise to preserve a few of you in a nice, secure museum somewhere, so you won’t really be gone. Maybe, if you’re lucky, we’ll die out in a few million years and you can take over again.”

Your thought processes are incoherent, Riggs. You have done us much damage. You shall submit to termination.

“You’ve failed in your primary mission,” I replied cheerfully. “Come get some, you mechanical failure.”

Proposal accepted.

As one, they turned to charge us.

Had my Nano allies been highly disciplined, I would have had no concerns whatsoever. But both the Macros and the Nanos acted like two barbarian tribes mad with bloodlust.

I had to make sure our barbarians won.

The Nano ships surged forward raggedly, some stopping and then reversing course. Their command personnel were under orders to hold the Nanos back for as long as possible. They did so by such expedients as ordering them to attack phantom ships to the rear or to form up on vessels that had halted, and so on.

As they began this dance, Stalker fired again but missed. Its long-range beam was a superior weapon for striking slow-moving targets, but the weaving, dodging Macros were far enough away that even light wasn’t fast enough to track a ship that changed course between firing and impact.

Kreel switched his aim to the Macro battleship. Not only was it the least able to evade, but it was the most dangerous single enemy vessel and probably contained the most AI processing power.

The Macros weren’t stupid though, not by a long shot. Their big ship stayed back, changing its course just often enough to make it difficult to hit while the smaller ones raced ahead.

“Mains, open fire,” I ordered when the enemy got close enough, and our four heavy lasers began a rolling barrage aimed at the largest enemy we could reach. Some shots missed but enough slammed into one of the Macro heavy cruisers over the next few minutes to damage it severely and force it to withdraw under its shield.

This seemed to be a signal for the next phase of the Macro’s desperate battle plan. Missiles blossomed from their fleet. Almost a hundred of them, they were probably all they had left. Tiny red lines in the holotank accelerated toward us.

That triggered a frenzy on our side. The Nanos now disregarded attempts to hold them back, and they threw themselves at their hated enemy. Could AIs truly experience hate? These ships were certainly acting as if they could.

Spreading out, the Nanos launched missiles of their own and fired their lasers ineffectively. Two of them bloomed into puffs of gas and debris as I watched.

The Macro missiles and the Nano missile converged. By my calculations, it would take only a few minutes at their combined speeds for the flights of fusion rockets to meet in the middle.

“Follow the Nanos up with the Daggers,” I told Bradley, who broke down my orders into detailed instructions to his controllers. Making him my CAG had been one of the best decisions of my young captaincy.

“I thought we were going to get the Daggers ahead of the Nanos,” Hansen said as he guided Valiant forward.

“Plans change,” I replied. “If the Nanos were under positive control, I’d have sent in the Daggers to mix it up with the enemy missiles, but the Nano missiles made that too dangerous. I don’t want to lose them in the nuclear EMP-storm that’s about to happen. This way, the Daggers can form a reserve once we see how things look when the battle lines start meeting.”

“We’ll be losing biotics while our drones are waiting to fight.”

“Raptor volunteers, Hansen. This isn’t a perfect world. I’m working with what I have. The Daggers are one variable I can control, and our job is to win. It’s going to be bloody, but that’s the way things are.”

I could see that didn’t sit well with Hansen. He’d always been more leery of casualties than I was. From my point of view he was too conservative and unwilling to take the risks needed. He’d expressed several times how he thought I was reckless, but I was the one in charge. If my risk tolerance was higher than his, well, that was too damned bad.

“I don’t like losing people, Hansen, but I like losing a battle even less. Killing off these Macros may wipe them from the universe once and for all, and that’s worth a heavy cost.”

“As long as it’s Raptors and not humans,” he muttered, so quietly that only Adrienne and I could hear. The weird thing was, I wasn’t sure whether he was praising me or criticizing me for playing favorites. Probably the latter.

“If I had hundreds of humans and only sixty Raptors, there’d be human volunteers in those Nano ships. I’d play it the same way,” I retorted in a matching low voice, but there was just enough truth in his words to sting my conscience. Probably I did find it easier to sacrifice Raptor lives, doubly so because they were not crew aboard my own ship, Valiant.

Raptors…crew aboard Valiant

That reminded me of something. I closed my faceplate and issued a series of instructions to Valiant on a secure, private channel, and then opened up again. Adrienne gave me a puzzled glance, so I nodded to her reassuringly.

The holotank showed the Macros were down to twenty-two effectives by the time the missile barrages met in an orgy of mutual annihilation. Just a handful of each side’s weapons made it through to target enemy ships, and they were quickly picked off by massed point defense.

“Launch the Daggers’ missiles,” I ordered Bradley. “Target the Macros in the midrange rather than their closest ones.”

“They’ll get picked off easier,” Hansen protested as Bradley passed my instructions. “Why not use them to take down the leading group?”

I rang a knuckle on the holotank’s smart glass. “Because the Nano ships are blazing in balls-to-the-wall. Our missiles will barely beat them to beam range, and our smaller ships can’t take nuclear blasts as well as Macros can especially with their tougher shields. Kreel has instructions to try to get the Nanos to gang up five or six at a time on the foremost ships.”

“Warning,” the brainbox broke in. “Projectiles inbound. Immediate evasive action advised.”

Without delay Hansen shoved his controls over and kicked Valiant around in a barrel roll, keeping our mains pointed generally in the direction of the enemy but hopefully screwing up their targeting. In the holotank, a fuzzy stream of orange pixels reached out from the Macro battleship toward us and Stalker, spreading into a narrow cone.

Valiant, warn Stalker immediately!”

“I have a continuous datalink with Stalker, Captain Riggs,” Valiant replied.

“Right.” I’d forgotten about that. Now I realized the Raptor battleship had also ponderously shifted sideways. “What’s coming at us?”

“Railgun bullets,” Valiant replied.

Formed with a massed cloud of solid slugs, showers of small railgun pellets could be devastating. Usually made of depleted uranium, railgun rounds moved much slower than lasers, but they were pretty damn fast compared to missiles. Most ships didn’t mount these big clumsy guns as they required physical ammunition like missile tubes and had no guidance. They did have advantages, though: they hit hard, had nearly unlimited range as they just kept on going, and they were very hard to stop. They could blow right through any magnetic shield weaker than a Macro ground dome. Most of the time warships equipped with them kept them for close combat, but the Macro battleship had sprayed a few hundred thousand bullets at us early on hoping to get lucky.

I saw Stalker rock as a shower of sparks caught her on the port side, and then she stabilized.

“Moderate damage has been sustained by Stalker’s port wing assembly,” Valiant announced without my asking. “Ninety-nine percent of the projectiles missed.”

Checking the holotank, I saw the cone of projectiles came nowhere near Ox and promptly forgot about them. “Good job, everyone, but let that be a lesson. The Macros are tricky. Stay on your toes.”

The watchstander at Weapons gave a cheer. “Got another one,” he said, and I saw the Macro count had dropped to twenty-one. Ten Nano ships had already been hit as they were far ahead of us so I didn’t see much of a reason to cheer, but I didn’t want to dampen a good mood.

Stalker resumed long-range fire at the enemy battleship, and I thought I could see at least some glancing hits. Then our sixty or so Dagger-launched missiles flashed in among the advancing Macros. Most were picked off by the enemy’s frantic point defense, but that had the effect of diverting fire from the Nanos coming in right behind.

Just as I’d hoped.

Zhou’s command divided itself into five groups of five or six frigates. Each mini-squadron converged on one of the leading, smallest Macro ships, savaging them from all sides with beams like swallows dive-bombing a crow. The enemy all snapped shields on when it became clear dying was the alternative, and for a time they survived, trying to brake and withdraw.

This was a good tactic, as it slowed the Nanos down. I had hoped they would quickly wipe out five or six of the leading Macros freeing them up to target more, but like pillboxes, the shielded Macros stubbornly refused to die. Off and on, the Macro dropped their shields to gush out sprays of railgun pellets. Each was timed to catch a swooping Nano ship, which was invariably shredded in a fraction of a second.

Knowing I was losing a Raptor pilot every time this happened, I exposed my teeth in a snarl.

“Damn. I wish we could have forced the Nanos to hold some nukes,” I said. “Just a few slammed into each enemy would probably finish this.”

“No worries, sir,” Bradley called over his shoulder. “We’ll break them.”

Turning to the holotank, I zoomed in on the forward edge of the battle and saw our thirty Daggers lined up in a textbook inverted wedge, providing every fighter with line of sight to each target. Bradley had brought them in from one side in a powered turn, and now all of them fired as one, spearing a single shielded Macro with an extra thirty lasers.

The beams cut through the shield and it collapsed, but not before the Macro lunged forward on overloaded engines. It appeared the enemy was trying to ram a Nano, but our ship moved too fast and managed to dodge it. I thought it was out of danger when suddenly the Macro vanished in a burst of fusion fire, self-destructing and taking the Nano with it anyway.

I made an angry sound in my throat, but knew such things were bound to happen in a dogfight. “Good job, Bradley. Keep after them.”

With the Nanos pinning the Macros, the Daggers provided the cavalry to crush three more Macros in turn, but losing two more Nanos and drones in the process. By then, the rest of the Macros, except for their battleship, were joining the fight, tipping it back in their favor. The enemy’s railguns were especially nasty against our smaller Nano ships, blowing several away in quick succession.

“Shift fire to the nearest railgun-equipped Macros,” I ordered. By then, our secondary lasers were coming in to play. “Switch the mains over to antiprotons.” At the midranges, reach wasn’t as important as striking power.

“Cody, that will cut deeply into our battery reserves,” Adrienne said.

“I know, but APs will slice right through their shields. They’re the best weapons right now.”

Over the next several minutes, I knew I’d called it right. From losing rapidly to the railgun blasts, the swirling dogfight stabilized once Valiant had blown several of the worst offenders out of space with APs. By then, though, Adrienne’s warning had come to fruition.

“Capacitors at ten percent and falling,” Valiant announced.

“Switch back to lasers at half rate-of-fire,” I said. “Bradley, change the Daggers to APs, burn them out, then suicide them. We need to keep the pressure on.” Our combat drones, like Valiant’s turrets, had selectable coaxial laser-AP mounts though only one could be fired at a time. They also could each be set to overload their fusion engines, thus creating mini-nuke suicide bombs.

By the time Valiant and Stalker joined the fight directly, we’d pared the count down to twelve Macros. Unfortunately, they were the biggest and toughest of the lot. Even damaged, each was a significant threat. We had less than twenty Nanos left, and we’d expended all of the Daggers.

This would be the endgame. Despite the success of my tactics, we hadn’t outscored them nearly as much as I’d hoped. The railguns had hurt us worse than I’d expected, for which I blamed myself. Their linked AIs had also been very effective in timing their own shield use: snapping them on to avoid severe damage and then deactivating them to fire. The only sure way to beat them was to overload them with firepower, especially if we could throw a few APs or nukes into the mix.

Well, I could learn from the enemy, too. “Valiant, command override. You take direct control of shield and weapons fire in ship-to-ship mode for this ship only, not Stalker. Coordinate shield and weapon use for computed maximum survivability.”

“Override implemented.”

I’d never used this mode before because it effectively handed the ship’s offense and defense over to the brainbox, which was already under neural stress from all the other systems it ran. Now, I couldn’t make strategic decisions about how to concentrate Valiant’s firepower. In effect, I’d thrown away her spears and turned the battle into a knife fight.

This was going to get bloody.




-29-

Because of the orders to turn over direct weapons and shield control to the brainbox, the bridge crew eyed me dubiously. I ignored them, striking a pose of confidence and running my eyes over the screens and displays.

“All right, everyone,” I said, nodding as if perfectly satisfied. “Do your jobs and we’ll come out all right.”

I almost laughed as I found myself playing the role with the same relentless optimism and stiff upper lip I’d sneered at in Captain Turnbull. I’d begun to understand him a bit more now. He’d made a catastrophic mistake because he’d started to believe his own bullshit, but that didn’t mean the performance itself was unnecessary. It merely meant that some things couldn’t be overcome with wishful thinking.

Hopefully I never started believing my own bullshit.

In the holotank, I could see Stalker still going head-to-head with the big Macro, which was exactly what I wanted. The Raptor battleship had heavier armor than Valiant, so she could better stand up to railgun shots, and her main laser packed a wallop. I doubted a Macro shield could do more than mitigate it.

Kreel had also cleverly taken at least one opportunity to slide a Macro cruiser into the arc of fire of his tail-mounted point defense. He then discharged more than two hundred small shots in one salvo, surprising the robot ship and ripping it into drifting shreds. The Macros stayed well away from Stalker’s stern from then on.

I pressed my forehead against the glass dome surrounding the holotank. I was left with watching a battle that was now largely beyond my ability to influence. Valiant rolled in a stately arc under Hansen’s piloting to line up on one large, unengaged Macro of battlecruiser size. The enemy had taken some damage but was relatively unscathed.

It was our Nanos and their Raptor command personnel that had endured the real pounding, ending with most of them being lost.

Beams of all sorts crisscrossed space. Invisible without the aid of sensors, the holotank interpolated and displayed everything for us.

A surprise missile leaped out from a Macro launcher only to be speared by a dozen of our point-defense lasers. Several enemy ships turned toward us and I felt Valiant shudder with hits despite our shields snapping on and off with AI-directed speed, too fast to follow. I wanted to tell the brainbox what to do, but any direction from me would only confuse it and slow down its reactions at this point.

But my pilot was a different story. Him I could give orders to. “Don’t get too close, Hansen. They’ll try to ram and self-destruct.”

“Aye, aye, Skipper,” Hansen forced out through gritted teeth as he manipulated the controls. The strain showed on his face and sweat streamed down his head behind his open faceplate. He expertly held us at close but not at point-blank range despite the Macro’s efforts to close.

The main viewscreen whited out and I felt Valiant rock and buffet. My armored shoulder slammed into the holotank and starred its smart glass, but that would self-repair. As expected, our chosen Macro had detonated itself once it became clear it was doomed.

“Warning: enemy boarding assault shuttles inbound,” Valiant said as the mess cleared.

“I’ve lost main engines!” Hansen cried, frantically tapping at his controls.

One quick glance at the holotank showed what had happened. With shots perfectly timed to coincide with the Macro’s self-destruction, several of their surviving ships had targeted our stern, taking down our fusion motors and, incidentally, half our power. They’d paid a price for it dearly. I saw three more Macros plowed under by our remaining Nanos.

The remaining tally stood at six Macros, eight Nano frigates, and our two big ships.

Counting Stalker and her foe as neutralizing each other, five damaged Macros faced eight of our frigates in various states of repair, and Valiant. Hansen piloted her sluggishly using repellers, but we wouldn’t be fast enough to avoid what was coming for us.

Macro marines.

Swarms of them, far more numerous than I’d expected, now leaped from nearby ships all flying in our direction. How had they come up with so many? I had no way to know, but I shouldn’t have been startled by them springing a surprise on us. I should have planned better.

“Kwon, tell the Pigs we’ve got inbound Macros, lots of them: At least a hundred.”

“We’ll do our best, but I’ve only got twenty-six marines, boss,” Kwon said.

“Hang on. I’m getting you some help.” I sealed my suit and extended my gauntlets again. “Valiant, activate all antiboarding defenses, and tell Zhou to slide his frigates back to cover us. Try to pick off some of these close-combat Macros.”

“Lieutenant Zhou is dead. However, I have passed your orders to all remaining Nano command personnel.”

I got Kwon back on the com-link. “Kwon, meet me in cargo hold two.” Telling Hansen to take the conn, I pounded off the bridge and down the passageways. I stopped off at the armory to pick up my Raptor space-axe before arriving at the big door.

“I bet you forgot twenty Raptors came aboard Valiant before Ox got damaged,” I said when Kwon joined me. “They were put into hibernation in here, still in their armor.”

“Oh. Right, boss, I did forget!”

“Well, I didn’t.” I slapped the door plate and the portal opened, revealing twenty Raptors standing in two neat lines, weapons slung. I’d had the foresight to secretly order Valiant get them out of hibernation during the battle.

They saluted me as one, and I returned the salute with my axe.

Valiant, integrate the Raptor suits into our com-link system and translator. Make sure the internal defense systems recognize Raptors as friendly.”

“Raptor suits integrated. Protocols updated.”

“Listen up, Raptor warriors,” I said to them. “I’m Admiral Riggs. You’ve been in hibernation aboard my ship Valiant for many days. Even now, Commodore Kreel commands the battleship Stalker in a fight against a race of biotic-hating machines we call Macros. Those Macros are about to board Valiant and try to seize or destroy her, and we’re woefully short of troops to stop them. This is Kwon, my marine commander. You will take orders from him or any other human marine just as if they came from me.”

The translated Raptor voices spoke as one. “We hear and obey.”

“Okay, Kwon, tell us where to go. You’re in charge of the defense. Use your best judgment.”

Kwon looked sourly at me asking him for orders, but he was far more familiar with the details of the antiboarding systems and the tactics of ship defense than I was. Of course, he was also torn between his promise to protect me and the fact that keeping us together was a waste of leadership ability. Tough shit, I thought. Kwon needed to step up his game sometime. He’d always been too comfortable in his sidekick role.

“Okay, boss. We each get ten Raptors. You take the portside wing, I’ll take the starboard. Marines are already divided into two squads and stationed at the inner passageway junctions. Deploy your squad as a fire brigade, and call if you need help.” He gave me a questioning look and I nodded.

“Good plan,” I said loudly, and then pointed at the first row of Raptors. “You ten, follow me.”

Using my HUD, I navigated through the half-familiar corridors. The new Valiant was laid out generally the same as the old one, but we hadn’t merely added on to her. We’d stripped her down to her bones and rebuilt her from the ground up during those three months we were parked on Orn Six.

Internal lasers tracked us as we walked, sub-brains comparing our profiles against recognition protocols. The whole thing made me a bit nervous, but after a fair amount of argument the staff and I had agreed that with so few marines and crew, installing AI-controlled internal defenses was a risk we had to take.

I found Gunny Taksin and a dozen marines waiting for us at the main intersection on our side, with passageways in all four directions plus ladders up and down allowing us our choice of response routes. “Good to see you, sir,” he said, and then gripped his rifle tighter when he saw who I was leading.

“Same here, Gunny. These Raptor warriors are our reinforcements. They’re on our side. Everyone with blood in their bodies has to fight together to stop the machines. Their suits have been integrated into our systems and the translations will run automatically.” I then launched into a review of how to fight Macros because most of the marines were too young to have battled them before. The Raptors, of course, had never even seen one, but I forwarded a couple of short vids to their helmets to give them the idea.

I checked my HUD and saw the first of the Macros were about to touch down. They’d been reduced to about eighty in all, apparently by our point defense fire. The Nano frigates and a pair of Daggers Bradley had managed to scrape up somewhere were all shooting at them as well.

The enemy marines were shaped like crabs, spiders, scorpions—plus maybe a few other things for which I had no terrestrial match. All of them involved an armored central body with turrets and crude, heavy limbs. Some had cutting tools or pincers while others had beam capabilities or projectile weapons at the end of their arms. The smallest was at least twenty feet long with the biggest ranging up to fifty. The larger ones often had their own shields though I hoped inside my metal ship those would be useless.

The Macro count dropped to seventy and then sixty right away as our surface-mounted APs, installed with Litho snowflakes in mind, turned out to work great against the big machines. The beams sliced sideways skimming our own hull and chopping the Macros to pieces. In response, the enemy fired back with coordinated bursts or charged and ripped the beam emplacements to shreds. Unlike snowflakes, Macros were well versed in technological warfare.

Unsurprisingly, the first Macro incursion near me came though the Dagger tubes on the top rear of the ship. Those tubes had always been a weak spot, but if we wanted drones we had to have a way to launch and retrieve them. We’d closed their doors, but the Macros chewed their way inside anyway.

“Gunny, take five Raptors and six marines and wipe out those Macros. If you can’t, fall back, and I’ll reinforce you.” I didn’t want to commit all of our limited force to one fight only to have them break in at another spot.

Taksin led his troops at a run down the passageways. I followed them on my tactical HUD view until they hit the first of the four Macros that were rampaging around the port drone deck. They swarmed over their target and its icon soon changed to “destroyed” status. The other three Macros continued to rip and tear at everything in sight. The only silver lining to the damage being done was that we didn’t have many drones in inventory anyway.

“Gunny, keep up the pressure. It looks like the Macros are less interested in fighting you than in doing as much damage as possible to Valiant before they die.”

“Aye, aye, sir.” His mixed squad raced toward the next Macro.

“Captain Riggs,” Hansen broke into the com-link. “About thirty of the Macros are staying on the hull instead of trying to get inside. They’ve knocked out all the hull-skimming lasers and have started to attack our weapon mounts directly. We’ve already lost a third of the secondaries and a bunch of our point defense. The Nano frigates are trying to pick the Macros off our hull, but that leaves them vulnerable to getting jacked from behind by the remaining enemy ships.”

Valiant, cancel command override and return fire direction to the bridge,” I said. “Hansen, you gotta play rock-paper-scissors. Concentrate our weapons on Macro ships while the Nano frigates move in close to pick off the Macro boarders. Force them inside where we have automated defense lasers. And tell Ox to move in to support us. Even her limited firepower will help.” I knew I was scraping the bottom of the barrel, but it was do-or-die now.

I switched channels to reach Kreel. “Commodore, you need to finish off that Macro battleship and come help out. Valiant’s in trouble.”

“I hear and obey, Admiral.”

Admiral. Pretty soon I’d be back to a commodore with just a handful of ships.

Checking my internal tactical display, I saw Kwon had done as I had. Splitting his forces between Moranian and himself he’d led the first section and left his sergeant to get the next one. That was Kwon, always in the front. That was fine leadership, but it tended to get those in charge very dead, very fast. It still amazed me he’d survived as long as he had.

I didn’t have that luxury. Fighting alongside our understrength marine contingent made sense for me, but getting killed might doom Valiant and her crew entirely. None of my senior people could fill my shoes though Bradley continued to impress me as a leader—actually more than Hansen did.

Thoughts of my staff issues disappeared when Macros broke through the hull into cargo hold number one. Taksin was mopping up the last of his opponents, and I saw he had two wounded marines and two dead Raptors. We were still an effective fighting force, but it was our turn to take the lead.

“Gunny,” I transmitted as we jogged down the passageway, “we’re headed for the breakthrough at Cargo Hold One. Once you’ve kicked that group back into space, fall back to the reserve position to be ready for the next incursion.”

At the door to the cargo hold, I deployed my squad. I put human marines in front and Raptors in back. This wasn’t out of some perverse guilt: I’d had an idea. I briefed my people on the expected tactics and waited.

The Macros weren’t long in coming. One ripped open the smart metal of the door with a grasping claw while firing through the opening with its beam turret. Corporal Fuller took the brunt of the laser before he reflexively leaped sideways. With beams, it was critical not to let them focus on you too long or you were cooked by heat even if there was no penetration.

“Fuller, you’re everybody’s favorite target. Maybe we should give you extra-heavy armor,” I said as all the other humans coordinated fire on the turret as I’d taught them. Macro optical clusters were more vulnerable, but also smaller, harder to hit and, for troops new to fighting Macros, firing at the dangerous turrets was far more intuitive.

“Shit, sir, I’m blind,” Fuller replied.

“Tell your suit to take you to a medbay. Come back when you can,” I said, and he lumbered off clumsily.

Following my orders, the Raptors used their powerful back legs to leap over the marines the way they had when I’d first encountered them. They aimed their jumps at the central body of the Macro, grabbing on with their clawed gauntlets and aiming for the optical clusters with their monomolecular-bladed suit-tails.

“Shift fire!” I ordered as the jumping Raptors landed close to our beam targets. “Aim at the joints!”

The Macro arm with the claw reached up to deftly pluck a Raptor off its body like a man grabbing a rat. It strained to slowly crush the warrior, and then it repeatedly dashed him against a wall when that didn’t work so well. The Raptor’s sacrifice gave us long enough to slag the heavy ball joint that connected the arm to the Macro body, ending that threat.

The Raptors quickly blinded the enemy machine and jumped away. “Coordinated fire on the body!” I snapped, and everyone aimed their lasers to match mine. Unable to see, the Macro tried to dodge, but we quickly burned through its heavy armor and fried its insides leaving it a smoking wreck on the deck. My warriors and marines cheered.

“Good job, but we have more work to do,” I roared, aiming at the nearest live Macro, which was busily tearing our cargo to shreds. “Take them down one at a time. You know the drill.”

I deduced the Macros had been instructed to do as much damage as possible and only defend themselves if attacked, which was why I ordered my gang-up tactics. If the machines had fought us all together with the objective of killing us off, we’d have taken a lot more casualties. Fortunately, it didn’t seem like they realized how short of defenders we were.

The automated defenses helped a lot as well. They didn’t take down any Macros by themselves, but their fire distracted the machines, giving us that much more opportunity to hit them how and when we wanted. It took several minutes, but we mopped up the last of the invading Macros.

Checking my HUD, I noticed the hull still hadn’t been cleared. We were down to three Nano frigates and there were only four Macro ships left. My hopes of preserving a few of Nanos had been optimistic. Maybe we could at least find a few escape pods with Raptor command personnel alive after the battle.

I made a decision, then. Some would say later it wasn’t a good one. But it was what it was.

“Come on, Pigs,” I said. “That means you Raptors, too. Follow me. We’re going outside.”




-30-

Leaping for the breach in the cargo bay, I turned on my magnetic boots, activating repellers and thrusters. Now, even if I flew off the hull, the suit should read my movements and use its automated flight systems to get me where I needed to go.

Poking my head out of the jagged hole and into space, I saw the smart metal hull writhe, slowly filling in the gaps around me. Troops followed me then went through the breach shooting out into the open to land deftly on the outer hull and look around. Still in the breach and partly protected by the hull, I made a three-sixty scan. I soon faced the nearest Macro: a big bastard with eight legs and four turrets on the bottom. I watched it ripping up a secondary battery with one claw yanking on the AP barrel while its lasers cut at the base like a man carving a turkey drumstick.

“All troops get out here onto the hull and spread out. We have company on the aft hull. Marines, use your anti-armor rockets first then switch to lasers. Coordinate fire hitting the robot’s turrets. As soon as we’ve knocked those out, I want the Raptors to jump for the central body like you did before. Marines will keep up fire on the joints. Ready? Go!”

Although their coordination was a bit ragged, my troops moved aggressively, hopping and clanking over the hull in null-G. Valiant’s surface was relatively smooth from afar, but there were plenty of things to block direct shots for creatures our size—the bulges of laser emplacements, sensor pods and AP turrets poked out. Airlocks and various external hatches formed recessed foxholes. There were even antenna arrays and heat exchangers to hide behind like brush.

“Rockets, fire!” I barked when I confirmed my marines had taken what cover they could. A half-dozen explosive projectiles slammed into the Macro’s turrets, knocking out two of the four. “Lasers!”

Lasers converged on the other two turrets in turn, and my troops followed my beam like a spotlight. It was a simple but effective fire control method.

The Macro swung its two surviving turrets toward us before we could take it down converging on the nearest marine. He didn’t drop back behind cover fast enough. I saw the high-powered beams wash across his faceplate. His helmet deformed with the intense heat and he went limp. On my HUD, his icon changed to dead, but I’d known it even before I checked. The polarizing smart glass couldn’t resist a direct blast from a single laser much less two.

The enemy beams shifted to the next marine, but he was already moving to duck behind a set of heat-exchange flanges. Those resisted the lasers long enough to allow our combined fire to knock out one more turret.

“Raptors, go!” I roared, sending them in early. While my marines and I kept up our distracting fire splattering the Macro’s hull with hot-spots, the small Raptor team leaped across the intervening space. Their powerful back legs propelled them like kangaroos in the null-G vacuum. Their armor, while not as tough as ours, had superb flight control systems as one might expect for a bird-related race, so they landed atop the Macro with ease.

Unfortunately, this machine had a top turret, an anti-air unit, and it sliced one of the Raptors in half before he could scuttle around to the side of the central body out of its arc of fire. The two pieces of the body spun away into the void, highlighted by flashes of ship-to-ship fire in the background. It might have been beautiful were it not so deadly and final.

The other Raptors slid down to slap their armored tails under the Macro body, striking by instinct at the machine’s optical clusters that gave it fire control.

“Marines, shift fire to a knee,” I ordered, aiming my beam at the nearest leg joint in order to avoid shooting our own troops. That left the one turret still functioning, but fratricide was the greater risk right now.

The Raptors made short work of the optical clusters, and after that we had no trouble finishing the blinded machine off.

I thought again about how damned lucky we were that the Macros had apparently programmed their assault troops to prioritize attacking ship systems rather than us. I was now certain they’d taken a look at Valiant’s size and calculated she must contain a lot more marines, not realizing we were operating with a skeleton crew.

Our hard won victory was immediately punished. The machine must have called for help in its death throes, because just as we burned our way into the armored central body and killed it, three others hit us from all sides. I lost another marine to the surprise attack.

“Back inside!” I roared. “Draw them into the ship!”

In the tighter, confined spaces and with the automated defenses, we regained the advantage. While covering my troops as they fell back I felt something slam into my right elbow, and my arm went numb. When I looked down, I saw mangled suit metal trying to seal itself up again. One of the Macros must have had a railgun or rocket launcher. Fortunately, my rifle still operated, so I pushed through the spreading pain and switched to my left hand.

Our reduced squad of eight retreated in good order and waited for the first Macro to follow us into the hole where we would ambush it. After thirty seconds I wondered why that hadn’t happened, and I consulted my HUD in tactical mode as my arm itched and burned from the healing nanites rushing for the wound.

“Dammit, they’ve gone back to tearing up the ship!” I snarled. “Get back up to the hole and engage from there. We can’t give them free rein to take Valiant apart.”

We fought from the hull breach then, shooting in all directions as if we occupied a foxhole on a ground battlefield. I tried to coordinate our fire, but without the ability to move and to concentrate all our beams I wasn’t too optimistic. The problem was if we advanced they might turn and swarm us again, so we stayed pinned, ineffectual.

An expanse of metal abruptly loomed over us. It was a ship I didn’t immediately recognize. Expecting Stalker, I realized I was looking at Ox, the Raptor military transport. Point defense lasers—small for a ship but large in ground-troop terms—stabbed down to blast Macros. Now I remembered my order to bring Ox in and mentally patted myself on the back.

A cargo door on Ox swung open and a squad of a dozen Raptors leaped across intervening space to converge onto one Macro. They must be part of the crew of the transport, all that could be spared.

“Up and at ’em, Pigs,” I yelled, leading the charge toward the reinforcing Raptors. They’d already lost two of their number and I could see they weren’t as adept at fighting the big machines as the troops with me were, so I was going to coordinate my attack with them. I’d made the snap decision to risk going out on the hull again and join up with them in order to combine forces under the cover of the point-defense lasers above us rather than letting them expend themselves while we stayed relatively safe.

A small Macro had turned to fire on the Ox Raptors, trying to get them off its buddy, but that put it between us and the fight. Without receiving an order from me, all my troops raised their lasers and fired at the enemy’s single turret even as we continued a rapid advance across Valiant’s jumbled, damaged hull. Once the ranged weapon was knocked out, we swarmed over it and drilled point-blank into its main body like welders. With Macros, once through their heavy armor their insides were easy meat—rather delicate really.

After that, we combined with the Ox Raptors and finished off the machine they fought. “Take cover and hold in place,” I told my team as I crouched down and consulted my HUD. I’d been focusing on the ground fight for so long I’d become concerned about the wider battle.

I was just in time to see the last Macro ship icon wink out, blasted by Stalker.

Valiant, pass the word for all surviving ships to converge and clear our hull!”

“We’re getting you some help, Cody,” Adrienne’s welcome voice broke in. “Just hang on and don’t do anything heroic.”

“Too late, Adie. I’ll have to give myself a few more medals after this one’s all done. Riggs out.”

I took her advice despite my bravado. It made no sense to take further risks with our ground troops when Stalker, Ox and the two surviving Nano ships could exterminate the few Macros remaining on the hull. We retreated to our cargo bay while watching the ships come swooping in, skimming Valiant’s armor with oblique shots to burn the enemy with overpowering capital weapons.

Poor Valiant. Once the threat was eliminated, I jetted out to take a quick look at her from space. Every beam turret, every missile launch tube and every sensor antenna had been gouged, torn, ripped to shreds. Even the heavy mains had been dismounted. From its original smooth, elegant state, the hull had been turned into an ugly wasteland, and I knew some of the interior had been badly chewed up too.

Taunting the Macros personally might not have been such a good idea.

Still, we’d survived, though with some painful casualties. I saw eighteen remaining marine icons showing various states of life. Thirty percent losses: a terrible price to pay for such a small contingent. I checked to make sure Kwon was okay and then ran down the list of the dead. Cranston, Nojima, Boggs, Nadal…

Fuller.

Damn. The cheerful corporal whose life I’d saved back on Orn Six had bought the farm. He’d come back from the med-bay to rejoin the fight on Kwon’s side of the ship. A good kid—like all of them really. I hoped the high price we’d paid would prove worth it.

The crew had been battered as well, but not as badly as the marines. I knew then that I’d have to integrate some Raptors into Riggs’ Pigs and keep them aboard if I wanted to have enough close-combat forces.

“Skipper, if you’re done spacewalking I think we’d be happy to see you on the bridge,” Hansen said on a private com-link channel.

“On my way,” I replied, painfully flexing my healing arm. I decided to skip the med-bay for now. It didn’t seem too bad.

When I clattered onto the bridge in my battered suit, spontaneous applause broke out among the crew there. I waved it down, opening my faceplate and leaning down carefully to kiss my girl.

“See? No heroics.”

Adrienne slapped my breastplate and turned back to her console with a blush.

I examined the holotank. “Back to work, everyone,” I called over my shoulder. “We’re not done. We have a lot of damage to repair and a Macro factory to take down. Valiant, did we ever get ahold of Marvin?”

“Neither Marvin nor Greyhound has responded to hails.”

“What’s your status?”

“Combat ineffective. Only three point-defense lasers are operable. All other weapons and combat systems are inoperable. Sensor efficiency stands at eleven percent. Life support is seventy-eight percent. Power systems are forty-five percent.”

I cut the brain off at that point. “Understood. We’re in bad shape. Hansen, do we have an operating engine?”

“No, Captain. Repellers and thrusters only. We’re wallowing.”

I reached up to scratch my face and almost put my eye out with my armored thumb. “Too damn tired,” I muttered. Close combat always left me drained of energy once it was over. I retracted my gauntlets and tended to the itch through my faceplate.

“Put me through to Stalker,” I said. “Kreel, how’s your ship?”

“We’re battered but still above fifty percent operational, Admiral.”

“I think you’d better call me Commodore again. Four ships isn’t much of a fleet.”

“As you wish.”

“Kreel, I need you to start bombarding the Macro factory with your big gun from long range. Don’t bother hitting its shield directly; you won’t penetrate it. Aim at the asteroid surface right next to the dome. Maybe we can cause it subsurface problems, even cut it free of its base.”

“I hear and obey, Commodore.”

“This is just a stopgap measure, Captain Kreel. Once we get Valiant repaired, we’ll get Stalker back to full effectiveness and then take the enemy down together. I already have a couple ideas to run past you once we have a chance to breathe.”

“Our air supply is sufficient, Commodore, thank you. Do you have further orders?”

While it was hard to tell through the translator software, I thought Kreel sounded tired as well. I decided not to make one of my usual wisecracks about idioms, reserving those for Marvin. “No further orders. Riggs out.”

I saw Stalker begin to move slowly into firing position. Valiant stayed out of any conceivable effective range of surviving Macro ground-based weaponry. If they fired missiles at us we might be in trouble, but the two Nano ships could always help out.

“Chief Bradley,” I said to my CAG, “take charge of damage control since you and your controllers don’t have any drones. Work with Sakura and Turnbull to prioritize repairs. I want our least damaged engine fixed fast, and then start replacing point defense lasers as you can.”

Bradley acknowledged and led his controllers off the bridge to get started.

“Adrienne, I suggest you get down to the factory and get it cranking out spare parts using whatever you have. Hansen will chase down raw materials—there are enough broken ships out here to supply whatever we need. I’m sure Kwon is already clearing wreckage and dropping it off for you.”

“Yes, Captain,” Adrienne said with a smile. I smiled in return and, as she left, I let slip a contented sigh. I realized that for all its death and horror the battle had helped to put our interpersonal problems behind us by making them seem small in comparison.

Over the next several hours, we hurriedly cannibalized whatever debris we could find—dead Macros and wrecked Nano ships mostly—and began the long process of repairing Valiant. Stalker continued to bombard the Macro installation with slow, maximum-power shots. I hoped that would keep them from springing one last surprise on us.

The two surviving Nano ships were easy to convince to begin self-repair, and possibly replication, using their small internal factories. They set about imitating us, gathering up debris with their flexible black tentacles and bringing it aboard. I wasn’t sure how long it would take to spawn more Nanos, but we could always use additional firepower.

My suit was running low on fuel and power so I went to replace it in its niche and hurry to my quarters for a quick shower. Stripping out of my skinsuit and tossing it into the cleaner, I stepped naked into the hot spray, reveling in the luxury of a private bathroom while everyone else on the ship had to use the communal heads.

The noise of the water running covered any warning I had, so I almost put an elbow through the shower wall when Adrienne’s slim hand reached around to tickle my abs. I turned and took her in my arms.

Her small, firm breasts pressed against my chest as I lifted her for a kiss.

“Warrant Officer Turnbull, you’re away from your duty station,” I said with mock severity. “I may have to enter a reprimand in your personnel file.”

“I’ll have to log a formal protest, then, Captain Riggs. Is hypocrisy a court-martial offense?”

“What about the factories you were tending to?”

“The scripts are all written. They’ll be busy for hours.”

“We’d better make the most of our time, then,” I said.

Good, clean, athletic lovemaking after a battle was one of the great joys of military service I’d always believed, and we did our best to prove the point. As we dressed afterward, the room’s com-link activated.

“Captain to the bridge,” Valiant said.

I finished donning my working uniform, giving Adrienne a peck on the lips as I hurried out. On the bridge, Hansen, was still in his suit.

“The Macro base just fired something.”

“What?” I asked. “Can we evade?”

“Whatever it is, it’s not aimed at us, Skipper.” He pointed at the holotank, where a thin yellow line projected outward from the location of the Macro asteroid.

“Get all the sensor readings we can for whatever that is,” I told Valiant.

“Sensor efficiency remains at eleven percent as higher-priority repairs are implemented,” the ship replied.

“Can you tell me anything about it at all?” I asked as I fiddled with the holotank controls. Zooming in on the thing did little except expand the moving blob with no improvement in resolution.

“It’s accelerating with the approximate characteristics of a fusion-powered missile. Mass spectrometer analysis confirms fusion exhaust gases as does a comparison of brightness.”

“Why would it fire a missile…out there?” I extrapolated the arrow-straight line of its flight path, pulling back the zoom on the holotank. “What is its target?”

“Unknown.”

A slight hesitation in Valiant’s synthesized voice made me ask, “Do you have a theory?”

The AI chewed on that one for a moment. “All possibilities but one are either impossible to calculate or fall close enough to zero as to be considered impossible.”

“All but one?”

The holotank view shifted as Valiant made inputs. Now, the Macro missile’s course reached far out into space toward the edge of the star system, coming very close to intersecting another green-colored flight path.

“The probable target is Greyhound,” the AI said. “But there’s no confirmation. We can’t even see the ship, it’s so far out.”

Greyhound.

They were going to blow up Marvin.




-31-

“They fired a missile at Marvin?” I said, aghast, my eyes locked on the holotank. “Transmit a warning to him.”

“I already included this information in my repeated hails, but I have received no response,” Valiant said.

“Dammit. So with their parting shot, the Macros decided to kill Marvin? That seems odd.”

“He’s got defenses, right?” Hansen asked.

“Sure.”

“So he might make it.”

“Yeah, but…”

“There’s nothing we can do about it now,” Hansen said, sounding almost cheerful. “We don’t have anything fast enough to catch up.”

Unfortunately, Hansen was right. I had one more trick up my sleeve, however.

“Hold the fort, Hansen,” I called over my shoulder as I hustled off the bridge and down to the armory. I climbed into my suit in its niche but didn’t bother sealing up.

“Suit, activate the quantum ansible and broadcast.”

“Device activated. Broadcasting.”

“Marvin, come in. Talk to me, dammit!”

“There is no need for expletives,” Marvin’s voice replied. Apparently the ansible’s signal really did exceed the speed of light, or perhaps bypassed normal limitations, as there was no delay.

“Why won’t you answer Valiant’s beamcast?”

“Maintaining radio silence is an elementary part of not being detected.”

“So why didn’t you call me on this transmitter?”

“It appeared you were quite busy. I did not want to distract you at a critical moment. Besides, I had nothing to say.”

I growled with exasperation. “When you have nothing to say, Marvin, I worry. A lot. Did you know the Macros fired a missile at you?”

“I know they launched a missile-like vehicle in my direction, but I suspect there is no warhead aboard.”

“Oh? You can tell that from all the way out there?”

“It is an elementary deduction based on logic and my understanding of the situation.”

“Enlighten me then, Marvin. I’m tired and in no mood for your condescending attitude.”

“I seem to be detecting a destabilization in my quantum ansible. I may lose contact at any moment.”

That was bullshit, I was certain. Marvin was setting up for cutting me off because he’d gotten tired of listening to me. I knew how to deal with that, though: by stroking his ego a bit. “I’m sure you can lock that down, Marvin. No one is as good as you are at the tech stuff. Now would you please explain what you think the Macro missile is?”

“My theory is that it contains a compact Von Neumann seed, probably the smallest one the Macro factory was able to produce.”

“A seed? Macros are all Von Neumann machines, able to build more of their kind. Nanos are the same. Even you’re related to them in that sense. What’s different about this one?”

“If I were the Macros, facing the extinction of my race, I would create a dormant seed designed to endure for centuries and send it outward in hopes that it may encounter the conditions needed to awake and grow.”

I thought about that for a moment. “Okay, I can see that. But why send it at you? I bet you can match velocities and blast it. In fact, Marvin, that’s what I want you to do. Destroy that thing. We have to rid the universe of the Macros once and for all.”

“I do not believe that’s wise.”

What?” I could hardly believe my ears. “Are you insane? The Macros have been the scourge of Earth and its federation. They’ve killed billions of biotics. They’re a pestilence on everything they encounter.”

“On Earth, some pestilences have adapted to form symbiosis with other life by performing valuable functions. Also consider that even the most deadly diseases serve a beneficial purpose.”

“What possible—?”

“They drive evolution. They improve a species by allowing only the fittest to survive. Just imagine where Earth would be without the arrival of the Macros and the Nanos: still divided into a hundred-odd squabbling nation-states with all their nuclear weapons pointed at one another. The human race would also have missed out on its current rapid technological advancement. Even more important, I would not exist.”

“Those are rationalizations not reasons, Marvin. I’d say Earth would’ve been better off to forge its own destiny naturally rather than having it hijacked by two competing creations of the Blues.” I snapped my fingers. “Admit it. You just want to capture this thing and study it, don’t you? You love to lord it over sentient captives and experiment on them at your leisure—like the Microbe and Litho colonies you undoubtedly still have with you. Now you want to be the sole owner of the last viable Macro anywhere.”

“Such a possibility has occupied my neural circuits ever since I detected the launch and deduced its purpose.”

“Aha! So you do admit it!” For once, I had him.

“Of course. But the point is moot. I will not be able to capture the Macro probe, though there is a chance I may destroy it. It will be traveling far too fast when it hits the ring.”

“Then you have to—” My head snapped back to slap against the back of my suit’s padded helmet as I realized what Marvin had said. “Ring? What ring?” Then I got it. “There’s a ring out there? You found it and took off to check it out, right? Which just happened to take you far away from any dangerous action.”

“I saw no reason to risk my person in combat while more appropriate tasks remained undone, Captain Riggs.”

“Well, you’re going to have to risk your person now. Captain Marvin, as your commanding officer I order you to do your utmost to destroy that Macro probe. If you can’t capture it, you need to eliminate it for the good of biotics everywhere.”

“Might I point out that the machines of the Ancients, the slabs and the golden planet they compose, are far more dangerous than the Macros are? Shall we attempt to destroy them too?”

“The slabs never attacked Earth,” I said through gritted teeth. Time was slipping away while I argued with this robot. “Besides, we can’t fight technology like that yet. We can debate this stuff forever, Marvin, but at the end of the day I’m the commander on the spot and I’m telling you to destroy it.”

“Understood. Captain Marvin out.”

Returning to the bridge, I saw that Hansen had gone leaving Adrienne on watch alone. “Is Nils taking a break?”

“I told him I could handle the conn,” she said. “All we’re doing is floating and repairing.”

I waved off her justifications. “No worries. He needed a good meal and a shower.”

“Not as good as our shower,” she said in a low voice.

“Nothing ever will be.” I smiled. “Too bad for him, though, because if I know Sakura, she won’t leave engineering until everything’s in tip-top shape.”

“I quite agree. That woman’s driven. Did you know she often goes days without sleep? Not only during times of crisis like this—just as a matter of routine. It’s like she doesn’t even need it.”

“Maybe she’s another robot.” I laughed, and Adrienne shook her head.

I heard a throat clear behind me and turned to see Sakura standing in the doorway. “Pardon, but I need to check some nanocircuitry up here,” she said, her face expressionless.

“Go ahead, please.” I fought to keep my face from turning red and cursed myself internally for gossiping in a public place. Making fun of one subordinate to another was risky, foolish, and likely to create resentment. I shouldn’t have done it, but I’d been lulled into complacency by being in close proximity to my girlfriend on the bridge. It was especially stupid to talk that way about Sakura, who was one of my best people and a key to the ship’s smooth operation.

Not certain whether she’d heard my comment or not, I decided to act as if nothing was wrong. Sakura was unreadable anyway, and I wasn’t close to her. I made a mental note to talk to Adrienne and Hansen, in private asking them to tell me if the engineer mentioned anything about it. If necessary, I would apologize to her later.

Precise and controlled in her movements as always, Sakura walked around me and squatted next to a console. She pulled out a tool kit and opened the housing. I exchanged glances with Adrienne. “I’m going to make the rounds to see how everything is going,” I said.

She nodded and flicked her eyes toward Sakura. “We’ll be all right.”

That relieved my mind a bit. Adrienne was good at smoothing things over. She got along with everyone, unlike me. Well, everyone but Kalu…and Moranian…and actually, every woman except Sakura and Cornelius now that I thought about it. I chuckled to myself at this insight as I made my way toward the lower bow of the ship to take a look at the weapons deck. Oddly enough, the fact that my girl had a jealous streak just made her more attractive to me.

Undoubtedly Adrienne got along with Sakura because the engineer had never shown me the slightest interest. In fact if I had to guess, I’d say Sakura didn’t like me much though she was always properly courteous. Probably it was because I was much younger, with freewheeling ways and a healthy sense of humor, none of which fit with an old geek girl like Sakura. Well, I’d just added to the problem, but it was one small pebble in the mountain on my shoulders, so I decided to quit stewing over it and move on.

Chief Cornelius was a different story entirely. She was a breath of fresh air despite the damage and chaos of the gun deck. “Get your verdammten ass moving, Higgins, or I’ll cram my boot so far up it you’ll be spitting leather for a week,” the older woman bellowed as I entered the spaces she controlled.

Steiner stood holding a strut over her head while Higgins hurried to begin nano-welding it into place as a dozen others bustled about repairing our weapons.

Cornelius spotted me and tossed a casual salute. She still had her bulky pressure suit on, which made it easier to keep my eyes on her face rather than her chest. “Beg your pardon, Skipper, but we’re a little busy now getting the guns working again. What can I do for you?”

“Keep doing what you’re doing, Chief.” I raised my voice. “Great work, everyone. It was a hard fight but we may have wiped the Macros out of existence thanks to all of you.”

Scattered cheering and cries of “Valiant!” echoed here and there, and then they turned back to their work. Cornelius stepped closer, and I could smell a whiff of hooch on her breath.

Perversely, this awoke a craving in me, and I spoke before she did. “I could use a drink. Any chance a bottle of something might be left unbroken in this rubble?”

Cornelius grinned. “I don’t doubt it, Skipper. Step into my office, here.” She pushed through the mass and entered a tiny space with a few mementos and framed family pictures, most of which were now on the floor. Reaching down, she opened the bottom drawer of the desk and came up with an unmarked plastic bottle. “Sorry, but I seem to be short of glasses.”

“That’s all right,” I said, accepting the bottle and opening it. I took a swig and fire burned its way down my throat. “What is that, rum?” I gasped, handing it back. “Has to be at least 150 proof.”

“You know your schnapps, sir,” she replied, taking two deep swallows without a wince. “I make a small batch from pure factory sugar every now and again. Strictly for medicinal purposes, of course.”

“Naturally,” I wheezed through a throat only beginning to unclench. “I think I need another dose.”

We shared a few more rounds with me sipping and her slugging back shots before I told her what I came there for.

“Chief, we’ve served together since the first mishap and you’ve never let me down. Yet, we don’t know each other well, which is a plus for what I’m about to ask you.”

“The suits,” Cornelius said with a tap of her fingers on my armor. “You want to know how you turned up dead, right?”

I nodded. “You’re the only one I can think of who might be able to do some computer forensics and figure it out—the only one who isn’t involved in the situation.”

“I’ll do the best I can, Captain, but I’m no computer expert. Why not have your robot do it?”

“Would you trust Marvin, Chief?”

Cornelius saluted me with the empty bottle. “I take your meaning, sir.”

“There’s another matter…”

“The vids?”

“Holy…does everyone aboard ship know about those?”

Cornelius shook her head. “Top secret. Chiefs’ eyes only for now. But nothing stays secret on a warship forever.”

“It would really help if I could prove they’re fake.”

“Oh, so the vids are fake?” Cornelius grinned. “A fair likeness though, if I may be so bold, sir.”

“Yes, dammit, they’re fake, falsch, fugazzi, faux. I never slept with Moranian or anyone else but—”

“But Miss Turnbull?”

“Not since I left Earth, anyway.”

Cornelius clucked ruefully, the sound more motherly than mocking. “It’s a pickle, but I might be able to help with that as well.” She leaned toward me, flooding me with alcohol fumes. “One question. Do you have any unusual marks on your body? Scars, birthmarks, tattoos?”

“I have a couple of moles on my back, I think.”

Cornelius opened a drawer and took out a small digital imager, a high-tech camera with extra functions usually used for recording and diagnosing technical problems. “Let me take a picture, if you please, sir.”

I lifted my uniform tunic and let her snap a shot of my back, and then dropped the smart cloth again. “What’s that for?”

“I may not be the best with the computers, but every Navy chief has got a nose for deception—we have to. I’ve got an idea, so let me work on it.”

“Fair enough. Thanks, Chief. I owe you.”

Cornelius grinned, her eyes sparkling at me. “Oh yes sir, you do.”

As I walked away I couldn’t help feeling the mud was getting deeper and I’d just splashed some on me. This wasn’t the way things were supposed to work—secret meetings and trading favors—but I was coming to realize the model taught in the Academy and the real world diverged a lot more than I’d expected.

Despite making compromises, I still wanted to do things the right way. I’d always figured that if I was a strong enough leader I could bend any crew to my will, and maybe I still could. Sokolov had managed it, after all. They’d followed him into the gates of hell.

For all my faults and compromises, I knew Valiant’s crew followed me more willingly than they had Sokolov. I couldn’t chalk it all up the roguish Riggs charm. I must be doing something right.

Returning to the bridge, I saw that Sakura had departed and Hansen had returned. He shot me a hooded look, perhaps of irritation. Maybe he’d already heard about my unthinking slam on his lady. Scuttlebutt traveled fast with such a small crew.

That reminded me of something I wanted to discuss with Kwon. I called him on a private channel. “Sergeant Major, I want you to start working on a memorial ceremony—I want full dress uniform, sabers, everything. As soon as Valiant’s back in shape, we’ll take a day off to honor our dead, probably about a week from now.”

“Aye, aye, sir,” he said, sounding pleased.

Next, I tapped Hansen on the shoulder and led him in to the ready room for some privacy. “I’ve been thinking about something Nils, and I need your input.”

“Sure, sir.”

“I think I need to give some of the key staff field commissions. Warrant officer ranks were fine as a stopgap measure, but we have to normalize the ship’s organization.”

Hansen crossed his arms, thinking. “I can see that.”

“So you agree?”

“I…I’m okay with the idea.”

“But if it was you…”

“I’d let sleeping dogs lie.”

I dropped my chin to my chest, sighing. I was disappointed in this lukewarm response. “All right, I hear you. But I believe it needs to be done, so you need to get behind it.”

“No problem, sir.”

I stared at him for a moment more. “Also, about Sakura…”

He raised an eyebrow and cocked his head, staying silent.

“I have nothing but the greatest respect for her. Anything anyone might have overheard when Adrienne and I were talking needs to be put in that context—private banter, private jokes.”

“Okay.”

Hansen wasn’t making this easy, but then again, he never did. “Back to the promotions…”

“Yeah?”

I took a deep breath, putting my arms behind my back. “Nils, do you still want to be second-in-command? Or would you rather go back to being the senior helmsman and chief pilot?”

“You want to replace me?”

“I want to put each man or woman in the best possible position I can, so I’m giving you an option. Go back to your specialty if you like. I know it can be overwhelming to pilot and manage the ship at the same time.”

Hansen paced back and forth in the small space, a frown on his face. “You told me more than once you didn’t want a yes-man. Why do I get the feeling this is punishment for not agreeing with you on everything?”

“It’s not. It’s purely your decision. No pressure. But I’ll tell you one thing. If you want to keep the position of XO, you’ll take a commission, and you’ll have to train another pilot to be as good as you are.”

“No one is as good as I am.”

“An officer can’t be constantly losing big-picture focus to attend to the details.”

Hansen’s face turned angry. “What do you call it when you run off in your battlesuit to play marine?”

“I only do that when my command presence in close combat outweighs having it on the bridge.”

“Sounds like a weak excuse to do what you want.”

He had me there. I was setting him a standard I’d violated myself with regularity.

“You know, you’re right. I have left the bridge when I thought the close combat was more important. If you stay as XO, I’ll want another pilot at the helm. I’d also expect you to jump in and take over during any particularly critical maneuver, especially if you didn’t think the guy could handle it.”

Hansen shook his head slowly. “No. That’s a morale-wrecker. I’d be showing the new pilot I didn’t trust him at crunch time.”

“Then you have to stay hands-off in order to keep your mind on command and not piloting.”

“Even though you don’t?”

I could see this had become a no-win situation. “Let’s put this aside for now and think about it some more. Maybe we can figure out something that works better.”

“Who were you thinking about as XO if not me?”

“Can’t be Sakura. Her place is in Engineering.”

“Turnbull?” That came out as nearly a sneer.

“Absolutely not,” I said firmly. “She’s fine in a supporting role, but she doesn’t have enough background or training. And if I wanted a yes-man, I’d pick Kwon, but he’s just not suited for it. Cornelius is a high-functioning alcoholic. She does wonders on the gun deck, but I couldn’t trust her on the bridge. That leaves—”

“Bradley.”

I nodded.

“He’d do fine, I think,” Hansen said grudgingly. “He’s used to being on the bridge taking orders and then giving them to his drone controllers, so it wouldn’t be much of a leap.”

I drummed my fingers on a railing. “What would you do in my place?”

Hansen closed his eyes. “Probably exactly what you’re doing now.”

I clapped him on the shoulder. “Then think about it. There’s no huge hurry.”




-32-

The next day I watched two tracks in the holotank come nearer and nearer—Marvin and the Macro probe. Our sensor network had been partially restored, but I still couldn’t bring up a good view of the ring that Marvin said was there. I’d plotted its location based on where the two would intersect, but I still found nothing.

Valiant, can you tie in the gravitic sensor from the laboratory and feed it to the holotank?”

“That requires a manually made connection. Shall I form a utility arm and perform the installation?”

I frowned. “Is someone using it now?”

“Doctor Benson was the last to operate the sensor. Shall I query Doctor Benson?”

“No, I’ll do it.” A quick call to Benson got him to grudgingly reconnect the gravitic sensor to the hull, putting it back under the ship’s control. He complained that doing so would delay some other experiments, but I overrode him.

The results were almost immediate. Because rings were made of high-density stardust, their mass generated a great enough gravitic signature to detect. Soon I could see a new icon about where I expected it to be, pinpointed by its tiny gravity well.

I was wearing my battlesuit again today to provide me with access to the quantum ansible inside it. When Marvin returned, I’d have him install a bigger one for Valiant herself and one on Stalker, too. Faster-than-light communication would be a major improvement.

“Captain Marvin, are you there?”

“I am here, Captain Riggs.”

“Are you going to be able to capture or destroy the Macro probe?”

“Such an outcome is possible but unlikely. The probe has attained more than ten percent of lightspeed. At that rate, even my considerable calculative powers begin to approach their limits.”

“Do your best, Marvin. If you can’t knock it out, I presume the Macro will transit the ring?”

“So it appears.”

“Any idea where the ring goes?”

“The most likely destination would be another star system.”

I sighed at Marvin’s obtuseness. “Send a probe of your own through as soon as you can to see what the Macro probe does and to map the next system. We’re already heading in your direction under easy acceleration. As long as our destination isn’t a deathtrap, I’d really like to get out of this place. The Ancient slabs could do anything at any time, and a few of the alien ships have found their way outside the golden planet. Hopefully they’ve had enough of battle, but I’m not taking anything for granted.”

“I have already sent such a probe.”

“And?”

“Term identification: ‘and,’ a common English conjunction.”

“I don’t care about grammar, Marvin! What’d you find?”

“The probe has not yet returned any data.”

“Why not?”

“Because I did not program it to.”

“Right... Call me on the quantum radio when you have something of significance to report.” I closed the channel.

Marvin opened it again immediately. “Captain Riggs?”

“What is it, Marvin?”

“I have something of significance to report.”

“Great. Go ahead.”

“Emanations from the golden planet have changed significantly within the last hour.”

I sighed. “Emanations? From what to what? Explain.”

“The original emanations of the golden planet included many different signatures—the usual electromagnetic spectrum from Extremely Low Frequency up through Gamma plus several other more esoteric items such as gravity waves, quantum foam fluctuations and temporal ripples.”

“Temporal ripples?”

“Temporal, or time ripples are—”

“Never mind.” I massaged my temples, feeling a Marvin headache coming on. “Get to the point. The golden planet looked one way before, and—”

“When Sokolov destabilized the multidimensional maze, the golden planet’s emanations changed significantly. In most aspects, the planet was losing energy. Now, it’s returning to its former state—what for it might be termed ‘normal.’”

“It’s repairing itself. Sokolov poked it in the eye, but now it’s recovering.”

“Your metaphor is crude but basically accurate.”

“Marvin, you’ve been spending far too much time with Hoon.”

“He’s the only biotic that seems to enjoy my company.”

“That ought to tell you something. But back to the golden planet…”

“Captain Riggs, I suggest you put as much distance between yourselves and the machines of the Ancients as possible. They’re unpredictable and extraordinarily dangerous.”

I frowned. “You didn’t seem to think so when you were experimenting on the Square.”

“At that time, I believed I was investigating a dormant remnant not a fully active system.”

“Too bad you were wrong. Thanks, Marvin. Talk to you later.” I turned to Hansen. “Let’s get moving faster toward this new ring. Even if we don’t go through, I think Marvin’s right. We need to stay away from the golden planet.”

“Aye aye, Skipper. I’d rather not end up as an exhibit in a box.”

“Me too. Valiant, connect me with Kreel.” A moment later, I had the Raptor captain on the com-link. “Captain, please pass the word for your Nano frigates to trail behind Valiant and put Ox and Stalker in front.”

“What about the Macro dome? They still have a factory there, and I’m fairly certain it isn’t dormant.”

“Good point.” I thought a moment. “Do you have any nuclear weapons left of any sort?”

“We have twenty high-yield charges, Commodore, but no delivery systems.”

“Okay, this is what I want you to do. Take Stalker and sneak up behind the Macro factory on the far side of the asteroid. Send troops over and plant five of those charges—dig them in if you can. Back off and detonate them all at once. If that doesn’t finish the Macro base off, do it again, and again. Worst case, we’ll leave it with no fuel and no materials.

“I hear and obey.”

“Have you been told we’ve found the second ring in this system?”

“Our machine mind has informed me.”

“Are you all right with coming with us, or would you rather go home?”

Kreel paused before answering. “Why do you continually question my honor, Commodore?”

My headache grew stronger. “I’m just trying to make sure you really want to leave your home system, perhaps forever. You don’t even have any females in case we ever find you a colony world.”

“I’m sorry, Commodore, but you are misinformed. We have eggs in storage, fertilized and gender-selected to be females. If the opportunity presents itself, we can settle in a suitable habitat.”

Flashbacks to Hoon and his water moon came to mind. Maybe egg-based reproduction had some advantages over the ways of mammals—at least in space. “That changes things, I guess, Captain Kreel. Glad to hear it. Forget I asked. Riggs out.”

Every time I thought I knew what was going on, someone slapped me upside the head with new information. So much for a captain—or an admiral for that matter—being truly in control. I could only imagine what it would be like to have hundreds of thousands of subordinates. No wonder Dad had quit the first chance he got.

A telltale on the holotank caught my attention. Chief Cornelius was paging me on a private channel. I sealed up my suit and opened the connection. “Yes, Chief?”

“I have something you might like to see, Captain.”

“Five minutes.” I stowed the clumsy battlesuit in its niche with instructions for Valiant to link and monitor the quantum radio in it and then headed down to see Cornelius.

“Things look a lot better today, Chief,” I said as I stepped onto the gun deck.

“Nice of you to say so, Captain,” the older woman said with a subtle lift of her ample chest and a sparkle in her eye. Her red-veined, meaty face could have stopped traffic—and not in a good way—but her flirtations seemed to be a permanent part of her personality rather than anything serious. I imagined she’d broken some hearts in her younger days.

“Come take a look,” she continued, waving me into her cubbyhole and pointing to a seat behind her own desk.

On the screen I saw a rather salacious still-picture shot of a male. The shot was from behind, and he was going to town on a supine buxom female body with blurred-out features. Then I realized what I was looking at and I felt my face redden. “That looks like—”

“Moranian, yes it does—and you. This makes you out to be quite the lover, sir.”

“You watched it all?”

Cornelius winked. “Had to, of course. But as it’s not really you and not really Moranian, this is more in the way of graffiti on the toilet wall than a real problem, I should think.”

My voice rose in excitement. “So you’ve found proof that it’s fake?”

Ja. Remember your moles?” She reached over to tap a key, and a complex grid overlay the picture with several measurements highlighted.

“I remember you took an image.”

Cornelius tapped another key, and the screen added a high-res shot of my back. The two pictures morphed and aligned until one overlaid the other. “I had one of my best techs create a video clone of your back and torso using my real image as a base. I then had him match its motions with the motions of the male vid-clone in the sex tape. This is what we got.” She touched yet another key.

On the screen, the male form moved vigorously—but something was wrong.

“The moles don’t match as they move,” I said.

“Correct. Real skin is very tricky to model. You can make it look convincing, but that won’t mean it exactly follows what the real thing would do.”

“This proves the tape is a fake!”

“Sadly, I have to agree.”

I stood and almost hugged Cornelius, stopping myself at the last moment. All I needed to do was ignite a new fire with Adrienne the moment I’d stomped out the last one. “Thank you, Chief. I thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

She smiled and patted my arm. “It wasn’t your heart’s bottom on display, Captain.”

I choked back laughter. “Encrypt and upload all of that into Valiant—and give me a separate copy on a data stick, will you?”

“Done and done.” She slid a thumb-sized drive out of a pocket and dropped it into my hand.

“Chief—”

“Never mind, sir. We all owe you nine times over. Just get us home, will you?”

“You bet your ass, Chief.” I said as I backed out of her tiny office. “I’m sending you a bottle of real scotch from the Captain’s stores tonight.”

Cornelius chuckled. “Now that will be appreciated.”

* * *

Back on the bridge, I was relieved to see that Kreel’s first round of five nuclear demolition charges had blown apart the entire asteroid leaving nothing but a spherical shield with Macros floating inside.

Valiant, get me Kreel.” Once I had him I said, “Captain Kreel, good work. Can you rig some of your nuclear charges to act as mines with a trigger that detects when the Macro magnetic shield turns off?”

“Of course, Commodore.”

“Then please do so and leave them floating close to the factory.”

“A clever tactic, Commodore.”

“It’s all we can do if we want to get away from here fast. Riggs out.”

I kept all the working sensors we had focused on the golden planet and the space around it as we slowly left it behind. The first thing I noticed was the lack of other ships nearby. I knew that several had made it out of the globe.

Valiant, search the sensor logs since we escaped from the golden planet. I want to know where the alien ships that followed us out went. Did they run for the Orn ring or what?”

“One moment.” The holotank divided itself into two areas, one showing the current view and the other displaying a vid file that ran at high speed. The fast-forward effect slowed down when alien vessels began to pop out of holes in the golden planet, each accompanied by an icon to make them easier to follow.

The first one headed immediately for the Orn ring. The second proceeded away and around the yellow dwarf star where our sensors lost it. Seven more, including four singles and a group of three, first spread out and then headed for the Orn ring.

However, partway there they began to disappear, one at a time, beginning with the closest and ending with the farthest. As the time of record caught up with the present, Valiant merged the two views back into one.

“The last alien, the one that’s almost made it to the Orn ring…how far is it from the golden planet?”

“Approximately eight AU.”

“How far out are we?”

“Approximately nine AU.”

“Hansen, go to max acceleration. Valiant, pass the word to the Nano ships to match our speed but to stay staggered behind us. Stalker and Ox will aim for Marvin’s ring at full speed.”

I had an ugly suspicion about what was happening, so I marked and zoomed in on the last alien ship: the only one that hadn’t disappeared. A blocky thing that looked more like a retro boom box than a space vessel, it had taken only minimal damage that I could see.

Running several calculations using the holotank software, I determined that whatever was making the alien ships disappear took them about once every sixty-four minutes without deviation. Their speed or distance from the golden planet did not seem to matter to that interval, nor did their size, acceleration or any other characteristic.

On each occasion they were there one moment—then they were simply gone.

That reminded me of something. “Valiant, where are our pinnaces?”

“Both pinnaces are in the launch bay.”

I looked over at Hansen in surprise.

He answered my unspoken question. “We brought them back aboard on remote control.”

“Good work. How many total small craft do we have?”

“Two pinnaces, two shuttles.”

“No Daggers?” I glanced over at the drone watchstander. Bradley was off right now.

“No, sir,” the woman replied. “We lost them all, and we’ve been using the factory to repair damaged systems rather than build new ordnance.”

Valiant, get me Turnbull.”

“Turnbull here,” Adrienne’s voice replied from a nearby speaker.

“How quickly can we produce a basic Dagger? No suicide bomb, no weapons, nothing but an engine and a way to control it.”

“We can’t. We used up all the salvaged material, and I’m already cannibalizing a few things for ship repair.”

“Do we have any missiles left?”

“None.”

I growled in my throat. “I need something that can move on its own.”

“Kwon still has a few surfboards. I took half of them to reprocess their metals, but he wouldn’t give me all of them.”

“Bless Kwon and his stingy ways. Thanks, Adie.” I called Kwon. “Sergeant Major, I need you to bring all the remaining surfboards you have to the assault airlock.” I clicked off before he could acknowledge.

“What’s going on?” Hansen asked.

I held up a finger, meaning wait one damned minute.

Valiant, get me Bradley.”

“Chief Bradley is sleeping. Shall I wake him?”

“No. Wake up a drone technician instead and tell him to meet me and Kwon in the assault airlock with tools, ready to work.”

“Acknowledged…required personnel in transit.”

I turned to Hansen. “Something is destroying, or more likely taking, one ship every sixty-four minutes.”

“Probably the golden planet is reclaiming its collection.”

“Right. The one selected seems to be whatever’s closest to the golden planet. Looks like it only affects powered ships—none of the wrecks have been snatched.”

Hansen’s brow furrowed. “So…you’re leaving the two Nano ships to get taken.”

“Hopefully not, but better them than us. Trust me. I have a plan.” I clapped him on the shoulder and headed for the assault airlock.

Within the large room I found Kwon and a couple of marines in battlesuits. There were a dozen surfboards stacked near them. A drone tech stood off to the side with a heavy rolling toolbox.

I walked over to the tech to shake his hand, dragging his name out of my memory. “Chernov, right?” I said.

“Yes, sir.”

“Okay Chernov, I need you to take these surfboards and turn them into remotely piloted vehicles. Use spare drone telemetry modules or something. Nothing complicated. All we have to do is be able to fly them from a distance.”

The man looked puzzled. “What are they for, sir?”

“Bear bait, Chernov.”

“Huh?”

“If a big bear is after you, best to drop something for him to eat. Get it?”

“Um…no, sir.”

“Never mind. How soon can you get the first one ready?”

His brow furrowed. “A couple of hours?”

I checked my chrono. “I need it just as fast as you can. Get more help if you need it.”

“I’ll do my best, sir.”

“Good man.” I walked over to Kwon. “Leave the surfboards here. We’re making them into drones, sort of.”

“But…” Kwon saw the look on my face. “Okay, boss. Hope we don’t need them ourselves.”

“Just think of it this way, Kwon. If my plan works, the surfboards are sacrificing themselves for the ship.”

Kwon smiled broadly. “Since you put it that way, no problem.”

“Now get your guys out of here. Nothing we need less than ham-fisted marines getting in the techs’ way.”

Once Kwon and his men had departed, I decided to go wake up Bradley. Chernov seemed competent enough but a bit hesitant when I needed his best effort. Getting rousted out of bed was an on-the-job hazard of the senior staff.

Once I’d explained the situation to him, Bradley threw on a uniform and went to round up a couple more techs and supervise the process. More confident now, I returned to the bridge.

Valiant, we have two shuttles, correct?”

“Correct, Captain.”

“Have them stripped down to their bare bones and prep one for launch within ten minutes. And yes, you’re allowed to use your utility arms to strip the vessels. Make sure you have a good datalink to its brain and don’t rip that out—you can fly one on remote, right?”

“Yes, Captain, after a transfer of key algorithms.”

“Good.” I chewed my lip and stared at the holotank.

Ten minutes later, the last alien ship vanished leaving my little fleet as the only group of powered vessels in the system.

Unfortunately, that made us the next targets.




-33-

Everyone on the bridge watched the sixty-four minute countdown. The numbers fell toward zero alarmingly fast.

On the same screen, the optical shot of our first shuttle was displayed. I’d had Valiant fly it back to a position trailing my fleet, but still under power, accelerating slowly in our wake.

The shuttle was my stopgap while Bradley and his techs got the remote-controlled surfboards ready. I hoped the Ancient’s algorithm that decided what to snatch would see it as a ship to be collected and not a mere piece of powered junk. Whatever device they used, if its sixty-four minute recharge time held true the shuttle should be disappearing right…about…

Now.

Within seconds, the little craft winked out of existence—teleported, I figured, back to the boneyard within the golden planet. The entire bridge crew breathed a collective sigh of relief.

“Okay, we have sixty-three minutes to get a surfboard and the second shuttle out there. Bradley, you there?”

“Here, sir,” Bradley answered from the assault airlock. “Just a few more minutes and we’ll have the first decoy drone finished. I also took the liberty of rigging a spare marine battlesuit in the same way as it has its own internal repellers.”

I wanted to slap myself in disgust. Why hadn’t I thought of that?

“Good work, Bradley. Put the battlesuit last in line. If it gets snatched, our problems are solved because we have plenty of those. Go ahead and deploy them when you can. Don’t wait for an order. And—keep making more.” I closed the channel. “Valiant, launch the second shuttle and put it in a position similar to the last one, behind the last Nano ship.”

“Yes, Captain.”

Forty minutes later we’d set up our decoys: the battlesuit trailing the farthest behind, and then the surfboard drone, and after that the shuttle in case our improvised bear bait didn’t work. I wasn’t at all certain how far down the food chain the Ancient’s machines would reach in collecting ships or if they might manage to bring more ship-snatching devices online to grab two or more at a time.

“How long until we pass through the ring?” I asked.

“At current acceleration, fourteen hours five minutes,” replied Valiant.

“Dammit. Get me Sakura.” I waited a moment for the connection.

“Sakura here.”

“Chief, how can we get more speed out of these engines?”

“The only way to get more speed right away is to dump mass. The single engine we have is running at maximum as are all our repellers. The other engine isn’t going to be repaired for another two days because I had to cannibalize parts from it to get the first one running.”

“Thanks for the good news, Chief,” I said bitterly. I closed the channel, and then looked over at Adrienne. “Can we dump mass?”

“We can always dump mass if you’re willing to get rid of pieces of the ship, but we’ll also need that same mass for repairs afterward. As for weaponry to discard, half the weapons are down as well as a bunch of other vital systems.”

Hansen cleared his throat. I looked at him expectantly.

“I feel I must point out that we’re heading into an unknown system, and we might need every scrap of weaponry and equipment we have to survive when we arrive.”

“Duly noted, exec,” I said, and turned away. I paced in front of the holotank. “The only vital systems right now are those that let us get through that ring ahead of the golden planet’s teleporter. What about armor?”

Adrienne nodded slowly. “Armor is useless mass until we get in a fight. The same is true for the magnetic shield generators.”

“Okay, go get Kwon and some marines with cutters and tell them what to start carving off. Begin with armor on the top rear surface since we angle our belly toward the enemy in a fight. Once you have that underway, get with Chief Cornelius and see if she can sacrifice some nonworking guns—APs especially as they’re less versatile than lasers.”

Adrienne stood up to go. “On my way.”

Valiant,” I said, “launch both pinnaces, and let them cruise right behind us. That’s some more mass off the ship.”

“Yes, Captain.”

That was about all I could do right then, so I paced restlessly while I waited for the next ship-snatch. When the countdown hit zero, the modified surfboard disappeared right on schedule. Unfortunately the battlesuit kept on sailing along untouched.

“Dammit. I guess the suit was too small. Valiant, tell Bradley to recover the suit when he can and keep rigging surfboards. At least we bought ourselves another hour.”

“Twelve, really, if Bradley’s people can make a dozen decoys. Good thing Kwon didn’t give up his surfboards for factory reprocessing,” Hansen said.

“Stubbornness has its place.” I took a seat, rubbing my face with my hands and then stood instead. “You have the conn, Hansen. I need to take a walk.”

First, I stopped by the assault airlock receiving assurances the other eleven surfboards would be converted into drones on time. I was pretty sure sacrificing one per hour or so was going to let us get away. If not, there were always the pinnaces, the Nano ships, and even the shuttle, Ox and Stalker if we evacuated them of crew.

Whatever happened, Valiant would go last. Visions of the crew being trapped in the multidimensional maze with Sokolov haunted me—or worse, being stuck in a box with a crystal window. I hoped Natalia and the unknown man next to her remained unconscious in that state.

Next I got my battlesuit back on and checked on the dismantling of our upper rear armor. I proceeded through the airless assault airlock and out onto the hull in time to see Kwon enthusiastically shove a composite plate off into space. The thing must have massed ten tons and fell away behind us as the ship’s acceleration left it behind. Off to the side I could see the two pinnaces moving back into their positions.

Other battlesuited marines with cutters worked on taking off the next piece of armor while trying to avoid damaging the inner hull. Two crewmembers stood next to Adrienne in standard suits with constructive nanite sprayers in their hands to patch the inevitable holes the marines left behind.

I examined Valiant’s battered skin. The Macro fight had left us looking like a tramp freighter rather than a graceful ship of war and dumping the armor plates wasn’t helping. But, I didn’t much care how she looked if Valiant got us out of this crazy star system. We were helpless against the technology of the Ancients, and helpless was not a favorite state of mine.

Waving at Adrienne, I went back inside confident the mass-dumping work was in good hands. My next stop was Engineering, where I found Sakura with her head and upper body inside one of the main repellers and a tech nearby with tools laid out on the deck. She pulled herself out when she heard my armored boots stamping over.

“I can’t repair the other engine, but I may be able to get this repeller working in time to give us more thrust,” she said without preamble, her face as inscrutable as ever.

“Good. I trust you to prioritize as long as you understand that right now exiting this system ahead of the teleport effect is the only thing that might save us. I haven’t seen or heard of any evidence that the golden planet takes things from other star systems.”

Sakura grunted noncommittally. “Thank you for visiting, Captain, but if you want your extra speed I have to return to work.”

“Of course. Carry on.” I left with a nod and a wave to the other busy crewmembers.

I decided to skip visiting the weapons deck. The gun-bunnies there had seen me recently, and I was sure Cornelius was on top of things. There’s a fine line between too little and too much command presence in people’s workspaces, and morale had already taken a beating with the recent losses. While nearly destroying the Macros had elated me, for the average crewmember it may have seemed like an unnecessary fight this chasing a near-mythical enemy for a final showdown.

Doffing my armor and returning to the bridge, I looked at the still-accelerating Macro seed and Marvin’s position in the holotank. They were almost on top of each other. It appeared the target was just a few minutes from the ring.

Valiant, put me through to Marvin on the ansible.”

“This is Captain Marvin.”

“What’s the prognosis?” I demanded.

“The Macro probe has transited the ring. I was not able to capture or damage it significantly as it activated a shield when it detected my presence.”

I looked at the holotank in brief confusion. The probe hadn’t yet reached the ring. Then I realized the ring area was several light-minutes from us, and the sensor image showed the past while the ansible gave us instantaneous communication. That got me wondering if we could apply the quantum ansible principle to make some kind of faster-than-light sensor to yield real-time data at a distance.

“What has your scout probe told you?” I asked.

“I have preliminary data about the area beyond the ring. It appears to be an unusually large and complex quadruple-star system with more than twenty planets and at least eighty moons. I have identified emanations from three separate space-capable civilizations.”

“Are there defense installations at the ring on the other side? Anything dangerous if we go through?”

“There are no installations at all near the ring. This is possibly because of the slabs which presumably visit this system from time to time just as they do the Orn system on the other side.”

“Good news and good work, Marvin. Send us the probe data as you get it, please? I’d like to take a look.”

“I’ll send you what I have so far,” he said, “but I’ll be transiting the ring in approximately two minutes.”

“Can’t you send a probe back through later with more data?”

“I’m sorry, quantum interference from the ring is causing your transmission to become unintelligible.”

“Then why can I hear and understand you perfectly, Marvin?”

“Captain Marvin out.”

I hissed in exasperation. Clearly, he hadn’t wanted to comply with my instructions. I wondered why. It didn’t seem like sending a probe back through the ring would be a strain on his resources. Was there something on the other side he didn’t want me to know about until we got there?

I watched Marvin’s icon approach the ring, transit through, and then wink out in the holotank. A few minutes later due to the lightspeed delay, Valiant announced, “I have received a data-burst from Greyhound. Shall I load it into the holotank?”

I glanced around at Hansen and the watchstanders. If there was something controversial about the next system, maybe I should look at the data privately. Then again, that might make it seem like I didn’t trust them, and most likely any worrisome details wouldn’t be obvious to them from across the room as long as I didn’t comment on them.

“Go ahead and load it,” I said.

In the tank appeared a sketchy, low-resolution representation of an amazing star system. Marvin hadn’t been kidding when he said it was complex and unusual. Three stars danced in space. One was big and white with two smaller orange siblings. The ring itself orbited far from the gravitational axis formed by the triple-star configuration.

The fourth was a brown dwarf, a tiny star only about fifty times as massive as Jupiter with a correspondingly low heat output. It orbited about three hundred AU out from the triple center. Like Saturn or Jupiter, it had its own entourage of at least a dozen small to medium-sized planets and a bunch of tiny bodies, asteroids and comets.

More than twenty other worlds orbited the center triplets and ranged from small hot Mercury-like bodies up to large gas giants. I could see our scientists, including Hoon, would be in geek heaven.

Speak of the devil, I thought, as Hoon scurried onto the bridge. I should have expected him as I knew his large, watery quarters had a feed connected to everything that happened in the holotank.

“Move aside, young Riggs. I need to examine this new data.”

“How about if I have the data transferred to your quarters?”

“This holotank has better resolution than my equipment.”

“You should get Marvin to upgrade your system for you.”

Hoon’s eyestalks finally were aimed at me instead of the holotank. He seemed annoyed. “I find the robot to be difficult.”

I laughed. “Hoon, my estimation of you just improved.”

“Please address me as ‘Professor,’ young Riggs.”

“Then please address me as ‘Captain,’ Professor.”

“Weren’t you an ensign a few days ago?”

“You need to get out more.”

Hoon swung his attention back to the holotank. He rapidly manipulated the controls, altering the viewpoints and using the holotank’s many functions to extract more data. He made notes on a Crustacean-style tablet held in one mouth-part.

“My examination will take some time, Captain Riggs. Perhaps you have other duties to attend to elsewhere?”

I bit my tongue. Hoon was trying to banish me from my own bridge. I held back a bout of kicking and cursing with difficulty. I had to admit he had the best brain aboard for pure science, and you never knew when a geek would come up with some obscure but critical factor, especially in a brand-new star system. I decided to let him work.

“I’m going to grab some food,” I told Hansen. “Want anything?”

“I’m going to eat with Sakura right after the next decoy is snatched, Skipper,” he replied.

I shrugged and left him there with Hoon. “Valiant, pass all of Marvin’s data to Doctor Benson.” That made me think of Kalu, still in the brig, which in turn made me realize that I still needed to figure out who had hacked the suits and faked the video. I decided to interrogate her at the first opportunity I had—during the next sixty-four minute window might work well. If Kalu wasn’t guilty of anything worse than scheming and cooperating a little too closely with Sokolov, I shouldn’t be holding her prisoner. After all, plenty of my crewmen were guilty of that. Just because we didn’t get along was no reason to lose her talents in the laboratory.

There were too many low-priority things I just wasn’t getting to on this journey. Being mutinied against by Sokolov had derailed many of my plans. I’d never figured out who might be aboard—if anyone—who’d had a hand in Olivia’s death. Someone had to have helped send us through that ring leaving known space behind. The trouble was that for all I knew the culprit had died along the way. It could have been one of Valiant’s original officers, for example.

Sighing heavily, I returned to a more recent crisis. Olivia was dead, and figuring out the circumstances of her death wouldn’t bring her back. I had living people aboard that I needed to consider first.

One of them was Adrienne and another was Kalu. I came to the conclusion that my best chance to determine who had falsified the sex vids and my death was to have Marvin dig into it. He was the least likely to have been involved because he could have killed me so much more simply if he’d wanted to, and because I doubted he had the cultural sophistication to even think of faking a sex vid to undermine my position. The big problem with this approach was that I would have to give him deeper access to Valiant’s brainbox than I would like. Who knew what alterations he might be tempted to make or what data of his own he might plant inside? Any safeguards I put in to stop him might foil the very investigation I was trying to make.

I could only think of one way to do this and now was a good time. After grabbing a plate of rations from the wardroom, I headed down to the factory deck.

The machine that squatted in the center of the chamber hummed and clunked from time to time. A line of recently made spare parts sat on a conveyor, and as I sat down at the control console another piece of machinery appeared. The belt moved accordingly, providing room for the next item.

“Unit One,” I said, “this is Commander Cody Riggs. Acknowledge.”

“Commander Cody Riggs acknowledged.”

“Suspend current script and reset your memory space to load another.”

“Script suspended. Memory reset.”

“Do you have enough materials to make a battlecruiser brainbox?”

“Materials sufficient.”

“Excellent.” I’d hoped this would be the case, as brainboxes were not large nor were their materials exotic. “Display a script shell for a standard battlecruiser brainbox.”

“Script displayed.”

“Overlay and integrate scripts for cloning the current Valiant brainbox, including its software state at this moment and also a standard independent containment system.”

“Scripts overlaid and integrated.”

“Begin manufacture,” I ordered.

“Process begun. Time to completion is one hour seventeen minutes.” The factory began to hum and rattle slightly.

I decided to stay there until the copy of Valiant’s brainbox was finished. That way no one could tamper with it—at least I hoped not. I didn’t think there was any way to secretly access and influence a factory once its process was started other than by suspending and changing it though the control board. Even after three decades, what went on inside a factory remained something of a mystery.

“Captain,” Hansen called after a few minutes. “Another scheduled snatch is coming up.”

“Is the surfboard in place, with the shuttle and pinnaces as backup?”

“Yes, sir. Everything’s in position. Hoon is still playing with the holotank, by the way.”

“Unless there’s a crisis, he’s fine. I’ll be down in the factory room for another hour or so. Riggs out.”

A few minutes later, Adrienne entered still wearing her suit. “Hey, Cody. Looks like Kwon has the hang of things. I gave him clear instructions on which armor pieces to cut away.”

I grinned. “You sure he won’t chop off something vital?”

“Pretty sure. What are you doing?”

I hesitated before answering, and Adrienne’s face fell. She was one of the people with the expertise to hack the suit telemetry and to fake the sex vid…but she was also the only one with no discernible motive to do so except in my wildest paranoid fantasies.

“Sorry, hon. I’ve just resolved to keep what I was doing here confidential. I had to shift mental tracks. I’m happy to tell you.”

She moved up beside me, placing a delicate hand on my shoulder. I reached up to take and kiss her fingers before explaining, “I’m making a separate backup of Valiant. At some point we’ll have to really dig into what went on, and I want to have a copy in case anything goes wrong.”

“But the copy will have the flaws or sabotage of the original.”

“I know, but it’s one more safeguard.”

Adrienne leaned down to whisper in my ear, “I already have a new, blank battlecruiser brain tucked away just in case.”

I turned my head to look into her eyes. “You’ve been keeping secrets too?”

“Other than you, who can I trust?”

As her lips were so close, I kissed them and then her nose. “Exactly. Someone’s been trying to kill me ever since I left Earth the first time, and they still have Olivia to pay for.”

“Quite.” She packed a fair amount of venom into that typical British understatement.

“By the way, I have something for you.” I reached into my pocket and took out the data stick Cornelius had given me. “Here’s hard evidence the sex vid was faked.”

“How do you know the evidence itself wasn’t faked?”

“I didn’t say it was proof, but it does help my case. You’ll have to look at it yourself and decide. Chief Cornelius did the work.”

Adrienne relaxed. “She’s a dear, isn’t she? Bradley’s a lucky fellow, whatever her faults.”

“Oh, Bradley and she—”

“Yes.” Adrienne hugged me and hurried off with the data stick.

I really hoped that entire disaster had been laid to rest.




-34-

I sat at the factory console long enough to finish the backup brainbox in its protective case. Resetting the machine to continue Adrienne’s scripts, I took the heavy box by its handle and took it to the captain’s suite.

I’d given the thing some thought, but nothing could be secreted from Valiant herself unless I shut down the current brainbox, which wasn’t something I was prepared to do until the ship was further out of danger. The next best thing was to put it in the captain’s safe, which had a mechanical combination lock on it supplemented by a code and a biometric scanner. Normally this little vault was used for storing sealed orders, command override codes and anything else that needed to be held securely outside of the ship’s AI network itself.

It would have to do.

I reset the safe’s code and my door code for good measure. “Valiant, notify me when the captain’s suite is accessed no matter who does it. Even if you believe it’s me, I want you to notify me.”

“Protocol updated.”

Back on the bridge, I saw that Hoon had departed and Bradley had taken over the watch from Hansen.

“All the surfboards are ready to go, and Chernov is launching them now.” Bradley waved at his drone controller stations, which were now filled. “We’ve got them under positive control.”

“Excellent. Sorry about waking you up earlier. You can head back to your bunk if you need to.”

“No need, sir. A stim will keep me going until we exit the ring.”

I thought about that for a minute, staring at the holotank. “No, I think I’d rather have you at your best when we pass through. I’m sure your senior controller can shepherd a few surfboards into simple trailing positions. If you absolutely can’t sleep, I’m sure Chief Cornelius could use some help on the gun deck. I’ve got the bridge.”

Bradley looked sideways at me for a moment and then brightened. “Aye, aye, sir.”

Planting that idea in Bradley’s mind was a little bit of repayment to Cornelius. I was sure they could both use a romantic interlude. I mused as to when my captain’s duties had started to include arranging trysts for my senior staff. This brought a smile to my face.

I guess the captain has to be all things to all people, I thought, turning to the holotank to study the new star system. I found myself yearning to arrive and wondering when the next thing would go wrong.

Nothing happened for the next hour. A decoy was snatched on schedule, and I felt an odd sensation of relief. Our decoys were working, and as far as I could tell they were foolproof. We were going to make it out of the system.

After making this lofty prediction inside my own mind, no one assaulted me with a new disaster for several minutes. That surprised me. I decided it was time to talk to Kalu.

“What took you so damned long, Captain?” she asked when I arrived and stood outside the bars of her cell. “Do I scare you somehow?”

“I’ll admit I’ve been avoiding this. I’ve honestly been too busy.”

Her confident smile faded. “Avoiding what? Aren’t you going to let me out?”

“This is an investigation. Anything you say may be held against you later—”

“You’ve got to be kidding me!”

“—in a court of law,” I finished, following Star Force regs.

“I’m innocent!” Kalu complained. “All I did was follow my legitimate commander. He outranked you, and you were dead as far as I knew.”

“You did far more than that, doctor.”

She glared at me. “This is because I slept with him, isn’t it? I bet it comes from Adrienne. She still hates me because you snaked a kiss in front of her once. I’m always getting this kind of bullshit from—”

“Doctor,” I interrupted. “Let’s stick to facts, shall we?”

“I’m giving you facts. You might not like them, but—”

I stepped closer to the bars, and she backed away a step as if threatened. I hadn’t meant it that way. Taking a breath, I tried to look and act as professionally as I could. She wasn’t real Navy, after all, and Star Force had a reputation for being heavy-handed among civilian folk.

Putting my hands behind my back, I forced a thin smile.

“Kalu,” I said, “let’s begin again. Do you want to get the hell out of this cell?”

“Yes.”

“All right then. If you calmly answer my questions that might happen. As I said, this is an official investigation. Are you ready to proceed?”

Her eyes ran around the cell. She nodded. “Yes. Just do it. I’ll be good.”

I doubted that, but I managed to smile more broadly. “Good. Valiant, extrude four nanite arms into the doctor’s cell, please.”

She looked alarmed as four black segmented arms wormed their way into existence. Two sprouted from the floor and two from the ceiling.

“Extend your arms and legs as if you were doing a jumping-jack, please,” I said.

“Oh, hell no. That is not happening.”

“Kalu, just let the ship grasp your limbs.”

“Why should I allow it?”

Valiant will measure your heart rate and other autonomic functions. That’s part of our interrogation technique.”

“All right, all right,” she said, letting the machine touch her. Once attached, she was able to lower her arms. She glowered at me through the bars sullenly.

“You better not try to come in here now,” she said.

I sighed. “That won’t be necessary. The apparatus is only—”

“It’s a lie detector, yeah, I get it. Start talking.”

After a few test questions, I threw in a zinger.

“Did you or did you not help to kill Olivia Turnbull?”

Her mouth sagged in shock. “Say what? That’s got nothing to do with—”

“Refusing to answer the question?”

“No,” she said. “No, I had nothing to do with that.”

Valiant spoke into my ear. “Answer truthful.”

I nodded. I’d suspected she was innocent of any involvement in that matter, but I wondered if she might still know something.

“Do you know anyone who participated materially in the death of Olivia Turnbull?” I asked next.

“I thought this was supposed to be about Sokolov!”

“Please answer the question.”

She glared at me for a second. “Yes,” she said, “I do know such a person.”

“Answer truthful,” Valiant said in my ear.

My heart began to pound. Could this be true? Could Kalu have been involved somehow, all along?

I reached up and grabbed the bars. My muscles shook and I squeezed. My fingers whitened as I gripped the bars ever more tightly, and they creaked slightly under the strain.

Kalu’s eyes ran over the bars and my hands. Her face changed to one of alarm.

“Who?” I demanded.

“You, sir,” she said, almost in a whisper.

I closed my eyes and heaved a deep breath.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “I shouldn’t have played you like that. I just—I don’t know. I’ve been cooped up. I don’t like it.”

“All right. Besides my involvement, do you know anything about what happened to Olivia?”

“No. No, I do not, and I don’t think anyone else aboard does either.”

“Statement truthful.”

It took a few seconds for my mind to operate properly again. It was odd in my opinion that I could get so worked up so quickly about her answer. She’d been toying with me, trying to make me feel pain. She’d succeeded, but now I could see she was honestly regretful.

“You’ve gone through a lot, Captain,” she said. “We all have. I didn’t mean to make it worse.”

“Okay,” I said, “let’s just get through this then, shall we? Did you willingly aid Sokolov in taking over this vessel?”

She squirmed. “Yes. I obeyed orders. We all did, pretty much.”

“Statement truthful,” the ship said into my ear.

I nodded. “Did you conspire to mutiny against me?”

“Of course not!”

“Statement false.”

We eyed one another. “You knew what Sokolov was planning, didn’t you?” I asked. “You knew about his move to take over even before he did it.”

“Dammit,” she said, fingers prying at the tentacles that held her wrists. “This metal bitch. She’s telling you everything, isn’t she?”

My smile was back, but it was a thin line. “No, you’re doing that. She’s just reading your guilt. Now, let’s get down to details.”

Kalu ripped and heaved, and then tore one of the tentacles off her. It squirmed in the air. Some of her skin came off with the tentacle and blood dribbled onto the deck.

“Yeah, I’ve been nanotized too,” she said. “Let me just tell you my story in my own way, all right?”

“All right.”

“Sokolov was planning to make his move on you. I knew it—anyone with a brain could see it coming. He was a general. You were just a newbie fresh out of the academy, even after he crowned you captain—sir. Legitimacy-wise, he had you from the start. Every day he hung around and looked more like a real Star Force general he came closer to giving you orders.”

“Okay,” I said, thinking it over. “But was the takeover your idea?”

“No, it was his plan from the start. He made subtle undermining comments to a lot of us. How young you were, how inexperienced. How unorthodox your rise to power was. How it was odd—even suspicious—that after Turnbull’s niece had died her uncle died too, right after you showed up.”

Maybe I should have felt anger at her unstated accusations, but I didn’t. Instead I felt a sick sense of alarm. Could it be that many of my crewmen were suspecting me of being the perpetrator behind these crimes? That I was the climber, the opportunist scrabbling for power? I hated the idea of it, but I’d seen this sort of thought drifting behind Hansen’s eyes at least.

“Yeah,” she said, watching my face. “Some of us figured maybe you should be the one in the brig wearing these truth-manacles.”

“I should never have let Sokolov aboard,” I said quietly.

“Why not? Is he right?”

I reached out, grabbing the manacle she’d shed. I wrapped it around my own wrist and leaned close to her. “Valiant, speak aloud for both of us to hear.”

“Ready.”

“No, Doctor,” I said. “I didn’t plan my rise to the position of captain. It just happened.”

“Statement truthful.”

Kalu’s eyes flicked up to the ceiling and down again. “Okay then,” she said. “What next?”

“After a few more questions you’ll be released.”

“Promises.”

“First, did you tamper with the computer system to mark Kwon and me as dead while we still lived?”

“No,” she said firmly. “I don’t have the clearance for that, and I wouldn’t know how.”

“Statement ambiguous.”

She rolled her eyes. “What I mean is I don’t have access to that level of the ship’s sensory logs.”

“Statement truthful.”

“Did you do it or not?” I asked again.

“No.”

“Statement truthful.”

I nodded my head, satisfied. “All right,” I said. “You went along with the mutiny, but no more than the rest of them.”

She frowned. “Not true. It wasn’t a mutiny, Cody. We didn’t know what to do. You were dead, and Sokolov outranked you anyway. Did you think we’d all keep saluting your corpse?”

“No, I guess you did what you had to. It was an ugly mess.”

“Statement truthful.”

Both of us smiled faintly at that.

“One last question,” I said.

“You said that was the last one.”

“I lied.”

“Statement truthful.”

She bared her teeth at me. “Ask,” she said.

“Do you know where Sokolov is now?”

She hesitated. “I don’t know for sure, but I have an idea. I did know him better than most of the people aboard.”

“I’ll say.”

She threw me a reproachful glare, and then relaxed. “I don’t think he could leave Natalia, his frozen lady-love. If he was nuts, she was a big part of it.”

“You mean he’s gone back into the maze? To his old prison?”

“Yeah, probably, but I’m just guessing. It’s not like he calls me or anything.”

“Statements truthful.”

I removed the cuffs and unlocked the door. Kalu walked out immediately and felt a sudden urge to stretch in front of me.

“You’re always going to be trouble, aren’t you?” I asked her.

She gave me a smile. “That’s what my professors always said back in school, you know that?”

On that point I didn’t doubt her for a second.




-35-

Six hours later, my fears materialized. Our perfect clockwork system of avoiding the Ancient’s snatching device—whatever it was—failed us.

The senior controller on duty at the time was a petty officer named Singh. She was a Hindi woman who reminded me a bit of my mother.

“Captain,” she said, “a surfboard drone has disappeared.”

I nodded. “That’s what they’re there for.”

“But sir—the disappearance is off-schedule. It occurred much earlier than expected.”

That got me moving. I reset the holotank to a tactical view and noticed the snatch countdown stood at thirty-two minutes. Immediately I understood what had happened. “They’ve brought a second teleporter online. Or maybe they doubled their current recharge speed.”

“What shall we do, sir?” Singh asked worriedly.

“Don’t worry. I have a plan.” I didn’t have anything at that moment, but I knew I’d come up with something.

In the holotank, two Nano ships cruised directly behind us, followed in turn by two pinnaces, the shuttle and five remaining surfboard drones. Running the numbers, I noted that Valiant had about five hours left before we transited the ring.

It was going to be close.

If the thirty-two minute snatch schedule held, a toss of a coin would determine whether we lost the second Nano ship. All the others would have been taken by then. I racked my brain for some other solution.

Valiant, connect me with Kreel.”

“Captain Kreel here,” the Raptor said after a moment.

“Captain, do you have any working shuttles or small craft aboard Stalker or Ox?”

“Unfortunately no, Commodore. All have been damaged, lost, or cannibalized for their parts.”

“Damn. Not even a working spare engine or repeller?”

Stalker is heavily damaged from the recent battle and needs a major refit. Also, most of my troops are what you call marines and not ship crewmembers. Some of those manning Stalker are captured personnel and must be constantly watched. We have to…encourage them to perform their duties.”

I realized Kreel had plenty of problems of his own to deal with, and he’d been doing a fine job so far in carrying out my instructions and supporting Valiant as the flagship. This made my next order all the more painful.

“Captain Kreel, I’m going to have to ask you to make a sacrifice.”

“Speak and it will be done.”

“I need you to evacuate Ox and put her on remote control.”

“I do not believe that’s possible. Our ships are configured specifically to prevent such a possibility in case of factionalism within a fleet.”

“Damn. Can Ox’s computers navigate a preset route?”

“Before the battles she could have, but currently Ox is being run manually due to extensive damage.”

I took a deep breath, seeing only one way out of the dilemma. “Then I need a volunteer to stay aboard and pilot Ox. By my calculations, we need one more ship to sacrifice to the Ancient’s machines. The only consolation I can give you is that the pilot may not die. Once Ox is on course for the ring and under minimum power, he can abandon ship in a suit. If we are fortunate, he may stay on his trajectory and transit the ring behind us, where we’ll pick him up. Or, he might be collected as a specimen. I have no promises to give you, but sometime in the future we might be able to return to the golden planet and rescue all of our fellow biotics. Also, Ox’s loss may enable one Nano commander to survive.”

“Justifications are unneeded, Commodore. Our lives are yours. You honor us with the opportunity to give our all in your service.”

Not for the first time I had to remind myself I deserved such loyalty because of the tremendous efforts we’d made and the losses we’d taken saving at least a billion Raptors from the Lithos. Still, as that memory faded into the past, I felt more and more guilty consigning people under my command to grim fates.

“Thank you, Captain,” I said. “We will also honor your sacrifices in our memorials. Please have the pilot take position to the rear of the two Nano ships.”

“It shall be done. Kreel out.”

I set Ox to be snatched third-to-last because I very much wanted to keep at least one Nano ship for the future. Two would be even better. Each contained a small working factory, which meant that as long as one survived, we might rebuild our Nano auxiliaries via replication. In this case, Ox was the less valuable vessel.

I cursed Marvin then for running out on me. He might have been able to repair Ox’s autopilot or gotten an extra shuttle working, but he didn’t respond to my ansible hails. That might mean the quantum radio had a range limit and the system on the other side of the ring was too far away, or it might mean he just wasn’t talking again, the bastard. Our obvious need for him and his abilities just annoyed me even more.

Over the next several hours we watched as our trailing bear-bait disappeared every thirty-two minutes like clockwork. Bradley and Hansen rejoined me on the bridge as we approached the ring. We were pulling well ahead of the ships behind us. I had no idea how large an area of effect the snatch teleporter had, and I didn’t want to find out the hard way.

After the second pinnace had disappeared, I broke the silence. “Valiant, notify the Raptor on Ox to abandon ship. Pass the word for the Nano command personnel to be ready to do the same. Also tell our crew to shut down mass-dumping operations and prepare for ring transit. It looks like we’ll make it out of this system after all.”

“Transmissions sent,” Valiant replied.

Ox’s pilot leaped obliquely off the ship in order to clear the ship’s engine exhaust, and then slowly drifted backward as the Raptor vessel continued her gentle acceleration. As all other ships were also pushing forward toward the ring and there were no extra shuttles, I had to hope he would sail through the ring and could be picked up on the other side.

Thirty-two minutes later, Ox vanished. I tossed a salute toward the holotank in honor of the ship that had helped save us from the Macro assault and which had now given her all to save us again. She was just one more in a long line of sacrifices we’d left behind us on this journey through unknown space. I swore quietly that whoever had tossed us out of the Thor system and into this nightmare would pay—if they still lived.

Stalker is about to transit the ring,” Hansen reminded me from where he lounged behind the controls. He manned the helm, but there’d been no piloting to do for quite some time as we were flying straight for the ring.

I spoke briefly with Kreel one more time, and then watched as the battered Raptor battleship vanished from the system. Ahead of us the darkness of the ring loomed, and it was only because of Marvin’s information that I had any confidence whatsoever in our destination. I sincerely hoped he hadn’t edited out anything really important such as the propensity of the inhabitants to eat visitors.

That stray thought triggered a question for Marvin, which I filed away for later.

“Activate the main shield,” I said to Hansen. “Make sure everyone is in suits and ready for anything.” I followed my own advice and got in my battlesuit. I then returned to the bridge.

We passed through the ring before I could see the last two Nano ships’ fates because they trailed Valiant by healthy margins. Just before we crossed into the new system, I gave Valiant’s brainbox a series of instructions in case anything went wrong.

As soon as we arrived, I turned to Hansen. “Reverse and decelerate, but stay on this trajectory if you can. I want to be ready to pick up those drifting Raptors.”

Hansen flipped the ship and began a gentle, steady deceleration while I eagerly watched the holotank. Data began streaming in and populating it, filling in the sketchy information Marvin had provided.

It appeared the ring we’d arrived through was near the stellar system boundary almost fifty AU out in a Pluto-distance orbit. At this range the central star-triple, despite their combined output, was distant, cold and relatively dim. The brown dwarf resembled a small bright moon.

Our ring orbited a frozen, moonless planet the size of Venus. It was a ball of ice coated with frozen volatiles. The surface was riddled with cracks and cryovolcanoes, which wasn’t surprising with so many suns tugging at it. Personally, I couldn’t have asked for a better position. We were well away from the system’s inhabitants. We were in no shape to either fight or run, and we desperately needed time to repair and refit.

Stalker remained ahead of us and decelerated on the same trajectory apparently with a similar idea about recovering the Raptors. As I saw no alien ships anywhere nearby or any other reaction from the inhabitants of the system, I decided not to worry too much about where we were headed or what our formation was. We should have hours, or more probably days, before we were treated to any conceivable encounter.

“Where’s Greyhound?” I asked Valiant.

“Searching. No transponder signal found.”

“Patch me though the ansible and hail Marvin.”

“Captain Marvin here,” he answered immediately. “Welcome to the Marvin system.”

“This isn’t the Marvin system, Marvin.”

“I was given to understand that the discoverer of a system got to name it.”

“That’s an unofficial convention. Naming it ‘Marvin’ would be horribly confusing, and besides, the officer in command of the exploratory mission gets the final say. I’d be happy to entertain any more sensible suggestions.”

“I thought you might object, therefore I have a list of alternatives.”

“How many alternatives?”

“One million, nine hundred seventy—”

I rolled my eyes. “Just give me to top ten, all right?”

“Transmitting.” A list of ten names appeared on one of the auxiliary screens.

“Hmm. I like number three: Trinity, for the three central stars and the three civilizations you identified. You happy with that?”

“I am satisfied with the name, Captain Riggs. I wish it to be clear in the footnotes of your log which officer and ship officially first reached Trinity.”

“All right, fine,” I said. “Have you found any rings?”

“Yes.”

Silence. “Well?”

“That term is vague in your current usage. Am I to assume you meant to form some kind of an interrogative?”

“Marvin, why are you dodging? Aren’t you happy with your captaincy and having your own ship as well as having named this fine star system? You’ve been a valuable member of my fleet and crew.”

“I apologize if I seem distracted,” Marvin said a moment later. “Greyhound is annoying. I’m constantly forced to convince the brainbox you installed to follow the particulars of my instructions.”

That puzzled me. “Why? It should recognize you as command personnel.”

“It remembers being your suit. It likes you better.”

That made me roar with laughter and the rest of the bridge crew did the same. “Now you’re a real captain, Marvin, with a less-than-cooperative subordinate. Deal with it, and not by subsuming or turning it off. That brain is Star Force property and I want it to run your ship.”

“Understood. Marvin out—”

“Hold on, not so fast,” I said quickly. I realized then that he’d distracted me by talking about his distraction. Was that all bullshit? If it was, he was getting better at it. The very idea was alarming. “Marvin, do not close this channel until I do it first. I need to know of any rings you’ve found. Also, before you sign off, I want you back here. We have a ton of repairs to do and I need your help.”

“Approximately four hundred seventy-three tons of repairs are required according to my current estimates.”

“Whatever. Just get back here.”

Marvin didn’t acknowledge, but shortly thereafter Greyhound showed up on the holotank on a lazy, curving course that would see him arriving in twelve hours or so. I didn’t push him further. We had plenty to do.

At length I got him to send a sensor data update from Greyhound. In the holotank, three ring icons appeared. One orbited the brown dwarf, and the two others sat near the homeworlds of the other technological races. It appeared that each culture had possession of a ring. I wondered if all of them, or any of them for that matter, were actually native to the system or if they had arrived here and colonized.

Finally satisfied with his cooperation, I closed the channel.

Both Nano ships came through our ring sometime later followed by the two drifting Raptors in their suits. I left them for Stalker to recover, figuring they would be happier with their own people. I ordered Valiant to brake harder to kill our velocity, which was sending us deeper into the Trinity system.

“Should we land on the planet closest to the ring?” I asked my officers on the bridge. “Let’s call it Trinity 22—or should we look for some asteroids to mine?”

Bradley, Adrienne and Hansen considered my question.

“I don’t like the look of those cryovolcanoes,” Hansen said. “The surface is very unstable except near the poles, and it’s mostly volatiles anyway. Any metals or silicates will have sunk beneath the frozen methane and stuff. Hard to get to.”

“I agree,” Adrienne said. “We do need some water ice from somewhere, but metals to replace what we dumped are much more important.”

“Fine. Someone find some asteroids.” I turned to the holotank to look. Valiant obligingly highlighted a belt between the main stars and the brown dwarf system, which was home of one of the technological civilizations.

“Hansen, set us an easy course for a clump of stuff with a good mix, but well away from any of these spacegoing races. I want to delay direct contact as long as possible.”

“Sure, Skipper.”

Once my tiny fleet was on its way, I felt relaxed enough to order rotating rest periods. Everyone had been run ragged lately, and I had a feeling once we started interacting with the people of this system we’d need to be at our sharpest. I got some sleep myself, though it only barely overlapped with Adrienne’s time off.

During that brief window, Adrienne reassured me in an age-old way that I was still her one and only, which boosted my morale to no end. Afterward, still lying in my arms, she brought up Cornelius. “That woman did an amazing job. The evidence checked out, so as far as I’m concerned you’re off the hook.”

“That’s fantastic!” I said, kissing her. She responded nicely.

But she pulled away after a minute or so of what she might term “snogging” and looked at me with a frown. “How many times do you think Cornelius had to watch that tape in order to analyze it?”

“Uh…I don’t know. Once or twice, I’m sure.”

“More like thirty or forty complete viewings. I can just imagine her smirking and drinking while she—”

Shaking my head, I laughed. “Now you’re jealous of Cornelius? I have to cry foul.”

“It just seems odd that she would spend so much time looking at that tape and working on it.”

“She wanted to help us out. Think about it. If she had underhanded plans she wouldn’t have given it to us to get us back together.”

Her face brightened. “I guess you’re right.”

I kissed her once more, sensing an opportunity. Things proceeded in a natural fashion, with me going for broke by the end. Afterward, I left her sleeping on the bunk.

Refreshed and back on the bridge, I noticed Greyhound approaching. I opened a channel. “Marvin, come over here as soon as you can for a private captains’ conference.” I figured that would pique his curiosity and get him moving faster.

I met him alone in the assault airlock. It appeared he had returned to normal size. “Marvin, you’ve grown up again.”

“I slowly regained my usual dimensions as I moved farther from the golden planet.”

“No wonder you were eager to get some distance.”

“Is this the captain’s conference you spoke of?”

“Just pleasantries, Marvin. Remember when I said you were my special investigator?”

“I remember. However, considering all that’s happened I’ve been given very little opportunity to pursue—”

“I know that, Marvin. No problem. But now that you’re back, I need you to secretly perform cyber-forensics on Valiant’s AI systems in the guise of repairing the ship. No one but you and I will know about this, and you’re not to install backdoors or any other software without my express authorization, do you understand?”

“Are you certain? Remember, you wished you had some backdoors when Sokolov usurped your authority.”

“I’m sure. No backdoors.” I thought it extremely unlikely some new megalomaniac would slip past me.

“I understand, Captain Riggs.” Marvin’s tentacles and cameras increased their usual level of animation. “When can I get started?”

“Right away.”

“I will need the core command codes.” His body parts ceased their motion, which for Marvin equated to “holding his breath” in anticipation of an important decision.

“No problem,” I said, and passed him the codes on a data stick. “Wipe that when you’ve—”

“Transferred and wiped,” he said, handing it back to me after briefly sticking it into a socket on his torso. “Was there any specific information you are trying to ascertain, or shall I merely ensure that Valiant’s systems are in order?”

“I want to know who tampered with my suit telemetry, who created the fake sex vid, and how those things were done. After that, compile a complete report on any recorded activity that violates Star Force regs or any of my orders—including anything you did, Marvin.”

“I believe I’ll have to stand on my rights against self-incrimination under Earth’s constitution.”

I smiled a catlike grin. “I checked my law books, Marvin, so listen carefully. I’m giving you complete immunity for all acts from when you came aboard Valiant until this moment, so you can’t be prosecuted for anything you did during that time. That means it’s impossible to incriminate yourself, which in turn means you’re not legally authorized to withhold any of your findings. Do you understand?”

“I understand, Captain Riggs,” he said, seemingly disappointed.

“Then get to work, Special Investigator Ensign Marvin.”

“In light of the immunity you have just granted me, I would like to make an immediate confession, just in case the immunity is later withdrawn.”

My eyebrows went up. “What confession?”

“I have been collecting samples of all crew DNA.”

“Really? For what purpose?” I began a slow pacing as my worry factor increased.

“Research. Also, in case you all were to tragically die, I might be able to clone you and recreate a colony of humans.”

I laughed uneasily. “With you as the Great God Marvin?”

“That seems a somewhat overblown title. Perhaps the word ‘Great’ is unnecessary.”

I thought about what he’d just admitted. “Are all the humans aboard today…human?”

“Yes, Captain Riggs, though I did discover some interesting facts.”

“Interesting? In what way?”

“For example, Miss Turnbull shows that one of her great-grandmothers must have been of the Finnish Saami people, which is where her blonde hair and peculiarly even skin tone come from. In the case of Hansen—”

“Thanks, Marvin, but is there anything that I would actually care about?”

“You don’t care about the DNA of your sexual partner? I can model what your offspring might look like.”

“I don’t care about that unless we decide to procreate. To have children, I mean.” The longer I talked to Marvin, the more I found myself speaking like him. “Anything with any bearing on ship operations, or who tried to kill me?”

“Sakura has undergone Microbe treatments.”

I turned to face him, stopping my pacing. “Really? That’s interesting. Who gets Microbed these days?”

“Other than the child of Kyle Riggs?”

“Yes, other than me.”

“Certain specialized workers and engineers who must operate within high-pressure atmospheres or deep under oceans. Also, some who must spend long periods of time visiting alien worlds.”

“And has Sakura had assignments like that?”

“I do not have access to her personnel file.”

I chewed my lip in thought. “Thanks, Marvin. I’ll check myself. Any more revelations?”

“Do you remember when I acted as translator for communications between Captain Turnbull and the Pandas?”

“Of course.”

“I might have…mistranslated a few key terms. Purely out of necessity, of course.”

I placed my hands on my armored hips. “Really?”

“Yes. I may have distorted the part where the Pandas made clear they would eat the diplomatic delegation.”




-36-

I gasped and spun around within the large assault airlock, waving my hands over my head in disbelief. Marvin’s implication that he’d set our officers up to be killed flabbergasted me.

“Holy shit! You mean you knew the Pandas would eat Captain Turnbull and the officers?”

“A high probability existed.”

If I hadn’t had a battlesuit on I’d have been yanking on my hair—or maybe Marvin’s tentacles. “What in the hell possessed you not to point that out at the time, Marvin?”

“I calculated that with Captain Turnbull in charge, Star Force personnel had a significantly reduced probability of survival to return to Earth—including myself.”

The enormity of what he was saying struck me like a fist in the gut. “Let me get this straight, you little weasel. You let Captain Turnbull and the others get eaten in order to improve our chances to get home?”

“The term ‘weasel’ is not particularly apt in this instance.”

“Oh yes it is. Explain yourself.”

“Captain Turnbull was a liability. Replacing him with you as captain yielded the highest probability of survival. However, to do so, the more senior officers also had to be displaced.”

Displaced!” I shrieked. “Displaced? They were murdered and eaten, Marvin. Eaten!

“Would you rather they were merely murdered?”

“I’d rather none of them had died.”

“I apologize, but Star Force regulations regarding the chain of command are very clear. I had no other option. For you to be in charge, the others had to be removed. Their behavioral patterns were anything but confidence-inducing. I doubt we would have made it out of the first system alive if Turnbull and his team had been in charge.”

Walking over to a bulkhead, I pounded on it with my armored fist, leaving significant dents. I wasn’t sure what to do. I’d given him immunity—but I’d done so without expecting him to admit anything so horrid. As well, in the back of my mind, I wondered if he had been right. Playing back the situation as I remembered it, Turnbull almost certainly would have made errors in judgment, many of which could be fatal to the entire crew. But, even so, how could that justify Marvin’s action? Letting people be murdered because they would probably fail in the future? That wasn’t a defense.

“Couldn’t you have just…” I began. “I don’t know…manufactured some evidence against Captain Turnbull and the rest? Maybe Valiant could have been convinced to remove them for cause.”

Even as I said it I realized that wouldn’t have worked. Valiant’s brainbox wasn’t the only one that needed fooling. There was the whole crew. A hearing would have been necessary, maybe a court martial…no, horrible as it was, I could see Marvin’s rationale.

From a robot’s point of view it all made sense. All you had to do was place no special value on human life.

I took several deep breaths and pushed through my indignation. “All right, Marvin. I did give you immunity, so I can’t hold that against you. Is there anything else you would like to confess?”

“Not at this time, Captain Riggs.”

“Excellent, that’s so encouraging. Well, when you do feel the urge to come clean, just put it in your secret report, all right? I don’t think my heart can stand any more shocks today.”

“Your heart is in superb condition according to your last med-bay record.”

“Good to hear, Marvin, since you don’t seem to have anything resembling one.”

“Of course I don’t—”

“Shut up, Marvin. Start investigating, would you? Just get out of my sight.”

Marvin hurried off, obviously eager to get started on his mission.

I wandered slowly back to the armory to stow my suit, still trying to think through Marvin’s revelation. No wonder my Dad had called him a devil and an angel all wrapped into one. As I recalled, he’d been moved to rip parts off Marvin more than once. Those stories had seemed pretty out-of-control to a kid—but now I understood all too well.

If he’d mistranslated the Pandas’ words, what other communications might he have warped or spun? The Lithos’ words? Had we fought a war with the silico-nanite communal beings over a Marvin-induced misunderstanding? Were we all pawns in Marvin’s game?

No, the Lithos had been inimical from the first. They were Frankenstein monsters that the Raptors had created and then lost control of. Their creations had turned on them as the Macros had turned on the Blues. That wasn’t Marvin’s doing. I had to keep from becoming paranoid and seeing the hand of the robot everywhere.

Back on the bridge, I saw we were approaching a cluster of asteroids. Within hours, we’d matched velocities with a ripe one and our marines flew out on repellers to begin carving it up with their lasers and cutters. Once I was confident mining operations were proceeding nicely, I hunted down Marvin again. I located him in Engineering.

“Found anything?” I asked once I was certain we could not be overheard.

“Many things, but nothing of significance to your major lines of inquiry.”

Sakura came in then, making a beeline for me. “Captain, I must protest. Marvin is accessing critical systems without consulting me.”

I waved airily. “I’ve given Marvin complete freedom to repair everything as fast as he can. I’m sorry if that steps on your toes, Chief, and it’s no reflection on you or your people, I assure you. Now please, could you coordinate with Miss Turnbull as she runs the factory? Materials are already coming in.”

Sakura looked as angry as I’d ever seen her but controlled herself with an effort and turned on her heel, heading for the factory room. I couldn’t do anything about her mood if I wanted Marvin to find out what I needed to know.

We stayed in place for two days, long enough for the most critical repairs to be completed. Marvin performed wonders as one would expect from a multi-tentacled cybernetic being that never got tired. I checked in with him every few hours, but he always put me off with some excuse. I hoped I wouldn’t regret assigning him to investigate Valiant’s brainbox and systems—more than I already did after hearing his confession.

It appeared none of the three races in the system had seen us or maybe none of them cared. They stayed well away from our ring and though we spotted plenty of military power, all of it seemed to be oriented toward each other. None had even directed a transmission in our direction, which seemed incredible. I wasn’t going to spurn such the gift this breather represented, and I kept all our communications on tight beams, not wanting to attract attention.

It proved surprisingly difficult to collect information about the system’s inhabitants. It was as if they were deliberately trying to hide their electromagnetic emissions. No broadcast television or radio could be located, only indecipherable spurts of beamcast radio and a lot of encrypted lasers. In fact, I had to divert Marvin from his other duties in order to decrypt enough to give us basic information about them. He promised to provide a summary in a day or two.

I also assigned Valiant the task of trying to find the Macro seed-ship, but it had disappeared into the system among the many asteroids, comets, moons and ships that swarmed the inner realms. If it had shut down all thrust and power emanations, it would be almost undetectable.

On the third day I assembled the crew for a combination memorial and wake, inviting the Raptor officers as well. We held it in the factory room, the largest space on the ship. After explaining our customs to the birds, we eulogized all of our dead and those of the Raptors as well, liberally heaping on the praise. Everyone was honored for their sacrifice and courage as best we were able.

I gave Fuller’s eulogy myself, as well as making the closing speech. Then I kicked off the wake, opening up the bar to all. The Raptors sampled our drinks politely, after making sure none were poisonous to their biology. I even let out the crewman who had shot me back in the maze after determining he’d done so from fear and stress rather than a clear desire to assassinate me.

The next day I called for another assembly. This one was without much warning and for Valiant’s people only. I didn’t want to give the crew time to wonder what it was about or have to pull out their dress uniforms again. Once they all stood in loose ranks around the factory, I climbed up onto a crate I’d dragged from the hold for this purpose and spoke.

“I’ve called everyone here to do something that’s overdue. We’ve all been busy, working our asses off after coming very close to achieving what my father and the whole of Star Force was unable to do—wiping out the Macros. There’s still one more of their seeds out there, and we’ll keep looking, but that’s not why you’re here today. Would the following people come up to the front: Hansen, Bradley, Sakura, Cornelius, Kwon, Turnbull, Achmed…and Marvin.”

The seven humans filtered up to stand in front of me. Marvin squirmed off to one side. Everyone backed away from him, as he was back to his normal ground-car dimensions again and decorated with heavy power tools.

I jumped down with a handful of insignia in my hand. “When we get home, I’m sure everyone will have several medals awarded to them. As captain, I don’t have the authority to approve those, but I can promote people under my command to acting ranks that will probably be confirmed without difficulty considering the extraordinary hardships everyone here has faced. This ship’s been too long without commissioned officers, and right now I’m going to fix that. Chief Hansen, front and center.”

When Hansen stepped up to me and saluted formally, I placed insignia on his epaulettes, watching as they melded to the smart cloth. Then I plucked his warrant officer’s bars from his collar. “I hereby promote you, Nils Hansen, to the rank of Lieutenant Commander and appoint you formally to the position of executive officer and second-in-command.”

The crowd broke out into spontaneous applause along with some hoots and whistles with me clapping the loudest. The big bald man grinned and saluted once more and then turned to wave the crew’s noises down. I leaned over to whisper in his ear, “You’re the man I want backing me up, but I still need you to train your best pilot to be as good as you are.”

Hansen nodded to me and moved off to retake his position next to Sakura, who briefly reached out to squeeze his hand before resuming her usual stoic stance.

“Now the rest of you pirates—except for you, Corpsman Achmed—line up facing the crew,” I said, waving the others into a row. “I hereby promote you each to Lieutenant, with dates of rank and priority in the chain of command in the order I called you and you’re standing. If anyone has a problem with where they fall, tough luck. I discussed this with my XO and we both agreed.”

Hansen gave me a nod of support, and the crew applauded again. Then I turned to the medic.

“Achmed, we need a medical officer, and you’re the best qualified military person. I hereby promote you to the rank of Ensign. I expect you to work closely with Doctor Kalu and Valiant’s database to put together a course to make you an M.D. as soon as possible. Think you can handle it?”

“With Doctor Kalu as my teacher?” Achmed said with an uncertain look.

“She does have a doctorate in biology. I’m sure you’ll enjoy the hands-on laboratory work.”

“Oh, yes, sir. I’ll work hard, sir.”

“Very hard, no doubt.” Hopefully, Kalu would take him into her bed as an up-and-coming officer and she would be out of my hair. If not, I still expected her to do a good job teaching the kid if only to work herself out of the hole she was in with me and the crew. She may have done nothing criminal, but sucking up to Sokolov had ruined her reputation.

Then I turned to Marvin.

“Marvin, front and center.” He slithered to the fore, his cameras pointed this way and that to watch the people looking on.

“Am I to be promoted too?” he asked.

“In a manner of speaking, Marvin. I’m publicly confirming the promotion to Ensign that I gave you before.”

Marvin’s tentacles drooped slightly and stirred like snakes in a windstorm. “I had hoped to retain parity with the rest of the officers.”

“You’re the only acting captain among my officers, Marvin, so that should compensate.” The robot brightened once I reminded him of that and even more when I led a round of applause for him.

Once Marvin moved to the side, I hopped up on the box again. “Noncom promotions for the rest of you will be posted through the regular information system, and your new officers will pin on your ranks. I see a couple of new warrant officers and a few new chiefs among you already.”

This time the cheers were deafening, and I had to wave and yell several times before I could be heard. “Everyone back to work!” I bellowed with a smile. “Valiant isn’t shipshape yet, and nobody’s getting any more new stripes or bars until she is!”

The crowd dispersed quickly after that. There was a quick round of handshakes and congratulations. Adrienne slipped her arm through mine and led me back toward our cabin. “Now that I’m a lieutenant, are we still allowed to cohabit? According to Star Force regs, I mean.” She made a stern face at me, but couldn’t hold it for long before giggling.

“If any regs have been broken, Lieutenant Turnbull, what do you think the punishment should be?”

“Hmm. I’m not certain, Captain Riggs. Perhaps a sound spanking?”

“For you or me?”

“We can take turns,” she said, slapping my ass as our door shut behind us. “Me first!”

* * *

After mind-blowing lovemaking and a well-earned nap, I sat down at the suite’s desk and called up the briefing on the system, browsing through the thick files of facts, figures and graphics Marvin had sent.

The inhabitants of the complex brown dwarf system turned out to be of a sort I’d seen before. They were a monstrous race, all curving fangs and spines with exposed teeth. They were nightmarish in appearance, and I couldn’t imagine they were anything other than carnivorous and cruel. Sometimes appearances were deceptive—but I didn’t think this was one of those times.

The most interesting thing about these monsters was the fact I recognized them. Two of them had been in Sokolov’s lair back inside the cubes. They’d been trapped there and preserved frozen inside their timeless capsules. At least I knew now where they’d come from.

Their ships were familiar to us as well. Some of the captured vessels inside the golden planet had matched these local vessels. No wonder they’d started shooting the moment they’d come to life trapped inside that hollow space.

The next race lived upon a cold methane world circling the triple-star group. They were gas-giant dwellers. These creatures were clearly different from the Blues despite having been spawned by a similar environment. Rather than diaphanous aerogels, they seemed to resemble floating whales that moved in schools or herds in their natural state. They formed cities made out of materials that were lightweight enough to float in their soupy atmosphere, yet strong enough to weather their vicious storms. They had manipulating tentacles sprouting from their bodies and wore harnesses that allowed them to carry technological items and tools. Their spacecraft were large, for obvious reasons, although not so large as the Lithos had built.

On the third planet, an Earthlike world, lived the last technological race and the one that caught everyone’s attention—except perhaps Marvin’s. To him, one biotic was much the same as another, all equally interesting, unless of course they were weak and helpless enough to become his test subjects. Then they became fascinating.

This race had ships with half-familiar lines. I couldn’t identify them for certain, but there was something recognizable about them. I just couldn’t put my finger on it. The same held true for their oceangoing ships, their aircraft, their cities and the buildings within them. I saw roads and farm fields, lighthouses and castles, amusement parks and skyscrapers, balloons and sleek fighter craft.

Skimming downward through the files, I pulled up a representative picture of the creatures. When it opened on my display, my mouth dropped open in shock. One male and one female were shown facing the imager, and then in profile.

Bipedal. Two legs, two arms. Feet and hands. Two ears, two eyes, one nose and one mouth, one chin. Rich, dark hair, both of them, along with an olive skin tone that made me think of classical Greeks, Persians or Croatians.

In fact, they reminded me very much of Natalia and the Adonis in the Ancient specimen boxes.

They were undoubtedly, unquestionably, indisputably human.

The End


From the Authors: Thanks Reader! We hope you enjoyed EXILE. If you’d like to see more stories in this universe, please put up some stars and a review to support the series. Tell us what you’d like to see next!

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STAR FORCE SERIES:

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Swarm

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Army of One (Novella published in Planetary Assault)

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Comes the Destroyer

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