WIP excerpt: A Queen in Hiding, chapter 1.1

Take our children to the stars.

Reva’s awareness expanded through the dark, cold void of space. She heard, as if from a great distance, a chorus of whispering voices. All around her was darkness, but on the edges of her vision, she saw brief pulses of white-blue light. When she turned to look, however, the light faded into the darkness the way that stars fade when looked at straight-on.

The pulses were combining and recombining, forming a vast network. It reminded her of neurons in the human brain. In the silence, signals spread through this network with remarkable speed.

She closed her eyes and reached out to them, offering herself to the collective mind.

Her awareness spread wide enough to encompass an entire planet, and as it did, the ancient alien consciousness began to awaken. She heard the gurgling of the underground streams, the drip drip drip of the subterranean caves, the bubbling of countless hot springs that had never seen the sun. A light began to rise over the horizon, sending the darkness to flight.

But it was not the light of the sun that dispelled the darkness. It was fire, falling from the sky in great sheets like a deadly aurora.

Everywhere it touched, all was extinguished. Her skin began to prickles as it swept over the entire world. She tried to run, but her legs wouldn’t respond. She was unable to do anything but watch. The worldfire bathed the entire planet, sending frantic signals like screams through the collective before it was broken and destroyed.

Take our children to the stars.

Reva’s eyes flew open. She was lying on her bed in the captain’s quarters of the Temujin, the tangled sheets drenched with her own sweat. Her heart raced so fast that sitting up made her dizzy. Several minutes past before she was able to sit up.

It had been nearly two weeks since their flight from Star’s End. Even so, the captain’s quarters still felt eerie to her. Gulchina had furnished it lavishly, but her taste in furnishings made the place feel old and austere. The central piece was a low-set table made from cherry wood and inlaid with a pattern of burgundy, teal, and mother-of-pearl. It lacked any sort of holoscreen or other smart device, which gave it the feel of an antique. In much the same way, the finely woven rug on which it sat was like something out of the ancient past, like an heirloom taken from Earth itself. Of course, that was impossible. Yet still, Reva couldn’t shake the feeling that something haunted the place, some malevolent spirit from a long lost age.

Isaac checked the scanners for the dozenth time since their last jump. The bridge of the Temujin was deathly quiet. Only the hum of the ventilation system broke the silence. Outside the forward window, which spanned a full semi-circle around the bridge, the endless sea of stars shone softly. All of the chairs were empty, and all of the screens were dark except his at astrogation. And yet, as Reva awoke, he couldn’t help but feel that whatever haunted the captain’s quarters haunted the whole ship.

I had the dream again, Reva thought to him.

I know, he thought back to her. I saw it too.

She sighed and pulled off her sweat-drenched sheets. The woolen rug felt pleasantly soft against her bare feet, and she took a few moments to stretch out the kinks in her neck and shoulders. The light breeze from the ventilation shafts immediately cooled her bare skin. She began to shiver.

You’ll feel better after a shower, Isaac suggested.

He was right. The hot, pressurized water washed the sweatiness away, replacing it with a refreshing fragrance. She stood in the center of the unit with her arms above her head while jets of soapy water sprayed her from every side and angle. For the first time since waking, her muscles relaxed.

Tomas closed his eyes and enjoyed the sensation of the water rushing over Reva’s body. He’d been unable to sleep through her nightmare, but now, he could finally get some rest.

Reva waited until he fell into a peaceful sleep. A cold rinse reinvigorated her, and the hot air blasting through the ceiling vents left her comfortably dry. She stepped out and wrapped a towel around her hair, then made for the bridge without bothering to put on anything else.

Isaac tensed a little, but otherwise made no objection. Nudity always made him uncomfortable. That was just something he was going to have to live with, though, because Reva abhorred the unnatural custom of wearing clothes. To his credit, he’d come a long way toward making peace with it. And even in his own traditions, it wasn’t entirely unheard of. After all, hadn’t Adam and Eve been naked and unashamed?

That was different, he thought to her. Adam and Eve were innocent.

She kept her thoughts to herself, though of course he was still welcome to evesdrop. Unlike Isaac and Tomas, she kept every part of her mind and memory open to scrutiny. As the mother-queen, that was her duty. It also gave her power, though after the destruction of Star’s End, that power was considerably lessened.

She palmed the door open and stepped onto the bridge. Isaac stared at his screen as she took her seat in the command chair at the center.

“What’s our status?” she asked aloud.

“Everything is nominal,” Isaac muttered. “No sign of Gulchina.”

She glanced at the main holoscreen display, and reading her desires, he brought up a fifty light-year starmap of the local vicinity. Star’s End was still only a short distance away, but the vast bulk of the Good Hope Nebula spilled off beyond the field of view. On the other side, more than a hundred parsecs away, was everything they knew. Friends, family, allies, enemies—they were all more than a year’s journey away.

All except for Gulchina, of course. No doubt she was already hunting them.

“We could still turn and go around the other side of the Good Hope Nebula,” Isaac suggested.

“No,” said Reva. “That’s a part of the Outworlds we don’t know. Our best route is to head for the New Pleiades.”

“But Gulchina’s men may already be between us and the New Pleiades.”

And if they’re using jump beacons to try and intercept us…

I expect they already are, Reva thought silently.

Every jump they made sent a ripple through space, an electro-magnetic signal that announced where they were. Since these ripples could only spread outward at the speed of light, they were safe for at least a few months in deep interstellar space. Sooner or later, though, one of Gulchina’s scouts would pick up a signal, and use it to follow them. They had to decide soon which way to go.

Isaac swallowed. “There is another option.”

“I know,” said Reva. “Tomas has pieced together only a fraction of the starlane, though. I may still be able to puzzle out the rest, but we have no way of knowing that it’s safe.”

“Not unless we have a mole.”

She took a deep breath. It’s too dangerous.

But it’s still our best option.

He was right, of course. The starlane was a network of jump beacons known only to Gulchina herself, linking Star’s End to the rest of the Outworlds. If they could piece together a map of it from the memories of the men now frozen in cryo, it would shorten their voyage from years to mere weeks. But there was always the risk that Gulchina was patrolling it. They could ill afford falling into an ambush, what with only the three of them to pilot the ship.

Isaac didn’t want to spend a year of his life in this deep space game of cat and mouse. There was a war raging on the frontiers of the New Pleiades, and his brother Aaron was caught up in it. More than anything else, he yearned to see his brother.

Don’t be afraid, Reva thought to him. You’ll see him again. I swear it.

But Isaac wasn’t so sure.

She sighed, leaning back against the well-worn leather command chair.

“You’re right. We need a mole.”

“Gulchina is more apt to trust a low-level officer than a mid-level one.”

“What makes you say that?”

Can’t you look into my mind and see?

Yes, Reva answered, but there’s a difference between pondering something inwardly and thinking it out loud.

Isaac sighed. “Lower-level officers don’t threaten her. She’s a paranoid psychopath with delusions of grandeur. You remember how she pitted you against Wolf.”

“That was just one of her tests.” And I didn’t fail it.

Yet here we are.

“Jebe’s probably our best choice,” she said, changing the subject. “But I won’t send him out until we have a working map of the starlane.”

“Better get back to work on that, then.”

“All in due time.”

She stared out at the deep space starfield. The purple-blue clouds of the Good Hope Nebula reminded her of her nightmare. The billowing towers of gas and dust were static, of course, but they shone the brightest in the rifts carved by the nearby stars, whose light was reflected in every wisp and filament.

What did you think of my dream? she asked silently.

Isaac closed off his mind to her. She prodded him just enough to get him to relent.

I think it’s creepy as hell.

His answer made her heart sink. She knew he didn’t like the connection they now shared, but she’d hoped that he was coming around to accept it. Apparently not.

“Sorry,” he said aloud.

“I made a promise, Isaac. This is bigger than the both of us now.”

“I know. It’s just…”

He left the thought unsaid.

Reva stood up and walked over to him. He tensed a little, but didn’t look away. She put a hand on his arm.

“I didn’t ask for this either, but that isn’t important anymore. We’re the last hope of an intelligent race that’s all but extinct. They’re in us now, part of us.”

Like a virus.

“They don’t mean us any harm. They’re not even a ‘they’ anymore, if that makes sense. They’re us. We’re them.”

“I know.”

“We have to get back to civilization and spread out so that the collective is distributed. It’s the only way to save what little of them is left.”

“And then what are we going to do?” he asked, his eyes narrowing.

“Assimilate as many people as we can? Force them to join our hive mind?”

Reva shook her head. “No, of course not. We’re not going to force ourselves on anyone.”

“Even if it’s the only way to save ‘them’?”

The forcefulness of his anger took her aback. She blinked and took a deep breath.

“There’s no ‘them’ anymore, Isaac. Just us.”

“Us the collective, or us Reva and Isaac?”

And all the rest of the pirates.

The ones you forced yourself on?

That was one time. We’re not going to do it again.

Until we need to.

She put he hands on his shoulders and looked him squarely in the eye. “I swear to you, Isaac, we’re not going to do that again. As for your other question, us the collective, and us Reva and Isaac.”

He met her gaze without flinching, but his mind was sealed off from her. She sighed and let her hands drop.

What are you thinking, Isaac? Please don’t do this to me.

“We’ve got a good four or five hours before the next jump. You’d better get to work on those cryo chambers.”

A lump rose in her throat. She mentally poked at him, asking again for him to open to her, but received no response.

“All right,” she said, nodding. “You know where to find me.”

When we can both see through each others’ eyes, how can we possibly get away from each other?

Even she had to admit that he had a point.

WIP excerpt: Patriots in Retreat

The bulkheads hummed in the bowels of the Merope-7. Mara palmed open the door to the cryo deck and stepped inside.

Cryotanks stood in their slots around the edges of the room. Windows in the upper sections showed the faces of those who were frozen. Sergeant Pallas, his chin tilted upward, his eyes peacefully closed. He looked as if he were about to ascend into heaven, if there were such a place. Mara had her doubts. The other members of his commando team were similarly frozen, ready to be thawed at her command. While they all looked so peaceful, in truth they probably expected to pick up their guns and fight the moment they awoke.

As she looked at each of their faces, Mara wanted nothing more than to tell them the war was over. She imagined the looks of relief on their faces as she thanked each one of them for their service.

Of course, where they would go next was anyone’s guess. As she thought back to her time on the Aegis, she realized that Sergeant Pallas was more likely to meet the news with disappointment than relief. The others, she hadn’t served with long enough to know their reactions.

You would be disappointed, too, if the war had ended before you’d had your chance to avenge your father.

The thought stabbed her like a knife. She could still see the Imperial officer’s face the moment before she’d blown his brains out. The terror in his eyes, mixed with the sinking realization that he was already dead. She’d expected that moment to feel satisfying. Instead, she’d felt dead inside ever since.

And yet, if she could turn back the clock and end the war, preventing that awful moment from ever happening, she didn’t know that she would.

The door hissed open, and Mathusael stepped inside. “There you are. Been looking all over for you, Captain.”

“Don’t call me that.”

He put a broad hand on her shoulder. “Hey. What’s wrong?”

“When is this war going to be over?” When can I stop sending people to their deaths?

“Last I heard, there’s some intrigue on Gaia Nova that could shape up to be another coup. Who knows what the outcome will be, but the odds at Vulcana are three to one that the war ends within a standard year.”

“Come on. You and I both know that’s bullshit.”

Mathusael grinned. “As a betting man, I prefer to see it as an opportunity. It’s not like our pay is going to get any better.”

“Some would say that it’s enough just to win our liberty.”

“And you?”

She smirked. “I’d put the odds at four to one that we get out of this damn thing alive. What difference does it make when you’re dead?”

“And yet, here you are.”

To that, she didn’t have an answer.

She walked past the commandos to the last cryotank in the corner. The face on the other side of the glass wasn’t peaceful at all, but contorted in terror and pain. Aaron Deltana: drop-ship pilot on the Aegis and former captain of the Merope-7. Now, little more than a brain-fried vegetable. She’d frozen him in cryo in the hopes that they’d find some way to cure him. But now, that hope seemed as far-fetched as a swift and peaceful end to the war.

“There’s only three of us left from Delta Oriana,” she said in their native Deltan. “Four, if you count Isaac. God only knows what’s happened to him. And Aaron might as well be dead, so that leaves just you and me.”

“What are you saying?”

“Three to one, Mathusael. One of us is gonna go, and it sure as hell had better not be you.”

“Hey, Aaron’s not dead yet. Don’t give up on him.”

Mara laughed bitterly. “Well, if Aaron doesn’t count, that means we both go down together. That certainly seems more likely. And with Aaron’s luck, he’ll probably end up drifting in space for another thousand years until someone finally finds and rescues him. The last Deltan. Poetic, don’t you think?”

“Stop.”

“It won’t all be bad, of course. They may even be able to cure him. But when he realizes that all the rest of us are gone—”

“Stop,” Mathusael repeated. He wasn’t laughing. His frown was so deep, his thick black beard hid his mouth. Mara hadn’t realized how much her words had affected him.

“Sorry,” she said. “Ever since the war, I’ve been something of a pessimist.”

“I’ve noticed.”

“In all seriousness, when this war is over, do you think we’ll be able to cure him?”

Mathusael grunted. “It’s a wide universe, Mara. I’m sure there’s someone out there who can help him.”

“How can you be sure?”

He smiled. “How can you be so sure that there isn’t?”

Mara rolled her eyes at his non-answer. Then she realized it wasn’t a non-answer at all. He really meant it.

“I’m not sure of anything anymore,” she admitted. “All I know is that people are depending on me, even though my job is to send them to their deaths.”

“That’s not quite true. High Command makes the life and death decisions. Your job is to clean up their mistakes.”

“What’s the difference?”

His smile turned into a look of puzzlement. “There’s a huge difference. Your job is to help us live and find on, not to send us to our deaths.”

“Not when High Command says otherwise.”

“You should lose the pessimism, Mara. It isn’t doing you any favors.”

“On the contrary,” she retorted. “It’s an excellent defense mechanism. Pessimists are always right in the long run.”

“But they always get their timing wrong.”

She shrugged. “Why does that matter?”

“Because if all you do is wait for your world to end, you’ll never be able to change it.”

Mara stared at Aaron’s contorted face and pondered Mathusael’s words. He was right, of course. But then again, he didn’t face the same burden of command.

“We’ll be at Colkhia soon,” he said, breaking the silence.

She nodded. “That’ll make the crew happy. A short leave will be good for them.”

“Yes, it will.”

“How about your wife and children? Do you think you’ll hear from them?”

He chuckled. “If I do, it’ll probably be that she wants money or something. That, or some dashing young star wanderer has run off with her.”

“Who’s the pessimist now?”

“Hey, so long as she’s happy.”

The shipwide intercom switched on, with Apollo’s voice carrying through. “Attention all hands, we are making the final jump to Colkhia in five minutes. Captain and first officer to bridge.”

“Duty calls,” said Mathusael.

Mara nodded, making one last glance around the room. The men frozen in cryo were depending on her, as well as everyone else on the ship. Her decisions would determine whether they would live or die. If it was just herself, that wouldn’t be so hard. But to have the lives of so many others at stake—that was enough for her to envy the men under ice.

WIP excerpt: The Sword Keeper

At first, Tamuna felt as if she were falling through an abyss. Darkness surrounded her, so thick she could almost taste it.

Before she could panic, her fall slowed until she was floating in midair. Her feet touched water, and a deep sense of peace swept over her, the peace that one only feels in a dream. As the darkness cleared, she found herself swimming in a clear pool fed by a mountain spring. Rugged cliffs rose behind her, while a small stone chapel stood a short distance from the shore. An eagle cried out in the cloudless blue sky, momentarily breaking the solitary silence of the wilderness.

Where am I? Tamuna wondered. How did I come to this place? If this was a dream, it felt more real than any she’d ever experienced. The water was cool and refreshing, with a bed of fine gravel under her feet. There was no danger of drowning, though the pool was deep enough that she had to swim instead of walk. She was naked, of course, but that didn’t bother her. It would be silly to swim in her clothes.

She reached the edge of the pool and climbed onto a large rock. Snow-capped peaks lined the horizon in every direction, while virgin forests stretched out in the valleys below. The view was so stunning, it completely took her breath away. She’d heard of places like this, where the cattle herders took their cows in the summer and the hunters roamed in the winter. However, when she scanned the mountains on the horizon, none of them were familiar.

“Hello?” she shouted. “Can anyone hear me?” The echo came back a few seconds later, but only the wind answered her.

She shivered and rubbed her arms with her hands. The breeze was uncomfortably cool on her bare, wet skin, but fortunately the sun was rapidly drying her. She sat down on the rock and began to wring out her hair.

She noticed a small footpath nearby, leading to the stone chapel. A set of woolen clothes lay neatly folded at the head of the path, clearly meant for her. As soon as she was dry enough to dress herself, she climbed down from the rock and slipped the clothes over her body. They were thick and warm, perfectly suited for the mountains. The embroidery was red and gold on black in the style of the Khevsurans, with a recurring cross and circle motif. She took a few moments to admire her reflection in the lake before setting off down the path.

Like most mountain churches, this one was built in the shape of a cross, with tall, narrow windows and intricate patterns carved onto the exterior. The stones were crumbling, and a long crack ran down the wall through the highest window. From the outside, it seemed to be empty.

I’m alone, she thought silently. And yet somehow, she knew that wasn’t true. Ever since the darkness had lifted, she’d felt a presence nearby, waiting for her. It felt as if she were part of a story that she was living through instead of merely hearing about.

When she reached the front doors, they swung open of their own accord, revealing a vaulted chapel that was dark and empty. Aging marble tiles covered the floor, while the walls and pillars were hewn from rough-cut stone. A ray of light shone down from the cupola, illuminating the apse at the center.

And there, embedded in a slab of pure white marble, stood the sword.

Her breath caught in her throat. Once again, she felt the call of destiny compelling her forward. She covered her head with one of the shawls by the entrance and quietly stepped inside.

“Hello?” she said aloud. Though her voice was barely louder than a whisper, it carried throughout the sanctuary.

Tamuna, a voice spoke in her mind. She froze, her blood turning to ice. Was someone behind her? She glanced over her shoulder, but saw only shadows. Perhaps the wind was playing tricks with—

Tamuna, the voice spoke again, this time as clear as if she had heard it with her ears. She spun around, but again, she was alone.

As she turned back to the apse, the air immediately in front of her began to ripple like a mirage on a hot day. The sword seemed to morph and change, until she saw two images before her: the sword in the slab of marble, exactly as before, and a tall young man with golden hair and a carefully trimmed beard, wearing a silver coat of mail and the tunic of a warrior.

“Wh-who are you?” she asked, taking a step back. Something about his gaze held her, telling her there was no need to be afraid.

“Tamuna Leladze,” he said softly, looking at her with the barest hint of a smile. “Over a thousand years have passed since mortal eyes have seen this place, now in ruins in the world of men. Many have desired to wield me, but I have refused them all. I am Imeris, the twelfth and final sword, and this is my sanctuary.”

Tamuna frowned. “The twelfth sword?”

“Yes,” said the young man. His image faded until he was almost invisible, so that Tamuna found herself staring at the hilt of the sword in the marble slab. It called out to her the way it had in the tavern, and she realized that the man and the sword were the same.

“How did you know my name?”

“I know a lot about you, Tamuna,” said Imeris, coming back into view. “Our minds made contact the moment you laid eyes on me. I know how your heart longs for adventure, how you dream of faraway lands. And yet, your unshakeable loyalty to the few close and lasting friends in your life keeps you rooted to your home.”

“You can read my mind, then?”

“Only because you are too innocent to know how to shut me out. What I read in your mind, others can easily read in your countenance.”

Tamuna gazed into Imeris’s eyes and felt as if she were staring into a mirror back through centuries of time. And yet, he looked like a man only a few years older than her.

“Why have you brought me here?” she asked.

“Do you see the inscription written on the floor beneath your feet?”

Tamuna looked down and saw an inscription, written in old, faded letters in the marble floor. She squinted and tried to make them out, but the writing was too ancient for her to read.

“What is it?”

“It is an ancient prophecy, pronounced on the day when I was forged.”

“What does it say?”

“It says: This sword IMERIS, though last to be forged, certainly shall not be the least. For in the days when the order is broken and darkness sweeps across the face of the land, it shall await the one who will wield it in truth and wisdom to free the world of men.” He paused, looking her in the eye. “You are the one of whom the prophecy speaks, Tamuna. You are the one whom I have chosen.”

A crack of thunder sounded in the distance, sending chills down Tamuna’s spine. For a brief moment, a cloud overshadowed the sun, throwing the chapel into shadow. Imeris looked up and frowned.

“There isn’t much time,” he said. “The enemy is nearly here. They will seek to destroy us.”

“D-destroy us?” said Tamuna, her knees going weak. “There must be some mistake. I can’t possibly be the one you’re looking for. I’m just a tavern girl!”

Imeris looked at her long and hard, making her flinch. “There is no mistake, Tamuna. I recognized you the moment your mind reached out to my own.”

Her cheeks paled. “But…”

“Of course, you must take me up of your own free will if you take me up at all. If you so choose, you may leave this place by returning to the pool. Once you are submerged, you will return to your home.”

Tamuna nodded in relief. So there is a way out, she thought to herself. This doesn’t have to be my destiny. But even though the realization eased her somewhat, she couldn’t shake the feeling that to do so would be a mistake.

“What about the prophecy?” she asked. “If I reject you, will you find someone else?”

Imeris shrugged sadly and looked off into the distance. “Perhaps,” he said as he faded from her view. “Perhaps not.”

She hesitated a moment, alone now with just the sword. Once again, she felt it calling out to her, though this time, her thoughts were much clearer. You must take me up of your own free will, Imeris’s words came back to her. Another crack of thunder sounded in the distance, breaking the silence that had fallen with his departure.

I can’t do this, she told herself. This isn’t for me—I shouldn’t get involved.

As she walked back outside, her feet felt strangely heavy. A part of her longed to run back to the church and draw the sword out of the marble, just for the chance to experience an adventure. But of course, that wouldn’t be right. She couldn’t just leave Sopiko like that, after all that her aunt had done for her.

She reached the water’s edge, but hesitated before climbing in. A cool wind whistled over her skin, making the reeds dance and tossing back her long black hair. The surface of the water rippled, while a mass of giant thunderheads towered in the sky. She shivered, and not just from the cold. Lightning flashed in the valley, and a shadow darker than any she’d ever seen raced across the forests toward the mountaintops. There was a presence in that shadow, something primal and dangerous that made chills shoot down her spine.

Thunder rolled across the land, giving her pause. What if Imeris was right—what if she was the one from the prophecy? And if she was, then what would happen if she didn’t follow through?

The thunderheads towered high above her now, blocking the sun, and a stiff wind blasted the lake and flattened the golden-brown grass. Something evil was in that storm. Her heart raced, and she knew that she had to turn back.

She ran to the mountain church as fast as her feet would take her. Her breath came in short bursts, and her heart pounded furiously in her chest. She sprinted through the open doorway and ran to the sword in the marble slab.

“Imeris!” she shouted, gasping for breath. “Imeris, where are you?”

The sword called out to her, just as it had in the tavern. This time, she didn’t hesitate. As the sunlight turned to darkness, she gripped the handle and pulled with as much strength as she could muster. Thunder cracked directly overhead, and the sword came free with a metallic hum.

And then she was falling again through the abyss, tumbling as if a crack in the earth had swallowed her.

WIP excerpt: Patriots in Retreat

Chapter 1: A New Weapon

Ayesha bint Hasan Al-Hasani walked smartly down the main corridor of the GIS Starfall, the heels of her boots rapping against the floor in a highly satisfying manner. Her hair was as black as the depths of space, and she wore it down so that it came almost to her waist. She turned the heads of many of the men she passed, and that too gave her great satisfaction.

She reached the briefing room and palmed open the door. The lights were dimmed, the room nearly empty except for three men who stood around the holographic projector in the center. The one on the left was the admiral, a gaunt middle-aged man by the name of Orion. She had met him the previous dayshift, upon her arrival to the fleet. The one on the right was her commanding officer, Colonel Wallace of the Gaian Imperial Intelligence Services. They flanked a man whom Ayesha did not recognize.

“Agent Hasani,” said Colonel Wallace, greeting her with a smile and a nod.

“Colonel. And Admiral Orion, sir,” she said, nodding to the admiral. He gave her a more formal salute.

The third man gave her no greeting.

In a single fleeting glance, Ayesha sized him up. He had a full red beard, but looked no older than thirty-five standard years. He stood quite tall, with broad, muscular shoulders. Unlike the two officers, he wore a simple gray jumpsuit and a synthleather vest, a clothing style common on the Outworld frontier.

“Agent Hasani, may I present Captain Samson of the Starflight II.”

He’s not one of ours, she realized. Prior to her arrival, she had familiarized herself with the names of every ship in the fleet, as well as their commanding officers. The Starflight II was most likely a light civilian freighter, then, and Samson one of the Outworlders.

Which made him an enemy.

“Captain Samson,” she said, offering her hand.

“Call me Samson,” he said as he took it.

His hands were thick and caloused, with a little bit of engine grease caught between the cracks. Though he smiled at her, there was a grimace in his expression, and his eyes were subdued. It was abundantly clear to her that he was present against his will.

“And you may call me Ayesha,” she said, disarming him with a smile. His face became unreadable.

“Samson will be your partner for the next several missions,” Colonel Wallace explained. “He is a well known merchant pilot and will help you infiltrate the target systems without arousing suspicion.”

His fingers danced across a keypad, and the holographic projector came to life. It showed a three dimensional starmap of the frontier systems between the New Pleiades and the Coreward Stars. The Imperial battlefleet’s location in the vicinity of the Bacca system was marked in red. On the far end of the projection, the Troya and Vulcana systems were marked as the primary and secondary objectives of the military campaign.

“The Outworlders have developed a device, known as a “jump beacon,” that allows them to pull starships out of jumpspace at a designated location,” Wallace explained. “We have obtained a working prototype of this device and are in the process of manufacturing more. Your mission is to fly ahead of the battlefleet and use the device to concentrate our forces when we attack.

Sounds simple enough, Ayesha thought. Of course, even the simplest battle plans always fell apart upon contact with the enemy.

Admiral Orion stepped forward. “Our first target will be the frontier system of Colkhia. The Outworlders will expect us to strike first at Bacca or Iayus, as the expeditionary fleet did. Since the jump beacon device gives us a much greater range of attack, we will use the element of surprise to our advantage.”

Ayesha glanced at Samson out of the corner of her eye. Why was the admiral revealing their to someone who was clearly the enemy? Because he was her “partner,” she no doubt would be tasked with keeping him under control. That had the potential to end rather badly.

“Do you have any questions, Captain?” Orion asked, directing his question at Samson.

“No,” Samson answered, his voice low.

“Very well. You are dismissed.”

Now the real briefing begins, Ayesha mused as Samson left the room. When the door hissed shut and the three of them were alone, Colonel Wallace turned to her.

“Do you have any questions, agent?”

“Yes,” said Ayesha, folding her arms. “Who is that man, and why is he my ‘partner’?”

“Samson is a well-known figure in the Outworlds,” Admiral Orian answered her. “He has contacts across the New Pleiades, including several officials within the Outworld Confederacy.”

“He is also very… prolific,” Wallace added.

Ayesha raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean?”

“He has a reputation for keeping a lover in almost every Outworld port. By some estimates, he has almost a hundred children with nearly as many women.”

Impressive, Ayesha mused.

“The expeditionary fleet picked him up in the retreat following the first Battle of Colkhia,” Admiral Orion continued. “Although he denied working with the Outworlders, he was found with top-secret military documents stored on his ship’s computer. We subsequently detained and interrogated him.”

“Why wasn’t he executed?” Ayesha asked. The Gaian Empire did not formally recognize the Outworld Confederacy, instead classifying them as pirates. Imperial military doctrine called for them to be spaced.

“The intelligence services quickly found use for him,” Colonel Wallace answered. “Samson may be promiscuous, but he is also a family man, of a sort. When we made it clear that we knew the names and locations of several of his lovers, he agreed to work for us.”

So you’re blackmailing him. And you expect me to keep him “loyal.”

“What happened to the expeditionary fleet?” she asked.

Admiral Orion’s face reddened. “That information is on a strict need-to-know—”

“And Agent Hasani needs to know, Admiral.” Colonel Wallace turned to her. “The expeditionary fleet was repulsed with nearly sixty-percent losses. The entire campaign was a disaster.”

So the rumors are true.

“What about the Starfire?” she asked.

“It was lost at the first Battle of Colkhia, and is presumed to be in enemy hands.”

Admiral Orion scowled. “Our initial losses have proved quite costly, but only because of the edge that our enemy’s innovative FTL technology has given them. Now that the field has been equalized, we will crush them in one swift stroke. Your mission, Agent Hasani, is the key.”

“And how do I know that this Samson can be trusted?”

“He can’t, of course,” Colonel Wallace answered. “But I hardly think that will prove an obstacle to someone of your talents.”

“Certainly not.”

“The fleet is counting on you, Agent Hasani. Indeed, the Empire is counting on you. Do not disappoint us.”

Ayesha scowled. “Don’t insult me, Colonel. I know my duty.”

Patriots in Retreat
Phase:Draft 1.0
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Gunslinger to the Stars — excerpt 8

“Oh my heck,” said Jane, still trembling.

I holstered Kindness and reached down to help her to her feet. Her face was pale and her arms were trembling, so I figured it was a good time for us both to leave.

“Barkeep,” I said, pulling out a credit chit. Behind the counter, Ivosh rose unsteadily to his feet.

“My apologies,” he said, cracking his neck. Though the rockadillo grunt had punched him hard enough to break some bones, he looked none the worse for wear.

“You okay?” I asked.

“I’m perfectly fine,” he said, walking around the counter.

“Are you sure? That blow you took—”

“For members of my species, the physical form is less of a liability than it is for yours. Emotional energy does much to revive us, as I’m certain you can tell.”

He gestured to Jane. Her cheeks were still pale, and she was gripping my arm as if to never let go. I had no idea what was running through her mind, but it was clear to us both that I had just saved her life. Apparently, her relief was enough to make Ivosh regenerate.

“Let’s get out of here,” I said. “Can you take us to your place?”

“Certainly,” said Ivosh. “Come, let’s go.”

I left the credit chit on the counter and followed him out, Jane by my side. The fact that no one else seemed fazed by the gunfight told me everything I needed to know about the Gorinal Cluster. This place was going to be tough.


Gunslinger to the Stars

Gunslinger to the Stars

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Sam Kletchka here, freelance gunslinger and interstellar privateer. This, my friends, is how I went from being stranded in the armpit of the galaxy to becoming the luckiest human being in the universe. More info →
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