Book: Dragon Quadrant



Dragon Quadrant

Table of Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One








Dragon Quadrant

by Michael Wallace

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The Sentinel Trilogy

Book #1 – The Sentinel

Book #2 – Dragon Quadrant

Book #3 – Shattered Sun


copyright 2016 by Michael Wallace

Cover Art by Lorenz Hideyoshi Ruwwe

Chapter One

Captain James Drake opened his eyes and scanned the viewscreen. Searching. There was something urgent about the search, only he couldn’t remember what, not yet. His ship had just emerged from the jump point—he knew that much—but his head was aching, his thoughts scrambled, like he was hungover, half asleep, or both. Others groaned and cursed across the bridge. When Drake turned to see who was making the sound, it felt like a delay of several seconds before his head swiveled into place.

The enemy. Apex. Where are they?

It was the first stirring of coherent thought in Drake’s head. “Tolvern,” he said, trying to get someone else’s attention. No, that was wrong. “Nyb Pim, tell me—” Also, wrong.

This bridge was too large. Too many consoles, too wide. There were too many other officers around him, rubbing their temples and shaking their heads to clear them. Who the devil were all these people, and how had they got on his ship? Three ensigns lay slumped over the defense grid computer, still unconscious. Such a large defense grid—why did he need three computers? Blackbeard only—

Because Drake wasn’t on Blackbeard, that’s why, and he wasn’t a captain, either. He was now an admiral, and this was the battleship HMS Dreadnought, Malthorne’s old flagship and the most powerful warship in the Royal Navy. And his ship hadn’t jumped through alone. A large task force of cruisers, corvettes, missile frigates, and torpedo boats would shortly follow him through.

Bits and pieces were coming back to him, but the sense of urgency remained. This was no typical jump.

“Manx,” Drake said, turning to his first mate. Not Tolvern—she was elsewhere, if she was even still alive—but Henry Manx. He remembered now.

Manx sat at his console to the side of the admiral’s chair, his head drooping on his chest. He lifted it and stared groggily at Drake.

“Are you awake, Manx?”

Hesitation, then a nod. “I’m here, sir. Awaiting your orders.”

“Get me the gunnery. I want those cannon online at once.”

Manx greeted this order with a blank stare. Drake repeated it, and still Manx looked confused, as if he were listening to a man speak a foreign language and trying to puzzle it out. That initial response had only been a man talking in his sleep. Reflex.

“Manx?”

“I’m here, sir. Awaiting your orders.”

“You already said that.”

“Did I?”

Lieutenant Manx was a younger man, like so many others in Drake’s inner circle. The civil war had purged dozens of otherwise capable, experienced officers who’d proven themselves too craven to stand up to Admiral Malthorne and his bid for the throne. Manx, loyal and relentlessly competent, had enjoyed no shortage of opportunities for advancement. Moving from boatswain to defense grid specialist, he was one of few Drake had brought over from Blackbeard when taking command of Dreadnought.

“Get me the gunnery,” he repeated, more slowly this time. “I need our cannon online.”

“Our cannon? What about . . . engines? Comm . . . er, communications?”

“Get me the gunnery,” Drake repeated.

Manx blinked. “Yes, sir. Of course, the gunnery.”

Nothing else mattered if the guns were offline. Not the search for hostiles, not opening communication with the other ships in the task force. Not even whether or not their allies were still alive. A nervous worry kicked at Drake’s stomach when he had this thought. It was finally a question with a real answer. They’d arrived. Things would happen quickly now.

Manx got on the com. He was halting, confused at first, and worse, there was no answer from either the gunnery or engineering. Drake’s head was still clearing, but he didn’t have the luxury to sit and watch his first mate’s struggles.

“Lloyd, I want a scan of the immediate area. Ellison, run diagnostics on communications. Do not open a channel to the other ships yet.”

Ensign Lloyd was recovering more quickly than Manx, but it took him a minute to bring the instruments online. Any active sensors had been shut down for weeks, purposefully turned off so someone wouldn’t accidentally run a scan while stunned from a jump. Silence was the fleet’s biggest advantage.

By now, Drake had recovered enough to remember almost every detail of their long, silent mission. The deception, the hiding. Running blind and mute.

The admiral’s chair had been Malthorne’s, and felt almost throne-like, contoured and heated for Malthorne’s old, aching joints. Raised slightly higher than the other chairs on the bridge, it lorded over the others like a throne. The whole bridge was opulent, like the foyer of a grand country estate, and next to the war room, Drake had his own private lift, which would carry him to even more opulent living quarters. All thanks to Admiral Malthorne and his vanity.

The final battle that saw Malthorne’s capture was a vicious one, and Dreadnought had been savaged in the fight, suffering all manner of cannon, missile, and torpedo fire, and it was ultimately rammed by the loyalist cruiser HMS Vigilant. The beating left the ship crippled, floating without control, and allowed Drake’s forces to seize it and take the lord admiral prisoner. Malthorne was now dead, but Drake had brought his battleship back into fighting condition.

Unfortunately, there had been no time to scrub the ship of Malthorne’s luxuries before it left the yards to face Apex. Not even to replace the admiral’s chair.

Drake despised the luxury. It was unbecoming to an admiral of the fleet, even here, on the flagship. He rose to his feet as he waited for the scans to appear on the viewscreen, needing to feel like a warrior, not a duke or a prince in repose. The movement brought a wave of vertigo, and he steadied himself until the moment passed.

Two other ships had jumped through already, a small missile frigate and the newest ship in the fleet, HMS Repulse, a Punisher-class cruiser with new armaments and weapons designed to deal with the alien threat.

Two more ships came through: a torpedo boat and a corvette, the latter a powerful warship in the class just smaller than the cruisers. For weeks now, Drake had sensed these ships from afar, but was unable to reach out or even run active scans. Passive scans could be tricked, and that left him concerned. Sometimes he had itched to make the call, to prove to himself they hadn’t been picked off, one by one, as the enemy closed in on Dreadnought to finish the slaughter. It was a relief to receive visual confirmation they were still intact, unharmed.

“All systems are online, sir,” Lloyd called over. “Shall I fire up the long-range sensors, find out who or what is out there?”

“Not yet,” Drake said. “The moment we do, the enemy knows we’re here.”

“They may know already, sir,” Lloyd said.

“Understood. Nevertheless, we will stay silent for now.”

“Yes, sir.”

Manx looked up from his communications with the gunnery. “Our primary batteries are online, Admiral. Engineering has the plasma engines ready to go. All systems functional.”

“Very good.”

Drake studied the viewscreen. Repulse was maneuvering into position, flanking Dreadnought, which had already drifted several thousand miles from the jump point on auxiliary power. Two torpedo boats were also in motion, as were a pair of missile frigates. A second cruiser came through, the older Aggressor-class HMS Richmond. Older, yes. Incapable, no. Richmond had been through the yards after the civil war, and was in top fighting trim. Her captain was the young, aggressive Catherine Caites.

Twenty-five ships came through in all, the entire fleet of human warships that had set out from Albion. Then they waited.

“Where is he?” Drake muttered.

“He gave us the slip, I should wager,” Manx said. “Maybe he found a sugar galleon.”

Drake raised an eyebrow. “Do you think?”

“He won’t take the antidote, sir. That makes him crazy for the white stuff, like all the rest.”

“And the other ships of his fleet? Are they all eaters, too?”

“Maybe,” Manx said. “But I don’t figure it matters. The Hroom don’t want to get involved. We’re five jumps into the Dragon Quadrant. The Hroom come out here, they’re only going to wake the beast.”

“The beast is awake already,” Drake pointed out. “There are multiple Apex harvester ships devouring the empire’s underbelly, and the Hroom are helpless to drive them off. If we don’t hold the buzzards here, that number will multiply. What does the general think we’re doing out here, anyway?”

It was a rhetorical question, not the admiral fishing for an actual answer. General Mose Dryz would appear; if not, something terrible had happened to him. Whatever else the general was, he was not a coward or a liar.

Doubt and impatience clouded his officers’ faces. They were eager to scan for the enemy, anxious not to be caught here and picked apart. And frightened, too. No man or woman could forget the ultimate fate of those who fell into the enemy’s hands. Make that the enemy’s talons, or was it beaks?

Months had passed since Drake led his fleet out of Albion-controlled territory. They’d fought a brief skirmish against an Apex hunter-killer pack on the frontier, then passed through system after system of Hroom-controlled worlds. Never challenged. Only even spotted sloops of war on two occasions, and they had fled without giving battle. The sloops hadn’t been allies of the general, apparently, but filled with rebels, or maybe simply cowards.

“We all know why we’re here,” Manx said. “Fight the birds on their turf, not ours.”

“Fight them on other people’s turf, at least. Yes, Lieutenant.”

“But we’d have all we could handle with any of those harvester ships in Hroom territory. We’re only out here to save Blackbeard. Maybe get our hands on some new tech, if these Chinese will cough it up. So . . . well, sir, I guess I’m asking if you’re sure about the general.”

Drake’s officers rarely hesitated to challenge him. The bridge of Blackbeard had been restless to the point of mutiny on his behalf when Malthorne had him arrested. But he thought he’d left the feisty ones behind: Tolvern, Capp, Carvalho, and Barker. Somehow, Manx’s promotion had transformed him into an arguer.

Isn’t that what you’re looking for? If you want sycophants, go find some of Malthorne’s old crew. Toadies and bootlickers, every one of them.

“Point is,” Manx continued when Drake didn’t answer at once, “there’s nobody out here to help us. No navy bases, no naval task force but our own. Not even pirates and mercenaries to hire in a pinch.”

“Only refugee ships and our enemies,” Drake agreed. “Which is why we need the general.”

“But he doesn’t need us. Not until we’re fighting our battles to protect his worlds, his people.”

That had been General Mose Dryz’s argument. Drake wanted an alliance with the Hroom, but here he was rushing out to save some human civilization he knew of only by rumor. Meanwhile, harvester ships were literally consuming Mose Dryz’s race. The general scoffed at Drake’s plan. It was the same old story of the past few centuries: Albion saw the Hroom as slaves, as providers of fresh worlds to conquer and colonize. And now, cannon fodder to throw against Apex.

Drake took a look at the ships aligned and waiting for his order. The men and women at the helms of those vessels would be anxious, jumpy. So long in silence, so many weeks of traveling blind, groping their way forward on passive scans only, knowing Apex lances might be lurking behind every planet, moon, or asteroid. And now, the ship and station they’d come to rescue were only a short flight away.

“We can’t wait any longer,” Drake said reluctantly. “Lloyd, run active scans. Find the buzzards and tell me if Blackbeard is still alive. Ellison, get me the bridge of Repulse. I want her leading the van.”

As the two complied with his order, Drake turned back to Manx, ready to consult with him about the posture of Dreadnought herself as they advanced. Was the enemy likely to strike from the flanks or from the rear? Would they go after the strongest target first, or the weakest?

But Manx stiffened in his seat and pointed to the viewscreen. “Sir!”

Another ship had jumped into the system. It was the long, mottled green form of a Hroom sloop of war. It drifted away from the jump point, and moments later, a second sloop jumped through, then a third. Soon, there were six sloops of war drifting, nudging into motion as their alien crew recovered from the jump.

Drake couldn’t look at the sloops without feeling an old sense of dread. How many times had he faced sloops of war, watched them charge recklessly at his ships with their spear-like noses ready to ram him? The aliens had not modified their tactics or their ships in generations, but the suicidal charges could make a strong man’s legs turn to jelly. And if the rams no longer posed a threat, their serpentines and pulse cannons certainly did.

“So the general showed up after all,” Drake said.

Ellison looked up from her console. “Sir, I have Repulse. I told Captain Woodbury to hold, but he’s asking to speak to you directly.”

“In a moment,” he told his communications officer. “I need to speak to the general first. See if you can raise him.”

“Did you find the buzzards yet?” Manx asked Lloyd, who had been running the scans for a few minutes.

“Negative. But there’s something going on in the system.”

“Be precise,” Drake said. “Where, exactly. And what?”

“I don’t know what. I’m pinging with everything we’ve got, but we’re staring through the sun, and it’s going to take some time to resolve itself. It’s a lot of motion, whatever it is. Somewhere out in the gas giants. Let me see. Roughly two billion miles from our current position, give or take.”

“Two billion miles? If it’s Blackbeard, she won’t get our help any time soon.”

There was no immediate response from the Hroom warships. Drake paced back and forth. Apart from the instantaneous jumps from one system to another, or the fierce, terrifying moments of close-quarters combat, space travel played out at a glacially slow pace. Even at maximum acceleration, it could take days to cross between jump points or navigate the outer worlds of a system.

With everything still unsettled after the jump, the minutes waiting for the general crawled by. The sloops maneuvered into a defensive position, as if fearing an Albion attack. The other ships of Drake’s fleet were begging him for orders, and Lloyd’s scans continued to return a confused jumble of information.

“I’ve got him,” Ellison said at last. She glanced up as the general’s face filled the screen, replacing the view of Albion warships and Hroom sloops. Ellison’s voice switched to the com link, and she added a private comment. “He doesn’t look happy, Admiral.”

How could she tell? Mose Dryz had the blank, impassive look of all Hroom as he stared back through those impossibly large eyes. He wore a white tunic with a gold sunburst on the chest, which represented his rank as general, and a circlet of black iron ringed his smooth head, indicating blood kinship with the empress.

But most notable was his pale pink skin, not the deep violet of a healthy Hroom, but a sugar eater’s complexion. A long-time addict, at that. There was an antidote now passing through the broken remnants of the Hroom civilization, something that rewired the malleable alien brain, breaking the addiction and limiting the number of new addicts. At the same time, the new king of Albion had outlawed slavery and the slave trade within Albion territory.

But a relationship long broken would take time to repair. If that were even possible.

“I’d begun to worry, General,” Drake said.

“I said I would be here. We arrived a little late, but the charts of these systems are poor. An hour is an acceptable delay, is it not?”

“I had my doubts, that’s all I’m saying. You were ambivalent when we made our plans.”

“So you expected a lie,” the general said. “That is human behavior, not Hroom.”

“Not a lie, a change of plans. Second-guessing. That is the behavior of any sentient people.”

Mose Dryz spread his arms in what looked like a self-consciously human gesture. “Here we are, Admiral Drake, ready to do your bidding. I believe you want my sloops to lead the charge. That is your way, is it not? To sacrifice Hroom lives in the pursuit of human glory?”

Mose Dryz often spoke this way, reminding Drake in a subtle fashion of their past history as enemies. The two had brawled in the Battle of Kif Lagoon, where Drake’s forces had won a smashing victory.

“I never order my men into certain death,” Drake said, “be they human or Hroom. And I don’t order your forces at all. That is your condition of fighting by my side, unless you’d like to remove it now.”

The general didn’t answer, only stared, unblinking.

“I didn’t think so,” Drake said. “Once we know what we’re facing, I’ll tell you my battle plans, and you can join as you see fit.”

“I think we know well enough,” Mose Dryz said. “Scans are resolving themselves. The bird people are involved somehow, we can see that already. You’re human, and you’ll have some tricks to play, but the end of this mission has to involve your fleet and their fleet in combat. We Hroom will be in the middle of it, do not worry.”

“We’ve got it,” Lloyd said from the tech console where he and two other techs had been hard at work for the last twenty minutes. His voice was grim. “Scans of the action. It’s long range, but I think you can see the gist of it.”

“Put it up,” Drake said. “And send it out. We have no secrets from our Hroom allies.”

The general glanced to the side, where he was apparently getting the feed. He made a high, almost cooing sound in his throat, like he’d swallowed a songbird. Whatever he was looking at, he didn’t like it. And then the screen cut out, and the results of Lloyd’s long-range scans filled the viewscreen.

Drake and the rest of the crew stared without speaking. There was no need.

It was the missing navy cruiser, HMS Blackbeard. And the Singaporean battle station. And an enemy force so vast that the only prudent thing for Dreadnought, the other navy vessels, and the Hroom sloops to do was turn tail and run for their lives.



Chapter Two

Ronaldo Carvalho wore a pressure suit, music blaring through his com as he worked with the plasma cutter to hack off segments of paneling. He had already set up a pressure cell—a sort of temporary airlock—and isolated the hoses with asbestos shielding. Now he was cutting off the left half of the door, the one that was preventing the full seal.

That blasted door had been slightly misaligned for what seemed like forever, although only a couple of weeks had passed since the battle that had destroyed Blackbeard’s companion ship, HMS Swift. During that fight, the buzzards had sliced through the bottom shield, wrecked bombproofs, and left a lot of mangled equipment down here, including the servomechanisms of this airlock door. He was going to cut off the door at the articulation plates, replace the servos, then meld-seal new plates into place. Reconnect the door and check the seal.

Blackbeard was in motion. They’d fired up the remaining engine and were swinging into position around one of the Kettle’s many moons. Carvalho didn’t know Captain Tolvern’s plan from there. Hopefully, wait for the sentinel battle station to take on the buzzards, then swoop in to finish off the wounded. If the reverse were true, and they were the defense for the station, rather than vice versa, they’d last about thirty seconds.

Either way, Carvalho needed to fix the leak and preserve access to the away pods. With the bombproofs knocked off, the pods were exposed to the vacuum and couldn’t be reached without first donning a pressure suit. The music was to drown the nerves, but also to blare over the top of the general chatter coming over the com. The back and forth about the pending battle would wreck his concentration.

He got the door cut off and heaved it to one side, using the mechanical power of his suit. As he turned, he saw a figure banging on the wall of the pressure cell, trying to get his attention. Even through the double doors of the temporary lock, he could see from the shaved scalp and the rigid left arm—immobilized in a cast—that it was Capp.

He turned off the music and connected to her com. “Hola amor. I am a little busy for a roll in the sack. That is what you want, yes?” he added with a grin.

“Dammit, I been banging away for ten minutes,” she said in her thick York Town accent. “It’s like trying to get the attention of a dead man.”

She was only a few feet away, on the other side of the transparent cell, but with the sound patching through from the com link, there was a slight delay from when her lips moved to when the sound came through, and her mouth was out of sync with her voice.

“This must be your first time in space,” he said. “It is a funny thing about working where there is no atmosphere. All the banging in the world cannot make sound move through a vacuum.”

She was not amused. “Will you bloody well keep your com link on?”

“It was on, emergency channel only.”

“I’ve been calling you direct!”

“The music was loud.” Carvalho kept working as he talked, disconnecting servos. “What is it? Have the buzzards surrendered already? Turkey dinner to celebrate?”

“We’re not even in combat yet.”

“I figured. Otherwise, we would be dead.” He turned toward the door, more serious now. “Capp, I am working. Conditions are less than ideal for concentration, as you can imagine. Why are you not on the bridge?”

“Barker needs you in the gunnery. They got a Hunter-II jammed in the tube, and they want you to wrestle it into place.”

“Why me? I cannot lift a five-thousand-pound torpedo by myself. Are there no other powersuits in the gunnery?” Carvalho stopped, remembering something. “Oh, that must be tube six. It has a damaged loading belt and can only hold the smaller size armaments. I don’t know if Barker realizes that. Call him and check. He needs to take it out and put in a Mark-IV. If that does not work, I will go there as soon as I am done.”

“Is this really more important?”

He glanced down the passageway to the away pods, currently accessible only by passing through vacuum. “Yes, it is critical.”

Capp was silent for a moment, and when Carvalho glanced back, her mouth was moving in conversation with someone else. She connected back to his com. “Leave the pressure cell, spray-foam it to complete the seal. That should cut off any residual oxygen loss.”

“Who says that? Engineering? I’m not leaving here until the captain tells me herself.”

“I’m an officer, and you’re not. And if you don’t do it, I’m gonna kick your arse.”

Carvalho didn’t even look up from his work this time. “Hah! You should have thought about that before you started shagging me, amor.”

“Luv,” she said, her voice false-patient in a way that told him she was serious. “We got twenty, maybe thirty minutes before them buzzards start shooting. I’m not going to have you down here working when we’re in battle. For one thing, it’s all hands on deck—”

“My hands are plenty busy, Capp.”

“And for another, there’s no armor left down here. The first shot and you’re dead.”

“All the more reason to get this airlock fixed.”

“It’s not going to bloody well hold because you threw on a couple of patches. Did you hear me? There’s no armor down here. We moved every scrap of it to other parts of the ship.”

“I know, Capp. I did a lot of that work myself.” He got the last of the new servos installed, then straightened up and looked back through the pressure cell. “If I don’t get this door back in place, we lose the away pods. You know what that means, don’t you?”

“Carvalho,” she said slowly. “Luv. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I ain’t taking my chances in one of them balloons. We go down, we go down shooting, not waiting to be scooped up by the buzzards because we had to abandon ship.”

“Anything could happen,” Carvalho said. “Apex cannot scan very well. The rocket pods have their own propulsion. We climb into the same pod, you and I, plus others—the captain, the pilot, maybe Barker and Smythe. Then we jet toward one of the moons. Maybe we suffocate, but maybe we are rescued in time. There are three days of oxygen and water on board.”

“The hell with that. Only makes it that much easier for the buzzards to get us.” Capp drew her firearm. “This is my plan. And this.” She fished a grenade out of the pocket of her uniform. “This is the last thing I’ll do, right? Pull the pin and hold on.”

They were talking about the same thing, he realized. Only Carvalho was hoping to escape and hide, while Capp planned to go down in a blaze of glory. Either way, neither meant to be taken by Apex, to be tortured and eaten alive in one of their bizarre rituals.

Capp was fooling herself, he thought. Every crew thought the same thing. Nobody ever thought he’d be taken alive. Apex fought these battles in part to take prisoners; they knew how to stop people from killing themselves, he was sure of it.

“Fifteen minutes,” he said, perhaps optimistically. “That’s all I need. Then I will take your grenade. If the ship is disabled and boarded, we will meet in the engineering bay, yes? Prevent them from boarding if we can.”

“And if we can’t?” she asked.

“Then we will have a quick discussion,” he said playfully, as if the discussion was about which one would be on top the next time they made love. “Grenades or away pod.”

Capp put away the grenade with her good hand and rubbed her buzzed scalp. Then she broke out in a grin. “Alright, you big lug. The engineering bay it is. Meanwhile, don’t be an idiot.”

“When have I ever?”

“Pretty much always. Tolvern is calling me back to the bridge. Gotta go, luv.” She winked, then turned and was gone.

Carvalho kept the music off as he continued working. “I love that woman,” he said to himself.

What a strange thing to realize at the moment one was about to die. They’d been together for a couple of years now, fraternizing illicitly before the mutiny and civil war changed everything. Neither had been faithful to the other—faithfulness wasn’t a requirement of their relationship then, and was unlikely to become one in the future—but at some point he’d stopped thinking of Henny Capp as merely a lean, willing body to bunk up with when nobody was looking. Not anymore. She was his woman, and he was her man. She let him know in multiple ways that he was hers, and she would have her possessions well cared for.

Carvalho finished sealing the new plates and hoisted the door into place. The door weighed over five hundred pounds, and the power-assist in the suit whirred into action to aid his muscles as he eased it into place. He held the door up with one hand and fumbled at his belt for the proper tool with the other.

Fifteen minutes? Not likely.

How long since Capp left? So hard to tell when he was deep in his work. It might have been five minutes, it might have been thirty. Either way, he didn’t have long until the battle started.

Movement caught his eye, a figure on the other side of the pressure cell. Bloody hell, didn’t Capp have work to do?

Diós mío,” he said into the com. “Will you stop worrying? I will be fine. And the captain needs you on the bridge, yes?”

She didn’t answer, and when Carvalho spared a glance, he was surprised to see two figures, not one. They were waving urgently. He had an electric screwdriver in one hand and didn’t want the door to shift, so he merely shook his head and kept on working. He didn’t care if it was the chief or even the captain herself, he couldn’t stop working now.

“Whatever it is, whoever you are, it can wait,” he muttered irritably over the engineering channel, figuring it had to be someone who’d also been working on repairs.

At last he got the door in place and the leads reconnected. He fished out his hand computer and flipped it on. A light flickered above the door. Red, then yellow, then . . . more yellow. Dammit.

It should be blinking blue if the blasted thing were connected properly. Something was wrong. Should he manually test it, potentially damaging the doors if they were misaligned, or unplug the door and try again? Or maybe the computer could report something useful from the door’s self-diagnostics. A quick glance showed that the slow air leak was gone, at least.

Barker would be fuming in the gunnery when he arrived. Carvalho had blown off Capp, ignored demands for help, and kept flogging away at this system only to see his efforts fail.



Carvalho looked back at the two people who’d been trying to get his attention. They wore pressure suits, the kind without power-assist. He couldn’t tell who they were through the double doors of the cell and the clear masks over their helmets. One of them had an electric screwdriver and was trying to disconnect the pressure cell from the wall.

“What the devil? It’s not the pressure cell that is damaged, you idiots, it’s the airlock. You will breach the cell if you don’t . . .”

Moving swiftly, angry now, Carvalho pocketed his computer and palmed open the door on his side. The man stopped working and waited as Carvalho sealed the outer door behind him. Before it sealed, air rushed through. The fool had breached the outer wall of the pressure cell, and a bunch of air had been sucked into the vacuum and lost.

The inner door opened on the pressure cell, and Carvalho yanked off his helmet. “You idiots. Do you realize . . .”

Something was wrong. There was something off in their posture. The taller of the pair slumped, as if having difficulty holding himself up. The other man clenched the screwdriver in his right hand like it was a weapon.

Carvalho recognized their faces through their helmets. The man with the screwdriver, the one who’d been breaking into the pressure cell, was Jeremy Megat, the captured mutineer from the battle station. He’d tried to seize Blackbeard before being taken prisoner, and now he was out of detention. When the hell had that happened?

The other man was Jan Djikstra, the New Dutch pilot who’d told Captain Tolvern how to contact the battle station in the first place. Djikstra was pale and sweating behind his faceplate and looked as though he were on the verge of throwing up.

Carvalho was already moving as he recognized the danger, but not fast enough. Megat punched with the screwdriver, and the butt end struck him on the temple. Carvalho went down. The man stomped at his face, but Carvalho’s instincts took over, and he rolled away. The kick missed his head.

Carvalho was not some scrawny kid who’d spent more time tucked under a broken-down truck than in the open air. He’d brawled and wenched his way through the roughest ports, fought Hroom and Royal Navy marines with firearms and hand-to-hand. If he could get to his feet, he’d destroy these two.

He rolled up against Djikstra, who’d seemed on the verge of collapse moments earlier. The Dutch captain kicked him with a heavy boot, and pain exploded in his head. Djikstra drew back for another kick, and Carvalho couldn’t so much as lift his arms to shield his face.

But the blow never came. The two attackers left him on the floor, entered the pressure lock, and

forced the other door open. Air rushed past. Djikstra and Megat disappeared down the corridor toward the away pods.

Carvalho struggled to his knees. His head was clearing, and what was left was terror. The pressure cell was open on one side, breached on the other. The bombproofs shielding the pods had been destroyed, and now air came rushing past, sucked into the vacuum. Blackbeard’s oxygen plant was damaged, and if he didn’t stop the breach at once, the whole crew might suffocate.

The only hope was the airlock. It was ahead of him, the doors open, the light on top still blinking yellow, saying his repair hadn’t worked, that the doors wouldn’t close. His efforts, far from preserving the ability to reach the pods, had left the engineering bay exposed to the vacuum.

Carvalho reached for his computer. The rushing air tried to suck it out of his hand.

“Carvalho!” a voice shouted in his ear. It was Capp. “What the devil are you doing down there? We’ve got a bloody airlock breach, is what it’s saying.”

He didn’t answer. Fingers shaking, he thumbed across the screen, looking for the manual override. A voice was shouting over Capp to put Carvalho on the general channel, and then chatter exploded in his ear. People shouting about incoming ships, others crying out about the breach. Captain Tolvern herself, shouting above the chatter, demanding answers for the breach.

Behind it all, Carvalho heard Jane’s cool computer voice make an announcement. “Pod four launched. Unauthorized trajectory. Unknown destination.”

Carvalho found the screen. He touched the big blue button and looked desperately past the breached pressure cell at the airlock doors. They hesitated, as if stuck in their course, then eased shut. The light above the door flashed yellow three times, then blue. Then it went out altogether.

He sank down to the floor, chest heaving, exhausted and overcome with relief. Chatter continued in his ear. Fear and worry over the breach gave way to panic over the enemy ships swooping toward them.

It would seem that the danger had only just begun.



Chapter Three

Captain Tolvern thought she might have to physically hold her first mate in her seat. Capp was in a panic and kept calling down to the engineering bay, trying to reach Carvalho. Something had happened down there, and air was rushing out through a breach in the away pods and jetting into space through the gaps opened by the destroyed bombproofs.

Carvalho wasn’t answering. Most likely, he’d been sucked into the void. He’d been trying to repair a broken airlock door, and it must have suffered a catastrophic failure. He’d lost his pressure cell, the doors had blown off, and gasses had vented explosively into the void. One of the away pods had even broken free in the catastrophe, as Jane had helpfully advised. The ship was in danger if they couldn’t get the breach sealed.

Meanwhile, two hunter-killer packs had broken off from the main attack and were coming at Blackbeard. The rest of the enemy ships swarmed toward Sentinel 3. The battle station had yet to fire its weapons, but it would see action first.

The gray-green surface of the third and largest moon of the gas giant stretched below them, visible through the left half of the viewscreen. It was as large as a small planet, with one-fifth standard gravity, and a skin of ice stretched taut over the surface. Long dark streaks tattooed the ice where plumes of liquid had blasted through the crust from underlying volcanic activity and then landed atop the permanent pack.

Blackbeard hugged the moon, only a few tens of miles above the surface. Apex ships struggled inside gravity wells, which seemed to disrupt their ability to spontaneously jump. Tolvern would have rather gone into the atmosphere of the Kettle itself, but in their current condition, the buffeting, hurricane-force winds would tear them apart.

“Carvalho!” Capp yelled into her com. “Answer me, please!”

“Hold it together,” Tolvern said. “Do your duty.”

For a moment, it looked like Capp would break. Her left hand, immobilized in its cast, clenched and unclenched, and the other gripped the armrest as if she’d tear it off. Straining muscles made the lions on her right forearm bulge. She managed a curt nod and turned back to her console, where she gave an order to the pilot. Her voice was strained, but under control.

Relieved, Tolvern turned to her tech officer. “Smythe, I need that breach sealed.”

“Barker’s going to cut off the whole engineering bay. He’s running someone down with—oh, hold on.” Smythe sagged back in his chair and let out an explosive sigh. “It’s closed now. The airlock doors swung shut.”

Almost instantly, Smythe was back over his console, working furiously with his adjutant to deal with other threats.

Tolvern spared a glance at the viewscreen to see what the enemy was doing. “Carvalho, can you hear me?”

“Yes, Captain, I am here.”

He sounded exhausted, but uninjured. Capp whipped her head up and let out a string of barely comprehensible oaths. A York Town-style message of endearment for her lover.

“I could not stop them,” Carvalho said. “But they cannot be far. You should knock those pendejos out of the sky before they get away.”

“What?”

“It has rocket assist, but it cannot have gone far, not yet.”

“What the devil are you babbling about, Carvalho?”

“Megat and Djikstra, those bastards. They attacked me and stole an away pod.”

A quick glanced confirmed that Megat was no longer confined in the detention block. Djikstra must have let him out, but why? Tolvern had been suspicious of the Dutch pilot and his implausible story, but he had led them to the Singaporean battle station. Why would he help the captured mutineer? The pair had never met, so far as she knew.

Now it would seem that the two cowards had rushed to the pods to blast away from the doomed Albion warship in advance of the battle. Wouldn’t do them any good. Maybe they’d escape Apex’s brutality, but then what? Pod four had its own rockets, but those wouldn’t carry them far. Down to the icy moon, she supposed.

Tolvern ended the call to Carvalho and turned to Capp. “Ignore the pod. If we shoot it down, the buzzards will figure out we’ve got problems on board.”

Nevertheless, the tech officers soon found the wayward pod, which was shooting toward the icy moon, and brought it up on the screen. The buzzards spotted it too. A pair of long, slender lances broke away from the attack formation to investigate. Whatever Djikstra and Megat thought they’d earn by making a run for it, this wasn’t it. Rather than escaping Apex, they’d be the first to fall into the aliens’ clutches.

The other six lances, together with a pair of the bulkier spears, kept moving toward Blackbeard. Tolvern ordered Blackbeard to swing around the planet, still accelerating, and she fired off a trio of missiles that raced toward the enemy. The lances made short work of the incoming missiles with lasers, but it delayed pursuit.

There was no hope of outrunning the enemy, being down an engine, but that didn’t mean Blackbeard was unable to maneuver. Tolvern’s plan was to swing around the moon, then make a run back toward Sentinel 3. By then, the battle station would be in combat, and she hoped to slip in among the incoming and outgoing fire. She could fight in support of the station, looking for opportunities to inflict damage.

Two of the lances swooped toward the moon and fell in behind Blackbeard. One of them probed at her engines with energy pulses, but Tolvern had reinforced the rear armor, and the shields absorbed most of the damage. The enemy continued to close.

“Launch the Hunter-IIs.”

Moments later, the heavier, more maneuverable torpedoes thundered out of the tubes. The range was close enough that they forced the enemy craft to evade. The rest of the hunter-killer pack—two lances and a spear—darted in at an angle.

Tolvern had anticipated this and was ready with a response. Nyb Pim, her Hroom pilot, had a maneuver preprogrammed. The ship rolled and exposed the main battery, and the three ships scattered. At this range, cannon fire would tear them apart. Unfortunately, it would also leave the weakened side of Blackbeard exposed, so she didn’t order them to fire. Instead, the cruiser hurtled around the moon and launched itself in the direction of the Singaporean battle station.

The station had vanished from the screen.

Blackbeard had been docked at Sentinel 3 only a few hours before. During a few tumultuous days, they’d fought off a boarding party, seized the station command module, and joined with the base commander, Jon Li, in battling mutineers who’d tried to suffocate the newcomers rather than allow their base to be discovered.

And now she saw how Sentinel 3 had successfully remained hidden for eleven long years. Whatever cloaking technology the Singaporeans had, it was masterful. Tolvern knew where Sentinel 3 was—the battle station had shared its exact course—but nothing showed up on the scans, even though the range was short enough that even passive scans could have read the date on a two-shilling coin. Nothing on any spectrum, only a thin film of reflective ice forming the gas giant’s rings.

Tolvern wasn’t about to hit the Singaporeans with active scans and reveal them to the enemy. Apex’s strength was intercepting communications. Its weakness was detection of the silent and wary.

Still, the enemy knew the battle station’s rough location. Three of the hunter-killer packs came in at different angles, probing along the ice field. Two more packs wandered the perimeter, clearly uncertain whether the station could move on its own power (it could) and if it had tried to flee (it had not).

The rest of the massive enemy fleet lurked outside the orbit of the Kettle’s farthest moon, among them the hulking, menacing shape of the harvester ship. Tolvern caught a glimpse into the alien mind as she watched them maneuver.

Growing up on the edge of the Drake estate, she had once thought of the Hroom as strange, inscrutable. There weren’t Hroom slaves on the farms of her home island of Auckland, but sometimes in town she would see their long, slender bodies striding down the street in front of their masters. Once, one had turned to look at her with his enormous dark eyes, and she’d held her breath until he looked away.

But her childish impression was wrong. She now knew the Hroom, and Albion itself had generations of experience with both the aliens and with their weakened, but still formidable empire. A Hroom felt fear, love, hatred. You could sit and converse with one and only rarely did you reach a point where no communication or understanding was possible.

The birdlike Apex, on the other hand, were truly alien in thought, culture, and behavior. Even their species was divided into a higher breeding cast, the so-called queens and princesses, and a vast group of drones: workers, warriors, engineers, pilots, and so on. They existed for one purpose, to consume and exterminate other intelligent races. Beyond that, nobody knew anything. Did they have a home planet? A supreme leader? Why were queens and drones so genetically manipulated as to appear almost as separate species? How had they begun their brutal struggle in the first place?

But at this exact moment, Tolvern saw directly into their motives, could read them as if she were studying a pack of intelligent wolves that had run down a sick animal on the steppes of Northern Albion. The Apex fleet had its prey cornered and desperate. Plenty of time to complete the kill. The only risk was letting it escape.

You only think you understand. If they are truly alien, you know nothing.

“Pilot,” Tolvern told Nyb Pim. “Carry us along the Z-axis.”

“Yes, Captain.”

Aided by the deceptive exposure of the main battery and the still-wandering torpedoes, Blackbeard had gained distance from the pursuing ships. As Nyb Pim set the new course, Tolvern picked a spot near the hidden station, but not on top of it, and ordered the Hroom to take them there.

Three of the pursuing lances vanished from the screen, only to reappear directly in front of Blackbeard’s path. They swung wide, positioning themselves so all three ships could fire on Blackbeard at once. Moments later the spear jumped in, too. It took its spot above the other three, rolling over to expose a heavy pulse cannon that could fire from several spots along its spine.

“Evasive maneuvers?” Nyb Pim asked.

Tolvern hesitated. Flying right into that formation would be deadly, even if the fire hit Blackbeard along her reinforced deck shields. Tolvern’s plan had been a bluff to force the lances to charge in behind while she swept past Sentinel 3’s hidden position. If Li’s forces opened up with their armaments, a good fraction of the Apex warships would be annihilated before the rest of them could respond. But at this point, she’d never reach the station.

Another hunter-killer pack jumped into place right in front of the first. Dismayed, Tolvern thought that this was an escalation of the firepower arrayed against her, but the positioning was odd. Why jump in front? Why not above or below to double the strength positioned against the Albion warship? Or even jump in along the flanks, to herd Blackbeard toward the waiting enemies?

“What do we do, Cap’n?” Capp asked desperately.

“Forward guns!” Tolvern cried. “No evasive maneuvers. Take us right at them.”

There was a lot of hard swallowing at this, but no argument as everyone moved to execute the captain’s orders. The gunnery fired missiles and torpedoes as a side dish to the cannon fire. Countermeasures spewed out the back of the ship, clumps of fifty or a hundred tiny bomblets dropped behind like a fleeing octopus squirting ink. More lances had given chase, and now fought through this impromptu minefield.

The enemy ahead opened fire. The bridge shuddered. The computer chimed in helpfully to warn of shield damage. There wasn’t much leeway for the battered, patched-up navy cruiser, and the alarming numbers Jane shared sounded like damage reports from the end of a battle, not its beginning.

Blackbeard swung down at the last minute like a diving whale. She rolled as she did, and let off a blast from the main batteries, followed by a pair of missiles. It was such an obvious evasive maneuver that the enemy should have had no problems avoiding all of the cannon fire as well as immediately giving pursuit.

Instead, the lances scattered. One group ducked away, and the other took the brunt of Blackbeard’s broadside. Cannon fire tore one of them in two, and another took a blow to the engines and limped away, pursued by one of the missiles, which locked onto its heat signature.

A cheer went up from the bridge as Blackbeard slipped through the net. They’d bought a few more minutes, that was all, and the enemy was already recovering as Tolvern ordered them to swing around and approach the hidden battle station from another angle.

“How did you do that?” Smythe asked from the tech console. “That was a maneuver worthy of James Drake. Only I never thought it would work.”

“There’s something wrong with their fleet,” she said. “They’re in disarray.”

Capp stared at her. “Yes, but how did you know?” The first mate sounded even more awed than Smythe.

“It takes a flawed command structure to recognize one. We had to fight mutineers and seize control of Commander Li’s battle station just to get our ship repaired. He’s so well hidden that I’ll bet there are people on Sentinel 3 even now who are trying to persuade him to let us dangle in the wind and fight Apex on our own.”

Not to mention the away pod that squirted free just as Blackbeard was going into battle. By now Apex would have captured the pod. Megat and Djikstra were either dead or wishing they were dead.

Understanding dawned on a few faces, but the Hroom were literal minded, and Nyb Pim looked up from the nav computer to study her. “I still do not understand, Captain.”

“That second pack jumped in badly,” Tolvern said. “Maybe it was a mistake, maybe they never meant to come in so close. But then they didn’t get out of the way. Instead, it looked like they were trying to fight us first. Steal the glory in what looked like an easy battle. We took advantage of their disarray.”

Capp pointed at the viewscreen. “All that’s fine, but what are we gonna do about that?”

The lances were accelerating, and it looked like they were going to jump again. Tolvern’s maneuver had carried Blackbeard far away from the planet’s icy ring and the battle station’s powerful guns. Tolvern needed to buy a few more minutes. She could change direction, but Apex proved adept at anticipating course corrections and might very well jump in front of her again.

“Do you have that randomized evasive maneuver?” she asked Nyb Pim. “Execute it now.”

This produced a zig-zag pattern that took them twice to starboard, three times up, and once to port. More enemy ships came cruising in from the far orbital position they’d taken around the gas giant. For the moment, Blackbeard was leading them on a merry chase, but the net was closing in again.

Tolvern feinted toward the Kettle, briefly considered risking a dive into the gas giant’s atmosphere, then spotted a gap back toward the ring. Nyb Pim confirmed with the nav computer that they could reach the last known position of the sentinel battle station before they were caught. He’d better be right. Half the enemy fleet was closing fast, now approaching from all sides. Three hunter-killer packs looked ready to jump in for closer combat.

“Okay, Li,” Tolvern said as Blackbeard attempted to repeat its run up along the inside of the planet’s icy ring. “Let’s see what you’ve got.”

Commander Li had taken her on a tour of the battle station before her departure to show her his weapon systems. Chief among them was the eliminon battery. It had seemed so simple that Tolvern had almost laughed it off. Technologically, it was a marvel, true, but how would it possibly work as a weapon of war? The other armaments were more impressive at first glance, especially the plasma ejector. She’d already seen the ejector in action and was itching to get her hands on it so she could carry it back to the Admiralty.

But the more she thought about the eliminon battery, the more genius it seemed. Expose the enemy’s weakness and hammer it. Blackbeard would be caught as well, but Li assured her the humans would survive.

What about Hroom? Would they survive, too? Sure, Li had said. Of course they would. Well, probably.

Tolvern cast a glance at Nyb Pim. She’d explained the risks to him, asked him to pass them along to the other three Hroom in the crew. The pilot did not seem overly concerned. Compared to the rather obvious risk of having your warship explode under enemy fire, or having giant birds peck out your guts with their beaks, the hypothetical risk of the eliminon battery was easy to handle.

“We’re coming along the inside of the ring now,” Nyb Pim said.

“Take us past the station. Smythe, turn on the active sensors when we cross its path. I want confirmation our friends are still there.”

“We’ll have to bring them online now,” Smythe said. “If the buzzards see us looking, they’ll know we don’t dare communicate directly with the station.”

“This calls for some deception,” she said. “Scan the system. Make it look like we’re searching for those supposed reinforcements. We can take a peek at Singapore while we’re at it.”

“Aye, that’s a good idea.” A few seconds passed, then Smythe exclaimed, “Captain! It’s real. They’re really here!”

Smythe’s scans had turned up something else. There, on the viewscreen, was Blackbeard’s salvation.



Chapter Four

Tolvern’s first emotion was elation. Smythe’s scan had revealed a Royal Navy task force. More than that, half the firepower of the fleet: the battleship Dreadnought and an escort of four heavy cruisers, nine torpedo boats, and a dozen corvettes, missile frigates, and destroyers.

Drake, you crafty bastard. You were coming all along.

It was that subspace message he’d sent. She’d misread it, thought he was trying to fool Apex into thinking he was on his way with reinforcements. But it was a mind game on top of a mind game, and it had fooled Tolvern, too.

“Bring up a map of the system,” she ordered.

Smythe obeyed, and her hopes deflated.

His mouth formed a thin line. “Thirty-seven hours, sir.”

“Thirty-seven.” Her voice sounded hollow in her ears.

Dreadnought alone might have turned the battle. Tolvern had gone up against the monstrous ship in the Third Battle of Barsa. Even when the fight had turned against the enemy, Dreadnought had seemed invincible, taking blow after blow. Her guns blasted ships out of the sky and were on the verge of annihilating Blackbeard as well when Drake’s old friend and confidant, Captain Rutherford, rammed his ship into Dreadnought’s upper decks. There was nothing left of Rutherford or his cruiser after he hit, but the blow had disabled the battleship and allowed it to be captured.

Tolvern was sure the arriving fleet, coupled with Drake’s brilliant mind, would help her fight off Apex and deliver a blow that would make the aliens think twice about attacking Albion again. If only Drake’s forces weren’t thirty-seven hours from the action.

The viewscreen shifted. “Here’s Sentinel 3,” Smythe said.

The battle station was a black smear against the icy ring that curved up and away from them. They were within the protective range of its guns already.

“Bring us about,” Tolvern ordered. “It’s our turn to deliver the pain.”

She braced herself as the ship made a violent maneuver. Time to find out if Barker’s repairs would hold, or if they’d be smeared like bloody jam against the far wall. The ship shuddered as Capp and Nyb Pim hooked them back around, but held.

Blackbeard sliced through the icy ring. Broad, but extremely thin, the ring buffeted the hull with ice particles. The ship shuddered again—that was the engine reversing thrust, not the ice—and swung wide to present her main guns. Lances sliced toward them, their energy weapons pulsing fire.

Tolvern called the gunnery. “Give the buzzards a broadside.”

Fifty tons of hot metal exploded into space. Missiles chased after the cannon fire, and slower but deadly Hunter-IIs followed behind. The leading two lances jumped away, as if they’d been expecting this. Another performed evasive maneuvers, but took hits along its flank. It fled the battlefield, chased relentlessly by one of the torpedoes.

That still left roughly a dozen enemy ships targeting them. They came in from every side, and the ship began to take damage. Blackbeard returned fire, letting loose with everything she had, as if it were a cornered animal ready to fight to the death. She couldn’t stand and slug it out; only moments now, and it would be over.

Sentinel 3 appeared. There was no warming up, no experimental salvo from the battle station. It hurtled masses of missiles and bombs, and the plasma ejector fired thousands of green globules. Lances and spears fled this way and that to flee the attack. The globules caught one of the lances, affixed to the skin, and expanded to engulf the enemy. The enemy ship exploded in a fiery death. Another took bomb damage and raced in a straight line away from the battle, seemingly unable to change course.

The other lances jumped. One moment, Blackbeard was about to be overwhelmed by the energy weapons tearing at its damaged shields, and the next it was pulling in next to the Singaporean battle station, largely unharmed. The enemy ships reappeared a few million miles away.

“That’ll show ’em,” Capp said grimly. “Mess with us and they’ll get a bloody nose. Come back for more and we’ll settle their hash for good.”

There was more bluster than reality in the first mate’s words. They all knew the grim reality of the situation.

At first glance it seemed that they’d won a quick and satisfying victory, held their ground and driven away the enemy. Blackbeard had destroyed an enemy ship, and the battle station had destroyed a second. Three others had taken significant damage. Against this, Blackbeard’s shields had taken a few hits, but they’d also bought time to continue their essential repairs.

Unfortunately, that still left the bulk of the enemy’s fifty-six-ship fleet intact. Among them was the harvester ship, which had yet to engage. The battle station had been revealed, and could not easily hide itself again, and Blackbeard was still unable to withstand a single sustained assault with her weakened shields.

There was one other small victory gained, Tolvern realized as she studied the looming enemy fleet regrouping beyond the Kettle’s outer moons. The enemy ranks were not unified. It was once again evident in the jostling. They seemed to be forming two ranks, one organized behind the harvester ship—this force numbered about forty ships in all—and a second, smaller force comprising three of the hunter-killer packs.

“They’re starting to move,” Smythe said. “Not in this direction, though.”

“Gathering speed, that’s all,” Tolvern said. “They’ll jump right in now that they know we’re stuck next to the sentinel’s guns.”

She got on the com to the gunnery. “You’re catching all this?” she asked.

“Aye, Captain,” Barker said. “All batteries loaded and ready to go. If they jump, we’ll be ready for them.”

“What about torpedoes and missiles? Are they holding up?”

“Missiles are fine—no shortage there. We’ve got one more volley with the Hunter-IIs, and then we’ll be down to the older models. But the way I figure, there’s no sense in saving them for tomorrow, eh?”

“Actually, I want you to hold onto the Hunter-IIs. Don’t waste the good stuff—I need it for the next engagement.”

Barker grunted. “We don’t shoot everything we’ve got, there won’t be a next engagement.”

“It’s time for our friends to show their hand.”

“The eliminon battery?” he asked.

“Right. After that, we’ll break out the Hunter-IIs, but not before.”

“Understood. Well, let’s pray the damn thing works. If not, those torpedoes will never make it out of the tubes.”

“Stay on your toes. Expect surprises.” She ended the call, turned to Capp, and told the first mate to pass the message throughout the ship: brace for the eliminon battery.

Tolvern glanced at the screen. The enemy ships were ready to jump back into the attack. Only moments now. If she was right, they’d arrive en masse.

The crew on the bridge stayed busy: Capp, speaking with engineering about power requirements for the engines and the lasers, Lomelí, hard at work at the defense grid computer, working on countermeasures, Nyb Pim, calculating where the enemy would appear, and Smythe, running scans.

“Lomelí,” Tolvern said, “tell Li we’re ready.”



“Yes, sir.”

Before Blackbeard had pulled away from the battle station, Tolvern and Li had worked out a few simple signals. They had to assume Apex could intercept any communications, and couldn’t risk sending direct transmissions, but the warship captain and the base commander needed a way to pass information. A series of one-time only messages.

Lomelí sent one of these messages now, starting with chaff fired from the rear. It flashed on Tolvern’s console, looking like hundreds of small bombs or exploding pieces of debris designed to thwart enemy ordnance. Exactly four point five seconds later, Lomelí launched chaff from the bow.

To the enemy, it would look like Blackbeard was expecting an immediate attack—which she was—but the reason and timing of the chaff meant something else. A signal to Li to fire up the eliminon battery.

“Smythe,” Tolvern said, “bring down the gravity.”

He hit a button, and suddenly they were all floating. Belatedly, she grabbed for the restraints and got herself clamped in. The others had strapped themselves down already.

Normally, the loss of artificial gravity was serious business. It not only kept you walking around in one gravity, as your planet-adapted body demanded, but the artificial gravity coordinated with the inertia engine to keep you from splattering against the wall or ceiling every time the ship pulled a violent maneuver. Blackbeard had come to a complete halt a few hundred miles from the sentinel battle station. It was a sitting duck, as the old saying had it, but sitting still was the only thing that would keep them alive once the eliminon battery fired up.

Assuming the thing even works.

Who really knew? It might fail to operate at all, for one thing. Even Li admitted that Sentinel 3 had never used it in battle. And if it had been used—by one of the other sentinels, for example—Apex might have since designed ways to defeat it.

The first two hunter-killer packs jumped, and three more packs jumped moments later. Twenty-five Apex ships in all. This was the entirety of the smaller force Tolvern had identified earlier. No ships from the larger force had jumped. Interesting.

The bridge was quiet as they waited for the ships to reappear. Tolvern’s arms floated above her armrests, and she had the sudden impression that she was upside down, that the entire universe had flipped over, that all her life she’d been walking on the ceiling and looking up at the floor.

The enemy ships reappeared. Clusters of lances to port, starboard, below and above. And the heavier spears closing in from the front and rear.

Blackbeard fired her main guns. She rolled, and people on the bridge cried out as they were spun around like clothes in a dryer. She fired again. Weapons discharged in all directions. Everything except torpedoes. Those were held in reserve.

Tolvern felt lightheaded as the ship settled, and now she felt improbably that she was lying on her side, that the universe had shifted sideways.

“Come on, Li!” she shouted in frustration as enemy fire laid into them.

Blackbeard was shuddering, emergency lights flashing all over the place. Jane warned ominously of failing systems and dying shields. Where the devil was that eliminon battery?

Li had to have seen the signal. It was too obvious, and it was exactly what they’d discussed. A burst of chaff, a pause of exactly four point five seconds, and then another burst. He’d warned her to have the artificial gravity turned off. But nothing had happened. It must have failed.

And then a giant fist slammed her into her seat. Where moments earlier she’d been thrown against the restraints as the ship turned to position its weapons, now she was shoved down. Her limbs were lead, and it felt as though a man was sitting on her shoulders, another man on her legs, and two more on her chest. Every breath was labored, as if a giant vise had caught her lungs and were relentlessly tightening.

Men and women across the bridge slumped in their chairs and across their consoles. Nyb Pim gave a high moan and struggled to hold up his head, which seemed too heavy for his neck to support.

It was the eliminon battery. Tolvern had been skeptical when Commander Li explained how it worked. Capturing gravitational waves emitted by the gas giant, it channeled them into a sphere surrounding the battle station. Anything within that sphere would be caught in the crushing grip of six Gs. If you already had your ship calibrated to match Albion’s .98 G surface, you could make it seven.

There was no skepticism now. Tolvern felt every pound of additional pressure on her body. Her pulse thudded in her temples, which felt like they would split and let her brains ooze out. When she turned, it felt like her head would snap off and fall to the floor.

She looked at the viewscreen. Sentinel 3’s ultimate weapon had caught the Apex ships in a crushing embrace. Those farther out were still maneuvering, but the ones closer in were either held in place or hurtling on whatever trajectory they’d been following before the battle station fired up its weapon.

“Cap’n,” Capp said. Blood trickled from one nostril and her mouth hung open. “Order fire?”

“Yes.” Somehow, Tolvern activated the com. “Barker. Give ’em hell.”

The phrase “ultimate weapon” wasn’t just hyperbole. Bringing the eliminon battery online brought down the station’s ability to fire other weapons. The battle station was within a protective shell that shielded its inhabitants, but anything outside was affected by the gravitational waves, which spread equally across the affected region. Until it turned off the weapon, it fell on Blackbeard to do any fighting.

Eight Hunter-II torpedoes squirted out of the tubes. Rockets firing, they struggled to overcome the gravitational waves, and accelerated slowly. Each torpedo targeted a single ship. Three were unable to overtake the ships they were chasing, and Tolvern saw at once that the lances would slip out of the gravity cone and escape. A fourth torpedo slammed into the side of a lance, but the explosive was a duds and only partially detonated. The lance was wounded, but not destroyed.

The other four torpedoes, however, found their mark. One exploded inside the engines of a lance and left nothing but microscopic wreckage. Two more struck disabling blows that sent lances spinning, crippled, from the battlefield.

The final torpedo struck a lance along the stern and broke it in two like a banana cut down the middle. These larger pieces flew apart an instant later. The alien ship had been flying directly at Blackbeard when the torpedo struck it, and bits of debris struck them. Tolvern kept the presence of mind to take a quick look, hoping to snare an engine or undamaged weapon. No engine, but she caught a glimpse of shattered bodies and torn off wings. Apex would have approved of the carnage.

Tolvern had destroyed four enemy ships in an instant, but she was upset and cursed her luck. They could have wiped out a third of the attack wave with a single volley. Instead, fully half of her torpedoes had failed to damage easy targets.

It took a moment for her sluggish mind to recognize that an opportunity still presented itself. More than a dozen enemy ships remained within the sphere cast by the eliminon battery. All were dead still, having jumped into place and never regained momentum. One of these was a command ship, a so-called spear, which lay straight ahead.

Not one of them had recovered. Why weren’t they moving? Yes, they had to cope with their own artificial gravity on top of the bone-crushing amounts radiating out from the sentinel battle station, but surely someone would have the presence of mind to put the foot, or rather, talon on the gas and accelerate in a straight line to get them out of the way. A thought came unbidden.

They’re birds.

The wheels were still turning, creaking from one thought to the next, and Tolvern slowly worked it out. Feathers, claws—as tall as an ostrich, but with beaks that her science officer said could manipulate objects much like a parrot’s. And wings.

Those wings were capable of flight. Not racing around like a pigeon or a hawk, but short, turkey-like bursts.

The Apex home world must be lower gravity than Earth or Albion or the typical Hroom world if such a large animal could fly. What did they have their artificial gravity set to? Maybe it was only .5 G. What felt like a crushing weight to humans, crippling to a Hroom, might even kill the buzzards.

All these ships might be filled with dead enemies. She could capture one intact. Learn all their secrets.

Tolvern’s head was pounding, and she couldn’t get excited about the idea while she was trying to remain conscious, though she recognized what a critical breakthrough that would present. But before she could work out a strategy for seizing one of the ships, the spear ahead of them began to move slowly. Someone was still alive on board.

“Take it out,” she ordered.

Capp passed the orders to the gunnery while Tolvern tried to get Nyb Pim alert enough to interface with the nav computer. He moved sluggishly, but complied.

Blackbeard eased into motion. The inertia engine was off, and movement that was too aggressive would kill them. Even the modest acceleration Nyb Pim ordered was enough additional strain that spots flashed in Tolvern’s vision. Lomelí threw up over the defense grid computer, and Smythe had to go help her.

They came up behind the spear and let loose with the deck gun. The larger enemy ship had stronger shields to go along with more powerful weaponry, and didn’t immediately yield to the kinetic fire pouring out of Blackbeard. Tolvern waited until the rear shield lay battered and fractured into pieces, then hit it with the laser. The shield absorbed some of the energy, but was soon melting off like hot cheese. One more hit with the deck gun and the spear blew apart.

Blackbeard swung toward another enemy ship, a lance. It didn’t move, and Tolvern let loose with the main cannons. A single broadside tore gaping holes all along the ship, and it broke into numerous pieces.

The next opportunity came seconds later, as a lance flashed by off port. It had just entered the gravitational sphere when the battle station activated the eliminon battery, and hadn’t altered its course since then. Blackbeard hit it with cannon fire. When it emerged from the far side of the sphere, it was still racing toward the Kettle. Its engines sputtered, trying to move, but Blackbeard had raked it over. It was unable to alter its trajectory and soon plummeted into the crushing gas atmosphere of the planet.

The gunnery loaded fresh missiles and sent a pair toward each of the last two remaining ships. They died without a fight. By now, the others had either drifted outside the gravity sphere around the battle station or managed to limp away. In both cases, they fled for their lives.

Throughout this entire struggle, the bulk of the Apex forces had remained at a distance, seemingly content to observe. A Hroom fleet would have charged in to the rescue, making an all-or-nothing bid to overwhelm the enemy with firepower. A human fleet might have approached cautiously or aggressively, depending on the commanding officer, but most certainly would have attempted to fight in support of its allies.

Apex seemed unconcerned about the heavy losses. In fact, Tolvern was getting the sense that they simply didn’t care about death or destruction suffered even by their own side, willing to sacrifice any number of ships for unknown reasons.

The crushing gravity vanished. It didn’t dissipate, it simply was no longer there. With the artificial gravity off, it was especially disconcerting as Tolvern felt weightless again. Someone vomited loudly—probably Lomelí again. Tolvern’s stomach flopped twice, and then was still.

The sentinel battle station started firing again the moment the eliminon battery turned off. It chased down a fleeing lance with green globules from its plasma ejector, destroying it, and wounded two others with missiles.

“Give me gravity!” Tolvern ordered.

The ship’s systems kicked back on. She meant to chase the fleeing enemies, but they were already safely away. To go after them now would take her far from the battle station’s protective firepower.

Instead, she looked warily at the scans, wondering what the enemy would try next. The tattered remnants of the attack wave flew back toward the harvester ship and the rest of the fleet, badly mauled in the struggle. Thirteen lances destroyed, plus a spear. Several other ships wounded. The enemy force remained formidable, but it no longer looked invincible. It certainly didn’t appear to be spoiling for another skirmish.

From the cheering on the bridge, you’d have thought the entire war had been won. The defense grid and tech console crews came together to slap hands and clap each other on the back. Capp kissed the solemn Hroom pilot right on the mouth, then grinned at his startled look before coming to try the same with the captain.

“Please,” Tolvern said as Capp came in puckered up. “Let’s maintain some dignity, shall we?”

“Ah, you ain’t gonna be all stiff like that now that you’re in charge, are you?”

Stiff, no. Somewhat formal, yes. Nobody would have planted a sloppy kiss on Captain Drake’s mouth, after all. But she couldn’t keep the grin off her face, and she certainly didn’t feel like a victorious naval captain. She was too giddy with relief.

“Smythe, give me a fresh scan. What is that harvester ship doing?”

“Come on, Cap’n,” Capp pressed as Smythe moved to comply. “I thought we was going to die, and I’ll wager you did, too. Ain’t we allowed a little bit of fun after all that?”

“We are allowed, and we did have some fun. Now let’s figure out how to stay alive.”

“They can’t touch us in here,” Smythe said, far too confidently. “That eliminon battery will drive them off. So we stay here and neutralize any long-range attacks. From this distance, our countermeasures can handle anything they throw at us.”

“That’s right,” Capp said. “They got to come in here.” She ground a fist into her palm. “And then we’ll pulverize ’em.”

“Our captain does not look so confident,” Nyb Pim said, studying Tolvern’s face.

“That’s because the eliminon battery can’t protect us anymore,” she said.

Capp thrust her chin out defiantly. “What are you talking about?”

Tolvern held the first mate’s gaze. “It is a single-use weapon.”



Chapter Five

Once it became clear that the enemy wouldn’t force an immediate resumption of hostilities, Tolvern had left a skeleton crew on the bridge and brought Capp, Smythe, and Nyb Pim into the war room. Moments earlier, they’d been cheering, slapping each other on the back, and carrying on like the battle had settled the entire war. Now they stared glumly from around the table as she laid out the facts.

The eliminon battery warped gravitational waves coming off the gas giant, in effect capturing them within a containment field. Releasing them destroyed the containment field, and it had to be rebuilt. When Tolvern first heard of the eliminon battery, she’d assumed that “battery” was being used in the ancient naval sense to mean a collection of guns or cannons, but that was wrong. Battery, in this case, meant the device’s storage capacity.

“So let me get this straight,” Smythe said. “The thing literally needs to recharge.”

“I haven’t got a clue how the physics works,” Tolvern said, “but it appears to have that limitation, yes.”

“How long are we talking about?”

“A day or two—it’s not always consistent. But a long time, given the present circumstances.”

“That is obviously a problem,” Nyb Pim said.

“Yes, Pilot. It is.”

“I do not think we have that long.”

“No, Pilot, I wouldn’t say that we do.”

“Let me grab Brockett and Lomelí and take a look at this thing,” Smythe said. “I’ll bet we could figure out a couple of tweaks. Barker, too. He’s got a good mind for the engineering stuff. Get it up and running faster and the battery would be a lot more useful.”

“Maybe so,” Tolvern said, “but do you think you could do all of that before, oh, I don’t know, forty-eight hours from now? Figure out the science and engineering, and then implement changes to one of the most sophisticated weapons systems ever devised? And do it before the buzzards come flying in for another go of it?”

“Well, no. I guess that would be too much to hope for.”

Tolvern avoided the exasperated sigh that wanted to come out. Instead, she spoke more practically. “The good thing is that Apex has no clue, either. Hopefully. They were certainly caught with their pants down when the device activated.”

“Do birds wear pants?” Capp asked. “Seems hard to put them on over those skinny legs. And then there are the claws.”

“Dammit, Capp.”

“Sorry, Cap’n. I was just wondering.” She brightened. “There’s one good thing. We hold off that long and that’s about the time Drake and his mates will be showing up, right?”

“More or less.”

Capp rubbed her head. “So all we need to do is stay alive for two days and we’re saved.”

“Yes, merely that.”

And yet Capp had a point, didn’t she? They’d lost the element of surprise, but if Drake’s fleet arrived in time, it would be more than an even match. Apex must see the same thing; they’d be eager to renew the attack just as soon as they regrouped.

The key was to keep that attack from happening. An idea began to form, a possible solution to her problem. To implement it she’d need Commander Li’s help. But the two of them could not communicate from a distance for fear of losing their secrets to the aliens.

Tolvern rose to her feet. “Lieutenant Capp, you have the helm. I need to pay our friends on the battle station a visit.”

#

Soon, Tolvern was alone in the away pod. The diamond-like sheen of the ice ring swept across her field of vision, with the gas giant a vast kettle of copper and clay eating up the background. The battle station was only a few dozen miles from the ship, but it had vanished once again against the ring.

A yellow light flashed above the airlock door, and Jane began her countdown. “Thirty seconds to launch. Prepare for rapid acceleration.”

Tolvern’s thoughts turned to the two men who’d attacked Carvalho and stolen an away pod. Megat, the escaped Singaporean mutineer, and Djikstra, the New Dutch pilot who’d led them to this system in the first place. What had they been thinking? How had they even known each other?

Carvalho said that Djikstra was sick when he came down here, sweating and barely able to hold himself up. Was that a coincidence, or did it have something to do with all of this?

Tolvern might never find out. Apex had sent a lance to pick up the pod, and the two men were probably dead by now. If not, they wished they were dead.

Capp spoke over the com. “You remember to pack your toothbrush, Cap’n?”

“Hah. I won’t be long.”

“Better not. Them buzzards are moving again, and I ain’t fighting ’em alone.”

“Twenty seconds,” Jane said.

“An hour, tops,” Tolvern said. “Don’t leave without me.”

“On the other hand, it is a nice ship what you left me. Wonder what it would fetch on San Pablo. Ten thousand quid, I figure.”

“Ten thousand and a bounty on your head.”

“I see your point.”

“Ten seconds to launch.”

“Tell you what, Cap’n. Bring me back a handsome bloke from the station, and I’ll let you keep your ship.”

Tolvern didn’t respond to this. She had closed her eyes and was finishing the countdown in her head. And then the launch. It slammed her back in her seat as she went hurtling from the ship.

She opened her eyes. Ahead, nothing but ice. Above and behind, the vast field of stars, the endless universe. Where was the station? Shouldn’t it be visible by now? Had they miscalculated?

Or worse, what if the battle station hadn’t received her message? She’d sent the signal: two timed bursts from the plasma engine, as if testing it after battle. It meant she would send a pod from Blackbeard.

Tolvern didn’t see the hook or net until it had snared her and she was pushed against her restraints. The hook brought her in, and suddenly she could see the black smear of the station against the surrounding stars. She had to get her hands on that cloaking technology.

Commander Jon Li was in the docking bay to personally help her out of the pod. Like everything else on the battle station, the bay was orderly and neat, but the air was warmer than on Blackbeard, more humid. It also carried a faint floral scent.

Li seemed more relaxed than when she’d last seen him roughly ten hours earlier, and as she studied his face, she was surprised to see that he seemed rested.

“You look like a man who has got a good night’s sleep,” she said. “Don’t tell me you were curled up in bed during the battle.”

“In a manner of speaking. It was artificial sleep, but good enough.”

“What are you talking about?”

“We have a pill that simulates eight hours of rest. Very useful in combat situations.”

“What? That’s medically impossible.”

Li laughed. “Except that it’s not. Look at me.”

“If that’s true, I’ve got to get my hands on it.”

“You pay for it later, of course. The pills let you skip up to two days of sleep, but you crash hard. You need to make up every hour eventually.”

“Oh,” Tolvern said, disappointed. “So it’s just an upper. That sort of thing has been around forever. Since they discovered tea and coffee, if not before.”

“No, it’s not an upper. You’re not jittery, you’re not drugged. It really does feel like you’ve had a good night of sleep.”

Tolvern waved her hand. “Never mind. I’m exhausted, and would rather be in my bed. But the buzzards are milling about out there. You know they’re going to make another charge before the Albion fleet arrives.”

“Those are your ships, then? You’re sure?”

“Absolutely. The big one is Dreadnought. She’s the flagship of the entire fleet. You recall my fight with Apex before jumping into the Kettle System.”

“Right. You lost a warship and came out battered. I recall.”

“HMS Swift. We nearly went down, too. I fired off a subspace message, but I never expected reinforcements. I thought Drake’s fleet was back guarding the home system.”

“So you had no idea he was coming?”

“The admiral’s response led me to believe he was abandoning us to our fate, even though he claimed help was on its way. I thought it was a feint for the enemy. Turns out it was a double feint.”

“He sounds like a clever man.” Li’s face turned grim. “But they’re too far away. They’ll never arrive in time.”

“We have to buy time. The key is the eliminon battery.”

“I know what you’re thinking, Tolvern, but give it up. There’s absolutely no way to recharge the weapon in time. In fact, we’re not even charging yet, we’re still running diagnostics.”

“What?” she asked, alarmed. “You are?”

“That’s the problem with using a weapon for the first time in eleven years—it doesn’t quite work as well as it did in drills. I figure we’ll lose two hours, maybe three. The point is, we won’t get it back online in time for the next attack.”

“I know that, and you know that. Does Apex?”

“Hard to say,” Li said. “Let’s say no. They certainly didn’t act like they were expecting to face the eliminon battery—they weren’t prepared at all. Anyway, it doesn’t matter if they know its limitations or not, they have enough firepower in their long-range weapons to stand off a pace and bombard us from a distance. That would be slow, but I’ll bet they could finish the job before your friends arrive.

“Or,” Li added, “they turn on your admiral first. The Apex fleet is huge—I have no doubt your Albion friends would put up a fight, but the aliens would prevail.”

“You haven’t seen Dreadnought in action,” Tolvern said stubbornly.

“Does it have some special weapons systems, or is it just a bigger, more powerful version of your own ship?”

“Thicker armor, more guns, more ability to take punishment and deliver it.”

“So, bigger and more powerful, but essentially the same as Blackbeard.” Li shrugged.

His implicit dismissal of her ship rankled. He’d only seen Tolvern’s cruiser when it was already battered by the enemy, its armor in tatters. Even so, even helplessly outnumbered, it had delivered a beating to the enemy. True, she’d only survived thanks to Sentinel 3’s defenses, but that was all the more reason she needed to stay alive until the admiral arrived.

“Can’t this battle station move?” Tolvern said.

His tone was wary. “Why do you ask that?”

“That wasn’t a question, not really. Smythe has been in your command module, working your systems. And I’ve seen your schematics myself. You have six plasma engines—I would have commandeered one and patched it onto my ship somehow if I’d had the time.”

“It’s too small for you,” Li said. “I have my own engineers, you know. Koh analyzed your ship. You couldn’t have outrun the birds, and you couldn’t have attained jump speeds. Not with anything stolen from my station, at least.”

“I’m not here to steal an engine. My point is that you can maneuver. Your engines share a fuel source with the plasma ejector. Turn off the ejector and you’ve got enough power to cross the entire system if you need to.”

“Not fast enough to outrun Apex. And once I start moving, I lose my cloaking, so if you’re hoping to slip quietly away before the enemy attacks, give that idea up.”

Tolvern hadn’t even considered that possibility. Was Li sure? What if Blackbeard tucked in against the battle station and they made an attempt to join up with Admiral Drake? The enemy fleet seemed divided, distracted. Apex’s ability to detect hidden enemies was weak. It might work.

“No, I don’t want to hide,” she said, dismissing that idea. “And I don’t want to make a run for it at all. I’m talking about pressing the attack.”

Li’s eyes widened. “You want us to move into an offensive posture?”

“Why not? Sentinel 3 is mobile, it’s a powerful spaceship in its own right. Don’t wait for the enemy to start a long-range bombardment, move toward them as if you have nothing to fear. Blackbeard will assume the role of fire support, stand back a pace and lob missiles onto the battlefield, keep the enemy dancing.”

“Without the eliminon battery, we wouldn’t stand a chance.”

“They don’t know about the eliminon battery though, do they?” she asked. “They don’t know you need to recharge it.”

“So we gain some tactical advantages—assuming they buy it. Once they see we can’t turn it on and off at will, that goes away. They swoop in en masse and wipe us out.”

“There’s one other factor you may not know about,” Tolvern said. “The enemy forces are in disarray. There’s internal conflict in their fleet.”

She explained what she’d noticed in the battle, starting with how not all of the hunter-killer packs were fighting in harmony. The biggest evidence was how one group had jumped in front of the other, preventing an easy victory. One side seemed cautious, the other aggressive.

“It might be nothing more than bad coordination between forces,” Tolvern said, “but given the buzzards’ caste system, I’d expect them to fight as one.”

“That was certainly the case during our war,” Li said. “At least in any individual encounter. We know the greater commanders and the lesser commanders are jockeying for position within a hierarchy. It must be something like that.”

“But what if it’s something even more profound?” Tolvern pressed. “Albion just survived a civil war. The Hroom Empire is in the middle of their own. Even on your own ship, you divided into factions and fought a pitched battle, one side against the other.”

“Don’t try to put yourself in their minds, Captain,” Li said. “They’re incomprehensible, except as a force of nature.”

“I’m not so sure, not in this situation. You know what I think? I think it’s a natural condition of any intelligent species to fight among themselves, even in the face of an external threat.”

“Even if that’s true, what good does it do us?” Li shook his head. “These birds are brutal killers, and the only thing that concerns them is the complete obliteration of a rival. Maybe you can negotiate with the Hroom, but Apex is something else entirely. A deer doesn’t negotiate with a wolf. It runs for its life.”

“Albion is not a deer, it’s a lion. And we’re not running from this battle, we’re fighting it.”

“Understood. That’s not what I meant.”

“And don’t you call this the Dragon Quadrant?” she asked. “Isn’t a dragon the symbol of your Imperium? Do dragons flee for their lives?”

Li’s expression hardened. “We’re no cowards either, if that’s what you mean.”

Dragon or deer, the Imperium was nearly dead. So far as Tolvern knew, this battle station was the only force of Singaporeans still fighting. The rest of the Imperium fleet was gone, the cities of its home world radioactive slag heaps, and an Apex harvester ship was collecting the survivors to torture and feed to its troops.

“So you’ll take the fight to the enemy?” she asked.

A curt nod. “We’ll fight.”

#

Although they’d had no trouble catching an inbound pod, the Singaporeans didn’t share the Royal Navy’s system of firing pods back and forth, so Tolvern had to abandon the capsule that had carried her over, as there was no way to send it back to her ship.

Instead, Li led her down to the launching bay, where she was shown a small ship a Singaporean technician called a scooter. During Sentinel 3’s long years of isolation, the crew had apparently used them to fly around the perimeter of the station, conducting inspections of the hull and docking to complete external repairs. In a pinch Li sent them to scour raw materials from the surrounding ice, asteroids, and even the nearest of the small moons orbiting the planet. A scooter was capable of round-trip journeys of twenty or thirty thousand miles.

The tech pointed out with concern that Tolvern was unlikely to return the scooter, but Li laughed off the objection. “If all we lose today is a scooter, our ancestors will surely have been smiling down on us.”

Tolvern eased herself into the cockpit of the small craft. She was tucked right in, no room to stretch her legs. The tech leaned over her to point out useful buttons and knobs, and had to get right in her face to show her.

Better a scooter than an unpowered pod launched on a preprogrammed trajectory. Launched to a blind spot in the ice ring, to be more precise, with no guarantee the station was even there. In comparison, a throttle and joystick in hand felt like control, even if she knew it was illusory. If only the instrument panels weren’t labeled in Chinese, the screens filled with chicken scratches.

Better not overthink it. A simple throttle and joystick—how hard could it be?

“This way of transportation worked today,” Tolvern told Li. “I’m not so sure about the future. Flitting back and forth from a few hundred miles out is one thing, but what would we do if you were on the other side of the Kettle and we needed to talk? Either we need better encryption or we need a shuttle system.”

“What’s wrong with the scooter?”

“I don’t have a launch platform that can send it out again, unfortunately.”

“Don’t you have a self-propelled pod?”

“A few,” she said. “And sure, I can send them, but you still need a way to send them back. Right now, every trip is a one-way journey—that’s going to use up your scooters and my pods in a hurry.”

“Then why did you launch a pod in the middle of battle?”

“I didn’t. That was unauthorized. We had a few issues on Blackbeard—nothing to worry about. The buzzards saw it, and I’m guessing the pair on board that pod are either dead by now, or wish they were.”

Tolvern looked up from the cockpit at Li, who stood with his hands on his hips, staring, suspicion on his face.

“I thought we were sharing all information. You certainly led me to believe so when I revealed the eliminon battery. Why are you lying now?”

“I’m not lying.” Tolvern blinked, confused. “What do you even think I’m lying about?”

Li turned to the tech. “Show her the ship.”

The other man pulled a computer from his hip pocket and touched the screen. He leaned over and showed Tolvern the screen; it was a small chart of the system. Marked in yellow was the trajectory of a vessel flying away from the Kettle.

“Your pod,” Li said.

“Can’t be. The pods don’t have that kind of range.”

“We saw your launch and picked this up from the exact region where you sent it.”

“I don’t know what that is, but it’s not ours,” she said. “Must be the buzzards. One of the lances, maybe. It swooped in, captured the pod, and is carrying it off who knows where.”

“It’s too small for a lance, and we tracked it from where you launched your pod. Who was it, Tolvern? What are you hiding?”

“I’m not hiding anything. It was your friend Megat. And the Dutch fellow who told us you were here—Djikstra broke Megat out of his cell, and the two of them attacked and nearly killed one of my crew, then made a run for it in the pod.”

“And you let them get away?” Li asked.

“They weren’t going anywhere. I told you, there’s no range on those pods. It has to be a lance.”

“Except that it’s not. That is no lance or any other Apex ship. It’s too small, and it has a plasma engine that is clearly a derivative of your own, based on the signature. It must be your pod.”

“I’m telling you, that pod is in no way capable of crossing the system, and it doesn’t have a plasma engine. Go back to your data, you’ll see the pod was rocket-launched.”

He studied her, and it was obvious that he still harbored doubts. Tolvern was done protesting; anything more and she’d start to sound desperate to convince him. Frankly, she didn’t care if he believed her or not. She’d been on the base nearly forty-five minutes already. She had to get back to Blackbeard.

“Whoever that is,” she said, “they’re leaving the battlefield, not arriving. We’ll worry about the ones already here and trying to kill us.”

“All right.”

Tolvern gave him a hand computer she’d brought over from the ship. “I worked out a few signals on my way over here. There’s a list of them here for you to study. I’ll give you simple orders, and it will be up to you to find the best way to execute them.”

“What if I need to say something back?”

“I didn’t have time for that. Maybe when this is over we can dredge up some Old Earth flag signaling or something. Visual range only.”

Tolvern buckled herself in and gestured for the tech to lower the canopy. “Time to give your scooter a test drive.”

#

They launched Tolvern on an electrified rail. It shot her away from the station, at which point she fired the ignition. Small rockets flared out from the rear of the scooter, and she fought with the joystick to stabilize. In a few moments she was racing toward Blackbeard.

“Hey, this is fun. Too bad I can’t take it for a run.” She got on the com. “I’m on my way.”

Capp answered, her voice tense. “We see you. Approach and we’ll bring you in.” Capp hesitated, then added, “Did you get an update before you left the station?”

“Negative. And I don’t want one now, do you understand?”

“Aye. It ain’t pretty, though. I can say that much, right?”

Tolvern was itching to find out what her first mate possibly meant. And she was tired, her judgment not at its sharpest. She almost asked. But there was valuable information for the enemy in almost anything they could say, and she refrained.

“Capp,” Tolvern warned. “Enough of that. Anything you need before I close the channel?”

“Aye, Cap’n.” The lieutenant’s tone was suddenly playful. “I need a handsome bloke for a roll in the sack. Did you bring me one?”

“I wouldn’t want to aggravate that collarbone injury.”

“That’s what Carvalho said. I told him not to worry, I’m safe enough, but I had to shag him three times before he’d believe it.”



Chapter Six

Tolvern had her update the moment they hauled her into the landing bay. Seeing it on the viewscreen a few minutes later only confirmed the bad news. She settled into her seat and gratefully accepted a mug of hot tea brought to her from the mess while her exhausted brain tried to make sense of the new information.

Blackbeard was no longer trying to hide, and had been scanning the system with all active and passive sensors. Admiral Drake’s forces kept their long march toward the Kettle in relief of the Albion cruiser and her new friend, but they were still a day and a half from the battlefield. Tolvern might have to fight Apex off not just once, but multiple times, if she hoped to survive long enough for reinforcements to arrive.

Meanwhile, they located the departing ship Commander Li had told her about. It was human, all right, and what’s more, Blackbeard’s database identified the type. It was a Dutch tramp frigate, barely large enough to jump. That class of ship had a single deck gun that wouldn’t do much in an actual fight, and generally stuck to areas patrolled by the Royal Navy rather than risking pirates in the outer systems. What was it doing way out here?

The ship had apparently been hidden somewhere inside the gas giant’s orbit. When the battle started, it emerged from hiding and made a run for it. Its motivation baffled her, but she suspected who was flying it: Djikstra and Megat.

“The devil only knows how they got on board,” Tolvern said.

Capp let out a burst of rude language when Tolvern shared her suspicions, but when the cursing ran its course, an expression came over her face that managed to be both outraged and admiring.

“That Dutch bloke must have stashed a ship somewhere. How do you figure he managed?”

“Indeed.” Tolvern rubbed her thumb over the handle of her mug. “How did they get the ship in place, how did they escape from the buzzards? All sorts of questions.”

“However they did it, they ain’t taking chances now. They’re hauling their arses out of here.”

Two men operating a ship alone—it was possible, Tolvern supposed. At least for now. They’d need someone to run some calculations if they ever wanted to jump, unless one of the pair had been a pilot at some point.

The mystery was driving her crazy. Where were those two headed?

“Pilot, is there a jump point out there or are they flying blind?”

“That is difficult to ascertain,” Nyb Pim said. “We do not have a good chart for this system. Smythe has been scanning, but has not yet found anything in that direction.”

Apex ships had begun to maneuver again, and this grabbed Tolvern’s attention. “All right, Smythe. Show me the bad news.”

He changed the viewscreen. More Apex ships had jumped into the Kettle System. Three more hunter-killer packs—which felt like overkill, but couldn’t make the odds much worse than they already were—and, more significantly, a second harvester ship.

This one had a different shape. It was still larger than any of its accompanying vessels, but was long and lean, with a bulbous front and a long, slender rear. It reminded her of a sperm whale, mostly head, tapering off at the tail.

“That makes two harvester ships,” she said. “Why?”

“The buzzards are anxious,” Capp said. “Want to make sure the job gets done.”

“There’s only one harvester ship in orbit around Singapore,” Tolvern replied. “The refugees have all agreed on that much. Anything from a third to half of the population survived the bombardment. That’s thirty to fifty million people for one ship. We have less than a hundred on Blackbeard and another five hundred on Sentinel 3. That doesn’t require two ships.”

“What about Drake and his people?”

“Come on, Capp. Throw in Drake’s entire fleet, and we’re still only talking about a few thousand. Plus the marines in stasis, I suppose. Still, one harvester ship could process us all.”

“That’s not what I mean,” Capp said. “I mean there’s two of us now and two of them. Now we’re even.”

It was a vague explanation that sounded more like choosing teams in a playground game than anything to do with wartime contingencies, and the newly arriving buzzards were flying toward the Kettle, not trying to intercept Admiral Drake’s forces.

But Capp had got Tolvern thinking. What about the disarray in the Apex forces during the earlier battle? Blackbeard and her crew would be dead if not for that. Could this be about an internal struggle among the buzzards? Different forces, all hoping to win the battle for their own personal glory?

“Let’s hope it doesn’t play out like that,” Tolvern decided at last. “Let’s hope they team up and try to take us out.”

“What do you mean?” Capp asked. “How is that gonna help?”

Tolvern turned to Smythe. “How long until the new ships reach us?”

He and Lomelí were scanning the closer, more menacing force, and it took the tech officers a moment to come up with the answer.

“Roughly twenty hours at current speed. Maybe a little less.” Smythe punched at the console. “They came through a closer jump point, it looks like.”

“Twenty hours.” Tolvern gave Capp a half smile. “So if the first fleet waits around, that buys us time.”

Capp grunted. “Only about half what we need until Drake shows up.”

“I’ll take twenty now and figure out how to earn twenty more when they show up. And engineering will be all too glad for another day to patch us up. Maybe I’ll even get some sleep.”

But that was not to be. A few minutes later, Smythe warned of movement in the closer enemy fleet.

The main enemy force had been largely static for a few hours, milling about, positioning their ships near the moons, occasionally sending a small group to jump away and then jump back, but now two of the hunter-killer packs were breaking off. They slid sideways toward one of the smaller moons, away from Blackbeard, but Tolvern suspected this was just positioning, and she was soon proven right.

Four more packs accelerated in an apparently random direction, but Tolvern was sure they were preparing for a short-range jump. Worse still, the harvester ship was in motion. It had remained at a distance, content to observe in the earlier battle, but now came drifting in toward the planet and the icy ring where Blackbeard and Sentinel 3 remained in orbit.

“It’s on an intercept course,” Nyb Pim announced.

“King’s balls,” Capp muttered. “How long we got?”

“I am calculating that now.”

“Smythe,” Captain Tolvern said, “I sent you some codes when I came onto the bridge. Do you have them?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Tell the sentinel we’re moving out.”

“Passing your orders to the gunnery, sir.”

Moments later, the second and third missile launchers opened, but didn’t fire. This was the signal to Commander Li that she intended to move, and he was to follow.

Barker called at once from the gunnery, even as the missile launchers were still opening. “Can you buy me some time?”

“How much and why?” Tolvern asked.

“Thirty minutes, forty, tops. We’re almost done hammering the damaged aft shields back into place. Trust me, you want that done.”

She glanced at the viewscreen. Possibly. The harvester ship was accelerating slowly, the other enemy craft still jostling. None of the lances had jumped. There might even be a full hour before battle if the cruiser and battle station maintained their position, and Tolvern could sure use the aft shields before she took more fire. Unfortunately, that would mean abandoning her latest plan.

“Keep your men working,” she said, “but we’re moving out.”

“Captain, listen to me. We need those shields. It’s the difference between absorbing twenty seconds of enemy fire and us all dying after two. As soon as we go into battle—”

“As soon as we do, we’re dead anyway. I don’t intend to fight. Not this time.”

She cut the channel and ordered Nyb Pim to take them right at the harvester ship. The instant Blackbeard moved out of orbit, the battle station materialized on the screens, its cloaks coming down. It swung out of the icy ring, several small engines flaring blue-green gasses behind it.

The station didn’t have rapid acceleration and was moving at a crawl compared to the speed that Blackbeard could manage, even with only one engine. Tolvern let the station overtake them, then ordered the ship to take a position directly above and behind the battle station, like a remora following a shark.

“Let’s see what the buzzards think of this.”

The harvester ship kept coming toward them, and though both sides were moving slowly, the distance closed quickly. The bridge fell silent as they waited to see what would happen. There were so many enemies. No way to defeat them all, not without the miracle of the eliminon battery.

“We’re coming in range,” Capp said.

Tolvern hesitated. “Lomelí, activate the defense grid computer. Looks like we’re fighting after all. And get Barker on the com. I need to talk to him.”

“Yes, sir,” the young woman said, her tone grim.

“Smythe, ready the next signal for our friends,” Tolvern said.

But Smythe cried out at that same moment. “It’s slowing down!”

It was true. The harvester ship had reversed its engines. The lances ahead of her broke off and swung wide, into an unmistakably defensive posture.

“Keep going,” Tolvern said. “We can’t look hesitant or they’ll know it’s a bluff. We have to hope they withdraw.”

The harvester ship was, indeed, falling back, retreating with its forces toward the small moon. At last Tolvern had her excuse to break off the charge, no longer worried they’d suspect her of bluffing. After all, the human forces might be confident enough in open battle, but chasing an enemy around a moon and falling into a potential ambush was another matter.

She breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank God they bought it. Send Li another signal. We’re falling back to the ring.”

“That didn’t buy us much time,” Capp said a few minutes later, after the message had been sent. “An hour, tops, if they move again.”

“Barker was only asking for thirty minutes. He’s got to be happy about getting the aft shield fixed. Well, patched up a little, anyway.”

“But what do we do next?” Capp asked.

“Any time they come after us, we’ll rush out to challenge them. Make it look like we’re spoiling for a fight now that we’ve seen how the eliminon battery works against their forces.”

“The eliminon battery that doesn’t work, you mean,” Smythe said. He and Lomelí were back to working together at the tech console.

“We know that, they don’t. Anyway, we’ll keep bluffing them if we need to. But what I’m hoping they decide is that it’s prudent to wait for reinforcements. That buys us twenty hours.”

“And another twenty until Dreadnought comes to pull our stones out of the fire,” Capp said. “All we’ve done is double the number of ships against us. Our goose is cooked, either way.”

“Maybe not fully cooked,” Tolvern said, “but I’ll admit to a strong aroma of burning feathers. I’m open to suggestions. Anyone?” When there was no answer, she continued. “So we bluff, we buy as much time as we can, and then we fight when the enemy calls us out. It’s our best shot.”

Two of the hunter-killer packs jumped, and they braced themselves for a sudden fight, but the ships reappeared farther out, near several lances that had been drifting aimlessly since the harvester ship retreated.

The two clusters of ships flew across each other’s paths in seemingly random patterns. Back and forth, like two flocks of birds crisscrossing in flight.

“What are they up to now?” Tolvern asked.

Nobody had an answer or even a guess. It was buying them more time, though, so she wasn’t about to complain. Let the buzzards keep swooping past each other as long as they wanted.

The lances kept passing closer and closer, until at range it looked like they were all right on top of each other every time they passed. Sometimes one of them darted in, as if to ram the opposing ship, only to dart away at the last moment.

And then two ships coming at each other both broke in the same direction. One was a lance, the other a larger spear. The spear took a glancing blow off starboard, and gas and debris vented into space. The smaller lance crumpled on impact. It spun away, explosions blasting holes in its side. Moments later it detonated. Hard to say which ship had been at fault, but it seemed as though the lance had hesitated a moment too long before swerving.

The harvester ship had approached the action during the mysterious darting back and forth, not participating, but observing. Now, however, it rumbled into the action. The other ships scattered. Some vanished entirely, jumping clear and reappearing a million miles out.

The wounded spear limped off, picking up speed, but the harvester ship overtook it before it could escape. It launched tentacle-like tethers, hooked the spear, and dragged it in. The smaller ship tried to break free, but failed. A gaping hole opened in the rear of the harvester ship, and it stuffed the spear into its maw before closing again.

“I don’t know what just happened,” Tolvern said, “but whoever was on that spear is in for a rough time of it.”

“Good,” Capp said. “Let the buzzards eat each other. You think they’ll start up that strutting again? Maybe we can get rid of a few more of ’em.”

By now, Sentinel 3 had inserted itself back into the ice ring. Cloaked once more, it would slide slowly in one direction or another along the ring in an attempt to conceal itself. Tolvern ordered Blackbeard closer to the planet.

The lances and spears that had participated in the bizarre swooping movements milled about for a few minutes, but soon rearranged themselves into packs.

The harvester ship faced them. The mouth of the thing opened again, and out came a spear. It flew away smartly and took position at the head of the hunter-killer pack that had been lacking a command ship.

Tolvern was confused. Was the whole thing a repair job, and the harvester ship had slapped a couple of patches on and sent the spear out again? How had they done it so fast? And why had the spear tried to escape?

“It’s a different ship that came out,” Smythe said. “Longer and narrower. Different engines.”

He brought it up on the viewscreen, but Tolvern couldn’t see a difference. “I’ll take your word for it. So it seems the harvester carries a spare command ship or two.”

“That spear was running for its life,” Capp said. “Didn’t want to be brought in. Bet they’re all dead.”

“Whatever happened, they’re organized now,” Tolvern said. “And moving. They seem to have got whatever it was out of their system. Smythe, get ready to signal the sentinel to move again.”

“The buzzards are going to be on to us,” Smythe said. “They’ll see the same missile bays open, the same response from the battle station, and they’ll know what it means.”

Tolvern had thought of that already, but she had a bigger concern. “And it gives away other signals, too. They’ll realize we’re using physical cues for all of our communications. I’d rather have them thinking we had some secret new high-tech system in place that they can’t crack. Well, there’s nothing to be done for it.”

But that didn’t mean she’d tip her hand too quickly. Better to wait until the last minute before giving orders to engage.

What about that bizarre behavior, all the swooping and darting around? What if it meant something, like a difference of opinion? One side wanted to attack at once, the other to wait for reinforcements. They’d played a game of outer space chicken until the action got out of hand. Now, they were pissed off and ready to finish off the humans.

At first it looked like Apex would simply repeat their charge toward the Kettle. But once the entire enemy fleet was in motion, they swung around and moved away from the planet.

“The buzzards are retreating,” Capp said.

No, not retreating. Not for good. Plotting a course that would unite them with the new Apex forces to form a super-fleet comprised of two harvester ships and dozens of lances and spears. But that gave them the twenty hours of breathing room she’d been craving. Well, eighteen hours at this point, but she’d take it.

And sleep. God, I could use some rest.

But the news soon proved even better than that. What seemed at first like a direct flight from the Kettle to rendezvous with the newcomers soon became something else. The closer fleet flew instead toward a blue-green gas giant about half the size of the Kettle. This was roughly in the direction of the second Apex force, but not exactly.

A few minutes after that, the newcomers farther out began to decelerate. Eighteen hours was recalculated as twenty-two, then thirty-one, then fifty. Were they possibly coming to a complete stop? No, they were turning around!

By the time Tolvern stumbled off the bridge toward her cabin, her adrenaline circling the drain, it seemed as though the enemy had called off the entire attack. Both alien fleets were flying away, possibly even jumping out of the system.

It can’t be that easy, can it?



Chapter Seven

Drake waited outside the airlocks for the visitors to emerge from the docking bay. Admiral Malthorne had never waited here for his guests; he’d made them trudge down the hallway, take the lift up, and approach him on the bridge, where he sat like an emperor on his throne.

The battleship still carried Malthorne’s touches, even down here. No cheap plastic runners along the walls, no simple recessed lights, but delicate fixtures lined with bronze. The rampant lions on the airlock doors weren’t molded plastic, they were carved wood and gilded. There had once been an eagle claw on a shield placed below the lions, but Drake had ordered it cut off.

The arrogance of it took Drake’s breath away. The claw and shield was Malthorne’s family crest, and after King Bartholomew’s death during the atomic bombardment of York Town, the admiral had seized the throne and gone about fixing that ugly crest to everything he touched. A usurper trying to prove his legitimacy.

Well, the admiral was dead now, executed for high treason. Whenever Drake felt too young, too inexperienced, too inadequate, he thought about Lord Malthorne’s treachery, and he didn’t worry quite as much about his competence.

He didn’t feel nervous about his visitors until Manx told him through the com that they’d been snared and brought inside. Suddenly, he felt the urge to retire to his chambers, pour a snifter of brandy and settle his nerves.

The door swung open, and there she was. Captain Jess Tolvern, looking trim and alert. Her eyes were lively and intelligent, her mouth in a half smile that was almost mocking. He’d known her most of his life, since he would ride to her house as a young man, asking for her father, the steward of the estate, but things were different now. He wanted to take her slender, girlish figure in his arms.

Tolvern had long been a friend and a confidant, but nothing had been the same since that moment between them at the end of the war. Capp had passed Drake a bit of winking gossip, and suddenly his views of Tolvern had shifted wildly, like an arrow aimed at one target that hits another. Tolvern was apparently in love with him. And, he discovered, somewhat shocked, he harbored romantic feelings for her, in turn. It had not been the time or the place to move on those feelings, but they were acknowledged on both sides.

Now, staring at her lovely face for the first time in months, he wondered. Did she still feel that way? She was now captain of his old starship and doing a damn fine job at it, too. Ambition had probably swept away foolish romantic notions.

There was a wiry middle-aged man with her. Time and genetic drift had changed the look somewhat, but the man, with his slightly angled eyes and low, drooping eyelids, was clearly a descendant of the Chinese people from Old Earth. A year ago, his appearance would have looked strange to Drake, but not anymore.

“This is Jon Li of the Singapore Imperium,” Tolvern said. “Commander of Sentinel 3 and our new ally.”

“And how have you been communicating?” Drake asked her.

He meant what human language, not how they’d done so without radio or subspace, although these questions had also occurred to him. Simple language concerns were the big question. The Singaporean refugees he’d met spoke some greatly altered dialect of Chinese, and the fleet had communicated with them through a combination of pidgin Dutch and translation software that allowed written Chinese, which could still be read by the refugees.

“I’m pleased to meet you, sir,” Li said in perfect English. “Captain Tolvern has told me all about you.”

Drake’s eyes widened in surprise. “You speak English. And with an Auckland accent, by God.”

“I didn’t learn it the hard way, through study and practice. A technological cheat, you could say.”

“Our new friends have all sorts of tricks they’re willing to teach us,” Tolvern said. “You probably saw some of them from a distance.”

“I’d love to take a closer look,” he said. “Use some of your technology to defeat Apex.”

“Everything we have is yours,” Li said. “With conditions, of course.”

Drake gave the man a wary look, then glanced at Tolvern, who raised an eyebrow. Conditions? Albion didn’t share its technology, as a general rule. Even giving the Hroom the sugar antidote to save their crippled civilization had come with a good deal of struggle and soul searching.

What exactly did Li want? Drake couldn’t give them weapon systems; those invariably found their way into unfriendly hands, usually via greedy Ladinos or New Dutch, although there was no shortage of unscrupulous merchants within the Albion kingdom itself. And to what purpose would Li want them? The Singaporeans were a dying remnant literally being consumed by their enemy.

He was inclined to say no, but what about that plasma weapon? Drake was itching to get his hands on it. And there was also that trick that had disabled the enemy vessels long enough for Blackbeard and the station to pick them off one by one. What the devil was that, and how could he put it to use? Drake would bend the rules if it meant gaining an advantage against the buzzards.

But this was not the time or place to negotiate.

“Let’s go to the bridge,” he said. “We’ll talk there.”

He carefully watched Li’s expression as they took the lift and made their way down the corridor past smartly dressed navy officers and enlisted personnel. The fleet had been picking its way carefully through the outer systems for months, and had yet to get caught in the sort of fight that had destroyed HMS Swift and left HMS Blackbeard battered. His forces could use a good battle, to be honest—the fleet wasn’t for decorative purposes, after all—but he’d needed to get out here, closer to the enemy. In any event, he could tell from the way Li was looking about that the navy was making a good impression so far.

They came onto the bridge and Li’s eyes widened, even as Tolvern scowled as she took in the remnants of Lord Malthorne’s gold-plated decorating style. The crew on the bridge stared at the Singaporean commander with open curiosity.

Li stopped in front of the viewscreen and gaped. Sentinel 3 loomed across the screen, with the gas giant behind it. Blackbeard lay tethered to the side, chewed up in the fighting, but probably in better shape than it had been a few days earlier. Tolvern would have used any break in the action to complete emergency repairs.

“I haven’t seen the station from this angle for eleven years,” Li said. “It seems so fragile from here.”

Drake wouldn’t have put it in those terms. It may not look as secure as one of the orbital fortresses Albion put into orbit around its planets, dug deep into captured asteroids, but the battle station bristled with weapons, and it was a massive thing, the diameter as wide as HMS Dreadnought was long. Blackbeard looked like a toy in comparison.

“Lieutenant Manx,” Drake told his first mate. “Show our guest the firepower of this fleet.”

Manx led Li to the defense grid computer, where he brought up schematics of the cannons, torpedo tubes, and missile batteries. Manx also showed Li the other ships of the fleet, telling a little bit of their capabilities and weaknesses.

Li asked sharp questions. He wondered why there were no carrier-type craft. The role of small fighting craft was carried out in the Royal Navy by torpedo boats, Manx explained, which were admittedly not ideal for fighting Apex. They were ships meant to stop commerce raiders, but especially to mob and destroy Hroom sloops of war.

“In other words, your forces are designed to fight a different enemy than the one you now face,” Li said.

“We’ve made adjustments,” Manx said stiffly, “but there’s more to be done, admittedly.”

Drake led Tolvern out of earshot. “Li seems competent enough. He’s asking good questions.”

“He is a smart man, that’s not his weakness. It’s command, or lack of it. Li struggles to hold his crew together. Eleven years of isolation did a number on him. On them all. Some of them went nuts.”

“What exactly do you mean by ‘nuts’?”

“I mean behavior that cannot be interpreted as anything other than madness.”

Tolvern laid out her initial encounter with the sentinel battle station. Her arrival had set off a mutiny of those who wanted to keep the station hidden and would destroy Blackbeard to do it. They’d planned to kill some of Blackbeard’s crew and force the rest into service. Even the arrival of the enemy fleet hadn’t changed the mutineers’ opinions; if anything, it had hardened their fanaticism.

Drake stopped her when she got to the part about Megat and Djikstra escaping.

“The Dutch pilot ran off with the leader of the mutiny? That’s disturbing.”

“I know, sir. I wish I’d blasted them out of the sky when I had the chance, but I can’t imagine they’ll do us any harm now.”

Drake wasn’t so sure of that. He told her to go on.

Tolvern told him about the strange maneuvering and apparent squabbling among the Apex ships, which was something Drake’s fleet had also noticed. Sentinel 3 had noted it as well. Tolvern and Li had discussed it after she’d docked her ship to the battle station for repairs.

Drake and Tolvern walked toward the defense grid computer, where Li and Manx continued their discussion.

“Can I get a look at the Hroom ships?” Li asked.

Manx had been switching the view on the main screen to show the various warships, and now he focused on the six mottled green sloops of war. Mose Dryz kept his forces aloof and insisted that if and when the time came to fight he would follow his own counsel. Frustrating. The Hroom were capable fighters, but their tactics could be terrible. Having them fight on their own was like having a finely made sword that had lost its edge.

Li asked Manx a few questions about the Hroom’s capabilities, then turned to Admiral Drake. “It’s an impressive fleet from top to bottom,” he said. “I wish we’d had Albion on our side a dozen years ago. The Hroom, too.”

“Albion and the empire were at each other’s throat twelve years ago,” Drake said. “We’re still at each other’s throat, depending on which faction you’re talking about.”

“The Hroom are prickly—we never managed to enlist their help either.”

“They’re in serious trouble now. Not much choice if they don’t want to be wiped out.” Drake shook his head. “But if we ever do pull out of this, I expect we’ll be back to fighting each other.”

“At least it’s possible to work with the Hroom,” Li said. “They may not be human, but they’re close enough to understand.”

“That’s what I always thought, too,” Tolvern said.

“Tell me about this wonder tech you’ve got,” Drake said.

He thought Li might balk, force the conditions he’d bluntly mentioned outside the docking bay before speaking a word. But he told about the battle station’s cloaking abilities, the impressive plasma ejector, and finally, the eliminon battery. Drake had watched the enemy ships become completely disabled, but he’d had no idea how it had been done. The answer was not what he’d expected.

“So you defeated them with gravity?”

“Yes, essentially artificial gravity channeled from the Kettle—the gas giant, I mean. Singapore had the technology already—we used it in mining operations in our own asteroid belt. It was more useful for larger operations than a typical anti-grav and inertia engine system. And then once, when we caught one of the birds alive—”

“You caught one?” Tolvern said sharply.

“It didn’t live long. Some of that was the gravity. We suffocated it without knowing. Our scientists believe their home world is a low gravity planet with roughly .5 standard Gs. That explains how they’re human-size, but can still fly. Singapore is within the normal range of human-habitable planets, 1.1 Gs, and we keep our ships and stations calibrated to that level. The birds struggle in that gravity. Crank it up even more, and they collapse, they can’t fly their ships. Humans, on the other hand, can handle a few extra gravities, no problem.”

“Assuming you don’t mind the blood draining from your head,” Tolvern said.

“It’s an ingenious idea,” Drake said. “We don’t have the tech, though, even if we’d thought of it ourselves.”

Other officers had gathered around Commander Li while he was talking, curious as to what the man had to say. Drake hadn’t begrudged them the chance to eavesdrop, but now he needed privacy.

“Will you join me in the war room, Commander? Captain?”

Tolvern and Li followed him. Once inside the war room, Li looked around, taking in the ostentatious decorating style of Admiral Malthorne. He walked to the oak bookshelf and pulled off a volume, and his eyes widened.

The Art of War. Sun Tzu.”

“Old Earth civilization lives on wherever her children take root,” Drake said.

He had been on the verge of disavowing the decorating style, but now he thought better of it. Li was obviously impressed. Drake took a seat at one end of the table and gestured for the other two to take their seats on either side of him, Tolvern to his right and Li to his left.

“We have taken in thousands of refugees from your world,” Drake said, “and we have no interest in this sector except to fight Apex as far from home as possible. No designs on your resources, no desire to oppress your people or interfere in any way. We are not and never will be enemies. But I will be blunt, Commander. We need your technology. Whatever you share will never be used against you.”

Li tented his hands and looked at the viewscreen on the table, which showed HMS Repulse, the powerful Aggressor-class cruiser that would be a battle-axe in Drake’s hand in the upcoming fight.

“Our tech is hard earned. Foolish to hand it over for nothing. And risky.”

“Maybe so,” Tolvern said, “but in a crisis like this, all of us must take risks.”

Drake hid a frown. He didn’t like the “all” part of that statement. He wished he’d briefed her on his strategy before they entered the war room. He couldn’t afford to give over his own military secrets, not because he was worried about how Li would use them, but because the Singaporean civilization was already destroyed. Anything he handed over could make its way into the enemy’s hands.

Li nodded at Repulse. “It’s an impressive ship, Admiral. Like Captain Tolvern’s, only in somewhat better condition.”

Blackbeard was in fighting trim when I handed her over,” Drake said with a smile. “I’m afraid Captain Tolvern doesn’t always treat her possessions with the respect they deserve.”

He said it gently, but Tolvern winced. There was no need to blame herself; a mission with two ships through enemy territory was meant to stir up trouble, and had.

“On the other hand,” he added, trying to deflect her guilt, “I seem to remember leaving my ship rather battered on an occasion or two. Remember the shape we were in after the First Battle of Barsa?”

“It’s worse now, believe me,” she said. “I’ll be raiding your armory and probably hiding in your shadow as we ship out.”

Drake wasn’t going to address that yet. Instead, he said, “I wish we knew where Djikstra and Megat were headed. Our charts of this sector are practically nonexistent.”

“I can help with that,” Li said.

He brought out his computer, and after fiddling around for a few minutes, got it to interface with Dreadnought’s computers. A complex web of jump points and star systems mapped itself out in 3-D above the war room table. Their position was marked blue.

Good charts were as much a state secret as the engineering of weapon systems. Jump points eroded or migrated over time, and what formerly seemed safe might take you into hostile territory or land you within the corona of a star. That Li was willing to share such detailed information suggested the extent of his cooperation.

“We only had two jump points marked when we came in,” Tolvern said. “But these charts are crowded with them.”

“The system is generally unstable. Most of these jump points carry some risk. Green jumps are reliable. Use the yellow ones with caution. I would advise against the two red jump points.”

“Still,” Drake said, “with so much wormhole activity, the Kettle System looks to me like a critical choke point. Why aren’t you trying to control access in and out?”

Li gave a bitter laugh. “Why do you think we built Sentinel 3?”

“A single battle station, no matter how powerful, is hardly sufficient. What about settlements? Naval depots?”

“We had four mining colonies and two naval bases,” Li said. “All wiped out in the war. The system has been a desert since then—only the sentinel, quietly waiting. The Hroom didn’t come, Singapore sent no ships, and Apex was absent until now.”

Drake wanted to call in his pilot and subpilot to take a closer look at the charts, but for now an overview would be enough. He peered closer.

“What about this jump point here?” he said, pointing at one of the green dots on the map. “That’s where the bigger Apex force disappeared.”

“That takes you deeper into the Dragon Quadrant,” Li said. “Toward my home world, in fact.”

Toward what was once my home world, and is now an abattoir. Li didn’t actually say that last part, but the dark look that flashed over his face was clear enough.

“I see,” Drake said. He took another look at the map. “We came from here. Another jump back in that direction and you’re in Hroom territory. What about this one?” Drake pointed to a jump point well placed among the inner worlds, this one yellow.

“That leads toward what we call the Snake Quadrant, a big mass of stars with no known jump points. We discussed taking the entire population—or as much as could be evacuated—and fleeing Apex if we could find a way in. We found nothing. You can bump around the edges, but you won’t get in.”

Drake exchanged a glance with Tolvern. Was the Snake Quadrant the same thing Albion called the Omega Cluster? They knew someone who claimed she’d found a way to jump in and was leading a one-way mission to colonize it.

Li pointed to another jump point, this one situated near the farthest gas giant in the system. “This also takes you to the Hroom worlds, but more importantly, it’s where Megat and Djikstra fled.”

“Ah,” Tolvern said, leaning forward in her chair. “Megat might have known about the jump point ahead of time. And apparently Djikstra had a ship stashed nearby.”

“I cannot possibly see how,” Li said. “There have been no visitors to this system, no invaders. Djikstra would have had to drop a ship on one of the moons a dozen years ago, and that’s impossible. How would he have known?”

“More likely he slipped in under your instruments some time recently,” Drake said. “It’s a small ship.”

“Impossible,” Li said.

“With all respect, Admiral,” Tolvern said, “I agree with Commander Li. Djikstra didn’t know where the Singaporean base was hidden. We just broadcast in and waited for an answer. There’s no way the Dutchman planned his escape—it must have been spontaneous.”

“So what happened between when the fugitives launched their pod and they got their hands on a ship?” Drake asked.

“A lance was trying to pick up the pod,” she said, “but we lost track in the chaos of battle and didn’t see how it ended.”

“We didn’t see even that much,” Li said. “Too many other things going on.”

“And we were too far away to pick up that level of detail,” Drake said, “so I guess none of us know for sure. But I’m suspicious that an escape pod somehow escaped Apex.”

“That’s what I’m thinking, too,” Tolvern said. “The buzzards must have helped them. They scooped up the pod, gave Djikstra and Megat a captured ship, and sent them off toward the jump point. But why?”

“I don’t believe it,” Li said. “Megat is a fanatic, but he hates the birds as much as anyone. I don’t know this other man, this Djikstra, but surely he wouldn’t let himself be willingly taken onto an Apex ship. What human would?”

Tolvern looked thoughtful. “Maybe they didn’t have a choice. Maybe they’re being forced to obey the enemy.”

“You don’t know Megat like I do. There is no possible blackmail or threat that would force him to help the birds.”

Drake tapped at his console to manipulate Li’s chart of the Kettle System, and the jump point taken by the two runaways activated a link to another chart. This showed an unfamiliar collection of small, rocky planets circling a red dwarf. There was only one other jump point visible, and it led to yet another system. This third system showed a medium-size yellow star, with two rocky planets in the habitable zone, and a single, massive gas giant that was nearly large enough to be a star in its own right, a so-called brown dwarf. There were no other jump points marked, only the entry.

“Looks like they’ve flown into a cul-de-sac,” Drake said. “Is that right?”

“You’re looking at an incomplete chart,” Li said. “Singapore never explored that system, just jumped in long enough to scan the big objects. It’s empire territory, and a Hroom fleet chased us out.”

Drake studied the array of planets more carefully, then compared it to his own database. The computer gave a match.

“I know this system,” he said. “It’s Hroom territory, all right. The hostile faction.” He pointed to a spot near the outermost of the rocky worlds. “There’s a jump point somewhere in orbit around here, if I remember right. General Mose Dryz would know exactly where. Another jump or two and you can get to a small Ladino colony on Samborondón. They’ve been taking Singaporean refugees. I’ll bet that’s where the fugitives are headed. Some of our old friends we knew on San Pablo are there, too.” He turned to Tolvern. “That’s where Rodriguez has set up his new yards.”

“I’ve heard of Samborondón,” Tolvern said. “A watery world—that’s about all I know. Why would Megat and Djikstra go there? Just to hide as far from civilization as possible?”

Drake gave it some thought. “You can jump straight from Samborondón toward the frontier, and from there, you can reach Albion space easily enough. So it’s not as far from civilization as it looks, and that worries me.”

“There are Hroom on Samborondón, right?” Tolvern said. “Talk to the general. He could send a message and have Djikstra and Megat intercepted.”

“Not the right kind of Hroom,” Drake said. “If I remember correctly, this system is neutral in the civil war. They won’t be helping Mose Dryz.” He gave Tolvern a thoughtful look. “Rodriguez runs a good operation. Wouldn’t be the first time we used his yards.”

“Oh no, you don’t. I’m not going after them.”

“You’re in no shape to carry on the fight. Rodriguez can patch you up. And I want those fugitives.”

“Admiral, please.”

Drake nodded, more decided now. “I’m giving you a second plasma engine and sending you back for full-scale repairs.”

“And what are you going to do when I’ve left?”

“I’m still figuring that part out,” Drake admitted. “Most likely try to pick a fight with the enemy.”

“Then you can’t afford to send me away. You’re way out here, no way to supply yourself. You need all the fire support you can get. Blackbeard’s guns—”

Blackbeard is a liability, Tolvern, not an asset. I can cobble you a quick engine repair, but you’d still be the slowest ship in my fleet. I can’t be waiting around for you, can’t be sending you hiding behind the lines whenever the enemy appears. You’re no help to me until you’ve seen the yards.”

Tolvern thrust her chin out and crossed her arms. “Hardly unprecedented. Happens every time someone takes damage. When is the last time you went into battle with every ship in perfect shape?”

Drake hardened his voice. “Tolvern, you will take HMS Blackbeard to Samborondón for repairs. While there, you will search for Djikstra and Megat and bring them into custody. Are we understood?”

The fight went out of her expression, though her tone remained grudging. “Yes, Admiral. As you command.”

“Good. We’ll be docked here for a few days while we get that new engine installed, and we can figure out how to get you safely through. The general might have some ideas. Meanwhile, Commander Li,” Drake added, “I want to see these weapon systems you’ve devised, and if there’s any way we can put them to immediate use.”

Li cleared his throat. “Yes, well. There’s still the matter of securing our cooperation.”

“Oh, yes.” Drake had forgotten all about Li’s conditional offer for assistance. “Your so-called conditions.”

“I will aid you in any way possible, of course. But first, you will use your fleet to liberate Singapore and save it from extermination.”



Chapter Eight

A few hours later, Tolvern was on Blackbeard, together with Admiral Drake, who’d come back with her in the pod. Blackbeard had just snagged a second away pod, and Tolvern and Drake waited in the engineering bay while it was hauled in. The pod popped open, and a long, slender figure unfolded himself.

Drake leaned over and whispered in Tolvern’s ear. “He’s in a foul mood. Give him plenty of space.”

One look at Mose Dryz as he stomped toward them and she wondered why Drake felt he needed to be explicit. The Hroom general muttered to himself in a series of whistles, squeaks, and grunts that passed for Hroom language, and his long limbs flailed as he walked, making it dangerous for anyone who stood too close.

The bay was filled with engineers and boatswains, who had a plasma engine disassembled on the floor and hanging from chains. The heat shields were in place, but the rest of it was a mess of parts large and small. This spare engine, such as it was, had come from a missile frigate in Drake’s fleet that had kept overheating every time it accelerated for a jump. Drake had stripped it out and replaced it with a spare, and now it was Tolvern’s replacement. Assuming they could get it operational again.

Several of Li’s technicians had come over to assist in the repair, and they stared as Mose Dryz approached Tolvern and Drake. The general seemed to feel their gaze and turned to glare.

“He’s a Hroom,” Barker growled nearby, “not a buzzard. He’s not going to eat you for lunch.”

The general looked down on the chief engineer. “I would not be so confident about that, human.”

Barker grunted. “And what’s that supposed to mean?”

“Never mind, Barker,” Tolvern said. “Keep to your work.”

Mose Dryz fixed his gaze on Tolvern, his entire nose flattening against his face as he breathed heavily. He loomed above her, well over seven feet tall. His mottled pink skin flushed with every breath.

“We are honored by your visit, General,” Tolvern said, “but a warning would have been nice.” “So you need an escort through the Getzus System. Is that accurate?”

“That was the admiral’s decision, not mine. If you have an issue with the . . . instructions”—she was careful not to say “orders”—“then you’ll need to talk to Drake, not me.”

Mose Dryz glanced sideways at Drake, who didn’t speak, only gave a slight nod.

“And once that is accomplished, I am to take position near the Kettle and wait for the Albion fleet to return,” Mose Dryz continued. “If Apex approaches, I am to sacrifice my fleet to protect the sentinel base.”

“Again, General,” Tolvern said, “these are not my decisions.”

“You humans stand in solidarity,” he said bitterly. “There are harvester ships in Hroom territory, hovering uncontested above our planets. Who worries about them? They’ve killed millions already, laid waste to several systems. No human will do a thing to help us, but Albion will fly to the other side of the sector to rescue a human colony at risk.”

“We need this battle station, General. They will only share their charts and technology if we agree to drive off the buzzards.”

“Oh, you need it, do you? If it were a Hroom base, you would simply take it. And then you would probably sell us into slavery as our reward.”

Drake had been silent during all of this, but now he seemed unable to hold his tongue. It was largely because of his actions that Hroom slavery had been abolished.

“That is a dark insult, General,” he said. “We are not slavers, as well you know.”

“You would still take what you wanted were it a Hroom base.”

“Go ahead, then,” Tolvern said. “Take the technology yourself. Sentinel 3 drove off a huge fleet of Apex ships, but I’m sure your six sloops of war can manage.”

The general stared back. Then he turned on his heels and walked away from the work on the plasma engine. There was visible relief among the Singaporean workers, and a few grunts from the Blackbeard engineers. Tolvern and Drake followed.

Tolvern spoke at his back. “We’re negotiating with the Singaporeans because we have to.”

“So you claim.”

“It may not be apparent,” Drake said, “but Captain Tolvern is against the plan.”

Mose Dryz turned. “Against it in what way?”

“Tolvern doesn’t want to go to Samborondón, she wants to stay in the fight. I want her to stay in the fight, too, but her ship is no good to me now, and I won’t sacrifice her. I won’t sacrifice you, either.”

“If you want the Hroom as an ally,” Mose Dryz said, “you need to defend our territory, too. And it isn’t just decent behavior, it is a wise strategy as well. Those harvester ships are feeding on us, but they won’t stop there. They will multiply in number and carve a path right through the empire, and then they’ll be on your doorstep, too.”

“They’re already on our doorstep,” Tolvern said. “We’ve been attacked in Albion space.”

“Nibbled at, probed. Nothing like the wholesale slaughter we’re suffering. They’ll soon be feeding on us like scavengers on a corpse. Then it will be your turn.”

“You have a point,” Drake said. “It helps us if the Hroom stay strong enough to fight. That’s one reason I turned over the sugar antidote.”

Mose Dryz looked solemn at this. His pale complexion showed that he’d continued as an eater, and Tolvern guessed that the small satchel at his waist carried packages of sugar. The general somehow maintained enough discipline to keep from gobbling so much of the white stuff that he suffered swoons in the middle of combat, but he didn’t have enough to rid himself of the addiction entirely by taking the cure.

“I need more than that,” he said at last. “I need you to fight for me. You have made a promise to this base commander. You will attack the harvester ship feeding on Singapore, and he will give you technology. I will make a similar arrangement. That is, if you want my help in reaching Samborondón.”

“I don’t need you,” Tolvern said. “Blackbeard can get to Samborondón without you.”

“Maybe you can, maybe you cannot, but I do not think your admiral will risk it.” Mose Dryz held Drake, who suddenly looked uncomfortable, with his gaze. “He will not see his former ship destroyed.”

Tolvern studied Drake to see if it was true. Her heart kicked at what she saw. It was worry, all right, but not just for the ship. He glanced at her, looked away, then glanced at her again. He was thinking about her, too.

Blackbeard is an important ship for the fleet,” she said carefully. “Admiral Drake has legitimate concerns. Some of his reasons may also be personal. Is that fair to say, Admiral?”

“I want my hands on those two traitors to the human race,” Drake said, sidestepping the question. “And if I can get my beloved . . . ship out of harm’s way at the same time, so much the better.”

That pause and his emphasis seemed obvious to Tolvern, but the general would miss the misdirection, of course. Hroom always did.

“Tolvern needs to get through, and the two of you want my help,” Mose Dryz said. “And I am telling you that my help comes with conditions.”

“Which are what?” Drake asked.

“There are five harvester ships in Hroom territory. If you are willing to fight the one at Singapore, you can do the same for us.”

“To escort me through one potentially hostile system?” Tolvern asked. “I don’t think so.”

“Plus, you’ll have continued use of my fleet. If not, I will take them elsewhere.”

Tolvern scoffed. “Hah. Where?”

“She’s right,” Drake said. “You’ve given me six sloops, which is a nice gesture, but it won’t turn the tide of the war. Give me a real fleet—that’s how you can help me. You do that, you put your ships under my command, and I’ll take the fight back to Hroom territory.”

When the general didn’t answer, Drake shook his head with visible anger. “There you have it. The rest of your forces are fighting the civil war, chasing each other instead of battling Apex harvesters. You’ve repeatedly assured me you cannot offer more than six sloops. You also say you won’t put yourself under my command. Very well. Help me escort Tolvern, and then you can be on your way. But don’t cry to me in another year when there’s nobody to stop the buzzards from feasting on your empire’s rotten corpse.”

Tolvern thought Drake was taking a big risk. Those six sloops might not be an entire fleet, but they might prove critical in the fight at Singapore. If the general flew off in a huff, Drake’s forces would suffer a great loss.

“Perhaps my original proposal was overly demanding,” Mose Dryz said at last. “Let me propose a new agreement.”

They’d come to a halt on the far end of the engineering bay, near stacks of tyrillium armor shipped over from Dreadnought’s hold. Enough to cobble together some second-rate shields until they could reach Samborondón. The general put his enormous hand, with its long, thin fingers, on top of his head in what was a curiously human-like gesture of thought. He was obviously still working it out.

“I will escort Captain Tolvern to Samborondón while you approach Singapore. Do not fight the enemy fleets on your own.”

“That is not your decision,” Tolvern said. “We don’t command you, and you don’t command us.”

Mose Dryz continued as if he hadn’t heard. “While Tolvern is repairing the ship and taking the fugitives into custody, I will collect more warships.”

“How many?” Drake said, tone cautious and uncommitted.

“I can promise thirty sloops.”

Tolvern blinked. “That’s . . . a good fleet.”

“You have this many ships?” Drake asked.

“Yes, if I take everything under my command. And I do mean everything. I would have nothing to fight either Apex or the Hroom death cult. When I come back, we will fight to free Singapore from the harvester ship. I will place myself and my ships under your command, Admiral.”

“And in return,” Drake said, “I will be obligated to return to Hroom territory as soon as Singapore is free?”

“Yes, you will use all of the resources of Albion to cleanse the Hroom worlds of Apex.”

The admiral looked thoughtful. “You know this wasn’t my plan. We discussed it last time you visited me on Dreadnought.”

“I know. You want to hunt down the Apex home world and devastate it.”

Tolvern drew a breath. Was that Drake’s idea? It was audacious, but if what they knew about the buzzards was accurate, such a victory would win the war. A species that considered itself the apex predator, feeding on the weak while it gained strength to attack the strong, would see a successful attack on its home world as the ultimate act of defiance. It would buy Albion respect, and with it, time.

“And I still believe in that plan,” Drake said, “as you must know. Aren’t you afraid that I’ll make a promise and back out of it?”

“Of course I am worried. Humans are notorious liars. But you seem to be an honorable man, James Drake. We have worked together, and you have told me the truth several times where lies would have served you better.”

“What do you think?” Drake asked Tolvern.

The easy answer was that she preferred the idea of thrashing Apex in their home system. The thought of flying Blackbeard among a powerful Albion force with thirty sloops of war to lend additional firepower was exhilarating. Throw in the Singaporean technology, and they’d smash the buzzards once and for all.

But if they first crushed Apex at Singapore and swept the buzzards from the Hroom systems, that would be a great victory, too. Bring the Hroom civil war to an end, then send a massive fleet into enemy territory to finish the job. Forget buying a few generations, how about wiping the buzzards out altogether? The universe would not miss them.

“How do we know you can deliver?” she asked the general.

“Hroom are poor liars,” Mose Dryz said. “We rarely attempt it, and we succeed even more infrequently.”

“You’re sincere—I can hear it in your tone. But I doubt you can deliver thirty sloops of war. You told us that your entire fleet only numbers twenty sloops.”

“Eighteen. But I believe I can get as many as fifteen more if I can convince a neutral faction to join me.”

Tolvern laughed. “So you were lying.”

The pink color faded from the general’s face, leaving him almost white for a moment before his color returned. “I did not lie.”

“You made it sound like you had thirty sloops to turn over, when you’ve only got eighteen, and that includes the six we can already see.”

“I truly believe I can convince them to join us. I have a plan!” He sounded outraged and humiliated at the same time.

“Maybe it wasn’t a lie,” Drake said with a smile, “but you were dissembling. I’ll make a strategist out of you yet.”

Mose Dryz made a curious whistling sound. “Well? What about it?”

“If we make a deal,” he said, “how long would it take you to deliver on your end of the bargain?”

“I will be back in three weeks with your sloops. You and I must work out a way to learn of your whereabouts before I depart or we will never be able to rendezvous.”

Drake held out his hand, which his counterpart took, enveloping the admiral’s hand with his long fingers.

“General, if you can get me thirty sloops of war in three weeks, you’ve got a deal.”

#

“You can’t be happy to lose the six sloops you already have,” Tolvern told Drake after the general had returned to his command ship.

“Not happy at all. But I’ll manage. HMS Dreadnought can hold her own.”

“So I have noticed.”

The admiral and his captain walked the corridor toward the bridge. Most of the crew had served under Drake, and they greeted him warmly whenever they passed. Some forgot to salute, but clapped him on the shoulder and grinned like they were old friends instead of admiral and subordinate.

“Besides, I’m not looking for a major naval engagement,” Drake said when the two of them were free again. They stopped in front of the door to the bridge. “Not yet. I’m attempting to stay alive until the rest of you get back. Do just enough fighting to convince Li that we’re serious. I won’t get into a full-fledged battle until I have all available forces. Or so I hope.” He hesitated. “I sent a subspace to Captain McGowan, ordering his task force to this system.”

“Then the enemy knows, as well,” she said.

“I know, and I hope it wasn’t a mistake. Not because I’m worried about giving ourselves away—Apex already knows we’re here, and soon they’ll have a good idea that we intend to free Singapore. My worry is about McGowan. Have I set Peerless up for an ambush?”

“McGowan is clever,” Tolvern said. “He’ll know the risk and take precautions.”

“McGowan’s fleet is protecting the home worlds. As soon as Peerless ships out, there will be nothing but a few orbital fortresses and a handful of destroyers standing in the way of a direct assault on Albion. We might win at Singapore only to find the kingdom devastated and harvester ships feasting on the remnant.”

Drake led her onto the bridge. Tolvern studied his face as they entered and he settled into his old seat with a sigh. The others on the bridge sprang to their feet and surrounded him, chattering excitedly.

“It is very good to see you, Admiral,” Smythe said, saluting. “Wait until you see the modifications to the defense computer. Lomelí is a genius.”

“Oh, don’t exaggerate,” the young woman said, blushing. “It’s only—”

Someone else talked over her. “Barker has a new torpedo array that—”

“. . . logical to arrange it that way because—”

“. . . the buzzards’ deficits in detection—”

Everyone was shouting at once, except for Nib Pym, and he was making an excited humming noise in the back of his throat that provided a soundtrack to the other noise.

“Can I get you anything, m’lord?” Capp asked in a loud voice. “Tea? Brandy? A pipe?”

“Some earplugs?” Drake said.

“Everyone quiet down, please,” Tolvern said, embarrassed.

“Can someone tell me why my ship is in such rotten shape?” Drake asked when the noise had calmed down. “Did you sell the other engine for scrap, or did someone steal it when you weren’t looking?”

Tolvern had already passed along the ship logs during her visit to Dreadnought, but he listened as Smythe and Capp took turns telling about the battle with Apex when they’d lost Swift, then chattered on about the various other scrapes and narrow escapes since they’d seen him last.

“Ah, so carelessness is the answer,” Drake said. “I might have known the lot of you would come to no good.” His tone turned serious. “I hate that we lost Swift. That was a blow.”

“I don’t know how they found us,” Tolvern said. “Apex has poor detection technology, and we were traveling cloaked and in silence.”

“Never discount the effect of luck in war,” he said. “And most of the time it’s bad luck and seems to help the enemy.”

“It was bad luck for Swift, all right,” Tolvern said. “She’d already survived one encounter with the buzzards. A second encounter was too much. What about you? What have you been doing all these months?”

“We’ve certainly had our adventures. Perhaps not as harrowing as your own.”

Drake shared a few, starting with a skirmish with Hroom death cultists Dreadnought’s first week out of port. On another occasion, the admiral sent a missile frigate to buy supplies from a mining colony while the rest of the fleet waited, cloaked, a few hundred thousand miles away. Some bold pirates put together a small fleet and tried to charge in under the frigate’s missile batteries and seize her as a prize. Were they ever surprised when Dreadnought dropped her cloaks and showed her main guns.

“We hung a few pirates that day,” Drake said. “And the ones who got away will be a little more wary in the future.”

He spent a few more minutes chatting with his old crew, then rose. “Well, I’m afraid I must be going. Capp, tell Lieutenant Manx that I’ll be back on board Dreadnought in one hour. I want all preflight checks completed and the fleet ready to go by my return.”

“Aye, Cap’n. Er, Admiral! Sorry, sir.”

The admiral only smiled at this. There were disappointed comments all around as he made his final farewells. More than a few must be thinking how nice it would be to have Drake back in the captain’s chair. Tolvern might have felt slighted by this, but she shared the sentiment.

“Captain,” Drake said, “will you accompany me to the science lab? I need to talk with Brockett before I go.”



Chapter Nine

Science Officer Brockett was studying feathers under a microscope when they arrived, and didn’t look up even after Tolvern repeatedly cleared her throat.

“Brockett,” she said sternly.

“Oh, sorry, Captain. I’m just . . . Admiral Drake! My apologies, sir.”

Tolvern gestured at the feathers. “Anything new?”

“I’m taking a break from studying the Apex substance Carvalho took from the hull. Studying the data, that is. I don’t have the substance itself anymore.”

Drake frowned, so Tolvern explained what Carvalho had discovered while he was out on the hull trying to free Blackbeard from the battle station’s tether. She wouldn’t risk keeping it on board, and had ordered Brockett to incinerate it.

“It’s a shame we don’t have it for further study,” Drake said.

“They weren’t flinging space snot at us for giggles,” Tolvern said. “I’ve got to assume it’s something very bad.”

“Such as?”

“What if it turned into a corrosive acid and burned straight through the hull?”

“A containment field?” Drake said.

  “I was in no position to mess around—fighting off boarders, battling the mutiny on Li’s station, preparing for battle with the buzzards.”

“Understood,” Drake said. “You made a judgment call, one I probably would have made as well.” He glanced at the science officer. “You’ve had a chance to study the substance. Any theories on its purpose?”

“Yes, sir. I broke down three samples, and it’s odd. The composition was changing from one test to the next. In the first one, it had incorporated molecules of our tyrillium armor. In the second and third, it seemed to be consuming part of the glass slides I’d put it on. This in spite of treating them with dyes and other chemicals. The snot wasn’t inert, is what I’m saying.”

“So it was an acid?” Tolvern asked, surprised that it could be something so simple. “Just dissolving whatever it touched?”

“Not dissolving, sir, incorporating. Turning into that substance, maybe. Like camouflage. If Carvalho had stumbled on it a few days later, we might not have detected it at all.” Brockett hesitated, and Tolvern sensed he was stepping onto shakier ground with his guessing. “What if the substance is designed to send a signal to the enemy? Allow them to track our ships wherever they go?”

Tolvern remembered something. “Swift had been in a fight with Apex already. What if she took some space snot, and that’s how the aliens found us?”

“We’ll implement a new protocol,” Drake said. “Immediately after any contact with the enemy, the crew will scour the surface of affected ships.”

“And what about those of us who’ve already been in battle?” Tolvern asked. “Maybe half the fleet is already infected.”

“If you’ll give me the resources, I can design a coherence scanning interferometer to scan the hulls,” Brockett said.

“I have no idea what that means,” Drake said, “but if it will detect this alien substance, then go right ahead.”

“The science is straightforward enough, but I could use Smythe’s engineering skills to make the instrument. If you can spare him, Captain.”

“For this?” Tolvern said. “Of course.” Her mind drifted to something else that had been bugging her. “What do you two think about the strange dance with all of the lances and spears?”

She summarized what she’d come to believe. There seemed to be two competing factions in the Apex fleet. Her evidence was the lack of coordination—at least in the initial stages of the fight—followed by all of the posturing, the bobbing and weaving. It had grown so confused that a collision destroyed one ship and led to another being swallowed by a harvester ship. The harvester spit out a new command vessel to replace it, and that was the point where the fighting stopped.

“What’s got me confused is why they didn’t fight it out,” she said. “If there were two different factions, I don’t understand how they resolved their differences.”

“That’s the definition of alien behavior,” Drake said. “If it mapped directly onto the human experience, they wouldn’t really be aliens, would they?”

“What does that say about the Hroom? We can understand their motives easily enough, but they’re aliens.”

“Are they?” he said. “You’ve got one serving as your pilot. I just cut a deal with a Hroom general, one where both sides clearly understood all the terms.”

“You’re redefining what it means to be an alien,” Tolvern said.

“Perhaps I am. A thousand years ago our ancestors would have called the Singaporeans’ ancestors aliens. Now they’re just another flavor of human. Different, but not inscrutable. Why not extend the same privilege to the Hroom? If we’re going to live side by side as civilizations, it seems to be a necessity, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Excuse me,” Brockett said, “but if you mean that alien behavior is unintelligible, then Apex aren’t aliens either.”

The other two looked at him, and Brockett continued. “Apex behavior has counterparts in the animal kingdom. Not a mirror of any one species, but with elements of several. Once you piece that together, you can figure out what’s going on.”

“Go on,” Drake said.

“Start with ritual combat, which is common in the animal kingdom, even in early human tribes, who displayed more chest thumping and spear waving than actual violence. When two small tribes get together, an actual fight that leaves ten or twenty dead on each side can devastate both. Packs of lions and wolves do the same thing. More roaring and posturing than killing.”

“It looked like posturing, all right,” Tolvern agreed. “Like flocks of birds going back and forth trying to intimidate each other.”

“We already know that Apex has castes,” Brockett continued. “There are the commander types and the more numerous drone types in all their variations. They’ve genetically engineered themselves, but I’ll bet the castes represent an ancestral condition. Roughly speaking, you have queens and you have sterile workers.”

“Like bees or ants,” Tolvern said. “Is that what you mean?”

“Exactly. Social insects, but played out in flocks of birds instead of invertebrates. Why not? Some birds have colonies, and it’s something that could have developed in bird life as easily as among insects. And as predators, birds have an advantage over other animals. They are swifter and more mobile. Only gravity limits them, and in a low-gravity, high-oxygen environment, you’d expect the top predator, the apex predator, to be a bird. In this case, flocks of birds.”

“I’m confused about the ritual warfare part,” Drake said. “Human tribes that engaged in that sort of nonsense lost out over the long run to larger and better organized societies. Tribes lost to chiefdoms, which were overwhelmed by city states backed by agriculture, and so on up to multi-world kingdoms and empires. How can Apex compete on a colony or tribal level?”

“Think of the birds more like horse raiders from the steppes,” Brockett said. “Nomads have frequently overrun settled societies in the past.”

“But the buzzards aren’t true nomads,” Tolvern said. “They’ve got a technological society, which means they have resources to guard, some sort of home world or system.”

Brockett looked uncertain. “You might be right.”

“If there is a home world, we’ll find it and burn it,” Drake said grimly. Then fresh doubt showed on his face. “Back to the ritual posturing. This was the battlefield. Why would they risk it here and now? They might have won otherwise.”

“They might not have had a choice,” Brockett said. “Think about social insects and swarming behavior.”

“You mean there’s a rival queen in the flock?” Tolvern asked.

The science officer pointed to the array of feathers he’d laid out for study under the microscope. Some were drab, others had color at the tips only, and others were brilliant scarlet, turquoise, or emerald green, like macaw feathers, only larger.

“This is a drone feather,” Brockett said, pointing to the smallest, drabbest feather. Then he pointed to the largest, most brilliantly colored feather. “This belongs to a queen. What are all the rest of these? Sub-castes, I assume. But it seems that some of them are in transition.

“So maybe they don’t have full control of the process,” he continued. “Periodically, some sort of struggle within the flock splits off part of a force as a rival queen arises. That may have happened during an inopportune moment in the fight.”

“Inopportune from the buzzards’ perspective,” Tolvern said. “Not from ours. It was one of the few ‘opportune’ things to happen to us lately.”

“That would explain why there’s no single armada of harvester ships,” Drake said. “I’d assumed they were like the battleships of the fleet, with a grisly, temple-slaughterhouse element to them. But maybe each harvester belongs to a different flock, a rival of all the others. Maybe we’ll never have to face them all.”

That sounded like wishful thinking. There was a whole lot of speculation going on in this conversation, and they obviously didn’t have all the answers yet. Tolvern wasn’t sure that was even possible. There might not be an ultimate answer.

“One other theory,” Brockett said. “What if the harvesting changes the chemical composition of the flock? Once they start killing, some combination of status and resource availability forces change. The flock grows, and then a split happens organically.”

“Seems like something you’d want to control if you were the buzzards,” Tolvern said, “and you were perpetually locked in life and death struggles with alien races.”

Drake nodded. “Hence, the genetic manipulation.”

“But you can only break so far from biology,” Brockett said. “The size of the human brain is partly limited by the width of a woman’s pelvis. The spinal column is a clear evolutionary hack in all vertebrate species, and worse in humans thanks to recent bipedalism. The upright position has cursed us with all manner of back pain. The Hroom underwent a similar change in posture in their evolutionary history, but a little bit of luck in skeletal structure, and they face no such issues.

“My point is that whatever social structure evolved within the Apex flocks is now baked in, no matter how much they manipulate their genes.”

They had veered off topic, and as fascinating as the subject was, it was almost time for Tolvern and Drake to go their separate ways. She had one final question.

“Any guesses why Megat and Djikstra might have thrown in their lot with the aliens?”

He shook his head. “I can’t believe they would do such a thing.”

“Some biological reason? Anything at all?” Tolvern pressed.

“When is the last time a deer cooperated with a wolf?” Brockett asked. “There must be some other explanation for what we saw or thought we saw.”

It was similar to Li’s position, and Tolvern was inclined to believe him and write off the two fugitives once and for all. Forget this whole mission to Samborondón.

Tolvern and Drake left the science lab, stopping once they were alone in the corridor.

“I might be wrong about Megat and Djikstra,” Drake said, “but I’m still sending you to Samborondón.”

“I understand. I don’t like leaving, but I don’t like flying Blackbeard when she’s all beat up, either. Get her back in fighting trim, and I’ll feel a whole lot better. May as well hunt down those two idiots while I’m at it.”

“And it gets the general back into Hroom territory to recruit his fleet.” Drake hesitated. “It’s not that I wouldn’t rather have you with me.”

“I know that, sir.”

“Listen, Jess,” Drake said. “There’s something I’ve been thinking about.”

Tolvern caught her breath. Last time he’d used her Christian name, they’d been standing together after Malthorne’s execution for treason. Something had passed between the two friends, admission from Drake that he knew of Tolvern’s romantic interest. And shockingly, that he was not entirely disinterested himself. He’d done so with his typical Drake reserve, which left her in greater turmoil than ever.

“I’m wondering if you’ve been thinking about the same thing,” he said.

“That is difficult to say,” she said cautiously. Her mouth was dry. “It depends on what exactly you mean, James.” She liked the way his name tasted as it left her lips.

Drake opened his mouth to say something, then took a step back when one of the crew rounded the corner, walking toward them. Tolvern realized just how close he’d been standing to her. Close enough to lean in and kiss, as a matter of fact.

She cursed silently as she saw that it was Lieutenant Capp. No doubt the other woman had seen the admiral step back, and there would be teasing down the line of the kind that only Capp could get away with.

More importantly, the moment with Drake was gone.

“There you are, Admiral,” Capp said. “I been trying to get through. Manx just called from Dreadnought. All systems are checked out and your fleet is ready to go.”



Chapter Ten

HMS Blackbeard limped away from the battle station a few hours later. Tolvern was embarrassed by the condition of her ship, and glad that Drake had already shipped out with the bulk of his fleet so he wouldn’t see her struggling to integrate the new plasma engine while keeping the old one from breaking down. She reminded herself that they’d only arrived at the battle station ten days earlier, and during that time, they’d been forced into combat against the enemy, leaving them more battered than ever.

The crews of Blackbeard and Sentinel 3 had worked around the clock since the battle, using supplies hauled over from the fleet, so the ship was in much better condition than it had been. They’d repaired life support systems and replenished their depleted stores of mines, torpedoes, and missiles, as well as patched up significant damage to the hull.

Two major problems remained. First, shields were at roughly forty percent strength from bow to stern. They had to avoid any fights. Second, the blasted plasma engines, one damaged, the other rebuilt, undersized, and prone to overheating.

By now, Dreadnought and Drake’s other ships were accelerating toward one of the jump points. They had new charts from Commander Li—not exactly fresh, admittedly, but light years better than anything they’d worked with before—and were going to approach the planet of Singapore through the back door. That meant a few extra jumps rather than a direct route.

Tolvern headed in the opposite direction, and General Mose Dryz followed with his six sloops. The Hroom did a few maneuvers, tested their systems, then fell in at a crawling pace while Tolvern struggled with her engines. Six hours after departing the battle station, she was still creeping along at 15,000 miles per hour, and was ready to turn around and slink back for more tests and repairs.

And then engineering figured out an alignment issue with the newer, smaller engine, and unclogged one of the electron beam neutralizers on the second. A little more tinkering, this time with the negative grid on the larger engine, and they were off.

“Acceleration is still slow, Captain,” Smythe said, “but we’ll be able to reach jump speed.”

“And the warp point engine?” Tolvern asked.

“It passed all the tests. It should work.”

And if not, they’d disappear into the void as a stream of subatomic particles, never to be seen again. Theoretically, they might pop up on the other side of the universe, but most likely, they’d simply be dead.

But that didn’t happen, and a few days later they found themselves recovering from a jump, with the Hroom sloops already pulling back into formation. The Singaporeans called this the Kunlun System, after a volcano on the home world. The exit jump point was close to a red dwarf, and things would get warm. Tolvern figured the risk of ambush was greater than the risk of giving away their position, and had Smythe blast the system with active sensors during the first day of travel to make sure that they wouldn’t stumble into a flock of lances. The system appeared empty, desolate, even.

From Kunlun, they jumped into the Getzus System without incident. This system was inhabited, and the resident Hroom immediately spotted them. Three sloops of war pulled out of orbit from around one of the inner worlds, and were joined by a collection of smaller craft coming out to challenge Blackbeard and the general’s sloops.

General Mose Dryz called over. “They are cultists.”

“You mean the God of Death?”

“Yes, Captain Tolvern. They worship and adore Lyam Kar, and have sworn to fight all humans and any Hroom who would fight by their side.”

“King’s balls,” Capp grumbled. “You’d think them cultists would’ve lost their religion when we smashed up their death fleet.”

“It’s religion, Capp,” Tolvern said. “You wouldn’t expect people to change their beliefs based on the results of one battle, would you?”

“Don’t see why not. That god of theirs didn’t help them none, did he?”

The general hummed deep in his throat. “Do not doubt the existence of our god, Lieutenant Capp. He certainly exists.”

Capp looked ready to say something else, but Tolvern glared her into silence.

“We certainly have the firepower to defeat these cultists,” Mose Dryz continued, “but I would rather have those sloops in my fleet than as my enemies.”

“And how do you propose to persuade them if they’ve sworn to kill us all?” Tolvern asked.

“They might not have identified your ship as of yet. What if you were to veer off and let me speak to them alone? You could wait for me at the jump point.”

“Hmm. How long?”

The general turned and spoke in his hooting language to someone offscreen. “My pilot says we will only lose ten hours if we go meet these cultists.”

But Nyb Pim had apparently run his own calculations on the nav computer and spoke to Tolvern through her com link. “My estimate is thirteen hours of waiting for the general at the jump point, plus whatever time he spends negotiating.”

“Hold on one moment, General.” She cut audio to address her pilot. “Can we delay and still catch the fugitives before they reach Samborondón?”

“I am running calculations now.” A minute later Nyb Pim came back with the answer. “I estimate even odds. If we don’t, we’ll arrive shortly thereafter.”

Tolvern made her decision and connected with the general. “Go ahead. Recruit them if you can, but don’t mix it up if they balk.”

“Mix it up?”

“Don’t do any fighting. Negotiations, only.”

Mose Dryz merely fixed her with a look, then cut the line. She hoped that was agreement.

Blackbeard and the general’s sloops soon went their separate ways. Tolvern’s destination was a jump point in a similar orbit to that of the inhabited planet, but the planet and jump point were on opposite sides of the sun, which took Blackbeard far from the hostile sloops. It was close enough, however, for Mose Dryz to rendezvous when he was done negotiating with the cultists.

Eighteen hours later, Tolvern came onto the bridge intending to give the order to decelerate as they approached the jump point, since they weren’t going through yet. The others were staring at a small ship on the viewscreen.

“Is that our target?”

Capp flashed a triumphant smile. “Aye, Cap’n. We caught them bastards.”

“So soon. I didn’t expect it.”

Nyb Pim hummed. “They must have poor charts. If they were forced to wander the system looking for the jump point, that would explain their delay in jumping to safety.”

“And a two-man crew,” Tolvern said. “Sleep must be hard to come by. Are we going to catch them in time?”

“They’re nine hours from the jump,” Smythe said from the tech console. “We’re thirteen hours out ourselves.”

“So we can almost grab them before they make it through,” Tolvern said. “But not quite.”

“It ain’t as bad as that,” Capp said. “The gunnery says we can fire in five hours. Shove a couple of missiles up their arse and they’ll never make the jump.”

A couple of long-range missiles wouldn’t do much from this distance against a real enemy. Plenty of time for countermeasures, and a missile with that kind of range was almost all engine, with very little explosive power. But for such a tiny ship it was overkill.

“Tempting,” Tolvern said, “but our orders are to take them prisoner, not kill them.”

“So we follow them through?” Capp said. “Grab ’em on the other side?”

“How is the general getting on?”

“Still negotiating, apparently,” Smythe said. “The two sides have been standing off a pace from each other for six or seven hours now. Want me to send a subspace?”

“Too risky,” she said. “Apex might be listening.”

And now she had contradictory orders. Drake had told her to stick with the general until Samborondón. He’d also told her to capture Djikstra and Megat. She could wait for Mose Dryz at the rendezvous point and let the fugitives through, figuring she could catch them later, but by now her target probably knew she was chasing. The fugitives might break for a different jump point and escape, and then she’d never see them again.

“Say we jump four hours after they do,” Tolvern said. “Forget the concussion, time to restart, and all of that. Once they’re through, and we’re through, how long until we make up that four-hour head start?”

Nyb Pim returned an answer a moment later. It would take another ten hours of chase time on the other side of the jump point.

“Ten hours out, ten hours back,” Tolvern said. “Add the thirteen hours it will take to reach the jump point in the first place.”

“That will make us late to our rendezvous,” Smythe said.

“But maybe not so late that the general would think we’d left him behind. Pilot, show the chart of whatever is on the other side of that jump.”

Nyb Pim put it on the main viewscreen. It was another Hroom system, which added a complication. She’d rather have the general around to help pick her way through. But worse, there were several jump points, and two were close by. If she waited for the general to arrive before jumping, she’d never grab the fugitives in time. They’d vanish through one of the jump points, and it would be a coin toss which one.

She called down to engineering and explained the situation to Barker. “Any chance we can disable their ship with a missile before they jump?”

“A chance? Sure, and you can also wing a sparrow with a moose rifle,” Barker said. “It just takes a really, really lucky shot. Most likely, you’re on your hands and knees looking for scorched feathers.”

“Thanks, that’s all I need to know. Stand down your missile crew, I won’t risk it.”

Tolvern thought about it for a few minutes before making her decision. Once she’d decided though, she was certain it was the right call.

“Keep engines at full,” she ordered. “We’re chasing them through the jump point.”

#

Tolvern woke up on the floor, having apparently unfastened her restraints after the jump. Probably trying to find the bathroom, she thought, her stomach heaving. Heroic effort kept it down. Her head felt like one of Barker’s people had taken up residence inside her skull, armed with a percussion hammer.

It was her worst jump concussion in months, and as she staggered to her feet, she saw that she was not alone. Smythe and Lomelí slumped over their consoles, Capp sat with her head hanging back, and Nyb Pim whistled in pain. A young man named Grosbeck had come up from engineering to discuss another tweak to the plasma engines, and lay unconscious in one of the jump seats.

Tolvern’s hands worked over the console, trying to manipulate the viewscreen to run a quick scan of the system. First thing to do was find out if there were more Hroom sloops in the neighborhood. But her fingers were fat and sluggish, and her eyes couldn’t focus well enough to see the touch screen.

Lomelí lifted her head with a groan and started to work. Smythe followed, and one by one, the hard-hit men and women on the bridge came around. Capp was second to last to respond, awakening with a curse.

“Blast it, how much did I drink last night?” she slurred. She leaned over and puked at her feet. When she looked up, she seemed to recognize where she was. “Sorry, Cap’n.”

“Get to work, Lieutenant,” Tolvern said, still trying to get her fingers to cooperate. “Smythe, I need a scan. Pilot, find that ship and plot a course. Grosbeck, get your butt down to engineering where you belong.”

They were all responding with varying degrees of alertness except for Nyb Pim. The pilot was still whistling, and now made a series of incoherent squeaks. The Hroom looked around him, but his eyes didn’t focus.

Dammit, he’s got the trips.

A more severe form of jump concussion, the trips could leave a man—or Hroom—with a permanently scrambled brain. Tolvern’s already-heaving stomach clenched with worry.

“Grosbeck!” she said. “Scratch that. Take Nyb Pim to the sick bay. Quickly, now.”

The man steadied himself and made his way to the pilot’s chair. Capp got up to help. When they reached him, his eyes swiveled back and forth, and he held up a long, bony hand.

“No. I am recovering. Leave me be.”

Tolvern breathed a sigh of relief. What a blow it would have been to lose him. Capp also had a nav chip, and in addition to being the first mate, could serve as subpilot in a pinch, a role she’d played under Drake. Capp was no slouch, but Tolvern needed her best pilot threading their way through these hostile and semi-hostile systems, and that was Nyb Pim.

“Why did that hit us so hard?” Capp asked. “Smythe, anything funny about that jump?”

He wasn’t answering, and Lomelí was at the defense grid computer instead of the tech console. But Smythe did seem to be working, albeit with his eyes scrunched nearly shut.

“Smythe,” Capp said. “Wake up, you.”

“I . . . I got the fugitives,” he said at last. Then he, too, turned and puked his guts on the floor.

“Well, bring it up,” Tolvern said impatiently. “And someone call maintenance to clean up this mess.”

The small frigate appeared on the screen. It was a classic smuggler ship, the kind run by Dutch or Ladino pilots carrying high value goods. Lots of engine and not much storage space. Small enough to evade long-range scans and agile enough to dart among asteroid fields and land in isolated craters when hiding from Royal Navy warships. Most likely the interior smelled like a candy shop; sugar was the preferred cargo for those willing to penetrate so deep into the Hroom Empire.

“Does she come up in the database?” Tolvern asked.

“Still looking,” Smythe said. “Got to um, to . . . ah.” He rubbed his temples. “To analyze the engine and do a detailed scan of the hull with active sensors.”

They got the ship moving. Doc called a few minutes later. Fourteen crew in the sick bay with the trips. Hardest hit was engineering, where Barker himself went down. It was not what the captain wanted to hear.

Smythe wasn’t able to answer Tolvern’s question about the database for some time. And when he finally recovered enough to do his job, another hour passed before they had enough data to make an identification.

“Yep, we’ve found her,” Smythe said. “Sort of. The engine signature matches a tramp frigate named Morpho, a Ladino vessel out of Peruano.”

“Peruano?” Tolvern said. “She’s a long way from home. What do you mean by ‘sort of’?”

Morpho was ninety-two feet long,” Smythe said. “This is only sixty-seven feet.”

“Ships don’t generally shrink twenty-five feet.”

Morpho was last logged in the database seven years ago. One of our destroyers stopped her in the Fantalus System and fined the captain 235 pounds for carrying bad tax stamps.”

“That’s a stiff fine,” Tolvern said. Three times the starting salary for an enlisted man in the Royal Navy, as a matter of fact. “Must have been a repeat offense. The next time he was caught he’d have faced imprisonment. He wasn’t named Djikstra, was he?”

“No,” Smythe said. “Some Albionish fellow.”

“In that case, he’s lucky he got off with a fine.”

“What do you bet the bloke sold Morpho and started over with a new ship?” Capp said. “New name, new crew to keep him from getting hung the next time around.”

“Or maybe Morpho fell to pirates,” Tolvern said, “or got shot up so badly that he sold it for scrap. Either way, same engine, different ship.” She considered. “The name Morpho is good enough for now. Capp, hail them and demand a surrender.”

There was no answer to repeated attempts. Blackbeard kept after her, and within an hour or two their quarry would fall within range of the deck guns. At that point, it would be easy enough to knock her around a bit, harpoon her, and haul her in.

“Captain,” Smythe said, his tone a warning. “We just completed our initial scan of the system. There’s trouble.”

“We jumped through two hours ago,” Tolvern said sharply. “Why the devil are you just getting around to scanning?”

“I-I don’t know. I forgot.”

“Dammit, Smythe.”

Tolvern was angry, but not with Smythe, with herself. It had been obvious that his mind had been firing with less than a full battery of cannon since the jump. Nobody had followed the list of protocols post-jump, starting with the captain herself, who should have straightened her crew out when they were obviously listing. That her head had been pounding and she’d nearly joined the pukers was beside the point.

Smythe shared his data. Blackbeard and her quarry were in the Irlus System, which was also Hroom space. There was a habitable planet in the so-called Goldilocks Zone, a damp, sweltering world that resembled Hot Barsa in that only the highlands and polar regions could have taken human settlement. Plenty of Hroom, though, even if the largest cities had fallen into decay. All of these details were sketchy in the database, as the system was far from Albion space.

A fleet orbited the planet of Irlus itself. At first glance, Tolvern thought she was looking at a massive force of Hroom, an assembled collection of sloops. There were roughly twenty smaller ships and a single large one.

“You’d better not tell me this came from the active sensors,” she said.

“No, Captain,” Smythe said. “We’re just listening, not shouting out. But they’re in orbit, so it was easy enough to find them.”

Tolvern breathed a sigh of relief. That would have been a blunder, letting a potential enemy know they were in the system. All the same, she was itching to find out who they were looking at, to either confirm or deny her fears.

“Keep quiet. And stay cloaked until we know what we’re looking at.”

“This is close to where the general saw the buzzards, ain’t it?” Capp said. “Bet it’s a bloody harvester ship and some lances.”

“If there is a harvester ship,” Nyb Pim said, “it means they are slaughtering thousands of people.”

“I’ll wager you’re right,” Tolvern admitted. “The both of you. But this is not our fight. Not yet. We get Morpho, and we get the hell out of here.” She turned toward her tech officers. “Lomelí, get Barker—er, whoever is in charge down there—and figure out if we can still use our deck gun without dropping the cloaks.”

Meanwhile, she hailed the fugitives again, this time offering an open channel. She had little hope of a response, but to her surprise, there was an answer. They were at the outer limits of short-range communication, and the image jerked back and forth on the screen, sometimes dissolving into blurry pixels before returning to focus.

Djikstra and Megat appeared. The tall, thin Dutchman, with his hollow face, and the muscular, scowling Singaporean made a strange pair. Even through the terrible image, Tolvern could see that Djikstra looked ill. He was pale, and sweat trickled down his temples. Looked like he had a case of the trips, if not something more serious.

“You’ve come a long way for one little ship,” Megat said.

“I am curious,” Tolvern said. “Curious as to how you escaped, how you got your hands on a ship, but mostly, why you hatched this scheme. What were you hoping to accomplish?”

“I was hoping not to be locked up in your detention block, obviously.”

“We repatriated most of the mutineers, you know. I would have handed you over to Li with the rest of them. I bet he would have freed you, too.”

“I have no desire to serve under that coward again.”

“Whatever you’re doing, it makes no sense.”

“Not to your tiny brain, I’m sure it doesn’t.”

Tolvern tried the sick man. “Djikstra, what made you think an alliance with this idiot was a good idea? You’re lucky you’re not dead.”

Djikstra’s mouth twitched. His face looked like plastic. “Yes, very lucky. Very lucky indeed.”

A strange response. Bizarre, even. Tolvern wanted to question them harder, ask about the Apex lances, get an answer to what surely could not be true: were these two somehow working with the aliens? And if so, for God’s sake, why?

But that was all secondary. First, she was going to bring these two in and scuttle their frigate before the fleet orbiting Irlus discovered their presence.

“I can destroy you at any time,” Tolvern said. “You know this, don’t you?”

“Can you?” Megat said. “What is stopping you, then?”

His arrogant tone suggested that either he didn’t care—a distinct possibility given his reckless behavior in the mutiny—or he knew there were Apex forces in the system and Tolvern wouldn’t risk shooting. Again, how would he know?

“Right now you’re only guilty of stealing an away pod. You know you can’t outrun us. Surrender your ship, and I’ll give it back to you after we ask you a few questions.”

“You can’t take us,” Djikstra said. He wobbled, and Megat’s hand shot out to steady him. “It’s too late for that.” A ghastly grin spread across his face. “Only a miracle would do at this point.”

“What do you mean by that? Does this have something to do with the buzzards?”

The two men cut the transmission.

“Strange,” Tolvern said.

“Aye, bloody strange,” Capp said. “Something ain’t right with that Dutch bloke.”

“Did it seem like maybe Djikstra was trying to send us a message?” Smythe asked.

“If I didn’t know better,” Tolvern said, “I’d think he was Megat’s prisoner. But he’s the only one who could have had contact with the alien fleet, and he must have let Megat out of detention. Did we ever find out who’s in charge down in the gunnery while Barker is down?”

“It’s Carvalho,” Capp said.

“Wonderful. We really are shorthanded.”

“He’s willing to take a shot with the deck gun, but he says we’ll be exposed for a few minutes. Oh, and there’s a good chance we’ll destroy the ship anyway.”

“I’ve got a better idea. They’re only two men, and one looks like he’s dying of the plague. Tell Carvalho to prepare a boarding rocket. No, make it two. Probably overkill, but we don’t want any surprises.”

They still had a few hours until they closed distance with their prey. Tolvern organized the bridge, checked in on her crew in the sick bay, then went down to the mess to get something to eat. Maybe that would settle her stomach. Word came through that continued passive scanning had confirmed that it was a harvester ship around Irlus. The other ships were lances and spears.

Tolvern thought about Mose Dryz. If he’d picked up the three sloops of war, their commanders might have already told him about the harvester ship in the next system. Tolvern could go back to Getzus, pick up the general and his sloops, and come back here to lead an attack on the harvester ship, see if they could break the blockade around the stricken planet. The odds would be desperate, but not impossible.

But first, she had to get her hands on the fugitives.

Capp called from the bridge as Tolvern was finishing a bowl of stew and a thick slice of bread. Even as Tolvern took the call, alarms blared over the general channel: all hands at their stations. Tolvern suspected the worst, and Capp confirmed it.

“Cap’n! It’s the buzzards, they ambushed us.”



Chapter Eleven

Carvalho was in the engineering bay with two assault teams, preparing to launch boarding rockets to seize Morpho. Four women and eight men, counting himself. Several were former Royal Marines who’d transferred to the navy during the civil war, when everything had been in chaos. They were strong and clever and good fighters, but there was a laziness to their posture that he didn’t like.

The worst was a man named Boyle, who was a big fellow, taller than Carvalho and even more muscular. He stood with his jumpsuit hanging around his waist and was messing around with a long, nonstandard knife.

Next to him was a rat-faced woman named Boykin, who had scoffed when Carvalho asked the crew to show their ammo, and scoffed again when he ordered her to get another box of cartridges.

“I ain’t gonna need more than two bullets,” she’d said. “One for the Chinese and one for the Dutchman. Bam, bam, it’s over.”

Boyle and Boykin. Sounded like a comedy act in the port of San Pablo, the kind that told raunchy jokes and brought nude dancers onto the stage to wolf whistles and crude gestures.

At one time, Carvalho would have been one of the lazy ones, mocking whoever was trying to get him to behave. Not anymore. The world was divided into scolders and scoldees, and curse it, he’d been promoted to the ranks of scolders.

He cleared his throat, trying to think of words that would inspire confidence and keep them on their toes. “We do not know what we are going to face in there,” he began.

Boyle grinned. “Two old men, probably jerking each other off.”

Boykin brayed. Carvalho tried not to laugh himself. He had a soft spot for this sort, there was no question. This would be easier if he hadn’t spent so much time drinking with these people in the mess. He forced a growl into his voice.

“Now listen to me. I do not intend to die because we swagger in expecting a couple of old men to throw themselves at our feet. There is a reason the captain ordered two boarding rockets instead of one. If she is sending twelve people, there is a chance twelve people will be needed.” Carvalho held up his hand to stop the objection, though at this point it was really just incredulous looks all around, rather than outright scoffing. “I know, it may be very simple after all. But we must be prepared. At the very least, we must take them alive, not kill them. That is the hard part, no?”

They looked more serious at this. It was one thing to blast your way into another ship, especially when the crew numbered all of two people, but another to take control without inflicting casualties.

“Here is how we will mount our attack.” He took a small computer out of his hip pocket and brought up a representation of Morpho. “Boykin will lead the first rocket here. It’s going to lodge itself near the bridge, where she is going to bang around making a lot of noise. That is all.”

Boykin peered at him with that rodent-like gaze. “What do you mean bang around? You aiming to keep me out of the action?”

“No, Boykin. I am holding you in reserve. You will draw the attention of our quarry to the bridge. Meanwhile, Boyle will thrust into the loading bay, then come in at your rear.”

“Nyah, Boykin,” Boyle said with a snorting laugh. “I’m coming in through your rear. And thrusting, Boykin. You hear that? Thrusting.”

“Don’t ‘nyah’ me, you idiot.” She punched his shoulder. “You can thrust yourself up the arse.”

Everyone was laughing now except for Carvalho. He cleared his throat in a simulation of anger. It was really to keep himself from joining the laughter. It was a good thing Capp wasn’t here. One wink or raised eyebrow in his direction, and he’d have lost it.

This was really hard, this leadership nonsense. The sooner the chief came back from the sick bay, the better.

“Now I am angry,” he said. “The next person who makes a joke will be left behind. I am very serious.”

“Of course you are, Carvalho,” someone else said. He said it with a solemn tone that may or may not have been ironic. Suppressed smirks all around.

That was Oglethorpe, another crew member who’d served under Drake. He’d been in special forces before suffering a bad shoulder injury, and was still plenty big and intimidating.

Carvalho scowled at him. “You want to take over here? Go right ahead. I am happy to step aside.”

Oglethorpe looked sheepish. “Sorry, mate.”

Carvalho laid out the rest of his plan for taking Morpho without killing or getting killed. After the initial screwing around, the others began to settle down and listen. By the time he was finished, they were all business. Well, almost all. Boykin whispered in Boyle’s ear. He gave her a mock-serious elbow to the ribs. Carvalho let it pass.

“All right. Everyone grab your gear. Time to load the boarding rockets.”

He was checking his gun when Capp’s excited voice came over the com link.

“Carvalho, you there? We’re getting boarded. King’s balls, they’re here. Look out!”

Huh, what? They were getting boarded? Voices cried across the open channel, and he tried to get Capp back on to make sense of it all, but suddenly the line went dead. What the devil? The com was out entirely. That had never happened before.

The ship shuddered. He fell to the ground, tumbling among the others from the assault teams, and when he lifted himself, he felt strangely light. He reached for his gun, which had clattered to the floor, and it almost floated up to his hand.

“The gravity is failing,” Boyle said. “We must have lost the stabilizers.”

Another man shouted, “Activate your mag boots!”

No, that wasn’t right. The gravity wasn’t failing. It had stopped at roughly half strength. How strange.

Half gravity. That rang a bell somewhere, but the ship shuddered before he could figure it out. Then a banging sound, followed by a screech. It sounded like a giant nail being driven through sheet metal. That noise was both familiar and easy to identify—the sound of a boarding rocket breaking through decks.

The inner wall of the engineering bay ruptured, and a long, torpedo-like tube burst in. It slid across the floor and came to a rest in the middle. A second torpedo slammed through the hull about thirty feet away, on the side of the engineering bay nearest the armory.

“Take cover!” Carvalho shouted.

He grabbed his weapon and sprinted across the floor in huge strides like a leaping ballet dancer. The partial gravity made him feel like he could touch the ceiling, thirty feet up. He slid behind several pallets loaded with supplies sent over from Dreadnought. Several others dove in next to him, including Boyle and Boykin. He waved others to take position behind a nearby forklift, and they moved swiftly to comply. Nobody was screwing around now, that was for sure.

Carvalho and his team had weighed themselves down with gear for the assault, and even before they hit the ground, men and women were shuffling out of pressure suits and heavy mag boots, shedding cumbersome gear so as to better fight. Carvalho poked his head out just as hatches opened on both of the entry craft.

Giant birds spilled out, one after another. More and more and more. It was like the world’s biggest crates of turkeys, the birds packed together in confines so tight no human would have tolerated it. Except that these turkeys were about six feet tall and laden with weapons of various kinds, these being hooked by hoses and other strange controls to beaks and wingtips. Some of the birds strode ostrich-like across the floor, while others launched themselves into the sky and took flight with huge wings.

Carvalho took aim at some of the flying aliens and squeezed off bursts. Birds crashed to the ground under his gunfire, screaming in death. Others, merely wounded, fell flapping and squawking, and the ones they landed on hurled them away as if they were nothing but debris.

Any thought that Apex might use some exotic energy weapon in close-quarters fighting vanished as bullets came flying back from beak-operated guns. Carvalho ducked behind the crates to reload. Other defenders kept shooting.

Several other crew members had been working in the engineering bay while the assault teams prepared, and while most of them had successfully taken cover, a handful were caught in the open. The drones pounced on one man, who disappeared beneath flapping wings. Other birds seized two more in their talons—a human and a Hroom—and pecked viciously at them.

“Captain,” Carvalho said through the com link. “Are you there?” No answer. “Capp?” He tried the general channel. “Someone help me. We’re getting mobbed down here.” He rose and fired.

The first birds out of the torpedo had been a uniform gray, but others came out after them, these ones with red and green feathers among the gray. Another was almost entirely colored feathers, a brilliant mix of blue, yellow, and red. The gray birds tossed the battered, bloody captives toward this one, where more gray birds held them down with their talons. The one with the bright plumage bent to the human first, head bobbing. The man screamed in pain. The bird came up with an eyeball and a chunk of the man’s face in its beak. It tossed its head back and swallowed the grisly prize.

That must be the leader. Carvalho aimed his gun at it and emptied his magazine on full auto. More birds went down, but there were so many, some still pouring out, that he couldn’t even see if he’d hit his target.

A bomb exploded against the crates. Flour and pulverized beans rained down on his head, together with something sticky that smelled like grape jelly. The boxes of food and other supplies were disintegrating under fire. The forklift next to them would provide better cover, but it was badly positioned. He grabbed Boyle and Boykin and the three of them shoved at the vehicle to move it. Even at half-gravity, it resisted their efforts, the brakes locked in place, and they had to tip it over first to get it to move.

Birds swooped down from above, but gunfire drove them back. Bullets kept pinging all around. Screams came from Carvalho’s right, where the buzzards had overwhelmed one of the other defensive positions. Men and women disappeared beneath a flurry of wings. Someone in the pile detonated a grenade, and broken wings and human arms went flying. The birds flew off with two screaming victims in their talons. Carvalho and his companions tried to bring them down, but failed.

“Look out!” Boykin shouted.

She dropped her empty rifle and whipped out a pistol. She fired twice into the sky, hit the bird swooping in at their heads, and sent it tumbling to the floor, squawking in rage and pain.

A man to Carvalho’s right cried for help as birds dragged him away. It was Boyle, Boykin’s confederate in low humor. He wasn’t looking so funny anymore, writhing in terror, trying to stab one of his captors and free himself. One of the brighter colored birds flew in and dipped her beak. Boyle screamed. The bird came up with a huge chunk of flesh.

Boykin had dropped to a knee to reload her rifle, and now she shoved a grenade at Carvalho. “Take this!”

Carvalho pulled the pin, stepped into the chaos, and hurled it toward the enemy. A bullet zipped by his head. The grenade bounced into the middle of the birds now tearing at Boyle and detonated. It left another mass of feathers and body parts. The place smelled like a chicken slaughterhouse.

“Boyle!” Boykin cried. She rose, her rifle reloaded, and emptied it into the enemy, screaming. More birds fell.

In spite of their losses, it looked as though Blackbeard’s crew was going to succeed in fighting off the enemy. Someone had been caught sitting on his hands to let Apex get so close they could launch a surprise boarding party, but Carvalho had been lucky to have a dozen armed men and women in the exact spot where the enemy pressed its attack. If he could hold the line for a few more minutes, other crew would join him in defending the ship.

“Captain,” he tried again. “For God’s sake, we need some help down here. Where are you?”

“Carvalho!” Boykin screamed behind him.

He turned as one of the buzzards landed on Boykin’s shoulders and dragged her off the ground. Carvalho hadn’t yet reloaded after throwing the grenade, and instead of shooting, he dropped his gun, jumped, and grabbed one of the bird’s legs as it swept overhead. It faltered, struggling to stay aloft as not one, but two humans weighed it down.

Feet dragging, still holding on with one hand, Carvalho reached for his sidearm. He found his knife instead. He slid it from its sheath and dragged it across the bird’s leg. The bird screamed and tried to shake him loose. Boykin was still thrashing in its talons, and the three of them crashed to the ground, bird and humans all in a jumble.

Gunfire churned through the buzzards. Someone was firing wildly at him, trying to save both Boykin and Carvalho from the same fate that had taken several other crew members already. Carvalho had no intention of being eaten alive or dragged back as a captive, but he didn’t want to be shot by his own side, either.

He found where the bird’s wing met its body and hacked with his knife while it tried to fight free. Its beak turned to get at him, but he ducked aside. It released Boykin, then tried to shake her loose as she wrapped her arms around its legs to keep its talons out of the fight. While she held it, Carvalho kept stabbing. Soon, it was dead in a mass of blood and feathers.

Carvalho smelled like guts and offal and some sort of nasty, bile-like substance that it had spit up when it died, thrashing, beneath his blade.

Boykin cried another warning. Carvalho looked up to see the brightly colored one stalking toward him, neck bobbing. He grabbed for his pistol and realized why he couldn’t find it earlier; he’d given it to someone else early in the fight. He braced himself, knife in hand.

“You dumb bird, you will never take me alive.”

It leaned its head back, and Carvalho rolled to the side as it darted forward with its beak. He thought it was going to tear at him, but instead it spat a thick yellow gunk like snot mixed with egg yolk. He was moving, and the substance flew past his ear and missed.

Carvalho leaped at the bird, but it flapped into the sky as he stabbed, and his knife hit nothing but feathers. It flew back to rejoin its flock. The aliens were falling back. Gunfire continued, and other crew had begun to arrive at last. The newcomers and holdouts joined forces to drive the enemy back.

The aliens piled into the torpedo-like boarding rockets, and suddenly they were withdrawing from the engineering bay, yanked back as if on a line. Fifteen or twenty of the gray-feathered aliens stayed behind and kept shooting to guard the retreat. Bombproofs shut behind the departing tubes, sealing off the outer hull.

The instant that happened, full gravity returned. So many of the buzzards had stayed behind that Carvalho thought the battle would rage on for some time, but they slumped under the increased gravity, and the departure of the rest of their army seemed to leave them dispirited and disorganized. They fired back in a desultory manner, but the fight quickly turned into a massacre.

Soon, the battle was over. They’d driven off the Apex attackers. Men, women, and Hroom let out a ragged shout. It was more relief than triumph.

“Thanks a lot, Carvalho,” Boykin said in an accusing tone behind him.

He turned to see her face covered in the gummy yellow substance spit up by the bird. She must have taken the shot meant for him.

“Are you okay?” he asked. “It isn’t poison, is it?”

“Don’t seem so, but it’s bloody disgusting, whatever it is. Like a camel spitting up on me, that’s what it was. Should have hit you, not me.”

How strange. A life and death struggle, and Carvalho had driven the bird off, but not before . . . what? It hurled its snot at him to show its anger?

“Dumb buzzards,” he said.

He stripped off his shirt to wipe the stuff from Boykin’s face, but shortly turned his attention to helping the wounded.



Chapter Twelve

The lance had appeared from nowhere, snared Blackbeard, and sent in a boarding party. From the engineering bay came the frantic chatter of battle. The enemy ship had come in so close that it was literally brushing against Blackbeard’s side.

Tolvern kept Smythe at his console to manipulate the engines and Nyb Pim in the pilot’s chair to try to fight clear, but ordered the rest of the officers on the bridge to join the crew arming themselves to repel the boarders.

Men and women stumbled from sleep all across the ship, rushed out from the mess, or dragged themselves from the sick bay. Tolvern joined them in the hallways, where Capp organized the crew, positioning some at key intersections to delay the buzzards should they break through. The rest charged toward the engineering bay.

Tolvern had almost reached the bay when Carvalho shouted on her com. “It’s over! They’re fleeing.”

She grabbed Lomelí. “Quick, back to the bridge!”

The young woman had been following her, anxiously turning an assault rifle over in her hands. An expert with weapons at a distance, the thought of personally firing a gun had seemed to terrify her.

Tolvern had ordered all manner of crew down to the engineering bay, but now realized she’d made a mistake with Lomelí. She should have kept the young woman at the defense grid computer in case it was possible to shake free long enough to get off a shot. And now the Apex ship was getting away.

By the time Tolvern and Lomelí reached the bridge, the lance had accelerated away, and now jumped clear and vanished entirely. Tolvern cursed herself. The entire battle had only lasted about ten minutes before Apex turned and fled. Had she panicked?

But as she left the bridge yet again and made her way to the engineering bay to see the aftermath of the battle, she had a chance to reconsider. In close-quarters combat there was a fine line between victory and a total rout. She’d been right to throw everything she had at repelling the boarders. The lance had escaped, but so had Blackbeard.

The engineering bay was a disaster. A ten-foot hole tore through the hull, and while they’d managed to close the bombproofs and seal themselves from the vacuum, the bay doors were wrecked. She could see at a glance that they’d have to be cut off from the exterior and replaced.

The floor was a mass of wings and feathers and birds with broken necks. Two techs wearing full hazard suits, including masks, collected the alien bodies, while two other suited-up crew piled up the discarded alien weapons. Someone else sprayed them down with disinfectant. An astringent smell scratched at Tolvern’s throat, mingling with the stench of offal and burned feathers.

Carvalho stood above several human bodies and one Hroom that had been carried away from the dead buzzards. The dead were unidentifiable, faces torn off, bellies opened and guts ripped out. They were damp with blood and chemical disinfectant. Tolvern took a deep breath to steady her churning stomach, and looked away until she had it under control.

“Impressive work,” Tolvern told Carvalho. “Ten to one their dead over ours.”

“That is no consolation for these ones.” He gestured at his fallen comrades with a look of helpless frustration.

“But you fought them in hand-to-hand combat, and gave them a good thrashing. That will make them think twice the next time they’re tempted to board one of our ships.”

“How did this happen?” Carvalho asked. “Nobody saw them coming?”

“All sorts of luck, good and bad. The jump hit us harder than usual—that’s the bad. Smythe suffered a concussion and didn’t search the area as well as he should have. We set off for Morpho without ever really looking. The buzzards must have been lurking nearby.”

“Good thing they did not simply shoot us, yes?”

“Right. That’s the good luck part. They were bent on taking prisoners, not destroying the ship. Did the enemy take any prisoners?”

Carvalho’s face darkened. “Three crew are unaccounted for among the living and dead.”

Tolvern forced herself not to think about what horrible fate might await them. She let out her breath. “Bloody awful for them, but the rest of us are fortunate that’s what they were after.” She glanced at the growing pile of Apex dead. “And that they were willing to pay dearly for their prisoners.”

“Yes, we were fortunate,” Carvalho said, though his tone said otherwise. “If we hadn’t been down here and armed, they’d have the ship by now. What about Morpho? Are we still going after it?”

“First things first. Let’s get this cleaned up, then we’ll go after the fugitives.”

“Half of my boarding party is dead or missing. They will need to be replaced.”

“We’ll find you a team, even if I have to go myself,” Tolvern said.

She glanced around. The wounded had been carted off, but one woman sat by herself, her back to the wall, rubbing at her face with a damp towel. She had no apparent injuries, but her face was gray, and perspiration beaded on her forehead.

“Is that Boykin? What’s wrong with her?”

“One of the buzzards spit on her,” Carvalho said. “She got some in her mouth, and it seems to have made her ill.”

“Send her to the sick bay.”

He gave Tolvern a funny look. “Doc is overwhelmed with patients, and the sick bay is not so well organized as I would like it. I would rather not have Boykin mingling with the other patients.”

Suddenly, she understood better how Carvalho had organized the cleanup efforts. The chemical disinfectants, the crew gathering the bodies. He was afraid of contamination, of course he was. Why was Boykin sick after being spit on? That pale look reminded her of Djikstra. Could he, too, have come into physical contact with Apex?

“You’ve done well here,” she said.

“It is what the chief would have ordered if he weren’t down with the trips.”

“But Barker isn’t here, and you’re on top of it. I’d say you’re up for a medal.”

Carvalho looked pained, rather than pleased. “This is all your fault, Captain.”

Tolvern laughed. “What’s my fault? I just gave you a compliment.”

“You have made me responsible, and I do not like it.” He shot her an accusing look. “You know what I mean. I do not want to be ordering people about—that is not my way.”

“All right, Carvalho. I was going to promote you to security chief, but I’ll see that you’re put on septic duty instead, and I’ll assign someone to shadow you to make sure you don’t start up your illegal distillery operation again. Is that what you would like?”

“Yes, thank you. That would be a relief.” Carvalho looked around and sighed. “I suppose I had better finish cleaning up here first. None of these pendejos are up to the task.”

A commotion near the breach in the engineering bay wall caught their attention. Some crew had gone into the wall to check on damage, and now they came scrambling out, crying out in alarm. Something shrieked its rage behind the wall.

Carvalho rushed off, shouting at people to follow him. They soon dragged the buzzard into the engineering bay. It had several dozen red and yellow feathers on its breast, and Tolvern’s hopes took a leap. Not only did she have her first prisoner, but it was from one of the higher castes. It must have crawled into the gap in the walls to hide during the aftermath of the battle, while the drones were dying to enable the retreat.

The bird appeared uninjured, but couldn’t get airborne in the heavier gravity. Men and women encircled it, trying to get in close enough to subdue it. It hissed and screeched and slashed with beak and talons. Someone tried to toss a rope over its head and suffered a nasty gash across the arm as a reward. The woman fell back with a cry, holding her bleeding arm. Other humans waved guns.

“Don’t injure it!” Tolvern shouted. “We need that prisoner.”

Someone made a feint, and the bird whipped around to confront him. While it was still distracted, someone else charged in and tackled it, and then the humans mobbed it as it hit the floor. Soon, they had its wings pinned, its talons bound, and its head pressed against the floor while someone taped its beak shut. It screamed and thrashed through all of this, but the higher gravity seemed to leave it quickly exhausted. Once it was fully bound, it lay on the ground without struggling, only the occasional twitch of the eye showing it was still alive.

Tolvern watched with satisfaction. She turned to Carvalho.

“Put the bird in a detention cell and post a guard. Someone who hasn’t come into physical contact with the buzzards, if you can find one. No, I’ve got a better idea. Put it in stasis. We’ll wake it up when we have the facilities to study it better.”

“The hell with that. I am going to break its neck, and we will eat roast buzzard for supper.”

“Carvalho.”

“Why not? That is what Apex would do to us, no? I bet it tastes like chicken.”

His old insubordinate attitude seemed to have returned, for better or worse. Tolvern ignored it, knowing he’d do what she commanded.

“As for Boykin,” she said, “I don’t want her anywhere near the prisoner. Have her decontaminated, then confine her to quarters. Keep her on full quarantine until we know more.”

“And if something . . . unnatural happens? What will we do, dissect her brain?”

“I don’t know, Carvalho. I’ll make that decision when the time comes.”

“What about the dead buzzards?”

Tolvern looked around the engineering bay. “We’ve already got all the specimens to study that we’ll ever need. This stuff is just rubbish. Dump it in the incinerator where it belongs.”

#

Tolvern returned to her post, thinking about what she’d ask Djikstra and Megat when she got them in custody. Better keep them quarantined, too. And maybe she’d bring Brockett to the interrogation, get the opinion of the science officer if there was something strange going on. The doc, too, when he’d finished treating patients.

Her instincts warned her something was wrong as soon as she stepped onto the bridge. Capp was tense, Nyb Pim was busy with the nav computer, and Smythe was hunched over his console, muttering to himself. Lomelí stood by his side and looked just as agitated.

“What are we looking at?” Tolvern asked, settling into her chair. The viewscreen didn’t show anything. “Have they jumped back in again?”

“The Apex lance is gone, if that’s what you mean,” Capp said. “We bloodied them good, and it seems they’ve had enough. It’s these other buzzards we’ve got to worry about.”

Capp manipulated the viewscreen. Two of the hunter-killer packs in orbit around Irlus had broken away from the enemy fleet. Had they been alerted by the lance that tried to board Blackbeard, or had they spotted the fighting from a distance? Either way, the aliens were now racing out from the planet.

Tolvern was not alarmed. “They must be two days’ flight from our position. We’ll grab our quarry and jump out of here long before the buzzards reach us.”

“Aye, that’s what I thought at first. Show her, Smythe.”

The viewscreen changed to show a stylized map of the system, with the planets in orbit, the jump points noted, Blackbeard marked in blue, and the last known position of the Apex lance in red. The approaching hunter-killers were also marked in red. Blackbeard had changed its course and was now headed on an intercept path with the incoming hunter-killers.

“Wait, why did we—”

Before Tolvern could complete that thought, she saw the yellow spot that indicated Morpho’s position. The fugitives had veered their ship inward and were running toward the hunter-killers. Blackbeard had given chase.

“They changed course during the battle,” Nyb Pim said. “I turned to follow as soon as we broke free from the enemy. Was that a mistake, sir?”

“You did the right thing. If you hadn’t, we’d be a couple of hours farther away from Morpho by now. Still, it looks like we can catch them long before the enemy arrives.”

“True,” Smythe said, “but look where we are when we do.”

The tech officer shifted the viewscreen forward several hours, simulating the movement of planets and ships. At first glance, it still looked safe, but Smythe wasn’t done.

“At which point it’s not like we can suddenly reverse our course. Nyb Pim has us turning around here.” Smythe showed Blackbeard making a wide loop. “At which point the hunter-killers will be over here. Now check out where we are five hours after that.”

Even before he shifted the viewscreen ahead several more hours, Tolvern saw the problem. They would still have a lead on the Apex warships, but the enemy would have closed within range of their short-range jump capability, and that meant Blackbeard would face battle against eight lances before she got out of the system.

“What the devil is Morpho up to?” Tolvern asked.

“They’re on the side of the buzzards,” Capp said. “Far as I’m concerned, that settles it once and for all.”

“I’m still not convinced. Apex sensors are poor, and at this distance they might not notice such a small ship. Especially not if they’re looking hard for us. Megat would know this too.”

There was something else that was bugging her.

“Those hunter-killer packs didn’t set out from the planet until we were already boarded,” Tolvern said. “They must not have seen us until it happened. Why didn’t the attacking ship tell them? Two factions again?”

“Could be that the lance that boarded us was in the system, observing the harvester ship,” Smythe said. “They were close enough to spot us and tried to capture us on their own, looking for glory.”

“Could be,” she agreed. It was only one explanation, but it answered a few questions, including one about the fugitives’ behavior. “So Megat has figured this out, too. He’s bluffing. Taking us toward the enemy, figuring we’ll turn tail and run. He’ll then slip out of here before he’s discovered.”

“That’s a bloody risk though, isn’t it?” Capp said. “Going to get themselves killed if they’re wrong.”

“If they’d continued on their previous course, we’d have captured them anyway,” Tolvern said.

“Better us than the buzzards. They’re working for Apex, Cap’n. They’ve got to be.”

“Either way, I’d love to ask those two some hard questions,” Tolvern said. “Ensign Lomelí, get me the gunnery. I want a definitive answer if we can cripple Morpho from this distance.”

Lomelí called down. To the relief of everyone on the bridge, Barker was back in the saddle, albeit unsteady with the reins after taking painkillers for the splitting jump concussion, and more curmudgeonly than ever.

“That’s a negative, sir,” Lomelí reported after the consultation. “Barker said it’s like shooting a mosquito. We probably won’t hit it from this range, and if we do there will be nothing left.”

“So it’s a mosquito now, is it? Last time it was a sparrow.” Tolvern turned to Smythe. “Are we cloaked?”

“Yes, sir. But as long as we keep on this course, Apex can hold us in their sights.”

“Then it’s time to change course. Forget about Megat and Djikstra—we’re going to jump out of here.”

“Back to the Hroom general, Cap’n?” Capp asked.

“No, Lieutenant. We’re too far gone for that. And we need repairs more urgently than ever. Let the general do his business among the Hroom. We’re going to take this broken-down piece of junk to the yards and see if we can turn her into a Royal Navy warship. Pilot, chart us a course for Samborondón.”



Chapter Thirteen

“Let me get this straight,” Captain Tolvern said a few days later as she walked across the sweltering tarmac. “The name of the planet is Samborondón. The name of the island is also Samborondón, and so is the name of the city.”

“Yes, that is right,” Rodriguez said. “The port, too.”

“So I’ve brought my ship to Samborondón Port in Samborondón City on Samborondón Island, the Planet of Samborondón.”

“Someone liked the name.”

“And I suppose the name of the system is also Samborondón?”

“Who has time for that?” Rodriguez said. “We just call it Sam.”

It would have been funnier if he’d said it deadpan, but he couldn’t resist a wink at Capp, who returned a toothy smile. Tolvern sighed, and Carvalho just shook his head.

It was a reunion of old friends. Tolvern, Capp, and Carvalho, plus Hubert Rodriguez, their old friend from San Pablo, who now ran a shipyard on Samborondón. He’d grown a thick mustache, but he was just as slender as always, just as grease stained.

Blackbeard sat on the tarmac across from them. Scarred and pitted, it looked remarkably similar to the last time they’d used Rodriguez’s services. Since then, it had fought numerous battles, been battered, repaired, battered again, and patched up. This time was as bad as ever, and Tolvern sometimes had the impression that her ship was held together with band-aids on top of duct tape, all patched together with chewing gum and super glue.

Hull integrity had been shaky enough to make Tolvern nervous about ordering the ship down through the thick cloud cover of Samborondón. Barker assured her that Blackbeard wasn’t going to break apart in the atmosphere, but Jane offered worrying commentary whenever Tolvern queried the individual systems.

Samborondón was a wet world, with only ten percent of the surface land mass, and that broken into hundreds of islands, the largest of which was only fifty thousand square miles or so. Nevertheless, between the gravity and the climate, it seemed like perfect Hroom territory, which made it curious that many of the larger islands were unoccupied.

Apparently, a short, but brutal ice age had buried many of them under expanding ice sheets and cooled others to the point where they’d been abandoned by the heat-loving Hroom. The final blow came when the ice sheets melted completely and without warning, drowning other islands. All of this had happened hundreds of years before contact with Albion, so for once, human sugar and human warships could not be blamed for the collapse.

There were still millions of Hroom on the planet, but the empress had designated three islands as human resettlement zones. Tens of thousands of Singaporean refugees had crowded into the existing Ladino ports and trading posts, and the economy seemed booming, but tenuous.

“I never thought I’d see you old pirates again,” Rodriguez said.

“Pirates?” Tolvern said. “We’re no pirates, we’re Royal Navy. Look at these uniforms—even Carvalho is wearing the red and black.”

“You’re somewhere between eight and twenty jumps from Albion space,” Rodriguez said, “depending on whether you’re being chased by angry Hroom death cultists or slinking through undetected. You’re as much a pirate out here as anyone.”

Tolvern wiped the sweat from her brow. “The weather’s pretty much the same, though. The Hroom love their heat and humidity, don’t they?”

“I’m bloody melting out here,” Capp grumbled. She’d finally got out of her cast, and kept stretching and flexing her left arm as if it were a newly installed piece of equipment and she were learning its controls. “Do you think we could get off this blasted tarmac before my boots melt and my toenails catch fire?”

Rodriguez gave Blackbeard an appraising look. A lorry had come out to haul the ship into the largest hangar and was now fixing it with clamps and hooks. The yards weren’t as well developed as his old place on San Pablo, but from the cranes and tractors busy on the far side, it seemed that he had a good start.

“I assume we can trust each other at this point,” he said. “That I won’t steal your ship and you won’t steal my services?”

“As much as anyone can be trusted out here,” Tolvern said.

“And how about payment? Are you hauling silver?”

“No silver. Albion credit this time around.”

“Which might not be worth much if the buzzards eat your home world,” he said.

“At which point silver won’t do you much good either, will it?”

Rodriguez gave a wry smile. “No, I don’t suppose it would. If Albion falls we’re in trouble out here too, and that makes us all royalists, I suppose.” He nodded. “Credit works. You’ve got enough of it?”

“Assuming you’ll charge me the same as last time.”

“Afraid the rates have gone up a bit,” he said.

She grunted. “They weren’t exactly bargain prices before.”

“You know how it goes. Labor is cheap enough—the Singaporeans work hard, and they’re desperate for wages—but it’s hard getting supplies this deep into empire territory, what with the Hroom fighting Apex, fighting humans, fighting each other. And there’s more demand for our services than ever.”

“Meaning pirates and smugglers always have money?”

“That they do.” Rodriguez gave an apologetic shrug that looked like it was concealing a delighted grin. “Anyway, I won’t cheat you. Don’t want to lose the Royal Navy’s custom. Never know when one of your big ships will come wandering in needing a quick repair.”

“There will be a contract,” Tolvern said. It was not a question.

“Of course. Your obligations and mine, spelled out in plain language.”

Tolvern, Capp, and Carvalho fell in behind him as he led them toward his offices. They got a better view of the construction work going on at the yards. New pads, new warehouses and hangars. Plenty of people out working, in spite of the heat.

“You’ve certainly landed on your feet,” Tolvern said. “You must have come out of San Pablo with some coin.”

“I left just in time. It’s all ruins now.”

So much left unsaid in that simple exchange. Most of the coin, as she’d put it, had been from work Tolvern and Drake sent him, to repair ships during Albion’s civil war. Rodriguez should have given her a discount based on how much money she’d shoveled into his pockets already. On the other hand, Malthorne’s forces had bombarded the Hroom continent with atomic weapons, which left the entire planet’s economy in ruins, including the human settlements’.

Tolvern had been on the other side of the conflict from Malthorne, of course, but Royal Navy forces were still responsible for the devastation. She guessed she’d better pay the going rate.

The yards were built on reclaimed territory from the high forests, as was the entire city of Samborondón. Looming mountain peaks encircled the city. Every time they cleared trees or graded land, they discovered ruined temples, baths, palaces, and other buildings from the long-vanished Hroom city, buried and preserved in mud from the periodic flooding. The trees here had massive trunks, with roots that dug hundreds of feet into the ground to keep from washing away when the waters rose.

“I’m pretty sure this was a Hroom spaceyard at one point,” Rodriguez said. “The land is aligned too perfectly, and there aren’t any of the temple complexes that we’ve uncovered elsewhere. There are so many shrines and temples everywhere else that I think Samborondón was a holy city for them.”

A dark look came over Carvalho’s face. He crossed himself and said something in Ladino, which brought a chuckle from Rodriguez.

“Don’t be so superstitious, my friend. What does it matter which god?”

“If you had nearly been sacrificed to the god of death, you would not be so relaxed,” Carvalho said.

Tolvern pointed at a tan stone spire that was obviously not human in origin. “What’s that, then?”

The building in question was about a hundred feet tall. It had a bulbous, irregular look to it, like a child’s sand tower at the beach, one handful of wet sand placed on top of the other and allowed to dry.

“That is also Hroom, but more modern. Never a temple, but some kind of living space. It’s my office—you’ll see why.”

Rodriguez led them to the base of the tower, which looked out of place among the human-built tarmac, warehouses, control towers, and massive open hangars. The thing was eroded, ancient looking, but utterly smooth on the exterior, with only two visible windows and no entrances other than the main one at the bottom, which was enclosed by a thick metal door that was obviously human in origin.

It was blessedly cool inside, and the three Albion crew sighed in relief. Capp had unbuttoned her jacket on the tarmac and now flapped the sweat-soaked undershirt beneath, panting like a dog.

A narrow spiral staircase climbed the tower, and they followed Rodriguez up. Rooms opened at every landing, with men and women working at computers inside. Cables and water pipes climbed and burrowed through the walls, looking ugly in contrast with the alien architecture of the building itself.

“I don’t see any air ducts,” Tolvern said. “How do you keep it so cool?”

“That is not my work,” Rodriguez said. “Whoever built this place knew what they were doing. It’s insulated by the stone, and there’s a water reservoir and natural air flow that eject waste heat through a funnel in the top. It’s really quite ingenious.”

The tower tapered gradually as it reached the top, and the final room was small in comparison with the ones below. This held a computer, a desk scattered with papers, and a window cut in the wall, which was still several feet thick, even at this height. The window bent to follow the curve of the wall.

“I regret installing this window every hot season, but it’s great now.”

“This is the cool season?” Capp asked incredulously as Tolvern stepped up to take a look out the window.

“There are three seasons here. Cool, hot, and rainy. This is the end of the cool and the start of the rainy season. Rainy is the worst. The toads have already started to come out.”

Capp and Carvalho both asked about the toads at the same time, but Tolvern didn’t hear the response, as she was too busy taking in the view. The mountains were immense, frowning from a great height, and white caps crowned the highest peaks. Given the heat, it seemed impossible that it could snow, even at the tops of the mountains. How high were those peaks, anyway?

Muddy rivers and streams striated the green valley floor, and Samborondón was mostly built in the high ground along their banks. The forest was dense in some places, cleared for farming in others, and fresh muddy gashes to the north of the spaceyard showed where both city and agriculture were spreading.

It was more of an overgrown jungle town than a large city, but from the scattered Hroom towers and the hill-like mounds that looked suspiciously like temples reclaimed by the jungle, it had apparently once been much larger. Given the age of the Hroom Empire, the wars internal and external, and the ice age that had wiped out civilization on the planet, Tolvern wouldn’t be surprised if this valley had fallen into ruins several times, only to be rebuilt each time civilization staggered back to its feet.

Was this the start of another rebuilding effort, or a false dawn ahead of a final collapse? The war with Apex would answer that question.

“Anyway,” Rodriguez continued, “when it starts to rain, you get yourself inside right away.”

Carvalho peered over Tolvern’s shoulder. “It’s raining right now. Your people are not going inside, they are still working.”

Rodriguez glanced out. “This little drizzle? I’m talking about real buckets. They call it a deluge.”

“How heavy are we talking?” Carvalho asked.

“You’ll know it when it comes. Did you see the funny looking vehicles when you came in? No? We’ve got smaller ones that can handle a few feet of water, and the larger ones can go fully amphibious. There are times when the roads are so far underwater that you need a boat more than a truck. Anyway, I have a defense perimeter around the yards, which gives us a safety buffer.”

“A defense perimeter against flooding?” Tolvern asked, confused.

“Toads, Cap’n,” Capp said. “Weren’t you listening?”

Toads? That didn’t sound very threatening, but after her experience on Hot Barsa, Tolvern was hardly a skeptic when it came to hostile native wildlife. Giant turtles, crocodiles with horny beaks, mosquito-like creatures the size of sparrows—whatever a “toad” was in this context, she was sure it wasn’t a small brown amphibian you could hold in the palm of your hand.

Rodriguez sat down at a computer terminal. “I’ve got your damage report. You’ll have my crew working full out, and it still looks like you’re going to be stuck on Samborondón a while.”

“I’ll turn over my boatswains and engineering crew,” she said. “That should speed things up.”

“A little,” Rodriguez said. “Can’t charge you any less, though. Your boys will be working for free if they do.”

“They earn navy wages. That’s enough. Anyway, we’ve got other business on Samborondón,” Tolvern added. “Starting with a search for a pair of fugitives we think might be on their way here. I’m hoping you can help us find them.”

She told him about Megat and Djikstra, only hesitating before she shared her worry that the pair was working for Apex. There was no reason to keep it a secret, though, so she decided to explain it all. Keep humans and Hroom alike looking for the fugitives. In the end, the only thing she concealed was the part that concerned the sentinel battle station. Here, she spoke in vague terms only.

“You really think they’ve turned?” Rodriguez asked.

“It must have happened to Djikstra first, before we met him. He was already working for the buzzards. Then, when we were distracted by the battle, Djikstra told Megat some story about breaking free and making a run for it. Apex picked them up, did the same thing to Megat, and sent them on their way.”

“So let me get this straight. The birds have put something in their brains to control them?” Rodriguez looked skeptical. “How, exactly?”

“Some sort of spit or snot.”

He glanced at each of them in turn. “You can’t be serious. Mind control snot?”

“Our science officer calls it a brain altering excretion,” Tolvern said, “and points to analogues in the animal kingdom. But yeah, mind control snot is more or less what we’re talking about. It happened to one of our other crew, too, a gunnery assistant named Boykin, hit in the face while we were fighting off an Apex boarding party.”

“A buzzard sneezed on her?”

“More like spit,” Carvalho said. “The bird was trying to hit me instead, but I ducked out of the way, and it struck Boykin in the face.”

“She took sick not long after that,” Tolvern said. “Pale, sweating, vomiting. Cried out in her sleep and hit her head against the wall. She was calmer after that, and I thought she was getting better. When the doctor came in to examine her, she tried to convince him she was fine, but when I refused to release her from quarantine, she killed a guard and tried to fight her way to the bridge.

“Boykin was shot and killed before she could reach me,” Tolvern continued. “My science officer dissected her brain and found strange growths, like small tumors, and other areas that had atrophied.”

“Diós mío,” Rodriguez said. “It is bloody mind control snot, isn’t it?”

Capp nodded. “That’s what we been telling you all along.”

“Brockett thinks it’s an outgrowth of the buzzards’ natural flock-controlling mechanism,” Tolvern said. “They’re like wasps or termites, with queens and warriors and so on. The higher castes control the lower ones with secretions, and they’ve adapted it to work in human brains.”

Rodriguez listened to this with a look of horrified fascination. “The birds could do this to all of us, couldn’t they? Turn us into zombies, make us their slaves?”

“I don’t think that’s their goal,” Tolvern said. “They breed their own slaves, an entire drone army of warriors and workers. The only use they have for us is to exterminate us to prove we are an inferior species.”

“Then why are they doing it?”

“Temporary spies, saboteurs, and the like. Sow panic in the ranks. Maybe they just enjoy it, like they enjoy hunting and killing.”

Capp spoke up. “But it don’t seem like they got it perfect yet. The victims get all sick and sweaty, and it’s obvious if you know what you’re looking for.”

“Not yet, but they will,” Tolvern said. “I’ll bet they infected the brains of the Hroom long ago. It would explain how they penetrated so far into empire territory with so little opposition.”

“They wouldn’t need to do that, really,” Rodriguez said. “Only give the Hroom sugar and they will do anything to get another fix of the drug.”

“If Megat and Djikstra come to Samborondón, I want to know about it. We thought this was their most likely destination, and we’re almost certainly ahead of them now.”

“I can help you there. By Hroom decree, human ships must land in one of three designated ports, and it will most likely be this one. This is the biggest, the most heavily armed, and with the best port facilities. Whether they’re here to hide or to spread the mind-control . . . um, whatever it is—I can find them.”

“They’re flying a ship called Morpho. I’ll have Smythe send you the specs.”

“Good.”

“Meanwhile, the three of us are heading into town to look for new crew,” Tolvern said.

“You’ll find plenty of men and women willing to work. A lot of Singaporeans with spacefaring experience—it’s where I get most of my own workers these days. I know a guy who can set you up, in fact.”

“Of course you do,” Tolvern said. “How much will it cost me?”

“Nah, my contact will pay the fee. He’s legit. Well, as legit as they come around here. How many do you need?”

“I’m down sixteen.”

“Out of what, a crew of eighty-nine?” Rodriguez asked.

Tolvern was surprised he remembered. “It’s ninety-four these days. We took on five more to operate and maintain the belly guns you installed for us in San Pablo.”

“And you’re short sixteen?” Rodriguez asked. “Mostly skilled workers, no? That might take a few days to find the right people.”

“The ‘right people’ are the ones I already lost. I’d give anything to have them back, and not whatever substitutes you scrape up for me.”

“You are at war, Captain. Surely this is not a first for you.”

Of course not, but she felt every loss keenly. Nine had died in the fight in the engineering bay, two more fell when the Apex boarding craft smashed through the hull, and two others had vanished, presumably hauled off by the buzzards to face torture and death. One other crew, a low-level gunner, had died of the trips after that brutal jump. Finally, Boykin and the guard she’d murdered in her attempted escape. This was on top of the deaths she’d suffered at Sentinel 3, but she’d raided Commander Li’s crew to fill in the gaps. Now she’d be filling them in yet again.

“I have one other question before I start work,” Rodriguez said. “You know me, Tolvern, I am no coward. I have lived for years among pirates and thieves and had more close brushes with death than I can count. I was on San Pablo when Lord Malthorne’s forces attacked it with nuclear weapons, and I didn’t run.”

“What is your question?” she asked.

“What will you do if Apex tracks you to Samborondón?”

“Get into orbit as fast as I can. I’m not fighting them planetside, that’s for sure. After that, if I have help and the odds are favorable, I fight.”

“And if you don’t like the odds?” He studied her face, and she guessed this was not mere curiosity.

“Then we run like hell.”

A brief nod. “Good. Then I have a final condition before I sign your contract.”

“Yes?”

“If Apex comes, you will take me with you.”



Chapter Fourteen

Admiral Drake studied the woman sitting on the other side of the war room table as she worked her console. From this angle, Hillary Koh looked Ladino, with her black hair and the tint to her skin, but the impression vanished when she looked up, showing the unusual bone structure and that Chinese turn to her eyes and eyelids. Not pretty, really, but interesting to look at, as he’d found most of the Singaporeans.

Commander Li had made the same comment in reverse, although the Singaporeans’ interest in the range of hair colors among the Albion crew was dwarfed by their fascination with the Hroom. The tall, long-limbed aliens were as exotic to the Singaporeans as animals at a zoo, something Drake found amusing. He’d been around Hroom all his life.

“This is your code, isn’t it?” Drake asked after Koh had studied the console for a few minutes.

“I won’t deny it.”

“Who put you up to this?”

“Nobody.”

Drake fixed her with a hard gaze, but didn’t speak. Most people wilted under that stare, unable to leave the space silent, but Koh didn’t respond. After a moment, she looked down at the console.

“You know it was wrong,” he pressed. “That’s why you kept your work hidden.”

“Not at all. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have gone back in to fiddle with it. That’s what tipped you off, isn’t it?”

“What do you mean, fiddle?”

“I noticed a flaw in my code and fixed it. I saved an instruction by making this function recursive. It doesn’t look like much, but that line executes about fifteen hundred times a second. I sped the whole thing up with that one tweak.”

“Koh, I’m losing my patience. You’d better explain what this is about.”

“It’s exactly what it looks like. I’m not trying to hide anything.”

“You inserted code into the defense grid computer. I don’t care how many bloody times it executes, I care what it’s doing. Ellison tells me you were siphoning off hundreds of gigabytes of data.”

“Like I said, I wasn’t trying to hide anything. If I had been, you’d have never known.”

“If you’re not hiding anything, then why won’t you tell me exactly what you’re up to? Why did you hack into a secure system? Why do you need all that data?”

“First of all, it’s not remotely secure,” Koh said. “You may think it is, but it’s not. Smythe interfaced with the sentinel computers and gave me all the protocols necessary to get into Blackbeard’s defense grid computer. Once I knew that, it didn’t take much guesswork to bluff my way past Dreadnought’s security. It operates on the same principles. No need to ask permission.”

“You didn’t ask anyone, you ‘bluffed’ your way in.” Drake nodded. “Right.”

“Anyway,” Koh said in a false-patient voice, as if explaining something to a small child, “I’m obviously collecting data so I can find out exactly how your systems work. You’ve got a lot of moving parts, and I want to know how they interact. How do the batteries work together, how do you keep from knocking down your own ordnance with countermeasures? How do the Youd mines work? Why don’t they target your own ships? That sort of thing.”

“Why not ask?”

“I did! Manx told me it was none of my business.”

“He did have instructions to keep you out of the system,” Drake said, thinking. “Perhaps he was overzealous in obeying my orders.”

“He wouldn’t tell me anything. Why not?”

“Because you’re not a navy officer. You’re an observer, brought along as a courtesy to Commander Li.”

“Who has promised to show you all of our weapon systems, right down to the eliminon battery. Why does the sharing go in only one direction?”

Because one of us still has a fleet. One of us still has a home world. And one of us does not.

Drake didn’t say this aloud. For one, it was cruel to remind her that Apex was devouring the survivors on her planet. He’d nearly lost his own home world of Albion to a Hroom death fleet trying to irradiate the planet as a sacrifice to their god of death, and the horror of such a fate was still fresh on his mind. It gave him sympathy for her loss.

For another, Drake’s fleet was ostensibly on a mission to destroy the Apex harvester ship and any other forces in orbit around Singapore. Once he’d freed Singapore, the two nations would theoretically be on equal footing. The reality, of course, was that the remnant population on the planet would be no assistance whatsoever in the war. Singapore’s cities lay in ruins, the survivors reduced to subsistence levels, hiding in forests, deserts, and mountains as the buzzards hunted them to extinction.

Any value Singapore had was in Sentinel 3’s weapon systems and those of whatever other battle stations might still be hidden in the sector. Drake intended to take command of them, just as he hoped to direct any surviving Hroom fleets. Only Albion had the strength to take the fight to Apex, and if the others wanted to survive, they must join forces with the Royal Navy.

And that meant join in a subservient position. There could only be one commanding officer. It couldn’t be General Mose Dryz, and it couldn’t be Commander Li. That left Admiral Drake. That was reality, not arrogance on Drake’s part.

“I don’t think you’re working for the enemy,” he began at last.

“Absolutely not.”

“But I can’t have you larding up our network with extraneous code, either.”

Irritation roughened the edges of Koh’s voice. “Now you’re attacking my technical skills. The code is lean, and once I fix this function—”

“No. You won’t fix it. Ellison is going to lock you out and reduce your clearance.”

“What?” Koh rose in a huff.

“That is not a challenge, either. If I catch you trying to hack your way in again, I’ll have you thrown in the brig.” Drake waited for her sputtered protests to die out. “But I’ll instruct Ellison to answer your questions. You can’t dig into the code or mess around in the network, but you can see any high-level technical specifications that you’d like.”

“Hmm.” Koh settled back into her chair. “You could use my skills, you know.”

“I’m sure I could. Will you take a loyalty oath?”

“What’s that? Salute your lion flag and pledge fealty to King What’s-his-name?”

“Something along those lines, yes.”

She shook her head. “No. My loyalty is to my people, to the Singapore Imperium, and that will never change.”

“Then you’ll have to be satisfied with what I give you. For now. Later, maybe we’ll talk.” Drake stood, indicating that the meeting was over. “I’m giving you a second chance, Koh. But I’m warning you, don’t pull another stunt like this.”

#

The fleet picked its way carefully through the Dragon Quadrant for the next ten days, jumping three times on its way toward Singapore. They dropped probes, left a few Youd mines around jump points, and carefully scanned each system as they entered before barreling ahead.

Drake’s goal was to reach Singapore undamaged and undetected. He wanted one fight, and one fight only. Break the siege if he could, but if not, battle just hard enough to show Commander Li that he was serious. Then return to the sentinel base and get his hands on Li’s weapons systems.

By then, he expected to be reunited with Tolvern and Mose Dryz. From there, an aggressive charge at Apex at the head of a massive fleet that would hunt down the enemy and force a decisive naval battle.

All was quiet until they jumped into what the charts called the Padang System. It was crowded with hundreds of ships, and it looked like Drake’s fleet had stumbled into a killing field. Only gradually did the truth come out.

It was a killing field, but not a recent one. The ships were derelicts, gutted and wrecked, flotsam. There were passenger ships, Singaporean war junks, cargo vessels, and destroyed Apex warships. The biggest clusters of wreckage hung around the jump points, but there was also a broad belt in an elliptical orbit that ran from the gas giants to the innermost world of the system.

“Someone had better clean this up,” Drake noted as scans continued to add to the number of known wrecks, “or a star leviathan will discover this banquet and make the system impassable for a hundred years.”

Or maybe longer. A star leviathan would gobble up this debris, feeding on unexploded ordnance and fissile material, then, when sated, lay eggs. The hatchlings would menace the system for generations before they were ready to venture into the deep void.

“On the other hand,” Manx said, “it should be easy enough to pick our way through this mess without being spotted. There’s plenty of cover.”

That was true, and Drake also took the opportunity to harpoon a wrecked war junk and haul it in. Koh protested, saying he had no right to strip Singaporean technology without permission, but he ignored her. The war junk had a curving hull, with wing-like protrusions that provided thrust and maneuverability, and even as a wreck it was graceful in appearance, a thing of beauty. Drake was sorry to order the ship dismembered and hauled into Dreadnought for closer inspection.

Later the next day, Koh joined the admiral in Dreadnought’s massive engineering bay, where they went over the pieces. She’d dropped her objections, and showed him the engines and weapon systems, explaining how they worked. The result was disappointing. There was an interesting tyrillium compound in the ship’s armor that he ordered sent to the lab, but no plasma ejector or eliminon battery. Only standard lasers, missiles, and the like.

“This ship is from the first war,” Koh explained as she ran her hand over the pitted hull of the war junk, now being cut into pieces by grunting, sweating navy boatswains swarming over her surface like ants dismembering a dead lizard. “We hadn’t developed our big weapons yet.”

Not that those big weapons had stopped Apex in the end. Singapore had driven off the enemy, remained on full war footing for years while the economy threw every possible resource at building a new fleet and the sentinel battle stations, and yet the human civilization had been completely overthrown.

But the Imperium had put up a good fight. Tech Officer Lloyd identified the wreckage of fourteen war junks among the derelicts, plus numerous military support craft. And that was just the evidence of fighting in this system alone, and those ships that hadn’t fallen into the sun or been atomized in a fiery explosion.

When he was alone in his quarters, Drake worried.

The more he learned about Singapore, the greater his estimation of their abilities. He’d initially assumed them small in numbers, like the New Dutch, or scattered into various colonies, like the Ladinos. That was the impression given by the battered refugee fleet. Instead, he’d discovered the remnants of a unified nation that had marshaled its people, resources, and technological know-how.

And still fallen. Was this to be Albion’s fate, too?

The warships were only one part of the debris in the Padang System. Most of the other wreckage apparently belonged to the hundreds of thousands of Singaporeans fleeing the planet. From the look of it, most of them had failed to escape.

Drake’s forces traversed half of the Padang System before the action found them. A refugee fleet had apparently been picking its way slowly across the system, drifting along with the wreckage as they eased closer to the jump point. Drake was going in the opposite direction, fully cloaked and quiet, and might have stumbled right past them without either side seeing the other.

But someone had been stalking the refugees, and now appeared. Back on the bridge, Drake stared at the viewscreen as the data came in. Four hunter-killer packs, with a full allotment of spears and lances. They slipped in and out among the refugee fleet, picking casually, destroying some and boarding others.

“Fifteen hours until we cross paths,” Manx said. “The good news is that they haven’t spotted us yet, the bad news is that there’s no way to avoid them. We either move away from the orbiting debris and into the open or we stumble right through the fight.”

“Maybe it will be over by then,” Ellison said. Her words were hopeful, her tone less so.

“Maybe,” Drake said. “But the buzzards look like they’re playing around. They’re in no rush.”

Ellison glanced at Koh, who stood next to her at the communications station. “Then I assume we’ll intervene?”

“Stay on task, Ensign,” Drake told her.

“Yes, sir.” She busied herself with something.

As a communications officer, Ellison had had little to do while they were traveling in silence. Not only had she been unable to send subspace messages back to fleet headquarters or to either Tolvern or Mose Dryz, but Drake had choked off communication to the other ships in the fleet. The three other cruisers—Zealand, Formidable, and Repulse—stayed within a few dozen kilometers, and they often communicated via light signaling, a technology so old that it had been used by the ancient Greeks.

As a result, Ellison had formed a friendship of sorts with Hillary Koh, who was teaching her how to interface with Singaporean vessels. Together with Tech Officers Throckmorton (“Throck”) and Lloyd, they were programming a translator that would allow English speakers to speak Chinese, just like the Singaporeans had done in reverse. One small problem: navy crew would need a brain chip implant to interface with the communicator. So it was all hypothetical at the moment.

Drake consulted with Lieutenant Manx. “I’m inclined to make a fight of it. Woodbury is itching to give his crew some experience. Repulse has never seen battle, and his crew is green. Captain Caites would be keen as well—she’s always up for a fight.”

“I’m all for attacking,” Manx said. “We’ve been out here too long without a scrape. And I’m sure we can take them.”

Manx was old Blackbeard crew, all the way back to when Drake’s former ship was still known as Ajax. And if there was one thing the Blackbeard crew was known for, it was charging into the action.

“But is this the battle we’re looking for?” Drake said. “I love a lopsided fight—assuming we’re not the ones getting lopped—but I need to make a demonstration for Commander Li. Is this big enough?”

“We don’t know how big it is, sir. Not until it’s over. Are we sure these are the only ships in the system?”

“I’ve thought of that. These buzzards are in no hurry. They seem to have been waiting around for easy prey, and found it. Could be two or three other enemy forces in the system, staying hidden until they’re needed. But Manx, we’ve got a fleet. Half the firepower of the Royal Navy is right here. We didn’t come all this way to scout and reconnoiter, we came out to deliver pain to the enemy. And if my fleet isn’t big enough to do it, nothing is.”

Drake looked up as Hillary Koh made her way over. She was scowling. Naturally.

“Admiral Drake,” she began, her tone peevish.

“Now listen to me,” he interrupted. “Before you object and say I don’t care about your people, why don’t you wait to see what my decision is?”

Her response wasn’t what he’d been expecting. “You can’t attack.”

Drake blinked. “What?”

“I know, I feel the same way. There must be ten or fifteen thousand people crammed into those ships. Singaporeans. My people. It makes me sick to think of what they’re going through right now. They’re terrified, and they’re going to die. Some of them will be eaten alive.”

“And you don’t want me to rescue them?”

“You can’t fight this battle, Admiral. Not here, not now. We mix it up in Padang, we’ll give away our location. The harvester ship at Singapore will be expecting our arrival. You’ll risk the whole attack.”

“By ‘the whole attack,’ you mean going through to your home system and assaulting the harvester ship in orbit around Singapore?”

“Exactly. You have to rescue the planet.”

“That’s a fight I’m not ready to have.”

Koh looked back and forth between the two men, her eyes bugging, a flush coming over her face like a fast-arriving fever. “But you promised Commander Li!”

“I didn’t give a timetable, Koh,” Drake said.

“So you’re going to dither around here while my people are slaughtered?”

“I’m not going to dither, I’m going to fight the enemy. I’m going to weaken his defenses of the approaches to your home world so that when we come through with our entire force, there will be nothing to oppose us.” Drake shook his head. “But we won’t be attacking the buzzards at Singapore until the general returns with his thirty sloops.”

“And HMS Blackbeard,” Manx put in. “And Peerless arrives with her task force.”

“Absolutely right,” Drake said. “I need all available forces.”

“That could be weeks! Millions will die before you liberate the planet.”

“Most likely. But if I move too soon, it will never be liberated. They’ll all die.” Drake gestured at the viewscreen, which showed two lances harpooning another refugee ship. “Meanwhile, there are thousands of people right here whose lives we can save.”

Koh stared up at the viewscreen, her expression troubled. She didn’t speak.

“Then you’re decided?” Manx asked.

Drake nodded. “Warn the gunnery, signal our forces. We are going into battle.”



Chapter Fifteen

Tolvern and Capp put on goggles and acoustic earmuffs before entering the foundry. Green fire blasted from nozzles at a square of tyrillium armor being held in an oversize vise. It turned black as it absorbed the heat and hardened. Two men in heat suits dragged another plate of smoking armor on chains in front of water jets. The spray vaporized as it hit.

The heat and humidity was suffocating, and acrid smoke bit the back of Tolvern’s throat. The light was so intense on one side of the room that it was like staring into a small green sun. A man with a forklift hauled in more damaged tyrillium plates to be treated with reagent and remolded. A woman, her face black with soot, gestured angrily for him to move out of the way so another forklift could get by with a load of finished armor.

So many people working all at once, but it wasn’t a very sophisticated operation, not compared to a navy shipyard. This was all cobbled together parts, the plasma nozzles obviously taken from a ship’s engine and not engineered specifically for tyrillium hardening. Five men were wrestling another piece of armor from a mold, a job that should have been done by crane.

“That’s one of them,” Tolvern said, yelling to be heard above the din. She pointed to the woman directing the forklifts. “The big Ladino with the missing fingers is the other.”

“These blokes look even busier than the last crop we tried,” Capp said, also yelling. “With as much coin as they’re pulling in, we’ll be lucky if they don’t steal our boatswains instead of the other way around.”

“These two are the last. I’ll pay extra if I have to. You get the Ladino. I’ll talk to the woman.”

Tolvern waved to get the woman’s attention. Capp picked her way through the chaos to get to the man. Too hot inside to have a conversation, so Tolvern brought the pair outside.

The factory sat on a narrow street, blending in with the other stone buildings that stood shoulder-to-shoulder. The roofs were made of heavy tiles, and the windows had bars over them, with thick metal shutters to lock up. It gave the buildings a fortress-like appearance, but at the same time, there weren’t the high fences topped with razor wire or iron spikes that were common in high crime areas everywhere.

But the strangest feature of this part of the city was how the roads were in troughs below the level of the buildings, and looked almost like empty canals. Once you parked, you had to climb stairs to get up from the street level.

The rain had picked up, and was a steady drumbeat on the roofs. The clouds were so black overhead that it looked like evening, even though it was still the middle of the day.

“Don’t like the looks of that,” Capp said, peering skyward. “Maybe it’s one of them deluges they told us about.”

The woman they’d brought out of the factory stepped out from under the eaves, collected rain in her hands, and splashed her face. Soot still streaked her features when she was done, but she looked human now. Albionish, from the looks of her.

“It’s safe enough for now,” she said. “I’d keep an eye on it, though. Looks threatening.” She glanced at the two newcomers and settled on Tolvern. “You’re the navy captain Rodriguez told me about?”

Her English had broad vowels. Tolvern pegged her as a Mercian.

“Captain Tolvern, yes. HMS Blackbeard. I want to enlist you in the Royal Navy. I lost some of my best boatswains, and Rodriguez says you’re good.”

“Can you get me a pardon?”

“A what?”

“I’m already Royal Navy. Midshipman O’Keefe, HMS Lexington. That mean anything to you?”

“I see,” Tolvern said.

“What’s that, then?” Capp asked.

Lexington was one of Malthorne’s destroyers,” Tolvern explained. “She took damage in the Fantalus System and disappeared. Where is Lexington now?”

Lexington never made it,” O’Keefe said. “My captain was Malthorne’s cousin, and figured he’d be hung if he returned. So we scuttled, sold the ship for parts. The crew went its own way. The civil war’s over, I hear. That about right?”

“And pardons issued,” Tolvern said.

“What about for deserters? Because I figure that’s what all of us from Lexington count for now, isn’t that right?”

“Was it your idea to desert or your captain’s?”

“None of the crew had much choice in the matter. We were all the way out here, and the ship was sold out from underneath us.”

“Put it in writing, sign a loyalty oath, and I’ll have you back at your old grade and pay. That’s more than can be said for most of Malthorne’s people.”

“And your ship? It’s Blackbeard, right? All shot up, is she?”

“We took a beating,” Tolvern admitted. “More than one beating, in fact. We had hull integrity issues where we fought off a boarding party, and we’re still running tests on all the systems that came down in the overhaul. But we’re armed and armored, and with a couple more boatswains we’ll have a full crew.”

“How long you been in the yards?”

“Two weeks. We’ve been working full out, and nearly have her patched up. I’d love another week, but I’m not sure I can get it. I’m ready to ship out now.”

O’Keefe studied her, as if wondering if Tolvern was understating Blackbeard’s damage as part of her pitch. She lifted her hand in a slow salute. “Aye, Captain. Then I’m on board.”

Capp was still scowling. “Just don’t be carrying any of that Malthorne rubbish with you. We ain’t that kind of ship. No cucumber sandwiches and posh talk, you hear?”

“Look at me,” O’Keefe said. She was filthy, her hair hacked close to the scalp, so poorly it looked like she’d done it herself with a pair of old scissors and a cracked mirror. “You see anything posh here?”

“Glad you girls can kiss and make up,” the other person from the foundry said in a light Ladino accent. He’d been watching the exchange with a stony expression. “But I got a good job already. What’s in it for me? Pay is good out here for a man with my skills, and I have never been in your navy, so that crap won’t work with me.”

Tolvern suppressed her irritation. These two weren’t her first choice, more like her tenth, although if she’d known O’Keefe’s background, she’d have tried the woman earlier. Tolvern had been turned down plenty of times over the past week as she scratched together new crew. She’d even tried to hire some of Rodriguez’s people on a contract basis, with a kickback going to the owner of the spaceyards. Rodriguez turned her down.

“You must be Ortiz,” Tolvern said. When he nodded, she said, “How about a signing bonus of fifty pounds?”

Capp’s eyebrows shot up at this, but Ortiz looked unimpressed. “I can earn that in six weeks, with overtime. Not good enough.”

Tolvern had been prepared to offer him three pounds a week, which was what an experienced boatswain earned, but if he was telling the truth about earning fifty pounds in six weeks, she was nowhere close enough.

“How much do you want?” she asked cautiously.

“More.”

Tolvern turned to O’Keefe. “Is he good?”

The midshipman shrugged. “Good enough.”

“I’m better than you,” Ortiz told O’Keefe.

“Not bloody likely,” O’Keefe said. “Burned your fingers off, didn’t you?”

“Seventy-five pound signing bonus,” Tolvern said. “Three pounds fifty a week.”

Ortiz shook his head. “Nah. Still not worth it.”

“King’s balls,” Capp said. “Seventy-five bloody pounds. Don’t be an arse. Take it.”

“I was thinking two hundred bonus, five pounds a week,” Ortiz said.

“You’re mad,” Tolvern said. “I can’t offer that kind of money. It’s already going to cause me trouble if the crew hears I’m waving around signing bonuses.”

Ortiz shrugged. “Sorry.”

“You’d rather work here, sweltering?” Tolvern asked. “Messing around with substandard equipment?”

“And stay alive? Yeah. I know why you want me, and it’s because your other people died, didn’t they? I don’t figure to go out and get shot at by buzzards and Hroom and pirates. If I’d wanted that, I’d have joined up years ago.”

“So you’re a bloody coward,” Capp said. “Come on, Cap’n. Let’s leave this bloke. He ain’t worth it anyhow.”

The rain had continued to pick up while the four had been talking, until it poured off the roofs of the surrounding buildings in sheets. From there it drained into the sunken roadbed and joined a small, but growing stream.

“What do you think?” O’Keefe asked Ortiz. “Is it a deluge?”

“Drains are backing up,” he said. “Roads will be rivers in a few minutes. Could be. I don’t hear any thunder. Usually, it slams into the mountains and all goes off at once.”

“Usually, but not always,” she said.

Lorries and private cars had been rolling by earlier in the conversation, but had largely vanished from the street. Heavy metal shutters slammed shut up and down the street, blocking windows.

“Yeah, I’d say the toads are coming,” O’Keefe added. “Let’s get inside.” She reached for the door, but it didn’t budge. She cursed. “It’s locked.”

Capp clapped her hands sarcastically. “Well done, luv. You must have been the pride of the Royal Navy.”

“Someone must have locked it from the inside. Must not have seen us come out.”

Capp didn’t look convinced. “Better hope them toads don’t appear.”

Ortiz pounded on the metal door, but nobody responded. Too much noise from the foundry, no doubt, plus the thundering rain on the roof. O’Keefe cursed again and said they’d have to go around the building to one of the loading bays. That would take them into the rain.

A truck pulled up. It had big tires and was elevated to get it above the water. Metal spikes stuck out of the roof, the tire rims, the bumpers, and the hood, giving it a porcupine appearance. A window came down.

“Captain!”

It was Carvalho, back early from the yards. Tolvern had told him two hours. Give her a chance to seal the deal with drinks, pay off the foundry owner for stealing two of his employees mid-shift, and wrap up other business in town.

“The fugitives are in Samborondón,” Carvalho said. “We found them.”

Tolvern had nearly forgotten about Djikstra and Megat. Blackbeard had been stripped down and rebuilt in the two weeks since she came into Rodriguez’s yards, and Tolvern had been consumed with the numerous arguments, compromises, and simple logistics of the overhaul, as well as the struggle to acquire supplies and crew. Tolvern had spent a fortune in the end, but the result was that she was ready to ship out, whether she hired on the last two boatswains or not.

“Why didn’t you call?” Tolvern said.

“Get in, I’ll tell you.”

Tolvern turned to O’Keefe. “Find me in the yards when the storm is over. Ortiz, the offer stands.”

He snorted. “Don’t wait up on my account.”

“Hope you burn yer knob off next time,” Capp muttered.

Tolvern grabbed Capp and braced to make a dash through the rain to the truck. Before they could move, the ground rumbled, and water spouted from one of the overwhelmed drains about thirty feet in front of them. Tolvern stared through the sheet of water, thinking that something had blocked the drainage system and part of the street was about to collapse.

Ortiz and O’Keefe pounded on the metal door to the foundry, screaming for someone to open up.

“Run!” Carvalho yelled from the truck. There was panic in his voice.

The two Blackbeard officers sprinted for the truck. The water hit like buckets in the face the instant they left the shelter of the eaves, so thick Tolvern felt like she was drowning in it. The water was already up to her calves in the street, and the two women fought to get through it. The water kept spouting ahead of them, and paving stones spit into the air, splashing down in a cascade of mud and stone.

Tolvern and Capp both got in the front, bringing so much water with them that Carvalho, sitting behind the wheel, held up an arm to block the spray. The back door opened and two people scrambled in. O’Keefe and Ortiz. Oglethorpe was already in the back of the truck, and muttered a complaint as they shook off like a pair of wet dogs.

The ground heaved in front of the truck, and a massive shape squirmed up through the mud and broken paving stones. Carvalho got them moving before Ortiz had even closed the door, and drove away in reverse before Tolvern could get a good look at whatever it was that had come out of the ground.

#

“I didn’t call because the com system is offline,” Carvalho explained as they rolled down streets that were as much canal now as road. “So I had to come out and find you in person.”

“The com is still down?” Tolvern asked, frowning. “I thought Smythe was going to have it up and running by midday.”

Rain thundered on the roof, and while the truck had plenty of clearance, it was slow going pushing through all the water. They came upon what looked like a sinkhole, except it was rapidly filling with runoff. O’Keefe told them in a tense voice to turn around. That was no sinkhole, she said, it was where another toad had broken up through the roadbed.

“Something to do with the network,” Carvalho said when Tolvern pressed him about the communications system. “We lost computers or something—I don’t know what he is babbling about, you will have to talk to Smythe yourself. He wants to run diagnostics before we leave the planet.”

Oglethorpe was messing around with weapons in the back, and Tolvern glanced back to see what he’d brought with him. He’d once been special forces, and still fought well in spite of a messed up shoulder. He’d hauled a small arsenal of rifles, shotguns, and hand cannons along, and she figured they might need them if any more toads popped out of the ground.

“Tell me about the fugitives,” she said, turning back to Carvalho. “Are they still holed up on their ship?”

“This has nothing to do with me,” Ortiz said. “I want to be let out.”

“With toads coming out of the street?” O’Keefe said. “Come with us to the yards. They have a perimeter. You’ll be safe until the deluge is over.”

“Fine, but only until the rain stops. I’m not joining your crew for a thousand guineas.”

“Yeah, we get it. You’re scared,” Capp said.

“That is right, Captain,” Carvalho said in answer to Tolvern’s question. “They negotiated with the port authorities, landed in a field a few miles from the yards, and have been sitting there ever since. Nobody has talked to them—I figured it was better to come get you first.”

Capp studied Carvalho. “Something’s wrong, ain’t it?”

“I am fine.”

“I can see it on your face, luv,” Capp said. “Look at him, Cap’n, and tell me I’m wrong.”

Carvalho’s brow was furrowed, and he hunched over the wheel. And it wasn’t just his posture; his voice was strained, with none of its usual swagger. The presence of giant killer amphibians in the streets might have explained it, but Tolvern had spent enough time with Carvalho in the swampland of Hot Barsa to recognize something else was troubling him.

He glanced over his shoulder, then looked at Tolvern. “Not sure you want it coming out in front of the new recruits. Not until you’ve got them settled.”

“I won’t be put off,” O’Keefe said, “and Ortiz won’t be put on, either. Whatever you’ve got to say, you can say it in front of us.”

“Go ahead, Carvalho,” Tolvern said.

“It is the com system. Smythe brought it up for testing before he took it offline again. There was a subspace from Mose Dryz. He mentioned his fleet and rendezvousing with Admiral Drake.”

Capp groaned. “That dumb Hroom. Why the devil would he do that? Doesn’t he know better?”

“I don’t understand,” O’Keefe said. “What’s the matter with sending a subspace?”

“It means the buzzards know where we are,” Tolvern said. “If the general sent it, Apex heard it. And that means they know we’re on Samborondón.”

“Sounds like a lot of worry,” O’Keefe said calmly. “Maybe they weren’t listening. Maybe they’re four systems away.”

“You haven’t faced the buzzards,” Capp said, “or I fancy you wouldn’t be sitting back there all smug-like.”

“How long did you say until we leave?” O’Keefe asked. “A couple of days? Get into orbit, get cloaked—we’ll be fine.”

Tolvern shook her head. “The sensors can’t relay a time when they picked up the subspace, only that it arrived. You need the communication system for that. And it was offline for six days. Who knows when the general sent it, or when the buzzards heard. If he sent it six days ago . . . well, let’s hope he didn’t.”



Chapter Sixteen

Tolvern began to think the threat of toads was over-hyped by the time they reached the outskirts of town. The rain lashed down, pounding on the roof and destroying visibility out the front. Thank God for the viewscreen, which used sensors to construct and display their surroundings. The water channeled into big canals that flanked the road, but by now they were overflowing, and an uprooted tree blocked their path where it had washed across. The truck was partially amphibious, and could go through deep water, but it couldn’t get past the tree.

The six of them climbed out of the windows and waded into water that was nearly waist-deep. Carvalho and Oglethorpe hooked up a winch to drag the tree out of the way, and the rest of them established a defense perimeter to watch for toads.

Tolvern peered into the gloom, trying to see anything through the curtains of water and the churning, muddy canals. She had a rifle, but wondered if a life jacket might not be a more critical need as the current sucked at her legs and tried to yank her from her feet. Forget giant toads, the floodwater would drown them if they weren’t careful.

Capp shouted a warning.

The canal erupted to their right. A huge, lumpy shape crawled onto the road, ten feet tall and twice as wide as the truck. With a giant, lumpy head that was half the size of the animal itself, and two enormous, bulbous eyes, it really did look like a giant toad, all except for the pig-like snout.

Tolvern was standing closest, and lifted her rifle as one eye swiveled toward her. The toad’s mouth opened, and a black tongue bunched at the back, ready to strike.

She shot it in the mouth. Capp and Ortiz fired at the same moment, and O’Keefe opened up a split second later. Carvalho and Oglethorpe dropped the winch and fumbled with their weapons.

The toad bellowed, a sound that was a cross between an enraged bull and a trumpeting elephant. It hopped backward, and disappeared into the mud and water. She caught a glimpse of its lumpy back emerging from the water, aimed her rifle, and fired again before it was gone.

“Watch yourself,” O’Keefe said. “We didn’t hurt him, we only pissed him off. He’ll be back.”

“Stay on that winch,” Tolvern told Carvalho and Oglethorpe. “No matter what happens, you keep working.”

She’d no sooner said this than the toad burst out of the water again, this time from the other side of the tree. It opened its mouth and tried to swallow Oglethorpe, who’d just got the chain fastened around the trunk. He looked up in time and ducked away, taking shelter between the branches of the tree and shouting for help.

Tolvern had more time to place her shot this time. She aimed at one of its huge eyeballs and squeezed off a shot. It hit a transparent membrane and ricocheted off.

Tolvern had expected to blind it in one eye, but instead, all she’d done was attract its attention. It hopped over Oglethorpe, who was still cringing among the branches, and splashed into the water in front of the others. The resulting wave swept Carvalho from his feet, and he vanished beneath the surface. Tolvern kept shooting, but the bullets may as well have been bouncing off stone. The toad squatted to leap at her again.

Capp fired her hand cannon. The grenade hit the animal on the underside of its neck and detonated on impact. It roared again, this time a higher, squealing sound, full of pain. It went under the water, and this time when it came up there was thick, blue-red blood streaming down from its throat. It took a giant leap toward the canal, fleeing, and a huge spray of mud and water lifted when it hit.

“That’s right!” Capp shouted. She slammed another grenade into the hand cannon. “You want another one? Come back and get it.” She looked around. “Carvalho!”

He came up sputtering. He slogged back across the road, cursing about having lost his rifle when he went under, seemingly oblivious to Capp’s relief.

“Get back in the truck, everyone,” O’Keefe said. “That’s not the last of them.”

Indeed, two more attacked in quick succession as they drove/floated off a few minutes later. The first was a huge toad, even bigger than the first, which appeared suddenly ahead of them. It seized the entire truck with its powerful tongue, but before it could get its mouth around it and contend with the spikes, another, slightly smaller toad hopped out of the river to their left. It, too, caught the truck with its tongue, and soon the two animals were jerking it back and forth between them.

Inside, the passengers shouted as the fighting tossed them about like ice in a tumbler. Finally, the big toad gave up on the truck and went after the little toad instead. The smaller toad was nearly two thirds its size, but it soon got the thing in its mouth. The bones of the smaller one crunched, and a flailing back leg kicked the truck away.

The truck rolled onto its side, but it was built like a tank and largely undamaged. Even as the larger toad was still crunching its oversize meal, the humans jumped out and used one of the spikes as a lever to flip the truck upright. They sped off before the toad looked around for dessert.

Yet another toad caught them moments later, and here they learned the value of the spikes. It got the truck in its mouth, but when it tried to crush its prey, the spikes impaled its mouth. It spit them out and shook its head, bellowing in anger. Once more, they righted themselves and continued on their way. The whole experience was terrifying, but they’d emerged unharmed, and were now passing through a forested stretch and relative tranquility.

“This isn’t the way to the yards,” Ortiz said a few minutes later.

“Who said anything about the yards?” Carvalho responded.

“You did! You said I should come with you to the yards and wait it out. That there’s a perimeter.”

“He didn’t say that, you bonehead,” O’Keefe said. “I did!”

“We have a stop to make first,” Tolvern said. “How much farther?”

Carvalho consulted his computer. “Another thousand yards or so, then down a road to the left. Morpho’s in the middle of a field. Shouldn’t have to look too hard.”

“I don’t want anything to do with this,” Ortiz said.

“Fine,” Tolvern said. “Stop the truck, Carvalho. Let him out. Go ahead, Ortiz, I’m sure you know how to swim.”

“You know that’s not what I mean. I didn’t agree to any of this. Take me back to the city.”

“Shut up, you wanker,” Capp said, “or I’ll throw you out myself.”

Ortiz started to say something else, but Carvalho cut him off in Ladino, and that finally ended his objections. They took the “road” on the left, which was underwater and only identifiable by the absence of trees. The rain kept thundering down. Soon they emerged from the woods.

“It’s got to be here,” Carvalho said, squinting down at the viewscreen. “Where could it—diablos!”

He hit the brakes, and they slid to a sloppy halt. There it was, Morpho, looming ahead of them. They’d very nearly run into the blasted thing. The spacecraft had sunk partway into the mud, and had been misidentified on the viewscreen as a small hillock.

They all tumbled out, including Ortiz, who wouldn’t be left alone inside. Tolvern tried to shield her eyes and mouth from the water, but the rain was coming down so hard that it felt like she was drowning.

She muttered an oath as she took in the ship. “How the devil are we going to get inside?”

“She ain’t got much armor,” Capp said. She patted her hand cannon. “How about this old beauty?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. She’s got enough to deflect high-velocity space debris—there’s no way a grenade or two will do the trick. Oglethorpe, see if you can raise Blackbeard or the yards. Tell them our predicament.”

“There’s a plasma torch at the foundry that’ll cut through the skin,” O’Keefe said.

“Don’t do us much good here, do it?” Capp said. “And I don’t fancy going back for it and facing them toads again.”

“Com link still down, sir,” Oglethorpe said.

Ortiz had sloshed ahead, muttering in Ladino, and Tolvern could still hear him, though he’d vanished into the rain, like a man walking through a waterfall. She caught a glimpse of movement along the hulking form of the spacecraft as he made his way around it.

“Or you could go in through the open door,” he called back.

They hurried up to where he stood next to the ship. Sure enough, the bay doors were open, rain pouring into an empty cargo space. A loading ramp extended down and disappeared into the water. Tolvern kicked around in the water until she found the edge.

“Everyone armed? Good, let’s go.”

They made their way up the ramp and into a cargo space about thirty-five feet long and fifteen feet wide. Water was already lapping nearly to the opening, and if it rose another few inches, it would start to flood the cargo bay.

Worse than that, Tolvern realized as she looked around. The airlock leading from the cargo area into the rest of the ship was also open. Once water rose into the bay, it would stream into the rest of the ship, maybe all the way to the electronics and engine room. Crew quarters, bridge too.

The others looked to Tolvern for guidance, and she nodded and gestured toward the open airlock. Ortiz had come in with them, but now tried to slink back outside.

O’Keefe and Capp collared him. “Oh, no you don’t, you coward,” O’Keefe said in a low voice.

“Someone give this tosser a weapon,” Capp said. “If it comes to shooting, you can do your job, mate.”

Carvalho slapped a pistol into Ortiz’s hands and glared, as if daring him to run off or use the weapon to bluster his way free.

“Fine,” Ortiz said irritably. “But don’t think this changes anything.”

The hot, humid air of Samborondón’s climate gave way to a stench of sweat, vomit, and urine as they made their way across the cargo bay and into the passageways on the other side. Partially empty ration containers lay rotting on the floor, and they came upon a place where someone had loosed his bowels in the hallway. There was strangely sweet scent mixed in with the stench.

“Ugh,” Capp said, her face scrunched up. “Smells like someone took a shite on a birthday cake.”

The corridor branched in two. Tolvern held Oglethorpe and the still-reluctant Ortiz at the juncture, then brought the other three along with her toward the bridge on her left. They reached it moments later, only to find it empty. More filth here, the rubbish ankle deep: half-empty tubes of peanut butter paste, meat sauce spilling from packets and going rancid, an overturned bin of wheat kernels, like someone had been eating it raw. Dried vomit sprayed the console at the captain’s chair. Gobs of what looked like mashed-up slug slime splattered the floor.

“Don’t touch anything,” Tolvern said.

“Hell, no,” Capp said. “You don’t think we’re gonna get the plague or the sweaty dance or nothing?”

“Not unless the buzzards show up and spit up in your face.”

“How you know they ain’t here already?”

The captain didn’t know, now that she thought about it.

The four of them didn’t linger on the bridge, but went back to where Oglethorpe and Ortiz were still waiting. They cautiously took a jog in the corridor, went past the empty mess hall (itself filthy with food and other waste), by a bathroom that was beyond disgusting, and into the living quarters. There were only two rooms. The first had a single bunk, and here they found one of the two fugitives.

It was Djikstra, the one who’d led them to the Kettle System to look for the Singaporeans. He lay motionless on the bunk, face pale and waxy, apparently dead. Befouled clothing, vomit, and more drying gobs of snot-like substance covered the floor. Tolvern’s stomach heaved at the stench.

“Don’t go in there, Cap’n!” Capp said.

A trickle of nervous perspiration beaded at Tolvern’s temple. No, this wasn’t the plague or the sweaty dance, that illness that left people thrashing helplessly until they were soaked in sweat and dying of exhaustion. It was an even more frightening disease. But she didn’t think it was communicable, not like that. Still, she remained in the corridor rather than enter and verify that Djikstra was dead.

Carvalho moved to the second room. “I found the other one, Captain.”

It was Megat, and he was alive. This room had four bunks, and the man sat on the edge of one of them, his bare feet on the floor, right in the filth. His chest was bare, but he wore thin, pajama-like trousers below. Stubble covered his face; his eyes were bloodshot. He carried no weapon, and Tolvern lowered her gun after a quick glance to make sure the room was clear.

“Capp, make sure the other one doesn’t get up or try anything funny. I think he’s dead, but we won’t take chances.”

“Aye, Cap’n.”

“Carvalho and O’Keefe, I want you two positioned at the end of the corridor. Make sure none of the buzzards come bursting out of the duct work.”

“They won’t,” Megat said. His voice was thick, phlegmy, like a man with a deep chest cold. “The birds who boarded this ship were the spacefarers, and they can’t handle the gravity on a world like this. Only the harvesters come down to high-gravity planets.”

“So you’re admitting it?” Tolvern asked. “No lies about how you were running for freedom and just happened to find a starship? How you slipped through the battle undetected thanks to a lucky break or two?”

Megat let out a low, bitter chuckle that became first a cough and then an unstoppable hacking that went on and on until he eventually brought up a mass of lumpy green mucous that looked like slugs mixed with green oatmeal. After spitting it to the floor, he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and looked up at her again.

“That’s exactly how it started. Me, running for freedom.” He shook his head. “Djikstra told me when he let me out that he had a ship hidden in the area and needed a copilot, someone with my skills. If I helped him, he’d drop me off among one of the Singaporean refugee camps on Samborondón.”

“What kind of idiot are you?” Tolvern said. “Your battle station was hidden all these years. How would Djikstra possibly have a ship stashed nearby without your knowledge?”

“He had a plausible story, or semi-plausible. But also, I wanted to believe. Of course it sounds ludicrous now, but I wanted it to be true, and so it was.”

This, Tolvern could understand. When Djikstra came on board Blackbeard with a tale about how to contact the Singaporean battle station, she’d overlooked the obvious discrepancies in his story, how he’d claimed to be alone on a ship after leading a group of nonexistent refugees, not one of whom had survived. Blackbeard was far from friendly systems, battered and desperate, and Tolvern simply wanted the story to be true.

“So now you know that Djikstra is a liar,” she said.

“He’s a liar for a reason. And that reason is up here.” Megat tapped his head. “I’d have been a liar a few days ago too. Too late for that now, I’m lost and done for.”

He stopped and coughed again. This time, the coughing went on for so long that after he’d hocked up a mass of phlegm, he bent over and puked. A thin, watery vomit came up at first, but soon it was nothing but dry heaves.

“Cap’n,” Capp called from the hallway. “Time is running out.”

Tolvern looked down to see a line of water creeping into the room and sloshing against her boot as the floodwater entered the open ship and continued to rise. Megat was still puking, and Tolvern tried the com link, not expecting an answer, but Smythe came on.

“Damn it, Smythe, you picked one hell of a time to bring the system down for testing.”

“Sorry, sir,” he said. “You didn’t go out to Morpho by yourself, did you? There are giant toads—some of them got into the yard somehow. Ate two of Rodriguez’s crew before they could be killed.”

“I know all about the toads,” Tolvern said impatiently. “Tell Rodriguez we need one of the big trucks out here as soon as possible. The small truck is underwater, and Morpho is filling up and may just sink into the mud.”

“Yes, sir. Did you get the fugitives?”

“I’ll explain later.” She pulled out her computer and tapped at the screen. “Sending you our coordinates now.”

She cut the line. The water level had risen a good inch just while she was on the call. It pushed excrement from the hallways and floated the soiled clothing and sheets on the floor. Megat stared at the rising water with an unreadable expression.

“I was ready to fight back, you know,” he said. “I had my gun in hand when the birds boarded the ship. Was going to unload on them, kill as many of the vermin as I could, then pull the pin on a grenade and blow myself to hell. I wasn’t a coward, I wasn’t going to surrender or hide.”

“Whatever else you are, you aren’t a coward. I’ll agree with that much. That was obvious from your stupid revolt on Sentinel 3.”

“It was stupid.” He managed a weak chuckle. “I wish I could take that back, believe me. Life under that spineless fool Li is still life. And fighting the birds, not working for them.”

“So what happened?”

“Djikstra hit me from behind. He’d come with me into the bay as the lance overtook us. Said he was going to fight to the death by my side, but he bashed me on the skull with the butt of his gun as soon as I turned my back. I woke up strapped to a bench and one of the birds standing over me.” Megat shuddered. “Bright green and red plumage—one of the queen commanders. Thought she was going to eat me alive. If only I had been so lucky.

“Two of the gray birds pried open my mouth with their claws. The queen commander lowered her beak to my mouth. I thought she was going to tear out my tongue. I’m not so brave that I didn’t scream. Instead, she dripped her saliva into me. It tasted sweet, did you know that? Like condensed milk, you know? I tried to spit it out, but some of it went down my throat.”

Tolvern was horrified, yet fascinated at the same time.

“Then I got sick, vomiting. Soon, I could hear, literally hear a bird cawing in my head. You know that jeering sound a crow makes? Like that. Only I could understand somehow. Not the words, but my body knew what to do. ‘Set these coordinates in the nav computer. Put this amount of thrust.’ That sort of thing.”

“It controls your mind?”

“You ever hear of those wasps that lay eggs in caterpillars? First, the larvae eat the caterpillars from the inside, then the victim protects the larvae from predators even as they chew their way out. That’s what I would have done, too. Killed to protect the creature that did this to me.”

Tolvern had tightened her grip on the rifle through all of this, and though Megat looked feeble and dying, she was going to take no chances. Now she slid her finger over to the trigger, convinced he was about to spring at her.

Would have?” she asked. “Or still would?”

Megat managed a wan smile. “It’s gone, Tolvern—they’ve left my head. Now that I’m dying, there’s no point. Happened to Djikstra two days ago, he got his mind back. Too late for him, of course. I locked him up in his quarters under orders from the birds. A few hours ago, when I came down from orbit, I finally got sick enough that they left me alone, too. I came down to let Djikstra out. Well, to kill him before killing myself. Turns out, he was already dead.”

“Why did Apex send you here? Was it to pave the way for the buzzards to invade?”

“I don’t know. I think they want spies in human space. Turns out their mind control isn’t that good—they can parasitize us, all right, but not without killing the host. Not yet.” A thin smile. “I expect they’re working on that.”

“Cap’n,” Capp called from the hallway. “We gonna get out of here?”

The water was halfway up Tolvern’s boots and caking them with the filth. She didn’t think she was in danger. Boykin took spit directly in the face. The buzzards pried open Megat’s mouth so the queen could drip saliva down his throat. Tolvern wasn’t going to catch an infection because of a little dirty water.

The bigger worry was that the ship would sink into the mud, or that the floodwater would rise so quickly they wouldn’t be able to escape. But if they did run outside, what then? Carvalho’s truck was surely submerged by now. They’d have to climb on top of Morpho and wait for Rodriguez to rescue them before the ship went under.

“Come on, let’s get you out of here,” she said. “I’ve got the gist of it, you can tell me the rest later.”

“I’m not going.”

“Sure you are. There might be a cure, you never know.”

“You don’t need to lie.” He started coughing again, but this time got it under control. “The birds have changed the chemistry of my brain. Burned new channels to control me. No medical science can fix that.”

“You’re no doctor, and neither am I. I’ll put you in stasis and let someone take a look at you. At the very least, you might help us figure out what they’re doing so we can protect others in the future.”

This got through to him, or seemed to, and he looked contemplative for a moment. Then his expression hardened, and she saw the arrogance, the unyielding nature of the man who’d tried to take over the battle station so as to maintain his faith in staying eternally hidden, even against all evidence to the contrary.

He reached around and pulled out something that had been hidden behind his back. It was a grenade.

Tolvern stiffened, but he held up his other hand as if to show he meant no harm. “No!” he said. “I won’t hurt you.”

She relaxed a little, but kept an eye on the door, ready to dive for the corridor. “You don’t have to kill yourself.”

“Why? Will you do it for me?”

“Megat, listen to me. You can help us. Isn’t that worth staying alive a little longer?”

“What does it matter?” he asked bitterly. “My home world is dead, and a harvester ship is picking over the corpse. Yes, I know what’s going on—we had no trouble picking up news from the refugee colonies on Samborondón, and Apex didn’t care if we found out or not. If Singapore is gone, what reason is there for living?”

“There are the other human colonies, and the Hroom. Sentient people, civilized. Hundreds of inhabited worlds that will fall to Apex.”

“Let them burn. Let the whole galaxy burn to a cinder. It’s nothing to me. Now go, before I change my mind and kill us both.”

“I won’t let you do it.” Tolvern lifted her rifle and pointed it at his chest. He had the grenade, yes, but his hand wasn’t on the pin. “Put it down or I’ll kill you and we’ll study your brain anyway.”

“You all right in there, Cap’n?”

“Perfectly fine, Lieutenant. I’ve got this under control.”

Capp’s voice got louder. “I heard raised voices, I— Oh. Bloody hell, a grenade.”

“Go back into the hall, Capp.”

“Aye, Cap’n.”

Sweat was pouring down Megat’s temples. He suppressed a cough. As soon as he broke into another fit, she’d rush in and grab the grenade. The water came midway up her calf now. Time to get out. But first, something occurred to her.

“How did you say they communicated with you? They gave you orders directly to your brain?”

“Yes. Squawking in my brain—I didn’t understand the words, but my body did. It responded, and I could figure out later what had happened.”

“One command per behavior? Or like a conversation with your body?”

“Like a conversation. Move here, now do this. It doesn’t matter. Let me die with dignity, Tolvern.”

“You’re still protecting their secret, you know. You’re going to blow yourself to pieces so my scientists can’t study what the buzzard spit did to your head.”

“You won’t learn anything from my brain.”

“I already did,” she said. The wheels were turning rapidly now. “Light travels at 186,000 miles per second. That is the speed of any non-subspace communication, and I don’t think you have a subspace communicator installed in your brain. How many times have I had a conversation with someone where I wait and wait for a response as the signal crosses a million miles of space? But a queen commander spits in your mouth and a few days later can jerk you around like a puppet on strings. From a distance?”

Megat only stared at first, but then horror dawned on his face.

“Right, so now you understand,” she said. “That means the buzzards are here already, aren’t they? Maybe not right here on this ship, but close enough. And I’ll bet they’re still talking to you.”

“No.”

“In that case, prove it. Drop the grenade in the water.”

He moved. Not his hands, not for the grenade. Instead he reared back his head, spittle glistening on his lips. He cleared his throat.

Tolvern lifted the gun and fired. Megat jerked backward. A wad of slimy green snot oozed out of his mouth. It had been intended for her.

Capp burst into the room, gun drawn and shouting. She took in Megat, blood draining from a hole in his chest, then looked at the captain, eyes wide.

Tolvern didn’t have a chance to respond before her com link opened, with Smythe on the other end. His voice was high and frightened sounding.

“Captain! There’s a bloody Apex harvester ship in orbit!”



Chapter Seventeen

Admiral Drake kept his ships cloaked as they approached the Apex fleet. The lances were harassing a large refugee fleet, composed of several dozen ships, that had been sneaking along through the debris left by numerous battles in the Padang System. Most of the refugee vessels were small freighters or merchant frigates. One ship looked like a war junk with an undersized engine that had been stripped of weapon systems. Finally, came a cluster of huge barges, five hundred meters long, of the kind that usually traveled in escorted convoys.

Unfortunately, there were no escorts. A handful of ships had deck guns and small lasers, but Apex picked at these threats and took them out one by one. Lances destroyed a small torpedo-boat-like vessel, then attacked a merchant frigate with a deck gun. It tried to target enemy ships as they swooped in from all angles, toying with it, but failed to score any hits. The lances kept playing with it, harassing it.

Soon, Apex had driven the frigate away from the rest of the fleet. None of the other ships came to its aid, but continued their full-speed flight. The faster ships began to outpace the slower ones as all discipline was lost.

“It’s like a herd of caribou,” Manx said, “sacrificing a sick herd mate to a pack of ravenous wolves while they make a run for it.”

“It will do them little good in the end,” Drake said. “These particular wolves are never sated.” Something occurred to him. “And we’re doing the same thing, aren’t we? Using the death of that ship to shield us. Throck, how long until we’re in range?”

Throckmorton called down to the gunnery to find out, and soon came back with an answer. “We can fire the crotalus batteries now, if you’d like, sir. They’re already within range.”

“Sir,” Manx said, “if the crotalus batteries can fire, that means our missile frigates are also within range.”

Drake considered. “We’re still too far away to inflict damage, but we might scatter them.”

“Shall I give the order, sir?” Throckmorton asked.

“No, hold fire and keep cloaked.” He turned to his pilot. “Continue on course. The longer we stay undetected, the better.”

“You’re a ruthless one, aren’t you?” Koh said. “You’ll let that frigate die to buy a few minutes.”

The Singaporean had come back onto the bridge while the merchant ship fought for its life, and now stood two paces off from the tech officers, watching the big viewscreen and gnawing on her thumb.

“Ruthless would be letting your whole civilization die to buy time,” Drake said. “This is the simple matter of expedience in a combat situation. I’m going to win this battle, and that’s going to save a whole lot more lives than whoever is on that frigate.”

His words sounded bolder than he felt as he watched the final struggles of the frigate play out. Its gun stopped firing, either damaged or out of ammunition. A lance made a short jump and drifted in behind almost casually as it let off short pulses of energy at the frigate’s engine. It was a calculated attack, designed to cripple, not destroy. The frigate made one attempt to evade, and then plasma gushed out like blood from a wound. A lance came in and harpooned it.

Curses sounded across Dreadnought’s bridge. Koh said something in Chinese, her voice a wail of pain. One of the young ensigns at the defense grid computer muttered a prayer in Old Earth English.

Three small pods blasted out of the side of the frigate as the lance came in, launching in random directions. Another lance went after these and snared them one by one. Stay on board or flee—there was no escape for the crew and passengers of the doomed frigate.

How many refugees had packed inside? It was easy to imagine their terror as the birds came screaming in to take their prisoners. Men, women, children, the young and the old, even infants—the buzzards would show no mercy.

The rest of the enemy ships continued after the refugee fleet. No other human ships fired. Maybe they couldn’t—Apex lances had destroyed or disabled several by now—or maybe they were terrified of revealing themselves and making themselves the new target. Either way, the lances attacked unopposed.

About thirty minutes later, Drake checked the range with tech officers and the specialists at the defense grid computer, then nodded at Manx. “Call the barracks. I want a hundred marines brought out of stasis. Get them armed and in defensive positions.”

“Yes, sir.”

As Manx got on the com, Drake called down to the gunnery. “Dryfus, this is the admiral.”

“Yes, my lord?”

“Sir is good enough. I want all hands in ten minutes. Do you remember what I said about the torpedoes?”

“Yes, sir. Fire the Mark-IVs at close range only.”

“They’re for repelling boarding attempts. I’m bringing marines out of stasis, but I don’t want to take chances if those buzzards harpoon us.”

“The Mark-IVs are old, sir, but they still pack a helluva punch, and the worst damage is the kind you inflict on yourself. We shoot at that range . . . it’s going to feel like shooting off leeches with a pistol, sir.”

“Understood,” Drake said, “but we can take a few blows, even the self-inflicted kind. You will keep those boarders away, am I understood?”

“Yes, sir.”

On the one hand, Drake itched to test his marines against Apex in armed combat. He might learn some valuable things about how the enemy fought. But this was a naval battle—Dreadnought’s gun would be the deciding factor, not her marines.

Lloyd spoke up from the tech console. “The defense grid says fifteen minutes until we can fire the medium-range ordnance. All of our missile frigates are in range already. The torpedo boats can make a charge at any moment.”

The fleet had gone silent since spotting the enemy fleet twelve hours earlier, but Drake needed to speak to his two most important captains before commencing battle.

“Manx, get me Woodbury and Caites.”

The two captains appeared side-by-side on the viewscreen moments later. Adam Woodbury was about thirty-five, with a thin mustache and a curly black fringe around his prematurely balding head. Between the hair and the narrowed eyes, he had a vaguely monkish appearance. Woodbury’s ship was HMS Repulse, an Aggressor-class cruiser, and, after Dreadnought and Blackbeard, one of the most powerful ships in the navy.

He gave a curt nod. “Admiral.”

Appearing next to him on the split screen was Rutherford’s old protégé, the young Catherine Caites, a year ago a commander of a small torpedo boat, but now one of Drake’s most important officers. Her ship was the older HMS Richmond, rebuilt in the yards with newer armaments and armor, but still not a match for Repulse. But what the ship lacked in combat effectiveness, it made up for in the aggression and intelligence of her commanding officer. Caites was fearless, her crew loyal and tireless.

“Yes, Admiral?”

She looked like she was positively vibrating with energy as she stared at him, waiting for him to respond.

“I’ve prepared the first few moves of combat, which I’m sending over now, and transmitting to the other ships of the fleet. After that, you are on your own. I cannot risk the buzzards anticipating moves as I transmit first to you and then have you pass them along to your subordinates. That means we’ll shortly be operating as three independent forces.

“Caites will take command of the destroyer screen and the missile frigates,” Drake continued, “and Woodbury will lead the other cruisers and the corvettes. I will personally hold the torpedo boats in reserve under my command. While Caites screens Dreadnought, Woodbury will charge at the refugee fleet on my signal. Don’t worry about the Singaporeans—what they do is of no consequence—but I want those lances in disarray.”

“Yes, sir,” Woodbury said, looking pleased to be hurled so soon into battle.

Caites, on the other hand, let a shadow pass over her face that Drake noticed at once. He dismissed Woodbury, but kept the younger captain on the screen.

“Is there a problem, Caites? Speak frankly.”

“I’m to act as a screen, sir? And Dreadnought is to be held in reserve?”

“Woodbury is going to scatter the enemy, and we’re going to pick them off from a distance. But don’t worry, you’ll see some fierce combat. There’s another Apex fleet around here somewhere, and they’re going to materialize shortly.”

“How do you know that, sir?”

“Life is cheap for the buzzards—we’ve known that for a long time—and not just the lives of drones, but commanders, too. But more than that, there’s something ritualized in their fighting. Have you ever heard of the Flower Wars?”

Caites shook her head. “Something from Old Earth?”

“The Aztecs. The Flower Wars were about capturing prisoners for religious purposes, not seizing enemy territory. The bloodiest Aztec rituals required thousands upon thousands of victims. Prisoners were drugged and marched to the tops of the pyramids, where priests would cut out their still-living hearts. There were so many sacrificial victims that it was said that a cascade of blood would flow all the way to the base of the pyramid.”

“I beg your pardon, sir, but what does that have to do with this battle?”

“General Mose Dryz sent me data on a number of battles with Apex, some dating back several years. I’ve been studying them these past several days. Illuminating.”

“Sir?”

“Two things seem to matter to the buzzards. First, capturing the highest number of victims. The most aggressive action comes against planetary targets, where they can harvest victims by the millions. Second, the higher the status of the enemy, the more effort is expended in capturing it. Low status targets may be exterminated, but captains, commanders, governors, kings—never.”

It was upon studying the general’s records that Drake understood Apex’s casual dismembering of the Hroom Empire. The Hroom had been overwhelmed and resistance was scattered—civil war, defeat at the hands of Albion, and crippling sugar addictions had already devastated their race. The Hroom were useful for securing large numbers of victims, but Apex didn’t find them as valuable as humans. And the Albionish, unbeaten and unbowed, were of higher value than Singaporeans.

“At first glance, Apex tactics are complex and difficult to understand,” Drake continued. “But when they’re trying to lure high-value targets, patterns emerge. One pattern is the extended tormenting of low-value targets when it would seem easier to annihilate them.”

“Exactly what they’re doing here,” Caites said. “So this is a trap?”

“I believe so. They’re trying to attract a high-value target. And what is Apex’s most valuable enemy in the Dragon Quadrant?”

“HMS Dreadnought. So they’re trying to catch us,” she added after a moment of thought. “You, specifically. They know we’re in the area, but our cloaking is too good for their long-range sensors. As long as we stay quiet, they can’t find us.”

“The time has come to end that,” Drake said. “I’m going to send a subspace to Blackbeard, to Peerless, to the general. We’ll bring active sensors online. That will tell the buzzards where we are. In case it’s not clear enough, we’re dropping our cloaks and letting them see what we are and show we want a fight.”

“If you’re right, and there’s another enemy fleet in the system,” she said, “they’re going to come right at Dreadnought.”

“At which point you will no longer be held in reserve, Captain Caites.”

#

Woodbury’s cruiser force pulled away from Dreadnought a few minutes later. Cloaks came down across the fleet. Tech Officer Lloyd sent subspace messages to Blackbeard, Peerless, and the Hroom general to tell them that a fight was brewing in the Padang System.

Throckmorton and Lloyd hammered away with active sensors, and soon enough, they found the hidden fleet. It was cloaked a few million miles away, behind a large wandering asteroid, several million miles distant from the system’s belt. The asteroid was more than 150 miles across and shaped like a giant boot, as if the middle part of it had been broken away by an ancient collision. The Apex fleet snugged in tight, jostling each other as they stayed on the far side.

Albion’s sensors still sniffed them out. Of course, active sensors also gave away the location of the Royal Navy fleet. Almost instantly, the enemy ships broke away from the asteroid and moved in toward the action. They ignored Woodbury’s ships charging to relieve the refugee fleet, and swung toward the admiral’s flagship.

It was a powerful force: seven more hunter-killer packs, comprising twenty-eight lances and two spears. Against them, the battleship HMS Dreadnought, Caites’s cruiser, four destroyers, three missile frigates, and nine torpedo boats.

Apart from a few skirmishes, Drake had only seen HMS Dreadnought in action as an enemy, when he’d led a fleet of rebel cruisers against Lord Malthorne. The battleship had seemed almost indestructible from that vantage; even when Vigilant rammed the ship and destroyed itself, the sacrifice had only managed to disable Dreadnought, not destroy it.

But the battleship had never faced lances. The small, maneuverable ships would never stand up to Dreadnought’s batteries, but they didn’t have to. They could jump in close, unleash their energy weapons, and dance away. But Drake noticed a weakness in the enemy fleet as it approached.

“They don’t have a capital ship,” Drake told his first mate.

Manx had been working quietly for the past twenty minutes, so engrossed in his work with the gunnery and the royal marines set up to repel boarders that he didn’t seem to be following the action developing on the screen.

“No harvester ship,” Manx responded after studying it for a moment. “At least none that we can see, anyway.”

On the one hand, Drake was disappointed. He’d been itching to slug it out with one of the powerful enemy vessels since spotting them in the Kettle System. And if Dreadnought were truly a prize for the Apex commanders, why hadn’t they brought their largest ships to assure victory? The behavior didn’t make sense.

Aliens behave like aliens.

Humans, on the other hand, were entirely predictable. There was a nervous tension on the bridge, almost a buzzing, like excitement and fear shaken into a cocktail and swallowed too fast. There was a new element to the nerves, the knowledge that a loss meant more than simple death.

Caites sent a message, urging him to charge at the enemy. He told her to hold. They’d already formed a defensive position, and were perfectly placed to either rush to support Woodbury or call him back to fight off the newcomers.

The larger force of lances and spears was still closing, thirty minutes away, when Woodbury’s forces closed ranks with the smaller number of enemies feasting among the refugee fleet. Five corvettes and three cruisers came screaming into the action behind a barrage of missiles. The lances scattered, unharmed, but a missile struck a small refugee schooner unlucky enough to be in the way.

Gases jetted from its hull, and the schooner twisted away, damaged and trying to regain control as it blazed away from the rest of the refugee fleet. A lance raced by on its way to gather with other Apex craft organizing nearby, and let out two pulses of orange fire as it passed the schooner. It was casual, almost like a man swatting mosquitoes while he aims his gun at a larger prey. The fire engulfed the small Singaporean ship, and it vented burning gasses that left a ghostly streak across Dreadnought’s viewscreen as it died.

Woodbury divided his force in two, with his own Repulse and three corvettes chasing after the lance before it could gain the safety of its companions. Repulse now faced the flaming wreckage of the schooner hurtling in from one side. He had no choice but to target it with his cannon or he’d be hit. The Singaporean vessel burst into pieces.

Woodbury’s prey jumped to safety before Repulse could target it from closer range, but now the cruiser and its escorting corvettes burst into the pack of lances trying to reform themselves. The navy warships launched torpedoes and veered away. Two torpedoes slammed into a lance that was too slow to evade, and a chasing missile obliterated the wreckage moments later. The other lances came after the rear corvette, and a spear and two more lances sliced up from below, but Repulse dumped a flood of bomblets behind them, driving off pursuers.

Meanwhile, the other navy force, led by two cruisers, but only one corvette, targeted a spear that had been systematically demolishing one of the larger refugee barges. The spear had continued firing during the initial charge, but now its protective lances were gone, chased off. It rolled away from the barge, which was little more than a corpse squirting gas and debris, and turned its energy weapons at the lead corvette. The corvette returned fire with its laser and launched torpedoes.

The two cruisers flashed by on either side of the spear, firing their main batteries as they passed. Zealand’s cannons landed a powerful series of punches. Shots cracked along the side of the enemy ship. But it was Formidable that delivered the killing blow. Her cannons ripped a gash in the spear’s stern, and a parting torpedo detonated against the damaged armor plating. There was nothing but debris when Formidable was done with it.

Several lances chased the fleeing human ships. Unfortunately, the corvette, HMS Flash, couldn’t keep up. The enemy spear had damaged Flash’s engines before its death, and the corvette was now leaking plasma. By the time the other two captains realized and slowed the cruisers to come to Flash’s aid, the corvette had come under heavy fire. Other lances kept jumping in, closing to battle with that impossible speed that gave the enemy such an advantage.

HMS Flash died in a manner befitting its name, going in a burst of light and several secondary explosions. The pair of cruisers beat a hasty retreat, pursued by several enemies. Woodbury swept around with his ships to give assistance before they could be overwhelmed.

This was where Drake would have come lumbering in to finish the fight. Some of the enemies had continued forward together with the refugee fleet, but a large force had targeted Woodbury. Dreadnought and her support vessels had more than enough firepower to end it.

But instead, Drake was facing a massive, hard-charging attack from the second, larger fleet even as Woodbury continued to battle several million miles away. Drake waited until the first lance jumped, then ordered Dreadnought to roll over and dive on the z-axis, like a sperm whale plummeting into the abyss. Change position, outsmart the enemy. The other human ships followed or positioned themselves for attack.

One by one the other lances and spears jumped into the attack, firing as they surfaced.



Chapter Eighteen

Tolvern led the others into the driving rain at the edge of the Morpho’s loading bay. Carvalho had turtled the truck before they entered the ship, which left it enclosed and dug into the mud. Sealed against water, it sent tendrils into the earth to keep from washing away, and would remain submerged until the flooding retreated and it could be excavated, but there was no sign of it now, nor of any other vehicle. The water was now knee-deep in the loading bay, and still rising.

She stared out into the rain, then activated the com. “Where the devil is that truck, Smythe?”

“Five minutes, I swear to God you’ll have it by then.”

Behind Smythe came the sound of shouting and Nyb Pim’s high voice calling for something. It sounded like chaos on the bridge, and her heart caught in her throat. She wanted to demand an update, but there was no sense in that; all she would do was distract them from whatever urgent business had them occupied. Get back to Blackbeard, then worry.

When Smythe was gone, there was nothing left to do but stare into the rain and wait for Rodriguez to send a truck. A strange green light penetrated the cloud cover, illuminating a sky that had been almost black when they’d discovered Morpho. The air rumbled as if with distant artillery, and crackles of electric energy sparked overhead. A thunderclap split the sky, and they threw themselves down. Tolvern came up spitting muddy water.

“That ain’t no thunder,” Capp said.

Tolvern didn’t answer. She was staring face-to-face with a pair of giant, bulbous eyes that emerged from the water just beyond the loading bay. Before she could lift her gun or shout a warning, the toad’s tongue lashed out and wrapped around her neck. It yanked her from her feet and dragged her toward its mouth, which yawned cave-like in front of her. The toad had a bony ridge instead of teeth, and she’d seen what it was capable of. Strong enough to mash the bones of another toad, it would crush her to pulp.

I’m going to die, a calm part of her mind said as a smell like fish guts washed over her. Eaten by a giant toad.

Gunfire erupted all around her. The tongue held on, pulling her underwater as the toad dove away from the attack, but it spasmed, and then she was free. She kicked her feet and her head broke the surface, and then O’Keefe grabbed one arm, Oglethorpe the other, and Capp her hair. They dragged her back into the loading bay. The water was to her thighs as she rose shakily to her feet.

“Bloody hell,” Tolvern said, a quaver in her voice. Her legs felt like soggy bits of yarn. “Stay back from the edge. Hand cannons, those who have them. One of those things shows itself, you give it to him.”

The floor shifted beneath them, and three of them fell.

Carvalho was one of them, and he shook the water from his gun as he got back up. “The ship is sinking in the mud. We have to swim for it.”

He was right, and though it didn’t seem likely that the mud was deep enough to swallow Morpho entirely, the water was rising more rapidly now. O’Keefe was the shortest, and the water was nearly at her chest. She held her rifle over her head and nervously eyed the water beyond the loading bay.

“We won’t swim ten feet before a toad eats every last one of us,” Ortiz said.

“We can’t stay here,” O’Keefe said. “We’ll drown.”

“Either way, we’re dead,” Ortiz said. “Blast you all, I should have taken my chances in the city.”

Capp glared at him. “The only thing I bloody well know is that the whiner is always the first to go. That’s the bleeding universe telling you to shut yer gob.”

“Enough of this,” Tolvern said. “Oglethorpe, you can swim with that bad shoulder?”

“I’ll manage.”

“Give me your gun. Quickly now, no arguments. The rest of you, follow me.”

But as they headed toward the edge of the ship, prepared to dive into the water, a welcome sight greeted their eyes. A pair of headlights appeared, mixing with the strange green light overhead to create an eerie tableau, where the rain looked like shimmering, translucent curtains of emerald.

The headlights belonged to Rodriguez’s truck. Unlike the semi-amphibious vehicle that Carvalho had brought into the city, this one had fully converted into its aquatic form, a lumbering shape that was half-bus, half-boat. It bristled with spikes, but at first glance, the precaution looked unnecessary; it was far too large for a toad to swallow. But as it pulled closer, Tolvern saw that several of the spikes were bent; something must have tried. A man sat up top, behind a turreted machine gun protected with a gun shield.

The truck swung, motors heaving, and bumped against the side of the partially submerged spacecraft. A door swung open on top of the vehicle, and someone shouted for them to get inside. They scrambled up top, then lowered themselves inside one by one. Tolvern was the last, and hadn’t yet closed the hatch before the truck was motoring away.

There were several other men and women in the back of the vehicle, as wet and bedraggled as Tolvern and her crew. She sent the others back and squeezed up front, where she was surprised to discover Rodriguez himself driving the truck. He hunched over the wheel, squinting out the window through the driving rain, and grunted a greeting as she settled into the seat next to him.

“Seems to be letting up, don’t you think?” he asked, his tone ironic. “Expect soon it will be a drizzle.”

“Took you long enough.”

“Sorry for the delay,” he said. “Had a few other stops to make on my way.”

“You’re here, that’s all that matters. Get me to my ship and we’ll call it good.”

“Absolutely. I’ve got to look after my best client.”

“What, are you afraid I’ll fly off without you?”

“Yeah, that is about the shape of it, Tolvern. I don’t mean to let you out of my sight. The buzzards are here, and I won’t be left behind.”

“What’s that green light?” she asked.

“Nothing good, not if you assume the Singaporeans know what they’re talking about. Green light—bad. They all agree on that much. Means the buzzards have landed and are looking for a snack.”

He maneuvered, keeping away from the light. As he drove, he explained that thousands of refugees were fighting their way through toads and floodwater to rush the yards. His men were holding them on the road a mile or two from the perimeter, but they couldn’t hold the mob indefinitely.

Ships had been blasting off from ports all over the planet, filled with human and Hroom alike. An Apex fleet was in orbit, sending landing craft down and killing, disabling, or capturing fleeing vessels, but a fair number were slipping through the cordon and breaking for deep space.

Tolvern found some hope among the grim news. If she could get Blackbeard into orbit, she could take advantage of the chaos to fight free of the planet. Strike a couple of blows, take charge of whatever forces were struggling against Apex, maybe even drive the buzzards off.

Be honest, there’s no hope of that. Get up, get free. Then run, leave Samborondón to its fate.

The truck hit a floating tree, but powered over the top of it and continued on its way. They were making good progress, now only minutes away from the spaceyards, according to Rodriguez. And the rain seemed to be letting up. What had once seemed an impossible dump of water had become merely a downpour.

And then they ran aground. Tolvern hadn’t buckled her restraints, and flew forward, slamming into the dash. Rodriguez tried to tear the vehicle loose, but the truck wouldn’t reverse, and when he dropped the wheels, that wouldn’t get him out of the mud, either.

He cursed. “I’ll have to call another vehicle to winch us out of here. And we’re only about five hundred meters from high ground, too.”

“We could swim it.”

“It’ll be faster this way, trust me.” He touched his ear. “I need a truck out here—we’re wedged in.” He switched to Ladino, a rapid-fire stream of syllables, then back to English. “I don’t care. Get someone out here now.”

The vehicle shuddered. Shouts from the passengers in back. A dark shape smacked into the windshield, and a huge, bulbous eye peered in. Another toad.

The gun up top chattered. The toad flailed and bellowed in pain. Rather than retreating, it tried to scramble and hop to the top of the truck to get at its tormentor, but the machine gun unloaded too much firepower even for such a massive beast, and it soon stopped shuddering. Its bulk completely covered the windshield, blocking their view, which brought fresh curses from Rodriguez.

“Dumb beast,” he said. “Now we’ve got to winch you off, too.”

The truck shuddered again, this time from the back left side. Another toad, apparently testing them out for a meal.

Rodriguez touched his ear. “Diablos. I don’t care what’s happening, I need a truck out here now. We’re stuck in the mud, are you listening to me? And I’ve got the captain and first mate of Blackbeard here. You get that?

“I want off this rock,” he said when he’d hung up. The truck was still shaking, but he seemed unconcerned with the attacking toad. “I’ll trade my fee for evacuation, but I’m not going to let those buzzards get their beaks into me. Take my crew, as many as you can hold—we’ll be good for your fleet—but we need to get off of Samborondón before it’s too late.”

Rodriguez’s words came out in a rush. Tolvern hadn’t intended to renege on her deal, and was scarcely paying attention.

“What’s wrong with your gunner?” she asked. “Why isn’t he taking care of that toad?” As if to punctuate her words, the bus rocked again, more violently this time.

“Maybe it will do us a favor and knock us out of the mud.”

“With his dead friend lying on top of us? I doubt it.”

The port to the gun shield was directly overhead, up a metal ladder. Tolvern scaled the ladder, unsealed the hatch and pulled herself out into the rain. Rodriguez’s gunner was dead, that was what was wrong. The first toad’s tongue had found the gap beneath the gun shield, snaked up, and wrapped itself around the man’s neck and face. The gap wasn’t big enough to pull him through, but the tongue had yanked him through up to the shoulders. His body hung limp, his neck broken and still encircled by the pale, grub-colored tongue that gleamed obscenely beneath the pounding rain.

The dead toad itself lay across the front of the truck, shoving it down with its bulk. The machine gun had ripped open its enormous, bulging belly, and the contents of its most recent meal oozed out. Among the remains was a crocodile-like creature, several large, scaly fish, a bird that looked like an egret, and a human body. Or half a body—specifically, the legs and torso.

A second toad, nearly as large as the first, was trying to get its mouth around the back end of the truck. It pressed its bulk against the side of one of the spines, using the thick plates on its back to try to snap it off. The truck was twice its size. Did it really think the vehicle was alive, and if it were, that it would possibly be able to swallow it?

Moving slowly, she took position at the gun turret and swung it around. The movement caught the eye of the toad, and it opened its mouth, ready to shoot its tongue. Tolvern fired. Gunfire lashed out and caught the toad across its horny snout. It bellowed in pain. Unlike the dead toad draped across the front of the truck, this one didn’t fight, but vanished in the water.

Capp popped up through the hatch at Tolvern’s feet. She looked around, squinting against the rainwater that drained through the gaps in the gun shield, then glanced at the dead gunner as she climbed up.

“I hate being wrong.” Capp nodded down into the truck. “Should have been this idiot, instead.”

“Hey!” Ortiz protested, coming up after her. He ducked under the canopy to get into the open air beyond the protection of the gun.

“The whiner should be the first to go,” Capp said. “One of the rules of the universe. It ain’t fair when some other bloke goes first.”

“Where do you think you’re going?” Tolvern asked Ortiz.

“Ah, let him, Cap’n. Maybe the toads will do us a favor.”

“What do you think?” Ortiz said. “I’m trying to get us the hell out of here.”

“And how will you manage that?” Tolvern asked. “Lasso a toad and ride it out of here?”

The downpour continued to let up—from deluge to torrent, and then to something that felt almost like normal heavy rain—but the water was deep and flowing, and she couldn’t spot the spaceyards, though they must be close.

Others climbed the ladder, starting with Carvalho and Oglethorpe. Tolvern didn’t think the danger from toads had passed, but they were all armed, and she wanted to get a better look at their surroundings now that she could see a little, so she didn’t send them back down. They followed Ortiz out from behind the gun shield.

The green light was stronger now, most prominently to their right, across the waterlogged forest and plains. It was moving, shifting.

“The yards are the other direction,” Rodriguez said. “Look, you can see the flashes. Can you hear that?”

“Is that you shooting, or are you taking fire?”

“Must be the enemy. No way we’re shooting up at the buzzards. I’ve got a few heavy guns, but if I take aim at their ships, they’ll bombard us from space. I meant to save them until it was time to bust out of here, then use them to cover our escape. We’d better hurry, though.”

“I’ll take you,” she said. “And twenty of your crew. No, make it thirty. Any more than that . . . well, we’re not a refugee ship. I’ve got to get up there and fight.”

“Understood.”

Rodriguez’s face was grim, and she could already see him calculating, deciding who to take and who to leave. He was a mercenary man; he wouldn’t be choosing based on sentimental reasons. Good. That served her purpose too. Give her the most highly skilled, irreplaceable workers.

The nearest of the green lights swung toward them, and the source of the light emerged from the rain. It came from a massive machine that stalked west, toward the yards. The thing was as tall as a tree, at least eighty feet in height, and walked on a pair of slender, stilt-like legs. A half dozen tentacles, some thicker than others, dangled from a rounded belly. They seemed to be pulsing, throbbing with movement. Up top, a turret with a gun and a light like an eye, glowing green.

The light swung right and left, but it wasn’t bright enough to be a spotlight. What could it be? One of the tentacles snaked out and slapped at the water. When it recoiled, it was thicker and longer than it had been. Another tentacle slapped the water.

“Hold still,” Tolvern said. “Nobody move.”

It looked for a moment like the walking machine would keep going until it vanished into the rain, but the turret swung in their direction, and she saw now that there wasn’t one, but two green lights. They seemed to be scanning the water. Again, one of the tentacles swung down at the water.

“King’s balls,” Oglethorpe said. “Will you look at that.”

A splash drew Tolvern’s attention before she could see what he was indicating. Ortiz’s head bobbed up in the water, and he immediately began swimming away from the truck in long, powerful strokes.

“Get back, you arse!” Capp yelled. “You’re going to die.”

Oglethorpe grabbed Tolvern and yanked her toward the gun shield. A second walker strode up behind the truck, much closer than the other. It limped, and fire smoked on its chest, evidence that someone had offered resistance.

Two lights came out of the turret on its head, probing the water. Staring up at it, Tolvern had the sensation that she was looking at a living creature, not a machine. A wounded, angry creature feeding, as had the giant toads, on the victims of the rising floodwater. One of its legs lifted, a knee-like articulation bending forward as the foot cleared the water. She got a better look. It was a clawed bird foot.

And then everything changed. The turret was really a head, the green lights eyes, something both mechanical and organic. The gun emerged from a beak. The plates of armor were huge, rigid feathers. The legs were real legs, belonging to a giant bird. And the tentacle-like appendages dangling from the belly?

The giant bird cocked its head as Ortiz swam away from it. His strokes turned frenzied, panicked. The light fell on him. Instantly, he stiffened and began to sink. One of the tentacles darted for him and came up holding his limp, dangling figure. The giant bird turned its head, and Ortiz came back to life, thrashing and fighting. The tentacles were a mass of writhing, struggling bodies.

The harvest. Live sacrifices for the queen commander.

All of this happened in an instant, and already Tolvern and the others were moving. Bolts clicked, grenades popped into the back of hand cannons. Capp scrambled for the machine gun. The giant bird turned toward them, the lights of its eyes moving in their direction.

It smelled of feathers and burning plastic. A viscous, tar-like substance drained from the smoking wound on its chest. The green lights swung toward them as the bird cocked its head. It was only a hundred feet away. Two strides and it would be upon them.

Tolvern flipped her rifle to full auto, lifted it to her shoulder, and let loose. The men and women on the surface of the truck opened up around her. Gunfire lashed at the bird, with two flashes of light as the hand cannons fired their shots. The heavy chug-chug-chug from Tolvern’s left announced an attack from the machine gun, accompanied by Capp’s cursing threats as she fired.

The green lights fell upon them even as the first shots struck it in the chest. Tolvern’s limbs went limp as the light hit her, and she fell. A sound like static filled her ears, and electric currents raced to her extremities, until they felt like they were on fire. But she lay motionless, not so much as twitching as she slid off the truck and plopped into the water.

Tolvern’s thoughts remained coherent as she slowly sank. She was screaming inside, trying to regain control of her body, trying to fight and struggle to the surface. The water churned, and something thick and rubbery wrapped around her waist and hoisted her up.

She regained control of her body the instant she came out of the water. She struggled, trying to free herself as a tentacle dragged her up, tightening around her waist like a python gripping its prey. Capp was below her on the tentacle, thrashing and screaming, and Carvalho, O’Keefe, and Oglethorpe were on another tentacle, fighting and kicking as the giant bird bent to Rodriguez’s truck and tore it open with its beak. It sent in a rubbery appendage, seemingly oblivious to the gunfire that lit up the interior of the truck to drive it off, and emerged with several more victims.

Then the bird lifted a leg and began to stalk away from the ruined vehicle. Its tentacles squirmed with victims.



Chapter Nineteen

Tolvern kept struggling. How could she have been so stupid? Capp had been taken, too. Oglethorpe and Carvalho. Who would fly the ship? Smythe and Nyb Pim? Would they be smart enough to take off, or would they wait until it was too late? She shouldn’t have been caught out like this. She cursed her stupidity.

But that fury gave way to terror for what came next. Apex would know her, they would identify her as captain of the Albion warship. Her companions would die gruesome deaths, but a special sort of torture awaited her. Not knowing its specifics made her all the more desperate.

The coiled tentacle pinned her right arm against her side, but the left was free. She scratched at the tentacle, beat it with her fist. Tried to bite, but she couldn’t get her mouth around it, and it seemed to be made of rubber. Only a few feet below her, Capp fought her own struggle, accompanied by curses against God, the king, the country, and the universe, for good measure. The others from the truck were all around, crying out, trying to fight free.

This particular creature had dozens of people in its tentacles, and the majority were fighting to free themselves. It was the writhing that she’d spotted below.

The creature was limping worse than ever. The tar-like blood ran down its chest. It had taken gunfire and hand cannons, and tossed its head, squawking as if in pain. It fell behind the other birds that stalked their way toward the base.

But though it was injured, the monstrous creature was no mere animal. And it wasn’t so injured that it didn’t keep turning its head from side to side as it paced through the water, looking for more victims as it worked its way forward. The bird crossed an elevated road, now only a few feet above the water. One of the spike-covered trucks from town came racing toward the bird as it straddled the road. Green light fell on the truck, which spun out of control and crashed into a guardrail.

The bird climbed onto the road and pinned the vehicle with one claw, like an egret holding a crab, then tore at the truck with its beak. It plucked off spikes and peeled back the roof. A tentacle snaked into the interior and came out with several writhing, screaming people.

Tolvern couldn’t pry herself loose of the tentacle wrapped around her waist, but she could do something with her left arm besides pound futilely. She reached around the tentacle and, groping, found her sidearm. It was still in its holster, thank God. Hanging nearly upside down, a painful pressure on her waist, she was terrified of fumbling the gun and watching it disappear into the water below, but she got it out without dropping it.

Capp had stopped struggling below her, and craned her neck to look up. “You’ll never injure it with that peashooter, Cap’n. Shoot yourself, get it over with. No, wait, shoot me, first. Then yourself.”

Tolvern ignored her first mate and steadied the gun. The bird kept swinging its head from side to side. The next time it spotted a victim, she’d shoot. Wait until it held its gaze still and get one good shot against one of the green eyeballs. Maybe shoot them both if she were especially lucky. Blind the creature, let it drop them.

You’re fooling yourself.

Of course she had no hope. Bombs from a hand cannon had bounced off its chest, doing little damage. Capp had squeezed off twenty or thirty shots from the .50-caliber machine gun atop the truck before the green light paralyzed them. If that couldn’t do anything, there was no way that a single small-caliber bullet—even one fired directly into the eyeball—would do any damage. This was a genetically engineered war machine as much as a living creature. But she had to try.

The bird reached the outskirts of the base, where the land rose up the hillside to get the yards above the floodwater. It waded forward, the water growing shallower with every step. Several other birds were already at the perimeter, tearing down the barbed wire with claw and beak.

A machine gun opened fire from a guard tower. One of the giant birds opened its beak, and its own gunfire blasted out. It unfolded wings, and a pair of small missiles blasted from either side, where the wings met the breastbone. The tower disappeared in a flash of fire and smoke.

The bird holding Tolvern cocked its head as it reached the shallows. The green light came down and illuminated something churning up from the mud. It was one of the toads, a massive, warty figure nearly as tall as Rodriguez’s truck. The green light fell upon it but seemed to have no effect on the creature.

The toad spotted the bird’s moving legs, opened its mouth, and chomped down on the nearest. The bird squawked and darted down with its beak. It thrust, pecking at the toad, pounding at the warty armor on its back. The toad stubbornly held on and tried to drag the giant bird into the depths, where it could pull it underwater and devour it.

Never mind that the bird was five times as tall and at least three times as massive, and that the toad would never be able to swallow such a meal. The creatures were apparently too simple to understand such concerns. They were pure eating machines. Sit buried during the dry season, then emerge in a deluge and gorge. It would eat anything moving, no matter how large or indigestible.

The bird unfolded its wings, and two small rocket launchers appeared under each one. Tolvern aimed her pistol at the exposed breast before it could shoot, and fired. She shot again and again until she’d emptied her pistol. It bellowed in pain, though how much of that was the toad and how much was the gunfire, it was impossible to say. The bird went down with a terrific crunching sound, its leg bending in the wrong direction.

Tolvern hit the water. The tentacle remained around her waist, dragging her down. She thrashed to free herself, but it held her tight, and soon her lungs were bursting. Finally, it was gone, slithering away. She bumped into someone as she kicked at the mud. She grabbed the person’s hair and dragged them up with her.

The toad and the giant bird were locked into a death struggle. The bird slashed with its beak, ten feet long and made of metal. It left gashes and gaping wounds in the thick hide along the toad’s back. The toad pulled its eyes into its head and bit and chomped as it tried to subdue the bird. The legs were nothing but broken bones now, and the toad managed to get its mouth around a wing. After that, it was all over. The bird kept thrashing, but it no longer did damage to its opponent, which continued its relentless chomping.

A few people had surfaced in the water, and Tolvern dragged them away from the fighting to heave them into the muddy shallows. Carvalho was there, too, and together they found Capp, Rodriguez, and O’Keefe. Oglethorpe surfaced, as did several others from the truck, plus several people Tolvern didn’t recognize—other victims of the harvesting.

Ortiz was screaming when they pulled him out. He clenched his abdomen, and when Tolvern pulled his hands away, it looked like a collection of muddy eels, all squirming to get out of his gashed-open belly. Behind the pain in his eyes was an accusatory look.

“I never want to . . . never wanted—” His words dissolved into a groan.

“The bird claw raked him across the belly while it was trying to get free of the toad,” Carvalho said grimly.

There was nothing to be done for Ortiz, but there were plenty of survivors. Tolvern and Rodriguez left anyone who was not part of either Blackbeard or the spaceyards to their own devices, and collected the rest. Miraculously, Ortiz was the only one who’d died.

Capp appeared holding a pistol. She glanced at Ortiz, grunted, then looked at the giant bird, now dead and being methodically torn apart and eaten.

“Apex, hah!” Capp said. “Predator at the top of the food chain. Got yerself eaten by a bloody toad now, didn’t you?”

Another toad surfaced and chomped down on the other side of the dead bird. A third came swimming through the floodwater, legs propelling it forward in a frog kick.

“We’re alive and we still have fight in us,” Tolvern said. “Next step is to make sure we stay that way.” She glanced up at the yards, where the giant birds had disappeared and explosions and gunfire grew in fury. “Come on, we’ll have to follow them in.”

#

Drake stared at the viewscreen as Dreadnought dove on the z-axis, spinning to prevent the enemy from targeting them in one spot. Enemy lances rolled across the screen. They let loose with energy weapons the moment they appeared, and the computer—Simon, the crew called him—warned of damage to the number three and six shields. Simon’s smooth baritone sounded smug, and reminded Drake of nothing more than Admiral Malthorne’s butler. The present admiral missed Jane and Blackbeard at moments like this.

But Dreadnought was able to absorb blow after blow in a way that no other ship could. Drake kept them on their current course, even as ten lances and a spear fell into pursuit, with more ships joining. A second force gathered to send a fresh wave, even as the first wave kept up a relentless attack. The number five shield flashed yellow on Drake’s console. The other officers on the bridge made worried noises.

“Acquire targets and fire all port-side weapons,” he said.

Throckmorton passed the order to the gunnery. Moments later, cannons blasted from port. Half a dozen torpedoes launched. The light dimmed as the energy weapons fired and then recharged. Explosive shot destroyed one of the lances, and a torpedo struck a glancing blow to another. The other ships on that side scattered, chased from the battlefield by torpedoes and kinetic fire.

Captain Caites had left one of her missile frigates off to one side, where it was vulnerable to attack—the frigates were lightly armored and ill-suited to close-in combat—but perfectly positioned to target the fleeing ships. The enemy’s short-range jump engines had not yet recharged, and they now flew into a hailstorm of missiles launched by the frigate. Two Apex ships took hits and limped away from the battlefield. A third caught a crippling blow that sent it careening back toward Dreadnought.

Dryfus’s boys in the gunnery were on the alert as it returned. A torpedo rumbled out from a port-side battery and struck the injured lance head-on. The resulting explosion flared as bright as the sun, then was gone, and with it, the enemy ship.

Meanwhile, the enemy ships off starboard kept stabbing at Dreadnought’s shields, and the seven and eight shields flashed yellow. There were so many enemies on that side that it looked like a kicked over hornet’s nest. Drake was about to be stung to death. Fourteen lances in all, plus a spear.

“Fire starboard side?” Manx asked anxiously.

“Deck gun only, short-range shot. Hold the starboard cannons.”

“Aye, sir.” Manx passed the information along to the gunnery, then addressed the crew at the defense grid computer. “Throck, keep the targeting hot for all inactive starboard batteries.”

The reason for Drake’s command was soon apparent as Caites charged in from the rear. She swung her four destroyers wide to form a screen to pin the lances against Dreadnought. The two remaining missile frigates lobbed missiles over the top of the battle, discouraging a jump to freedom. Then Caites took her own ship—the cruiser Richmond—collected the nine torpedo boats Drake had held in reserve, and thundered into the enemy formation.

The torpedo boats closed rapidly, and a little too eagerly. One torpedo boat took fire along the stern. It vented gasses from the upper deck, and was soon continuing dead, on sheer momentum. Another torpedo boat slashed at a lance, but found itself alone and isolated. A pulse to the torpedo boat’s engine disabled it, and a spear and two lances fell ravenously upon the wounded prey and tore it to shreds.

But the other torpedo boats landed crushing blows against a pair of lances, and Richmond fired her cannons and launched torpedoes as she entered the fray. Expertly maneuvering the powerful cruiser, Caites brought Richmond in against the enemy ships destroying the hapless torpedo boat. She drove them apart with energy pulses. They fled, but ran headlong into Drake’s destroyer screen. The four destroyers pounded with their cannons, destroying two enemies. The spear slipped past, chased off by missiles from a crotalus battery. The missiles were about to overtake it, finishing the skirmish, when it jumped to safety.

Drake stifled a curse to see the spear escape. But he had worries closer at hand that soon drew his attention.

The surviving enemy ships—a still-powerful force of ten lances—fought clear of Richmond and the torpedo boats. They could have charged and overwhelmed the destroyers had they moved more decisively, but Caites reacted first, and sent her remaining torpedo boats to block their escape. The alien ships, finding their way blocked, swung back toward Dreadnought.

Drake fired torpedoes to slow them. Enemy pulse weapons lit up his shields again. The nine shield joined several others in flashing yellow. And now overall damage on that side was sufficient to warrant a lofty-sounding update from Simon.

“Starboard shields at eighty-two percent,” Simon said with a sniff, as if to say Admiral Malthorne certainly never would have taken such damage to his pride and joy.

“I’ll live with that.” So much punishment, and they’d lost less than twenty percent. “Throck, get me the gunnery. Fire starboard batteries on my mark.”

Drake waited until the last possible moment. “Fire!”

Starboard cannons roared into action. Torpedoes from tubes both fore and aft. Energy pulses flared. Lances took fire, blew apart, spun out of control to be finished off by Caites’s force. Of the ten enemy vessels, four fell in the initial blast or were gobbled up by torpedo boats. Six more lances raced past Dreadnought, which fired ordnance from her belly, and then from her rear guns. Three more enemies met their end.

A large piece of wreckage slammed into Dreadnought, but the battleship shrugged it off and continued firing. The last three enemy ships jumped away to safety.

They appeared moments later, together with the escaping spear, next to the remaining lances, which had surrounded the isolated missile frigate. The frigate had continued throwing missiles into the fight and knocked out one of them, but that was to be her final victory. With energy weapons blazing, the Apex ships tore holes in the frigate before it could be relieved. A shot penetrated the magazine, and the remaining missiles went off. When the resulting flash of light dimmed, there was nothing left of the navy warship but scattered debris.

Drake and Caites regrouped, wary that the enemy fleet would jump back into combat. But as they charged toward the remnants of the Apex forces, the enemy fled. Drake gave chase, but couldn’t catch them before they jumped away yet again.

Manx slammed his hand into his fist. “By God, we settled their hash, all right.” A triumphant message came through from Caites moments later along similar lines.

Twenty-eight lances and two spears had entered combat. In a few short hours, Drake had destroyed twelve lances and wounded five others, effectively destroying half of the enemy fleet’s firepower. Against that, he’d lost two torpedo boats and a missile frigate. It was a terrific victory.

Unfortunately, he’d left Captain Woodbury’s forces dangling out among the refugee fleet, and that battle had continued apace. Apex had regrouped after the initial skirmish, and soon enough the enemy pressed the attack. Woodbury was no fool, and he was more defensive by nature than Caites. Instead of grappling directly, he dodged in and out among the refugee ships and the wreckage.

More than once during Dreadnought’s own fight, Koh had looked up from the tech computer to curse Woodbury’s cowardice. The Singaporeans were taking the bulk of the casualties. They were helpless noncombatants, and when Drake could spare a moment between engagements, he’d watched the mounting destruction with dismay.

But the end result was that Woodbury had survived, and his ship, Repulse, was still in excellent condition. Another cruiser, HMS Formidable, had taken serious damage to the engines and lay crippled, which forced the remaining Royal Navy vessels in the task force—four corvettes and two cruisers—to circle in for protection, while the lances stalked them, darting in and out, but avoided an all-out fight.

The enemy, too, had taken few additional casualties, and was strong enough to keep Woodbury’s forces pinned while they waited for reinforcements. And those reinforcements were coming. The remainder of the fleet that had attacked Drake reappeared from their jump, having closed most of the distance.

“Sure would be useful to be able to leap around like that,” Manx said.

“We’ll see if they can do it again,” Drake said. He addressed Ellison at the tech console. “How long until they reach Woodbury?”

“Ninety-seven minutes,” she said. “Assuming a straight-line approach, no jumps.”

“And Dreadnought?”

This brought a moment of calculation. “Almost three hours, sir. Assuming we leave now.”

Drake told the pilot to chart a course. He sent a message to Woodbury, then got the other captains online. No sense hiding his intentions from Apex. It was obvious enough that he had to either order Woodbury to abandon Formidable—long-range scans showed the plasma engines inoperable, but the ship still battleworthy—or rush to join the fight and hope Woodbury held until he arrived.

Drake didn’t have so many cruisers lying around that he could afford to throw one away. That wasn’t the Royal Navy way, in any event, and the devil take him before he left nearly a hundred crew to be harvested by the buzzards.

Once Dreadnought was underway, Drake turned to his pilot and subpilot and ordered them to chart courses to the various jump points in the systems, starting from an assumed position several hours in the future.

“That will take some time, sir,” the pilot said. “And eat up network resources if we keep the nav computer running that long.”

“We can spare them. I need a way out of here.”

Koh looked up from her console. “What about the refugees? Don’t tell me you’re going to abandon them here.”

“Best thing we can do is get them away from the fighting,” Drake said. “I’m fully expecting the buzzards to give chase.”

“What if they don’t?” she asked. “What if they go back to killing these poor people?”

“Then we’ll take our revenge later.”

“Admiral Drake! There are thousands of refugees in that fleet. You can’t leave them to die, you simply can’t.”

“That’s not what you told me before.”

“That was different. You can’t leave them now, not after you’ve committed yourself. Please, I—”

Drake fixed Koh with a stare, and she fell silent. This was hard business, and he was not indifferent to the refugees’ plight. But events were getting out of hand, and he had to live to fight another day.

“Millions of your people are still alive on Singapore,” he said. “If I don’t maintain the fighting power of this fleet, they’ll all die, every last one of them.”

That was the end of Koh’s arguments, and they continued toward the battle brewing around the crippled navy cruiser. The refugee fleet had limped away from the action, still struggling in a long line of ships toward a jump point that remained nearly six days’ flight at their current speed.

Woodbury’s ships spat mines, laying a protective field around them. The enemy would no doubt be cataloging them all, and even in tight battle, space was so vast that they’d be able to maneuver through. It might buy ten or fifteen minutes, no more, and would hamper a retreat should Woodbury be forced to abandon the crippled HMS Formidable.

The second Apex force was less than thirty minutes away from attacking the injured cruiser. Woodbury would be facing a massive, two-pronged attack without reinforcements for the hour and a half it would take Admiral Drake’s forces to get there. It didn’t sound like a long time, but with Woodbury unable to maneuver if he wanted to protect Formidable, an hour and a half would likely prove fatal.

Suddenly, Lloyd called over from the tech console. “Sir, Formidable is firing up one of her engines!”

So she was. It seemed at first that she was going to maneuver into position to be used as a floating battery, but then the second plasma engine flared to life. Formidable swung in a wide arc, with Captain Woodbury positioning the other two cruisers behind her and his four remaining corvettes in the vanguard. They thrust foward, pressing toward Dreadnought.

Formidable is accelerating at pace,” Lloyd said.

A cheer went up on the bridge of Dreadnought at this news. Formidable’s engineers and boatswains deserved medals, by God, getting the damaged engines repaired so quickly and under such conditions. Hopefully, those medals wouldn’t be awarded posthumously. They’d have to bully their way through the still-powerful remnant of the alien fleet Drake had thrashed and sent on its way.

But Apex had a curious reaction to this. Instead of moving to plug the gap, the newly arriving force swung wide, while the ones that had kept Woodbury’s ships pinned down now moved to block his retreat. That left an open path for Woodbury and Drake’s forces to meet in the middle.

Manx cleared his throat. “I hate to point out the obvious, Admiral . . .”

“But it’s an obvious setup?”

“Right, sir. It looks like a lobster trap. One path in, no way out. They get us all together and then we’re all bottled up.”

“I like our odds,” Drake said. “Unless you think there’s a third alien fleet hiding somewhere.”

“Could be, sir.”

“That certainly casts the recent engagement in a new light. If there’s another enemy force lurking in the area, it stood by while we destroyed half an Apex fleet.”

“They’re monsters,” Manx said. “Life has no value to them.”

Perhaps. Drake could use a consult in the war room, but there was no time. He was still hurtling forward, and Woodbury was accelerating rapidly to meet him. The distance between them would soon be shrinking at a rate nearly twenty percent the speed of light.

Drake told the tech officers to continue searching for a third, hidden alien force, but then an unexpected bit of information came through. His pilots had been charting escape routes, and now pushed forward an intriguing possibility. Both Drake and Woodbury could change course and bolt for the nearest jump point. They’d have an advantage on their pursuers and could escape the system without engaging in battle.

“What’s on the other side of that jump?” he asked.

“The charts are unclear, sir,” the pilot said.

“Koh, a word?” Drake said.

She’d been assisting Lloyd in his scans, but now came over to the admiral’s chair. He pointed to the jump point showing on his small screen. “Where does this lead?”

Koh frowned. “I’ve just spent eleven years on a hidden battle station. I don’t exactly have the systems of the Dragon Quadrant memorized.”

“But this is a well-trafficked space lane. You really have no idea?”

“It doesn’t lead to Singapore, that’s for sure.”

“Looks like it’s semi-stable,” Lloyd called over. “But it might only be a few years old. It wouldn’t appear on the old charts.”

“With an emphasis on ‘semi’ or ‘stable?’” Drake asked.

“We’re not going to find ourselves trapped on the other side, if that’s what you’re worried about,” Lloyd said.

That was exactly Drake’s worry, that Apex was luring his fleet into jumping into a cul-de-sac system. One way in and out, and that jump point rapidly decaying behind him. He’d go down in Albion history as the admiral who disappeared with his fleet into an unknown system, never to reappear.

No, because if he did that, there wouldn’t be any Albion history to record his folly. Apex would exterminate his people.

“Lloyd, give me your confidence level. How much longer does that jump point have?”

The answer came a few moments later. “Ninety-nine percent certainty of 5.5 years in duration, plus or minus a year. Less than one thousandth of a percent that it will decay in less than six months.”

That was good enough.

“Send a message to Woodbury, to Caites, to the other captains. We’re making a run for it. Standard fleet jump formation.”

Drake wanted a fight, but not on Apex’s terms. And it seemed that this was the battlefield of the enemy’s choosing. He could stand his ground against these two forces, but if a third fleet showed up, he was in trouble. Better to accept his victory and circle back around to Sentinel 3 and get the tech Li had promised.

“Ellison,” he said, “time to rendezvous with our friends. Send a subspace to Captain McGowan, Captain Tolvern, and General Mose Dryz. Here is the message . . .”

The enemy would intercept the subspace, of course, but he did his best to disguise the information.

As soon as Drake sent the message, he ordered a course change. Soon, he had his fleet accelerating toward the unknown jump point.



Chapter Twenty

Tolvern and the others made their way through the gap in the perimeter fence and onto the higher ground of the spaceyards. It had turned into a battlefield. Giant birds stalked across the tarmac like walking tanks, even as gunfire and hand cannons blasted at them. They opened their beaks and spewed projectiles, spread their wings to launch missiles. Vehicles burned, and one of the large hangars was on fire, casting flames high into the sky.

Green light swept across the ground from the birds’ eyes. When it fell on gunmen and fleeing yard workers, the humans and Hroom collapsed to the ground as if they were automatons and someone had flicked a switch. Tentacles swept down and dragged them skyward to join the squirming masses.

Tolvern kept clear of the fighting and led the others in a crouching run from the protective wall of warehouses to the shelter of a merchant frigate, which sat burning in the middle of the tarmac. The side of the frigate had been torn open, exposing the guts of the vessel, from which smoke and flame poured out.

“I spent three hundred pounds repairing that piece of junk,” Rodriguez said mournfully as they waited for one of the giant birds to stride away. “Never see that money again.”

“Not to mention the bloke what lost his ship,” Capp said.

“Quiet, the both of you,” Tolvern said. “Wait until it turns its head, then we’re making a run for it.”

It was still raining, but at normal downpour levels, nothing like the deluge that had overwhelmed Samborondón earlier in the day. The sky was, however, still dark and growing darker. Even as the cloud cover thinned, the sun was dipping behind the western mountains. Soon it would be night. Fortunately, there was plenty of light from the fires to find their way. Tolvern could clearly see the path they needed to take, off toward a pair of undamaged hangars to the left. Blackbeard was inside one of them. Hopefully.

The bird cocked its head and turned toward something to its right. That left the path open to the left. Tolvern chopped her hand forward and set off at a run. The others followed. She rounded the corner and saw the open doors of the larger of the two hangars, with Blackbeard sitting dark and still inside. And undamaged, thank God.

We’re going to make it.

They’d come into the base with nearly twenty men and women—Tolvern, Capp, O’Keefe, Carvalho, Oglethorpe, and Rodriguez, plus roughly a dozen survivors from the truck. A few others had joined them as they entered the base, and now, running across the open, other yard workers spotted them and broke from hiding places. Soon, there were dozens running to join them.

One of the giant stalkers noticed all of the movement, and its head swiveled like a rooster spotting a row of tasty insects. Its gaze swept over the runners, and they collapsed. The bird stepped over them, head still swiveling to catch new victims in the green light even as tentacles dipped from its abdomen to hoist up the ones who had fallen.

“Run!” Tolvern yelled.

So close now. Someone screamed behind her, a sound that was cut dead. Her heart thumped, her lungs burned. Her feet pounded the tarmac.

Ahead, Blackbeard’s familiar curves. It loomed above her, propped on struts. The skull and crossbones gleamed with reflected firelight. The Albion lions.

Green light. Her body went rigid, and she was falling.

No!

She hit hard, tossed casually against the pavement. Her heart thundered in her chest from her exertions, but nothing else was moving, not even her lungs. Behind, the sound of claws on pavement, the screams as tentacles hoisted men and women into the sky and they regained control of their bodies only to find themselves enveloped in the twisting, python-like coils.

The ground thumped, as if from a giant hammer pounding against the ground. A horrible screech of pain sounded behind her, then a crash. Tolvern could breathe again. She took a ragged gasp. The acrid scent of burning feathers scratched her throat. She tried to rise to her feet, but someone was screaming for her to stay put. A hand grabbed the back of her pants and yanked her down. It was Carvalho.

Lifting her head, Tolvern saw why. Blackbeard’s deck gun had opened up and was thumping away with heavy fire. That gun was powerful enough to tear a hole in a pirate schooner, and it was certainly enough to rip apart one of the giant birds, armored or not. It had mowed down one of them already, whose victims were trying to fight free of the tentacles, and moved on to a more distant target. That one died, too. The deck gun fell silent.

Tolvern and the others sprang to their feet. A ladder descended from the belly of her ship, and voices shouted for her to come up. She grabbed the rungs, joined quickly by others.

When she got up, she was greeted by the long, solemn face of Nyb Pim. She was so glad to see her pilot that she planted a kiss right where his lips would have been . . . if he’d had them. He blinked back with his large, liquid eyes.

“I do not understand the significance of you kissing me,” he said in his high, almost crooning voice, “but Lieutenant Smythe is waiting for you on the bridge, and he says we should leave at once.”

#

“Good thing Rodriguez is leaving the yards behind,” Tolvern said as Smythe informed her of the situation, “because we don’t have time to get onto the tarmac. We’re going to trash the hangar and set the whole blasted place on fire. Capp, get the gunnery. I want those birds targeted on the way up. Send those monsters straight to hell.”

The plasma engines fired off and they lifted from the ground, tearing through the hangar and leaving behind flaming wreckage. Guns targeted the giant birds as they elevated.

She’d have liked to swoop over the city and fight whatever landing craft was sending these giant birds down, but there was an Apex fleet in orbit. Blackbeard had to clear the gravity well and make a run for it, and that meant abandoning Samborondón to its fate.

The ship shuddered as they fought their way through the turbulent atmosphere that had dumped ungodly amounts of rain on the island. Instruments lit up, warnings and advisories. Smythe and Lomelí struggled to manage crashing computer systems, while engineering worked to keep the whole bucket of nuts and bolts from flying apart in a million directions.

The overhaul wasn’t a hundred percent finished, but it was close enough. Normally, once the final repairs had been completed, they would run tests while still in the yards, make tweaks, perform simulations, then bring her into orbit. There they would run another full battery of tests and take her for a longer test run before declaring her battle ready.

But this was war. There was nothing normal about it. There’d been no time to run diagnostics; better hope they hadn’t overlooked something critical. The next few moments would be tense ones.

The inertia engine hiccuped, and a giant fist first shoved Tolvern into her chair, then tried to fling her at the ceiling. Finally, it worked properly, and gravity returned to normal. The ship broke the cloud cover, still accelerating rapidly.

Blackbeard held together. Of course she did. She was a damn good ship.

Minutes later, they were in outer space, the curve of the planet below them. From this height it looked like a single ocean, deep, almost midnight blue. A string of emerald-green islands encircled the equator like a jeweled belt, with another ring of islands crowning the northern polar region.

The world had two small, silver-colored moons, and a neighboring planet gleamed like an enormous red star. Beyond that lay the Milky Way, an endless swath of stars, still so breathtakingly beautiful and peaceful looking no matter how many times Tolvern looked at it.

The alien fleet swung around the planet and shattered the peace. Four hunter-killer packs jostled for position like wolves snarling and biting at each other’s flanks. The lances dominated in numbers, slender and gleaming gold in reflected sunlight, but there were several of the heavier spears among them. And then, pulling around behind them, the harvester ship.

Bigger than a battleship, it resembled an elongated octopus, with a bulbous, warty head that bristled with weapons and several short stalks on the other end, opened now to reveal a large inner docking bay. The harvester ship plopped out pod-shaped shuttles like it was laying eggs on top of the planet. These dropped into the atmosphere, glowing red as they absorbed heat.

No doubt they carried more of the giant warrior-gatherer birds, and would fall by the dozens on every island and population center. Killing and burning and gathering their gruesome harvest.

Silence ruled the bridge for a long moment, broken only by the tap of Nyb Pim’s long fingers over his console. Alone among the crew, he continued his work, charting a course to jump away from this doomed system.

“Enough,” Tolvern said. “Everyone, move.”

Her words were like a jolt of electricity to the stagnant bridge. Cloaks came up, and the ship angled away from the planet and the Apex fleet. Tolvern kept her eyes glued to the viewscreen while they worked. No sign yet that the enemy had detected them.

Other ships burst through the atmosphere, Hroom and human alike. A new stream of refugees. Apex let them go. Maybe a few tens or even hundreds of thousands would escape—for now—but they were little more than fleas jumping off the back of a drowning dog. Millions would remain on the surface, and it was on these that the buzzards would enjoy their unhurried feast.

Tolvern thought Blackbeard would slip away with the other refugees. She brought them next to a freighter and matched its lumbering speed. Stay in its shadow, rely on cloaks. They slid past a hunter-killer pack. The lances seemed to sniff at the freighter as it passed, but didn’t deviate from course to destroy it.

“All right,” Tolvern said, her stomach a bundle of knots. “Time to hit the gas.”

Capp sent the order to the engine room. They swiftly pulled away from the freighter and passed between the two moons on their way to deep space. Nyb Pim gave the coordinates to carry them to the jump point out of here, back toward where they’d left the Hroom general. Still no sign of pursuit. Tolvern let out a deep breath.

“Oh, no!” Smythe said from the tech console. “Now he sends it? Of all times, now?”

“You’re babbling, Smythe,” Tolvern said. “What is it?”

“A subspace message from Admiral Drake.”

“Well, what is it? Don’t just sit there gawking, send it through.”

Have inflicted heavy damage on an enemy fleet with modest losses suffered to Royal Navy forces.

This was typical understatement on Drake’s part, she was sure. No doubt he’d delivered a crippling blow. But the part about ‘modest losses’ might also be understated. She kept reading.

Under pursuit by an unknown quantity of enemies. Seeking rendezvous at agreed upon location at your earliest possible convenience.

AJD

The agreed upon location meant Sentinel 3. The message had no doubt been sent to the Hroom general, as well as to Captain McGowan, who had been picking his way out from his defense of the home worlds, leading Peerless at the head of a second fleet.

“What do we do now?” Smythe asked.

“We’ll do our best to obey,” she said dryly. “The so-called Dragon Quadrant is a dangerous neighborhood for a lone cruiser, and we might not make it.”

“Eh, Cap’n?” Capp said. “I think you’re missing the question.”

“It’s a subspace message, sir,” Smythe said.

“I know what it means,” she said, watching the viewscreen. “Drake sent a message and Apex no doubt heard. Bad timing, but all we can do is deal with it.”

Enemy ships were already moving. Two of the hunter-killer packs split away from the planet.

“We’re getting hit by active sensors,” Smythe said. “They caught the subspace, all right. Now they’re looking for us.”

“They won’t see us, right?” Capp asked. She rubbed her buzzed scalp. “We’re cloaked, and Apex sensors are bollocks. Right, Cap’n?”

“We’re about six inches away,” Tolvern said grimly. “Bollocks or not, I think they’ll find us.”

“Then we’re buggered.”

“You could say that,” the captain agreed.

“Why did he send it now?” Smythe repeated.

Yes, why now? He could have sent it a week ago, or in three days, when she was in the clear. Give her a billion miles to work with and it wouldn’t matter if Apex could temporarily pinpoint her location or not. But here and now, when she was so close she could feel the enemy’s hot breath on her neck as she crept past? Hardly his fault—Drake wasn’t one for sending frivolous messages—but the timing couldn’t have been worse.

“There we go,” Smythe said. “They got us. Their sensors are about as sophisticated as two men banging metal buckets with hammers and listening for the echo, but now that they’ve fixed on us, they’re hitting us regularly. We can’t lose them.”

The hunter-killer packs flew past the freighter, which still lumbered gamely away from the planet. The freighter made an awkward turn, what passed for an evasive maneuver, which would have been as effective as a giant tortoise trying to dodge a pack of lions, but the lions weren’t interested. They kept going, coming straight after the fleeing human warship.

The lances were out of weapon range, and Blackbeard was increasing the gap between herself and the pursuing ships. As the two sides built speed, Blackbeard’s advantage would only grow, if not for those blasted short-range jumps. It was only a matter of time before the enemy appeared on Blackbeard’s flanks.

There was nothing left for it now. “Drop cloaks. Bring all weapon systems online.”

Back in battle. And the odds were grim. Realistically, nonexistent. Tolvern’s only hope was to inflict a few blows before she went down with her ship.



Chapter Twenty-One

For once, Drake awakened quickly after passing a jump point. He shook his head, no more stunned than if he’d stood up too quickly and gone lightheaded. He was giving orders even before the dizziness passed.

Drake had suffered a final moment of doubt the instant he approached the jump. It must be another trick. Make him think there was a third, hidden enemy fleet in the system, that they’d surround his fleet and annihilate it. Trick him into running toward the only jump point out of the system.

And what was on the other side? Maybe nothing. Maybe the aliens were beaten down, convinced they were going to be destroyed by Dreadnought and her support ships. Apex had finally met its match and could only hope to trick him into running away. But if that were the case, why hadn’t they tried to make a run for it themselves? They could jump ahead of him, stay out of his range indefinitely.

The other possibility was that a massive enemy force waited on the other side of the jump point. Lances, spears, even a harvester or two. He would come through stunned, and they’d tear him apart before he could recover.

But the area around the jump point was clear.

“Get us away from here,” he told his pilots. “Any direction. The rest of our fleet can follow, and we’ll plot a new course as soon as we’ve had a look around. Lloyd, get us cloaked. No long-range sensors, we can’t give ourselves away. And somebody find the jump points in this system.”

As those wheels set themselves in motion, Drake turned his attention to organizing his forces. Normally, he’d position his corvettes out front. They were the quickest out of the blocks in a scrape, more powerful than a destroyer, and more maneuverable than a cruiser. But Apex’s ability to leap into the fray rendered them vulnerable.

Instead, he positioned Dreadnought in the vanguard, with his cruisers bringing up the rear. He set a destroyer screen on one side, with the corvettes below and behind. The missile frigates and torpedo boats took a comfortable, protected position above Dreadnought.

They were underway even while the last two cruisers were still jumping through. He took a small risk in leaving them to catch up with the others.

Scans brought up more information. This system was a desert. There were two rocky inner worlds, slightly inside and outside the so-called Goldilocks Zone, respectively. One a hot, gas-choked planet, the other cold enough for carbon dioxide to fall as snow. There might once have been a more promising planet somewhere between their orbits—the huge number of asteroids in wobbly orbits around a yellow-orange star seemed to indicate that something had broken up at one point.

They found four jump points in the system. The one they’d just come through was located among the rocky inner worlds. Another was so close to the star that they’d be sweating by the time they approached. It matched no known signature, but appeared quite stable. Another was a wobbly, unstable jump way out past the icy planetoids on the edge of the system. The tech officers estimated its age as less than two years and its eventual decay sometime in the next six months. Perhaps sooner.

It might lead nowhere, or it might drop them inside the gravity well of a neutron star. They could send a probe, but as unstable as it was, even if they did jump safely through, they might find that it was a one-way trip.

The final jump point fell in an empty region a few million miles outside the orbit of the system’s largest gas giant, a massive brown dwarf with several large, almost planet-size moons. Where did the jump point lead? His tech officers were studying the data coming back from scans, but Drake had low expectation of successfully identifying it until Koh let out a burst of excited Chinese.

“This signature matches!” she said. “Admiral, look at the database from Sentinel 3.”

She sent over the information. No charts existed of this system, but there was a ream of data from the Singapore home world. And one of the outgoing jump points from Singapore itself was a match for this one—not identical, but the database was a decade out of date, and even the most stable jump points changed with time.

“How sure are we?” Drake asked. “Give me numbers.”

“Seventy-eight percent confidence,” Lloyd said. “Not a certainty by any stretch. Nearly one in four chance that it leads somewhere else.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Koh said after another burst of Chinese, this time spat out like so many curse words. “It has to be the same jump point, it has to.”

“Hold on,” Lloyd said. “Refined data coming in from the latest scan.” He hesitated. “Make that only fifty-nine percent. And a lower degree of confidence in the assessment.”

Koh looked more uncertain now. Drake didn’t like the odds, either. That was barely above fifty-fifty. He wanted a few minutes to consider the options, but events conspired against him.

The tech officers had been hammering away with active sensors, looking for another hidden fleet. And Lloyd shouted a new discovery. Ahead of them, snugged in near a pair of wandering asteroids in loose orbit around each other, came something with a dull heat signature and emitting radiation. At first glance it was a massive ship, three times the size of Dreadnought. The Apex mother ship?

No, it was a derelict, a wreck. And not a ship at all, but a battle station. A sentinel battle station, to be specific. Broken in pieces, destroyed in battle. Koh clenched her fists when it became clear what they were looking at. She dropped her head.

“Commander Li told me there were eleven sentinels,” Drake said. “Each one placed at a critical position to protect the home system. I guess that answers the question about our jump point.”

Koh lifted her head. “So it is Singapore on the other side.”

“Most likely, yes.”

Her tone was mixed bitterness and hope. “You know what that means, Admiral, what we have to do. Surely, you must.”

“It means that Apex is trying to herd us toward Singapore,” he said.

“No, it means . . .” Her eyes widened slightly.

“Exactly. They’ve as good as invited the fleet through. Opened a channel for us, invited us to leave, but only to here. And what do we find when we get here? Convenient, isn’t it?

“And what will we get if we jump through to Singapore?” he continued. “A welcoming party, no doubt. We know there’s at least one harvester ship in orbit around Singapore, together with a large enemy fleet. There are two fleets behind us, and most likely a third. Their strategy seems obvious. Push us through to Singapore and smash us between the hammer and the anvil.”

“Or, it could be the opportunity to free my planet and save my people.”

“Without the rest of our forces?”

Her brow knit together and she chewed at a lip as she studied the screen and the data scrolling across it. This time she had no answer for him. Expressions across the bridge showed the same story. Doubts and fear spread from one face to the other.

“So we have no choice,” Manx said. “We can’t go back, and we can’t go forward. We have to stay here and fight it out. Shall I send a message to the other ships?”

“We do have a choice,” Drake said. “We have several. Apex plays tricks, and they’ve got our heads spinning now. Where is the trap, where are they pushing us? This could be a trick to keep us in the system while they bring their final fleet into play. Well, humans can play tricks, too. And if this is a poker game, we can call their bluff.

“The enemy won’t be guarding the other side of that jump point,” he continued. “This whole battle has developed too quickly, and until recently, the buzzards were trying to destroy us, not push us through. Apex may not be facing a civil war, but it’s full of factions. We’ll use that against them.”

“What are you saying, sir?” Manx asked.

“Give orders to the fleet. We jump through to Singapore. We catch them before they’re ready.”

It was a gamble, a risk with the naval resources of the Kingdom of Albion. If he guessed wrong, he’d lose his fleet and his life, but more importantly, Albion would be stripped of her defenses. Nothing would hold Apex back.

But war was always a roll of the dice, a spin of the wheel. Life itself was a gamble in this uncertain universe filled with hostile, expanding civilizations. Many of history’s most important battles had turned on a bold gambit, a wrong decision, or a bit of luck. If humanity thought that by taking to the stars they would change not just the odds, but the nature of the game, they were wrong. They’d fought out their age-old struggles on Earth only to emerge into a cosmos filled with the same violent conflicts.

Human civilization was still young in the universe. Would it continue to grow, or would the human race be devoured by an even more aggressive, hostile species? On the other end of that jump point lay the answer to his question.

Drake ordered his forces toward the jump, determined to take his fleet through and find out.

-end-

Thank you for reading Dragon Quadrant. The trilogy concludes with book #3, Shattered Sun. You can buy it right here.

If you enjoyed Dragon Quadrant, please consider leaving a review on Amazon to help others discover the series.

To receive notice when my next book is released, visit my web page to sign up for my new releases list, and get a free copy of the first book of my fantasy series, The Dark Citadel, as a welcome. This mailing list is not used for any other purpose, and your email will never be sold or distributed.


From the Author:

If you are enjoying this trilogy after reading The Starship Blackbeard Series, welcome, and thank you for continuing with the story. If The Sentinel Trilogy is your first introduction to my universe, I hope you’ll take a look at the earlier four-book series, beginning with Starship Blackbeard.



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