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BLUE HORIZON

"The Heir Apparent: Cold Fire"
by Steve Carter

 

Captain’s Journal

SS Blue Horizon, PA1138 

 

The Blue Horizon and crew are performing well, but the political situation across the PA has deteriorated.  On our way to Earth, we’ve received news that further acts of terrorism are being committed all over the Alignment.  The Legislature has also been grid-locked for weeks now as several planets fight each other over trading rights with Argeia.  Everybody wants a part of their rich deposits of Siilv metal, the most valuable resource in known space to humans and furs alike.  Having just left that world, we can understand why. It doesn’t exactly help that the Kastani are totally unselfconscious about their wealth.  They don’t flaunt it, per se, but they do have a sense of pride about it that would be considered arrogant or taboo elsewhere.  They’re wealthy, but they wear that as if they don’t care. 

What concerns me is stories I’m getting from Devon about how some worlds want to destroy them rather than have the Kastani form alliances with their competitors.  Intergalactic capitalism just became more cutthroat than usual.  It’s all that Jo Chan can do to keep things orderly, and I fear that her popularity might be waning.  History teaches us that arguing and a certain amount of dispute are good because when they stop, the shooting starts.  My fear is that the way things are going, it might stop soon.

It’s been unusual traveling with our temporary passenger, Jape Devon.  I was not aware of many of Kastani practices, but the strange alien has made our lives interesting.  For one, I don’t think that he sleeps more than an hour a day at the most.  The rest of the time, he’s barely still.  His metabolism is so high that he’s constantly in motion and rarely ever sits down for anything. I’ve also never seen any creature that eats only once every other day, and dumps an entire salt shaker onto its food. 

He’s been good for recreation and training with Renny, Durant and Samantha.  They’ve taken opposite shifts so that Devon can share some of his combat expertise in hand-to-hand with them.  Devon has also begun teaching Pockets his native language and our engineer is almost bludgeoning us with his new vocabulary.  Somehow, I don’t think he’s got it exactly right, though.

Weller Tagon is making noise in the Legislature about his losses in the recent rashes of violence, despite that he’s a small-time business operator in an insignificant town on the devastated world of Quet.  His broadcast two days ago sent Max into a catatonic relapse that I’ve never seen before.  Samantha found him curled up in a corner, eyes wide and shivering in panic.  It was a surprise, considering all that he’s lived through in the last year.  His former master’s voice alone provoked a spontaneous flashback to a life of abject terror, of living only from one moment to the next and not knowing when any unaccountable violence would be perpetrated against him.  It makes me sick to think that I dealt with that scum at all, but Max is okay now, following some time talking with Cindy and lots of TLC from those who care for him. 

 

Merlin Sinclair

Captain, SS Blue Horizon  

*** 

Legislature Speaker Jo Chan grimaced, her face a tight mask of anger and frustration; things were getting out of control too fast.  She’d been shocked by the speed and voracity with which other worlds had fallen onto the newest member, demanding that they share their commercial wealth immediately like ravenous animals on a fallen prey. Brandt had appeared with a number of new trade tariffs which had somehow become retroactive to their loss of Siilv metal, based on a standard of “access equality” that had not been clearly defined.  Dennier and Mainor had each been attempting to woo the Kastani with a variety of bribes and veiled threats. 

Other worlds which, in better times, would have conducted themselves were joining the pack mentality. Even though it had entered the Alignment with a full disclosure agreement standard to inclusions, Argeia refused to disperse its mineral deposits to the rest of the planets in the demanded quantities. Entreaties and higher prices met with the same resounding rejections. Members of Intergalactic Aid demanded a boycott, and many of its members made speeches about “emergency powers” and “accommodating intervention,” using their recent loss on Sillon as an emotional cudgel.  Nobody wanted a fight.  Nobody wanted to back down.  Kastani ambassadors were recalled from several worlds.

At the back of her memory, she remembered something from the history of Earth.  Residents of one continent had gone exploring and found a whole new continent, and over the next hundred years had simply taken it over from its primitives by force and deception.  She saw the same thing happening with the Kastani, only it was arguably the primitives who were moving on the technological, moving to overwhelm them by sheer numbers as a mob descending on an Ivory Tower. 

The Speaker sat back in her chair before the console in front of her.  An incoming message had informed her of another act of terrorism; a physical assault against Silloni magnate Tristan, which had left the former Regent crippled and hospitalized with a severed horn.  Silloni horns were not magical, as was the legend of the unicorns they resembled, but they did serve as housings for a thin, vital gland which provided a catalyzing enzyme for certain functions of spinal control.

The severed horn had been discovered in the early hours of the following morning and a transplant was being scheduled already.  Without his horn in good working condition, Tristan would have to spend the rest of his life connected to a support machine.  The humiliation was emasculating.

Silloni officials had, understandably, kept this event a secret to all but the highest offices.  Tristan’s description of his assailant matched closely with the generic look of the Kastani, and the fact that he had been unable to crush its arm with his massive hooves made obvious that it had the Kastani’s super-dense body.  The weapon it had used was consistent with the other violent attacks reported in recent weeks.

“So,” the silver fox whispered to herself, “it’s a Kastani terrorist.”  In a few hours, Argeia would move out of its sun’s unusual magnetic field and she would be able to contact either Senator Widi or Commodore Blanc, the dark warrior who had accompanied the Senator to the Legislature at Argeia’s induction.  

*** 

On a dark outcropping of an unfinished metal structure on Dennier, a long sliver of black stretched out against the purple horizon.  Angry bands of red clouds stretched across the sky as the sun sank behind the mountains and dusk deepened into night.  The stealthy ship had arrived on the planet several hours before, undetected by the Planetary Defense Grid.  Swathed in a draping gray cloak, a single body manipulated a hand-held communications port, signaling on a fluctuating-code frequency.  Buffets of wind fluttered through the fabric of its clothing as the silhouette stood against the sky, unheeding of danger.

In pain there must be gain.  The mantra, excerpted from an interpretation of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, was burned into Conn’s head at an early age at its master’s teaching.  There had always been pain, fear and anger.  Its Master had made certain that pain was a constant fixture in both their lives and the lives of those they employed. 

But pain is a handle that fits many tools, and is multifaceted in its own right.  Pain can be physical or psychological, brief as an instant or lasting for generations.  It can be applied strategically for a single purpose or as a blanket over many purposes.  It can be real or imagined. 

Of all these, this last was the most useful.  Imagined pain can be more useful than real, because its source can be anything you wish.  Hurt an individual and he will hate you for it.  Convince him that others have or will hurt him, and he is a slave bound to your service.  Convince a people that they have been hurt by another people or some unseen evil, and you have an army.  Convince all people that all others will cause them pain, and you have an empire.  There is a kernel of truth in that idea, and that truth makes it so easy to use the pressure any way you like. 

Tell me what you have learned,” the voice hissed through its mechanical resonator.

Standing reverently before the white-green projection, the gray-cloaked assassin nodded its head in deference.  Its black eyes reflected no light from the cool illumination of its communications port.  “Dennier and Mainor mean to move against Argeia and neither is aware of the other’s plan,” it replied with exotic accent.  “They don’t know of the Kastani defensive capabilities apart from the Planetary Defense Grid.” 

Take the Vault to the Mars Colony, Bova,” the projection instructed.  “It’s a nice, out-of-the-way locale without much traffic and will be difficult to trace.  Deliver the Cold Fire there and make sure that it gets a wide dissemination, especially to junior military members from as many fleets as possible.”

“It will be done, my master,” the dark-eyed assassin purred.

You have served me admirably, Conn,” the mechanized voice rasped.  “And you will reap your rewards.”

Conn closed the Com unit and turned it off, tucking the device into its chrome beltline alongside the sonic device it had used to punish Lucas Sinclair.  It looked down on the city below, toes of its soft white boots just over the edge of the precipice on the unfinished building, and checked a timepiece.  The Kastan warrior listened for the soft, rhythmic thumping of the rotor blades and was rewarded with a flood of white and blue lights rising up before it.  Local authorities — just what he had been waiting for.

“You there!” a voice boomed on a loudspeaker.  “You are in an unauthorized area!  Please remove your vehicle and come down to the surface!”

Conn stood, unmoving, as the helicraft turned to the side.  A uniformed coyote stood in an open bay door in it, flashing her badge with one hand on her pistol.  She winced at the sight of it and its dark, lifeless eyes.  The Kastan cocked its head to one side, looking at her curiously, and she jammed a finger at the ground, demanding again that it come down to the surface.  It cupped a hand to one long, tapered ear as if to say it could not hear her, and pulled a slender device from its case on the back of its neck.  With a flick of its wrist, a cascade of hot, green light flashed in its hand, and it hurled the flare at the helicopter.

Too late, she saw the weapons of the black ship arc toward them, trained on the green light.  Conn fell to one knee as blisters of rapid energy fire spat out of the guns on either side of the lone figure, slashing through the night air and slamming into the hulk of the helicraft.  Rocking off their axis, the rotor blades ground to a halt and splintered, gears screaming with effort.  The engines sputtered, fingers of electricity gripping around it as it plummeted down to smash in a boiling cloud of flame below.

Conn peered over the side of the ledge, watching the scene below.  Several seconds passed, and no survivors appeared.  It stood and boarded its ship, and the black wedge craft lifted into the sky.  Minutes later, Conn broke through the atmosphere and into the inky blue-black of space. 

The dark-eyed warrior moved controls on the panel before it, igniting a particular cell that had been acquired from the devastated hulk of Sagan’s Basilisk.  Conn had found the compartmentalized Vault technology stolen from Natasha to be useful in its tasks.  It cut travel time from weeks to seconds, and its missions had the feel of randomness that it enjoyed.  To be everywhere at once was a killer’s dream. 

With a bony hand, Conn moved the control.  Its cruiser was enveloped in a whorl of blue light, and then was gone.  

*** 

Samantha Holden stood with Max in one corner of the rec deck, watching the events taking place there.  In a cleared out area, Jape Devon was fighting Renny and Durant for practice and exercise.  The crewmates had been training with him for some weeks now, the Kastan giving them free lessons in hand-to-hand combat to keep himself entertained.  He taught them to work together, to know one another’s movements and communicate with body language in prosecuting a melee against him.  This had resulted in a number of whacked fingers, tails and heads, but they improved.  They learned to use Renny’s reacquired speed and agility with Durant’s strength and constitution.  The two forged a silent bond that began to bleed into their working relationship; each almost seeming able to sense the other’s thoughts.

Now near the end of the trip from Argeia and entering the Sol system, this was the second time they had fought with real, bladed weapons.  The cheetah had armed himself with a pair of rapiers he had been learning to use, and the bear fought with a long, double-ended pike.  Devon had given them one instruction: kill me.  They weren’t holding back, either.  Working in concert with coordinated movements, the pair had kept their prey on guard for over twenty minutes.  Devon was training them not to fight, but to kill, and each of the crewmates still found himself matched by the assassin, even now.  

Jape Devon whirled a traditional Kastani weapon they had never seen before.  He called it a Delta, explaining that the actual Kastani word would be impossible to pronounce. It began as a metal ring with three equally-spaced shafts extending slightly more than two feet out from the rim. With a flick of his wrist, each of the shafts had lashed out with a locking, dual-edged blade which extended the weapon another two feet in all directions. This presented the unenviable fact of having two blades pointed at one’s opponent and one blade pointed at oneself.  Only a master dared approach such a weapon.  As Renny parried the slashing tri-blade with one of his rapiers, he understood the alien’s order to tie his tail to his leg.  The Kastan leapt and spun through the air like a ballet dancer, slashing with his weapon with a master’s ease and adroitly keeping his own appendages out of harm’s way.  It was incredible how fast the action played out before the two spectators.

Bombastic classical music played on the sound system behind the fierce fighting, a quick staccato of horns over an oppressive bass and augmented by long chants in some ancient language.  Max watched the action with a dazzled expression, boxing absently at the air in complete hero worship.  Samantha tried to control her breathing as she stood, waiting for her turn with the Kastan sensei.  Devon had, at some point, offered to teach each of them a fighting style, and had found an already competent opponent in the canine.

One of Renny’s sabers wrested free and whirled through the air, but he continued to press the Kastan with his other weapon.  Durant stayed arched up to attack from above, guarding his flanks with the lower end of the pike as Devon aimed a disemboweling stroke at him.  The three blades kept them both at bay no matter what they did.  The classical piece ended with a fierce roar and the three combatants immediately fell back, drawing away from one another and heaving with exertion.  The crewmen fell back onto a couch, each burying his face in a cup of nutrient-rich water.

There were no comments, no advice exchanged.  Renny and Durant would critique one another later; each already knew the mistakes he and the other had made in prosecuting this battle.  Devon merely lapped from a small glass of a thick, orange liquid before stretching his arms out and drawing the Delta blades back into their switchblade scabbards with three resolute snak! sounds.  The killer set his weapon aside, selected another, then thought again and replaced in its case.

He stepped back out into the practice area, where Samantha stood waiting for him.  Devon scratched his chin a moment and motioned for Max to come over with her.  The teen did as commanded, sitting down directly in the center of the fighting area.  Devon placed the decanter of the odd orange fluid on his head, and instructed Max to hold it there and not move from his spot.  The two adults stood on either side of him, and each fastened a thong around a wrist, then to one another’s wrist, securing each combatant to the other. 

Max suddenly began to feel extremely mortal.  

*** 

A light flashed across the screen on the bridge of the Horizon.  It was an incoming communication from a scrambled source.  Cindy regarded it with interest—they were pretty far out for a message to arrive on a rotating-scramble code.  Coded signals got static and interference from stellar magnetic fields and other impediments, a rotational code would be unperceivable.

She tapped a key, “This is the Blue Horizon, go ahead.”

My name is Robbins,” the voice replied.  “I’m trying to contact Jape Devon.  Is he available?

That’s odd, she thought, Devon’s presence had been kept in absolute secrecy.  Nobody needed to know they were transporting a known assassin on board their ship.  “I’m sorry, but there’s no one by that name with us.”

That’s fine,” the voice crackled, “I only wanted to ask him to contact his ship.  Robbins out.”

Cindy tapped her chin.  She pressed a lighted key on the panel before her.

Yes?”  Merlin’s voice answered.

“I just got a message from someone named Robbins, he’s trying to contact our passenger.”

Pass the message on to Devon.  He can find a means of contacting his friend if he needs to.”  

*** 

Max sat frozen, even though the game had ended moments ago.  He shivered where he sat, the decanter of fluid still resting atop his head as the two winded combatants sat to the side, congratulating one another. 

“Y’okay, kiddo?” Renny called from across the rec area.  The youth, still tense with fear for self’s own life, slowly turned his head to face the voice, and felt the tense muscles in his neck protest against it. 

“Yep!” Max squeaked.

“He’ll be okay,” Devon chuckled, “just give him a moment to catch up with the fact that he’s still alive.”

“Mr. Devon,” came a voice over the intercom.  “We’ve had a message from someone called Robbins.  He is asking that you contact your ship.”

Devon pursed his lips, turning to Samantha, “We can continue this later, if you want.”  Without waiting for a response, the Kastan turned and left the rec area.  

*** 

“Talk to me,” Jape Devon cheerfully commanded the console before him.

Devon,” came the raspy female voice of his captain, “Good show getting in with the Horizon people.  How goes it?”

“I don’t think they’re ready for what’s coming,” he replied.  “This is not a battle-hardened crew; this is a traumatized family unit.  They’re going to lose it if things go to hell.”

You underestimate the civvies,” she said.  “Listen, I want you to meet me in orbit over Ganymede on the far side of Jupiter on your way back out from Earth.  Tell only who you must, and only at the last minute.  Earth is not a good place for me to be around right now.”

“Something up, miss boss-lady?”

The political situation is getting worse by the hour.  As you are aware, the poorer worlds have been launching terrorist attacks against some of your institutions.  They’re frontal assaults and generally easy to spot, but what worries me is that intel says Dennier and Mainor are actually arming up to invade Argeia with Earth funding them.  Are your people equipped to handle an assault from multiple worlds?”

“If they try to invade, they’re all going to die,” he said absently, as though it was to be expected.

You’ve made that clear before.  You also know that I’ve never bothered interfering with other worlds’ affairs, but this touches us deeper.  I trust your estimate, but it’s better to have too much defense than too little.  If inter-spatial commerce allows this sort of thuggery, it’ll threaten the already tenuous situation we’ve had up until now.  Allowing the abridgement of Kastani property rights will pave the way for other worlds to follow, and I want us to be there if things get ugly.”

“Gotcha.  We’re going to be stopping at the Mars Bova colony.  Anything you need?”

You,” she said, “talking and breathing.  In the interim, continue to get the Horizon crew trained in combat arts and I’ll meet you at Argeia.  Out here.”  The communicator clicked off.  

*** 

Bova Colony, Mars

It just looked awful.  Samantha stared out of the thick window at the ship as it sat on a landing platform.  Terraforming in the Gustav Crater around the Bova Station was still in progress, and the planet’s rusty red landscape made the Horizon look like an ugly bruise.  She moved her glance over the collected faces.  This was not like most other spaceports.  Clutches of immigrants, women carrying wailing infants and day laborers clamored around the passenger terminal.  It was like a bus station in a seedy part of town.  

Nevertheless, it was a paying job and she had to keep that in mind.  Durant was outside the ship under the protective dome, directing the loading crews with a breath mask across his muzzle as octagonal crates of Martian hematite went into the cargo bay.  The atmospheric condensers were not working to full capacity today and even within the dock areas of the station, precautions were still needed.   In the distance she could see plumes of crimson dust spewing up as heavy machinery tilled the iron-rich soil and made way for a new superstructure to add on to the spaceport.

Strange, she thought, that a world so close to one of the most industrialized planets in the PA would be so underdeveloped in this day and age.  Still, even on her own homeworld there were bad sections of town only a short walk away from good.

Nearby, a vidscreen displayed the breaking news story that intergalactic industrialist and philanthropist Victor Faltane had arrived on Argeia to help broker a resolution to the conflicts plaguing the planet.  His expertise in intercultural relations and trans-world trade would help ease tensions there, it was hoped.  The first candidate had ended in a stalemate, which was to say he had proven far too brash and disruptive for the job.

Samantha frowned upon hearing the man’s name. To her knowledge, and of her captain’s, Victor Faltane was nothing more than a black marketer they had once bought arms from for the previous vessel to carry the Blue Horizon name, and who had then paid their services to deliver industrial equipment to Brandt afterward. That he had farther reaching intergalactic influence was quite a surprise.

A finger tapped her shoulder and she turned to see Renny extending her a steaming cup.  She took it with a smile of thanks and turned back to the window.

“Pretty rough, isn’t it?” he asked.

“Mm-hmm,” she mumbled, sampling the drink and suddenly wondering whether or not it would be polite to spit it out before her tongue shriveled.  He could see it on her face as she swallowed with an effort.

“Sorry about that,” he added.  “It’s the cleanest thing I could find at the café.”

“No problem,” she said, setting the cup down on the sill.  “It’s… probably an acquired taste.”

On the vidscreen above, newscaster Holly Harken added that outside the sovereign space of the planet, a group of transport vessels—and their escorts—were gathering for the eventual resolution.

“Something on your mind?”

“Naah.  I just haven’t been feeling up to snuff lately.”

“Problems?”

“Feeling queasy after long sleeps, that’s all.”

Renny grinned, “Yeah, that happens to me too at the end of a trip.  Something about new climates and all.”

Samantha shook her head with a smile.  Yeah, that was probably it.  

*** 

“What the…” a grizzled tiger rumbled from his command seat.

Across the Alignment, the engines of luxury liner Argonautia slowed to a stop.  The liquid crystal thrusters, previously glowing with blue-white energy, slowed to a halt.  Lights on the bridge blinked out in sections, each panel of the vessel fell silent and dark.

“Sir,” one of the bridge crew cried, “ships’ systems are failing all over.  LightDrive engines are offline and going cold.”

“Get me engineering,” the tiger rumbled.

“Internal communication is down, sir,” another voice added.

“Get some runners and find out what’s going on,” he ordered, “and get some lights on in here!”  

*** 

“Could you just stop breathing, please?” Devon growled.  A short, middle-aged human stared incredulously at him and mumbled something under her breath before huffing off toward another customer.  “Your heartbeat annoys me too!” he called after her.

“That could have been more tactful,” Pockets mused, thumbing through a box of customer service cards.

“I hate pushy salespeople,” Devon replied in a deadpan snarl.  “Middle-age clerks trying to foist on me things I’ve already told them I don’t want are particularly annoying.”

“You’ll never work for greeting cards if you keep that up, Jape.”

“I’d rather have a jalapeño enema.  Find what you’re looking for?”

Pockets drew a white card out of the box.  “Hah!  Exactly what I’m looking for, actually!”

Devon read the card over his friend’s shoulder.  “Illudium Q-36 Virtual Reality set?  Why that?”

“Recreation,” the raccoon replied.  “Maybe even help out with some repairs and upgrades when I get the software installed.”

“I thought you walked on steam already.”

“No, I make the steam that others walk on.  I walk on molecules,” he chirped, and approached the counter.  The man behind the counter disappeared behind a curtain.

“That’s a video game,” Devon said, noting the card.

“That’s a video game that Samantha can help me reverse-engineer into a diagnostic tool for the ship’s systems.  A regular diagnostic would cost three times as much and I’d have to purchase proprietary upgrades almost immediately because they let these things fester on the shelves till they’re borderline obsolete. I can manipulate this any way I like because it’s just the base model,” Pockets beamed.

“Oh,” Devon struck a martyred pose, “you mean you’re a thinking customer?”

The dealer returned with a plastic box stamped Fragile in several languages, and the purchase was quickly concluded.  The man slipped a second thin crystal in with the game.

“What is this?” Pockets asked.

“It’s freeware.  Some kind of promotional video or something.”

Pockets shrugged and the pair left the store.  

*** 

“Captain,” a voice called. 

The Argonautia’s commander, Gordon Ransdell, turned his flashlight to the voice coming from the hallway before him.  “What’s the story, Brisbane?” he asked. 

“We’re at a loss, but the ship’s computer systems have all crashed.  There’s nothing but a buzz of low-level static filling all the systems and we can’t get into the terminals because they’ve all been locked out with some form of encryption we’ve never seen before.”

“Which means what?” the feline growled.

“Which means that, for all practical purposes, we’re dead in space.  Engineering, life-support, they’ve all failed on us.”

“How long to get things back?  We don’t need to be here out of power in a well-traveled travel artery.”

“We’re affecting that as we speak, sir.”

Suddenly the ship shuddered, a deep metal screech followed by an explosion that sounded like thunder on the bridge.  The crewmembers were thrown against chairs, consoles, the floor, and the walls. 

Ransdell dragged himself to his feet despite the pitching ship, and looked out the viewport.  Below the front deck of the ship, he could see another dark shape jutting from the side of his vessel at an irregular angle.  It was long and slender, but otherwise he couldn’t make it out.

Suddenly an explosion flamed in space, a ribbon of orange fire slashing out of the hull like a whip, lashing out into the blackness of space.  Then he saw it: the outline of another vessel.  Black and powerless, the other ship had traveled on inertia alone to slam into the side of his ship.  

*** 

The Horizon continued on its way after Mars.  Standard shore leave was exempted this time because nobody wanted to be around a colony that hadn’t finished terraforming.  There were too many possibilities of accidents and breakdowns in the environmental systems, and their status as transients meant they weren’t covered by any insurance policies the terraforming companies had.

There was also the political situation, and it was accepted practice at times like these not to spend too much time on any given world.  The ship had been quarantined on Argeia, but following some of Devon’s negotiations, the crew was allowed to leave.

“How many people have you killed?” Max asked.

“A lot,” Devon replied, offhand and without much emphasis.

Cindy cast the Kastan a sidelong glance, wondering at his informality.  “Just a lot?  That’s all?”

“Well, I don’t remember every single name, though there are a few that do stand out above the others.  Why do you ask?”

“We’ve never had a professional murderer on board…”

“Not murderer,” Devon chided, “an assassin.  A murderer is a person who acts on impulse or passion.  A murderer is a person who takes an innocent life.”

“Isn’t that what you do?”

“Not in the least.  A single job of mine equates to roughly two hundred fifty thousand credits at least.  You don’t spend that kind of cash on an innocent person.  There has to be a very profound reason why you want someone dead.  Trust me, everyone that I’ve contracted upon deserved his destiny long before I got involved.”

“It just seems so… awful,” the mouse said, a little pout of disgust on her lips.

Devon turned his chin up, as though looking at the ceiling, “Let’s see… I’ve taken out two drug czars, an embezzler, a saboteur, three doctors…”

“Doctors?”

“Yes, but not the kind you’re thinking of.  These were professional torturers.  All the better ones are physicians and psychologists.”

“You don’t say,” she scowled.

Devon leaned forward, a small smile tugging at his lips, “I hate to burst your bubble, but these people exist and must be dealt with.  There are things out there in the stars that you don’t even want to know are being practiced.  They serve a purpose, diabolical as they might seem to the uninitiated eye.  Espionage, assassination, political torture… it’s all out there, and your governments use it as well as any other, despite whatever song and dance they give you about their morality.  You’d be surprised not just at how many know about these things, but how many know how to do them.”

“You paint a very grim picture, Mr. Devon.”

“Possibly.  You laud police and the military for keeping you free, for fighting the good fights all over space, don’t you?  They do a lot of dirty work in foreign places in hostile conditions and they get recognition for it.  They get shiny uniforms and put on parades.  There is honor in what they do, and they should rightly be honored for doing it.  However, they also have to follow certain procedures and protocols or the people they go after are considered ‘victims’ of their behavior, and are freed.  But what we do in my community goes largely unrecognized.  Ours is a shadowy peacekeeping profession, without all the brass and pomp.  Others serve the law, visibly, as the law is a visible thing.  Unfortunately, laws depend on language, which is a difficult thing to enforce from one culture to the next.  We are not outside of or above the law, we are facilitators of the principle behind the law when a violator is unattainable by conventional methods of enforcement.  Think of me as a kind of undercover policeman who is allowed to circumvent procedure for the principle goals the laws are meant to uphold, and you’ll be just fine.”

“So it’s not what you do, it’s why?”

“No, no,” he purred, his voice dropping perceptibly, “it is very much what you do that makes all the difference.  On my world, there was once a guild called the Hunt, a secret society dedicated to a similar principle but whose motives I would not have agreed with.  They were the bodyguards of our Great Benefactor, Rhane Blanc.  They were clandestine and precise in such a manner that you might even consider them terrorists. Rhane kept them on a short leash until a time came when one of them, Bon Venger, betrayed and murdered him.  We’re not certain what happened after that, but Venger disappeared and the Hunt has not been seen since.  Only one of their members has been identified, and he is now Fleet Commodore.  He and Bon Venger were the only ones of the Hunt who was not…” Devon spoke a word in his native language, consisting of many consonants and hisses.

“What is that?” Cindy asked.

The Kastan pointed to his black, unreflective eyes, “One of us.  We are a separate breed from what you would consider ‘normal’ Kastani.  We share a genetic lineage, but with… other factors included.  The Hunt’s mission in life was to protect Rhane from the other Great Houses, the Nikata and the Sigue.  However, ten years ago a Nikata fell in love with a Blanc and they joined.  It was the first time the two Houses had done that, and a tenuous peace ensued.  That peace was augmented with the birth of their first child and two years later, Sigue House crumbled. That left only the Nikata and Blanc, and they had forged an alliance.  The Hunt was out of a job, so they turned their skills outward, hiring on as bodyguards and killers.  The most notorious of them was Conn Navarre.”

“Who was that?” Max asked.

“Conn Navarre was unique.  It was a unit, not a person.  Nobody knows its whereabouts, and —”

The lights in the cabin faded, flickered, and fell to black.

“Nice,” Devon quipped, “who knows any scary stories?”  

*** 

“We have a problem,” Pockets drawled into the intercom from his terminal in engineering.

Merlin, suddenly surrounded by darkness, tapped his bridge com-unit.  “What’s up?”

“We’re losing power… I’m not sure why.”

“I’ve got static,” Renny said, his computer console flickering on and off haphazardly.  From the other side of the room, a slate of touch pads sparked, and a purl of smoke spilled from between two panels.

“What the—?” Lorelei pulled her fingers back from her console.  “What’s going on here?”

A panel of lights flickered and dimmed.  That was their guidance system.  

*** 

“It seems awfully convenient that Mainor had initial access to the Siilv deposits even though we filed for them first!”

The Senator from Mainor stood, aghast and spitting her words.  “We filed documentation three days before the representatives from Dennier!  Those documents were lies when you wrote them!”

Moments later, the lupine Senators from Dennier and feline Senators of Mainor leapt from their places, streaking across the floor with faces twisted in hate.  The floor of the Legislature erupted in howls and catcalls, accusation laced with venom.  Chan motioned to Maku, a human sentry standing nearby. The man assumed a position beside her, but left his pistol sheathed as he glanced at three other security men.  The men stepped in to break up the cat and dog fight that included fangs, jaws and claws.

 ”This is getting us nowhere,” Jo Chan stated, berating Senators on both sides of the House.  “Argeia’s inclusion into the Alignment was contingent upon their sharing resources, yes, but that generosity is being abused already by…”

“Who’s paying you?” shouted one voice; the Senator from Dennier.

“No one is paying me,” she replied, “the rules of the Alignment Trade Council specifically state that no world will be forced to provide any resources to any other except as compensation for damages, following an investigation and due process.”

“There are those,” came a rich, textured voice, “who believe that in this time of interplanetary crisis, certain provisions must be made out of necessity to preserve interstellar commerce.  It’s been done before.”

Jo Chan turned to the representative from Crescentis.  “Only in times of war or extreme peacetime conflict.”

“I would like to avoid a peacetime conflict, Speaker Chan,” he rolled.  “Do recall that Senators Ferry and Chenna of Alexandrius have been recently gathered unto God, and that Intergalactic Aid has been targeted for terrorist acts.  It seems that since Argeia’s inclusion into the Alignment, things have gone from normal to bad, to worse.”

“Through no direct action of the Kastani,” she corrected.

“No?  Isn’t their refusal to provide their resources according to our needs provoking these events?  Senator Widi,” he indicated an empty seat, “has even departed our council for his homeworld after only a few weeks.”

“Senator Widi has other affairs, of which you are completely aware.”

“Aware, yes.  Some of us are very aware of what is going on here.”

A moment of pregnant silence filled the hall as eyes darted suspiciously around, then fixed on Jo Chan.  The Speaker began to feel very uncomfortable… knowing full well how rampant gossip could spread around the intellectually-incestuous Legislature.

“I think that I would like to look over the Legislature expense records, if you don’t mind,” he needled.

“Are you insinuating something?” she replied, formally and in a businesslike tone.

“Oh no… do any members of this noble body feel they have something to hide?”  

*** 

“I think I know what it is,” Pockets rumbled, extricating himself from a mesh of optical wiring inside an exposed panel.  Around him stood Merlin, Cindy, and Durant.

“I’m all ears,” Merlin replied, drawing his jacket closer around himself.  The environmental systems had sputtered on and off, trying to come back on with the ship’s redundant safety features, but ship-wide, the mainframe had all but gone offline completely.

“It’s a virus,” the engineer reported, “but none like I’ve ever seen before.  I’m pretty sure it was off that freeware crystal that I tried out this afternoon.  The first thing it hit was our communications, then guidance & navigation, and then life support.  It doesn’t know what to do with the engine protocols because I’ve got the Vault information that we got from Natasha in there.  Even though we can’t use that technology for lack of decryption, it’s effectively put up a barrier that keeps the virus from fully crashing the ship’s system.”

“Thank goodness for dumb luck,” Durant growled.

“A computer virus?” Samantha asked.

“Yes, and it’s pretty bad.  It gave up trying to crack the engineering section, but from what I can tell it’s eluding detection by re-encrypting itself every fifty milliseconds.  Decoding it is like trying to dig a hole in sand, it keeps shifting.  Sneaky little bug.”

“What can we do to remedy this?” Merlin growled. 

“Well,” the raccoon ground his teeth, his mind racing through the possibilities, “I suppose we could try interfacing with the system through the virtual reality equipment, since it’s not presently connected to any infected systems and I can firewall against the virus now that I have a partial idea of how it works, but it’ll take some time.”

“How much time?” the bear asked.

“That’s the tricky part.  I’d have to go through about three million lines of code before I could isolate the viral strain; I’d have to retain what I’d seen—make notes as I go—and I’m not sure that’s even possible with that much code to have to decipher.  But I’d say it’ll take us forty-eight hours at least.”

“How much life support do we have?” Merlin countered.

“About five hours,” the raccoon replied, deflated at the thought.

“And you don’t know if you can read the code well enough?”

“Reading the code is no problem, as it’s straight binary.  It’s retaining what I need to know and being able to reapply it where it needs be that’s the hard part.”

“It would take a miracle,” the captain rumbled with a sigh.

“Or,” Samantha added, “an eidetic memory.”  

*** 

The Citadel building in the center of Donisia, the acknowledged capitol of Argeia, stood as a sparkling monolith among the Siilv structures.  The arrogant column of the white metal stood perpendicular to the ground, its architecture such that it magnified its surroundings instead of dwarfing them.  An arc of white light shone through the carefully planned refractors near its crest, making the Citadel look like an archer’s bow drawn to the sky.

It was fitting, Faltane thought, since the Kastani constantly strove to excellence in their own lives and culture.  The human philanthropist stood looking out of the large pane in his ambassadorial quarters, the last alien currently breathing Argeian air now that all the others had been banished to their homeworlds.  Victor Faltane had been a major player in brokering this peace, and now he waited on an audience with Senator Widi.

The double-doors to his chamber parted and the ambassador turned quickly.  But this time it was not Widi, but a smaller Kastan.  His face had the smoothness of a boy, but he was many times the man’s age already.  Jean Blanc, son of the late Rhane Blanc, entered the room with a confident air.  The diminutive Kastan wore the silver braid of the Blanc clan and a mesh of gilded mail over his left shoulder that signified his direct lineage from the Great Benefactor.  His ancestry allowed him a high position in the temple and a permanent chair in any ruling body he wished.

“I am told,” Jean purred in accented Standard, “that you wish another audience with Bon Widi?”

“I do, Your Grace” Faltane nodded his head slightly in respect.  “I believe that the others gathering above your sovereign space are not evil, but simply misguided.  I believe that with the proper encouragement, they can be made to disperse peacefully, but they will need a show of faith on our part.”

The smaller Kastan allowed a slight smile to warm his face.  “And what would you recommend?”

“A small envoy, Your Grace,” he continued.  “Yourself, the Magistrate, Senator Widi… a few others — and perhaps the Heir Apparent.”

“Kehaan?” Jean asked.  Such a request was a shock; nobody requested Kehaan, no matter the tenuous diplomatic situation.  The Heir Apparent was a mere boy, and an extremely valuable one as the first progeny of the two great Kastani Houses Blanc and Nikata.

“Yes, I believe that the presence of a youngster will prevent unnecessary fighting.  No one would attack an envoy knowing that a very young child was aboard without risking the wrath of the Legislature.”

Jean thought for a moment. “That would put him in danger.”

“What danger with your defenses in place?” Faltane countered.

Jean scratched a finger across his chin, still not convinced.  “I would have to speak to my brother on this matter first.”

“He would say no to anything.”

“But I must seek his counsel.”

“Do as you must,” Faltane purred. “The first son of Rhane Blanc must attain what permissions he is compelled to.”  Faltane’s face remained impassive, a show of goodwill and subservience, but a momentary flicker in his host’s eyes, a flaring of his nostrils, told the human that his jab had worked.

Jean nodded and turned, trying not to show his consternation at the barb.  Faltane turned back to the Citadel outside his window.  The time for diplomacy was coming to an end and, he thought, so would the civility if something wasn’t done soon.  

*** 

“You sure that you’re up for this?” Merlin asked.

Renny Thornton strapped the VR interface goggles to his forehead, “I can’t make any promises, but I’ll do my best.”  The cheetah lay down on the medical examination table, a spider web of wires connected to the goggles and sensors registering his vital signs.  The surgical database was triple-shielded against power fluxes, and was the only remaining terminal in operation.  It was their one way in.

“Okay,” Pockets began, “you’ll be riding on a beam of electronic data, shot directly into your brain.  The way this VR works is that it stimulates pre-existing brain pathways so that what you are going to be experiencing is going to have a feeling of deja-vu.  Your mind will accustom itself to the digital information and show you the virtual world as an extension of your own memories.  You will not have to speak or move, but you will have to get used to navigating your way through using only your mind.”

“Gotcha,” Renny replied.

“I need you to look for the mainframe and sever it from all input/output channels.  If we can salvage that, we can wipe the rest of the ships’ systems and piece things back together from there with maintenance backups.  Since you are going in after a virus, it is probably going to manifest itself as some sort of massive, terrible natural disaster you’ve lived through… are you prepared for that?”

“Aah yes, it’s Barbara all over again,” the cheetah replied.

“Hurricane?” the raccoon asked.

“Last girlfriend.”

“Right…” Merlin added.  “When you’re ready for a breather, say ‘end of line’ and we’ll get you out of there.  Don’t be gone too long.”

Although Tanis had remained quiet through the instruction, he was focused intently upon the monitors for the cheetah’s vital functions. He looked up, gave Samantha a brief nod and then returned his attention to the scanners. The Border collie wished Renny luck and then plugged him in.  

*** 

Normally structures in the Argeian capital of Donisia are white, silver or some similar shade.  But sitting unobtrusively within a ring of towers was a smooth, flat structure that seemed to be made of jade.  It had been erected over a thousand years earlier, but no aliens had been allowed to enter this small building.

The structure was merely the tip of an immense, underground complex, a bunker as well as meeting hall, blast-shielded so well that it could withstand any conceivable bombardment from the ground, the air or space.  Within the conical egg of the inner meeting hall, a harsh, white light streamed down from above.  The heavy, gothic presence of Commodore Blanc filled the room like an oppressive blanket.  As he stood draped in a flat black cloak and his tunic of stitched faces, the old warrior’s voice echoed off the inner walls of the ancient oubliette.

“Above us, just out of our sovereign space are ships from several worlds.  Most of them are freighters, but some of them are fighters.  They claim that they are here to protect themselves from each other, but refuse to allow us access to their weapon systems for our review.  Our scanners have detected that some of the vessels are already loaded with cargo, but that cargo has been shielded from detection.  We gave them our hand in peace.  They have chosen to soil that hand by assaulting our citizens and attacking our spaceport,” he rumbled.  “We gave them our hand in fortune.  Now they hover above us, demanding as a right our resources of Siilv, which we would have provided them in a free exchange of goods.  They offer us the hand of brotherhood, they give us the fist of a master closed around a whip.  I was opposed to this from the very beginning.  We must end this, by any means necessary.

At the end of a table, a Kastani woman older than the commodore stood in a draping white robe. At the center of her breast hung a heavy, silver stone on a silver chain. The down of her body was ash gray, and she kept her long, gray hair swept back over her ears. She spoke in a deep, rasping voice. “Commodore, you are the protector of our world, but I cannot authorize a first strike against the other worlds at this time. We have already expelled nearly all foreigners from our soil. The negotiation process must continue a while longer, but do call in the Last Line and get rid of that blockade.”

In the darkness surrounding the speaker, one figure sat in deep anxiety.  His great-uncle’s words filled him with dread, and his great-grandmother’s order chilled him even more.  No more than a boy, he could feel cold fingers crawling up his spine as he pondered the ramifications of what he was learning here.  There had been other conflicts in the past, lost in antiquity since his world had begun its era of seclusion.  This was not just a single event, he understood, but the beginning of a chain that would alter his life forever.  

*** 

Renny could not close his eyes… he had no eyelids.  He had no body; he was only a disembodied consciousness.  Around him were sights, sounds, smells and sensations that he could not blot out.  It was not like all those vids he had seen where the virtual world was identical to the real world:  this was completely different—a disorienting bombardment of information.

Splayed out before him like a Terran Christmas tree, a myriad of colors and textures, shapes and ideas played out in seemingly chaotic patterns, melding into one another and breaking apart.  Sometimes the objects kept their original shapes, other times they morphed into composite objects or totally different concepts altogether.

What’s going on here? he wondered.  I was supposed to…  Renny cleared his thoughts and concentrated.  If this was his own mind, he should have control over it.    He ordered himself to focus on one thing, deciding that it should be: where do I find an answer?

Suddenly a door appeared before him, the peripheral stimulations dulled to a buzz of low-level static.  The door was familiar… dark blue with a metal sheen to it.  It was, he understood, the first door he had opened when he arrived on the Blue Horizon:  Merlin’s den.  This is the way in.  He pressed the door gently—not with his hand—and it slid to the side.  In the space beyond the door was a long hallway that sloped down to an abyss. 

He didn’t want to look down into it, but he did anyway.  The abyss was bottomless, spiraling down to a pit that groaned and rumbled like a tempest.  It was not black or gray or some other color he knew… it was totally without recognizable form.  It was, he realized, what a blind person might perceive in the absence of sight. 

He looked up at the jamb and saw the caduceus, the serpents curled around a sword, and realized this was the firewall between the medical computer and the rest of the ship’s systems. Renny felt a cold, mechanical chill fill him:  Don’t pass through the door.  If the virus could do this to the ship, he didn’t dare venture what it could do to the electrical circuitry system of his mind.

The pit swirled down into oblivion, a thick, cloying miasma threatening to devour him if he drew too close to it.  He knew, without any clues he could pin down, that it saw him and wanted to consume him too.  Across the pit was the remainder of the hallway, leading off to a cycling sphere with a sixteen-digit string of binary code in gigantic numerals.  It was the mainframe, and between the very core of the onboard computer systems and him was the virus.  Tendrils of inky black stretched up toward the mainframe, like putrid veins returning to the heart.

Great, he mused.  My brain has a flair for the dramatic. Wish I could have a little help here; the Blue Horizon is counting on me.

In the instant Renny thought of his ship, a shining gray button appeared before him, with the word HELP spelled out in his native Kantan tongue across its face.  He pressed it, and a menu flashed up with only the word HELP as an option.  It struck him that his mind was interpreting his need for help by making him access his memories in a logical pattern.  He mentally shrugged, pressed the word HELP, and heard a faint voice say the word aloud.

Beyond the door and within the reach of the Cold Fire virus, a flash of energy appeared, stretching out into the rough shape of a body before solidifying into clarity.  Renny flinched at the sight of it… he knew that face.

You, he thought.  What are you doing here?  

*** 

“Samantha?” Cindy mewled over the intercom.

The Border collie stiffened reflexively; she never liked that tone in her friend’s voice.  She turned to face the monitor.  “Yes?”

“There’s a text-only message I think you should take.”

Unsure, she pressed the glowing keypad just above her, “I’ll take it here.” 

Samantha activated her communications port, and in less than sixty seconds the scrolling data, triple encrypted across the Privateers Channel 13/666, played out the news that Master Tristan had been attacked in his home, and that his attacker had severed the alicorn that he had spent his life growing.

Merlin glanced up from Renny’s side at her gasp, but she continued staring at the message, her face a blank mask of emotions he could not read.  Samantha sat motionless, consciously aware of a new emotion growing inside of her—one she had never experienced before.  She stood up and darted for the nearest lavatory, throwing her face over the sink and retching into it as her captain moved forward to her side.  

*** 

In the endless expanse of cyberspace, the image of Lucas Sinclair rippled before Renny Thornton.

Thank you for remembering me.  Although our last meeting ended badly, I need your help now. The virus you face was designed by me, though under the threat of agonizing pain and certain death. I don’t know if I’m going to live very long after I finish writing this virus program, but I want you all to know that I never meant any harm in our previous encounters.  I never knew how good I had life until my freedom was taken away from me in a way that no prison ever could.  If you are seeing this message, I’m probably dead already.

“There is a presence that I cannot describe to you because little information has been made available to me.  However, I have decoded some of the information and can tell you that this virus is the second step in a process that will cause many deaths.  The first step was the bio-virus released on Hestra.  I cannot say for sure if this is the ultimate end of the person doing this, but here is how you stop the computer virus.  I have placed in this sub-code all of the information necessary to inoculate controlling systems against the virus as well as predict a few things that this person has planned, but even then I don’t know if I have the full picture.  This virus… this Cold Fire… is only one link in a very long chain.”

Renny contemplated this new information, unsure if he should trust Lucas Sinclair.  However, it seemed genuine, and a look back at the abyss helped prod him in the direction of faith.

“I’m really frightened.  I know you don’t owe me anything and I wouldn’t blame you for leaving me to die, but if there is a drop of pity in you, please help me.  And if you don’t help me, help the others who may suffer a similar fate to mine.”

Lucas’ still image faded, replaced by a string of code: sixteen numerals and symbols of the wolf’s native language.  Renny memorized the repeating formula and remembered, “End of line.”  It would take an effort to force his mouth to move, he knew, but instead he turned.

Renny Thornton moved toward the door that separated his consciousness from the virus.  As he drew nearer, another black tendril slithered forward from the pit to greet him.  There it hovered, a dark and foreboding presence, seeming to slather as this new thing to devour came closer.  The cheetah mentally inhaled, then leaned forward and kissed the tendril, reciting the formula at the speed of thought as he did so.

The effect was instantaneous.   

*** 

In Sickbay, Renny’s body wracked with a sudden spasm, ripping off one of the sensors.  Durant and Tanis rushed to his side, the bear pinning him as the fox prepared a solution to steady him.  Pockets stood to the side, anxiously worrying his hands and unsure what was going on.

The cheetah’s eyes flew open and he ripped the web of wires from his body, squirming out of the bear’s grasp and bolting upright on the padded table.

“Easy!” Durant urged, placing a hand back on his shoulder to ease him back down.  But Renny brushed his friend off with a heavy breath, shaking his head and rubbing his hands to get feeling into his fingers.

“How long was I out?” he asked.

“About twenty minutes,” Pockets replied.  “What did you find?”

Suddenly the lights in sickbay fluttered back on, as did those in the hallway.  Computer systems booted back to life, running system diagnostics and recoveries.

“This is a good sign,” Durant commented.

“There’s,” Renny began, pausing to drain a glass of water Tanis offered him, “…there’s a solution to the virus, built in like a back door.”

“That’s a hacker’s trick,” Pockets added.

“Yes, and we need to get it out to the whole of the Planetary Alignment.”  The cheetah stood on wobbly legs, catching himself on the edge of the padded table as he moved toward the nearest console that had fully recovered.  There, he referenced the keyboard for Dennieran language symbols and typed in the 16-figure code to disarm the virus.  He then collapsed in mental exhaustion.

In an instant, Durant was at his side, carrying him back to the sick bed where Tanis reaffixed the sensors.  Pockets saved the code to a data crystal and dashed for the lavatory where Merlin was still attending to Samantha.  

*** 

His long, black ship cruising silently through the blanket of stars, Conn peered at his vidscreen. For the last three weeks the drama had played out: ships losing power, systems crashing… the planet Kantus had been widely infected with the Cold Fire and was now in a state of total chaos. Only Quet and Fyn had been spared, and mostly because their worlds were low of technology. Conn had monitored the transmissions of fighting the virus, and they all ended with star vessels dying, whether resulting in explosions or the personnel within them expiring to asphyxiation or the absolute cold of space.

Then came a faint message from the Sol system. The word cure had been used, and a sixteen-figure solution. The Kastan boosted his reception, determining that the signal was still weak due to the source’s power systems not yet being fully online.  

*** 

“We’ve found the path around it,” Jape Devon announced.

Outstanding,” Natasha replied over the scrambled channel.  “We’ll be right there to transport you via Vault to Argeia so we can stop this.  Things have really gone to hell and I don’t know how much longer we’re going to be able to avoid a fire fight.”

Merlin Sinclair, standing at Devon’s side, asked, “Can we afford to wait twenty-four hours for the Vault drives to recharge?”

A moment of nervous tension passed as Devon considered his next words, but Natasha’s voice interrupted instead, “Oh we’re under that time limit now, don’t worry.”

“Shouldn’t we take this directly to the Legislature so they can get the word out?”

“It would be more advantageous to take it to Argeia.  Every computerized planet has their latest and greatest hardware at the embassies there and it’ll be easier to share it now that the Legislature is, for all practical purposes, disbanded.”

“That’s not good,” Merlin rumbled.

“Speaker Chan almost got killed trying to restore order,” she continued.  ”We need to get this done as soon as possible.  Give me your coordinates.”  

*** 

Conn turned the black sliver of his ship around; he would have to abort this mission for the more pressing matter at hand.  There was no way from his current position that his own Vault had enough reserve power to leap to the Sol system, but he could easily make Argeia. 

He encoded a message to his destination:  Meet me at the NIDAS.

The grim warrior activated the Vault system, and in a ring of blue-white flame his ship was gone into folded space.  

*** 

In the velvety blackness of space, the planet Argeia glowed like a white pearl against the dark, undulating void.  High above, clutches of more than fifty ships from other worlds—grouped together by tenuous loyalties or to match weapon systems against one another—waited like vultures over a dying corpse.  Some small craft ran exercises, larger ones simply sat in space like predators waiting to fight one another for the spoils of the planet below.

Diplomacy in the Planetary Alignment Legislature had broken down completely, and nobody knew who was in charge now that the planets weren’t talking to one another anymore.  Vessels from Dennier and Mainor, particularly, hedged their dominance uneasily above the glittering white world.  Ship captains had been under pressure from their representatives to keep frosty—the situation might be resolved at any moment, or it might require “decisive action to protect our vital interests in the Alignment.”  Certain planets had even deployed battle cruisers to protect their transports under just the same assertion.

Ensign Jace McGregor operated the scanners of the Variant, a Dennieran transport ship sitting in high orbit, just out of Kastani sovereign space.  He was thinking of his wife and two cubs back on Dennier, and making plans to improve their lives once he was allowed his fair share of the Kastani Siilv.  The Variant was a transport vessel for sure, but the ensign on loan from the Dennieran Navy knew that they were also carrying explosive munitions for a reason he had identified to himself only as “just in case.”  It was an old description, but the Terrans had a name for this type of vessel: a Q-Ship.

They had been there for more than a week, keeping a sharp eye on the Kastani Planetary Defense Grid.  The PDG, an energy field that could withstand bombardments from space, would be activated if the government of their world intended to make any movements against the gathered armada, and by the time any ships could be launched from the surface, they would be ready to bat down any resistance.

A blip appeared on his screen, flashing rapidly.  Perplexed, he pressed a switch beneath the flickering light.  The ensign knitted his brow as he read the data scrolling across his screen:

 

CLASS G SPATIAL DISTORTION IN SECTOR TWO

CLASS G SPATIAL DISTORTION IN SECTOR THREE

CLASS G SPATIAL DISTORTION IN SECTOR FIVE

CLASS G SPATIAL DISTORTION IN SECTOR EIGHT 

The first officer saw the spool of messages, and made her way over to peer at his screen.  “What is that?” she asked.

“I don’t know…” he mumbled.

“Some kind of malfunction?”

“Maybe.  I’ll run a diagnostic,” he said.  McGregor tapped switches and baseline codes ran through his console.  Everything checks out.  “Hmm… I don’t know what’s causing this.”

“Try it again,” the first officer began.

“Ma’am?” another voice called.  She turned her face to the voice, to find an expression of stark terror on her crewmate’s countenance.

“What is wrong?”

Mutely, he pointed at the vidscreen.    

*** 

“Sir,” a Kastan in a smart, sharply-pressed uniform reported.

“Go,” Commodore Blanc replied, looking up briefly from the control console before him, his haggard features bathed in the red light of the Command Center.

“The Last Line has arrived.”

“Give me an open communication line,” he ordered.  

*** 

“My… God!” the first officer rasped.

Filling the vidscreen before them, four Hammerdine Dreadnoughts, painted flat black to match the inky darkness of space, emerged from fiery rings of blue-white energy into the space between Argeia and the assembled armada surrounding the planet.  Each of the ships dwarfed any other vessel in the invading armada, and with the subtle movements of yawning hatches, began to spill out tri-winged fighters like an angry swarm of insects.  Hundreds of small vessels began to converge on the conglomeration of alien ships.

“Get the crews to their ships!” the first officer cried.  Others on the bridge scurried, panicky and uncoordinated.  This wasn’t supposed to happen.  

*** 

“Destroy them all,” Commodore Blanc purred into his transmitter, the words relayed to all four of the Dreadnoughts in a moment.

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Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.