“Is there a reason we’re doing our morning walk through the corridors of the ship instead of on the funky treadmill in the rec room?” Indi asked. “Aside from the fact that one of them flung you on your ass a couple weeks ago and broke your wrist?”
Katie shot her a dirty look as they strode along the top level of the Falcon 8. “That isn’t reason enough? And it was a slight fracture, not a break.”
Katie flexed her wrist, but it no longer ached. Even though she was going nuts after being cooped up on this ship for weeks—or maybe she’d lost track and it had been months by now—she had to admit the medical technology was amazing. As was the fact that they were flying through space, taking wormhole gates from star system to star system.
If only someone would give her the chance to pilot the ship. She didn’t want to take anyone’s job necessarily; she just wanted to do it so she could say she had. And she wanted to do it often. How amazing would that be?
“I’m pretty sure those are synonyms,” Indi said.
“You’re a database programmer, not an English teacher. I refuse to accept you as an expert on medical terminology.” Mostly, Katie refused to accept that she’d fallen off a treadmill and broken something. Sure, it had been a legitimate surprise that the crazy machine went up and down—vigorously—as well as forward and back, but still. How embarrassing. Her hiking buddies back home would mock her endlessly if they found out.
“Right, because database programmers are poorly educated schmucks who struggle to string words together into sentences,” Indi said. “Why are we stopping?”
They had reached the sliding door that led to the bridge.
Katie nonchalantly leaned her shoulder against the wall. “I need to rest.”
“Rest? The person who does the Grand Canyon’s rim-to-rim trail for fun every month needs to rest?”
“Technically, I usually do the rim-to-rim-to-rim trail. It’s forty-two miles, not twenty-four. Extra if you have to climb rocks to get around rattlesnakes.”
Indi, who was famous for her hatred of snakes, javelinas, coyotes, bears, bees, mosquitoes, and other vaguely dangerous wildlife that called Arizona home, shuddered visibly. She seemed less scared of her shadow these last few days, since her strange mission down on that ancient alien planet, but Katie doubted Indi would volunteer to go hiking with her when they got back to Flagstaff. Especially since their last outing, an extremely sedate stroll along the loop trail in Buffalo Park, had led to them being kidnapped by slavers from another planet.
“So it’s obvious why you’re winded after a two-minute walk from the rec room to the bridge,” Indi said.
“Well, we did have to climb a ladder.” Katie dug out her smart phone to check the time. It was running cheerfully again thanks to the battery chargers the engineer, Hierax, had built for her and the other rescued women. Though, without access to Earth’s cell towers, it was limited to being a clock and a music player right now.
“Are you planning to—”
The bridge door slid open, and Indi stepped toward the wall to get out of the way.
Knowing exactly who was coming, Katie pocketed her phone and stepped into the way.
“Captain Sagitta,” she said cheerfully as the man appeared in the doorway.
The Star Guardian captain, with his fatigues ironed, his jaw shaven, and his short hair neatly trimmed, usually wore a cool and unflappable expression, but when he saw Katie, alarm flashed briefly in his eyes. He glanced behind him, as if he was considering fleeing back onto the bridge. This wasn’t her first time accosting him, though it was the first time she’d arranged to be right outside his door at the start of his mid-shift break period. She felt a little bad about pestering him, especially when he probably needed to pee, but how else would she get what she wanted?
“Miss Katie,” Sagitta said, ultimately deciding to continue forward instead of fleeing. Maybe he figured that a man with a reputation for winning hundreds of space battles and singlehandedly slaying ferocious aliens shouldn’t flee from an unarmed woman. “Miss Indigo.”
“Your ship’s AI has been giving me flight simulations to practice on,” Katie said, launching into her spiel without preamble. She knew how quickly Sagitta could make an excuse to get by her. “I’m very familiar with your Falcon 8’s helm now, and I understand that you’re short on pilots because half of them are assigned to flying the alien warship you captured.”
“Yes, Miss Katie,” Sagitta said, walking toward her and doing his best to step around her.
She thought about planting herself in front of him so that he couldn’t step around her, not without lifting her up and putting her to the side, but he was a strong, fit man, and she could see him doing that. Which would be almost as undignified as falling off a bouncy treadmill. Instead, she turned so she could walk at his side.
“But as I said before on numerous occasions,” he went on, “piloting a spaceship takes years of training and—”
“I’ve had years of training on civilian and military planes back home. I fly for my job.” So what if she flew airplanes, not spaceships? If anything, space ought to be easier to navigate. No gravity, no weather, no tricky atmospheric conditions to compensate for.
“And,” he continued, not sounding amused by being interrupted, “we’re navigating through a system full of hostile aliens right now. On our way to possibly engage in battle once we reach our home system. Even if it would make sense to train you, there’s simply not time for it.”
His stride lengthened, so Katie had to jog to keep up. He swung abruptly into the first ladder well they reached.
“But what if something happens to your existing pilots, and you need more people?” Katie called after him as he climbed downward. “You’re going into a battle, right? A war zone. It’ll be dangerous. Why not let me practice a little in case of an emergency?”
“You and the other women will be dropped off before we fly into the war zone,” he said, his voice floating back up. “Please continue to use the flight simulator software if you wish.”
The captain stepped out of the ladder well on the deck below and disappeared from sight.
“Dropped off?” Katie looked at Indi, who was strolling toward her, her hands in her pockets. “What did he mean by that?”
“Hierax said the ship is stopping to get some repair parts—and also supplies for him to build weapons he’s making based on the Wanderer drone tech—at a station in the Ios System. It’s the system between the one we’re flying through now, home to the hostile Scyllans, and the Dethocolean one, home to half of the crew and the seat of the Confederation. The place the Star Guardians think the Zi’i are invading right now.”
“I know all that. I meant, why would they drop us off?”
“Because we’re innocent civilians, and it’s not right to take us into a war zone?” Indi suggested.
“Haven’t we already been dragged through like twenty battles? Against multiple enemies? What’s the difference?”
“I believe it was only two battles if you count the fight to get that Zi’i warship and the squabble with the slavers down on that marsh planet.”
“What about all the times we got fired at by their own people?” Katie wondered if Sagitta would be welcomed with open arms when he showed up in his home system again, or if his government and military were holding a grudge because he’d taken off, against orders, to take Katie and the other women back home. Not that that had happened. Things didn’t seem to go to plan much out here.
Indi spread her arms. “I still think that only counts as three or four battles.”
“You’re the numbers person.” Katie propped her fist on her hip and scowled down the empty ladder well. Being dropped off to spend however long on some space station sounded almost as boring as being cooped up on this ship. She itched to stretch her legs. And her wings.
“Maybe your odds would be better if you asked someone less authoritative and by-the-book than the captain.”
Katie wrinkled her nose. “The bald pilot who thinks he’s a shaman? He wears teeth around his neck and has all those weird charms dangling from his helm station.”
“Juanita says he’s cute.”
“Juanita can have him. Maybe Orion is into threesomes.”
“Zakota is the lead helm officer,” Indi pointed out. “And he seems like he would be more flexible than Captain Sagitta.”
“I hear that’s a good quality for a threesome.”
Indi spread her arms. “I think your only other option would be to ask Lieutenant Asan. And he’s over on the Zi’i warship.”
Katie sighed. Maybe it was worth dealing with a weirdo if it got her a chance to fly the ship. Would Zakota consider letting her handle the controls during some late-night shift while the captain was sleeping? And if so, what would she have to barter to get him to go along with it?
Clangs came from the ladder well.
Katie started to peer in, but was almost bowled over as the captain jumped off the rungs and into the corridor again. Judging by the determined set to his face, he hadn’t come back up to talk to her again.
He raced past without acknowledging either of them and disappeared into the bridge, the door sliding shut behind him.
“Think that looks like trouble?” Indi asked.
A shudder coursed through the ship, the deck vibrating under Katie’s feet.
“Like battle number twenty-one,” Katie said.
“We’re not going to argue about numbers again, are we?”
The ship lurched, and Katie planted a hand on the wall to keep from falling. “That’s probably not important now.”
“Crew to battle stations,” the captain’s voice sounded over a speaker. “Scyllan interceptors are attempting to keep us from the gate home. Guests, head to the mess hall or rec room and buckle yourselves into your seats. We have engaged the enemy.”
“Definitely not important,” Indi said.
Katie supposed it was crazy, but she couldn’t help but wish she were on the bridge flying the ship instead of being ordered off into hiding. She hated not having control of her own fate.
• • • • •
Zakota kissed his favorite charm, rubbed four others, and prayed for luck as he held course for Gate 205 to the Ios System. Four Scyllan ships sped after the Falcon 8 and the Star Stalker, the Zi’i warship they had captured the last time they’d been in this system.
Zakota’s fingers twitched—he wanted to engage in evasive maneuvers, badly, but he couldn’t right now. The warship’s tow beam was locked around them, preventing them from straying from their path.
“I don’t think it’s working,” Chief Hierax said blandly, his arms folded as he stood next to the navigation helm and gazed at the view screen. It was focused on the Scyllan ships, all four closing from behind rather than the route ahead.
Zakota already knew the route ahead wasn’t clear. The holographic sensor display hovering between his and “Killer” Ku’s stations showed two more Scyllan ships hovering in front of the gate.
One of the rear ships fired, some weird alien plasma projectile slamming into the Falcon’s shields.
“What makes you say that?” Zakota glared at Hierax, wondering why he wasn’t in engineering, tinkering with his tools. If they didn’t abandon this charade soon, there would be plenty for Hierax to work on. It might have worked in the beginning, but the Scyllans had clearly seen through it.
“Just a hunch.”
“Prepare for evasive maneuvers,” Captain Sagitta said from behind them, not from the chair in the center of the wedge-shaped bridge, but from the communications station where Lieutenant Coric usually sat. He tapped a button. “Coric, are they talking to you?”
“They were,” came Coric’s voice over the comm—she was on the warship with Lieutenant Asan. “And I talked back to them, but I’m not sure they found my Zi’i convincing. I can understand the language perfectly well, but my vocal cords aren’t good at snarls and yips.”
“I thought you were going to stick to text-based messages.”
“They were suspicious right off and wanted to hear my voice.”
“I see,” Sagitta said, not sounding pleased. “Have Asan release us so we can all maneuver freely, and have him fall back behind the Falcon. That warship is a tank and should be able to withstand a lot more hits than we can. I’m also hoping the Scyllans will be less likely to fire upon a ship owned by their allies.” His lip curled at the last word, understandably so.
The stand-offish Scyllans hadn’t had allies, at least as far as Confederation Intelligence knew, for centuries. They’d utterly ignored all attempts humans had made to befriend them. The fact that they’d decided to allow the Zi’i to use their system as a staging area was disconcerting.
“At least it worked for a few hours,” Sagitta murmured.
Yes, Zakota had been sitting at the helm for the six hours since they’d flown out through the newly replaced gate from the Wanderer System and into the Scyllan System. The warship had been towing them the whole time. Sagitta had hoped the grumpy aliens would believe they were Zi’i prisoners. At first, the Scyllans had merely watched from their various planets and stations around the system, but an hour ago, they’d commed the warship, asking questions in Zi’i. Coric had done her best to make them believe Zi’i were at the controls of the warship, and for a while, it had looked like they would make it without opposition. And then this had happened.
“Moving into position, Captain,” Asan said over the comm. “Any chance the chief has our new super weapons working yet?”
“I’ve started them,” Hierax said, “but I need more raw materials to finish them. I’m hoping Tyrax Station has them.”
“Tyrax Station is in the next system over,” Asan said.
“Yes, Lieutenant, your geographical knowledge is to be commended.”
Zakota thumped Hierax in the stomach. “Don’t pick on my officer. That’s my job.”
“I thought you were busy kissing your charms.”
Zakota sighed inwardly, though he was used to the rest of the crew teasing him for being—he hated the word—superstitious. It was just that it made sense to ask the spirits and the gods for luck whenever possible. Aluluei, the god of navigation, was known for answering prayers and looking favorably upon spacefarers. Technically, that was seafarers, but seafaring wasn’t quite the death-defying adventure that it had once been. Zakota wasn’t the only one who believed Aluluei kept an eye on his people in space.
“Nah, I finished doing that two minutes ago,” Zakota said, offering a lazy smile and pretending he didn’t mind the razzing. As usual.
A light on the control panel flicked off. The tow beam had released the Falcon, and the warship dropped behind to block them from the Scyllan interceptors.
Zakota hated hiding under anybody’s skirts, but with two more interceptors blocking the gate out of the system, it wasn’t as if he was escaping battle.
“You ready for some action, Killer?” Zakota asked, glancing at the officer who sat at the console next to his, the man who never came to the bridge wearing fewer than ten knives and who had eighty or ninety more hanging on the walls of his cabin.
“Always ready.” Ku caressed the controls on his weapons console, then tapped his temple, where an embedded chip helped him interface with the system even more quickly than he physically could. “I don’t have to waste any time kissing things before I can shoot.”
“No? You can’t tell me you don’t have a lucky knife.”
“I have three, but I don’t kiss them.”
“Maybe they’d treat you better if you did.”
Ku sent him a withering look.
Zakota, one hand on the Z-axis guider and the other on the flight stick, didn’t bother to glare back. One of the Scyllan interceptors maneuvered around the warship, ignoring it as it tried to get line of sight with the fire falcon. That meant he had to concentrate on not letting that happen. He could resume his bickering with Ku later. They never had any trouble picking up where they left off.
Zakota wasn’t quite sure why they were always bickering, though he was positive Ku had started it. It was somewhat odd, since they were the only ones on the ship who came from Amalcari, and they should have had much in common. Ku never admitted it—he rarely admitted to anything personal—but Zakota suspected Ku looked down on him because he hadn’t given up the old ways. Ku clearly didn’t care about their gods or their culture. Or anything, as far as Zakota could tell. He just liked blowing shit up.
“Since Lieutenant Coric isn’t here,” Commander Korta said from his science station, “I have taken the liberty of monitoring Scyllan communications, Captain. They are not bothering to encrypt their transmissions.”
“What are they saying?” Sagitta asked.
Zakota flexed his shoulders and watched the Scyllan ship intently—it had passed the warship, so he could no longer use the bulky Zi’i vessel to hide behind. That was fine. He was ready for some fancy flying. This was the part of his job he loved.
“The two ships at the gate have been ordered to detain us at all costs,” Korta said.
“If they choose to stand in our path, their costs will be great,” Sagitta said coolly.
Zakota suspected it had galled the captain to flee from the Scyllans and the Zi’i the last time they had been in the system. They were alone here, and there was no way to call through the gates for reinforcements, but Sagitta still wasn’t the kind of man to run from a battle. Neither was Zakota.
Relying on his instincts as much as the computer’s sensors, Zakota knew the Scyllan interceptor was about to fire. He whipped their winged fire falcon away from its path and dove.
Orange plasma-based beams streaked past, missing them by a hundred meters.
Knowing more attacks would follow, Zakota rose and wheeled and dove, using all the dimensions of space to set a course that would be difficult to anticipate, even as he kept them heading toward the gate. If they made it through, it was unlikely the Scyllans would follow. Intel said they never left their system.
The three interceptors still behind the warship peppered its shields with fire.
“Return fire, Ku,” Sagitta said, that cool determination still in his voice.
The ship’s weapons fired so quickly that it was as if Ku had been reading the captain’s mind. Twin blue en-bolts streaked back toward the closest interceptor. The Zi’i warship also returned fire, energy weapons lighting up the black of space.
“Are you flying and shooting, Asan?” Zakota asked as he whipped away from another attack from the interceptor.
“Coric is firing while listening in on their comm chatter,” Asan said. “She’s a woman of many talents.”
“We would agree with that if she were hitting anything,” Ku said.
“You haven’t taken anything down either, Killer,” Coric said, her tone faintly annoyed, as it usually was when she spoke to him. Ku really had a way with women.
Ku’s en-bolts slammed into their pursuer’s shields over and over again, his aim unaffected by the gyrations Zakota was putting the Falcon through. The interceptor stopped firing at them, and Zakota straightened them out. The enemy ship was too busy with its own evasive maneuvers now. Ku struck it several more times, and the ship went dark on the sensors, its power gone.
“Take us back to get the rest of them,” Ku told Zakota.
“That isn’t part of the plan,” Zakota said.
“New plan,” Ku announced. “Lieutenant Coric, we are coming to protect you.”
“Goodie,” she said.
Zakota looked to the captain for permission. Sagitta was bent over the communications station, talking to someone. Putting some other plan together?
Since he didn’t waylay Ku’s idea, Zakota went along with it.
“I better get to engineering,” Hierax said and headed for the door.
“I want my tow-beam trick ready in two minutes,” Sagitta told him.
“It takes me two minutes just to get to engineering.”
“You better sprint then.”
Grumbling under his breath, Hierax ran out the door.
Zakota, focused on the enemy ships, closed his eyes to slits and took them in a loop. He flew over the top of the warship and spun as the three interceptors exchanging fire with it came into view. They must have seen the fire falcon approaching, but they did not react quickly.
Ku fired rapidly and with uncanny accuracy, as if he were a computer himself, or perhaps possessed by the gods. En-bolts streaked away from the Falcon as Zakota dipped and dodged preemptively, making them as difficult a target as possible.
But some of the interceptor plasma blasts caught their wings or their belly as the Falcon twisted and dove. The shields absorbed the hits. For now.
Coric fired from the warship again, but Asan wasn’t an expert on piloting the hulking vessel, and he wasn’t able to line her up to strike the smaller, more maneuverable interceptors. Zakota was tempted to use the big Zi’i craft for cover, but with their own people on board, he didn’t want to draw extra fire toward it.
“Their shields are awfully good for people who never leave their system or get any practice fighting,” Ku grumbled after striking the same interceptor for the fifth or sixth time.
“Maybe they practice on each other.” Zakota was glad his voice came across as calm and that his hands were steady on the controls, even if sweat had broken out on his forehead.
He’d been in dozens, if not hundreds, of battles since joining the Star Guardians, but he never forgot that the lives of everyone on the ship were at stake if he screwed up. And more than that, the lives of those who depended on everyone on the ship, those who depended on him. Since his father had died, he’d been the main provider for his mother and his little brothers and sisters back home. The money he sent them each month helped them make ends meet. He’d promised his father he would take care of them, so he couldn’t let himself get killed out here.
“One more try,” Sagitta said, now standing behind Ku and Zakota. “If you can’t take those three out, just get us to the gate.”
He didn’t sound irritated that Zakota and Ku had taken the initiative to turn back to fight, but it was clear he didn’t want to waste a lot of time on the enemies behind them.
Zakota brought them around so Ku could line up another shot. He fired at the interceptor that had taken the brunt of his ire so far. Finally, the enemy’s shields dropped, and the back half of the ship blew. It went dark on the sensors.
“Two left,” Ku said.
“We’re ready for your trick, Captain,” Coric said over the comm.
Ready for what trick? Zakota had missed a memo with details.
“Break off the attack,” Sagitta said. “Head for the gate and fly under the warship’s belly. Try to make it so those two waiting interceptors don’t see us. Or at least that they feel they have a bigger problem to deal with.”
“Break it off?” Ku protested. “We can destroy the rest. I just need two minutes. Then they’ll learn never to mess with the Star Guardians again.”
“We’re the intruders in their system,” Sagitta said quietly. “Break it off. Save the destroying for the Zi’i.”
Ku growled under his breath.
Zakota obeyed promptly, the captain’s words making him feel guilty for the part he’d played in destroying two of the ships. They had to defend themselves, but he realized this wasn’t a typical mission, where they were clearly in the right and on the side of the law. This was someone else’s system, and even though all they wanted was to pass through, it could be argued that they were in the wrong. They were the trespassers.
“Hugging Asan’s belly,” Zakota said, snugging the fire falcon up under the back half of the warship. Their vessel wasn’t small by any means, but it usually housed a crew of less than fifty, as opposed to the hundreds of Zi’i that could prowl the corridors of their big warships.
“Didn’t know you two had that kind of relationship,” Ku said.
“It’s Asan’s fluffy hair. I can’t stay away from it.”
“I heard that,” came Asan’s voice over the comm. “Don’t forget that I compete in axe-throwing contests for fun.”
“You can’t throw an axe at a superior officer,” Zakota said. “There’s a regulation against it.”
“Are you sure? I don’t remember that being in the regs.”
“At the very least, you’d have to do double-shifts if you took me out,” Zakota said.
“I’m already doing double-shifts over here.”
“Fine, you’d have to pilot both ships then.”
“Enough chatter,” Sagitta said. “Asan, you ready? Make it look like you’re going to ram them to get through the gate. Deploy the beam at the last moment.”
“Ku, keep the ones chasing us from peppering our ass.”
“Yes, sir. Doing my best.”
Zakota might have felt guilty about destroying two Scyllan ships, but Ku didn’t seem to share his remorse. He hadn’t stopped firing at the ones still chasing them.
The two at the gate fired at the warship as it approached. Asan sped up, doing a convincing job of pretending he would ram them to bunt them aside and clear the way.
“Ready the tow beam, Zakota,” Sagitta said. “Target the bottom ship.”
“Remember how we combined the energies of these ships’ tow beams to fling the gate into space?”
“I want you to do the same now. Except you’ll try to fling the bottom ship into the top one.”
“We have to drop shields to activate the tow beam,” Zakota said, even though the captain knew that as well as he did.
“I know. We’re going to do this quickly.”
“Should I shoot at them to distract them?” Ku asked, as if he wasn’t already busy firing at their pursuers. He purred triumphantly when he struck one’s thrusters with enough power to knock out the shielding there.
Sagitta hesitated, and Zakota thought again of how they were the trespassers. But when he spoke, he gave a firm, “Yes.”
“Deploying tow beam,” Coric said as Asan said, “Dropping shields.”
“Go, Zakota, Ku,” Sagitta said.
Ku lowered the shields as Zakota deployed the tow beam, grasping the Scyllan ship, energy crackling in the air as their beam met its shields. The warship’s beam shot out, also wrapping around the enemy craft.
Interceptor fire slammed into the Zi’i craft. The Scyllans didn’t seem to notice the fire falcon, or they just didn’t see it as a threat equal to the warship.
“Your mistake,” Zakota whispered.
“Ready,” Coric said.
“Now,” Sagitta ordered.
Zakota and Coric tapped the controls to lift the Scyllan ship as quickly as possible. Normally, a tow beam wouldn’t have the strength to overpower a vessel with thrusters activated, but the Scyllans had been sitting there in front of the gate, their thrusters inactive. The combined power of the two beams moved it as easily as it might have an asteroid.
The lower Scyllan ship whipped up, and Zakota and Coric abruptly turned off their tow beams, releasing it.
It smashed against its fellow ship with the momentum of a comet hurtling through space. The top Scyllan ship, similar to its mate, hadn’t had thrusters activated. Even though its shields were up, the other vessel struck it with enough energy to knock it aside. Both ships careened off each other and out from in front of the gate.
The warship flew across the event horizon, disappearing into the wormhole, and Zakota was right on its tail.