S PACE BATTLES WERE beautiful from a distance, Rei had always thought. Artistic, almost: a dance of light in the darkness. He could imagine painting it. And this one was no exception, even though he knew each kaleidoscopic whorl of light was a pilot fighting and dying in hard vacuum.
The Galatean battle fleet hung in star-speckled darkness, framed by the great arch of a gas giant's rings and, beyond it, the double suns of this system, winking past the planet's curve. Against that glorious backdrop, dying ships and battlepods blossomed like flowers as the smaller, faster Kk'rek craft swarmed them. So far, none of the Kk'rek armada had turned towards Rei's formation, but they would get here soon enough. His craft was in front of the attack, along with all the other slave-piloted battlepods—humanoid cannon fodder to keep the Kk'rek from reaching the fleet's battleships.
The waiting was the worst. He tried to rely on his inner wolf at times like this, keeping himself focused on the present without allowing his mind to drift, like the hunter that he was at heart. His arms were pushed to the elbows into the control cradle of his battlepod, sweat-slick hands wrapped around the control handles and shoulder muscles taut with anticipatory tension.
*Rei!* The call came not over the comms, but through his telepathic link with his bond-brother, the dragon Lyr. They were supposed to be maintaining comm silence, but nobody else could tell when Lyr was using his telepathy, so it wasn't like anyone could stop them. *Hostiles coming in on your nine!*
There were so many distractions to follow in the chaos of the battle, even with his augmented senses, that he hadn't noticed the two incoming Kk'rek craft on his ship's 360-degree heads-up display until they were almost on top of him. Rei wrenched the controls of his battlepod, swinging it around, and took out both with a one-two punch that started in his brain and was directed through his control cuffs to the ship's cannons. The Kk'rek vessels bloomed against the void in a bouquet of silent fire.
*That's two for me so far, dragonbreath.*
Lyr's laugh came across the link, strained but genuine. *Seven for me, four for Rook. You napping over there? Keep lazing around and the after-battle drinks are on you.*
*Just had the bad luck to get stuck in a sleepy backwater of the fleet this time, asshole. Not like you lucky saps over there in Onyx Formation.*
Wordless sarcasm came over the link. It felt like Lyr was having to concentrate, so the direct link winked out, leaving only the warm awareness of Lyr's presence—attenuated by distance to little more than a thread, but still soothing, like the reassuring pressure of a hand on his mental shoulder.
At least Lyr was okay, so far. Rei had no idea which of those little dots in the swarming flecks and numbers on his HUD represented his friend; all he could see was whether a craft was a friendly (blue) or an enemy (red). Nobody thought slave soldiers like Rei needed to know irrelevant information like "where are my friends?"
But, as usual, Lyr was keeping track of him through the link. As for the dragon's current physical location, Rei guessed he was somewhere in the vicinity of Rook, the sole remaining member of their childhood sept. Gentle Rook had never been more than an adequate battle pilot. Rei and Lyr (and the others, when they were still alive) had always taken turns watching their friend's back.
Back in the days before Haiva's death, before they lost Skara, before Selinn fell, and Kite—back when it still felt like a game and the deaths on their screens were nothing more than numbers—Rei used to tease Rook about his lack of flying skill. Ironically, Rook could fly just fine without any technological help at all; his species had wings sprouting from their otherwise humanlike shoulders. Meanwhile Rei, the best pilot in the group, was a werewolf from the primitive ice world Polara, who had never even seen a spaceship until the Galateans drafted him at the age of nine.
Rook insisted that being able to fly on his own was exactly why he wasn't good at piloting a ship. "It'd be like you putting on a furry costume and crawling on all fours and calling it hunting."
"It's nothing like that and you know it, birdbrain."
But it had long since stopped being a subject to joke about. Rook wasn't a skilled pilot. He'd originally been trained for ground combat, utilizing his wings as a natural resource, the same way Rei had specialized as a pilot and Skara had been trained as an assassin. But the focus of the war had shifted, their entire sept was moved to battlepod duty, and ...
And I'm the only one who's really good at it.
His heart was racing now, his hands shaking in the control cradle, and he realized to his horror that he'd lost some time, slipping back into the past. In a battle situation like this, a moment's inattention could be lethal.
Would that really be so bad? asked a small, cold corner of his mind.
He didn't know if he still believed in his people's concept of an afterlife, and anyway, the Polaran afterlife, with its forests and snow-covered hunting lodges, probably wouldn't be pleasant for someone like Skara or Kite anyway. He had no real hope of seeing his dead friends again. The best he could hope for was oblivion, because then he wouldn't miss them anymore.
*Steady,* came Lyr's thought down the link. *Steady, little brother. Keep on.*
Lyr couldn't have known what Rei was thinking, not unless he'd been lying all these years about reading emotions but not true thoughts. But he would have sensed Rei's stress and agitation, and he was dividing his attention to help Rei, taking vital resources away from his own battle.
Self-loathing twisted Rei's stomach. His inattention problem had been getting worse and worse, which meant Lyr had to spend more of his concentration in a fight helping Rei focus, and that meant less to spare for protecting himself, or for helping—
It was a searing cry of pure horror, tearing through Rei's brain. Rei screamed, wrenching his hands out of the control cradle to clap them over his ears, as if that could shut out a scream coming from inside his head.
No—not only from inside. It was coming over the comms too. Lyr, normally a model of discipline, had lost control so badly that he had broken radio silence.
The anguish in Lyr's voice was unbearable before it snapped off abruptly. One of their superiors must have cut off Lyr's comms.
"No," Rei said aloud. Lowering his shaking hands from his ears, he stared out at the battle. Was one of those dustings of glitter, so beautiful among the stars, the remains of Rook's battle pod?
Lyr certainly seemed to think so.
And Lyr was the one person who would always know for sure. Only two things could sever his link with any of them—a very great distance (such as the distance between stars, not merely within a solar system) ... or death.
Rei became aware, through a haze of emotional shock, that he had a splitting headache. Cautiously he touched his face and then his ears, finding them sticky. His nose and ears were bleeding from the force of Lyr's psychic scream.
As he felt cautiously at his face, trying to concentrate past a headache so severe it throbbed in time with his heartbeat, he bumped his slave collar by accident.
Startled, he fumbled at his neck. The collar, like the bracelet-style cuffs around his wrists, was connected to his nervous system at all times by tiny wires beneath the skin. The difference was that he could take the cuffs off. The collar might as well have been welded on.
The only times it was ever loose was when an overseer deactivated it.
Rei's heart rate accelerated out of control. He felt at his control cuffs. Those rotated freely as well, without having to mentally detach them.
The whole system was connected to his nervous system, which had just taken a hammer blow from Lyr's psychic blast of grief and despair. It was impossible, had to be impossible ... but it felt like the collar and bracelets had both burned out.
Rei pushed his hands back into the control cradle and sent a mental command to connect to the pod.
He was hanging here dead between the stars—perhaps soon to be actually dead, if a Kk'rek got the drop on him while his battlepod drifted on autopilot. But if his collar was as dead as the control bracelets seemed to be, then the containment system that normally prevented him from traveling a certain distance from the fleet would also have been deactivated.
He could flee.
He could escape.
*Lyr?* he sent out into the void.
All that came back was incoherent grief and rage.
Looking at the HUD, Rei realized that a swath of the battlefield was lit up with an unusual flare of activity. Was Lyr doing that?
He'd known the dragon was powerful, but he had never seen him go all out like this before. Kk'rek ships winked out like dying campfire sparks, vanishing in clusters, along with sporadic Galatean ships all over a particular sector of the grid.
And then Rei realized why. If the backlash of Lyr's pain had burned out his slave collar, then Lyr would have burned out his own collar too. And Rei knew, because Lyr had once told him, that the collar served as a limiter on his power.
Even with his bare eyes, he could see something among the glitter of the ships that blazed like a tiny star. He was witnessing the true power of a dragon unleashed.
We're free. But did Lyr even realize it, or was he too far gone in rage and grief?
*Lyr!* he sent desperately. *Lyr!*
But Lyr was beyond hearing, and with dawning horror, Rei realized that the dying Galatean battlepods were also victims of Lyr's destructive frenzy. Lyr would never do something like that on purpose. Swept away in a tempest of fury and grief, Lyr was immolating himself to destroy the Kk'rek fleet, along with any Galatean battlepods unlucky enough to be in the area.
Lyr didn't expect to survive.
And now, after distracting Lyr at a crucial moment, after all but causing Rook's death, Rei could do nothing but watch.
Leaving Lyr to die.
Leaving Rook's remains to float between the stars ...
But what else could he do? Stay here and die with them? This was his one chance to get away, with his collar dead and everyone distracted by the dragon flaming out in his death-throes on the other side of the battle fleet.
Rei swallowed through a desert-dry throat. His trembling hands steadied as he began going through the emergency procedure for taking manual control of the pod. The manual system still worked; the controls folded out of the wall, and he clenched his fingers around them.
Now or never. The collar hung loose around his neck. Rei started to initiate the jump process, then stopped. Without the fine tuning of his mental controls, let alone the ability to connect back to the ship's computers, he had no ability to calculate a jump destination. He'd simply have to set it to random coordinates.
The pod's range was limited and only had enough power for one short jump before it needed to recharge; it was normally used for dropping the pods into an enemy system a few minutes ahead of the main fleet for a distraction. It certainly didn't have the range to get him out of the Galatean Empire. The automatic failsafes would try to drop him near a system, not into the heart of a star or the cold void of interplanetary space, but an inhabited world would return him as a deserter, while an uninhabited system most likely meant being stranded for a slow, lingering death.
If he killed himself doing this, he'd probably deserve it, for killing one friend and abandoning another.
But even if the human part of him was ready to lay down and die, his wolf wanted to live. It was the wolf that clawed its way toward survival, refusing to let him stop.
His hand hovered over the button to initiate the jump.
If he was wrong about the collar, it would blow his head off as soon as he jumped.
And if he was right, he would be the worst kind of traitor. Not to the Galateans, to whom he owed nothing, but to the only person left in the universe that he loved.
*Lyr,* he tried, one last time.
Suddenly his HUD flashed with a light so bright that he had to close his eyes briefly in shock. When he opened them, squinting, the error lights on his console had come on, and a message was flashing at the bottom of the HUD:
Security override engaged.
Pure horror shriveled his soul. Someone back on the fleet ship had noticed his collar had gone off the grid. They were going to pull him in—recollar him—
He flicked switches, shutting down the HUD along with the rest of his non-manual systems. Sudden darkness swallowed the interior of the pod, leaving only the dull red glow of the emergency lights.
Without the HUD, he didn't have even minimal control over his jump.
But he was willing to try. The wolf inside him would rather die free than submit to being dragged back to the ship and collared again.
*I am so sorry,* he thought into the void where Lyr had been—where Lyr still was, at least for now, lost in pain and fury, and soon to be utterly alone. *I am so sorry, my friend, my brother. I will come back, I promise. I'll find you, no matter where you are, if you still live.*
He pushed the button.
The pod's jump drive powered up, and the stars smeared to greasy, colorful trails. Rei's whole body wrenched agonizingly, like every cell was being turned inside out all at once.
Then he dropped out of jumpspace and hit atmosphere.
Rei yelled aloud in shock. Still in the dazed post-jump state, he fumbled at the controls, trying to stop the pod from tearing itself apart in the gravitational forces tumbling it like a child's toy. He'd come out in the upper atmosphere of a planet. The only thing saving him from instant death were the shields, already at full strength from the battle.
It looked like he was coming in for a hard landing ... wherever the hell he was.