Main Full Metal Heroine

Full Metal Heroine

A battle raging inside of her mind... 


At only eighteen, Helga Ate has lived a full life. After losing her parents and joining the Alliance Navy, Helga has proven to be special—special enough to be chosen for the prestigious Nighthawks. 


But sometimes being chosen is too much for anyone... 


Helga, having experienced war, is determined to bury her survivor's guilt and the memory of her first mission. With the pressure mounting, Helga will stop at nothing to keep it all together. But rest and recovery are not within her reach after a satellite is attacked and human lives are lost. Helga must once again join forces with the Alliance to embark upon yet another dangerous mission of death and destruction. 


Will Helga be able to survive the mission and rescue those in need—or will she succumb to the war inside her mind?

Language: english
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FULL METAL HEROINE


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.



Copyright © 2019





Thirsty Bird Productions All rights reserved



No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in retrieval systems, or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recorded or otherwise, without written permission of the publisher.



Cover Art by Tom Edwards

For more books by the author GregDragon.com





Prologue


The lukewarm water sputtered twice, shaking the metal pipe which ran along the inner wall of the satellite’s reinforced hull. There was a groaning sound, as if the plumbing was painfully trying to release something, and then the water came, its flow strong and steady, cascading down onto the scalp of an expectant Tasmin Rose.

It was warm and delightful, though she had been warned not to let it get inside her mouth, or she would be sick for days. She didn’t know the source of the water, or why it was terrible, but a shower was a luxury, so she took the risk.

Scrubbing at her oily flesh with ragged fingernails, she kept both her mouth and eyes shut, as it washed out the shampoo and soap that covered her slender body. This was the best part, the peace, feeling the warm water run down her shoulders in a subtle massage.

Today was her birthday, and this was the gift that she had saved up to treat herself. To planet-dwellers and those lucky enough to live on starships, the idea of a shower being a gift would have seemed absurd, but on a hub, where baths in recycled water was the norm, this was indeed special.

Not to mention, everyone had been so busy that there had been no real acknowledgment of her birthday. It was a bad time of year—it was always a bad time of year—and though her mother, Jackie, had given her a beautiful bracelet, it was her father’s forgetfulness that hurt the most.

Tasmin was seventeen now, old enough to join SatSec, which was what everyone called Satellite Security. She would sign up as a recruit, and if they deemed her worthy, she would be flown off to a starship, where she would train with real Alliance personnel. She would learn how to shoot, punch and kick for self-defense, and most importantly she would be working, earning real credits to support her family.

Showers like this would be an everyday thing. She’d probably have her own, with other women, clean and available whenever she wished. The thought made her anxious for tomorrow’s meeting, where she was to meet the head of their SatSec detail to see if she qualified.

She knew that anytime now, Armon would yell for her to come out. She had purchased five minutes, and it was going on six, but he was always kind, and let her go over a couple of seconds. But the minutes ticked by and there was no yell, and though she enjoyed the thought of showering for as long as she wanted, this was too abnormal to be okay.

Tasmin grabbed the wrench and cranked it, shutting the water off. She thought she heard gunshots, muted but still loud, and she parted the curtains, stepped out, and then stopped. Gunshots? Not now. She strained her ears to listen for more and then she heard the screams.

Tasmin lived on a satellite, built to transmit messages from Vestalia all the way to the planet, Meluvia. It was one of the hundreds constructed for this purpose, its alien technology providing the quickest form of communication. At the height of its day, before the Geralos, these satellites were the glue that kept the allied planets connected.

Ironically, they were the first things hit when the Geralos attacked Vestalia, and were rendered useless for communication and thus became repurposed once the humans fled their planet. Now, they were hubs for Vestalian refugees.

Hubs were dangerous places, where the strong preyed on the weak, and there were no laws on the ones that lacked leadership. Since the Alliance had its hands full with fighting the Geralos, people inside these camps were made to fend for themselves.

Satellite Syr, which was where Tasmin called home, was one of the six remaining hubs that still orbited Vestalia. For seventeen years she had lived in this place, orbiting a planet that she could never visit.

Tasmin was what they called a boomer, a person born and raised in space. All she knew was satellite life, and she regarded its people as her extended family. She had dozens of “aunts” and “uncles” growing up who would defend her against predators and feed her when she was hungry.

The scream that she heard made her blood turn cold, and she froze in her tracks wondering who had gone off the rails. A loud thump made her flinch. Whatever was happening was very real, so she reached for a towel and dried herself quickly.

Another thump made her gasp, as if something fell against the door. It sounded like a war had broken out on their level, and with each shot she flinched, and with each scream, she grew weak. Tasmin’s hands began to shake, making it difficult for her to dress, but she eventually got her clothes on, and was ready to investigate.

Armon had constructed this shed around his shower to give his customers privacy whenever they were inside. It was built from old parts, welded to make it robust and impenetrable. There were shelves with towels and rags, soaps—which cost extra—and all manner of exotic oils. It was a poor man’s spa, but one of the greater luxuries of this level. Now it served as a panic room for Tasmin, whose brain was exploring the worst thoughts about what was going on outside.

When she was fully dressed, she crept to the door and tried to crack it open to see, but the portal wouldn’t budge until she really gave it a shove. That was when she saw Armon topple over lifeless in a slumped position.

There were bodies everywhere, and her heart hurt. She hoped that her parents and younger sister weren’t among them. She put her hand over her mouth, stifling the scream that threatened to jump out from her throat, and she collapsed to the ground, holding her arm.

Sobbing like mad and crying without tears, Tasmin felt a pain in her cheeks as if the very bones were inflamed. It hurt so badly that she wanted to die, but what she had seen walking out there had frightened her into a state of frozen shock.

There were uniformed men, but they dressed in a way she didn’t recognize, and they had women and children lined against the wall, surveying them as if they were produce. Tasmin assumed that they were Geralos, those alien lizard men. She had never seen them before and was shocked at how normal they looked.

Where were their SatSec protectors? Had they been killed? Usually, there was a patrol ship nearby, watching for situations like this. There were always attempts, but SatSec would fight, and if it was more than they could handle, there was a starship a jump away. From what she understood about the hubs during a time of war, to attack them was suicide, since they were strategically placed in areas where reinforcements were immediate.

Now they had been boarded and innocent people were dying. Was the Alliance on the way, or was that too much to hope? This attack had come silently, and happened so fast. She had always assumed that if ever they were attacked, they would see it coming to warn SatSec or the formal Alliance.

What was she to do? She, a gambler’s daughter, who made delivery runs for a pittance that was spent on luxuries like a five-minute shower? She couldn’t think straight, praying her family was in that hostage line, but she had heard about the lizards and what they did to their human captives.

Would they eventually find her? They seemed to be walking the hub, checking for survivors.

“Go check that thing there in the back,” she heard one say with an accent that reminded her of Ilevar Kite, one of their neighbors who had been born on Genese. The command forced her eyes to widen, as she stared at the water drying on the wall. Genesians, here? And killing fellow Alliance members?

No, there had to be some sort of mistake. They were all Alliance. The Geralos were the enemy, not Genesians, Meluvians, Casanians, or Louines for that matter. If those were Alliance members shooting and killing the innocent people of the hub, then how could she deal with that? Who would she be able to trust?

The one silver lining in them not being Geralos was that the people lined up against the wall would be the elderly, pregnant women, and children. At least that’s what she hoped, being that her mother was very pregnant, and kept her little sister close. This meant that her father was probably dead, and she felt the pain in her cheeks rise again with new fury.

“Is that a door?” a gruff voice said.

“Hold your position, let me see,” said another, this one sounding Vestalian.

Tasmin followed the pipe up with her eyes. In a manner of seconds they’d break in and put a bullet in her head. She was no wimp, she was Tasmin Rose, daughter of Romul and Jacqueline Rose, and big sister to Celeste, who deserved a chance to grow up with family.

She pushed the pain down into the void and scrambled up to look for a place to hide. Inside the shed was a crate, a drain, and the pipe, but on the walls were a variety of clean towels, and a large bucket to dispose of them in whenever your time was up.

I wonder if I could fit, she thought, trying to imagine herself crouched below the filthy rags. No, there is no time, but what if I found a weapon?

She imagined herself being a tough Marine, ripping the pipe off the wall and bashing in the brains of the first man to enter. As he went down, she would disarm him quickly, and then step out screaming her family name. She would dash to the side, forcing them to miss, while dropping all the bad guys with deadly accurate fire.

Too many vids, you silly girl, she chided herself, and then her eyes rolled up to the large hole in the ceiling where the pipe came through. Tasmin ran forward and jumped, grabbing the pipe and planting her feet on the wall to start her climb up and out of there.

She never thought that as a child, scaling these pipes would develop skills she’d need as a grown-up, but here she was, and she was always fast, so she scrambled up and out, and kept on climbing until she was above the shed, where she stepped off and laid flat on the top.

She heard laughter from below. “These poor dirt bags made themselves a shower,” the Vestalian said. “Come check this out, they have towels and everything. Man, they’re tapping their own coolant system to wash. How messed up is this?”

What’s messed up is coming to our home and shooting us down, Tasmin thought. She wanted to see what was happening with her family, but she dared not move for fear of discovery by any of the men below. It got quiet, and she was tempted to crawl to the edge and peer out at the hostages, but she remained where she was, frozen, practicing patience in this desperate hour where one mistake could cost her life.

“We’re moving out!” shouted one of the men from the back, and from the finality in his voice, she assumed him to be the leader. She heard the boots on the deck as they stepped over Armon to get back to the rest, and after counting down for thirty seconds Tasmin crawled to the edge to look.

Before her lay the giant hub that was the only world that she knew, its tall walls reaching several meters up to a patchwork of pipes and wires out of her reach. On the deck, stacked like a honeycomb, were the five floors of old crates that they used as homes. Each ranged from 16 square meters to the 36 square meter units owned by the gangs.

From where she lay it was a city, but it was all she’d ever known of civilization. But instead of people talking and moving between these blocks, what she saw were bodies, lying in pools of their blood.

At the front, where the massive blast door—which served as the fourth wall—had been raised, stood an army of men, leading all of the survivors out through the transparent atmosphere shield. Parked in between the hub and the bright blue planet was the silhouette of a ship, big enough to block the entire entrance.

Tasmin wanted to jump down, run the length of the hub and implore them to stop and spare her parents, but she knew that survival was necessary now, especially if she could get them the help from those with the power to do something. Still, she couldn’t help herself, and she jumped down to the deck, sprinting to gain the entrance before they could take off.

Tasmin took to the tighter passageway behind the crates, since taking the open path down the center would have her shot before she could plead her case. It was empty on that path, but dark, which is why the smartest women avoided it. The worst things happened back there, out of the sight of those who could defend you when you needed help.

It was Drew gang territory, a place of pain, trauma, and unforgivable things, but now it was a shortcut, so she threw all care to the wind. When she had run past ten crates, her curiosity forced her legs to slow. She was now behind her home block and needed to know for sure that her family was alive.

Giving up the chase to reach the entrance, she slid between the crates to gain the front. There she saw the body of her neighbor, Luthram Ali, who had been shot in his chest and lay sprawled on the deck. There were two more men that she knew as her uncles, and she closed her eyes and whispered a prayer that her father had managed to survive.

Finding her strength, she reached for the rusty ladder to the right of the crate. She climbed up to the second level of the stack, where she heard whimpers coming from a neighbor’s door. Another body was on the mezzanine, but this was a woman with a gun still tight inside her hand.

Serves you right, you evil cruta, she thought, remembering her as a member of the Drews who preyed on one of her friends when they were mere children.

Another ladder up and she was in front of the crate they called home, but there were no dead bodies on this level. Tasmin tugged on the door and found it unlocked. Inside was vacant, but everything was in place, but for a two-layered cake in the center of the table.

It was blue, her favorite color, and there were plates set for four people. Above it on the wall was a child’s scrawled writing, which read, “Happy Birthday Taz. I love you, big sister.”

Tasmin bit down hard as the hot tears came, sapping her resolve and forcing her down to her knees. “They have to be alive,” she whispered. “There are no bodies, they’re alive.” With renewed hope she got to her feet, wiped the tears with her sleeve and collected herself. “They’re alive,” she said again. “They’re alive, and they need my help.” With that, she spun, exited the crate, and then jumped to the lowest deck.

Even though she’d done that jump many times, this time she fell awkwardly and sprained her ankle. It hurt so bad she feared that it was serious, but she bit down and limped to the front. She had to reach that ship. But the blast doors were closing, and it was preparing to launch.

It was then that she saw it, and her heart fell into her feet. It was the SatSec patrol ship, the same ship that was supposed to defend them from the Geralos.





1


Helga Ate stood in front of the floor-length mirror staring at the thin figure dressed to the nines in her Rendron Blues. The woman stared back at her through heavy lidded eyes. She looked sad and worn, as if she had been through too much for her short young years, and while she held it together admirably, it was starting to come apart at the seams.

The reflection wasn’t entirely wrong, though she would argue that she felt better than she looked. First of all, she was more angry than sad, and there was never going to be enough nourishment and rest to quell the furnace that roared inside her chest. She was a warrior, born to kill, but outside of her armor, you could see it all, the scars that created the woman she had become.

A shaved head, but for a single strip plaited down the center, revealed the dark circles on her scalp that was her Casanian heritage. Half-breed, mutt, abomination. As a cadet she had heard it all, from the hell that was the academy to her first night in boot camp on a battleship named Helysian. Yes, there was rage in her, sadness and all, but she had to keep it deep inside, buried beneath her heart.

Helga adjusted her badges and tilted her head up, trying to look more like an officer. She smiled and intoned, “Thank you, Captain Sho, it is a great honor!” Though she thought she looked ridiculous, shouting and grinning like that.

“Thype this,” she whispered and turned away from the reflection, snatching her hat from the table as she exited the compartment. There were five spacers hanging out near her stateroom, but she kept her eyes forward as she hurried past them.

“Excuse me, ma’am,” one of them said, and Helga stopped, and turned slowly to see what he wanted.

“How may I help you, Petty Officer … Riles,” she said, reading the place card stamped on his coveralls. She wanted to go—needed to go, her nerves were on edge and it was hard to play nice. Still, she was a ranked officer, addressing a fellow spacer, so she put aside her angst to appear somewhat approachable and waited to see what he would say.

“Sorry to bother you, ma’am, I know that you’re extremely busy, but I wanted to ask how, I mean, whether the books for, thype, I—I want to be—” He stopped and composed himself as the other three men snickered at his nervousness. “I would like to try out for the Nighthawks, ma’am, and wanted to know how best to start.”

Helga looked him and his friends over as if they were different offerings on a marginal buffet. None of them looked impressive, but that didn’t mean anything. She too had been underestimated when she was chosen to be a Nighthawk, and had shown her doubters through surviving a Geralos death camp that strength could come in small feminine packages.

The stammering of the speaker, and the four who were making fun of him, was enough to convince her to offer up some advice.

“We’re always looking, Petty Officer Riles, but all of our operators are chosen. It isn’t something that you can sign up for. That being said, if you’re serious about Special Forces, you need to do things to get on Captain Retzo Sho’s radar. Try out for BLAST, and if you make it out, then there’s a strong possibility that an ESO recruiter will be calling you. Aside from BLAST, you need to show leadership and grit. That is how you get a high reputation, and that is how you become a Nighthawk.”

Helga read his face when she mentioned BLAST, which stood for Basic Land and Space Training. It was a program created by the top brass of the Alliance Navy to identify the special individuals that could qualify to become Extraplanetary Spatial Operators (ESO). He balked, as was expected, and it took everything not to smile. She knew that he’d asked, hoping that there was another way in without having to risk his life in the program.

How could she blame him? BLAST was a nightmare. It was several Vestalian months of courses, obstacles, and tests on survival in just about every environment available to the spacer. This included exposure to spatial conditions, like a ship losing all of its atmosphere, having to simulate escaping a doomed dropship, and surviving the harsh conditions of a rain forest on the planet Arbar.

Needless to say, many tried out for BLAST but only a small number of men and women made it out to become operators. She didn’t bother to stay for any further questioning, since more than likely it would be things they could learn from any other officer.

As a Nighthawk she was a celebrity and had to learn how to exist among the rest of the crew. There were fans, and there were the jealous, some having taken BLAST, passed it, and thought that they deserved to be where she was.

But Helga had qualifications that none of the Rendron homegrown could ever meet. She had been captured by the enemy, assaulted, tortured, and then stuck in an escape pod for several months. She had also fought the Geralos lizards and killed enough of them to make men like Petty Officer Riles stammer.

Her feats were known across the Alliance, but that didn’t stop ambitious spacemen from assuming that they could have done it too. She had heard the rumblings, but it was to be expected. After all, she had heard the same “big talk” from men when she was just a cadet.

“There are talkers, and there are doers,” her friend and mentor, Adan Cruser, used to say. “We’re doers, Helga, so let them talk. In the end, people will remember the ones who acted.” Back then, when he used to council her, she had a hard time imagining herself as one of the Rendron’s elite, but here she was, Helga “Hellgate” Ate, and she missed Cruser and all his wisdom.

There were a few more hails from random Marines, but she pretended not to hear them as she quickened her pace. She was looking for a transport to take her to the fore of the ship where she and her lieutenant, Cilas Mec, were to be given medals by their captain, Retzo Sho.

A month had passed since returning from their last mission, which cost the lives of Adan Cruser and three of her fellow ESOs. She wished that she could skip it—ceremonies weren’t really her thing—but she had to go, Cilas’s orders, since it was more for the Rendron than for her.

The ship’s crew was low in morale and it was becoming obvious, so the captain decided that honoring the Nighthawks would reignite the fight in his spacers. They had all come close to death when facing off against a Geralos battleship, and one of the Rendron’s infiltrators had been destroyed.

Thousands of lives had been lost in the conflict, but the Geralos had been stopped. Helga had been a major part of that victory, both during combat and after. The Marines and spacemen who weren’t ESOs saw just as much combat as they did, but from their vantage point things had seemed hopeless, and it didn’t go away even though they had won.

Helga stopped by the transport line, which was a thin bit of rail in the center of the passageway. It was the main walkway through the spine of the ship, so it was wide enough to accommodate the vehicle, while leaving enough room for crewmembers to walk about. This walkway also served as a track for the spacers who liked to run and exercise, so it was always a hub of activity no matter the time or situation.

She heard the squeaking of brakes and looked to her right to see the oblong vessel pulling up to a halt. The doors slid open and several Marines exited. One stopped to salute her, and she returned it sharply before giving him a nod.

She still wasn’t used to this new level of respect, but it was a lot better than being pushed around and ignored. It wasn’t lack of confidence that made it hard to accept, but lack of trust—for the spacers on a ship where she had only known spite, malice, and discrimination.

Helga stepped inside the transport and looked to the rear for a seat that would allow her to sit quietly and be as incognito as possible. But there were spacers everywhere, all headed to the ceremony, and she was met with applause when they recognized who she was.

“Thype me,” she whispered under her breath. “Is this how it’s going to be from now on?” She couldn’t believe that she was missing her old life when she was just another wannabe, hustling along to her missions.

Helga tipped her hat politely and waded through the spacers to find the rear, where a young Marine quickly gave up his seat. “No, sit,” she whispered, and touched his shoulder, choosing to stand and look out at the passageway. From inside the transport the ship seemed massive, which made sense considering the Rendron’s size, but it seemed bigger now for some reason.

Nine of her seventeen years had been spent on the Rendron, reading, studying, training, and fighting. It had been nine years of “proving herself” to instructors and peers who saw her as little more than a half-alien freak and outcast. Nine years inside of this massive starship built exclusively for war, preparing for an enemy whose reality was more frightening than any story she had been told before facing them.

She hadn’t noticed the Rendron even when it was all she knew, but now that she had been out there, she saw it for everything that it was. She didn’t know how to feel about it. She felt, lost—no, she felt, trapped. There was a fight out there that she was supposed to be in, and here she was riding a train to receive an award that she did not want.

What are we doing? she thought, jabbing the glass lightly with her gloved fist. What am I doing?

The transport stopped at the fore of the Rendron, near the hangar that was her destination. She saw familiar faces huddled near a bench, laughing as if there were no worries in the galaxy. When she stepped off to approach them, one of the women came forward.

It was Lieutenant Joy Valance, flight commander of the Revenants, an elite squadron of fighters that were once stationed on the infiltrator, Inginus. She was a tall glass of pure human energy, and everything Helga wished she could be socially.

They had started out as rivals, though Joy was a flight leader back when Helga was still figuring out how to fit into her armor. After flying together, the two women had developed a bond that they couldn’t explain. Their rivalry was suffocated and replaced with something akin to kinship.

“Look at you all edges and shiny buttons,” Joy said, her infectious smile gleaming, forcing Helga’s melancholy mood to dissolve. It was classic Joy charm, impossible to avoid, and Helga accepted her hug before following her over to where the others were huddled.

“No Cilas?” Helga said, surprised that the lieutenant wasn’t with Joy. The two were practically inseparable, especially now that things had quieted down between the Alliance and the Geralos.

“He’s here, somewhere,” Joy said, winking. “You know he can’t walk three steps without a cadet quizzing him about the Nighthawks.”

“Oh, trust me, I know,” Helga said, rolling her eyes for emphasis, which caused one of the Revenants to laugh, taking her by surprise. “Oops, hi, Millicent,” she said to the slender woman, who had become Joy’s second in command over the last month or so.

She embraced her and held it. Millicent had lost family in the fight with the Geralos, and Helga wanted her to know that she remembered.

“You look so official, Ate,” Millicent said, stepping back to admire her before reaching up to adjust her collar. “It suits you more than you know. I can see you as a commander of your own infiltrator.”

“Oh, stop,” Helga said, blushing, but then Joy stepped forward to get her attention.

“You do look good, Ate,” Joy said. “One of the rare times I’ve seen you sober.” Helga glared at her, then, trying to assess whether she was joking, but then Joy’s lips turned up into a smirk, and the Nighthawk exhaled, relieved. She had been worrying about her drinking, and Joy more than anyone else would know if she was overdoing it.

“You’re one to talk, Lieutenant. The very first day I met you we shared a pint … or several.”

The two women regarded one another for a bit, and then they started laughing. Drinking had been the glue to their bond, and the memories, therapy, and honesty that came from the bottle were always a welcome break from the otherwise routine life of the Navy.

Joy ranked her and was older, but they had a lot in common, especially drinking. She stepped in close to Helga, removed her hat and then stepped back to analyze her.

“This hat adds ten years to you somehow. It’s quite odd. Just now, when you walked up, I saw a Rendron officer on approach, possibly looking to give me the business. Now I see a young woman.” She reached forward and brushed at Helga’s hair slightly. “She’s tough, you can see that from those dark Casanian eyes. She’s got attitude—I can see you setting that pouty mouth of yours to tell me off—and she’s got experience.” She took Helga’s face in her hands and used her thumbs to massage her temples. “Still not sleeping, eh?”

“I sleep, just not a lot,” Helga said, taking back her hat and pulling it on. “You’re sweet, in your own way, all caring and whatnot. So when’s the marriage? Let’s talk about that, Ace. You and the lieutenant are getting pretty serious—“

“Nice try at changing the subject, cruta. None of that schtill is any of your business. Marriage,” she scoffed. “As if you Nighthawks could stay put long enough to brooch any form of real commitment. Inginus is being rebuilt, and soon we will have a new commander at the helm, and my stay here on the Rendron will be over. What do you think happens then?”

“I’m sorry, Joy.”

“Don’t be sorry. I knew what I signed up for, and I’m a big girl. Now, as to this promotion—”

“It’s not a promotion.”

“You sure?” Joy said, and Helga fanned her off. “Ate, I’m being serious. Not everyone gets to be formally thanked by Captain Retzo Sho. This isn’t a rank up or more power, but it shows the ship that you’re favored. It’s a big thyping deal, don’t you know?”

Helga thought about the captain, and how high he stood in the minds of the crew, and she realized that Joy was right.

“Never thought about it that way. He’s showing the Rendron his gratitude by singling us out. He could have just honored the Nighthawks formally, but he’s doing it for the lieutenant and me. Still, I don’t want the captain to promote me just because of some successful mission. I made it off Dyn, and that I’m proud of, but I don’t think it warrants a promotion.”

Joy took Helga’s hand and led her through an adjacent passageway, which opened up to an observatory with massive bay windows on the starboard bulkhead.

As a child, Helga would sneak into this compartment to spend hours staring out at the stars. Now the only view was the starship, Aqnaqak, and the engineers on their tethers, doing repairs to both of the ships. Beyond it was the planet, Meluvia, which took up every inch of the view.

It was a spectacular sight, greens and blues obscured by clouds, and silhouettes of transport ships making their rounds between the two vessels. The observatory was designed for meetings, typically between the captain and important guests, but Retzo Sho preferred to bring visitors to his cabin and had instructed his pilots to use the observatory for briefs.

Helga knew the space well, it was her favorite compartment on the ship. It was a sizable space, large enough for over a hundred pilots, but someone had brought in chairs to prepare for this ceremony and lined them up opposite the windows.

“Good luck,” Joy whispered as she left Helga’s side to take a seat in the front. Already seated were several older ranks who had either fought alongside Cilas at some point in his career or trained him back when he was a cadet.

Helga scanned their faces intently, recognizing some, and noticing the handful that were there for her as well. Joy sat next to Loray Qu, Helga’s old cadet commander, whose handsome face beamed with pride when her eyes met the Nighthawk’s.

Ina Reysor was present as well, a Meluvian officer they had rescued on their last mission. She too had become a friend, though she hadn’t seen her since the excitement of the days following their last mission. Three friends for me, Helga thought, feeling inadequate and a bit like a fraud. Who was she to be honored with Cilas Mec, the decorated Nighthawk who was already a legend?

The seats before her were for friends and family, and out of the twenty, five had been reserved for her. One of those seats was meant for her twin, her estranged brother, Rolph, who she hadn’t seen in several years. She had held out hope that he could be found, and they would be reunited on this day. From what Cilas had told her, there had been a real effort to find him, led by the communications officer, Genevieve Aria.

She tried not to choke up. He would have made this ridiculous show mean something. But all she had were these new friends, and her old cadet commander who always had her back. The second empty seat was meant for Brise Sol, her fellow Nighthawk who had resigned after Dyn. She knew that he couldn’t attend, but she had invited him anyway, and he had replied, expressing how happy he was for her getting this day.

Helga took her place next to Cilas, who gave her a warm smile, and she returned it before turning to face her supporters. It was an impressive ceremony, which would be played across every vid screen on the ship.

There was a shout and all heads turned as two master-at-arms announced the arrival of the captain, who walked into the compartment bordered by thirty Marines. The uniformed men and women marched in to take a position behind the two Nighthawks, forming two rows, becoming a symbolic wall.

Captain Retzo Sho waited for them to finish lining up and then he walked forward to the center of the compartment. He was tall and handsome in his uniform, his jet-black hair still thick and healthy, which showed that even age was hesitant to cross him.

Helga chanced a glance at him and when their eyes met, he gave her a friendly smile. Fire rushed up her throat and she found herself flushed. Retzo Sho was an Alliance hero, and an extremely good-looking man. Helga forced her eyes forward and placed her hands behind her back where her fingers nervously fidgeted.

When Retzo took the center of the room, everyone stood up and saluted in unison, slamming fists into chests and bowing their heads as was their way. The captain waited for them to finish, watching them intently as they retook their seats. He was a serious man who commanded respect, but this wasn’t hard since the Rendron loved him.

“Master Chief Cage Hem,” he stated loudly, naming the first of the fallen Nighthawks. “Chief Adan Cruser, Chief Casein Varnes …” He paused and scanned the people seated, and then turned to look at the Marines behind him still standing at attention. When he seemed satisfied with their reactions, he continued naming the other Nighthawks. “Horne Wyatt, and Special Agent, Lamia Brafa. These are men who gave their lives in an effort to rescue refugees from the moon of Dyn.”

He spoke at length about the fallen, not just the Nighthawks, but every service member that had been killed. He spoke about the Rendron, and the greater mission, which was the defeat of the Geralos and the reclamation of their home world, Vestalia.

For ten minutes he spoke on these things, his commanding voice the only sound inside of that vacuous space. There were barely fifty of them inside of there, but his voice and the video feed of the awards would be on every screen throughout the starship. Retzo knew this, so he spoke on things like loyalty and duty, two traits that had been violated by men he’d put in power.

Everyone could hear the pain in his voice when he related the incident on the Inginus, where Cilas Mec had been forced to relieve a decorated officer of his command. He spoke on Dyn, the moon where they lost the majority of the Nighthawks, and then he turned to face Helga, and spoke on her accomplishments and how happy he was to have her home.

Hearing her name spoken of with such high praise was surreal enough for Helga, who didn’t know how to receive it. She felt his eyes but she kept staring forward, afraid that she’d fall apart if she dared look at him again.

She could barely hear what he was saying now as she concentrated on Joy, who held her gaze, smiling, mouthing the words, “you got this.” Then the captain was in front of her, and she couldn’t look away, but she managed to hold it together as he thanked her for everything she had done.

When he finally pinned the medal on her chest, Helga felt a tremendous weight lifted from her shoulders. She wasn’t sure why it felt like that, and why the award gave her a sense of belonging, but this was the moment that she needed, and she had to admit that it felt good.

She, Helga Ate, the half-breed outcast, had been given one of the highest awards by Retzo Sho. She thought about her doubters and abusers watching her on the vid, unable to attend and jeer her because they weren’t important enough to be invited. It sharpened her edge, thinking of her childhood, and her eyes found Retzo’s with a fire borne of renewed purpose.

“Thank you, Captain,” she said, and he stepped back and shook her hand. “I appreciate the honor, and I am ready to return to duty.”





2


The music started, low and rumbling, as the eight drummers kept in sync, raising the heartbeats of the crowd. Dancers resplendent in every color of the rainbow twirled, sprinkling water all over the audience. It was a fantastic show, a Rendron opera, and though the troupe was made up of spacers, any outsider would have a difficult time believing these weren’t professionals.

Retzo Sho would have been proud if he was able to concentrate, but in his private booth above it all he was providing his own entertainment for Captain Tara Cor. His lips played their own tune on her smooth tanned neck as she straddled him on his chair, her long legs astride his hips.

Oh, how he had missed the moments like this, when they would sneak away to spend the naughtiest moments alone. She had been his girl for as far back as he could remember, and it hadn’t changed after so many years and ranks.

With the repairs being done to both their ships, Tara had asked for permission to come aboard. Retzo was elated at the prospect, giving her a queen’s welcome, including a tour of the Rendron. After the eventual feast, he wanted to discuss the war in the ready room, but she had told him in so many words that she had come just for him, and was growing impatient.

The orchestra was the perfect excuse to get her alone without the scandal. The captain had his own room in a loft, meant to host guests privately. So here they were, though she was hosting, and he was taking a lengthy tour inside of her territory. It was the best thing to happen to him in over a year, and he wanted to savor it for as long as he could.

When Tara was gone, he’d be back to his regimented life, running the ship, answering emergencies, and doing the bidding of the Alliance council. Now his body betrayed him, despite his mind’s commands, and he cried out, involuntarily, as his tour came to an explosive end.

“I’m so sorry, Cory” he grunted, using the nickname he’d given her back when they were young.

“It’s okay Strut, I know that it’s been a long time. At least it confirms what I suspected.”

“What’s that?”

“That you’ve been alone. Why? Is it because of your station, the constant work and no personal time due to those lizards, or is it something else? Strut, have you been waiting for me? I never asked for that. If you were over here thyping your buns off, I wouldn’t care, as long as you were happy.”

“You would care. I know you, remember? Plus, my… excitement is not a sign of me not having done this with anyone else,” he said. “It’s been over a year, Tara, but I did remember our agreement. No commitments, no promises, we see each other when we can, share a drink, and then this. But I’m no fool or clueless romantic. I assumed that you were with someone and I was a distant memory.” She gave him a knowing smile and he realized that he was being defensive. “Well played,” he said returning the smile, as she held his shoulders firmly and pushed herself off.

“I think you’re full of schtill,” she said. “We’re both older now, and you’ve waited, just like I have.”

“You waited?”

“Who am I going to date? Me, the captain of that tremendous war machine tethered to yours? A planet-busting Marine officer, or one of my spacers looking to mount me for a promotion? I’m as stuck as you are, my dear. The smart captains have someone on a planet, sometimes a station. But the opportunity has never presented itself, and you were always there, calling me, making me do things for you.”

“Is it that bad?” Retzo asked, reaching forward to take one of her tiny hands.

“You’re delaying the procedure, Ace, you do know that’s a bad idea.”

“Yeah,” he said, “but I can’t think clearly with the lovely Tara Cor naked in front of me like this.”

“Strut, please don’t be upset with me, but this wasn’t the only reason I came all the way over here. I have a delicate matter to discuss, and I cannot trust comms. Not for this.”

Retzo regarded her curiously. Tara was not the type of person to take favors lightly. If she had come to talk to him, it meant that something major was going on. She took back her hand and studied his face for a time, then reached down to caress his cheek before kissing him firmly on the lips. It was curiously affectionate, another oddity that Retzo was not accustomed to. “What is it?” he said, his eyes now lost in the bottomless translucent olive of her own.

“It’s pretty big, and official word will find you soon, but there’s a secret…well, not a secret, but—thype me, I can’t even bring myself to say it. Strut, I need to borrow your Nighthawks to go after one of our own.” She exhaled heavily as if she’d admitted to the worst crime that she could ever commit. Inside her eyes he read desperation, embarrassment, and now, relief.

“My Nighthawks? But, Cory, it’s like I told you, the team suffered tremendous losses on that maker-forsaken moon. Two came back and they’re in recovery, working on rebuilding at the moment. I guess if what you need them for is easy enough for two operators, but, please, what is it? Why do you need the Nighthawks? What mission is so delicate that Aqnaqak Marines can’t do it on their own?”

He instinctively reached for her other hand, wanting to urge her back down. But whatever was on her mind required her to move as she explained it, so she did just that, pacing the area in front of the screen while gesturing with her hands as she began to speak.

Retzo held up his hand to stop her before tossing her his jacket. He was sure that the performers couldn’t see them through the glass, but he didn’t want to take any chances. A part of him felt guilty for making love in the booth while his crewmen performed a show in their honor, but Tara was magnetic, and he hoped they would understand if they found out.

“Okay, so the Ocelots, our ESO team,” she said. “If you recall we had to disband them, and several members were sent to the brig.”

“I remember, yes.”

“That wasn’t the full story, Retzo, the details are a little more complicated. That fight we just had, the one against that Geralos battleship—I didn’t just happen to be in the sector. The reason we were able to assist was due to a personal matter. Our Ocelot leader, Joran Wolf, stole a corvette-class ship with an energy torpedo and several other weapons and equipment. He had killed two men on a return trip from SunFire, our infiltrator, and then instead of jumping back, he took the ordinance to Meluvia.”

Retzo sat up suddenly. “What?” He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. The threat of a rogue ESO armed with heavy Alliance tech made her story so ridiculous he was baffled. “How in the planets does that sort of thing happen? Why didn’t you send word to Meluvia to vaporize that ship? Cory, are you telling me that there are capital weapons on the planet? Do you know what that could mean to…?” He paused and sighed. “Of course you do. He can fire on us up here, we’re stationary targets on the mend.”

“Yes, Strut, I know, but if you let me continue, I will explain why I didn’t alert Meluvia. My aim was to trace that corvette, and we were close enough to do it, but coming out of light speed I ran into the Nian, sending lizards down to the surface. What would you have done, as an Alliance captain? Chase down your man, or turn your batteries on that battleship?”

“I’m sorry, Cory, of course you had to fight. I—this is just unheard of, an ESO going rogue.”

“Worse than rogue. The piece of schtill, turns out he was a plant, the son of a Meluvian freedom fighter, looking to do right by daddy. Now, Strut, I haven’t told any of this to the admirals or the council. I could lose my ship.” Her voice cracked, and she rushed over to the console, poured herself a drink and downed it. “I need your help,” she whispered. “I need to clean up this mess before they catch wind that I am to blame for it. Retzo, if they use that ordinance on a city down there, the ramifications could be enough to affect the war.”

“Yeah, Meluvia will find themselves with a hard decision to make. Abandon the Geralos to rush home, smoke out Wolf and remove the threat to their people, or stay in space, fighting, while their planet suffers under the threats of a madman. Here you say that he’s connected to a Meluvian freedom fighter. Is it just him, or is he with an organization looking to do more with our ordinance?”

Tara Cor poured another drink, downed it quickly and sat in a chair. She stared at the glass as if she was surprised that it was empty, then placed it back on the console before facing him. In any other situation he would have rushed over, hugged her, and told her that it would be okay. Still, he hadn’t seen her in ages, and she was still as lovely as the day when they took their individual assignments.

“He’s with a more extreme version of the Meluvian Liberation Front. I reached out to the Jumper spies and they provided me intel on what they’re all about. Turns out that instead of speeches and demonstrations, this new group is dangerous. They are actually an arm of what we know as The Collective. This new group has been growing for a few years now and have revealed themselves formally as the new MLF.”

Retzo, like every other spacer in Anstractor, knew about the galaxy-wide cabal of anarchists known as The Collective. When Cilas Mec had reported that he and his Nighthawks had been picked up by a pirate ship, the mention of former Alliance Navy had made him suspect that it was the same organization.

He placed his face in his hands and groaned. He had no choice but to send the Nighthawks; it was as much his problem as it was hers. If the Meluvian government learned that Wolf was a member of the crew, there was a chance that they would lose the freedom to come and go from the planet.

“They will need to be briefed on your ship,” he said, still not raising his eyes to meet hers. “We do it here and word might spread. I have my own situation with traitors that hasn’t fully been resolved.”

“I love you, Strut,” she said. “I sat for a week wondering how to bring myself to ask you.”

“The sex helped, and you knew it would,” he said. “Buttered me up and then dropped the news, knowing I’d be helpless against you.” He was obviously joking and hoped that she would understand that he was. “You’re going to owe me the biggest favor.”

She stood up, walked over and then sat down, straddling his knees. Her muscular thighs flexed as she placed her hands on his thighs. Retzo felt himself grow excited and tried in vain to hide it, but Tara reached forward and cupped his chin.

“What do you think of a little Retzo or Tara in our future?” she said, and he looked at her quizzically, as if he couldn’t understand the question. “I came over to be with you, Strut, not just to ask a favor. What I didn’t expect was that we would have sex so fast. I wasn’t exactly prepared, if you understand what I am telling you. While I would love to go another round with you, Captain Sho, it’s either med-bay right now, or you’re going to be a father.”

“Are you serious?” he said, trying to imagine the implications. Two starship captains, together, trying to raise a family? It would force them to take real leave, which was unheard of for the job. The patterns would make them predictable, and a target for Geralos spies.

“Planets, I think that you would actually do it,” she said suddenly. “Retzo, I don’t know what to think. Are you saying that you want to have children with me? I don’t know what to think, Strut. I just, I would do it for you, with you, yes. But we’re captains, for Maker’s sake. Thype, now you’ve really gone and complicated things.”

“I know, but if anyone could make it work, Tara, we could. We’ve discussed this, and it’s what you want. What do you think they’ll do to us? Take our ships? No, they won’t do schtill and we’ll figure it out.” She still seemed torn and undecided but held his gaze as she grabbed her clothes. “Hey, you asked, and this was nice. To be honest, you’re the best thing that has happened in my entire life.”

“Planets, Retzo, you’re such a pain. Now you have me here wanting to cry. Alright, I’ll let it be, but we’re going to have to come up with a real plan if it sticks. I mean this, the pregnancy.” She reached up and covered her face. “The Wolf thing, if your Nighthawks can do it—”

“It’s done, beautiful. We’ll talk about it more later on, okay?” Retzo said.

“I am going to think about it,” she said, grabbing her skirt and planting a kiss on his cheek. “We have some time, but we’re not just going to ‘figure this out’. It will change our life forever, my love, and we have thousands of spacers relying on us.”

He watched her walk to the head but when she reached the door she stopped and turned to face him. “If I could go back in time to the academy,” she said, “when you asked me to marry you and I said no. I would thyping say yes, Retzo, I was such a dumb girl. I just want you to know that I love you.”

He leaned back into the chair and smiled when he heard the door shut. Their coupling had been so rash, spontaneous, and reckless, he couldn’t help but be empowered by it. She gave him the intangibles that made the life of a spacer exciting. Everything that he did on the ship was methodical, precise, and planned, but for these brief moments, with the two of them locked inside of this space, he had felt happier than he’d ever felt. He had felt alive.

The performers had a hologram message drifting slowly down the glass. It was a nice effect, a real display of artistic skill and attention to detail. It appeared as clouds broken by sun rays, and read, “Welcome to the Rendron, Captain Cor.” It was unfortunate that she missed it, but he would just have to tell her about it as soon as she came out. Reaching for his wrist comms, he touched the side of the device and a tiny camera flipped out. He used it to record the end of the display, as it faded into nothingness.

The audience cheered, and as he made to retract the lens, he saw that there was an urgent message. What now? he thought, annoyed at the fact that he couldn’t go an hour without someone needing his help. It was a saved message from Genevieve Aria, and he saw that she had been trying to reach him for the past fifteen minutes.

He snapped the lens in place and slid his finger along its surface. The message began to play, and he sat up suddenly when he learned what the urgency was. There had been an attack on a hub, and the Marines stationed near the location had somehow ended up missing. One of the survivors had found a way to contact the Alliance, and the Rendron was being asked to investigate.

Retzo scrambled to get up, and as he rose, Tara emerged from the head, looking as sharp as she always did. Her white captain’s uniform with the buttons and medals glinted beneath the light and her long brown hair was pulled back in a tight bun, revealing the cheekbones that had drawn her to him. She was beauty in strength, a walking example of naval excellence, and the bird he thought had flown away, only to come back to him now.

“Oh, that’s amazing,” she exclaimed, when she saw the words on the glass. “I almost missed it.”

“I recorded it for you,” he said. “I will have to show you later, however. We have a situation on our hands. Syr station was attacked, and several civilians were taken.”

“By the lizards?” Tara said, knitting her brows.

“Genevieve didn’t say, but I assume it’s them, probably in retaliation for us taking out their battleship. I’m going to have to send in the aces and an assault ship with my Marines.”

“No, Strut, it’s my turn. I’ll send some Marines to investigate and see what can be done. We have a bunch of fresh boots that are itching for a fight. This will be good for them to blow off some steam, and—what’s wrong?” she said, as Retzo seemed distracted as he scrambled for his clothes.

“Call it a hunch, but the timing is odd. Why now, when we’re crippled? Do you know what I mean? The two of us have captained our ships for well over ten years, and in no time during our service has a hub come under any real danger. We have Marines stationed near every satellite, and the few pirates that tried have failed. Yet now, this, after I lose an infiltrator, a commander, and so much more. Our ships are tethered, frozen in repairs, and of all the starships patrolling Anstractor, I’m the one they call?”

“You’re on Vestalian watch and that hub’s above our planet. Don’t think too much into it, my Marines can be there in the blink of an eye.” She was close to him again and his excitement grew, which only served to annoy him even more about the news.

I get to see her after so long and this is when they choose to attack? he thought. A part of him wondered what deity he had angered to have this chain of bad luck. “Cory, these Marines of yours. Are they really reliable? Have you used them before on delicate missions like this?”

Tara Cor sat back on the chair, urging him down to sit next to her. “Captain Sho,” she whispered, running her fingers through his hair. “My men are on the verge of killing one another out of boredom. Give me this, please. Let me send them, and then we can finish enjoying this show that your spacers worked hard to prepare.”





3


When Helga learned that a formal request had been put in for the Nighthawks to come aboard the Aqnaqak, she was elated at the prospect. For weeks the two warships had been orbiting Meluvian space, working on repairs from the fight against the Nian while guarding the vulnerable planet against any Geralos attempts to invade.

Meluvia had been hit hard, and there were still Alliance Marines on the surface. Armored planet-busters from both Aqnaqak and Rendron were training local militias and hunting down the Geralos encampments. Above it all, the Meluvians in space were repairing their satellites that had been disabled by the Nian before the attack to keep them blind while they invaded.

It had been a mess, and Meluvia had been lucky. If not for Aqnaqak, the planet would be flooded with Geralos militia. Still, the invaders had been culled, but the Alliance worried that there were still many hidden on the planet. This was what Helga assumed was behind the summons — the Aqnaqak was in need of ESO veterans.

Since receiving her medal, she had been given the job of assisting with special operations inside of the Combat Information Center (CIC). This was how she learned that the Aqnaqak was requesting their presence, but when she told Cilas, her Nighthawk team leader, he didn’t seem excited in the least.

“Come on, Rend, it’s our chance to get back into the fight,” she said, using the new moniker that he’d been given by the Marines.

“The name’s Cilas, or Lieutenant, Ate,” he said, looking up from his desk, seemingly annoyed at her for calling him by that name.

“Someone’s grouchy,” she said under her breath and made to leave his compartment.

“Don’t be dramatic. What do you want? For me to celebrate being deployed before I’ve had a chance to rebuild my team? There’s two of us, Nighthawk. Well, four now.”

“Four?” Helga said, furrowing her brows. “Who are the other two?”

“They’re the reason why I called you. Take a look at these two men. They were the only two to graduate BLAST from Rendron, even though twenty of our people tried. How embarrassing is that?”

“It’s sad, but considering the chaos with all the fighting going on, I can see why our men and women would have trouble. They were on the surface running training exercises while we were in the middle of a real war up here. Not their fault that they missed the fighting, but during BLAST if you can’t focus … well, you know how it is.”

“Which is precisely why they qualify to be a part of our team,” Cilas said, and Helga stepped forward and picked up the two sheets of transparent substrate. On each was a readout with details on the recruits. One, Quentin Tutt, was a veteran Marine with a long list of accolades and references from the field.

She saw from a note in the corner that he had been recommended by Captain Retzo Sho himself. “Didn’t have much say in this one, did you?” she said, and Cilas smiled but kept his lips sealed.

“How about you? How are you holding up?” he said, and Helga closed her eyes and bit back against the “what do you mean?” that had become her automatic retort to this line of questioning. She hated the question more than Cilas would know, but she recognized that he was trying to be helpful and wouldn’t know that she found it offensive.

“How are you holding up?” she replied, volleying the question back at him.

“Sorry,” he said, seeming to understand. “It’s just that I worry about you after the events on Dyn, and it’s not like we ever talk about them.”

“We’ve talked about them plenty throughout the last few months, Lieutenant. I’m … adjusting, and while it isn’t the easiest adjustment, I’ve been good. Don’t you worry.”

He shot her a glance that read: you say you’re good, but what I see says different. But he surprised her by not pressing the issue. “I think that you’ll like Tutt,” he said. “He’s a nice enough guy, but one heck of an asset. What that sheet doesn’t tell you is that during BLAST, he slipped out in the middle of the night to help a group of Marines. It was during the invasion, and they found a lizard cloaked in the jungle. Without Tutt, he would have butchered a town full of civilians.”

“Impressive,” was all she could manage after hearing that story. “I hope that we’re worth it, considering the schtill we go through.”

“Anyone ignorant enough to think an ESO team is given the benefit of glory doesn’t deserve to be here, so being ‘worth it’ isn’t really my concern—”

“Thype me, Lieutenant, is everything alright in your life?”

“Huh? Why?”

“I make a snide comment, which you know me to do, yet you’re firing off your guns as if I’m some ignorant recruit.”

Cilas Mec sat back and shook his head. “I didn’t get much sleep. Captain needed an answer immediately, so I’ve been up since the last cycle, doing research.”

“I can’t help it, I have to say it,” she said, the smile dragging the corners of her mouth. “Are you sure it was the research or an extremely horny pilot that happens to now be stationed on our ship?”

She stepped back and gauged him, wondering if she’d finally stepped over the line. He was her superior, but she viewed him as a friend, and so she’d toy with the line to see just how far she could go with being herself.

“Oh, you little, cruta,” he whispered and stared at her intently. There was something behind his glare that she hadn’t ever seen before. He was measuring her up, not just in wit but something more, and then he averted his gaze as if he realized that she too was reading him. “You’re out of line,” he finally said, but it seemed to be more lighthearted than a scolding. She giggled. Oh, how she loved making him uncomfortable.

“Of course I’m joking, Lieutenant, but do you think this is a good idea? Rushing out with new members that we haven’t had time to learn?”

“It’s alright, we’ll figure it out. This will be a good opportunity for you to sharpen up on your leadership skills. You’re now considered a senior Nighthawk so they will look to you for guidance, Number Two.”

“Number Two? Me? But, you’re Cilas Mec, and I’m just—I have one mission under my belt. They’ll bend over backward to impress you, but why in the worlds would they listen to me?”

“Helga, leadership isn’t about coming into a unit cracking heads and rifling off rhetoric. It’s about balance, and it’s about winning trust, but above all of that, you need to be confident in yourself.”

“That’s easy to say when you’re a big strong man though, Cilas. I’m a tiny woman, and some will resent that, and then there’s my age. Why would someone as old as Tutt ever take orders from someone like me?”

“With that attitude, of course he won’t follow you. Ate, Cage was ten years my senior, yet I ranked him, and you know what? It didn’t matter because it worked. You passed BLAST, top ten if I recall, which made selecting you to be on this team one of the easiest decisions of my life. And here we are, you, the last of my original Nighthawks, doubting yourself and asking me a lot of annoying questions.”

Helga laughed. “Well, thank you for being patient with me, Lieutenant. I am really just bothered with the timing.”

“We have no choice, Helga, we need operators. The Nighthawks is an eight-person team, and if we can’t grow, then we may end up getting dissolved.”

Helga nodded and picked up the second man’s sheet. “Recruit Raileo Lei. This one’s fresh out. He passed BLAST, but he was only fifth-class graduating out of the cadets,” she said.

“Everyone’s not gifted, or born to do what we do,” Cilas said. Helga knew he was right. Only five percent of cadets made it above what they termed third-class. The lower the number, the better you were ranked, and second-class cadets became officers or tried out to become ESO operators.

“He made it through BLAST. Not only that, he was a top ten finisher. I don’t know what happened in the cadet academy, but they obviously didn’t recognize something within him. I like him because he’ll be hungry to prove that he’s better than fifth-class. Hunger means that he will be ready, and given the time, we need them ready more than anything else.”

“Have you ever met a first-class cadet from any of the ships?” Helga said.

“Lamia Brafa was the only one, and you saw all the things he could do.”

“I guess,” she said, feeling sad, as she remembered Lamia Brafa and their intimate chats. “Lei seems alright, and he passed BLAST, so I’ll hold off any opinions until I meet him,” she said.

“Good, because we’ll be meeting them tomorrow at 0:240, then take a transport to the Aqnaqak, where we’ll be briefed on our mission.”

0:240, Helga thought. That’s pretty early, even for us. The Alliance used a system that gave their Navy simulated cycles based on an automated time. Their clocks would start at 0:000 and end at 1:440, where it would reset, becoming another cycle, or “day.” The time he proposed their departure for exactly two hours before the first shift. There goes my plans for getting wasted before bed, Helga thought.



The early hour to meet and deploy was nothing new to Helga. As a Naval officer you had to become accustomed to duty being synonymous with inconvenience. As an ESO, you were no longer afforded the luxury of personal time, and with sleep being a rarity since her time as a prisoner of the Geralos, she had grown accustomed to the constant out-of-body sensation.

In the late hours after her meeting with Cilas, she had gone to the bar and sat by herself, nursing a bottle of wine. Her mind was a minefield that she still hadn’t figured out how to maneuver. She would joke and laugh, which made her feel good, but in the next moment she’d be ready to cry.

There had been too many deaths, and people she loved gone from her life, so now the prospect of meeting two more Nighthawks scared her because she knew what would come of it. They would grow close, as ESO teams were prone to do, and then they would die, or get captured, leaving her all alone.

Her family had been decimated, and her estranged brother was a mystery. On Rendron, her starship home, the people she called friends from her childhood all seemed to have had an agenda, so she shut them out, forcing herself to be alone. Cilas was her friend, and though she never admitted it, she was secretly in love with him. But he was Joy Valance’s, and she loved Joy like a sister, which only made for further torture of her soul.

Solace came in the bottle, but the bottle could be addictive, which meant that it too couldn’t be trusted. She pined for some stability, someone to love her and be there no matter what. She had considered purchasing an animal for her room, but the thought of it being a prisoner made her not go through with it.

Walking onto the dock, she saw a tall man talking to Cilas, and as she grew closer, she recognized him as the new recruit, Quentin Tutt. On approach, he moved fast, saluting her with respect. After returning it with less enthusiasm, she clapped him on the shoulder and told him to relax. “Team members don’t salute, Tutt, it will get us killed in the field. I know you know that, but just a reminder that we’re a team now. It’s different from the Marines.”

“I’m learning, ma’am, and I apologize. It’s a bit of an adjustment,” he said.

“It’s Ate, Tutt, and I’m just giving you schtill. Welcome to the team, Sarge. How are you feeling?”

“Excited and honored,” he said, flashing a genuine smile. She heard feet behind her and saw the other man walk up. It was now exactly 0:240, and she knew that Cilas would erupt. Nighthawks being exactly on time was never good enough. You were there thirty minutes prior, or fifteen if you ran into any sort of hiccups. To show up exactly on time meant that you were not serious about the mission.

Helga looked over at the Lieutenant, who motioned for Raileo Lei to follow, and he took him to the side to give what she assumed was a primer on attendance.

“So, you’re a bit of a badass,” Helga said to Tutt, as she leaned against the bulkhead to rest her aching bones.

“Ma’am?”

“Don’t play dumb, Tutt, you know what you’ve done,” she said, too tired and groggy to care. “You’re a Marine with an impressive record. How does someone like you feel being a Nighthawk? Just last year, for me, you would have thought I had been given a trillion credits, that’s how happy I was to attend my first brief. But I was a second-class cadet, freshly graduated and stupid, while you’re already a seasoned veteran.”

Quentin Tutt seemed to be taken aback, and he looked her over before answering. “I’m numb,” he said. “I guess it hasn’t dawned on me yet. I think of being on a dropship, flying low over an enemy moon, knowing that at the sound of a chime, I will be dropped into a vat of schtill. This sort of feels that way, especially being in the presence of Lieutenant Mec. I know that this mission is going to take me to a place where all I have are you three, and that nothing in my past has prepared me for.”

“What makes you think that?” Helga said.

“I look at you two, the survivors of an elite team of eight. The lieutenant is composed, but I’ve seen enough to know what’s below the surface. As to you, ma’am, you don’t hide it so well, and the evidence is in you for me to know. Nothing I’ve done will compare to our missions, will it? I’ll be put to the test, and that’s what I want.”

“I’d like to think that you’re more than ready, Sergeant Tutt, and it’s because you’re humble and from what I see, pragmatic. As to Lei there, I’m beginning to wonder, but I was just like him before I got a dose of what it meant to be a Nighthawk.”

She found that she did like Quentin Tutt and his deep voice. There was a lot about him that reminded her of the late Cage Hem. They were both exceptional fighters, who were veterans before becoming ESOs, and they had similar physical attributes: tall, with bulging muscles, and catlike movements despite their size.

“Lady Hellgate,” Raileo said, as he walked up and stuck out his hand. It was a bold gesture for someone you didn’t know, and it violated all of the social norms of their Vestalian heritage. The touching of palms was intimate, as much as referring to a superior by their callsign. Unlike Quentin, this man was rude, and Helga was immediately put off by his actions.

“Ate, or Helga will be sufficient, Mr. Lei. Pleasure to meet you, welcome to the Nighthawks.” She kept her arms folded, refusing his hand.

The transport docked, and Cilas beckoned them forward to wait by the bay doors for them to open. “Aqnaqak awaits,” he said, flashing a smile. “Back in the schtill, and I can’t wait.”





4


Upon disembarking from the transport, the differences between the Aqnaqak and the Rendron became immediately apparent. Their hangar was a crowded hub of activity, which was a stark contrast to the Rendron’s, which had ships lined up in orderly rows, mechanized robots, and dock hands to fetch anything that the pilots would need before disembarking.

In this hangar all she could see were Marines rushing this way and that, standing around chatting. Off to the side, below the wing of a Phantom, two young men wrestled with their shirts off.

As Helga made to say something to Cilas about the chaos, a tiny transport car rolled up with four men inside. One was a corporal who looked them over as if they were trespassing on his turf. Upon recognizing Cilas and the ESO insignia, his eyes suddenly widened with surprise. He stepped out and saluted sharply. “How can I direct you, sir?” he said, and Helga noticed that there were food stains on the front of his uniform.

It was too much. She was disappointed. For all of the things the Aqnaqak had done, there seemed to be a lack of discipline on the ship. Noisy grunts were one thing, and she could understand the hangar—though as a pilot it annoyed her—but food stains on the uniform supplied by Alliance command? She wanted to step forward and slap him.

“Ate,” Cilas said, and she blinked past her shock to look over to see what he needed. “Did you hear the Corporal?”

“On the directions? Yeah, um, we’re to be taken to the ready room for a briefing,” she said.

The group of men laughed, but Cilas didn’t seem to be amused. “Yeah, I’ve said as much to him, but the question was on food. Should we grab breakfast, or do you want to wait until after the brief?”

Her eyes drifted down to the corporal’s food stain where she examined it closely. Is that porridge? she thought and then forced her eyes up. “I can wait until after, if that’s alright.” Helga couldn’t believe that in her daze, she had missed his question completely. Am I losing my mind? she wondered suddenly. I need to slow down on the drinking.

The men that were in the back of the transport got out as soon as she spoke, and the Nighthawks filed in to take their place. They rode through the rowdies, and Helga looked around. She seemed to be the only one surprised by the condition of the hangar. “Are you all about to deploy?” she said, hoping to get an explanation from the corporal.

“No ma’am, what you’re seeing right now is the result of housing troops on an already crowded ship. The fight with those lizards left a lot of Marines without bunks. We’re holding them here until we can work out a worthwhile transfer. Some may be coming to your ship, others to Helysian, eventually.”

“I had no idea,” Helga said.

“I’m surprised, since the Rendron took the bulk of them,” he said.

Helga looked over at Cilas, who nodded knowingly at what he said. Captain Sho must be a genius, she thought. He found a way to stash the troops without disrupting operations. The more she learned about her captain, the more she respected the man. He was a leader in every sense of the word, and the youngest captain in all of the Alliance. Not to mention, he too had graduated second-class, and had formed the Nighthawks when he thought that he could do a lot more for the war effort.

“Here we are,” said the corporal. “Commander Tye will meet you inside there.” He gestured to a small door at the end of the hangar where they parked, and Cilas hopped out of the vehicle and returned his salute before motioning for them to follow.

Helga rushed ahead to catch up with him, and he pushed open a door to a sizable compartment with a set of four chairs arranged in the center, facing a table laden with equipment. Next to the table stood a woman who patiently watched as they came inside, but it was hard to see her in the low light until she touched the wall and the room brightened.

“Welcome to Aqnaqak, Nighthawks,” she said. “Come in and have a seat. My name is Commander Cinnila Tye, and I am the Executive Officer of this ship. It was my summons that brought you here, so I appreciate you rushing over to hear what I have to say.”

She was an older woman, mid-forties, with years of experience stamped on her raw-boned face. There was a confident smile beneath her shaved head, tattooed with lines, ordered and crossed out—which Helga assumed were kills from when she was in the conflict.

“Badass,” Helga whispered, impressed by the decorated veteran. The commander gave her a measuring look, as if surprised to find a woman in the small ESO Company. It wasn’t lost on Helga, who was used to it by now, especially since this was Aqnaqak, the legendary Geralos-conquering battleship.

Cilas grabbed a seat in the front of the compartment and she followed his lead, sitting down on his right. Quentin and Raileo sat next to her—she still wasn’t used to having new team members calling themselves Nighthawks. She thought about how they once were eight, and then they were two until the summons had forced them to recruit these men. She wasn’t even sure if the two of them were ready. Raileo was a fighter, one had to be growing up on a hub, but he was fresh out of the academy, and she wondered how he would perform in the field.

Quentin, on the other hand, had been in numerous fights with the Geralos. As a Marine planet-buster, he had seen the worst of the worst, but men like that were sharpened tools, and ESO operators were leaders. If a situation presented itself where she and Cilas weren’t present, she wondered if he would be able to take charge. He had been one of a hundred Marines on the surface of Traxis. They were efficient killers, trained to eliminate the enemy, but they operated as a unit, never having to think for themselves.

Helga tried to push away her doubts in the new team members. She would have to accept that they would come through. The fears that she felt for them reminded her of when she was in their boots, as an unproven operator ready to embark on what would be her very first drop. Seven men had greeted her as a rookie, and only three of them trusted that she had earned her spot.

Quentin and Raileo were much farther along than she had been, plus they had graduated from BLAST, so they had more than earned their right to be there. Who was she to question their readiness, just because they were new to the team? Trust, she thought, massaging her knees unconsciously, as she looked at the commander who stepped forward for the brief.

A screen descended behind the woman and then she lowered the lights with a gesture of her hand. The planet Meluvia appeared behind her, as vivid as if she stood in front of a bay window during orbit. More gesturing pulled it in close, and then it began to animate, zooming them in as if they were all on a dropship, breaking atmosphere to find the ground. When the clouds dissipated and they could see the land, the commander stopped the animation and spoke.

“What you’re seeing here is the Zolen region of Meluvia. It is a peaceful region and has been for thousands of years. Location makes it hot, and the Swa’re Desert spans about ninety percent of this continent.”

“That’s Leif, right?” Quentin said.

“It is the continent of Leif, yes,” the woman said. “Most of us know it for the mineral farms that fuel the entire planet, but it has become compromised by a group of rebels known as the Meluvian Liberation Front.”

“MLF? Didn’t the Meluvian military decimate that group ages ago?” Cilas said.

“They thought that they did, Lieutenant, but they have since resurfaced, and have become more radical and violent than before. Since you know a bit of their history, I don’t have to impress upon you the seriousness of this mission.”

“I’m sorry, Commander, but I don’t know about the MLF,” Helga said. “Could you give us a quick rundown as to who they are?”

“Not a problem, but I hope that you take it upon yourself to do your own research beyond my words. The Meluvian Liberation Front is the result of several terrorist organizations on the planet coming together as one. Let me see … alright, so the history of MLF…” She stared up at the ceiling as if something was supposed to appear there.

“Alright,” she said again and then stared directly at Helga when she spoke. “When Meluvia joined the Alliance to help us with the Geralos, there was still a lot of conflict happening on the planet. See, Meluvia, unlike the other planets, did not have a central government back then. The decision to join us came from their richest nation, Voal, and with its power and influence on the lesser continents, they elected to join the war and are now our greatest ally. Everyone here should know that Meluvia is the reason we survived the early portion of this war, but many on the planet felt that they should have stayed out of it—”

“Like the Louines,” Raileo whispered, which earned him a cautionary glance from his team leader, Cilas Mec. Raileo cleared his throat and then sat back, staring forward, and Helga reasoned that him speaking out of turn was more the fault of nerves than him offering up a worthless anecdote. He was turning red from the embarrassment, and when their eyes met, she gave him a friendly nod.

The commander smiled patiently at the rookie and then shifted her gaze to Cilas. “Rebels and outlaws began to take advantage of the weakened military, whose numbers had become thin due to the war effort here in space. These rebels began to seize territory and used terror to cripple the government. For a time Meluvia had to break from the Alliance’s efforts in order to prevent a planetary civil war. Marines from the Geralos conflict took to the ground and joined the Meluvian army in striking back at the rebels. This forced the outlaws to become organized, and the strongest group, the MLF, integrated all of the other groups to become a formidable militia.

“Under this new setup they became efficient in their methods and integrated into the civilian world to spread their rhetoric of “Meluvia for Meluvians.” This was before our time, and for a long time the Meluvian leadership was unaware that the crushed rebellion was still alive and kicking. MLF has built up cells all over Meluvia, and the Virulian spy network has been working with the government to reveal their locations and counter them. This is why the Lieutenant believes that MLF was a thing of the past, but Captain Cor asked you here because the truth is MLF is much stronger than before.

“The Virulians have reported that the MLF has a number of ex-operators in their ranks. One is an ESO by the name of Joran Wolf.”

“Excuse me, Commander, but am I hearing you right?” Cilas said, leaning forward. “An MLF member is … one of us?”

“Yes,” she said, sighing, as if it was a painful thing to admit. “He’s a first-class target of the highest caliber, Lieutenant. This man is the former team leader to the Ocelots, Special Forces, and the target we need you to extract. As you know, the Ocelots were decommissioned last year, and the Aqnaqak has chosen not to rebuild. Operators from that team were led by this man. He needs to be removed and brought before the council for questioning. The Jumpers, the Virulian spies on the ground, have confirmed that he is under the protection of this group.”

Cilas Mec looked pained. Thype me, this is personal, Helga thought, as she felt the discomfort become like thick smoke in the air. She looked at Cilas to gauge his reaction, now that they’d learned that they were after one of their own. It was going to be difficult, for more reasons than she could fathom. This was no pirate or Geralos commander; this was a highly trained human who knew everything they knew.

Cilas seemed frozen in contemplation as he stared forward at the screen, which now held an image of Joran Wolf. “Is his cell operating out of Leif?” Cilas said, and the commander waved her hand, causing the display to revert back to the map. “Of all the countries, why choose that wasteland? Isn’t it uninhabitable due to the Swa’re desert?”

“Actually, Lieutenant, most of Leif may be a wasteland, but in the south it’s a tropical paradise. A vast jungle separates your desert from the water, and in it are a number of villages, primitive, but perfect for the MLF to recruit their soldiers. Our intel is sparse, but from the little we do know, their base is located south of the desert near a temple called Merkaad.”

She spread her arms and the map shifted, showing more detail of Leif’s terrain. “Here, you will see that the jungle ends abruptly where the desert starts. It’s a true wonder of nature, that split, which has vegetation and life in the south, and death and sand to the north. They know that no army would come at them through the desert, and getting through that jungle would be a nightmare, even with a guide. Wolf will have the air covered to prevent any covert drops. The MLF have several Surface to Air systems that will fry anything that flies within that region.”

“It depends on who is flying,” Helga said suddenly then said no more when Cilas gave her the same look he’d given Raileo earlier. Flying over Leif would be a challenge that she would readily take. In her mind there was no way that a primitive missile could find their dropship with her at the helm.

“Very good, young lady, but we do plan to avoid the air. You will instead be coming in from the south of this region.” She tapped an area of the screen just south of Leif, where a tiny archipelago sat unmarked. “You all will be flown in to touchdown on Kua, the northernmost Ru’oi isle. There you’ll have to locate the village of Almadun, where you’ll rendezvous with a member of the Meluvian Army Rangers. Once you’ve made contact, you will sail north to the shores of Leif. There, you will move north on foot to find Wolf and the MLF headquarters.”

“When do we deploy, ma’am?” Cilas said.

“You have two cycles,” she replied then continued with the specifics on where they would be dropped. Aqnaqak’s Ocelots had been like the Nighthawks, a team that was built for sensitive missions. But they had committed treason and broken their oaths. Most had been caught and thrown out of an airlock, but a handful escaped the wrath of Captain Tara Cor.

Wolf had not only defected but had stolen munitions needed to fight the Geralos. This more than anything made Helga hate him. He was not just a traitor to the Aqnaqak, but a traitor to the human race. Here they were, fighting the enemy—whose goal was galactic domination—and this man, who she had a hard time believing was a former ESO, had stolen their weapons to sell for personal gain.

“I want to carve a thyping hole in his face,” she said to Cilas, as they walked away from the hangar after being briefed.

“You and me both, but we’ll get our chance eventually,” he said.

“I can’t imagine an ESO turning against the Alliance,” Raileo said. “It defies all comprehension. We give up so much to be here.”

“Logic isn’t always the answer,” Quentin said. “I hold out hope that this is all a big misunderstanding. If it’s not, he has it coming, but if it’s a mistake, how would we play it, Lieutenant?”

Cilas took them through the passageway and up a set of stairs. It seemed as if he knew where he was going. He didn’t answer immediately since they were pushing past some spacers, but when they were on the next deck, he took them through a set of doors to what appeared to be an observation area.

“We can talk here,” he said. “Watch your words around the rates, Tutt, gossip is the quickest way to sack one of our missions. Now as to your question about Wolf’s innocence. We would radio back to tell the commander and wait to hear if our orders change. Regardless of what the truth is, we are to find and bring him home. Now, if he comes back kicking or cold in a box, that will depend on how open he is to discussion.”

Everyone was quiet so Helga walked over to the looming window, which showed the Rendron off in the distance, peacefully drifting above the planet. It reminded her of her youth, when she used to sneak onto the observation deck to clear her mind.

“We don’t make those decisions, Tutt,” she said, still looking out at Rendron. “Nighthawks are weapons, nothing less, nothing more. When a weapon is put into action, there is no hesitation to think.”

“Sounds like the Corps,” Quentin said. “Thought this would be different, but I understand.”

“Ate’s being dramatic,” Cilas cut in. “We are considered weapons, but we don’t just go in blindly and kill. If Wolf turns out to be in a different situation, we will act intelligently and send updates to the commander. Good enough?”

“More than good, Lieutenant. Perfect,” Quentin said.

“Listen. Helga, bring it in, I have something to say and you need to hear,” Cilas said. “This is a ‘drop and cop,’ which can be really easy or extremely hard. It is complicated by the fact that the mark is one of our own. What that means is that our stealth techniques may not give us an advantage, and the very real fact that Wolf already knows we’re coming and will get the drop on us when we land. Do not get cocky or feel mighty because you’re here. This is likely to be a schtill show, but we must be determined to succeed.”

“Do you know Wolf, Lieutenant?” Helga said as she sat down next to Raileo Lei.

“I know who he is, yes. We’ve crossed paths a couple of times.”

“Can you take him?” Raileo said.

“What, like in a fist-fight? Yes, but we’re not going down there for a fist-fight.” Cilas laughed. “As a unit we will take down Joran Wolf and bring him back to Commander Cinnila Tye. This is a good first mission for you men. It will get you prepared for anything to come. Remember where you are, and trust all your training, and don’t worry about Wolf being an ESO. If he was truly one of us, he’d be up here helping this ship, but he’s down there in the bushes, selling our weapons to civilian thugs. How does that make you feel, Nighthawks?”

“Ready to get down there and crack some skulls,” Quentin said.

“You got that right,” Cilas said.





5


“No PAS armor?” Helga said, referencing the rocket-powered suits they wore whenever they deployed to a moon or planet. PAS stood for Powered Armored Suit, and it served as the best protection for the gifted arm of the Anstractor Alliance Navy, the Extraplanetary Spatial Operators (ESO).

The PAS commanded respect, from both the Alliance Navy and the enemy. It wasn’t because of its make-up: strong, resilient, yet malleable, or the fact that its wearers could fly, maneuver onto battlefields through the most unconventional ways, or aid in the aiming of a number of high-powered weapons. The PAS was revered across the Alliance because of the men and women inside.

“Not necessary,” Cilas said. “We’ll be dealing with hot, sticky rain forests, and arid, endless sand. That bulky armor will get us killed in the jungle, and you’ll find yourself cooked, if we get stuck in the desert. It’ll be shirts and BDUs for this trip, Ate. I know you love the armor, but not this time.”

He tossed her a shirt and she caught it and flipped it around to see how big it was. She didn’t think that Cilas would know her size, even though she’d spent the better part of a year hip-to-hip with him inside an escape pod. He’d been confident enough to toss it to her as if there was no question, so she was curious as to how good of a guess he had made. “Lieutenant, this is a size two,” she complained, still remembering that she was a three.

“Yeah, is that not your size?” he said, seeming perplexed.

“Okay, let’s see,” she said, ready to show him up. She removed her shirt, not caring that she had an audience, then stood up and pulled on the camouflaged top. Thype me, what in the worlds is happening? she thought. The ugly shirt fit perfectly, as if it had been made for her. “How is this possible?” she said, looking around. Then it dawned on her … “That nosy little cruta. Joy told you my size, didn’t she?” she said.

“Maybe,” Cilas said, fighting a smile, but Quentin thought that it was the most hilarious thing.

“What else did that little snake tell you?” she asked as she gathered the rest of her clothes. But Cilas didn’t respond, switching his focus to the other two men, who he handed similar shirts, before pulling on his own.

Helga walked over to a mirror to take a look at herself. She couldn’t believe that she had shrunk to being a size two. If I get any tinier, they will force me onto the bridge, she thought. I’ve gotten so small and weak. Just last year she was a size three, short, slender, but muscular, and with the gaunt figure staring back from the mirror, she really wished that they could wear their armor. It was one of the perks of being a Nighthawk. What was the point of risking your life if you couldn’t look amazing in that hard shell?

“I still think that we should wear our PAS armor,” Helga said.

“Give it up, Ate, it’s not happening,” Cilas said.

The four Nighthawks dressed in their uniforms and went back to the hangar to find the dropship. They worked their way through the crowd of young Marines and spacers, who looked on in awe at the ESOs. When they reached the area where the ships were parked, the crowd thinned out into nothing. Helga wondered why this happened, but then she saw an armed master-at-arms. He stood with his back to a glowing divider blocking a section of the hangar.

“This area’s restricted,” he barked at Cilas. “Back away from the line. Captain’s orders. Only Aqnaqak pilots and battle-ready cargo may pass.”

“Do you not recognize who this is, M.A.? This is Lieutenant Cilas Mec. Excuse yourself,” Quentin said.

The man looked over at Cilas, who seemed more than a little annoyed with the delay. He recognized him immediately and lowered his weapon, then powered down the divider line to let them pass. “Accept my apologies, Lieutenant Mec, and may you have a safe trip,” he quickly said.

The more Helga experienced Quentin, the more she liked him, though the jury was out on whether it all was an act. When they walked past the M.A., she gave him a cursory glance and was taken aback. He was sallow-skinned with a beard, which made him look filthy beneath the helmet and the uniform. Between his appearance and the loud Marines, the Aqnaqak seemed less impressive than she thought it would be.

She caught up with Cilas so that they could talk as he led them over to a sleek black ship. “What’s with the state of this ship, Lieutenant? Isn’t the Aqnaqak one of the premier starships in the Alliance? I don’t know. The state of this place is barely better than what I would expect from a hub, or one of the junker trade ships that occupy Vestalian space,” she said.

“Hubs aren’t so bad,” Raileo said, and Helga recalled that he had been raised on one. She was about to make an excuse for using them as an example when she remembered that her lieutenant, Cilas Mec, had also been raised on a hub before his parents got him drafted to the formal Alliance Navy.

“I didn’t mean to pick on hubs, Lei,” she said, looking over at Cilas. “I was lucky enough to not have been sent to one after my parents died, so this isn’t me being an elitist cruta about living spaces. What I’m referring to is the crowded state of this hangar. It makes me cringe. What if the lizards were to jump in right now? How would the pilots manage to get through all of this adolescent testosterone in order to get out there to protect the ship?”

“It would help if they had a dedicated area for new Marines, but they’re using the hangar as a staging station. I know, because I was here myself, not too long before I got into BLAST,” Raileo said. “I guess in a sense this is exactly like a hub, except on a hub you have no choice since people live wherever they can fit.”

“Yeah, and you probably won’t be knifed or raped for making the wrong turn amongst those tents either,” Cilas said under his breath.

Raileo chuckled, and Quentin seemed to recognize the unspoken connection between the two men because he gave Helga a questioning look. Cilas stopped below the wing of the sleek black vessel. It was a model known as a V35 Vixen, one of the fastest dropships in the Alliance.

Helga tried to see if she could see anyone through the windows but they were just as dark and impenetrable as the vessel’s smooth hull. As she made to tell Cilas that the pilot may be late, a panel in the side popped out and folded down to become a ramp leading them up into the vessel.

The inside of the dropship seemed more luxury than military, with plush leather seats, carpeting, and an entertainment console installed in the aft. “Are we in the right place?” Raileo said, looking from face to face as if waiting for one of them to give him permission to sit.

“This is Captain Cor’s personal ship,” a high-pitched voice said, and then a freckled face emerged from the cockpit, followed by a slender body in a tight black 3B suit. “I’m Ensign Misa Veil, and I’ll be your pilot for this mission. Pleasure to meet you, Lieutenant Mec, Ensign Ate, Sergeant Tutt, and Chief Lei.”

“Likewise, ma’am” Raileo said, grinning from ear to ear.

Helga was dumbfounded as she scanned the woman from head to toe. She couldn’t have been more than fourteen, all legs and short-cropped green hair, which was obviously dyed because she looked like no other Meluvian that she had ever seen. This has to be a joke, she thought, and she shifted her gaze over to Cilas to see if his reaction was the same.

“The captain has an infiltration grade dropship as her personal taxi?” Helga said, trying not to laugh. “This is a V35 Vixen with an interior modified for a queen. Do you have the necessary upgrades in case this thing goes off the rails?”

“Yes, ma’am, she’s good to go. Reinforced plating under all that blackness that you saw out there. Radar suppressants, Phantom engine for both speed and stealth, fuel reserves, powered shields, and two focused energy cannons in case we need to bite back at anything trying to swat us down. You also have a pilot with over five years of drops, not limited to friendly moons, and planets like the big blue one out there. I’ve seen some schtill.” She giggled. “Not to worry, the captain put you all in good hands.”

With that she saluted and pulled a set of double doors open, revealing the cockpit and a large, shaded glass overlooking the displaced Marines.

“Five years of drops. Did I hear her right?” Helga said to Cilas, her voice so low that he had to lean forward to hear. “That girl could be your daughter, Tutt. No disrespect in asserting that, but unless she’s been flying missions since she was ten, I question that asinine assertion she just made.”

Cilas laughed and looked at Quentin who smiled as if he was in on the joke, and Helga looked to see if Raileo too knew something she didn’t. The young man shrugged. “I’m not laughing at you, Ate,” Cilas said. “It’s just funny that for all of our dealing with one another in the Alliance, we each know very little about the histories of our ships. Misa is a woman, but her genetics look to be pure Aqnaqak descent. I can bet her parents served on this ship just like their parents, and their parents before them. Misa is a result of the Aqnaqak’s complex history, and due to that, she will probably outlive us all.”

“You’re going to have to enlighten me, Lieutenant. I somehow missed this whole Aqnaqak thing in history class,” Helga said.

“Of course you missed it. It isn’t taught, just like all the darker elements of our Vestalian history,” he said, leaning back. Misa gave them the order to strap in and they all fastened their restraints. “See, the lot of us were born on vessels like Rendron and Aqnaqak,” Cilas continued. “And we like to pretend as if those ships have always been Alliance-centered.

“Before the lizards, Vestalia was just like Meluvia, a big rock full of people that didn’t necessarily like one another. Every race has its infighting, and we humans were no different. The Vasulan Empire, especially, was in the business of establishing their superiority, no matter the cost. On the planet they forbade the mixing of races. Anyone born outside of their lands were considered the enemy, and for that, they stayed at war with several nations. When the lizards invaded, the Vasulans escaped in the Dezoan, Vestalia’s greatest battleship.”

“I know the Dezoan,” Raileo said. “That they did teach us in history class.” He grinned at Helga, and she rolled her eyes at him, unimpressed.

“What does any of that have to do with Aqnaqak?” she said, thinking that Cilas had veered off from his point.

“The part they don’t teach us is that the Dezoan made a deal with the lizards, giving them prisoners of war in exchange for free passage. That’s how much they hated the rest of us. They worked with the Geralos to conduct experiments on their people. They wanted to be stronger and more resilient in order to outlive the rest of us when the lizards prevailed. That was just the tip of the iceberg. They captured Casanians, Louines, and Meluvians for their experiments, keeping the successful formulas for their own people and air-locking the mutants that resulted from the failures.”

“Maker,” Quentin whispered, his eyes wide with horror as he listened to Cilas’s story.

“Well, eventually the Alliance caught wind of their activity, and they were labeled an enemy and set upon by every other ship in Anstractor,” Cilas said. “Human on human combat ensued … and despite the Dezoan’s superiority, it eventually surrendered to the Scythe, which had found a way to penetrate its defense. The Vasulans were defeated, and the Dezoan was dismantled and rebuilt into what we know now as the Aqnaqak. Those experiments… well, they were integrated into the crew, while those behind the treason were tried and air-locked above Traxis.”

“What an awful history,” Quentin said.

“It is, but dig deep into any ship’s past and you’ll find bones that have been hidden to make us seem like innocents,” Cilas said. “The lizards are cruel, but so are we. They just managed to get the jump on us when we were busy eating our own. Many spacers on the Aqnaqak are descended from those awful experiments. Ensign Veil is one, as you can tell by your confusion, but inside that young-looking body is an experienced officer that is qualified for this mission.”

“Thank you, Lieutenant.” Misa’s cheerful voice sung, and Helga wondered if she’d heard everything that had been said, or just the last part from Cilas, since his voice had elevated. Her inquiry into the woman’s age would have been insulting, and the last thing she wanted to do was to make a fellow pilot dislike her for an ignorant opinion.

She thought about how she would feel if it was her in that cockpit and a young ESO woman had come aboard, only to gossip about her racial mixture due to seeing the spots on the side of her head. It would open up the scars from childhood, particularly her years in the cadet academy, and she would probably hate that woman. “If you can hear me, Ensign Veil, I apologize for my questions,” Helga said. “I forgot myself and didn’t mean anything by it.”

“Trust me, Ensign Ate,” she said. “I am used to it. Now, prepare for launch and the smoothest ride down to that beautiful planet known as Meluvia. Woo!”

Helga exchanged glances with Cilas. Meluvia was indeed beautiful, and it would have been considered a paradise if not for the threat of the Geralos. Everything on the planet was colorful, including its people with their freckled skin and flowing dark green hair. The only planet that came close to theirs was Vestalia, the human planet, but after being conquered and forced into space, the planet now belonged to the Geralos.

They shot out from the Aqnaqak and flew past the Rendron, which Helga watched from her window, wondering how it was that the ship didn’t feel like home. On her first mission, she had missed it somewhat, thinking of sleeping inside her own bed, but it was a brief thought that vanished once she began