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Chapter 1

Eli considered taking a break after his tenth lap around the ship, but strained ahead into lap eleven. Despite being tired and covered with sweat, he picked up the pace and pushed his body even harder.

Almost halfway home, he thought. Twelve weeks to get here, another week on the ground, then twelve weeks back to Telgora. Easy.

He slowed briefly to make the turn that would carry him around the stern and dodged left to avoid a collision with Corporal Aquino. The other ranger was doing his own laps around the ship, and offered Eli a brief nod as he passed. The Agate was a scout-class vessel. It wasn’t large by alliance standards—it measured only a hundred and fifty meters in length, and thirty meters wide—but the corridor that ran around the circumference was just wide enough to double as a jogging path. Along with the small weight room on the third deck, the corridor was where Eli and most of the other eleven rangers assigned to this mission spent their time.

Boredom wasn’t an overly particular companion, Eli knew. It had introduced itself to all of the soldiers on the ship, without exception. Unlike the pilots, engineers and scientists assigned to this trip, the rangers had little to occupy their minds—which was why they spent so much time working out their bodies.

Even worse than the boredom, though, were the pangs of loneliness and loss Eli felt whenever he thought of Adrienne. Not for the first time, Eli wondered if being in a relationship was possible for a professional soldier. The fact they he and Adrienne were both soldiers made the question doubly troubling. Forced separations were a part of their lives and he considered how this could ever work long term. As he always did when the doubts closed in, he struggled to recall his father’s lengthy absences from his family over the years. Despite being separated by war, responsibility, and conflict for much of their marriage, his parents had somehow managed to stay together. The thought helped. A bit.

But exercise helped more.

He picked up the pace and drove his body even harder.

***

Eli donned his Personal Enhanced Atmospheric Combat Environment (PEACE) Armor before making his way to the ship’s command center. No one expected trouble, but he wanted to be ready just in case, when the ship made its approach.

He stepped through the doorway and scanned the faces already assembled. As expected, the ship’s commander, Cal Hansen, was firmly planted in the pilot’s seat at the center of the wide room. To his immediate left and right, the other four members of the crew were seated at their assigned consoles. Over the past weeks, Eli had spent a good deal of time in this room, watching, listening, asking questions. Most of the five-member crew had grown accustomed to his curiosity, and readily shared their knowledge of the ship’s operation. Commander Hansen was the exception. He had a reputation in the fleet for being the best at what he did. He was also a no-nonsense authoritarian who was abrupt, dismissive, and often rude. In many ways, he seemed more like a Minith than a human in his personal interactions. Suffice it say, Eli had learned early on to schedule his visits around the commander’s working hours.

He feels mildly threatened by your presence, Eli.

A mental picture of Hansen accompanied the nonverbal communication so there was no doubt as to who was being discussed. Eli glanced left and saw Aank standing quietly at the back of the room. The Waa advisor’s large, dark eyes gleamed back at him. Blinked. Blinked again.

Whatever, Aank. Hansen has no reason to be threatened by me. I’m just a bored soldier trying to make the best of this excursion.

You are also a Hero of the Zrthn Conflict and the son of General Grant Justice.

Eli shrugged off the “hero” comment—he was just a soldier doing his job during that campaign—but he considered Aank’s second observation. Being the son of the most famous man in the Shiale Alliance came with a price tag. Despite his efforts to make his own way and become his own person, the shadow cast by his father was impossible to escape. Eli sighed and made a mental note to stop avoiding the ship’s top officer. Running from a problem is never the way to solve it. They would need each other, at least for the next thirteen weeks. Anyone can put up with rudeness for that long. If he managed to break down the barrier the commander had erected and get to know the real Cal Hansen in the process, well, all the better.

Blink. Blink. The mental blinks were followed by a feeling of pleased contentment, tinged with a healthy dose of amusement. Eli stifled a Minith-like growl. Mind-speak was both a blessing a curse. Aank enjoyed goading him into mental jousting matches, but Eli refused the bait. Instead, he turned his attention to the view that filled the forward wall.

Their destination already filled nearly a fourth of the screen and Eli kicked himself for not getting here earlier. He hadn’t needed lose last five laps.

“Slow our approach, and prepare to orbit, Lt. Terrance,” Hansen ordered.

“Yes, commander.”

Like everyone else in the command center, Eli’s eyes were focused on the planet they had come to investigate. It’s visage now occupied a third of the vid-wall. Cloud formations were clearly visible on the side of the planet facing the sun. Eli thought he could make out borders where land masses bordered seas, but they were still too far away to be certain. A shiver of excitement ran down his spine at the thought of what might wait below.

Cerbius was an earth-like planet. Located in the Cerban solar system, it resided at the outermost limits of Shiale Alliance territory. It had been discovered two years earlier by a Shiale scout ship searching for Zrthn trespassers. They hadn’t found any Zrthns, but the discovery of the seemingly habitable planet was a pleasant surprise. Even more surprising—and potentially more pleasing—was initial scans of the planet hinted at large deposits of agsel ore sitting below the surface.

A potentially habitable planet was important. A potentially habitable planet that possessed agsel was of paramount importance. Agsel was the most valuable resource to the upstart alliance—an alliance that united the humans of Earth with the Waa, Minith, and Telgoran races. Trade of the ore, which was needed to achieve faster-than-light space travel, funded their growth and helped ensure their continued independence from alien poachers.

Eli had learned from the scientific members of their party that several leaders in the Shiale Alliance had argued for an immediate procession of all available ships and personnel to the planet. But his father, General Grant Justice, the leader of the Shiale Defense Force, had cautioned restraint and proposed a more strategic approach. Moving dozens of large ships and thousands of troops onto the planet would send a signal to potential adversaries of the importance of Cerbius. A single scout ship, with a standard contingent of two dozen personnel—soldiers, pilots, scientists, and engineers—he argued, was a more reasonable move. It mirrored the alliance’s standard operations for exploring new planets. As such, it shouldn’t draw unwanted attention. If the planet was truly habitable and held large deposits of agsel ore, they could plan a larger expedition, and perhaps a more permanent presence. As with most of the general’s suggestions, it was accepted by the alliance.

The one concession to standard protocol, however, was inclusion of a team of Shiale Rangers on the expedition in place of regular ground troops. Their armored presence would provide additional defensive capabilities, without taking up additional space on the crowded ship. That’s when Eli and eleven of his troopers had been selected to join the mission.

“Commander, we’re prepared to orbit,” Ensign Hagrid Sheen commented. Her words were delivered in a toneless, matter-of-fact manner, but Eli had spent enough time with the young pilot to know that tone was the one she used only when addressing her superior, Commander Hansen. In the commander’s absence her voice had a lyrical, sing-song quality that revealed her passion for the ship she piloted, and the crew she worked with. Although second in command to Hansen, Sheen was the youngest member of the small crew. She was also the crew member Eli most enjoyed learning from.

“Very well, ensign. Execute orbiting maneuvers and place the Agate in stationary orbit on the sun-side,” the commander said, his eyes finally leaving the vid-screen. Those grey eyes landed on the tall, muscular man standing stoically to their right. “Senior Engineer Tiang.”

“Yes, Commander?” the lead engineer replied, his own eyes glued to the view of Cerbius that was just beginning to appear on the view screen at the front of the room.

“Once we achieve orbit, the ship is yours to command.” As the senior mining engineer on the expedition, Tiang and his five-person team were charged with locating and assessing any agsel deposits. In effect, from this point onward, he was in charge of the mission until their work on Cerbius was done and the ship was ready to depart. At that point, Commander Hansen would regain command.

“Understood, commander. Thank you for delivering us to Cerbius safely,” the engineer replied. Like most humans raised on earth, Tiang spoke in the overly formal, nasal tone of Earth Standard language. Eli—having been raised around soldiers, and on planets other than earth—Eli found the dialog, and man himself, overly pretentious. Tiang’s blatant dismissals of Eli and the other rangers over the last few weeks contributed to his dislike of the man. After the third snub over what Eli considered simple, polite conversation, he had asked Aank what was up with the miner.

He’s a firm believer in peace, Eli. Your role as a soldier does not conform to his behavioral norms. On an intellectual level, he understands the need for those like you. On a more personal level, he believes you to be evil and dangerous. His unwillingness to interact with those who commit violence is how he reconciles those feelings.

So, it wasn’t personal. Tiang understood the need for soldiers; he just didn’t like them. His dad a word for those types of humans: Peace-niks. They refused to accept violence of any sort, for any reason. Oddly enough, Eli knew, those types of humans were often the ones who most needed people like Eli and his father—someone willing to fight for those who are unable or unwilling to fight for themselves. The Peace Wars were proof of that reality. If his dad hadn’t fought back against the Minith twenty-plus years ago, people like Tiang would still be languishing under the boots of those alien slavers.

Eli shrugged off the thoughts and concentrated on the view of the planet. It now filled the vid-screen. Land masses were clearly discernible from oceans. The preliminary data from a year earlier had given everyone a good understanding of what they would find on Cerbius—vivid green vegetation covered nearly half the planet, while the other half was painted with the startling blues of oceans, rivers, and lakes. Along with the others in the command center, Eli was captivated by the beauty that grew closer with each second.

“Reducing speed to match orbital rotation,” Ensign Sheen called out. Eli felt and heard the changes taking place throughout the ship as it settled into position just inside the upper reaches of the Cerbian atmosphere. The trio of agsel drives lining the ship’s stern worked in tandem to gently lower the craft toward the surface. This approach was much different from the early days of human space exploration, when crude, rocket-powered ships were used. In those days, re-entry was a carefully choreographed dance that balanced speed, heat, and approach angle to ensure safe deceleration. As Ensign Sheen had explained it, the old process was similar to skipping a stone across a lake in order to achieve speed burn-off and allow a gradual, controlled reentry. The modern model, perfected by the engineers of Waa, was more like placing a rock on the surface of the lake, and gently lowering it to the bottom using the science of magnetics that was made possible by the agsel-covered hull and the triple agsel drives.

To Eli, it was a magic that he’d never fully understand. He doubted any human did. The alien Waa were a much more advanced race in that respect, which is why they built the ships used by the Shiale Alliance.

“We’ve reached our target, eight kilometers above the surface,” Sheen calmly announced. “Upper reaches of the troposphere. Stabilizing descent.”

The planet filled the vid-screen now and Eli watched as the expanses of green rolled by beneath the white of clouds. The surface seemed flat, devoid of mountains or large hills, but it was difficult to determine accurately from this distance. The only thing he knew for sure was that as far as their cameras could see, Cerbius was covered with green. And that green was broken up only by the occasional lake or river. Eli didn’t spot a single canyon, desert, or plain.

“Tiang,” Hansen said, rising from his seat and turning to face the senior engineer. “The ship is now yours. Orders?”

“Thank you, commander.” Eli watched as Tiang marched to the front of the room and stood close to the vid-screen. He seemed to be studying it, for what Eli had no clue. “How close to the surface can we descend, commander?”

The Agate can get in as close as a kilometer, maybe a bit closer,” Hansen answered. “After that, we’ll need to deploy one or more of the three carriers in our holding bay. As you know, all ground landings will have to be done by carrier ship.”

All landings also required the accompaniment of his rangers, so Eli paid close attention.

“Thank you, commander,” Tiang said. “I’d like to get as close as possible to the surface and deploy our sensing equipment. With luck, we’ll have identified our first agsel deposit by the end of the day.”

“As you wish,” Hansen replied, then nodded to Ensign Sheen to carry out the request.

As they got closer to the ground, their views of the planet sharpened. However, even as they neared the one-kilometer mark, Eli still could not make out individual plants or trees. All he could see were various shades of green. The forest cover was thick—so thick it appeared to be an endless ocean of green. Eli didn’t see a single patch of bare ground.

Eli asked for a reading on the height of the foliage and was informed that the ceiling of the forest canopy topped out at just over three hundred meters. Those were tall, tall trees below. And there were a lot of them. He wondered how they would land the carriers, and began planning out strategies for clearing a landing site, in case one might be needed.

His thoughts were interrupted by a gasp. He looked toward Tiang and saw the man pointing to something at the upper right corner of the large screen. Eli looked at what captured Tiang’s attention and found himself equally captivated. Although the point of interest was far below them, it grew larger by the second. The vid quality was sufficient to let them know there was no mistaking the situation. They weren’t alone on Cerbius. There was a large facility—comprised of multiple buildings and a large space port—sitting in the middle of all that green.

“It’s a mine,” Tiang stated. There was hint of irritation and disbelief in the words, and Eli shared those feelings. For just a moment he had time wonder who could have beaten them here, but that thought quickly vanished as a streak of red leapt from the structure and sliced a pathway from the mine to The Agate.

As Eli watched in shock, the streak intercepted their course and struck the ship. The hit was marked by a violent, shuddering vibration that passed through the command center.

Laser cannon, Eli thought.

The Agate shimmied violently, and tilted to the right. Alarms began ringing throughout the command center, and the rest of the ship.

“We’ve lost the starboard and center drives!” Ensign Sheen called out. Eli heard the fear in Hagrid’s voice and knew they were in trouble. Someone was doing their best to knock them from the sky, and they were a single agsel drive from succeeding.

“Damage assessment, left screen!” Hansen shouted. Immediately, the foliage on the left side of the vid-screen vanished and was replaced by a diagram of the systems that had been damaged by the laser. The commander stared at the screen as he fought his way against the ongoing shaking to reclaim his seat.

Not good, Eli.

Aank’s assessment of the situation was as unexpected as it was troubling. Before being assigned to Eli as his personal advisor, the Waa had been an engineer. One of his prior positions had been lead designer for several alliance ships, including the very class of scout ship they were currently occupying. Eli had not known this about Aank until this moment, which is when Aank pushed it into his consciousness.

Now you tell me, Aank? Eli had a moment to consider what he’d learned from the ship’s crew over the past few weeks. He could have learned a great deal more from his very own advisor through mind-speak if he’d only known.

We have little time. Here’s what you need to do. Aank followed up the mental comment by pushing a plan into Eli’s consciousness—a plan that seemed crazy, impossible. Eli started to protest, but Aank cut him off by implanting an overwhelming feeling of certainty. That certainty convinced Eli that unless he moved now, they were all dead.

Eli groaned at what he had to do, unsure if he was capable of such a task.

But his legs were already carrying him toward the corridor.

Chapter 2

Eli donned his helmet as he sprinted for the stern. The PEACE armor helped him cover the distance at a speed that his own body never could accomplish.

He activated the mic in his helmet and sent out a call to his team.

“This is Captain Justice. Is anyone near the stern?”

“Private Samna, here Captain,” came an almost immediate reply. “I’m at the stern.”

Thank goodness. This might just work.

“Samna, look for the access panel in the center of the corridor. It’s marked SA-201. Do you see it?”

“Got it, captain.”

“Great. Open it and get your ass down the ladder on the other side of that hatch. At the bottom you’ll find a safety line and a bag with tools. Get them ready. Don’t—I repeat do not open the exterior hatch until I get there. I’ll be there in under a minute.”

“Got it, Captain. Going down the ladder now. I’ll be waiting for you.”

Not for the first time, he was glad for the quality of the troops on his team. He didn’t have to waste time explaining the how or why. Samna would do as he ordered without needing the reasons. The fact that the entire ship was dancing a crazy, shimmying jig probably told her all she needed to know.

Eli took the turn at the rear of the ship and spied the open hatch twenty meters ahead. Two more of this team—he didn’t pause to see who—were waiting outside the opening. He slowed just enough to enter the opening and pull the hatch closed behind him.

“Secure the hatchway,” he shouted into his mic as he started his climb down the ladder. The descent was more of a controlled fall than a climb. He grabbed the sides of the ladder with his armored gloves and dropped.

“We got it, EJ” So one of the two had been Lieutenant Benson. Good. What he had to do would be dangerous. Very dangerous. If anything happened to him, he could count on Benson to take control of the unit and do the right thing, whatever that “right thing” might be. Then again, if anything happened to Eli, their collective fates might all be sealed anyway.

Eli landed lightly on his feet and stepped to the side. Private Rossa Samna stood across the shaft and held out a bag of tools with her right hand. In the left she gripped a coil of agsel-coated safety line. Both looked exactly like the images Aank had placed in his head. He looked down to find a hatchway that led to the exterior of the hull.

“Benson, is that hatchway secured?”

“All secure on this end, EJ,” the lieutenant replied. He was the only person in the alliance who call him EJ, a nickname that had started on day one of their military days. Although that day was only two years in the past, it seemed like a lifetime ago.

“Excellent.” Eli reached across the shaft and plucked the end of the safety cable that held the D-ring from Samna. Without needing to look, he snapped the ring onto a small loop built into the back of his PEACE armor for exactly that purpose. He then took the tool bag and clipped in to the same loop. He then looked to Samna and asked, “Your armor buttoned up?”

“All good to go, Captain,” she affirmed with a nod and knelt down beside the hatch. “Just tell me when you’re ready.”

Despite the urgency and the danger they were all in, Eli smiled. He had first met Rossa Samna during a Sift exercise back on Telgora. He had been leading a team through their assigned task when they detected a hole in Samna’s armor. He’d managed to get her to a safe place before continuing on with the mission. She’d been part of his core team ever since, and her seeming ability to know exactly what he needed, and when, was one of the main reasons. She was a bit of a savant in that regard, and he felt a surge of appreciation and pride at the soldier she had become.

“Let’s do this,” he said with a nod. He told her the access code Aank had given him and watched as she keyed it in and spun the release mechanism. “Once I’m out on the hull, I’ll need you to feed me slack.”

She nodded and the automatic hatch began to open. It moved slower than Eli wanted, but he took a breath to calm his nerves and waited for the first crack to grow into a gap that he could get his armored body through. He tried to ignore the blasts of rushing wind that suddenly filled the shaft. The protection offered by the armor helped. He checked the display on his face plate and noted that the temperature had dropped to -10 degrees. That was well within the suit’s tolerances, so he put that out of his mind. The growing view of the green vegetation a kilometer below the ship was impossible to ignore. Without Samna to man the safety cable, any slip could result in a very long fall.

He shook his head to clear his mind of everything except the task at hand and squatted beside the open hatch. Despite how bad conditions were inside, they got ten times worse when he dropped down and stuck his legs through the exit. He was basically seated above a kilometer-long drop to an alien planet and was about to begin an upside-jaunt across the belly of a massive space-faring ship, with nothing to keep him safe except a quarter inch safety cable and the magnetic soles built into his boots. Easy-peasie.

The ship jerked suddenly, the massive shudder much worse than the previous shaking.

We are nearly out of time, Eli, Aank encouraged from his spot in the command center. I estimate fifteen minutes until the ship crashes.

Without bothering to reply, Eli activated the magnetic-assist setting in his boots with a spoken commend. His feet, which dangled through the opening slammed suddenly backward against the hull of the ship with an audible clang. The ferocity of the action tweaked something in Eli’s right knee and he cried out against the pain.

What an idiot, he thought. With a grimace, he deactivated the mag-assist and felt his legs return to the dangle position. He’d have to exit the ship and then position his feet properly if he was to get this done.

“Hang on, Samna. I’m dropping through.”

Samna nodded and took up a firm grip on the cable. He didn’t doubt her or her armor-assisted grip for a second. He just dropped.

Although the Agate’s speed was only a crawl compared to what she was capable of, the ship was moving fast enough for the wind to catch him and slam his now-dangling body against the hull. Thankfully, the armor he wore absorbed the impact. He reached back and grasped the safety cable, then used it to maneuver his body so that he was facing the hull, his head pointing toward the front of the ship, his feet backward toward the stern and the three drives. He paused for just a moment, then used the power of the armored suit to pull his legs into his chest. From there, he worked to get his feet positioned between his body and ship. Finally ready, he reactivated the mag-assist in his boots and pushed. With a sigh of relief he suddenly found himself hanging upside down, attached to the bottom of the hull by the powerful magnetic current running through his boots.

He found himself facing the front of this ship, and saw Samna’s torso hanging from the hatch he’d just exited. She gave him a silent “thumbs up” with her left hand. He noted the safety cable gripped securely in her right, and returned the gesture. He felt a lance of pain in his right knee, but pushed it out of his thoughts. With the mag-assist activated, and Samna’s control of the safety line, he was satisfied he wouldn’t fall. With that very important step accomplished, he turned his body around so it faced the rear of the craft and spied his goal—the center drive.

 The never-ending shimmy that gripped the ship made movement difficult, so the need for concentration was paramount. It took a few long seconds for him to work out how to move along the hull while hanging upside down, but he finally settled on a system. He released the mag-assist in one boot, shuffled it forward in the direction of the center drive, then reengaged the magnet. He then repeated the process with the opposite foot. Release-shuffle-reengage. Release-shuffle-reengage. The back-and-forth process was cumbersome, made especially so by his head-pointed-at-the-ground state, but he managed to cover the twenty meters between the hatch and the center drive in less than a minute.

Everything Aank had placed in his head came back to him. Patching the severed coolant line to the center drive was crucial. By itself, the undamaged, left drive would keep the ship aloft for only a few more minutes. Unless the center or right side drive was brought back on line, it was just a matter of time before the ship crashed. He spared a glance at the planet’s surface and estimated the ship had already lost half its altitude since being hit by the laser cannon.

Applying the short-term fix Aank had given him for the center drive would allow them to regain altitude and exit the atmosphere. Once back in the vacuum of space, they could regroup and the ship’s crew, who were trained to implement real repairs—not merely affix a band-aid like Eli was attempting—could do their thing.

Ten minutes, Eli.

Okay, okay, Aank. Enough with the countdown. How about doing that soothing thing you do? That might actually help.

A sense of calm immediately flowed into and over Eli, allowing him to focus clearly on the task at hand. He wasn’t sure how Aank was able to do that, but it was a cool trick.

Eli unhooked the tool bag hanging from the back of his suit, taking care not to disengage the safety cable, and relocated it to his front. The buffeting wind threatened to push him forward so he allowed the suit to assist his movements as he crouched and inspected the damaged drive.

He immediately spotted the inch-wide fissure that had been burnt across much of the hull. His eyes followed the path of the laser and saw that it started on the far side of the right drive, fifteen meters away, and ended just a meter to the left of the center drive. Luckily the left drive had been spared.

He reached into the bag, retrieved the tool that allow him release the access panel nearest the damage, and got to work. Hanging upside down was a challenge, but a minute later, the cover fell backwards and away, spinning crazily behind the drive and down toward the ground.

Eli poked his head into the opening and surveyed the damage underneath. Just as Aank had mentally shown him, a twenty millimeter metal line, used to deliver coolant to the drive, had been sliced open by the laser canon. A trail of coolant leaked rapidly from the line and was immediately whisked away to the rear by the wind.

Acting quickly now that he had reached the most important part of this errand, he retrieved a spool of agsel tape from the bag and began wrapping it around the line as Aank had instructed. It was crazy to consider that all of their lives hung in the balance because of damage that could be fixed by a few wraps of tape around a coolant line. He shook his head at the thought and continued wrapping. The leaking coolant was quickly contained.

Eli stretched a final wrap of the agsel tape around the line and checked his work. Satisfied, he sent word to Aank.

Done!

Excellent, Eli. That should be enough for the moment, the Waa engineer replied. A note of relief accompanied the declaration.

Eli turned toward Samna, gave her another thumbs. He was going to thank her for the help, when a red flash, off to his left, caught his attention. He turned and gasped as another, second blast from the hostile laser cannon tore across the left drive. As he watched in horror, the laser burned a line of damage across the drive, then moved across the hull toward the center of the ship toward Samna.

Eli opened his mouth to shout, but he never got the chance.

One moment he was firmly affixed to the ship’s hull. The next, he was falling toward the green expanse below.

Flock me. His arms pinwheeled uselessly as the green expanse that covered Cerbius rushed up to greet him. So this is how it ends.

Eli felt a blanket of calm settle around him as he fell and knew it was Aank. Even with the Waa’s own death only a few minutes away, the alien was trying to help him one last time. The kindness of the act was not lost on the doomed ranger. He offered a silent thank you to his friend, gave himself over to the inevitable, and turned his final thoughts to home and to the woman he’d left behind.

Adrienne.

Chapter 3

Aank observed from the back of the command center as the captain and his crew struggled to keep the scout ship in the air.

“Center drive is back on line!” Ensign Sheen shouted. Even had he not been able to read her thoughts, her relief at having a second drive would have been palpable. It would be momentary solace, though. Through Eli’s eyes, Aank had already seen the damage to the port drive.

Aank knew this ship and its capabilities. It was built for space travel, not for prolonged atmospheric orbiting. A single drive could easily propel it through the vacuum of space at faster-than-light speeds. Atmospheric navigation, however, required the drives serve a different set of physical laws and—to serve those laws—at least two drives were needed.

“Excellent,” Captain Hansen replied. “Employ standard protocol and get us out of this orbit.”

The Waa observed as the captain restrained his own feelings of relief and struggled to present a calm, professional outlook for his crew. He did a much better job at hiding his emotions than the young female. Not for the first time, Aank pondered at the inner workings of humans. They spent tremendous amounts of personal energy trying to communicate the most basic ideas, emotions, and intentions to those around them—and more often than not, they failed miserably. Their tenacity, however. That was unmatched by any other creature the collective Waa had ever encountered.

No amount of tenacity would be able to save the ship, though, and Aank put his thoughts toward next steps.

The ensign slapped her console and shook her head, and Aank read the mix of anger, disbelief, and fear she suddenly radiated. Her instruments had just informed her of what Aank already knew.

“Port side drive is down!” the ensign shouted. “Diverting all power and control to the center drive.”

“Sir,” one of the other crew members announced, “it looks like we’ve taken a second blast from the laser cannon. It’s knocked out the port drive.”

Resignation flowed from the captain. The man understood their situation and his mind raced through possible scenarios and contingencies. Aank knew there were only two choices: stay on board the crippled ship and hope they survived a crash, or abandon the vessel.

Without any hesitation, he pushed a vision into the captain’s mind, along with the logic that let him know there was no other option. He then observed as the human struggled to come to terms with the knowledge.

To the captain’s credit, it did not take long to reach a decision. The man squared his shoulders, stood tall, and reached for the switch that would open comms to the entire ship.

“This is Captain Hansen,” he announced. “The Agate is going down. All personnel should make their way to the loading bay for immediate evacuation. This is not a drill. You have three minutes. If you’re not on one of the three carriers by then, you will be left behind. May peace be with us.”

The captain disengaged the comms and looked around the command center. “Ensign Sheen, you know what to do. Everyone else, you should be moving already.”

Aank turned and exited the command center. As he made his way along the corridor to the waiting carriers, his thoughts—always carefully compartmentalized into tidy little packets, ready for logical consideration when the circumstances were most optimal—returned to Eli. The burden of grief that dropped suddenly onto his consciousness was heavy.

As the only Waa on the voyage, he had no shared mental collective system upon which to rely, no one to expropriate a portion of the pain, and thereby diminish its intensity. Still, he performed his duty and consecrated the sacrifice his friend had made for everyone on the ship.

 


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Steve spent six years as a military intelligence specialist with the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division before joining the ranks of corporate America. He has a B.S. in business management and works as a VP for a Fortune 500 company. He has traveled extensively across the United States and, at various times, has lived in Georgia, North Carolina, West Virginia, Massachusetts, Texas, California and Idaho. Steve Hawk currently resides in Boise, Idaho.


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