To Rebecca Moesta

Not just for this novel, but for all the books in the series and all the novels I’ve written. You have helped me find my Guiding Star not only in my writing, but in my life.

The hydrogue war had ended with a devastating final battle at Earth. Adar Zan’nh sacrificed much of the Ildiran Solar Navy to destroy the deadly warglobes. Jess Tamblyn and Cesca Peroni led the wentals and the verdani to fight the hydrogues inside their gas-giant planets; the Roamer engineer Kotto Okiah developed a new weapon to shatter the diamond spheres. Finally, the defeated hydrogues were bottled up within their gas planets, where they could cause no further harm.

The Earth Defense Forces, led by General Lanyan, had already been crippled in a revolt by the black robots, and the final battle around Earth smashed many more EDF ships. Sirix and his black robots hoped to use their stolen fleet to help the hydrogues achieve victory, but the tides of battle turned against them, and Sirix and his comrades were forced to run for their lives.

The turmoil of the battle gave King Peter and Queen Estarra the opportunity to escape the increasingly irrational Chairman Wenceslas. With the aid of Estarra’s sister Sarein, Deputy Chairman Cain, and Captain McCammon of the royal guard, they slipped away from the Whisper Palace. The Teacher compy OX purged his precious memories to obtain the mental capacity needed to operate a small hydrogue derelict, and he flew them safely to Theroc. There, Peter and Estarra declared a new unified government for humanity, the Confederation. All green priests refused to serve the Hansa unless Basil Wenceslas resigned, which the Chairman would not do. Seeing few people he could trust, Basil resorted to more reactionary tactics. As Therons, Roamer clans, and orphaned Hansa colonies joined the Confederation, Chairman Wenceslas grew more and more isolated.

On Llaro, the EDF had detained many refugees including Orli Covitz, Hud Steinman, Davlin Lotze, and many Roamer prisoners of war. While the EDF guards were waiting to be rotated home after the end of the hydrogue war, Llaro’s transportal walls activated and hordes of monstrous insect creatures marched through — the ancient race of the Klikiss, long thought to be extinct. They had returned from their distant Swarming and now wanted their colony worlds back.

The long-lost xeno-archaeologist Margaret Colicos and her compy, DD, accompanied the Klikiss. Relying on her wits and the odd tune played by a small music box, Margaret had found a way to survive among them for many years. Now she became an interpreter for the hapless Llaro colonists as the Klikiss fenced the people into their colony town.

Meanwhile, unaware that their hated creator race had returned, Sirix and his black robots attacked any former Klikiss world on which humans had established colonies. As replacements for DD, whom he had tried to reprogram, Sirix had wiped the memories of two other compies — PD and QT — and taught them how to kill humans without remorse. Believing that the former Klikiss planets belonged to them, the robots struck mercilessly, obliterating any settlements. Sirix had resurrected thousands of black robots over the years, and they were all ready to form a unified robot force to destroy humanity.

Then the transportals activated on the colony Sirix had conquered, and a host of ravenous Klikiss marched through, immediately attacking the robot forces. With PD and QT, Sirix barely escaped this unexpected battle and was forced to eradicate the transportal and retreat to Maratha, an Ildiran world where the robots were establishing a powerful base of operations.

On Ildira, the Mage-Imperator ordered Adar Zan’nh to launch a frantic program to rebuild the Solar Navy, erecting shipyards in orbit and diverting the resources of the Empire to the project. Zan’nh also made use of the innovative skills of the humans who had been forced to remain at Ildira, including Sullivan Gold and Tabitha Huck. With Gold’s administrative abilities and Huck’s engineering ideas, the manufacturing proceeded at a furious pace.

Sullivan’s companion green priest Kolker felt isolated and confused. For a long time he had been cut off from his beloved telink with other green priests, and even after he was given access to a treeling, the sensation felt lacking to him. When he saw how the Ildirans — all Ildirans — were linked throughthism, he wanted to understand how it worked. Lens kithmen rebuffed him, telling him that he could never grasp thethism, but Nira’s five half-breed children were able to show him the key. As Kolker struggled to understand, he finally comprehended in a way he had never dreamed. Incredible mental vistas opened for him; better still, he knew how to share his discovery. He converted Tabitha Huck and many of her coworkers at the shipyards, though Sullivan refused. Soon, with this unique synchronicity available, Tabitha and her crew led the Ildirans in phenomenally increased productivity.

As the Solar Navy began to be restored, Jora’h’s daughter Yazra’h formed a plan with Adar Zan’nh to begin recapturing lost Ildiran worlds, particularly Maratha, which had been taken over by the black robots. Yazra’h convinced the human historian Anton Colicos and Rememberer Vao’sh to accompany the military force. This was a terrifying prospect for them, since Anton and Vao’sh had nearly died there in the robot takeover, and Vao’sh had barely survived the isolation madness when the two of them had flown alone to Ildira. But they agreed to witness the events in order to record them in theSaga of Seven Suns.

Reaching Maratha, the Solar Navy bombarded the robot base, then went to the ground to wipe out the last machine survivors. While they were embroiled in battle, a large Klikiss swarmship arrived and dispatched thousands of warriors, who also meant to destroy the black robots. After the battle was won, a tense moment followed when the Klikiss insisted that they would reinhabit all of their own worlds, but Zan’nh held his ground, asserting that Maratha had never been a Klikiss planet, and the swarmship departed. Shortly afterward, Sirix and his black robot refugees arrived at what they expected to be a thriving base on Maratha, only to find utter devastation. Once again, they fled, seeing their plans fall apart.

The black robots and the Klikiss were not the only threats to concern the Ildiran Empire. The mad Designate Rusa’h, after suffering a severe head injury during a hydrogue attack on Hyrillka, had led a destructive but ultimately unsuccessful revolt to overthrow the Mage-Imperator and establish his ownthism network. Unwilling to surrender in defeat, Rusa’h flew his ship directly into one of Hyrillka’s suns. Instead of being incinerated, however, he was intercepted by the faeros, fiery entities that lived within stars.

Though the Ildiran Empire believed him dead, Rusa’h — who had become a faeros incarnate — continued his work. In their war with the hydrogues, the faeros had suffered many terrible losses, millions of their fireballs eradicated, whole suns extinguished. But Rusa’h showed them new ways of fighting, and the faeros swiftly began to inflict great damage upon the hydrogues, weakening them before their battle with the allied forces around Earth.

Gathering power, Rusa’h led the faeros first to the splinter colony of Dobro, where he confronted former Designate Udru’h, who had betrayed him. The ravenous faeros, needing to increase their numbers, burned Udru’h and stole his soulfire to create more newborn fiery entities. Jora’h’s eldest noble-born son, Daro’h, who was destined to become the new Prime Designate, faced faeros incarnate Rusa’h, who delivered a warning for the Mage-Imperator. Before departing, Rusa’h declared that the whole Ildiran Empire would burn if necessary, until he removed the “false” Mage-Imperator. Daro’h raced back to Ildira to warn his father of the threat.

Meanwhile, as the hydrogue-faeros battles had raged in Hyrillka’s sun, the young and inexperienced Designate Ridek’h had overseen the evacuation of Hyrillka, and all the refugees were taken to Ildira. Ridek’h had never expected to become a Designate responsible for an entire planet, but his mentor Tal O’nh, an old one-eyed veteran commander of the Solar Navy, tried to teach him to become a strong leader. Under orders from the Mage-Imperator, Ridek’h and Tal O’nh went to all the ravaged systems in the Horizon Cluster to reassure those who had suffered during the revolt.

Rusa’h had also traveled across the Horizon Cluster, his faeros burning population after population. On his journey, he encountered Designate Ridek’h and Tal O’nh. Though they tried to escape, the faeros chased them down, surrounded their warliners, and incinerated their crews. Rusa’h burned Tal O’nh, blinding him, but he refused to kill young Ridek’h, claiming he would face the boy again. He left the scorched and empty warliners drifting in space, while he and the faeros headed off to Ildira.

Basil Wenceslas, seeing his Hansa crumbling, grasped at straws. Because his captive green priest, Nahton, flatly refused to send or report any messages, he felt cut off. Basil called upon General Lanyan and Admiral Willis to recapture the worlds that were defecting. He dispatched Lanyan with military ships to secure the fledgling colonies recently established on abandoned Klikiss planets. Since they had small populations and no defenses, they were thought to be easy targets. For her part, Admiral Willis received orders to take an EDF battle group directly to Theroc, crush King Peter’s outlaw government, and take him into custody. Though she was reluctant to do this, Willis prepared to follow orders.

Sarein, Captain McCammon, and Deputy Cain came up with a plan to warn King Peter about the impending invasion. They secretly freed Nahton, so that he could run to a treeling locked in a greenhouse and send a telink message to other green priests. While their involvement remained secret, Nahton was caught just after transmitting his message. The damage was done. Nahton tried to surrender, but the Hansa guards gunned him down. Basil Wenceslas seemed very smug about the results.

Warned about the impending EDF assault, however, the Confederation members scrambled to find a way to defend themselves. Tasia Tamblyn and Robb Brindle had joined the Confederation to rebuild their military (much to the dismay of Robb’s father, Conrad Brindle, who insisted on remaining loyal to the Hansa). Under their guidance, and with the help of Kotto Okiah, new military-grade ships were being built, but that small fleet would not be enough to deflect an EDF battle group. Estarra and her sister Celli recalled the gigantic verdani battleships, led by their brother Beneto, who had fused himself into one of the giant trees. When Admiral Willis’s ships arrived, they suddenly found themselves facing not only a surprisingly vigorous Confederation military defense, but also Jess Tamblyn and Cesca Peroni’s wentals, and the huge thorny treeships. Knowing she could not win, and sure that this invasion had been a bad idea from the start, Willis retreated and returned to the Hansa.

General Lanyan’s consolidation of the scattered colonies, meanwhile, went no better. He traveled to Rheindic Co, the hub of the transportal network, and marched his soldiers through to the first colony planet on his list, Pym. Arriving there, though, they found that the whole colony had been overrun by a huge subhive of Klikiss. As soon as his soldiers encountered the giant insects, they opened fire. The battle was much worse than anything General Lanyan had prepared for, and he lost a great many soldiers before he finally called his men to withdraw to Rheindic Co. The Klikiss followed them though the transportal, and the battle continued there. Lanyan barely escaped and was forced to destroy the Hansa’s main transportal nexus to prevent more of the bugs from passing through. He raced back to Earth to inform Chairman Wenceslas of this shocking new threat.

With the failure of both Admiral Willis and General Lanyan, the Chairman was more frustrated than ever. The Hansa had no King (though Basil had a mysterious new candidate undergoing training), and so he put forward the religious leader, the Archfather of Unison, to build a fervor among the populace, declaring the monstrous Klikiss to be demons and cursing King Peter. Though Deputy Cain was highly skeptical, the gullible people accepted the fanaticism.

Next, the Chairman dispatched Lanyan and the Archfather to make an example of the weak but rebellious colony of Usk. The leaders of Usk had torn up the Hansa Charter and sworn allegiance to the Confederation, but they had no defenses and no real political aspirations. When Lanyan and the Archfather arrived, they unleashed a bloody pogrom, wiping out homesteads, slaughtering livestock, burning towns, and finally crucifying the leaders who had defied the Chairman.

Since the Usk pogrom had been such a success (as far as the Chairman was concerned), he dispatched Admiral Willis and her executive officer Conrad Brindle (Robb’s father) to crack down on another upstart colony, the luxurious reef world of Rhejak. Willis set up her base despite the vehement objections of the locals and settled in, trying to govern the people. She used a light touch, granting them the freedom to go about their daily lives. When some of the locals committed brash sabotage, however, she was forced to crack down. After meeting with the local leaders, she reached a compromise that everyone could live with, and she thought she was giving the Hansa what it needed.

The Chairman, however, was not pleased. He dispatched General Lanyan to complete the job properly — to unleash another pogrom on Rhejak, murder the leaders, and punish the populace. By the time Lanyan’s battle group arrived, Willis had become quite fond of Rhejak and its people, and she did not want to see them massacred. Finally, after so many grievances against the Chairman’s handling of the numerous crises, she could no longer follow a fundamentally criminal government. She tricked General Lanyan, stunned him, and took over his ships before he could launch his attack on Rhejak. It was an outright mutiny, but most of her officers and crew had similar misgivings and they followed her. Conrad Brindle, though, refused to break his oath to the Hansa. He and a handful of others accompanied General Lanyan back to Earth in disgrace.

On the Klikiss-infested colony world of Llaro, Orli Covitz and Hud Steinman struggled to survive as the bugs built their hive city all around the stockaded town. Accepted among the Klikiss, Margaret Colicos and DD could come and go as they liked, and Margaret explained how she had survived among the Klikiss for so many years, showing a small music box that her son Anton had given her. Orli herself was quite proficient in playing her own synthesizer strips, and the Klikiss hive mind, the breedex, summoned her into its great chamber to play. Frightened for Orli, Margaret helped the girl survive the encounter. Orli played her music, and the hideous hive mind let her go.

Margaret finally informed the captive colonists what the Klikiss had in store for them. The Llaro breedex was continuing its many wars with other subhives and also finding and destroying any enclaves of black robots it could find. In order to increase its numbers and expand its army, the breedex needed to fission — and for that it needed new genetic material. The Klikiss would slaughter all the colonists and use them as catalysts to create a much larger insect force.

Hearing this, the appalled colonists began to develop defenses and desperate plans. Davlin Lotze slipped away from the stockade and established a secret hideout where others could be safe. Once his sheltered cave complex was ready, small groups of Llaro colonists began to slip away, but only a fraction had gotten to safety before the Klikiss made their move. A large force of insect warriors marched to the stockade to kill all the humans, but the captives did not go down without a fight. They used makeshift defenses, explosives, and firearms to kill many of the Klikiss.

In the midst of this, Sirix led his black robots to attack the Llaro subhive. After so much damage had been done to his robots, he wanted to destroy every breedex he could find. The ferocious attack by the black robots, as well as the desperate fighting from the colonists, caused a great deal of damage to the Klikiss. In the turmoil, Orli, DD, Hud Steinman, and many others managed to get away. When they finally reached Davlin’s distant hideout, the refugees didn’t know where they could go or how they could find safety.

Margaret Colicos, though, had insisted on remaining behind. Back at the blasted stockade, she watched in dismay as the victorious Klikiss devoured the human survivors in order to acquire their memories and genetic material, after which the wounded breedex underwent a massive fissioning to expand its hive and recover from its losses.

Stinging from his defeat on Llaro, Sirix pulled his remaining robots to safety and tried to come up with a new plan. During his attack on the Llaro breedex, he had lost many of his irreplaceable comrades. While the Klikiss could recover from their casualties, black robots were unique storehouses of ancient experiences. PD and QT suggested an unusual solution — that Sirix should seize an appropriate manufacturing facility and build new black robots. These replacements would not have the memories of the lost robots, but they could become a key part of Sirix’s army. The black robots searched for a suitable facility they could take over.

Many of the Llaro colonists were Roamer prisoners, and they had not been forgotten. Tasia Tamblyn, Robb Brindle, and Nikko Chan Tylar (whose parents were both detainees on Llaro) flew a rescue ship to Llaro, expecting to see a handful of bored EDF guards and a lot of surly colonists and detainees. When they arrived, though, they ran into the Klikiss. Caught unprepared, Tasia’s ship was shot down; it crashed in a remote ravine, where it lay damaged, needing significant repairs before it could fly again. They were found by Davlin Lotze and taken back to the hideout, where they all made plans to repair the ship and fly away to safety, far from Llaro.

Just as they completed fixing the ship, however, the Klikiss captured Tasia, Robb, Orli, Nikko, and Davlin. They were brought back to the hive city and held as raw material for the next upcoming fissioning. Margaret Colicos and DD agreed to help free them. When another powerful subhive attacked the Llaro breedex, the chaos of Klikiss fighting Klikiss gave the prisoners the opportunity they needed. They had only to get back to Tasia’s repaired ship, load it up with the rest of the refugees, and go. Davlin remained behind, using Orli’s synthesizer strips to play a music that paralyzed the hive mind. After making it possible for the others to escape, though, he found himself trapped.

Orli and her friends reached their ship, with the Klikiss in hot pursuit. When Margaret tried to go with them, anxious to be away from the insect creatures, the Klikiss warriors singled her out and refused to let her get away. They also crushed her music box, removing the only weapon she had. Having retrieved the rest of the survivors, Tasia flew off, sad at being forced to leave Davlin and Margaret behind.

Davlin almost got away from the Klikiss. He reached one of the transportals and tried to pass through, but he was caught. Gravely injured, he was brought before the breedex, which was on the brink of another fissioning. The singular larva of the new breedex came forward to Davlin, interested in the independent and troublesome human. Before it could subsume him, though, Davlin threw himself on the breedex larva, trying to impose himself upon it. The hive mind swallowed him up.

After Adar Zan’nh eradicated the black robots on Maratha and delivered his startling news about the Klikiss, Nira urged the Mage-Imperator to send Solar Navy assistance to other besieged human colonists on former Klikiss worlds. Zan’nh was reluctant to do this, since he believed the humans had caused their own problems by settling planets that did not belong to them. However, when he witnessed how many innocent humans had been massacred on several devastated colonies, he was deeply moved. Arriving at another besieged world, he used an ancient translating routine to convince the breedex to release the captive colonists.

After their return from Maratha, Anton Colicos and Rememberer Vao’sh were given an unexpected task — to remove the lies and correct the errors in the supposedly infallibleSaga of Seven Suns. This caused great distress among other rememberer kithmen, particularly the conservative Chief Scribe Ko’sh, but no one could refuse the orders of the Mage-Imperator.

From Ildira, the green priest Kolker continued to spread his telink/thismphilosophy like a new religion, even converting many green priests on Theroc. Sullivan Gold, refusing to be converted despite pressure from Kolker and Tabitha Huck, left Ildira and returned to his family on Earth. Meanwhile, Kolker also converted the Roamer trader Denn Peroni, Cesca’s father, and he became an outspoken advocate of the marvelous new philosophy.

After leaving General Lanyan and the EDF, and “borrowing” his grandmother’s space yacht, Patrick Fitzpatrick III searched among the Roamers for his lost love, Zhett Kellum. He finally found her on the gas giant Golgen, where the Roamers had reestablished skymining operations. His reunion with Zhett did not go as expected, however; she refused to speak to him. Trying to come clean, Patrick confessed what he had done earlier, destroying a Roamer trading ship to eliminate a witness; though General Lanyan was ultimately responsible for the murder, Patrick had given the order to fire. After a trial, Patrick was sentenced to “walk the plank” over the open cloudy skies. He bravely accepted his fate, but at the last minute Zhett spoke on his behalf and convinced her father to pardon him. Patrick then became a strong supporter of the Confederation and transmitted a damning message that squarely laid the blame for the Hansa’s problems on General Lanyan and Chairman Wenceslas. Upon hearing this message, Basil rebuked Patrick’s grandmother, former Chairman Maureen Fitzpatrick, for the actions of her grandson.

King Peter and Queen Estarra continued strengthening the Confederation. Seeing the King and Queen as potential allies against the Klikiss and the faeros, Mage-Imperator Jora’h announced that he would travel to Theroc and publicly proclaim an alliance between the Ildiran Empire and the Confederation. Nira accompanied him, as well as Anton Colicos and Rememberer Vao’sh. Standing together under the worldtrees, the Mage-Imperator and the King swore a firm alliance. This was truly the death knell for the few remnants of the Hansa still loyal to Chairman Wenceslas.

Upon learning of Jora’h’s announcement, the Chairman took drastic measures. He ordered Admiral Esteban Diente to take a powerful EDF battle group to intercept the Mage-Imperator after he departed from Theroc. Admiral Diente was appalled at the orders, but he could not refuse, because the Chairman had taken his family hostage.

After Mage-Imperator Jora’h made his promises to King Peter, he felt that he had strengthened the Ildiran Empire. However, Rusa’h and the faeros had just begun their worst ravages. They tracked down Denn Peroni and Caleb Tamblyn, who were flying a water tanker filled with wentals, and destroyed the ship near the icy planetoid Jonah 12. Denn was killed, but Caleb escaped in a lifepod and was marooned. The faeros also went to the primary wental planet of Charybdis and overwhelmed the living seas with their flames. Jess and Cesca could feel the agony of the dying wentals, but by the time they arrived the oceans had been scorched, the planet burned. The faeros had declared war on the wentals.

An armada of fireballs emerged from the dead Ildiran sun of Durris-B, reigniting the star and flooding out like a meteor shower. When Tabitha Huck took a newly built warliner on a shakedown cruise, the faeros were able to sense her presence because of her conversion to the telink/thismreligion. They destroyed her and the new warliner, then flew toward Ildira, where they also targeted Kolker and all his converts there. Mijistra began to go up in flames.

Prime Designate Daro’h, left in charge of the Prism Palace, was forced to flee as the faeros incarnate Rusa’h came for him, demanding to know where the Mage-Imperator was. Osira’h and her siblings used their unique powers to protect the Prime Designate and Yazra’h; they all escaped through water channels beneath the Prism Palace.

Returning from his rescue of the human colonists on Klikiss worlds, Adar Zan’nh found the burned warliners of Tal O’nh’s septa. As soon as O’nh and Designate Ridek’h warned him about the impending holocaust on Ildira, Zan’nh raced off with his ships. When they arrived, the Solar Navy warliners attempted to battle the fireballs, but they had no effective way to combat the living fire. The Adar did, however, rescue Daro’h, Yazra’h, Osira’h, and the other half-breed children. But they needed the leadership of the Mage-Imperator.

On his flagship warliner, Jora’h could sense the horrific events unfolding on Ildira. Through her treeling, Nira received news that the faeros were burning Mijistra, but her contact abruptly ended when the lone treeling in the Prism Palace turned to ash. Desperate to get back, Jora’h ordered his warliners to increase speed — only to run into Admiral Diente’s EDF battleships. Diente fired upon the warliner, damaged its engines, and captured the Mage-Imperator. Despite Jora’h’s urgent pleas about the disaster on Ildira, Diente escorted him and all the Ildiran captives to the EDF base on Earth’s Moon. Chairman Wenceslas came to see the prisoners, pleased at his easy victory, and told the Mage-Imperator that he must remain a “guest” of the Hansa until he abandoned his alliance with the Confederation and denounced King Peter.

The faeros had conquered Ildira, and Rusa’h installed himself in the Prism Palace. Now that he had discovered the telink/thismpathways through his other victims, the faeros incarnate was able to follow them back to the worldforest. Suddenly, green priest converts on Theroc burst into flame. From there, the hungry elemental fire spread to the towering worldtrees. The forest on Theroc began to burn.


Admiral Sheila Willis

Ten Mantas and one giant Juggernaut cruised across empty space, leaving Earth behind — possibly forever, as far as Admiral Willis was concerned. Though her ships still bore the markings of the Earth Defense Forces, their crews no longer served the Hansa. No, not after everything they had seen.

Chairman Wenceslas would have called them mutineers.How could anyone not feel bitter about that?

There’d been a time when Willis was young and naive (or perhaps just insufficiently jaded), when she had thought all decisions were clear-cut, all answers black-and-white. She had believed that the good guys were fundamentally different from the bad guys. Well, she’d left that attitude behind on Rhejak when General Lanyan’s brutality had forced her to make a previously unthinkable decision.

By seizing a whole battle group and turning her back on her beloved EDF, she had set wheels in motion — wheels that might well run her over. After dumping Lanyan, Conrad Brindle, and a handful of hard-line loyalists on the outskirts of Earth’s solar system, she was taking her ships to Theroc, to join King Peter and his Confederation.

No matter how many times she tried to rationalize her decision, though, it still felt like desertion. Her brain was simply wired that way. She scanned the people on her bridge for signs of uneasiness. Willis was surprised at just how many of them had volunteered to burn their bridges and join her. Abandoning their homes, friends, families, and possessions was not a decision to make lightly. Obviously, she wasn’t the only one who had smelled something rotten in the Hansa.

The last time she had brought these particular Mantas to Theroc, Willis had been under orders to arrest Peter as an outlaw ruler.

“Approaching destination, Admiral,” said her helmsman.

“Make sure you announce our arrival politely. We don’t want them to pee their pants when all these warships show up.” She took a few moments to adjust her posture, her uniform, her expression. Ready to go meet the new boss.

As soon as the eleven ships entered planetary orbit, however, Willis saw that something was wrong. A flurry of mismatched Roamer ships had been launched into erratic orbits. Cargo craft, fast scouts, lumbering barges all lifted off from the forested continent and raced away from the planet in all directions. Two of the larger Roamer ships nearly collided with each other.

Her young comm officer’s skin turned prominently pink. “Admiral, it’s total pandemonium down there! Frantic distress calls, screams — Theroc is being attacked, but I can’t see how.”

The threatening verdani treeships that circled the lush forested world like a crown of thorns were in trouble. Thrashing their enormous thorny branches, they did not even react to the oncoming EDF war vessels. They were battling some pervasive, unseen enemy.

“Ask how we can assist them,” Willis barked. She looked around for any unexpected threat. perhaps the return of the hydrogues or one of General Lanyan’s vessels. “Get close enough to respond as needed. We’re supposed to be the cavalry here — I’d like to make a great first impression.”

The feedback shrieks coming over the comm system were worse than fingernails scraping across a chalkboard.

Cruising directly in front of them, its boughs twisting and snapping as if in extreme internal pain, one of the thorny tree battleships literally burst into flames. Despite the cold vacuum of space, bright yellow-orange fire cracked out of its core and spread across the branches, devouring the energized wood.

On the high-res surveillance scans of the forests below, Willis saw intense blazes appear, spontaneously igniting and beginning to spread through the dense worldforest. exactly where she knew King Peter had established the Confederation’s headquarters.


King Peter

Another worldtree shuddered and then erupted into flames as the faeros possessed its heartwood. With sounds like cannon shots, the malicious fires crackled through the delicate fronds, striving toward the canopy — burning, but not entirely consuming the heartwood.

High up within the fungus-reef city, King Peter shouted for the people to evacuate. The smoke and heat in the air bit the back of his throat. From an opening in the organic walls, he and Estarra saw the flames race greedily up one trunk after another, but none of the living verdani turned to ash. Not yet.

The green priests who remained inside the white-walled tree city clamped hands like vises against their smooth emerald scalps as pain surged through the worldforest mind. The followers of Yarrod and Kolker, who were joined in their tightly bondedthism /telink web, had already suffered most of all.

A male green priest stuttered to a halt, then raised his arms in agony. The priest bent backward and with a wordless wail burst into flames. Other green priests stared at the smear of ash and burning coals that marked where the man had stood. Some wept; others collapsed to their knees.

Queen Estarra tugged her husband’s sleeve as they ran from the shuddering throne room. “Peter, we have to get Reynald and go!” Her beaded braids clicked and bounced behind her head.

In their private rooms, Estarra snatched their baby son from the arms of the Teacher compy OX, who had already gathered him up for the evacuation. Little Reynald was crying from the loud commotion and the smoke from brush fires.

OX was not at all panicked. “Before we hurry to the lift platforms, Queen Estarra, I suggest we soak a blanket with water. I will wrap it around the baby for protection as I carry him.” When Estarra was reluctant to relinquish the child, OX pointed out, “I am physically stronger than either of you, and neither the fire nor the smoke will affect me.”

“He’s right,” Peter said, yanking a blanket from the bed and running to the water basin that Roamer engineers had installed. “It’s his best chance.”

Outside, the elemental fires continued to spread. After being transmitted through the few hapless green priest conduits, the faeros had formed a parasitic bond with the verdani, converting them into torch trees. From there, secondary blazes had spread to the underbrush, consuming smaller shrubs and plants.

Peter and Estarra wrapped the wet cloth around the squirming infant and secured the wailing bundle to OX’s chest with a utility cord. The Teacher compy held Reynald firmly, keeping pace with the King and Queen as they rushed through winding fungus-reef passages to the outer balconies.

Breathing heavily, Peter stepped out into the choking hot air and watched the faeros flames jump from one tree to the next. Normal fires raced across the fringes of the clearing, where people ran pell-mell away from the fungus-reef tree.

Therons crowded the small lift platforms, trying to ride the cables down to the ground. But the elevators were equipped to carry only a few people at a time, not to accommodate such a massive evacuation. When sixteen people crammed onto one platform, clutching the side rails and each other, the overloaded lift groaned and gave way, spilling the passengers to their deaths. Watching in horror, Peter shouted, but he couldn’t help them.

For just a moment the scope and suddenness of the disaster knocked the wind out of him. Even if everyone got to the ground, how would they cross the meadow safely through growing curtains of flames? There was no time to wonder how this had happened and no time for panic or grief either. Peter had to keep his wits about him and somehow get his people, and his family, to safety.

Estarra saw it, too, and quickly made her decision. “We’ll have to climb.” In answer to Peter’s concerned expression, she gave a confident nod. “It doesn’t matter that I’ve just had a baby. I spent most of my life scrambling up and down worldtrees. If OX can carry Reynald safely, we should be fine. Can you manage?”

Flashing her a determined smile, Peter shouted to the frantic people, “Every able-bodied person, climb down! Treedancers, help the others. Use the platforms only if you can’t climb.”

A few of the overcrowded elevators managed to reach the ground, and the people sprinted across the meadow toward the ring of fire. By now, the fungus-reef tree had caught fire from eager sparks that spread from the initial torch trees. Tongues of flame raced up the golden bark, consuming small fronds, scorching the bark plates, until part of the city began to smolder.

Some people swiftly grasped knobs and handholds in the bark scales. Peter could see they didn’t have much time. “Let’s go.”

Because OX had lashed the blanket-wrapped baby to his torso, his polymer arms were left free. Without further comment, the compy swung himself over the edge and began to climb down. Peter had never seen OX do anything so nimble or athletic before, but the Teacher compy seemed perfectly capable of working his way down.

Estarra went next, calling out encouragement to the people still evacuating. Peter followed. Smoke and steam oozed from between the bark plates, burning his hands, but he didn’t let go.

The compy reached the ground first and turned to wait for the King and Queen. He adjusted the wet wrappings around the infant, keeping Reynald secured to his solid chest. By now the wildfire had caught on the grasses and flowers; shrubs burst into fireballs. Above them, the fungus reef was fully engulfed, and orange flames spat from the upper balconies and windows.

Peter dropped the rest of the way to the ground. “To the edge of the meadow!”

Like solar flares, living arcs of fire sprang from torch tree to torch tree. With a crack like an incandescent bullwhip, another majestic worldtree succumbed to the fiery elementals. Its interlocked canopy of fronds became a ceiling of orange embers; smaller branches caught and transmitted sparks to adjacent ones.

While OX hurried ahead of them, carrying the baby, Estarra kept her head down and ran. But, before they could follow the evacuees into the dense surrounding forest, flames cut them off. The perimeter of the grove formed a burning wall, forcing OX to halt ahead of them.

With a crack and a roar, a thick branch broke loose from above, and a clump of flaming fronds crashed directly down onto the compy in a feathery spray of sparks and embers.

Estarra screamed for the baby. Peter shielded his stinging eyes and dove toward them, but he knew he was too late to save his son.

The little compy pushed his way out, knocking aside the blazing fronds. He kept his synthetic body hunched over, arms wrapped protectively around Reynald. OX’s polymer skin was damaged; ash and soot were smeared like war paint on his smooth face, but his systems still functioned.

Estarra raced forward in panic to retrieve Reynald. Peeling the steaming blanket away, Peter checked to make sure the baby hadn’t been burned. The little boy was wailing, but very much alive.

Green grass smoldered around them, making the smoke burn like acid in their lungs. Estarra pointed desperately across the meadow to the diamond sphere of the hydrogue derelict, which OX had flown during their escape from Earth. “There! That’s our only way out!”

With nowhere else to run, they crashed through the embers of underbrush until they reached the small alien ship. Thankfully, the hatch had been left open. As flames flicked at their heels, Peter and Estarra, along with OX and the baby, clambered inside. Peter sealed the doorway behind them, and the sudden silence made his ears pop. They slapped at the ashes burning their garments, wheezing, coughing, frightened, and shaking with exertion. But safe.

Through the transparent curved wall, they watched angry flames engulf the rest of the meadow and then rush over them.


Chairman Basil Wenceslas

Outside in the Palace District’s main square, the Archfather of Unison carried an elaborate shepherd’s crook. He wore golden damask robes ornamented with frills and simulated brocades, and he looked like a jovial old uncle with a long, bushy white beard. The religious spokesman delivered another rousing speech, carefully scripted by Chairman Wenceslas.

People could so easily be distracted without a firm hand to guide them.

When properly motivated, the Archfather, a former actor, could really tug on the heartstrings of an audience. Unfortunately, though, during recent coaching sessions the man had begun to express doubts about the Chairman’s agenda. The Archfather had spent altogether too much time reviewing images of the bloody Usk pogrom. Initially, he had been enthusiastic about delivering a stern message to the upstart colony world — razing the farming town, crucifying the defiant town elders — yet he now questioned the necessity of such actions.

In times like these, Basil expected his underlings to do what they were told for the good of the Hansa and, by extension, the human race. They were not supposed to have second thoughts. With harsh words and overt threats, he had put the man back in his place, leaving him white and shaking.

Making certain the Archfather had learned his lesson, Basil watched the show from the Whisper Palace observation gallery, accompanied by a concerned-looking Sarein and an unusually contemplative Deputy Eldred Cain.

“The Archfather is doing well today,” Sarein pointed out. “You talked to him, didn’t you?”

“I had to fan the flames of his enthusiasm a bit. This time he seems to have gotten the point.”

From the square below, the bearded man bellowed his words. “Yes, the Klikiss aredemons, but demons cannot help what they are. They may be evil, they may be destructive, but it is in their very nature. Far worse are those whochoose evil — people who ally themselves with the Klikiss, with the demons, with our enemies. By this, I mean our treacherous King Peter and his rebellious Confederation.”

The sermon was, naturally, being transmitted across Earth. Cargo ships and fast traders would deliver recordings of the Archfather’s message to the handful of colonies and industrial worlds that still paid lip service to the Hansa.

In his seat, Deputy Cain looked decidedly uncomfortable, and Basil could tell he wanted to say something. He sighed, waiting. “What is it, Mr. Cain?”

The deputy answered promptly. “Complaints have been forwarded to me by several law-enforcement stations, sir. The police don’t know what to do about them.”

Basil’s eyebrows drew together. “Complaints? There are always complaints.”

“These seem to have some merit. It appears that a well-organized vigilante group has taken it upon itself to quell certain public discussions.” Cain pulled out a report. “For example, here are two incidents in which the group smashed businesses and roughed people up. They target anyone who speaks out against the Hansa. They don’t even try to hide themselves.” He presented surveillance images and pointed to a young woman wearing a dark uniform. “This costume appears to be based on early EDF uniform designs. I have identified one of the ringleaders responsible for these strong-arm tactics, a woman named Shelia Andez, an EDF officer.”

“Yes, I know. I reassigned her myself,” Basil said. “She spearheads an elite force to help maintain order and loyalty on Earth. I call these soldiers my cleanup crew, though I suppose they deserve a more formal name.”

“You’re actually aware of this? Their activities go against any number of laws.”

“Andez is doing the work I’ve assigned her. What you call strong-arm tactics, I view as a last-ditch effort to maintain much-needed order. The Hansa is in an extremely fragile state right now.”

The people in the square below suddenly cheered, and the Chairman turned to watch, brushing aside Cain’s concerns. The Archfather bowed. Basil tried to recall what particular line might have evoked such a reaction; he decided to review the tapes later. That way he could also critique the man’s performance.

The Archfather lowered his voice as if he were telling a secret to billions of listeners, delivering the preposterous suggestion with complete gravity — the very part of the speech to which the man had objected so strenuously before Basil had vetoed his concerns. “King Peter and his fellow traitors in the Confederation may actively be playing into the plans of the Klikiss. Roamer clans may be assisting the demon creatures in their conquests. In an insidious plot to destroy our beloved Hansa, the Confederation rebels and the Klikiss have agreed to split what’s left of the Spiral Arm between themselves.”

The audience gasped, predictably and on cue.

“That’s ridiculous, Basil,” Sarein muttered. “Please be cautious. When accusations get so extreme, you can’t really expect people to believe them.”

Basil gave her a hard sidelong look. “I disagree. It is a perfectly reasonable conclusion, considering what else the people have been told. We can’t afford to lose popular support right now. Our attempted pogrom at Rhejak was a complete mess.” He felt his face flush with anger and embarrassment. “Admiral Willis deserted us, taking a Juggernaut and ten Mantas. General Lanyan returned home like a whipped dog, in total disgrace.”

“You’ve kept his ignominious defeat very quiet.” Cain looked up at him. “Where is the General now?”

“I’ve had to remove him from public view until he can fix the problem that he caused.”

“How is he going to accomplish that?” Sarein did not seem to look forward to the answer. “I thought you would consult with us — ”

“It was straightforward enough. I gave him the opportunity to achieve a clear victory.” Basil laced his fingers behind his head, careful not to mess his steel-gray hair. “King Peter’s outlaw Confederation is our enemy, and we must treat them as such. They have resources that we require, primarily ekti. Therefore, we’ll raid Roamer facilities and take what we need. After all, we’re at war.” His lips quirked in a smile, willfully ignoring the horrified expressions on his companions’ faces. “General Lanyan’s battle group is on its way to a known Roamer skymining center. Our intelligence suggests they have no viable defenses. It is my fervent hope that the General can finally redeem himself.”


General Kurt Lanyan

The JuggernautGoliath, five Manta cruisers, a Thunderhead weapons platform, more than two thousand Remoras fully loaded with jazers and explosive projectiles — yes, that would keep even the most unruly clans in line. General Lanyan was quite certain of an EDF victory at Golgen.

He was glad to be at the helm of his Juggernaut again. TheGoliath had been heavily damaged in the fighting at the end of the hydrogue war, but the giant vessel had finally been repaired and placed back into service. One small step toward having a fully capable EDF again.

Acquiring plenty of stardrive fuel. that was the next step.

When the gas giant came into view, Lanyan transmitted to the lead Manta in the attack group. “Admiral Brindle, verify that all personnel are at their stations, all Remora pilots ready to launch, and all weapons ready to fire. I don’t intend to leave anything to chance here.”

The older, dark-skinned commander acknowledged. Recently promoted to fill one of the officer slots vacated by the decimation of the Earth Defense Forces, Conrad Brindle left no doubts about his competence or dedication. When the rest of the Rhejak battle group had mutinied, Brindle had been one of the few who remained loyal to the EDF. The promotion and this new assignment were his reward.

Lanyan straightened in his command chair, loudly cleared his throat, and addressed his subcommanders. “According to our fast recon and recent intel, Golgen has more than a dozen skymines, but they’re industrial facilities, not military bases. Once we’ve knocked down any resistance, our objective is to seize their stores of stardrive fuel.” Now his voice held a cautionary tone. “But cause as little damage as possible. We want these facilities to remain functional. The Chairman wants to return and administer the facilities under Hansa auspices. For now, the EDF just needs the ekti.”

Sounding battle stations, the warships raced toward a buttery-yellow globe laced with white cloud bands. Long-distance sensors spotted towering cities that rode the cloud tops converting atmospheric hydrogen into ekti.

As the main attack group fanned out, the Mantas each approached a different Roamer skymine, while the Thunderhead remained in a stationary position, a citadel on higher ground. “Remember, Roamers are cowards at heart,” Lanyan continued. “They like to run and hide. They sneak around in unmarked ships, keeping their locations secret. It’s not in their nature to fight.” TheGoliath headed toward the largest skymine, a complex of many floating platforms abuzz with space traffic and support vehicles.

He shook his head in disgust. “Just look at them all!”

Once, as a boy, he had turned over a rotten log to find it squirming with tiny black beetles. Suddenly exposed to the light, the insects had scattered, seeking dark corners and holes in which to hide. He had taken a stick and spent more than an hour hunting down and crushing the small bugs.

These Roamer ships reacted as the beetles had. Instead of mounting an orderly defense, the mismatched clan ships flew in all directions, every man for himself. The General found it pathetic. He gave his anxious weapons officers permission to take as many potshots as they liked.

On the crowded screen, he identified the spidery cargo escorts holding canisters of ekti. He pointed his index finger, raising his voice. “There! Those are the ships I was telling you about. Remember my orders.”

His weapons officers fired at the evacuating cargo escorts, aiming carefully and missing intentionally. The barrage, however, was merely a diversion so that tiny pingers could attach to the hulls without the Roamer pilots noticing. The locator beacons would activate later so that Lanyan could track the cargo escorts to other fuel-distribution depots. If the EDF made a diligent effort, they could unravel the whole Roamer network and find all of their hidden facilities.

As the raid commenced, Lanyan ignored the outraged cries and threatening comm messages from the skymine managers. “Prepare to be boarded,” he transmitted to the largest facility. “With your unconditional surrender, we can eliminate — or at least minimize — casualties.”

A gruff voice yelled back at him, “This is Del Kellum, and I’m in charge of this skymine. I do not — repeat,do not — grant you permission to land.”

Lanyan chuckled. “Exactly how are you going to stop me? With harsh language and a disapproving look?” He switched off the transmission, stood up, and stretched.

An hour later, from a troop transport filled with heavily armed EDF soldiers, Lanyan looked out at the enormous floating city with its many decks and docks, its antennae, sensor probes, and observation balconies. TheGoliath hung nearby, huge and ominous in the sky. Admiral Brindle had already reported a swift victory at his assigned skymine, as had the other EDF Mantas. Chairman Wenceslas was going to be pleased when he heard how much stardrive fuel this operation would yield.

Before disembarking, the General checked his uniform, quickly combed his dark hair, and surveyed the guards ready to exit the transport with him. Lanyan thought of the successful commanders he had learned about in military school, their proud victory speeches on conquered ground. He wanted to make a memorable impression here when he set foot on the beaten skymine and showed everyone that he was not to be trifled with.

The hatch opened, and he stepped proudly down the ramp. “I hereby take control of this new facility in the name of the Hansa.”

A group of agitated Roamers waited for him. He recognized bearded Del Kellum, with his barrel chest and his angry expression. Next, he saw a completely unexpected young man, who would have looked more familiar had he been wearing an EDF uniform.

“General Lanyan,” said Patrick Fitzpatrick III, “I see my new opinion of you was absolutely correct.”


Jess Tamblyn

Once, Charybdis had been a primeval ocean world whose turbulent seas hosted countless thriving wentals. And then the faeros had come.

Jess and Cesca had not been here when angry fireballs had rained down to blast the elemental seas, but now they stood together on the smoking ruin of the planet. The air was laden with heavy sulfurous steam, the cadaverous smell of dead wentals. He drew a deep breath, felt the anger burn through him.

This is war.

“The Roamers can help us,” Cesca said, her voice brittle with fury at the sight of the blackened, glassy landscape that had once been a calm and fertile sea. “We should ask the clans to join our fight.”

Kneeling, Jess put his fingers in a warm, scum-covered puddle. The water felt oily and dead. He shook his head, trying to find an independent reservoir on Charybdis.Something must have survived. “What possible weapons could Roamers devise against them?”

Cesca raised her eyebrows. “Jess Tamblyn, are you really doubting Roamer ingenuity?”

He took hope from that, and with his fingers still dripping, he began to walk across the wasteland. Understanding the wentals all too well, he did know what the largest problem was. “Wentals and verdani are forces of life and stability. Hydrogues and faeros are the embodiments of destruction. When they clash, the chaos and aggression inevitably overwhelm the quiet and peace. The wentals don’t know how to fight effectively against an enemy like this.”

Cesca followed him. “Unless we change the rules of engagement.”

A small crack opened up in the ground, and steam sighed out like the last gasp of another wental that had surrendered to its fate.

Ten thousand years ago the wentals and verdani had nearly been annihilated in the great war. Sorely beaten, the hydrogues were driven into their gas-giant planets, and the faeros took up residence in their stars. When hostilities had flared up again, the unresolved conflict triggered into full fury. But now the landscape of the Spiral Arm was quite different.

From his contact with the wentals, Jess knew that the faeros had nearly been defeated by the hydrogues until the fiery beings had changed their old chaotic tactics. The former Hyrillka Designate Rusa’h had caused that difference. He had fled into the fires of a nearby sun where the faeros consumed and joined with him, much as the wentals had with Jess and Cesca. As a living embodiment of the fiery creatures, Rusa’h had showed them new ways to fight, and they had overwhelmed the hydrogues at one battleground after another — and won. His guidance had made all the difference.

Jess stopped as these thoughts roiled through his head. When the wentals had been weak and few, they had saved him by permeating the tissues of his body, rescuing him from his exploding ship. Out of gratitude, Jess had led water bearers to disperse wental seedpools from planet to planet.

Now he and Cesca had an even greater challenge. Like Rusa’h, they had to take charge and guide the wentals in an effective fight. They had toshow the watery elementals how to take aggressive action.

He turned to Cesca, and his eyes seemed to fill with steam as he looked at the blasted landscape. “It’s time for the wentals to be angry, time for them to become warriors — to fight in a way that is more than just defensive.”

Power surged through his bloodstream, and he felt an overwhelming urge to strike something. Jess wasn’t normally an angry man, but now with his hard fists, he struck the glassy eggshell surface and felt the baked barrier crack. He pounded again. Yes, he sensed something deeper here! The oceans of Charybdis had been blasted away, but there was always water, always life.

He struck a third time and broke through the crust. Water filled the hole he had made, liquid percolating from deep aquifers. The water was hot, near boiling. Steam drifted about — not putrid brimstone steam, but vaporized water.Wental water. More and more of it welled up, as if trying to break free.

Cesca thrust her hands into the thermal pool. Bubbling water spurted out of the hot spring and flowed across the baked ground. Another geyser blasted through the crust, where more wentals had awakened from the hot aquifers.

Cesca stood up and clenched both fists. “As we touch and spread these wentals, our just anger will charge them with fresh purpose. Together we will find new ways to fight back.”

Beside her, Jess felt the power sing through his body, assuring him that all of the wentals would awaken and follow them. “We have a new Guiding Star.”


Tasia Tamblyn

After escaping from the Klikiss on Llaro, the damaged ship limped back to the Roamer shipyards. Tasia refused to leave the piloting deck, afraid that if she let her attention waver, some other crisis would hit these beleaguered people.

“Almost there, Tamblyn,” Robb Brindle said from the copilot’s chair, afraid to relax unless she did. “Almost there.”

“You’ve been saying that for days.”

“And each time we’re closer to home, aren’t we?”

The ship had originally been sent to rescue Roamer detainees held in a small EDF camp, but none of them had expected to fight a planet full of Klikiss. Damned bugs!

“Almost there,” Robb said again.

“Enough already.”

The Osquivel rings were a wide, sparkling disk, paper thin in relation to the bloated gas planet they encircled. Clear infrared signatures marked the largest industrial operations dispersed throughout the orbiting rubble: spacedocks and construction bays, admin asteroids, storage bunkers, independent complexes that specialized in ship construction or component fabrication, debris plumes that fanned out into space like rooster tails.

Tasia sent out their ID signal and requested an approved approach vector. In the large passenger compartment, the refugees began to get restless. Looking through the windowports, they watched the gas giant growing larger and larger.

“Is that a Roamer base?” Orli Covitz entered the pilot deck, her interested eyes fixed on the front screens.

“Beautiful, isn’t it? Bet you’ve never seen anything like it.”

Hud Steinman, a scrawny old man who always looked disheveled, came up next to the fifteen-year-old girl. “Lookscrowded. How many different habitation domes and industrial facilities do you have?”

“Exactly enough,” Tasia said. “No, strike that. We could use a few more. We’re building up the Confederation’s military against the Big Goose. and now we’ve got the bugs to worry about, too.”

“It’s probably noisy,” Steinman grumbled.

“If you prefer Llaro, we could send you back,” Robb teased.

“We’re docking within the hour,” Tasia said. “There’ll be quite a few Roamer families anxious to welcome us. Go tell everyone to get ready.”

“All we have are the clothes on our backs,” Orli said.

“And lucky to havethat,” Steinman added.

As their ship came into the center of the complex, numerous craft converged around the largest artificial structure. Small cargo pods and transport flitters raced in from other complexes as people gathered to welcome the refugees. Once Tasia gave them an earful about what had really happened at Llaro, she expected to rile up the whole Confederation before any more human colonies were trampled by the waves of returning Klikiss.

While she docked at the hub and went through the tedious lockdown and verification procedures, the eager passengers crowded against the hatches. Finally, after the equalization lamps blinked green, Tasia opened all four side doors at the same time and extended the ramps. In a flood, the survivors of Llaro exited into the bustling complex. Many looked shell-shocked. Many wept. Some couldn’t stop laughing.

Standing together, Tasia and Robb enjoyed watching the happy reunions. Without even looking at each other, they reached out at the same moment to clasp hands. “I’m proud of what we did, Brindle, but I’m also mad as hell. We’re going to have to do something about the Klikiss, and pretty damn quick.”

Robb followed. “You’re ready to lock and load, aren’t you, Tamblyn?”

“I’m anxious to go back to Llaro and clean up the mess. I want to teach those bugs a lesson.” Too many — including Davlin Lotze — had sacrificed their lives during the rescue so that others could get away.

“At least let me grab a shower before you jump headfirst into another battle.”

“This is a Roamer complex with standard resource-management protocols.” She looked into his amber eyes. “We’d better take that shower together — to conserve water.”

Kotto Okiah, who was acting administrator of the shipyards, scratched his curly hair and blinked his owlish eyes at all the people who had showed up unexpectedly. When he spotted Tasia and Robb, he hurried over. “Well, it looks like you’ve got this under control.” Tasia wasn’t sure he even recalled why the rescue ship had gone to Llaro in the first place.

She said, “Kotto, there’s another danger that the whole Confederation needs to prepare for. We’re going to need some brand-new weapons and defenses.”

“Oh? That’s excellent.” The engineer raised his eyebrows. “Which enemy are we talking about now? I thought the hydrogues were defeated. There’s the Hansa, of course, but nothing really new. Is there something I’m missing?”

“Worse than the Big Goose, maybe worse than the drogues.” Taking Kotto by the elbow, Tasia said, “You’ve still got a green priest at the shipyards, right?”

“Yes. Liona should be on her way over here. I, uh, sent for her in case the clans wanted to hear news of their loved ones. Planning ahead — ”

Tasia cut him off. “We need to send out messages to rally all the Confederation fighters. King Peter knows the Klikiss have returned, but I doubt he knows they’re attacking colonies. No time to lose.”

The din in the reception bay was deafening as refugees chattered eagerly with clan members. When the female green priest finally entered the admin complex through the metal-lined hall, many Roamers rushed toward her, hoping to send telink notices to friends and family.

But something was wrong with Liona; Tasia picked up on it immediately. The green priest looked aghast as she pushed her way into the clamor. She gripped her small potted tree, and the delicate fronds seemed to shudder. Liona’s distraught shout brought everyone to a startled silence.

She looked around wildly. “The faeros are burning the worldforest!”



Asearing, sentient heat engulfed the stately trees and worked its way to their very cores. Yet the verdani heartwood refused to burn, so that the possessed trees shone like torches, unable to throw off the fiery elementals. Meanwhile, a normal fire had spread to vulnerable wood and underbrush, ravaging the forest as well.

At the edge of the meadow, Celli clenched her fists. “What can we do for the worldtrees, Solimar? How can we help them fight?”

“The faeros are torturing the trees they’ve captured.” Her friend pressed his hands against his smooth scalp, wincing and then forcing his eyes open again. “Burning! It is hard to concentrate.”

Though new to her abilities as a green priest, Celli could hear the wordless agony of trees. When the fires attacked one of them, they all felt the pain. Many green priests in the forest nearby were overwhelmed by the tragedy, unable to disconnect from their bond. Others fought back the clamor and the horror, afraid to open themselves to telink at all.

Though most of the trees in the central grove were caught up in elemental fire, Celli realized that the large trees were struggling tohold on to the faeros, to keep the fire from jumping to other worldtrees. She could feel the verdani fighting, but they were losing the battle.

With a shudder and then a surge of dismay, one of the weakening trees could no longer maintain its hold, and the faeros gleefully leaped to another towering trunk. Energetic flames raced up the golden bark scales to reach the vulnerable fronds, and within moments that tree had also become a living torch.

Solimar turned to her, his face drawn but determined. “Those faeros were transmitted through telink along mental pathways opened by Yarrod and his green priests. But these faeros are different somehow from the ones we’ve seen before.”

Celli sorted the information from the bedlam in her mind. The telink/thismconnection had inadvertently created a passage for faeros sparks to hurtle through. After consuming the green priest conduits, they had possessed the nearest trees. Yarrod himself had been the first to die, and Celli was unable to drive the horrible image of her uncle bursting into flames from her mind. He had tried to do a good thing, and it had incinerated him.

“These are newborn sparks — and they aren’t as strong as the others,” Celli said. “We can fight them, if the green priests will rally. We can strengthen the trees, give them hope, just like you and I did with our treedancing!”

She felt a rush of optimism. When the worldforest had nearly given up after the first hydrogue holocaust, she and Solimar had danced for the trees. That exuberance, that show oflife, had awakened a new strength in the worldforest, had let the deep roots tap into something the verdani had not previously known how to summon. Their human spirit had shaken the worldforest out of its old malaise.

She and Solimar could do the same thing now. “We have to tell the other green priests!” Impulsively, she placed her palms against the bark of a nearby tree and opened her mind to telink.

Solimar shouted, tried to stop her. Too late, Celli realized her mistake. As soon as she made the connection, the mental uproar hit her like a cannon blast. She could not block the overpowering cacophony.

Solimar threw himself to the tree beside her, held her with one arm and touched the bark with his free hand. Instead of dragging her away and breaking the connection, he added his strength, helped her hold on. Celli squeezed her eyes shut and fought the background roar. Her narrow shoulders shuddered, but she forced herself to keep her palms in place. For the worldforest. She shouted through telink.We are here for you.Draw on our strength.

She suddenly realized who else might be able to help them, just as he had helped the verdani understand the power behind the treedancing. Beneto had fused with one of the giant verdani treeships circling Theroc, and he was still up in orbit. Even in cold, dark space, the great battleship trees struggled against the newborn faeros trying to reach them through the telink conduits. Two of the treeships out there had already caught fire and were surrounded by an unnatural blaze.

Celli sought out the distant mind she missed so much, and Beneto broke through to her briefly.The burning trees must cut themselves off. Stop the spread of the fire before the faeros conquer all the worldforest.

Like the sound of shattering crystal in her mind, a burst of pain nearly deafened her. Traveling invisible pathways, the faeros had jumped to Beneto — and now his immense battleship body became a torch high above Theroc. too far away for her to help him, burning and burning, but not dying.


Queen Estarra

Huddled inside the sealed hydrogue derelict, Estarra held the baby close. In the panicked flight from the fungus reef, she hadn’t even noticed how her hands and arms were blistered and smudged from falling embers. Peter’s face was scalded, his voice raspy from inhaling so much smoke.

Outside the insulated diamond walls, the flames roared so brightly that she had to shield her eyes. The meadow was entirely ablaze, and another huge branch crashed down.

“I can still fly this vessel,” the Teacher compy offered. “Its systems are functional. I am perfectly capable of guiding it out of the fire.”

Estarra felt a surge of relief. “Of course you are, OX!”

The compy placed his polymer hands on the crystal knobs and accessed the complex etched circuitry. The hydrogue engines made no sound; there was no roar of liftoff or blast of rockets, but the small sphere heaved itself up from the ground. OX guided them higher, above the conflagration, above the torch trees.

Across the sweep of the canopy Estarra spotted other islands of fire where faeros had caught on specific trees, perhaps weak points in the telink network, or places where Yarrod’s green priests had inadvertently created a vulnerability. But most of the worldforest had not yet succumbed. It was bad, she knew, but it could have been worse.

Past the circle of fire that had trapped them, they saw many Therons running to scattered Roamer cargo craft. “Better land among them, OX,” Peter said, his eyes darting from side to side as he raced through possible options. “We might need those vessels to take people to safety.”

“Eleven large military ships have just arrived in orbit, King Peter,” the Teacher compy announced. “They belong to the Earth Defense Forces.”

Estarra felt sick inside as she jumped to the obvious conclusion. “The EDF is attacking usnow?”

Peter’s left hand unconsciously tightened. “Damn the Chairman! Send a message, OX. Tell them that we intend to vigorously resist any Hansa aggression. Don’t let them think we’re vulnerable.”

An older woman’s voice replied to the transmission in a hard drawl; Estarra recognized Admiral Willis. “King Peter, I’m not here to give you a black eye — I came to offer a helping hand. Looks like you could use it, too. My ships and I no longer serve Chairman Wenceslas.”

“That’s good news, Admiral, but as you can see, we’re in the middle of an emergency here. I don’t have time for formalities.”

“Then I’m glad we got here when we did. I’m coming down in a shuttle — if you promise not to shoot me out of the sky.”

“That’s a promise.”

OX guided the derelict into the open area among several intact worldtrees where Therons had gathered. Peter and Estarra emerged from the hatch and tried to organize all the people. Before long, an EDF command shuttle descended toward their position, alarming many of those gathered there, especially Roamers, but Peter called for calm.

When Willis disembarked, she ran an appraising eye over the royal couple. She straightened, gave a salute, then a bow, as if she wasn’t sure which gesture was expected. “I was hoping to be a bit more diplomatic about this, King Peter, but the circumstances are unusual. The eleven capital ships under my command have come to throw in our hats with the Confederation. Could you use a few battleships?”

Estarra couldn’t believe the offer, especially considering what she’d expected. “We certainly wouldn’t turn them down, Admiral — but right now we’ve got our hands full with other problems. Can you help us?”

Peter added, “I don’t suppose you have any experience with wildfires?”

Willis answered with a shrug of bravado. “How about we consider this our first assignment on your behalf?”



As the only green priest imprisoned on the Moon with the Ildiran captives, Nira felt cut off, unaware of what else might be happening in the Spiral Arm. The base commandant kept them separated in randomly chosen groups “for security reasons” — guard kithmen, Solar Navy soldiers, attenders, bureaucrats, even Rememberer Vao’sh and his companion Anton Colicos.

The rock walls of the lunar base were cold and dry, sealed with transparent polymer, but Nira tasted dust in every breath. The lights were painfully artificial, too bright, too white. She longed for something green and alive.

But she felt a much greater concern for the Mage-Imperator than for herself. She could see in his red, haunted eyes and jerky mannerisms that Jora’h was desperate and lost. Her heart went out to him, filled with love, fear, and indignation at what Chairman Wenceslas had done to him — and Nira’s pain could be only a whisper of the ragged agony Jora’h must be feeling through thethism. His people needed him!

The Mage-Imperator knew that Rusa’h and the faeros had unleashed an inferno in the capital city of Mijistra, driving Prime Designate Daro’h out of the Prism Palace, and destroying many warliners in Adar Zan’nh’s Solar Navy. When the fiery attack had begun, Nira had briefly received information through a treeling aboard the warliner. Through histhism connection, the Mage-Imperator had sensed the panic and death of many Ildirans. And just when the people needed their leader more than ever before, Chairman Wenceslas had seized Jora’h’s warliner and brought them all here as political prisoners.Hostages.

“I can still feel it,” Jora’h said to her. The star-sapphire glint in his eyes showed an edge of frenzy. His hands trembled, and his long braid had begun to unravel. “Ildira is wounded.”

The Chairman refused to set him free. Though he knew the faeros were attacking Ildira, he remained oblivious to the urgency — or perhaps, Nira thought, he was well aware of the situation and was using it for his own purposes.

The dozen bestial-looking guard kithmen growled and flexed their clawed fingers as they prowled the perimeter of the former mess hall where the hostages were allowed to gather. Though stripped of their crystal katanas, the hopelessly outnumbered guards were ready to tear the humans apart, given the slightest signal from their Mage-Imperator. Nira tried to calm Jora’h, and as he relaxed, so did the guard kithmen.

At the sound of approaching footsteps, Jora’h turned to whoever was coming, setting his face in a hard, commanding expression. Even under these appalling circumstances he clung to a pride and dignity that Nira admired. She moved next to him, offering all her support.

Five EDF soldiers with rifles on their shoulders marched to the doorway and stopped. Base Commandant Tilton, a man with large, slightly bulging eyes, entered next and scanned the chamber to assess where everyone was. He had a weak chin that seemed designed for a beard, despite EDF regulations prohibiting facial hair. When Tilton finally spoke in a reedy voice, he addressed someone behind him in the hall. “The room is secure, Mr. Chairman.”

Basil Wenceslas stepped in alone, wearing a business suit that set him apart from all the military personnel. The guard kithmen closed in around the Mage-Imperator, and Jora’h did not tell them to back down. He coldly faced the Hansa Chairman, refusing to address his supposed counterpart with any title or formalities. “My Empire is under attack. Millions, if not billions, of my people are dying because you keep me here. Release me.”

“Certainly. provided you agree to a few simple terms. I thought I had made my expectations perfectly clear.” He responded with an obviously false smile. “Break your agreement with Peter and the outlaw Confederation. Declare that he’s a rebel and publicly support me. You can do it all in a single speech.”

Jora’h’s voice was ragged and distraught. “I am the Mage-Imperator. My promises are more than wind. By holding me here, you have declared war on the Ildiran Empire. My Solar Navy will hold you responsible for every Ildiran death that — ”

The Chairman gave him a dismissive wave. “Your Solar Navy is in a shambles. Bluster all you like, but now that I know your battleships are busy fighting the faeros, I have even less to fear from them.”

Jora’h’s journey to Theroc to cement an alliance with the Confederation had been a dramatic move. He had admitted the errors of previous Mage-Imperators, and King Peter had suggested that the two great races put their pasts behind them. New leaders, new times, a new future.

But now the relationship between Ildirans and humans — at least these humans — had forever changed.

Ironically, Nira realized that Jora’h’s father, like Chairman Wenceslas, would have betrayed anyone necessary to achieve his own ends and to protect the Empire. He would have had no qualms about breaking his alliance with the Confederation and making a pact with the Hansa if it served his purpose; nor would he have balked at breaking the newly made pact to be safe again. Mage-Imperator Cyroc’h had kept many secrets from the Ildiran people and even killed his own rememberers when they discovered too much.

Jora’h, however, was most emphatically not his father. He would never give in to the Hansa’s coercion.

Chairman Wenceslas continued to prod him. “Where is the Confederation now? Are they here to help you? Have they responded to your alleged crisis on Ildira, or have they left you entirely alone? Why remain loyal to such fair-weather friends. Why not end this? You can be on your way in no time.”

“I don’t believe he has any intention of freeing you, Jora’h,” Nira said. “His actions speak clearly enough.”

“I agree. It makes my decision even more straightforward.”

The Chairman was not impressed. “In the meantime, we’ve finished an analysis of your flagship. Or should I say the newest addition toour fleet? Since the Earth Defense Forces have been severely depleted, we need every viable ship. Enemies continue to abound. in all directions.”

Jora’h said in a cool voice, “Then perhaps you should not have made so many enemies. I will not permit you to incorporate part of the Ildiran Solar Navy into your military.”

The Chairman shrugged. “It’s a perfectly functional ship. I can’t let it go to waste.” He turned to Commandant Tilton. “Send word to Admiral Diente to prepare for a thorough test cruise.” Recognizing the name of the man who had ambushed the Mage-Imperator’s warliner on its way from Theroc, Nira scowled.

The Chairman flashed Jora’h a distasteful smile. “Admiral Diente will take your ship far outside our solar system to see what it can do. And, since you still need to come to your senses, I have decided that you will accompany him — all alone, so you’ll have uninterrupted time for contemplation.”

“If you isolate him from all Ildiran contact, he’ll go insane,” Nira cried. “Even the Mage-Imperator can’t bear that.”

“Oh, dear. That hadn’t occurred to me.” The Chairman’s voice was rich with sarcasm. “He can change his mind anytime he likes.” He waited, but Jora’h did not respond. Annoyed, Basil Wenceslas shook his head. “I am so tired of people being obstinate and intractable instead of pulling their own weight to solve a crisis that affects us all.” As if a timer had gone off, he signaled the guards in the hall. “That is all the time I can devote to the matter. I must get back to Earth. Admiral Diente has his orders. Enjoy your solitary journey, Mage-Imperator. I trust it will help you to think more clearly.”


Prime Designate Daro’h

Mijistra was on fire, and the faeros reveled in it.

Thanks to the sacrifices of countless guard kithmen, Prime Designate Daro’h had escaped from the Prism Palace along with his sister Yazra’h and Nira’s five half-breed children. They had barely gotten away from the flaming avatar of Rusa’h as he surged through the crystalline corridors, destroying everything in his path.

On a barren hilltop far outside of Mijistra, Daro’h ached as he observed the sprawling shape of the glorious city. In the distance, the faeros continued to bombard the Ildiran capital.

To save as many of his people as possible, the Prime Designate had commanded a mass exodus, ordering all kiths to flee into the countryside while fireballs continued to hover over the skyline. Crowds of refugees streamed into the open hills, following rivers, looking for places to hide. Several Solar Navy warliners cruised low to the ground, delivering more survivors and supplies.

Next to Daro’h, Yazra’h also stared at the spectacle, her eyes like hard chips of topaz. His sister’s mane of long, coppery hair drifted in the breeze. “Clustering together makes the people vulnerable. They have no defenses if the faeros decide to incinerate them. They cannot fight.” Although one of her Isix cats had been burned to death during Rusa’h’s conquest, the remaining two prowled around her legs.

“So far the faeros have not chosen to attack,” Daro’h said. “I must postulate — I mustbelieve — that annihilating the Ildiran people does not serve the faeros plans. Rusa’h seems to be in control of them. He wants something more — the Mage-Imperator, perhaps.”

But their father was not on Ildira. In fact, no one knew where Jora’h was.

Yazra’h crossed her arms over her chest. “Nevertheless, I will not letyou stay in one of the open camps or exposed villages, Prime Designate.”

“You want me to hide.”

She gave him a hard look. “I want you tosurvive. I swore an oath to protect you.” With the Mage-Imperator missing, Ildirans had no one else to look to; Daro’h was their de facto leader.

Yazra’h had found a set of deep caves and mining tunnels in the mountains not far from Mijistra. “I have chosen the best defensive location I can. Adar Zan’nh is anxious to take you there.” She glanced uneasily up at the sky. “He feels you are too vulnerable out here, and so do I.”

Daro’h held his overwhelmed emotions in check, so they would not bleed into thethism. “Although it pains me to surrender our city to the faeros, we must choose our battles wisely.” He took a last look at the troop carriers and supply streamers crisscrossing the skies. “I will do as you suggest. Summon the Adar.”

Riding aboard a small, swift cutter, Daro’h sat next to one of the windows, staring out at the landscape, shocked by how much it had changed. Osira’h and her half-breed siblings had joined him as well, singed and bedraggled but very much alive.

“We are establishing as many camps as we can,” Zan’nh reported, piloting the cutter himself. “The Solar Navy is delivering food, medical supplies, tools, and prefabricated shelters.”

The Adar had already learned that his warliners could not fight the blazing ships directly; to extinguish a single fireball, he had sacrificed two warliners with their full crews. Now only five warliners remained of the septa he had brought to Ildira. The rest of the Solar Navy, the ragged remnants of his cohorts that had survived the climactic battle against the hydrogues, were dispersed thinly across the Ildiran Empire to watch over all the splinter colonies. Tabitha Huck and her work crews had been rapidly assembling new warliners in the orbiting industrial facilities when Rusa’h had arrived.

And so Zan’nh had explicitly instructed the captains of his few ships trapped at Ildira not to engage the faeros in direct conflict. Solar Navy ships returning from their routine patrols received transmitted orders to station themselves at the edge of the star system, waiting for an opportunity to move. They could not win, and he could not risk losing more warliners. Daro’h knew how much it galled Adar Zan’nh to issue those “cowardly” orders; nevertheless, the warliner captains obeyed and kept their large vessels ready — and safe.

“With your permission, Prime Designate, one of my captains has requested to take a warliner filled with refugees and attempt to flee this planet.” Zan’nh turned from his piloting controls. “We can load ten thousand of them from the most exposed camps and fly them to safety.”

Daro’h considered. “That warliner would not be able to return. Can we afford to lose it?”

“My warliners cannot fight the faeros, Prime Designate. At least this could save ten thousand lives.”

“Then it is a good choice. Tell the captain he has my blessing to make the attempt.”

The cutter flew toward the barren cliffs, and Daro’h saw small holes in the overhangs, caves accessed by wide gravel roads laid down centuries ago by digger kithmen. They landed on a broad rocky ledge. “Tal O’nh and Hyrillka Designate Ridek’h are already in the tunnels,” Zan’nh reported. “They have begun to set up the necessary equipment for our new command center.”

Daro’h emerged from the craft, looking in dismay at the round tunnel that was to be their new home for now. Yazra’h gave him a scolding look before he could say anything. “For all its magnificence, the Prism Palace is merely a structure. Remember,you are the Prime Designate.You are currently our leader.You matter more than Mijistra.”

Daro’h tried to convince himself that it was true. He had to make sure he was worthy of that faith in him.


Faeros Incarnate Rusa’h

Rusa’h settled into his rightful place like a bright coal at the heart of a blazing bonfire. With its towers, minarets, and gemlike ceilings, the Prism Palace was meant to be his — not for his own ambitions, but for the Ildiran race. and for the resurrection of the faeros and the bright igniting of the universe. Rusa’h had taken action for his people, for Ildira, for all those who had lost their way to the Lightsource.

Once he was ensconced in what remained of the skysphere, his power should have begun spreading like wildfire. He had tried to weave anotherthism web, to save some Ildirans by the necessary purging and sacrifice of others. But this new victory was not what Rusa’h had expected. Though bright soul-threads bound him to the faeros and the Ildiran people under his care, he still felt alone.

Although the faeros had helped him, they wanted more. always more. Every combustible object in the Palace had already burned. If he gave them free rein, the fireballs would surge across the landscape consuming everything, stealing every Ildiran soulfire they could find in order to spark new young faeros. He did his best to prevent a total Armageddon.

Rusa’h had shown the flaming elementals how to defeat the hydrogues. He was the faeros incarnate, but he was also the savior of the Ildiran Empire.

At the moment, his faeros were sweeping around the Spiral Arm to reclaim their cold, dead stars. The fiery elementals had already extinguished a major concentration of wentals on Charybdis and, thanks to the discovery Rusa’h had shown them, newborn faeros had raced along soul-threads ofthism /telink to Theroc. The battle with the worldtrees was already raging, burning. burning.

But Rusa’h had to keep at least part of Ildira intact. He had to hold the faeros in check.

Inside his Prism Palace, he drank in the crackling sound of flames around him. Yet Mijistra itself seemed too quiet and empty, most of the people having fled into the hills and wastelands. He was disappointed that true Ildirans would abandon their sacred metropolis, but they continued to stream away as if the new light were too bright for them. They hid in scattered encampments, huddled together for comfort and perceived protection. In spite of their desertion, he would shield those people from the faeros whenever he could. After all, Ildira washis.

Huge numbers of them were evacuees from his own beloved world of Hyrillka, people who had sought sanctuary on the Empire’s capital world. Rusa’h felt such compassion for them, such responsibility, but many of the reluctant refugees had never found homes here, nor had they been able to return to Hyrillka. That was Jora’h’s fault.

All would have been well if the Hyrillkans had just stayed where they belonged.

Rusa’h alone could save them, or he could let the faeros incinerate them.

Now that the hydrogues were defeated, the faeros needed to propagate. The bright, pulsing fiery entities wanted more soulfires. Insatiable, they demanded to burn more of the refugee camps, to obliterate whole splinter colonies.

Inside the dazzling skysphere his voice and thoughts boomed out to the fireballs. “You will not harm the people of Hyrillka.” The faeros shuddered and thrummed against his command. He could sense them blazing brighter, but he remained firm. “You will leave them alone.”

A searing backlash made the faeros response clear. They were hungry. The flaming elementals demanded more, and Rusa’h was required to give it to them. He had to find something to appease them.

Up in orbit, he detected a lone warliner quietly departing from the abandoned shipyards. Rusa’h was well aware that Adar Zan’nh’s few Solar Navy ships continued to deliver supplies that helped the evacuees. but this particular warliner held ten thousand Ildirans, all of them seeking to escape to some distant colony in the Ildiran Empire. The pilot had loaded his warliner with as many survivors as it could carry and had flown off, intending to take them far from Rusa’h.

He could not allow that to happen.

Once the moving warliner had attracted the attention of the faeros, Rusa’h knew this was an acceptable sacrifice, his best compromise. He groaned, then surrendered to the need and unleashed the fireballs. They raced off to the new target.

From the Prism Palace, he watched through blazing eyes as the fireballs swiftly closed on the crowded vessel. Through thethism, he could feel both hope and terror emanating from the refugees aboard the warliner. Ten thousand of them. all desperate to find sanctuary on some other Ildiran planet.

At least they weren’t the people of Hyrillka. he drew some consolation from that.

The faeros ellipsoids strained, ravenous as they began the chase. When the ornate battleship detected the approaching fireballs, its flight pattern became erratic, heading back toward the complex of heavy spacedocks and industrial facilities, as if hoping to find a place to hide.

The desperate warliner tried to dodge through an obstacle course of girders and half-built ship frameworks. Flying magnificently, the Solar Navy pilot dove beneath a tethered stockpile of armored plating. As they streaked past, the weapons officer fired an energy blast that severed the clamps holding the plates in place. Vibrating from the impact, the metal sheets spread apart, twirling like an artificial storm of flat meteors.

The faeros careened into the plates, flashing into blinding brightness as they vaporized the metal, leaving only a shower of molten globules in their wake. The fireballs barely slowed.

After a brief attempt to hide, the warliner accelerated away from the abandoned shipyards at maximum thrust, trying to get far enough away for the pilot to engage his Ildiran stardrive. Three comets of fire clipped the rear engines, melting them. The warliner spun out of control, its solar sails flapping outward like loose and tattered garments. In a final gesture of defiance, the warliner’s captain fired all of his weapons at the oncoming faeros ellipsoids.

Flames surrounded the Solar Navy ship, ate through its outer hull, and incinerated the vessel. Ten thousand Ildiran refugees and many more Solar Navy crewmen flashed into a bright blaze. Every soulfire aboard was absorbed.

And the faeros grew brighter.

In the Prism Palace, Rusa’h sighed. He hoped that would keep them satisfied. for now.



His body was more than human, an extended tree whose branches spread into space, whose trailing tendrils and mental roots connected with the overall worldforest mind. And now his body was on fire.

Beneto and his fellow verdani battleships had been orbiting Theroc as guardians, but the faeros had found a secret vulnerability in him, jumping through telink, seizing onto the union of wental and verdani that created his treeship body. Now, high above the continents, he felt the flames from below surge through his heartwood. He could hear the other treeships screaming.

He shouted his thoughts out to all green priests, thinking of the worldforest rather than himself.Give the trees your strength. Do not despair. Celli was right to remind him, and he tried to help her by concentrating on the efficacy of hope, the foolish but brave human drive to fight even when a battle seemed lost.

By treedancing, his little sister and Solimar had once reawakened the seeds of life in the worldforest. The verdani and their wental counterparts simply did not have the dogged, foolish determination to wring a victory from almost certain defeat — but humans did. Now, even as the elemental fires caught on his gigantic body and fought their way deeper into him, Beneto called to the remnants of green priests inside the other verdani battleships, insisting that they not give up.

Beneto made a defiant stand against the newborn faeros even as flames flickered at the thorny ends of his outermost branches. A chain of sparks ricocheted up and down the bark plates of his wide trunk, but he quenched the first waves of fire. There was hope!

Around him, the verdani battleships smoldered, on the verge of crossing the flashpoint and bursting into living bonfires. Far below, Beneto could feel the main worldforest struggling as young faeros flashed from tree to tree. The fiery elementals waged a fierce battle for each victory among the towering groves, but the trees could fend them off. It could be done! He had demonstrated that himself, and he wasn’t alone in his fight.

The other verdani battleships, along with green priests on the ground, were joining together. His sister Celli was one of the strongest fighters. She and Solimar used every mental skill they had to defend the forest.

Beneto’s thoughts thundered through telink.We can snuff out the faeros before their fire overwhelms us.

The verdani battleships shuddered as they pulled strength from the worldforest mind, wrung it from their own heartwood, forcing themselves to endure the pain.

The flames grew hotter and more insistent in Beneto’s body, and he could not entirely push them away. He struggled so hard that a long crack split along his thickest bough, and the glowing golden blood of his sap spilled out into space. The flames bit deeper, jumping into the point of weakness.

Nearby in space, two more verdani treeships lost their battle to possession by the elemental fires. They weakened, faltered, and then each spiny battleship became a corona of gleeful flames.

Even so, the infested treeships refused to let the faeros possess them. Rather than becoming full-fledged torch trees, the two lost verdani battleships intentionally allowed themselves to crumble into ash. Fragments of embers sparkled and drifted apart in space.

Although Beneto kept fighting, the flames ate at him, pushing deeper into his core, and he could not stop the burning.


Admiral Sheila Willis

With hundreds of small EDF craft in her battle group — Remoras, fuel tankers, cargo carriers, troop transports, and survey flyers — Willis was able to mount one hell of a bucket brigade. This wasn’t exactly something she had covered in basic training, but her people called up all their available databases on wildfire-fighting techniques. They would figure it out as they went along.

Using her own landed shuttle in the middle of a clearing as a field command post, she watched her display screens, frowning or cursing as images rolled in from recon flyovers. The Admiral activated the comm system and shouted, “I’d better see water dumping on these trees within the next five minutes, or you’re going to think serving under General Lanyan was a Sunday picnic.”

“On our way, Admiral,” came a crackling voice. “First squadron ETA in four and a half minutes, just under the wire.”

The first Remoras and fuel tankers swooped low, then opened their cargo bays to dump water onto the blazing worldtrees. Smaller ships emptied their reservoirs, releasing water they had scooped from Theroc’s lakes. Steam gushed into the air, rising through the dense forest canopy.

The faeros blazed paradoxically brighter as they drew energy from the worldtrees to fight off the quenching water.

Willis heard a groan, saw Celli and Solimar hunched over their treelings inside the command shuttle, both of them connected through telink. The green priests had come aboard her shuttle to act as intermediaries. Their eyes were squeezed shut, faces drawn in identical grimaces as they fought with all their hearts and minds. Celli hissed in pain and gripped her treeling. She blinked, but didn’t focus on anything around her. Her words sounded hollow. “That hurt them, but not enough. The faeros are ravenous.”

The small ships, now empty, circled back toward the nearest sources of open water. “Second squadron inbound, Admiral.”

“The drenching will be continuous now,” Willis said. “I don’t care how tough these fires are. We’ll stomp them again and again until there’s nothing left but a puff of smoke.”

A second barrage of water hindered the further spread of the fire. The torch trees shuddered and thrashed as if undergoing some kind of internal conflict, an elemental battle that Willis couldn’t understand.

“Four more green priests have died,” Solimar announced. “They were unable to wall themselves off from the trees they were helping through telink.”

“Green priests have spread the alarm across other planets,” Celli said.

“For whatever good that’ll do us now,” Willis said.

“The wentals are also aware,” Celli said. “Jess Tamblyn and Cesca Peroni have arrived at Osquivel. Liona has told them what’s happening here.”

“And what can they do?”

“They can bring the wentals.”

As the third group of EDF water tankers cruised in, the flaming trees tensed, and the fires intensified at the crowns. Celli suddenly screamed, and Solimar reeled backward. The torch trees shot out tendrils of fire that curled upward like solar flares and incinerated two of Willis’s ships before they could dump their loads of water. Another blast of targeted fire raged from the clustered burning trees, vaporizing a large tanker.

Willis shouted into the microphone, “Scramble! Scramble! Evasive action.”

Her crews responded instantly. A thick pillar of fire knocked out another Remora, but the remainder of her ships scattered. Now they were too dispersed to provide a good target for the brute-force blasts; on the other hand, they could no longer drop their water effectively.

“Circle around and stand ready,” Willis growled into the comm. “We must’ve hurt the bastards or they wouldn’t be lashing out like that. You’ll have to dump your water from a greater altitude. It won’t be as accurate, but those flame plumes can reach only so high.”

Most of the EDF pilots responded with anger instead of fear. More and more ships streamed in, released their loads from a great height, and circled back to nearby lakes to refill, relentlessly drenching the worldforest.

Finally, through the steam and rain, Willis saw several of the smaller torch trees begin to gutter and go out. She sat back, crossing her arms. “Another couple thousand trips, and we might just have this thing under control.”


Patrick Fitzpatrick III

In the belly of the Golgen skymine, shouting EDF soldiers and complaining Roamer skyminers created a remarkable din. Men dropped tools onto the deck with loud clangs; ekti tanks were rolled into clusters, then lifted with levitating forklifts. Outside, the high-altitude winds whipped and roared in a continuing storm. TheGoliath hovered nearby.

No one was able to stop the continued outrage. Patrick stood beside Del Kellum, noting the trim EDF uniforms, the determined soldiers following orders. “I used to be just like them.”

“No wonder Zhett was always picking on you.”

Once, he had believed everything that General Lanyan told him. The Hansa had been at war with the hydrogues, and the Earth Defense Forces needed stardrive fuel, which the Roamers had “unjustly” withheld. Therefore, when they had seized a Roamer cargo ship, the decision to destroy the witness and remove the evidence had seemed perfectly reasonable. Patrick hadn’t thought twice about it: The EDF took what it needed.

Just as it was doing now. Patrick’s stomach knotted. Yes, he understood what drove these soldiers, and now he was ashamed of it.

A constant flow of military ships landed in the skymine’s open cargo bay, loaded up with ekti canisters, then returned to the nearby Juggernaut. General Lanyan followed a coterie of administrative aides; he wore a dress uniform rather than rugged combat fatigues, as if to show his contempt for any possible resistance from the Roamers.

A young lieutenant with soft, innocent eyes stepped up to Lanyan and reported in a clear voice, “General, we have reports from the consolidation squadrons. All Roamer skymines have been placed under EDF jurisdiction.”

“Yourjurisdiction?” Kellum bellowed. “You know the Hansa has no claim on these mines — or is your head so far up your ass that you’re suffering from oxygen deprivation?”

Patrick said quietly and calmly to him, but for the General’s benefit, “Pure bullshit is a standard ingredient in EDF rations, Del. Have I told you what the EDF’s motto is? ‘Honor and bravery in service of the Earth.’” He pointedly looked at General Lanyan. “There’s a word for attacking unarmed, independent facilities to steal their property: piracy. Why not round things out with a bit of raping and pillaging?”

“They’re pillaging quite enough right now, by damn,” Kellum said.

Not rising to the bait, the General scanned the report that listed the amount of stardrive fuel the troops had seized. “My, you Roamers have been busy.”

Kellum growled. “Weearn what we have, unlike some people.”

Lanyan continued to scan the inventory, not interested in what Kellum had to say. “Hmm, a supply of orange liqueur. Where did it come from?”

With pride, the bearded clan leader said, “I make it myself.”

“Is it any good?”

“Too good for you.”

“I’ll accept your recommendation. Have it loaded into my personal shuttle.” The General finally gave Patrick his full attention. “I am disappointed in you, Mr. Fitzpatrick. You had a great future in the EDF, but you pissed it all away — forthis?” He raised his hands to indicate the cluttered complex. He leaned closer, smelling of cologne and sweat. “I’m going to take you back to Earth and treat you to a full court-martial. The Hansa has already arrested hundreds for illegally rebroadcasting that foolish condemnation and confession you recorded. That recording did no good, but we can still use it against you.”

Patrick could not hide his satisfied smile. “Really — hundreds arrested? My message must have been distributed widely, then.” Lanyan was flustered, and Patrick decided to call his bluff. “I’d love a public opportunity to explain how the Hansa broke treaties, killed innocent people, provoked hostilities, destroyed the capital of a sovereign people. In fact, my grandmother will make certain I get the forum I need. Take me back, I dare you. What you’re doing here is illegal.”

“Roamers have no legal standing in the Hansa.”

“Not true. My grandmother entered into an agreement with clan Kellum, speaking officially as a former Hansa Chairman. She promised them their freedom and guaranteed that neither they nor their facilities would be harassed by the EDF in exchange for them surrendering a valuable hydrogue derelict. The Roamers held up their side of the bargain. You’ve reneged.”

Lanyan shrugged. “Once King Peter stole the derelict back and delivered it to the Roamers, all bets were off.”

Patrick was startled by this information; he hadn’t been aware that the alien ship was back in the hands of the Confederation. He hadn’t expected Lanyan to know about the deal at all.

Lanyan motioned for him. “Come to the operations center, Fitzpatrick, and help me go through the databases to make sure we haven’t missed anything.”

“I won’t help.”

“Then you can watch as I blunder around in your computerized systems. Who knows what damage I might cause?” Patrick grudgingly followed him to a lift, while Kellum remained behind, glowering as soldiers continued loading tank after tank of stolen stardrive fuel.

In the ops center that crowned the skymine dome, broad windows looked out upon the endless yellowish skies. Zhett was single-handedly trying to keep soldiers from the database control panels, but they ignored her. That had put her in a murderous mood. “You clods shouldn’t be allowed to run an abacus!”

One of the technicians fumbled with a touchpad, frowning when the systems froze on him.

A soldier shouted, “General Lanyan on the bridge!”

“It’s not a bridge,” Patrick said. “It’s an operations center.” In the distance, he could see another skymine, Boris Goff’s, also surrounded by EDF ships.

“Status report,” Lanyan demanded. “Have you run a full inventory?”

“As near as we can tell, sir,” said the blundering technician. “It’s a very disorganized system, not to military specs at all.”

Zhett stood close to Patrick and put her fists on his shoulder as if she wanted to pound on something. He slipped his arm around her waist and drew her close, restraining her.

When the General saw him holding the young woman, he seemed greatly amused. “So the well-bred Patrick Fitzpatrick III has found himself a pretty little Roamer mistress. How sweet.”

“She’s not my mistress. She’s my wife.”

Lanyan burst out laughing. “And would your grandmother still support you if she knew about that?”

Patrick remained cool. “I’m sure her wedding gift is already on its way.” He didn’t mention that he had neglected to send the old Battleaxe an invitation.

The technician had finally succeeded in calling up screens full of numbers. “Looks like we got it all, General. Other than the expected losses on cargo ships and a few ekti escort haulers that initially escaped our net, we have secured and transferred all the available fuel on these skymines.”

“Our work here is done, then.” Lanyan raked a self-satisfied gaze across the glowering Roamers in the operations center. “We’ll be back when the time is right. I’m sure Chairman Wenceslas will want to manage this in his own particular way.”

The innocent-eyed lieutenant burst into the ops center, looking flushed. “There you are, General! We’ve picked up the tracer signal on one of the cargo escorts we tagged. We can follow it to another Roamer depot or industrial facility, if you like.”

“I would like that very much. Tell theGoliath to prepare for immediate departure.” Snapping orders for his crew to finish up, he left Fitzpatrick and Zhett standing together in the operations center.

Before long the EDF raiders departed in a ponderous group, like bumblebees overloaded with pollen.


Margaret Colicos

Trapped on Llaro and surrounded by Klikiss, Margaret wondered if all those escaped colonists had been only a dream. Orli Covitz, Hud Steinman, Tasia Tamblyn, Robb Brindle. She no longer even had her faithful compy DD. Yes, they had gotten away. Margaret was completely alone. except for the monsters.

But shehad helped those people escape. If she were going to become delusional, she could have done so long ago. After years of living at the bare edge of survival, knowing that the incomprehensible hive mind might kill her on a whim, Margaret had used the Klikiss behavior against them. She had made it possible for the doomed colonists to slip away before the insects could slaughter them. Nearly a hundred people had fled from Llaro. Including dear DD.

But the breedex refused to let her leave. While the others escaped, a group of Klikiss warriors had singled her out and captured her again. The hive mind wantedher, but she had no idea why. As an ambassador? A sounding board? A pet human being?

She shouted at the milling insects. “Why did you capture me if you don’t want me to do anything?”

But the new breedex chose not to answer through them. She threw a rock at a mottled brown digger, but the stone merely bounced off the chitin armor. The insects went about their bloodthirsty business, continuing the relentless assaults on other subhives, massacring countless rival Klikiss.

And ignoring her.

Her head pounded with the sound of their chittering. The smell of caustic powder, decay, and bitter insect pheromones caught in Margaret’s throat and nose. The tans and browns of the desolate landscape seemed harsher now, the edges sharper, even under pastel skies. Her eyes ached, as did her heart. She was stranded here.

Again, she cursed the Klikiss for holding her prisoner. It had felt so good to be among humans again. She missed DD. She missed Orli. She missed her son, Anton, whom she hadn’t seen in years. She still didn’t know what had happened to Davlin Lotze, though she assumed he was dead.

And, because the Klikiss had ceased communicating with her, she could get no answers to her questions. Though she walked among the hulking insects, pushing her way into their ranks, the creatures treated her as if she were no more than a tree or a rock to avoid. “Tell me why you want me here.”

In their constant chittering and humming, she heard no discernible reply.

Margaret made her way to the boundary of what had been a thriving human colony, which was now only ruins. The cultivated land had been completely subsumed by Klikiss structures. Insect warriors moved about, intent on urgent, incomprehensible missions. Builders slathered polymer resin cement on frameworks, erecting new towers to house even more Klikiss, expanding the subhive in preparation for further conquests.

The insects never ceased moving, never stopped pushing forward. Since their return from the Great Swarming, the warring subhives wanted toannihilate everything — all other breedexes, the hated black robots, and any human colonies that happened to get in the way. The Klikiss wouldn’t stop until it was all finished, until only one breedex remained.

Shortly after the few Llaro colonists had escaped, after the breedex had fissioned again and expanded its armies, the new-generation hive mind had thrown its warlike creatures into a bloody, almost maniacal wave of offensives, ripping apart one rival after another.

Always before, the different breedexes had attacked each other, striving for dominance and assimilating their conquered rivals into larger and larger forces. It was the way of their species. But the new Llaro breedex exhibited a berserker’s frenzy of violence, turning engineer sub-breeds loose to develop new weapons thatannihilated rather than incorporated most of the defeated insect hordes. Only a few representative members of the crushed subhives were taken into the hall of the breedex to be used in the next fissioning; with their own breedex dead, the rest were sent out as expendable shock troops in an assault wave against the next subhive. Each time the Llaro subhive obliterated another breedex, it moved one step closer to being the sole hive mind of the species.

Margaret looked up, sensing a change in the air. Unified by some silent call, the Klikiss gathered around the trapezoidal wall in the middle of their city. The stone face shimmered, and figures took shape within, an entire army of the Llaro breedex’s warriors marching back through the doorway. Many of them were battered, their carapaces cracked and oozing globs of clotting ichor after a terrific battle, but the Klikiss warriors carried the spiny heads of the rival subhive’s domates. They had torn the other hive apart.

Another victory. The annihilation of another breedex.

Margaret felt sickened at the thought that the monstrous Llaro hive mind might actually win the struggle for species domination and control all of the Klikiss.


Captain Branson Roberts

On the day he got his rebuilt ship back from the Osquivel shipyards, BeBob hoped for a certain amount of fanfare. At the very least, he would have liked a small crowd to admire the newBlind Faith, wish him well, and offer a toast for the old ship, which the EDF had blown up.

Instead, no one came for the christening. In this damned unending war, a new crisis seemed to appear every single day. Tasia Tamblyn and her group had come back from Llaro, clamoring about the Klikiss invasion, and then the green priest had raised the alarm about the faeros attacking Theroc. Just that morning, Jess Tamblyn and Cesca Peroni had arrived at the shipyards in their wental ship, asking for help against the fiery elementals, and thenthey had rushed off.

Always an emergency. BeBob felt left out.

Like a proud parent he walked around the vessel. The paint was perfect and unscuffed, with no corrosions from cosmic radiation, no scratches or pits from micrometeoroids. And the Roamers had finished building the ship ahead of schedule!

During the reassembly he had hovered near the construction site every day. He had watched the frame put into place, the hull panels riveted on, extra armor layered over standard reinforcement alloys. The attitude-control thrusters, the in-system engines, and the stardrive had been tested on racks, then installed and tested again in situ. The modified computer systems and the full range of defensive weapons checked out. The oldFaith had never sported projectile launchers or jazers, but in times like these, no ship could afford to be without them.

The newBlind Faith was seven meters longer than the original, with an expanded cargo bay and more compact engines, which yielded a twenty percent increase in carrying capacity; according to the specs, she was faster, too. BeBob couldn’t wait to see what the ship could do.

He particularly would have liked Rlinda Kett to fly with him on the maiden voyage, but he wasn’t going to wait around for her to come back from Earth. Long ago, she had helped him inspect the originalBlind Faith, back when he had joined her shipping company. And then there had been their ill-advised marriage. but all that was so much gas down a black hole. Now the EDF had a death warrant out for him and probably one for Rlinda, too.

He still felt nervous that she had gone to the Hansa by herself. BeBob had wanted to go along, but Rlinda had laughed at him. “I’m the Confederation’s Trade Minister. I can take care of myself — but I’m not lettingyou anywhere near that planet. It was enough trouble breaking you out of EDF prison in the first place.” He had lost his ship, and they had lost Davlin Lotze in the process.

BeBob had every confidence in Rlinda Kett. He just wished she could be here for the launch. He had his first delivery mission already on the books, and he could set off at any time.

Toying with the external controls, he opened the main entry hatch. The boarding ramp hummed out smoothly, all tracks perfectly oiled. Bright panels lit the ship’s interior. He could smell the polymers of the control deck, freshly welded compartments, polished doors, and soft upholstery.

Poking his head back out again, he saw a curly-haired Roamer man enter the chamber. “Sorry I’m late, Captain Roberts,” Kotto Okiah said. “I see you’ve begun the inspection already.”

“Everything’s fine.” BeBob ran his hand along the inner hull. “Hand over the keys and I’ll take my ship out for a shakedown cruise.”

“Keys? We don’t use keys anymore. I have your access codes and authorization — ”

BeBob held up a hand. “Just kidding. An archaic reference.”

“I should have caught that.” Kotto looked around. “Would you like us to schedule an official ceremony later on, when things settle down? There’s just so much going on here.”

“Oh, that’s not necessary,” BeBob said, though he didn’t mean it. “If you’re going to wait until things settle down, we’ll have to send out invitations to my grandchildren.”

“You know, of course, about all the Llaro refugees that just came back? Someone wanted to see you. It seems you have friends among them.”

“I don’t remember anyone from Llaro — ” BeBob turned as more visitors entered the bay. He recognized a skinny old man with grayish-white hair and unkempt clothes and a young girl with short brown hair and large sepia eyes, accompanied by a Friendly compy. “Orli! Orli Covitz — and Hud Steinman!” He had rescued the two from Corribus, the only survivors of the black robot attack. “What were you two doing on Llaro?”

“Being chased by bugs, mostly,” Orli said. “Is that a new ship? Doesn’t look at all like the old one.”

“Forget the battered old vessel. Now everything’s shiny. The engines and power systems purr instead of clatter.” Grinning, he gestured to the ramp. “Step aboard my newBlind Faith.”

Orli trotted up to the control deck and poked around with a fascinated expression. “Maybe I can be your copilot or first officer someday.”

When BeBob saw she was serious, he realized that he could do worse. “I’ll think about it. Hey, I was about to take a test flight with a load of supplies for Relleker, and I wouldn’t mind the company. Want to come along? Sounds like we’ve got plenty of stories to exchange.”

“What do you think, DD?” Orli asked. The Friendly compy, obviously pleased to be with her and away from the Klikiss, seemed perfectly amenable.

“Wewould like that,” said Mr. Steinman. The old man glanced around the rock-walled landing bay in which the ship rested. “We don’t have anything better to do. Might as well make ourselves useful.”


Rlinda Kett

Though she had changed her call sign and obscured the ship’s name with a strategically applied scorch mark on the hull, Rlinda never stopped calling her ship theVoracious Curiosity. However, she took care to avoid any unwanted EDF entanglements.

Her ship carried a profitable cargo of comfort items that people facing austerity and rationing would very much welcome: preserved foods, jungle delicacies from Theroc, difficult-to-obtain cocoon-weave fabrics, thermal-resistant equipment from Constantine III. The Hansa simply couldn’t get such things anymore.

However, since Chairman Wenceslas had imposed extreme wartime tariffs, she would never enter into a formal agreement with Earth’s industries and merchants. Rlinda would find her own customers through unofficial channels, thank you very much. She still had plenty of black-market connections, and she could get her goods into the hands of customers who needed and appreciated them.

As theCuriosity passed the Moon and headed in toward Earth orbit, she was surprised to see a large, dark Ildiran warliner being towed into position above the lunar base. “What the hell is the EDF doing with an intact warliner?” Maybe it was better if she didn’t know.

Calling no attention to herself, she began weaving in among the orbital traffic. TheCuriosity flew in stealthily. Rlinda cut her transmissions and kept a low reflective profile on any surveillance networks. She mixed in with local ships and sent a burst signal so that her contacts would know what items she had to trade and what her asking price was.

“Sneaking around like an illegal smuggler,” she muttered to herself. “Ah, the glamorous life of the Confederation’s Trade Minister.”

That afternoon, settled in, Rlinda waited on an uncomfortable wrought-metal chair out in the sunshine. The wafting aroma of dark-roasted coffee beans gave the cafe a pleasant atmosphere, though she was annoyed at having paid vastly too much for a cup of coffee. Rlinda had the equipment to make herself a better one in theCuriosity ’s galley.

Outside in the tiled square, a group of white-painted mimes — of all things! — had begun a performance, wearing garish costumes and using exaggerated motions. Their silly pratfalls garnered chuckles from the few passersby who stopped to watch. The mimes were all playing characters, and Rlinda realized with a start that they were meant to be King Peter, the Archfather of Unison, and the Hansa Chairman. She doubted many other people recognized what the mimes were doing, but their political leanings were clear from the noble nature of the King, the inept buffoonery of the religious leader, and the sheer evil of the Chairman. She watched, newly impressed, and wondered how many other quiet symptoms of rebellion were manifesting themselves on Earth.

She heard an astonished, but carefully hushed woman’s voice. “What are you doing here?”

Rlinda turned. Her guest had arrived. “Hello, Sarein. I wasn’t sure you’d get my invitation.”

The Theron ambassador had disguised herself in plain Earth clothes with no traditional garments or any mark of her political position. “Are you supposed to be here? Are you allowed?”

“Of course not, but I couldn’t let that stop me. Sit down.” Rlinda lowered her voice, maintaining a scandalized tone. “I hope you brought your Hansa budget authorization. The coffee here is very expensive.”

Sarein stood motionless. She looked around, suspecting a trap. “There’s probably a warrant out for your arrest. I’m sure Basil hasn’t rescinded it.”

“Relax, Sarein.” Rlinda drummed her fingers on the edge of the table. “It’s just me. We’ve known each other a long time. Now pleasesit down. People are going to stare if you keep standing there like that.”

That was all the other woman needed to hear, and with a quick, compact movement she slid into a chair and sat across the table from Rlinda. After ordering an iced tea for herself, Sarein leaned forward and whispered, “How did you send me that message? It wasn’t traceable.”

“It wasn’t threatening, either, so I hoped you might be intrigued enough to come.”

“Even though I’m one of the few people Basil still trusts, he’s always monitoring me.”

“Well, why don’t you just leave him?” Rlinda set her meaty elbows on the table. “If you’re afraid of a man, he’s not worth staying with.”

“I’m not stayingwith him, but I can’t leave. Not now. It wouldn’t be right.”

“Ah, one of those kinds of relationships.”

Sarein pressed her pale lips together. “It’s not much of a relationship anymore, certainly not a romantic one. I won’t kid you — things are getting very bad, Rlinda. You shouldn’t be here. It’s dangerous. When you and Captain Roberts escaped last time, you threw the whole security net into question.”

“Securitynet?” Rlinda chuckled. “That’s an apt term — it’s so full of holes I can slip in and out anytime I like.”

“Well, I can’t,” Sarein said. “Basil’s cut himself off from so many things, I’m one of his last remaining advisers — for what that’s worth. If I leave. ”

“Hell in a handbasket, I get it.” Then she grew more serious. “Every time I come back to see you, things seem more messed up than they were on the visit before. Are yousure it’s not time for you to leave? I could take you back to Theroc.”

Sarein clutched her iced tea and peered from right to left. Rlinda wondered if she somehow imagined that Chairman Wenceslas had put her up to this as a test of her loyalty. “I. I couldn’t.”

“Really? Aren’t you the Theron ambassador? Doesn’t that mean your home is back there? Since the Hansa has cut off all relations with King Peter and Queen Estarra, what exactly is your role on Earth?”

“I might be one of the only stabilizing influences Basil’s got left.” Sarein’s words tumbled out in a rush, as if she were trying to convince herself. “That’s the most important role I’m able to fill. I can still talk to him. Sometimes.”

“Then talk some sense into him,” Rlinda said in a loud voice. Sarein quickly looked around to see if anyone had overheard.

“That’s why I have to stay,” she insisted. “If there’s a chance I can help change his policies, soften some of his reactions, then I could save a lot of lives.”

Rlinda heaved a sympathetic, put-upon sigh. “All right. If you’re trying to make me feel sorry for you, then I’ll pay for the coffee.” She sniffed. “Still, I have to say, it doesn’t look like you’re making any headway with the Chairman.”

Sarein took a drink of her iced tea, swallowing hard. “Maybe not, but I have to keep trying. I’m not willing to give up yet.”

Rlinda shrugged. “Suit yourself. If you change your mind, and I’m still around, the offer stands. ”

Sarein got up so quickly she jostled the table. Leaving her iced tea unfinished, she fled.



As the continued water bombardment progressively weakened the faeros, the green priests, unified by Celli and Solimar, added a measure of defiance and strength to the trees’ inherent quiet passivity. But the young faeros would not relinquish their hold on the worldtrees. An entire grove, including the fungus-reef tree, blazed hot with their resistance. The snap and crackle of fire and the sizzling sigh of steam filled the normally quiet forest.

While the Admiral directed her operations from inside the landed command shuttle, Celli and Solimar left to be outside among the trees again. They touched the living, embattled forest and threw their energy into the fight.

In her mind, Celli called out to Beneto’s treeship high overhead, but she could hear only her brother’s resonant pain from the fire growing within him.

Green priests shouted and staggered as a living ball of flame launched itself from the crown of a possessed torch tree and rocketed to an old worldtree on the other side of the barricade. The ancient tree shuddered as its upper fronds caught fire.

She and Solimar ran over to the old tree and wrapped their arms around the great trunk, pouring their strength and hope into it via telink. But it wasn’t enough. The elemental fire was about to jump to other weakened trees in the grove. They could sense it.

With tears streaming down their ash-powdered cheeks, they connected with all the nearby verdani at risk. The group of endangered worldtrees knew they had to act before the blaze could leap farther. Their own line of defense.

The threatened trees voluntarily surrendered their hold on the Theron soil where they had been rooted for centuries. Celli and Solimar moaned in dismay as the sacrificial trees leanedtoward the already blazing fires and fell with an immense simultaneous crash to create a firebreak. Geysers of sparks exploded upward, but the faeros could not spread across the charred ground.

It was only a small victory. The green priests refused to let go, continued to shore up the forest’s strength. Celli was trying to reach Beneto again when she saw that the verdani had other allies as well. “Solimar! Look at the clouds.”

Mountainous, unnatural thunderheads began to roll in overhead, faster than any wind could blow, gathering more and more water from the atmosphere. Celli’s green skin prickled with an electrical charge in the air. The fires seemed to shudder, preparing to stand against something far more difficult than another EDF water bombardment.

Blinking her reddened eyes, she scanned the lumpy outer fringe of clouds until she spotted a silvery blue sphere that streaked in low above the blazing trees like a bullet made of water. The verdani sensed that the water elementals had come, and excited cries rippled through the green priests. Celli had seen Jess Tamblyn use wental water to create the treeships in the first place. Now he had come back.

Jess and Cesca’s wental ship flitted back and forth as the rain clouds converged. The dark and roiling masses swelled, loomed larger, and closed in above the concentration of faeros-possessed trees. With a huge thunderclap that resonated across the sky, the clouds burst. Wental water spat down toward the faeros, each raindrop a deadly projectile.

The young faeros clung to their possessed trees and shot flames hopelessly into the air, but thunder boomed in response as the wentals expressed their anger. Anangry sound — from the wentals! Celli laughed with joy to hear it. The clouds gathered over the burning last stand of newborn faeros, and released torrents of rain in an exuberant downpour.

Shaking off any remaining fear, the green priests embraced the tree trunks, adding their strength, urging the verdani to fight back. Celli and Solimar turned their faces to the sky, letting the fresh droplets drench their skin and soothe their burns.



High above the planet, Beneto’s treeship fought the invasive fire that coursed through his sap — his blood. The arrival of the wentals had unleashed an elemental rainstorm below, energizing the worldforest root network.

Through his own unwanted connection with the living flames, he felt the agony of the young faeros as they were extinguished, one by one. Though he could not snuff out the deadly fire within him, he could impose control over his huge spiny body.He would guide it where he wished; he would control the fight. Beneto felt himself gain the upper hand.

We are coming, Beneto said to Celli through telink.

Trailing smoke and fire, the group of treeships descended through the sky. Trapped within him, the fiery creatures writhed, tried to make him deflect his course, but Beneto had greater strength now. He drove his battleship body into the thick grayish clouds, soaking his massive form. The wental rain ate away at the living fire in his body like acid, and the faeros recoiled. Through telink he heard his fellow verdani pilots cry out as they plunged into the energized clouds.

Beneto’s tree, sizzling with steam, dropped toward persistent faeros concentrations that had not been quenched by the wental downpour. He sent his thrumming voice to the doomed torch trees in the main grove.We can save the trees that surround you. Surrender your grip on the earth.We will take you away so the faeros cannot continue to spread.

The verdani had no individuality as humans did; each separate tree was merely a manifestation of the overall mind, each one connected to the others. Beneto had to excise all faeros-infested trees from the worldforest — including himself and his fellow verdani battleships.

As the rain continued to pour all around, the blazing treeships began their work above the fiery grove. Beneto could hear Celli weeping through the worldforest mind. He tried to reassure her, but there was little he could say.

The clustered battleships grasped the burning trunks with thorny branches, then rose upward until they uprooted the trees. Inside the verdani wood, the newborn faeros thrashed and fought, knowing they could not win, could not escape. Beneto and the other verdani battleships rose far above the worldforest canopy, dragging the sacrificial trees into the rarefied atmosphere, passing once more through the wental-infused thunderheads.

Beneto took the tainted and doomed trees far, far from Theroc.

Originally, after the defeat of the hydrogues, all of the verdani treeships had departed from Theroc in what should have been a majestic seeding journey, never to return. Though Beneto and his comrades had been called back to assist Theroc, they remembered what they had seen along the way — and Beneto knew of a perfect place where he could dispose of these treacherous young faeros.

The burning verdani battleships flew at breakneck speed, as if they could outrun the agony from the elemental flames. They swiftly approached what had once been a binary star system; one of the stars, a blue giant, had exploded in a supernova, leaving behind an ultra-dense remnant.

A black hole.

Its companion star had also swollen, becoming a red giant now. The black hole’s gravity pulled streamers of loose gas from the red giant’s outer layers, siphoning it in an ever-accelerating spiral down to the infinite vanishing point.

Dragging the fiery, uprooted forest through space, they followed the river of hot gases being pulled from the red giant. The syrupy threads of gravity pulled them closer, and soon their grip would be irresistible. The living flames within their treeship bodies became frantic, blazing brighter, struggling to get away. The additional shockwave of pain inside Beneto made Celli cry out, far away on Theroc.

Although his treeship flew in a procession of inferno-infested worldtrees, he remained connected with his little sister. Though the flaming verdani battleships could barely endure their pain, they kept the young faeros leashed within their wooden forms. Ravenous living flames continued to eat away at the branches, and Beneto knew the treeships had to hurry before they succumbed. He could not let the faeros loose now.

Through telink, he saw Celli standing in a scorched meadow surrounded by the wental-drenched worldforest. She blinked once, looking skyward, and when she blinked again, she was with him surrounded by the empty gulf of space. He knew she could feel the searing damage in his heartwood, his bloodsap, his outspread branches. He could not hide it.

Many green priests could not bear to maintain a telink connection, but Celli’s love for her brother gave her the strength to endure the pain. She refused to let go, and even as he raced across the gulf of space, he could feel the hot tears burning down her cheeks, hotter than the faeros fire in his heartwood.

The giant, thorny ships swirled around the black hole’s vortex. He and his companions released the uprooted trees, and one by one, they vanished with silent gasps, telink echoes of both dismay and victory. One at a time, the remaining verdani battleships spiraled in, passed the event horizon, and dropped into the blackness.

As each one disappeared, he knew that Celli could feel a permanent loss. She sucked in great breaths, no longer aware of her surroundings in the meadow. “Beneto. ” Hearing her, he drew strength from her companionship.

Beneto had done what he needed to do. He had dragged the faeros away from Theroc and saved the rest of the trees; he had brought the fiery elementals to a place from which they could not escape to cause further harm. He felt Celli shaking as she lowered herself to the singed ground. His sister would grieve, but she understood what Beneto had accomplished. She loved him, and she was loved. Love and hope had the power to heal. She and Solimar had taught the verdani the truth of that. Beneto was glad.

Celli turned to Solimar, buried her face against his muscular chest, and let the sobs come. She knew it was over.

In the last instant before he passed the point of gravitational no return, Beneto embraced the distant worldforest again with his mind and poured himself into it. His pain dissolved as his worldtree body fell into clean ash that mixed with the cosmic dust and gases. then swirled down forever.


Hyrillka Designate Ridek’h

The entire population of Ildira could not hide from the faeros, but they scrambled for whatever protection they could find. Young Ridek’h, the true Designate of Hyrillka, took shelter deep in the old mines along with Prime Designate Daro’h.

Digger kithmen worked to expand the tunnels and create large grottoes in the bowels of the mountain, as well as numerous new escape passages, should they be needed. Watchmen stood at posts outside the cave openings, always alert for faeros fireballs.

Ridek’h preferred to sit under the overhang, staring across the sunlit openness, trying to come up with some solution that he could offer the Prime Designate. On Hyrillka — the planet he supposedly ruled — the great, windy plains had been used for agriculture. He wasn’t meant to live underground in tunnels. No Ildiran was.

Though engineers had brought blazers to light the underground chambers, it had become Ridek’h’s habit to slip out and use surreptitiously gathered brushwood to build a modest fire — asafe fire. Sitting by the bright flames outside the mine entrance, he looked out into the never-ending daylight of multiple suns, and contemplated. Though he was no more than a young man with little experience who had become Designate completely by accident, Ridek’h was determined to help.

When the ten thousand Ildirans who had attempted to escape in a single warliner had lost their race against the faeros, he had felt the dagger of pain as all those innocents were incinerated, their soulfires stolen. Ridek’h had considered going with them, but more than a million of his displaced people were here on Ildira, and he would not leave until he found a way to save them.

While he was deep in thought, Tal O’nh joined him. Oftentimes he and the blind man sat side by side for hours without speaking, just drawing strength from each other’s company. The veteran’s face was still scarred and burned by the faeros; one socket was empty, and the other eye was milky and sightless, partially covered by a shriveled lid.

Upon becoming the new Hyrillka Designate, Ridek’h had gone to visit his planet and all the splinter colonies in the Horizon Cluster, accompanied by Tal O’nh and a septa of warliners. Their encounter with an enraged Rusa’h and his obedient fireballs had left all of the warliners’ crews dead, two of the warliners destroyed, and the tal’s eyesight blasted away.

Blindness would have driven most Ildirans insane, but O’nh was strong. Outside the mine opening, the orange glow of the small fire played across his face, though he couldn’t see it. “I can endure,” he told Ridek’h. “Long ago, knowing that I might lose my remaining eye, I made up my mind never to live with anxiety and fear. Humans can tolerate darkness whenever they choose, and if humans can survive this, then I certainly can.”

“You are brave, Tal O’nh.”

The veteran made a dismissive gesture. “I have merely had practice. You will find your own courage, should it become necessary.”

“We will need more than courage to drive out Rusa’h and his faeros.”

“You have what you need.You are the true Hyrillka Designate, and Jora’h is the true Mage-Imperator — titles Rusa’h now attempts to claim for himself. He will not succeed.”

The young man nodded before remembering that the tal could not see him. “I will hold on to hope if you tell me to.”

The blind tal leaned closer to the fire and extended his hands as if to draw the light into his skin. “There is real reason for confidence, Designate. Though he has vanished, we know the Mage-Imperator is not dead. We can still sense him, however distant he may be. Jora’h lives.”

Ridek’h considered that. When the previous Mage-Imperator had poisoned himself, their entire race had been crippled by mental shock and misery. Likewise, all Ildirans would have felt Jora’h’s death like a discordant scream through thethism. Therefore, Jora’h remained alive. but where was he?

“Has he abandoned us?”

“I do not believe so. I must assume that something prevents him from returning.”

With the Mage-Imperator missing, Mijistra lost, and the faeros in the Prism Palace, this could well be the worst time the Empire had ever known. Ridek’h knew it was time to demonstrate his confidence, to rally the old veteran. “Tal, we have every opportunity to make things better. And I swear we will.”


Mage-Imperator Jora’h

Jora’h gazed at Nira, touched her cheek one last time, then stoically turned to follow Admiral Diente and his military escort.Diente. The Mage-Imperator barely acknowledged the man who had ambushed his flagship.

The Admiral’s claim that he had been following the Chairman’s orders did not exempt him from blame. By kidnapping him, Diente might have single-handedly doomed the Ildiran Empire, allowing all of Jora’h’s people to be consumed by the faeros.

The dark-haired officer showed little expression as he walked along. “We have finished our inspection and analysis of your warliner, Mage-Imperator. All seems to be in working order, and we’re ready to depart.”

“So, you fixed the damage your own EDF ships inflicted upon it?” Jora’h said, staring ahead. “Are you certain you understand Solar Navy systems?”

Diente answered crisply, “Our engineers acquired a working knowledge of Ildiran warliners when we helped repair many of your vessels after the hydrogue battle here. We put that knowledge to good use.” He paused, then added apologetically, “Our shots were precisely targeted when we subdued your ship. We caused no more harm than was absolutely necessary.”

“You cannot begin to know how much harm you have caused, Admiral.”

As he ushered Jora’h aboard the warliner, Diente gave a slight, stiff bow, but averted his dark eyes. “I will show you to your accustomed stateroom. However, once we depart, my orders are to allow minimal interaction between yourself and my crew. You are to have privacy and solitude.”

Jora’h felt a chill in his soul. Already missing Nira, he tried to reinforce the strength of his heart and mind against the coming ordeal. “And do you understand what that will do to me, leaving the other Ildirans here on the Moon?”

Judging by his mannerisms, he guessed that even Diente did not approve of what Chairman Wenceslas was doing. but then, the Chairman no longer sought approval from anyone. “I understand that I have no choice in the matter.”

Jora’h shook his head bitterly. “I thought humans always have a choice.”

“Then you don’t have all the pertinent facts. Follow me.” In leading him up the ramp and along the primary corridors, Diente made a point of showing him all the troops stationed aboard the warliner. “Though this is only a test cruise, we have five hundred EDF soldiers aboard. Please don’t make me do anything I would regret.”

“I am not a fool, Admiral Diente. I must stay alive so that I can save my people. No matter how long it takes.”

“We have an understanding, then.” Diente gestured him into his former elaborate cabin, the large stateroom he had shared with Nira. The entire vessel seemed cold and bleak without her, without his crew.

The Admiral sealed the door behind him. Jora’h did not check to see if it was locked. He didn’t want to know the answer.

Chairman Wenceslas had not bothered to see him off, though no doubt every moment, every movement had been recorded. The Chairman was probably smiling with smug self-congratulation for coming up with this strategy.

For now, with the warliner still orbiting above the lunar base, Jora’h could feel thethism from the Ildiran captives nearby. Later, though, when he felt the warliner’s engines powering up and the great Solar Navy ship began to cruise away, the tenuous lines became more diffuse, stretched out. His people quickly slipped farther away.

Jora’h sat by himself in his brightly lit quarters, clenching his hands, concentrating. He was the Mage-Imperator. He had to master his fear. Though the connection grew fainter with every moment, he could not allow his people to sense his anxiety through thethism. They needed to be strong now — stronger than ever.

When Admiral Diente engaged the stardrive and the warliner leaped into the emptiness of space, Jora’h felt those last strands snap like the strings of a delicate musical instrument played by rough and violent hands.


He collapsed onto the comfortable bed, where he and Nira had shared their thoughts and hopes, where they’d had such quiet contentment. He felt as if he couldn’t breathe, as if all the oxygen in the warliner had been sucked out into the frigid, unforgiving vacuum. He had never imagined such incredible emptiness.

Jora’h closed his eyes and clenched his teeth. He spread his arms, concentrated, and threw his mind out into the void as far as he could. He searched for anyone, but he felt only cold madness clamoring at him.

“Iam the Mage-Imperator!” he cried through clenched teeth. His search continued for any friendly thought to help anchor him. But the universe was a vast and empty place.

To his horror, Jora’h realized that only a few seconds had passed.



In the ruins of the Roamer outpost of Forrey’s Folly, Sirix and his black robots marched down the stone tunnels, penetrating deeper into the fortress asteroid. All of the weak human inhabitants were dead, and bodies lay strewn about.

Though the honeycombed asteroid was protected by erratically orbiting chunks of rock, it had been a trivial operation for Sirix’s robots to plan and carry out an invasion of the outpost. In one swift operation, they had collapsed the atmospheric domes, opened bulkheads to space, and broken through blast doors and into cargo bays. Some of the Roamers had tried to flee; others had attempted to defend the installation. Either way, they had been slaughtered. Per Sirix’s instructions, no one would be allowed to survive.

His two compy proteges, PD and QT, followed with brisk footsteps. At an access port to the base’s central computers, QT worked to connect to the systems. “Roamers often have fail-safes rigged to their computers. We must be cautious.” He paused. “Yes, an electrical and radiation pulse is poised to erase all stored information in the event of a security breach.”

Sirix spun his flat head plate. “Can you deactivate it to allow a scan of the database?”

“Yes.” The compies sounded anxious to please.

“Then do so.”

Because both compies were familiar with Roamer systems from previous conquests, PD and QT worked together until they had deactivated the automatic purging protocols. “We now have access to the data summaries, inventories, and lists of known facilities.”

While robot squads continued to explore the asteroid tunnels, rooting out the last few frantic survivors and killing them, the two compies took turns rattling off statistics about how many ships came and went to the asteroid outpost, how many metric tons of various ores were shipped away annually, how much raw metal the processing plants produced.

PD asked brightly, “Is this place acceptable, Sirix?”

“No, it is not.” He was very disappointed. His crimson optical sensors glowed a deep ruby shade in contrast to the still-flashing scarlet emergency lights. “This is a bulk-processing plant designed to produce large sheets of alloys, heavy girders, construction ingots. This facility does not have the technological sophistication we require.”

With each disappointing result, he grew more desperate. Circumstances beyond Sirix’s control had led to defeat after defeat, and most of the original black robots had been annihilated in recent battles. Very little of his massive army and only a few dozen of the stolen EDF battleships remained intact. His options had seemed quite limited until the two naive compies had suggested their bold and previously unthinkable scheme.

Given facilities with proper technical sophistication, they could build more black robots,new ones, to replace the ranks of those that had fallen. Even though the new-generation robots would not have the vital memories and experiences of the lost originals, they would still replenish his army. Sirix could use them to complete his plans.

However, manufacturing new Klikiss robots was not as simple as constructing a spacecraft or a clumsy habitation dome. The fabrication process required extreme sophistication. Forrey’s Folly was inadequate. This entire operation had been a waste of Sirix’s time.

Flexing his fingerlike leg clusters, Sirix stepped over two human bodies that blocked the rough floor of the deep tunnel. He turned back to the two compies. “Search all the information in their databases for any other outposts and assess their capabilities in advance. Find me a place to manufacture my robots.”

“Yes, Sirix,” PD and QT said in unison.

“The Roamers themselves will point us to our next target.”

When the two compies came to report to him on the bridge of his ship, Sirix could tell they were pleased. “Have you found an acceptable alternative?”

PD presented a datapad, and QT spoke up. “We suggest Relleker. It is a former Hansa world with a very desirable climate. Hydrogues destroyed the settlement and killed every colonist. Roamers recently returned there to establish an extensive base, now that they are safe from the hydrogues.”

“They are not safe from my robots,” Sirix said. “Why do you believe this place will be satisfactory?”

“The Roamers have installed a new industrial grid with many capable workers and cutting-edge technology,” PD said. “The data indicates that their fabrication plants are excellent.”

“So they believe,” Sirix said. “Let us see Relleker for ourselves. If it proves adequate, we will seize it and begin our work.” He studied the report. According to the records the compies had downloaded, the planet did have everything necessary for the construction of new robots. The existing facilities could be converted into a proper assembly plant without difficulty. And with no significant defenses, Relleker would easily be subsumed.

“If the human colonists are technologically proficient, perhaps they will assist us in creating more robots,” QT suggested. “After all, the current fabrication lines are designed for human hands.”

“And we could use the help,” PD said. “We should keep them alive.”

Sirix grudgingly agreed. “Some of them, perhaps —if it serves our purposes.” He contacted his ships to inform them of the mission priorities. The robot fleet altered course and flew off toward their new destination.


General Kurt Lanyan

As his battle group followed the pinger signal on the runaway Roamer cargo escort, Lanyan felt genuine satisfaction. At Golgen, he had put all the skymines in their places and showed the clans that they had to line up in support of the Hansa for the good of the human race. His troops had also captured enough stardrive fuel to run the whole fleet for six months or more. Definitely a good day’s work. As he sipped a cup of black coffee on theGoliath ’s bridge, Lanyan mulled over how much the Chairman would appreciate what he’d done. For once.

Tight supplies of ekti had hampered the EDF for years. How could a space fleet perform its work properly if they had to account for every fume, every discretionary patrol run? Now that his ships were pursuing one of the “escaped” cargo escorts, Lanyan was sure he’d soon have even more to show for his efforts. Yes, he felt very good about himself and his crew.

“That was a bad business back at Golgen, General.” Conrad Brindle had come aboard the flagship from his Manta for consultation and debriefing. He didn’t sound enthusiastic at all.

“Bad business? It was a complete success.”

“It was a civilian target, sir. We had no legal justification for seizing their assets without due process — ”

“They were enemy sympathizers at the very least, if not actual combatants.” Lanyan wished the other man had the decency to voice his objections in the privacy of the ready room, rather than on the bridge where the rest of the crew could overhear.

Brindle stood his ground. “At the Academy I taught students in ethics, the Hansa Charter, and the fine points of EDF regulations. During our Golgen mission, the proper procedures were not followed. What we did was tantamount to piracy.”

Lanyan cut him off, annoyed that this man would rain on his parade. Years earlier, Lanyan himself had hunted down and executed the Roamer pirate Rand Sorengaard; this was completely different. “Mr. Brindle, you made the right decision when you chose not to join Willis’s mutiny at Rhejak. You showed an admirable strength of character when you left your own son and his Roamer ‘friend’ on Theroc and remained loyal to the Earth Defense Forces. Don’t fail me now when things are going so well.”

His tactical officer interrupted them. “General, the pinger signal has stopped! The cargo escort’s gone to ground in the system ahead.”

Lanyan set his coffee aside, hoping Brindle wouldn’t press the matter further. “Tell me about the system. What’s there?”

“Nothing that I can see, sir. Metal-rich rocks in erratic orbits — barely worth noting on a starmap. The only name I could find in the records is Forrey’s Folly. I can’t tell if it refers to any particular asteroid.”

Lanyan nodded slowly, smiling. “Ugly, useless, and out of the way — exactly the sort of place Roamers like.” He scanned starmap archives where a tangle of ellipses showed the orbital paths of the many out-of-ecliptic planetoids around a small dim sun. The cargo escort had gone directly to one of the asteroids. “Proceed with caution. We’ll probably find another clan hideout.”

The sensor operator scanned the rock. “The presence of processed metals and geometrical shapes clearly indicates artificial constructions.”

“Charge in with our weapons ready, but don’t open fire unless I say so. We don’t want to lose any ekti stockpiles they might have — or damage facilities that may continue to be productive.”

“We should also avoid unnecessary casualties,” Brindle added, making sure everyone on the bridge could hear him.

The sensor operator brought up a report from the long-range scans. “Detecting no energy signatures, comm traffic, or heat sources. Just the cargo escort. He’s transmitting, but getting no answer.”

Lanyan leaned forward, elbows on his knees. At the speed the EDF ships were moving, the outpost approached in a flash. The asteroid had once been covered with domes, tank farms, docking frameworks, and habitation tunnels, but the place was entirely destroyed. Explosions had riddled the already cratered rock of the asteroid. Blackened holes and melted cuts showed where the facility had been torn apart.

“That was done by EDF jazer blasts, sir,” said the sensor operator.

“Jazers? I gave no order to attack this place. Hell, I didn’t even know it was here.”

Before Lanyan’s ships could close in on their attack run, the cargo escort spun about. A profanity-filled transmission came across the open band. The Roamer pilot had a long, thin beard, and a braid that dangled over his shoulder; he was so angry his face was red, his eyes wide and bloodshot. “You Eddy bastards! You’ve killed everyone here.Why? Isn’t piracy enough anymore? You have to engage in mass murder, too?”

Lanyan looked over at Brindle, as if his second in command might have answers. “Are you sure there’s no record of any military operation taking place here?”

“None, sir.”

“Open a channel to the Roamer pilot. Tell him we didn’t cause this massacre.”

“He’s not inclined to believe us, General,” said the comm officer a moment later. “His exact response is, um, quote,Bullshit. ”

The cargo escort’s engines brightened with acceleration thrust. Lanyan sighed. “Now where’s he going? Does he think he can actually run from us?” But the Roamer ship turned and accelerated directlytoward the Juggernaut. “What the hell? He’s trying to ram us! That’s ridiculous.”

“TheGoliath ’s shields are sufficient to withstand the impact,” Brindle said.

“I don’t care — open fire.” Then he added quickly, “Engine damage only. if possible.”

The cargo escort headed toward them like a projectile, but at the last moment the pilot disengaged his cargo of ekti tanks, dropping the twelve metal cylinders like spreading space mines directly into the path of the battle group. The Roamer ship veered slightly aside, weaving a complicated path through the clustered EDF ships even as their jazers crisscrossed space. Two spinning ekti cylinders slammed into the bow of Lanyan’s Juggernaut, and the resulting explosions shook the bridge.

“No significant damage, sir. No casualties,” Brindle reported. “One of our Mantas was struck by an exploding ekti tank. Repair crews are already on their way.”

Lanyan was more interested in the fleeing cargo escort. “Dammit, where did he go?”

“Still tracking him, sir — he’s heading out of the system.”

The Roamer pilot activated his stardrive and flashed away before Lanyan could turn his much larger battleships around and chase after him. Lanyan stood from his command chair and took a step toward the main screen. “Do we still have his homing beacon? Tell me we haven’t lost the signal.”

“I’ve got it, General.”

“Then follow him. This chase isn’t over until I say it is.”


Prime Designate Daro’h

Still feeling hunted inside the cave camp, Prime Designate Daro’h tried to understand the abrupt emptiness in thethism where the Mage-Imperator should have been. Until recently, they had all sensed a whisper of his distant presence, but now he was simplygone. Every Ildiran could feel it.

Attender kithmen desperately clung to the pretense of a normal routine by serving the Prime Designate. They prepared food and warm spiced drinks, brought cushions for Daro’h to sit on, and adjusted blazers for better light in the tunnel shadows. But no matter how servile they tried to be, they could never make this dusty, primitive camp into the Prism Palace.

While grim and silent sentries continued to watch for fireballs, Daro’h met with Adar Zan’nh, Yazra’h, and Tal O’nh. Chief Scribe Ko’sh, the head of the rememberer kith, sat near them, ready to quote from history and record new events. The knuckles on Yazra’h’s right hand were torn and bloody from when, unable to quell her frustration, she had lashed out at the unyielding rock.

Zan’nh delivered a report from his most recent surveys. His hair was pulled back from his face, his uniform rumpled. He had wasted little time following meticulous military dress codes since the crisis had begun.

“The Prism Palace glows like a bonfire at all hours, and many other buildings have burned down. From what I can tell, Mijistra is empty.” The effort of making such a statement was plain on the Adar’s face. “The faeros have cemented their control over the skies. Ten more of my patrol cutters failed to return. Whenever a ship attempts to make a run from Ildira, the fireballs pursue and destroy it.” He looked around, narrowed his eyes. “They will not let us leave the planet.”

Daro’h thought of all the splinter colonies in danger, the lost settlements across the Spiral Arm. All had been distraught that the Mage-Imperator was missing during their most tumultuous crisis, and now it was much worse. Jora’h had vanished entirely from thethism web, and the silence in the racial mind reverberated like an unending scream.

Now it was his responsibility, as Prime Designate, but he had no way to lead them, especially not hiding deep in a tunnel.

“We are in limbo,” Ko’sh interrupted. The lobes on the rememberer’s face shifted through a chameleon rainbow of colors, helping to convey the alarm in his voice. “No one can sense the Mage-Imperator!”

“That is news to no one,” Yazra’h answered in a growl. “But we are not in a position to do anything about it.”

“Youknow what must be done, Prime Designate,” the Chief Scribe said, focused only on Daro’h. “We need a leader. There is a precedent. You must undergo the ascension ceremony and become our new Mage-Imperator.”

Louder than the outcry from the others, Yazra’h shouted, “The precedent set by mad Designate Rusa’h? You are a fool to suggest it unless we know our father is dead!”

Tal O’nh said in a quiet voice, “The rememberer’s logic is valid. You give the people what guidance you can, Prime Designate, but you cannot fulfill the same role unless you have all thethism under your control. And that requires the ceremony.”

Daro’h had been present after the death of Mage-Imperator Cyroc’h when Jora’h underwent the castration ritual, the painful yet obligatory passage that transformed him from Prime Designate into Mage-Imperator. As a young man, Daro’h remembered the sudden rush of warmth and confidence as all thethism strands were taken in the new Mage-Imperator’s mind and heart. His father had instantly brought strength and direction to the lost and frightened Ildiran race, filling them with confidence, hope, and security.

Yes, his people desperately needed that security now. If Jora’h was truly gone, then the Prime Designate was required to become Mage-Imperator.

But if his father still lived, Daro’h could not simply ascend to become a new Mage-Imperator. That would cause terrible confusion, possibly even tear the remnants of the Empire apart. Rusa’h had already proved that.

Daro’h closed his eyes. To make an appropriate decision, he needed more information. If the Mage-Imperator was dead, then his path was clear. But his father’s death should have struck him like a hammer blow to his chest and mind. Instead, all Daro’h had to go on was utter mental silence. nothism, thoughts, or the faintest glimmer that Jora’h still existed.

He shook his head. “That is an irrevocable act, and it is tantamount to abandoning hope. Since I do not believe the Mage-Imperator is dead, any such action would therefore be premature. I will not do it.”

“There are those who say that if you do not do this, then you are a coward, Prime Designate,” Ko’sh retorted.

“There are those who say many stupid things,” Yazra’h snapped.

The Prime Designate squared his shoulders, drew a deep breath, and turned to all of them. He had to be strong. “Even though he is not here, the Mage-Imperator left me in charge. I was not born to be Prime Designate, but that role has fallen to me. You are my best advisers; that is the role that has fallen to you.”

He gave them a stern look. “Ildirans have trouble producing new solutions to problems. My father said that if we did not learn to change, it would be our downfall. I charge you with this task: Find me a solution. We are the Ildiran Empire! I do not care how desperate or unorthodox the plan may seem — suggest a way that we can fight back against the faeros.”


Faeros Incarnate Rusa’h

Inside the seared-clean remnants of the Prism Palace, Rusa’h continued to burn the lines of his newthism to guide the Ildiran people. The soul-threads were bright and hot like the filaments in a blazer. He had to go out and see what he had accomplished.

Rusa’h summoned flames from the floor and walls, pulling curtains of fire around him until they formed a fireball that enclosed him like a cocoon. He drifted through the already blasted passageways, shattering a heat-brittle door to reach the open air. His incandescent body floated above the now-slumping towers and minarets of the Palace, and from that vantage point, he surveyed his domain. He turned his flashing gaze out across the intricate metropolis of Mijistra that had been the jewel at the heart of the Ildiran Empire.

Rusa’h was torn between two driving obligations: guiding and controlling the Ildiran people, and continuing the resurrection of the faeros. The fiery elementals within him didn’t care about the Empire; their battle had far vaster implications. Buthe wanted to save his people.

He had learned to his frustration that the new faeros sparks on Theroc had been extinguished. The verdani had fought back with unexpected strength, aided by wentals, green priests, and even human military ships. It had been a setback for the faeros, but not for Rusa’h. He had everything he needed here on Ildira. except for Mage-Imperator Jora’h, who refused to return to his people, despite their loud outcries.

Sooner or later, Rusa’h would find his brother. It was only a matter of time.

In his flaming ship, he flew over the rooftops of Mijistra, gazing down on monuments, museums, and now-dry fountains. The Hall of Rememberers was empty, its interior charred. Most of the artisans’ quarters and communal dwellings for craftsmen, metal workers, technologists, and chemists had burned down. He passed over a medical center, a vehicle landing field, warehouses that held food for a populace that was no longer there.

The sheer sense of emptiness saddened him. Now that the hydrogues were bottled up in their gas giants, the faeros had the freedom to run. They could destroy whatever they wished, grow unchecked until they became the dominant force in the Spiral Arm and beyond.

Stretching his mind out to vast distances, Rusa’h joined the faeros leaping from star to star through their transgates. They frolicked in the reawakened Durris-B, where they had reignited nuclear reactions and set that star alight again. The faeros had reawakened many other old stellar battlegrounds, as well, reclaiming territory the hydrogues had taken from them.

But Ildira washis. The Ildiran people werehis. Again, he hammered that fact into the faeros.

Below his flaming ship, Rusa’h spied a group of desperate refugees leaving a food warehouse from which they had retrieved supplies for one of the poorly hidden camps. True Ildirans should have stayed in Mijistra to praise him for restoring his people to the Lightsource.

But when these people saw him, they ran in abject terror, many dropping the supplies they had taken. Rusa’h could have pursued them. With little more than a thought, he could have sent a surge of flame to burn down the buildings in which they hid. He could have swept in and stolen their soulfires to stoke the flames of the faeros.

But he chose not to. Though he could feel the restless elementals within him, he held them back. He could not allow the faeros to run rampant. He had meant to use the fiery elementals to achieve his own ends, but his influence extended only so far. Their chaos was quite powerful.

His fiery chariot circled over Mijistra and returned to the Prism Palace. A dozen of the giant fireballs appeared in the air overhead, milling about, always hungry, capricious, uncontrollable. They were eager for something to destroy.

Perhaps the faeros could help him find Jora’h.


Mage-Imperator Jora’h

Desperately alone aboard the warliner — far from Earth, far from Ildira, far fromanyone — Jora’h struggled to remain sane. Huddled in his private quarters, he had no idea how many days had passed. He felt only the gulf of emptiness extending forever.

For most of his life, he had believed the Ildiran Empire to be all-powerful, all-encompassing. Splinter colonies spread across the Spiral Arm so that thethism web extended everywhere. He had been so misinformed.

Though weak to the marrow of his bones, Jora’h made himself get up from his bunk. As Mage-Imperator, he must not allow himself to look defeated. He took three stuttering steps toward the bright blazers built into the wallplates, staring all the while at the dazzling light, using it as an anchor.

At least it wasn’t dark. Chairman Wenceslas hadn’t inflicted that particular torture on him — not yet.

If he cried out, if he surrendered, if he swore he would do as the Hansa demanded, would the EDF Admiral deliver him back to his people? Once he returned to the lunar base, though, he knew Chairman Wenceslas would probably string him along. The Chairman would never simply let him go.

After an abrupt signal at his stateroom door, Admiral Diente entered without waiting to be invited. Jora’h forced himself not to shiver at the terrible, freezing aloneness that coursed through his veins. “What. do you want?”

Diente kept his voice emotionless, as if delivering a bland report. “My software experts have been studying this warliner’s database. We found what seems to be some sort of a translation system designed to converse with the Klikiss. Is this true?”

Jora’h closed his eyes, trying to concentrate in spite of the swirling vortex of solitude. He searched his memory. “In ancient times we communicated with the Klikiss.”

“Does it still function?”

“We have not used it in thousands of years.” He paused, struggling as other memories came back. “Wait. Adar Zan’nh used it. Yes, he spoke to the Klikiss. at Maratha.”

Diente nodded. “Then we may be able to use it for negotiations with the Klikiss.”

“Negotiations. ” Jora’h heaved a breath, intending to laugh, but he could not find the strength to do so. “You have trespassed. You have angered them. The faeros may be Ildira’s greatest enemy, but the Klikiss are likely to be yours, Admiral. You are too blind to realize it.”

Diente seemed very sad and weary. “We’re our own worst enemy.” His voice was so quiet Jora’h barely heard him. “I am acting under orders, Mage-Imperator. I do not wish to do this to you. It is. demeaning to the leader of a great Empire. I always admired your Solar Navy.”

Now a flash of anger surfaced, allowing Jora’h to sharpen his thoughts. “Then how can you allow this? If you know your actions are wrong, why do you follow your Chairman?”

Diente stared for a long moment, the focal point of his dark eyes far away. “Because, Mage-Imperator, the Chairman has my wife, my son, and my two daughters hostage. He has threatened to murder them if I show a hint of disloyalty.” He clenched his fists at his sides.“He has my family.”

Jora’h was too distressed by his isolation to understand the full import of what the Admiral was saying.

From the pocket of his uniform, Diente pulled out a small display screen the size of the palm of his hand. Activating it, he showed a sequence of images: a beautiful woman, a teenage daughter, a handsome young man, and a smiling little girl, then another image with himself in the picture, a unified and happy family.

“Perhaps I have said too much. Thank you for the information about the Klikiss translation system.” He abruptly switched off the images and pocketed the screen, embarrassed. As if dispensing a well-deserved reward, he added before he left the stateroom, “We should get back in a few days. Not so long after all.”

“Not so long.?” Jora’h said through clenched teeth. Time had already stretched out to a wintry infinity.

After Diente left, Jora’h’s knees gave out, and he collapsed onto his bed.

A few more days.He did not know how he could bear it.



Margaret Colicos

When the new breedex finally summoned Margaret into its hive fortress, she determined that she would have her answers. For so long she had watched the insect creatures slaughtering rival domates, wiping out rather than incorporating the defeated subhives. At last, though, the Klikiss had stopped ignoring her, and she hoped to learn why this hive mind was so different from all the others. so much more vicious.

Margaret considered running to the trapezoidal frame of the main transportal. Before the hive mind guessed what she intended to do, she could punch any coordinate tile and simplyleave. But the transportal network went only to other Klikiss planets, and any gateway would just take her to another insect-infested world. She was better off here.

No, she would stay here and take her chances with the Llaro breedex. Though this one seemed more bloodthirsty than any of the others, it had intentionally kept Margaret safe. Therefore, the breedex must want something from her, if only she could understand what it was. She had no reason to be afraid. The Klikiss had kept her alive this long.

From outside, the hall of the breedex appeared tall and lumpy with twisted candlewax towers on either side. Spiny warriors ushered Margaret into the dark opening of the central structure, and she went willingly. With their razor-edged serrated limbs, the Klikiss could have chopped her to pieces in an instant. but they could have done that at any time over the past several years. She knew they wouldn’t harm her — not yet, at least.

Margaret was still a scientist and had spent many years with Louis studying the ancient ruins of the supposedly extinct race. She knew the Klikiss as well as any human could know an alien species. She straightened her shoulders and kept pace with the armored creatures along winding corridors like the chambers in a spiral seashell. The closeness of the numerous Klikiss intensified the smells that reminded her of sour bile, rotten eggs, decaying fish, and old sweat, a symphony of pheromones and chemical signals.

Her warrior escort guided her into a buzzing, humming central grotto filled with horrors. The heads of more than a hundred vanquished domates lay stacked like trophies. In the middle of the chamber, beside the grisly trophies, lay a stirring heap composed of millions of squirming, shifting bodies. She had seen the breedex before, but she did not look forward to this encounter.

Margaret stopped. The stench made it hard for her to breathe as the Llaro hive mind formed itself into a structure that could face her. The myriad mound began to move as hundreds of thousands of components assembled like the pixels of a broad and complex image. As the shape began to grow definite, Margaret realized that something else was different from the previous incarnations of the Klikiss hive minds.

Not only the warriors, but hundreds of large workers, diggers, and other sub-breeds stood together like worshippers in a church. The background noise became more than just the incessant rustling of limbs and wings and shell casings. She heard a clacking of mandibles, a buzzing of chitin plates being rubbed together to create musical sounds. It became recognizable as a language.

In her years among the Klikiss, Margaret had developed a rudimentary ability to communicate with the creatures. She comprehended some of their tones and chirps, and could make similar noises herself. Now, however, the background drone changed. Though it was slow and unpracticed, the sounds became recognizable. A word.


The warriors and workers made a single voice in an extended, eerie choir.“Margaret Colicos.” Never before had the Klikiss attempted to speak human words. Never, as far as she knew, had the creatures even understood the concept of names.

Startled, she took a step backward and bumped into the spiny body of a warrior, but the Klikiss creature did not move. She faced the breedex, which continued to form itself like a gigantic, interlocking puzzle.

“You’re different from the last breedex,” she said.

The breedex mound finally completed shaping itself until it vaguely resembled a giant human head made out of clay by a clumsy child. Its mouth moved, and noises came out like swirling breezes that picked up sharp-edged sticks.“Margaret Colicos. I know you.”

Something had definitely changed. “What are you?” she demanded.

“I was. in part. a man.”The human features continued to resolve themselves into finer detail.“A man named Davlin Lotze.”

She stared. “Davlin?” She had never learned what had happened to the man; obviously, the Klikiss had assimilated his genes as well as his memory. But Davlin must have done something to the formative breedex, retaining some kernel of his own mind, which was now coming to the fore.

“After several fissionings, my subhive has gathered enough human DNA to make us more human.”The pieces shifted like an image coming into focus, and now the rough approximation of a face became more clearly Davlin’s. She could easily distinguish his features.“I fought the breedex larva, and I am now part of it.”

“Your mind is the Klikiss mind?”

“Part of it. We became stronger, and I struggle for dominance.”As he remembered how to communicate, the Davlin-breedex seemed to grow more proficient with his words.“I won’t let the faint human traces from the colonists be diluted further.”

She saw a heartbreaking change of the portrayed expression, a slight alteration in the tone of voice. The image blurred and then sharpened again.“We now have. an uneasy peace, the Klikiss and I.”

Margaret stepped closer to the horrendous mass. “Then why are you so bloodthirsty? Can’t you stop these hive wars and impose peace? The Llaro subhive has been more vicious than any other.” It made no sense to her.

“Because we must be more vicious. I. we must eradicate all the others.”


“To save humanity. The subhives will attack, and dominate, and destroy. In the end, only one breedex will survive. One breedex will control all. One breedex will bethebreedex.” He paused for a long moment, and Margaret struggled to understand what Davlin was implying. “Therefore, I must be that breedex. Humanity has no chance unless I conquer the other subhives.”

Margaret caught her breath, though many questions tumbled through her mind. Was this why she had been saved? To become a liaison? “You want the human race to deal with you, instead of another breedex.”


“And then there will be peace between the humans and the Klikiss? We’ll no longer have to fear you?”

“I am strong, but I am not the only mind here. Even if I win, there are no guarantees. I am still part Klikiss.”

Staring at the monstrous form, Margaret felt a chill go through her. “How many subhives do you still need to defeat?”

“Five other subhives still fight on the Klikiss worlds, spreading outward. Two are battling at Relleker.”The face shuffled itself, crystallized again.“I remember Relleker from when I was. merely Davlin. My subhive will wait, and then crush whichever breedex wins there.”

“And how can I help?”

“Stay here. Do not let me forget my humanity.”


Orli Covitz

When the last few crates were loaded in theBlind Faith ’s cargo bay, Orli, DD, and Mr. Steinman climbed aboard, and the ship departed for Relleker. Captain Roberts was glad to be setting off again on a regular trading run, and very pleased to have such good company.

TheBlind Faith sailed smoothly across space. On the tablescreen, Roberts checked his manifest. All three of them had heated up mealpax of something called “nourishing stew.”

“When we get to Relleker, those people will be so thrilled they’ll throw a feast in our honor,” Roberts said. “It used to be a resort, you know.”

“Relleker was a well-respected and wealthy Hansa colony,” DD chimed in, reciting from his database, “best known for its spa cities, its comfortable climate, and its wineries. Only the wealthiest people settled there.”

“And the snootiest,” Roberts said. “The colony head was a real piece of work, refused to lend us a hand saving the people on Crenna, tried to charge us docking fees while our ship was gathering emergency supplies.” He frowned. “Now, I’m not a man to hold a grudge, but maybe it was karma. The drogues wiped out Relleker, blasted every building to the ground, killed every last colonist.” He took three quick slurping mouthfuls of the alleged stew. “But it’s a whole new colony now, a fresh start.”

“I can’t wait to see it,” Mr. Steinman said.

When theFaith arrived, the planet looked like a beautiful blue-and-green gem mottled with clouds, a place to tempt human settlers. Grinning, Roberts transmitted, “Hey, down there! Send out the welcome wagon. We’ve brought a shipful of supplies, if anybody’s buying.” When the comm system remained quiet, his smile faltered. Glancing at Orli, he transmitted again, more formally now. “This is Captain Branson Roberts in theBlind Faith. We have a load of cargo for the settlement. Please transmit landing instructions.”

“I thought they’d be anxious to hear from us,” Mr. Steinman said.

“A Confederation ship’s been scheduled on this run for weeks. Can’t imagine why they’re so quiet.”

Roberts waited again. Orli grew concerned. “Perhaps they are using other communication bands,” DD suggested. “We could search for signal traffic.”

Roberts punched the comm system, but received an error message on the complicated new controls. Orli leaned over and reentered the instructions, fixing the glitch. Suddenly a cacophony of screeches, clicks, whistles, and tortured songs poured from the speakers.

Mr. Steinman put his hands against his ears. “What a racket!”

“Some kind of feedback or distortion.” Roberts slapped the control panel, as if that would fix the problem. “The Roamers must have put in a faulty comm system.”

“It is not faulty,” DD said. “That is the Klikiss language.”

As theFaith came around the planet’s night side, they nearly careened into two gigantic swarmships battling each other high above the atmosphere. The alien vessels were immense conglomerations of smaller craft packed into a fluid mass, like a colliding pair of globular clusters with blazing stars flung in all directions. Splashes of light, energy weapons, and power discharges crackled between the giant vessels as they tore each other apart.

“This doesn’t look good,” Steinman said.

Roberts activated the comm system again. “Relleker! This is the Confederation shipBlind Faith. Can anyone respond?” He heard only static, then more Klikiss screeching.

“I spent much time among the Klikiss with Margaret Colicos. I can translate.” DD stood close to the speaker, listening. “Two rival subhives are battling for control of Relleker. They arrived at nearly the same time, and now they are attempting to destroy each other.”

Clusters of smaller Klikiss ships attacked their opponents in a drunken, disorganized fashion. The gigantic swarmships seemed to be disintegrating as they continued to pick apart one component after another.

As theFaith raced over the night-dark hemisphere, Orli could see glowing patches of the planet’s surface below — huge areas burning. She shuddered, remembering that the insect creatures had already murdered so many people she had known on the Llaro colony. She could tell there wouldn’t be any survivors left down on Relleker, either. With two powerful subhives fighting over their planet, those colonists hadn’t had a chance.

As the enormous clusters continued to battle each other, a segment of the nearest Klikiss swarmship separated from the main ball like a wad of sparkling clay torn off. The group of tightly packed component ships angled toward theBlind Faith.

“They’ve spotted us,” Orli said.

“And we’re not in any shape to fend off an attack, Roberts,” Mr. Steinman yelped. “Time to get the hell out of here.”

Captain Roberts agreed. “Let’s see how good those new Roamer engines are.” He laid in the course for their swift retreat.

The artificial gravity generators struggled to compensate for the ship’s rough acceleration. A flurry of energy bolts shot past them, but theBlind Faith was out of range. Roberts looked behind them as they outdistanced the lumbering Klikiss component ships. “Straight back to Osquivel — we’ve got to tell somebody what’s happened here.”



When they finally reached Relleker, eager to take over the technical facilities there, Sirix and his black robots were shocked to discover that the Klikiss had already arrived. Urgently shutting down power, the robot battle group remained out of sensor range while the two swarmships tore each other apart. Even though the breedexes were locked in mortal combat, Sirix suspected the rival subhives would put aside their differences the moment they spotted the black robots.

He observed the battle while PD and QT stood beside him on the bridge. Part of him wanted to inflict great harm on the loathsome creator race, but logic prevailed. Sirix would wait until the primary battle was over, let the Klikiss damage each other, then send his battleships in to annihilate the remnants of whichever subhive survived.

“What about the colonists down on Relleker?” QT asked. “We should try to protect them.”

“We may need them to help operate the industrial facilities,” PD added.

Sirix had already studied the scans. “It is too late to save the factories, or the humans.” He had placed a great deal of hope on Relleker, and the loss of those facilities angered him greatly, but he would not risk his remaining robots to help human colonists — if any had survived. Klikiss warriors were already swarming over the settled areas of the planet below.

The two swarmships decimated each other, neither admitting defeat. Finally, when Sirix analyzed the numbers and calculated that he could not possibly lose, he made his move. “Our firepower is now superior. It is time for us to eradicate both breedexes.”

Responding to his orders, calm robots mounted the weapons stations on the stolen EDF ships. PD and QT, who had trained and practiced, were ready at the gunnery consoles. Sirix issued the command for his small fleet to power up, advance toward Relleker at full speed, and open fire.

Before the Klikiss swarmships could react to the unexpected black robot attack, EDF jazers and volleys of explosive projectiles scattered the cores of the clusters. The repeated detonations left nothing more than sparkling wreckage, like fireworks against the starry blackness. Component ships flew in all directions, without guidance.

“Sirix,” QT said, “numerous Klikiss warriors remain on the ground. They have infested the established colony and are continuing the battle.”

“They would have come here to conquer.” Sirix ran his weapons inventory swiftly through his efficient cybernetic mind. He still possessed four nuclear warheads that could vaporize part of the continent where the Relleker colony had been. He could not risk allowing any portion of the two wounded subhives to remain. If he could not have Relleker for his own purposes, he would certainly not leave it for the Klikiss.

The warhead drop was precise, and flashes of atomic fire spread outward, disintegrating the remaining Klikiss and purging Relleker of the infestation. along with any hidden humans who might have survived.

When the stolen EDF ships slowly withdrew from the system, Relleker was totally dead. “It is good to have a clean victory for once,” Sirix said aloud, though he remained discouraged that he had not acquired the technological facilities he had hoped for.

The two compies stared at the screen as the planet receded. “Our problem remains unsolved, Sirix,” PD said.


King Peter

Every breath smelled like wet ash.

Because the fungus-reef city had burned to the ground, Peter needed to establish a new temporary headquarters for his government. Admiral Willis’s troops cleared the few still-smoldering trees, leveled the ground, and set up modular barracks.

She reported to Peter. “With your permission, sire, I’d like to get my corps of engineers working to ensure we have clean water and proper food supplies. Our standard rationpacks aren’t gourmet fare, but they’ll do in a pinch. Besides, you people eat bugs, so I don’t suppose you’re too picky.”

Peter let the joke slide. “You and your ships couldn’t have arrived at a better time, Admiral.”

“Better late than never. Does this mean you accept us as part of the Confederation military?”

“Part of it? Most of it, I’d say. When you finish basic operations here, I want you to report to the Osquivel shipyards. That’s where most of our fleet is being constructed. You’ll have to work out the details with my current. commanding officers, I suppose you’d call them. Robb Brindle and Tasia Tamblyn.”

Willis chuckled. “Brindle and Tamblyn? I should have known they’d find themselves in the thick of things. Brindle’s father served as my exec, but he. elected not to change his employment at the present time.”

“You left him behind when your ships mutinied?” Estarra clarified.

Willis tried not to look scandalized by the Queen’s choice of words. “Some people are just a little slow to make the right choices.”

Estarra adjusted the baby tucked against her side, careful not to wake him; he had finally fallen asleep with salve on his burns. “Peter, if Admiral Willis is going to the Osquivel shipyards, she should take the hydrogue derelict with her. We need to get it to Kotto Okiah.”

He nodded. “Yes, it’s about time for that — although I’m glad it was here when we needed it.”

The silvery wental ship landed in the middle of the meadow, where droplets from the sparkling downpour continued to drip from the high trees. Jess Tamblyn and Cesca Peroni, crackling with internal wental energy, stepped through the flexible membrane of their vessel and stood glistening, coated with a permanent sheen of living water. They exchanged smiles of hard satisfaction.

“I’m glad we got your message,” Cesca said. “The green priests signaled this emergency loud and clear.”

Jess looked very pleased with himself. “We needed to show the wentals how they could fight. The faeros have already done them enough harm. It’s time for us to go on the offensive.”

A shadow crossed Cesca’s face. “The faeros will strike and burn everything they can: the Confederation, the Hansa, the wentals, the verdani —everything. That’s why we need everything to fight them.”

Jess added. “As you saw here, the wentals have truly awakened, and we’ll lead them.” He looked at the sky, watching the colorful sunset deepen. “I’ve already summoned my water bearers to help spread the wentals, as before. We met with Nikko Chan Tylar and his father in the Osquivel shipyards, and they are already taking theAquarius on new missions.”

A deeply satisfied expression overlaid Cesca’s anger. “The faeros don’t know it yet, but the rules have changed. They’re in for a surprise.”


Caleb Tamblyn

Cold. Lonely. Hopeless.

During the seemingly endless days he’d been stuck here, Caleb had thought of many words to describe his situation. Escape pods weren’t designed to be luxury accommodations, but at least he was alive. Still.

Stranded. Isolated. At his wits’ end.

When the faeros had closed in on the Tamblyn tanker, Denn Peroni and Caleb had been on the edge of the Jonah system, minding their own business, carrying a load of wentals. Who could have foreseen that Denn’s bizarre new religion that allowed him to see the interconnected universe would make him vulnerable to the fiery elementals?

Denn had known that he himself couldn’t get away, but he’d forced Caleb to stumble into the escape pod, and the emergency engines had blasted him free before he’d known what was really happening. The water tanker exploded behind him, and the fireballs had dragged the dispersed wentals into the sun.

Caleb had tumbled for a day in empty space before crashing on the icy lump of Jonah 12. Not long ago this place had been a Roamer outpost, a hydrogen-processing plant designed by Kotto Okiah himself. But it had been devastated. something to do with rampaging Klikiss robots, if he remembered correctly.

Little remained on Jonah 12’s cratered ice fields — no transports, no buildings, no way of transmitting an emergency signal. and no one within range to detect it even if he could shout out. Caleb didn’t have the slightest idea how he was going to get out of this.

A sophisticated and serviceable Roamer model, the escape pod had its own life-support engine and batteries designed to keep passengers alive for a week at most. Even though he rationed his supplies and kept exertion to a minimum, Caleb wouldn’t last long enough for anyone to notice he was missing.

He did, however, have a survival suit, a basic chemical generator, and a few tools. He spent the first day and a half cobbling together a simple chemical extractor, the kind of device a ten-year-old Roamer child could build. With it, he derived all the water and oxygen and hydrogen fuel he needed from the ice outside. With his Roamer know-how, Caleb would be able to extend his survival for a few more weeks — a remarkable achievement, though he doubted anyone would ever find him to admire his fortitude.

Halfway between boredom and desperation, he suited up, cycled through the small airlock, and went outside into the “daylight.” The distant sun was no more than a bright star among all the others. Jonah 12 was a rock, a bleak and cold one at that. He took a toolkit and sample-collection container and trudged off across the rough, frozen surface.

Taking giant strides in the low gravity, he needed less than an hour to reach the large melted crater and the wreckage of what had been Kotto’s hydrogen-extraction facility. He hoped to find some ruined huts, perhaps something he could patch up and use as a base camp. As he strode along, Caleb had dreams of discovering a generator, a cache of food supplies, maybe even a satellite dish transmitter.

Instead, he found only wreckage, a few scraps of metal, some melted lumps of alloys. nothing that seemed immediately useful, but he scavenged it anyway. Most of the outpost had been vaporized in a reactor explosion, and anything else had vanished permanently into the flash-melted ice, which then froze into an iron-hard steel-gray lake with a few slushy patches kept liquid by the heat of radioactive decay.

As Caleb stared, reality sank in: He would probably be here for a long while, and his last days without food would not be pleasant. He stood in total silence for several minutes, but no flashes of inspiration came to him.

He turned and made his way back to his little escape pod.



Knowing that Jora’h must be battling to hold on to sanity itself, Nira was too upset to concentrate on anything else. When Sarein and Captain McCammon arrived at the lunar EDF base and asked to see her, she feared they brought terrible news.

“Come with us to the Whisper Palace, Nira.” Sarein sounded almost compassionate. “The Chairman needs your green priest skills.”

Nira struggled with her anger. Sarein wore her Theron ambassadorial garments, but she was acting as the Chairman’s puppet. Ambassador Otema had once worn those traditional cocoon-weave garments; now, Nira thought, Sarein soiled them.

“No green priest will provide telink services to the Hansa,” Nira said. “Certainly not me.”

“Even if it would bring the Mage-Imperator back safely?” McCammon said. He seemed to be standing closer to Sarein than was actually necessary. He lowered his voice. “All you need to do is come with us.”

Sarein seemed very earnest. “I know I can convince the Chairman to order Diente’s warliner to turn around. You’ll have the Mage-Imperator back, but first you’ve got to show some cooperation.”

Nira’s heart leaped. Jora’h would hate her for bowing to coercion. but she could literally save his life. If he died, or went mad, the consequences to the Ildiran Empire were unimaginably bleak. “I want this agreement in writing, and witnessed.” Nira crossed her arms over her chest. “And within the hour.”

“I’m afraid you’re not in a bargaining position.” Despite his words, McCammon’s eyes showed a depth of feeling that surprised Nira, a compassion that he could not entirely cover. “And we are in no position to grant you anything.”

“Done,” Sarein said, putting a hand lightly on McCammon’s arm. “I will write up the document, in my own hand.” Then she threw in her last bargaining chip. “And the Chairman will have to let you use a treeling, at least for a little while. Keep that in mind.”

Nira considered the advantages of even a brief contact with the worldforest. Yes, she could inform King Peter — and all green priests around the Spiral Arm — of their captivity, maybe learn something more about the faeros on Ildira. Whatever the Chairman had in mind must be important to warrant such a risk; he wouldn’t make an offer like this unless he needed her.

Through green priest memories that were accessible through the worldforest, Nira was familiar with the grandeur of the Whisper Palace, but she paid little attention to the majesty of her surroundings. Behind all the fabulous architecture and shouting crowds, Nira saw the rot deep in the Terran Hanseatic League.

Sarein led her to a colorful orange pavilion at one corner of the Palace Square; it had been decorated as a special box for the “esteemed Theron ambassador.” Sarein had probably done it herself, since Nira doubted the Chairman would display any particular respect for the Confederation’s new capital.

From the pavilion, they could view the central speaking podium, the rapt crowd, the numerous guards. As twilight deepened into dusk, numerous torches blazed atop the Whisper Palace towers. The whole District was extravagantly lit, as if for a celebration.

Nira wrestled with second thoughts. “What am I expected to do?”

Sarein said, “The Chairman wants to make certain King Peter hears this announcement — immediately. Report what you see. Deliver your message and let Peter decide what to do. Be a green priest!” She lowered her voice, and her words surprised Nira. “Afterward, I have to take the treeling away, so make the most of this time. Do what you need to do.”

Chairman Wenceslas sauntered up, accompanied by a guard who carried a small potted treeling as if it were a time bomb. Nira realized how much she had hungered for the touch of a worldtree. For years she had been completely deprived on Dobro, and again recently in her captivity on the Moon. She could not hide her longing.

The Chairman gave her a stern look. “Once you connect to the world-forest, I know I can’t control what other details you send into the verdani mind. I don’t intend to try. So long as you share what you see here tonight, Peter will have his hands full.”

Nira stood her ground, forcing herself not to take the potted treeling. “And the Mage-Imperator? When are you bringing him back? I demand to know — “

“Don’t presume to dictate the terms of this agreement. Sarein has already convinced me to recall Admiral Diente’s warliner if you cooperate today, though I still have my reservations. A little cooperation from the Mage-Imperator would have made many things so much easier. When he gets back in a few days, he may find that public sentiment has changed toward him somewhat.”

The Chairman looked around the crowd. He smiled as Nira’s own image was displayed on the spectator screens surrounding the huge square, a battered old photo that showed her haunted eyes, her gaunt features, her obvious suffering. The mood of the crowd grew decidedly uneasy, even ugly.

“What — what are you telling them?” She looked around wildly. Sarein averted her eyes, obviously upset.

The Chairman explained. “I decided to take down the Mage-Imperator’s supposed ‘nobility’ by a notch. My press corps has released the full story of what the Ildirans did to you: how Ambassador Otema was murdered, how you were repeatedly raped as part of an insidious breeding program, and so on. Those abominable, inhuman Ildirans.” He made atsk ing sound. “And it’s quite effective, too. Ties in perfectly with the religious enthusiasm the Archfather is engendering. Best of all, it’s entirely true. From now on, no human will accept empty Ildiran promises. Your story proves what treacheries the Mage-Imperator is willing to commit.”

“Those things were perpetrated by the previous Mage-Imperator,” Nira retorted. “Jora’h has done everything possible to make amends. And I’m not your pawn.”

“Unless you wish to prolong the Mage-Imperator’s suffering, youare. Now let’s get on with it. Busy day.” At the Chairman’s nod, the guard handed her the treeling. Nira grabbed it, more interested in its delicate fronds and quivering potential than in the activity out on the square.

Basil turned to Sarein. “Deputy Cain and I have business to discuss inside. I wish you could go with me, but I’m trusting the green priest to you. Make certain Peter knows about our new King — especially his name.”

“I will, Basil.” The Chairman slipped away after briefly stroking Sarein’s short hair — a mechanical gesture, as if he had reminded himself to do it; Nira detected no depth of feeling there, but she did see Sarein respond with the faintest shudder.

When they were alone in the observation pavilion, Nira touched the treeling, focused her thoughts into the worldforest network, and sank into the waiting information. In a flood, she learned everything that had happened, everything that had been kept from her since the capture of Jora’h’s warliner.

She knew that the faeros had struck Ildira, but now she also knew of the newborn faeros attacking Theroc, possessing worldtrees, spreading a living fire. Although that disaster was already over, the pain still stung.

Nira sent her own waves of information, explaining how the Mage-Imperator had been kidnapped, and how the Chairman was trying to coerce him into betraying King Peter. Did Basil Wenceslas truly want the Confederation to have that information? It didn’t matter. As soon as this event ended they were going to take the treeling away from her again. Nira decided not to tell Sarein what she had learned about Theroc; she saw no compelling reason to do so.

Engrossed in telink, she barely noticed when the ceremony started. The Archfather came forward in his robes, carrying an ornate shepherd’s crook. He moved with slow strides, dragging a wake of hushed anticipation through the crowd.

Seeing her preoccupation with the treeling, Sarein chided her. “You must watchthis. Please.”

Nira retreated from the sea of secondhand events to see the Arch-father at the speaking podium with an unfamiliar young man waiting behind him. He had dark hair, dark eyes, and an expression that reminded her of someone out of his depth but trying hard not to show it. He wore fine and colorful raiment, a design similar to what Old King Frederick had worn on the throne years ago. The bearded religious leader boomed out another rant about the Klikiss demons and King Peter’s supposed collusion with them, but his words seemed reluctant, without fervor.

“Before we can be saved,” the Archfather intoned, “before humanity can return to the path of righteousness, we need a visionary leader. We need a King who is more than a King. Someone who can undo the terrible damage Peter has wrought.”

Though she did not quite understand why she was asked to do so, Nira dutifully reported these words. The green priests were even now distributing them; she could hear Celli reporting to King Peter.

“Today I announce the Hansa’s new King, a young man who is destined to be our savior. All hail,King Rory!”

The young man stepped forward, standing straight and looking regal, as if he had practiced this entrance over and over. He seemed likeable enough, a perfect figurehead. But a savior? Nira doubted it.

And now Peter would know that the Hansa had formally replaced him as King. But surely he must have been expecting that for some time now. Why had this particular announcement been so important to the Chairman?


Deputy Chairman Eldred Cain

During the coronation ceremony, Basil stood next to Deputy Cain on the high, hidden balcony. The Chairman seemed in a particularly good mood. “There’s definitely something special in the air tonight.”

Cain wasn’t sure he wanted to know what the Chairman had in mind.

Basil Wenceslas prided himself in having countless irons in the fire, all supposedly for the benefit of the Hansa, though often they were petty gestures, such as revealing a distorted version of the green priest Nira’s story.

General Lanyan had recently sent a scout back with a full and overblown report of his great success at the Roamer skymines, claiming to have secured a breathtaking amount of ekti. The General was continuing his “mission,” but now Chairman Wenceslas needed to figure out how to keep the defeated skymines producing stardrive fuel for the Hansa. Cain doubted that would be an easy task.

Before the Archfather’s coronation of King Rory got under way, two smiling people arrived behind them on the balcony. One was a short, wide-faced man whose torso seemed longer than his legs; beside him, in comical contrast, stood a tall, dark-skinned woman. The statuesque woman had high cheekbones, lovely brown eyes, and an unusually long neck.

“Mr. Chairman, everything is prepared,” said the man in a deep, gravelly voice. He carried communications equipment.

The tall woman nodded with a graceful bow of her head, like a giraffe dipping down to drink from a pool of water. “The metal dust is evenly distributed in the air overhead. With these weather patterns, it will hold the impedance paths for another fifteen to twenty minutes. The time constraints are tight, but we are ready.”

With a confident smile, the Chairman introduced the newcomers. “Deputy Cain, meet my new scientific advisers, Dr. Tito Andropolis and Dr. Jane Kulu.”

Kulu said in an elegant voice, “We are here to create technological miracles, thereby proving that God is indeed on our side.” The woman seemed completely serious.

“Technological miracles?” Cain asked. What was the Chairman up to now?

“Smoke and mirrors,” Basil murmured.

“Sometimes faith requires a nudge in the correct direction,” Andropolis said with a chortle. “The truth is the truth. Why should it matter if we need to use a heavy hand to guide people along the right path?”

Below in the illuminated square, the Archfather summoned King Rory forward. Cheers, whistles, and delighted screams erupted from the crowd; the people happily swallowed everything the Archfather said.

Enjoying his high vantage point, Andropolis bobbed his square chin up and down. “After tonight’s demonstration, they will worship Rory as a conquering hero.”

“That is the point,” Basil said.

Below, the Archfather said, “God has blessed this young man to be our chosen leader. Rory will guide us away from the demons, away from the traitors, and back to prosperity.” Cleverly arranged spotlights cast an angelic glow over the newly crowned Rory.

Kulu spoke with a deep, self-assured voice into her small communicator, “Prepare discharges. On my mark.”

Up in the sky, extravagant fireworks blossomed in a truly impressive show, delighting the crowd. Basil wore a mysterious smile. “This is just the warmup.”

After the traditional pyrotechnic bursts had faded into smoke, Rory spoke in a quavering voice that quickly became more assured. “I am your King. I will lead you, my chosen people, and show all others the true power of the righteous.”

Andropolis was nearly beside himself with excitement. Kulu clicked her communicator. “Commence discharge.”

On cue outside, Rory raised his hands and shouted, “I call down the lightning!”

Suddenly, with perfect choreography, a blinding shower of spectacular electrical discharges laced the sky. One blast after another struck the tallest buildings in the Palace District like incandescent bullwhips, then anchored themselves to the highest tower of the Whisper Palace and the top of the Hansa pyramid. The searing bolts sustained themselves for four blinding seconds, weaving a blazing spiderweb of electricity across the starry dome overhead. Cain had never seen anything like it.

Viewed on the close-up screen, Rory seemed to be counting to himself, and when he lowered his hands at the appropriate moment, the discharge vanished, as if at his command, leaving the crowd in awed silence.

After the deputy blinked the afterburn from his eyes, he expected to see towers devastated, fires blazing on the rooftops. But he quickly realized that no actual damage had been done. Not only had King Rory called down the lightning, but he had protected them all.Perfect.

“Well-grounded lightning rods placed beforehand,” Basil explained. “They should be removed before anyone thinks to look around. See to that, please.”

Cain nodded, more uneasy than awestruck.

Basil surveyed the stunned crowd, looking very satisfied. “That should keep those annoying anti-Hansa protesters quiet for a while. Have there been any further incidents?”

Cain struggled to bring his thoughts back to the present. “Always, Mr. Chairman. The resistance groups are becoming more organized.”

“Then find them.”

Kulu and Andropolis were on their feet, congratulating each other. “God has certainly shown his will tonight,” Andropolis said with a satisfied sigh. “Who could question it?”


King Peter

When Celli delivered Nira’s announcement on Theroc, Peter turned pale. “KingRory? It can’t be.”

Estarra glanced at him, sharing his confusion and uneasiness. Peter knew that the Queen understood, although no one else did — except for Basil. Damn him! This was a lower blow than he could have expected, even from the unstable Chairman.

Rory. How could he possibly still be alive?

First Nira said the Chairman had kidnapped the Mage-Imperator and tried to force him to renounce his alliance with the Confederation, torturing him with isolation to break him. And now he had hauled out Rory. long-dead, sweet Rory. It was not possible.

“Oh, Basil is an evil bastard,” he said. “Describe it to me again, Celli. Every minute. And describe the young man.”

Surprised by his reaction, the green priest repeated Nira’s message, and Peter nodded slowly to himself, feeling sick inside. “Excuse me. I need some time alone. Estarra and I have to talk.”

The Queen was already on her feet, and Peter followed her into their temporary quarters. When they were alone, he rested his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. “Everyone else thinks that was just a political announcement, finally putting a replacement king on the throne, but Basil knew it was vastly more personal to me. He intended to twist the knife. It’s his way of threatening me.”

Sitting down, Estarra cradled little Reynald in her arms and leaned back so that she could nurse the baby. “You think it’s really your brother? Could it be a trick?”

Peter tried to work it out in his mind. His whole family had been killed almost ten years ago when their apartment building exploded — the result of sabotage conducted by Hansa henchmen to clear away all connections to Peter/Raymond. They wanted no one who could challenge his identity with any sort of genetic proof.

And now King Rory could not be a coincidence. Basil had made that perfectly clear by insisting that Nira send the message.

Estarra tried to sound sensible. “The very idea that your little brother could still be alive, held out of sight all these years, is absurd.”

Peter drew a deep breath. “And yet if anyone could be so insidious, it’d be Basil.”

“But if he really had a secret weapon to keep you in line, why would he wait until now? You could just denounce this new King Rory — explain that he must be a complete fake. That would take away whatever hold the Chairman thinks he has over you.”

Peter shook his head. “If I chose that course of action, I would be forced to denounce my own rule. I’d have to admitI’m just a street kid given a makeover and thrust into this position. Whether Rory’s my brother or not, I’m as much a fake as he is.” He paced around the room. “No, it’s less obvious than that. Basil will use him as a subtle hostage. As long as Rory behaves, the Chairman has exactly what he wants — a figurehead, as I was supposed to be. And if I have even a shred of hope that Rory is who I think he is, then Basil will think he has me under his thumb.”

When Reynald finished nursing, Peter took the baby from Estarra to burp him. Afterward, he held his son, looking down at the small face that had such sweet features, a blend of his own and his wife’s. Peter thought of his brothers, Carlos, Michael. Rory. Yes, Rory. He felt a swell of love in his chest, a clear sense of loss for his family and the simple yet endearing life he’d had — all destroyed by Basil’s schemes. Was it possible that the Chairman had saved one small piece as a human shield?

“Basil’s ploy isn’t going to work, is it, Peter?”

“No,” he answered quickly, then added in a softer voice, “At least I don’t think so.”


Tasia Tamblyn

When the eleven EDF battleships arrived at the Osquivel shipyards, Tasia remarked to Robb, “They’re damned lucky we’ve got a green priest to forewarn us. Otherwise, I might have opened fire the moment they showed themselves.”

“Admit it, Tamblyn — you’re happy to see them. And Admiral Willis, too.”

Tasia relaxed her stern expression. “Damn right, I am. And we sure as hell could use someone who knows more about command than either of us does.”

“So, you’ve been faking it all along?”

She clapped him on the shoulder. “Never with you, Brindle. Let’s send out the welcome wagon. With all those weapons and ships, we could go on a real bug hunt!”

When the two of them formally presented themselves aboard theJupiter, Tasia looked around the bridge with fond nostalgia. Willis had put on her best uniform and told all her officers and crew to make themselves presentable: polished shoes, razor-edged creases, neatly combed hair. Tasia wasn’t sure why the Admiral felt the need to impress anyone, since the Confederation was in no position to turn down the offer of functional warships.

Willis returned Tasia’s salute. “I swear, I never thought I’d see you two alive again.”

Tasia dropped all pretense of formality and gave her a quick hug. “Glad to see you, too, Admiral — and doubly glad to be on the same side again.”

Robb, brought up in a more rigid military family, settled for a warm handshake. “I prefer combat duty to being held prisoner among the hydrogues, ma’am.”

“Well, I did bring the hydrogue derelict back here to deliver to Kotto Okiah, in case you have further pie-in-the-sky ideas,” Willis said.

“No thank you, ma’am. One excursion down into a gas giant was enough for me.”

Leading them into her ready room, the Admiral ran her eyes up and down their grease-smudged jumpsuits. “Your uniforms could use a bit of attention. Is this the look of the Confederation military these days?”

“Roamers and colony volunteers don’t need costumes to know which side they’re fighting on,” Tasia said, feeling defensive.

“We haven’t had time to design new uniforms,” Robb admitted. “In fact, I don’t even know what rank we should call ourselves.”

“Sounds like you need an organizational chart,” Willis said. “Though I shudder to think about imposing that kind of structure on a Roamer-based society.”

After Willis had called up coffee and a plate of sugar cookies from theJupiter ’s galley, Tasia said, “The EDF has more than its share of butt-head commanders, but you weren’t one of them, Admiral. Even back when the Eddies were preying on Roamer clans, you had second thoughts.”

Willis raised her eyebrows. “I may be slow, but I do get it eventually.” She plucked a third sugar cookie from the plate, then told the story of how she had left the EDF after General Lanyan’s crackdowns at Usk and Rhejak.

Robb was clearly sad to hear that his own father had refused to switch sides. “He’ll have his head set on staying with the EDF, no matter what.”

Tasia cleared her throat. “I’m not sure how best to integrate your ships and soldiers into the Confederation military, ma’am. Our setup is certainly different from what you’re used to.”

“No matter how it shakes out, this old dog can learn new tricks,” Willis said. “All my soldiers understood what they were getting into, and they’re ready for it. You’re welcome to interview the crew if you like.”

Tasia snorted. “Like I don’t have anything better to do than chat with several thousand soldiers? If you vouch for them, Admiral, I’ll take your word for it.”

Willis’s ships traveled to the far side of the sweeping rings where Kotto had unveiled a brand-new spacedock facility that could accommodate the entire battle group at once. “Quite an operation, Tamblyn,” the Admiral mused. “Not at all like what we saw when we ran our operation here against the hydrogues. Was all this built in the last couple of years?”

Tasia flinched. “Oh, it was all here before, ma’am. We just didn’t want you to see it. Back then, Roamers were content to lie low and let all the fighting pass over them, but now we’ve changed our philosophy. Considering the persecution we’ve faced, we can’t just be merchants and couriers anymore — we have to be warriors, too. You can thank Chairman Wenceslas for that.”

The Juggernaut pulled into a huge construction framework. Dazzling lights illuminated the geometric hull lines as docking clamps secured the giant vessel, anchoring it into place for the work to begin. Roamer engineers in environment suits swarmed over the hull, beginning a full assessment.

Tasia quickly issued orders to the spacedock crews. “Every one of these ships needs to be checked out and refurbished.”

Over the next few hours, shipyard managers juggled the scheduling of the whole refit facility so that Willis’s ten Mantas could settle into individual slips. Connectors, telescoping bridges, and fuel lines extended across to the hulls.

When the work was ready to begin in earnest, Tasia and Willis peered through the angled observation window of the spacedock’s management center. Grinning, Tasia clicked her comm and transmitted to the busy crew, “First things first — get some abrasive blasters and take off that EDF logo! I want Confederation markings painted on every hull.”


Orli Covitz

TheBlind Faith rushed back to Osquivel with their startling news about the Klikiss at Relleker. When Captain Roberts displayed their images to the Roamers inside the main admin dome, Robb Brindle was baffled. “But what were the bugs doing there? They never had a claim to Relleker. That was a legitimate Confederation outpost.”

Tasia was even more incensed. “The bugs want to conquer everything. I say we mount an offensive! As soon as Admiral Willis’s ships get out of spacedock, we’ll have more than enough firepower to squash those critters.”

“There’s no one left to save at Relleker,” Orli said. “Nothing to salvage.”

Roamers were grumbling, especially those who hadn’t previously faced the Klikiss. “There’s been too much running and too much hiding,” said a leathery-faced old female pilot. “Somebody needs to teach those bugs a lesson.”

“But what about the faeros?” asked Liona, the green priest. “They just attacked Theroc.”

“And the Eddies just attacked Golgen,” Robb pointed out.

“It sure is wonderful to have plenty of enemies to choose from,” Mr. Steinman said.

Despite his muttering about wanting to relax and retire, Steinman spent most of his days in the lab chambers where Kotto Okiah dabbled with new concepts. Steinman had been a risk taker in his earlier career, exploring the uncharted Klikiss transportal network. Now he wanted a quieter life, but events kept preventing him from having the quieter life he wanted, so he decided to find a purpose.

With DD walking faithfully at her side, Orli found the two men in Kotto’s lab. She didn’t have any other home to go to, and she was old enough to take care of herself, to shoulder responsibilities. Among the Roamers, any girl her age already knew how to pull her weight, and Kotto seemed amenable to letting both her and Mr. Steinman help him.

The small research facility was a hollowed-out rock not unlike an empty walnut half covered by a dome of interlocking transparent plates. Reflected light from the gas giant shone down into the chamber.

Inside, Kotto and Mr. Steinman were intent on the small hydrogue derelict, which Admiral Willis had recently delivered. Even after what it had been through, the derelict’s slick crystalline surface gleamed with rainbow reflections. Kotto hummed to himself as he poked his head into the open hatch. His two Research compies, KR and GU, worked at his side, taking notes, applying probes, and completing numerous tasks that Kotto started.

When she and DD entered, Mr. Steinman looked up from where he had been sorting tools. Kotto looked over his shoulder at her, distracted. “I hope you don’t have an administrative problem for me to take care of.”

“I’m just making sure Mr. Steinman isn’t causing problems,” she teased.

He looked offended. “I may be retired, girl, but I’ve got a good head on my shoulders.”

Kotto retrieved an electronic datapad he had left on the transparent floor of the derelict. “I’ve got to go over the test reports those Hansa engineers compiled. A Dr. Swendsen had performed some early studies, but he’s dead now. I think compies killed him. Anyway, King Peter and OX provided most of his records.”

“Can I help?” Orli asked.

DD piped up. “I am an excellent assistant, too. My first owners wanted only a Friendly compy, but my masters Margaret and Louis Colicos modified my programming so I could be a research helper.”

Mr. Steinman said, “If you can figure out something to do, DD, then by all means do it. Always plenty of work. Wash the windows, if you like. Kotto and I were just trying to figure out how to get the compies up there.”

Orli looked through the interconnected skylights of the research dome, at the stars and the bloated gas giant beyond. In the ring disk, small lights indicated ships constantly coming and going between the facilities.

An exceptionally fast-moving streak caught her eye, a cargo escort flying pell-mell, plunging into the rings as if a pack of slavering wolves were after it. “That ship sure is hell-bent on something. What could it be running toward?”

“Or from?” DD added.

Kotto climbed out of the derelict and craned his neck. “He must be running from all those Eddie battleships.”

A Juggernaut and a group of EDF cruisers charged in after the frantically dodging cargo escort. Alarms began to sound throughout the shipyard facilities. As soon as the EDF ships arrived, they opened fire.


General Kurt Lanyan

When he saw the thriving facilities in the rings of Osquivel, Lanyan could hardly believe his eyes. From this high above the plane, the ring disk appeared to light up with a thousand glimmers from processing stations, thermal plumes, and cargo traffic. According to reports, this place had been completely abandoned after former Chairman Fitzpatrick had kicked the Roamers out, but the gas giant certainly was infested again.

The fleeing cargo escort from the ruins of Forrey’s Folly had led them directly here. Lanyan could not suppress a gleeful grin.

Within moments of the EDF’s arrival, though, the Roamer ships had begun to scatter. Standing on the bridge, Conrad Brindle nodded somberly. “Looks like they’re ready for us, General.”

“No surprise, with all the caterwauling from that cargo escort.” The fleeing pilot had blown their element of surprise, though Lanyan didn’t think the man realized he’d been followed. “Weapons officer, eliminate that ship. We’ve already hit the jackpot here.”

Brindle’s eyes widened. “General, is that really necessary?”

“He’s an enemy fugitive fleeing EDF pursuit. What more justification do you want?”

The weapons officer targeted the spidery craft and opened fire as soon as he had a jazer lock. The cargo escort exploded in a flash of expanding debris.

Brindle stood with his eyes narrowed and expression stony, but he chose not to comment further. Instead, he turned to theGoliath ’s tactical officer. “Search our database and call up images of the old facilities from our previous recon missions. We’ll want to know how best to shut them down without further casualties.”

Lanyan was surprised by the sheer number of Roamer ships, artificial spacedocks, and habitats listed on the summary screens. This had to be one of the primary Roamer complexes.

In the disorganized jumble of evacuating spacecraft, many clan ships fled into the outer system, while others dove into the demolition derby of the inner rings. A brash handful flew directly toward the EDF ships, taking potshots before swerving away. They reminded Lanyan of tiny barking dogs, but the surprisingly powerful impacts of their shots made the Juggernaut’s hull ring. Damage lights blinked. “What the hell was that? Did they actually hit us?”

Brindle studied the results. “Those weapons are more powerful than our jazers, General. They do pose a threat.”

“Roamers never fought back before.” He ordered his Mantas to spread out in a close-and-control pattern.

“They’re theConfederation, sir — not just Roamers anymore.”

“I’ve had enough of this nonsense. Use any known Roamer bands so I can address them.” Lanyan cleared his throat and leaned forward, making sure that the imagers would pick up his stern glower. “This is General Lanyan of the Earth Defense Forces. You are hereby ordered to surrender. All of your facilities and raw materials are forfeit to the Hansa war effort.”

“We aren’t part of the Hansa, you flatulent pus-bag!” one of the captains transmitted as he streaked past, launching another barrage of jazer blasts.

“Destroy that ship!” Lanyan shouted. “In fact, destroy any Roamer vessel that takes a potshot at us. Teach them a lesson.”

Brindle cautioned, “General, are you sure Chairman Wenceslas wants open warfare? Previous hostilities and casualties have been kept — ”

“Of course it’s open warfare!”

The Roamer ships didn’t have a chance against the concentrated EDF weaponry. Horrified curses flooded the communications arrays, but Lanyan was deaf to them as he drove his battle group toward the heart of the shipyard facilities. “Now start blasting the habitation domes and fabrication plants. Scorched earth.”

Even the other members of the bridge crew seemed uneasy about that. Brindle said quietly, “Those arecivilians, General.”

“In this kind of war, there are no civilians. Continue transmitting our demand for surrender. The moment they capitulate, we’ll stop hurting them.”

As soon as theGoliath and the Mantas began strafing the automated smelters and metal-storage depots, a man’s voice came over the communication lines. “General Lanyan, you have been declared a war criminal. We demand that you submit yourself to the Confederation authorities to face justice.”

Lanyan couldn’t stop himself from chuckling. “Who the hell is this?”

The voice paused, then said, “This is, um, Commodore Robb Brindle, second — no,third — in command of the Confederation military.”

Conrad looked shocked. Lanyan glared at him. “Admiral, I wish you’d keep better control of your son.”

“I knew he’d joined the Confederation, but I never dreamed. ” He shook his head. “CommodoreRobb Brindle?”

Detecting a hint of pride in the man’s voice, Lanyan switched off the comm unit before Brindle could respond. “We don’t need to answer that ridiculous demand.” He sat forward, pressed his palms together. “Spread out and continue our barrage. Pound them into debris until they surrender.”


Adar Zan’nh

Deep in the protected mountain tunnels, Zan’nh studied the disposition of his Solar Navy. After the destruction of the warliner carrying ten thousand refugees, he had only nine large battleships left on Ildira. Any ships that tried to leave the planet, even smaller craft, were targeted and destroyed. Hundreds more Ildirans had also died while attempting to escape.

The five damaged warliners from Tal O’nh’s processional septa had recently reported in. The teams of workers Zan’nh had left on the empty, smoke-filled vessels had finished their repairs, and now the scarred battleships had limped back to the system. The Adar swiftly ordered them to remain out of danger, to join the rest of the patrol warliners that dared not approach Ildira. Even though the numbers of his battleships were increasing out there, they were maddeningly out of reach.

Even more large warliners returned, their pilots and crews confused by the disappearance of the Mage-Imperator from thethism. They wanted orders and explanations, but Adar Zan’nh had little reassurance to offer. He ordered them to wait. Because he could not know what the Mage-Imperator’s orders would be in such a situation, he made the best decisions he could.

His nine remaining warliners were combing the landscape for survivors, checking on refugee camps, helping Ildirans to remain marginally safe from the faeros — or so he hoped. His other warliners scattered through the Spiral Arm could do little to support the many parts of the Empire left adrift. Meanwhile, he was stuck here, forcibly separated from the bulk of his Solar Navy.

The Ildiran Empire needed him to come up with some kind of brilliant strategy that would overthrow the faeros and free the people. Zan’nh had made his career by wrenching some kind of solution out of seemingly impossible circumstances. He had proved his mettle many times. Doing the best he could, he now tried to develop a strategy.

But against the faeros, he had nothing yet. He had racked his brains for days, consulted with his best advisers, and could think of no way to stand against the fiery elementals that would not end in total disaster.

In the central grotto, Rememberer Ko’sh had gathered a group of listeners for a tale recently approved to become part of the revisedSaga of Seven Suns. “This is how Adar Kori’nh struck a devastating blow against the hydrogues.”

Zan’nh flinched, wondering if the Chief Scribe had chosen that story as a particular jab at him. Yes, Adar Kori’nh, his heroic predecessor. Even when the hydrogues had seemed invincible,Kori’nh had found a way to inflict harm.

Zan’nh’s thoughts folded inward like serrated blades, cutting into his memories as the rememberer described how the old Adar had sacrificed a whole maniple of Solar Navy warliners to annihilate an equivalent number of enemy warglobes. In the process, Adar Kori’nh had shown the rest of the Ildiran Empire a way to hurt the deep-core aliens.

Zan’nh’s eyes glittered in the well-lit grotto; he ground his teeth in frustration. He would gladly have followed the other Adar’s example, but against the faeros the sacrifice would be pointless. Nor would he waste his remaining Solar Navy ships in suicidal crashes against the fireballs. He had too few ships, and theymust remain undamaged for the defense of Ildira.

During the Chief Scribe’s story, young Ridek’h sat on the stone floor beside Tal O’nh. Yazra’h paced back and forth with her Isix cats, as restless and frustrated as the Adar was. Prime Designate Daro’h stood by himself, clearly disturbed.

Suddenly Zan’nh reeled backward, losing track of the rememberer’s sing-song voice. A great quake passed through thethism, and he felt a thousand screams erupt inside his head. Ko’sh’s voice faltered as he detected it, too.

On the other side of the chamber, Daro’h sank to his knees, gasping for breath. “The faeros have attacked again. Thousands of people just died.”

More affected than any of them, Ridek’h placed his hands against his forehead. “Those were people from Hyrillka. One of the resettlement camps.” He stared around in the underground chamber. “I could hear them shouting, pleading in my head. And then it just stopped.”

Moving impulsively, Zan’nh marched toward the lift platform that led to the mine tunnel’s exit. “I will take the cutter and investigate. Maybe I can help the survivors — if there are any.”

Ridek’h got to his feet. His voice was strained when he spoke. “I am going with you.”

“It is too dangerous.”

The boy crossed his arms over his chest. “Then it is too dangerous foryou, as well, Adar.”

Tal O’nh smiled into his personal darkness. “Take the boy, Adar. The experience will make him stronger.” Zan’nh was reminded of his own relationship with Kori’nh, his teacher. He could not say no.

The glare of smoky daylight was unrelenting as the cutter flew low over the open terrain. In the secondary pilot’s seat, Ridek’h hunched forward to look out the front windowplate. Swift fires had rushed across the croplands and prairies, blackening fields and hillsides. Off in the distance, columns of smoke rose into the air from Mijistra’s ever-burning fires.

Zan’nh felt thethism — ache within him and intentionally flew toward it. The cutter arrived at one of the largest concentrations of Hyrillka evacuees, a geometrically laid out camp with prefabricated buildings and flash-paved streets. The pain in his heart grew sharper from all the recent, sudden deaths.

The camp was nothing more than a smoldering wound. Every structure had been destroyed, the refugees cremated, their soulfires absorbed. “The faeros have been feeding again,” Zan’nh said.

Ridek’h shook his head in dismay. “We evacuated Hyrillka’s entire population, told all those people it was dangerous there. We never told them it would be worse on Ildira.” His reddened eyes showed both disgust and fury. “If Designate Rusa’h once cared for the people of Hyrillka, why would he let the faeros do this? Why?”

In the sky above, many fireballs whizzed about at high altitude, bright and hot. Zan’nh knew they must see him. They could plunge down and kill him and Designate Ridek’h in a flash. But the faeros just hovered there, observing.


Zan’nh hated them. It seemed that the fiery elementals were flaunting the fact that they could come for the rest of the Ildirans at any time.


Mage-Imperator Jora’h

Aboard his own warliner, secluded in his chamber, the Mage-Imperator shuddered and set the interior lights to maximum brightness. Despite the harsh and supposedly comforting glare, he could barely feel it, barely see it.

This washis private stateroom.His warliner.He was Mage-Imperator of the Ildiran Empire.

He was powerless.

And alone.

He knew Nira was waiting for him, and he vowed to hold on. But thoughts of her were not enough under circumstances like these. Even if she had been there to hold him and talk to him. in spite of the closeness they shared, she could not have given him strength in thethism.

Another second passed, and another.

His mind was filled with a hollow silence.Nothing. His thoughts were as empty as the void between stars where this stolen warliner now sailed. Yes, the isolation could indeed drive him mad, exactly as Chairman Wenceslas wanted. Damn the man! The Chairman was not to be trusted, and the entire Ildiran Empire, the great and glorious civilization and its great and glorious ruler, had been driven to its knees.

Less than three days — how he clung to that thought. He wondered how much time had passed. He hadn’t had the presence of mind to mark the chronometer when Admiral Diente had left following his last visit. This lonely silence had already lasted years, it seemed. Had it been three days? Two? Or only an hour? A few minutes?

Jora’h could no longer tell. He had no idea whatsoever.

“Nira. ” he whispered to himself, but no one answered.

He recalled when Anton Colicos had brought a catatonic Rememberer Vao’sh back to the Prism Palace following their long, isolated journey of escape from the black robots. As Mage-Imperator, Jora’h had felt a distinct echo of the anguish Vao’sh had endured. But he had never imagined it would feel like this.

Trapped in nightmares, he could not forget how his son Thor’h had been drugged and locked in a sealed room — by Jora’h’s own order. The power generators had failed, shutting down the bright blazers in the chamber. Thor’h had died alone and in the dark, a hideous fate for an Ildiran.

Jora’h pressed himself closer to the bright blazers mounted on the wall, but even the light did not help.

Feeling faint, he doggedly sent out his thoughts yet again, trying to find any echo out there. He tried for hours. or perhaps it was only minutes. until he was too exhausted to keep trying. He let his thoughts drift aimlessly in the cold, black wasteland.

Unexpectedly, familiar strands ofthism brushed the edges of his mind. The mental touch startled him, and he reached out to grasp the threads so desperately that the tenuous connection almost scattered. Almost. The distant thoughts drifted back toward his. He struggled to recognize them, but it was so hard to think straight.

Finally, it came to him — Osira’h and her siblings! Once he understood who they were, the connection strengthened. They helped from their end, securing the link.

“Osira’h!” he said out loud, and the children seized his wandering mind like rescuers throwing a lifeline to a drowning man. Their connection through thethism grew bright and clear. He caught flashes of Ildiran refugees sheltering in mountain caves, absorbed secondhand memories of searing fire.

Slowly, Jora’h began to understand exactly what had happened on Ildira. He had had only the vaguest fears before, but now he learned how Rusa’h and his fireballs had driven everyone from Mijistra and taken over the Prism Palace. The Empire itself was trembling, on the verge of collapse.

Jora’h used their thoughts as an anchor and drew strength from them. But his determination was his own, as was his outrage over what Chairman Wenceslas had done to him.

Yes, now he had the strength and the will to last until this warliner returned to Earth. And then he needed to find a way to save the Ildiran people.



Huddled in a small rock-walled alcove in their underground shelter, all of Nira’s children joined together and searched with their minds for the Mage-Imperator. Osira’h had suggested the idea even before the faintthism pulse from her father had gone so silent.

Though the rest of the Ildirans were stunned and disoriented by the abrupt change in the comforting mental web, she didn’t believe her father was dead — only lost. And if Jora’h were lost, then Osira’h vowed to find him. She simply needed the help of Rod’h, Gale’nh, Tamo’l, and Muree’n.

Together, they could achieve what other Ildirans could not.

Earlier, in comparatively “normal” times, the five half-breeds had generated a strong rapport through touching the lone treeling atop the Prism Palace. The children had used a synthesis of their mother’s telink and their Ildiranthism to form a unified new force that was stronger than, and different from, anything either Ildirans or green priests had ever known. Unlike other adherents of thethism /telink philosophy, the five special children had been able to protect themselves by cutting off the vulnerable paths through which Rusa’h had tried to burn them.

Throughout their time here in exile — while Prime Designate Daro’h, Yazra’h, Adar Zan’nh, and Tal O’nh struggled to piece together a military solution, and refugees in hundreds of scattered camps hid or died according to the whim of the faeros — Osira’h and her siblings continued to shield themselves.

But she believed that their skills gave them a responsibility to do more than hide. So the five of them had linked their minds and cast out into thethism in a concerted search for the Mage-Imperator. For days, no matter how far they spun out the soul-threads, he simply wasn’t there. Osira’h had refused to give up.

Finally, they found him.

When the five children came running into the central chamber, Daro’h looked up, startled. Osira’h knew that some people wanted the Prime Designate to undergo the ascension ceremony and become the new Mage-Imperator, but if Daro’h acted too soon, the results would be catastrophic.

She called out in a high, clear voice. “The Mage-Imperator is alive! We found him in thethism.”

The Prime Designate lunged to his feet, and Zan’nh and Yazra’h could not hide their joy; O’nh remained seated with a contented smile on his ravaged face. With overlapping chatter, the half-breed children explained how they had come upon Jora’h’s drifting thoughts; the Mage-Imperator had been driven nearly insane by loneliness and isolation, but he was alive. Captive, but alive.

Osira’h and her brother Rod’h had to raise their voices into the outraged clamor as they told how the Hansa Chairman had kidnapped Jora’h, seized his warliner and Ildiran crew, and tried to coerce him into recanting his support for the Confederation.

“They isolated him,” Rod’h said, his voice shaking with horror at the cruelty. “They cut off the Mage-Imperator from any contact withthism. He has been alone, star systems away from the nearest Ildiran.”

“How could anyone survive that?” Chief Scribe Ko’sh said.

“Through us.” Osira’h let herself show a small smile. “He might have survived alone, but he was getting weak. Now he has our help and strength. We will not let him give up.”

“Also,” Rod’h said, “we know how to find him now. The human military commander is returning him to Earth’s Moon.”

Zan’nh and Yazra’h wanted to launch an immediate attack against the Hansa, but Daro’h reminded them that the Solar Navy did not have the strength, equipment, or manpower to engage in such battles. Though many warliners remained safely in position at the edge of the Ildiran system, they could not tackle the entire human military.

Tal O’nh said in a quiet voice, “Rusa’h wants nothing more than to find the Mage-Imperator. Even if we brought Jora’h here, the faeros would gladly destroy him. Perhaps he is safer where he is.”

“Then what do we do?” Ko’sh said.

“Now that we know the Mage-Imperator is alive, I will hear no more nonsense about the ascension ceremony,” Daro’h said. “If he can survive his ordeal, then we can survive ours.”

Adar Zan’nh squared his shoulders. “We have learned one other thing. The Mage-Imperator cannot help us from where he is. We are on our own.”



Working in Queen Estarra’s devastated greenhouse was somehow therapeutic for Sarein. Her sister had loved this conservatory, where she’d planted and tended representative Theron flora to remind her of home. But Basil had ordered everything killed. Out of spite.

Only a few of the flower beds still held shriveled brown plants; the rest were bare dirt. Sarein had set flats of small flowers, seedlings, and dwarf fruit trees on the edges of the planters. She hadn’t been able to get any new Theron plants, though she still kept a few in her own quarters, but these would have pleased Estarra, nonetheless. Sarein went about her work with quiet determination, getting her fingers dirty, planting what she could. She remembered too many times when she’d been unable to intercede in Basil’s decisions, to prevent him from going to extremes.

When the guard escort brought Nira into the conservatory, Sarein pushed aside all her qualms. The female green priest remained in the Whisper Palace pending the return of the Mage-Imperator in another day or so. At least Basil had allowed that. By now, Nira must be frantic with worry about Jora’h, but Sarein had no way to allay her fears. She could, however, do something else.

From the doorway, Nira spoke in a sharp voice. “Replanting a few flowers and shrubs won’t atone for the destruction that’s been done.”

Sarein drew a long, slow breath. “I’m doing what I can. A lot of us are.” She picked up a small cluster of geraniums and pushed a hole in the dirt to plant them. “It’s a very delicate process, and you don’t always see what happens behind the scenes.”

Nira remained aloof. “Did you know Theroc was attacked by the faeros? I found out through telink on the night of the coronation.”

Sarein recoiled. “Why didn’t you tell me? If Theroc was in trouble, they should have called us to help!” As she spoke, Sarein knew how foolish it sounded. Even she could never have convinced Basil to dothat.

Nira gave her a withering look. “King Peter didn’t think the Hansa would offer assistance. Think of it — your own sisters couldn’t call upon you for aid. To me, that speaks volumes.”

Ignoring the insult, Sarein concentrated on the real concern. “Is the attack over? Did the worldforest survive? How much damage?”

“The verdani fought off the faeros with the assistance of green priests, Roamers, wentals, and even Admiral Willis’s former EDF battleships. They all fought to defend the trees—everyone but the Hansa. Your brother Beneto was also there. He’s dead now.”

Sarein stiffened. “His treeship?”

“He burned fighting the faeros.” Nira’s voice held condemnation. “And where wereyou during all this? As the official Theron ambassador, shouldn’t you have been involved in this crisis? Aren’t you supposed to have the best interests ofTheroc at heart? You replaced Ambassador Otema. What would she have done?”

Stung, Sarein could not stop herself from lashing out. “Otema was murdered by the Ildirans. You were her apprentice, yet not only do you willingly remain with them, but you became the lover of their leader.”Just as I became Basil’s lover. “You and I are not so different. Loyalties change as circumstances change, and we don’t always have freedom to take the purely noble course of action.”

“Right and wrong don’t change.”

They stared at each other for a long moment. When Sarein looked into the other woman’s eyes, she saw strength there, along with the scars from countless rugged wounds. Even before Basil released the story to the Hansa newsnets, Sarein had heard about some of the nightmares that had fundamentally changed Nira from the bright-eyed young green priest Sarein had met in her younger days on Theroc. But if Nira could survive and retain her strength and her humanity after all she’d been through, then surely Sarein could.

“Why did you bring me here?” Nira remained distant.

Sarein looked over at the guards and dismissed them. “We wish to talk in private.”

The royal guards seemed uneasy, but she remembered one of the men as a close companion to Captain McCammon. She gave a slight nod, hoping he was the ally she expected. The guard gestured to the others. “Let’s give Ambassador Sarein a few moments. The Chairman would want us to follow her instructions.” They stepped into the hall outside the conservatory.

Sarein led a suspicious Nira around some of the planters toward a thicket of dry twigs that had once been a dense flowering bush, now brown and partially uprooted. Here they were blocked from view. When Sarein brought out a small potted treeling, Nira’s eyes lit up.

Sarein said, “I’ve been cut off from my mother and father and sisters for so long. All I ask is that you send word. Tell Estarra that I wish her well. Has she delivered her baby yet? And Celli — tell my littlest sister that I miss her. Is it true that she’s taking the green herself? And my parents. ”

Nira narrowed her eyes. “Why should I trust you?”

“As you said, I am the Theron ambassador. I helped Estarra and Peter escape. I arranged for Nahton to send messages about their plight, and to warn Theroc.” She lowered her voice. “Can you guess what the Chairman would do to me if he knew what I’m telling you?”

The green priest softened somewhat. “I’ll send your messages.” She touched the treeling, and within moments she was lost in telink, her lips moving quickly and silently as she described all her news. Sarein waited anxiously, sure that the guards would come back and see what they were doing.

When Nira withdrew, Sarein pressed her. “And what is the news? Do you have anything to tell me?”

“They are rebuilding on Theroc. Many died in the faeros fire, but most were saved. Yes, Celli is now a green priest. Yes, Peter and Estarra are now the proud parents of a little boy. They named him Reynald.”

Tears welled up in Sarein’s eyes.

Nira’s brow furrowed as Sarein hid the treeling again. “Now all the Confederation has to worry about is what foolish action Chairman Wenceslas will take next.”


Orli Covitz

Deafening alarms rang through Kotto’s research dome. An enormous EDF Juggernaut streaked overhead, spitting fire, while clan ships darted in and out like wasps. So far, the Roamers’ defense didn’t seem to be having much effect.

“It’s all right. We’re safe here — I think.” Kotto looked up at the broad skylights. “I don’t see why anyone would target this particular rock.”

“They seem to be shooting at everything.” Mr. Steinman’s eyes darted from side to side.

The three compies clustered together not far from the hydrogue derelict. “If we are safe here, shall we continue working?” GU suggested. “Or have we finished with our research for today?”

DD suggested, “I can organize and collate the previous results so we do not duplicate efforts.”

KR seemed to be the only compy who understood their precarious situation. “This is quite a conundrum.”

Through the dome skylight, Orli watched Roamer cargo ships and armored courier vessels harass the Mantas. One of the EDF cruisers soared directly above their nondescript laboratory station, firing jazers at any reflective metal. An energy bolt struck a nearby floating fuel tank, which erupted in a silent fireball.

Even the lab’s reinforced dome could not withstand the shrapnel hurled by the shockwave. Three of the transparent triangular panels cracked, splintered, and finally shattered. In the sudden outrush of air, four more of the geometric panels failed, blasting out into space.

Orli’s ears popped. The roaring and whistling air seemed deafening, though some of the Roamer mitigation films snapped into place. But not enough. Trying to protect her, Mr. Steinman tackled her to the smooth floor. Caught directly beneath one of the gaping holes in the dome, GU was drawn into the vortex of evacuating atmosphere. He lost his footing and rose into the air, but KR shot out a polymer hand and caught his companion by the ankle. The compy yelled for help as GU continued to be sucked toward the open ceiling. When KR lost his footing, as well, and began to fall upward, DD claspedhis foot. The Friendly compy also had the foresight to grasp the lip of the sphere’s open hatch to anchor them. The waterfall of wind tugged at the chain of three compies who continued to call for help.

Kotto staggered across the floor and grabbed Steinman by the back of his shirt, propelling him and Orli along. “Get into the derelict,” he shouted, but his words were barely audible in the thinning air.

Steinman got to his knees, pushing the girl ahead of him. “Come on — seal the hatch.”

The air was disappearing rapidly and the chamber was growing very cold, but Orli stopped at the doorway. “I won’t leave DD out there.”

“He’s a compy, kid. He’ll survive,” Steinman said.

“Not if he gets blasted by those weapons. DD, can you get inside?”

“I would have to release my grip on KR.”

“I have another idea,” GU announced. At the end of the chain, dangling close to the jagged hole in the dome, he bent over to clasp the second compy’s arm on his ankle. Then he began pulling himself back to the floor like a man climbing an upside-down rope. When he could reach far enough, GU grasped DD’s shoulder and clambered toward the open hatch. Orli helped pull the battered compy into the derelict, while KR followed GU’s example. Everyone wrestled to bring them closer. Finally, all three compies collapsed inside the derelict chamber.

Kotto had already run to the central controls in the small sphere, where he stood trying to figure out how the derelict worked. “We used vibrating membranes to open the hatch in the first place, but now I can’t remember how to shut it!”

“All of the control documentation should be in the database,” GU said, getting to his feet. Roamer analytical equipment sat beside the incomprehensible crystalline nodules that the hydrogues had used to control the vessel. Together, KR and GU quickly found the correct systems. With a thump, the diamond hatch anchored itself into place.

Orli crumpled to the floor. Mr. Steinman’s hair floated around his head like a dandelion puff. Thin streaks of blood came out of his ears, and the whites of his eyes had hemorrhaged.

A second fuel tank exploded outside, but they were unharmed inside the transparent sphere. GU pointed out, “King Peter and the Hansa engineers left us with enough information to fly this ship, if we wish.”

“There’s a transportal, too,” DD pointed out, “though I am reluctant to go through to unidentified coordinates. In order to operate it, I would require all of my memory capacity and perhaps the capacity of KR and GU as well. Shall I tell you the story of how I — ”

“Not now, DD,” Orli said.

“No transportal for me,” Mr. Steinman said. “I’d rather just fly out of here.”

“Let’s test the engines,” Kotto said. “KR and GU, you may take the helm.”

Riding the current of the last evacuating air, the diamond-hulled derelict floated up through the twisted framework and transparent plates that had formed the dome. The portable comm system squawked with overlapping shouts, accusations, and commands.

Once free of the ruined dome, they had an excellent view of the half-lit gas giant, the expanse of the rings, and the predatory EDF cruisers. Dozens of Confederation ships flitted about, trying to protect the primary habitation complexes and main admin facilities. They looked quite insignificant.

“The story of David and Goliath is the exception to the rule,” Mr. Steinman observed. “Most times with odds like this, the little guy just gets squashed.”


Tasia Tamblyn

During the EDF bombardment of the ring shipyards, Roamers evacuated from numerous orbiting rocks and industrial complexes, sealing themselves inside boltholes. The clans knew how to plan for crisis situations, because they had so much practice with things not going right.

Tasia stood with Robb in the admin dome, surrounded by monitor screens and communications links set up to monitor the everyday activity of the shipyards. Practically every screen flashed red. Dozens of administrators scrambled to shut down docks, laboratories, and fabrication plants, calling all hands to emergency shelters.

Lanyan was not going to be reasonable, despite Robb’s foolish optimism. “General, please respond. You are attacking civilian targets. Cease fire! These facilities are no threat to you.”

As a second wave of jazer strikes rippled across a line of ore asteroids, Tasia gave a rude snort. “Shizz, Brindle, did you really think he’d just turn around and run away from your biting criticism?”

Robb switched off the communications link, frowning in disappointment. “No, but it made me feel better to vent a little steam.”

“I’d rather vent some exhaust ports. The manifest says we’ve got two cargo vessels in the main bay, newly upgraded to warship status. How about I take one and you take the other?”

“Good enough.”

“And who gave you the rank of Commodore, anyway?”

He brushed his shoulder, as if imagining the immaculate braid there. “I made it up. I didn’t suppose you’d complain — especially since you’re above me in rank.”

“Hell of a way to run a military,” Tasia said as they ran out into the rock-walled corridors. Lanyan’s demand for surrender continued on a repeating loop over the loudspeakers until one disgusted clan engineer disconnected the intercom wires and shut off the blowhard’s words.

They reached the docking bay, where volunteer fighters rushed aboard the two battleships, ready to go as soon as somebody took command. Both upgraded vessels were blocky with add-on modules, but lack of streamlining didn’t matter in space, and no one could complain about the ships’ efficiency.

She gave Robb a quick kiss as they separated — “For luck,” she said — then raced toward the ship on the left.

Three scruffy-looking Roamer men and a middle-aged woman had already jumped to the available consoles. Tasia settled into the captain’s chair, shouted for her makeshift crew to hurry through the start-up procedures. Since this ship had a standard set of controls, most Roamers could run any station. As they completed their launch checklist, they squabbled over who would get the chance to operate the new weapons.

With Brindle’s ship right at her side, Tasia accelerated out of the docking bay. She snapped at the members of her crew. “There’ll be plenty of Eddies to shoot at, so get your act together before we hit the targeting zone!”

The Roamers quickly decided on positions, settled into their seats, and coordinated their functions mere seconds before Tasia began her first attack run.

The EDF raiders continued to pummel the heart of the shipyards, blasting any structure they could find. Many Roamer ships had already rallied to the defense of Osquivel. The pilots had no discipline, but plenty of newly installed armaments, and they played havoc with the regimented EDF battle group. Sadly, though, Lanyan’s raiders were much more practiced at blasting things.

“This is damned disappointing. I really would have preferred to fight theKlikiss today,” Tasia transmitted to Robb as the ships swooped after the attacking EDF vessels. Robb was obviously uneasy at the prospect of blasting his former comrades in the EDF, so she added, “We didn’t ask for this, Brindle. They came gunning forus.”

The rings of Osquivel had turned into a shooting gallery. With a sickening feeling Tasia remembered an earlier battle here, when all the EDF ships had joined in a massive assault against the hydrogues. That battle had been an utter disaster for the forces of humanity.

Tasia and Robb added their two ships to the flurry of harassing fire, trying to deflect the EDF march against the most heavily populated facilities. As she had promised her crew, they all had plenty of targets to choose from.

With a precise shot, Tasia took out a quad bank of jazer cannons mounted on theGoliath ’s bow. Before she could pat herself on the back, though, three Mantas began to concentrate their fire on her ship. The shields barely withstood the barrage, and she had to do some fancy flying to get out of range.

When her starboard engine was damaged, Tasia knew they were in deep trouble. Robb gallantly tried to come to her rescue, drawing fire, but he, too, spun out of control, leaking gases from a ruptured tank.

Then, rising from the planet’s tenuous limb came another group of giant battleships — a Juggernaut and ten Mantas, all sporting fresh Confederation insignia on their hulls, outnumbering and outgunning General Lanyan.

“Sorry we’re late to the party.” Admiral Willis’s jazers fired a widespread pattern long before they came into range, purely to show off. “Wasn’t Rhejak enough humiliation for you, General Lanyan? Ready for more so soon?”

Robb said, “What took you so long, Admiral? We’ve been busy for an hour!”

“Exactly how fast do you think I can disengage eleven ships from spacedock?”

“Roamers could have done it faster,” Tasia said aloud to her grinning crew, but did not broadcast the comment.

Admiral Willis raised her voice over the command channel. “General Lanyan, how about we use the same surrender terms you proposed a few minutes ago? I assume you considered them to be fair and reasonable.”

Her battle group raced in to join the Roamer defenders, all of whom redoubled their attacks. Her Juggernaut matched the General’s, and the rest of the outnumbered EDF ships were unable to recover from their surprise.

After a moment of tense standoff, Lanyan’s ships all turned about and exited from the Osquivel system in an embarrassing retreat. He didn’t even bother to transmit a response.


Sullivan Gold

After being released from the Ildiran Empire, Sullivan Gold had hoped for a quiet retirement with his family on Earth. He had run a Hansa cloud harvester, survived a massive attack by hydrogue warglobes, rescued Ildiran skyminers, and endured a lengthy and unfair detention in Mijistra before finally going home. He deserved a little bit of time to himself.

But Chairman Wenceslas had other ideas.

Sullivan had been with Lydia and the extended family for two weeks. Wanting to live in peace for a change, he had made no announcement of his homecoming, asked for no media attention. Nor had he made a point of reporting to the Chairman. That turned out to be a mistake.

A group of paramilitary troops dressed in unfamiliar uniforms pounded on the door of his city townhouse. A cinnamon-haired female officer stood with four burly, well-armed men. She would have been pretty, Sullivan thought, if the hard edges of her features had been sanded smooth. The woman compared his face to an image projected on a palmscreen. “Are you Sullivan Gold?”

“Yes. yes, I am. May I ask what this is about?”

“We have orders to search your home in order to determine your whereabouts and your activities.”

“Well, my whereabouts are right here. And I haven’t really been taking part in any activities. Just relaxing.”

Lydia came up behind him, teasing, still not sure how serious this might be. “What have you done now, Sullivan?”

“Nothing I can think of.” He made no move to let the security troops in.

“You did not report to the Chairman upon returning from the Ildiran Empire.” The female officer’s voice was hard. “You should have been debriefed. That was your priority.”

Lydia huffed. “I hardly think so, ma’am. Hisfamily was his priority. He was certainly gone long enough. Who are you, anyway? I don’t recognize your uniforms.”

“We are a special cleanup crew appointed by Chairman Wenceslas. I am Colonel Shelia Andez.” She glanced down at her palmscreen again. “And you must be Lydia Gold.” She scrolled down, making disappointed noises, but didn’t elaborate on what she found in the record. “We need to complete our search so that we can present an accurate report to the Chairman. Mr. Gold, he has requested to meet with you as soon as he can fit you into his schedule.”

Lydia’s voice grew hard, as it always did when somebody pushed her too far. “I don’t recognize your authority. Who do you think — ”

“Lydia,” Sullivan cut her off. “Please, don’t add to the trouble we’re already in.”

“And why are we in trouble, exactly?” She stood protectively beside him. “What have we done?”

Without waiting for permission, Colonel Andez pushed past Sullivan and his wife. The five members of the “cleanup crew” spread out and began going through cupboards and drawers, opening bedroom closets, looking behind the furniture. They seemed deaf to Lydia’s persistent indignation, which only made her angrier.

Ever since his return, Sullivan had been carefully watching the newsnets. The Hansa was no longer the same place he remembered. In the wake of King Peter’s departure, many unpleasant crackdowns had occurred. Not liking the repression she saw, Lydia wasn’t shy about expressing her opinions.

Sullivan had very much tried to keep a low profile, but the Hansa had come to his doorstep anyway.

“Colonel Andez, you’d better see this!” One of the guards pulled a box from under the bed. “Alien contraband!”

Sullivan’s heart sank. Inside the box were numerous etched gems and Ildiran credit chips. For his service to the Solar Navy, the Mage-Imperator had paid him in jewels and credits before his departure for Earth. Jora’h had asked Sullivan to stay in the Empire and manage their splinter colony of Dobro, but Sullivan had chosen to return to his wife and his family.

“Currency from the Ildiran Empire?” Andez asked.

Sullivan said patiently, “Payment for services rendered in the defeat of the hydrogues. It’s perfectly legitimate.”

“Then you admit you’re working for the enemy?”

He was baffled. “Since when was the Ildiran Empire our enemy?”

“Since they formed an alliance with the Confederation. Haven’t you heard?”

“Oh, this is just plain ridiculous,” Lydia said, exasperated on his behalf. “Even if what you say is true, Sullivan completed that work before the Chairman even imagined any hostilities with the Ildirans.”

“Can you prove this?” Andez said.

Lydia looked at the young officer as if she were a complete idiot. “He’s been back home since before the announcement was made. Do your math.”

“Sarcasm will not help the case against you,” Andez warned.

“There’s acase against us? On what grounds?”

“Lydia, please!” Sullivan had always loved the way she refused to let herself get pushed around, standing up for her family and her rights, but often her sharp tongue got her in trouble.

The burly man picked up the case of Ildiran gems. “This will have to be confiscated.”

“We need that money to survive,” Sullivan said in dismay. They had nothing else.

When he had originally agreed to run the Hansa cloud-harvesting facility on Qronha 3, the promised pay had been excellent, but it came with many strings attached — strings they hadn’t seen until too late. The Hansa had purposely delayed paying his family benefits when everyone assumed he and his crew were dead. And now that they knew he was alive after all, the situation was even more dire. If Sullivan really had been killed, the family would have gotten some sort of insurance payment, but since he’d lost a very expensive facility, the Hansa would make sure he forfeited any profits.

“Take it up with the Chairman,” Andez said. “Whenever he calls you.”


King Peter

Peter found it awkward to conduct government business with his infant son on his lap, but he didn’t want to give up a moment of it. Wrapped in a soft blanket, Reynald was comfortable and happy (for the time being) in the noisy ops center that Willis’s corps of engineers had erected. Estarra dangled a bright featherthread toy in front of the baby’s face. His eyes followed it, his expression screwed into one of confusion, fascination, and then delight.

Celli pushed her way into the room, practically bursting with her news. “An EDF battle group just attacked the Osquivel shipyards, led by General Lanyan himself. Casualty count is unknown.”

“What the hell does he think he’s doing?” Peter’s exclamation disturbed the baby. “First he ransacks the Golgen skymines, and now this!”

Oddly, Celli didn’t look terribly distraught. “Don’t worry, the EDF got their butts kicked. The Roamers defended the shipyards, and then Admiral Willis showed up. General Lanyan ran away so fast he didn’t even leave an exhaust trail.”

Estarra was defiant. “That’s a lesson the Hansa needed to learn.”

Peter turned white as he struggled to control his anger. “Basil wants to escalate this into a full-scale civil war, and we’re not prepared for that. Our military isn’t ready, and our planets are still reeling from the hydrogue war. Those are still my people on Earth, no matter what they’ve been coerced to do.”

“Don’t forget, by kidnapping the Mage-Imperator, he’s basically declared war on the Ildirans, too,” Estarra added in disgust. “Why do the people put up with the Chairman? How can we get them to overthrow him?”

Peter had been struggling with the same question. “We’ve sent condemnations, but Basil cracks down as fast as the news spreads. He keeps the people too frightened to look for alternatives.”

Estarra said, “But can’t they see how much harm the Chairman’s doing every day? He’s on a downward spiral, and he’s taking the human race down with him.”

“Not if I can help it.” Peter’s stomach was knotted. He paced the room, still cradling Reynald in the crook of his right arm. “If we could work through an intermediary, someone with enough power and respect to show a clear path through the transition—that might do the trick. The people would act decisively, if they were shown a viable alternative, but there’s going to be turmoil and bloodshed, any way you look at it.”

“We need an insider who can rally support and do an end run around the Chairman,” Estarra said. “What about Deputy Cain? Or Sarein? They helped us escape.”

“No, Basil watches them too closely. We need another respected voice, someone who isn’t afraid to speak out.” Peter suddenly looked up, his eyes sparkling with excitement. “Former Chairman Maureen Fitzpatrick.”

“The Battleaxe? How will you convince her to switch sides?”

The wheels were already turning in Peter’s mind. “I’ll send word to Patrick Fitzpatrick on Golgen. He’s her grandson. I’m hoping he can make her an offer too good to refuse.”


Mage-Imperator Jora’h

Admiral Diente called a shaky Jora’h to the command nucleus as the warliner settled into orbit above Earth. When he first emerged from his stateroom, the Mage-Imperator moved slowly, angry that his weakness was so apparent. The stony EDF escort soldiers gave no indication that they noticed any change.

But he had survived the madness of isolation. He had found reserves of tenacity, both inside himself and in his half-breed daughter — reserves that Chairman Wenceslas had never known existed. Yes, Jora’h had beaten the Hansa leader. And now he was back.

In a concession to the Mage-Imperator’s plight, Diente had stretched the capabilities of the warliner’s engines, racing back with all possible speed. Bolstered by the thread of contact with Osira’h and her half-breed siblings, Jora’h had been able to cling to his sanity. Now that he could feel the proximity of other Ildiran captives in the lunar base, the strands of theirthism spun around him in a coalescing mist.

Safe again. though still a prisoner. The isolation he had just endured, and Osira’h’s revelation of what was happening on Ildira, made him yearn more than ever to be where his people needed him most. Jora’h gripped the rail in the command nucleus and drew a deep breath to steady himself.

The warliner went directly to Earth, and Diente gestured for Jora’h to follow him. “Come with me to the shuttle deck. I have an immediate appointment to see Chairman Wenceslas at Hansa HQ. He is extremely interested to hear more about the Klikiss translation system we found aboard this warliner.”

“What does he intend to use it for?”

Diente seemed to think the answer was obvious. “Diplomacy.”

Jora’h shuddered to think what that might entail. “I hope he is more successful than his current attempts at ‘diplomacy’ with the Ildiran Empire.”

Diente did not comment, merely nodded respectfully. “The Chairman has instructed me to send you to the Whisper Palace straightaway.” With a wan smile, he added, “Your green priest is there.”

Knowing that Nira would be waiting for him, Jora’h felt much stronger, even rejuvenated by the time the shuttle landed in the Palace District. When he stepped out into the sunshine of the landing zone, surrounded by uniformed EDF soldiers, he managed to stand straight and proud. Diente had already gone to see Chairman Wenceslas in the Hansa headquarters pyramid.

Nira stood behind a line of royal guards next to Captain McCammon. One glance at her was all Jora’h needed. He strode away from the shuttle, ignoring the EDF soldiers who were supposedly escorting him. The look on his face made the royal guards falter, and McCammon told them to let the Mage-Imperator pass. He released Nira, and she ran to meet him.

“Jora’h, are you all right?”

“Chairman Wenceslas will not defeat me,” he said in as strong a voice as he could manage. He folded her in his arms.

McCammon gave a slight salute, a clear gesture of respect. He wore his dress uniform, complete with a ceremonial gold-hilted dagger at his hip. Taking the two of them aside, he lowered his voice in private conversation. “The Chairman instructed me to tell you that if you declare King Peter a renegade and swear to support the Hansa, we can begin the process of returning you to Ildira.”

“That is all I need to do? Truly? One simple statement, and I am free to leave Earth immediately and save my people?” Jora’h scowled in disbelief. “Do you trust him, Captain McCammon?”

The man remained silent for a long and disturbing moment. “That is not for me to say. I only convey his message.”

Nira was also skeptical. “What’s to stop Jora’h from recanting his statement after you let him go? Nothing. So the Hansa wouldn’t really release us, would they? There’d be excuses, postponements, administrative setbacks. We would never be allowed to leave.”

McCammon stared straight ahead at the landed shuttle, past the stiff-backed guards, as if not speaking to her directly. “In such complex bureaucratic matters, many unforeseen delays and difficulties might occur before your actual release. It could take years.”

Jora’h had suspected as much. Continued resistance was his only leverage.

He held Nira more tightly and looked at the guard captain. “Then I am afraid I must decline the Chairman’s offer. The terms are not acceptable to me.”



Sarein was shocked to see the changes being made to her quarters. Now what was Basil up to? Claiming to be under the Chairman’s orders, a work crew methodically removed the bright cocoon-weave hangings, a tangle-web macrame, and four small potted flowers, colorful favorites from her native worldforest.

She was incensed that he would do this without consulting her. Was he merely demonstrating that he could exert control, even here? It seemed indicative of his desire for domination. Basil did things his own way, and liked all the pieces to fall neatly in place. The very knowledge that Sarein’s private space still reflected her Theron heritage must have been a persistent thorn in his side.

She doubted he cared how much this would bother her. For Basil it was all part of putting the Hansa in order, keeping as many elements in check as possible. She would try to talk to him about it, but she doubted it would do any good.

“We’ll repaint this in a nice, neutral color, Ambassador,” said the foreman of the crew, a roly-poly man with a deep voice and thick brown hair. “I can display catalog images of standard-issue Hansa furniture. Pick out the interior decorations yourself if you’d like, but frankly I’d rather you trusted me.” The man gave her a weary grin.

“Do what you have to,” she said, feeling sad and cold. It hardly mattered, since everything that expressed her personal taste was being taken away. “Obviously, the Chairman does not approve of my preferences.”

When she had first arrived on Earth years ago, Sarein had scorned the quaint, provincial nature of Theroc. She had felt trapped among the worldtrees and green priests, but invigorated by images of the Whisper Palace and the wonderful cities on Earth. Leaving her home planet to follow her dreams, she had achieved a level of status beyond her expectations.

Now, though, most of her influence had gone. She was an ambassador from a planet with which the Hansa had cut off all relations, yet she couldn’t go home. She represented. nothing. Basil kept her in his inner circle, but she had to fight continually to be a sounding board for his decisions. More and more often, he made up his mind without consulting anyone. Despite what she had told Rlinda Kett during their surreptitious meeting in the coffee shop, she despaired of finding a way to get through to Basil. Not for the first time, she wished she had accepted Rlinda’s offer and simply fled Earth.

The workers roughly stuck her plants into a crate marked for storage, but she intercepted them. “Save those — I want them delivered to the greenhouse wing. The Queen’s conservatory is being restored.”

The decorator shrugged. “If you like. They’re no longer allowed in private quarters. Some Ildiran plants are known to be poisonous.”

Captain McCammon walked briskly down the hall toward her chambers. His eyes always seemed to light up when he saw her, though he had been well schooled in maintaining a neutral expression. She often found herself smiling, too, when she saw him, but she didn’t dare show any affection for the man. Now he stopped at her doorway, amazed by the flurry of redecorating.

She read McCammon’s expression of disapproval. “It’s how the Chairman reacts when he feels insecure,” Sarein said quickly.

He lowered his voice, showing genuine compassion. “Then right now he must feel very insecure.”

Basil’s plan to break the Mage-Imperator had backfired. Sarein couldn’t help but silently cheer the Ildiran leader. No matter how often she tried to caution him, the Chairman refused to acknowledge the damage he was causing. But other people were seeing the cracks appear in the government.

Just that morning she had heard reports of a new outspoken group calling themselves “Freedom’s Sword,” which had hijacked several newsnets and rebroadcast Patrick Fitzpatrick’s damning confession that accused the Hansa of provoking war with the Roamers. The best security crackdowns had been unable to trace the saboteurs, and so they had gotten away.

Furious, Basil had assigned Colonel Andez and her cleanup crew to investigate the problem. A cold thought struck her. Did the Chairman doubt Sarein’s loyalty? Had he seen something? Her little meeting with Nira and the treeling, perhaps?

Seeing her concern, McCammon touched her arm, and she felt an irrational desire to move closer to him, but she didn’t dare, especially in front of these workers. Realizing what time it was, she cleared her throat and spoke in a formal voice. “Have you come to escort me to the meeting, Captain?” Basil had been excited about meeting with Admiral Diente in the Hansa HQ, and she had asked to be included. She had also requested that McCammon take her there, since it was the only way for him to be present.

“Yes, Ambassador.”

Paying no more attention to the bustling redecorators, she walked briskly down the hall with the royal guard captain. “We’d better go, then. The Chairman won’t wait for us.”

Chairman Wenceslas sat at his deskscreen across from Admiral Diente, tapping fingertips on the polished surface. The Admiral stood rigidly at attention, while Deputy Cain sat off to the side in a chair, taking notes like some medieval scribe. The silence had already dragged out for several seconds.

Basil looked up when Sarein and McCammon entered. He wore a puzzled look, as if interrupted in the middle of a complex thought; then he remembered that she had been scheduled to attend. “Ah yes, thank you for coming, Sarein. I wanted you to hear my announcement.”

She felt a quick stab of alarm. “Announcement? I thought we were having a discussion.”

“The decision has already been made.”

Cain rose to his feet, discouraged but doggedly doing his job to bring her up to speed. “On his shakedown cruise of the Mage-Imperator’s flagship, Admiral Diente made a remarkable discovery. During the ancient wars, the Ildirans developed a translation device for direct communication with the Klikiss. It’s uncomplicated Ildiran technology, simple to operate.”

Now Basil sat up, engaged in the conversation. “This translation system gives us a remarkable and unexpected opportunity to approach a very destructive enemy. In recent months the Klikiss have retaken many of their old planets, which were part of our Colonization Initiative. We depended on their transportal network, and now that’s also been denied to us. But there’s no reason our two races should be enemies. We should be able to find common ground.”

He folded his hands. “We know too little about the Klikiss, and I want to nip this conflict in the bud. We must engage in diplomacy instead of immediate destruction. I’ve concluded that it is the swiftest, most efficient way to solve the crisis. So, we are sending an emissary to talk to them.”

McCammon spoke up. “We sent an emissary in a containment chamber to meet with the hydrogues, too. That didn’t turn out very well, if I remember correctly.”

“This is completely different,” Basil snapped, obviously wondering why the guard captain was still in the room. “The Klikiss were once a great civilization. They invented the transportals and the Klikiss Torch. They must be reasonable. I am sending Admiral Diente to Pym, where General Lanyan conveniently located a large subhive. He will negotiate a mutual nonaggression pact with the Klikiss. After that, we’ll have one less thing to worry about.” He paused for just a moment. “And we can concentrate on bringing down the Confederation.”

Diente seemed decidedly uncomfortable, as stiff-backed as a toy soldier placed as an ornament in the office. He still hadn’t spoken.

Sarein looked at him. “And what do you believe, Admiral Diente? Can you pull it off?”

“The Mage-Imperator assures me the translation system will work.” It wasn’t much of an answer.

“He has sufficient incentive,” Basil answered for him. “If he succeeds, I have promised to free his family from custody, with no encumbrances whatsoever.”

The temperature in the room seemed to drop. Diente nodded brusquely. “Yes, Mr. Chairman. I am confident that I will succeed in this mission.”



The satisfaction of eradicating both warring subhives at Relleker swiftly faded. Yes, Sirix had destroyed two major groups of Klikiss, but now his main concern was for the survival of his robots.

The Klikiss had annihilated the desirable facilities at Relleker and killed all of the technically proficient colonists. Sirix was no closer to being able to manufacture robots and replenish his armies, and he was growing quite impatient. He turned back to his two compies. “Find me another option.”

PD and QT delved once more into the Roamer and EDF records, studying asteroid outposts, lunar bases, drifting orbital complexes. Most clan facilities specialized along specific lines of endeavor. Constantine III produced only fibers and exotic polymers; the Hhrenni asteroids were primarily greenhouses; Eldora mainly produced lumber and forest products.

Lacking a better alternative, the stolen fleet flew to what had once been the capital of the Roamer clans.Rendezvous. Now only wreckage remained, rocks and metal debris in wildly disturbed orbits, since the Earth Defense Forces had destroyed it. At times Sirix thought that those chaotic, violent, and capricious people might well exterminate one another more efficiently than any of his grand schemes could.

Cruising in silent mode in case some Roamers had come back to their former home, Sirix’s ships drifted through the rubble searching for any still-functional complexes. They found none. Another wasted effort. Sirix and the two compies studied the records yet again.

Finally, QT spoke up. “PD and I would like to suggest an unorthodox candidate. We believe it has the sophisticated operations and technological facilities we require.”

PD agreed. “The place has demonstrated skill in manufacturing compies, and already possesses a working knowledge of Klikiss robots.”

Sirix’s optical sensors flashed as he realized what the two compies were suggesting. “You propose that we return to Earth, conquer the Terran Hanseatic League with our few remaining ships, and take over their factory complexes for ourselves? We could never succeed.”

“No, we suggest you negotiate an agreement directly with the Chairman.”

“Go to the Hansa and simply request the use of their facilities,” PD added. “QT and I can assist you as ambassadors.”

It was a naive and absurd suggestion. Completely impossible.

PD continued. “Human history is filled with examples of former enemies becoming allies, given sufficient motivation as circumstances change.”

Sirix considered further. Could it possibly work? He did not comprehend humans. Their contradictory moods and decisions were unfathomable. “You both understand humans better than I do. How would you convince them to do as we demand?”

QT lifted his polymer face. “Issue a sincere apology. Show the Hansa Chairman that we share an enemy in the Klikiss.”

Sirix considered the strange suggestion. With his handful of remaining ships and weapons, his robot force posed no credible military threat to Earth, but the Hansa didn’t know that. He could use the fact that he had just wiped out a significant concentration of Klikiss at Relleker to demonstrate his good intentions, even though the Hansa had not factored into his attack at all.

“The Terran Hanseatic League should see the black robots as a valuable ally,” Sirix said, “provided we can work out an acceptable agreement.”

This would take careful maneuvering, indeed.

“Change our course. Head directly toward the Earth system.”

Sirix began his calculations.


Margaret Colicos

Margaret felt unafraid when the ferocious tiger-striped domate approached her and lifted its serrated praying-mantis forelimbs. She put her hands on her hips. “What do you want?”

As part of her work with the Davlin-breedex, she was trying to force the individual Klikiss to actuallycommunicate with her using Davlin’s memories, Davlin’s abilities. Each time she did that, she hoped to bring positive human traits to the fore and keep the natural violence of the insect race at bay.

The hard plates of the tiger-striped creature’s exoskeleton slid smoothly against each other as the domate fidgeted. Its face was a mosaic of interlocked plates that shifted into an eerie, humanlike visage for just a moment, but the thick pieces fitted more comfortably into its monstrous form.

“Breedex,” it said in a voice that sounded like a knife edge being dragged across a washboard. “Two. more. subhives. defeated.”

“Where? Name the planet.”

A long pause, as if the complex mind were trying to summon a name that would be comprehensible to her. “Relleker.”

“Good.” In their last conversation, Davlin had mentioned the Klikiss subhives battling there. “Take me to the breedex. He can tell me more himself.” She knew that Davlin could not carry on extended communication through the mouths of domates or warriors. She followed the gigantic creature past bustling workers, diggers, excreters, harvesters, and other sub-breeds.

In years past, her visits to prior incarnations of the breedex had been fraught with anxiety and danger, but now Margaret walked boldly alongside the domate. While her guide remained behind at the entrance, she presented herself before the squirming mass. “What is it you want to tell me, Davlin? Two more subhives conquered? Both breedexes destroyed?”

With a buzzing, staticky sound, the numerous components piled together, each tiny unit knowing its place, assembling into the crude sculpture of a man’s face. It took the simulated head a few moments to remember how to speak, then the buzzing background noise became words.“They defeated themselves. Two rival subhives clashed.” After a pregnant pause, the Davlin-breedex continued.“The rest were destroyed by black robots. nuclear explosives. EDF ships.”

“So the black robots are still out there.” Margaret wasn’t sure if the hive mind could hear the hatred in her own voice. “You want to destroy them, don’t you?” This was an anger she could allow Davlin to keep. Sirix had killed Louis long ago, back on Rheindic Co.

“All of them.”

She had seen more domates march through the new transportal, carrying the remains of Klikiss victims. “How close are you to finishing your work with the other subhives? How many breedexes remain?”

“All pieces are coalescing. I will be the One Breedex soon. A single rival subhive remains. A powerful subhive. on Pym.”

“And once you defeat that subhive, you will control the whole race? And you promise to keep humanity safe?” She waited a long moment. “Davlin?” She had to continue focusing the human presence that remained. Recently, she had seen troubling instances when the man had lost ground to the insects.

“Then we will control all the Klikiss.”

“And you will keep humanity safe?”

“First I must fission. I must consume many more Klikiss, make them part of me, rather than just obedient to me.”

Margaret was alarmed. “No, that will dilute your human fraction. You told me.” Until now, the Davlin-breedex had maintained control by refusing to let his domates devour the fallen subhives. His hold was already tenuous. And she could not suggest the obvious and unpleasant solution of allowing the breedex to consume and incorporate more human DNA.

“Must increase numbers and strength. Otherwise, I will fail.”

“You will also fail if you lose your grip, Davlin. Don’t loosen your control.”

“It is the only way. Incorporate the strength and superior traits of all the other hives we have crushed. Our domates will gather their songs.”The distinctive features sloughed away as the breedex began to refer to itself in the plural. She listened as it seemed to wrestle with itself; then Davlin’s face appeared again.“I will not let. myself be diluted, Margaret. I am still here.”

She wasn’t certain how much she could trust this bizarre hybrid. Was it human enough, or would the Klikiss genes become dominant with another fissioning? She had to keep reminding him. “Do what you must, Davlin, but keep your control — and I’ll do everything I can to help.”


Anton Colicos

On the fast EDF shuttle that took them away from the Moon, Anton sat next to Rememberer Vao’sh. One escort guard remained rigidly alert on the nearby passenger bench, his sidearm prominent. Never in his life had Anton considered himself a threatening person, and now he had a vigilant guard at all times.

He had no idea what Chairman Wenceslas could possibly want with the two of them.

Anton tried to look on the bright side. At least he and Vao’sh were on their way to Earth, where the Mage-Imperator was now being held. The Ildiran prisoners in the lunar base had been frantic when Jora’h had been taken away and isolated. Given his own similar ordeal, Vao’sh understood more than any other Ildiran Jora’h’s sheer nightmare of solitude, his risk of slipping into catatonic madness.

Now, as they rode the swift shuttle, the rememberer’s facial lobes changed to a more grayish color, indicating his anxiety. “I am very confused by your Chairman’s actions. He does not understand what he is doing.”

“There’s no excuse for it.” Anton had no explanations to give. “No one has the right to treat people this way.” He sounded far braver than he actually felt.

When the shuttle flew in over the Palace District, Vao’sh placed his hands against the windows and smiled wistfully at Anton. “I always wanted to see the Whisper Palace for myself — although I wish my first visit were under better circumstances.”

Anton felt sad and apologetic. “I’m ashamed. I can’t ask you, or the Mage-Imperator, or any Ildiran to forgive us.”

“The Chairman did this, Rememberer Anton. Your whole race should not be condemned for the choices one man makes.”

The shuttle landed on the rooftop deck of the Hansa HQ. The two of them were briskly led to the penthouse office levels, where they waited under guard. And waited.

More than an hour later, they were ushered to the Chairman’s office. Surrounded by banks of windows, Basil Wenceslas sat at a broad deskscreen, which portrayed not spreadsheets or productivity graphs, but a shifting grid of surveillance images. He seemed intent on watching everything around him.

When they entered, the Chairman stood up. The expression on his handsome face was guarded, but his demeanor was one of expansive cordiality — as if they were old friends. “Anton Colicos. I am pleased to see you again! So much has happened in the years since our last communication.”

“I’m surprised you even remember, Mr. Chairman. My mother was never found, and my father’s body was discovered in the ruins on Rheindic Co. Not a very successful rescue effort.”

“Ah, but your request to find your missing parents set in motion key events in our history, though we didn’t realize it at the time. When I sent Davlin Lotze and Rlinda Kett to Rheindic Co, they discovered the transportals, which have been such a boon to us — until recently.” He seemed preoccupied with the surveillance images on his deskscreen. “But Admiral Diente is on his way to the Klikiss, so even that problem should soon be neatly solved.”

“Glad it worked out for you,” Anton mumbled.

The Chairman now turned to Vao’sh. “I understand that you are one of the greatest Ildiran historians. You can help me.” Basil’s voice had an odd edge, though he was clearly trying to sound reasonable. “I need to understand Ildirans. I have obviously misjudged the Mage-Imperator. He has not been rational. Is it a cultural thing, or a personality flaw in Jora’h alone? I would have thought his long voyage of contemplation would be sufficient to make him see what is best for both the Ildiran Empire and the Hansa. Yet he refuses to make the trivial effort necessary. Doesn’t he want to return to his people, who — according to him — urgently need his leadership? What kind of ruler is that? I am at my wits’ end. I don’t understand why the Mage-Imperator does what he does.”

“And we do not understand you, Chairman Wenceslas.” Vao’sh was not inclined to be helpful. “Your side of the story, frankly, is incomprehensible to us. It will be difficult for me to portray the Hansa in a favorable light when I record these events in theSaga of Seven Suns.”

The Chairman visibly fought down a flash of anger. “I am not interested in Ildiran propaganda or bedtime stories, but in acquiring intelligence the Hansa vitally needs.” He turned to Anton, who flinched. “Mr. Colicos, you will remain on Earth with Rememberer Vao’sh. Take him to our Department of Ildiran Studies at your old university. I want our scholars to debrief him thoroughly.”


Deputy Chairman Eldred Cain

Nice enough. for a prison.” Cain looked through the small one-way observation block into the family holding chambers.

While walking around the nondescript building’s exterior on a brief inspection with Sarein, Cain had been intrigued by the clever camouflage, seeing nothing to distinguish it from any other moderate-income living complex. But inside, the five apartments were isolated from each other, accessible only through the strictest security. And the inhabitants could not leave.

“I doubt Admiral Diente would be comforted by the homey touches,” Sarein said.

“At least his family is alive. And the Chairman has promised they’ll be released unharmed as soon as he returns from his mission to Pym.” Cain’s voice carried no inflection to hint at how much he doubted Chairman Wenceslas would keep his end of the bargain. Nevertheless, he had sent the two of them here to make certain, with their own eyes, that everything was in order. He claimed he couldn’t trust anyone else; Cain supposed that was probably true.

Expander lenses from the inset spy-hole brought the view to them, so that he and Sarein could watch the family of Admiral Diente go about their daily tedium. Sarein leaned close, keeping her voice low but not conspiratorially quiet. “Basil probably thinks he’s being quite generous, giving them all the comforts they could need. I’ll ask him for a little more leniency, but I doubt he’ll act on it.”

“These people aren’t actually aware that they’re being held hostage.” Cain’s pale lips quirked in a cold smile. “They think they’re being kept inside for their own protection. In a way, that’s merciful.”

The only thing that mattered, Cain realized, was that the Admiral knew they were there.

The family had four rooms to themselves, a living area, two small bedrooms, and a tiny toilet/shower combination. The man’s wife, two daughters (ages fifteen and six), and son (twelve) must have felt quite crowded. As a man who relished privacy and solitude, Cain couldn’t imagine living under such conditions.

Sarein watched the teenaged daughter slump into a hard-backed chair, while her brother tried to cajole her into playing a game. The mother sat stiffly at the tiny kitchenette table reading, but though she stared at the book, Cain noted that she hadn’t turned a page in six minutes. On the wall near her hung an image of her husband and family, all together and smiling. The image appeared to be old.

“Can’t we talk to them?” Sarein asked. “How are we supposed to verify that they are all in good mental and physical health?”

“No interaction whatsoever. We are just supposed to observe.”

“I hope our word matters to Basil.”

In the spy-hole image, the son was now pestering his little sister to play a different, much simpler game with colored cards.

“Of course it matters.”

Sarein turned, and Cain could tell she was genuinely curious. “Why? He’s been cutting us out more and more often.”

“Even so, he realizes he can’t do everything alone. He’s got to rely on someone, and he is convinced — correctly — that I have no interest in robbing him of his power. Even as deputy, I have risen in prominence much higher than I desire. And you — he knows that you both love him and are afraid of him. That makes you perfectly safe, in his view.”

Sarein blinked her large, dark eyes. “You’re a very odd man, Mr. Cain. How can you be so perceptive?”

Before he and Sarein made their way back to the Hansa HQ, Cain received the expected call. He had intentionally timed it that way. He wanted her with him when they went to “investigate.”

Like Chairman Wenceslas, Cain couldn’t do everything himself. Captain McCammon should also be on his way.

Colonel Andez and several members of the cleanup crew had already responded to the fire that had gutted a small storage chamber in a block of personal warehouses. The self-contained locker was unremarkable in a beehive complex of identical units. It had been fitted out as a mail drop and wired as an office cell — barely room enough for one person with a chair and an upload terminal. It had served its purpose.

Andez picked through sodden bits of electronic equipment slimed with fire-suppressant foam. Cain noted that the primer-painted metal door had been physically bent from its hinges — exactly the sort of boneheaded enthusiasm he had expected from the cleanup crew. They had torn their way inside, sure they would find a nest of rebels in a two-meter-square cubicle.

When she saw Deputy Cain and Sarein arrive, Andez straightened. Falling short of an actual salute, she brushed a smear of soot from her cheek, making the mark worse. “They keep springing up, sir. When will they learn? This group calls itself Freedom’s Sword. Nobody had ever heard of them until a few days ago.”

Cain pursed his lips. “You are in error, Colonel. Freedom’s Sword is an active and widespread organization that has been operating quietly, but effectively, for many months. My own people have been tracking them. You’d best keep a close watch. Did you find any leads here?”

Her expression hardened even further. “We arrived too late, unfortunately. The fire destroyed the equipment, and our electronic autopsy specialists claim it was thoroughly wiped even before that. But we do know that this site was a transmission point for seditious messages. The perpetrators rebroadcast Patrick Fitzpatrick’s condemnation statement” — her face twisted briefly, and Cain remembered that Andez and Fitzpatrick had been POWs together among the Roamers — “as well as King Peter’s message calling for the resignation of Chairman Wenceslas.”

“The resignationor overthrow of the Chairman,” Cain amended.

“That only makes it worse,” Andez said.

Sarein clearly wondered why Cain had wanted her to accompany him here. “Nothing new in all that,” she said. “Those messages have been seen plenty of times before. Why would anyone bother with such a setup?”

Cain nodded solemnly. “Yes, with a group as sophisticated as Freedom’s Sword, there must be a far more insidious purpose. Colonel Andez, I suggest you find the exact messages they broadcast and devote significant manpower to analyzing them. It’s possible there’s another, more sinister message coded into the carrier signal. Pay particular attention to irregularities in background static.”

Cain enjoyed watching her enthusiasm. Those orders would keep Andez’s people busy for days.

Finally Captain McCammon arrived with four of his hand-picked royal guards. McCammon smiled at Sarein. “Glad to see you, Ambassador.” Then he got down to business, looking completely professional. “Colonel Andez, my men will take over the on-site investigation from here.”

She bristled. “This job clearly falls under our purview.”

Cain interceded. “Colonel Andez, the unrest fostered by Freedom’s Sword is a direct threat to the authority and rule of King Rory. Therefore it is fitting that the royal guard should be in charge. Your people are dismissed.”

“Don’t you have transmissions to analyze?” Sarein added.

“These rebels endanger the Chairman and the very stability of the Hansa.”

Cain continued in a reasonable voice. “You know Chairman Wenceslas doesn’t like to be in the spotlight. If we present this as a threat to our beloved savior and King, there’s a better chance the people will turn against Freedom’s Sword.”

After a few more moments of confusion, the cleanup crew packed away their shards of evidence and sample scrapings and departed, leaving Captain McCammon in charge of the site.

When they were gone, Sarein turned to Cain wearing a no-nonsense expression. “Now, what was all that about? Why did you bring me here?”

McCammon watched his men comb over the wreckage in the cramped office cell. He looked very skeptical. “And what do you really expect me to find in there that the cleanup crew missed?”

“There’s nothing to find.” Cain smiled, then said in a low voice, “But it certainly got Colonel Andez worked up, didn’t it? The diversion will keep them chasing shadows so that they have less time to harass innocent people.”

Sarein drew a quick breath as she jumped to the obvious conclusion. “You knew about this. You’re a member of Freedom’s Sword.”

Cain shook his head. “Not exactly. Freedom’s Sword is entirely my creation, a will-o’-the-wisp. I needed a conduit to disseminate certain information — such as when I leaked the news about Queen Estarra’s pregnancy before the Chairman could force her to have an abortion. It can be very useful to imply the existence of a much larger organization calling for the Hansa to join the Confederation. Many others are now taking independent action, as well, and the movement seems to be growing on its own. Any random dissident activity is chalked up to the work of a larger organization.”

McCammon stared, then laughed. “So you plant little seeds like this to divert attention from yourself.”

“To divert attention from all three of us, Captain.” Cain looked at Sarein and the guard. “None of us has clean hands when it comes to the escape of King Peter and Queen Estarra. and plenty of other minor actions, any one of which would be considered treason if the Chairman decided to define them that way. Freedom’s Sword is a facade, but a useful one.”

McCammon’s guards had removed the inner layer of scorched metal plating from the office cell and with great excitement uncovered a lump of fused polymers and wires, the incendiary trigger.

“Keep looking,” McCammon gruffly told them.

“You’ve given a focus and a voice to all the dissatisfied and frightened people that we know are out there,” Sarein said. “That’s something to be proud of. But Basil will never resign, you know — especially if he ever finds out the organization of dissenters is only a sham.”

“Not a sham. They’re out there. I’m merely providing the catalyst. As people hear more and more about a large and organized group, I believe Freedom’s Sword will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”


Admiral Esteban Diente

The closer his Manta got to the known Klikiss hive at Pym, the less convinced Admiral Diente was of his chances of success. The Chairman had given him only one cruiser for the ambassadorial mission, blithely putting all his faith in the old Ildiran translation system (though he hadn’t sent an Ildiran engineer along to monitor it) and in Diente’s negotiating skills.

Basil Wenceslas was confident that the Admiral had sufficientincentive to work miracles — and Diente hated him for it.

He had been the commander of the Grid 9 forces. He had always been quiet, almost taciturn, except when at home with his family. His house had been filled with love; he had giggled and wrestled with his children. He hadn’t seen any of them in more than a month, been denied even a letter from his wife.

The Chairman assured him they were well and being held in “protective custody.” They had been taken hostage shortly before Diente received his orders to seize the Mage-Imperator’s warliner. That had been the first instance of blackmail; this was another.

He was Admiral Esteban Diente. “the Tooth” in Spanish. As he had worked his way up the ladder of command during his military career, his comrades had joked that he had “fangs,” that he could clamp onto a problem and not let go until it was solved. Now, though, he felt toothless.

And he had to make some sort of pact with the Klikiss. It was a naive and human-centric view to assume the hive mind would comprehend, much less agree to, standard negotiating tactics. Did anyone really know how the Klikiss thought or reacted? To prepare himself, he had studied all available background information. General Lanyan had delivered a full report after his disastrous clash with the Klikiss on Pym, but his sparse information was unobjective and, frankly, questionable. In his reports Lanyan had been unable to hide how shaken he’d been by the encounter.

The General had begun shooting at the Klikiss as soon as he saw them. Not a good foundation for peaceful negotiations. Diente hoped to do better, but he was hampered by not knowing anything about the psychology of the insect creatures. What made them tick? How would they react? Diente had no idea where to begin. Such musings did not inspire him with great confidence, yet he had to take the old Ildiran translating device and do his best.

“I’ll be in my ready room.” He stood from the command chair. “I need time to think. Let me know when we arrive at Pym.”

“It’ll be less than two hours, Admiral.”

“Then that’s two hours I need to myself.” He left the bridge and closed the door to the quiet chamber. Although he knew that he needed to be alert, he had slept poorly for several days. He ordered a double-strength coffee from the dispenser and gulped it quickly.

Even though the alien insects would not understand EDF uniforms or rank insignia, Diente pulled his dress uniform from the wardrobe unit and made his appearance as authoritative as possible. He even imaged pictures of himself to be stored in the ship’s emergency log for his family, just in case something happened.

Following the set mission profile, his Manta came in over Pym making no threatening moves, its weapons systems on standby. Diente would personally take an armored diplomatic shuttle down to meet with the hive mind on the surface, while the Manta hovered overhead, supposedly to show its muscle.

His legs moved mechanically as he climbed aboard the small craft, accompanied by twenty-eight guards, just enough to form an impressive entourage, though he doubted the Klikiss would understand such gestures. His stomach felt leaden. He did what he was expected to do.

The ambassadorial ship dropped out of the lead cruiser. Diente drew careful, even breaths, centering his thoughts. He could feel the tension in the men around him. Two of the soldiers nervously tried to joke with each other, but their comments fell flat, so they dropped into silence again.

Below them, the convoluted hive complex came into view on the blindingly white alkaline desert, where murky bad-water swamps bubbled up from evaporated lakes. The organic-looking city was a spreading infestation with giant towers, knobby battlements, and spearlike fortifications. It sprawled for kilometers and kilometers.

Diente’s heart sank. In General Lanyan’s previous attack here and his rescue of the few surviving colonists, his soldiers had inflicted a great deal of damage. Diente had reviewed the images recorded by combat suitcams. Now, though, he saw no signs of damage whatsoever. Not a mark. Everything had not only been repaired but greatly expanded.

Assailed by an overwhelming sense of dread, for just a moment he was tempted to abort the mission, to return to Earth and ask the Chairman to reconsider his approach. But Chairman Wenceslas was not a man to reconsider; he saw it as a sign of weakness to change his mind once he had made a decision.

The shuttle descended toward the heart of the hive complex. Everything he did and said was being automatically recorded and uploaded to the Manta above. Unfortunately, since the EDF no longer had access to instantaneous telink communication via green priests, Diente had no way to maintain a direct line to the Hansa. He had insisted that log drones be launched back to Earth hourly once the mission began. That way at least someone would have a record.

On its landing approach, the diplomatic craft came in unchallenged, though Diente expected swarms of insect ships to rise up and intercept him. He thought the Klikiss would sound an alarm and rush out to destroy his ship, or at least demand to know his intentions. The translation system was ready.

But as far as he could tell, the Klikiss merely ignored the intrusion. He did not understand these creatures at all.

The shuttle set down in a powdery white clearing near the center of the enormous hive city. The Admiral closed his eyes for two seconds, pictured his wife and children, and remembered why he was here.

Swallowing his instinctive revulsion, Diente stood at the hatch, straightened his uniform, and opened the hatch to taste the bitter air of Pym. Each breath felt choked with a caustic dust. His eyes began to burn, but he marched down the ramp and onto the cracked alkaline ground. Per his instructions, the honor guard followed several steps behind him.

The Klikiss were a riot of different shapes and forms, all of them covered with hard body armor; some were ponderous workers and diggers while others looked designed for combat and mayhem. He couldn’t tell if they were curious, or hungry.

Diente tried to identify one creature that might be a spokesman. He activated the Ildiran translator from a transmitter box at his hip. “I am a human. You have encountered us before. We mean you no harm.” He allowed a moment for the translation device to process the words. “The Terran Hanseatic League has no quarrel with the Klikiss.”

With hissing, clacking sounds, four of the ominous-looking warriors stepped closer. Behind them towered two larger creatures, gigantic forms whose shells were striped with black and silver. They clicked and whistled, but Diente received no translation from the device, although it appeared to be functioning properly.

“Can you understand me?” He gathered his courage and continued. “There is no need for conflict between our races.” He waited; again no answer, but more bugs crowded toward the shuttle. The guards behind him muttered nervously. “If there has been any trespass, it was inadvertent. In the interest of cooperation between our races, we offer to withdraw from any former Klikiss worlds.”

The warrior insects raised their sharp limbs. The EDF soldiers unslung their weapons and held them defensively. Diente did not feel he was getting through to the Klikiss. “Please, this is an overture of peace.”

Without warning, large ground-based artillery tubes belched fire from the tops of hollow turrets in the hive city. Enormous energy projectiles rolled upward like solidified comets and slammed into the Manta that cruised low overhead.

“Stop!” Diente shouted.

“Holy shit!” Screaming in terror and fury, the twenty-eight guards opened fire on the nearby Klikiss, mowing them down.

Above them, the Manta was ripped open, its engines destroyed. Huge chunks of flaming debris fell out of the sky like meteors, before the hulk itself hurtled downward. It crashed into the outskirts of the hive city and erupted in a huge fireball that flattened half a kilometer of the insect structures. The Klikiss didn’t seem to care.

“There is no need for this!” Diente shouted into the translator. He glanced at the Klikiss translation device and came to the sick conclusion that the hive mind didn’t understand the very concept of peacemaking or negotiation. The Klikiss had no interest in coexisting with another species.

With continuous fire from their weapons, his guards massacred hundreds of bugs. But they were in a nest of millions.

Tears streamed down the Admiral’s face as Klikiss warriors marched forward. Diente doubted that Chairman Wenceslas would ever realize the extent of his folly here. At least, though, there would be no further reason to hold his family hostage.

He felt an odd sense of release, maybe even a feeling of relief, as the tension of these past months reached a culmination. He drew his sidearm and faced the oncoming insects. Yes, at least his family would be free.


Orli Covitz

At Osquivel, many storage domes, laboratory complexes, and admin centers were scarred and blasted from the recent EDF depredations. Busy Roamer workers flew about in construction pods rebuilding domes, sealing habitats, and linking damaged structures together.

On her way through the shipyard complexes to the new lab chamber Kotto Okiah had set up, Orli stumbled upon the Governess compy UR, whom she remembered from Llaro. UR had been courageous in defending the Llaro children from Klikiss attacks, losing her left arm to a vicious insect scout. Once the Llaro refugees had returned to Osquivel, Roamer engineers had not taken long to find a donor arm from a previously decommissioned compy. The colors of the polymer skin did not match — the new arm was blue and orange, in contrast to the more sedate indigo and gray of the Governess compy’s body — but UR seemed quite pleased with it.

The compy was surrounded by students ranging in age from five to nine. On the coated stone floor, she had spread a colorful mat divided into squares overprinted with a lush yet confusing pattern of writhing snakes — vipers, cobras, pythons — meshed with a spray of arrows that flew in various directions. The snakes and arrows connected squares on the game board. While UR gave calm advice on strategy, the children threw dice and moved their pieces.

“What are you doing?” Orli asked.

“I am teaching the children,” UR said.

“Looks like you’re playing a game.”

“I am teaching the children to play the game. It is an ancient Hindu game called Leela, or Snakes and Arrows, thousands of years old. The grid has seventy-two squares, each named for a state of being. When the player rolls, the die is guided by his or her karma. If the die takes you to a square with an arrow, you ascend to a higher plane. If you fall on a square with a serpent, you slide down.”

One boy shouted as he landed on a particularly good square.

“So. it has nothing to do with the Klikiss? Or the EDF?”

“Snakes and Arrows deals with all aspects of life in a metaphorical sense,” UR said. “Would you like to play, Orli Covitz?”

“Not right now.” The idea of the battered compy speaking of karma, states of being, and planes of existence was too unsettling for her. “I’m helping Kotto Okiah and Mr. Steinman. We’re working on ways to defend the Confederation against. well, against everything.”

In his new laboratory, Kotto activated one documentation screen after another. Mr. Steinman lifted a flat metal case of tools and slid it onto a chest-high shelf that was bracketed to the wall. “Sure, but who’s the real enemy? The EDF attacked Golgen and Osquivel. The faeros attacked Theroc. The Klikiss attacked Llaro. The Klikiss robots are still out there. Which one do we concentrate on?”

Kotto stared at a data projection, then blanked it. “Do I have to pick one in particular?”

Following him, Steinman activated the same screen and jotted down a file name. KR and GU circulated, cleaning, organizing, arranging the new lab; Orli had noticed that the clutter created by the two men kept the compies quite busy. DD was also there, eager to make himself useful.

Orli spoke up. “I pick the Klikiss. After Llaro — and Relleker — we need to stop the subhives from expanding.”

Kotto scratched his curly hair. “It would be easier to do that if I had a specimen to study. I don’t know enough about them.”

Orli pulled up a chair and folded her legs beneath her in a comfortable position. “Well, Mr. Steinman and I have some firsthand experience.”

“As do I,” DD said. “We have considerable data to share.”

Kotto brightened. “Then maybe I won’t be working in the dark, after all. Give me a starting point.”

Orli thought for a minute. “The Klikiss have songs and music. They communicate with intricate melodies as well as pheromones. When I played my synthesizer strips and bombarded the bugs with my songs, it seemed to shut down the thoughts of the hive mind.” She didn’t think the specific tune mattered, only that the music had to be different from anything they had heard before.

Kotto was already deep in thought. “I could develop a kind of random melody generator. Maybe if we played it at sufficient volume in the right place, we could paralyze the creatures.”

“There, we have a new project to sink our teeth into.” Steinman rubbed his hands together. “And the Klikiss annoy me even more than General Lanyan does.”


Deputy Chairman Eldred Cain

An unannounced ship arrived at Earth, causing a flurry of alarms and consternation. A Roamer ship.

Deputy Cain studied the traces projected on the Chairman’s deskscreen. “No ID beacon, no explanation, just a small flyer with a passenger capacity of five. It’s not a cargo ship or a military vessel.”

“The ship can’t possibly be a threat, but I want to know what the hell he thinks he’s doing here.”

Finally a transmission came from the Roamer craft. In an uninflected voice, the pilot said, “We are on a peaceful mission that concerns a matter of mutual survival.”

The Chairman looked at Cain as if he should instantly have an answer. “They could be Roamer deserters,” Cain suggested. “If so, they could provide valuable information about the Confederation. Valuable enough for us to talk to them at least.”

“Nevertheless, we should prepare to shoot it down, just in case.” The Chairman took charge of the communication console himself. “Roamer ship, I am sending you coordinates for landing. We will have Remoras prepared to destroy you if you take any threatening action.”

“We are not a threat,” said the calm, androgynous voice.

“I’ll be the judge of that.”

Chairman Wenceslas ordered the entire Whisper Palace landing square cleared and then surrounded. Captain McCammon hurriedly marched out with a large group of royal guards.

The small ship came down without deviating a centimeter from the imposed path. The vessel’s design had a weird grace and functionality, unlike anything Cain had ever seen; the Chairman merely commented how ugly it was.

At a signal from McCammon, the guards stood ready. The ship locked down its landing pads; the rectangular hatch disengaged and slid open.

Instead of a man in a gaudy Roamer jumpsuit, as Cain expected, a chrome-and-green compy stepped out. “We mean no harm.”

A second compy appeared behind the first, similar in size and design but with a bronze and copper body. “I am PD, and this is QT. We are compy representatives.”

Everyone kept their distance. The compies stood at the bottom of the ramp and waited to be acknowledged. Finally Cain called, “Who else is aboard your ship? Who’s the pilot?”

“We both have pilot programming,” said QT. “There are no humans aboard our ship.”

Standing back with a scowl on his face, Chairman Wenceslas gestured for the guards to advance. “Conduct a full search. Check for weapons, listening devices, tracking beacons. They’ve got to have something up their sleeves.”

“We have no sleeves,” said PD. The Chairman ignored him.

“Where did you get a Roamer ship?” Cain asked, taking a step closer.

“From a fuel depot called Barrymore’s Rock,” QT said.

PD added, “Once the depot was destroyed, the former Roamer inhabitants no longer needed their ships. We thought they might be useful.” Neither compy explained further.

A squad of technicians crowded into the small Roamer vessel with scanners, but they found nothing. “It’s just a stripped-down ship, sir. The life support doesn’t even seem to be functioning.”

“We do not require life support,” said QT. Guards surrounded the pair of compies, who looked ludicrously harmless.

Studying the two small robots, the ship, the whole tableau, Cain was convinced that they were worried about the wrong thing. “I don’t believe the danger is aboard that ship. It’s in what these compies have to say.”

The Chairman slowly nodded. “I believe you’re right, Mr. Cain.”

Cain turned to the compies. “Why are you here?”

“We have a message and a proposal for Chairman Basil Wenceslas of the Terran Hanseatic League,” said QT.

The Chairman looked down at them. “Who sent you?”

“We were once the personal compies of Admiral Wu-Lin of the Grid 3 battle group,” said PD. “Now we serve the Klikiss robots.”

Though Cain remained silent, many other listeners responded with cries of outrage. Even the Chairman’s face reddened. He worked his jaw. “And why would the treacherous robots ask you to come here to speak to me?”

The two compies answered in perfectly synchronized unison. “Our master Sirix wishes to discuss forming an alliance against our mutual enemy, the Klikiss.”

“Why the hell should we believe you?” McCammon growled. “Those black robots turned our Soldier compies against us, massacred the EDF, destroyed the bulk of our space fleet.”

QT said, “The return of the Klikiss race forced Sirix to take actions that he now regrets. We acted out of desperation, only to protect ourselves.”

Cain frowned. The explanation seemed too convenient. Sirix couldn’t have known about the return of the original Klikiss until well after the black robots had seized the EDF ships. “Remember, we’re still waiting for word from Admiral Diente about his negotiation mission. By now, we may already have an alliance with the Klikiss.”

To his surprise and dismay, Cain saw a look of deep concentration on Basil’s face. “That doesn’t mean we can’t open a dialog with the black robots, does it? We should keep our options open.”

Captain McCammon looked at him as if he had gone insane, but the Chairman cut off any comments with a hand raised like a hatchet blade poised to strike. He turned to the compies. “This is a most unusual and unexpected offer, and you must accept my healthy skepticism.” Wheels were obviously turning in his mind. “But alliances have changed many times in Earth’s past, and I won’t turn down an opportunity until I learn more about it.” He crossed his arms over his chest. “Explain yourselves further.”


Patrick Fitzpatrick III

As theGypsy flew off bearing a message from King Peter, Patrick could hardly believe he was actually going back to visit his grandmother. Voluntarily. He remarked on the impossible turns his life had taken.

“Some people just start out going in the wrong direction,” Zhett teased. “You were so spun around you didn’t even know youhad a Guiding Star, much less where to look for it.”

“That’s not how my grandmother will see it.” His lackluster parents were living in obscurity away from Earth, but since the Battleaxe had believed in him and wooed them to let her take him under her wing, Patrick had been raised in the upper crust of Earth society. Frankly, he had grown up to be a spoiled and ungrateful little snot. If the Battleaxe had ever suspected he would one day run off to join the Roamers, she might have drowned him at birth.

And now he had to convince her to leave the Hansa and endorse the Confederation government. Patrick prayed she would at least give him two minutes to explain himself. After all, the King had chosen Patrick to be one of the most important ambassadors in the Spiral Arm.

“My grandmother is a smart and sensible woman,” he had told King Peter when he responded to the original request. “She can’t be blind to what Chairman Wenceslas is doing, but she won’t take drastic action for purely altruistic reasons. However, she may jump at the chance to be important again. She hates being retired.”

“Use your discretion, Mr. Fitzpatrick. Promise her anything you think is reasonable in order to secure her cooperation. She can pave the way for Earth to join the Confederation.”

“I’ll flatter her, call on her patriotism. but she’ll make up her own mind,” Patrick said.

Once they had packed, refueled, and said their farewells to Del Kellum and the skyminers on Golgen, Zhett piloted theGypsy. Although the space yacht’s systems were state-of-the-art, she still complained about the inefficient and non-intuitive setup. “We should have taken a Roamer ship.”

“But this yacht was owned by the former Hansa Chairman. It’s got access codes and pass routines that’ll let us slip through Earth security without raising any alarms. Nothing trumps that.” He frowned to himself. “Besides, Idid promise to bring this ship back after I. borrowed it.”

He sounded more confident than he felt, and he knew that Zhett could see through him. “I bet your grandmother’s not as big a monster as you make her out to be, Fitzie.”

He gave her a wry smile. “You two should get along just fine. You have a lot in common.”

She punched him lightly on the arm. “Don’t pretend for a minute you meant that as a compliment.”

Upon reaching Earth, he transmitted the stored authorization identifiers from Maureen’s private log. As they approached what he had once called home, Patrick took over the controls and flew theGypsy over the Rocky Mountains, zeroing in on the former Chairman’s private mansion. He landed on an empty pad outside the house, hoping his grandmother wasn’t in the middle of some diplomatic reception or cocktail party with wealthy industrialists.

Jonas, Maureen’s longtime personal assistant, acknowledged their arrival on the comm, his voice a barely restrained squawk. As Patrick and Zhett emerged from the ship, smiling hopefully, the old woman marched out onto the deck alone. Patrick studied her expression and let the silence hang for just a moment, surprised that she hadn’t taken charge of the conversation already.

Before either he or the old Battleaxe could say anything, Zhett broke the ice by extending her hand. “You must be Maureen Fitzpatrick. Very pleased to meet you. Patrick has told me so much about his grandmother.”

Maureen turned to her with the gaze of a hunting falcon. “Charmed, I’m sure — but who the hell are you?” She swung back to him. “I don’t like surprises like this, Patrick.”

“Yes, you do. This is my wife, Zhett Kellum. She’s the daughter of one of the wealthiest and most influential Roamer families.”

“Did you sayRoamer?” She blinked.

“I said ‘one of the wealthiest and most influential.’ I assumed that would be good enough for you.”

Maureen was having trouble catching up with the conversation. “Did you saywife?”

Zhett broke in wickedly. “I understand how you feel. My father wasn’t exactly pleased that I married the grandson of a former Hansa Chairman, but we all have to make concessions in these difficult times.”

Maureen was stunned into silence by the audacious comment. Transferring her annoyance until she could process the information, she frowned at the new name painted on the space yacht’s hull. “You’ve got a lot of nerve stealing my ship, deserting the Earth Defense Forces, then flying back here as if nothing’s happened. Where the hell have you been?” She gestured briskly to the door. “You’d both better come inside before any EDF spies spot you. I wouldn’t be surprised if they shot you on sight. With your damn fool messages and accusations, you’ve caused a world of trouble here. Freedom’s Sword is having a field day.”

“What’s Freedom’s Sword?” Patrick and Zhett both said at the same time.

“Some new dissident group — taking a page out of your book. They’ve been distributing your confession about Raven Kamarov and doing a lot more rabble-rousing of their own. It’s embarrassing.” She flashed a small smile. “The Archfather is ranting against the protesters, but I get the impression he’s secretly pleased. That puffed-up boy, King Rory, stood in front of a cheering crowd and said ‘Any insult to the Hansa Chairman is an insult to my Royal Person!’ Bunch of bull crap.”

“Somebody’s finally listening.” Patrick found himself smiling. “Are there actual protests in the streets?”

“And are they accomplishing anything?” Zhett added.

“Nothing substantive — yet. You’ve become quite a little folk hero around here, Patrick. My grandson, a world-class thorn in the side.”

“He can be a pain in the butt, too,” Zhett said, “but he’s brave, and I love him. He faced a Roamer court and admitted his own part in starting the conflict between the clans and the Hansa.” Her voice noticeably cooled. “Did you know the EDF is raiding Roamer skymines, attacking industrial facilities, murdering civilians? Your government has a lot to answer for, Madame Chairman.”

The old woman pointed a large-knuckled finger at Zhett, and her tenor changed. “You be careful which words you use, young lady. Don’t go calling thatmy government. When I was Chairman, I never allowed any of this nonsense.”

“Ah, yes. The golden, peaceful times,” Zhett drawled, her words rich with sarcasm. “Roamers still sing songs about those glory days of Hansa open-mindedness and understanding — ”

Patrick interrupted them. “See? I knew you two would get along.”

Maureen finally allowed herself a laugh. “Well, Patrick, I’m glad you found a woman who can stand up for herself. You learned that much from me, at least.”


Chairman Basil Wenceslas

Now that he was familiar with Sirix’s treachery, Basil was sure he could outscheme the black robots. Deputy Cain urged him to wait until he heard back from Diente’s embassy to the Klikiss on Pym, but he saw no need to delay. In the worst-case situation, the EDF could turn the black robots over to the Klikiss, or perhaps destroy them all to demonstrate humanity’s good intentions. But first he wanted to hear what Sirix had to say. No harm inprivate exploratory talks.

“The two compies have already transmitted my instructions. Sirix will land in the Palace District at night in an unmarked EDF shuttle — one of the shuttles he stole. As far as anyone else is concerned, it’ll be logged as a routine military transport.”

“Might I suggest instead that we meet at the lunar EDF base, or some other neutral territory?” Cain said.

“No. It will be on my home ground. I want full control of every detail.”

Out of courtesy, and because for some indefinable reason he wanted her there, Basil invited Sarein to join them. She told him quite plainly she thought he was making a deal with the devil. That amused him. Her constant criticism and second-guessing, though, were growing tiresome.

In preparation, he gave explicit instructions to Captain McCammon. He wanted ten guards standing in full view, and fifty more hidden as sharpshooters, each carrying a high-powered jazer rifle. Altogether, it would be enough firepower to turn Sirix into a pile of obsidian slag if he made the slightest wrong move.

“This doesn’t feel right, Mr. Chairman,” Cain said as they all stepped out under a star-strewn night sky.

Basil gazed upward, expecting to see the tiny dot of the landing shuttle any minute now. Even after full dark, the Palace District was dazzling. The blinking lights of air traffic crisscrossed the sky. “Don’t be pessimistic.”

“I prefer the term pragmatic, since my concerns are backed by hard data.”

“Everything will turn out for the best, you will see,” PD said brightly. “Sirix will follow your instructions exactly.”

Basil had allowed the two compies to attend. He supposed he could use them as hostages, threaten to destroy them if Sirix got out of hand, though he doubted the black robots had any compassion for such things.

Next to him, QT added, “We will assist your negotiations.”

The Earth Defense Forces were on high alert in close orbit, warily watching the robot-commandeered battleships that had approached under a flag of truce. Since General Lanyan was not due to return from his raiding mission for several more days, Basil had assigned Admirals Pike and San Luis, his only two remaining grid admirals, to set up a defensive line.

When the ragtag group had arrived in orbit, Basil was shocked to receive Admiral Pike’s report on how few EDF vessels the robots still possessed. Sirix and his comrades had stolen the bulk of the Earth’s fleet, and they had squandered most of the ships. Basil was anxious to learn what dire mistakes had forced the robots to come crawling here for help.

Each of the compies extended a polymer hand to the sky, pointing. “That one is Sirix’s ship.” A bright light like a shooting star descended directly to the small private spaceport that Basil had designated for this meeting.

McCammon and his guards shifted their weapons warily. Cain and Sarein moved closer to the Chairman. Basil began to have second thoughts about having so many additional witnesses. What sort of preposterous proposal was Sirix going to make? And what sort of leverage did he have?

“Captain McCammon, tell your men to be alert, but do not open fire except at my express command. Anyone who takes a preemptive shot will face summary execution.”

After an uncomfortable pause, McCammon nodded. “Understood, Mr. Chairman.”

Basil’s face remained stony as the EDF shuttle landed, though he felt deep outrage to see an Earth ship piloted by the black metal abomination. PD and QT stepped forward, but Basil sternly waved them back.

The hulking robot clambered out, barely able to push himself through a hatch designed for human beings. In a buzzing voice, Sirix said, “Chairman Wenceslas of the Terran Hanseatic League, thank you for agreeing to see me. I am alone and unarmed. As you requested.”

“And what business brings you here?”

“I seek your help and offer our assistance in return. I wish to make a bargain with you.”

Basil remained detached and implacable. “We made a bargain with you once before. It did not work out to our advantage.”

“Circumstances have changed significantly,” Sirix said. “The original Klikiss have returned, and they are far more vicious than any other enemy you have faced. We black robots have stood up against them before, but now our numbers are depleted.”

“Don’t expect my sympathy for your difficulties,” Basil said.

“Those difficulties are yours as well. The Klikiss mean to destroy us all. Together we can fight them. Helping us conquer the remnants of our creator race is to your advantage.”

Basil considered. “I’m willing to entertain the possibility that we can find a mutually acceptable arrangement regarding our common enemy, but only under the strictest precautions.”

“I would rather be allies than enemies,” Sirix said. “You can help replenish our numbers. Your manufacturing facilities can create more black robots, which will be dedicated to the war against the Klikiss.”

Basil ignored the gasps and grumbles behind him. “Your robots caused immeasurable harm to the Hansa. Why in the world would I want to create more of them? We have already learned not to trust you.”

Sirix paused as if to consider, but Basil didn’t doubt that he had already calculated every word of his response. “We will release the EDF vessels that we have taken. I am certain your Earth military could use them. All we ask in return is that you help us replace the black robots that we have lost in recent massacres. If we continue fighting the Klikiss, you would benefit as well.”

Basil let out a dry laugh. “You have the audacity to offer us a handful of ships —our ships in the first place. They’re probably damaged, their weapons depleted. That is hardly sufficent payment. And if we help to create more of your kind, what is to stop you from turning them against us?”

“We have no standing grudge against humans,” Sirix insisted. “We knew the Klikiss would hunt us down and exterminate us, and therefore we needed ships to defend ourselves. We were merely fighting for our survival. We had no alternative but to take them from your EDF.”

“You could have asked,” Cain suggested. “Made an alliance with us in the first place.”

Sirix swiveled his flat head. “Would you have simply surrendered the bulk of your space fleet? That is not likely. We were pushed to extremes. We face total annihilation if we do not defeat the Klikiss.”

“I wouldn’t lose sleep about that,” Sarein muttered.

“And once the Klikiss annihilate us, they will annihilate you.”

Cain’s brow furrowed. “If you return our ships, what will the robots use for transport? You’ll need vessels of your own.”

“We are resourceful. We can cobble together stripped-down vessels to take us to safe star systems. We will be no bother to you.”

Basil folded his hands together, annoyed that the others were talking so much. “Before I can even consider the possibility, I’ll need more than the surrender of our own ships. They’re too few to make a difference. I must have a significant fleet back, strong and ready to defend Earth.”

Sarein and Cain gawked at him, unable to believe that he would genuinely negotiate with Sirix, but Basil ignored them.

“Many more EDF ships were damaged in battle here. Right now, hundreds of wrecks remain in orbit. Since your robots function perfectly well in space, I want you to rebuild those damaged ships. Give me my fleet back, and — provided you perform satisfactory work — I will direct some of our compy facilities to build your robots, but only under the most stringent supervision. We’ll exchange a certain number of robots for a certain number of recommissioned ships.” He shrugged, an imitation of benevolence. “You can even use some of the useless components in orbit to build your own vessels. if only to let your robots leave here as swiftly as possible.”

Cain could restrain himself no longer. “Mr. Chairman, you know what Freedom’s Sword will say when they hear of this. There’ll be rioting in the streets!”

Basil scowled; the very existence of the dissident group was like a personal affront to him. “There are always whiners and naysayers. I need to do what is best for the Hansa. And this may be an opportunity we can’t afford to pass up.”

Though the black robot showed no emotions, Basil felt that even Sirix was surprised by the easy agreement. Basil offered him his most trustworthy smile.


Rlinda Kett

It had been a long trip, with too many stops. Though she enjoyed sneaking through the Hansa’s supposed “security” measures and dealing with black-market merchants, both on Earth and their few holdout colony worlds, Rlinda was glad to get back to the Confederation, to the Osquivel shipyards. and to BeBob.

When she landed theCuriosity, BeBob was there with a huge grin on his face. He greeted Rlinda with enough enthusiasm to satisfy even her. “I’ve been waiting for you! I got my ship back, good as new, and I’ve already put her through her paces. We can fly out together again, theBlind Faith and theVoracious Curiosity, just like old times.”

“Not exactly like old times, BeBob.” She kept her arms locked around him, refusing to release him from the hug. She had already gleaned reports of General Lanyan’s clumsy attack on the shipyards here, as well as BeBob’s encounter with the Klikiss at Relleker. “Not until the Chairman gets his head out of his ass and lets us get back to business as usual.”

He looked deeply serious. “So is it bad on Earth?”

“Not so much bad as annoying. I met with Sarein, and even she’s fed up, but I’m pretty sure she’s too scared to do anything about it. She thinks she has a chance to keep the Chairman on the straight and narrow. I actually feel sorry for the poor girl.”

BeBob snorted. “She chose the Chairman as her playmate. Now she has to live with him.”

“Excuse me, Mr. Holier-Than-Thou Roberts? I chose a few bad partners in my life, too. Didn’t mean I couldn’t get over it.”

BeBob was unable to cover his smile. “And sometimes you find yourself back with somebody who was a good idea in the first place. You can be taught.”

“I’m still reserving judgment, so make sure you keep behaving yourself. Now, then, would you prefer a squabble, or are you going to offer me a shower and a bed, preferably large enough to fit the two of us?”

“You mean the shower or the bed?”


Later, they went together to the mess hall. Rlinda sniffed the air. “I want to make sure these shipyard chefs still remember how to cook.”

“It always tasted good enough to me,” BeBob said.

“Cardboard tastes good enough to you. That’s why you need me around.”

While BeBob accepted his plate of noodles and protein cubes mixed with the sauce of the day, Rlinda leaned her elbows on the serving counter and consulted the chefs about the spices they used, how they stretched their ingredients, what they could produce directly from hydroponics labs and what had to be imported.

“Well, it just so happens that while I investigated trade opportunities on Earth, I stocked my cargo hold with certain items, such as fresh chili peppers, ginger root, long curls of cinnamon bark, and saffron — I have akilo of saffron that cost almost as much as a tankful of ekti. Ever had saffron?” The server shook her head, overwhelmed by Rlinda’s enthusiasm. “I’d be willing to part with some of my stash, so long as I’m here to make sure everything is prepared properly. Your cafeteria food will never taste the same.”

Rlinda followed BeBob to a table and took a seat across from Tasia Tamblyn and Robb Brindle. Instead of EDF uniforms, the pair now wore Roamer jumpsuits on which they had embroidered the new logo of the Confederation. While she wasn’t close with Brindle or Tamblyn, Rlinda had met them back on Theroc while consulting with King Peter on setting up the new government.

Rlinda inhaled deeply of her plate of food, took several bites, and pronounced the meal “adequate.” Tamblyn, as usual (according to BeBob), needed little incentive to get on her soapbox about the threat of the Klikiss. She and Brindle seemed to have personal axes to grind. “So, then, I take it you’ve both had some personal experience with the bugs?” Rlinda asked.

“Shizz, you could say that,” Tamblyn said. “Too damned much experience.”

“As hosts, they’re about as pleasant as the hydrogues were,” Brindle added. They described their struggles on Llaro and how only a few of them had gotten away. “Davlin Lotze and Margaret Colicos bought us time to escape.”

Rlinda looked quickly at BeBob. “Did you say Davlin?” The last they had seen of the “specialist in obscure details,” he’d been aboard BeBob’s originalBlind Faith when the EDF destroyed it. “I knew it was a trick! He got away. He’s still alive.”

“He was alive when we left him on Llaro,” Tamblyn said, her expression glum. “But he didn’t have a chance against the bugs. He went into the main hive to slow them down so the rest of us could get away.”

“He’s dead,” Robb added, swallowing hard.

BeBob shook his head sadly. “Poor Davlin.”

Rlinda found herself growing both angry and stubborn. “Right. I’ve heard that one before. We saw theBlind Faith destroyed before our very eyes, and he managed to survive.” Rlinda leaned across the table, scowling at Tamblyn and Brindle. “I can’t believe you just left him there! What were you thinking?”

Tamblyn didn’t flinch. “Davlin did it to buy our freedom, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to let him waste the sacrifice.”

“Thanks to him, we saved almost a hundred other people,” Brindle added.

Rlinda sat back, crossed her heavy arms over her breasts, and clung to her optimism. “Some people have a knack for getting out of desperate situations. After all I’ve been through with that man, I know not to underestimate Davlin Lotze.”


Caleb Tamblyn

Caleb had never much liked people, but this maddening solitude was getting on his nerves. Lost on a barren planetoid, he felt like Robinson Crusoe. From what he remembered of that old tale, Crusoe had been ingenious at using scant materials to make a functional home for himself.

Caleb figured he could achieve a lot more than that. After all, he was a Roamer.

Having scavenged the few marginally useful items at the melted ruins of the hydrogen-extraction facility, he used them to reinforce his modest habitat. After that, he resigned himself to utilizing the slim pickings in his escape pod. The only other technological items on Jonah 12 were orbiting ekti reactors, automated cargo-transfer satellites, and communications boosters, but they circled high above the frozen planetoid.

Eventually, with all the time in the world to think, Caleb convinced himself that those items might not be out of reach after all.

Though the pod’s transmitter wouldn’t reach beyond the Jonah system, he could use it to send coded commands to the mothballed equipment in orbit. It might take a while to decipher the protocols and Roamer programming, but it wasn’t as if Caleb had anything else to do. Tinkering with the emergency transmitter, he scanned through hundreds of possible frequencies and tried different electronic handshake routines as he attempted to wake up at least one of the satellites. Though he was wasting battery power, he considered the gamble worthwhile, given the potential payoff.

Finally, his constant pleading ping was answered when a production satellite recognized the signal. Caleb lurched over to the slanted control panel and keyed in the secondary protocol, which locked the two signals together. “Gotcha!”

The production satellite dutifully transmitted its schematics so that Caleb could see what he had latched onto. It was little more than a box with attitude-control thrusters, a storage unit holding supplies for passing cargo ships so they would not need to drop into Jonah 12’s shallow gravity well.

Now, if he could remember his basic celestial mechanics.

Since Jonah 12 had no atmosphere to speak of, he couldn’t use drag to slow down the satellite; that meant he would have to bring it down under its own power. At least he had a good estimate of the planetoid’s gravity, and that was the main thing he needed.

Under his command, the satellite’s rockets fired, decreasing its orbital velocity and forcing it to spiral down. It was easy to make the satellite crash; the tricky part was making it crashnearby. Even bounding along in the low gravity, he wouldn’t be able to cover much distance in an environment suit.

Four more orbits, and the satellite had spiraled down until it raced only a thousand feet above the surface. Caleb suited up, carefully checking his seals, locking his helmet down, closing the faceplate, and pressurizing his suit. One more orbit, he guessed, and the satellite was going to come down.

He stood outside, watching for the tiny glimmer to pass overhead as he stared up at the stars. They all looked like lonely, cold eyes.

The satellite came over the foreshortened horizon and roared past him, so close and so fast that he jumped — accidentally propelling himself ten meters off the ground. At the apex of his leap, he watched the production satellite keep going on its final plunge until it scraped along a line of frozen hills no more than a kilometer away. A starburst pattern of fresh ice and steam marked the bull’s-eye where the satellite had come in for a hard landing.

Caleb bounded across the ice, each leap seemingly carrying him halfway to the small planetoid’s horizon. When he reached the crash point, he saw that the satellite’s metal walls had buckled, but at least the contents weren’t strewn across the cratered terrain. With clumsy gloved hands he pried apart the broken pieces of metal, eager to see what equipment and supplies were inside. Again, he felt like Robinson Crusoe finding a cargo crate washed up on his shores.

The Roamer engineers had thought of everything: spare energy packs, generalized components that could be assembled into any number of useful gadgets, a standard emergency kit with basic medicines, even concentrated rations (though Caleb couldn’t imagine why anyone would really need such a thing out in orbit).

As he looked at the remnants of the large satellite, Caleb thought he might be able to cannibalize some of the structure itself, put a nice addition on his cramped escape pod. If he was going to be stranded here for the rest of his life — however long that might be — he could at least be comfortable.

Knowing he would have to make several trips, Caleb gathered the most vital objects, made one of the flat solar-panel wings into a sled, then happily began his jaunt back to the pod. He climbed up over the low, frozen hills, raced down into the valleys, and skipped around wide, black fissures.

As he approached his small camp, Caleb was startled to see a glow permeating the ice, shimmering as if from an inner fire. The eerie luminescence spread out to the width of a broad lake near his landed escape pod.

He stopped in his tracks, feeling a chill go down his spine. Still moving under its own momentum, the loaded solar-panel sled bumped into his heels, startling him. Something very strange was going on here.

But he couldn’t stay outside to wait and watch; his suit’s battery pack and air tank were already down to twenty-five percent. Gathering his courage, Caleb headed toward the strange glow that surrounded his pod.


Anton Colicos

While the Mage-Imperator remained a “special guest” in the Whisper Palace until Chairman Wenceslas figured out what to do with him, Anton was under orders to take Rememberer Vao’sh to the university. He had no idea what sort of interrogation or debriefing the other professors would inflict upon him, but he supposed Vao’sh could hold his own.

Anton had spent most of his scholarly career here, and this should have been a happy return for him. but it didn’t feel that way. “I’ve wanted to show you this place for a long time, Vao’sh. I’m afraid the Hansa’s actions have dampened my enthusiasm for all the things I used to be proud of.”

The old rememberer, though, was surprisingly accepting of the circumstances. “Even in troubled times, a rememberer should always observe and absorb. I intend to learn as much about your human culture as your experts intend to learn from me.”

Anton looked closely at his friend, trying to read his moods from the colors of his expressive lobes. “How are you holding up so far away from the rest of your people?”

“I can bear it, for now. The Mage-Imperator is close, and I know where the rest of my people are. I do not feel entirely alone.” With forced good cheer, the rememberer took Anton’s arm as they walked together onto the campus grounds. “After my previous ordeal with the isolation madness, perhaps I have a greater tolerance than other Ildirans.”

The expansive parklike campus was crowded with earnest young students who were not yet scarred by the cynicism of real life. As a researcher here, Anton had been oblivious to the treacheries and convolutions of faculty politics, which were a far cry from mythic story arcs and great epic cycles. His goals had seemed lofty to him at the time: striving for tenure, submitting a unique interpretation or a new translation, engaging rival professors in vehement but irrelevant academic debates. Since then, he had experienced so much more — from the Ildiran Empire, to treacherous black robots, the hydrogues, the worldforest. and now, betrayal by his own government. Yes, university politics seemed laughably insignificant by comparison.

As the two walked across the campus, Anton tried to ignore the veritable army of security guards that accompanied them at a not-terribly-discreet distance. He stopped by a mirrored fountain whose design had been copied from a counterpart in Mijistra. “This section of the campus is the Department of Ildiran Studies. This is where we’ll be spending most of our time.”

Before Anton’s departure years ago, the dean had promised that as long as he was on his remarkable mission to Ildira, Anton would be considered a great asset to the department, a feather in the university’s cap. Now, when he led Vao’sh into the old college administration building, he didn’t realize what a stir he would cause. Hansa guards rushed ahead to sweep the building, to inform the administrators and their staff. Anton was embarrassed by all the attention.

The dean bustled out to greet them, speaking with a German accent. “I am so pleased you have finally returned to us, Dr. Colicos.” He held out a big hand. “And Rememberer Vao’sh, we have heard much about you.” The dean, an older man whose thick red hair was obviously dyed, had somewhat heavyset cheeks and lips too large for his face. He was said to have an acid wit, especially at cocktail parties after a glass or two of wine, though Anton had never been invited to such a prestigious department function.

Looking askance at the Hansa guards who stood by the doorway, the dean shook Anton’s hand, then did the same to Vao’sh. “We were absolutely delighted to receive your first translations of theSaga, Dr. Colicos. They were delivered here — smuggled, actually. We’re greatly indebted to the trader captain, whoever she was.”

“I could tell you her name, but I’m afraid the Hansa might punish her.”

“Pffft! They are perfectly happy with our Ildiran studies. In fact, I’ve assigned four full professors to study your translations. You have given us fodder for years of work.”

“That epic took my people millennia to compose,” Vao’sh pointed out.

“Of course. Of course,” the dean said, grinning. “These translations are worth more than a hundred dissertations. Come, we’ve restored your office exactly as you remember it.”

Restored it? So the dean had reassigned his office in the meantime, but must have scrambled to put everything back in order as soon as the Chairman’s instructions had come down.

“We found your notes for the biography of your parents. Fascinating people.” The dean stumped down the hall on short legs. “I glanced at a few of your drafts. I hope you don’t mind.” Actually, Anton did mind, but he decided not to make an issue of it. “For the time being, however, your Ildiran work must take priority.”

Hansa guards waited at the far end of the hallway, still cautious, still watching. The dean looked uncomfortable. “And I understand Rememberer Vao’sh will be helping us with a research project for the Chairman?”

Let our scholars debrief him thoroughly, Basil Wenceslas had said. Anton wasn’t surprised at how the dean had interpreted it.

“I am willing to tell parts of theSaga,” Vao’sh said. “That is my purpose as a rememberer.”

“So, you will deliver guest lectures? We can host an entire series of talks, as many as the rememberer chooses to give. Would they be private affairs, or open to the entire student body?”

Anton tried to hide his surprise. “Oh, we’d like to make them as public as possible.”


Hyrillka Designate Ridek’h

He found Tal O’nh sitting outside the caves again, staring with impunity into the multiple suns. After returning from the obliterated camp of Hyrillka refugees — the peoplehe was supposed to protect — the young man no longer felt like a mere substitute for his father, whom Rusa’h had killed. Now he finally, wholeheartedly thought of himself as the true Hyrillka Designate.

Ridek’h joined his mentor. “I should not be hiding here in these caves.”

“No, you should not. None of us should. but do we flee? Do we provoke the faeros? Do we engage in a direct battle — and all die? We will get no guidance from the Mage-Imperator, as long as he remains imprisoned by the humans, and we have no way of rescuing him. And what can we do ourselves?”

“Indeed,” Ridek’h said. “What can we do ourselves?” He voiced it as a challenge rather than an admission of failure.

After the Mage-Imperator had been returned to thethism web, his presence had shone like a reignited blazer. Across the Empire all of the panicked and dismayed Ildirans would have felt at least a glimmer of reassurance. In response, Tal Ala’nh, who commanded one of the remaining cohorts of free Solar Navy ships, had gathered his dispersed warliners and charged back to Ildira. Seven complete maniples, 343 battleships, all ready to throw themselves at the fireballs.

Adar Zan’nh had stopped them, refusing to let so many warliners be destroyed in a pointless sacrifice. And so a frustrated Tal Ala’nh waited at a distance, in nominal command of the gathering off-planet military force, with orders to remain intact, ready, and unobtrusive.

After what he had seen in the burned refugee camp, Ridek’h’s attention was focused on the remaining Hyrillkans on Ildira. More than a million of the people evacuated from his world were still scattered across the Ildiran landscape. The faeros could exterminate them at any time they chose, whenever the mad Designate let them. Ridek’h could barely contain himself, quivering with the need to act.

“I should challenge him.I am the rightful Hyrillka Designate. I have faced Rusa’h before, and he didn’t kill me.”

“Some would call that a miracle,” O’nh said, his scarred face troubled by memories of that awful encounter. “What would it accomplish to tempt fate again?”

“I will sacrifice myself if I must.”

“I would prefer you did not, young man. I can see no way it would be helpful.”

Ridek’h tried to make his decision sound less impulsive than it was. “In the command nucleus of your warliner, Rusa’h said we would face each other again. I want to do it now, on my own terms. I will make the long journey back to Mijistra alone, enter the Prism Palace, and confront him. If Rusa’h was going to kill me, he would have done it already.”

“And what can you say to him?”

“I will make him realize what he is doing to his own people! If he is still Rusa’h, at least in part, then he must see the horror of what he has let loose. Who is truly in control — him, or the faeros? Maybe an Ildiran heart still beats within him.”

O’nh let out a sigh, though he clearly longed to do something himself. “You are being foolish. I forbid it.”

The young man raised his voice. “I am the Designate. You follow my commands, not the other way around. Need I remind you of your own teachings? Followers follow, but leaders must lead. I have the blood of the Mage-Imperator in me. You told me that if I could think of something that might save us, then I am morally obligated todo it.”

The veteran allowed a small smile to cross his face. “So, you were listening to me after all.”

“Yes, to every word. There I will stand, Hyrillka Designate to Hyrillka Designate. This is a time for desperate acts. The Mage-Imperator is no longer with us, and so we must make these decisions for ourselves.” He found himself breathing heavily.

Tal O’nh remained seated, still staring at the suns. “Desperate acts. Perhaps we should all consider them. I see no other way to save the Empire.”


Mage-Imperator Jora’h

Now that the Chairman had become busy with his new cooperative scheme with the black robots, his interest in the Mage-Imperator waned. Young King Rory and the Archfather of Unison had announced the retooling of existing groundside compy factories while the black robots diligently repaired and reassembled EDF vessels in orbit.

Though Jora’h was no expert in the nuances of human emotions, even he could see that the Archfather looked nauseated by the words he was forced to speak. The bearded Unison spokesman seemed offended by the very idea of suggesting, on religious grounds, that the black robots were tantamount to saviors.

If only the Archfather had been so obviously offended by the idea of kidnapping the leader of the Ildiran Empire.

Frustrated, and dismissive, now that the Mage-Imperator had failed to yield, the Hansa Chairman abruptly removed Jora’h and Nira from their quarters in the Whisper Palace and sent them back to the Moon, accompanied by Captain McCammon and a group of royal guards. Holding their heads high, Jora’h and the green priest boarded the shuttle and prepared to depart. No newsnet imagers were allowed to attend the event.

Though he would be closer to his fellow hostages, being returned to the lunar base brought Jora’h neither joy nor satisfaction. He needed to be back onIldira. He needed to be fighting the faeros.

As the EDF transport ship made the passage to the Moon, Jora’h sat quietly with Nira on the cold metal seats. She clutched his hand, and he loved her nearness; yet he needed more than that.

Captain McCammon watched them, saying nothing. The guard captain was hard to read, possibly sympathetic, definitely reticent.

After the shuttle docked inside one of the enclosed lunar craters, Jora’h took Nira by the arm and emerged from the shuttle into the dusty landing zone, looking cool and imperial. McCammon and his royal guards followed closely.

The Ildiran guard kithmen, stripped of their weapons, stood against the back wall to watch the Mage-Imperator’s arrival. The bestial-looking guard kithmen swelled their armored chests, simmering with the desire to do something. Many prisoners from the captured warliner had been allowed into the chamber to witness the reception. Jora’h guessed that his people had been unruly and agitated in his absence. He did not try to hide his grim smile.

An EDF squad led by Commandant Tilton stepped forward to receive them formally. “I didn’t expect to say this, but I am glad to have you back here, Mage-Imperator. I hope that now I can expect a return to order on my base.” He had never wanted to host these hostages in the first place.

Jora’h faced the embarrassed-looking lunar commandant. “The Chairman has sent us to rot here while my planet burns and my people die by the thousands each day.”

Though they were heavily outnumbered, the growling Ildiran guards flexed their enlarged muscles and claws. If Yazra’h had been here, she would have thrown herself upon the enemy without a second thought.

Commandant Tilton paled, and his men seemed uneasy, holding their weapons ready. Another squad of EDF soldiers marched into the landing bay, guarding the doors, as if to remind the Mage-Imperator that it would be foolish to try anything.

Through thethism, Jora’h could feel the barely contained fury of the guards. They were ready to explode, desperate to do something, with no concern for their own well-being. He knew that every Ildiran here was willing to sacrifice himself so the Mage-Imperator could get away.

The wave of emotion pushed against him like a strong wind. Jora’h knew that further talk wouldn’t help, and that bowing to the Chairman’s foolish demands wouldn’t work. There would be no opportunity to carefully plan an escape. The guard kithmen waited for any hint of instructions from him, seething for their chance.

He knew that each of his soldiers could easily take down several humans. They were not as outnumbered as they appeared to be. And his own warliner was right here at the lunar base.

Jora’h made his decision. Desperation demanded desperate moves. With the tiniest of motions, connected to all of his guards through thethism, the Mage-Imperator gave his implicit permission for them to act.Go.

The response was blindingly swift. Moving in a wild, coordinated flash, the unarmed guard kithmen threw themselves upon the EDF soldiers crowded in the docking bay. With whipcord muscles and long fangs, they killed several men in the first few seconds, breaking necks, tearing out throats. They ripped handguns and jazer rifles from dead hands. Within another five seconds they had armed themselves and begun to open fire, cutting down the EDF soldiers that came yelling into the chamber.

Commandant Tilton screamed orders, unable to believe what was happening. The Ildiran guard kithmen attacked like whirlwinds and made their way toward the Mage-Imperator. The EDF soldiers fought back, cutting down three, then five Ildiran guards. A dozen more soldiers ran into the chamber and opened fire. Jora’h could barely count the casualties as they happened.

“Mage-Imperator!” a voice roared. “Order your guards to stand down —or she dies.”

Jora’h whirled and saw that Captain McCammon had seized Nira. Though she struggled and fought, the captain’s arm was locked around her waist and his ceremonial dagger was against her smooth green throat. His voice was hard and determined. “If you do not tell your guards to surrender right now, I will kill her.”

Jora’h saw the fear on Nira’s face change to a flicker of defiance. But he would not allow her to die in what was already a futile attempt. He would not let Nira be harmed.

McCammon did not move. His sharp blade pressed hard against her neck, and his cold blue eyes did not waver.

He couldn’t bear to lose her.

“Lay down your weapons,” Jora’h shouted. “Stop!”

His surviving guard kithmen shuddered. Then, in unison, they ceased. Absolutely obedient to their Mage-Imperator, they could not refuse his order, no matter how filled with bloodlust they might be. The surviving Ildiran fighters cast their stolen weapons to the ground, as if in disgust.

Jora’h desperately searched for some other way out, but he knew he could not fight his way through an entire base of human soldiers. The plan had been hopeless from the beginning. “We surrender.”

McCammon’s shoulders slumped. He seemed entirely relieved as he withdrew his dagger from Nira’s throat and let her go.

Commandant Tilton looked like a scarecrow, wrung out and shaken. His voice was shrill. “Seize them! Put them in separate cells.” He heaved deep breaths as if about to retch.

More than half of Jora’h’s loyal guard kithmen had been slaughtered, though they had dealt far more damage to their human captors. He folded his arms around Nira, and she began to sob.

McCammon looked at the Mage-Imperator. “It was the swiftest and most efficient means to end the crisis,” he said, as if in apology.


General Kurt Lanyan

After being trounced at the Osquivel shipyards, Lanyan wasn’t in a hurry to get back to Earth. In spite of his good news about locating one of the Confederation’s major industrial operations and seizing enough Roamer ekti to supply the EDF for months, he knew the Chairman could read between the lines.

He would consider Lanyan a failure. Again.

He ordered his battle group to stop at two other potential targets on the way, stalling by more than a week, but both turned out to be abandoned. Finally, and without much fanfare, his raiding group returned to Earth.

He went directly to the Hansa HQ to make his report. The Chairman remained silent at his desk for a long moment while Lanyan’s uneasiness grew. He stood at attention, feeling like a cadet about to receive a dressing-down, and his practiced smile of pride began to falter. When he swallowed, his throat had become unexpectedly dry. He thought at least the Golgen report would have satisfied the man.

Finally the Chairman sighed. “Now I’m going to have to see about sending someone to administer the Roamer skymines or we’ll lose all that potential, too. At least you got the ekti.”

Lanyan was glad he had not mentioned finding Patrick Fitzpatrick; no doubt the Chairman would complain that the young man should have been brought back to Earth in chains. Probably so, Lanyan thought, but given a few moments of media spotlight, Fitzpatrick could have caused a lot of damage.

“Yes, sir. Those facilities are vital.” He didn’t know what else to say. “During the raid, I was careful to keep the manufacturing capabilities intact — ”

The Chairman’s voice dripped with scorn. “While you and your ships have been on a boisterous raiding expedition, and getting chased off by a few ragtag Roamers and deserters from the EDF, I’ve made difficult decisions about the very future of the Hansa.” He didn’t even bother to look at Lanyan as he spoke, but when he finally glanced up, his gray eyes were as cold as liquid nitrogen. “Come with me, General. I have to inspect the new robot facilities. It’s time you see what has been happening in your absence.”

Flustered, Lanyan followed him out of the Hansa HQ. He had left Conrad Brindle in command of his ships in orbit, where the battered robot-controlled vessels were being surrendered to human control again. The sight of all those stolen EDF craft had made him furious. No wonder protests and complaints were popping up all over the newsnets. How could anyone forget what the black robots had done? What the hell was Chairman Wenceslas thinking to agree to an alliance?

The two men barely spoke a word during their trip to one of the retooled factories. Lanyan shuddered as he remembered the murderously programmed Soldier compies — and now the Hansa was placing its head into the same noose again? He was certain Basil Wenceslas must have some plan, but he hadn’t been able to determine what it was. No one had.

The whole manufacturing facility, with its cavernous warehouse bay, thermal stacks, and thrumming assembly lines, produced a deafening background roar. Dozens of monstrous black robots paraded about the assembly floor, inspecting ebony components, circuit plates, programming modules intricately etched in supercooled baths. For every black robot, thankfully, Lanyan observed at least ten human soldiers and inspectors.

Basil dismissed his obvious anxiety. “Nothing to worry about. Our inspectors maintain round-the-clock surveillance on every aspect of the production line.”

“Even so, I don’t trust thesethings.”

The Chairman gave him a paternal smile. “We also have this whole factory rigged with explosives, and I can destroy it with the snap of a finger. It is to the robots’ benefit to cooperate with us. I understand how Sirix thinks. His hatred for the Klikiss supersedes any disagreements he had with us in the past.”

“Sir, our last ‘disagreement’ cost us two-thirds of the EDF fleet and close to a million human soldiers!”

Deputy Cain walked out of a floor-level office, followed by the Hansa’s new lead scientists, Jane Kulu and Tito Andropolis. Lanyan had met the two before, and thought their enthusiasm extended beyond their technical abilities. Cain, on the other hand, kept his true feelings hidden. “The robots finished retooling this facility, and Sirix pronounced the production line to be satisfactory.”

Kulu interjected. “The robots have helped us modify and improve the efficiency of our own process lines.”

“Didn’t we say that last time?” Lanyan said, looking around in alarm. “When we copied the robot programming modules?”

“This is completely different,” Andropolis insisted. “This facility should be fully operational within days.”

“And the robots will begin reassembling our own warships,” the Chairman said. “I have promised them one hundred new robots for every EDF ship that is placed back into service. Over just the past few days, Sirix has finished reconditioning fifteen Mantas and one Juggernaut — much faster than we could do it ourselves. So you see, if we cooperate, then everyone is happy.”

Lanyan had no real alternative but to agree. “If the robots deliver on their promises and they restore our fleet, then I will withdraw my objections.”

“I’m sick of people voicing objections.” Basil walked smartly away from the process line.

Lanyan followed him, first swallowing his angry retorts, then searching for a politic way to raise the questions still plaguing him. Finally he stepped in front of the Chairman and blocked his way. The cold inside him went as deep as his bones, but he swallowed his pride and said, “Sir, I know that some parts of my recent performance have not met your expectations. Please tell me how I can earn back your trust and confidence. Give me a mission to prove myself.”

Basil considered, then said, “Two hours ago we received a series of log drones launched from Admiral Diente’s Manta. I dispatched him to Pym in hopes of opening a dialog with the Klikiss there, but they destroyed the ship and killed everyone. Another failed mission.” He seemed more disappointed than shocked or outraged.

Lanyan struggled for words. “You sent Admiral Diente toPym? Totalk with the bugs?”

“I had hoped our two races could find common ground, but the Klikiss have no interest in negotiation. Therefore, the Hansa will no longer attempt to negotiate.” He continued to pace. “On your first mission to Pym, you fled in terror and shame. Now you can make up for that.”

Lanyan went pale. His prior experience with the Klikiss had been the most frightening event in his life, and he maintained a knee-jerk hatred of the bugs. He already knew what the Chairman was going to suggest.

“We must not let the Klikiss believe they can treat official Hansa ambassadors in such a barbaric way. You, General, will lead our appropriate response. Firm, clear, and incontrovertible.”

With the rattle and hum all around them, Lanyan managed to cover his gasp. He didn’t dare show outright fear in front of the Chairman. “And what exactly is our appropriate response, sir?”

“Why, a military one, of course. Teach them a lesson. Take a battle group to Pym and eradicate the Klikiss. Sirix promises that the new Juggernaut will be ready within days.” The Chairman smiled. “After you have achieved that victory, we can discuss your possible return to a position of trust. Then we’ll see about squashing the Confederation resistance. You’d like a chance to get revenge on Admiral Willis, wouldn’t you?”

Lanyan nodded automatically, though he was still dealing with the idea of facing a planetful of Klikiss warriors. The Chairman strolled out of the factory toward the waiting transport that would take him to the Hansa HQ. “My plan, General, is to have the black robots fight the Klikiss for us. Ideally the two will wipe each other out, though we may have to make some sacrifices of our own.”

Lanyan was uncomfortably aware that the Chairman might considerhim one of those potential “sacrifices.”


Sullivan Gold

Chairman Wenceslas was not in a forgiving mood when he summoned Sullivan to the Hansa HQ. “I was astonished to learn you were back on Earth, Mr. Gold. Didn’t you think I might be interested to hear from you firsthand? And as soon as possible?”

It wasn’t difficult for Sullivan to act confused about the uproar. “I had quite an ordeal, sir, and I haven’t even begun to get my life back together.”

“You have had more than long enough.” The Chairman sat down behind his desk. “I know exactly when you returned.”

Sullivan glanced out the penthouse windows at the gorgeous skyline of the Palace District, impressed by the view from the top of the towering Hansa pyramid. Noticing his distraction, Chairman Wenceslas swept his fingers across a control to opaque the windows. Now they appeared to be in a shielded bunker, and for some reason the Chairman seemed more content.

Sullivan sighed, then told his story. “Sir, a few of us escaped when the hydrogues destroyed our cloud harvester at Qronha 3. We rescued many Ildiran workers and returned them to Ildira, where we were pressed into service, helping outfit the Solar Navy to defend Earth — successfully, I might add.”

He saw no softening of the other man’s expression, but he pressed on. “Sir, lately my family’s suffered a great deal of financial hardship, and the Hansa reneged on the contractual terms of my employment. I believe I deserve some compensation.”

The Chairman remained sitting stiffly at his desk. “That’s what you believe, is it? I disagree, Mr. Gold. You were in charge of that extraordinarily expensive facility, which is now completely destroyed, along with its entire stockpile of ekti. I would say the Hansa’s financial losses far outweigh your own.”

Sullivan had been an administrator and a negotiator long enough to know not to let his irritation escalate an already tense situation. “At the very least please return the reward the Mage-Imperator gave me. I earned that.”

“Currency from an enemy empire will do you no good, Mr. Gold. In fact, even possessing it casts suspicion on you. It’s a good thing that we took it into safekeeping. We wouldn’t want there to be any misunderstandings. Colonel Andez and her cleanup crew sometimes get overly zealous.”

Sullivan had been watching the newsnets, and more than once he heard glowing reports of how the cleanup crew was cracking down on anyone whose words “shattered the morale of our brave fighters.” They were most incensed about Freedom’s Sword. According to the reports, the “enemy” took great comfort from the Hansa’s internal strife, though Sullivan doubted the Klikiss were listening to human newsnets.

After the cleanup crew’s outrageous illegal search and seizure of their townhome, Lydia had gotten herself into a high dudgeon, and made sure to tell her family, friends, and neighbors. “How can we let them get away with that?” Lydia would say. “And if I don’t complain about it, then the next person won’t complain about it, or the next. And those stormtroopers will just walk all over our rights. I don’t intend to just sit back and let that happen. Not on my watch.” Sullivan often had to drag her back inside the house just to keep her quiet. Her heart was in the right place, even if she was dead set on getting into trouble.

Now the Chairman lectured Sullivan. “With the hydrogue war over, the Hansa must become more self-sufficient. We need secure and independent supplies of stardrive fuel.”

Sullivan dreaded what the man was about to suggest. “And you want me to manage another Hansa cloud harvester? Surely you have a better candidate.”

Chairman Wenceslas frowned at the interruption. “No, not another Hansa cloud harvester. You may have heard of General Lanyan’s recent successful resource-gathering mission in Roamer-held territory? He took possession of a group of skymines at Golgen and relieved them of an extensive supply of ekti. Now that their defenses are broken, I intend for you to administer those facilities under the auspices of the Hansa.”

Sullivan had to sit down without being invited to do so. “I’m not trained to manage a hostile workforce. That’s a military job, and I’m just a simple administrator.” He was so upset that he no longer felt cowed. “The Roamers would sabotage the process line every chance they got. I’m not inclined to do it, Mr. Chairman.”

Basil Wenceslas looked at him in disbelief, as if no one had ever turned him down before. “I urge you to reconsider.” His voice held a clear threat.

But Sullivan had had enough of coercive tactics, the cleanup crew’s intimidation, the freezing of his financial assets. He had faced a hydrogue armada that had destroyed his cloud-harvesting facility right out from under him. He could survive the disapproval of Chairman Wenceslas. He stood and went to the door of the office. “Sorry, Mr. Chairman. You’ll have to find someone else. I’ve retired, and my decision is final.”


Patrick Fitzpatrick III

Maureen Fitzpatrick actually proved to be a gracious hostess. Over the course of several days, Patrick told his grandmother what he’d been doing since flying off with her space yacht to find Zhett. Someone more romantic might have found it a heartwarming tale, but the old Battleaxe said that she simply considered him foolish and sappy.

But Patrick didn’t allow himself to think of this as a merely social visit. King Peter had sent him here to plant a few provocative ideas in the former Chairman’s mind and find out what she really thought about the Confederation and about Basil Wenceslas.

One afternoon the three of them sat together on a large open porch, looking out at the snowcapped peaks and breathing cool mountain air that was fresher than anything he had tasted in a Roamer facility. Maureen had newscreens playing in the background, as she always did. Though it had been decades since she had served as Hansa Chairman, she nevertheless surrounded herself with current events, as if she were still a vital cog in the wheel.

Feeling distinctly uncomfortable, Patrick finally blurted out something he had been meaning to say since he arrived. “Grandmother, I know you used to think of me as headstrong and selfish and immature — ”

“Used to?” she broke in.

“I’m trying to apologize here!” He flushed red, and Maureen fell awkwardly silent. Neither he nor his grandmother was good at this. “I was a lazy, spoiled pain in the ass, but I’ve learned that I need to work for what I want, whether it’s respect or belongings.”

“Not much room for lazy people in a Roamer outpost,” Zhett said. “We straightened him out, eventually.”

The former Chairman narrowed her eyes. “You showed some of that when you got in the middle of the EDF and the Roamers, when you made me broker a cease-fire at Osquivel. I could see you weren’t the same old Patrick.” She grew serious. “I always knew you had a lot more potential than your parents did. That’s why I was so hard on you. You just needed to get your head on straight.”

Patrick felt a lump in his throat. He squeezed Zhett’s hand. “When I came home, I sulked around, didn’t do much of anything, but I knew what was really going on out there. I had to take a stand. I couldn’t go back to serve the EDF when I knew thatthey had started the war with the Roamers. So I ran. I’m sorry I abused your trust by stealing your space yacht. I didn’t think of anyone but myself. I was rationalizing, taking what I needed.”

He thought of how Chairman Wenceslas and General Lanyan justified raids on Roamers, Ildirans, human colonies — even committing murder — simply because they “needed” something. But Patrick refused to think like they did.

Maureen made an awkward gesture of dismissal. “I’ve got plenty of personal ships. You didn’t cause me a moment’s hardship — I was more annoyed that you’d run off just because you were heartsick for some girl.” Before Zhett could interject, Maureen continued. “I can’t say I’m pleased that you deserted the EDF, but I didn’t listen to you either. I thought you needed therapy to get over your delusions, but dammit, you were right — at least for the most part. I watched the rah-rah images of the pogrom on Usk; I listen to the crazy Archfather; I see what the Chairman’s special cleanup crew is doing every day.” She shook her head in disgust.

General Lanyan came on one of the newscreens, suddenly drawing all of their attention. With great fanfare he announced the launch of a new military initiative against the Klikiss in order to “avenge the senseless murder of Admiral Diente and his peaceful diplomatic mission to Pym.” In a bold, gruff voice, he vowed to “teach the vicious insect race to fear the Earth Defense Forces.” Patrick noted that the newsnets mentioned neither Lanyan’s piracy at the Golgen skymines, nor how he had been resoundingly beaten at Osquivel.

“Asshole.” Maureen rolled her eyes at the General’s bravado. “Lanyan’s come crawling home with his tail between his legs so often he’s getting calluses on his backside.”

Patrick scowled. “I can’t believe I used to admire him.”

“You used to be remarkably ill informed, Fitzie,” Zhett teased, “not to mention thickheaded.”


Maureen couldn’t tear her eyes from the newsnet screen. “Lanyan’s latest boondoggle isn’t half as stupid as Basil’s boneheaded new plan to cooperate with the black robots. Why the hell is a HansaChairman agreeing to manufacture more of those damned alien machines?”

Patrick said, “Is it any wonder the opposition groups are growing louder, even though he tries to stomp them down? He pumps up the fear to keep the people believing his iron fist is better than the alternative — but they don’t think about any alternatives.”

“They don’t bother to think at all,” Maureen said with a sniff. “Bunch of sheep. At least Freedom’s Sword is pointing in the right direction.”

Using his grandmother’s sophisticated media-watch network, Patrick and Zhett had been admiring the ingenious ways dissidents had managed to insert condemnations and seditious messages into a variety of communications venues; his old shipmate Shelia Andez and her cleanup crew were driving themselves crazy chasing down rumors and supposed propaganda strongholds, only to come up empty-handed time and again.

“It sure isn’t the way I would run the circus tent,” Maureen grumbled. “In fact, when I was Chairman — ”

Patrick seized the perfect segue. “That’s actually why we’re here, Grandmother. King Peter himself asked us to speak with you.”

“King Peter? So you’re rubbing elbows with the high and mighty. The Hansa calls him an outlaw — I’ve read the official press releases.” She seemed to find it amusing.

Zhett didn’t. “Outlaw? King Peter leads the majority of the human race. Basil Wenceslas is the real criminal. For months now, King Peter has been calling for him to resign.”

“Like that’ll ever happen,” Maureen said.

“Then maybe he should be deposed,” Patrick suggested quietly. He was sure his grandmother had thought of it herself, many times.

Pretending to ignore what he had just said, Maureen switched off the newscreen in disgust. “You don’t have to tell me all the things the Chairman has done wrong. But I’m not at the helm anymore.”

“Funny you should mention that. We have an official offer from the Confederation that you’ll want to hear. It’s right up your alley.”

Patrick made his pitch, explaining how the King wanted her to provide a counterpoint to the propaganda of Chairman Wenceslas, while acting as an official liaison between the orphaned colonies, the government of Theroc, and the failing Hansa. “It’s extremely prestigious and important. Think about it, Grandmother — what are you accomplishing around here?”

“Why, I thought you always resented my political work.” Her lips quirked in a smile, playing him.

“Like I said, I’ve changed.” Patrick could see she was not entirely averse to the idea he had proposed. “After spending time among the Roamers, I realized that I never understood how hard you worked for what you have. You’ve got skills, contacts, influence, and behind-the-scenes knowledge that no one on Earth or in the Confederation can hope to match.”

Zhett spoke up. “Ma’am, do you want to stay on a sinking ship, or would you rather deploy the life rafts?”

“Don’t call me ‘ma’am.’ It makes me feel old.” Maureen leaned back in the chair and stared out at the landscape. “There’s a name for people who leave a sinking ship, you know. They’re called rats.”

“Or survivors,” Zhett countered.

“Touche. Patrick, I think I like this girl after all.”

“Don’t call me a girl. I’m not that young.” This elicited a burst of laughter from the old Battleaxe.

“Grandmother, Chairman Wenceslas got us into this mess, and you can help get us out of it. I can tell you’re ready to be at the helm again. How much more incentive do you need?” Patrick said with a quick smile; then he grew serious again. “By sending General Lanyan to attack the Golgen skymines and the Osquivel shipyards, the Hansa declared war on the Confederation. The Chairman kidnapped the Mage-Imperator, making enemies out of the entire Ildiran Empire. He agreed to manufacture more black robots even after they massacred the majority of the EDF. And now he’s sending part of Earth’s limited fleet on an offensive against the Klikiss race, which will probably start an all-out conflict with the bugs. Tell me again — why exactly would you stay here and support this government?”

“Why indeed?” Maureen played coy. “On the other hand, do you expect me just to jump aboard your ship and fly off, leaving everything I hold dear? And what about my assistant, Jonas? My God, he’s been in my household since the first mammals appeared on land.”

Patrick said, “With your help, this can all be over soon. Once the Chairman has gone, and the Hansa unites with the Confederation, think of how many people will be clamoring to get into your good graces. You’ll still have your house, your possessions, your political connections —and more clout than you ever had.”

“I’ve still got plenty of clout.”

“You’ll have more.”

“I’ll get us some tea.” The old woman stood up and walked briskly away. “What kind would you like?”

“Strong,” Zhett answered for both of them.

Patrick called after her, “I know you want to say yes.”

“You should also know that you won’t get an immediate answer from me. It would look far too eager — not very astute. Haven’t I taught you anything?” Maureen returned with the tea from an instant dispenser. Patrick was surprised she did it herself, rather than calling for Jonas.

She got down to brass tacks. “I’ll want an official title, naturally — something impressive and with real authority. You two go on ahead, and make sure King Peter has all the right documents prepared. Besides, you’re a fugitive, Patrick. I shouldn’t be seen with you during delicate negotiations. I’ll come to Theroc in my own ship with my own retinue.”

“The King needs someone soon, and he’ll be interviewing other candidates.”

“No, he won’t. If he thinks I’m on the hook, he’ll give me all the time I need.”

“Two weeks,” Zhett said. “If you don’t come to Theroc by then, my own father just might apply for the job.”

“Two weeks,” Maureen said with a smile.

Patrick had a difficult time keeping the grin off his face. “I know I just brought your space yacht back to you, but would it be all right if we borrowed it for a little longer — to get back to Theroc? We’ll return it to you there.”

The old woman heaved an exaggerated sigh. “Oh, keep the ship. Consider it my wedding gift to you.”


Jess Tamblyn

Jess and Cesca had rallied their former group of water bearers, launching them all on a mission to spread the new warrior wentals and also to recover ancient seedpools from long-forgotten reservoirs throughout the Spiral Arm.

Although the water bearers were all enthusiastic, Jess and Cesca feared that their efforts were still too limited and conventional. The powers of the wentals had not been sufficient in the previous war, and even with the water entities’ more aggressive stance, the coming battles against the faeros would require much more ingenuity. The energized water itself, though ready to go on the offensive, needed to become more effective somehow. The wentals couldn’t do it alone.

For as long as Jess could remember, Kotto Okiah had been the brightest star of Roamer innovation. As their ship floated into the Osquivel shipyards, Jess was anxious to see how Kotto could combine Roamer technology with wental powers.

A space traffic controller directed them to a primary lab complex in one of the larger ring asteroids. Their liquid ship floated into the designated hangar bay, and the heavy doors sealed behind them. As atmosphere was restored, the ship’s surface tension dissolved, leaving a deep puddle around their bare feet.

The living water pooled itself and divided into two thick, cylindrical blobs, rolling like transparent clay. When Jess and Cesca walked forward, the eerie ovoid shapes oozed ahead of them, rising and rolling down the rock-floored corridor.

Roamer workers in the facility peered through doorways, amazed at the procession. One woman backed away in fear of getting too close to a wental blob, but Cesca raised her hand reassuringly. “The water is safe — the wentals won’t disperse their energy.”

Jess added, “Just don’t get too close to the two ofus.”

Kotto Okiah kept the diamond-walled hydrogue derelict inside the largest lab chamber. At the moment, however, he was hard at work on some sort of new acoustic transmitter, a large dish formed of components spread across his tables. Three compies worked with him, as did Orli Covitz and Hud Steinman. Kotto was so startled to see the two visitors, along with the pair of self-contained wentals, that he dropped a curved spanner. The tool clanged on the floor.

“We brought something unusual for you to study,” Jess said. The two ovoid wental shapes rose up, one each behind Jess and Cesca, like tubes of cohesive gel.

“You call that ‘unusual’?” Steinman said. “I’d try a few more emphatically descriptive terms myself.”

Cesca stepped forward, smiling at Kotto. She had always been able to wring the best work out of him. “A long time ago, when your mother designated me as Speaker, I asked Roamers to find new ways to survive after the hydrogues prevented us from skymining. You truly answered that call, Kotto, and helped the clans survive those terribly austere years.”

He was embarrassed, shuffling his feet. “I just did what I do best.”

“That’s exactly what we need from you now,” Jess said. “And it’s more important than ever before.”

Intrigued, Orli moved closer to the shifting, flexible water shapes. “Can I touch them?” Once Jess assured her the strange water was safe, the girl touched her fingertip to the shimmering quicksilver skin, then plunged her hand in all the way up to the elbow.

“Don’t you have a speck of caution, girl?” Steinman cried.

“When it’s appropriate.” Orli withdrew her hand. Her skin glistened for a moment, but then it dried as the droplets pulled themselves back into the self-contained wentals. The two shapes twisted, jiggled, then braided themselves together to form one large, bouncing shape.

Kotto observed, amazed and delighted.

Cesca spread her hands. “The wentals need your help to stand against the faeros.”

“The faeros. I’ve been trying to figure that out, but I’m stumped. Thermal armor? Some kind of cold beam? Heat-resistant technologies?” Kotto grinned, trying to impress her. “In the meantime, we’ve been working on a gadget to use against the Klikiss. A melodic siren that could shut down the hive mind — ”

“Thefaeros,” Jess said, forcing the engineer to return his focus. “Maybe you just need the right raw materials.” He stepped aside so the wental shape could lurch forward. “These wentals are here for you, as specimens. I promise they’ll cooperate in any way possible.”

Kotto blinked. “To do what? You mean. experiment with them?”

“Help them become effective weapons. We need you to be brilliant, Kotto.” Cesca’s eyes glowed warm with pride. “Do things that have never been done before — that’s your specialty, isn’t it?”

Kotto bent over to pick up the curved spanner he had dropped on the floor. He walked around the pulsing, shapeless mass of water, both perplexed and fascinated. “When have I ever let you down, Speaker?”


Caleb Tamblyn

Even with the extra equipment he had brought down from low orbit, Caleb didn’t stand much of a chance for long-term survival. But he felt less edgy, less desperate.

After he returned to the crashed escape pod with his last sled full of recovered material from the satellite, Caleb recharged his suitpack, used the air regenerator to refill his tanks with fresh oxygen cooked out of the ice, and finally went out to investigate the strange lights that glimmered across the landscape.

For hours now, the ice around the great meltdown crater had shimmered as if auroral curtains had somehow been locked into the frozen matrix. Caleb had never seen anything like it. In his years living in the water mines under the thick Plumas ice sheet, he had experienced some bizarre things, and these sparkling lights reminded him of the wentals he had seen.

He wasn’t particularly keen to face another tainted elemental force like the one that had reanimated Karla Tamblyn. On the other hand, Jess and Cesca had used the power of wentals to restore the ruined water mines. so the exotic water entities couldn’t be all bad. Besides, he wasn’t in a position to be choosy.

As he trudged around the rim of the frozen crater, he saw more lights sparkling deep beneath the iron-gray lake. The whole disaster site seemed to be awakening. Far below, he saw liquid water, quicksilver streams that spread out in a network like a circulatory system. Runnels flowed of their own accord, changed direction, gathered strength.

Yes, these were wentals. He could tell. Standing on an uphill slope at the edge of the blasted rim, Caleb watched trickles of water flowingupward against gravity — directly toward him. The ground beneath him became uncertain as ice turned to slush. Clumsy in his protective boots, he tried to move away, but the frozen surface melted further, and he started to sink into a sort of icy quicksand.

After a moment of hesitation he decided not to flee. Jess had said that the wentals meant no harm. Caleb stopped in his tracks and braced himself. He stopped sinking.

The ankle-deep slushy water around his boots ran up his suit, covered his legs, then his waist. He felt tingling energy pass directly through the fabric, but there was no fundamental physical change in his cells. The wentals sensed him here. Were they trying to understand him?

Slowly, Caleb began to walk away from the crater back toward his cramped escape pod. The wentals followed him. His boots left clear footprints in the slushy ice. As he took more plodding steps, he saw identical footprints spontaneously formingahead of him, a trail of ghostly steps marking a path all the way to his pod.

So, the wentals knew who he was and where he had come from.

Picking up the pace in the low gravity, Caleb returned to his small simple home. Silvery lines of liquefied water shot through the ice, and the glowing lights became brighter.

“Are you trying to communicate? What do you want?” he shouted into his suit radio. “By the Guiding Star, can you at least give me a hint?”

Either the wentals couldn’t speak in a language he understood, or they couldn’t pick up radio transmissions. or they simply chose not to respond. He waited outside the escape pod for a long time, watching the light show, but little changed.

When he cycled back through the airlock into his shelter, he was astonished to discover that all of his power sources, including his system batteries, were now fully charged. His gas exchangers operated at full capacity; he had plenty of air, water, and power. And with what he had retrieved from the satellite, he even had a little extra food.

The wentals were consciously trying to keep him alive. Caleb decided that, for once, he wasn’t going to complain.


Tasia Tamblyn

Talking with Rlinda Kett had gotten her worked up again, and Tasia was ready to launch every ship available with every weapon installed. She had wanted to charge after the Klikiss as soon as she got back with the Llaro refugees, but the faeros crisis on Theroc — and more recently, General Lanyan’s stupid attack on the shipyards — had sidetracked everyone.

Nevertheless, she and Brindle had time to plan and prepare.

Admiral Willis joined them in the admin complex, where wallscreens reported the large number of vessels in spacedock and temporary repair facilities. After the surprise EDF strike here, Willis had declined to send her ships back into the Osquivel docks for a complete refit and reconditioning. “We can’t afford to have them out of service right now, considering what might drop in our laps at any moment.”

On the screen, Tasia spotted a fast space yacht entering the Osquivel system. Since it broadcast an appropriate Confederation ID signal, the ship triggered no alarms, but Tasia perked up when she saw the pilots listed as Patrick Fitzpatrick III and Zhett Kellum.

“I heard Fitzpatrick had gone over to your side,” Admiral Willis mused. “Ourside, I mean. Caused quite a scandal, considering who his grandmother is. Deserted the EDF and went off to points unknown. It could be useful to hear what he’s got to say for himself.”

The three went to meet theGypsy as it docked. Since Fitzpatrick had been her nemesis during their training days on the lunar EDF base, Tasia couldn’t wait to see the expression on his face. When the space yacht’s hatch opened and he and Zhett stepped out arm in arm, his eyes went wide. “Tamblyn — and Robb Brindle? You’ve got to be kidding me.”

Though years had passed, it was hard for her to forget all the mistreatment Fitzpatrick had heaped on her, how he had bullied her and sneered at her Roamer heritage. “Don’t expect a big hug and a kiss on the cheek.”

He looked away sheepishly. “Yeah, I was an ass back then — although you stood up for yourself perfectly well, Tamblyn.”

“I keep him in line,” Zhett teased. “Even the most insufferable jerks can be redeemed with a little hard work and patience — well, maybe not General Lanyan.”

Tasia gave Zhett a disbelieving look. “I’ll believe that when I see it.” She was shocked to see how close the two stood, adoring each other. She and Robb had never been so sappy. at least, she hoped not.

Fitzpatrick turned to Willis with an automatic salute. “Admiral! Good to see you again. I heard you’d come to join the Confederation forces.”

“You figured it out well before I did. It’s not my place to throw stones and muddy up the water that’s already under the bridge, to mix a handy metaphor.” The older woman turned sternly to Tasia and Robb. “And it’s not for either of these two to do, either.”

Fitzpatrick explained how he had spoken to his grandmother on orders from King Peter, and that she would be coming to Theroc to work against Chairman Wenceslas. The Admiral nodded. “It’ll be all over for the Hansa soon. Now, if we can only find a fat lady to do the singing. And if General Lanyan stops poking his battleships where they don’t belong.”

Fitzpatrick smiled. “The General’s taking a large group of battleships to fight the Klikiss on Pym. It’s his next big mission.”

“Now that’s good news for a change!” Tasia’s eyes brightened. “At least he’s after the right enemy for once.”

Robb saw her expression shift. “Don’t even think about it, Tamblyn.”

“Too late.” She spun to face Willis. “Admiral, I’ve been ready to launch a similar offensive of our own. Seems to me that two fleets would be better than one.” She shrugged. “Besides, we can’t let the General do a half-assed job.”

Willis blew air through her lips, considering. “It’s certainly one way to wrap this mess up with ribbons and bows. But we’ll need to depart immediately if we’re going to fight alongside the EDF ships. It’d be damned embarrassing if we arriveafter the General’s already done the hard work.”

“Shizz, I’ve been writing mission proposals for weeks now,” Tasia said. “Let’s get going.”

Robb cautioned, “Even if we help him, don’t expect the General to become a real convert to our cause.”

Tasia couldn’t stop grinning. “Either way, this is going to be fun.”



Aboard the former flagship of Admiral Wu-Lin, Sirix inspected the work his robots had completed as part of the agreement with Chairman Wenceslas. Sirix had nearly finished the restoration of the stolen EDF vessels, including this Juggernaut, which had now been rechristened theThunder Child. Surrendering these hard-won ships was a high price to pay, but in return he would receive thousands more black robots to replace all those that had recently been lost.

General Lanyan was taking this Juggernaut off to fight the Klikiss on Pym, and Sirix wanted theThunder Child to function perfectly, so long as the humans fought against the sub-hive, rather than turning their weapons against the black robots.

“This alliance is advantageous to both sides,” PD said brightly. The two compies had been returned to him as a goodwill gesture. He was proud of them; their behavior was exactly what he had hoped to achieve from DD.

“We’re glad we suggested it,” QT added.

But Sirix knew how quickly things could change. Humans had very short memories and limited attention spans. They could not hold a grudge long enough to achieve any significant historic impact. Throughout their existence, they had forgotten feuds at the drop of a hat, switched from enemies to allies and back again and again; it was dizzying. Conversely, Sirix and his robots had hated the Klikiss without wavering for more than ten thousand years.

“For now, the terms are indeed mutually beneficial. Come with me.”

PD and QT dutifully followed him as he stalked down the Juggernaut’s corridors. The black robots and the remaining Soldier compies were hard at work scrubbing decks, removing old bloodstains, repairing obvious damage from weapons blasts, like torn doors and smashed wall plates, which had occurred during the trapped human soldiers’ final desperate hours.

“All EDF ships will be polished and ready to present to the Terran Hanseatic League by tomorrow,” QT said. “In time for General Lanyan’s departure.”

“Good as new,” PD added. “The humans will be very happy.”

Such cosmetic repairs did not require a great deal of effort. The stolen ships already functioned correctly because the robots had maintained them properly. The work primarily involved cleaning, the reinstallation of unnecessary life-support systems, and the removal of any modifications that increased the power in the EDF engines. Sirix had no intention of giving the humans such advantages.

The next step — the reassembly of damaged ships and the construction of new robot vessels from the piles of uncataloged space wreckage — was far more ambitious. Sirix had already dispatched the majority of his black robots to comb the orbital battlefield and round up any salvageable components of damaged battleships. From there, his robot workers speedily began assembling new ships. Though humans in spacesuits could perform this labor, the black robots were far more efficient at it.

Despite the supposed goodwill of the Hansa, however, any restored EDF ships could conceivably be turned against the robots. Sirix had taken measures to ensure that would not happen.

He and the two compies entered theThunder Child ’s engine room, where large stardrives filled the giant chambers. Stripped-down compies with specially modified maintenance programming had crawled deep inside the reaction chambers, then inserted tiny automated drones that would pass into the smaller and smaller constrictions of the drive train. They would sit like Trojan horses, waiting to be activated.

From the engineering console Sirix uploaded detailed readouts to learn where the surreptitious modifications had been made. EDF construction engineers and Hansa inspectors watched every part of the work, but they were easily fooled. Modifications could be so subtle, and the complex military vessels had so many weak points.

While PD and QT observed attentively, Sirix confirmed that any one of the restored vessels could be detonated, whenever he chose.

Sirix was pleased. General Lanyan could prove the worth of these ships against the Klikiss at Pym. But if Chairman Wenceslas reneged on his agreement or ever attempted to trick and destroy the black robots. or if Sirix believed it would be to his advantage, he could scuttle the EDF fleet at any time.



When she met Deputy Cain and Captain McCammon in the rarely used canal levels beneath the Whisper Palace, Sarein was fully aware of what they were doing. She realized with a heavy heart that this would be no game with hooligan “dissidents” dropping subtle messages into newsnet broadcasts. The time had come to do something more concrete.

There was no polite word for plotting the overthrow of the Chairman, but it had to be done if they were to salvage anything of the Hansa. She wished she could have made Basil see the truth for himself.

Few people maintained the dank grottoes now that King Peter’s private yacht had been decommissioned. Peter and Estarra’s last colorful procession had been a spectacular event years ago, though it held dark memories for Sarein. That had been the day hydrogues attacked both Theroc and Corvus Landing, killing both of her brothers. Later, Sarein learned that Basil had also intended to blow up the King and Queen’s boat, then blame the assassination on the Roamers.

For too long, she had called Estarra’s suspicions nonsense. For too long she had refused to see the obvious. Not anymore.

She, Cain, and McCammon had concocted a cover story, suggesting that the royal yacht should be renovated so that King Rory could make a similar procession. After all (they would argue to Basil, if he should question them), why not invest Rory with at least as much majesty and grandeur in the people’s minds as the former King and Queen had enjoyed? The Chairman wouldn’t disagree with that.

The three conspirators followed the mossy stone walkway next to the calm, algae-filled canal. Both Cain and McCammon had checked the Whisper Palace’s security surveillance systems to confirm that no one monitored these tunnels. Before long, Basil was sure to make up for the oversight, but right now he was understaffed and had too many other things to worry about.

“We have to remove him,” Deputy Cain said in a low voice, barely more than a mumble. “Even the Archfather has been raising warning flags, as you might have noticed, changing some parts of his speeches, arguing about content. It’s making the Chairman quite upset.”

“The Archfather is a fool if he thinks the Chairman cares about his opinions,” Sarein said.Basil barely listens to menowadays.

“The Chairman is impervious to public opinion,” Cain said. “He marches ahead no matter what, refusing to believe he might have to change course. Or admit he made a mistake.”

“Like the way he’s treated the Mage-Imperator?” Sarein said.

A grim McCammon fingered the dagger at his side. “Seventeen dead in total, humans and Ildirans, in that botched escape attempt on the Moon.” He shook his head, deeply affected by what he had witnessed there. “And who can blame them? The Chairman has placed the Mage-Imperator in an untenable situation.”

“We’re all in an untenable situation — a dangerous one,” Sarein said.

McCammon turned to her with great sincerity in his eyes. “I can’t guarantee I’ll be able to protect you, Sarein.”

“I don’t need protection.”

“Yes, you do. The Chairman might once have loved you, but that won’t save you anymore. Don’t be oblivious.”

Sarein perceived carefully hidden emotion in the guard captain’s voice, and it made her anxious. “Please don’t put yourself in danger on my account, Captain.”

“I’ll do what I have to.” He sounded resentful.

“We all will,” Cain insisted. “It’s clear that one way or another this whole situation is going to implode soon. But protests in the streets can only accomplish so much. The cleanup crew ransacks businesses and arrests anyone who speaks out against the Chairman. It’s all highly symptomatic of a repressive regimein its last days. History has plenty of examples for anyone who cares to look. I, for one, would rather be driving the vehicle of change than be crushed under its wheels.”

McCammon said, “Chairman Wenceslas poses a clear and present danger to the survival of human civilization.”

Since every moment they talked put them at significant risk, Sarein decided to get down to practicalities. “How do we go about it? Do we oust him? Force him to resign? We could detain him until we complete a governmental changeover.”

Deputy Cain’s answer was blunt, but inarguable. “Half measures won’t succeed. The Chairman is sure to have taken precautions.” He looked from Sarein to McCammon. “We have to kill him.”


Chairman Basil Wenceslas

Closed off in his office, Basil reviewed surveillance tapes.

Again and again he studied records from the Whisper Palace, especially those taken on the night of the hydrogue attack on Earth. Too many questions remained about how Peter and Estarra had escaped, despite the tight security, despite putting Captain McCammon in charge of the King and Queen. Still, the upstart Peter had gotten away.

He had pinpointed that as the turning point in his problems, when the situation had grown substantially worse. This required much closer scrutiny, and alas, like so many things, Basil could count on no one to do it but himself. Everyone else was either criminally unreliable or actively plotting against him.

He’d kept his eyes on Sarein for some time now, at first as a precaution and then with keener interest. She and Deputy Cain “bumped into each other” altogether too often and in conveniently private places. Sarein also met with McCammon much more than was strictly necessary. That morning the three of them had even gone down into the old disused docks beneath the Whisper Palace, and Basil immediately requested the installation of hidden observation measures there, but it was too late for him to learn what they had been doing.

Captain McCammon? Deputy Cain? The answer was obvious, even amusing in a way. Sarein used to be Basil’s lover, but it had been a long time since he’d had sex with her. Now that the whole Spiral Arm had gone to hell, Basil no longer had time for such distractions. So naturally Sarein had turned to the next person on the list, the Deputy Chairman. She and Cain were having an affair. Or maybe it was with McCammon. Or both. She had been quite an ambitious woman.

While he didn’t like the idea that he was being cuckolded, Basil was not surprised that they had succumbed to such a typical human weakness. In a way, he supposed, it kept Sarein from being so needy and demanding, and he could concentrate on important things. On the other hand, maybe it would be a good idea to devote a little more time to Sarein to keep her happy and loyal, more than just redecorating her quarters. He doubted that sending flowers would suffice.

The Archfather was due to arrive momentarily for a review meeting, and Basil wanted to have words with him. Stern words. Tabling the Whisper Palace records for the time being, he compared the Archfather’s firebrand delivery at the beginning of the Klikiss crusade with his decidedly lackluster recent performances.

As a result, the crowds were responding differently. Their reaction to Basil’s agreement with the black robots had not been overwhelmingly enthusiastic. They hadn’t been primed properly, and he could lay that directly at the Archfather’s feet.

Originally, the man’s fervor in demonizing the Klikiss had been truly inspired, but lately his passion had waned, as if he didn’t believe his own sermons anymore — and that just wouldn’t do. Basil needed to light a fire under the man’s feet. Alternatively, perhaps a preferable alternative, it was time to find someone else who could do his job. He saw no reason why King Rory couldn’t fulfill both roles, as puppet secular leader and puppet religious leader. Two for the price of one.Amen. Basil smiled at the thought.

The Archfather arrived in his robes, clutching a printed copy of the new speech in his hands. His ringed knuckles were white, and he was clearly flustered, swelled with his own perceived importance. Basil covered a sigh, already expecting problems. Why was it so impossible for his underlings just to do what they were told?

The Archfather held up the printed document as if it were an accusation. “I cannot read this, Mr. Chairman.”

Basil intentionally misunderstood. “Oh? Do you need a translator?”

“It will cause a revolt. It could create unnecessary bloodshed, and it’s. it’sappalling. This isn’t what I believe. This isn’t Unison.”

“What is Unison? We define it however we like. That’s the point of a state-sponsored religion. Don’t believe your own script, Archfather.”

The bearded man gave a sad, paternal shake of his head and looked down at the Chairman seated at his desk. “I have studied Unison for many years. Even as a child I followed and believed it. The Usk pogrom was a turning point for me. I review those awful images every night before I go to sleep, and every day when I wake up. That waswrong, Mr. Chairman. We committed those heinous acts in the name of religion, but it was not religion. Unison is being hijacked for political purposes — your purposes.”

Basil could barely stop himself from laughing. “Unison was never a religion tobelieve in. It’s a set of rituals to comfort people who are incapable of developing their own philosophy of life, death, and morality. Would you like to see the original classified Hansa memo defining it?”

“Unison is much more than that, if you would open your mind and your heart. Many people have.”

“Don’t get delusions. You’re just a paid actor.” Yes, indeed, he would have to do something about this man.

The Archfather flushed. “I am not just playing a role — Iam the role.” He set the papers down on the desk with finality. “I’ve done unsavory things in the past, but I cannot give this particular speech. I have more important things to say.”

Basil kept control of his expression, though he was tempted to call in the guards and sit back while he ordered them to strangle the bearded fool. But he thought of a better option that dovetailed neatly with other goals he wanted to accomplish. Yes, this could be very effective indeed, even earthshaking.

“And what would you really like to say, Archfather?” He gave the man an encouraging smile. “Would you like to write your own speech?”

“You. you would allow me to do that?”

“Passion has been sorely lacking in your recent presentations. If you feel so strongly about this, then put your passion into your speech. I’ll give you this one chance to make a difference.” He could not imagine the sort of naive nonsense the Archfather would end up blathering about. Holding hands and singing songs, probably.

The Archfather’s eyes grew fiery. “I can put these people on the straight-and-narrow path — I can really do it.”

“I’m sure you can. I’ll postpone your next scheduled address for a week to give you all the time you need. Make it perfect. Break a leg. I don’t want to be disappointed.”

Basil was happy to let the man jump off a cliff. It was time to play more heavily on King Rory’s messianic aspects anyway. The leader of Unison would have to step aside and let Rory play his role.


Prime Designate Daro’h

When they discovered that Hyrillka Designate Ridek’h had vanished from the sheltered caves, the Ildirans were in an uproar. Daro’h and Yazra’h marched to the mine opening to stare out across the bright landscape, desperately searching for him.

In the sky, faeros fireballs cruised back and forth, always watching. The open plains below the foothills spread out in great blackened swaths. Smoke curled into the sky from numerous smoldering flames. The Prime Designate stared, but he saw no figure moving out there.

Adar Zan’nh emerged from the tunnels, accompanied by four equally worried guards. “There is no sign of him in any of the chambers.”

Blind Tal O’nh sat cross-legged on the rocks outside, as he often did. Daro’h went to him to deliver the grim news. “Designate Ridek’h is missing, and I fear for his safety.”

“I know where he is,” O’nh said, unperturbed. “Ridek’h went to face the faeros incarnate in Mijistra.”

Yazra’h was ready to go after the young man with her two Isix cats. “Then he will die. Why did you not stop him?”

Adar Zan’nh responded immediately. “My scout ships could comb the landscape and intercept the Designate before he reaches Rusa’h.”

“And what would that accomplish?” The old tal’s expression was implacable as he faced the harsh light of the suns. “Though Ridek’h is just a boy, he understands what the rest of us are afraid to admit: We grow weaker every day. We must takeaction. The Mage-Imperator is being held prisoner by the humans and cannot help us. Hundreds of warliners remain in a holding pattern outside the system, impotent. Nine more are trapped here. We have several days to lay our plans and prepare to act while Ridek’h makes his way to Mijistra. If we do not, the Designate’s challenge and sacrifice will be wasted.”

Daro’h clenched his fists in frustration. “Give me a course of action that is not futile, and I will take it immediately!”

“Call Tal Ala’nh to bring back our warliners,” Yazra’h suggested, prowling back and forth like one of her cats. “If we launch a tremendous assault on Mijistra and seize back our city, it would deal a profound blow to the faeros.”

The Adar’s face was troubled. He had already watched most of his warliners obliterate themselves in an effort to weaken the hydrogues, and many had also been lost against the faeros. “They would destroy our Solar Navy — to no purpose. As Adar Kori’nh showed us, sacrifice must not be pointless.” He turned away. “Yet now it seems Designate Ridek’h is intent on throwing his life away.”

“Even failure in battle is preferable to this endless hiding!” Yazra’h cried. “Look what the faeros have done to our people, our world — our Empire. We must fight them. We must do something truly significant.”

Adar Zan’nh spoke slowly, an idea clearly forming in his mind. “We cannot win a direct combat — againstthem. The faeros are too powerful. But they are not our only adversary.”

Daro’h came to a conclusion he should have thought of much sooner. “The Solar Navy cannot fight the faeros, but they can go to Earth and free the Mage-Imperator.”

“Would that not mean going up against the entire human military fleet?” Yazra’h asked.

Zan’nh was shaking his head. “I understand the Earth Defense Forces. I am familiar with their ships, their command structure, their placement at Earth. If I joined my nine warliners with Tal Ala’nh’s cohort, my force could strike swiftly, rescue the Mage-Imperator, and depart without ever fully engaging their military.”

“We could have the Mage-Imperator back. ” Yazra’h breathed.

The Prime Designate began to feel the surge of possibilities. “But how do we get the warliners away from Ildira? The fireballswill intercept and destroy them as soon as they try to move.”

Tal O’nh got slowly to his feet. “Let the boy make his attempt. We do not know what he might accomplish. He may die, but he will preoccupy Rusa’h long enough for us to take extreme action.” He turned toward the Adar as if he could watch the expressions play across his face.

Zan’nh stared stonily. “An extreme action. something that Adar Kori’nh might have taken, provided there is a chance it could work.” He faced Daro’h, nodding slowly. “Prime Designate, we cannot waste our warliners, but we do possess another playing piece. When the tal first discussed it, the prospect seemed too terrible to consider.”

“We must consider everything,” Daro’h said.

“What is more terrible than granting the faeros free rein over Ildira?” Yazra’h asked.

Zan’nh looked up into the sky. “Our shipyards and spacedocks are hanging in Ildiran orbit — massive, unoccupied industrial facilities.”

The Prime Designate remained puzzled. “They are not armed. They cannot maneuver. How can the shipyards help us?”

“We know Rusa’h is ensconced in the Prism Palace,” Zan’nh pointed out. “We have a chance of destroying him, or at least hurting him, if we strike a powerful enough blow. But first we must accept an unspeakable reality: We will never get Mijistra back.”


Rlinda Kett

This was really stupid, Rlinda knew. Unconscionably, ridiculously stupid. If BeBob tried to do something like this, she would have sealed him in an airlock chamber until he came to his senses.

But Rlinda did it anyway. TheVoracious Curiosity was fully fueled and supplied, and she had checked out the new weapons systems. BeBob was due to leave on his next standard trading run, this time to a place called Eldora, so she waited until he left. She flew off when he couldn’t do anything to stop her, leaving only a brief message for him to find when he got back. It was the only way.

She already knew she would regret not asking for his help if — when — the situation got hairy, but BeBob’s newBlind Faith was too perfect, too clean, and he was just too damned proud of it. She was taking a huge risk and didn’t want to worry about anything but herself and her ship.

She would find Davlin Lotze, if he was still alive.

Though she had filed no flight plan, BeBob would figure out where she was going. It was fairly obvious. Nevertheless, she hoped to be back before he could do anything equally stupid.

Though Llaro had been a Hansa colony, it wasn’t one of her usual destinations. Not a terribly scenic place, but Rlinda didn’t plan to do any sightseeing. From space, the world looked as if it had been used roughly, scraped clean, and left exhausted.

Her planetary database identified the site of the former colony. There, she found an extensive complex spreading for many kilometers, a maze of towers and tunnels and incomprehensible structures. “If you’re down there, Davlin, I’m going to have a hell of a time finding you,” she muttered.

She reminded herself again that this was a really stupid idea, but she owed the man too much to give up now. Davlin had saved her too many times, even though she had done her best to return the favor.

Opening a channel on theCuriosity ’s comm system, she broadcast on a private EDF frequency — one that Davlin would know and monitor, if he could. “Hello, Davlin? Davlin Lotze. If you’re there, please respond. This is Captain Rlinda Kett, cavalry of one. Remember me?”

From the size of the infestation down there, she wasn’t sure how Davlin would get to a transceiver, but if it was humanly possible, she was willing to bet he’d do it. In fact, Davlin might even have found a way to escape on his own. Via transportal wall, maybe? In that case, he wouldn’t be here anymore. and then she didn’t know what she’d do.

Alert, she circled overhead, unrealistically hoping that the Klikiss wouldn’t notice her. She kept herself ready at all times, prepared to throw theCuriosity into an immediate retreat. Then, unexpectedly, she received a signal on the EDF band. She did not recognize the voice. The strange tone sounded synthesized and mechanical, not human.

“Captain Kett.”

A chill went up her spine. “Who is this? I’m trying to contact Davlin Lotze.”

Suddenly, a swarm of small Klikiss ships came toward her, hundreds of identical component vessels. They launched from the colony structures below while others swooped down from orbit, rapidly converging on her poor littleCuriosity. “Oh, crap!”

It was time to check out the new weapons the Roamer shipyards had installed. She shot jazer blasts at all the bug vessels that swirled around her, and in less than a minute she had obliterated a dozen of them; high-velocity projectiles smashed another seven. But the Klikiss ships kept coming. There were far too many of them.

She accelerated, trying to ram her way out. “Getting a little crowded around here.” Two of the component craft caromed off her hull as they attempted to evade her charge. Red alarm lights flashed on theCuriosity ’s status indicator array, and sparks spat out of the copilot’s control panel. Good thing BeBob wasn’t there. He’d be panicked right now.

“Captain Kett, please land.”

She realized then that the Klikiss component ships could have wiped her out, but the precise shots had merely crippled her engines. As she descended, alien component ships surrounded her, herding her. She had about as much maneuverability as a square asteroid. She used up all of her favorite curses on the way down and made up a few more before theCuriosity skidded across the dirt and rocks, clipping one of the termite-mound towers.

Crash webbing exploded around her, pinning her to her seat while cushioning foam spurted against her body. She spluttered and cursed again as theCuriosity came to a grudging halt. The bottom hull was ripped, the engines wrecked. “Oh, dammit a hundred times over!”

Outside, thousands of Klikiss emerged from their tunnels and towers, scuttling toward her.

This wasn’t exactly how Rlinda had pictured the mission ending. She considered launching an emergency buoy into space with a brief last message for BeBob, but that would just be treacly sentiment, and she couldn’t bring herself to do it.

While peeling off the crash webbing and smearing away the soft, slimy foam that had saved her life, she heard scraping and scratching on the outside of the ship. Even though the lower hull was already compromised, she couldn’t bear to see the bugs rip open her beloved ship as if it were nothing more than a food package. That would just be too much.

Opening the hatch, she stared out upon a sea of polished chitin, segmented limbs, and faceted eyes. Offensive odors filled the air — like a mixture of ammonia, sulfur dust, rotting meat, and vomit. Then she saw an old woman standing among the creatures. A human woman. Leaving the insects behind, the stranger approached theCuriosity ’s hatch. “Captain Kett, I’m Margaret Colicos. I’ve been sent to meet you.”

Rlinda blinked in disbelief. It took her a long moment to form a response, and she couldn’t decide which part she found most astonishing. She had spent a lot of time in the ruins of Rheindic Co with Davlin, helping him search for any sign of the Colicos team. “I tried to find you years ago!” She glanced nervously at the insects. “I’m looking for Davlin Lotze now. I think he was abandoned here on Llaro. Any idea where he might be?”

Margaret hesitated, then said, “Davlin is here. but he’s not the Davlin you’re expecting.”


Chairman Basil Wenceslas

The looming black robot seemed to fill much of the Chairman’s office with his armored body. Captain McCammon and three heavily armed royal guards stood at the doorway, visibly concerned, their weapons drawn and ready to fire if the robot should make any threatening moves.

Basil leaned back in his chair, entirely unafraid. He had plenty of things to worry about, but Sirix wanted something from him, and the Chairman wanted something in return. “The EDF ships you returned all passed inspection, and General Lanyan has departed this morning on schedule.”

“Your human inspectors were very thorough. All systems will perform properly,” Sirix said in his buzzing voice. “Many of my black robots would like to have gone along on the mission, to assist in destroying the Pym subhive.”

“I understand, but the General was quite adamant.”

Basil wasn’t sure whether Lanyan had been more worried about the robots or the Klikiss themselves. He doubted Sirix would be so stupid as to betray them, since the Hansa manufacturing facilities had not yet delivered the replacement robots Sirix so desperately needed. Nevertheless, Basil had acceded to the General’s demand; only human soldiers accompanied the battle group off to Pym.

“Your robots’ work so far has been acceptable.” He leaned forward and put his elbows on the deskscreen. “I see no reason why we cannot proceed with our arrangement, provided I receive daily updates on your progress on the ships.”

Sirix remained motionless. “We are on schedule. We will deliver five rebuilt EDF ships to you within seven days, in exchange for five hundred new comrades.”

“Our modified facilities are ready to begin the assembly process, but we will carefully control the release of all completed robots.”

Sirix backed away. “We recognize your need for caution and will abide by your rules, Chairman Wenceslas.”

Basil tapped his fingers on the polished desktop, remembering the public’s lukewarm response to his announced alliance with Sirix. That needed to change. “We should have an event to commemorate the release of the first black robots. Mr. Cain, see to it.”

His deputy remained seated in his usual chair off to the side. “An excellent suggestion. Perhaps you should give the speech personally? Your presence would make the people understand the real business reasons for this operation.”

He frowned at Cain, not sure why he seemed so interested. Basil didn’t often like to step into the spotlight, but maybe this wasn’t something he wanted to place on the shoulders of King Rory. “All right. Make sure there’s appropriate fanfare, positive media coverage — schedule it for a few days after the Archfather’s next rally.” (And what an interesting eventthat was going to be!) He maintained his calm expression. “We need the right sort of spin on this new relationship to overshadow the complaints of Freedom’s Sword.” He narrowed his eyes. “Any further progress on capturing their ringleaders, Mr. Cain?”

“None, sir. They are extremely clever.”

Colonel Andez appeared in the doorway of his office and gave a smart salute. When McCammon tried to block her entrance, she gave him an indignant glare. “I have important news for the Chairman.” Not surprisingly, McCammon did not like Andez or her cleanup crew, who had begun to usurp many long-standing duties of the royal guard. As Basil had given her more and more responsibility, Andez had definitely risen to the task.

Basil stood up. “Deputy Cain, Captain McCammon, please escort Sirix to the factory. In our new spirit of openness and cooperation, let him perform whatever inspections he desires.” He motioned for Andez to enter his office. “In the meantime, I need to speak with the colonel in private.”

When they were alone in the office, Basil drew out the silence. She did not blurt questions or show any sign of impatience; she simply waited, looking at the Chairman with her steely gaze. Finally, he allowed himself a smile. She had passed his little test. “Very well, Colonel,” he said. “What do you have to report?”

“It’s Former Chairman Maureen Fitzpatrick, sir. She plans to betray you to our enemies, perhaps even resume her old position.”

Basil hadn’t expected this at all, not even an inkling. “Explain.”

“When you first aired your suspicions of the former Chairman, we established covert surveillance on her mansion. You will be interested to know that she recently had a visitor: her grandson, Patrick Fitzpatrick.”

Now Basil was incensed. The young man was a deserter who had publicly denounced the Hansa and blamed the Roamer ekti embargo on EDF atrocities. Not only had King Peter used Fitzpatrick’s confession to spread sedition throughout the Hansa, Freedom’s Sword had used him as their poster child. “What was he doing here?”

“Recruiting her for the Confederation. The former Chairman intends to defect to Theroc and join King Peter.”

“Is everyone in the Spiral Arm hell-bent on stabbing me in the back?” Once retired, a Hansa Chairman was supposed to be respectful toward the person currently in charge, not meddle in politics or voice objections to the current government. His immediate predecessor, Ronald Palomar, had led the Hansa for seventeen lackluster years, and when Basil took over, Palomar quietly and gratefully disappeared from public view. In fact, Basil didn’t even know if the man was still alive. But Maureen Fitzpatrick had led the Hansa for only nine years before she chose to retire; she had been out of office for nearly a quarter of a century, and now she wanted to come back? The power-hungry bitch.

“Contact Admiral Pike. I need his ships to intercept the former Chairman before she can do something stupid that irreparably damages the Hansa.”

“Yes, Mr. Chairman.” She turned briskly to leave.

Pike might have objections, but he would do exactly as he was ordered. After all, Basil held the man’s family hostage, as well.



In addition to their primary duties of reassembling EDF ships, the Chairman had secretly asked the black robots to perform a strange yet vital task in Earth orbit. Sirix did not question his reasons, since the human leader had offered him an additional one hundred new robots in exchange for this minimal service. Humans often did not make sense.

After inspecting the frenetic ship-repair operations, Sirix flew a small vehicle to where five black robots tinkered with a long-mothballed weapons satellite, a directed-energy projector abandoned in orbit more than a century ago. Basil Wenceslas had given them access to detailed schematics and new components.

Sirix was perplexed at the extent of the man’s trust in him. Was this some inexplicable test of the robots’ reliability? He could find no logical explanation for what they had been instructed to do.

The Hansa Chairman had asked Sirix to put his “most reliable” robots on the assignment; obviously, the man did not understand that all black robots were equally trustworthy, since they shared the same programming, the same goals. They would never betray each other, as humans so often did.

Now, floating in black vacuum with the immense cloud-swathed sphere of Earth beneath them, the five robots extended articulated limbs and attached the requested tools to the large orbiting device. They expanded and tested new circuitry, reconfigured and polished the focusing mirrors, replaced the long-depleted power sources. Out of common caution, they added their now-standard safeguards to disable the equipment if anyone should attempt to turn the weapons satellite against the black robots themselves. But Sirix didn’t think that was what the Chairman had in mind.

With meticulous care, the robot workers removed all traces of corrosion, fixed a circuit board marred by micrometeoroid impacts, then ran all necessary diagnostic routines. The systems were quite primitive, but they would work.

When the control programming was set to active standby, ready to be used at a moment’s notice, the robots withdrew from the forgotten satellite. Their mission was complete.

The high-energy beam was aimed down at the Palace District. Sirix had already calculated how much damage such a strike could cause — its maximum output was enough to obliterate the whole of the Whisper Palace and the Hansa Headquarters. He was curious to learn what the Chairman intended to do with it.

He had long suspected that Basil Wenceslas was not a completely rational man.


Former Chairman Maureen Fitzpatrick

Maureen knew how to work the system, how to doctor paperwork, and how to slip under the radar of pencil pushers and lackluster bureaucrats. Old Jonas was a master at inputting vague and uninteresting answers on the clearance forms. Nobody would guess the real reason she was leaving Earth.

Though she had retired voluntarily ages ago, the former Chairman maintained a thriving career as a consultant and adviser. She sat on the boards of numerous companies, think tanks, and foundations; every week she appeared at charity functions, commencement ceremonies, and steering-committee gatherings. She had more consulting work than she could possibly finish. But life was all about choices, and Maureen Fitzpatrick had to put her considerable skills to their most advantageous use. She had made her decision.

In the months following Patrick’s stint as a prisoner of war, she had worried about her poor grandson, sure that he’d been brainwashed by the Roamers. But now, much to her chagrin, Maureen realized that the young man had been right after all. Chairman Wenceslas was the threat, not the Roamers or the Confederation.

Before her departure, she spent days making preparations, leaving a few little surprises for Patrick in case the deal went south. She had learned never to underestimate the likelihood of a worst-case scenario, or the amazing number of ways that things could get screwed up.

Maureen wandered through her mansion, staring at all the things she knew and loved. She’d never had much patience for insipid nostalgia, yet here she was acting in a way that would have sparked her scorn if she’d observed it in anyone else. At first she wanted to crate art objects and mementos to take with her, but Maureen quickly realized that unless she commissioned a whole cargo hauler, she could never take everything she wanted. In the end, frustrated, she made a command decision and left everything behind. As part of her compensation package for services rendered, she might even bill King Peter for all she had sacrificed.

Besides, if she straightened out the mess, she’d be back soon anyway.

With no particular fanfare, her small ship flew away from Earth’s security zone and past the EDF patrol ships around the Moon. Her ship had a registration number, but no name. It amused her that her grandson had christened the stolen vessel theGypsy; despite his upbringing, the boy had a soft heart and a soft head. Maureen had always considered the practice of naming a ship — as if it were some kind of a pet — frivolous.

Nevertheless, Patrick had surprised her. He had certainly begun to shine.

Ostensibly, the private yacht’s flight plan said that she was going to meet with an industrial contractor; the asteroid belt industries needed a firm management hand. Her entourage consisted of twenty people. Jonas had served at her side since her days as a deputy division head overseeing nothing larger than a continent; Maureen had kept him around forever because it was so difficult to find competent and reliable employees. Her pilot was also loyal, as were the other assistants in this hand-picked group. If she had to take on a role equivalent to Hansa Chairman, Maureen needed her best people with her.

Everyone aboard knew where they were really going and what they were giving up. She had been surprised at how easily they all agreed to leave — a clear barometer of just how bad things were on Earth. Since she led a privileged life, Maureen had little exposure to most of the Chairman’s ruthless crackdowns; her companions, though, had seen the writing on the wall.

Her ship followed their documented course until they reached the asteroid belt complex. The pilot spoke over the intercom to the passenger compartment. “Ready to deviate from the flight plan, Madame Chairman. Should I power up the Ildiran stardrive?”

“Yes, let’s head off to Theroc before anyone notices.” Patrick was waiting there for her, and she was ready togo.

But nothing ever went as smoothly as expected.

The pilot transmitted back with clear anxiety in his voice. “Two EDF Mantas are coming to intercept. Admiral Pike insists that we stand down and surrender.”

“What is his problem?” Maureen pushed her way to the cockpit. “You may have to pull some fancy evasive maneuvers to get us out of here.”

Little beads of sweat sparkled on the pilot’s forehead. “I can’t fly like a smuggler or a blockade runner, ma’am.”

“We haven’t done anything wrong, Captain. Your service record is completely clean — I checked. This must just be a routine stop. Apparently, the EDF doesn’t have anything better to do.”

He pointed to the bright traces on his navigation screens. “They were waiting for us, Madame Chairman. There’s plenty of other traffic, but they’re heading straight toward us. This is no routine stop.”

Maureen felt cold. Somehow the Chairman had learned of her plans. Paranoid bastard! “I’m going to have to ask you to bend a few rules. How soon can you align our vector and engage the stardrive?”

“Right away. I was about to — ”

“Then do it.”

He swallowed hard. “There’ll be hell to pay when we get back.”

She frowned at him. “You know we’re not coming back.”

“Right you are.”

The two Mantas raced closer at full speed. She said rather urgently, “It would be a good idea if we got out of here before they’re in weapons range.”

The pilot engaged the stardrive, and her space yacht leaped across the light-years. With a mocking gesture at the screens, Maureen waved goodbye. So much for the worst-case scenario.

Her staff was amazed that the EDF had tried to prevent them from leaving Earth, that they had run for their lives and gotten away from the bad guys. They all felt as if they were in an action vidloop. A lifetime of government service had given them few opportunities for excitement. Now they had no doubt that Chairman Wenceslas was afraid of what Maureen might do! She could tell that they were all quite pleased with themselves, especially Jonas.

After two days of travel, the pilot disengaged their stardrive and arrived without incident at the edge of the Theron system, punctual as always. She sent out a long-range message as they made their way into the inner system. She was sure Patrick and his Roamer wife had arranged to roll out the red carpet. “This is former Chairman Maureen Fitzpatrick. Can somebody manage an escort and a reception committee? We’re on our way in.”

Maureen wished she had at least brought some of the best bottles from her wine cellar so they could toast their new lives. She had never tasted a Theron vintage before, but she doubted it could measure up to her private collection. Nevertheless, the green-and-blue planet looked very welcoming as it grew larger with their approach.

Two EDF Mantas roared in from either side, so close they nearly collided with the yacht. Maureen lost her balance and fell to the deck, grabbing for a handhold. The pilot squawked in panic and began to fly erratically.

Admiral Pike’s face appeared on the comm screen. “Chairman Fitzpatrick, we warned you not to flee. I have orders from Chairman Wenceslas to prevent you from committing a treasonous act. I cannot allow you to reach Theroc.”

Maureen was livid. They must have known her destination from the start. She opened the communications channel, leaned close to the screen, and brought to bear all of the fury that had gained her fame as the old Battleaxe. “Admiral, you are no longer in Hansa-controlled space, and you have no jurisdiction here. My ship has arrived at the behest of King Peter and the Confederation.”

Pike’s squarish face was stony, but she could see a troubled glimmer of uncertainty there. “Maybe so, but I cannot allow you to proceed.”

A cluster of ships had already launched from Theroc: Roamer vessels and even a single Manta, apparently one of Admiral Willis’s battle group. As she expected, Patrick was out there flying theGypsy. Now that the Confederation reception committee had seen the threatening EDF ships, they increased acceleration.

Maureen responded to Pike with a cold smile. “Admiral, if you try to take me prisoner, I will create such a shitstorm of scandal your great-grandchildren will still be cringing from it. Cut your losses and go home. You don’t belong here.”

“Neither do you, ma’am. Unfortunately, the Chairman’s orders are clear.”

The two Mantas circled around before the Confederation ships could close the distance. The pilot looked to her frantically for instructions. Maureen assumed the EDF ships were going to use a tractor beam to seize her yacht, but instead the two Mantas pointed their bow weapons clusters at her. She saw their jazer banks powering up.

“He has my family hostage,” Pike said apologetically. “He has all of our families.”

Maureen opened her mouth in disbelief, and all words suddenly left her.

The Mantas opened fire.


Patrick Fitzpatrick III

The explosion flared on theGypsy ’s cockpit screens as he accelerated toward his grandmother’s ship. Though Patrick demanded all possible speed from his engines, he knew he would be too late.

For days now, he had been filled with optimism. King Peter had pressed him for details on his grandmother’s reaction to the invitation. “Is there any chance you misinterpreted her answer?”

“She’ll come. She knows the Chairman has to be stopped. She’ll be a strong advocate for the Confederation, and she’ll convince what’s left of the Hansa.” He looked forward to being on the same side with her; the Chairman wouldn’t stand a chance against their combined skills and determination.

But now his hopes vanished in a sparkling cloud of shrapnel, incandescent gases, and vented atmosphere. Somewhere among that wreckage, curling and drifting out in empty space, was all that remained of his grandmother, her crew, her companions.

“Damn you!” Patrick shouted into the comm system. “Murderers!” Before he knew what he was doing, he had accelerated violently toward Admiral Pike’s Mantas. He needed no more reason to hate the Hansa, hate the Chairman, and hate the dark and twisted abomination the EDF had become.

The pair of cruisers hung in space, their weapons ports still hot as theGypsy rushed toward them. He simply could not let the EDF continue its atrocities with impunity.

In the copilot’s seat, Zhett was white with shock, yet sharp enough to realize the danger. “Fitzie, they’ll blow us out of the sky — just like they did to her.”

“They won’t,” Patrick growled, sounding more confident than he felt. But this was a fool’s response, and he knew it.

To his surprise, the rest of the Confederation reception committee followed him, also spoiling for a fight. Maybe all together they did have enough combined firepower.

Oddly, though, Admiral Pike’s heavily armored ships did not engage. The older man appeared on the comm screen, and he clearly recognized Patrick — probably because his face had been displayed so prominently on the Most Wanted boards.

“I’m sorry.” Pike sounded sincere. “Believe me, Mr. Fitzpatrick, I had no choice.”

Patrick took several potshots with theGypsy ’s minimal weapons, which were far too insignificant to cause harm to either Manta. Ignoring the provocation, the two EDF ships turned and accelerated away before any of the Confederation ships could catch up with them.

As soon as the Mantas were gone, Patrick felt the echoing emptiness of shock. He dug inside himself, found his hot anger again, and clung to it. She had come here becausehe had asked her to. She had been doing the rightthing!

In dismay, he turned the space yacht around and headed back toward where his grandmother’s ship had been obliterated. With tears in her dark eyes, Zhett leaned close to touch him, but she found no words. Patrick sat back stiffly, clutching the piloting controls and staring straight ahead, not sure what he was searching for. A few sparkles of cooling wreckage were the only trace that remained of the woman who had raised him.


Hyrillka Designate Ridek’h

The young man walked across open country in the unrelenting daylight. Normally he would have taken comfort from the seven suns, but now their light revealed only how bleak and empty Ildira was. He felt no weariness or despair, only a determination to do what he had been born to do, to follow the destiny that had been handed to him. Though he was an untried Designate, Ridek’h meant to hold the faeros incarnate accountable.

Perhaps he would even earn himself a place in theSaga of Seven Suns. if any rememberers survived to write it.

He rested when he needed to, always heading toward the majestic capital city that his people had been forced to abandon. Blackened hillsides and charred fields bore mute testament to the brutality of the fiery elementals. Up in the sky, the ever-present fireballs drifted like ominous predatory fish. Ridek’h was sure they saw him, but he did not hide. The hot glare made his eyes sting with tears, but he pressed onward — for days.

He found several crowded refugee camps, and none of the people he talked to believed they were safe. Even though most Ildirans did not know who Ridek’h was by sight, they understood that he belonged to the noble kith. They all begged to know when Mage-Imperator Jora’h would return to save Ildira.

Ridek’h straightened. These people deserved an answer, the best one he could give. “The Prime Designate and Adar Zan’nh will find a way to bring him back.” He paused, giving them an intent look. “And the Ildiran people must do everything possible to help.”

They murmured their agreement. Designate Ridek’h remained with them for a short while longer before moving on. Even if he failed on this audacious — or foolhardy — mission, he hoped to inspire Prime Designate Daro’h and all Ildirans by his example. He refused to believe that his actions would be fruitless. This was the stuff of legends.

He understood that he wasn’t likely to survive — he and Tal O’nh had discussed that at great length — but the faeros incarnate would certainly remember the encounter. The young Designate would get through to him, even if it cost him his life. Rusa’h could not keep inflicting such horror on people —his people! — without being challenged.

Finally, he reached the outskirts of glorious Mijistra. Fires had run rampant through the streets, charring and melting the crystal, stone, and metal structures. Warehouses and habitation complexes were gutted, covered with soot. The seven symmetrical streams that had flowed up the elliptical hill overlooking the city were bone dry.

Ahead, the magnificent Prism Palace, with its bulbous domes and tall spires, minarets, and transparent shafts, glowed with a dazzling, hateful light, like a gem in a furnace. That was his goal. Faeros incarnate Rusa’h waited there for him. The young man was afraid — he was not a fool — but the mad Designate had not killed him in their previous encounter.

Head held high, Ridek’h entered the city without any pretense of hiding while a dozen more fireballs swirled overhead, their flames brightening. He walked through the dazzling streets, remembering the glory of the Ildiran Empire under Mage-Imperator Jora’h. Heat shimmered in the air, reflecting off the numerous flat, mirrored surfaces.

He followed the long, winding pilgrims’ path toward the Prism Palace. Supplicants had once taken this road on their way to behold the Mage-Imperator. His own purpose was not to submit to the mad Designate, but to indicate his resolve by facing the hardship and doing what was necessary, despite the pain.

The faeros incarnate came out to stop him before he could enter the Palace. Clothed in flames, his skin incandescent from the living thermal energy that permeated his body, Rusa’h stood blazing in front of the arched entrance and faced the young Designate. His eyes were brighter than novas.

“You know who I am.” The boy spoke first. “I am the Hyrillka Designate.”

“Iam the Hyrillka Designate,” Rusa’h roared, flames flickering from his mouth.

Ridek’h flinched but did not back away. Though he expected to be incinerated at any moment, he would at least speak the message he had come here to deliver. “If you were a true Hyrillka Designate, I would not need to come here in order to beg for the lives of the Hyrillkan people.” He spread his arms and added an accusatory tone. “Look around you at the empty city. All Ildirans have fled Mijistra. Is this how you lead, how you represent our race? The people of Hyrillka — supposedlyyour people — are being decimated by the faeros. Have you visited the burned refugee camps to which they fled for safety? Have you touched the blackened bones of your own former subjects?”

Rusa’h seemed to waver. “The faeros do what they must.”

In that answer, the boy Designate received his first inkling that the faeros might not be entirely under Rusa’h’s control. This startled him. He had believed, perhaps falsely, that the fireballs were in the madman’s thrall. But what if the fallen Designate did not have as much power over the fiery creatures as Ildirans had all assumed?

“Why are youallowing so many of your people to be killed? Would a true Mage-Imperator allow it?” He took a step closer, defying the heat. “Neither is this how a Designate cares for his subjects. Why do you not protect them?” He stood there before the flaming man. “Both as Designate and as Mage-Imperator, you have failed them absolutely.”

Ridek’h had intended to challenge the faeros incarnate, to anger him and make himthink. He realized he had succeeded in at least one of these goals when the fires around Rusa’h intensified with rage.

The hovering fireballs plunged down toward the Prism Palace.



With her special sensitivity to changes in thethism, Osira’h felt the disruption from Mijistra like a roar in her mind: vibrations, stresses. danger. She knew that Designate Ridek’h had arrived at the Prism Palace and confronted the faeros incarnate.

She raced down a mine shaft to gather her brothers and sisters, but they had sensed the threat too and were already running toward her. No one but the half-breed children of the green priest Nira could turn thethism against the flames that Ridek’h was facing.

Everyone else had already given up on the young Designate, assuming him to be dead. Adar Zan’nh and Prime Designate Daro’h had set events in motion that could not be halted. Tal O’nh was on his way up to the orbiting shipyards with a very small crew; together they would create an incredible diversion that should buy Adar Zan’nh all the time he needed to get his ships away unharmed.

“Concentrate!” Rod’h urged.

“We need to protect Ridek’h long enough for him to get away,” Osira’h agreed.

With his impetuous mission to Mijistra, the young Hyrillka Designate had unwittingly done his part in the bold and risky plan to rescue the Mage-Imperator, and now the half-breed children would not let go of him.

Sitting in a circle on the stone floor, the children joined hands and cast thethism net in their minds far and wide to create a sort of shield for the young man. Riding thethism forward, they found Mijistra, the Prism Palace. and brave Ridek’h, as he faced the flaming fury of the mad Designate, whose heat made the air blister and shimmer.

While he had the boy trapped, Rusa’h attempted to rip away his soulfire and add the fresh life force to the growing faeros — but Osira’h and her siblings cut him off. Combined, they protected the young Designate’sthism and all the threads that surrounded him with a sort of mental insulation, making him impervious to the first wave of attack.

Rusa’h blasted his victim, but he was unable to crash through the unexpected barrier. When the mad Designate could not seize the soulfire he wanted, he was momentarily stunned. But if the faeros incarnate should choose to lash out with physical, incinerating fire.

Run!Osira’h shouted to the young Designate through her mind.Come back to us!

Ridek’h heard them, but echoes of the mental shout also resonated through the barrier, and the faeros incarnate realized that someone was helping his victim. Burning Rusa’h stood nonplussed at the blackened dry mouth where the seven streams converged, curious about what could be powerful enough to prevent him from taking what he wanted.

Run, Ridek’h!

Osira’h caught a ripple of the young man’s thoughts, feeling his resolve as he faced death, his satisfaction that he had accomplished what he had wanted to. She shouted out again, penetrating his awareness with a glimmer of the plan that was under way to destroy the mad Designate and divert the faeros.Your work is done, Ridek’h. Go — we will help you escape.

Reeling, the boy scrambled from the blazing Prism Palace while the faeros incarnate was momentarily paralyzed with surprise. Ridek’h ran headlong down the well-trodden path that led away from the hill.

Nira’s five children found the strength to maintain their shield, but now the mad Designate came after them along the mental pathways. Tracing theirthism connections, Rusa’h used all his strength to lash out at Osira’h and her siblings. But they thwarted him, diverting his concentration using the protective powers ofthism and the verdani telink, as well as their own synergy.

Rusa’h bellowed in their minds, demanding to take all of their soulfires for the salvation of the Ildiran people. Osira’h could feel him battering at her mind, trying to rip information from her. The faeros incarnate sensed something was about to happen.

And young Ridek’h kept running.

In her mind, Osira’h felt the mad Designate become suspicious. He had caught a glimpse of the trap about to be sprung.

She clenched her brother’s hand tightly. They had to keep Rusa’h busy for at least a short while longer. The boy Designate had far to go before he could hope to escape the impending holocaust. The timing would be close.

Adar Zan’nh was ready to launch his ships. Prime Designate Daro’h remained in the cave shelter, prepared to seize back the Empire. Up in the shipyards Tal O’nh had implemented the initial stages of his plan.

The end was coming.

Somehow, in their efforts to protect Ridek’h, fear and anticipation trickled through the barriers the children had set up around themselves. A few revelatory thoughts slipped free — and the faeros incarnate caught a hint of what the Prime Designate planned to do. He knew his danger.