Chapter 1

Colonel Jake Eisen stood ramrod straight before his superior officer. Jake had light brown hair, tan skin, and the gaunt face of a high metabolism soldier. He wore the tan garments of a soldier out of field kit. The office around them was actually nothing more than a white box with chairs and a table, but it had been richly augmented by his superior so that Jake’s intracranial link added virtual photos, awards, and campaign books arrayed across the walls.

“Sit,” General Liro said.

The general looked fit like Jake, though his skin had a replant line advancing from the neck. The top half of his face remained leathery where the old skin still stubbornly hung on, while the new skin advancing from the neck was new and firm. It was a sign of how no-nonsense the man was that he had not bothered to conceal the process. Liro did not waste his time with minor cosmetic changes to himself or his virtual avatars.

Jake took a seat across from his superior. The general had already gone off-retina. He sent Jake a pointer to a shared data file. Liro directed Jake’s traversal through the data in their internal personal views. Lira brought forward an analysis of a signal intercepted by the Cluster Science Arm. It took a central position in Jake’s PV.

“At 0701 we received a signal coming from the direction of Vacsonne Pharmi system. VP138668903.”

Jake fed the code into his operations starmap. Their arm of the galaxy snapped into view in his mind’s eye. The local volume of space on the frontier of all Terran worlds was labeled as the Intor Cluster in the center of the view. The threat of the Nessel Syndicate appeared adjacent to the Cluster as a volume of red-tinted space. Important systems were visible as points of light within the spheres of influence of the two enemies, often with interconnecting lines. The code directed him to a point outside of Cluster and Syndicate space. A relative unknown.

“The signal was very unusual,” continued Liro. “Turns out it did not come from Vacsonne Pharmi. The boys and girls at strategic communications received it, but they couldn’t make heads or tails of it. As it happens, it was actually a group of scientists who rushed in to contact the CMA.”

The Cluster Military Arm was the military organization that protected the cluster from the interference of the core worlds. The CMA was one of the elements of the United Earth Defiance, worlds banded together to challenge the power of old Earth and her closest allies.

They cracked a code? Is there an attack coming? Jake kept his questions to himself. The General would fill him in at his own pace.

“Turns out, it’s an alien communication,” General Liro said. He spoke as if discussing the tepidity of his coffee.


“CSA gave me over a ninety percent on it, straight from their AI specialists,” Liro said. “We don’t have much in the way of assets in reserve, still, we have to investigate something this big.”

“That’s amazing, sir,” Jake said. His mind reeled with the possibilities. With the war raging, it was easy to forget that Terrans were not alone in the galaxy. The Core World military agency, called the UNSF, had uncovered alien ruins in many star systems.

“The war is not going well, Colonel,” said Liro. “For us, or the UED.”

This is not like Liro, Jake thought.

“If this signal is from aliens, then I see two opportunities in it,” General Liro said. “One, you can befriend these aliens, and we can develop a relationship that can strengthen us in the coming years. We could remain free.”

He sees us losing against the NS.

The realization hit Jake hard. He knew the war was a close thing. Liro had never before shown a crack in his resolve. Now Jake knew that Liro did not think they could prevail on their own.

“Then I hope they hate the NS as much as we do,” Jake said.

Liro nodded. “Another good outcome would be that we could find some alien technology that could turn this war around. Just imagine if we could develop a new weapons system based on something the NS has never seen before. It could make the difference. Not just for us; for the entire UED.”

Jake knew General Liro would not mention the many scenarios involving disaster: that the signal could be an NS trap, that the aliens could prove hostile, or any of a host of negative possibilities. Liro did not think that way. He did not operate that way. Liro was all about taking what you got and turning it into gold.

“Do you see the possibility, Eisen? Do you believe in it?”

Jake nodded. “If this can win us the war, I’ll figure out how to make it happen,” Jake said. “That signal could be a distress call. If we find a dead ship, or even just the remains of one, we could study it and learn a lot. If they’re alive and we help them, we can find new allies.”

Liro nodded vigorously.

“Exactly. The Segosians contacted us about the signal. They want in on it. At first I said no. But they offered up some light battle units, so I had to accept. You’re still totally in charge, but you have three of them to bring with you. An intelligence officer and two robot handlers.”

“They want in on the prize,” Jake said.

Liro shrugged. “Yes. And they know if it pays off, we’ll treat them ten times better than the NS ever would. That’s okay. The wrinkle to be aware of is, as long as those LBUs are on, make sure your Segosians don’t die. Chances are they have them programmed to go hostile in case of betrayal.”

“They could steal what we find.”

“Two can play that game. The ship is yours. Make sure it stays that way,” Liro said.

Jake nodded. He would be able to lock down the ship’s authorization systems to work for his team only. Theoretically, the Segosians might escape on some other ship sent to take them back, but realistically, if they could spare a ship of their own, they probably would not have begged a ride from the CMA in the first place. Jake resolved to be wary, but he did not fear betrayal by the Segosians. They loved their freedom as much as the Cluster, and they knew that no matter what the NS promised, things would be bad on the local frontier if the Nessel Syndicate won.

“What about our own hardware?”

“I got you a scout unit,” Liro said. “That’s it. The Segosian LBUs are your backbone, that’s why I let them in on it.”

That could be good, Jake thought. Dealing with aliens, a scout unit will be equipped to learn a lot.

Liro sent Jake some personnel files. It included files for three Segosians, the robot handler assigned to the scout unit, and a Cluster Science Arm officer.

“CSA sent over this Reid West. You have to take him and these three Segosians. Otherwise, find your own team. If you don’t like the robot handler on the scout unit, replace him. Volunteers only,” Liro added, though he knew that would not mean much. Colonel Eisen held hero status among the ground forces of the Intor Cluster for his ground defense of Mallavie. He would be able to pick almost anyone he wanted.

“You have a Raptor class, and half that bay is going to be dedicated to the Segosians’ LBUs. Mausers. So you have room for maybe ten people and their supplies at the most. I’d take eight.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Don’t waste any time. We may not be the only ones who heard that signal. Dismissed.”

Jake rose, saluted, and hurried out. The room maintained its charade of a decorated office even as Jake left. He knew that as soon as Liro checked out, the office would revert to an empty cube until the next occupant activated it. Then it would look like someone else’s workspace.

As he walked down the outside corridor, he was already cranking on his new assignment. Jake’s mind naturally went to Mallavie. There were a handful of hard core survivors that had made it through that hell, just as he had.

Seresto and Palmquist.

He felt pleased. And he figured he could get them to sign up. Still, he needed more. Someone familiar with aliens. Not possible. It was all new.

Someone who knows... science? Better, someone who knows how to negotiate. If we meet an alien crew, we have to win them over. They could save us.

Jake just hoped whoever the aliens were, they valued living free.

Chapter 2

Silvana Lucero sent out link requests to her family members as her commander had ordered. All around her, other soldiers sat silently in the stark barracks, doing the same. She waited from her narrow metal bunk for someone to join her channel. Nothing happened for a few seconds.

Of course they won’t answer.

Silvana understood the lack of response. Her family knew she had been placed into a mental conditioning program, but to them, she would always be the same Silvana. The monstrous, scheming girl who had managed to kill half of them and terrorize the other half to the point where they wanted to die. The MCP had changed her, not them.

She looked the same on the outside. There was a tiny picture of her in the corner of a viewpane in her personal view. She looked at the avatar in her PV: A clear face, thin nose, framed by mussed black hair kept short enough to stay out of her way.

The old Silvana would have tapped her fingers impatiently. Fingers with chewed off fingernails. Silvana glanced at her hands. She was not tapping her fingers and they had long, healthy nails. She felt neither happy nor sad that her old habits had been cleaned by the MCP.

None of the requests were accepted. Silvana mentally shrugged and dropped the channel.

She had a new family now. The Nessel Syndicate. The Syndicate, along with several other immense corporate entities, owned the core world government and its military, the United Nations Space Force. Though the name said ‘United Nations’ for reasons lost in antiquity, it really meant the United Supercorporations of the core worlds. The NS was one entity that helped supply the billions of citizens of the core worlds with the plunder of the frontier.

A connection request came in. Silvana did a double take, but it was not a family member calling. It was Silvana’s commander, Coordinator Melisar. Silvana accepted the connection.

“Task Leader Lucero. Wrap things up with your family quickly,” Melisar said. “A situation is developing.”

Does she really not know? Or just pretending not to know? Probably just doesn’t care.

“I’m ready now,” Silvana said flatly.

The Coordinator sent a data package to Silvana’s link. Silvana started to look at it as her superior continued.

“We’ve received a communication from deep space. Our analysis indicated it was artificial. However, there are no people where this signal came from.”

Silvana kept up with her Coordinator, looking the signal over. In an internal viewpane, the signal was shown in a scientist’s display style, an analysis format meant for intuitive visualization of natural phenomenon. It had not been presented in a communication signal pane because it fell outside the parameters of any Terran communication signal.

Of course, that meant it had not been decrypted. She saw several unusual aspects in its construction. Attached notes from a science officer said the normalization performed by standard Syndicate communication receivers might be clipping it. The officer was not even sure they had seen the bulk of it. She had speculated they might only have the lower frequency components of a more sophisticated signal.

“You must determine the nature of this signal,” Melisar continued. “If it’s alien in origin, you have to determine the threat level posed. Put a priority on obtaining samples of any alien technology and preventing any Intor Cluster operatives from doing the same.”


Nothing had come this close to startling her since she had gone through her MCP. Silvana started to understand the unique nature of her assignment. She supposed that also meant she was a highly valued Task Leader. She felt a warm satisfaction at the notion, a product of her Syndicate programming which was the closest she could come to happiness.

Somewhere inside her, the old Silvana tried to rise up through the mire of her new mind.

Highly valued or highly expendable?

“You are assigned Science Captain Bolgi and Handler Gideon, managing a drop package with two Stynas and six Macleers. They’ve been notified. You depart within the hour.”

“Yes, Coordinator. For the Syndicate.”

“For the Syndicate.” The channel closed.

Silvana checked her schedule. She would be using the Choskarone, a fast cruiser with minimal armament. The spacecraft was fully automated, though it would accommodate the team and their battle machines in a drop package. She saw several service requests attached to it indicating it was being readied posthaste. As indicated, Bolgi and Gideon had ack’d their boarding orders. She saw their assigned quarters and workspaces.

She scheduled a visit to the common store for equipment, then pulled her tall frame out of the tiny bunk. She wore thick black leggings, half her combat suit. Her breasts swung unrestrained under a thin black t-shirt. She stepped into a pair of boots which captured her feet perfectly and sealed themselves up to her leggings. She grabbed her Veer jacket but did not put it on.

She walked out of the barracks as everyone else continued their conversations with their families. The NS headquarters around her was a grim collection of boring corridors and working cubes with sleep cylinders arrayed in the walls everywhere. The NS was efficient if not colorful. Everyone knew their tasks and went about business calmly. Those who had not been through MCP like Silvana had their fun, but it was in their allotted virtual reality minutes. In the Syndicate, if you were awake in the real world, you were focused.

She made it to the common store. It was a large hexagonal room with banks of cabinets on each wall. She walked up to her delivery drop off location and unlocked the cabinet with her intracranial link. The door opened and revealed her cache of guns, scanners, and supplies. It was all stuffed inside two backpacks and one hardened weapons suitcase. She took her things and headed for the Choskarone.

Silvana considered her team members on the way. She had worked with Gideon before. She recalled his gaunt face covered in light stubble, his wavy blonde hair, and predatory eyes. He was competent. Best of all, though, he did not try and think for himself. He remained focused on his robots and did not get in her way with useless commentary and suggestions. Also he owned a pleasure android, which meant he would not bother her with sex requisitions. Syndicate members were allowed to arrange physical congress once a week with partners of complementary sexual orientation, but Gideon seldom made such requests.

Then there was Bolgi. She brought up his record with her link. An image opened in her PV. The man looked stocky, strong, and well groomed. He was a Syndicate scientist, which made sense for a mission investigating aliens. She examined the details available. Many of his credits were used for mental stimulants. They might well be aiding his performance, as he had several exemplary ratings.

Silvana checked his preferences. He was listed as a heterosexual. Since her MCP, Silvana was heterosexual. She had not been that way before. She vaguely remembered her couplings from before the treatments. They no longer interested her.

Silvana did not feel anticipation or revulsion. She knew that if called upon, she would help her crew member do whatever was needed for his physical well being. In return, she would feel her own sense of satisfaction as installed by her MCP. That way, they could both get such healthy urges out of the way and concentrate on the mission.

Chapter 3

Mission Observer saw it first. A massive collection of something orbiting an ordinary star. The interactions between the unknown object and the particles in her own metastate were anomalous. It was a mystery.

The mission vessel Wivin traveled in Ilele, the fourth metastate of matter. In that metastate, Wivin could move through space very fast. The ship appeared to Miobs as nothing but a collection of glowing lines filled with dark mist.

The journey thus far had passed as an instant to the others, who could not function in Ilele as Miobs could. When the others returned to Chuns, the first metastate of matter, it would be to them as if they had just left home. In the time they had traveled, Miobs had lived so long. It had changed her. She had once been playful and eager. Now, she felt dulled by the length of the trip through the unchanging void. This new discovery brought back some of the old excitement she had felt when she first embarked.

Miobs translated the Wivin to Chuns in an instant. The glowing lines expanded and solidified into a long tube around Miobs. She found herself within one of the many interior chambers, alone. The Wivin’s systems awoke and started to examine the nearby star. She felt glad to see the ship was as confused about what it saw as she had been.

She translated herself into Chuns, gaining energy as she did so, though not as much as she had lost going in. She popped into view, floating parallel to the floor in a clean, empty room. Her cylindrical body was dominated by a large hemisphere in front, the organ she used to collect particle interactions while in metastate Ilele. She could live in both Chuns and Ilele, a miracle of the Six Precepts in and of itself. It was almost impossible to make physical things that worked in more than one metastate of matter. Even remaining intact across transitions took intense engineering. Of course, she did not function the same way in Chuns as in Ilele, but she survived and flourished in either.

Miobs did not need to exude the chemicals to announce her find: thanks to the Constructors and their mastery of the metastate Horon, Miobs merely had to think it. The delicate molecules would be produced at the termini of the communication as if Miobs had said it herself.

“I have seen something very interesting,” Miobs sent to her crewmates. “I cannot even say what it is, but I can tell you it is here, in orbit of this star.”


Thinker in metastate of Frant first received the chemicals from Miobs and had time to ponder the meaning long before the others could even process the information. Miobs had discovered an anomaly and brought the entire ship back into Chuns! Thisof was immediately curious about the discovery. Here was the adventure he sought. Though the colonization mission should not be forgotten, Thisof wanted to discover something new out here on the boundary of known space.

“I instruct that we approach this thing and examine it closely, Miobs!”

Thisof detached himself from the four-armed hangar that stabilized him in Ilele and moved out into the center of his work area. Warm light covered his foreparts as they moved up onto a raised platform to keep him comfortable as he thought. His Chuns-state body looked like a primitive Vogost on the outside: four chitinous body segments connected by thinner structural members, held off the floor by dozens of thick support spines. Before space travel, their race had been called only Vogost, meaning “naturally evolved”. Now they were almost all Vogost-Riline, literally “evolved - designed”. That is why none of the crew of the Wivin looked much alike. They had each been designed for their specific roles.

Thisof’s first segment served as feeder tube and delicate manipulators, the second, organs that sustained his function and course manipulators, the third stored a connection machine to his Frant-state brain, and the fourth contained his own slow Chuns brain and endocrine system.

Thisof busied himself with looking at the data presented by Miobs’ long molecule chains while he waited for the sluggish Chuns-State crewmembers to weigh in. The Chuns part of his primitive mind shuffled information off to his fast-brain in Frant-state. Unlike Miobs, the two parts of Thisof operated in their own metastate and never moved back and forth. If they had, Thisof would die.

The new information coming from Miobs amazed Thisof. Miobs had found a collection of mass that was not in Chuns, Frant, nor was it a Horon sphere: it was totally unknown. The enigma orbited an ordinary Chuns star that fell completely within normal parameters.

“I thought this is a colony ship,” Mission Constructor finally protested. Micon looked much like Thisof, except his artificial body was encased in a hard white Horon-state shell formed to look similar to a natural Vogost body.

Thisof found it amusing that it was first Micon who complained, rather than Brood Master. Bromas was the one to birth the new colony, and should be the one to despair if she saw her purpose delayed. But Micon cared so much about creating the new shelters and tools he spoke first. Micon was a master of the metastate Horon, and thus a tool maker.

“I don’t see why we deviate from our mission,” Bromas added. Thisof could not detect Bromas directly, as her massive, saucer-shaped body was encased in a liquid-filled bay below his work deck.

It was of no importance. The decision was Thisof’s alone, and besides, Seeker of the Sixth State of Matter would speak next and agree to investigate. Thisof waited patiently. The others were mostly Chuns, and thus, moved and thought so very slowly. The Vogost had originated in Chuns from the beginning; those annals were lost in time so ancient none recalled or cared. Thisof knew he was one of those lucky enough to be liberated from that mire, at least in mind if not in body.

“I wonder if you understood him? I interpreted that he doesn’t know what it is,” Sotssom said. “I say it could be a discovery of immense importance. I say it could be Tasal.” Tasal was the name given to the as-of-yet undiscovered Sixth State of Matter mentioned in the Findings.

Sotssom was both priest and drone: unlike Thisof, his third section had not been hollowed out to connect to a Frant-state brain. Instead, it contained reproductive equipment. Thus Sotssom was least Riline of them all, though even his body had been changed a bit.

The last member of the crew, Wielder of Death Madon, expressed no chemicals. Thisof could not discern anything from the smooth Horon sphere that almost completely encased Wodm. He served no purpose in this decision. He did not comment on the mission or the danger of the unknown: wherever they went, whatever they found, Wodm would protect them. Thisof could not imagine anything that could stop a wielder of the fifth metastate of matter.

Chapter 4

A speck in the vastness of space drifted along its orbit of a nearby star, oblivious to the object zeroing in on it from the rear. The target grew with proximity until visible as a starship, extending two kilometers in length, a mass of support girders and swollen transport pods. The crew of the merchant vessel went about their business, unaware of the approach of the police cruiser.

The smaller, sleeker vessel dropped down like a metal remora onto the top of the transport. A vast suite of electronics countermeasures shielded its presence from the systems of its victim below. The cruiser breached the hull of the transport and prepared to inject its cargo of assault officers.

Neela stood alone in her delivery tube and took a deep breath. She felt the weight of her weapon, a carbine loaded with glue rounds, as if it were attached to arms that extended miles from her body. She could not feel an inch of her military skinsuit, a protective garment that would absorb and dissipate kinetic or energy attacks to safeguard its wearer. Her breathing should be deep and regular but it waned shallow and erratic.

This mission counted as a disaster in her book. The interception occurred ten hours earlier than she had expected, and Neela still felt the smooth, leveling influence of her last dose of Phadone. She wobbled slightly even though the deck remained stable. Her mind remained dull, floating along happily with its opioid receptors recovering from saturation.

Get it together get it together get it together she repeated to herself.

She could not tell anyone. Her addiction to the illegal drug would get her dropped from the CMA. If anyone found out, she would be condemned to a dull life of guarding warehouses on some dead end planet. More than that, though, she feared getting someone killed by being loopy during an incursion. She had told herself she would be able to avoid ever being high when she was called into action. That belief crumbled when the interception occurred earlier than anticipated.

Neela forced a deep breath. She told herself she could still think straight. Everything just had a “smoothed out” feel to it. The consequences of being under the influence of Phadone felt unimportant emotionally at the moment, but she knew intellectually she had to snap out of it.

At least if I get shot it won’t hurt as much.

She felt movement and knew it was time to start. Her delivery tube had entered the transport. The skin of her delivery tube slid aside to reveal a narrow opening, her point of egress into the ship. She got the green light, telling her the vertical tube would remain in place. Neela’s training took over. She stepped out, swerving around to seek cover behind a six-meter-high stack of cargo. She butted against it clumsily.

“Two. We’ve penetrated the outer hull,” Ryan Palmquist’s voice echoed in her mind, routed through her link. She saw him outside his own tube, part of the cluster of six vertical tubes that had descended from the cruiser above to deliver her squad. Each tube lay open on the side facing outwards from the delivery cluster.

Strange to hear him say ‘penetrated’ when he’s not talking about sex.

Neela thought her squad leader Lieutenant Palmquist was an immature ape, a prankster, and an attention hog, but immensely likable all the same. He was a walking collection of muscles with hair, a cute face, and a perpetual hard on. That was the thing about Palmquist. He could be a schoolboy one minute and a professional assault officer the next.

I wonder if Palmquist will die today because of my addiction?

It appeared that the intrusion had occurred without a hitch. As soon as Neela verified that no intrinsics engaged them, she hurried toward the edge of the bay, looking to pick up her next corridor. The bay was well lit and clean. She saw interlocking cargo boxes and cylindrical tanks of gas or liquid secured in skeleton frames of carbon fiber.

Neela was paired with Palmquist for the moment. The other four members of their squad were headed elsewhere. He got to the bay exit a second ahead of her and activated the door. He gave a quick peek and then went inside.

Neela followed Palmquist closely for about twenty meters along a naked carbon and titanium corridor until they came to an access port in the floor. He led the way through and then motioned for her to follow. She jinked to the right and dropped gracefully through the circular hatch. She fell a short distance and landed on the gray plastic mat of an internal deck. The walls here were white, uniformly lit by glow rods on the ceiling above.

“This is Five. I'm in corridor three dash five oh. No resistance,” came a report from another incursion member.

The deck plan revolved in Neela’s head, displayed in glowing green lines against the black void of an internal viewpane. She saw their position as well as the locations of the other incursion officers within the transport. The other four CMA people from their delivery cluster were headed to a security hardpoint with an armory. There was another cluster of delivery tubes not far from theirs that had delivered two more three-person teams.

“We’re past the inner hull,” she said.

The voice sounded in her mind, mixing with the sounds around her: the sounds of their breathing, and the dull pattern of their feet hitting the deck.

Palmquist stopped and dropped to a kneeling position toward the end of the corridor. Security checkpoint, Neela realized. She shook her head, trying to remember what she needed to be thinking about. She dropped beside him, waiting as he set down a portable ECM link and connected with their ship. It would boost their range and simulate other invaders in the corridor.

Neela received the go signal from her link and readied herself to run the intersection. Palmquist went first, keeping to the left side. Smoke rose from the deck as the dome on the ceiling just ahead fired at false echoes. Neela could not see the laser’s beam but she could tell from her companion’s motion that he was not hit.

She gave him and the ECM a two second count and then followed his path. Once again smoke rose in the corridor. Suddenly Neela tumbled. Her first reaction was acceptance that she had been hit. There was no pain.

Lying on the ground, she realized she had just stumbled. Her skinsuit was untouched. The laser mount above her head pivoted with a slight whining noise. The soft decking next to her burst into flames. Neela remained frozen, waiting it out. The weapon still fired blind, its sensors confused by the police ship’s electronic countermeasures.

Neela’s breath remained ragged. Her body reacted sluggishly to an adrenaline dump caused by the near fatal mishap. She felt disconnected, lying on a hot deck a million miles away. She knew vaguely that as long as certain receptors in her mind remained clogged with the Phadone, she would not care.

Palmquist waited for a few seconds, watching her from behind a strut in the corridor. He gave a signal to continue. Neela prodded herself into activity through force of will. She pushed herself back up and ran for it. A low thump signaled the actuation of Palmquist’s projectile weapon. Instead of the sharp crack of a high velocity round, it was the sound of a subsonic glue round launch.

“Go prone again,” he snapped through his link.

Make up your mind already. Oh well lying down was nice...

Neela slammed down onto the deck, her own weapon already out before her and pointed forwards. She knew Ryan would not have told her to drop again unless he saw someone ahead.

“Intrinsics straight ahead,” she sent over the link. She targeted a human silhouette. Her rifle snapped off a round without any further action on her part. With a stun weapon, an assault officer could afford the luxury of firing first and asking questions later. Somewhere down the corridor a man fell to the deck, partially covered in a tough rubber goo. An expletive echoed in the wake of the retorts of the rifles as people struggled against their new restraints. The glue released an irritating gas that slowed them down even more.

The smoke started to clear allowing Neela to see a man dart out from a doorway over ten meters ahead. The corridor exploded in more noise. Rounds flew through the air, striking the deck and the walls of the corridor as the intrinsic let loose a full clip of real slugs. Neela’s right heel jumped as if smacked by a tennis racket.

“Shit,” she stated. She didn’t really have any strong reaction to the wound but felt she ought to say something.

Palmquist took the fire calmly and aimed, taking down the intrinsic with a single stun round. Then he sprang away from the strut and ran ahead to slip through a side door, taking cover from the laser behind them. Neela pried herself up and hopped on her good leg in a parody of his actions, finding a side portal to throw herself into.

Just inside the doorway she involuntarily dropped to the ground again. She rolled onto her back and covered the doorway with her weapon.

“I could kill you, you know,” a voice came from behind.

Neela turned to see a young girl of about ten standing in room. She had long blonde hair and wore a blue-striped shirt. She also held a large black pistol that was pointed at Neela’s head. Neela used her military police override to try and deactivate the weapon with her link, but the weapon refused. It had been hacked to prevent deactivation.

“Yeah. Well I got hit and...” And I’m addicted to Phadone. “Look, if you shoot me it’ll just go worse for you and your family.”

Racks of packed equipment behind the girl made Neela decide she was in another storage room. The girl opened her mouth to say something but a stun grenade went off behind her. The girl actuated her weapon spastically, sending a round whining by Neela’s temple. Neela turned and fired with her carbine, hitting the girl as she fell.

“Shit,” Neela gasped. The adrenaline was finally getting through to her drugged brain. She took a deep breath and stared. The girl struggled weakly against the mass of sticky immobilizing gel that trapped her. Neela crawled towards her, feeling pain in her heel. She grabbed a dissolver cylinder from her belt and sprayed some solvent on the girl’s face, ensuring that the victim would not suffocate. The task took all of Neela’s concentration. She did not worry about what might happen if another attacker showed up.

This kid can’t die because of me.

The girl got enough glue cleared to breathe. Then she struggled to run away. Their eyes watered from the stench of the acrid glue.

“Just relax. An officer will come by and take you into custody in a few minutes,” Neela told her. Neela grabbed the black pistol and secured it.

“Two, what’s your status?” Palmquist yelled through the link. “This is One. I’m almost to the auxiliary bridge.”

“Injured. Not serious but immobilized,” Neela reported. She had never been hit before. A wave of depression flew over her. Why did she take the Phadone? Did she really want to throw everything away like this? Maybe she needed a wakeup call. When she got back she would destroy the rest of her drug cache.

I will do it.

“My father says it would be better to die than work in a penal colony,” the girl cried. Her face scrunched up in pain and confusion.

“We’re Cluster, not NS! Whatever he’s into it’s bad, if he’s one of the ones trying to kill us.”

Neela felt another wave of sadness after she snapped back at the kid. The girl didn’t really understand what was happening. Neela should be reassuring her. To make things worse the pain in her ankle managed to bite through the fading effect of her drug of choice. Neela contemplated the painkillers she had on her belt. They were nothing compared to Phadone. She probably would not even feel them. She would endure the pain. She told herself it would be her punishment for being such a dumbass.

Pain is good, it means I’m coming out of it.

“Six, Seven, Eight at the manual bridge. All secure.”

“This is One, the auxiliary is secure.”

Neela waited for the team assigned to the engine room to report their progress. It felt strange to be sidelined now in the middle of an action for the first time. Usually she would be shutting down the ship’s defenses, installing hardware to lock in the course with a signal from the police cruiser, and scanning the internal monitors for pockets of resistance that could affect the secondary boarding teams. Instead she just listened for updates with a kid in some side storage room.

“Four, Nine, Ten. We have the engine room.”

“Three. There are a couple of intrinsics holed up in environmental control. We might wanta take care of them next, since they have some manual controls there.”

“Six, I’m on it from here.”

Suddenly a medic poked his head into the storage room, holding a screamer in his hand. The tiny weapon wavered for a moment as he took in the scene, then he holstered it.

“Just the two of you?” he asked.

“Yeah. She’s breathing okay. It’s just my foot.”

“Let’s get you patched up, Lieutenant,” the med said enthusiastically. “Your vitals are interesting.”


Will he see the effects of the Phadone?

“I’ve been watching you during the incursion. Back there, when that laser was about to fry you, your heart rate barely rose. You’re a machine, soldier.” He said it in a tone of admiration.

“Yeah,” Neela said. “Well now I could use some help.”

“No problem. Your foot’ll be squared away in no time.”

It ain’t my foot that needs help. I have to destroy my stash.

“Great. That’ll be great,” Neela said numbly. She did not really mean it.

Chapter 5

Captain Jacqueline Lorin let herself into the examination room and sat down next to the injured CMA soldier. The man had just finished describing the engagement that had left him hurt under the link scanner. Jackie adjusted the scanner’s settings and moved on to the next part of the examination.

“I have a few questions, sergeant,” Jackie said.

“Yes, Captain?” He looked at her calmly. He was young, 22 years old, muscular, with buzzed hair and olive skin.

“This is your first commendation, yes?”


“I read your report. When the attack started, how did you feel? Scared? Angry?”

“I felt... alive... stirred up, you know? Then, I felt a bit scared but too busy to really let it register.”

“What made you run in there to save that civilian girl?” asked Jackie.

“She needed my help. I had to help her or the Syndicate would get their hands on her.”

“What do you suppose they would have done with her?”

The sergeant’s face pinched. “I don’t know.” Jackie thought from his face he did know, or had thought of something.

“But you imagined something? Don’t worry, your answer is for me alone.”

Kind of a lie, possibly, but mostly true. My research doesn’t get much attention.

“Maybe they would recondition her. Make her a slave. Look, she’s living free now, you know?”

Jackie nodded. “Did you know the girl?”

“No, ma’am.”

“How long did you think about it before acting?”

“No time at all, ma’am.”

“And if the person had been male? Would you have done the same thing?”

“I simply don’t know, ma’am, until that happens.”

“Okay, we have your scan and you’re done here. Thank you for your service.”

The man nodded.

Jackie left him to collect his equipment and leave. Back in her bare workspace, Jackie looked over the brain scan sitting in a reformable chair. She did not see anything unusual. Jackie submitted the scan to her records for an automated analysis. With luck, something would emerge someday that would help her to understand more about the physiological and psychological makeup of the perfect soldier.

Despite being a captain in the CMA, Jackie had come to the military by necessity. The war effort had drawn her in. She had enough medical background to help serve as a nurse in a pinch, though she tended to specialize more psychological treatment than physical rehabilitation. Whenever Jackie got the chance, she focused on her new personal study of what made a hero.

Her link sent her a notification of a schedule change. She brought up her calendar in her personal view. The mental viewpane showed a new meeting in her workspace in three hours. She checked the roster. The meeting was for two people: herself and Colonel Eisen. The viewpane showed that Colonel Eisen would attend incarnate.


Her mind locked in shock for two seconds. Jake Eisen was famous ever since his holding action at Mallavie. He was the biggest hero the Cluster had.

Some kind of joke? Someone making fun of my research? Jacobsen. Yes, I bet he did this and he thinks it’s hilarious.

Was that Jacobsen’s laughter she heard already from down the corridor? Jackie double checked the source. Had the communication been spoofed? She could find nothing wrong with it. She sent off a security verification request for the message and it came back as authentic. Slowly, she started to accept it. But that just made her mind run even faster.

What could Colonel Eisen want here? With me?

It had to be her research on heroic behavior. She had been studying what made ordinary soldiers into amazing ones her entire career. Her work had gone unnoticed by most, because without concrete results she could not help the war effort. Some people were openly disturbed by her research. ‘Turning a regular person into the perfect soldier is exactly what the Nessel Syndicate would do,’ they often said. Jackie focused more on training, but everyone always thought of forced reconditioning as practiced by their enemy.

Could he know about my research?

Jackie shook her head and laughed.

No. Of course not. But maybe someone who owes me a favor arranged for his stop. Maybe I could get a brain scan and an interview!

Jackie tried for the next hour to find any clue, any scrap of information that might help her guess the nature of the visit. She looked at public records of Eisen’s whereabouts, special events happening in the city, and other visitors arriving near the same time. She reviewed who owed her favors and wondered if any of them could pull this off. In the end, Jackie had to admit defeat. She would just have to wait it out.

Three hours later, a figure of legend walked into Captain Lorin’s workspace. He looked every bit as big-gunned and hard-assed as all the vids had claimed. The last part of her mind that suspected some kind of prank surrendered. It was real. Jackie felt a thrill of... something as he walked in.

“Captain Lorin?” His gray eyes locked onto her. His face had lines, but somehow they only made him more handsome.

“Colonel Eisen.”

She stood and saluted.

“Let’s sit, captain.”

Jackie sat and suppressed a silly urge to preen her blonde hair. She hated that urge.

“I’m considering offering you a spot on a team I’ll be commanding. It’s a unique opportunity.”

Jackie took a second to parse the statement. It was so different than anything she had imagined.

“I guess you have questions for me, then,” Jackie said.

“You’re fit for active duty, yes?” Eisen asked. He did not stare at her body. His gaze remained at eye level.

“Yes,” she said.

Is this a combat role?

Jake looked to one side in the manner of one using their link’s personal view. She knew he must be reviewing her files off-retina.

He can’t be looking at them now for the first time. It’s just a courtesy. Or a conversation tactic.

“It says here, you have considerable skill in medicine. Neurophysiology, psychology, and also negotiation.”

“Yes, sir. That’s what you’re after?”

Does the hero of Mallavie need a shrink?

“Captain, I need a top notch negotiator.”

“Who are we talking with? Segosians?”

The Syndicate? By Cthulhu are we forging a peace with them?

“Can only say if you accept. I know, it’s bass ackwards. Says here you grew up in the weeds. Ever use a projectile weapon there, before you signed up?”

Jackie sat forward.

Well, doesn’t this job pitch just get better and better.

“Yes, I can,” she said. “You know I already have my assignment? I’ve never heard... well I’ve heard of you. The hero of Mallavie and all that. I mean I haven’t heard of your unit before.”

Real smooth, Jackie.

“It’s new. And I have the highest recruiting priority.”

And he came here for me? Maybe Eisen really is the no bullshit guy they say he is. I’m far from the best on paper. But in real life...

Everything gelled for Jackie in an instant. She wanted on Eisen’s team. It did not matter what they were doing.

“I can deal and I can shoot,” she said matter-of-factly. “I want the spot.”

Jake nodded. “You have it. All I can say is, this is big. Bigger than trying to scare Segosians into fighting with us against the NS. You could play a critical role in the outcome of the war.”

Wow. I thought trying to convince the Segosians to join us was big.

“Of course I’m intrigued. I’ll accept the assignment.”

“Good. Then by this time tomorrow, you’ll know who I hope you can talk to.”