Authors: Chris Bunch
a division of F+W Media, Inc.
Ken & Candy Leggett
without them, the perspective
might’ve gotten a
A Federation battlefleet whispered through subspace. In a compartment aboard its flagship, the
, two men stared down at Joshua Wolfe’s body. One was a fleet admiral, the other a Federation Intelligence executive.
A third man wore coveralls and combat harness. He sat in a chair, a blaster held casually in his lap.
“How many safeguards does he have?” Admiral Hastings asked.
“Every damned one we could build into his mind, sir,” the second man, Cisco, answered. “He was one of our best before he turned renegade.”
“You think you’ll be able to get what you want without killing him?”
“We have to,” Cisco said grimly. “FI doesn’t have anything else.”
The first man pursed his lips. “Well, you built him, you ran him, so you’d
be able to peel him like an onion.”
“Yes, sir. I’ve already got our best psychs on standby.”
The admiral left the compartment without responding. Cisco took something from his pocket and examined it. It was a gray, featureless stone with a few bits of color in it. “Stay dead like that,” he said softly. He put it away, then swung to the guard.
“How much longer are you on shift?”
“Two hours and some.”
“Stay careful,” Cisco warned. “We don’t really know what we have here, so don’t get casual.”
The guard stared at Cisco. “Yes,
“ he said, putting heavy emphasis on the last word. Cisco nodded, then went out. The hatch slid closed.
“ the man said again. “Yes, sir, Master Cisco, large-charge spymaster sir.”
He glanced at Wolfe.
“Guess I oughta kick you in the shins a time or two, eh, since shit always flows downhill, huh?”
• • •
The man tightened the black band around his biceps, then pulled the small lanyard. The bell from the ancient ocean-ship
clanged three times through the high-ceilinged, wooden-paneled chamber.
By the third peal, the room was silent.
The man cleared his throat.
“The Federation exploration ship
, overdue on planetfall for three weeks, is now considered lost.
“All Lloyd’s carriers involved with this matter are advised to contact their policies’ beneficiaries.”
• • •
Another continuum … red spray across the stars, connecting them, holding them, blood-syrup of death, nothing living but a single invader …
Joshua Wolfe, between death and life, felt the touch of the alien and pulled back in horror.
The drug Cisco’d shot him with still washed through his system; nothingness clung.
Cisco has the Lumina. I am naked.
No. You had strength before. Find it now. The Lumina gave you nothing but kimu.
Joshua struggled, fell back, floated away once more.
Once more a bit of life came, angry, yammering.
Rouse yourself. Now. There will be no time when we reach Earth. You must strike first.
No. Easier to drift, to drown.
Images came, went, like old-fashioned photographs looked at casually, then cast into a fire, twisting, warping as they vanished:
The corpselike face of an Al’ar, grasping organs blurring through a series of strikes. Then the alien stopped, waited for the young Joshua Wolfe to echo his movements. The ?l’ar was named Taen.
The hissing, invisible
in the prison camp, not far from his parents’ graves.
The Al’ar, about to open the scoutship hatch, whirled, but not in time, grasping organs coming up, but late, too late as the death-strike went home. The dirty, ragged boy pulled the corpse away and clambered into the ship, went to the controls.
He sat behind them, stared at their utter alienness, felt fear shake his spine. He forced himself to breathe, as he’d been taught, then remembered all he’d learned, all he’d been told, from any prisoner who’d been inside an Al’ar ship.
Tentatively, he touched a sensor. The hatch behind him slid closed.
He touched two more, and the panel came alive; he felt the shuddering of power behind him.
A cold, hard smile came to Joshua Wolfe’s lips.
Joshua wore the uniform of a Federation major. Behind him were ranks of soldiers in dress uniform. A general held an open velvet case with a medal inside. His words were “highest traditions of the service,” “without regard for his own safety,” and “refused to recognize the severity of his wounds, but insisted on returning to his weapon,” and so forth.
They had little meaning to Wolfe. All he heard was death and killing.
Joshua, wearing fighting harness with blaster ready, cat-paced through the empty streets of Sauros’ capital. But there was no one to kill. The Al’ar had gone, utterly vanished.
The face of the man who called himself Cisco, saying there was yet one more Al’ar, and Joshua was to hunt him down.
The last Al’ar, blurring out of concealment, striking at Joshua.
The shadows of the Al’ar Guardians, telling him why they’d fled their home-space for Man’s universe, showing him the invader Joshua’s man-mind could only see as a ravening virus, devouring world after world, system after system, jumping across and filling the spaces between them.
The emptiness in the Al’ar ship where the great Lumina stone had hung before it was stolen by a shadow drenched in blood.
Taen, as the Chitet bolt took him in the back, slumping in death.
Death … that welcomed.
It would be very easy to let the animal-mechanism shut down. Nothing was ahead but pain under the not-gentle hands and tools of the FI interrogators.
The red crawl of the “virus” would continue through another galaxy and on and on.
Can you reach out? Can you find anything? The Al’ar Guardians?
Something came, or rather returned to him. An echo, far worlds distant.
The ur-Lumina he sought?
Nothing once more.
Again. Feel for anger, feel for fear, feel for those who hate you, who want you.
Another flicker, far distant, a man who hated with a white-hot heat, remembering the woman Joshua had freed and returned to her lover, now her husband.
No. Not him. Not Jalon Kakara.
A red-orange sear of flame, stone pinwheeling up as the
smashed down from its orbit into a dark gray palace, the frantic yammer of a world whose leader had almost died.
Looking for Wolfe, looking for the Great Lumina, cult-mind sweeping, hunting.
Then the drug took him back down into its embrace.
• • •
“This is utterly absurd,” Cisco said in a near-snarl.
Hastings looked at him coldly. “Orders are orders, and these certainly are from an unimpeachable authority.”
“Sir,” Cisco began, “this makes no sense. We have Wolfe secured. I can’t think of anything anybody’s got that could ruffle the
’s hair. So why the hell are we ordered to divert and transfer him? We’re only, what, half a dozen jumps from Earth now? Utterly no sense whatsoever,” he said, ignoring the mindcrawl suggesting a reason.
“Consider an explanation, mister,” Hastings said. “We’re well within the bounds of the Federation. I hardly think even your Chitet would try to grab him here. We beat them, remember? We drove them away. They aren’t anything to worry about, at least not for us. Once you have your spy debriefed, it’ll be a simple matter for the police to take care of matters.
“You’re being paranoid, Cisco. I’d rather suspect ComFedNav wants to keep my battle group close to the Outlaw Worlds, rather than have us waste the time and energy to go all the way back to Earth, dump off one man, and then jump back out here.
“The pickup group specified in the order seems more than large enough to keep a countergrab from happening.”
“Admiral Hastings,” Cisco said, “you saw what the Chitet had around that fortress. That was a goddamned battleship!”
“An old battlecruiser, actually,” Hastings corrected. “I think you’re being a bit hysterical, Cisco. Don’t forget the orders are not just for Wolfe, but for you and your entire team to transfer as well. But I’ll give you this. When we rendezvous with the other ships, if there’s any irregularity, I’ll refuse to turn him — or you — over to them. And I’ll reauthenticate the original orders with ComFedNav right now. Does that satisfy you?”
Hastings glowered at the FI executive.
“No,” Cisco said. “But that’s the best I’ll get, isn’t it?”
• • •
Four ships waited — one frigate, one armed transport, and two sloops — as the Federation battlefleet emerged from the nowhere of N-space.
“This is the Federation Naval Force Sure Strike,” came the com from the
“Challenge Quex Silver Six-Way.”
this is the FNS
Reply Cincinnatus Yang.”
“That’s the correct response, sir,” the watch officer reported to the
’s captain. “And I checked the Jane’s fiche. That’s the
onscreen. Current Nav-Registry still carries her and her escorts as being in commission.”
“Tell them we’re beginning the transfer,” the ship’s captain said. She turned to Admiral Hastings. “Sir?”
“I see nothing wrong,” the admiral said. “Cisco?”
The agent’s eyes flickered. “There’s nothing apparent, sir,” he conceded.
“Do your people have the — package ready?”
“You may begin the transfer, then,” Hastings told the ship’s captain.
• • •
“Ready, sir,” the senior FI tech reported to Cisco.
“Get him on board.”
The tech triggered the antigrav unit, and the bubble stretcher holding Joshua Wolfe lifted off the deck. Two men steered it through the hatch of the
’s shuttle; the other seven men in the FI detachment followed.
Cisco gestured at Admiral Hastings, something like a salute.
“See you on Earth,” Hastings said in response, without returning the salute.
Cisco nodded and boarded the boat after his men.
Hastings waited until the shuttle lock slid shut, then he grimaced in distaste to his aide. “The air’s better when the spooks are gone,” he said.
The young blond woman grinned at him. “Guess it’s nice Earth’s a decent-sized planet, sir.”
Hastings guffawed and clapped his aide on the back. “Let’s get up to the bridge and make sure they’re well on their way.”