Chapter Eleven

…Nakin, Planet 3, Venhae System

In space, viewed from the nightside, Nakin gave the impression of serenity. Cirrus clouds blanketed the planet in the protective folds of an unfathomable number of ice crystals, each twirling in the atmosphere’s upper layers. Within the planet’s shadow an occasional ray of light reached across the vast treacherous divide of space and time, dodging meteors and nebulae, planetary bodies and black holes, only to end as a brief brilliant sparkle igniting off an ice crystal. It was one of these beautiful flashes of iridescent white, there and then gone, that caught Badger Keane’s eye as his talon fighter glided silently along its approach vector.

Crossing into Nakin’s dayside, he peered down at the cumulonimbus clouds spiraling into the deadly focus of an icecane. The eyewall was drawn back, revealing landfall at the tip of the Dranocjek continent, identifiable by the rare exposure of verdant marshes that chased a jagged line against the lapis-blue Handel Ocean. Only the riversprings still running hot kept the frozen precipitation from covering the entire shoreline in the hazy blur of ice.

“Protectorate Control, this is Aegis One. Requesting modification to approach vector as designated.” Slipping one finger into the navigation holo, he swiped through the approved flight path and dragged it around the edges of the icecane. “Transmitting revisions now.”

“Afraid of a little wind?”

Turning his helmeted head right, Badge gazed at the talon holding steady within a meter from the wingtip of his own fighter. “Protocol, Two.”

He savored the sound of that last word. Command wasn’t new to him, but commanding this particular wingman on a scout patrol certainly was. In fact, not many ever had the privilege of telling a Guardian what to do. They never seemed to let anyone forget that fact, either – or at least Nix Moonrider didn’t.

A throaty chuckle wafted around the cockpit, filling it with an air of friendly mirth, until Nix’s voice crackled in the earpiece. “Always hiding behind the guise of rules and regulations.”

“If you’d rather, I can reverse the request,” Badge offered, hedging his stick slightly toward starboard.

The other talon matched his move seamlessly. “Rule Number One –”

“– never question a command decision.”

The Control signal buzzed in his ear. “Aegis One,” came a familiar female voice. Badge hadn’t expected her to be running Control. His shoulders drew up slightly. “Request accepted with subsequent revisions.”

The line closed abruptly.

“Auxiliary Hangar Delta? You must have really shliffed off Chantral, loverboy.”

It was probably for the best Badge didn’t have the Guardian’s abilities. Otherwise, he might have imploded Nix’s canopy. “I haven’t seen enough of Chantral to shliff her off.”

“Therein lies the problem.”

Badge reviewed the revised heading that would take them to the auxiliary hangar and adjusted his course accordingly. “We’re not having this discussion. I’ll make that an order.”

“Chantral is a beautiful woman. High rankings on the genetic scale – legos-class, if I recall correctly. And, unlike most, she actually likes you –”

“Didn’t I just give you an order?”

“It’s not a discussion if the other party isn’t going to respond. I was merely listing a few points for your consideration.”

“List them in your head, then.” Badge slammed the comm line closed before his wingman could split hairs around that one, too.

Side by side, the Protectorate talons burrowed through the soupy atmosphere. Neither pilot was afraid to plunge right through the middle of an icecane, and Badge was cranky enough to have at it. But long-range scout missions were tedious and boring, requiring diligent attention to scanners while both pilots minimized their profiles with little or no communication and reduced power on non-essential systems. After covering twenty-seven sectors in as many hours, all either man wanted to do was stretch his legs, have a good meal, and get away from the other.


Yes, sleep too, Badge thought.

“No, I’d rather sleep,” said Nix. “You’d rather eat.”

Badge checked his comm light. It glowed green. “Dammit. I’ve told you not to do that, Two.”

Nix was proving an incorrigible wingman. “Not mindreading this time, One. You’re just predictable. Your gut rules every decision you’ve ever made.”

“Who said anything about mindreading? Leave my cockpit controls – and my stomach – alone, will you?”

Badge was never quite sure whether he should believe Nix about the mindreading. Not that he would hesitate to trust his life in the other man’s hands, or ever question his unwavering sense of honor. It was just that Nix’s powers were so incomprehensible that he had simply no sense of how they worked. Did the thoughts of other men drift into his consciousness of their own accord, or was it a matter of exertion to pluck them out of someone’s head? At times Nix and his fellow Guardians affected an indulgent air, practically patronizing beta-humans as if they were mere children. For that reason, Badge had investigated techniques for consciously drawing his mind inward. He hated being an open book, even to the best friend he would ever have.

Still, it was hard for Badge to stay mad at Nix. “Alright, Two, final order. You will be relieved of duty and commanded to sleep only after you see that your mission leader has met his nutritional requirements.”

“I’m confident that’s not part of the mission parameters.”

“Didn’t you read the revisions I issued?” Badge tapped quickly at his console. “I’ve just re-sent them.”

A disembodied snort echoed in the cockpit. “Assigning a Guardian to mindpush the refectory staff to open the galley exceeds protocol.”

“I’m of half a mind to assign you full debrief duties at –”

“Push it is.”

The rest of the approach involved less speaking and more attention to the art of flying. Nakin, while a visually beautiful world, was unforgiving to those who failed to respect her demanding nature. It was these same unforgiving forces – relentless wind gusts that could flip a fighter or freezing rain that could mask aerodynamics – that had kept the colonists safe all these years. They had learned to adapt, and been very mindful of every lesson the Galens – the alien race that held this system – had imparted. Graced by some good luck, the two talons glided into Auxiliary Hangar Delta with no ice formations or debris damage.

Running through his post-flight checklist, Badge kept part of his attention trained for the arrival of a fighter mech. Apparently, though, Chantral not only had relegated them to the auxiliary bay but also had delayed notifying the crews. Although Badge hated to admit it, Nix was probably right. It had been over a week since she had invited him to attend her father’s renewal day celebration, and Badge had been remiss in responding. He glanced at the timekeeper on his dash and cursed softly under his breath. The celebration was tonight at the changeover to the new day, as was tradition.

Lost in his conflicted thoughts about Chantral and her father, Badge finished the power-down and clambered out of the cockpit. He hesitated at the canopy’s edge when he realized there was no ladder, nor any mech in sight for that matter. Glancing over to his wingman’s talon, he watched Nix nonchalantly drop to the hangar floor. Landing as softly as an icehawk’s feather, the Guardian started toward Badge. Not to be outdone, Badge jumped – and summoned every bit of willpower to not grunt or show pain when his feet slammed into the ground.

His dark eyes scanning the hangar and seemingly someplace past its walls, Nix never broke stride once he reached Badge’s side. “Something’s up.”

Two big, quick steps brought Badge in line with him. “About Chantral. I think I may have –”

“This has nothing to do with you.” Nix motioned dismissively with a hand. “There is suffering. I should have noticed it sooner.”

With that, Nix ran off.

Even at full speed, Badge would never be able to keep up. Staying close enough to see the first corner Nix rounded, he made an educated guess that the Guardian was heading for the main hangar. Jogging onward, the various Protectorate personnel he passed were all hustling and grim-faced. Badge became certain of his friend’s destination.

A few strides into the main hangar, his feet faltered.

Filling the expansive hangar from ceiling trusses to floor, flush up against the farthest wall to allow service vehicles to approach from one side, sat a Lightning-class M-rod fleet transport. Badge recognized every ship in the fleet on sight, but with all the damage it took him a few seconds to identify this one. If the name had been visible – it was obscured by the charring of laser blasts – it would have read Swift Judgment. Protocol would never have called for a transport of this size to be brought into a hangar bay – but if Chantral had been heading Control, and she thought the situation dire enough, she certainly had the g’atnobas to order it. Despite the frenzied swarm of personnel around the Judgment, it wasn’t difficult to spot the woman who kept everyone just this side of chaos.

Tall, with her striking blonde hair cropped short, Chantral Decker pointed with one finger to direct a mech passing by, barked into her headset, and managed to snag a medic with her other hand. After taking orders the medic snapped straight and stiff, then trotted off before finally breaking into a run when she bellowed some curt words after him. He probably shouldn’t interrupt her, but Badge needed to help and she would know where to best utilize his skills.

Her blue eyes missed nothing and she turned to face him directly, raising a finger. “No, you can’t close down the medward. I’ve still got a dozen or so severely injured –” She paused, listening to the person on the other end of her earpiece. “Then you’ll just have to tell Doctor Hinds to make room. You won’t like it if I have to come down there personally to show you nincies how.”

Her finger dropped, as did her shoulders, in an exhausted sigh.

Badge gave her a sympathetic look. “What happened?”

“Leck’s unit got lucky and ran into an Orkan syphoner.”

“How’s that lucky?”

“They just missed the vanguard, so Leck took a risk and went after the syphoner.” Chantral dipped her head as if she were having trouble hearing something. “Hold on,” she told him, then depressed the button on her belt that allowed her to respond to the incoming transmission. “Freelancer, negative. You’ll have to hold in orbit when you get here. I’ll send a rescue shuttle.” She paused. “Don’t worry, I’m sending the fastest pilot we’ve got.”

Badge’s night was indeed far from over. “Sitrep?”

“Bad. I’ve been monitoring the Freelancer’s status boards since the relays kicked in when it reached system’s edge. The airpockets will hold the crew for a few hours, but that ship is so full of holes it would rip apart in the thermosphere. We’ll have to keep them supplied with air until we can get everyone out and scuttle the ship. Take as many atmo canisters as you can and get shuttle Hypo Twenty-two up to the Freelancer all speed.” After extricating a compupod, she tapped in a few keystrokes. “I’m sending their flight path to Twenty-two’s nav-system right now.”

“As good as done.” Badge hesitated, then patted her once on the shoulder.

The corner of Chantral’s mouth turned up slightly. “Thanks.” When he started to pivot, her touch on his elbow stopped him. “My father’s celebration will be postponed. Would you like to be notified when it’s rescheduled?”

“Uh, of course.”

Still holding his elbow, she squeezed it once lightly. “Bring them home, Badge. We can’t afford to lose many more.”

“You know me. Failure is not an option.”

Hurrying toward the shuttle hangar, Badge considered the stark truth of Chantral’s words. The Protectorate couldn’t afford to lose anyone else, which made Leck’s gamble so inconceivable. In the two hundred eighteen years since the colonists had left Prime, the simple act of surviving the harsh realities of space, then Nakin, had proven nearly insurmountable. Even with strict protocols and individuals sacrificing personal gains for the good of the settlement, the genetic pool was approaching critical shortage. Each loss of life pushed him inexorably toward a future he had been trying to avoid. Not that he understood why, exactly, because there was nothing Badge believed in more than his duty to the Protectorate.

His personal dilemma would have to wait for another day – his brothers and sisters needed saving.