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There’s More Going on Here than Even the Wily Persephone Can Know

I’m bounced out of the simulation so hard I’m momentarily stunned. We’re using one of the academy simulation rooms, a large chamber that looks like a padded cell with gray surfaces that tilt and move so we can role-play and take practice performance tests.

Solomon points at me with a two-finger gesture. “You are so dead, Perse.”

“Dammit!” I pull off my headset and throw it at him, but for a big guy he has incredible reflexes and dodges with a laugh. “Where in the Sixteen Courts of Hell did those Gatoi soldiers come from? I’m supposed to repair the train, not get my brains hacked out.”

“Just adding a little extra color.”

“The color of my brains is not going to be in the final exam. Why are you such a jerk to me when you play antagonist?”

He grins, all teeth and taunt. “How do you know a direct attack won’t be part of the test? If you don’t survive, you can’t fix the train. If you don’t fix the train, you don’t pass and you don’t graduate. I’m doing you a favor and watching your precious ass, just like I always have.”

My heartbeat has slowed enough that I can laugh bitterly as I snag my headset off the floor. “Fine. You have a point. Shall we do it again? Only this time without the berserking Gatoi and their fucking axes.”

“You’d rather face the Phene with their scary-ass four arms and their creepy Riders?”

“The power grid exam is to gauge my diagnostic and repair speed. Not survival.”

“I’m just a squarehead, Perse. After graduation I’m going to get sent straight to the front lines. You need to know how to survive.”

“Yeah. Yeah. I get it.” Frustration thickens my voice. I flash to a horrible vision of failing and having nowhere to go. Nowhere but home.

“Hey, Perse. It’s okay. You’ve got this.”

He settles a heavy hand on my shoulder and squeezes. When we’re standing side by side the top of my head only reaches his epaulets. Were he not the person I trust most in the academy I’d find his size and confidence intimidating. He comes from circumstances so opposite to mine that he understands needing to get away from a home that will kill you either in body or in spirit if you don’t escape.

I clench a hand as I battle not to burst into tears. I’m not a calm person; I just fake it. “Shut up. Let’s go.”

Before we can tug on our headsets for another round a ping chimes through the air, followed by an expanding halo of orange light, which I perceive just beyond my right eye. It’s the academy signal for an urgent incoming message.

A banner of coruscating words throbs in front of my eyes.

Stone Barracks cohort report to the Eyrie in 30 minutes

I groan, my pulse accelerating like I’m back in the simulation. “This can’t be good.”

He elbows me. “You worry too much. We’re so close to graduation it’s probably just an hour of Mandatory Fun. Maybe we’ll get to pretend we’re contestants on Idol Faire, performing the classics.” He claps out a backbeat. “‘It’s like that, and that’s the way it is.’”

I flip him a rude hand gesture as I blink at the exit. The seal slides open to reveal the equipment hall with its shelves and bins. We turn our headsets, gloves, boots, and coveralls over to the clerk, another academy student. Every cadet at the Central Defense Cadet Academy works extra hours beyond their duty rota. It’s how citizens pay for an education. Her black hair is pinned up in a bun, not cut short like mine, and she’s neatly dressed in the brown fatigues that are our daily uniform. She offers the shy smile of a first year not sure if she can be friendly with fifth years. Solomon and I both smile back so brightly that she looks a little dizzied.

“Aren’t you captain of the championship rugby team?” she asks with a worshipful gaze at Solomon.

“So I am. Cadet Solomon, at your service.” He reads her name tag. “Do you play, Cadet Phan?”

Stricken to silence by his question, she shakes her head. Her flustered smile would be funnier if I wasn’t sure some disaster is about to explode in our faces.

I tug on Solomon’s beefy elbow, which my wholehearted yanking doesn’t budge by a millimeter. “By my estimate it’s going to take us twenty-two minutes to get there.”

“See you again,” he says with a sly wink that makes Cadet Phan blush.

As the equipment hall door slides closed behind us we head out at a jog across a grid of playing fields, taking the straightest course toward the Sun and Moon twin pagodas and the sky-tower that stand in the center of the academy’s giant campus. We’re well matched; he’s faster and stronger, but I’ve got endurance.

“She’s a baby first year, Solomon. Don’t even think about it.”

“Who said I was thinking about it? I was just being polite and giving her some social capital. She’s probably already pinging members of her cohort.”

“‘Large, not-so-bright future marine can speak words of two syllables!’”

“‘The dashing future marine was accompanied by a future engineer who was entirely unable to speak because she was contemplating the glorious career that awaits her. Someday when he’s leading a phalanx of grunts on a rock-grabbing mission in a border system, her engineering unit will be assigned to dig latrines for him.”

Even though we’re running I have good enough aim—speed, trajectory, and angle—to punch him on the upper arm, not that I stagger him. He’s a massive packed bundle of muscle honed to its highest peak of performance.

“Weak ass, Perse.”

“Fuck you, Solomon.”

He starts a little dab of a victory dance while still running, stumbles, and barely avoids falling flat on his face. We both start laughing, then hush as we pass a corridor of classrooms in session. We jog down a walkway shaded by solar panels. The run has drained off almost all of my anxiety by the time we enter the central compound. Second-year cadets on gate duty salute us as we dash past.

We race around the edge of Heaven Lake, where bottom-feeding plow-headed Cephalaspis cruise below surface-breathing lungfish and miniature long-snouted ichthyosaurs. By the time we pound up forty-five flights of stairs to the observation deck of the sky-tower my legs and lungs are burning. It’s a climb we cadets do three times a week. The view is worth it.

The Eyrie is the top observation deck of the sky-tower, walled with transparent ceramic for a 360-degree panorama of the campus and its encircling forest. Thirty klicks to the north, and easily visible on a clear day, rises a sky-tower that’s a clone of this one. It’s part of an industrial park built for the war effort; twice a year we cadets get run through a seven-day training exercise on its avenues and blocks while the workers get their holidays.

Our Eyrie has an open floor plan, with classroom lattices in one quadrant, couches and comfortable chairs in another, and a cafeteria in a third. The fourth quadrant is a staging ground for various activities involving a sky pier that sticks out from the observation deck. Solomon, still breathing thunderously from the climb, gives me a thumbs-up because there’s no rappelling or light-glider equipment being made ready for training off the sky pier. I whisper a prayer of thanks to the Celestial Immortals for this small mercy.

That doesn’t mean we’re out of danger. Our instructors have something evil planned. The question is what.

While they wait, the other Stone Barracks cadets are lounging in the couches and chairs. Our rack-mates, Minh, Ikenna, and Ay, wave us over to where they’re sprawled on a big couch, sipping at lime soda and artichoke tea.

A huge virtual screen displays Chaonia’s number-one entertainment and news stream, Channel Idol. It’s a rare treat for us. Cadets are allowed no communications or news except monthly letters from home for those who have family who bother to write. The show on-screen is a retrospective of last year’s Idol Faire, the biggest competition in the Republic of Chaonia, the one everybody watches. A segment on fourth-place finisher Bako, who crafted sculptures in free fall, dissolves into the smiling image of the third-place finisher, Ji-na, who was voted “the Face” of the season for her incandescent smile. Several of the cadets whoop enthusiastically as the screen replays one of her ethereal ribbon dances.

Behind us a bell rings. The doors close. Anyone who isn’t here is out of luck. But I count all of Stone Barracks cohort as present. We all made it in time. Good for us.

My nemesis, Cadet Jade Kim, wears the coveted tiger emblem of cohort captain, an elected position in the final year. Naturally a horde of suck-ups surrounds the gloriously perfect cohort captain, although Kim’s melting stare—as good as a kiss—is directed at a tall, elegant cadet standing nearby. Surely glamour girl Pon is too smart to succumb to that swaggering conceit.

Introducing the Wily Persephone and the Loyal Solomon with the Predictable Result of Their Foray into Battle

My best friend and I sit side by side on the intercontinental train. I’ve got my legs tucked up under me as I slump over the tablet that’s resting on my thighs, fiercely studying for the final exam. Solomon sits with perfect straight posture and feet flat on the floor, eyes forward, on schedule and prepared like the star cadet he is. Around us, other travelers work, listen, read, and doze as the train speeds through a seemingly endless expanse of coniferous forest.

Solomon touches his chin and tips his hand at me in the sign for good luck. He stands and walks toward the back of the car, out of my sight because I don’t turn to watch him go. I’m too busy with the tablet, which projects a three-dimensional model of the transportation system of the Republic of Chaonia. Interlocking threads create a shining network of transport hubs and lines across the surface of the planet and out into space, where they link up into the intersystem beacon routes.

A glitch burns through the model. It winks out, winks back in, then scatters in a fizz of bubbling sparks as the hum of the train stutters, kicks in briefly, and sputters away into an ominous quiet. I look up.

People start muttering as the train sighs to a stop like a huge creature letting out a death exhale. A man wearing the red-and-gold military uniform of the Republican Guard of Chaonia jumps up and presses both hands against a window.

“I saw something in the forest,” he says loudly enough that everyone stops talking and turns to look out the window he’s leaning against.

There’s a lull of thick silence. Everyone, including me, is holding their breath.

An explosion booms, the sound tearing through my body like shrapnel. The car shakes and the windows ripple but don’t shatter. The explosion is followed by another vibration with a pitch so low I can’t hear it except as a jolt. My tablet fizzes to life, visuals flashing, then goes inert.

Dammit. A premonition of disaster whirls through my mind as my heart hammers, but I manage to hold on to just enough self-possession to roll up the thin tablet and stuff it into my sleeve pocket. No emergency lights are flashing. There aren’t any lights at all.

The military man leans back from the window and glances around the carriage.

“Anyone here a transportation engineer?” he asks. “It looks like the explosion hit the power grid. Maybe if we go to the engine car we can figure out a workaround.”

I raise my hand like I’m in class and unsure if I have the right answer. “I’m a cadet, studying transportation engineering. I’ll go with you—”

A thunk interrupts my offer. The soldier recoils and flops onto his back with a slab of window sticking out of his chest. Just sticking there like a malignant sculpture.

My mind goes blank, and my skin goes cold. No one in Chaonia believes the war will ever come here, not after what Eirene has accomplished as queen-marshal. The Phene would have to slice through Troia’s gate and Molossia’s defenses to reach Chaonia Prime.

A packet of glowing ion fléchettes punches through the shattered window, slamming into the train wall and into several of the passengers too. Blood spatters onto my cadet’s uniform before I can register the scope of the carnage. Screams and shouts break out as people scramble for cover. A blood-spotted child sitting in the opposite row starts to bawl as their parent tries frantically to shove them under a seat.

Finally, finally, my academy training kicks in, and I drop to the floor. The military man is lying on his back not two meters from me. He convulses, and the slab of window stuck into his body tilts crazily and with a terrible sucking sound tears out of his chest. Blood bubbles up from the shocking gash. My mouth has gone dry and my hands are shaking as I crawl to him and press hands to the gaping wound, trying to stop the blood.

Another soldier slips in beside me. “I’m a medic. Didn’t you say you’re an engineer? Can you get the train running?”

“I am. I can.” Every citizen of Chaonia has a job to do, and I need to do mine.

Another spray of fléchettes hits the remaining windows. I twist onto my back, as if that would save me, but nothing hits me. According to the timer that’s always running in the background of my network it’s been 117 seconds since the glitch, even though it seems like an hour.

Focus. Focus. Check all parameters. Note all details. Find a way to the engine car and fix the power grid to get the train away from the attack.

Because I’m now on my back on the floor I see at an odd angle up through the banks of windows. Treetops seem to hang upside-down into the blue sky. Shade-striped gliders skim over the trees with an ease that strikes me as beautiful, until people drop down from the gliders’ rigging onto the railway embankment and launch themselves at the train cars.

They aren’t imperial Phene. That’s easy to tell because these invaders have only two arms. They are something worse, the Phene’s savage allies who seek honor through death in combat. We call them the Gatoi. These soldiers don’t feel pain because their bodies are threaded with some kind of neuro enhancers.

The invaders climb the slick sides of the train cars. They pound energy axes against the heavy-duty clear windows, bolts sizzling out from each impact like webs of lightning. When panes crack the soldiers launch themselves through, heedless of the gouges the edges leave in their flesh.

I grab for my stun gun as a young man looms above me. He’s no older than I am and yet already in the heart of the war, ready to die. The worst thing is his face, intensely focused and utterly impassive as he swings up the ax. I am nothing more than an object that’s gotten in his way and has to be destroyed.

I trigger the stun gun. Its net of sparkling current coalesces around his body. He spasms as the charge jolts through him. Then, of course, his enhancers suck it up and turn it into energy, and the ax slams down onto my head.

Navah

In better humor she accompanied Hetty back to the courtyard where the others were seated, except Percy, who could never sit still. He was hanging from the gazebo roof’s rim doing pull-ups but dropped gracefully to the ground as Sun and Hetty came up. Duke, his middle-aged cee-cee, hurried out of the service alley drying his hands on a cloth. Sun invited him to take the cushion beside her rather than serve with Navah and Candace so he could fill her in on the details of his research. Duke had been an unemployed marine biologist whose family had gone into debt to pay for his advanced courses. He had only applied for Vogue Academy’s special course for “personal attendant” out of desperation when his clan’s home had come within days of being sold to clear the loan. His serious but equable disposition matched well with Percy’s impulsive, disorganized cheerfulness.

Thinking of the dismissive things Marduk and Moira Lee had said about Perseus annoyed her all over again. She sent the three cee-cees away and afterward cupped her hands around a bowl of tea. Her four Companions regarded her each with their own particular brand of patience or curiosity.

“You all know we’re headed for Thesprotis and Molossia for six long months. So we are going to learn everything we can and make all the alliances and create all the goodwill possible. We will be ambassadors for the palace, but also for this great mission our republic is engaged in—”

James gave a choked sound and pitched forward at the waist, barely avoiding smashing the last bean cake with his face. “It hurts. It hurts. Can’t you skip the deadly dull speeches with us?”

“I liked the sound of it,” said Percy brightly.

Alika picked up the baritone ukulele he’d made famous on Idol Faire and tried out “This great mission our republic is engaged in” with several different melodies.

Hetty smiled, and when Hetty smiled, the universe smiled.

James popped back up, snatched up the last bean cake, and stuck it in his mouth. “So good.”

Sun glanced toward the doors that led into kitchen area. No one was in sight. Through a half-recessed door to the right she could see Octavian and Isis seated in comfortable chairs with sake, talking over security and tutoring arrangements or perhaps reminiscing about shared campaigns from the ancient days of their youth.

She lowered her voice. “Percy, why would your aunt Moira be visiting the queen-marshal at COSY?”

He shrugged. “She wouldn’t. Governors never leave Chaonia Prime when the queen-marshal is on campaign.”

“Nevertheless, she was there. Was there ever any talk in Lee House about her scandalous affair with Queen-Marshal Nézhā?”

“Queen-Marshal Nézhā?” Cheerful Percy drained away into a frowning, uncomfortable visage. He picked up his teabowl but set it down without drinking. “I never heard anything about that. But I was only eleven when they sent me to you. Afterward I rarely saw them once they realized I wasn’t going to fill their ears with details of your habits and secrets. They stopped talking to me. It’s not that they value loyalty. They require it.”

“But Moira had to give up being one of my mother’s original and most trusted Companions because of the affair, didn’t she?”

“Do we have to talk about this?”

“Yes, we do.”

He sighed, shoulders slumping. Hetty cocked a critical eyebrow toward Sun. James shook his head disapprovingly. Alika plucked a single discordant chord. They all protected Percy, each in their own way, but Sun had never underestimated Perseus Lee, not as most people did.

“My gut is telling me this is important. I have to figure out why.”

“Whenever my mother wanted to needle Aunt Moira, she brought up how Moira had disgraced the family by getting banished from the Companions. She never said why, at least not in my hearing. I guess they both knew perfectly well. It was just the nasty way it always unfolded, like she was trying to goad Moira into slapping her so then she could cry about being slapped.”

James winced. Hetty settled a restful hand on Percy’s forearm. Alika watched in his usual silence.

“After your aunt Nona Lee died, and Lee House had to replace her as governor, is it possible Eirene was involved in having Moira named as Nona’s successor?”

“Ha!” His laugh was like scorched earth. “As if Lee House would ever let any outsider poke grubby hands into its inner workings. Not even the queen-marshal.”

“But Aisa Lee is the second child, isn’t that right? Wouldn’t it be expected that she would become governor after Nona?”

“Yes, but she was passed over in favor of Moira, who’s youngest. Let me tell you that even after nine years I can still quote entire ranting speeches by my mother complaining about the Lee House council snubbing her unfairly.”

“Wow,” said James. “I’ve met Aisa Lee at court functions with your father, who’s as handsome as he is scary. But she just seemed a little possessive and self-centered.”

“You have no idea what a monster she is, and I hope you never find out. Do we have to keep talking about this, Sun?”

“Yes. Your mother’s resentment doesn’t explain why Moira was chosen as governor in place of her. There’s something here I need to know, but I don’t know what it is.”

He ran a hand over his close-cropped black hair. “There was something funny about how Aunt Nona died.”

James perked up abruptly. “Nona Lee torched a refugee camp in a retaliatory action that killed thousands of innocent people.”

“That’s not how she died!” Sun blinked on her net and did a quick search. “She died in a conflagration in Troia System after Phene sympathizers attacked one of our military bases. It’s true a lot of refugees died in the neighboring camp. Collateral damage. But Nona Lee gave her life to salvage the situation.”

“That’s the Channel Idol story, the official story,” said James. “That Phene operatives bombed the camp and Nona Lee died nobly during the rescue operations. Scuttlebutt whispers it was Nona Lee’s operation from the get-go. It’s said she accused the camp of being a front for Phene operatives and torched it on the principle of one guilty, all guilty.”

“There are always conspiracy theories floating around deep in the twitch.”

“I’ll ping you the squib I found. I dug it up fifteen minutes ago while I was admiring the medusas. And I’m just getting started. For example, it’s not clear if Nona Lee’s body was actually found. If not, then whose remains took her place at her funeral?”

“Did you hear any rumors of that when you were little, Percy?” Sun asked.

Percy set both hands palm down on the tabletop, expression drawn and eyes weary. “You know why I don’t talk about my family. Because they are awful. And as awful as my mother and Aunt Moira are, Nona was rumored to be the awfullest of all. The whisper even inside Lee House was that after she died they had to fill in one wing of the underground prison with concrete to hide her illegal experiments.”

Sun exchanged a glance with James, and he nodded, fingers twitching as he started another dive. Percy kept talking, gaze fixed on his hands.

“The greatest fortune I ever received was when the House council picked me over my twin to come to you.” He looked up at Sun, dark eyes brimming with unshed tears. “And you kept me on. I’m so grateful.”

“They can’t all have been awful,” said Sun, turning over his comments in her mind. “What about the eight-times-worthy hero Ereshkigal Lee?”

Alika played the bravura opening run of his now-famous Aspera Drift, a musical tribute to the desperate battle fought almost six years ago at the edge of Aspera System, one quick beacon hop out from Troia.

“The adults are all awful, I mean. Not my cousins and siblings. They were still too young. My mother tried so hard to make Ereshkigal into a nasty little version of herself, but she couldn’t ruin her because Resh was the best.” Percy’s smile ghosted back, tenuous and sad. “Resh used to drag us around, Perse and me and our cousin Manea—”

“Purse?”

“Persephone. My twin sister. We were like the hooligan gang with Resh the ringleader.”

“The eight-times-worthy Ereshkigal Lee was a hooligan?” James asked with a skeptical grimace.

Percy laughed. “You have no idea, and I pinkie swore not to tell. Well, Perse made me swear and threatened to bite off my right pinkie finger if I told.”

“Bold! I like that!” said James.

Alika shook his head.

Hetty patted Percy’s forearm with a sympathetic smile. The splay of her fingers against skin drew Sun’s attention for a moment too long.

“It’s weird, though,” Percy went on in a musing tone. “Perse vanished after Resh’s death. My mother told me Perse had a nervous breakdown, but that doesn’t sound like her. She was always the bossy, conniving one. I missed her for so long.”

“I remember,” said Sun. “You cried every day for the first year you were here. It’s the reason I didn’t send you back like I did with the tedious rats the other Houses tried to foist on me.”

His wry smile held regret, not self-pity. “Then I got accustomed to not having to deal with my mother and let it go. Sun, why does this matter to you so much?”

“I didn’t like the way Moira Lee treated my father.”

“What can Lee House do to him—or to you, for that matter? Sure, you’re half-Gatoi, and most of the Gatoi fight for the Phene, but the prince has always kept his side of the alliance with the queen-marshal. Anyway you’re Eirene’s heir. That gives your father a lot of clout. And a lot of protection.”

Sun considered the table and its lack of bean cakes and deep-fried sesame balls, since they had eaten them all. As she pinged the kitchen for more, the door into Octavian’s office slid fully open, and he and Isis walked out.

“Princess, the manifest of casualties has finally come in. You requested to be informed right away.”

She jumped up. “I want to be involved in the funeral rites before we leave.”

The others rose too, moving away, all but Perseus.

Sun studied his preoccupied expression, so different from his usual way of being present in each moment. “Percy, are you okay?”

“I can’t ever forget I left Perse stuck in a pit of venomous centipedes.”

“It wasn’t your fault. Or your choice.”

“I know. But what worries me is they kept her back, instead of me. They thought she was the one they could turn into them. It makes me sick to think of what she could be like now, stuck in their trap. Still, I guess it’s out of my hands.”

With an effort he took in a breath. The desperate, damaged boy who had come to her nine years ago was shucked away into the restively cheerful young man of twenty who could make almost anyone smile.

“We are going to have so much fun on this tour, Sun. I already have lots and lots of ideas to entertain our various hosts. It will be smooth sailing and an unending barrel of laughs.”

encrypted message

She blinked three times to activate the private link and its encrypted message, sharing it with Hetty via her ring network. Her father never used voice only. He always appeared in hologram, a gauzy ghost of a figure wearing spectacularly rich garments. This time he wore a long sleeveless embroidered coat that, hanging open, revealed a knee-length fitted gold tunic over loose trousers. Hetty whistled appreciatively at the bold geometric patterns of the coat.

“Don’t share this message with another soul, not even the Sergeant Major.”

Hetty made a move to step away, but Sun grasped her elbow. “We are one soul with two bodies, are we not? You will always know all that I know.”

“I have to go under the highest restriction of security for this project. That’s Eirene’s ears only, in case you are wondering how restricted it is. Not even Lee House is in this loop. So you won’t hear from me for a while. This is the chance I’ve been waiting for, working for, all my life. We can break the hold of the Phene … I’ve said too much. Say nothing about what you heard. But be sure I’ll be keeping an eye on your activities. Sun, your stubbornness about your Companions needs to end. You must pick Companions from Jīn, Bō, and Nazir to fill out a full complement. You should replace the Hope girl, too, with a Companion from the governor’s line of Hope House instead of that disgraced Yele-tainted side branch.”

“Not a chance,” muttered Sun.

Hetty squeezed Sun’s hand.

“You cannot needlessly antagonize the seven Core Houses. You need the support of all their ministries to rule effectively as queen-marshal, or to rule at all, given people’s distrust of me. You should know better by now. I shouldn’t have to be blunt. This goodwill tour can become a useful expedition to break in new Companions. Here are my suggestions—”

With a grimace of irritation Sun blinked off the sound, although she recognized the shape of the names on his lips. “Alika, James, and Percy are the only ones I trust. Besides you and Octavian, I mean.”

“The prince—”

“Yes, I trust Father too, of course. I’m his most valuable resource. But I’m also a piece in whatever strange game he’s playing, which I’ll never fully understand because I’m only half-Gatoi and wasn’t born and raised on the wheelships as he was.”

Hetty’s smile had a laughing quality that always softened Sun, reminding her she could be wrong once a year. “I meant to say, the prince is right. Here’s why.”

She gently released Sun’s hand and walked into the reception room and out onto the balcony. Leaning on the railing, she waited for Sun to come up beside her. Sunlight gilded the central pool, flashing on the backs of bright koi. Wind chimes sang. Fan-shaped gingko leaves flashed in the breeze as flower petals spun down to float on the water.

“You need all seven Core Houses. You know that. You need each ministry’s support in full. Each of us Companions is your link that reassures each House you honor them.”

“I’m not replacing you no matter what my father says.”

“Hope House is well content that I am here. Prince João does not fully understand the politics inside each House or why Hope House would find it safer to stow me within the palace rather than their halls.”

“Of course. But the other three just want to put more spies in my household.”

As one, they glanced toward the open doors and the dim audience hall beyond. A rectangle of light marked the opening onto the courtyard where the other Companions and their cee-cees were, presumably, waiting for Sun and Hetty to return so they could enjoy a celebratory tea.

“James and I have done a little search,” remarked Hetty with a mysterious smile.

“Are you saying you have some honorables in mind? Ones the Houses haven’t already put forward? Or the ones I’ve already rejected?”

Hetty waggled her eyebrows.

Sun pressed a sudden kiss at the corner of Hetty’s tender mouth, which tasted sweetly, sharply, of ginger. “How did I ever manage those years you were away from me on Yele Prime?”

Hetty pulled away and beckoned toward the garden’s lovely expanse. It seemed uninhabited at the moment. But a stray gardener might be working behind a luxuriant shrub, or the personal attendants of the third consort could be taking an opportunity in the queen-marshal’s absence to stroll amid the flowers and pavilions. Still, she allowed her left little finger to touch Sun’s where their hands rested side by side on the railing.

“I’ve come back now and will not leave again.”

“I know.” Yet Sun shifted restlessly, rubbed her eyes, gave a sharp sigh.

“Dear Sun, you’re agitated. What is wrong?”

“Would it be too much for my mother to offer me a scrap of praise? Tell me I’ve done well? Say she’s proud of me?”

“That’s not her way. To give you jobs to do? That’s how she shows you that she thinks you’re fit. She’d not have sent you to the front if she thought you incapable of a command. She placed you in position to allow for you to lead the crowning blow yourself. That is your praise. What higher can there be?”

“Then why send me on this ridiculous tour when there are more battles I could be sent to fight?”

“Logistics win campaigns. This will help you. People will be grateful that you care enough to visit where they live and work. They’ll see you as they have not seen the queen for years except in news reports. You’ll come alive to them. They’ll take your part. And also you will learn while on the ground all the extent of our capacities. Our resource load, our freight, our training schemes. What we have in excess. What we lack. You’ll need this knowledge later, mark my words. And one last thing.”

“Campaigns are won and lost on supply,” Sun murmured.

“That’s right, and we have pushed both far and fast. Chaonia must rebuild—”

“—repair, and reinforce our lines. I know. I know.” Sun frowned. “It’s true we took a lot of damage at Na Iri. It’s true we’ve gotten stretched thin all through the Hatti reaches. Imagine what might happen if the Phene knew how vulnerable we are and decide to attack while we’re reeling from all our victories.”

Hetty nudged her shoulder to shoulder. “Let’s go have tea and speak of Duke’s medusas.”

“It’s quite a feat,” Sun agreed, accepting the change of subject.

A small janitor

The rooms were quiet, reflecting her recent absence. Dust motes swirled in streams of light angling through windows. A small janitor scrubbed the passage’s marble floor with a cheerful whir. It was traditional for the queen-marshal to employ human attendants for mundane tasks like cleaning, to display her wealth and her generosity. Sun had early on replaced the people assigned to her area with mechanicals that James made sure couldn’t spy on her. Except for Octavian and her Companion’s companions—cee-cees who like Isis combined the services of bodyguard, valet, and attendant—there was only a trusted cook, two factotums, a high secretary, and a clerk to round out her personal household.

As they broke out of shadow into the daylight gleam of the private courtyard, a crescendo of exuberant melody greeted her. Alika was standing in his favorite spot beneath the red gazebo. He didn’t look up from his guitar because music was how he most comfortably communicated. The clack and shush of bladed fans opening and closing in time to the song’s ecstatic rhythm traced Candace’s martial practice around the gazebo. Isis and Octavian watched with approving nods. The cee-cee whirled to a halt, snapping the fans closed and hooking them on her belt in one smooth motion as Alika brought the piece to a close. He flashed a smile toward Sun.

“Perfect,” she said.

“Your training scores have remained excellent, as expected, Honored Alika,” said Octavian.

“Shoot me now,” muttered James.

“And yours too, Candace,” added Octavian.

“Your Highness.” Candace bowed. “Sergeant Major. Welcome home.”

Sun greeted the cee-cee with the appropriate words of reply but was already searching the courtyard’s alcoves and shade-drenched benches for Hetty. Before she could ask, the sound of hurried footsteps brought her head around. The Honorable Perseus Lee barreled out of the service alley carrying a covered bowl.

“Sun! I was going to go with James to meet you, but it just happened.” He jolted to a halt in front of her and with one of his radiant smiles tipped back the lid. “Look!”

Sun stared into the bowl’s water, which bore a strange undulating quality but was apparently empty. “What am I looking at?”

“Medusas. Duke finally got them to reproduce in the lab.”

Now she saw tiny translucent bell-shaped domes and dangling tentacles as sporadically visible fine lines washing back and forth in the water. Her eyes opened wide as she took it in. “Everyone told him it couldn’t be done.”

He slid the cover back on.

“Oi! I want to see,” objected James.

Perseus started walking toward the alley. “I’d better take them back. I probably shouldn’t have disturbed them, but I wanted to show you right away. I’m sure it’s a good omen. They’re said to be immortal.”

James looked at Sun. She waved a hand, giving permission, and he raced off.

“Percy! Wait up.”

The door to the kitchen area slid aside. Navah, Hetty’s cee-cee, came out with a tray laden with a teapot, cups, and an artfully arranged platter of sweet bean cakes and deep-fried sesame balls, still warm. The pleasant aroma chased through the air.

“Your Highness! Welcome home! Cook has baked your favorite sweets.”

Navah placed the tray on the table under the gazebo and began setting out the cups with her usual brisk efficiency and charming smile. Alika had started playing again, plucking out bits and pieces of melody as he did when composing. Candace gave Sun a skittish glance before going over to help Navah.

Sun frowned as it became clear Hetty wasn’t here to greet her.

In a low voice, Isis said, “Your Highness, it’s the anniversary of her father’s death. She’s at the shrine.”

“Of course,” Sun muttered, swept by a dark wave of shame. “I should have remembered.”

“Hard to reckon time in any one system when you’re traveling by beacon,” said Isis kindly. “Octavian, I have a few things to discuss with you now you’re returned. Shall we go to the office?”

Sun left her duffel in the courtyard for the factotums to deal with. After changing into slippers on the entry porch, she walked through the empty audience hall to the private reception room. Its balcony overlooked the palace’s Memory Garden of the Celestial Empire. The pleasing arrangement of stone pavements and promontories, waterfalls and still pools, and flowering trees and scented bushes usually soothed her restless soul. Today she barely glanced toward the bright peonies and azaleas. Instead, she cautiously approached a small side room, off the balcony, which was set aside for the household shrine. Because Companions officially left behind their birth households to become part of hers, the shrine had a raw, fresh aesthetic unlike the well-worn traditional altars of long-established houses.

The Honorable Hestia Hope knelt on a pillow in front of an elaborately carved open cabinet arranged with a lamp, flowers, stones, and images of the deceased. Her long black hair was braided back in a casual fishtail adorned with a white ribbon to signify her mourning. Her posture was exact, hands pressed palm to palm and head bent just enough that her fingertips brushed her forehead. A pulse beat softly in her pale throat as she took in breaths after each long stream of prayer.

Standing in the entry, Sun let the flow of the beloved voice spill over her. By the slight lift of her chin and faintest blush on her cheek, Hetty had become aware of Sun’s presence. But of course, being Hetty, she finished the full cycle of prayers at the prescribed tempo before she bent in a final bow toward her father’s image. Only then did she rise in a rush of movement to face the princess.

“You’re home, my dearest Sun. You have come home.” Hetty’s smile was a flower in full bloom.

Sun took a step toward her and grasped her hands tightly in her own. Only then, as if shocked awake by Hetty’s cool skin, did she remember to glance over her shoulder. The shrine was in full view of the reception room and balcony, so she released her. Words failed her, as they often did when this stark, vulnerable emotion clamped her in its jaws.

“I know you’re furious at the queen’s command,” Hetty said with her usual instinct for pushing straight to the heart of things, “but think, dear Sun, how well it benefits you.”

“How does a six-month glad-handing tour of factories and training camps benefit me when I should be out on the front lines with the fleet?” She broke off. “Wait. I got a message from my father.”

A Flower in Full Bloom

Sun was dozing in one of the recessed bunks abroad the palace corvette when the warning bell chimed.

“Set beacon stations. Transition in ten minutes.”

She rolled out of her rack and up to her feet. Octavian looked up from where he was cleaning two guns commonly called stingers. He stayed where he was while she remained standing, opening a virtual porthole. The famous marble-blue glamour of Molossia’s fourth planet shone in the distance, but it was the spiral coils of its beacon that drew her eye. Some people claimed they could see shadow and light moving deep within the coils. Some said a little piece of your human soul was torn out of you each time you passed through a beacon, and that this growing congestion of fragments of spirit was why the partial system collapse eight hundred years ago had happened. Beacon engineers knew how to keep the surviving beacons running, but no one fully understood how they worked, or why some had failed while others had survived.

“Five minutes. Take all weigh off the ship.”

Octavian was already strapped in, but he did pin down the disassembled gun parts with a mesh slung over the tabletop. She hooked her feet through a stability rail.

The gravity cut. Her unbound hair rose off her shoulders.

The transition bell rang. The ship rolled once, and everything vanished.

No sight. No sound. No breath of circulated air on her face. No shadow or light. Only a void empty of sense and existence like a presage of death and defeat.

Then they dropped out of the beacon and, engines firing, slid into Chaonia System above Chaonia Prime. She was home. Victorious but not satisfied.

She pinged her Companions to let them know she was arriving. It took hours longer for the corvette to descend and land in the military airfield on the shoreline of the capital city. Once there, she and Octavian took a Hummingbird out to the palace complex in the bay. A ping from her father dropped in as she was flying, but she ignored the message rather than give the controls to Octavian. The bodyguard kept an eye on her technique but did not interfere as she landed the ‘bird on the restricted airstrip that served the residential wing with its multiple nested gardens and courtyards.

The Honorable James Samtarras was waiting for her on a stone bench in the shade of a portico overlooking the landing pad. As the rotors wound down and Sun and Octavian disembarked carrying their duffels, he pulled his flatcap off his head and waved it enthusiastically.

“All hail the conquering hero! Alika is writing you a song.”

Sun swatted him on the shoulder in greeting, then indicated the complicated three-dimensional virtual spreadsheet he was building up from the half of the bench he wasn’t sitting on. “What are you doing?”

“As soon as we got the news Hetty told me to make a list of the various installations, factories, council halls, and workers’ guilds we’re likely to tour on Molossia and Thesprotis.” He closed a hand into a fist, and the interlocking web of lines and points vanished. “What is up with that anyway, Sun? It sounds dreadful. Did you lose your temper with your mother?”

“I did not lose my temper, James.”

“A little touchy about that, are we?”

She added a dart of her own. “I saw your father and your brother.”

“That’s punishment enough! I’m so sorry you had to endure His Officiousness and His Pompousness.” He jumped up to offer Octavian an exaggerated mock salute. “Welcome home, Sergeant Major. You’ve done well to keep our scamp of an heir out of trouble, and alive.”

“I haven’t received your training report yet, Honored James,” said Octavian.

James gestured with his cap toward an open gate where an older woman with the weathered face and upright posture of a combat veteran had placed herself on guard. “You can’t fool me. Isis sends you my reports.”

“I did see them,” Octavian admitted, “and it looks to me as if you and I will be taking extra sessions in small-arms fire.”

“Why this torture?” James groaned with eyes cast to the heavens in supplication.

Sun started walking. “Let’s go.”

As they strode toward the gate a miniature pteranodon sailed into sight from over the tiled rooftops to land on Isis’s shoulder.

“Your Highness, welcome back.” Isis fell into step behind Sun and James as the pteranodon tucked in its wings and cheeped at the new arrivals. “Early reports suggest you did well at Na Iri.”

“I accomplished the task I was given.”

With the queen-marshal out with the fleet Sun had expected to find a bare-bones staff at the palace compound, like the single pair of guards on duty at the landing pad. But where were the rest of her Companions? It wasn’t the lack of Alika and Perseus that fretted her. Why hadn’t Hetty been waiting for her at the landing pad alongside James? She refused to ask, and instead cast her thoughts back to the unexpected encounter with Moira Lee.

“James, I need you to do a deep dig into Lee House,” she said in a low voice.

“What do you mean?” He glanced up and down the long outdoor passage that led past half-deserted administrative offices to the residential wing. No wasps were allowed within the palace precincts. Since Sun’s private ring network allowed her and her Companions to communicate beneath a sophisticated cloak of white noise that was usually impossible for spybots and tracking devices to penetrate, he was checking for physical eavesdroppers.

“I want to know why Moira Lee was visiting my mother at COSY. Seeing her there raised a tickle down my spine. Something is going on.”

“I know that tickle. How many times did it get us into trouble when we were young?”

“Good trouble.”

He swept a high flourish with his cap. “You’d say so.”

Isis remarked, “You’re still young, you sprouts.”

“Don’t argue with me, James,” Sun added.

“Why would I bother, since I’d never be allowed to win?” He tugged the cap on over his curls. “So what exactly are you looking for? Moira Lee was one of Eirene’s Companions in their youth. After her older sister Nona Lee died, Moira was appointed governor of Lee House and had to give up her place as Companion.”

“Actually,” said Octavian, who was walking in front but always listening, “Moira Lee had to give up her place as Companion before Nona Lee died. She was having a sexual affair with Queen-Marshal Nézhā. Favoritism of that kind between rulers and Companions is quite against court protocol, as Moira knew perfectly well. Nézhā’s consort found out about it and demanded Moira’s removal from Eirene’s household, as was within her rights.”

“The same Hesjan consort who betrayed Nézhā and was responsible for his death?” Sun asked.

“No one saw that coming, it’s true, and we could never prove it,” answered Octavian. “But get your events in the right order and you’ll have a better chance of figuring out if there’s something to the instinct that’s nagging at you.”

“Do you have any other insights, Octavian?”

“No, Princess. That was all common knowledge on the flagship back in the day. Anything more would have been above my rating.”

“Isis, how about you?”

“I’m just an average grunt who wasn’t near the court then,” said the much-decorated Isis, not that she wore her medals any more than Octavian ever did. “But we are approaching the sixth anniversary of the death of the eight-times-worthy hero Ereshkigal Lee. Maybe Lee House has plans to honor their daughter’s sacrifice with a procession and wants the queen-marshal’s imprimatur.”

“Maybe. James, start digging.”

“In case you forgot,” James retorted, “Lee House controls the Ministry of Security, Punishment, and Corrections. I don’t fancy them throwing me into their undersea oubliette if they uncover me sneaking into their secure data.”

“I keep you around because you’re better than everyone else at what you do. Am I not right about you after all?”

He grinned. “You’re always right, Sun. I am, in fact, the very best at what I do.”

And he was, which was exactly why she could not ask him to look into her father’s secret project. Her mother did not threaten lightly. Sun couldn’t take the chance James’s digging would alert Eirene’s intelligence trip wires.

They had skirted the entrance to the queen-marshal’s inner courtyard and entered the consorts’ wing through a side passage rather than its gilded front gate. Startled attendants ceased their dusting and sweeping to stand back with hands pressed respectfully together as Sun passed.

Because she was unmarried Sun still lived in the consorts’ wing. As heir she had her own secondary courtyard and suite of rooms for her Companions adjacent to the large courtyard suite reserved for Prince João. Its gate was guarded by twin statues of guardian lions. She relaxed as she crossed into her own territory at last.

the pilots

Many of the pilots and deck crew paused for a quick double take, registering Apama’s presence with speculative looks that made her feel even more conspicuous than usual. Her hands were sweating, but she locked the nerves away into the puzzle grid and set it aside. A more experienced pilot had been transferred out in order to make way for her. She had no idea why, but the pressure was on to perform well enough to justify her place here. So she would perform.

A dreadnought had eight launch tubes. The deck crew was so efficient she found herself suited and sealed up into a life support membrane and dropped into a lancer before she had time to get her bearings on the flight deck. Each lancer was a rhombus, an octahedral diamond able to shift direction quickly. Its nerve center was a back-to-back set of flight chairs surrounded by a flexible telemetry lattice that gave its two pilots a 360-degree orientation. Factoring in their eight hands and exceptional hand-eye coordination and spatial dexterity meant Phene lancers could turn, adjust, and maneuver with a delicacy and speed that enemies of the Phene respected and feared.

The previous pilot had stuck an icon on the control panel representing Saint Laranthir, staring right at Apama with his smugly handsome face and perfect leafy-green goatee. The words I’ve seen more of the world than most had been neatly written at the base of the control panel. How annoying.

The internal comm crackled, and Delfina said, “You got a smoke?”

“What is a smoke? Some kind of animal?”

“No one knows, but my bet is it has something to do with artillery. My aunt’s an archivist on Anchor, so I got a taste for deep diving into the vaults that contain fragments from the Celestial Empire.”

So Delfina was a Triple A, a privileged heritage seed grown up among the well-connected people in the capitol systems. Nothing like Apama and her mom struggling at the dregs end of shattered Tranquility Harbor.

Set it aside.

A burst of bell tones alerted them to launch.

“Here we go,” said Delfina.

It was just an exercise, Apama reminded herself. Nothing riding on this except her reputation within this possibly resentful squadron and, of course, the respect of her rack-mates. No big deal. She allowed herself an ironic smile.

“Mace sixteen, you are fourth in line to launch.”

A holographic display bloomed in the transparent lattice that wrapped the pilots’ chairs. The lancer clunked as the launch tube rolled it a quarter turn. She lay on her side in the gentle gravity of the cruiser.

“Mace thirteen, you are go. Mace fourteen, you are go. Mace fifteen, you are go. Mace sixteen—”

Her screens went blue, and the lancer was kicked free as a weight like a juggernaut slammed into her chest. A twist dropped them into space. The weight on her chest eased. She clicked back her controls to let Delfina pilot in the wake of the stream of lancers. That was easy enough.

What surprised her as they raced around the Strong Bull’s hull was the sudden, spectacular view of the dead beacon and its radiant halo in high orbit. The beacon’s aura had a weird murky texture that reminded her of a poisonous algal bloom that had choked Tranquility’s sea harbor in her youth.

“You ready?” Delfina said through their internal comm. “We each need to paint at least two kills to claim bragging rights over Steadfast Lion.”

Dots marked the position of lancers diving past the outermost coil, laser bursts painting “kills” on shifting ovoid targets that, in their turn, tried to paint hits on the lancers with soft laser fire.

As their pod altered trajectory, falling into line to make their pass, four of the targets made evasive maneuvers to avoid fire and, in the process, passed through a coil of the aura. Lights flared starkly on their bulbous command nodes. The targets swung around, turning from passive pigeons into aggressive bogies as they began firing on the incoming lancers in erratic bursts of full-strength laser cannons.

Chatter flared out on the main comms line.

“It’s shooting back, it’s shooting back!”

Tower said, “Fail-safes are down. I say again, fail-safes are offline.”

A flare of light. An explosion. A lancer spun off at a sharp angle, spewing debris.

“We have lost contact with Targets 13, 14, 26, and 28,” said the tower in the tight voice of a person struggling to stay calm. “Trying to reestablish control.”

A slab of debris careened through the nearest string of aura, lost to sight in the murky shimmer. Just as she let out a relieved exhale, the slab reemerged at a different and unexpected trajectory. She flinched.

“Dyusme!” Delfina rolled the lancer out of the way, but a glancing blow from the debris sent them tumbling through the outermost finger of the aura.

An uncanny shudder ripped through the lancer.

“Shit, shit, my membrane detached. What in the hells—” Delfina coughed, probably grabbing for an emergency oxygen supply.

“I’ve got it,” said Apama, all hands steady on her controls.

She swung around to get a wider view, manipulating her four controls. As the forward lancers scattered, the rogue targets darted after them, hauling some of the other targets in their wake as if they were linked together, and probably they were. That meant the chained targets were likely going to remain passive.

“Pakshet! My membrane won’t reseal! Got to hook up emergency oxygen.” More coughing, and a wheeze.

“I’ve got it,” said Apama as the calm of imminent action descended.

The targets were still shooting, spinning with a kind of energetic glee as deadly fire laid out strings like traps. Apama tumbled hard, spinning to get new angle, then thrust toward the rogue targets. Two lancers had been hit, forcing them to roll away. Another pod from the Mace flight was retreating at a hard burn to get out of range.

Her sight narrowed in. She flashed through the telemetry and sorted out the best order. Her first burst took out Target 13. Then 14, flowering into splinters as her laser cannon cut across it in three fierce lines.

“Watch your back, watch your back,” said Delfina in a hoarse voice between sucks of oxygen. The ride was too rugged for her to get a clean seal.

Apama tipped into a tight loop. Space was silent so she couldn’t hear the shot that almost punctured her lancer, but she could have sworn her lips tasted its heat a breath away.

“Missed us!” hissed Delfina.

Renay and Ana darted past, targeting 28. As it blew up Apama came all the way around in back of 26 and nailed it.

The debris rattled her shields, knocking their trajectory two degrees sideways. The lancer was flung straight into one of the outermost wraithlike spiral strings of the dead beacon’s aura.

The air inside her helmet got suddenly thick like she were breathing sludge. Her vision turned cloudy with speckled spheres and writhing, glowing rods. A scalding spike of pain jammed into the back of her head. Whispers bled into her mind as if the pain were the transmitter.

“The uprising at Sena has been put down and order restored. Unfortunately we have credible reports that one rebel cell vanished without a trace. The threat from the Chaonians looms larger than ever…”

“Operation Styraconyx commences…”

“The council does not agree with your selfish quest…”

A net of stinging prickles flashed across her face, and she shook herself back into focus. Her lips were dry, and it hurt to swallow, like she had caught a cold. Saint Laranthir’s handsome face had melted into a smear of green goo, but otherwise the cockpit looked unchanged and undamaged.

“Got my seal!” The comms crackled into life with Delfina’s welcome voice. “Holy fire! You were ice, so calm!”

“All lancers return to base. All lancers return to base.”

Three repair shuttles raced past her, headed for the crippled lancers. She followed her pod back to the heavy cruiser. Felt an instant’s red-hot panic as she targeted her assigned landing slot on the cruiser, but her brain flattened back to its chill as she said, “Can you take us in?”

“Got it,” said Delfina.

Apama was glad to give the other pilot this face-saving measure, not that it had been Delfina’s fault her membrane detached.

They slid in, were jerked to a halt, and rolled over. The lancer’s hatch popped as the membrane unsealed. Hands hauled her out, people speaking to her as she nodded as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. The pain in back of her head had vanished as thoroughly as the rebel cell in Sena … and what was that even? A fuzzy memory of a teledrama half recalled from her childhood?

She found herself ringed by her grinning pod, standing in front of a woman wearing a commander’s wings and triple bars augmented by an impressive number of combat stars. Colonel Wulandari Ir Charpentier was expostulating at a dour-looking engineering officer. The engineer was a true exoskeleton-enhanced individual, whose Tadeian-infused and age-hardened caul encased his body in what resembled a skin-hugging but still flexible sheath of armor.

“And how in the hells did that fail-safe cascade collapse happen?” the commander demanded of the engineer.

“Those targets have never malfunctioned before. Not on my watch. I can’t vouch for the civilian contractors. They’re a local hire. Besides them the only anomaly in this exercise that I know of was the presence of the dead beacon’s aura.”

“It’s just particulate debris.”

“I’m as baffled as you are. We won’t rest until we figure it out.” The engineer saw Apama and gave her a long, searching look followed by a curt nod of recognition.

“Get it done,” said the colonel. As the engineer hustled away, Ir Charpentier turned to frown heavily at her. “Lieutenant At Sabao, I presume.”

“Ma’am.”

“Seems you have ice in your veins. Well handled, Lieutenant, especially given the way your double got disconnected. Three lancers were damaged, but we suffered no casualties because of your quick action.”

“Thank you, ma’am.”

“Welcome aboard, Ice. Get cleaned up. I’ll debrief you and your pod in an hour.”

Apama looked down, surprised to find her flight suit spattered with green speckles of drying ooze.

“Hey hey,” said Renay, leading them through the postexercise bustle of the flight deck. “The last becomes the best. Don’t you all forget it.”

Pilots slapped her on the shoulder. Deck crew clapped. One cluster of pilots gave her a long, nasty once-over complete with matching sneers. They’d be trouble. But right now she let it go and said to her companions, “We’ve got a long voyage ahead of us. Please tell me the mess hall has sorbet.”

“Ice for sure,” said Ana with a laugh. “You’ve got your call sign.”

Apama

A click and a hiss of air warned Apama that the hatch into the cabin was about to open. She was seated cross-legged on the bottom left rack with her tablet, lowers holding and uppers typing. As the door slid aside she closed the tablet, set it on the mattress, and swung her legs out to stand and face three strangers. They wore gold lieutenant senior grade bars on their flight suits, sleeves studded with combat stars. As they stepped into the cabin the door shut behind them. At once the space felt crowded and intimidating.

Apama interlaced her lower hands and cupped her right upper hand over her left upper fist as she gave the arrivals a nod. They echoed the gesture.

“Our fourth was transferred out very suddenly three days ago,” said the one with short, curly black hair. She crossed her upper arms and set her lower right hand on her hip. “So you’re her replacement?”

“Apama At Sabao. Lieutenant junior grade.”

The three exchanged glances again, then looked at the photo projection Apama had fixed to the locker end of her rack: an image of her and her mom on the vacation they’d taken to the Grove after Mom finally qualified for her medic’s license. They were standing on one of the landings of the Great Helix, the vista behind them blurred by the camera angle. Mom had her arms around little Apama, her only child; there was nothing that felt safer than being encircled by her mother’s arms.

Apama had learned to get the obvious out of the way immediately when she was going to have to deal with people over a long period of time, rather than let their curiosity fester. “My mom’s a shell. I am too, technically, but my caul was removed after birth so there’s nothing to harden into an exoskeleton.”

“That’s lovely and thank you for sharing, but what we’re really interested in is if you passed your lancer training like everyone else in this squadron,” said curly black hair.

“I did. Surely command doesn’t assign unqualified people to fly combat?”

“I just wanted to hear you say it. I’m Delfina Ba Hill.” Her shoulders relaxed as she uncrossed her uppers. “My call sign is Splash. You need to remember it, starting now.”

“Okay.” Apama tried not to ask many questions because in her experience people would answer what they wanted you to ask, not what you wanted to know.

The svelte blonde said, “I’m Ana Ir Corsária. Call me Cricket when we go out.”

“Go out where?”

“I’m Renay Ar Helm,” said the one whose hair was styled in a rakish pink-and-purple wedge cut.

“Our own Deadstick,” said Ana with an evil grin, elbowing Renay.

“Where’s your flight suit?” Delfina gestured to her locker. “We launch in sixteen.”

“Launch?” Apama blinked about five times, but she couldn’t orient herself to the abrupt shift.

“Our last live field exercises before we leave Phene imperial space for the Gap,” explained Delfina. “You do have a flight suit, don’t you?”

“Uh, yeah. It’s ready to go.”

“No time to waste! You’ll be my double.”

Apama stripped without hesitation, knowing they would notice the nubs at her joints and the unusual glistening of her skin. In such close quarters, they’d see her naked sooner or later so they might as well get an eyeful now. But they politely looked elsewhere.

Delfina tapped a foot like she was the kind of person who got bored easily. “The squadron commanders decided we’re going to use the time while the vanguard gets moving to practice maneuvers. It’ll take a while to get this boss fleet going.”

“Are all the ships in this fleet equipped with knnu drives?”

“That’s right. You ready?”

“Ready.”

They absorbed her smoothly into their group as they strode along the passageway. She swallowed an adrenaline pulse to keep a bland façade.

Knnu drives on military ships.

A secret mission on the edge of the Gap.

None of this was normal procedure. The situation was so disorienting she didn’t try to memorize their route, not yet. Instead, she cooled her mind the way she’d learned to do when young, working through a calming routine like a puzzle falling into place that allowed her to block distractions and just focus.

“A bunch of targets have been laid down out by the dead beacon’s control node,” Delfina explained. “We launch in our pods and do high-speed runs at them, paint them, and simulate weapon launches. Should be just like combat training back in flight school, basic skirmish tactics stuff. Some kind of mission prep.”

“Yeah,” chimed in Renay, “but make sure you nail every shot.”

“We’ve got a tally running against the Steadfast Lion, and it’s neck and neck,” added Ana.

“Do you know what the mission is?” Apama asked.

“Only the shadow knows,” said Delfina cryptically, “which means no one knows.”

“Someone has to know,” said Apama.

“You have too high an opinion of the high command,” said Renay, and Ana said, “For all we know, we’re just hunting smugglers.”

“With this size of a fleet?” Apama objected. “That seems unlikely.”

They reached the flight deck to find the hum and bustle of a well-trained crew making ready for launch. A heavy cruiser like the Strong Bull had a complement of sixty-four lancers divided into four flights of sixteen lancers. Each flight was further divided into four pods of four, and of course each lancer carried two pilots in the back-to-back configuration that gave lancers exceptional maneuverability.

“We’re the tailenders,” said Renay in an undertone, kindly filling her in. “Lancers fifteen and sixteen in the fourth flight.”

“Gale Force is our flight leader,” added Ana. “Our flight call sign is Mace. Nails is our squadron commander. Her flight’s call sign is Hammer.”

“Obviously,” said Delfina.

“Second flight is Club,” said Renay, and Ana finished, “And third flight is Gurz.”

Delfina pushed past pilots toward their assembly position at the port tube. “Let me take the lead, Apama. I don’t want you to be the spanner in the works since I’m guessing you’ve never launched from a heavy cruiser.”

“Only in simulation.”

“Dyusme,” muttered Delfina.

Lieutenant Ca Konadu

It therefore came as an unpleasant surprise that instead of being ushered off the docking ring to the station’s quarterdeck to start intake proceedings, she and the sack were hustled to a different dock and onto a utility shuttle. Her companion shifted the heavy sack into the arms of a senior specialist.

“I got everything. We can launch,” Gail announced.

The pilot and copilot turned to give Apama a slow once-over. The pilot drawled, “You’re the whole reason we’ve been sitting on our asses at anchor for three days waiting to leave?”

“I’m transferring in for duty,” she said, glancing at Gail for help.

“We are full up on utility pilots,” remarked the copilot, lips curling, “so I don’t know where you think you’re headed. And you don’t look one bit like a triple-A fast-track heritage seed, do you? In fact, are you a—”

“I said we can go now,” Gail broke in, “and you know who gave me my orders.”

“Nails gave the order, yes, we know. This shell is a lancer pilot?” the pilot asked with a sneering curl of the lips.

“I earned my place through hard work and high scores, just as you did,” Apama said in a coolly neutral tone.

“Nah, his scores weren’t that good, which is why he’s a utility pilot and not a lancer like us, Apama. I can call you Apama, right?” Gail turned his back on the sour-faced pilots and headed for the passenger benches set against a bulkhead away from the cockpit. “Come sit by me. There’ll be a good view out of the porthole.”

They strapped in side by side. The senior specialist stowed the sack in a locker, gave Apama a cursory nod of acknowledgment, and exited into the cargo hold.

A comforting exchange with the station control tower initiated. The shuttle disengaged, withdrew from the station, and slotted into a departure lane. Once clear, the shuttle accelerated around the magnificent curve of the striped gas giant, soon leaving the station and the planet-sized moon behind.

Gail talked the whole time, for which Apama was grateful as it became clear he was flooding the silence on purpose. So it was that Gail was telling a long story in a deliberately comic fashion about how he had crashed his first lancer into a shiverpeak wilderness and spent a month hiking to safety with a broken arm and the lover he had just had a nasty breakup with when Apama saw the fleet.

The ships in their tight ready formation were tucked behind a rare triple confluence of three of the gas giant’s moons. There were hundreds: assault cruisers, light cruisers on the wings, and an astounding ten dreadnoughts, the jewels of the fleet.

“What are all these doing here?” she asked, shocked into speech. “There’s nowhere to go from here except into the Gap.”

“We are all destined for death,” said Gail cheerfully.

The pilot hailed one of the dreadnoughts. “Bravo Charlie six seven, this is six seven Unicorn three on your nine two niner four mark eight four six one. Checking in with a full tank of mass and five souls on board.”

“Six seven Unicorn three, copy your contact on my nine two niner four mark eight four six one with five souls and a full tank. We’ve got you cleared for hangar five. You’re clear to kick to tower. Welcome back. You’re the last ones in.”

“The last ones in for what? Why no heavy frigates? Where are we going with this boss fleet?”

“Those are the questions we’re all asking, aren’t they?” Gail replied. “We don’t know.”

It turns out you won’t ever read this letter because we are allowed no mail privileges on this mission. I’m going to keep writing anyway and pretend you’ll read it.

I never expected to end up on a high-level assignment like this so soon out of flight school. If you ask me it’s a bit strange. I asked my sponsor, a nice lieutenant senior grade whose name I can’t share, if the fleet is short of lancer pilots after our recent losses to Chaonia’s military at Na Iri and Tarsa. But he said the Strong Bull has their pick of experienced people. So the mystery of why and how I’m here, and why the fleet waited at anchor for three days until I got here, hasn’t been answered. Yet.

Meanwhile I was shown to my rack, a tiny cabin sleeping four in two stacked bunks, which is the luxurious accommodations junior officers get. My new friend hustled away because he’s adjutant to the lancer squadron commander and has other duties. Now I’m just waiting.

let me know

“What sort of shocks?”

“Hmm. You ever serve on a ship with a contingent of Gatoi auxiliaries?”

“No. I’ve never even seen one in the flesh. Just heard stories.”

The technician indicated the healing scar running from the corner of her left eye to down below the left ear, and the braces wrapped around her upper-right elbow and lower-right wrist. “Don’t mess with them. Or even talk to them. They’re touchy about their honor.”

“That looks painful.”

The technician had a cocky grin. “I gave worse than I got.”

“I didn’t know Gatoi could be beaten in a straight-on fight.”

“They can’t. But I didn’t rely on strength and speed. I’m not a technician first class for nothing.”

Apama laughed appreciatively, wanting to ask for details but aware of time passing with her orders still at a dead end.

“So I guess you’re wanting the quarterdeck?” the technician added, watching her closely.

“I am. Thanks.”

She plugged a map overlay into the scrip. A floating screen popped up in front of Apama’s left eye, generated by her imbed, and marked a path.

The post wasn’t large, but command hadn’t stinted on its construction. For example, it had covered walkways to mitigate the blast of the sun, each support post molded to depict one of the mythical beasts of the long-lost Celestial Empire. The eaves and roofs of the walkways and the building entrances were elaborated with curlicues in a joyful floral style that set her at ease. The building that housed the quarterdeck boasted sliding entrance doors framed by an augmented-reality waterfall on each side. Crossing the threshold prickled her face with a cool breeze like crossing through a guild portal.

The main room of the quarterdeck’s service lounge was silent and dim except for a figure seated at the welcome desk, reading a book while snacking on pistachio nuts. When the soldier did not look up, Apama gave a cough.

The soldier startled up, spilling half the container of nuts. “Dyusme! What in the saints-forgiven hells are you doing sneaking in like … Oh. Sorry, Lieutenant.” They leaped to their feet and saluted quite unnecessarily.

“I’m reporting in. Here’s my scrip.”

“We don’t get transfers down here.”

“And yet here I am.”

The soldier—a specialist by rank—reluctantly accepted the scrip and slotted it into the security cube with their lower-right hand.

“This place seems quiet,” Apama said, just to say something.

“It usually is,” remarked the specialist in a morose tone, gaze flicking toward the doors through which Apama had so untimely entered. “I usually get a lot of studying done. Hoping to make senior specialist this go-round.”

They waited in awkward silence until the specialist frowned, opened a virtual keyboard, and tapped into it. “No orders in our queue for you, Lieutenant.”

“There’s no orders for me?”

“No. Transfers always go straight to the station. This post is for local liaison and cargo routings. Are you sure you’re at the right place?”

She wasn’t sure at all. Nothing made sense to her about the cursory nature of the orders or the way they’d been sprung on her after she’d thought she was headed to a ship squadron like everyone else in her cohort. It had been arbitrary and sudden.

The doors whisked aside. A person hustled in wearing the insignia of a lieutenant senior grade, the swagger of a lancer pilot, and the welcoming smile of a jolly happy soul.

“Ei! You must be Apama At Sabao. Sorry I’m late. Meant to be here before but I got hung up running errands. Saints alive! Have you ever tried to buy malted barley in a slack-jawed town like this one?” He halted in front of Apama and stuck out his lower right hand. “I’m Abigail Ca Konadu, adjutant to strike squadron leader Commander Ir Charpentier, who you’ll come to know by her call sign, Nails. Sorry I’m late. Oh, wait, I said that already. Come with me, Lieutenant.”

Apama grabbed her kit bag and followed him out. Ca Konadu trotted instead of walked, so Apama trotted alongside, kit bag thumping on her back.

“There’s a gunship waiting for us. You can call me Gail, by the way. Gale Force is my call sign because I talk a lot. Never mind. Here we are.”

They passed into the support zone for a landing pad where a gunship sat in vertical lift position. The mighty rim of the gas giant around which the moon orbited was nudging up over the horizon, an astonishing sight Apama had no leisure to savor.

A senior chief gestured impatiently. “Move! Our lift window is closing.”

They pounded up the ramp. Gunships weren’t troop transports, and yet a bewildering number of passengers and crew were crammed on board. Apama got split away from her companion and stuck on a bench between the fragrant sack of malt and a rather handsome young Gatoi auxiliary. Even having only two arms he had a lean, powerful symmetry and grace of form. The striking appeal of his facial features was emphasized by the almost indiscernible pattern gleaming beneath his skin. When he caught her checking him out he blushed and turned toward the Gatoi sitting on his other side. He spoke in a language she could not understand, and the other Gatoi glanced at her and laughed. A moment’s scrutiny of the hold counted eleven of the savage fighters, who were generally assigned out in eleven-person units called an arrow. After what the technician had told her it seemed rude and also dangerous to try to talk to any of them, much less attempt to examine the fascinating neural patterns all Gatoi had. So she didn’t.

Lieutenant Ca Konadu was strapped in across the hold next to the senior chief, the two chatting up a storm as if they were old acquaintances. For Apama, the sack of malt and the auxiliary were equally silent companions as the gunship launched for its five-hour journey to the orbital station. She popped in earplugs and dozed, thankful to be headed at long last for her final destination.