Blood of the Prime: Predawn

By Erin MacMichael

Sci-Fi

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46
37 mins

 

Prologue

“Code firing of the Talrésian line—Tarsus, Alcyone, Okadian timeshell, one hundred forty-four millennia after seeding. Check.”

“What? That’s your move?”

“That’s my move.”

“What good—?”

“Look at the ramifications, my dear.”

“Damn.”

The chiming, feminine voice laughed. “You see it now, don’t you?”

“Um-hmm.”

“Critical mass and a wildfire chain reaction that spreads into countless systems. Your paltry efforts to suppress such an expansion will only inflame it. Shall we continue, or do you accept utter and humiliating defeat?” The shimmering crystalline spider waited patiently, her thousand, independently moving eyes watching the sprawl of activity in front of her with wry amusement.

Across a vast expanse of space, the mass of pulsating light which the spider’s companion had chosen as his guise for their game flared in frustration. “I’m not giving up anything yet, Kalán!” Shirus scanned the blanket of tiny lights and orbs glittering in the playing field again and again for new possibilities.

The two guardians were intimately acquainted with the personalities of the stars and worlds represented in the game as well as the dramas being played out by the lifeforms inhabiting each one. They were, after all, among the master timekeepers who crafted the webworks that supported the experiments in physicality run by the clans of Genán, the underlying prime intelligence of the galaxy.

To entertain themselves, the pair had extracted a slice from one of Genán’s timeshells and projected the events of the worlds within it into their gaming space as the starting point of play. The two players proceeded to shift the lifeforms and spin out the probabilities in each system, keeping track of all moves on all worlds simultaneously while attempting to outmaneuver the other according to the nature of each “chess piece.”

For this match, Shirus directed the events of those who gravitated toward collapse and Kalán orchestrated those who moved toward expansion.

“Do you have to be such a bleeding genius every time we play?” Shirus doggedly sifted through his opponent’s moves on multiple worlds. For a moment, the ball of light brightened, appearing to be pleased with a new direction of thought. “Rastaban, Draco—Emperor Izar deploys his entire fleet of destroyers in the two-thousand-four-hundred-seventy-ninth year of his reign.”

“Excellent. That will do quite well.”

“What do you mean?” Shirus snapped irritably. “That’s going to wipe out your little upstart scheme.”

The glittering spider waved an appendage airily. “Ah, my dear. Remember, plans within plans within plans. Terra, Sol, two centuries prior to decimation—Ama is brought back from madness by her mate.”

“But that’s … so far back—”

“Indeed. Checkmate.”

With a sudden flash, the spinning points of light and orbs were instantly incinerated as a giant wave of fire rolled across the field.

Tinkling laughter emanated from the beautiful spider. The ball of light sat in sullen silence.

“Did that feel good, my dear?” Kalán inquired delicately.

Shirus growled. “Yes.”

“You just destroyed a good third of our territory with that move. Baal would applaud such an action from you.”

“Baal interferes where he should not!” The ball of light erupted with violent ribbons of red.

“Baal is brilliant and bored.”

“He’s a guardian! Our job is to keep the timewebs intact and healthy while the Prime journeys toward completion. It’s not our place to interact with the inhabitants of the webs! The clans create life and all its experience. We don’t!” A flare shot out from the ball, indicating the playing field. “This is a game. Genán never intended for us to participate directly in physical reality. You’ve been interfering just as much as Baal.”

“And what if collapse is what we all end up with as a result of his actions?” Kalán fired back. “Would the Prime want that? Just what would that look like, Shirus? You’ve stood by and watched as the great reptilian clans split apart and soured throughout the Okadian Timeshell. Look here.”

In a quick burst, the lights and orbs reconfigured in the space between the two entities. With a crisp command, the spider set the stellar and planetary bodies into motion once again.

“When the Goran Drahk splinter factions poured out of Lyra and infected the Draco Expanse, Baal was behind them.” Kalán waved an arm and a sinewy pattern of stars blinked within the playing field. “His interference spawned the first battles of the Reptilian Wars, culminating in widespread flight and the scattering of the elder creators within the clan.”

Shirus brooded in silence, fully aware of the tragic hejira of the Prime’s greatest designers.

With quiet resolve, the spider pressed on. “The elder dragons hid and started over, tucking away their secrets and infusing themselves into new worlds, but it wasn’t enough. Time and time again they were discovered, raided, plundered by the very offspring they had once been so proud of. Who do you think directed those raids, Shirus?”

Isolated groups of lights fluttered and spat while the field’s overall luminance throbbed with an unhealthy cast.

“And just when the voracious beasts were about to burn out, they turned themselves around and drew a new breath. The Drahkian Empire desecrates life in massive sweeps, intent on owning or devouring anything they deem beneath them. They conquer and terrorize to feed their addiction, leaving multitudes of beings mere shells of what they had been.” The spider watched her companion intently as cluster after cluster of the spinning stars and planets flared to indicate their downfall to Drahkian rule.

“We’ve seen millions of races rise and fall, Kalán. It is their right.”

“Agreed, but this breed of reptilians has lost all sensibilities which link them with other life. They have no concept of how their actions affect the whole, nor would they care if they knew. You know the horrible mess it makes when they destroy an entire planet. It completely disrupts the planetary collective, leaving it wounded, grieving, angry, in shock — and it blows huge holes in the timewebs. How many of those mangled grids have you reconstructed yourself?”

The ball of light spasmed with sharp bursts of color. “Too many.”

“And are you going to keep cleaning up after them?”

“Yessssss. All is allowed by the Prime in this zone, Kalán.”

“Then don’t we have free will to choose our actions?” The body of the spider blazed with golden light. “Where is your love for these beings, my dear?”

“My love for them does not allow me to manipulate and take away their choices, even appalling ones.”

“I’m not talking about taking away anyone’s choice, only showing those who ask the right questions new possibilities, just as Baal does with the Drahks. Watch as I spin the probabilities of the Drahkian Empire continuing its present course within the primary layer of the Okadian Timeshell.”

The lights swirled and wove before the two guardians. Multiple systems dimmed, while some points burst into flame and disappeared altogether from the intricate pattern. Abruptly, a vast portion of the lights spluttered and disintegrated, leaving a gaping void in the spinning wheel of stars.

Shirus shifted uncomfortably as the spider’s eyes pinned him in place.

“Yes, love. I see the potential for Genán’s consciousness to begin its collapse. If enough beings are brutalized by Drahkian violence, they will no longer hold onto the desire to live in physical reality. The pain would be too great. The wounded Prime could very well fall into an endless loop of unaware madness with no one left outside of the nightmare to wake it to sanity, let alone heal it.”

The ball of light was silent.

“If the living entities of Genán choose the path of premature demise, so be it. It is their will.” The crystalline spider twinkled for a moment as if smiling. “But if we are all ever going to get remotely close to completion, which is part of our job,” she added dryly, “then we damn well better do something about it.”

Shirus rumbled with irritation. “The Drahks are the spawn of the reptilian clan. Let them do something about their twisted offspring.”

“Oh, they are, my dear. The T’nari game masters are designing a grand scheme to do just that.”

“The T’nari? The rogue designers?”

“Mmmm, yeeeeesssss,” the female spider replied silkily. “Riál contacted me and asked if I would throw my talents in with his rather dazzling collection of renegade system busters. It appears my weaving skills are valuable to their plans.”

The ball of light flickered with annoyance. “And just what exactly have you and Riál mapped out, O Great Master Strategist?”

“I thought you’d never ask. Do pay close attention,” the spider answered primly.

With a single flourish of a delicate arm, the lights and orbs reappeared once more, the Drahkian territory clearly delineated by a wide array of fluttering star points. Single stars, both inside the territory and beyond, pulsed with luminous intensity and seemed to spin a little faster.

“Are you following this?”

The interwoven plans and shifting probabilities escalated through the events transpiring within each star system and world. “There and there,” the spider prompted as point after point in the field shimmered with vivid cobalt. Images of T’nari infiltrations and ignitions flew fast and furiously into the mind of the male guardian.

“The kernels for a brand new timeshell could be opened here, here, and, most critically, here,” Kalán prompted, indicating a planetary system in a spur of the galaxy.

“Now watch.”

Several of the blinking Drahkian systems wobbled. One by one, a series of planetary orbs sprinkled throughout the sector began to glow more brightly than the others, forming an odd configuration within the field. When the twelfth entity lit up, beams of light shot between the bodies to form a connected geometric form and the group began to thrum in unison. A blitz of light rolled out from the neon matrix, infusing itself across the entire system until all points within the playing field burned with a new intensity, even the systems which had previously gone out.

“The Angriel banks. By the Prime, they’re after the lost Angriel libraries!”

“That’s right, dear, all of them.”

“And … they work together.”

“Indeed. The reptilian designers were cunning as well as genius. There are powerful keys hidden in the libraries—that’s one thing Riál wants.”

“So he can do … this?” The guardian gestured toward the light geometry pulsing within the ocean of stars.

“Yes! The reclamation of the code banks means a chance to revitalize and reseed life in the Okadian timewebs. A new game, Shirus, think of it! The birth of a brand new timeshell for Genán and the rise into a higher frequency for all entities who can handle it, including those who were lost. Riál is after more than the banks themselves—he wants his family back.”

A great ripple burst from the giant ball of light as he shuddered in stunned surprise. “Incredible.” The guardian moved his mind through the intricate new pathways of each system once again. “You mean, those moves you made in our game are real?”

The spider laughed. “That word, coming from you. Of course, Shirus. The T’nari renegades are already hurling them into motion in all levels of the timeshells.”

“A very cunning plan indeed.”

“I thought you might be impressed.”

“I’m always impressed with what you come up with and the T’nari are brilliant, but do you think they can really pull this whole thing off?”

“Riál has a small army working the beginning stages of our plans. They’ve infiltrated key bloodlines in pivotal segments of the drama and have begun to stir interest in a new solution to the tired old problems.” Kalán blinked her eyes for a moment and then mused, “You know, maybe that’s what Baal had in mind all along—push the beings in this sector against the wall to see if they will bounce back stronger than they were.”

Turning her gaze back to her mate, the spider’s eyes sparkled with mischief. “Then again, perhaps Baal just wanted to draw me into the arena in order to have a worthy opponent.”

The ball of light roared and changed swiftly into a large male spider, sweeping a wide swath of space clear through the gaming field. Shirus crouched and began a slow stalk of his lovely partner across the open gulf between them, his eyes smoldering as his gaze bored into hers.

Kalán shivered. “The T’nari are such spectacular players,” she drawled, taunting him further. “The stimulation in watching their moves ... is like nothing else in the field.” She panted as she watched the huge, glowing arachnid approach across the gaming space. “There is always room for another touch of genius, Shirus. Think about it, my love. If you wish to join us, you would be welcomed by all.”

The male spider crept closer through the suspended lights, smiling maniacally.

“Such a beautiful renegade,” the deep voice crooned. Shirus’s body began to throb in a slow, steady beat as he closed the distance to Kalán, the stars around him picking up the same pulsing rhythm.

“Flattery will get you everywhere.”

“Perhaps we could add a new … thrust ... of vitality to your plans.” The male spider paused a short distance away, his eyes locked with hers in invitation, the bursts of light from his body washing over hers.

“Perhaps ... we can ... think of something,” Kalán whispered breathlessly.

The swirling patterns of light in the forgotten playing field behind the two guardians began to burn and sizzle.

With a wild laugh, the female spider pounced.


Chapter 1, "Incursion"

All pilots transport NOW!

The call came while Rhys Talrésian was out working a new stretch of ground in his vegetable garden at Tintágel, the sentinel compound of Andara’s western coast. Covered in sweat, he panted and straightened his back, looking down at the grungy pair of shorts and battered sandals he wore when digging out in the hot sun.

“Crap.”

He dropped his shovel in the dirt and ran his hands through his long black hair. It never seemed to fail that he was in the middle of something awkward whenever the admiral called a drill. With any luck, no one on his team, or the rest of the crew for that matter, would fully tune into him and notice his lack of attire. That left only his partner to deal with, which meant several days of needling jibes were a foregone conclusion.

With an exasperated sigh, Rhys locked his mind into the proper geometric sound matrix that would allow him to transport across the Andaran continent and shifted himself directly onto Mirida, one of the sentient crystalline starships anchored deep within the mountains outside of Krii, the largest capital on Tarsus. He materialized on board Rai, his small interceptor, housed in one of the lower docking bays of the smoky gray vessel alongside the eleven other interceptors making up Team Six.

I’m here, Mirida, he called mentally to check in with the starship while he strapped himself into his chair.

Welcome, Rhys. I’ll let you know when all the members of your team have arrived.

Great, thanks. He scanned the control panels in front of him and began the routine checks for the small craft necessary before the starship launched into space.

Rai’s pale white walls vibrated in response to the appearance of one of her pilots. Rhys, your pulse rate is a little high and you appear to be overheated. Would you like some cool air?

He smiled at the sound of the sentient vessel’s calm voice in his mind. Yes, Rai, that would be wonderful. A soft current of air swirled over his skin while he turned his focus inward to perform a complete scan of Rai’s body, checking stored energy levels, life support systems, and internal tuning. Satisfied that all systems were in top form, he lifted his gaze to the window in Rai’s hull. Out beyond the translucent docking bay door he could see a portion of the lighted underground cavern which harbored six of the eleven great Khalama starships of Tarsus, the second planet of the Alcyone system.

The tall, solid form of Quinn Logan appeared beside him to his right in the second pilot’s seat. A silver moon dangled from the Caledonian’s left ear among strands of thick, wavy brown hair. Rhys noted with irrational irritation that his partner was fully clothed in his usual chambray shirt and jeans, having responded to the call, as required, without changing into his navy fleet uniform.

He kept his gaze directed out the window, but he could feel Quinn’s probing green eyes give him a thorough going over.

“Just don’t say it,” he growled through clenched teeth.

Quinn threw back his head with a loud laugh. “You make it so easy, man. What was it last time, a towel?”

“I was in … the shower. It was all I could grab.”

“Yeah, well I’d say this is an improvement.”

Out to impress someone, Rhys? A familiar deep voice came blaring across a mental channel with both pilots.

Rhys let out a disgusted snort. What the hell are you doing here, Kirian? Who’s running the portal?

I’m not on duty. Gridál has the shift.

Kirian Vall was one of three senior portal masters in charge of the large teams who regulated traffic through the planet’s primary portal in the upper atmosphere above Krii. He was also the leader of the Makhás masters from Sirius and founder of the Center for Geometrics where everyone in the Alcyoni Fleet had been educated.

I’ll be watching if you need me. Otherwise, keep your minds on your job.

The pilots glanced at each other with puzzled frowns at the tigerman’s rough tone. It was highly unusual for their busy friend to make contact with them on runs or drills, let alone bark at them with his infamous temper which he inflicted regularly on the rest of the world.

Quinn shook his head and shrugged as the mellifluous voice of Mirida rang through a channel with both pilots. The last member of your team just transported aboard.

Thank you, Mirida! Rhys extended his senses outward to establish a linked network with the members of Team Six: twelve sentient interceptors, twenty-four pilots, and twelve transport adepts housed in a chamber adjacent to the bay. Alright, everyone’s in the link. Ready to work, team?

Yesss!

Good. Let’s—

I’m not.

Always the comedian, Katherine. Did engineering get the air regulators fixed aboard Lessa since our last run?

Yep, nice and cool in here. Hey, Rai, you might want to crank it down a bit more for Mountain Man and Studly. Looks like he’s sweatin’ like a mad bull.

Rhys glowered as laughter burbled across the link. Beside him, Quinn's smooth features split into a wide grin.

Thanks, smart-ass. I’ll deal with you when we get ba—

Tune to Tarsus!

The sharp command from the bridge within Mirida’s core broke across the channel. Straightening in their seats, the pilots drew in full breaths and turned their attention to making the long, clear sounds which would connect with Rai’s spinning toroidal field and activate her energetic shield. Their baritone voices blended and merged into easy, familiar harmonics, filling the crystalline chamber with ringing sound.

All around the small interceptor, an energy web began to form from the intonation of the eleven other pilot pairs and the transporters of Team Six. The web grew until it joined with the expanding network building within the body of Mirida generated by all twelve pilot teams, the transport, motion, portal, and shield teams stationed on the bridge, and all other crew members stationed throughout the ship. At the center of the spinning construct, Rhys could feel the vibrant sounds and movements of his brother, Djan, and his sister-in-law, Tyla, the starship leaders who directed the whole formation in the heart of the ship through the ecstatic drive of their lovemaking.

The heat of arousal rushed through Rhys’s body as the spinning sound construct opened a connection for everyone on board and brought the tide of sexual energy pumping through the entire network. As Djan and Tyla fused and melded, the great starship herself began to hum and vibrate. Rhys shifted his sound to a higher tone, riding the currents and moving the energy up through his own system as the swells coursed through the body of the ship. Beside him, Quinn’s resonant tones locked with his and shook with tension.

The enormous torus spun through and around the ship and the starship leaders reached for completion. With Djan and Tyla’s climax came a brilliant burst as Mirida connected with the central core of Tarsus. Light flooded through the translucent walls of living crystal, setting her entire form ablaze. Rhys felt the jolt run up his spine and electrify every cell in his body, bringing his awareness into razor-sharp clarity.

At a signal from the bridge, the toning spiked and dropped to seal off the starship’s link to Tarsus. The stored energy would maintain the high spin of Mirida’s massive toroidal field and all shipwide functions for the entire voyage. Direction of the torus was handled by the motion team who would shift its rate and size to regulate the ship’s movement. The body of the ship itself as well as those of the interceptors were designed to amplify and hold all of the energetic constructs generated by the crew of adepts on board.

Out the window, Rhys watched as Rinzen, the original Khalama starship brought by the Makhás Masters from Sirius, Telemar, and Corum, Admiral Silesian’s flagship, one by one burst into flaming life beside Mirida, ready for flight.

Adrenaline sang in Rhys’s veins, and through his heightened senses, he picked up an unusually strong undercurrent of something unexpected running through Mirida and her crew—anxiety. A glance at Quinn’s taut features confirmed that he too was feeling the disturbing vibrations coursing through the network.

Transporting to upper atmosphere. Djan’s clipped voice relayed operations and orders over the shipwide link while Tyla directed the four teams of adepts in the central bridge.

Instantly the four activated starships blinked into the cobalt blue space above Tarsus. Spread from horizon to horizon was the vast landmass of Andara, the most heavily populated continent within the primary dimension of First Shade. Directly below lay the glittering expanse of Krii just west of the rugged Shardan range which stretched lazily toward the northern seas in a long serpentine chain.

Far to the left, the green water of the Fiordian Sea met the jagged line of the western coastal lands where Rhys had blissfully been tending his garden at Tintágel only moments before. To the right beyond the Shardans, his eyes skimmed over the rolling hills of the Roden grasslands where his grandfather’s family resided, and scanned the horizon where he could just make out the snowy peak of Emrys in the southern mountains of Caledon, the second largest continent of Tarsus. He raised a hand and pointed it out, bringing a quiet smile to his partner’s face at seeing a visible piece of his northern homeland.

Leto and Gillian are joining us from Ness. Seconds later, two of the five starships from the caverns just outside of Caledon’s capital city popped into the space next to Mirida. We have access coordinates through the portal. Transport matrix is in place. Shifting out.

The pilots watched the surface of Tarsus shift from glorious greens and rusts to a dead shade of tan, devoid of seas or lifesigns, as the six starships transported out past the complex convergence of energy gridlines comprising the main entry point to Tarsus. The Portal Masters and their large teams maintained the intricate locks of the primary portal above Krii and the secondary portal above Ness, providing access to welcome visitors into First Shade while projecting the lifeless appearance of an uninhabited secondary shade into the grid in order to camouflage the planet’s surface to anyone outside.

The sleek forms of the Zephyr and Loki, two of the old mechanical fleet starships, hung in orbit just outside the wide portal space, silently standing guard and ready to assist the number of small merchant crafts and rigs coming in through the mechanized transport ring hanging in space several miles above the portal.

Starships from Chi, Ki, and Niemi are being activated and charged. Admiral Silesian will fill everyone in as soon as those ships are in orbit above their home portals.

Rhys sucked in a breath. He knew his brother too well. The tension in Djan’s voice confirmed what Rhys had begun to suspect the moment he picked up the anxiety running through the ship.

This was no drill.

The Drahkian Empire was on the move again somewhere within Maia or Alcyone, the last free planetary systems in the Pleiades. The new Alcyoni fleet that Rhys’s grandfather, Magnus, and Miros Silesian had worked so hard to build with the guidance of Kirian and the Makhás masters was about to be put to the test against the very deadly reptilians.

Rhys closed his eyes as an involuntary shudder worked its way through his frame.

“We’ll be alright,” Quinn asserted firmly, his almost imperceptible Caledonian lilt softening his words.

Rhys rubbed his face with his hands. “I know. We’ve been through the drills a thousand times. We just don’t know how effective we’ll be in a real battle.”

“We’re good at this, and you’re the best short-range netter we’ve got.” It was widely accepted that Rhys’s talent in constructing geometric webs was second to none. Working in tandem with Quinn’s long-range scanning abilities, the pair made a formidable partnership.

“We must be crazy to take them on with no weapons. All this planning and training just to capture and send them over to Tiān Lóng. I don’t know, Quinn.”

“It’s better this way. Blowing them up gets us nowhere. That’s what Miros and Magnus drummed into all our heads after they lost the war in Merope. You know how passionate Mag is about finding a way to deal with the Drahks. You’re a lot like him.”

Rhys snorted and smiled crookedly. “Yeah, don’t remind me.” He knew all the stories about how his grandfather had brought the last surviving Sirian Makhás masters to Tarsus and persuaded the staunchly pacifist psychics to share their knowledge and help birth a new fleet of sentient Khalama starships. Thanks to Magnus’s drive and the Makhás’ brilliance, the Alcyoni fleet now had the edge it needed to compete with the Drahks’ perplexing technology that enabled warships to transport instantaneously. Rhys absently touched his fingers to the golden octahedron hanging from a chain around his neck that Magnus had given him when he graduated from the academy. Such a tiny piece of delicate gold had changed all of their lives when it opened that crucial connection between Magnus and Kirian across star systems so many years ago.

With a long sigh, Rhys let his hand fall back down to the armrest. “Even if this works, we still don’t know how they break portals. How long will we be able to put off the inevitable?”

“Who says it’s inevitable? We don’t know what’s around the bend, Rhys.” The Caledonian pilot watched him calmly.

“You’re right,” he acknowledged at length. “Thanks for letting me blow off steam.”

Ok, listen up, everyone. The rich voice of Fleet Admiral Miros Silesian sounded across a secondary shipwide link connecting the admiral with all fifteen mobilized vessels. Admiral Stardancer of the Maian fleet contacted me about fifteen minutes ago to report that a Drahkian warband has invaded Galah, the smallest outworld of Maia. The last relay from Galah’s Portal Master reported that eight warships had broken through the portal locks. The Peregrine managed to lift off and join the rest of the fleet, but communication from the Portal Center staff was cut off, so we have no idea what exactly we’ll encounter once we get there.

A moment of heavy silence passed. The populated systems within the vast Pleiadian cluster—Sterope, Celaeno, Taygeta, Electra, Pleione, Atlas, and numerous smaller systems—had fallen, one by one, under Drahkian control. After the bitter loss of Merope decades prior, the Maian fleet had joined the feverish drive on Tarsus to expand into new abilities that would give them an edge against Drahkian technology. The Maians still flew the swift Birdwing starships, but the vessels had been redesigned to carry crystalline cores and the bird-headed Tori and human fleet personnel were now highly trained adepts who shared the same goals as their cousins in Alcyone.

We’re taking a third of our starships to support the Maians and will call in the rest of our ships if we need them. Admiral Stardancer has mobilized the entire Maian fleet to guard their portals and will bring a large force to meet us at a coordinate ten miles above Galah’s portal. Ship transporters, exact coordinates are coming through to your team leaders now. The teams in orbit and underground on Tiān Lóng are standing by to handle any Drahkian vessels we capture. All hands, prepare to link with Alcyone’s stargate.

Rhys pulled in a slow breath as he felt Mirida and the six Tarsian starships join in a mental bond with nine other sentient vessels from Niemi and the twin planets of Chi and Ki, vibrating in sync to prepare for connection with the great blue central star.

Open the gates!

The crisp, clear voices of the transport team on the bridge surged through Mirida as they sounded an intricate set of tones designed to resonate with the geometric configuration of Alcyone’s stargate generated by the star’s movement and vibration. A second set of tones matching the stargate signature of Maia was woven into the sound construct to link both gates and hold them open while an energetic web large enough to receive the ship was projected out to coordinates above Galah.

Transport matrices are in place. All ships, jump on my mark. Three … two … one, ... now!

The fifteen crystalline starships shifted as one body and appeared above a tiny gray world surrounded by the blue dust of the Pleiadian cluster. At the same moment, twenty-four golden Birdwing vessels swooped into view beside them.

Ahiiiaaa, Alcyoni fleet! The melodious voice of Yuri Stardancer, Tori admiral of the Maian fleet, trilled across the joint channel. Thank you for coming! It’s our turn to be grateful for assistance. For decades, long before the Meropean War, the Maian Birdwings had flown to support countless free worlds under attack by forces from the Empire. Unfortunately, all of those systems had eventually fallen to the Drahks’ superior technology.

We’re here to help. Any change, Yuri?

Still nothing since we lost contact with our people in the Portal Center. They must all be dead or unconscious. We’ve received a few calls from off-duty portal staff who told us the Drahks have started to land and the city is in chaos. If we can still pick up those calls, that tells me the portal may not yet be sealed off.

Then let’s see if we can get through!

In formations of six, the shiny Maian vessels peeled out in graceful arcs toward the surface of the planet leaving the Alcyoni vessels to follow in their wake. Within a few short minutes, the combined Pleiadian fleet came to a hovering halt in front of the huge mechanical ship transport ring floating in orbit a few miles above Galah’s only portal.

Rhys shifted his mind’s eye downward to take in the view of the planet below the ship. “Damn, look at that.” Galah’s capital city of Guan was clearly visible, even from the fleet’s high vantage point in space. “The portal’s wide open or we’d never see it!”

Shadowed against the soft glow of the city’s solar dome, a set of dark discs hung in suspension, barely discernible, but unmistakable.

“By the Prime,” Quinn murmured at their first sighting of the deadly invaders they had all heard about since childhood. His jaw dropped open at seeing the hard evidence that the Drahkian Empire had turned its attention toward the last remaining free worlds in the Pleiades. “We always knew this day would come.”

“Yeah, but it’s still unnerving to see the bastards here.”

The Maian admiral’s perplexed voice sounded over the channel. I’ve never seen them leave a portal open like this. They always reseal it right after they burn through.

You’ve been through more battles than the rest of us, Yuri.

Whether it’s purposeful or some kind of malfunction, we need to keep alert, Miros, so we don’t end up trapped on the wrong side of a locked portal.

Agreed. I don’t like it either, but it’s our chance to hit them while their numbers are small. Lead the way, Yuri. We’ll follow you down. Alcyoni ships, fall into formation—groups of five! The admiral’s flagship pulled out in front of the other crystalline vessels to lead the first group.

Djan’s clipped voice rang over the internal channel linking Mirida and her crew. Moving out! The ship banked away from the cluster of Pleiadian vessels and took up position with Telemar, Leto, and Gillian behind Rinzen.

The Maian wings began their descent, trailed by the three Alcyoni formations with Corum in the lead. Within minutes, the fleet moved smoothly down through the open portal into the thin, inhospitable atmosphere toward the domed city below.

“Two warships are missing,” Quinn noted as he conducted a long-range scan past the enemy ships and searched the city beneath the solar dome. “They said there were eight.”

“Already down on the landing fields?”

The Caledonian shook his head as they watched the dark shapes grow quickly in size. Six charcoal gray Drahkian discs, each significantly larger than the Khalama or Birdwing ships, were spread out over Guan just above the energetic barrier of the solar dome. Dozens of long, blocky vessels moved outward from the ominous dark hulks, winding slow paths down toward the solar dome on their way to the surface.

Yuri’s voice cut into the link. Those smaller craft are transports filled with saur beasts and their handlers. We’ve got to stop any more from landing!

Abruptly, swarms of tiny fighters began to pour from the outer rims of the warships, rushing to form clusters around the slow-moving transports.

The Alcyoni admiral uttered a soft expletive. They finally figured out they have company! At least with so many small ships in the field, the warships won’t be transporting out from under us any time soon.

Agreed. Miros, take the western half of the city. We’ll handle the eastern sectors. I’m sending the Peregrine with a wing to circle the dome so they can transport as many people up from the surface as they can locate.

Understood, Yuri. Alright people, let’s get busy. Rinzen, your team will target the warship furthest north. Shoji’s team, head for the disc furthest west. Those of you with Corum, we’ll take the ship to the southwest. Stay alert for new orders and be prepared to move quickly!

Mirida shifted into position between Rinzen and Telemar. The Tarsian starships dropped down into the space directly above the dark disc hovering over the small landing fields and Portal Center at the northern edge of the city. Bright beams shot upward out of firing points encircling the warship’s apex as well as from positions along the rim, deftly avoiding the swirling cloud of Drahkian fighters rising upward to meet the Pleiadian vessels. The energy shield blanketing Mirida’s outer hull diffused the beams and redirected stray fragments while the five Tarsian ships adjusted their altitudes to hover at a distance that would avoid serious damage.

Djan’s voice snapped out orders over Mirida’s link. We need to clean up the field of smaller ships before the starships can hold a stable net around the warship. Pilot teams one through four, target the front formations of oncoming fighters and keep them away from Mirida. Five through twelve, transport directly down past the rim of the warship and get to work on those ground vessels and fighters. Your transport teams are ready to shift the ships you net straight out to Tiān Lóng. Keep yourselves clear of those beams. It won’t be long before the warship gunners give up on us and turn their focus on you. Get going!

Rhys shifted his telepathic connection with Mirida’s shipwide network to a secondary channel and focused his attention on the link between the twelve ships and transporters of his team. Interceptors, release you anchors. Get ready to move. He glanced aside at his partner. “Find us an open spot down there.”

Quinn nodded and closed his eyes to cast his vision down toward the warship. There’s clear space just outside the southernmost rim where some of the fighters are emerging. I’ve set an energetic beacon. Rhys, lock on and throw the transport grid.

Got it! The web is open. Everyone, shift on my mark. Ready—now!

In one clean move, the pilots transported the twelve small vessels into the center of Rhys’s energy construct. The massive gray warship loomed above them to the north, spitting bolts of fire up into the sky like an angry, metallic beast. Scores of small, silvery fighters littered the space around the disc, pulling quickly into groups to charge at the clusters of crystalline interceptors appearing all over the field. A dozen freshly launched ships just outside the open bay doors in the warship rim fell into formation and headed straight for Team Six.

Shields up! Spread out. We’ll net the fighters one at a time!

The vessels of Team Six shot forward to take on the swarm of lethal hornets. Quinn shifted Rai’s toroidal field to propel the ship upward toward the lead fighter, taking her in a zigzag course to avoid bursts of weapon fire. He lifted her sharply to allow the lead fighter to speed past before tearing through the middle of their formation. The Drahkian fighters scattered in all directions.

That should help. Pick them up, team! he called as he slowed Rai’s course and rotated back around. “Looks like we can maneuver better than they can,” he commented aloud. “They fly like planes. I wonder if they can transport like the warships.”

“I haven’t seen any of them disappear. Let’s nail the lead before they regroup.”

“He’s swinging around to come after us. Here we go.” Quinn launched Rai forward, squinting as he sent a scan through the oncoming enemy vessel. “Only one aboard. These are single-pilot craft.”

While Quinn skillfully maneuvered Rai around the fighter’s intermittent spray of short-range disruptor fire, Rhys sized up the shape of the vessel and mentally projected a soft-glowing geometric web of energy to surround it completely. He held it in place as the ship raced toward them and called out to the lead transporter of Team Six. Jess, lock onto my net and—

A rapid barrage of beams spewed out of the fighter as it closed in on Rai. The brunt was diffused by Rai’s shield wall, but the small interceptor shuddered from the impact of multiple blows as a streak of glinting metal shot past them.

Quinn glanced aside at his partner while he spun the ship around and sent her flying in pursuit of the Drahkian vessel. “Problem?”

“My construct flickered when the beams hit,” Rhys grumbled as he concentrated on the wavering dark form in front of them. “Stay with it, Quinn. I’ll reform the net. Rai, increase your amplification settings by two.”

Done. That should magnify the net you send through me.

Great. Jess?

We’re ready to take it out, Rhys, as soon as your construct is back in place.

With Rai on its tail, the small ship banked into a tight arc to come at them once more, giving Rhys the few seconds he needed to surround it with a new energy matrix.

The net is solid. Jess, shift it out of here!

The Drahkian fighter disappeared from the field.

We got it, Rhys. He’s on his way to Tiān Lóng. Keep it up!

“Ok, that’s the way it’s supposed to work! Thanks for the boost, Rai.” Rhys turned his attention to their scattered team. Six of the small interceptors were still engaged with enemy vessels, but the other five had apparently been successful in taking out their targets and had flown to assist their teammates. “Good. Quinn, who doesn’t have backup?”

“Ellim.”

“Let’s get over there and help.”

“You got it.”

Quinn quickly spun the interceptor and headed her toward a small whitish vessel taking heavy fire from a Drahkian fighter. Splintered beams scattered off of Ellim’s energetic shield, shaking the small ship as the fighter came in close.

Trevor, Sharon, sit tight. We’ll net him while his eyes are on you. Rai closed the distance to the two vessels. Rhys watched and waited for the moment the fighter shot past Ellim and ceased firing. Got him. Net’s in place. Jess!

The fighter within the light web vanished from space just beyond Ellim.

Trevor’s quivering voice came on over the link. Thanks, Rhys! That bastard was really fast.

You bet. Ellim, are you alright?

Yep, ready for more.

Good. Trev, take a deep breath. We’ve got more work to do.

While Quinn spun Rai around and headed her toward their scattered team, Rhys sent a quick probe out through the eleven small vessels. The pilots and ships were charged with tension, but were focused on snaring the last three fighters in the immediate vicinity. A scan across the space further around the warship’s rim revealed similar successes by Mirida’s teams of interceptors. The swarms of Drahkian fighters between the warship and Mirida were decidedly thinner and the launch of any more small vessels from the open bay doors had slowed considerably.

The warship itself had yet to give any indication of breaking position and was apparently waiting for the ground transports caught in their runs to either land or make it back into dock. The Drahkian gunners had ceased their futile firing on the five starships hovering above and begun to fire short, intermittent shots aimed at lone interceptors not engaged with their own fighters.

“A hit from one of those beams would tear us apart,” Quinn declared.

“In a flash. Thank the Prime we haven’t seen any explosions.”

“Yet.”

Rhys glanced aside at his partner’s odd tone, keenly aware that the Caledonian possessed the uncanny talent of precognition. He squelched a shudder and quickly located each of their teammates. The last remaining Drahkian fighter broke away and sped swiftly downward to join the escort of fighters around a slow-moving transport making its way in a gradual spiral toward the surface below.

Regroup!

Through long years of practice, each of the eleven scattered ships evaporated and rematerialized in a tight formation around Rai.

Interceptors, notch up your amplification by two to strengthen the nets. Pilots, we’re going after that transport ship. We’ll shift down behind it together. Stay sharp! Those disruptors firing from the rim are targeting interceptors unless one of theirs is close by. Keep your flying erratic so you don’t get hit.

As if to underscore Rhys’s words, a bright disruptor blast seared through space above the hovering formation, narrowly missing Divi on the edge closest to the warship.

Net’s open! Shift … now!

The twelve ships of Team Six dematerialized on cue and reappeared in a cloud a short distance behind the grimy, blocky vessel on its way down to the city.

Spread out in pairs. We have to draw the fighters off and take them out before we can net the transport. Regroup when you’re finished. Go!

The interceptors veered away, speeding forward in all directions around the large, blackish ship. Sylvan flew to Rai’s right, deftly steered by her pilots Tam and Faraji. The two ships swept up and over the aft section of the lumbering vessel and were met by a spray of beams from a fighter heading straight for them from the starboard side. Bright sparks flew off in showers around the crystalline hulls.

Tam’s booming voice came on over the link. We’ll take the lead and draw him off toward the port side. Nail him, Rhys!

Ok, we’ll pick him up from behind.

Sylvan shot forward in an arc across the transport. The Drahkian fighter followed closely on her tail, searing her with a constant stream of fire.

“I’ll swing us in under him,” Quinn confirmed, sending Rai speeding after the fast-moving ship. “That should give you should a clear view.”

Rhys nodded and focused on flinging a transport net around the fighter above them, keeping a firm grip on the construct while it flickered intermittently from the Drahk’s weapon fire. Got it. Transport team, shift him out!

The small ship disappeared. Sylvan slowed and spun as Rai came up beside her. Lessa and Ellim’s sparkling forms rose over the rim of the transport and flew in to join them.

There’s one more left on the port side, Rhys.

Thanks, Trev. As soon as everyone else gets here, we’ll shift out around the transport and beam the net out between our ships. Any appendages below?

Yeah, we saw six sets of short landing pads along the bottom, Sharon reported.

We’ll have to take them into account when we set up the web. This thing has an odd shape.

Kirian’s rich voice rolled through the team’s channel. Try a truncated tetrahedron. Six points forward, six rear.

Whoa, Tiger Sensei’s with us? Meredith chimed in from Lessa. We’ll slam this beast now!

Out of the blue, a barrage of weapon fire broke across the small group of interceptors. Rai shook under a heavy blow from a sleek, winged craft shooting past them in the space above.

Where the hell did he come from? Tam shouted in exasperation.

He transported in behind us! Quinn spat. This one’s not like the other fighters. Keep out of his sights. He’s got heavier disruptors!

The elegant black fighter whipped around in a hairpin move to come at them again.

Scatter! Rhys called. Team, we’ve got a new party. Everyone, stay clear! We’ll take him out.

The three small interceptors vacated the space around Rai. Quickly Rhys hurled a wide energetic prism out in front of her and set it vibrating with a crisp tone. The oncoming fighter opened fire with multiple disruptors, but the reddish beams deflected off of the invisible shield in sharp angles.

“I’m transporting us back behind him,” Quinn called out an instant before the fighter blew through Rhys’s construct. The crystalline vessel shifted to coordinates in the wake of the racing black war bird. A blitz of beams shot out of aft gunning stations aimed precisely at Rai’s new position.

“Damn it! This guy’s loaded!” Rhys hurriedly flung out another shield to ward off the blows.

“Can you hold it?”

“I think so, but I—”

Without warning, Rhys’s mind was enveloped by a constricting, disruptive force. Nausea gripped his insides and he cried out from the sudden, dizzying pain in his head. His hands flew to his throbbing temples and he fell forward against the straps of his chair.

“Rhys!”

The protective shield vaporized and Rai was bombarded by a shower of weapon fire.

Alarmed, Quinn threw together a makeshift barrier outside the small ship and transported her out of the lethal spray to the far end of the gray vessel. He lunged against his own straps and reached over to grab his partner’s shoulder, yanking him upright in his chair. “Rhys! What’s wrong? What happened?”

The sound of Quinn’s shaken voice pierced the dizziness. Rhys shook his head roughly and struggled to pull himself through the murky blanket suffocating his thinking. “I don’t know. Something hit me.”

“That ship? What—”

The black fighter swooped into the space beside Rai and opened fire.

“By the Prime, he’s on us again!”

“I’ll … block.” Rhys grimaced with the supreme effort of forcing his mind outward to form another wall against the blows. The small vessel rocked.

All at once, the hammering stopped. Rhys dropped his head to his chest and panted. Beside him, Quinn let out a ragged breath. “Lessa just bolted in front of the fighter to pull him off. Ellim’s shooting up toward it from below.”

A ripple of fear ran up Rhys’s spine and he raised his spinning head. “No, they can’t—”

What’s going on? Tam’s clear voice rang over the link as Sylvan flew past them, speeding toward the black fighter and their teammates’ darting forms.

We’ve got a problem, Quinn relayed. Rhys was hit by something and can’t seem to shake it.

I’m ok, really. I can manage. Let’s get moving before—

The gray transport was suddenly illuminated by a bright flash as Lessa exploded.

“NO!” Ice coursed through Rhys’s veins and twisted his gut. Katherine! Meredith!

The black fighter flew straight through the flying debris and immediately turned its guns on Sylvan.

Shauna! Quinn called up to the deathwalker aboard Mirida. Lessa and her pilots were just hit!

I have them all. Don’t worry.

A roar of pain and anguish ripped from Rhys’s throat as the shock of losing his friends turned rapidly into anger. “Get us over to that fighter, Quinn!”

“But you—”

“I can do it! No one else is going to die because of me!”

Rhys gripped his throbbing head, fighting to pull through the viscous sensations while Quinn shifted Rai to a position above and behind the black ship, matching the pace of the charging Drahk. The fighter pelted Sylvan’s shields as she veered up and away, and shifted in the next heartbeat to blasting at Ellim’s streaking form.

Hang on, all of you! I’m going to nail that son-of-a-bitch!

The fighter’s rear weapons locked in on Rai and opened fire. Rhys took firm hold of his senses and focused intently on the winged vessel, surrounding it with a spherical field which he set spinning in layers, completely encasing the dark ship in its tightly woven form. He grimaced against the strain and pumped more energy into the construct to accelerate its spin.

The fighters’ beams began to ricochet off the constricting web. He gritted his teeth and pulled the sphere in closer to the vessel. A sudden swell of elation and smug satisfaction bubbled up from within at the sight of the black fighter taking hits from its own disruptors.

“Rhys! Back off! You’re going to incinerate him!”

Again, his partner’s voice sliced through the red haze gripping his mind. He loosened his hold on the sphere at the same moment the Drahk ceased his incessant firing. Jess, get this prick out of here.

The shiny black vessel vanished from sight.

As if released from a spell, the bizarre stranglehold dissipated from his body. He could have sworn he heard faint laughter echo in his mind before the disturbing sensations melted completely away. With a groan, he collapsed against his chair and let his head fall back.

“By the Prime, it’s gone. I’m clear.” He sucked in several jagged lungfuls of air to settle his system. The faces of the two laughing women swam through his mind in a relentless, haunting loop. “God-damned Drahk.”

Quinn’s hand lashed out and clamped down on his forearm. “Rhys.”

He lifted his head again and turned toward his partner. As he met the Caledonian’s level green gaze, his eyes filled with tears. “They’re gone—” His throat closed around the rest of his words.

“I know. We all feel it, but right now we’ve got to finish this so the rest of us can get out of here.”

With a curt nod, Rhys clamped down on his grief and ran his hands over the aching muscles in his face. Quinn spun Rai around and headed back toward the transport, handling the call to collect their anxious team. We nabbed the big fighter. Regroup!

Sylvan and Ellim fell into position beside them. One by one, the eight remaining interceptors popped into view to join the formation. As the group sped up and over the back end of the transport vessel, Djan’s voice came on over the secondary channel connecting the team to Mirida’s network.

Team Six, they’ve called their fighters back in. You’ve got thirty seconds to take out that transport and get yourselves back into dock.

“Shit,” Rhys swore under his breath.

You can do this! Kirian rumbled through the link with the entire team. I’ll send each of you the adjusted formation and point assignments. All of you, shift yourselves into the positions I give you and activate the web. Transporters—

We’re ready! Jess interjected quickly.

Go!

The image of the geometric configuration which would completely surround the gray vessel flashed into Rhys’s mind. He instantly understood the coordinates of the position Rai was to hold and glanced aside at his partner. With a nod, the two pilots smoothly transported the crystalline ship to the apex of the formation in front of the Drahkian vessel and began to generate the specific tones which would link the interceptors into one giant net.

Rai’s small chamber vibrated with sound. The moment the last of the eleven ships was locked into position and synced harmonically with the rest, bright beams flashed between the crystalline ships, creating an energetic container around the gray transport.

Take it out!

The Drahkian vessel disappeared, leaving a gulf of empty space within the shimmering web.

Djan’s voice snapped through the channel. Alright everyone, move! The docking bay doors on the rim of the warship are starting to close. Shift yourselves directly back to Mirida and anchor in!

Rhys glanced up at the eerily quiet space around the warship and realized they were the last team of interceptors left in the field. He reached with his inner senses for the familiar feel of Rai’s anchor seat up in Bay Six, formed the transport matrix, and shifted the small ship into position within the starship. While Quinn took care of locking Rai into her anchor clamps, he sent a quick scan through the bay to make sure all on his team were safely back in dock. His chest constricted at the sight of Lessa’s empty stall and he fought down another wave of sickened grief.

Rhys, are you alright? The soothing voice of Shauna Malcolm, Mirida’s gentle deathwalker, privately touched his mind.

Yeah, I’m ok. For now.

Come see me when we get back and we’ll talk.

Rhys drew in a breath of air and was about to reply when Mirida’s shipwide link crackled with his brother’s orders. We’re shifting down into position to snare the warship. All hands, prepare to move!

The two pilots gripped their armrests and cast their vision outward to view the exterior of the ship. The starship transported smoothly to coordinates a short distance beyond the rim of the warship. In the same moment, the four other Tarsian vessels shifted into point positions to form a wide, shallow pyramid around the gray disc.

The warship disruptors broke loose with full blazing fire and the ship began to rise, bursting through the energetic web running between the Tarsian vessels. The disc spun upwards toward Rinzen, spraying beams outward like a spitting firecracker. The graceful Khalama vessel transported quickly out of range while the warship rose in a fiery arc and disappeared.

“Damn it!” Quinn swore. “We almost had it.”

Rhys turned his scan across the city. Four other warships came to life with the same blitzing tactic to escape their Pleiadian snares, lifting and vanishing one at a time from the airspace above Guan. “Only two took off from the east side.”

“The Maians took one out.”

“Good, but where did the others go?”

Quinn shifted his focus to a long-range scan and pointed out north of the city. “There, up in the middle of the flats. The two missing warships just transported in to join them.”

“They must have been at Luda, the colony on the backside of Galah.”

“They’re all hovering in a group near the ground. That’s odd.”

“Why? They’re losing. They’ve got to figure out what to do about us.”

“Yeah, I know,” the Caledonian grumbled as he watched the six dark ships. “But something isn’t right. It feels like they’re waiting for something.”

The admiral’s voice came on over the link. Everyone, regroup and hold your positions over the city. We’ll coordinate with the Maians to send groups out after them. The Birdwings will take the first run.

Mirida joined the other Tarsian starships to form a cluster around Rinzen. The pilots kept their projected vision pinned on the dark shapes hovering in the distance.

The glittering forms of several golden Birdwings darted in dramatic arcs around two of the warships on one side of the formation, drawing a spray of fire after them with each pass. On the opposite edge of the warband, six more Birdwings appeared together in a tight configuration around one of the discs. Whitish beams flashed between the small ships to form an energetic web that pulsed with a soft glow. The huge warship caught within the net dematerialized and the six Birdwings blinked out of sight before a single defensive shot had been fired.

“Damn, they’re good fliers,” Quinn murmured.

“No kidding. Magnus has always crowed about how brilliant they are. Now I see why.”

The six remaining warships lifted above the sprinting Birdwings and transported away.

The Caledonian scanned quickly and pointed to his left. “Out west. They’re landing! They’ll be sitting ducks! You don’t think that’s odd?”

“Yeah, but maybe they think we can’t pick off single ships on the ground.”

Quinn frowned and shook his head. “That’s not it. Rhys, why aren’t they fighting?”

A sudden explosion rocked the entire starship. Mirida lurched into motion away from the blast.

“What the hell was that?” Rhys yelled, his hands digging into his armrests to keep himself upright. “Who fired on us?”

“I’m scanning the far side of the ship.” Quinn face contorted with panic. “By the Prime, no! Telemar was blown to pieces!”

Rhys threw his focus above and behind Mirida. Debris from the Tarsian starship was still flying outward from where it had been hovering beside them seconds ago.

“Above us, just inside the portal!” Quinn cried out. “Damn it, look at that thing! That’s what the bastards were waiting for!”

In the thin upper atmosphere, far above the capital city, an object larger than a dozen Drahkian warships combined hung in space, an ominous specter silhouetted against the faint blue light of distant Maia. The dull gray dish-shaped monstrosity shifted incrementally to focus the central eye of its concave face on one of the scattering Tarsian starships.

Leto! Duncan, Dhia, it’s aiming at you! Transport out of there! Miros screamed through the link to the starship leaders.

Leto’s sparkling form vanished a split second before a black beam from the dish charred the space where the milky white starship had been and seared through the solar dome, decimating a portion of the city below.

It’s an imperial destroyer! Yuri shrieked. Everyone out! That thing can annihilate all of us in seconds!

The portal is still open! The Alcyoni admiral’s voice trembled. Meet at the ring!

The ships spread across the domed city began to wink out of sight. Mirida’s transport team quickly shifted her up through the portal to a position within the cluster of Alcyone vessels collecting around Corum. Beside them, groups of Maian craft appeared, forming a swath of burnished gold and crystal in front of the orbiting mechanical ring.

The gray destroyer rotated and ascended slowly, pausing to hover over the space where the portal lay open. For several tense moments, the colossal ship hung, suspended and silent, as if awaiting instructions.

While the fleet held its collective breath, a subtle change in hue spread across the surface of the small planet and the domed city below faded from view. The portal had been reconfigured and locked down.

No. Yuri’s softly uttered denial echoed across the open channel.

A few seconds later the gray dish dissolved.

Shocked at their sudden defeat, the pilots sat staring at the empty planet surface. A mourning wail rose over the channel from the fleet of Maian vessels. The voices of the Khalama starships joined the lament while the crews within gradually added their own to the outpouring of grief.

Quinn’s strong voice reverberated within Rai’s small chamber. Rhys knew it would help loosen the knot in his chest to find his voice and sound out his anguish with the rest of the fleet, but it wouldn’t come. The rolling tones washed over him as he sat and listened, his throat locked tighter than a drum.

For long minutes the dirge went on before silence descended. The ships hung in bleak suspension above the quiet, desolate world.

Somewhere down there, two lost cities were going through hell. They had failed to protect the people of Galah from the reptilian nightmare.

Nothing left for us here, Miros’s bitter voice cut in. The Maians will set up patrols. Transporting home on three.

Rhys let his head fall back while the tears streamed down into his hair. Quinn buried his face in his hands.

A planet lost. Pilots lost. A starship obliterated in the blink of an eye.

The battle was over, but the war for Maia had just begun.



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