Clasping his hands behind his back, Brongill of Da’Hap steeled himself against the unease twitching through him. “One thousand, one hundred twelve solar cycles is a long time to be gone.”
Laughter drifted on the stale air of the Tyche’s command platform. The reinforced doors slid closed, shutting out the celebration. Everyone aboard his ship rejoiced in their arrival at their future home of Neith. Everyone but him.
The green planet filled three of the clear terveyza panes banding the deck. Old Terrillian soldiers never retired to the shores of Lake Versipho or spent their remaining years fishing on the sparkling water under verdant skies. The Military Dynasty on his home world of Terrill had prepared him for espionage, destruction, and assassination. Peaceful coexistence never entered the picture.
And then there was the Earth-Terrillian hybrid Alderina of Rutgers and his new family. His gaze flicked over her, enjoying the expanse of skin exposed by her traditional Terrillian dress.
Ally smoothed the bright pink fabric covering her breasts before tugging at the hem that brushed the tops of her thighs. The gold Lynuktar embroidered across her belly arched its wings over the wide strips covering her chest.
Although considered middle-aged on Earth, her beauty still flourished at forty. Brongill shook his head and inhaled her unique perfume. The scent of the spicy blarcus blossom subdued the pungent ozone patina filling the circular command platform. He would think her still beautiful when they reached the end of their natural life span in a hundred and thirty solar cycles. He could not settle for one herit less. She had given him what everyone saw in the planet beyond: hope and a future.
He hadn’t quite decided if that was a blessing or a curse.
The excited whispers of Ally’s three children washed over him. Marie wished to explore the forests, Collin itched to dissect the generator constructing streams of the tiny nanite machines and Nichole wanted nothing but to stay beside her potential bondmate, Crewman Sephell.
“No one has answered your greeting, Commander.” Regret tainted the usual perkiness rolling out of the ship’s communications systems.
“Shall I send the greeting again?” Ty, the organic life form integrating every system on board the Tyche-class starship, hummed an off-beat Earth tune paying tribute to a tubular delicacy known as hot dogs.
Brongill ignored the musical racket. Ally might view the noise as nothing more than harmless commercials but even a
novice soldier recognized the basic brainwashing methodology in the mindless repetition. He glanced at the woman by his side. Ally along with her three children began to sing along.
After the off-key crescendo, Ty switched to extolling the virtues of bologna.
“Ty.” Brongill interrupted before the ship could repeat the verse. He’d rather have a cranial infestation of Blarzaj before learning anymore about Earth’s infatuation with processed animal flesh. “Broadcast the greeting on all channels, including military. Authorization Zeln-Qip-Veln. Brongill.”
Ally’s youngest daughter Marie smiled at him. The black tip of her braid caught in the gap between her front teeth.
Collin, Ally’s son, shoved his blond hair out of his eyes before tugging a red Swiss Army knife from his waistband. “I could take a look at the comm link, if you want.”
Does not the child understand the purpose of nanites? Ty snapped, using the neural link attuned specifically to Brongill’s brainwaves. I am certain I stressed the repair function of the nanites to him.
Brongill rubbed the chip located behind his right ear. “I have a room full of items to sate your curiosity, Collin, but my ship is off limits.”
Anticipation glistened in the boy’s brown eyes. “Deal.”
“Instructions confirmed,” Ty answered. A high pitch screech crackled through the communications relays. “My apologies, Commander. The synthetic intelligence is misbehaving again.”
“Does it ever behave?” Nichole, Ally’s oldest daughter, crossed the dark floor in seven steps. Reaching the terveyza, she stroked the green edge of Neith visible on the pane. “The computers tried to kill us twice already.”
Crewman Sephell joined Nichole by the window. “That’s why Ty’s intelligence integrates all the systems. She’s completely biological and won’t allow the computers to harm us.”
Ty returned to humming about bologna. I do like crewman Sephell. Although as my commander, you would have done an admirable job defending my innate superiority, if you chose.
Tuning out his ship, Brongill noted the worry etching the soft skin around Ally’s blue eyes and thinning her full lips. Gently, he squeezed her hand, at ease with the physical contact so alien to his Terrillian upbringing. “Do not worry, Alderina of Rutgers. The Tyche’s equipment is antiquated by Neith’s current standards.”
Ty fell silent.
Despite her nod, Ally chewed on her bottom lip.
The Tyche’s sensor array zoomed onto the planet before them. Shadows filled the room as the system’s sun fell outside the focus of the glass.
“Maybe they forgot you were gone.” Collin said, joining his
older sister and Sephell.
A sliver of unease worked its way down Brongill’s spine. “We have the cure for the virus pushing both populations of Neith and Terrill Prime toward extinction. No one is liable to forget that.” But would the Council wait longer than a millnac for its arrival? Patience was never a cultivated virtue on Terrill. Brongill tapped the clarn strapped to his wrist. The command, logistics, and armament remote nodule immediately signaled the nanites. Less than a herit later, the whisper of the tiny machines advanced over Brongill’s bare skin.
“Oh!” Ally grinned as the nanites filled in her plunging neckline and connected the hem of her skirt into shorts. As the sleeves and pant legs lengthened, the bright pink fabric faded to black. “I thought you had a fondness for the bikini that wanted to be a cocktail dress.” Devilry twinkled in her blue eyes.
Ignoring her, Brongill scanned the deck. The nanites were hard at work changing everyone’s clothing from their ceremonial dress to the utilitarian unitard of the Terrillian military. With a tug on his scalp, the nanites bound his black hair down his nape. Although he refrained from ordering poisonous barbs on the strands of sinew holding his hair, Brongill took comfort knowing about the shivelle tucked into the banding. The thin blade had saved his life more than once.
Ally nudged his shoulder. Confusion wrinkled her forehead. “I thought Neith replaced satellites with the Angsnet a long time ago.”
“The Angsnet was required on all Terrillian territories.” Brongill nodded. The atomic-sized machines drifted in low Neithian orbit, controlling everything on the planet from the weather to communications. It also allowed Terrill to spy on the planet’s inhabitants. He could understand that the system had been upgraded but satellites were a technological step backward. “Ty, magnify.”
Circling Neith’s equator, black and brown chunks of debris tumbled in profusion. Here and there, large pieces collided in a spray of tan particles.
Nichole tugged on the collar of her black uniform. “My lessons didn’t mention that Neith had either a moon or rings.”
“It doesn’t.” Anger blazed inside Brongill’s skull as his thoughts leaped toward their inevitable conclusion. Power up the command platform, Ty. Colored rings glowed on the floor, just as the command chair and control sphere emerged from the metal deck in front of him. A low buzz grew in volume as the platform came to life.
I did not think the lack of response was due to my antiquated systems, Ty huffed.
Fearlessly, Collin skipped over to the control sphere and grabbed it with both hands. “Cool, a giant joystick.”
Drawing the boy’s attention, Brongill lifted his right
Collin cleared his throat and clasped his hands behind his back. “I know the control sphere is not a toy. It is used to manually pilot the ship in times of war.”
Brongill felt a tug on his sleeve, and he glanced down.
Tossing her black braid over her shoulder, Marie pointed to the window. “Is the planet supposed to do that?”
Ally set her hand on Marie’s back. “Do what, sweetie?”
“It looked like it wobbled,” Nichole leaned her head against the terveyza pane.
“The axis appears to be unstable.” Smoothing back his white-blond hair, Sephell strode to the red ring to the right of Brongill’s chair. A crescent-shaped instrument module rose from the floor and stopped as it leveled with his waist. Sephell’s lean fingers skimmed the black surface, yellow symbols lit up in their wake. More information streamed down the terveyza next to the display of Neith.
I am more than capable of piloting this ship and supplying any information Crewman Sephell might wish, Ty complained. Why does he insist on using such an antiquated interface when all he needs to do is ask and I will supply the answer?
Brongill ignored his ship’s petulance while he waited for the planet to reveal its secrets. “I suspect that is the cause of the wobble.”
Vast expanses of black ate at the lush green forests. The scorch marks covered this side of the planet while three deep craters pitted the spotted brown surface. Each cavity spawned fissures radiating in every direction.
Acid churned in Brongill’s gut.
Had Terrill embarked upon the course that Brongill himself had suggested? His dreams of a future with Ally and her family crumbled under the weight of his past. He forced his fists to relax. His anger ebbed. He had two choices, fight now, or later. Today he could pick the time of his battle, increase his chance of winning and of Ally surviving.
A hushed whimper slid into the silence.
Unshed tears glistened in Ally’s eyes as she hugged her youngest daughter.
“I’m picking up the residual of a critical mass explosive.” Sephell’s fingers stopped. His Adam’s apple bobbled as he glanced at Brongill. “The explosives are of Terrillian origin.”
Nichole strode to the blue ring to the left of the command chair. No doubt determined to show off the new skills Ty had transferred to her cerebral cortex while Nichole slept in stasis. Another crescent-shaped console sprang from the floor. As she tapped the keys, blue highlighted information scrolled over the image of Neith. “The blasts are over a millenia, I mean, a millnac old.”
Ally pinned Brongill with a hopeless stare. “They didn’t
wait to see if your mission was a success.”
Marie tugged on her braid. “Where are we gonna live now, Mom?”
The doors to the command platform opened. John Doe the former exalted leader of Neith stormed into the room and waved a manicured hand toward the planet. “What do you plan to do about this?”
Brongill clenched his jaw. Sludding politicians. Why couldn’t Isa in Her infinite wisdom confine the lot to the Eternal Pit with a legion of Blarzaj for company? Of course being that God was merciful, She wouldn’t allow the cerebral parasites to die of starvation.
Ally rolled her eyes, as if to assure him that politicians were the same degenerate breed on every planet. “Nichole, take your brother and sister to the Medical Bay.”
Collin stamped his foot. “I don’t want to go.”
Nichole crossed her arms and glared at her mother. “Why do I have to be punished? I’m an adult and am needed here to run the telemetry interface.”
Doe paced and muttered in front of the terveyza. Periodically, the man stopped, shouted an expletive and tugged his red hair.
Brongill ignored the urge to have the cretin transported molecule by molecule to Neith’s surface. First, he would help Ally protect her children. “Do you wish to be part of my crew?”
Nichole nodded. “Absolutely.”
“Then follow orders.”
Anger tightened Nichole’s features. “Aye, aye captain.” She saluted before stomping over to her brother and sister’s side and shepherding them toward the door.
Marie and Collin grumbled and jerked away from her touch. Crewman Sephell joined them as they stepped through the open double doors and into the hall.
Ally waited until the door snicked shut behind them then sidled into Nichole’s recently vacated station and merged the two data streams.
Doe crushed his hands against his temples. “How did this happen? The planet was geologically sound when it was terra-formed. Are there any survivors?”
The display on the terveyza flickered. Species’ names scrolled down the glass. Each had zeroes next to them.
“No life signs,” Ally confirmed.
“None?” Doe’s pasty skin paled.
Irritation pulsed at the base of Brongill’s skull. The man failed to comprehend what his eyes relayed. “Terrill would have evacuated everyone of value before attacking.”
“Everyone has value.” Doe dithered, paused then glowered at Brongill. “Terrill did this?”
Ally cleared her throat, drawing Doe’s attention.
“According to the amount of Yttrium and Strontium, Terrill attacked six solar cycles after the Tyche departed on her rescue mission.”
“The instruments must be damaged.” Doe strode over the empty console. “Yttrium and Strontium indicate critical mass explosives. Those weapons have been outlawed since the massacre at Supbi Twelve, over two millnacs ago.”
Brongill waited for the politician to reach the inevitable conclusion. Only then would the last leader of Neith take the next step to assure that Ally, her children and the rest of the people on board the Tyche would remain safe from Terrillian aggression. Forever.
“There must be another explanation.” Doe shook his head as the instrument recalculated then returned the same results, again and again. “Terrill wouldn’t…”
“Terrill did.” Brongill insisted.
“Why? What could they possibly want to destroy all life on my home?”
“You’ve seen my records. You know what I did all to prevent the Terrillian species from becoming extinct.” Although he spoke to Doe, Brongill focused on Ally. Would she interpret today’s actions as revenge against those who tortured and killed his family? Or would she understand that destroying Terrill was the only way she and her family could have a future?
Doe scratched his chin. “I know you were privy to the innermost chambers of the Terrillian Council.”
As the leader of Iseh’s Fury, Brongill had coordinated all the intelligence supplied to the ruling body of Terrill.
“Before we departed, the repatriation of the people of Neith was the primary objective of Council. If the plan met with any resistance, Neith would be rendered uninhabitable. Its people reeducated and the fertile ones studied.” The word soured in his mouth. The government considered rape an integral part of the study.
Doe waved away the idea. “There’s always the wormholes and the three settled systems nearby.”
Ally changed screens. The darkness of space was broken by the twinkle of light. “Long range sensors indicate there are mines — er– contact explosives at the mouths of both wormholes.”
Scratching his chin, Doe stared at the pane. “Can we harvest the contact explosives and return them to Terrill?”
“Such a crude attack would not penetrate the Angsnet.” Brongill spoke slowly as if to an infant. Maybe a glimmer of reason could get through to the politician’s thick skull.
“Commander,” Ty interrupted. “The crew is viewing the same pictures. There is considerable unrest.” They are damaging my interior and I cannot spare the nanites to clean up after such juvenile antics.
Ally winced and rubbed her neck. “Ty open the audio communications channel. The commander will address the crew.”
Brongill almost smiled. Ty was connected to Ally as well. Too bad his ship wouldn’t transmit her thoughts to him.
“I am the leader of Neith.” Doe sniffed. “I should address the crew.”
Alderina of Rutgers is quite adept at concealing her thoughts from the implant, Commander. Although from the little I gleaned, she is irritated and angry. Ty switched to speaking through the communications system. “Channel open.”
Irritated and angry, Ty’s insights were evident in Ally’s rigid posture and jerky movements. Brongill wanted to know the source of her ire. She had accepted his true nature when he had explained it, but living with his past was another matter entirely. Especially when the blood still dripped from his palms. “Citizens, passengers, and crewmen. The planet Neith has proven unstable. We will be rerouting to Terrill Prime. End communication.”
“That’s it?” Ally faced him. Anger sparkled in her blue eyes. “There’re a lot of people down there who are worried and that’s all you have to say? Neith kinda fell apart folks so we’ll be moving on to the next planet. They were attacked by the very people you just told them will give us safe harbor. Don’t you think they have a right to know of the danger?”
She didn’t understand his intentions. Brongill turned craven when faced with all he had to lose. It wasn’t enough that Ally lived a long life, he wanted to spend those years at her side.
“No.” He shook off his selfish desires with one word. He had pledged to see her safe, he would honor that oath.
“No?” Ally set her hands on her hips. “Ty can carry us all to one of the other colonies beyond Terrill’s reach.”
“Your kind would not be safe from them, Alderina.” Doe glanced at Brongill. “There are those who prize purity above life. To many, being born on Neith is enough to tarnish the bloodline. Hybrids such as you and the other thirty-odd passengers on board would be killed on sight or worse.”
Brongill walked to Ally’s side and gently rested his hand against the small of her back. Now the politician remembered Brongill’s unsavory past. Did the man really believe Ally remained ignorant of his bloody history?
“Nowhere is safe.” She sighed.
Doe pounded on the console in front of him. “Why cannot I gain access?”
Oh, Ty chirped. One will not gain access by abusing my peripherals in such a fashion.
“This is a warship.” Doe stepped back as the dark panel melted into the floor. “What weapons are at your disposal?”
Brongill ordered Ty to display the contents of the Tyche’s arsenal. “The usual photonic and particle weapon plus a full complement of critical mass explosives.” He waited a herit for his
words to sink in.
Doe did not disappoint. “I give you authorization to use them.”
“Ty, change course for Terrill Prime.” Brongill clasped his hands behind his back. He had waited a solar cycle for orders to destroy Terrill and yet… Yet he wished the politician had offered a better solution.
Praise be to Isa, mercy was for the weak, and weakness was a lethal flaw. He wouldn’t make the same mistake his father had. He would protect his family while he still had a fighting chance. For now, the Tyche was a Terrillian ship and could sail unchallenged past her defenses. After he launched the CMWs, he’d have less than a jas to take out the offense coordination hub before fleeing into deep space. The chances that the Tyche would survive the attack were slim. The chance anyone on board would live with Terrill hunting them was nonexistent.
“Once the critical mass weapons are activated, they cannot be deactivated and must be deployed within twenty-five jas.”
“I know that,” Doe snapped.
“Course change in progress, Commander.” Ty resumed humming another Earth jingle. “Estimated time of arrival is thirty jas.”
“Why?” Ally hunched over her console. Her hoarse question bounced off Brongill and landed on Doe.
“While in stasis, you were educated on Terrillian history. The bloody, relentless massacres of everything that stood in its way.” Doe rubbed his hands together yet managed to look suitably somber. “Planets, civilizations, entire species destroyed without another thought. Terrillians take what they want without regard to cost. Neith has to be the last casualty.”
Brongill refrained from applauding. The sentiment would be better received if Doe and everyone on board the Tyche weren’t descended from Terrill and exhibiting the very traits they thought the planet’s destruction would eradicate.
“Commander.” Expectation bloated Ty’s pause. “May I remind you that you specifically ordered me never to activate critical mass weapons? Indeed, with the death of crewman Jemank, the only one with such knowledge is Alderina of Rutgers.”
Silence saturated the room. Brongill set his hand on Ally’s. He could not ask her to be a part of Terrill’s destruction. She had endured enough. He would find another way and Ty would help him.
“I’ll do it.” Without looking at him, Ally turned on her heel and strode out of the room.
Brongill moved to follow.
“Commander.” Ty stopped him before he reached the door. “There’s an incoming message. It’s from Neith.”
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