The flight attendant’s voice was soft, as someone might make their voice when they wanted to gently wake someone, but didn’t want to try very hard to do so if that latter someone was deeply asleep. Which, indeed, was probably exactly why she’d done it. But Rico Montel had rather often had call to doze lightly, making the most of the time spent waiting for an interruption that could come at any time, but might not be for an hour or more, and that was what he’d done on this flight; now he blinked awake, focusing after a few attempts on the squirrel whose gentle murmur of “Officer?” had roused him.

I’m awake,” he managed, promptly if perhaps not with complete honesty, and paused to cover a yawn. “Wha’ is’t?” (more…)

When Rico Montel had first donned the blue and green uniform of the Varilyn Hierarchy’s armed forces, it had been a moment of inexpressible pride.

The burly mouse didn’t think he was unusual in that. He’d come from a humble background, a few steps from the streets, and still been given a chance to succeed; should he not be proud of his nation? And he’d trained and studied for years to pass the bar for a slot at officer’s college, and not only been accepted, but been at the head of his class; should he not be proud of himself?

He’d committed to enlisting in the wake of what had since become known as the Sterley uprising – a gaggle of pirates who’d had the notion to turn conquistador and caused five bloody years of fighting before their base of operations was finally tracked down at the outer limits of the Sterley system. He’d been much too junior to actually take part in the strike on that base – hadn’t even won an ensign’s stripe, still on his midshipman’s cruise, most junior of a wing helping to police the home systems – but he’d been in uniform long enough to feel some common ground with the soldiers who had gone to fight. He’d mourned their losses, cheered their triumph, and been once again proud to wear the same uniform as them. (more…)

The battle had settled into an elaborate, deadly dance.

They’d been at this for hours; both sides had taken losses, and it was small comfort to Darin Krell that “only” two on his side hadn’t disgorged active emergency beacons for search-and-rescue teams to retrieve. That was still two pilots he wouldn’t see at debriefing, assuming he got that far. Two families now missing loved ones. With the battlespace still too hostile for SAR to actually get in there, there was plenty of opportunity for that number to get worse, one way or another.

And that was just this particular engagement. Skirmishes had been going on for three days now, with no decisive changes on either side; either group could get reinforced anytime, but nobody had yet.

Nobody wanted more casualties, at this point. They spent most of their time outside direct engagement range and conserved their dwindling missile stocks. Even when the two forces came close together, everybody was more worried about staying alive than scoring hits, and that went for both sides.

Unfortunately, fatigue was setting in. Tired people slipped up, and when the stakes were this high, even a tiny slip could be fatal.


The hatch swung open. Galen Quolar took a few slow steps through it and along the docking tube, gazing through the window.

It still felt so unreal. Was it really happening at last?

How long had it been now? Five standard years at least – seven by the local calendar, almost eight. Shorter though they might have been in technical terms, the passing of those extra seasons had made it feel that much longer since he’d had to abandon his old transport, as it made ready to explode around him.

No one’s fault, the recovery teams had said. The black box had shown a failure in the reactor’s cooling pump, but the maintenance records were good and the parts had all passed QC. It was just a fault that had slipped through the net – not the pilot-owner’s fault, not any technician’s, not the manufacturer’s; just blind bad luck.


There was always life on an Imperial vessel, technically speaking; always someone tending to their duties, always someone ready to respond to any problems that arose. But overall, they kept time with the Imperial capitol, and there was a stretch of time in each “day” when most of the activity slowed down or stopped.

Those quiet watches were Sharim’s favourites. The squirrel was quite fond of his fellow-officers, but the constant flood of distractions that plagued daytime shifts made it hard for him to get real work done; he did his best when he could focus. It had only been natural for him to seek semi-permanent assignment to the nighttime shifts. It was a peaceful time, just him and the machines he tended, as he sorted inventory and did what maintenance he could on his own, with only the hangar’s night watch officer as silent company and occasional spotter.


The Hall of Dedication was a vast dome – one of the single largest structures to rise above the canopy of Sasheron. Through the reinforced glass of the dome shone the brilliant sunlight of a waning spring afternoon; beyond it on one side lay Sasheron’s main military staging facility, the second-largest stretch of developed land on the planet that wasn’t parked over, while on the other side lay some of the dense, red-leafed forest that had earned the world the moniker of “The Ruby of the Empire.”

Within the dome, opposite its arched entrance, between the main floor and the red expanse, a raised plinth was home to a rank of statues, armour alloy in three-times-life scale. There was one silvery statue for each race that had a large enough world in the Empire to muster a battalion of Imperial Guard, and two more: one, more alien than the rest, representing the Diplomatic Corps and, through it, all the Empire’s friends and allies; and another, ambiguously musteline – a hybrid of ermine and otter, if one read one’s history – to stand for all the races that hadn’t yet gained that distinction. Except for the amphibious Shikat in Diplomatic Corps regalia, all wore uniforms of the Imperial Service; and despite the anonymous grey of the metal, they wore Imperial Guard insignia.

Fitting, then, that the evening’s proceedings were to happen as the sun sank into a red sunset, with the red forest in the background.


Drevin blew out his breath, leaning back in his command chair and gazing into the tactical display. Over to the side, Vree announced the all-clear on the short-range plot, the snow leopard’s voice weary and ragged.

And well it might be. This was the fifth time in as many hours that they’d been stumbled upon by a Sakkarn patrol – and the third time in the last single hour. They were getting closer, their patrols thicker, their response times shorter. There was only so much the Red Valour and her remaining fighters could do to avoid a full-on clash.

But for so long as they could do so, that was what they would do. Again the instructions went out for a gentle course change. The last five times they’d done it, they’d gone in a different direction from the initial strong burn, sometimes a little bit different, sometimes greatly so; this time, the planned change was in the same direction.

At least they’d kept this up for longer than they’d dared hope. There were only two hours left on the minimum-response-time estimate, now.


A shake to Drevin’s shoulder brought the ferret out of what might, for lack of a better word, be termed a doze.

Blinking cobwebs out of his eyes, if not entirely out of his mind, he shifted himself closer to upright in his command chair. “Mmnf,” he greeted the universe at large. “’s going on?”

“They’re repositioning,” said the vac-suited snow leopard who’d awoken him, taking the liberty to touch the controls on the arm of Drevin’s chair and bring up the tactical plot.


The lift doors slid open with a hiss. There was just enough time to hear the murmur of hushed activity before a clear voice snapped, “Captain on the bridge!”

“As you were,” Khaele Makrynn called back. Once the doors were fully open, the wolverine ducked through, making her way to the centre of the bridge. Officers who had started to turn towards the lift now turned back to their stations, resuming their briefly-interrupted tasks. Khaele’s gaze sought out one in particular. “Commander Ayesh, I have the bridge.”

“The bridge is yours, Captain,” the exec responded in the formal tones that were his norm. “Everything proceeds on schedule; no incidents demand your attention.”

“Very good, Commander,” said the Captain, settling into her station chair. “Nav, rough time to transition?”

“A bit over five minutes, Captain,” was the reply.


Flint remembered the fear.

He was adrift in a dark haze, a flurry of images flickering through his vision, all of them tainted by that sick fear. In time, he focused enough to remember more clearly. The invasion alert. The desperate battle. The lurch of his bomber as it took damage; the blare of alarms as systems failed. Sudden inspiration and one last, desperate plan, keyed into the autopilot. He’d committed the program, hit the eject button, and then…

Then the world had turned to fire.


So much of Valan’s life had gone according to schedules – work shifts at the refinery, then as security; training; now, deployment. Even leave time had had its tasks that needed doing in a timely fashion. The skunk was so accustomed to waking up at a set time that even now, when he truly didn’t need to, he woke up six hours after he’d closed his eyes to sleep.

Still, the unfamiliar realization that he could lounge about in his comfortable shuttle seat was a rather nice one.


The lights were off. Aside from the moon and stars outside the window, only a digital clock gave any form to the darkness.

It was enough for Jekkrand Tramessor to see the figure on the couch, Authority blacks broken by the white shirt under his open tunic collar. The wolverine’s night-eyes weren’t the best – not like some on his force, who could read a book in a room like this, and that wasn’t even considering people with augments – but he didn’t need to see well to know something was gnawing at the panther. Nobody ever sat so still, in a slouch like that, whose mind was at rest.

The ragged sound of his breaths was almost reassuring. It at least told Jekkrand that the man was alive and conscious.


For some time, silence settled.

When it broke, that silence gave way to a frustrated utterance of “Why?”

The tiger leaned on the window sill, arms stiff, hands tense. “Why,” he repeated, “do you have to do this? You could get hurt, Tazzer! You could get…” The words choked off in his throat, and he sagged over the sill.


The skimmer glided to a halt, settling onto the cobblestones with a pneumatic sigh. After a few moments, the passenger door slid open, and a tall and broad-shouldered squirrel emerged, duffel bag slung over one shoulder. Under his black tunic and trousers and his white shirt, his fur was an unremarkable rusty brown, his eyes dark. By the standards of many places, and certainly here on Tantari, he would be thought quite attractive – and anyone in that uniform, especially with a lieutenant’s pips on his shoulders, was very desirable.

No young lady awaited him at the stop, though. In fact, the old street was remarkably quiet, he reflected as the skimmer registered him as disembarked and set off to its next passenger. He could hear something going on in the distance, voices raised in laughter and merriment, and whatever it was, everybody was attending to it.


“Engineering, secure.” The report cut through the gunfire, the patter of projectiles on hull metal, the tromp of booted feet and the heavier stomping of battle armour.

“Environmental, secure.” “Crew, secure.” The two reports came through so quickly, only the radically different voices made plain that they weren’t one speaker.

It took a bit more time, a few more shirt-sleeved bodies hitting the hull metal, another two corridor junctions of progress, before the next: “Brig, secure.”


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