No one was supposed to die.
Cadet Palamourah de la Croix stared at the silver sheen that was her holographic com screen. It hung down a foot near the top of the front viewing port of her StarGazer, The Hawk. She, however, didn’t see anything on it. Instead, she again saw the two week old horror of bloated bodies with yellow burn scars, forever frozen in writhing agony.
Her friends had died in front of her eyes. They’d been her cadets. They had been under her care.
Pala blinked and turned to focus on her copilot, Cadet Lieutenant Edward Physe. His tanned face blended in color with his sunbleached hair and, normally, steady brown eyes. But right now, his eyes were confused.
“Do we fire?” His hands hovered over the ship’s control board. The size of a large house, The Hawk hummed in the precision of a new and finely honed machine. It was state-of-the-art and Pala’s pride and joy.
Self-consciously, she jerked her attention back to the com screen. The visuals on it jumped and skewed while the matrix read her frantic eye movements. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. Opening them again, she focused on the grid that showed the map of the current training exercise.
The grid enlarged to cover the center of the screen.
While she’d been distracted, her Second, Cadet Major Quade Justiss, who was on the opposing team, had jockeyed his ship, Decider, into position and was bearing down on them.
She almost gave the order to fire the tracing beam used during their exercises, then noticed the dot moving directly behind him, close enough that someone might think it was a shadow blip on the com.
“Look there.” She pointed.
“Red Wing. That’s sneaky.”
Pala nodded. It was indeed. If she shot at Quade, he could roll Decider out of the way and she’d end up shooting the only other surviving ship on her team. It would knock her team down to just one ship, so they’d be evenly matched. He apparently thought he’d then tag her and win the exercise.
He should know her better.
She programmed a set of intricate instructions for her ship to execute. There was no room for human error. This maneuver needed to be one hundred percent precise for it to work.
She drove The Hawk head-on at Decider, her hand above the execute button. “Physe, get ready to fire directly beneath us. Straight out. A short burst so we don’t hit Red Wing.”
He made the necessary adjustments. “Aye, ma’am.”
The ships were within targeting range of each other. Quade, however, hadn’t fired. No doubt, he wanted her closer so that the pursuing Red Wing had no chance to evade her shot.
Pala imagined herself as her Second and tried to time her approach relevant to Red Wing. “Here we go.”
She slammed her hand on the execute button. The Hawk adjusted angle to come above Decider. As Quade corrected the line of his weapons, Pala rolled off that course and dropped down beside him, belly facing. She didn’t have to say a word to Physe; he fired. A red light hurled through space, painting Decider’s flank as they passed. A split-second later, just as the tracer finished, Red Wing flew by.
She opened the com, but had to raise her voice to be heard through Physe’s cheering. “Decider, you’re dead in space.”
Quade’s image grimaced, but his brilliant blue eyes sparkled with humor. He was big man, dwarfing most on her team. In his image, the crown of his head was cut off by the top of her screen. “So I see. Pretty slick move.”
“Reimer’s Book of Tactics. Study it.” Seeing his sudden frown, she turned the com off with a snap. She stood. “Please take us home, Physe.”
Righty-oh. She walked to her quarters, glad again she’d promoted Physe to Lieutenant. He’d been with her since their first day in basic training. Quade, too. Though she’d risen quickly through the ranks, following in her famous father’s footsteps, she’d never stood on ceremony with either of them. They repaid her with instinctively knowing when to snap to Interplanetary Peace Coalition, or IPC, decorum. The rest of her men understood it as a privilege of rank and never stepped outside the rules.
She entered her captain’s quarters and slid the door shut. The room was no larger than a walk-in closet. When The Hawk was new, she’d refitted it the very first day she’d taken command, removing all furniture but the bed. She didn’t want trappings; she needed a private place to think. Lately, she’d spent all her time there, even sleeping in it instead of taking a tent like the rest of her rangers.
Their mission to Colossus had been one of routine exploration. There was supposed to be no interaction with the scientists other than to protect them while they went about their research. The planet was uninhabited, they’d been told.
Instead of what the IPC had promised, the mission had become anything but routine. The planet had sentient life, and more than two-thirds of the cadets and adults under her command and protection had died. A virus they’d unknowingly been injected with by certain members of the IPC and Miners’ Union had mutated upon their introduction to the planet’s atmosphere.
Her now deceased boyfriend, Cabot, had been one of those within the conspiracy who’d betrayed them. Others had been discovered and were now held in a temporary jail at Base Camp.
It seemed as if they’d been living this nightmare forever.
She sighed deeply and rubbed her face with her hands. How had her military career gone this direction? She was only a 17-year-old cadet. What would her father, General Harcourt de la Croix, have done?
She turned on the holographic viewscreen. Her reflection stared back. Tall and lean, her skin was darker than most. She wore her hair in tiny tight braids that fell to her shoulders. Stray hairs had worked loose and gave her a bit of a rumpled house mom look. She frowned at the miscreant braids and then looked past the reflection. The visual matrix of the screen read her eye movements and presented the calm cool of space.
The planet, RK197d, known as Colossus, enlarged in her screen as they approached. Two of its three moons were clearly visible, but the third wouldn’t make its appearance until full night. A whirling dervish of a storm cloud slowly crept across the curve of the planet, directly in line with Base Camp. She wasn’t worried; it didn’t look particularly big. They’d weathered worse.
Spheres refitted to be early warning sensors circled the planet, like a string of pearls. They’d finished placing them yesterday. She wanted to know the second the IPC would finally show up to try to take control of the situation. Depending on who would lead the mission, they may or may not be friendly forces.
She began a mental list of things she still had to accomplish before that meeting, only to be interrupted when Physe’s voice came across the com. “Justiss calling you. Says it’s important. Patching through.”
Quade’s face on the screen was grim. “Pala, I’ve picked up a distress signal.”